June 21, 2004
There has to be an invisible sun
One of the nice things about church is that it reminds me that I'm not the only person with problems. Yesterday over coffee I was waylaid by a woman who needed to unload about her mother, who was in her eighties and was suffering some kind of senile dementia. This woman was worried not only for the obvious reasons, but because her mother was an atheist and she was afraid of her mother dying unsaved.
In a part of the country with a lot of atheists, I've heard this sort of thing before. There's another woman at Bible study who converted recently who's always worrying -- often to the point of tears -- about her nonbelieving relations going to hell. Listening to all this makes me wonder why, for all my cosmic worries, I seldom worry about that one.
It was not always so. Back when I first started going to church, and especially when I went through the Alpha course early last year, I inveighed against the entire concept of hell quite a bit. I am unlike these other women I've been listening to in that the idea makes me develop an attitude more than an anxiety attack. If God decides to burn my family, or anyone else for that matter, I don't see him as worth worshipping. Which means that I'm screwed, but I suppose there's nothing to be done about it.
The whole thing keeps making me think of this episode of The Twilight Zone I saw during its brief revival in the '80s. The ep was based on a short story about a man who lived under a totalitarian government that convicted him of the crime of "coldness" against his fellow citizens. The sentence was to brand him for a year with an invisibility mark -- everyone who saw it had to treat him as if they could not see him.
At first the man enjoys the relative freedom of being "invisible," but slowly he wears down and becomes desperate for human contact. At one point he sees a woman who also has a mark and pleads with her to talk to him, but she refuses, fearing further punishment. Finally, after suffering through a mugging and an untreated wound, the man's year ends and he emerges a more compassionate person.
Shortly after that, a woman approaches him: the same woman he spoke to before, still marked. She's reached her own point of desperation and begs him to speak to her. Finally he takes pity on her and does, and is sentenced to another year of invisibility as a result.
I must have seen this show almost twenty years ago, but I remember it so clearly because of its curiously ambivalent message about punishment and mercy. The man's lack of compassion made him a social problem, but his compassion also became a problem for the government, because once it was uncorked it did not fall on exactly who it was supposed to. It reminds me so much of Christians and hell. They are told to love their enemies and forgive seventy times seven, and yet turn off their mercy like a spigot when it comes to eternal punishment.
Small wonder that many are not able to do that. It is a larger wonder to me that so many are. I guess that for many Christians, the doctrine of hell stands for the reality of evil and the consequence of choices, and they could not imagine either of those having meaning without hell. Telford converted in his teens from nominal-liberal to active-conservative Christianity because he read Luke and got scared. Back in November I theorized that this was kind of a guy thing. T.S. O'Rama agreed with me: "If everyone goes to heaven the stakes are so low most guys won't bother. But if they see it as the ultimate football game, then politics and sports seem penny-ante."
So I suppose that approach works with certain young knuckleheads. But I can't imagine that Jesus meant for his apocalyptic talk to drive nice Christian women sick with worry that God will torture their beloved relations, or to encourage the attitude that I often hear that everyone makes his or her own choice, so you just have to deal. (Not to mention the "abominable fancy" that part of the fun of heaven will be watching the torments of the damned.) Many people I know, including myself for a long time, dismiss Christianity out of hand because they find hell so immoral.
I have not stopped worrying about hell because I have become any more accepting of the idea. But I do think that if my creator cares about morals at all, he could hardly have created a being more moral than himself. If human compassion spills unruly once it is released, what must the compassion of God do? Is God more like the government in that story, or more like the invisible man? I am having a harder and harder time believing that the way for me to become a good Christian is to lose my supposedly misguided objections to eternal torture and cultivate a Dantean taste for vicarious vengeance. If God knows me, he knows why; and if it is for the wrong reasons, he has not enlightened me yet.
Posted by Camassia at June 21, 2004 03:11 PM
Once, I forget why, I asked Joel, suppose I should wind up in hell? And he said he'd want no part of God in that case.
