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on the "justice" of hell

Earlier tonight, I'd had posted a link to a picture Gina Bertucci shared over at FB:



The picture has several phrases at the bottom that most Christians I know would agree describes God (if I just told them the phrase without the picture). But it’s juxtaposed with an image that should turn all of our stomachs, of a man abusing his girlfriend. I highly doubt the people who put this image are Christians. It's not how Christians see their own views. But that's rather the point. There are many Christians who describe God in a way that – in almost any other context – they'd reject. Vigorously. (To be fair, the image is about "religion," not Christianity; I'm talking about Christians because that's the group I'm most familiar with.)

Context matters, of course, but I think a lot of Christians are just so used to hearing God described in these terms that they don't recognize the problems with their beliefs. An abusive spouse might tell her husband, "I love you so much that if you left me I'd die," so much the husband stops seeing it as abuse – but that in itself doesn't make it kosher. That's why I shared the meme . Not because it was a description most or even any Christians would recognize as their faith. But because it was worth thinking about whether these phrases did describe a God we should be ashamed to worship.

Most Christians do believe in heaven and hell. We saw this played out earlier this year in the controversy over Rob Bell's book Love Wins. Rob Bell is a well-known Christian Protestant preacher (a darling of the Christian Left, but his theology always struck me as pretty moderate and definitely Bible-based), and he caused waves when he published a book questioning whether hell as it was usually understood by Christians was really Biblical.

The Southern Baptist Church passed a resolution (linked above) condemning the view that there was no hell. They said, among other things, that "orthodox Christians have affirmed consistently and resoundingly the reality of a literal Hell" and that "God must judge the unregenerate because He is a holy God whose judgments are altogether righteous." It's undeniable that many pew-sitters, when asked, would probably say they believe hell is real. I certainly heard enough sermons on it growing up. But when I actually went to read the Bible verses being referenced, it struck me that the idea of "fire and brimstone forever" wasn't the only interpretation you could apply to them.

Why believe in hell? I'm sure there are psychological reasons, like the need to encourage good behavior or the desire to feel better than other people. A more theological point is the idea that God can't allow evil anywhere near him. The basic story I grew up with is that it's not so much a problem with sins as it is with Sin. It's kind of like the reasoning we see in the Akallabêth, that for (mortals? Warring armies?) to set foot on Valinor would somehow pollute it. This is the whole point behind the Easter story: that God, being just, can't just look the other way when wrongdoing has been done.

Except, that's a pretty wack view of justice. Seriously. How would we feel about a judge who let my brother go to jail for a crime I committed? The fact that I was literally incapable of serving the time wouldn't make it justice for someone else to do the time for me. Even if they volunteered for it. That would still be unfair. Massively so.

There is another option. Standard Christian theology says that people go to hell because they're fundamentally "corrupted" and need to be covered by some sort of sacrifice of the innocents, if they are ever to become righteous again. But there's a view I see in a lot of my students, and that I've heard from countless Christians I knew (from across the spectrum here). Basically, it's that hell is for "bad" people while heaven is for "good" people. I think this was the idea behind a rather outrageous NY Post cover that came on after the bin Laden assassination:



It's not a Biblical view because Paul writes in his epistles quite extensively how none of us can be made holy through our own efforts, but the idea has staying power, I think because people like to believe the world is fair and that there's a reason to treat people fairly. Plus there's just a psychological need to feel "bigger" than others. One problem, as I explained a while back, is that this kind of justice is impossible. There's literally nothing I can do that would make an infinity of suffering in hell (or an infinity of bliss in heaven) a fair response on Gen trying – because no matter how awful my life is, there will just never be enough bad behavior to work off, to earn hell.

There's a bigger problem, though. If you're being good because you think God will punish you if you're not – well, in what possible relationship is that healthy? There's a different between acting out of a healthy kind of love, like Aristotle's friendship, because you recognize this person is good and want to become more like them. That's fine. But if you're acting a certain way because you think you'll face a lifetime of indescribable pain... I've seen that kind of "love" on display at the domestic violence shelter where I volunteer on occasion. I'd sooner be an atheist than worship someone who demanded that of me.

Personally, I've toyed with other options. The Catholic idea of purgatory is very appealing to me philosophically; I find the idea that God allows for perfection even beyond what's possible in the mortal life, and that it's our sanctified selves that gets welcomed into heaven, makes a lot of sense of things like moral progress and justice. (I don't think of it as punishment; more a chance to "freshen up" before dinner.) this is how I understand what the Bible means by judgment: either being ready for paradise or needing yet more time to ready yourself.

The positions I just mentioned are my starting positions, and I'm still trying to make my peace with this issue. I also haven't studied the Biblical writings enough to be able to say "this view is what the Bible says" and "this view is offbase." I'm not alone, btw. While the fire-and-brimstone Christians get all the press, I know many Christians, both inside the academy and without, who are trying to work out these answers. The popularity of Rob Bell's book shows how many Christians are yearning for answers. And, contrary to the SBC, not all orthodox Christians believe in an eternal hell. (See all the humor about people going to hell.

