June 24, 2004
Think on thy last things

My post about hell from two days ago got a number of interesting responses. Apart from the comments, Tom also posted on the subject, and Hernan Gonzalez, who sneakily emerged from dormancy last week, also had a few things to say.

Father Jake objected to thinking too much about the afterlife at all:

"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.

I can't help but think of Bono, who expressed similar sentiments in an interview in the late '80s but 10 years later wrote this song. I don't think the hope of eternal life is pitted against the present; on the contrary, it offers the assurance that you will see that what you do in the present actually means something. The kingdom of God may have been inaugurated 2,000 years ago, but if your one shot at seeing it is in this life you're bound to be bitterly disappointed.

And certainly the early Christians who faced death in a way few comfortable modern Westerners could imagine needed that assurance. Paul knew this when he wrote, "For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." This emphasis on eternal life among Christians in the face of persecution hardly made them docile. On the contrary, removing the fear of death emboldened them to act.

No matter how good we try to be, there are some problems we cannot overcome by ourselves, and death is one of them. Having lost a close friend in the fairly recent past, I can say that speaking of the possibility of meeting him beyond hardly seemed like a manipulative ploy to keep down the masses at his memorial service. And in fact, one of the women I wrote about in the previous post came to Christianity reeling from the loss of a close friend also. Unfortunately, her hope for heaven turned into a symmetrical terror of hell.

It seems to me, when I think it over, that the problem is not with the idea of the afterlife itself as it is trying to come up with a mechanistic system by which it is all comprehensible. Paul called his vision of Judgment Day "a mystery," yet all kinds of people since then have been trying to demystify it. Given the stakes involved, it is certainly understandable that many people (including myself, sometimes) want to know, "But how does it all work? What, exactly, do you have to do to get to heaven, and to get to hell?"

Of course, it's not that Jesus doesn't give instructions about what to do if you want to have eternal life. But (here's where I agree with Fr. Jake) Jesus spoke of eternal life as beginning now, and what to do if you want to join it at this moment. What will happen at the end of the world is the mysterious part. I think this goes to Tom's point:

We hope, then, that our beloved relations will be saved with the same hope with which we believe we will be saved. Moreover, if we don't hope for others with the same hope we hope for ourselves, then the hope for ourselves is not Christian hope, but some sort of natural expectation.

Figuring out how to play the system is not hope, and it is not trust. It is, as Tom says, a natural expectation, just as I would naturally expect to get to Santa Monica if I drove north on Highway 1 for two miles.

Moreover, it seems to me that any system that's sensible and consistent to humans turns out to have monstrous injustices. Dante's pre-Christian pagans and unbaptized babies in limbo; Calvin's predestined damned; Hamlet's father doing extra time in purgatory because he was unlucky enough to be murdered -- all, it seems to me, are products of seeing God as living by a humanly comprehensible rule-book.

This gets me, finally, to Tom T.'s question.

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?

This reminds me of an argument a friend of mine used to make in favor of hell: "If you step out in traffic, do you expect not to get hit?" To which I answered something like, no, but that's because we are assuming a world governed by impersonal forces such as cars that are going to barrel into me regardless of who I am or why I stepped out there. Yet the whole point of a personal God to begin with, it seems to me, is that it states that the universe is not impersonal. God can't wash his hands of responsibility for me getting hit by a car, or going to hell, because he is ultimately the creator of me, the world and the afterworld in which all this happens.

The AA analogy has a similar problem. The group offers a solution as it sees it, but the larger situation is completely beyond its control. It is simply stating the reality of alcoholism, and coping with it as best it can.

Of course, it was humans who created cars and alcoholic drinks, so you could argue that they are manifestations of misused human freedom. I gather that's what C.S. Lewis was getting at with his idea of a basically human-made hell, and the eastern Orthodox concept that Kizmet described (heaven and hell are both the presence of God, it's just a question of how you feel about it) sounds like it's going for a similar angle. This does make more sense to me than the idea that God would build a big fiery hole in the ground just to throw people into.

