I have been listening to some old podcasts of “Sunday Nights with John Cleary” from the ABC. Today I listened to this one from August last year, a panel discussion on heaven and hell and the afterlife (“Heaven. Who needs it?”) which Cleary conducted with Rev Dorothy McRae-McMahon (Uniting Church Minister), Rabbi Jeffrey B.Kamins (Rabbi, Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra), Dr Paul O’Shea (Senior Religious Education Coordinator, St Patrick’s College Strathfield) and Rev Jim Minchin (Anglican priest, Rector of Christchurch St Kilda).
Predictably, the traditional views of the afterlife got fairly short shrift from Cleary and the panel, but I don’t want to argue about that at this point. (Nb. if you want to argue about that, may I recommend that you come along to my Anima Education course in Term four on “The Last Things”). What fairly took my breath away was the following exchange, occasioned by one “Craig from Beauty Point in Tassie”, and the response from Rev. McRae-McMahon.
Cleary: To Craig, in Beauty Point in Tassie: Hullo, Craig, how are ya?
Craig: Yeah, good thanks.
Cleary: What would you like to say?
Craig: Well, I just thought from a Christian perspective it’s important to, um, reflect on what Jesus actually said. And, um, in just two verses in Luke, err, Chapter 12, 4 and 5, he says: “I tell you my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” So, it seems to me, it’s pretty obvious that what Jesus believed about heaven and hell, and, um –
Cleary: Is it important, though, in this life?
Craig: Well, Jesus is telling people there that are alive at the time, so, I suspect so, yes.
Cleary: Hmm. Okay, well what do you think he means by it? Dorothy?
McRae-McMahon: Um, I would want to say that even 80 years ago when my father trained for the ministry, he was taught, as I was taught, that the scholars, the scholars, if they’ve looked at those passages, and there are numbers of them about weeping and gnashing of teeth and things like that, the scholars are fairly solidly unified in believing that, in believing that those passages are not in fact the words of Jesus. They are the words of the early Church, who were beginning to form up these sort of views, um, for whatever reason, they might be the same sort of reasons that we do that now, by the way, but that those words don’t fit with the style of teaching and preaching of Jesus himself. Um, Jesus obviously did say things as in Matthew 25, where he pointed out, you know, some real situations about the choices that we need to make if we are to enter eternal life now and onwards, but he wasn’t prone to talk about those sort of views of hell…
Splutter! Cough! What? By what standard can the Rev. McRae-McMahon claim that the text of the Gospels “don’t fit with the style of teaching and preaching of Jesus himself”? Does she have some secret insight? Does she have some other source for the “teaching and preaching of Jesus himself” other than the Gospels themselves? And what if, for the sake of the arguement, these “fairly solid” scholars (whoever they may be and whatever their authority may be) are right? What difference does that make? Are we to judge the authority of the words of the Gospels on the basis of whether they were historically said by Jesus or not?
I don’t think so. My copy of the scriptures, like yours, has two covers. And everything in them between those two covers (barring of course, the introduction, preface, contents page, indexes, footnotes, publication information, ISBN and other editorial niceties) are in the Canon of Scripture recognised by the Church, and therefore AUTHORITATIVE.
And as for the “fairly solid” opinion of the “scholars”, the Anglican priest on the panel was obviously not one of them, for he immediately came in with this:
Minchin (Anglican priest, Rector of Christchurch St Kilda): But I think you can say, and I don’t have the same view of that text in Luke that Dorothy expressed, I think its quite authentically part of the tradition going back to Jesus himself.
Thank goodness that on the website where you can download this podcast, they also give the links to the Catholic Catechism on the subject of the afterlife. For ecumenical reasons, I might add that the ABC could have given links to just about any traditional Christian statement of faith, and it would have served the same purpose.