Monday, April 6, 2009

What th...?

I have been thinking about hell lately, partly because of an essay I found online (and have posted below) written by a guy named Fred Clark.

If you’ve had the misfortune to fall prey to my Ranting on such things as salvation and damnation, you will know that I am largely of the opinion that they are mostly none of my (or anyone’s) business in anything other than a loose, theoretical sense. God did not make disciples of us so we could figure out how the Universe works and use that to go save people from damnation, he made us to love him and in that to love others wherever they need it most. We are to present the gospel in humility as best we understand it, but we are designed to be incapable of figuring out how it all really works. Anything else is pompous God-pretension.

Because of this viewpoint, I try to chuckle and shrug my shoulders a lot if I get sucked into a “theological debate”, and I get annoyed fairly easily when someone asks me to pigeonhole someone else as a Christian or a Pagan. What do I look like… God?!

Well, maybe a little, but not enough to have a say in who is or is not in the club. I amn’t blind, so I notice when someone says, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” standing on the hood of their sixty thousand dollar Hummer, but I have never felt that my weak insights grant me the power to Judge what is really going on inside another human being. To a majority of the world’s population, I too am a wastrel living high off someone else’s hog, so I really have no platform to stand on other than Faith.

It’s the same with hell. I’ve absorbed quite a lot of hellology over the years, but from personal experience know absolutely nothing (never been there, not interested in going) and likewise have very little understanding from the Bible; which is where, theoretically, Christians get the Goods. A couple of years back I read an essay in the McLaren/Campolo book “Adventures in Missing the Point” which unpacked the Bible’s teaching on hell a bit and related the tidbit that a lot of the time when the Bible mentions hell, it actually refers to an actual garbage dump just outside Jerusalem where they burned a lot of garbage. Like, um, a metaphor.

These two obvious heretics were suggesting that maybe we don’t always understand metaphors the way they were intended and that maybe the hell the Bible talked about wasn’t the scare tactic that has been used in churches. I quickly slammed the book shut and tried not to think about it. I mean, this is an essential part of orthodox Christian thought, right? And we can’t re-think essential points of orthodox Christian faith without risking some almighty damnation ourselves. Which is why I still buy indulgences,l keep slaves and demand that my wife wear a hat in church.

Still, the thought was kicking around in my brain when I read the appended article, and it does resolve certain questions I raised in the essay “Going Granola” that I had posted on my blog/art website,

When I say it resolves them, however, know that I don’t mean it answers them in any pat way, or makes them easy. Any answer to the Big Questions of life that don’t acknowledge complexity or the questioner's inherent finiteness in the face of infinity are doomed. Still, it resolves them in the sense that it presents a coherent approach to the mystery. Being coherent does not mean it is right, just that it is internally consistent.

For example, the explanation sometimes expressed that God is absolutely able to do whatever God wants, and that what God wants is to pick and choose and pre-determine who will go to hell or Heaven and there is nothing you can do about it is very coherent and does a very thorough job of explaining things. I just happen to find it morally repugnant and to paint a picture of God that to me is, quite frankly, bum-ugly.

Nonetheless, I will let you read through Clark’s article and struggle to your own conclusions. I had originally intended to paste in Dr. Geisler’s article on Hell from “The Baker Handbook of Apologetics”, but I read through and a) decided I couldn’t be bothered to re-type the five pages that it was, and b) found too much of what he was saying to be smug, pretentious, and circular. I love so much that the guy says, but he got on my nerves with this one, so I’m going to have to rob him of his voice.

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Posted by Fred Clark on on March 2 & 5

H – E – double hockey sticks

If you're a regular listener to This American Life, then you already know this story. But if, like me, you have a huge backlog of TAL podcasts you've been meaning to get around to someday but haven't yet, then this story may be news to you too.

Here's TAL's intro to the story of the Rev. Carlton Pearson, which they have titled simply, "Heretics":

"Carlton Pearson's church, Higher Dimensions, was once one of the biggest in the city, drawing crowds of 5,000 people every Sunday. But several years ago, scandal engulfed the reverend. He didn't have an affair. He didn't embezzle lots of money. His sin was something that to a lot of people is far worse: He stopped believing in Hell."

That didn't go over too well in the Pentecostal/evangelical circles in which Pearson used to be a rock star. It got him officially branded as a heretic by a Pentecostal bishops group. His congregation dwindled to a fifth of its previous size and its makeup changed to include all sorts of dubious types, like Episcopalians, homosexuals and Unitarians.

