Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hope and Hell

Hell, must be on my mind as this will be my third post this week on the topic. On the FB side of things, my friend Darrin questioned some of my views on Hell following my article "Read the Fineprint." In the article, I state that the nature of Hell assures no true love by God... love cannot exist with that "or else" hanging over our heads.

Darrin pointed out that "or else" scenarios are the reality of our existence. There should be consequences. People who commit heinous crimes are deserving of Hell; and if one accepts the heaven of the bible, it follows that Hell comes along as part of the bargain. Darrin asked if I thought there will be justice in the afterlife.

These are great questions and valid concerns. Before I share my thoughts on the matter, I have to clarify that I am an Agnostic. Any talk of the afterlife is, to me, somewhat of an academic exercise. Also, my language here is primarily Christian since those are the waters in which I swim and has been the majority of my experience. So, without any further ado....

First, I have to say that I have no issue with consequences. I believe we tend to reap what we sow. This is an idea found in many faiths. My problem tends to focus on the eternal nature of Hell as explained in popular Christianity. That an individual NEVER gets an opportunity to repent, there is no possibility of redemption, all hope is gone. Eternal, unquenchable punishment... for the choices of 80+ years? I hardly resemble the man I was just 20 years ago. What would I be like after a millenia has passed? Hell is dropping a nuke to swat a fly. The numbers, to me, render it ridiculous.

As a Christian, my view on Hell began its radical shift after I became a father. What would it take for me to cut off relationship with my child... with no hope of restoration? When I first started articulating some of these thoughts years ago, my wife challenged me:

"I don't think I agree with your take on Hell," she said to me one day at breakfast. She pushed the newspaper toward me, "Look at this! Look at what this... sick, twisted man did! I don't care if they execute him, it is still letting him off easy! He deserves to rot in Hell forever, and it would not bother me one bit!"

I let a moment pass before saying softly, "What if it was Jacob?"

My wife froze as she processed what her feeling would be in this altered scenario.

"Shit!" she mumbled, and then took a long draw on her coffee.

What people want as a consequence for the stranger, and what they want for their own loved ones tend to be two different things. In God's case, we are all loved ones. That's why God call us to love our enemies.... he wants us to remember that those "others" are his sons and daughters.... they are our brothers and sisters.

In that light God's disciplines are that of a good father. Good discipline seeks to redeem the soul, change its direction - not extract a pound of flesh. This is demonstrated in the scriptures:

Hebrews 12:9 We all had human fathers who disciplined as they thought best, but God disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness.

The endgame of all good discipline should be restoration. This is why I think justice is better defined by thinking of restoration and putting things right; rather than a balancing of the scales. As Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

So, do I think there will be justice in the afterlife? Yes, not because I think scales will be balanced, but because I think all things will be restored.

One of my favorite scenes in the finale of Lost is when we get to meet Benjamin Linus as a penitent man. He regrets the deeds of his mortal life. Now, on the other side, he sees clearly the type of man he was.

I think scripture gives us peeks into this. Jesus asked the Father to forgive the people killing him. Why? Because they did not know what they were doing. Was Jesus saying they were not aware of their actions? Not at all, but he seems to be telling us they did not have clear vision. Paul states this in his epistle to the Corinthians. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. This is why I have come to believe that true spirituality has much to do with clearing our vision, and little to do with accepting dogmas and creeds.

and what about the bible?

For me, it is an ancient book. Like all ancient words... some are timeless (act justly, love mercy, walk humbly) others need to be left on the rubbish heap. I think heaven and hell are just an ancient people using a carrot and stick to get people to behave. Carrots and sticks work while folks are young, but there comes a time when the adult needs to be motivated by something better.

Also, having observed Christianity for over 30 years, I honestly believe that a belief in Hell- whether tacitly or enthusiastically - damages the soul.  I don't think one can accept that fate for the souls of others without corrupting one's own.  The meanest Christians I have known held fast and loudly to their belief in Hell.  The most loving ones I have known are those who put Hell on the shelf, or abandoned it all together.

10 comments:

Paul Sunstone said...

Thank you for an excellent essay! I believe you covered the bases pretty good. The notion of hell seems to be incompatible with an able, unconditionally loving deity.

Anonymous said...

So... the meanest people believe in Hell, while the best people don't... It sounds like you are dividing people according to how they believe. Where have I heard that before?

JanetDax said...

If by "Hell" you mean a literal lake of fire, then I clearly do not believe in such a thing. On the other hand, I do believe there are those who choose eternal separation from God, whether or not they realize that is what they are doing.

Unconditional love with an "or else" clause attached makes no sense, but neither does not having any real choice.

WES ELLIS said...

I really appreciate your thoughts here, Andrew. I too have put a lot of thought into the hell conversation. I'm been somewhat obsessed ever since college when I did an independent study with one of my favorite professors on the subject for a semester.

I especially appreciate your words at the end about how such a theological tenet shapes us spiritually... I think a lot more can be said about that. Theology, however "impractical" it may seem to some, is profoundly important and influential on the kinds of people we become.

I want to disagree about your assertion that heaven and hell are "just an ancient people using a carrot and stick to get people to behave" ...but that would make for a really long comment.

Thanks for your thoughts!

-Wes

Andrew said...

Thanks Paul and welcome!

Anon - Good point, and I don't want to insinuate that beliefs don't matter, they tend to drive our actions. However, in the theological camps I have traveled, belief is EVERYTHING; so it was common to see rather large dissonance between belief and action. What counted was giving the correct response on the multiple choice test.

