We’re All Going To Hell

Fred Clark at Slacktivist has posted some thoughts on the Bill O’Reilly conversation with Candida Moss that I shared here recently. In his post he writes:

Moss does not euphemize or equivocate about what the text says that Jesus said or that Jesus said this as a direct assertion of fact. Jesus said that if you don’t give away your wealth to help the poor, then you will go to Hell. Period.

As Keith wrote, O’Reilly’s reaction was typical of “almost all readers of this story … surely that’s not what he really meant.” I think he’s genuinely gobsmacked that Moss, cheerfully but emphatically, doesn’t go along with that. She refuses to play along with “surely that’s not what he really meant.”

And so O’Reilly takes the next usual step — which is also typical for “almost all readers of this story” — and he starts talking about Hell. If Jesus actually said and meant what Moss rightly notes he said and meant, O’Reilly tells her, “then you’re going to Hell and I’m going to Hell and everybody watching is going to Hell!”

To O’Reilly’s credit, the Gospels tell us this was also the reaction from Jesus’ disciples: If what you’re saying is true, then we’re all damned to Hell.

I’ll agree with Keith that what we do with that practically is a separate issue. (Jesus’ reply about camels and needles doesn’t offer much practical relief from the uncompromising moral obligation he’s just laid out.) But I don’t think that what we make of that theologically can be a separate issue. Here is one of the few biblical mentions of Hell and what it teaches us about Hell is utterly incompatible with everything you’ve probably been taught to associate with the idea.

But here’s the remarkable thing — the accidental insight O’Reilly’s aghast response points us toward — every mention of Hell in the Bible is just like this one.

According to the Gospels, Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples are depicted as astonished, drawing the conclusion that, if the rich who can afford to practice alms and be generous cannot be saved, then probably no one can. And Jesus’ response is to emphasize that it is indeed a human impossibility – but a divine possibility.

The implications of that are often nullified by Christians. Sure, we insist, there is something that we can do: whether it be trying very hard in some denominations, or reducing what is required to one human action of believing in others. But neither seems to take seriously what the text says: salvation is a human impossibility, but a divine possibility. There is nothing to suggest that human actions can add or assist, or that they can thwart the divine plan.

The question may not be whether the divine aim of transforming humanity can be accomplished, but only how long some of us may resist before ultimately love wins and triumphs over hatred and apathy.

On O’Reilly’s book, see also the 10 reasons why it stinks listed on The Jesus Blog.

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  • Ian

    This verse is a problem, I think. Because the ‘human impossibility’ is a get-out clause.

    I’ve had conversations with folks who take the ‘impossibility’ as basically negating what came before. You don’t actually need to give your money away, because even taking such extreme measures would not win you salvation. So you should focus entirely on accepting God’s grace. The ultimate endpoint of salvation by grace, is a life of sin and oppression of others, secure in the knowledge that you have the divine ticket, and nothing else you could do would change that.

    It might seem like a wonderful gospel, that we aren’t limited to our own strength, that Christ has won the victory, etc.

    But in reality it is a truly evil doctrine, perhaps the most evil you could devise.

    Now sure, the NT is highly inconsistent about hell, salvation, what humans must do, etc. So it is plenty easy enough to find some clobber verses: sheep and the goats, perhaps, a bit of James. And avoid the counter-clobbers of Paul, say. But ultimately it is undeniable, I suggest, that a large number of Christians have a salvation by grace theology, and that theology causes incredible amounts of suffering.

    • That is certainly one way of taking it, but it too makes something humans do, or actively avoiding doing while “believing,” the focus. But what Jesus seems to be saying there I think needs to be put in the context of the way the rich looked down upon the poor, and the religious on the unpious. Jesus is suggesting that the former do not have the advantage that they think they have, and thus the latter should not be shunned and marginalized. The very act of marginalizing and mistreating is evidence that you are yourself far away from the kingdom.

      Now, if where one goes from there is “So everyone is fine and so just do whatever you like and let God take care of everything,” then that probably suggests that one has understood salvation as merely something like escaping hell. But a kingdom of God populated with people who ignore the poor and needy is nothing to look forward to. And so I think the salvation that is in view is not something like “going to heaven when you die” but “participating in a kingdom that is not just about all being welcome but all being welcoming, not just about rescue from consequences but about personal and corporate transformation.”

      In other words, one can treat it as a case of “the poor cannot give enough to buy their way into the kingdom, and so giving away wealth or clinging to it doesn’t matter, only believing, or perhaps not even that.” But that fits poorly with Jesus’ overall teaching (although, as you say, there may be contradictions, I also like to avoid treating a single person’s thought as a convoluted mess if there is another option). And so I take salvation to involve the rich recognizing their only complicity in the poverty of the poor, and caring about why it is that injustice exists, and caring about seeing things changed. That is indeed something that is impossible as long as we are focused on ourselves. It is only by turning outward and focusing on a more all-encompassing reality that this can occur.

