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.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mythbusters: Hell is Fabricated

It's time to dust off my blog and write another post. I return once again to the subject of hell.
Given that the subject of hell is what kickstarted the intense examination of
my faith, I think it's appropriate to return once more to it. This is brought on
largely by the 4 part series on hell being preached at my church. Although I
have disagreed with the minister on most of the points he makes, I have
appreciated being drawn back into a topic I have largely set aside, which has
been mostly, though not entirely, resolved in my mind.

I'll be devoting a post to each of the sermons preached. He has styled each sermon in mythbusters
fashion. The first myth to be busted was "hell is fabricated." He
rejected the idea that "hell was invented by preachers trying to scare the
laity into obedience". Perhaps preachers didn't invent it for that
purpose, but it is of interest to know that both ancient Greek and Roman
writers stated that polititians had precisely that motive in mind when they
created myths to keep the populace under control. In "Histories,"
Polybius writes,"Were the state made up only of wise men, it would not
have been necessary to cultivate this belief, but since the multitude does not
know what it wants, does not reason, and cannot contain its desires and
passions, it must be checked by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry."

My minister supported his position that hell is real by quoting scripture where Jesus speaks of hell. It's true that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus speaking of hell, of
eternal damnation where the "worm does not die, and the fire is not
quenched" (Mark 9:48). In Matthew 25:41, Jesus recounts the sentencing of
the wicked by the King at judgement,"Then he will say to those on his left
hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil
and his angels."

However, supporting the doctrine of hell simply by quoting Jesus without regard to the culture in
which Jesus grew up, the historical development of the belief in hell, what the
rest of scripture says, and the authenticity of Jesus' sayings on hell is to
ignore the bulk of material which might shed light on the matter.

The earliest books of the Old Testament not only contain no references to punishment in the
afterlife, but they also contain no references to a life after death. Later
books, such as Isaiah, mention the good receiving life after death (Isaiah
26:19), and destruction for the wicked (Malachi 3:14, Jeremiah 31:40 ) but only
Daniel, written perhaps as late as 165 B.C., describes eternal torment for the
wicked (Daniel 12:2-3). Much of what is written about eternal punishment during
the second temple period comes from non-canonical works, such as the Book of
Enoch. At the time of Jesus, Jewish sects such as the Pharisees and Essenes
believed in an afterlife, while the Sadducees did not. The Jesus of the gospels
appears to view himself as an observant Jew, so it would not be surprising if
he did believe in eternal punishment, given the cultural milieu. There would
also be strong psychological motives for belief in an afterlife where a
reversal of fortunes could be granted. The Jews had long been awaiting a
Messiah to free them from oppression and restore their blessings. If a
this-worldly restoration appeared unlikely with the weight of the Romans upon
them, perhaps an other-worldly restoration would be possible. If Jesus spoke on
eternal damnation, would he be saying anything new, or merely echoing the
sentiments of his time?

While the Jesus Seminar gives a black bead to the sayings of Jesus on hell, meaning they are unlikely to be an authentic quote, I'm not certain how much this matters. To me, the
historical development of hell both within Jewish culture and surrounding
cultures as well as the apparent influence on neighboring religions on each
other is an indication that hell is a human construct that evolved with the
changing experiences and needs of the people.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Go To Church Or the Devil Will Get You

Driving home from Disney World yesterday, we saw an eye-catching billboard just north of Montgomery, Alabama. I googled it and found this photo, along with interesting news stories that have covered this billboard. It apparently has displayed the devil in his red suit for years. I decided this billboard would make the perfect segue into a series on hell that I've been meaning to do for some time. In fact, I already have a half finished post that will appear here when I finish it. I was inspired by a sermon series on hell our minister just completed and by two books on hell I've been reading as of late. In fact, I was reading one of them as we drove by the admonishing billboard. Well, it's far too late and I need some sleep before church in the morning, so I'll draw this to a close. Don't want the devil to get me!