Bishop Spong: Hell isn’t Real, Grow Up Instead of Being Born Again

Serving as almost a direct contradiction to the video I posted yesterday on the Catholic explanation of Hell, today I came upon this 2006 interview with Bishop Shelby Spong, an Episcopalian who is extremely liberal theologically, saying that, in fact, Hell is made up.

That’s not all I liked about this video. Spong rejects the idea of being “born again,” as it infantilizes adult human beings who should own up to who they are:

People don’t need to be born again. They need to grow up. They need to accept their responsibility for themselves and the world.

Spong also takes apart the idea that any religion can be “the one true faith,” or that God can be “contained in any human book.” The faith traditions are man-made, he says, and God is not a Christian or Jew or Muslim. “I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition,” says Spong, “but I don’t believe my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”

Found via Upworthy.

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo. He is the author of a short (and cheap!) Kindle book on the atheist political movement, Under the Stained Glass Ceiling: Atheists' Precarious Place in Modern American Politics.

  • Sven2547

    A great point. The God of Ignorance doesn’t want adults as followers, it wants children.

    • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

      God of Ignorance :) I like that. Rational thought will never support the bible, makes me wonder how long before Bishop Song finds himself moved to another parish as the Catholic Church likes to cover up its blemishes that don’t agree with it.

  • ShoeUnited

    It’s nice to know that not all of them think the same. But I still have to ask: If there’s no Hell, then what am I being saved from? If there’s no need for redemption, why do you have a job?

    • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

      Well said, makes you wonder what the whole point of religion is. I suppose to control people that’s the only reason and Bishops Song is very open about that.

      • Pseudonym

        Right, because controlling people isn’t always a bad thing, if the point is to develop self-control.

        • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

          I have no problem with people helping other gain self control, but it depends where you draw the line. People teaching things like “your homosexual feelings are not normal and you need to control them” is not teaching self control and its not helping.

          • Anna

            Especially when the things they tell people they need to control aren’t bad. As an example, the Episcopal church’s official position is that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong.

            The Episcopal Church only approves “of sex between men and women who are married. In 1979, the U.S. church’s governing body voted down a resolution to approve other sexual activity.”

            These views are common even among denominations calling themselves progressive, leading me to wonder how they can get away with labeling themselves as such.

            • Kevin R. Cross

              “Progressive” doesn’t mean “cutting edge”. They ARE progressive – just not as much as we would like them to be.

              • Agrajag

                Everything is relative. It’s questionable if the label “progressive” is deserved when the radical liberal position you hold, is one that the overwhelming majority of the population de-facto accepted several decades ago.

                They are more progressive than -some- churches, but not progressive compared to the society they’re part of. (but they -would- perhaps be, if they where in Iran, yet held the same opinions)

                • Anna

                  I agree. We let them get away with calling themselves progressive, yet their official positions are anything but. Spong himself is actually progressive. Way back in 1987, he tried to get the Episcopalians to expand their approval of sexual activity to unmarried couples. He failed, and as he himself has noted, his views are a minority within the denomination.

                • Agrajag

                  Yeah. So I guess the question is, progressive compared to what ? The protestant church here in Norway is “progressive” too — for a church. No celibacy for priests. Female priests. Female bishops. Openly gay and lesbian priests living with a partner. For a church, progressive for sure.

                  But compared to the society they’re part of ? Not so much.

                  Female priests are fine — but pretty much all other jobs became available to women several decades, in some cases a century, earlier. (main exception being some military jobs, the military has also been sexist for ages)

                  A few gay and lesbian priests ? Also fine. But unremarkable, and again – decades after being openly gay/lesbian was accepted in the society they’re part of.

              • Anna

                I don’t really agree. In comparison to all the other churches, they might be called progressive, but when I hear the words “progressive” or “liberal,” I don’t think of people who consider premarital sex to be wrong. I mean, this is the 21st century! Mainstream society completely accepts unmarried couples having sex. It’s not a controversial position. Yet the Episcopalians and the Methodists and the Lutherans and the Presbyterians all refuse to say that there is nothing wrong with it.

            • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

              Progressive is a relative term. Considering what other kinds of Christians teach, what you describe as Episcopal teaching is indeed progressive.

              • Anna

                Relatively speaking, but it’s still far to the right of mainstream society. Progressive in comparison to evangelicals? Sure, but that’s kind of a low bar to set.

          • Pseudonym

            And it’s certainly not a problem that Spong suffers from.

            • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

              Agreed. I am not sure why he still sticks to the label Christian and belief in God really, as he is if anything more a humanist.

              • Pseudonym

                Humanism is the child of both the 19th century freethought movement and the 19th century liberal church, and both modern atheists and the modern liberal religious are its legitimate heirs.