But I do feel that God has an ultimate responsibility for humans (I was arguing that more than a year ago), and humans are responsible for each other. And it is on that last point, I think, that I see the greatest ground for a hopeful universalism. Jennifer wrote about trying to rescue ancient Christian teachings from an individualist viewpoint, and I think the very mysteriousness of the afterlife is what defies individualism. If you think you know who will be damned, if you think it is predestined or their own irrefutable choice, it will of course harden your heart to them, as Dante's did in his Inferno. If you're sure everyone will get to heaven, you likewise don't have much incentive to act for them in the present. But if you are not sure, you have the possibility of a God who actually listens.

I mentioned a while ago that Telford is working on a book on the Lord's Prayer, the first chapter of which covers some of our arguments about the character of God. His conclusion to it all kind of puzzled me at first, but as I go along it makes more and more sense:

The Christian thing to do when things do not seem right is not to reject the God of Israel as king of the universe or set ourselves against him, as skeptics do. It is not to retreat into wishful thinking, selective memory, forced exegesis, or revised theology to construct positions we find more palatable, as many liberals do. It is not to dismiss the problem stoically or fatalistically under the guise of "faith," as many conservatives do. It is not to pout and wish things were better. It is to pray.

Does Camassia really think universalism would be more honoring to God and more appropriate to his loving character? Then let her pray for universal salvation. Let her do what Abraham did for wayward Sodom, what Moses did for the idolatrous Hebrews, what the King of Ninevah did for his clueless city, what the Canaanite woman did for unclean Gentiles, what Jesus did for his petty disciples, and what we do every day for those we love and even those we hate. Let her intercede before our heavenly Father and plead in the name of Christ and the power of the Spirit that no one would be lost. Maybe her secular eyes have seen something our religious ones have missed. Let her make her case -- not to me, for it is not mine to grant, let alone teach -- but to the One with the power to hear and grant such an audacious request. Who knows? Maybe she is right.

And indeed, I have. If, as Telford and others believe, prayer is the Spirit speaking and not just ourselves, such words are not going against the will of God but fulfilling it. Maybe the kingdom of God has not come to fruition yet because Christians have been too complacent or vindictive to ask God to take back his dire predictions of doom on their enemies. The fact that Jesus instructed us long ago to do just that is, shall we say, suggestive.

Posted by Camassia at June 24, 2004 04:08 PM | TrackBack

Fair enough critique. I have no doubt that there is an afterlife, which does overcome the fear of death, and gives us a reason for hope when faced with death.

But I don't think that the Jonathan Edwards approach of evangelism, getting folks all worked up with images of sinners in the hands of an angry God, is an effective method of proclaiming the Gospel today. I suspect the use of such methods, which were effective in other generations, is one reason why so many today have said "no thanks" to Christianity. Time to rewrap the gift, it seems to me. Nothing terribly wrong with that, is there, as long as the gift is not changed?

I think the angry God motif plays right into the rampant individualism of today, and encourages the notion that my salvation is a personal thing, and is in no way yoked to your salvation; which is a perspective that I find quite troubling. Guiterrez and the libertion theologians did some good work on redefining salvation to include liberation for all people, not just me and my kin.

Anyway, I don't care for speculations about heaven or hell because I don't think either of them (whatever they are) will be anything like we imagine. I don't teach Christianity as a form of fire insurance, and I don't know too many clergy that do.

Augustine's perspective of perfect humans falling; resulting in "original sin" is one perspective. Irenaeus offers a different view; that of humanity being created imperfect,and progressing towards perfection. The analogy he uses is that of an infant; the "fall" becomes the actions of immature children, not willful rebellion by adults.

This results in Irenaeus seeing evil as an essential part of the progression; part of the plan (think Job), rather than coming out nowhere as Augustine seems to suggest. That always troubled me; Augustine insists that God could not have created evil...that seems to put some serious limitations on God, doesn't it? I'll go with Irenaeus and Job. Unfortunately, most of Christendom is rooted in Augustinian (the former Manichean) thought. Any surprise that dualism is such a popular solution to the problem of evil?

Forgive the long ramble. To sum up, I've always figured when I get to heaven (if there is such a place), God is going to greet me with a hug and then say, "Jake, you got it all wrong, but I sure am glad you're here!"

Posted by: Jake on June 24, 2004 08:05 PM

I once had a friend who said, "If there is a hell, it is at the center of God's broken heart. The Scriptures don't say who it is that's doing the weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Maybe, it's God."

