Monday, November 30, 2009

Thoughts on Hell

Heaven and hell are two sides to a coin which has been in general circulation since mankind first realized there are consequences to choices.

The idea of divine retribution is one which is pervasive because humans are indelibly vindictive creatures. The agenda for one evening at the local symphony was a production of Hector Berlioz' Requiem, and a production it was. A full chorus on stage, four timpanists and four brass choirs arranged in the corners of the concert hall. We sat perched on the edge of the balcony, stage right. The lights dimmed. The music began. Immediately, and indeed throughout the performance, I was taken aback at the overwhelming immensity of the piece. Though full of simple chord progressions and harmonies, some minor, others major, the unforgiving point of the entire Requiem was awe and fear. The piece was large, looming, awesome and terrifying, from the melodies of the flutes to the words of the chorus. Perhaps it was merely the mood in which I happened to be, but I was struck by the notion that a God who would demand such frightened reverence is not only a God I would not love and worship, but a God at whom I grew tremendously angry. I was reminded of a passage in Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy which described that god of fear and awe, the god of destruction as well as creation, the god of Job, of the Aztecs, Moloch and Kali, as a god trapped in time - the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed, by our own devices, from eternity and placed into the causal reality of the natural world. How strange and appalling it is to believe in such a god, and to try and reconcile this divine wrath with divine love! Berlioz wrote singly to that god of power, not the God of power, wisdom and love. If we lose any portion of the Godhead in our perception of the Divine (in other words, if we allow our own clouded sight to define the boundaries of what is and what is not, instead of accounting for our limited understanding), it is no wonder we arrive at something which leaves us apprehensive of God.

"A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome," wrote G.K. Chesterton in Heretics. In a puritan and strict pamphlet once published by G.W. Foote, the author "dismissed very contemptuously any attempts to deal with the problem of strong drink by religious offices or intercessions, and said that a picture of a drunkard's liver would be more efficacious in the matter of temperance than any prayer or praise." But this "fire and brimstone" approach to sin - the idea of scaring someone into submission to a cause or belief - can never truly work. "In that picturesque expression," Chesterton writes of the pamphlet, "it seems to me, is perfectly embodied the incurable morbidity of modern ethics. In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn anthems are uplifted. But that upon the altar to which all men kneel is no longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance of the perfect man; it is still flesh, but it is diseased. It is the drunkard's liver of the New Testament that is marred for us, which we take in remembrance of him." Frightening a person with the possibility of hell may, for the time being, scare them into outwardly behaving as they are told. But "there is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18), and so we find ultimately that providing a person with a higher goal - God - will do infinitely more to change that person for the better than does providing them with only the "diseased flesh" and threat of vindictive judgment of hell.

Evangelical Protestants, militant Muslims, and several other religions are nefarious for this "God as judge" viewpoint. But, as John Smith the Platonist once quoted, "Such as men themselves are, such will God Himself seem to them to be." The doctrine of eternal damnation is only one of these "traditions of men," brought about by a dogmatic understanding of scripture couched in an ideal of God as judge instead of God as merciful father. "It is difficult," says Conrad Noel in Jesus the Heretic, "to imagine a person so utterly corrupt as to merit hell, or a God so impotent as to be unable eventually to draw all men to himself." Indeed, this fits with the more Eastern thought of reincarnation - we are allowed a second, and perhaps even a hundredth or ten-thousandth chance. If, in our greatest, most selfless, most altruistic, and most loving moments, when we are most like God, we pardon even the greatest of trespasses, why should we not believe God to do the same? "Some interpretations of the doctrine of the Atonement which have been held by professing Christians are definitely anti-Christian. There is, as the outstanding example, the doctrine that God the Father was so angry with the human race because of its sins that he condemned the whole race to everlasting torture in hell; that his more merciful Son shed his blood on the Cross in order to appease the Father's wrath; and that on account of this blood-shedding those people who should afterwards be `converted' (and only those) would be let off this awful punishment and admitted to heaven when they die.... This interpretation is one variation of the general view that Jesus, by his death on the Cross, effected a favourable change in the mind of God towards men. This view, even when held in a less repulsive form than the one I have just described, is definitely unorthodox. For the orthodox teaching is that nothing could change, or is needed favourably to change, the mind of God towards men. The one thing upon which we can rely is... God's `eternal changelessness.' It is the mind of men towards God and his purpose for human life that needs changing," Robert Woodifield aptly wrote in Catholicism: Humanist and Democratic. This reminds us that a literal translation of any Scripture - or, similarly, a legalistic one - is not always appropriate. If we see God this way, it is easy to assume that heaven is some kind of reward for the good (or the "saved"), and hell a punishment for the eternally damned. F.D. Maurice argues, "Mankind stands not in Adam but in Christ. This relation is fixed, established, certain. It existed in Christ before all worlds. It was manifested when he came in the flesh." God is ours to find in the world, but not in fear. "There is no fear in love."