                • http://iamchristianiamanatheist.blogspot.kr/ Christian Kemp

                  I would disagree with you as been an atheist you do not need to be a humanist. Actually for that matter liberal religious also do not have to be humanists. An atheism does not arise from humanism, atheism comes from the disbelief in a god.

  • Bitter Lizard

    If you really believe someone can always be “born again”, it makes sense that you would think abortion is murder, because by your definitions we’re all just fetuses anyway.

  • Steve Clark

    yeah this. totally, this

  • the moother

    Is this man a member of the Clergy Project?

  • Garret Shane Brown

    He really doesn’t sound like a christian

    • Pseudonym

      What you meant to say is that most Christians who get airtime don’t sound like him.

      • Greg G.

        I think he meant most Christians in the US don’t sound like that. Polls consistently show that at least 40% of the US adults think the world is less than 10K years old. This is a religious belief and they reject the science that shows otherwise. Those same polls consistently show the population is just under 80% Christian. So over half of the US Christians are creationists. It seems that many Christians extrapolate their own circle of Christian friends to the population at large and get an exaggerated impression. “Mainstream” Christianity is anything but.

        • 3lemenope

          He matches neither the stereotype that is normally carried amongst non-Christians about Christians, nor the prevailing orthodoxy of Christians in the US generally. In two ways, an outlier. Of course, I have a soft-spot in my heart for any bishop who can publish a book called “Why Christianity Must Change or Die” and it be serious.

    • FaithIsGlorifiedDelusion

      Well thank God for that! (pun intended)

  • Miss_Beara

    I wonder how long it will take for people to say “Episcopalian isn’t Real Christianity™”

    • Bitter Lizard

      Since when has there been any kind of Christianity that other Christians didn’t say that about?

      • Itarion

        There used to be… Then the Schism.

        • http://penciledinexistence.wordpress.com/ Carly Jurica

          Oh they still did it before the Schism, they just declared those they disagreed with “heretics” and excommunicated/burned them.

          • Bitter Lizard

            Exactly. There were loads of heretical Christian sects as early as the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries.

        • Without Malice

          What schism? The one between Paul and the church leaders in Jerusalem or between Paul and all the other traveling preachers that Paul said spread a false gospel? It took centuries for the larger, more powerful churches to bring the rest into line, and no sooner had they done it that they split apart again. The idea that there was ever a unified form of Christianity is bogus.

  • debbiedoesreality

    Spong is a retired bishop and has written some great books that I recommend to any Christian I come across (or anyone else really.) He has some great insights on Christianity and the bible, and I’d call him a great biblical scholar. As an atheist, I appreciate his progressive Christianity and wish more people who are compelled to hang on to their religious notions would read his books and familiarize themselves with their religion of choice. Progressive Christianity is at least more rational and decent than the norm.

    • LesterBallard

      ” Progressive Christianity is at least more rational and decent than the norm.” Compared to . . .?

      • debbiedoesreality

        Compared to Catholicism, Pentecostalism, Westboro Baptist-style Christianity, et al.

        • LesterBallard

          I’m just saying that’s not much of a goal.

          • debbiedoesreality

            It can be a step up out of the mire for some, and I just think that is better than nothing. Spong is a proponent of gay rights, evolution, sciences, etc., and doesn’t take the bible literally. That’s a better Christianity in my book. He explains why he hangs on to the term Christian, and though I don’t really understand that necessity, I can garner a little respect for his Christianity, which isn’t the case for those I mentioned above.

            • LesterBallard

              I don’t understand what he needs the Bible for anyway, whether he takes it literally or not.

              • debbiedoesreality

                Oh me either, but you know some people attach to that book and can’t seem to let go. At least though, he’s studied it and takes a more rational stance on it as opposed to some who really haven’t read it, just parrot nonsense they’ve heard and run about claiming “a personal relationship with Jesus.”

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        In some ways I find it less so. It’s even more convoluted and irrational in the attempt to continue believing things that the “believers” have already admitted don’t make sense and probably aren’t true. There’s a reason these denominations are shrinking. The children growing up in this can see that there’s no there there. It’s a refuge for escapees from fundamentalism who don’t want to give up on the idea of god, but that’s about the only purpose that I can see.

        • KMR

          IMO those denominations are also shrinking because church is a pain in the ass. Most liberals don’t define themselves as good people or worthy Christians based on how much they “do” for God. Hence they tend to shrug off the responsibilities that a normal church must lay on it’s members in order to survive.

        • Jordan Big-Red Schroeder

          So, I’m probably about to do the crazy thing, but I am a Christian entering into an atheist forum, this will be fun, lol. So, I just had the question, what makes someone who still believes in God, Jesus, the Bible, etc., a fundamentalist who doesn’t want to give up the idea? I personally am not a fundamentalist, but I’m also nowhere near as liberal as the interviewee mentioned above. And I did not start off Christian, I became a Christian after growing up atheist.