... What I find most interesting in this whole saga is that Pearson was never condemned for his earlier heresies, which strike me as more extravagant. He began his ministry, after all, as a protégé of Oral Roberts and for years taught a variant of Roberts' "prosperity" doctrines. Going around and telling people that serving Mammon is the same as serving God apparently doesn't get you in hot water with the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops. Denying the existence of Hell does.

That's curious, since the Bible spends much, much, much more time on the dangers of chasing money than it ever does on the subject of eternal torment. The Bible's priorities, however, have been inverted by evangelicals, for whom Hell has become a central, essential doctrine.

I'm not sure how that happened. St. Paul had precisely nothing to say on the subject of Hell. He had a lot to say about death, resurrection and the kingdom, but not one word about Hell. The Nicene Creed, similarly, mentions heaven three times, but never mentions Hell at all. The Apostle's Creed mentions it. Once. It says Jesus went there. (Yes, that Jesus).

Yet ask any evangelical Christian about their faith and Hell is one of the first things they'll mention. And they know all about the subject. They can describe Hell, earnestly providing details from Dante or Fantasia while dimly believing these come from the Bible (you know, the Epistle to the Ghibelines or something).

So let's take a quick look at what the Bible actually does have to say on the subject of Hell. Specifically, let's look at three passages that Carlton Pearson has been condemned for not "interpreting literally."

1. Luke 16:19-31 describes a soul in agony in "Hades." He is described as being "in fire" and "in this place of torment."
2. Matthew 25:31-46 says that the unrighteous "will go away to eternal punishment" sent "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
3. Revelation 20:11-15 describes the judgment of the living and the dead. "The lake of fire is the second death," it says. "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."

That's three separate mentions of eternal, fiery torment. Sure sounds a lot like the Hell all those evangelical preachers love to talk about.

And yet this doesn't fully convey how deeply, deeply weird it is for such preachers to turn to these three passages and to come away from them with nothing other than a belief in hellfire and torment.

That's not what these stories are about. The preachers seemed to have latched on to the descriptions of hellfire and torment in these stories because those tangential details seemed less troublesome and dangerous than the central themes of the stories. Those central themes may be more threatening than anything Carlton Pearson has ever had to say.

So let's look at each of those passages again. This time, instead of looking exclusively at what they describe Hell as being like, we'll look at what or who they describe Hell as being for.

1. Luke 16:19-31
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, "Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire."

But Abraham replied, "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony."

Evangelical preachers say a "literal interpretation" allows them to claim this story as a source for their doctrine of Hell. That gets tricky, because at the same time they want to insist that this story's description of heaven is not to be taken literally. And that this story's explanation for who goes where is just plain wrong.

Lazarus, we are told, was hungry and covered with sores. We are not told that he did good deeds, or that he had faith in God, or that he accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal Lord and savior. We are simply told that his life was nasty, brutish and short, and that when it was over "the angels carried him to Abraham's side."

The rich man, we are told, dressed really nice and ate well. We are not told that he refused to accept Jesus Christ as his own personal Lord and savior. We are simply told that there was a beggar at his gate with whom he never seems to have shared his food. And that, the story says, is damnably wrong.

Which is the entire point of the story. It's not about who goes to heaven or who goes to Hell. And it's certainly not intended to provide cartographic detail about the afterlife. It's about ethics -- about the obligation we have to the beggars at our gates. Heaven and Hell appear in this story only to make this point more emphatic. To decide that its description of Hell must be taken "literally," while simultaneously ignoring the reason it mentions Hell at all, cannot be described as a "literal interpretation" of the story, only as an illiterate one.

2. Matthew 25:31-46
This is nearly the same story. This famous passage about the sheep and the goats is, again, primarily a story about ethics and the obligation to meet the needs of others.
Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me."

They also will answer, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?"

He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me."

There's nothing subtle or ambiguous about that central theme here. Every detail in the story points to this same idea. The sitting on the throne with all the nations gathered is not the main point here. It is, again, an emphatic device to draw attention to the main point. So too are the cheers and jeers of eternal reward or punishment presented here. There's one and only one distinction that matters, Jesus is saying, how do you respond to the needs of the least of these?

To miss that, perceiving nothing from this story but an affirmation of one particular notion of Hell, seems perverse.

3. Revelation 20:11-15
This, too, is nearly the same story as that of the sheep and the goats. The context is different, though, coming at the end of John's eschatological, once-more-with-feeling retelling of the Exodus. Here God's people arrive at the Promised Land from which they can never be taken into exile. And Pharaoh and his soldiers? Once again the horse and rider are hurled into the sea. This time for good.