  1. "... the dreadful theology that arises when the eternal Godhead is removed, by our own devices, from eternity and placed into the causal reality of the natural world."

    Sorry, but these are one and the same- all gods, headed or not, arise from our imaginations, whether positive of negative. I agree that trying to make sense of these constructions in any logical, physical way leads us grievously astray. But that is simply a comment on the overall concept, which can not be reconciled with any sensible system.

    Are we pathetic creatures? Yes indeed. But we shouldn't get too down about it, or make up horror movie phantasms to scare and entertain ourselves- certainly not if we end up taking them seriously.

    "Such as men themselves are, such will God Himself seem to them to be."

    Just so- I couldn't say it better myself. Your sentiments don't seem quite accurate, however. Your dismissal of hell as ineffective comes about purely because you don't believe in it. If you did believe, it would be a mightily effective spur to do whatever you had to do to stay out. Thus our pleasant liberal sentiments of today are more an index of unbelief than of higher morals or discernment. For the scriptures tell of hell and eternal damnation, thus it must exist.

    Oh, sorry- but we shouldn't take scriptures literally. We should take it .. as it pleases us? I find this a curious but fitting counterpart to the argument above that the whole topic is imaginary to start with.

    Alright, sorry to be so difficult, but the seriousness of your post sort of cracked me up. With appreciation- Burk

  2. Burk~ you certainly "caught" me; I don't believe in hell. At least, not the kind of hell that people believe hell to be. If anything, hell is what I suffer in isolating myself from other human beings by means of my own "sinful" devices. I bring it upon myself, actively.

    I don't necessarily believe I'm being liberal in my theology. It's not whether or not we like something that determines its reality - I don't ignore hell because I don't like it, nor do I actively choose which Bible verses I like and which I don't and decide their worth on that. The point is that I can find inspiration and truth in anything from a piece of art to a fairytale to a religious text, but all must be taken with an equal grain of salt. It is only true in so far as it is ubiquitously understood to be true (and really, whether or not that truth comes from God or from Jung's collective unconscious is not for me to decide). What I know to be true tells me that I should not waste my time on fickle pursuits like lust; I may not like it, but I know it's true regardless.

    Didn't mean to be so serious (said with a pouty face). It was partially a response to one of Reitan's posts. And don't let me claim this "liberal" theology of hell's nonexistence as my own... plenty of more religious folk before me have argued for it.

  3. Any 1st person approach to the human condition begins and ends with ourselves. Any tradition we use as guide will have faults and merits. There is no problem with picking and choosing which Scriptures offer insight into our hopeful nature and which ones offer insight into our negative nature. The great strength of Scripture is its humanity.

    The decision to make Scripture inerrant comes from the authority of the individual reading it. We can use that same authority to measure its worth "as it comes." The ultimate authority is with ourselves.

    Hell has scared the hell out of me many times in life. But I think it is completely contrary to any IDEA of a loving God.

    I do think the idea of Universalism is one of the most beautiful ideas man has come up with. It balances dangerous free will with the safety net of a loving determinism. We all end up in the same place, but it's up to us as to how long and hard the process takes. Of course this works for an atheist view as well!

    Berlioz still rules though.

  4. Don't get me wrong - I love Symphonie Fantastique. :-)

  5. In case you haven't seen it, my most recent post bounces off of your post here. And comments on that post are giving birth to a follow-up even as I write this (well, okay, I'm pausing from grading term papers AND from writing a follow-up post in order to write this comment).

  6. Hi, Eric-

    I enjoyed your post thoroughly, while resisting the temptation to comment (imagine Strangelovian arm-slapping here .. No, No, NO! N*&^).

    The thought it brought to mind was that we all (or most) really seek the same thing, to achieve an ethical and fulfilling position, drawing on all the sources of enjoyment, consciousness, and discernment we can. It is a vast and positive step, I agree, to foreswear representing and imagining a deity. But what is left, especially for those who might not have riveting inner spiritual and artistic experiences?

    If the spiritual/numinous experience can be critically construed as a powerful natural/brain/inner experience, (promoting it from a bit of undigested meat, perhaps), and this interpretation fits neatly with everything else know about us, the world, brains, etc., what is so wrong with that? Couldn't we cherish that we have strong positive impulses to wholeness, healing, nurturing, and not overinterpret them ... imaginatively?

    You go right there all over again in your post, with "more profound", "beyond the empirical surface", etc. The experience's significance need not be a function of its imagined origin or mundane substrate. People have knowingly taken LSD and still had numinous experiences of great life-changing significance, and we have no need to invoke transempirical ... etc. and so forth...

    That seems to end up in the same place, morally and in other salient respects, and also puts the moral burden right where it ought to be- on us to continue the cultivation of self and others to bring out our better natures, while keeping an eye on truth through philosophy. Letting this responsibility slip through our fingers to otherworldly agents and setups of heaven, hell, etc. is both unworthy and in practice full of problems.

