Hellish Speculation

Original version: October 26, 2011

This is a response to Rod Dreher’s “Is Hell for Real?” and to the multitude of comments it spawned.  You should read the short original post, and enough of the comments to get a general feel for them.  They’re mostly intelligent and civil.

I quote in full the specific selections to which I want to respond, however.

There’s Religion, and Then There’s Religion.

“You have touched on what I think is the basic divide between religious believers today: whether religion is primarily about what God says to man about how to behave, or whether it is primarily an expression about what man says about God. I know that in reality, things aren’t as clean-cut as that, and that there is a dialectical relationship there. Still, if one believes that religion is our attempt to conform our lives to a transcendent moral order that exists independent of ourselves, one will be ‘conservative’ on theological matters; if one believes that religion is our attempt to say something about our own values and our conception of God, one will be ‘liberal’ on theological matters.” – Rod Dreher

This is a basic problem.  Dreher’s two categories may suffice for religions “in general,” but neither captures the core of true Christianity, which is distinct from all other religions in that it affirms that religion is not our attempt to accomplish anything.  It is our response to what God has accomplished in Christ.  We may conform to God’s transcendent moral order (and we will be more or less happy to the degree that we do), but we will never do it perfectly, and we will never do it for wholly good motives, apart from the power of Christ in us, worked out via his Spirit.

The distinction between classical (god-centered) and modern (man-centered) religions may, I suppose, be conveniently termed “conservative” and “liberal.”  But the distinction between true Christianity (God’s-grace-based) and everything else (man’s-works-based) is something else again, and something even more radical.

Moral Freedom

“Hell is a necessary consequence of the fact we have moral freedom. If we have real power of choice, then it must necessarily be possible for a person to choose to reject the good. Possibly forever.” – Hector_St_Clare

This is on target, generally.  I would add that Hell is also a necessary consequence of the fact that our being created in the Imago Dei includes our eternality.  And also a necessary consequence of the fact that God is just and holy.  Some may argue that Hell is really just the single facet of God’s overwhelming Love that the rebels are allowing themselves to experience.  This isn’t specifically in Scripture, but it’s not inconsistent with Scripture, and I think I’d tend to agree.  But I think it’s not hard to make a biblical case that that single facet goes by the name of “Justice.”  Also it’s pretty obvious from Scripture that God’s concern for his own glory, honor, holiness, reputation, and character trumps his concern for us.  (The mind-blowing paradox comes when you realize that God’s character is also what drives him to DIE for us.  So we’ll have no talk of “divine pride” here, thank you.)  But if God is going to fudge on his own holiness by letting sin into heaven, he’s going to cease being God.  Which is kinda bad for all concerned.

Limitation, Humility, and Fairness

“… I tend more towards the Hindu/Buddhist view, or that of some Jewish schools of thought that see Hell as of limited duration—a sort of more intense version of Purgatory, in a sense. From the Christian perspective, it seems to limit God’s love and/or power to say that somehow a finite person can permanently say ‘no’ to God with no chance of ever changing. To say that the damned are ‘fixed’ in their denial begs the question; I can’t see any logical reason why this must necessarily be so, given the postulates of Christian theology. Anyway, I think the words of one of the Eastern fathers are a good way to look at it: ‘Live as if all are saved and I alone am damned.’” – Turmarion

This guy reasons plausibly enough, but it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to argue “from the Christian perspective” while pretty cavalierly ignoring what Scripture has to say on the topic.  And this, frankly, is the common error that runs through most of this discussion, including the original post.  People are cherry-picking verses (and historical factoids and philosophers) to support their points, but almost no one seems to acknowledge that a systematic study of Scripture (in the “systematic theology” sense of the term) winds you up with a corpus of data that makes it mighty difficult to think about hell as a “metaphor” or a “super-purgatory,” or what-have-you.  Can you interpret the whole of Scripture that way?  Well, yeah… but it’s quite a stretch.

Similarly, most everyone seems to be ignoring the overall consensus of Christendom throughout the ages.  Yes, *a few* of the early Church fathers were universalists, but the most notable of that crowd was Origen, and he was a mighty odd duck.  Never quite got declared a heretic, but anyone who postulates that in heaven we will all be spherical, because that is the shape of perfection, should probably not be cited as an authority on the afterlife.  Suffice to say that by far the prevailing view has held hell to be real, literal, and eternal.