          • Anna

            I think Houndentenor meant that many fundamentalists escape their harsh churches to find refuge in liberal Christianity. They join because they don’t want to give up on religion and because (presumably) they still find meaning in Christian concepts of the supernatural.

            Incidentally, I’m curious about you growing up atheist. Do you believe in hell now? Elsewhere in the comment section I was trying to figure out how and why people who grew up in “normal” society, not indoctrinated into a religion, could come to believe in things like hell and sin. Presumably, you once thought they were imaginary. Did you transition into believing that they’re real?

          • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

            I am a musician and work in churches a lot. Because I’m classically trained that means the more liberal churches as the rest have gone to watered-down pop-rock music for their services. (That’s another topic that I’m happy to discuss…the dumbing down of church music.) What I see around me are people who I’m not all that convinced believe in their religion that much but like the idea of it or just can’t quite make the break. That’s my observation. no one knows what other people are actually thinking or what they truly believe. I’m not sure we always know our own true motivations ourselves so figuring them out in others is probably a waste of time. And perhaps I’m projecting because that’s exactly what I did when I went from my Baptist background to the Episcopal church before admitting to myself finally that I didn’t really believe any of it. That’s what I meant and it’s just an observation. Others will obviously have other experiences and points of view.

    • Guest

      Please excuse the accidental up-vote. Damn it.

  • Scottie Starlitsky

    This is an amazing progressive and deeply beautiful theological stance I completely welcome as a refreshing belief system. lovely, just simply lovely

  • Betty Jo Thornburg

    Still he is a theist. I read his book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, then read Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris and it was on to agnostism.

    • Paul D.

      “Still he is a theist.”

      Sort of, but he’s a panentheist (as many liberal theologians are), so he doesn’t believe in a personal God or even supernatural teleology.

  • randomfactor

    Spong has long struck me as one of the sane ones. If he hadn’t been a bishop, he’d have made a good atheist.

  • midnight rambler

    SPOONNNGGGGGGGGG!!!!!!

    sorry, I can’t help it :)

    • The Other Weirdo

      You have shake with rage as you scream it into your flip-open cell phone.

      • midnight rambler

        I was thinking of it with an enthusiatic ringing trailoff, not like William Shatner.

  • http://penciledinexistence.wordpress.com/ Carly Jurica

    Spong is good. I read one of his books along my way to deconversion. He’s definitely no fact-denyer like so many Christians are. What gets me is that he used to be atheist, having been deconverted from fundamental Christianity, and then he went back to religion in the form of his very liberal theology. But I guess some people are just more naturally drawn to spirituality, and at least his spirituality is more respectful to reason than most are.

    • viaten

      A rare “multi-transitioning” life form.

    • The Other Weirdo

      Can’t remember who–one of the ancient Church fathers, perhaps?–said that Christians should never say anything that directly contradicts what lay people know for a fact because he didn’t want the religion to look the fool. Then along came Martin Luther who said, “Reason is the enemy of faith.”

      • icecreamassassin

        I believe that was Thomas Aquinas.

        • http://penciledinexistence.wordpress.com/ Carly Jurica

          It was Luther who called reason “a whore” and “the greatest enemy that faith has.” Sola Fide! Aquinas believed that reason was good and God-given but could only take us so far, and that faith and grace took us the rest of the way.

          • icecreamassassin

            I meant the person who said that ‘Christians should never say anything that directly contradicts what lay people know for a fact’ was Thomas Aquinas.

            Whoops…looks like I dropped the ball on that one. it was Saint Augustine: http://www.pibburns.com/augustin.htm

  • Anna

    If people have to have faith, I’d much rather they adopt the kind that Spong espouses. What I don’t understand is why so many people are drawn to harsher forms of Christianity. Progressive denominations are dwindling, and Christians who repudiate hell and espouse universal salvation are a tiny minority. If we lived in a homogeneous society, it would make sense. But we don’t. We live in a global, diverse, pluralistic society. How is it possible that modern people are so willing to think of their friends and neighbors as hellbound? I’m sure it was easy to condemn Buddhists to hell when you’d never met one, when they were only “the heathen” in faraway lands. But now they’re your classmates and coworkers. What kind of mindset is required to look at the people next door and accept them being consigned to eternal torture?

    • cipher

      What I don’t understand is why so many people are drawn to harsher forms of Christianity

      Very simply put – pathologically low self-esteem and severely arrested development.

      • KMR

        Also the simple black and white of it all. Do a. and you won’t go to hell. If people don’t do a. they do go to hell. It puts the confusing, infinite universe into a tidy, little box and that’s appealing to a lot of people.

        • cipher

          Yep. Simple answers to life’s complexities.

        • Anna

          But do these people have no sense of empathy? It would be far easier just to believe that everyone goes to heaven. It’s still a tidy, pat answer to a confusing universe, and it’s a lot more comforting.

