What the Hell?

One last blog entry here before I embark on my Kenyan adventure.

It relates to another subject that I generally try to avoid: the meaning of hell. This is (excuse the pun) somewhat of a hot topic lately though, in that it is the primary inconsistency in the Christian concept of a loving God for some, and the primary test of Christian Orthodoxy for others.

In particular this last week one Louis Gohmert, a politician representing the conservative theological hot spot of Texas (again, excuse the pun), decided to make more of a name for himself by going after a less conservative clergyman –– Barry Lynn, who stands for the issue of maintaining freedom of religion (in the more traditional sense of the phrase) in the United States. Gohmert did so by tossing out the implication that, in order to count as a proper representative of Christianity, Lynn needs to explicitly state that all those who don’t follow the proper evangelical formula for receiving Jesus are destined for an eternity of torture in hell.

130625_louie_gohmert_ap_328To say that Gohmert missed the point of the hearing in question may miss the point. Lynn had gone to Washington to address the issue of government slipping in the direction of indirectly requiring religious observance of various sorts from its citizens. Gohmert wanted to make his own point that, in the name of freedom of religion as he sees it, people should be free to believe that those who don’t meet their requirements are going to hell, and they should be free to use the political process as a means of promoting their beliefs and pressuring those “hell-bound” others to get right with God. Whether or not that can be done in a fashion that respects the beliefs of those who believe differently from him and his evangelical base supporters is a secondary matter; the important thing for Gohmert was to send a sound bite back to his base which tells them that he is fighting the good fight and standing for the principles of the “true faith” up there in that heathen city of Washington –– the litmus test for being part of that true faith being belief in a literal hell of some sort for those who don’t “come to the Father” by way of Jesus according to the proper formula.

There are plenty of Christians who deny the existence of hell, and who have paid the price for their disbelief in this regard. The story of Carlton Pearson in particular comes to mind on that one. For me Pearson is neither a hero nor a villain, but an interesting anthropological case study in how important this issue is to how many people. Gohmert chose his emotive hook wisely it would seem, at least in demagogic political terms for impact in Texas.

In looking up the link for Pearson’s story I also stumbled across Addie Zierman’s recent comments on the subject. Mrs. Zierman is apparently working on promoting her recent memoir about dabbling around the edges of adultery as a formerly good evangelical girl, and the effects that had on her faith. She has thus been giving various radio interviews on the subject, in which she’s also tried to shore up what remains of her evangelical credentials. On one such occasion last winter though she got significantly stuck on the question of whether she believes in hell –– in the doctrine of unbelievers automatically being destined for eternal torment in the after-life. She didn’t really know, and she is mildly self-critical about the lack of erudition this caused her.

She had thoroughly believed in this concept when she was an elementary school child. Back then she was proud to tell her classmates that they were going to hell and she wasn’t, even if her teacher didn’t necessarily understand how this was supposed to be an optimistic message… but the complexities of adult life had made her a bit less sure about the matter. She lets herself off by saying, “What the hell do I know about hell? I’m not a pastor or a scholar. I’m a writer. An English Major. I sat in the back row of my Christian Theology class senior year of college and slept through much of it.”

Unfortunately I can’t let myself off that easily. I too have certainly slept through more than my fair share of lectures on dogmatics, but even so… I’ve been considered an expert of sorts on all things religious since long before I knew what I was talking about, and for the last quarter of my life or so I’ve made a living explaining such matters to teenagers in the Finnish public school system. So how do I explain what I believe about hell? I guess I’d have to say that I’m in the process of re-evaluating my beliefs on the subject as well.

