Pilgrimage, Day 5: The Modern and the Ancient

I’m trying to get a jump on posting for the day instead of, as I’ve done the past few days, waiting until the last moment. It’s about 4:00 p.m. local and, having finished our touring day (since the winter hours for Israeli national sites has them close at four), we are on the bus back to the Sea of Galilee.

As I mentioned yesterday, we spent today in the Golan Heights. We heard sporadic artillery fire, all of which came from an Israeli tank proving ground close to our first visited site. Burnt-out tank hulks left from the six-day war occasionally cropped up in the otherwise beautiful scenery. We spent about 10 minutes driving behind an IDF humvee with a remote-controlled turret boasting a 50-cal machinegun and a TOW missile launcher. Overhead were the vapor trails of fighter jets penetrating just into Syrian airspace just before hitting their afterburners back to sovereign skies. At least once, we passed a barbed wire fence warning of unexploded mines on the other side. Still, there was never a concern for safety, just an ever-present reminder of the frailty of human nature and the conflict that results from such weakness.

The closest we came to the actual border was on the (dormant) cinder cone of the volcano, Mt. Bental, where we surveyed the land while standing next to two U.N. observers tasked with keeping watch over the “no man’s land” that starts a scant few miles from the base of the mountain and its nearby twin. Just across the border, about due east, lay the ruins of Quneitra, destroyed in the Yom Kippur War. Just north of that, the town of New Quneitra, where the inhabits rebuilt after being unable to salvage the ruins. Damascus lay just outside of view, thirty-seven miles to the Northeast. It was a strange feeling to be so close to such tragedy and unable to do a damn thing about it.

Mount Bental was our second stop today. Our first was Gamla or Gamala (the “Camel”), a humpbacked hill set deep in a canyon to the northeast of the Sea of Galilee that had been heavily fortified by the Sicarii (sometimes called “Zealots”) who probably had many commonalities of thought with the Nazarenes. The whole thing quickly reminded me of the Rebel Alliances’s base on Hoth, a fortification from which to strike out at the (Roman) Empire during the 66 C.E. revolt. In 67, Agrippa II failed for seven months to take the fortress and kill its inhabitants. Vespasian then arrived with three legions and built ballistae to fire 1300 stone balls and 1600 arrows into the fortress. This caused a breach, but the Romans suffered heavy casualties in the close quarters combat that ensued, with the defenders going so far as to topple interior walls onto the invaders, forcing a general retreat. A second assault was successful, with tradition holding that the core survivors fled to the citadel at the top of the hill to cast off their wives and daughters before jumping off themselves. A northern Masada.

Josephus says that the Romans killed 10,000 at Gamla. I find that highly suspect, based on the size of the settlement (at least as is currently visible) and the poor likelihood that a defending force of that size (1) would have been able to withstand siege for seven months without running out of supplies and (2) would have chosen to turtle up in their fortress and allow the Romans to seize the initiative when they had superior numbers and knowledge of the terrain.

Our interest was in the first-century synagogue in Gamla, the lower architecture of which is relatively well-preserved. It is highly probable that Jesus taught their during his Galilean ministry. The trek down the ravine to the fortress (and back up!) was exhausting but worth it.

After Bental, we first visited Caesarea Philippi and then Dan. At Caesarea Philippi, the Romans built a temple to Pan inside an artificial cave in which sprang one part of the headwaters of the Jordan river–a cave that was often thought of as a gateway to hell. A temple to the genius of Augustus Ceasar was also erected. At Dan, the King of Israel Jeroboam had an altar built and a golden calf idol placed so that his people would not have to travel south to the Temple in Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Judah to worship (and be tempted to defect).

It was between these two places that Jesus brought the disciples when he asked them “Who is it that people say that I am?” Behind him, Mt. Hermon, the only “real” mountain in Israel and thus the likeliest spot meant by Matthew when he describes Satan taking Jesus to the mountain to show him the splendor of nations and to offer them to him. Mt. Herom overshadows the ancient international highway, where the caravans of goods from the various nations would have represented their splendor without any miraculous or “magical| move on Satan’s part. When (soon after answering that Jesus is the “the Anointed One, Son of the Living God”) Peter tells Jesus that he cannot go to Jerusalem to die, Jesus responds “Get behind me, Satan!” just as he had previously told (actual) Satan.

Additionally, Caesarea Philippi represented the waywardness of Roman paganism while Dan represented the errancy of the Kingdom of Israel in falling away from worship of Yahweh (and the Canaanite paganism with its idols as well). It was a perfect–if unexpected–placed to pose the question of identity and capability to the disciples. Satan, death, Hell, the Empire, paganism–all were present to view the declaration.

The ideas above came either from our wonderful guide, Jack Beck (I suggest reading his books and watching his documentaries) , or from some of the Methodist pastors with whom I’m traveling.

To conclude, I’ll give you an idea of my own. You have likely heard the comparison and juxtaposition of the Caesars as divine figures with Jesus as the Son of God. Let’s nuance that a little more: the Romans didn’t actually worship the Emperor; they worshipped the genius of the Emperor. This is a little hard to explain, and a scholar of Imperial Rome would do it far better than I, but let’s give it a shot, shall we?

The Romans believed in numen, something akin to the Hawai’ian idea of “mana.” Spiritual power infused things to different degrees, from the small gods of the household and the spirits of ancestors to the greater gods of the state pantheon. The genius of the Emperor, then, was the numinous or divine power behind and within the Emperor. This may have become one in essence with the personality of the Emperor upon death, but during life the Emperor himself and the Emperor’s genius were related–closely–but distinct. The Roman Emperor has a divine force within him but is not divine in essence.

Contrast that with the orthodox Christian doctrine of the nature of Jesus Christ–both fully human and fully divine, with those aspects inseparable from one another, the perfect union of humanity and divinity in the same (consubstantial) essence. While I’m not sure that this comparison addresses anything not already spoken to by the volumes of theology already written, it does provide a sort of bridge into discussion of the nature of Christ by way of comparison. Clearly, I’m still very much focused on the sharp contrast between the Roman as a representation of the faulty ideas the culture of the world gives us and the spiritual truth that Jesus speaks, and does, and is.

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.