Personally, I believe in hell as a possibility (for the reasons you mention - the reality of evil and the consequences of choice), but don't consider myself obliged to believe that anyone is necessarily going to actually wind up there. If anyone does, I picture it as more like the Great Divorce (a C.S. Lewis story about an afterlife in which hell is, essentially, the natural consequence of people's refusal to leave it - no Dantean tortures involved) than like Inferno. But perhaps, after all, no one is permanently in any sort of hell.
I'm with Lynn on adopting the "Great Divorce" view of hell. But I also think it possible that hell will be empty -- something that folks as diverse as Richard Mouw and John Paul II have suggested as within the realms of orthodoxy...
Somewhat along the lines of C.S. Lewis, it has occurred to me that this world (this universe, actually) that we inhabit now *is* a Purgatory. After all, everything here that isn't burning quickly is burning slowly. And our task is to empty ourselves of all that separates us from God. (Heresy, I know, I know...)
The saying of great consolation is when Jesus said, "Things that are impossible with man, are possible with God". We see someone die an atheist and think the situation impossible.
Fr. Benedict Groeschel mentions in one of his tapes the possibility that another chance to say "yes" in the moment of death is given in some supernatural way. Some see that as a cop-out edging towards Universalism. I see it a wonderful action of Divine Mercy.
I haven't read The Great Divorce, but I've certainly heard that image of hell from others. It does make God seem like less of a sadist than Dante does, but it does not seem entirely comforting to those who are worried about where their loved ones will end up for eternity.
It's interesting, I've dreamed about hell a number of times over the course of my life. When I was a kid it was that basic popular fire-and-brimstone image of hell. More recently it's drifted in a C.S. Lewis direction, looking more like a shadowy and dispirited version of earth. And actually, the last couple times I dreamed about it there were ways to get out of it. Which I suppose may be as much a reason as any why I don't worry about it so much.
The Hell that Lewis describes in 'The Great Divorce' differs from the Christian Hell in two important respects. There is no physical suffering, unless you count the constant rain, and the inhabitants can leave if they want to. This is not the Hell that has been taught over the centuries by all the Christian churches. If it is the only Hell you can believe in then surely it makes more sense to admit that you are not a Christian.
Hugo, can you tell me when the Pope suggested that Hell might be empty? It has been reported that he said, in a speech in 1999, that we do not know whether anyone is in Hell but, apparently, that was a mistake in the English translation. In the official version of the passage he seems to take for granted that there are people in Hell.
Fr Jake quoted from Wm Sloane Coffin's Credo yesterday:
"There are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the reverse - to have limited certainties and unlimited sympathies - is not only more tolerant but far more Christian."
Jesus said it best, perhaps, in "Come unto me, all you who are weary."
So I won't accept someone else telling me that if I don't believe in her particular take on Christianity, then I should stop calling myself a Christian.
That kind of narrow-minded us-them thinking is exactly what constitutes part of the purgatory we may or may not be experiencing right here, right now. Get back in the boat with all of us who are weary, Katherine. We're not going to let you drown.
The Eastern Orthodox see Heaven and Hell as the same place: in the presence of the Loving and Good God. What will make it hellish or heavenly will be our response to it. If on Earth we sought the Lord, then in Heaven, we are united to Him as far as we are able. If on Earth we hated the Lord, or did not care to know, then it becomes the place of Hell, where our failures are constantly before us because we will be dwelling in the Love of God forever, but ununited to Him.
I am not a Christian. Many of the doctrines of Christianity seem to me to be untrue and horribly cruel. The doctrine of Hell is certainly the worst of the lot.
I find when I am talking to Christians that they often agree with me. They don't believe in the traditional doctrine of Hell either and they often give as the reason for disbelieving in it that it is cruel and unjust. If they feel that way about a doctrine that has been taught in Christianity since the time of Jesus, who indeed said that most people will go to Hell, then I cannot understand why they call themselves Christians or why they would want to.
