“Joe,” Walt Grayson messaged me, “you need to get to know Gordon Cotton, retired curator of the Old Capitol Museum, Vicksburg.”
Walt Grayson, a friend of fifty years or more, is an institution in Mississippi television, as he covers the state with reports on fascinating people and unforgettable places. Amazon will tell you how to purchase his books. Anyway…
“You remember Daniel Pearl? Reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was killed in Pakistan following 9/11.”
I said I do indeed.
Pearl was researching something and he and Gordon spent a lot of time talking on the phone. They talked about everything, not just history. Including religion. And one day, Daniel Pearl told Gordon he did not believe in hell.
Gordon Cotton said, “If you don’t believe in hell, then where is Sherman?”
That became the headline for Pearl’s article in the Wall Street Journal the next day.
That is a reference to General William Tecumseh Sherman whose “March to the Sea” helped to bring the Civil War to a close by killing untold numbers of southerners and destroying their property. When he said, “War is hell,” Sherman spoke as a practitioner of the art.
Over the last few years, some of the best-selling religious books have been about heaven.
Write one about how you died for a few minutes while experiencing a momentary jolt of nirvana beyond anything you ever imagined and publishers will line up outside your door ready to buy your story. They know the book-buying public is eager to get a glimpse through that scary curtain called death…so long as what’s on the other side meets with their preconceptions.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times. A few years back he wrote a column titled “Hell’s grip on religious imagination weakens.” He said, Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer. But belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated.
Douthat says near-death stores are quick to sell. “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” tells of a child’s return from paradise. However, “you’ll search in vain for ‘The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.”
This notice appeared on the front page of the July 4, 2004, issue of the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader:
It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.
When that newspaper’s staff decided to prepare a special edition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act, they began combing through their archives looking for local material. That’s when they discovered a complete lack of such information. The newspaper had simply not covered the civil rights movement, period.
A local African-American leader said, “The white community just prayed that rumors and reports (of the civil rights movement) would be swept under the rug and just go away.”
As odd as that is, it will not come as a surprise to many that a lot of churches lived through the same revolution in this country without the first mention of it from the pulpit. (And we wonder why outsiders found our sermons irrelevant.)
Churches are prone to forget the things they do not want to acknowledge.
“Cast out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).
“In thy presence there is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
If the atmosphere of heaven is joy and praise, then the noxious fumes of hell must be saturated with equal parts anger, complaining, bitterness and blaming.
Scriptures keep telling us that the atmosphere around the throne of Heaven is praise and joy and gratitude. In other words, worship.
–There is Psalm 16:11 (above) which is as good as we could ask for.
–In John’s vision of Heaven which we call Revelation, he tells us that near the throne stood “four living creatures, each having six wings…. Day and night they do not cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, The Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come’” (Revelation 4:8). Around the throne, the praise is continuous.
“But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)
Numerous biblical texts stop me in my tracks and leave me gasping for air. None intrigues me more than this one in its announcement that cowards don’t make it to Heaven.
The fearful go to hell.
That clearly takes some explaining.
Some translations say the timid or the fearful. I suspect someone somewhere reads that and thinks, “Man–they send you to hell for being shy? Who knew?”
It’s been said about those who settled the Old West that everyone was strong. The weak didn’t survive the trip and the cowards never started in the first place.
In the margin of my Bible above Revelation 21:8 is my scribble: Look who is leading this sad parade into hell!
But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
The best-selling religious books these days are about heaven.
But there must be a hell.
Write a book about how you died for a few minutes and experienced a momentary jolt of unimaginable nirvana and publishers will line up to print it. They know the book-buying public is eager to get a glimpse through that scary curtain of death…so long as what’s shown agrees with their preconceptions and supports their hopes.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times. In a column titled “Hell’s grip on religious imagination weakens,” he writes, Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer. But belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated.
Near-death stores are quick to sell. “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” tells of a child’s return from paradise. However, you’ll search in vain for “The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.” (Note: A comment from a pastor friend indicates there are a number of such been-to-hell books on the market these days.)