Also I don’t see any problem with God’s power being limited.  Clearly God limits himself all the time, in all kinds of ways.  If God makes a promise to do something, then he will “limit” himself by eschewing all contradictory courses of action.  If God determines that he will create man as an eternal soul, then of course he will “limit” himself to not annihilating that eternal soul.  If he determines that man will have free will, then he will “limit” himself by not contravening it every time it does something inconvenient.  The issue is not whether God is “limited” by man; the issue is whether he is self-consistent.

Still, I rather like this guy’s closing quote: “Live as if all are saved and I alone am damned.”  I think it underlines the fact that doctrines don’t exist primarily for us to argue about exactly where their boundaries fall.  Doctrines have functions, and cannot be applied wherever and however we please, because no doctrine sums up the whole of reality, and each one has to be kept in balance by several others.  We must use doctrines in the same way that Scripture does.  E.g., Scripture uses the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the context of saints undergoing tribulation, but not so much in the context of evangelism.  We preach election to the elect, and repentance to sinners (whether saved or no).  Hell appears in Scripture in the contexts of: a) rebellion against God (Psalms, Gospels, etc.), and b) God’s eternal victory and dispensing of ultimate justice (prophets, Revelation, etc.).  It’s not a doctrine that we are required to reconcile logically and fully with God’s mercy and love, because Scripture doesn’t necessarily give us enough data to do that.  We can do our best, but we’re not going to finally sort it out.  Which is ok.

The other thing I like about this final quote is that it shifts the responsibility back to me on this issue.  It’s convenient to worry about the mythical “people in Africa who have never heard,” but they’re not really my responsibility to the same extent that I am.  Have I examined myself first?  Have I done my own business with God and accepted his grace for myself?  If I reject God because “I knew you were a hard master,” when I know the truth and the way of salvation, well then, I got no business complaining if I end up further down in hell than the pagans who died in ignorance.

Here’s a longish quote cited recently in a sermon I heard:

After giving a brief survey of these doctrines of sovereign grace, I asked for questions from the class. One lady, in particular, was quite troubled. She said, “This is the most awful thing I ever heard! You make it sound as if God is intentionally turning away men and women who would be saved, receiving only the elect.”

I answered her in this vein: “You misunderstand the situation. You’re visualizing that God is standing at the door of heaven, and men are thronging to get in the door, and God is saying to various ones, ‘Yes, you may come, but not you, and you, but not you, etc.’ The situation is hardly this. Rather, God stands at the door of heaven with His arms outstretched, inviting all to come. Yet all men without exception are running in the opposite direction toward hell as hard as they can go. So God, in election, graciously reaches out and stops this one, and that one, and this one over here, and that one over there, and effectually draws them to Himself by changing their hearts, making them willing to come. Election keeps no one out of heaven who would otherwise have been there, but it keeps a whole multitude of sinners out of hell who otherwise would have been there. Were it not for election, heaven would be an empty place, and hell would be bursting at the seams.”

That kind of response, grounded as I believe that it is in Scriptural truth, does put a different complexion on things, doesn’t it? If you perish in hell, blame yourself, as it is entirely your fault. But if you should make it to heaven, credit God, for that is entirely His work! To Him alone belong all praise and glory, for salvation is all of grace, from start to finish. – Mark Webb

Is this “fair”?  Who knows?  Probably not.  But I’m the vessel, not the Potter.  Knowing what I know of God, I know that if he’s ever “less than fair,” it’s really because he’s being vastly, incomprehensibly more than fair.  I am certain of this: no one will be in hell who does not absolutely deserve it; and no one in hell will receive any more punishment than he deserves.  I’m nearly as certain of this, too: no one will be in hell who did not choose to be there and who (in some sense) still wants to be there.

Speculation

“As for people being condemned for all eternity to hell, that of course is not how God works, and the Therapeutic Deists are correct in that regard. But it does work out that way if one turns away from God forever. The mind that sins makes time out of the timeless, and that time can certainly seem to be ‘forever’ to the sinner. But once one turns to God, in that instant all time is rendered meaningless, and eternity stand before you. That is heaven.” – Conradg

This is another one of numerous (almost ubiquitous) examples of folks talking out of their own metaphysical speculations, as opposed to just simply reading Scripture and taking it for what it says.  How the dickens does this guy know that “that of course is not how God works”?  Cite a text, man!  There’s a lot more of general relativity and neuroscientific hypotheses in these comments than actual biblical knowledge.  I have as much fun as anyone else, trying to sync Scripture with what I know (or think I know) of time, eternity, the possibility of a multiverse, chaos theory, the intersection of brain, spirit, and soul, and all the rest.  Fine.  Go ahead.  A lot of it is plausible enough, anyway.  But when that rather juvenile sophomore-philosophy-class fantasizing starts to take precedence over what God has plainly declared, we have a real problem.

