Ask a Quaker: Do Quakers Believe in Hell?
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Guest Commentary by Jonas Cox
I must begin with my standard disclaimer about Quakers and Quakerism. We are a non-creedal group, so there is no set of beliefs that are required to be a Quaker. Beliefs on a topic like the existence of hell will typically range the full spectrum of belief found in the larger society.
For example, while I question the personification of evil and a dichotomous sense of judgement and the resulting assignment to an eternal home of heaven or hell, my in laws, who are also Quakers are firm believes in this paradigm and are convinced that I won’t be making the cut. My long service to my local church notwithstanding.
The best I can do is to tell you my own beliefs given that I am a lifelong Quaker, an active member of my local Quaker community and even have some experience working with the American Friends Service Committee an international Quaker organization. So, I do feel qualified to speak as a Quaker but not for all Quakers.
I believe that a lot of religion and religious belief is human constructed as opposed to direct divine intervention. Over the centuries humans have made sense of their interactions with God and have built beliefs and rituals based in those interactions. But humans are flawed and therefore belief and rituals are also flawed.
My in-laws believe that the bible was written by God, Her or Himself (actually, I doubt they would accept the use of a female pronoun in reference to God). My understanding is that the canonization of the bible was a scholarly process and having worked in universities for three decades I know those processes have their own set of flaws, biases and political motivations.
I am confident that if we proposed a similar process of scholarship today, my in-laws would not accept it as truth in the way they accept scriptures as ultimate truth. Much of the set of beliefs they hold as truth are culturally determined as is the case for most of humanity. The difficulty for humans is recognizing the cultural fingerprints on their truth and being willing to allow others of different faiths to hold their truths.
My personal experience with God does not include the level of judgement required to banish people to forever be tortured by fire. The bible references a lake of fire, but I see this reference as a means of control, similar to telling children about the boogie man in order to keep them safe. A human construct loosely based in reality, overly simplistic and pretty wide of the mark.
My experience is that God has given us (well most of us) a conscience, and when we wrong someone we feel out of sorts. This can be as mild as a nagging feeling that you have insulted someone or as serious as what Edgar Allen Poe illustrated in the “Tell Tell Heart.” Where a murderer hears the heartbeat of the person he has killed and is so haunted by sound as a reminder the pain he has caused that he confesses the crime.
This discomfort is a kind of hell, and I have felt this discomfort many times (not the murder part) as a result of my actions. I tend to believe that this level of personal reflection and accounting for the ways in which we have not cared for others is part of my experience. I can make sense of this as God’s judgment and punishment. But eternity with the devil in hell does not fit with my experience of God, so I tend to reject it.
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Jonas Cox is a tenured faculty member at Gonzaga University where he works in the Department of Teacher Education. He is a lifelong Quaker, spanning the spectrum of experience from a conservative meeting in Southern Oregon to a very liberal meeting in Washington DC. He currently serves as the clerk of Spokane Friends. When he isn’t teaching, he runs a small farm out on the West Plains where he and his wife of 33 years grow cattle, hogs chickens and labrador retriever puppies. You will often find Jonas in the shop where he will tell you the only reason he farms is so he can have tractors to fix and equipment to build.