I agree that it is not for me to tell people that they do not or should not belong to their religion and I do not mean to say this. I guess I am just puzzled, that's all.
Katherine, I think you're making the same assumption that I made before I started studying Christianity, which is that the doctrine of hell is among the core beliefs. It isn't. The Bible has very little to say about it (apart from Revelation, which was traditionally held to be metaphorical), and the basic creeds speak of the resurrection of the dead but of nothing else of the afterlife. The whole theology of fire and brimstone and all that developed over later centuries. The idea of universalism, while never predominant, dates back to the early days of the Church, while annihilationism (that the damned will be extinguished rather than eternally tormented) goes back to the beginning of the Protestant era. So there has always been something of a range of beliefs among Christians. (I hadn't heard the Eastern Orthodox concept before now -- thanks Kizmet!)
I think a lot of it is that a certain pop image of the afterlife has gotten so handy for arts, books, movies etc. that it's become much more conspicuous than it really deserves to be given its place in Christian thinking.
I have a feeling of deja vu about this post.
I wrote out a long comment and lost it, so forgive me if this is less coherent. Christianity is not about Jesus as a fire escape. It is about God Incarnate inaugurating the kingdom of God - which turns our worldly values and expectations upside down - and freeing us from the powers of this world, including sin and death, so that we might live in peace with one another, especially now that the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles has been broken down. We are one new humanity, reconciled to God and one another living into the kingdom of God.
If you believe, or have heard that Christianity is about accepting Jesus into your heart so you can go to heaven, of course you're seeing it in a very individualistic way which is a very modern understanding.
I don't deny there are verses about hell and such, but if you're coming at it with that individualistic worldview then of course it would seem like that's the "traditional doctrine of hell." Those of who lean towards universalism are not rejecting traditional Christian teachings but rescue them from this individualistic viewpoint. I do lean towards it, as do some of the greatest theologians of the 20th century like von Balthasar and Karl Barth. They skate up to the edge of it, I think, but maintain a type of holy silence in the end.
To the woman who feared for her mother I would say that God's grace is greater than us. Of course we have freedom, but my faith is not in my own ability to "have faith" (which would be a work!) but in the faith of Jesus Christ, who accomplished the salvation of the world. It is done, whether we believe or recognize it or not.
By the way, regarding the claim the Jesus said most people would go to hell: he did say a lot of things that sound like a narrow Calvinist election (many are called, few are chosen, the parables of the seeds, etc.), and he did warn about judgement. But it's not clear that he was speaking of eternity in those cases. N.T. Wright has written: "Many have traditionally read Jesus' saying about judgment either in terms of the postmortem condemnation of unbelievers or of the eventual destruction of the space-time world. The first-century context of the language in qustion, however, indicates otherwise. Jesus was warning his contemporaries that if they did not follow his way, the way of peace and forgiveness, the way of the cross, the way of being the light of the world, and if they persisted in their determination to fight a desperate holy war against Rome, then Rome would destroy them, city, temple, and all, and that this would be, not an unhappy accident showing that YHWH had simply forgotten to defend them, but the sign and the means of YHWH's judgment against his rebellious people."
Also, regarding election, I am rather intrigued by Telford's hypothesis that the elect are called to help save the world, not to be saved. It does make more sense than the traditional view that the elect are called to preach to, and do good works for, people who are predestined to burn anyway.
I also tend to read Jesus' sayings with a mind to the fact that he had not yet accomplished his salvific mission when he said them. Lutherans have traditionally taken the position that the tough sayings are supposed to make you realize just how far short you fall from God's standards, and therefore how much you need forgiveness. So when Jesus says even looking at a woman the wrong way constitutes adultery in the heart, he seems to be setting an impossible standard, but the point is that it is impossible without God.
Katherine -- and others:
I have quoted Micah 6:8 already today, but find its theology so masterful that Jesus embellished it and made it shine brighter. "... and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?".
Jesus' two great commandments are to love God and to love one another. He modified #2 in such a way to make it more of a goal than a command, since it's impossible to get there most of the time: "Love one another as I have loved you."