The philosopher in me insists it's a good problem to think through even because the concepts involved – love, justice, responsibility, power – are so crucial to how we view the world. But more than that, I think as a religious person it comes down to how you want to view God – as something to fear or something to try to become more like. From the outside, I'm sure it seems all Christians are happy to choose the first option, but from the inside, you can see more than a few people taking this question seriously and often as not deciding Rob Bell is more in the right than the SBC. That's something.

********************

P.S. – Re the late hour, I did a half-hour as part of an Easter prayer vigil, and couldn't quit unwind. So I took the opportunity to finish this post that has been languishing on my hard drive in various bits for several weeks now. Here's hoping it's as typo-free in the morning as it seems righow.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
dreamflower02
Apr. 7th, 2012 10:14 am (UTC)
Perhaps it is the exposure to C.S. Lewis that actually led to my own conversion that colors my ideas of hell, but I have always seen hell less as a punishment or judgment (perhaps save for those fallen immortals for whom it was devised) than as a choice.

The Great Divorce describes hell more as a place of drabness and lifelessness than of torment-- though drabness is, of course, its own sort of torment-- and the mortal souls who are there because they have rejected God. If you reject God and do not want to believe in Him, then you automatically exclude yourself from a heaven in which your reward is to be in His presence. A soul in that state does not want God, and until it does, it excludes itself from any enjoyment of His love.

To me this makes sense of free will, because God won't force us to love Him, but He will give us every chance He can to change our minds.

As for eternity, well, to me, eternity is outside time. So eternity has no short or long. It just is. So the length of one's time separated from God or together with God will always seem forever, in whichever state one is in.

(Looking at that last sentence, I'm not sure that I am clear. But I am not sure how else to put it.)

"Good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell" is not orthodox Christian theology, anymore than the idea that when a good person dies he or she turns into an angel or that God is an old man with a beard or the devil a red one with a pitchfork! It's "pop theology", and a fiction staple, but I have never seen anything in scripture or heard anything from the pulpit to ever support either notion.

ETA: Looked at your link to Rob Bell's book (how have I never heard of him?) and it appears that he seems to hold a similar view to Lewis'. I'll have to see if the library has it...

Edited at 2012-04-07 10:20 am (UTC)
marta_bee
Apr. 9th, 2012 04:47 am (UTC)
I'll have to read The Great Divorce once I get through my oral exams this week - it sounds like an interesting view point. ANd I do recommend Rob Bell's Love Wins book on this topic, as it's thought-provoking even if you don't agree with it. It's not just about theology (though it plainly works with the Bible); it also looks at the implications of how we interpret those passages and what kind of God those beliefs require.

The distinction between "hell is for bad people" and "hell is for unsaved people" doesn't really do much for me. In my experience having the right belief is treated almost like a get out of jail free card, which is good for me personally - but to think God would condemn (say) someone who happened to be born into a Muslim Iranian family rather than a Christian American family to hell, because so long ago Eve ate an apple when she wasn't supposed to - that strikes me as bizarrely cruel on God's part.

It all comes down to what you think God did or didn't do. If he's just letting them experience the consequences of their actions, that's one thing. But if you think God is actually looking at a person and deciding the only just reaction is to send them to jail (if we're talking about an actual judgment on God's part rather than just our being separate from God), that's something else entirely. And I have heard many preachers proclaim God sends the unsaved to hell. I guess I have a hard time seeing that kind of judgment as being worthy of God.

Shall have to read C.S. Lewis - that's the great thing about being young, there's plenty of time to continue thinking these things through.
labourslamp
Apr. 7th, 2012 05:19 pm (UTC)
I don't have time at the moment to respond to this in full, but if you do decide you want to delve into the texts to explore the Biblical concept of hell more fully, it's worthwhile looking into what words are actually translated variously as heaven, hell, the grave, etc. in the Bible. Since the writers of the NT were using a language that wasn't steeped in the traditions of Judaism or the emerging Christianity, the words don't quite match up with "hell"--all the meanings behind that word were later interpolated from those concepts and/or (depending on how you view the role of tradition in the development of theology) independent oral traditions. This really is one of those cases where a translation isn't good enough.
marta_bee
Apr. 9th, 2012 04:52 am (UTC)
That's definitely the impression I get! I have studied a few verses using my Strong's concordance (sadly, am not fluent in Greek or Hebrew) and even as an amateur I can see that the concept of "hell" is really used for several distinct concepts. Also that they have so little in common with what we moderns think of as hell. As I once read somewhere --I forget the source-- our concept of hell owes more to Dante than to St. Paul or any of the other Biblical authors.
lindahoyland
Apr. 8th, 2012 11:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing these thoughts.
marta_bee
Apr. 9th, 2012 04:52 am (UTC)
You're welcome! Thanks for reading.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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