Hell, Part I

K is currently taking a class on theodicy in seminary (I think it’s called Evil and Suffering or something like that). It’s a subject that fascinates me, so I’ve been very interested to lean over her shoulder and see what she’s reading and discussing in class.

As part of an assignment, she had to watch a documentary called Hellbound?, so we watched it together last night. It inspired me to share some of my own thoughts here.

To be clear, I don’t know the answers to questions about hell and judgment. Unless you are privy to some direct revelation on the subject from God, neither do you. So, let’s get that out of the way: you should feel free to disagree with my thoughts here without the word “heresy” being applicable to either of us. What I present here are, in my belief, the most reasonable interpretive arguments about the subject.

Scriptures are contradictory on the subject of hell. There are certainly passages that can be readily interpreted as positing an eternal hell-like condition for those condemned to such a fate, but there is also much ready support for alternative positions. A quick chart for the “big three” of the traditional schools of thought on hell can be found in this article: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/2014/11/proof-that-believing-in-hell-is-not-scriptural/.

The chart pictured is also used in the Hellbound? documentary. Please note that, while I probably agree with the surrounding article, I didn’t read it and just pulled the link for reference to the chart. I’ll leave you to delve into the particulars of scriptural confusion about the existence and nature of hell on your own; it’s an interesting investigation.

A quick summary of those popular schools of thought regarding hell above. The most traditional school argues for the existence of a hell made for eternal conscious suffering—fire and brimstone and all that. The second approach, annihilationism, takes the position that those who are not granted salvation simply cease to exist. No conscious suffering, but not being is a pretty terrifying concept as well. The epistles seem to indicate that this was Paul’s position on the subject. Lastly (according to the chart), is universalism—the belief that all people/souls will be saved and restored in the broad sweep of eternity.

Along with scriptural disagreement, we have to be very careful about superimposing popular cultural ideas of hell upon the scriptures. I would argue that most of what people “know” about hell isn’t Biblical at all—it comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

On a more scholarly tack, beliefs that came into Jewish culture during the Intertestemental Period also contributed deeply to popular beliefs about the nature of demons, hell and the struggle of good and evil. These beliefs probably came to Judaism (and then Christianity) from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion with a “good god” (Ahura Mazda) and an “evil god” (Ahriman) locked in eternal battle for the souls of mankind. Sound familiar?

Indeed, much of the references to “places” in the hereafter in both the Old and New Testament rely upon the mythologies and frameworks of other cultures as well. The Old Testament sheol looks very similar to other Mesopotamian afterlife descriptions and the New Testament use of the words hades and tartarus draw upon Greek mytho-religious beliefs. They are neither strictly nor directly Christian. Gehenna was a literal place outside Jerusalem; we must at least consider that Jesus’s mentions of gehenna are warnings about impending consequences in the here-and-now rather than proclamations about the hereafter.

When we view all of these factors together, we see that we must make interpretive choices to take a theological position on the existence, nature and purpose of hell. There is a temptation for me to stop here and let the point of this post be simply to ask readers to realize that these interpretive necessities make room for reasonable disagreement on the subject without a need to call those with other views “heretics” or “non-Christians.” However, I’m going to go further and make my own arguments.

To that end, I’ll use several different approaches to support my conclusions and I’ll point you to some of my previous posts for an expanded look at some of these subtopics. For one argument I’d like to share, I point you to the post “The Beautiful Truth about Evangelism.” In that post, I argue that it is poetically and theologically profound that coercion (like the fear of hell) cannot create true followers of Christ. When we talk about the existence and nature of hell, we have to address the preachers who use the fear of hell as their main strategy to (futilely) attempt to win converts to Christ. There, mentioned and discussed in length elsewhere; let’s move on.

Let’s look at justice. One of the main arguments for the existence of an eternal hell is attempt to raise up and accentuate God’s justice (as we’ll find, most of the arguments about the existence and nature of hell are really about the nature of God).

I’d like to offer some challenges to making our sense of justice prime in our understanding of hell. As a lawyer, I think about justice quite a bit, both in the abstract and in the very particular. I am convinced of this: humans are not capable of true justice. True justice, as both American law and common sense would have it, would be the reversal of the injury, a full restoration of all that was lost because of the injury. Because we cannot fix feelings about what has occurred, bring back the dead, or restore lost intangibles, we substitute, approximating justice by the use of some alternative restitution. In criminal law this typically means punishment of the offender. In civil law it means that the offender must pay money to the offended. Neither of these solutions really do all that much in terms of restoration. Only God could heal in a way that undoes the injustice and restores justice. Even when we deal with God undoing the injustice—as in Job—we remain with questions about suffering and justice that are difficult to understand and impossible to answer.

Job led Calvin to posit a “double justice,” arguing that there are aspects of God’s justice which may be understood in human terms and aspects which are unknowable—but nevertheless just. I certainly agree with the latter; I remain ambivalent about the former.

Our inability to fully understand God’s justice should give us pause at assuming the nature of God’s justice and then using that as an argument on which to build theological positions.

Even under human interpretations of justice, we have issues getting to the idea of an eternal hell as just. In American criminal jurisprudence, we have a long-established belief that punishment for a crime ought to be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime and that we ought to avoid “cruel and unusual” punishments. Can we really say that an infinite punishment for finite offense is proportionate and thus “just?” I highly doubt this.