Of the two great commandments, Jesus said that "all the Law, and the prophets" hang on them. To the remnant of Israel, he put it very clearly, paraphrasing: everything in your bible is summed up in these two. The great Rabbi Hillel is said to have accepted a dare to recite the Law while standing on one foot; he gave the two great commandments.
As someone earlier mentioned, Jesus was not about hellfire and brimstone; he told us not to be judgemental, and that IF there were any judging to do, he would take care of it sometime, somehow.
So, if all that's keeping you from experiencing the joy of sharing the love of Christ is thinking that some twit's dogma is shared by all of Christianity, think again. His arms are open for all God's children. There's even an invitation with your name on it, and he's waiting for you.
Blessings on you!
By the way, nice title reference. I haven't heard that song in sooo long!
Camassia, let me offer an analogy. Imagine that I'm a recovering alcoholic, and I see one of my relatives drinking himself stupid every night, crashing his car, alienating his family, etc. My recovery program may well teach that that relative cannot save himself, and may indeed ruin his life or kill himself, unless he gives himself over to a recovery program. My relative refuses to admit that he has a problem and declines to join any program. I'm sick with worry over his condition. Does that mean the doctrine of the recovery program lacks compassion and is immorally cruel? Does belief in the recovery program's doctrine amount to enjoyment of vengeance?
Obviously, it's not a perfect analogy, and certainly there are a wide range of Christian beliefs on the issue, as set forth in your post and in these comments. I'm just trying to offer a slightly different perspective.
If heaven is to be eternal bliss, but I knew even one person was burning in hell, it would tend to ruin my bliss. The traditional view of hell seems rather flawed to me.
As is the traditional view of heaven. "Pie in the sky by and by" has been used to keep folks docile in the face of terrible injustices. Is Christianity about enduring this life and getting our ticket to heaven?
I don't know much about the afterlife. And that's fine with me, as I think such musings are a powerful distraction. The kingdom of God is at hand. It is this present moment that seems to be the primary concern of this life, as it is only in the present moment that I encounter the living God.
On the one hand, Nietzsche is most probably right when he suggests that it is hatred that stands behind many Christian expressions of the doctrine of hell - a sad hatred that can take the form of masochism.
But, on the other hand, is something lost if we cease to worry about hell? I think so. As the Dominican theologian Richard Schenk has said, the belief in a probable universalism, especially after the Holocaust, is an act of tremendous optimism that carries a risk. It suggests that experiences of suffering and sin can be mitigated by being part of a cosmic mythology that will ultimately have a happy ending.
The result of this is a dilution of the significance of the scandal of the Cross, which otherwise would show us that there is a lasting enmity between God and Christ to suffering and death. Jesus, the Son of God, did not want to die and yet was brutally killed. The sheer horror of this event makes it simply unassimilable into any mythology with a happy ending: What sort of logic could justify it? Recognizing this means that followers of Christ must themselves resist the suffering and death of those who die like Christ. The ability to see the sufferings of Christ and others as redeemed by their place in a larger story makes the suffering of the innocent more tolerable, less a scene of divine judgment.
Furthermore, the optimism of a probable universalism tends to dilute eschatology. Without the recognition of the possibility of final loss, the world to come simply becomes an extension, without real interruption, of the world that is. So, for instance, Karl Rahner - "... since eschatology is arrived at on the basis of grace now given, and since this grace, in Christ, is not merely the offer of a bare possibility of salutary acts, but must be acclaimed as triumphant, because rendered efficacious by God" -seems to minimize experiences of negativity in our present. Thus, sin and destruction have no weight. The apocalyptic is lost. But, as David Tracy has written, "Without the symbol of the Second Coming, without apocalyptic, Christianity can settle down, into a religion which no longer has a profound sense of the not-yet, and thereby no longer a profound sense of God's very hidden-ness in history. Apocalyptic should, when deliteralized, fragment any triumphalism, any sense that history is a pure continuity ending in us the victors. Apocalyptic shows the ruptures in that history, the fragments in that history, and the disclosure of the hiddenness of God in that history." Without fear of the Second Coming and final judgment, will we find ourselves settling into a benevolent triumphalism?