Like Jesus’ ascension, the concept of hell definitely contains certain aspects that fit a lot easier with a medieval world view than with a modern one. The idea that hell (and/or purgatory) would be physically somewhere down below our feet, heated by the sort of molten magma that bursts out of volcanoes every now and again, makes slightly more scientific sense than the idea that, somewhere above a relatively flat earth, on the other side of the clouds, there is a physical realm of heaven where God and his angels and saints live and party every night –– but just barely. It doesn’t really address the question of whether there is some physical essence to the soul being tortured there. If there is, what sort of sentient physical form would that be? If not –– if the soul lives on after death as a non-material conscious entity –– what difference would the physical conditions surrounding it actually make?

Then there’s the whole question of what basis we have for believing that a disembodied yet conscious soul can be a real thing. Assuming that such things do exist (and will exist for each of us), what is the basic essence of the soul in such a state? If we take the creation narrative in Genesis 1 somewhat literally in this regard, the thing that makes each human a living soul is the “breath of God,” breathed into Adam by God and spread to all of his offspring from there. Aristotle’s take on the subject, which I was analyzing here last month, is that the only part of the soul which would survive death is the nous or “mind” –– the divine spark within each intelligent person that enables them to perceive non-material realities in general. Either way, if the part of the soul which survives separation from the material body is actually divine in its essence and origin, how can that divine part of the person –– the trace of God within the person –– be the object of God’s wrath?

Then there’s still the question of where the whole concept of hell came from to begin with. There are actually two concepts that get mixed together here: Sheol, the ancient Hebrew concept of the abode of the dead; and the image of the Hinnom Valley, south of Jerusalem.
Hades-childhood-animated-movie-villains-25060468-1024-768Sheol is translated from Hebrew to Greek as “Hades”, but it’s hard to say exactly how much the concept of death in the time of David’s kingdom had to do with the fiery lord of the underworld in Greek mythology. The main image we get in relation to this place is one of detachment, non-feeling, non-knowing and emptiness. The hope given is that after their time in the cold, dead grave, significant persons will be brought back to life to receive God’s favor or face further manifestations of his wrath (Psalm 49:14-15, Daniel 12:2), but these hopes remain rather vaguely expressed in the Hebrew scriptures.

The Hinnom Valley, also known as Gehenna, was a spot outside the walls of Jerusalem on the south side, where, in the lowest ebbs of Israelite and Jewish culture, human sacrifice would take place –– particularly the killing and burning of young children to offer them to various local gods who were seen as able to supplement JHWH’s power in helping them out in battle and the like. The prophets had all sorts of good reasons for condemning this practice, though sometimes it’s hard to tell which they were more worried about: God’s jealousy or the disrespect for the rights of children. In any case, this same valley was, at least by legend, the place where the bodies of losers in battle were disposed of, frequently by burning for health protection purposes.
GehennaThis is the place that Jesus warns his followers to be careful so as not to, figuratively speaking, end up getting tossed into –– to the extent of chopping off limbs or gouging out eyes if that is the only way to avoid it! He describes his worst ideological enemies, the Pharisees, as the children of this valley and destined to burn there (Matthew 23: 15, 33). But that’s about it for Bible teaching on that one.

Beyond specific references to Gehenna, without specifically naming the place, twice Jesus spoke of torture by fire for the dead in the after-life. In both cases it was a matter of rich bastards who refused to have mercy on the poor: The tale of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus in the end of Luke 16, and the prophecy of the judgment of the “sheep and the goats” in the end of Matthew 25. In the portion in Luke, the grave, “hades,” is referred to as a place of burning torment where the rich man “gets what’s coming to him” for being such a jerk in his treatment of the beggar. In the story in Matthew the nations which ignore the plight of the poor, the sick, the stranger and the imprisoned are sentenced to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” That kind of leaves open the question of individual versus collective punishment in such cases, but the main point is clear: fires of judgment in the after-life are especially intended for those who callously disregard the basic human needs of others. Somehow then this got twisted around to mean that an unending sensation of burning would be the fate of those who didn’t swear allegiance to the proper religious team according to the correct ritual formula. We’ll come back to that.