In Hellbound?, the creative writing instructor Robert McKee argues that hell is necessary in Christian theology because, without the possibility of eternal damnation, there is no meaning to our actions and moral choices. Shame on him; someone so well-versed in the craft of creative writing ought to know better. Nothing in a fictional story actually matters—there are no real consequences. Stories matter because we give them meaning aside from the consequences. That’s what stories at their essence are: attempts to create meaning in world that is ambiguous and difficult to interpret. As I think I’ve quoted on this blog before, I’ll point you to the talented writer Joss Whedon and his opposing view. He was once quoted as saying “If nothing we do in the universe matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.”

Christian morality is meaningless if it is based on a quid pro quo or a fear of damnation; it becomes coerced and not a free choice. A virtue is only a virtue when exercised for its own sake and not for reward or avoidance of punishment. Thus, it would be more meaningful for a Christian to commit to follow Jesus and keep his commandments simply because it is right than out of heavenly aspirations or hellish fears. The truth is exactly the opposite of what Mr. McKee says of meaning and hell. In fact, McKee seems to think that there is only his position and the antinomian heresy—that the natural and logical result of redemption in Christ for all would be the doing of constant evil because “it doesn’t matter.” I’m not sure that you could find a single theologian who would say that sin suddenly doesn’t matter if we remove hell from our analysis—we simply don’t need hell to argue that sin is wrong.

I must admit a ready argument to the above, frequently (and often crudely) retorted by fundamentalist faithful—“God can do whatever God wants and that is necessarily just and good because God gets to define justice and goodness.” I can’t argue with that because I can’t argue with God. It is axiomatic that, in a certain sense, whatever God does is correct because God’s the one who has set the rules for judgment.

But that fact is insufficient on its own—because it is so axiomatic it’s also relatively meaningless. It doesn’t actually tell us anything about God and so it doesn’t actually support the fundamentalist’s view about the way that God is.

Let’s peel that back further. What do we say about a god who establishes a certain justice and then creates us to have a gut feeling that the way that god acts is in fact unjust? Nothing good. We would either have to say that that god is omnipotent but less than fully good or that that god is neither good nor omnipotent because some force external to the god’s self establishes a meaning for justice.

Fortunately, that is not the image of the Christian God. By all available measures our God plays by the rules of justice God has established. That is an important message of Christ and the cross—that God will suffer beside us in anything we are made to suffer. That is omnipotence and goodness combined.

What does that mean for hell? For me, it means quite simply that the image of a God who allows eternal suffering (or annihilation, for that matter) does not comport with what I understand about God through the person and divinity of Jesus Christ. I must admit here that in the Gospels Jesus has many difficult statements that might touch upon an eternally-existing hell for the damned. He doesn’t mention such directly, but he does tells about the “broad” and “narrow” ways, and at least one parable mentions casting people in the “abyss” or “outer darkness.” In all intellectual honesty, I must admit that I resolve this conflict by prioritizing my understanding of Jesus drawn from all of the scriptures as a key to understanding any particular scripture. Given the many problems of interpretation in scripture, this seems to me the only reasonable approach (a stance that, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, I share with Barth).

This is not all there is to say about justice and hell. As I alluded to above, I cannot find just proportionality for eternal punishment for finite sins—no matter how extensive. Poetically, isn’t it more just that Hitler dies to find that his efforts at domination, self-worship and annihilation of the Jews have all failed to God’s power and goodness than that he burns in a lake of fire? The former doesn’t just have a sense of justice to it; it also allows for the redemption of even Hitler. As I’ve repeated in many posts, “mercy triumphs over judgment.”

This is the choking point for many traditionalist views about hell. Hitler, Pol Pot, killers, rapists and thieves in general. The problem is that the person arguing from the traditional view of hell here falls prey to some idea about subjective “fairness” rather than objective justice. In other words, “how would it be fair for Hitler to go to heaven when I’ve been so much better than him in my own life?” I don’t know the answer to that question, except that the Bible is full of scriptures reminding us that that’s not a question we’re qualified even to ask, much less answer. We ought to be worrying about ourselves in the context of what is objectively good and right, not what other people do.

If Jesus is not clear about hell, he is very clear about forgiveness. To follow Christ, forgiveness is not an option—it is a strict command. When discussing this subject, I sometimes mention the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Before he was killed in prison, Dahmer claimed to have found Jesus, become a Christian and to have repented of his sins. His sincerity is not the point for us to discuss—only God knows the man’s heart. But does our faith have room to believe that even he could be forgiven and saved (let’s avoid for now the discussion of what exactly is required for salvation and assume that he meets the minimum requirements)?

If we cannot fathom forgiveness for the worst in humanity, we cannot say that Christ has conquered sin. We must ignore the command to forgive others their trespasses against us. We must ignore prohibitions on humans attempting to render cosmic judgment on others. In other words, we must rewrite God and Jesus. We become the Pharisees, saying “Thank God I am not a mass murderer; surely I will get into heaven.” There is no place for the “to outrun the bear I just have to outrun someone else” mentality in Christianity.

There is still much to discuss in the debate about hell, so I’ll continue this discussion in one or more subsequent posts. For the time being, let me leave you with this: I think Rob Bell has the most honest approach to this subject. I agree with his hopes and beliefs regarding hell as described in his book Love Wins, but it’s not the nature of his arguments or his conclusions that I mean here. It’s his opening gambit, his disclaimer, his caveat. He says, in (very) loose paraphrase, that we just don’t know the truth about hell, and by all accounts it seems that we can’t know for sure. Let’s be willing to live in that mystery, talking about our thoughts, our interpretations and our hopes tentatively rather insisting that those who do not take our position are evil, demonic, heretical or un-Christian. Then, let’s focus on loving one another as Christ is clear that we must do.

More to follow.