      • Ian

        Yes, there are ways to understand it that don’t fall foul of that indifference. Yours here is reasonable, and walks the right side of the moral fissure, as far as I can see. Another would be to say that, the passage suggests giving away one’s money is necessary but not sufficient. It might be impossible to win your own salvation by giving up your money, but by not retaining it, you walk away like the rich young man, and do not gain God’s help, guaranteeing your failure to enter the Kingdom.

        So my point was not that this should be understood in the problematic way, but that it is understood in that way, by a large number of western Christians. And that causes suffering and oppression.

        Therefore, I’d say, when discussing this passage, it is wise to keep its abuse in mind when interpreting it. The theology of salvation by grace is so toxic, in practical not theoretic terms, that it should not be thrown around lightly.

        I’m not, incidentally, criticising this post, I’m just saying why I think it is important to say more.

        • Michael Wilson

          I think people misunderstand grace. Believing does not mean saying something is true, but internalizing that truth so that ones actions spring from it. If I say I can fly but always use bridges and ladders, it says that I don’t really believe that. If some one says Christ is my master but doesn’t seem preoccupied in following his example, I would argue they really don’t think Christ is their master.

          One of the consistent themes of Jesus’ teaching is that God has absolute standards of good that cannot be met by anyone, not even Jesus, hence, “why do you call me good, only God is good.” thus if only good people participate in paradise, God will be dinning alone. But part of being good is forgiving people who act out of love for you, so if we love God and those who, God loves, we will be forgiven our short comings. Now I think Jesus is right that any one who can sleep peacefully on a golden bed probably doesn’t have the best interest of God and his creation at heart. The apostles had ingrained in them however that charity could be measured in gross amounts, so a guy that gave a thousand denarii to the poor did more good than the one who gives a copper mite, so as James mentioned, if the rich who can afford alms can’t get into heaven what chance do the apostles who can’t afford it?( Now by our standards Jesus and all his followers would be poor and, frankly even a king with all his gems and gold couldn’t buy decent medicine then. But back then any one whose labor could feed them was doing ok, the poor were the cleaners and beggars) Jesus I think is communicating that those with the right attitude can get on God’s good side, but someone being carried around on a gold litter borne by slaves probably doesn’t have that right attitude.

          • Ian

            I’m not sure how to respond to this Michael, because I’m not sure what point you’re trying to address. I was explicitly not talking about how it ‘should’ be understood, but how it is understood.

          • Michael Wilson

            Sorry, Ian, wasn’t questioning your point but just chiming in on the conversation, but I do question if there a lot of people who identify as Christian and take grace the way you say they do. “The ultimate endpoint of salvation by grace, is a life of sin and oppression of others, secure in the knowledge that you have the divine ticket, and nothing else you could do would change that” If they did then we would expect a lot more libertine and dastardly behavior. In fact while they may not be doing enough by someone else’s standard, most active Christians seem to be preoccupied with some sort of standard of goodness even if it is an inconvenience to an immediate pleasure. If it were not so, then we would have less tales of preachers having dark secrets exposed because they would never keep them because their congregations would not care, “Hey God forgives us of every thing, so why give a shit?” They give a shit because they either really believe that God does not forgive all or that they at least ought not to test God.

          • Ian

            ” If they did then we would expect a lot more libertine and dastardly behavior. ”

            I phrased the behaviour in deliberately tendentious terms.

            Sure they wouldn’t view their salvation as carte blanche for the commission of sins, but it is endemic to view salvation as carte blanche for sins of omission.

            Let’s look at economic injustice, as one example. Christian self-identification in the west is correlated with economic conservatism, individualism and capitalism. In contrast with the message of Jesus in the passage James is quoting. Christians do think “I don’t need to give my money to the poor, God isn’t calling me to that, he calls me to accept what Jesus did for me.” Many really do think this, and more. As they pin photos of beautiful colonial style houses to their Pinterest, or coo over their buddy’s new pickup, or vote for candidates who roll back food stamps, medical coverage or inner-city intervention projects.

            Now, you’re absolutely correct that all Christians see some kind of behavior as necessary. Even the IFB churches enforce conformity and strict adherence to their own peculiar interpretation of what is ‘fruit’. So it is not the case that anyone I’ve met has a “I can do anything, because I’m saved” view about sins they commit right then and there (though it is a different story for historic sins, which is another topic we can go into).

            But, in my experience, those people, when faced with the direct challenge to ‘feed the poor, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit those in prison’, reject it on the basis of a salvation by grace argument. It isn’t their responsibility to see those problems solved, because God’s call on their life is a call to faith (“there will always be poor”). So not only will they not act, but they won’t think twice about acting in ways that make it more difficult for others to solve those problems.

            What matters, what the authentic Christian life is made of, is holiness in response to the call, not fighting oppression and need.

            Not all, of course, don’t take any of this as being ‘all Christians are like this’, but merely as saying that this attitude to profit oneself and one’s family at the expense of others (evidenced in voting patterns and media consumption) is correlated with Christian profession. And I think it hinges on salvation by grace, and seeing ‘good works’ as somehow an inauthentic gospel calling.