Posted by: Jonathan Marlowe on June 25, 2004 02:32 PM

I think the AA analogy is a bit subtler than you portray, but admittedly the problem is that I wasn't clear as to why I was offering it. I'm not trying to explain God; I'm trying to explain the "Hell-believers" in your church that you mentioned in your last post.

I don't think it's entirely accurate to say that AA members are "stating the reality of alcoholism." Rather, they're stating what they believe to be the reality of alcoholism. In my analogy, my relative is free to reject their view, and to believe that alcoholics can quit drinking and get better on their own, without a recovery program. If so, I might decide that he's being foolish and denying the truth in favor of a belief that's comforting; that he's whistling past the graveyard. This, in my view, is what these Hell-believers in your church see their atheist relatives doing.

That doesn't mean, though, that they don't love them, or that they've turned off their sense of mercy. They don't propound these beliefs because they are cruel, or because they have a taste for vengeance. They are propounding these beliefs because they believe them to be true! They haven't hardened their hearts -- you say yourself that they are sick with worry to the point of tears.

Your point essentially seems to be that if they were truly compassionate and loving, they would change their beliefs. I think this misunderstands the nature of faith, however. From their point of view, because they truly believe in this conception of God, Heaven, and Hell, to change their beliefs out of human motivations would be to break trust with God and deny reality. Presumably, they would say instead that their only option is to pray for God's mercy (either for their relatives or, as you suggest, for all sinners), and it's quite possible that they are doing that.

I'm not saying that I think those people are right, nor do I have any satisfying explanation for the morality of a cosmology that includes a permanent Hell. My only real point was that I thought you were characterizing their beliefs a bit uncharitably.

Posted by: Tom T. on June 25, 2004 05:28 PM

What you have brought is gripping stuff. Faced with a mystery, prayer has to be right.

I am sure a mystery is not a puzzle, with an answer one can find on page 42. Perhaps it is something in front of us, which we do not see as such because of the way we look at it. The example that came to mind was how a baby – noisy, messy, exhaustingly demanding – came to look beautiful to its mother.

The news about the afterlife that has come in scripture, reflections, arguments, in dreams, hell-fire sermons, etc. alerts us to the fact "that what you do in the present actually means something." On that basis, it is not so much the afterlife that is a mystery, but the now. I guess everybody is saying that.

In prayer we turn to face God directly, which is what I think is desired from us at all times.

In facing him, if our hearts are full of a need, that is certainly there. But there is something else that is surely mentioned in Telford’s book, and that is listening. If the answer does not come in the way we expect, we do not think we have heard it, and we are sometimes uncertain that he listens. I have no doubt that God not only listens to us, but never fails to reply. Happy indeed are the poor in spirit, if they are quiet enough in themselves not to feel alone in prayer or the world.

Like discussion of the afterlife, prayer sometimes brings up one’s idea of God. "What is God to me?" also "What am I to God?" I found myself the other evening to be beginning my prayers as though standing before my headmaster in first school. However God replies to us, perhaps we can only hear what corresponds to our idea of him.

Like what Mark Twain said, "When I was fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. When I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."

Posted by: Martin on June 26, 2004 04:33 AM

I think that to be in hell is to be forgotten by God. To be forgotten by God is to have yourself forgotten God. Hell, Purgatory, the Kingdom of Heaven is where you are, right now--depending on where you are, right now. Don't worry about your afterlife, to the detriment of your present life. To enter the Kingdom, you must love the unlovable--your neighbor--your self. That, you must do now. Do that, and love God, mind, body, and spirit, and you are promised the Kingdom. Hell is for those who want it that way--now and forever.

Posted by: Rob on June 26, 2004 05:37 AM

Rob, that reminds me of a corny cliche, which, although simplistic, holds within it a kernel of truth...or so it seems to me;

"Religion is for those who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for those who have already been there."

Posted by: Jake on June 26, 2004 09:01 AM

Jake: I think we basically agree here.