Janet - Welcome and thanks for commenting! I don't have a problem with someone having the choice of rejecting God, I just get hung up on the use of the word "eternal" when stating the separation. Perhaps we may make such a choice eternal, but I don't believe God ever would - I don't think his love and desire for the person has an expiration date. Like the Father of the prodigal, he is always scanning the horizon for his child. To put a twist on Corrie Ten Boom's quote, - I don't think a person can have an evil so deep that God's love can't go deeper still. I think Paul was right - Love always protects, always hopes, always perseveres, and never fails.

Wes - I agree with you about theology. I believe many of us behave the way we "see" our Father behave. We see this all the time in human families... most children tend to repeat the paths of their parents in many ways.

I disagree with me a little on that heaven/hell comment too, maybe one of these days we can have that conversation at a coffee shop. Thanks for your thoughts!

Jon said...

Thanks for this great post Andrew. It's my understanding that the idea of hell came to prominence in the post-Constantinian era when the church started to take on a role in social control and enforcing public morality. This is why the creeds and formal doctrines of the church on the subject are unambiguous, while the New Testament is highly ambiguous. Not sure if this supports your idea or Wes's - perhaps a bit of both :)

Steve said...

@Jon: The idea of Hell came to prominence long before Christianity ever came about; you could say that it seems to be the base point of human thought about the afterlife throughout history. Read the depictions of the afterlife in ancient literature: Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Aeneid. The earliest literature is the most pessimistic about the fate of humanity - in Gilgamesh the outlook is bleakest, with all of humanity consigned to oblivion at best - but as history moves forward the pessimism seems to lessen. The ancient Greeks believed in a dull afterlife and underworld with less suffering if yet also little joy; Virgil's Roman epic depicts an afterlife, culled in part from Plato it seems, which contains a temporal Elysium with the possibility of reincarnation, and only permanent torment reserved for the very worst of humanity. Christianity certainly did not introduce the idea, and it was prominent long before Christ allegedly walked the earth, but if the New Testament is to be believed, he certainly seems to have been pretty adamant that eternal torment/Hell is a very real possibility. I don't see how anything that Constantine did affects any of that.

In regard to the aforementioned split between belief and action, don't forget that the parable of the sheep and goats suggests that one's fate in the afterlife depends, in the final outcome, ENTIRELY on one's actions.

Jon said...

@ Steve, I'm not suggesting that the idea of hell was invented in Constantine's time and it is certainly present in the new testament as you say - the Sheep and Goats parable being one example. What I'm suggesting is that it is not central to new testament practice the way it has become in the church subsequently. Neither jesus' preaching of the Kingdom, nor Paul's spreading of the Gospel, seems overtly motivated by the idea of rescuing people from hell, so much as rescuing people from evil or sin in a broader sense.

Steve said...

@Jon: Jesus was only interested in 'rescuing people from evil or sin in a broader sense', and not from Hell? I don't quite see how there is any distinction there. It seems that one of the major points of the gospels is that evil or sin in the broad sense leads precisely to Hell. Jesus wasn't overtly interested in rescuing people from Hell? There are certainly a number of times where he mentions it specifically. Matthew 10:28, and Mark 9:43-47 are two examples; I think there are a few more. I think that the evidence suggests that the idea of Hell is certainly something which Jesus Christ put forward as a reality, and warned people against. Could you define what you mean by 'New Testament practice'?

You make the point that this emphasis on Hell is a byproduct of Constantine's interference in the ancient Church. I've come across a number of times in these type of blogs this sort of assertion, that Christianity over its long history has been woefully tainted by state involvement going back to Constantine. I don't think that is completely accurate. Did Constantine formulate any church doctrines on Hell? I don't know that he did. Yes, Constantine created a legacy of Imperial entanglement in church affairs, but this legacy largely moved eastward with the Roman Empire. The legacy of Orthodox Christianity in the East is one of alignment with and submission to the state, but in the West, the history of the relationship between Church and State is a bit more complicated. The medieval church in the West was largely free of the influence of the State, or rather, eventually triumphed over and supplanted it for a while. When this happened, the Church broke apart. Ironically, those who opposed the worldly Church of the Renaissance seem to be those who were most fixated on the concept of Hell. And that might be more the source of the current problem which you identify, if you ask me. Luther and Calvin were extremely pessimistic about the afterlife, and I would put forward that it is their legacy which Christianity suffers form in this regard. Perhaps there is too much emphasis on Hell. Perhaps? Or is it rather, probably? Or is that the people who seem to go on about Hell the most don't really know what they are talking about? I would go with the latter. But it seems pretty clear to me that the possibility of eternal damnation has always been a fundamental doctrine of Christianity. Whether it will be the actual fate of anyone, I don't know if any one mortal can say.

OneSmallStep said...

**People who commit heinous crimes are deserving of Hell; and if one accepts the heaven of the bible, it follows that Hell comes along as part of the bargain. Darrin asked if I thought there will be justice in the afterlife.**

Doesn't it depend on one's view of justice, though? Too often, conservative Christianity's view of hell comes across not as justice, but vengeance. He disobeyed God, so he gets tortured for eternity. The whole "eye for an eye" mentality.

Whereas when someone says we live in a just society, they mean that people are treated fairly. That society is good. So in that view, if God's justice would prevail, then all evil is eradicated. In that case, the existence of hell is not just.

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