Spong on heaven and hell


I presume that this Q&A from John Spong comes from an email list that Spong maintains, because I have only found its full text located a few places on the web. The entire text is as follows:

Joan from North Carolina, writes:
Do you believe in heaven and hell, the blissful heaven and the burning hell? And do you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal savior?

Dear Joan,

Answering your two questions is impossible until some terms are defined and some explanations are given. When you define heaven as "the blissful heaven" and hell as "the burning hell," you reveal an evangelical mindset that asserts a particular understanding that you are requesting that I either affirm or deny. It is to bind the discussion to your frame of reference. That immediately suggests that you do not want real answers, you want affirmation. I cannot give you that nor would I be interested in doing so. With that background, however, let me proceed to respond. I think it would be fair to say that I do not believe in a blissful heaven or a burning hell as evangelicals define those terms. I do believe in life after death and shall try to explain both why and in what way in my next book, which is scheduled for publication in September of 2009.

You define heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment where God evens out life here on Earth. I regard that as primitive, childlike thinking that transforms God into a parent figure who delights in rewarding goodness and punishing sinfulness. This portrays God as a supernatural, judging figure and it violates everything I believe about both God and human life.

If anyone pursues goodness in the hope of gaining rewards or avoiding punishment, that person has not escaped the basic self-centeredness of human life and it becomes obvious that such a person is motivated primarily by self-interest. The Christian life is ultimately revealed in the power to live for others, to give ourselves away. It is not motivated by bliss or torment. Both of those images are little more than human wish fulfillment.

The fiery pits of hell are not an essential part of the Christian story. If one would take Matthew's gospel and especially the book of Revelation out of the Bible, most of the references to hell as a fiery place of torment would disappear. That is a quite foreign theme to Paul, Mark, Luke and John. Evangelicals never study the Bible deeply enough to make this distinction. They basically talk about a book they do not understand.

When you ask about "believing in Jesus Christ as your personal savior" you are using stylized evangelical language. That language has no appeal at all for me. To assert the role of savior for Jesus implies a definition of human life as sinful, fallen and helpless. It assumes the ancient myth that proclaimed that we were created perfect only to fall into sin from which we need to be rescued. It was a popular definition before people understood about our evolutionary background. We have been evolving toward humanity for billions of years. Our problem is not that we have fallen from some pristine perfection into a sinful state from which we need to be saved, it is that we need to be empowered to become something that we have never been, namely fully human beings. So the idea that I need a savior to save me from a fall that never happened and to restore me to a status that I never possessed is in our time all but nonsensical. It is because we do not understand the nature of human life that we do not understand the Jesus role. I see in Jesus the power of love that empowers us to be more deeply and fully human and so I do not know how to translate your questions. Sorry, but the old evangelical language that you use is badly dated and I believe quite distorting to my understanding of what Christianity is all about.

– John Shelby Spong


Cynthia said...

Boy, he really knows how to win friends and influence people. ;-)

While I agree with him, his bluntness does not encourage dialogue. This person may have been trying to bait him, but in a way she succeeded. The differences that divide us will continue to exist if we do not take time to listen instead of continually outline our own point of view.

I had to chuckle when he said that his answer would be in a forthcoming book. I once wrote to him and his response also included mention of a new book to be published. I wonder if he has ever answered a question that did not wind up as a book. While I appreciate his theology, his ego can sometimes be insufferable.

Mystical Seeker said...

Yeah, I had a similar reaction to the book reference.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I may very well ask those identical questions, and I'm an atheist. Why would he assume that she holds those things to be true? Honestly, she asks the same question that many Americans would ask, both churched and un-churched.

I agree, I like his theology a heck of a lot more than that of evangelicals, but his assumptions and defensive response do nothing to help his position.

PrickliestPear said...

I kind of agree with Cynthia. I've long felt that Spong's message is undercut by his polemical tone.

At the same time, perhaps his work is most suited to those who are starting to recognise the inadequacies of conventional Christianity, who are a bit angry with their childhood faith, and perhaps such people respond to this kind of writing. I know I did, when I first discovered Spong ten years ago. Now I'm well past that stage, and I haven't read anything by him (save for this post) in about eight years. I think that is basically Spong's purpose: just to get people over the threshold. Dialogue isn't really the point, nor does it need to be.

Mystical Seeker said...

Okay, I'm going to stand up for Spong here. Other than the book plug, I really wasn't offended by his tone here. True, he frequently does come across as rather dogmatic in his writings, so I think that is a fair criticism of him; but in this case I thought he was just telling it as he saw it. I come from a fundamentalist background myself so I guess I am one of those people who Prickliest describes as "a bit angry with their childhood faith", except it isn't a bit angry but, frankly a lot angry. I don't see fundamentalism as innocuous, and it is so often concerned with setting itself up as an arbiter on who is and isn't a Christian that I think a little combativeness against its own dogmatic assaults on free inquiry, science, and biblical criticism, is helpful in overcoming a lot of misconceptions that the general public might have about what a Christian must necessarily believe. For the most part, fundamentalism has been able to define the terms of the discussion. People come away from watching "The Passion of the Christ" and they think that this is what Christianity is. It is the default understanding of what Christianity means.