There’s plenty we don’t know; but there’s plenty we do.  Go read Revelation 20.  The sequence is very plain: 1) the souls of the martyrs are raised and given new bodies, and they reign with Christ for 1000 years (v. 4-6); 2) Satan & co. are released, revolt, and are defeated (again) and cast eternally into the lake of fire (7-10); 3) all the dead are judged; everyone gets out of Death and Hades (presumably raised into new bodies), and Death and Hades go into the fire too, along with anyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life (11-15).  Then chapters 21-22 are about heaven.  Is this metaphorical?  Doubtless.  But it also reads quite literally.  Don’t hurt yourself trying to twist it round to something that makes sense.  It makes plenty of sense on its own.

Fact is, I’m getting rather tired of all this idle philosophizing.  It smacks of the sluggard in Proverbs: “wiser in his own eyes than seven men who answer discreetly.”  God has said what he’s said.  Maybe Christendom has added on to it at points, but if so, that doesn’t license everyone with an internet connection to make the same mistake.  (Revelation has some warnings about that practice, too.)  You don’t have to like it, but “conscious eternal torment” is a very fair distillation of the verses that discuss hell.  The question isn’t whether you like it, or whether you like what [you think] it says about God.  The question is: how are you going to deal with it?  Are you going to sign up for God’s team, or are you going to wait until you’re sure he plays according to your definition of “fair”?

Joy in Justice

“If I happen to arrive in Heaven and discover that Hell doesn’t exist, or that Hell exists but no one but the Devil is in there, I will rejoice.” – Dreher

There were plenty of interesting responses to this one, which can speak for themselves.  For my part, I concur.  And if in Eternity, every so often, a soul walks out of Gehenna, upheld by angels, and into the New Jerusalem, I’ll rejoice about that also.  And if part of our job there consists of evangelizing the damned and calling them out of hell, I’ll rejoice at that too.  (Neither seems to have any support in Scripture, but then hell doesn’t get a full metaphysical description anywhere, either.  So this is kinda up there with extraterrestrial life: I doubt it, but I’ve got nothing against it.)  But to answer the atheist that replied to this comment, yes: if hell does exist, and is as bad or worse than anyone can imagine, and is full of nine-tenths of humanity, I’ll rejoice then too.  Not that people are perishing forever (God himself can’t rejoice at that), but that justice is being done.  America and the secular west doesn’t really grasp this sentiment, but other ages would have.  The Psalms are thick with it.

But we’d rather see injustice legislated quietly away, or “remediated” with padded rooms and drugs and counseling, rather than absolutely and righteously furiously destroyed.  There are multiple reasons for this, one of which is that our dim view of (and thus low respect for) true justice makes us tolerant of injustice; but the best of them is that, after Christ, we have a fuller understanding of the grace and mercy and patience of God, than people did before.  And America, at least, is or was Christian enough to reflect this heavily in our laws and culture.  Which is good!  But it’s beside the point when we discuss hell, and shouldn’t really be allowed to drive the discussion.  This is because God’s grace and goodness and kindness and patience and mercy [and justice] were all consummated in the Cross.  God’s plan of salvation, redemption, and glorification is the apogee of his mercy and the greatest display of his love that we can ever experience.  If we reject that, what is left but wrath?  First for our sin, and then for our blasphemous ingratitude.

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Heb. 10:26-27)

The Mind of Christ and the Love of God

“But will you rejoice, to find that Hell exists and hosts the torment of everyone who didn’t believe in Jesus as savoir, from Thomas Jefferson to Albert Einstein? Well, how could you not rejoice? Your god will have remade you, so that you will see that as his perfect plan, and enjoy its fruition for the rest of eternity. The faith you have to carry somehow is that that is the Rod Dreher you want to become.” – Russell

Pretty bitter stuff.  But the answer-with-backbone is the only one to give to a double ad-hominem like this: Yes, that is who I want to become.  I want to have the mind of Christ.  I want to view reality, and righteousness, and sin, and justice, and mercy, the way that he does.  I want to love what he loves, and hate what he hates.  I want to change from how I currently am, and be conformed to him image.  Of course I have my own notions (shaped by family and experience and culture and my own sin).  Of course I have my own ideas of how the universe could have been set up, and how it ought to be run.  But this is the whole point: if you prefer your own way to God’s, you cannot be with him.  He, being holy, cannot allow it; and you, being willful, will not stand for it.

