In Nowhere to Go But Up, retired Lutheran pastor Kevin Ruffcorn challenges traditional ways of thinking about hell, atonement, salvation and the nature of God’s love.
After more than 40 years in the trenches of local parish ministry, Ruffcorn surely knows that raising his head on these issues is going to draw a lot of hostile fire, but he does it anyway.
It was during his parish years, he says, that he “became increasingly convinced that the focus of Jesus’ teachings was not on the avoidance of hell in the life to come but rather the ability to live in the reality of God’s kingdom in our everyday lives.”
Ruffcorn’s basic contention is that where Jesus proclaims a God of love, “the doctrine of hell portrays God as a judgmental and wrathful being.” Why, he wonders, would the love of Jesus that was so unconditional during his lifetime become totally conditional upon his death? If Jesus was forgiving, why isn’t his Heavenly Father? If Jesus told us to forgive 70 times 7 times, how can God so easily condemn people to eternal torment?
“Hell is not a biblical concept,” Ruffcorn argues, but “a piece of pagan mythology and philosophy” that was “transplanted into the Bible” and made a doctrine of the church. Most of what we think we know about hell comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, not from the Bible.
Jesus does speak of Gehenna, but he never refers to “hell” (because the word Gehenna is usually mistranslated). Rather, he refers to the valley of Gehenna outside Jerusalem where refuse was burned. Gehenna is a dump where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out. It’s a real place that serves as a powerful metaphor for what happens when your life goes off the rails, but it’s not a place where nonbelievers are tortured for eternity.
As the early church moved into the pagan world, it didn’t take long for Jesus’ emphasis on love to erode. Heaven became a reward for the righteous and hell a place of punishment for the sinful. This carrot and stick approach relies on fear, Ruffcorn says, and its purpose is to control people.
Similarly, the purpose of the cross and Jesus’ act of atonement moved from the victory of God over death to a way to appease a wrathful God who wants to incinerate sinners. Divine punishment no longer has the purpose of correcting sinners to bring them back into relationship with God. Its purpose moves from restoration to retribution.
Ruffcorn weaves some real-life stories into his discussions of theology, showing just how destructive some of our traditional ideas can be. Seeing the world in a new light transforms our lives and our relationships, he argues. When gloom and doom are replaced by a positive attitude, we have nowhere to go but up.
It’s a fairly quick read that doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary detail. It probably won’t convince those who have heard hellfire and brimstone sermons all their life and still imagine that it’s all biblical. But those who are willing to read with open minds and hearts may indeed fine their attitudes transformed.
My only criticism is a factual flub. In his brief discussion of the origin of Christmas, Ruffcorn follows the now discredited notion that Christians chose December 25 to compete with pagan winter festivals. As I point out in my book, Keeping Christmas (coincidentally also published by Resource Publications), Christians had good reason to believe that December 25 was the birthday of Jesus.
In exchange for a copy of the book, I agreed to write a review of it for Speakeasy.
Kevin Ruffcorn’s website: http://asanefaith.com/