Whoever thinks Manchester lacks colour has never been to Market Street on a Friday afternoon! From Piccadilly Station, visitors can either opt for the tram or set off down the station approach. Either way brings you into Piccadilly with its bus station, water features, hotels, cafés, a variety of market stalls and an army of highly trained market researchers aka folk-trying-to-sell-you-stuff if you’ll only stand still long enough! Most Mancunians have learned to zigzag, military style, so as to avoid them.
Walking in a straight line brings you onto Market Street shopping centre where several buskers take turns to entertain passers-by. On this particular day, a young man with an excellent voice and cut-glass accent belts out ballads accompanied by his guitar. It must be his turn, as at other times we’re treated to a (not so tuneful) musician with some kind of synthesiser who plays 60s hits over and over and over again. But even his continuous rendition of ‘Apache’ by the Shadows is preferable to what follows on this baking hot afternoon.
The young singer completes his repertoire, leaving the site free for the street preachers…..and today there are not just one, but TWO groups of them, both with loudspeakers and a determination for everyone to repent. The first group features a couple of visiting preachers from the States who talk a lot about hellfire but very, very little about what we actually need to do to avoid it!
Further along the street are two pairs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, holding out books, brochures and Watchtower and Awake magazines with serene smiles. They’ve been conducting this form of ministry since October 2013 and most people have got used to seeing them with their carts, passing them by with barely a glance. Occasionally, there’s a nod or a smile or an eager hand reaching to take the proffered literature. Even more occasionally, someone may stop for a chat – friendly or otherwise – but communication is rarely if ever initiated by the witnesses who stand, quietly and patiently during 4 hour stints.
Such a lot has changed in Manchester over the years: so many colours, cultures and languages, nationalities from all over the world. No wonder preachers view the city centre as fertile ground – it certainly offers more potential than most churches these days! However, there’s a tactful way to represent the Lord and a NOT so tactful way. A young Muslim family pass by as one of the preachers starts dismissing the Koran along with the entire Islamic religion. The husband stops, walks back to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and takes their magazines…..possibly as a ‘statement’. Whether the evangelists have noticed this small act of ‘defiance’ is debatable, but one of their crew approaches the JWs and attempts to start a debate, only to be ambushed by another man – unconnected with either religion - who wades in against the evangelist! The JWs are now free to distribute more literature without hindrance and further hellfire threats.
Meanwhile even more fire and brimstone is being breathed by the second group of preachers, attracting quite a crowd. A blonde woman who claims to be a lesbian is yelling fiercely at the main speaker who is just as fiercely yelling back at her, both being roundly condemned by the other; the preacher to the hate crime police, the lesbian to hellfire on Judgement Day. At least she’ll have company, as (according to the speaker) most of us are going there anyway!
Or are we? Will we all be engulfed by perpetual flames? Does hell as portrayed by many denominations actually exist? In order to find the answers, let’s examine the source of such beliefs:
Cue Ancient Babylon, home of Nimrod and many uncanny practices still in use today. Fortune-telling, omen-spotting, entrails-reading, runes, star-gazing and communing with the dead all have their roots in this magic-obsessed city. Incidentally, Babylon also invented the fiscal system, which, considering recent history, some may regard as the ultimate nightmare!
Ironically, atheists’ refusal to believe in a separate, invisible soul is backed up by scripture. Here, death is clearly shown to be a state of total unconsciousness, a dreamless sleep from which, according to several Bible verses (particularly the Lazarus account) people will ‘awake’ to a physical resurrection when paradise is restored on earth.
“There is no dichotomy [division] of body and soul in the O[ld] T[estament]….The term nepeš [ne’phesh], though translated by our word soul, never means soul as distinct from the body or the individual person….The term [psy-khe’] is the N[ew] T[estament] word corresponding with nepeš. It can mean the principle of life, life itself, or the living being.” – New Catholic Enyclopedia
The Mosaic Law did not allow for any form of spiritism whatsoever - in fact it was forbidden on pain of death for the nation of Israel - and it wasn’t until Greece began to stride the world stage that afterlife philosophies began to take root.
In the fourth century CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine, unable to quell the rise of Christianity by other means and determined to unite his empire, cunningly infused original gospel teachings with pagan beliefs such as the immortality of the soul, the trinity doctrine, and – that most terrifying concept of all – eternal hellfire! The Biblical word rendered as ‘hell’ in many versions simply means ‘grave’ or ‘death’. (Hebrew - sheol; Greek - Hades)
“The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere expressly taught in Holy Scripture.” – The Jewish Enyclopedia
Constantine’s ‘miraculous conversion’ marked the beginning of the Holy Roman Empire from which the rest of Christendom developed, combining Bible accounts with Babylonish rites and practices while keeping generations of adherents in ignorance. The Dark Ages had truly begun and the Bible was unavailable to the majority of people until the 16th century when William Tyndale translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English. His aim - for ‘even a plowboy’ to understand scripture - was not appreciated by the church; hardly surprising as, from the Vatican to house churches, Christendom has done more than any other organisation to promote spiritistic practices. According to one spiritualist I met some years ago, “the church already preaches life after death – all mediums do is prove it!”
What harm does it do? Well, for one thing, the whole concept of life after death is a cruel deception, especially for people who have lost a loved one. Believing they can communicate through a spiritualist medium can lead to all kinds of fraud and extortion; even if the medium is basically well-meaning, it can still open the floodgates to a very dangerous world.
“….The nether world…..is pictured as a place full of horrors, and is presided over by gods and demons of great strength and fierceness.” – The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Boston, 1998, Morris Jastrow, Jr)
But the worst sin to my mind is the reproach beliefs such as hellfire and purgatory create towards God. Would a loving Father, even a sinful human one, hold a child against a fire until he screamed in agony? Is being damned to everlasting torture even just for the amount of sinning humans can fit into their three-score years and ten?
I doubt it.