Slacktivist, my favorite progressive Christian blog, has been reporting on how the religious right has been in a tizzy over the news that prominent evangelical pastor Rob Bell may no longer believe in eternal damnation. (I know, I know – he doesn’t believe that God will torture billions of people in a lake of fire for all eternity? Horrors!)
This is a view Slacktivist himself holds, and to defend Bell, he quotes three passages commonly used to support belief in Hell, Luke 16:19-31 (the parable of Lazarus and the rich man), Matthew 25:41-46 (the sheep and the goats) and Revelation 20:11-15 (the book of life and the lake of fire), in order to critique the standard interpretation:
…these passages’ references to a “lake of fire” or “eternal fire” or torment in “Hades” cannot easily be read as teaching that this is the proper understanding of the cartography and logistics of the afterlife. That’s not what these passages are about.
…The point of these passages, clearly, is ethical instruction and I don’t think they can really be made to accommodate any other reading.
Now, I’m all for this position on ethical grounds, as I wrote in my post about Carlton Pearson. I applaud anyone who has the decency to reject the idea of Hell as a sadistic fantasy. Nevertheless, I’m afraid I have to disagree with Slacktivist on textual grounds. It isn’t the case that this idea can’t plausibly be found in the Bible.
I can cheerfully grant his point that the hellfire imagery in these passages is there as a rhetorical device to draw readers’ attention to the ethical lesson taught in all three, which is about helping the poor and needy. I also agree that this fact is probably embarrassing and awkward for the right-wing believers who usually quote these passages, since those people’s favorite pastimes are slashing the social safety net and cutting aid to the poor in the name of Jesus (not to mention flatly turning away people who need aid and compassion).
But here’s the problem: Just because the threat of Hell is invoked to get people to follow a moral commandment, it doesn’t follow that the moral commandment is the only meaningful part of the passage or that the threat is merely metaphorical. If a Soviet text said, “The Great Leader banished a dissident to the gulag in the icy wastes of Siberia, because that dissident disobeyed Marx’s teaching about giving to each according to his need…” – you might say that the point of the passage is about following communist teachings, but that doesn’t mean that the incidental details about Siberia are fictional. On the contrary, you could very plausibly argue that if there was no Siberia, the entire passage would be hollow and would lose its point.
For what it’s worth, Slacktivist also overlooked another commonly cited passage:
“So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
This passage is harder for his argument to accommodate, since it isn’t a detailed exhortation to ethical behavior, as with the other three passages, nor does it use hellfire as a framing device for a larger parable. It just states a plain, declarative fact: the wicked are going to be cast into a furnace of fire to suffer. Sounds rather, well, hellish.
And then there’s this old mainstay, which is especially difficult for the universalist view. It clearly states that not only is there some kind of undesirable fate awaiting in the afterlife, but that most of humanity goes there:
“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
Both these verses are spoken by Jesus, also, which causes problems for the universalist view that “we should look at the larger context of the character of God as revealed through Jesus Christ” (quoted from here).
For what it’s worth, I agree with Slacktivist’s contention that the doctrine of the Rapture is a modern invention, created by stringing together vague and unrelated verses from different parts of the Bible. The proof of this is that the Rapture is a very recent belief in Christianity, with few or no historical antecedents before the 1800s. But this isn’t true of Hell, which does have an ancient vintage. Some of the oldest noncanonical Christian books, like the Apocalypse of Peter, take sadistic delight in describing the torments of the damned. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and in this case, the undeniable historical truth is that Christianity has always included belief in Hell. I wish this weren’t true, and I wish there was decisive scriptural evidence against this wicked idea, but it just isn’t so.
As much as I like Slacktivist’s writings, he’s fallen into a common trap for religious liberals: the dangerous belief that the way we should decide what to believe about any theological topic is by figuring out what the Bible says about it – and therefore, if we want to reject any religious doctrine, we need to find an interpretation of the Bible which supports this. He says that his view is based on the character of God as revealed through Jesus, rather than through a proof-texting approach which plucks out isolated verses to support a specific position; but ultimately, it’s just a more roundabout way of achieving the same thing. However well-intentioned this is, it always results in an endless game of dueling interpretations, and since no one can prove the superiority of one interpretation over another, this means that the poisonous, misanthropic views of fundamentalists can never be decisively refuted.
I have a better idea: Who cares what the Bible says? Even if it taught the existence of Hell as clearly as daylight, it would still be a morally monstrous and revolting belief supported by no real evidence. Instead, why don’t we appeal to people’s inherent reason and sense of compassion to persuade them to reject it? I don’t believe that this is a futile task – the flickers of conscience so often seen among theists prove it. What we need to do is to give them permission to doubt, permission to believe that the Bible is not an absolute authority and that its claims can and should be rejected when they clash with science, common sense, or human decency.