There are actually two other forms of torture besides burning referred to in the Bible in terms of the after-life experiences of the damned: the worm and the bottomless pit. The worm is referred to in the very last verse in the book of Isaiah (66:24), where it is part of the punishment for those who will rebel against the new messianic order that God is supposed to bring. From there they make an appearance in Jesus’ warnings in Mark 9 about the tortures of hell for those who commit any form of child abuse. The bottomless pit, or the Abyss, is where many of the bad guys come from in the epic battle between good and evil in the book of Revelation. Ultimately good wins and the forces of evil are locked back into this torture chamber for an extended utopian period; after which they are once again released, stomped on decisively in a final battle, and permanently thrown into a lake of fire (chapter 20).

My previous understanding and personal interpretation of these combined references was that the fire, the worm and the abyss –– as combined metaphors for the tortured state of the disembodied soul –– pointed to one thing: progressive destruction which is never finalized. It would be sort of like any radioactive isotope, e.g. carbon 14: As long as a living organism is interacting with other carbon based life forms in the biological world this isotope remains at relatively stable levels in all of its structure. Once the organism dies, however, and no new C14 is being circulated through its system as part of the metabolic process, the C14 starts to break down, so after 5730 years there is roughly half as much C14 in the organism than there would have been while it was alive. But the C14 never disappears from the remains of the organism entirely; after millions of years the breakdown process remains on-going. (In this way paleontologists can make their best scientific guesses as to how long the fossils the find have actually been dead.) So it is for the soul that dies without forming a lasting connection with God –– the source of that “divine spark” within which ultimately makes us human: Like a radioactive isotope, without the refreshment that life offers, such a soul begins to break down, without ever finally getting to the point of being completely broken down. It can feel itself perpetually dying, yet never reaching the restful state of having entirely nothing left to lose. That would be the non-material hell to be avoided –– of which physical pains, and more specifically experiences of alienation and social detachment within this life, are merely something of a foretaste.

There are a number of levels on which I am no longer so sure about that theory. To start with there is the matter of determining which analogies, if any, to trust as the basis for our conceptual understanding here. Literal fire and literal worms eventually burn out or finish consuming all tissues which they find edible. We don’t find thousands of years old glowing embers or obese worms. Nor does any pit on earth extend further than about a quarter of the way through the crust of the planet. By the original analogies the torture at worst would still be of limited duration. In the literal case of the Hinnom Valley fires could and would be kept going non-stop and worm colonies could thrive for years by continuously adding new fuel and bodies, but that does not mean that any given body would be perpetually burning forever. So why should I put more faith in my isotope metaphor than the original ones given in the Bible? Assuming that there really is an experience of disembodied torment for the soul and time of regret after the death of the human body, is it really necessary to believe that this is inevitably something unending?

Secondly, if the ultimate reason why human souls exist to begin with is God’s desire to express love, is there any reason to believe that God would not eventually have mercy on such tortured souls and allow them to rejoin their transcendent source? Could God really be so “heartless” as to ignore the suffering of particular human souls as lightly as factory farm managers ignore the suffering of unwanted male hatchlings which they dispose of as useless by-products of their egg production operations?

Is this really the way God thinks of our "unsaved" friends?

Is this really the way God thinks of our “unsaved” friends?

While agreeing with the rabbi who says that believing in an afterlife is an essential corollary to believing in God –– there is clearly no justice in this world and so it’s impossible to imagine a just God who does not make distinctions between an Adolf Hitler and an Anne Frank “on the other side” –– and while I’m willing to “let God be God” and not make my own declarations of who has to go to which sort of Hell, and who doesn’t, I no longer take that to mean that the evangelical hellfire and brimstone message is a “thus sayeth the Lord” issue.

