Saturday, March 06, 2010

Hell: The Oxymoron of the Christian Faith

For the past few weeks, Out of Ur has picked a famous preacher each week and shown a clip of their explanation of Hell. This week they featured Greg Boyd.

I generally like Greg Boyd. I think he has been an important voice when it comes to getting Christians to see that the way they have interwoven Christianity and American politics into a single entity is nothing short of idolatrous.

In the video, I see Greg do what many good-hearted Christians do: go into theological contortions to accommodate Hell. One of those contortions is to suddenly make goodness and right behavior into vague, amorphous notions. It is the only time Christians do this; any other time, they are loud and specific with their opinions about goodness and right behavior. This line of argument does not get made often, and usually the Christian is uncomfortable while they make it because they know it renders any further discussion on ethics completely meaningless.

Hell goes against everything we know about goodness, parenting, love, and forgiveness. The evangelical view of Hell leaves most of Jesus' teachings empty. It is the oxymoron of the faith. It makes a lie of every good thing one might declare about God.

When I watch the video, I see a good man who is trying to make an evil notion fit into his worldview ... because he believes he has no other choice.


Gur-aryeh said...

The thing that struck me as I watched this video is a question I have had about Christianity for a long time. Why is accepting Christ, having faith in him, and submitting ourselves to him always distinguished from good works. If good works are not a prerequisite for eternal happiness, as most evangelical Christians maintain, then how can the work of accepting Jesus be any different.

I believe Jesus is my savior, but I cannot believe that a just and loving God requires us to accept a bundle of thoughts as being true (even if that bundle of thoughts culminates in "confessing Jesus") for us to be accepted into his love.

To me, the love of God is a constant stream of goodness and peace that we are either congruent with or are not congruent with. And this congruence seems to come from letting go of fear and ego. So if we say that we accept Jesus because we are afraid of hell, we may actually be furthering the incongruence, and feeling less, rather than more, of God's love. A similar thing seems to happen if our confession of Jesus stems from our own egoic needs (which actually stem from fear).

If confessing Jesus brings you love, peace, and happiness (i.e., the fruits of the spirit), then go for it. But for many people, for whatever reason, confessing Jesus does not bring them love, peace and happiness, and telling them that they must accept Jesus or risk Hell seems sick and wrong. For such people, following Buddha's path, reading the Upanishads, celebrating passover, or playing Call of Duty might bring the fruits of the spirit. Why do we ask them (or perhaps ourselves even) to give up what brings goodness into life for something that they may not feel good about in their hearts?

About ten years ago, I spent two years preaching Jesus 70 hours a week and demanding repentance of those I met, and I now find myself going through a wonderful, cleansing repentance process for often preaching Jesus in the spirit of fear. Fear, as Paul teaches us, is 100% incompatible with Godliness (i.e, love). As Paul said, there is no love in fear - perfect love casteth out all fear, for fear has torment (or fear has to do with punishment, depending on your translation of the NT). I think that a belief in our modern concept of hell is nothing more than the torment born of fear. Fortunately, just like hell, fear is an illusion, a counterfeit of love.

What kind of dad would God be if the quid pro quo for feeling His love (and avoiding hell and damnation) is acknowledging that he exists in a certain form? It does not make sense to me or feel right in my heart. That kind of God is nobody's daddy, or in the term coined by William Blake, a nobodaddy. One of my favorite descriptions of that kind of god is the fearsome Uncle Ben presented in a parable by David Dark. Makes me wonder if we Christians are often guilty of calling light darkness and darkness light. I was (and probably still am).

Andrew said...

Welcome Gur-aryeh, I couldn't agree with you more. The god often presented by evangelicals is the Uncle Ben in David's book. I think another comparison is Anthony Fremont played by Billy Mummy in the old Twilight Zone episode. Everyone told him he and what he was doing was good because they were scared to death of him.

I have come to realize more and more over the years that the god that is presented by evangelical christianity is an insecure bully... but that shouldn't surprise, because it is a reflection of us at our worst moments.

Steve said...

Andy, why all this consternation about evangelical teaching? Is that supposed to be the last word on things? I simply stopped listening to what they have to say a long time ago.

