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Florence Nightingale’s Heaven and Hell

3. Florence Nightingale’s Heaven and Hell

Niagara Anglican, September 1999:13

Nightingale lived at a time when hell-fire and brimstone were common subjects of preaching, and when clergy who questioned church doctrine on hell were liable to charges of heresy. In an unpublished essay Nightingale stated that she would hate God if He had made millions miserable, “destining some to salvation, many, or even one, to damnation, of these His creatures who cannot help being born.”

If, for example, I believed in Calvin’s God, whose “good pleasure” it was to predestine many to eternal damnation, I surely would not love Him…I would never try to conciliate Him. Evangelical Christianity, so far from making out how God is love, has oftener made out that He is worse than the worst of human tyrants and murderers.

She not only rejected belief in a literal, punitive hell, but was scathing in denouncing her own church for its ambivalence on the question of eternal punishment for unbaptized children (a Church of England congress left this as an open question). In her lengthy, as yet to be published Suggestions for Thought, she disapproved of the sacraments being used to open the door to heaven, “as a segregated pen for the few.”

Nightingale certainly believed in an after life, enjoyment of the “Immediate Presence” for those who had known it in this life. For others there would be some period of God’s work to perfect us, in eternity. Evil and sin had their place in the world; what Nightingale would not accept, but rather considered blasphemous, was the notion of permanent evil, or everlasting hell. Every individual, she believed, would come, in eternity, to understand and share God’s will for true happiness. She did not specify how this might happen; certainly there is no suggestion of any purgatory.

Nightingale made much of the statement that God “descended into hell,” that is, came right here to share our life. “I do think God ‘descending into hell’—whatever that word may mean in the creed—is perfectly true in two senses: that God making His world is God descending into hell—and that to do His work does entail upon some people descending into hell.” Political work was “descending into hell,” work that had to be done to make life better, healthier. At a time when the Church of England was even more the “Tory Party at prayer” than it is now, she wanted both church and state to take a more activist role in combatting poverty and disease. She described legislators as “missionaries,” indeed with a “noble mission” because they could alter the atmosphere in which we live. To her friend Benjamin Jowett, a priest and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, she described politics as the administration of God’s world, “in the particular time and place of the nation,” bringing down “God’s government from heaven to earth.”

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