Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mythbusters: Hell is Unloving

The second sermon in the series on hell preached by my minister focused on the objection that hell is too severe for a loving God. He began by noting that many of the images we have of hell aren't actually based on scripture. And it's true that we can thank many non canonical writers and artists during the past two millenia for gruesome scenes of torment. In a notable instance, Dante, in the Inferno, describes public swindlers being tossed in pitch by devils and murderers being boiled in a river of blood, while gluttons languish in putrid garbage heaps and Satan sits on his throne devouring sinners and excreting them.

However, this doesn't address the fact that very severe punishments are depicted for the hell bound in the Bible. The minister noted 3 primary images for hell in the Bible: fire, weeping, and darkness. He stated that these images are not to be understood literally, as fire and darkness can't coexist, rendering the depictions metaphorical. He did not use this conclusion to retract his belief that hell is in fact a punishment. However, I think he must regard a metaphorical interpretation as being more palatable to those of us squeamish about eternal torture.

The minister flipped around the argument about hell being unloving and contended that the severity of hell proves the love of God because injustice in the world will one day be avenged. God is not indifferent to the cries of the innocent. Those who have been harmed will ultimately be vindicated instead of insulted once again by finding themselves standing next to their oppressor in heaven. I admit that I would like to see the good and kind rewarded and the heartless and cruel punished. This argument has an appeal to me. However, eternal punishment for finite crimes seems to be what we in America call "cruel and unusual punishment". This is even more true when the crime committed is one that a person either is unaware they perpetrated or had no control over. Individuals who are deemed to be not guilty in a court of law by reason of insanity are not given the same punishment as their sane counterparts. When the issue is not a religious one, we intuitively understand the issue of unfairness in these situations. However, we seem to suspend our moral reasoning when God enters the discussion. Christian jurors who would never convict a man with psychosis of stabbing a man he mistook for a devil will accept that a child in a Muslim nation who never even hears the name "Jesus" will be condemned forever to hell if she doesn't find a way to believe in Him and become a follower. They will claim Jesus loves her and gave his life for her. All she needs to do is believe and follow him. If the one true God ultimately reveals himself as Allah, will Christians humbly accept their fate in torment, or will they suddenly start screaming, "No fair!"? Unfortunately, Christian hell doesn't seem to solve the problem of injustice. It just compounds the problem.

17 comments:

  1. Well said, and this is such a problem that various theologians have proposed alternatives to fire-and-brimstone, eternal-punishment Hell, such as annihilationism. However, I think that has more to do with what we would want to be true as opposed to being based on what the Bible says.

    By the way, your minister was not correct in another way. Not all fires burn with visible light. Hydrogen fires, for example, can burn invisibly.

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  2. The wise fool,
    Oh no! Now we are back to a literal hell that burns with hydrogen. :)

    You can certainly find support for annihilation in the Bible, but there's also support for eternal and finite punishment. So take your pick I guess. Another reason to look at evidence beyond the Bible.

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  3. The gall of someone lecturing about a place they have never visitled, let alone seen. Best case scenario, it is heresay. Worst case, they are just using their own imagination. I reserve the right to disregard all of it having no first hand experience of my own.

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    1. Yes, I think it' wise to be tentative about the unseen. I believe his authoritative demeanor comes from his firm belief that scripture is all from God.

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  4. If you get a chance to write a "About Me" post and link it in your side bar, it would be good for visitors to understand who is writing this blog. Just a suggestion.

    Well, I could tell you I heard it from the FSM who hinted at the smell of sulfur awaiting you if you don't.

    It is a shame your preacher never gets to read these. Religion may change more quickly if the sheep did not keep silent.

    Bahhhh :-)

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    1. Maybe I'll share at some point. We just changed churches so I don't really know this preacher. I have shared with other sheep though :)
      Bahhh.

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  5. If God proves out to actually be a squirrel and demands we worship his nuts in order to avoid damnation, I am all ready to repent. I hope I will be forgiven. :-)

    On a serious note: CS Lewis, as you probably know, what a heretic of sorts. Many Evangelical Christians dislike him for his inclusivist view of salvation. He has a theory in his Mere Christianity where Buddhists are saved and in his The Last Battle from his Narnia series where an enemy of Aslan (Temeth) are accepted by Aslan at the disgust of several Aslanites. See my short post here.