  7. I apologize in advance for "fuzzy thinking".

    Does a term like "beyond the empirical surface" etc. imply something counter to this material universe? Does it have to? Does non-material really mean non-material here or does it mean something we can't quite master and understand, because we're a part of it ourselves? There may be terminology to blame here more than anything.

    Which is more essential to who we are? Our deepest feelings or our reason? Are our feelings the origin of our reason, even if our reason can go back and affect our feelings?

    Is the world bigger as experienced from (our limited view of) the inside or as described from (the attempted view of) the outside?

    Is all of life a self-refuting balancing act?


  8. "The thought it brought to mind was that we all (or most) really seek the same thing, to achieve an ethical and fulfilling position, drawing on all the sources of enjoyment, consciousness, and discernment we can."


    Bravo and well said.

    This goes back to my previous comment - do we argue from pure reason or is reason the tool to justify our pre-existing positions established for mostly aesthetic reasons?

    Of course I think both are true. I love sitting on fences I suppose.

  9. Thanks, Steven-

    Of your proposition, both are true. We argue from our feelings and aesthetics, which are the principle ingredients of morals/values, and also from reason, which can help reconcile our endlessly conflicting feelings, and make sense of much else besides. Each has its purposes. In fairness, feelings are more important to who we are.

    But we shouldn't be arguing that we feel that the sun revolves around the earth. That is making a category error, mistaking feelings for reason. That we have amazing positive or negative feelings simply doesn't justify elaborating counter-factual and counter-reason-able schemes of reality, necessitating the fig leaf of supernaturalism / magical realism, etc., even if we don't yet know precisely where those feelings come from.

    Feelings are critical as premises for subjective arguments, morals, and a lot else, but veridical? No, they are not veridical in the way that reason is, about objective reality. (A fraught term, but I really don't know how else to put it.)

  10. Burk,

    I agree, but I am fascinated by how there is no pure reason without a foundation of subjective decisions to support it.

    For instance, one simple decision is whether or not (or how much) we trust our senses. I think all of us would agree that to some point we have to, so this is not provocative. But there is still a decision to be made.

    I'm not sure I'm putting too much out there that is thought-provoking, it's just fascinating to me for instance that

    1. I think I am one small part of a vast everything

    2. Who tells me this? the small me!

    I am working on a post about our multiple selves - the small self vs. the ultimate authority self, for instance.

    But I haven't found anything too interesting yet......

    aw hell. (just to bring us back on topic)

  11. Hi, Steven-

    I'm not so sure about the subjective decisions part. We are innately wired to see the world in certain ways. Eyes see colors split up in a spectrum, we perceive and like certain notes/sounds, etc. This is our foundation, and I wouldn't call it all "feelings". Much of it could be called hard-wired, perhaps involuntary rather than subjective decisions. Our alternative might be to not live at all, so being alive means to take some things as given .. perhaps what Kant meant with his a priori's

    But then we find ways to calibrate these foundations when we experience (empirically) that they are not working well. We get glasses to see better, and we get hearing aids, and come up with science. And we figure out that our strongest feelings are often endogenous rather than gods speaking to us.

  12. I think we're on the same page, I don't mean that I am going to physically see things differently depending on my point of view.....(or do I? hmmm). But I am thinking more that whatever we think is true is because we decide it is true - including the idea that we cannot know always know things correctly - which is self-refuting (not that we have a choice).

    "And we figure out that our strongest feelings are often endogenous rather than gods speaking to us."

    No difference to me.

  13. Boys~ I've been trying to keep up with the discussion, but being away for the weekend hasn't helped! Fascinating stuff, though.
    Burk, I've always wondered why in particular we value reason over emotion. I'm not trying to incite anything here, believe me - I've spend nearly my whole life trying to subjugate my emotions to my rationality, with limited success. But it's true that we, at least in certain current and historical contexts, weight our brain over our heart. But isn't this weighting subjective to begin with? Shouldn't we be suspicious that the one telling us to trust our brain is none other than our brain (how deliciously sinister!)?
    We certainly have ways to "calibrate" our reason, but isn't the same true of our emotion? Trusting reason over emotion seems to be a bit of a fallacy; it must be balanced, because neither is inherently good or evil. It reminds me of a quote by St. Bernard, which, loosely translated, reads thus: "What would learning do without love? It would inflate. What would love do without learning? It would err."

  14. Hi, Kelley-

    Just so.. you might enjoy my latest post.

    We can't "trust" either reason or emotion, but have to cultivate each with care and continual calibration, where each informs the other, in view of empirical results. So yes, I'd agree completely with Mr. Bernard.

  15. I have always thought of our emotions as a river and our reason as a series of dams. The feelings must flow, but perhaps we can direct them in more (or less) successful directions.


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