Interestingly it is only in the end of the book of Revelation where there is any hint of the possibility of “normal people” –– those who actually live conscientious and compassionate lives without association with Jesus –– still potentially ending up in eternal torment: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Evangelicals take that to mean anyone who does not “receive Jesus” in such a way as to have their name on his team’s roster is doomed to hell. Revelation 20:15 is the only verse they have to support that interpretation. The idea that it will be everlasting torment comes from verse 10 of the same chapter, referring to the fate of the devil and his leading generals on the side of evil: “They will be tortured day and night for ever and ever.” Two aspects of this part of John’s apocalyptic vision frequently get overlooked: First, as John saw it, this further torture of the dead requires re-animating their bodies. This “second death” can only happen after the bodies of the damned dead are brought back from the grave and reassembled in such a way as to enable them to face God’s judgment at the final end of human history. There is no talk of disembodied souls being in everlasting torment on the sole basis of not being found in the “book of life” prior to this great final resurrection. (For those who abuse children or ignore the needs of the poor it is a different story.) Secondly, it is repeated in verses 12 and 13 of this chapter that these walking dead will be judged “according to what they had done”, not according to how well they kept the ritual formula of properly receiving Jesus. One of the main themes of Isaiah 66, referred to above, is how little God thinks of those who attempt to do enough religious rituals to compensate for a crude and selfish lifestyle. The New Testament is not intended then to just provide better rituals to justify continuously abusing others.

These are mostly my own somewhat random deliberations on hell, which isn’t really my area of expertise. The most interesting expert on the subject that I can point to these days is Brad Jersak. Brad’s take on the matter is basically that:
1) The vengeance mentality and the fear tactics used as a revivalist motivation to get people to “come to Christ” which significantly motivate belief in this doctrine are in many respects socially and psychologically unhealthy.
2) The doctrine of hell evolved in the western church in particular well after the time of the Nicean Creed, based on a number of leaders’ personal and political concerns about the motivations of the masses.
3) There are essentially three competing views on the matter that can be equally well “proof-texted” from the Bible:
a) infernalism, the eternal torment for unbelievers theory;
b) annihilationism, believing that those outside the scope of God’s love eventually fade away and are no more; and
c) universalism, believing that eventually everyone will inevitably “love big brother” enough to be welcomed into heaven. Finally,
4) God probably doesn’t want us to be too sure about what sort of justice follows this life, leaving the subject broadly open because it is healthiest for us to have some balance of a bit of the fear of God for ourselves and a strong awareness of God’s mercy for everyone else.

I would broadly agree with each of these main points. (If you need them further unpacked I’d recommend surfing around Brad’s web site for a bit, or maybe even buying his book on the subject.) In other words even the best of theological experts are best off agreeing with Mrs. Zierman and other less theologically informed believers in saying, “I really don’t know.” Those who pretend to know for sure are often the most dangerous people to listen to on the subject.

From there we can move on to trying to motivate people less with threats of divine violence and more with not just promises but offers of God’s love starting here and now. Even if some churches find that they are able to boost their statistics by tossing in the occasional (or not so occasional) hell-fire message, on many levels I believe that such an emphasis does infinitely more harm than good.

So that’s about all I know about that. If some find this theoretically helpful, so much the better. If some feel more justified in condemning me to whatever sort of hell they believe in on the basis of what I have to say here, they’re welcome to go for it. Being detached from people like Gohmert and the gods they make in their own image for all eternity is actually a form of punishment I think I can handle. In fact I’m pretty sure I’d prefer it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Death, Empathy, Politics, Religion, Skepticism, Spirituality

One response to “What the Hell?

  1. I think if there is a hell of ongoing eternal torment (we have to be specific nowadays, I mean Christians are getting really educated and thinking for themselves…) ascribed to some, it will be after the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So you do have a body that would partake of the maddening pain. Not a disembodied soul.

    Crazy how in the pit of my stomach the is this confusion as to how I could love God because He provided a way out of hell for me, and not love Him for Who He is, period.

    But thanks for this, very well presented, it reads like a weekly episode… 🙂

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