Tom: I didn't mean it like that. I know that people who defend the doctrine of hell believe they are defending reality, and they (usually) don't mean to be cruel. But, as the other Tom likes to say, you become what you love, and if you love a God who you believe treats unbelievers a certain way I don't see how that could fail to affect your character. At the very least, as I tried to say in my first post, it creates a rather violent internal tension to follow God's call to universal love and forgiveness and yet acquiesce to the eternal torment of some. That is why I am entertaining the idea that we are actually not supposed to acquiesce to it, and that Old Testament-style arguments with God are part of our sanctification.

Posted by: Camassia on June 26, 2004 09:47 AM

You say we are not supposed to acquiesce in eternal torment. Do you mean that there is no Hell, that the passages that seem to refer to Hell in the Gospels have been misunderstood, that the theologians have got it wrong and that, therefore, we should not believe that anyone goes to Hell?

Or do you mean that there is a Hell now but that everyone in Hell will be brought out of it if we object often enough and strongly enough to God?

By the way, I mentioned in the last thread the passage in Matthew where Jesus speaks of the strait gate and the narrow way. I have just been reading about a new translation of the Gospels which suggests, apparently, that Jesus only talked about the difference between the broad way and the narrow way in order to say that he disagreed with it. What do you think of that idea?

Posted by: Katherine on June 26, 2004 11:09 AM

Here is a quote from Kierkegaard's "Works of Love" that might be relevant to what I was trying to get at above:

"God's relationship to a human being is the infinitising at every moment of that which at every moment is in a man."

We tend to think of Hell as a place and/or a span of time. But I think that Hell is a mode of being.

Posted by: Rob on June 26, 2004 01:13 PM

Nice, Rob...in eternity we break the bonds of time and space. And eternity can begin now.

BTW, I wasn't suggesting your comments were "corny or "simplistic"; that was a reference to the overused cliche I posted.

Posted by: Jake on June 26, 2004 05:05 PM

Katherine: I don't know if there is a hell, but I think one point a lot of people are making here is that even if it exists, it may not be exactly the Dante version. You ask if I mean 'the theologians' were wrong -- well, it depends on what theologians you mean. You seem to not be accepting the credibility of theologians who don't give the picture of hell that you grew up with. If you choose that I suppose there's no point in arguing about it, but as Father Jake pointed out, even the Church Fathers had varying opinions on ideas that many Christians today think were never questioned. I don't know if you're familiar with Origen, for instance, but he is considered the most influential theologian before Augustine lived, and he argued both for highly allegorical readings of the Bible and a sort of progressive model of redemption in which eventually even Satan would be saved.

Another fairly common idea that Telford adheres to, which I think originated with the Anabaptists, is that no one is in either heaven or hell right now, but the dead are in 'soul sleep' until Judgment Day. If you accept that model, then prayers for the dead now may indeed have some effect because final judgment has not been rendered.

The larger point that I was making, however, is that the Bible indicates that even God's most confident pronouncements of doom don't always happen. When he sees the Hebrews worshipping the golden calf, for instance, he tells Moses he'll destroy them -- not 'maybe, I'm thinking about it', but that he will. Moses talks him out of it. So even if the dead are somewhere now, I do not see why that must be irreversible. It does go against the more modern image of God as an inexorable force, but it is right there in Scripture.

I'm not familiar with the translation you refer to, so I can't comment on it. When I was blogging the Gospel of Mark, though, we kept discussing the fact that the Gospels were originally written not as historical documents but as education for the 2nd century church. Many scholars believe that the various comments Jesus makes about how many people will not respond to the Word was a warning that the first evangelists would meet with a lot of resistance (as they did, of course). That's one view, and there are others. But I do think it's clear from reading Jesus that he spoke in a lot of parables and metaphors, some of which he translated and some he didn't, so I'm wary of reading him too literally.

Posted by: Camassia on June 27, 2004 03:56 PM

I forgot to mention that far from taking offense at your use of the "corny cliche", I enjoyed it, and see the kernal of truth in it. It seems to be true that some experience of Hell and serious spiritual striving are as inseparable as mountains and vallies: the more one makes progress toward spiritual perfection, the more one is pursued and attacked by the minions of Satan. Live a nice, safe life of off-the-rack moral mediocrity, on the other hand, and Satan won't ever make his existence known to you. Hell will seem to you to be just a fairy story, used to frighten children into obedient behavior.

Posted by: Rob on June 27, 2004 06:17 PM
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