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Bishop John Shelby Spong Ponders the AfterlifeJeff WaltonApril 22, 2010
A controversial bishop from the Episcopal Church who denies belief in a personal God was warmly received on Monday as a “wise man” during a lecture at the United Methodist Church’s Drew Theological School.
John Shelby Spong, retired as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark since 2001, spoke at the Madison, New Jersey, campus about his new book Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.
Retired Episcopal Church Bishop John Shelby Spong
“We’re so excited about this opportunity to have this wise man in our midst and to hear his new thoughts,” said Maxine Clarke Beach, Dean of the theological school and a former official with the General Council on Ministries of the United Methodist Church.
“[Spong] has tackled issues that others do not want to touch, with the courage that rises out of a deep faith,” declared Drew University Associate Academic Dean Anne Yardley in her introduction of the bishop.
“Heaven and Hell have got to go,” the bishop said, questioning Christian teachings about the afterlife and suggesting that their primary purpose was control of human behavior in this life.
Spong ridiculed historic cultural portrayals of the afterlife, among them concepts like limbo, purgatory, and different levels of Hell for different sins. All were visions of the afterlife that changed because human knowledge and sensitivities changed, according to the bishop.
“Do people like Aristotle and Plato deserve an eternity of torment?” Spong asked. “Until we dismiss all concepts of reward and punishment, we can’t walk into concepts of life after death.”
“Nobody knows what the afterlife is all about; nobody even knows if there is one,” Spong said. “All of these images of bliss and punishment, heaven and hell are not about the afterlife at all. They’re about controlling human behavior with fear and guilt and reward on this earth.” The retired bishop labeled these classic Christian teachings as “human control techniques that lean on emotions that are not life-giving.”
While Spong invited listeners into his process for understanding what the afterlife might entail, he drew from no church traditions and rarely made reference to Scripture. Instead, the bishop charted his studies on the history of the universe, biology, and the human self-consciousness in order to glean insights into life after death.
Spong’s decision to shy away from sourcing Scripture is consistent with his view that the Bible is not authoritative. The controversial bishop has long challenged traditional Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, and Christ’s unique divinity.
“We’ve got to re-think some Christian symbols in the light of human understanding,” Spong argued.
A central point to Spong’s address was that life has evolved into awareness and ultimately into human self-consciousness. Whether something might be beyond self-consciousness – something eternal --was a mystery that he pondered. Spong praised self-consciousness as an important part of humanity.
“If you ever run into a Christian church that takes your anxiety away from you and gives you peace of mind, they’ve killed your humanity,” Spong alleged. “They’ve turned religion into a drug.” He insisted, “If our faith is to do anything for us, it is to give us the courage to embrace the anxieties of life and to live in integrity in the midst of those anxieties.”
“Is there any reality to these images [of the afterlife] or are we deluded by our hopes?” Spong asked. The bishop added that he believed there was something to the images, but it had nothing to do with proper believing, rather proper doing.
“Stop trying to define God so that we have the true faith,” the bishop said. “Instead try to experience the Holy.”
Spong argued that the only way to worship God is by “living fully” – to “love wastefully” and be everything one was capable of being. He posited that the mission of the Church is not to convert heathens or sinners, but to transform the world so that everyone has the ability to live fully. “That’s my understanding of eternity.”
“I reject the idea that God is a parent in the sky who can’t wait to reward people with cookies and switches,” Spong said. “Human beings don’t need to be condemned from pulpits; they need understanding.”
The Episcopal bishop answered several questions following his lecture, among them whether human beings have a need for salvation. Spong replied yes, if salvation means “to be made whole”. He disputed traditional views about salvation, however, especially humanity’s need to be restored to the divine perfection it lost when it fell into original sin.
“You can’t fall from perfection if you’ve never had perfection,” Spong said. “You can’t be rescued from a fall that never happened, or be restored to a status you’ve never possessed.”
“Jesus died for my sins” becomes an inoperative phrase, according to Spong, arguing that all atonement theology is ready to be re-thought.
“We don’t need a savior,” Spong said. “If Jesus died for your sins, you are one wretched human being. I don’t think that’s good news.”
In contrast, Spong said that he liked John 10:10: “I’ve come that you have life and have it abundantly.”
Asked about what Christianity’s contribution to the world was, Spong responded, “It’s about empowering us so that we can love ourselves -- we’ve got to learn self-love, then learn the capacity to love our neighbors that comes from the over-abundance of our own self-love.”
Spong also answered a question about euthanasia—a point that seemed to resonate with his audience of about 100 people, mostly of retirement age. Despite the lecture’s setting on a college campus, few young adults were present to hear Spong’s address.
The Episcopal bishop said that euthanasia was a topic of rising interest to him.
“I think the time has come to recognize that life is supposed to die,” the bishop said. “Death is not unnatural. Paul is wrong, it is not the last enemy to be destroyed. It is a normal part of life like being born. Maybe we ought to have the freedom to make decisions about when we live and when we die.”
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