But it's not just the bad guys who get thrown into "the lake of fire" here. "Death and Hades" are cast in first. (Yes, the same "Hades" in which the rich man received his fiery torment in the first story.) So if you want to insist that this reference to a "lake of fire" must be interpreted "literally," then you're going to have to explain to me what it means for the abstract concepts of death and Hades to be literally thrown into it.

And if you're a Protestant, you're going to have to explain why "lake of fire" is literal, but "each person was judged according to what he had done" is not.

These three passages aren't the only basis for the belief in Hell as eternal fiery torment, but they provide the strongest evidence to support the idea. And as you can see, this evidence is not really that strong. These passages certainly don't provide any sort of basis for the idea that Hell ought to be a central or essential core belief that shapes our faith, or our concept of God, or our concept of one another or of the meaning of our lives. That's not what these stories are about.

That's not what our story is about.

Still In Hell

OK, then, what about Hitler?
That's usually one of the first questions asked when one expresses a disbelief in the notion of Hell as a literal place of eternal, fiery torment. ("Literal" here referring to a literal interpretation of Dante's Inferno and more than a century of Hollywood movies and tent-meeting sermons.) I've even been asked that question after quoting Julian of Norwich:
"All will be well and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well."

"Yeah, well what about Hitler?"

And it's actually a good question. There are plenty of unseemly or even reprehensible reasons why someone might choose to believe in an eternal Hell, and we needn't spend much time on those. But there are also some better, more reasonable and nobler reasons. Such as the Hitler question.
That question is a way of stumbling toward the matter of ultimate justice. Hell, or something like Hell, seems necessary in a sense to satisfy our need to believe in ultimate justice. This is an actual thing, a real, measurable phenomenon that exists. Not the reality of ultimate justice itself, of course -- that may be true but can't be measured or proved -- but the reality of our desire for it.

That desire is a strange thing. We humans -- many, maybe even most of us -- seem to share two conclusions about the world in which we live: 1) It's not fair; and 2) It ought to be fair. There's a universe of evidence for the first conclusion there, which only makes the second notion that much stranger.
The belief that what is is not the same as what ought to be is a curious thing. It's not as though we had some counter-example to our own existence with which to compare this reality, so we could say, "Look over there at that world, where life is fair. I prefer that to this." Yet somehow we seem to feel that this hypothetical reality of a just world is more valid, more real, than the actual reality of the actual world and its relentless stream of reminders that justice is exceptional, rare and contrary to what actually is.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis pounces on this odd notion. If life is unfair, he argues, then where on earth did we get the idea of the categories of fair and unfair? Nowhere on earth, it would seem. He works at this until he's convinced it's a kind of proof of something transcendent. I think that overstates the case. Lewis' argument doesn't offer proof, or even evidence, but it may provide a kind of ... inkling (sorry).

Lewis is right, though, that this idea of some kind of ultimate justice is the stuff of religion. All religion.*

Consider again that parable Jesus told about the beggar Lazarus and the callous rich man. That parable describes a common phenomenon, almost a microcosm of this unfair, unjust world. The actual, real world we live in is filled with precisely this sort of situation. Lazarus' life was an unending stream of misery -- cold, hunger, physical pain, neglect and loneliness. The self-centered rich man, on the other hand, had the best food, the best house, the finest clothes and all the friends money could buy. And he didn't give a rip about Lazarus.

That doesn't seem fair. It isn't fair. We want to see such unfairness corrected. The world seems wrong and we want to see it made or remade right.

Every religion worth anything addresses this dilemma in two ways. First by requiring that its adherents practice both charity and justice here in this life. And second by extending the hope that such unfairness will ultimately be rectified, if not in this world, then in the next.**

The main concern of this eschatological hope for ultimate justice tends to focus on Lazarus and the injustices suffered by those like him. We want to believe that there will be something better for them than the vicious, miserable, unbearable fate they have been dealt here on earth. But we also think of the injustice perpetrated by the rich man in the story. He got away with it in the short term, but ultimately we want to believe that he and people like him will have to account for their self-centered cruelty, otherwise it would seem that existence is ultimately unfair -- that it will never be as just as it ought to be. So we want to see ultimate justice for both Lazarus and the rich man.

But note that ultimate justice is not the same thing as perfect or absolute justice. Thoughts of absolute justice tend to lead to the realization that, uh-oh, I'm probably not Lazarus in that story. I'm probably, at least sometimes, the other guy.