All these people haggling with God about why he can or can’t have such-and-such a kind of hell, are chiseling out for themselves flagstones of arrogance that make “good intentions” look like pebbles, and paving their own broad road to the hell that really does exist, in despite of all their rationalizing.  You can’t stand on the riverbank lecturing the flood about how high it’s allowed to rise, or saying “good flood!” if it takes your obnoxious neighbor’s house, and “bad flood!” if it takes your own.  How childish.  Go read God’s rebuke of Job.  Get a grip on your own place in the cosmos.  “Think of yourself with sober judgment.

If you think you know better than God, if you’re determined to have things your own way, to insist on your own rules of morality (constructed no doubt to conform to the way you’re already acting), to demand that everyone be treated “fairly” in accordance with your own ideas of justice, to insist that certain sins really aren’t so bad after all—then, God says, fine: go to hell.  That’s what it’s there for: “every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.”

So, if in the Judgment I see the demons abridging Thomas Jefferson with pen-knives the way he abridged the living Word of God, then yes, I will rejoice at God’s justice.  And if instead I find Jefferson sitting on the riverbank beneath the Tree of Life, interviewing every one of the miraculously-fed 5000 as he prepares to illuminate that page of the miraculous Manuscript on his lap, then I’ll rejoice all the more at God’s fathomless mercy.

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell

– Fred­er­ick Leh­man, 1917

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The Suffering God

Original version: September 29, 2009

This is a response to Andre Sullivan’s “What Is Evil For The Darwinist?”—his reply to the many comments on a previous post—at The Daily Dish, which was forwarded to me by my brother.  Skimming the comments may be helpful background to my thoughts which follow.

The Meta-Problem

This discussion of the theodicy subject is encouraging: a civil debate, with thoughts clearly expressed, is much more pleasant than the general bulk of public dialogue.  Nevertheless, I am troubled by what I’ve read of this particular debate, on account of the rather thin presence in it of a deeply relevant topic: the suffering and death of Jesus.  The whole exchange has been very centered on man’s suffering, and on man’s solutions, and on man’s reason, and in a debate about God, this seems not as it should be.

The problem with trying to present “rational” explanations for God, for evil, for the sovereignty & freedom interplay, etc. is not that they don’t get you anywhere helpful, but that they become such great temptations to think that you might somehow be able to—as Milton described his own attempt—“justify the ways of God to men.”  And this, from my reading of Job, is something not even God cares to do all that much.

God doesn’t say to Job (or to most of us), “Look, I know you’re suffering, and here’s the deep reason behind it that gives it meaning.”  He says “Job, are you God, or am I God?”  Which is the first question we all have to answer.  As long as we insist on being God, we are frustrated by suffering, because it falsifies our sense of control.  However, when we admit that God is God, we come to the place where God’s reasons can begin to make sense to us.  Previously, as Paul says, they are “foolishness.”  We cannot completely know the purposes of God, but when we value what He values, and have our minds renewed and conformed to His, we can begin to see or to guess why He acts the way He does—because we know Him.

The Author’s View of Good and Evil

The crux of the whole matter, and the thing that makes this even plausible, is as usual the Cross of Christ.  When you view reality through that lens, you realize that the Christian God is not one who arbitrarily inflicts suffering (as some of your readers so bitterly assert) but rather one who takes suffering onto Himself.  He is not a God who erases suffering, but rather one who makes it meaningful by through it working redemption for us, overcoming our alienation from God, which is sin, which brings spiritual death—all of which things are, in God’s economy, immeasurably worse than the physical or emotional sufferings of Auschwitz or Nagasaki.

If God was primarily concerned about disease and war and “not being nice,” Christ would have come in 6000 B.C., stuck around forever, and popped all over the planet like Superman, plugging up volcanoes, healing lepers, producing bumper crops and keeping the genome on track.  He didn’t—and not only because human free will and its consequents are important to Him.  He didn’t, because God is not a divine slot machine to make up our deficiencies or bring “peace on earth” in the way that the sillier Christmas songs mean it; rather, He is a loving Father who disciplines his children for their good.  He is an artist and an author who is telling a good story through the history of earth, of mankind, and of redemption.  Like any good author, He loves His characters—even when He takes them through dark chapters, even when they reject Him and spit in His face.