Maybe triumphalism is the danger. But the other danger is a religion driven by fear of being zapped by God. Can we present to the world such a relationship with God? It appears to those outside looking in like we are inviting them to join a family run by an abusive parent.
It would seem to me that viewing this life as a journey, maybe our only journey, into this world of concrete realities, gives rise to the desire to not waste it; to live it to its fullest. This draws us toward wanting to be more fully human; which will lead us to want to be reunited to that which is our source; that which can empower us to be more than we are alone; that which we call God.
Beyond that; to know that the divine shares in our life; experiences this world through us, inclines us to live within our higher self; to strive to grow into "the full stature of Christ."
We are promised eternal life with God. That is all I need to know. I don't think this life is about eternal destinations. For me, as I understand it, the journey is the thing.
I lost my first draft of this comment again! This is a reply to Neil. "The sheer horror of this event makes it simply unassimilable into any mythology with a happy ending." What about the resurrection? Not that it is a happy ending that mitigates sin and suffering, but it is a vindication. (I see your Rahner and raise you a Barth!) I think you can hold together that sheer horror with a hope for universalism, and I think Barth does that in a sense. We think of God's grace and wrath as separate things, instead of wrath as a function of grace. And by this I don't mean it's a loving act to send people to hell. This is from Hunsinger:
The judgment of God, the final redeeming act of God, and the return of Jesus Christ in the glory of his universal revelation are not so much three separate actions, suggests Barth, as one and the same action with three distinct aspects. This juridical, redemptive and revelatory event will not occur only for believers. It will 'not be particular but universal' (IV/3, 931). All human beings‑each individual believer along with the whole Christian community and the entire human race‑'will have to pass, states Barth, 'into the burning, searching, purifying fire of the gracious judgment of the One who comes, and to pass through this fire no matter what the result may be' (IV/3, 931). Although the fire will be at once yet also purifying and gracious, Barth deliberately ventures no suggestions about what the final result for unbelievers will be. He states only that everyone will somehow he released from "the contradiction in which they now exist', and that somehow every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10‑11) (IV/3, 931‑2).
We know, states Barth 'only one certain triumph of hell'‑ the cross of Golgotha on which Jesus died for our sins‑and 'this triumph over anyone... . We know of only One who was abandoned in this way, and only of One who was lost. This One is Jesus Christ. And he was lost (and found again) in order that none should be lost apart from him' (II/2, 498). When we know this One by faith and see what he endured for the sake of the world, then no matter how desperate the situation may be, we will not abandon hope for anyone, not even for ourselves."
Roman Catholicism is the form of Christianity that I am most familiar with. The Roman Catholic Church teaches, as a matter of faith, that anyone who dies in a state of unforgiven mortal sin will go to Hell. The idea that those in Hell can eventually leave it has been condemned by the Church. Catholic theologians, like von Balthasar, who would like to be universalists are forced to believe that no one ever has died or ever will die in a state of unforgiven mortal sin, a pretty forlorn hope I think.
Protestant teaching is rather different but in Protestantism one comes across other terrible ideas, such as the idea that non-Christians will all go to Hell or the idea that God chooses beforehand who will and who will not go to Hell.
I know that it is possible to be some sort of Christian, though hardly the Catholic sort, without believing in Hell but it really does mean ignoring the plain teaching of Scripture and centuries of theology.
You say that the Bible has little to say about Hell but surely it is often spoken about in the Gospels. The ideas of N.T.Wright are interesting but I simply do not see how every mention of Hell in the Gospels can be a reference to the Roman threat. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says 'Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.' How can this possibly refer to the Romans? C.S.Lewis said of this passage 'we must get over that one somehow or go mad.' Rather than go mad, it is a relief to realise that Christianity is not true.
