fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

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.
Tags: justice, religion, theology
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