A lot of people just don't believe that the concept of hell for non-believers is acceptable--I know I didn't when I became an atheist at age 16, and that was one chief reason I rejected the faith of my upbringing. It took me a long time to get over that, and I just don't have much patience with fundamentalism, and I am sure he gets attacked all the time and accused of not being a "real" Christian, so he probably doesn't have much patience with such people other.

John Shuck said...

Did like what he had to say about heaven and hell. I like this story from Sufi mystic, Rabi'a:

Another story about Rabi'a has her carrying a burning torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked why, she replied: "I am going to set fire to Paradise and quench the fires of Hell, so that men may worship Allah for his own glory alone."

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Great story, John.

CT said...

Agree with Mystical here.

Spong's 'Rescuing the Bible' book was the one that reached beyond academic circles and introduced the wider population to biblical criticism - something the church has known and acknowledged for many years.

He may have become a little sensitive and aggressive over the years but I think its good that he says it straight. Too many liberal theologians dont want to call it as it is because they might upset some long-held beliefs. Spong makes it clear that those beliefs need a complete overhaul - not a quick tune-up.

Go Sponger.

revshk said...

Having met and heard Spong several times, as well as having read all his books, it's somewhat surprising that he does not come off nearly so egotistical and condescending in person! In fact, I often hear folks remark on his "Christ-likeness." His writings, however, are a bit more blunt, but still spot on!

Sherry said...

You have a superb blog. You need to post more often! lol...I'll add you to my reader. And I must run down your blogroll! Some fascinating stuff there.

Mystical Seeker said...

Thank you, Sherry!

PrickliestPear said...


I agree. I met him once, not long after I discovered his work, and I found him to be an extremely warm and charming person.

I soured on his writings after a while, but I've lately come to appreciate that he is fulfilling an important role. He is talking not so much to progressives, but to people who are on the threshold, in that stage between conventional and post-conventional forms of Christianity. Those people do need a good kick in the pants, and Spong gives it to them.

Mystical Seeker said...

Prickliest, I think you've hit the nail on the head as to who Spong's audience is. I think he has pretty much said as much when he writes about the "church alumni society". He is aiming at those people who are disillusioned with church dogma and who think they have no place in Christian churches.

I do think he gets a little too dogmatic in his books about what he thinks the direction of progressive Christianity must go in. He seems to see his own theology as the only way of saving the church from its old orthodoxy, but progressive Christianity is more diverse than what he has to say. I think that is where his methodology falls flat. But to the extent that he can tap into people's disillusionment, I think it works. His books were among the first I discovered when I started getting interested in progressive Christianity, and although at times I think he went off course (his attachment to Michael Golder's theology, for example), I think he also said a lot of things that resonated with me.

PrickliestPear said...


I loved his work at first (Why Christianity Must Change or Die was his latest title when I first discovered him, and the first one I read), but eventually decided that his alternative vision for Christianity was very thin and unsatisfying, and I knew there was a lot more to religion and spirituality than what he was advancing.

My research into James Fowler's faith development theory has given me a new perspective on Spong, and why he is important. I'll be blogging about that very soon.

Frank said...

I just think he can be rash and throw a lot of baby out with the bathwater. Orthodox theology is unbelieverably deep and it comes refined like a pebble on the beach over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Yet you see people who think that "Trinity" or the dual natures of Christ are just absurd remnants of an outdated system without even understanding what was intended by those doctrines or how they were arrivated at. At first glance, those doctrines can seem silly to a 21st century mind, but that's why a 1st glance isn't enough.

One of the best things I've ever heard on the topic came on this blog, and it was either a quote from someone or one of Mystical's statements, but it went something like: "You have to be modernist before you can be postmodern." Bing-go. I just don't see many progressives doing this, though.

I'm convinced that no good theology will come from single person (like Spong), it will be in the efforts of a faith-filled tradition of folks, as religious understanding has often moved.

I've gotten to a point where I see the riches of the orthdoxy of Christianity, which to me stands just as tall even if this resurrection account doesn't match that one or any of the other claims. That was never the foundation for me in the first place.

Religions always have to re-address things in every age as our understanding of the world and ourselves changes. In the last 100 years, scientific changes have come along so fast as to compel religious thought to move forward, but I don't know that it can move at that pace. It just doesn't move quite the same way, nor should it.

Andrew said...

I used to have no time for Spong, but I am liking him more all the time.

John - I will use that story no less than 10 times this week. Thanks!