But, on this topic, don't some of the critics of Barth have a point? The Lutheran theologian Gustav Wingren, for instance, has suggested that Barth essentially has a model of two beings - God and humanity - separated by an epistemological gulf which is then completely negated by God's revelation of himself through Jesus Christ. Because of his view of revelation as an annihilating self-expression, Barth really has no doctrine of creation or the law, and he consequently cannot give proper weight to human bondage or its destructive consequences. Revelation becomes simply the reception of a manifestation centered on the Incarnation rather than a matter of an actual justification or liberation from sin. It is telling that Barth's reflections on the Cross, unlike those of Bonhoeffer, really don't have very much to say about the passivity of the innocent Jesus before human sinners - the crucifixion as historical event. One can humbly wonder if Barth's theology grasps the sheer enormity of the Cross or if it manages to operate at a level of abstraction from historical reality.
And it is the very sin and suffering in historical reality that seem to suggest the possibility of a Hell. I don't think that the Resurrection somehow "vindicated" the Cross as much as it offered the concrete possibility of recognizing its true horror - "When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2.37) - and then (and only then) repentance.
It seems to me that thinking one person in hell would ruin your bliss in heaven shows a misunderstanding (to the degree it can be understood beforehand) of what it really means to be in God's presence.
What?? Barth has critics? No doctrine of creation? Doesn't give proper weight to sin? Can't grasp the enormity of the cross? Them is fighting words, Neil. : )
As Tom of Disputations would say, can we say both/and? I think you can say the resurrection is, in part, about vindication and recognizes the true horror of the cross. The resurrection is a vindication over death - a trampling of, or victory over at least. Where o death is your victory? Where o death is your sting?
Camassia points out in her new post that this helped the martyrs face their fear of death. Also, the resurrection of the body ensured the martyrs that their own bodies would not be lost forever (often eaten by beasts) but would be restored someday. This is definitely a kind of vindication.
I have been thinking about your answer, and I suppose my reply is, "Well, perhaps." Let's look at one of the most remarkable spiritual documents of our times - the Last Testament of the murdered Trappist monk, Christian de Cherge.
Certainly, Dom de Cherge's belief in eternal life allows him to reinterpret his death:
"My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: 'Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!' But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills — immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences."
And it is this vision that ultimately lets Dom de Cherge be thankful for his entire life, despite its likely violent end, and even for "the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this 'thank you' — and this - adieu — to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours." This sort of radical hope and gratitude in the face of terrorism is surely exemplary of Paul's great question, "O, death where is thy sting?"
But Dom de Cherge's letter preserves a sense of negativity, that what has happened to him should indeed never happen to anyone. "I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called 'the grace of martyrdom,' to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam." The event of his death will always have what we might call an "anti-divine" character.
So, how can de Cherge call his murderer "the friend of my final moment"? It is not merely the claim that such a person wasn't aware of what he was doing - despite the Gospel precedent, perhaps he was. Dom de Cherge recognizes very early in his testament that "I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly." And so his own forgiveness entails that he be able to forgive "the one who would strike me down." He can recognize both his murderer and himself as happy "'good thieves,' in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both."
So, we see that the Resurrection, promising that we too will one day "immerse our gaze in that of the Father," offers the possibility of a radical forgiveness, an embrace even after the most negative of actions. But there was also another thief. The Resurrection also offers the possibility that a negative action will have a more permanent significance, since the dead cannot simply be obliterated and murder quickly forgotten. This reminds me of the beginning of Rowan Williams' Easter Sermon: "A good few years ago, I heard a distinguished American scholar of ancient history commenting on the proclamation of the resurrection as it would have been heard in the classical world. 'If an educated Greek or Roman had been told that someone had been raised from the dead', he said, 'his first question would have been "How do you get him back into his grave again?"'." You can imagine why.
So Resurrection, pace Barth, does not by itself connote universalism because it calls for a human response. It raises the possibility of forgiveness, but it also intensifies the possibility of an inescapable guilt.
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