"Life is never fair," Oscar Wilde noted in An Ideal Husband, "And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not." That's an echo of an earlier playwright: "God's bodkin man, much better, use every man after his desert and who shall scape whipping?"

We hope for more justice than this world affords, but at the same time we hope for mercy to triumph over justice. Lazarus deserved better, but we don't necessarily want to "use every man after his desert."
So not perfect, absolute justice, then, but ultimate justice tempered by mercy.

Surely, though, there must be limits to this mercy. It's one thing for your or me or the rich man to be cut a bit of slack for our myopic self-absorption, but what about those driven by cruelty and evil to create Hell on earth? What about the mass-murderers and torturers, tyrants and oppressors?
Or, in other words, what about Hitler?

Whatever miserable end befalls a Hitler or an Amin or Stalin or Saddam Hussein in this world it still seems, somehow, inadequate. Those responsible for the suffering and death of millions can only suffer and die once themselves, and this seems disproportionate. It seems unfair. It is unfair.
For that unfairness, that injustice, to be addressed or redressed, it seems there needs to be some further accounting for such evils. Hell, or something like it, seems necessary then for the Hitlers of this world.

It's quite a leap, though -- and a baseless, insupportable one -- to jump from believing that ultimate justice requires some kind of accounting for evil to deciding that the precise form of that accounting must conform to the details of the fiery, eternal torment imagined by Dante and Hieronymus Bosch and Jack Chick and a thousand other (extracanonical) sources.

It's probably helpful, then, to distinguish two separate questions implicit in the cries of "What about Hitler?"

The first question is something like, "Do you believe that there will be some kind of ultimate accountability for evil?"

My answer to that question is yes. I believe there will be. I can't prove this, mind you, but I believe it. And this assertion -- that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice -- can be defended and supported by that Bible we evangelical Christian types put so much emphasis on. The same defense and support cannot be found for the sordidly detailed idea of a sulfurous netherworld to which all non-RTCs will be consigned for eternity.***

The second question is trickier, something more like, "What, exactly, happens to someone like Hitler after he dies?"

That is, to borrow the president's rough paraphrase of the Book of Job, a question above my pay grade. To ask that question is to ask, in the words of the play cited above, about the "undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns." In other words, I don't know. And anybody who says he does know shouldn't be trusted.

In that same story about Lazarus and the rich man, Abraham appears to say that we don't need some traveller to return from that undiscovered country -- that Moses and the Prophets tell us all we need to know. Moses and the prophets have a great deal to say about justice -- both the best approximation of justice we can have in this world and of the promise of a greater, ultimate justice to come -- but if they had anything to say about Hell they kept it to themselves.

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* Although not exclusively of religion. When the late Carl Sagan helped to create the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, he said he wanted to work with religious groups because we were the "ought people," whereas he, as a scientist, wasn't concerned with ought, only with is. That struck me as intriguing, but Sagan's own actions belied the distinction. He wasn't enlisting the support of religious groups out of some arbitrary personal preference, but because he thought we humans ought to be taking better care of our environment than we were.

** When religion goes awry or becomes corrupt, it often results from or results in an emphasis on one of those two aspects to the neglect of the other. Corruption A: Emphasize the hope for eschatological justice to the neglect of justice in this world and you end up with the "pie in the sky when you die" opiate used to justify every oppressive caste system from Bombay to Alabama. Corruption B: Emphasize justice in this world to the neglect of the hope for eschatological justice and you begin thinking that you can impose perfect, infallible justice here in the temporal realm -- an idea that quickly gallops off into oppressive theocracy of one form or another.
Our history books and newspapers are so full of examples of both of those errors that it can be tempting to think that maybe religion itself is the problem. If we could just stamp out religion, we could end oppression and establish perfect justice. See again Corruption B above.

*** The eternal aspect of this idea of Hell is also troublesome. Part of the trouble here, as ever when we talk of "eternity," is that we tend to think of it in terms of "forever" or "a very long time" -- roughly the same mistake as thinking of "infinity" as meaning "a really big number." But it's also the case, as many have argued, that it seems unfair and unjust that temporal, finite wrongdoing would be consigned to an eternal, infinite punishment.
Then again, the idea of Heaven as eternal and infinite reward raises a similar question of proportionality, but you don't hear that raised as an objection. Stinginess offends justice; magnanimity does not. I wrote above that there must surely be some limits to mercy, but I'm not really sure that's true. If God is worthy of being called God, then God's mercy must be infinitely greater than my own.

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