On the subject of hell, people are often scandalized by the idea that anyone could enjoy heaven while others go, umm... elsewhere. Yet Thomas Aquinas apparently stated somewhere that not only will some people go to hell, but in addition, the blessed in heaven will actually laugh at them from their vantage point. I think there may be some truth to this. If you think that sounds horrible, think about it maybe the next time you are watching a Seinfeld episode.

Don said...

Greg Boyd seems to be asking the questions that may build a bridge to facing this. I appreciate his ministry. For me, I keep trying to build bridges for evangelicals to reconsider this bulwark of the faith. Word studies of Gehenna, Hades and the meaning of eon have helped. The scales are tipping.

Andrew said...

Steve- I think I focus on Evangelicals because that is how I grew up and those are the folks who dominate my Christian circles. If I were raised and associate with another sect, I would probably be speaking to those issues.

Don- I agree, those scales are tipping. I think Christianity's natural next step is, and has always been, universalism.

Don said...

Don R- I see a man here who is flustered to have to make sense of it (when it makes no sense). I hear a lot of what my parents called "beating around the bush". He never really addresses the question. I honestly don't think he really believes it himself.

The Metzes said...

I really like Boyd too and was intrigued by the video post . . . have to say I was disappointed and have a similar feeling that the others who have posted here. The more we think through our doctrines of hell, the more problematic they become. The problem for many (especially evangelicals) is that if you have that Uncle Ben concept of God, the last doctrine in which you are inclined to meddle is hell.

WES ELLIS said...

In my undergraduate studies I did an entire independent study course with Dr. Dennis Okholm on the doctrine of hell. I looked at it from a variety of angles. I weighed out the Biblical passages which seem to argue for or against hell as a doctrine. My conclusion then was that I couldn't come to a conclusion. Annihilationism made the most sense to me then but I still didn't feel that I could put my confidence in it. Since that study I still read just about everything I can get my hands on concerning the doctrine of hell and I've still come to no solid conclusions.

We've talked about labels before and here is one of those places where I just can't accept a label. When people ask me what I believe about hell, I usually say "it depends on the day... today I think..."

Today I agree with you. Hell, as an eternal destination, implies that God is either eternally depressed or that He gives up on some people eventually. Eschatologically, I can't believe in a God who loses. But hell is a reality, perhaps a reality from which God is saving us all, but a reality nevertheless. And it is for us, the church, to prevail against the very gates of hell.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

I think hell, as a concept, is getting to heart of justice in some ways...however it would in an eternal level and not on our physical level.

Think about it, when people some really serious crimes many of us feel there is not enough justice for that man to recieve (sometimes even the taking of their life doesn't seem like justice enough). I mean, these are the ways the people hurt by such atrocities react...they need justice for their child to rest easy. I agree to some degree.

This brings us to the concept of 'hell' - which is on another plane (eternity)...which may only mean it happens in another plane of existence - this brand of justice. Just a thought.

However, I am not adverse to someone claimed as the messiah that is a 'judge' of some sort in the 'end of times' as making some calls at the end. This is what the concept (hell) seems to be attached to.

I think we don't like hell as a concept - rather freaky in all honesty...and it's use seems to be a 'scare tactic' more than anything I approach with hesitation as well.

But I have to wonder, in that final judgment (where I do believe people will be judged by their actions), is there going to be justice then?

Andrew said...

Don - Yep, he seemed uncomfortable... again like he has to believe it, but his soul is rejecting it.

Metzes - Yes... I think the Uncle Ben image is holding us back... we fear for others and we fear for ourselves. Fear.

Wes - Yep, the gates of Hell CANNOT stand. :)

Society - I like how NT Wright defines Justice: Things being put right, things being as they ought to be. I think often justice gets thought of in a punitive sense... getting even. When I discipline my children, it is because I want them to be good considerate people... not to extract payment for an infraction. I really believe the justice and disciplines of God are that of a good father... that goal is our reconciliation with creation.. not a need to balance the books. God may discipline, but it is not in condemnation.

And I do agree that, more often than not, Hell isn't even really used by most believers as a justice measure, but rather a control device.

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