This last truth is why I’m baffled at the sharp distinction being made by several commenters (and perhaps even by yourself) between “reality” and “fable,” or between history and allegory.  Whatever your view of Genesis or of the entire Bible may be, if you call it “Word of God” in any sense, it should be very clear that God LOVES parable, fable, myth, allegory, and the whole lot.  So if God wants to structure the tapestry of history with mythic or allegorical elements, or according to the principles of good art, is this a problem?  Should it even be surprising?  Here again we have a case of men trying to impose their own categories on God, without taking the trouble to actually get to know Him and the way He operates.

By “getting to know God,” I do not mean mere personalized, subjective experiences (feelings, insights, visions, small miracles, epiphanies, “warm fuzzies,” etc.).  These do indeed play an important role in how we—as individual emotional beings—know God.  But we are also rational, communal, inter-relational beings.  Thus I also come to know God through taking a theology class, or discussing His attributes and works with a friend, or studying how His hand has worked in history, or basking in the beauties He’s fixed in geometry, chemistry, or the glories of an organism or ecosystem.  I also come to know Him by taking Him at face value, hearing the propositions (and poetry, and historical narratives) that He gives about Himself in His written Word.  And perhaps most significantly, I encounter God in His Body—meaning both a) the Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth, and the people of God into which we are redeemed, and b) His Body and Blood given to us in Communion, which is the spiritual food of the Church and Her central act of worship.

God, by His own verbal Account, is deeply interested in solving our physical problems.  This is why Christ did more than just die and rise again.  But, by His own Account, He is chiefly interested in solving our relational problem—with Him.  Which is sin, rebellion, self-worship, hubris, self-will, “going our own way.”  The Great Physician is interested in getting to the root of the problem, not just fixing symptom upon symptom.  To do that would be false to His own justice, to human nature as He created it, and to the Natural Laws by which He orders the universe.  Rather, the great Author (with full irony) and the just and merciful Judge (with full poetic justice) works to turn Death back on itself, conquering limited human suffering through infinite Divine suffering, conquering the shallow human grave through a descent to the very bottom of Hades, conquering sin through the greatest expression of sin ever unleashed against a perfect God: rejecting, blaspheming, and murdering His humbled human Son.

Συμ-πάθος [sym-pathy – “co-suffering”]

Because Immanuel values relationship with us, He is also interested in suffering with us.  This is why “Jesus wept” with Mary and Martha.  He knew He was going to raise Lazarus.  He knew He was going to fix the problem and end the suffering.  But in that moment, because He cared about His friends, He took time, actually prolonging their suffering, so that He could show His desire to be with them in and through it.  This is foolishness to a human mind (especially a male mind, since we men are so much more interested in the fix; whereas women are more interested in sympathy and understanding), but when you realign yourself to God’s priorities, you discover that disconnectedness from Him is worse than (and, ultimately, the source of) any other suffering you might experience.  Then and only then do His paradoxical actions begin to make sense.

The problem of evil is a very real problem, for any worldview.  It’s more of a problem for the atheist (who has also to explain the existence of good) than for the Christian, but it’s a problem for everybody.  However, in many of its manifestations, the “problem of evil” is merely the pragmatist belief that suffering is the worst possible evil, and that non-suffering is the best possible good.  That, frankly, is a lie.  If God exists, then being at odds with Him is the worst possible evil.

When the problem of evil is expressed with “evil” properly defined as sin (and this cannot be done without the knowledge of God; hence the problem with trying to convert an atheist via theodicy), then it becomes evident that the true problem of evil has already been solved by the work of Christ.  The war is won; all that’s left is the mopping-up action.  The Ring has gone into the Cracks of Doom, and all that’s left is the Scouring of the Shire.  This is hard to assert in the face of the vast evil that parades through all the twentieth century, but it is true.  Our view is myopic: the Real Story is wider than the cosmos, and the twentieth century and all its evil is a breath.

And yet, somehow, the God who stands above the universe, and above the whole timeline of history, can take a moment to stand with His friends beside the grave He has conquered, and weep with them.

Blessed be God.