    What is your denomination? Have you read Lewis?

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    1. I'll check out your post. Thanks.
      I have read several Lewis books, though it's been years. I've actually had in mind to go reread him.
      I attend the church of Christ. Are you familiar?

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    2. We have one in town -- but no, I wasn't too familiar.
      I did visit the main site.
      The "Teaching By Cards" stuff is fun:
      http://www.theancientplan.com/reference.html
      maybe other readers would love it.

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    3. Sabio,
      I looked briefly at the Teaching by cards you referenced. Yes, that does look exactly like what I was taught as a child. It even looks like similar materials, given that it was created in 1980 and probably not modified or updated before being put online. Suffice it to say that I see things very differently than the what is taught in the "cards."

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  6. The minister flipped around the argument about hell being unloving and contended that the severity of hell proves the love of God because injustice in the world will one day be avenged.

    I love the way they flip from the active voice in "God loves the sinner" to "sin will be avenged" as if hell was beyond anyone's control.

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    1. Good to see you again. Hope all is well.

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  7. DoorDoNot says:
    “The minister flipped around the argument about hell being unloving and contended that the severity of hell proves the love of God because injustice in the world will one day be avenged. God is not indifferent to the cries of the innocent. Those who have been harmed will ultimately be vindicated instead of insulted once again by finding themselves standing next to their oppressor in heaven.”


    This argument makes it obvious to me that your minister cannot handle his own orthodoxy. I always thought that the point of divine justice was not human actions, but whether or not we had our sinful nature justified by the salvific blood of Jesus Christ. Christians are always quick to point out that it is not our human actions that save us, neither is it our human actions that condemn us. We do not commit sins, therefore making us sins – no! We sin because we are sinners. It is our nature. The human victim of an oppressive act will go to Hell as fast as the most sadistic criminal if that victim did not have their sins washed by the blood of the Lamb. Further, the oppressor of that sinful victim may later repent and achieve salvation to live in eternity in Glory with Jesus Christ, while his sinful victim spends that same eternity burning in a lake of fire.
    Christians who attempt to mitigate horrors of contemplating God’s arbitrary whim by making Hell an instrument of human justice are hiding the fact that a human’s destiny to Salvation or Damnation are the exclusive result of God’s divine grace. According to the Christian’s own orthodoxy, neither has anything to do with any human work.

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  8. should be "therefore making us sinners – no!" sorry

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  9. HeIsSailing,
    Yes, there's a continual tension between salvation by works and salvation by grace, esp in my faith tradition. It's abit like reconciling the 100% human, 100% divine nature of Jesus.

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  10. DoOrDoNot, I bring up that distinction, not because I think that your minister does not understand his own orthodoxy. I am sure that he does. Rather, it is that he cannot handle his own orthodoxy. His argument that Hell is Just because it applies final Human justice on Human actions only works if he denies salvation by the exclusive grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus. In other words, his argument only works if he momentarily becomes a heretic. Truly orthodox beliefs nullify any justice on the part of God. It is based purely on Divine Justice, aka Grace, aka the whim of God. There is no human justice involved. Orthodoxy demands that Hell has nothing to do with human justice.

    But like most Christians, your minister cannot handle that. God’s Divine justice is savage to our modern, human tastes. It is barbarous. It is arbitrary. So your minister, like most Christians, make it more palatable by claiming that God is the final equalizer after death where all human wrongs will be righted and all criminals will receive their ultimate punishment. But to argue this way is to deny their own beliefs.

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  11. He Is Sailing,
    Your comment made me think of the cartoon created by nonstampcollector called quiz show (Bible contradictions). The third question to the contestants addresses the saved by works/grace passages. It's quite humorous.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RB3g6mXLEKk

    I'm not sure if church of Christ belief on this doctrine would be considered orthodox as I reflect on what you wrote. I don't remember hearing a consistent message about being saved through the exclusive grace of God. It was always "Jesus death cleanses you of your sin, but only if you are baptized and then live according to his will." It's a very Arminian belief system. I never felt much grace in the sermons. I think that's a common experience for my denomination.

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