          • KMR

            It’s not an empathy thing. A lot of fundamentals are fantastic people in every aspect but this belief in hell. They give generously, love their children and other people’s children, and are all in all wonderful people to hang out with. But when you’re taught something from infancy and don’t possess good critical thinking skills (which is a problem with a ton of people) then the chances are great that you’ll believe whatever it is you’re taught till you die. It’s indoctrination and it’s powerful. Anyway it’s because they feel empathy that they proselytize to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who will listen.

            • Anna

              Oh, I understand the power it has over people who are raised in fundamentalism. Those poor people really weren’t given a choice. What I don’t understand is the people who are drawn to it. People raised in mainstream society who choose to embrace fundamentalism. Denominations like Spong’s are dwindling. People are actively leaving them, and many of those that leave decide to join conservative evangelical churches. What would possess a person raised in a normal environment, with decent self-esteem, to fall for something like that? It just goes against everything they must have been taught since childhood. I wonder how those people are able to override their inherent sense of fairness and empathy?

      • Anna

        And yet they all deny that they have low self-esteem. I don’t get it. Where does it come from? Children are normally raised to feel good about themselves. Loving, caring parents want their children to know that they are good people. Teachers and others who work in education try to build children up, not tear them down. It seems to me that a child who has been raised in a loving, supportive atmosphere would hear the claim that they are “inherently broken” and laugh in that person’s face, not consider that it might have validity.

        I can understand insecurity. Most people have various insecurities. But to actually doubt your own goodness? Your own core sense of self? I think it must result either from a background of religious indoctrination or else the person must be suffering from low self-esteem related to other issues, such as a dysfunctional home life.

        • cipher

          There are two things going on. Firstly, there’s a great deal of abuse in that subculture. Secondly, there’s a growing body of experimental data that is strongly suggestive of a neurological foundation for fundamentalism/authoritarianism.

          • Anna

            It could be that some people are just naturally drawn towards authoritarianism. Maybe growing up in a liberal Christian denomination didn’t make them feel safe enough, and they craved order, rules, and security. Although why universalism wouldn’t provide security, I don’t know. What could be more secure than “knowing” that everyone goes to heaven?

            But what does it say about their morality, that a person raised in “normal” society would be drawn to and then accept the claim of eternal torture? I can understand the psychological hold it has on people who are raised in that subculture. Not so much the people who choose to join it of their own free will.

            • cipher

              Again – genetic programming. Seriously, that’s where the research is headed.

              • Anna

                Quite possibly, but I wonder how two non-authoritarian parents manage to produce a child who is attracted to fundamentalism. Maybe it’s some sort of recessive trait.

                • cipher

                  Perhaps. Birth order may have something to do with it as well. Frank Sulloway has based a career on it (although I’ve always been skeptical; he seems to use it to rationalize far too much, in my opinion).

                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birth_order#Theories

  • Dave The Sandman

    While I am firmly in the “Positive Atheist” and anti-theist camp, I am also a pragmatist, and so apply the Prof Dawkins Harm Scale(tm) when considering the religious and their impact on the world I have to share with them.
    I think the good and admirable Bishop Spong and his extremely liberal version of Christianity bubbles around on that sliding scale somewhere at the bottom with Unitarians, Quakers and Janes. He is just trying to use his faith to be a better human, and I use that term in the same way I apply “human” to myself.
    I admire him for that, and for having the stones to challenge all the hate and idiotic dogma that has become so strongly associated with US Christianity. I may still consider his belief in the divine to be somewhat stupid, but admire his application system and how he tries to persuade others to follow a saner course.
    I will tip my hat brim to him.

  • Giauz Ragnarock

    He honestly sounds like one of those mythical atheists who worships humanity as a god. To me, his message comes off a bit vain but with the caveat that it is aimed (I hope) at improving society (don’t judge, steal, lie, gamble, get drunk. Love everyone, be humble, aid the poor and outcast, even be a kind person to someone who is antagonistic to you).

  • busterggi

    Spong is on the right track. When he admits that heaven and the great sky-daddy are also made up let me know.

    • lora120

      He already has in his book “Why Christianity Must Change Or Die.” It was published about 15 years ago, I think.

  • John A.

    Bishop Spong while well meaning should just become an atheist again. Even if he dose not believe in God,hell(God’s love to a unbeliever) etc…. He should at least adhear to the basics in a secular manner.
    1. Do unto others(Golden Rule)
    2. Give away your possessions
    3. Live asexually and push for a asexual society
    He has pretty much got number 1 but I have yet to see the other two yet.
    Anyone can agree with number 1 so I don’t get why he pretends to be Christian.

  • Without Malice

    Bishop Spong once wrote a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change Or Die.” I much prefer the latter option since Christianity has done so much evil compared to any good it might have done over the last two thousand years.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X