Advent Sunday is 12 days away as I write. To get our systems cleansed for it last Sunday there were three readings about judgement and hell. This is tricky because as the Cardinal told Marcel Proust, “I believe in hell because it is a dogma of the church, but I also believe there’s no one in it.” That states a contemporary position neatly.
Zephaniah 1.15 has: “That day [the great day of the Lord] is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” My ears pricked up at ‘day of wrath’ because I thought of Dreyer’s 1942 film, VREDENS DAG/ DAY OF WRATH. I had always thought the title echoed the mediaeval hymn, the Dies Irae – or ‘day of anger’ – but the phrase, I now realize, presumably comes from Zephaniah.
If the ‘day of wrath’ of the film, which is about the suppression of witchcraft in 17th-century Denmark, is sanctioned by God, then the version of God becomes a cruel one, and the world has been created cruel. What can humans do about it? For we take the side of Anne (see image below) in the film, only to find her denounced by the end as a witch.
And read that text of Zephaniah, not in the light of forthcoming Advent but as part of the centenary remembrance of the First World War: they become a powerful description in words of what some of the WW1 battlefields came to look like. So did God intend such events in order to pass judgement on us? I cringe at the thought, I side with the Cardinal, and then am troubled: hell and judgement have been a key part of Christian thought from the beginning, so who am I to jettison them as unnecessary ballast just like that?
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