          • Michael Wilson

            My experiences right wing evangelicals was different but again I haven’t been involved in that arena in a decade and only personally know a couple of them now, so you could be right. I personally haven’t encountered any active (I say this as opposed to people who are called Christian out of some sort of ethnic identification, such as “the people of Italy are Christian” are they? basically im addressing people who feel their Christian identification is important)Christians who engage in no charity at all, which seems to be the focus of your post, but I was addressing the call to give all one has to the poor and the related sentiment expressed by the camel and needle saying. Here Jesus isn’t asking to give something to the poor, but to give all, or at least to the point where one is no longer rich. Now it is entirely possible that the intention here was that Christians be without any luxuries or at least to hold them corporately. If so, then the number of people who are following this example are vanishingly rare, since owning a television would seem to disqualify one from the kingdom of heaven. I could say that my TV isn’t a big deal and I’m not really rich, hell I don’t even qualify to pay into the IRS, but then I’m justifying my self by judging another, “My TV doesn’t make me rich, but your yacht makes you rich!” Of course I live in a world where people still live in fear of starvation and lack access to clean water. I could sell my TV and improve somebody’s life, but I don’t. Now your right, to a degree I trust that God will forgive me for clinging to simple luxuries, but then I have to ask people share Candida Moss’ position, how do they justify them selves?

            Regarding these peoples politics of “economic conservatism, individualism and capitalism”, I would argue, and this is hard to deny, that economic liberalism has saved more people from poverty in 200 years than Christianity has in 2000. I don’t mean this to diminish Christianity or to say it does not seek to help, it does and of course it was withing the context of the protestant world that the liberal tradition evolved, but that without the tools of “economic conservatism, individualism and capitalism”, the world would still be locked in medievalism. On slashing budgets for food stamps, medicine and so forth, I think people can disagree on how much ought to be allocated to whatever program, and that these are all necessary and beneficial to some degree, though I don’t see how telling other people to give to the poor is giving to the poor. Giving to the poor is giving to the poor.

  • Jimmy Doyle

    I know she had just a little bit of time, and that makes discussions difficult, but I was let down by Moss’s presentation.

    In the video she states: “[in the Gospels]…a rich man is condemned to hell merely for not giving away his possessions.” (video at 2:50) Jesus never says this in the Gospels, although he does clearly say that it is difficult (impossible in the hyperbolic metaphor) for the rich to enter the kingdom of God/Heaven. Initially, I was thinking she was referencing the passage in Luke about the “rich man and Lazarus”, but it became clear that she was talking about the young man with wealth when she says of rich man: “He keeps the rest of the commandments.” Perhaps she connected/conflated this story with the rich man and Lazarus story? Whatever the case this where her own exegesis breaks down as well as her counter to O’Reilly. O’Reilly accuses her of misreading the text in that passage, and though she says “It’s not a misreading” in response, he’s actually (although, on many levels, probably unknowingly) correct.

    The Lucan story of the rich man going to Hades and Lazarus reclining with Abraham certainly has implications about the after-life for both rich and poor, but there’s no direct statement about the status of ungenerous wealthy persons in the afterlife. In the passages concerning the rich young man, there is no discussion about the afterlife, but the focus is generosity and (exclusion from) the kingdom—no mention of Hades or Gehenna. We unfortunately too often read-into “kingdom of God/Heaven” statements references to the afterlife, and I’m fairly certain that is not the primary way the kingdom was reflected in Jesus’ message in the Gospels. It’s surprising that Moss, Clark, and others have all followed the “going to Hell” route as being obvious and clear when it’s not in the text of this passage.

    She also accuses O’Reilly of being anachronistic (what was funny is that he seems unaware of that word, “What’s that word you used? ‘Anarnistic’?”), yet she still seems okay (even when recognizing and mentioning the problem of reading it that way) with calling Jesus a socialist. You can’t accuse someone of engaging in a flawed methodology, and then make it somehow valid for you to use it yourself simply because you acknowledged it as a problem.

    For these reasons I’m a little surprised at how popular this video has been with the blogging biblical studies crowd. I think it’s because we were overly excited for someone to put O’Reilly in his place. However, we should be just as critical of the attempt at correction as we are of the material we want corrected. Unfortunately, Moss ultimately does what she accuses O’Reilly of doing: “You misrepresent and cherry-pick the facts.”

    • The reference to “hell” in that particular context bothered me too, but I assumed she had Luke 14:33 particularly in mind.

  • Hello James.

    That’s a wonderful, remarkable post.

    I believe that fundamentalists and all conservative Christians pick and choose which verses to interpret symbolically (and to distort) and which one ought to be taken at face value.

    This leads them to focus all their attention on gay marriage (at most 0.01% of the New Testament) while perpetuating social injustices and atrocities such as different healthcare for poor and rich children.

    I think they completely miss the central message of Jesus


    which is all about loving God and one’s neighbor (and foe) as oneself.

    Sadly enough, many people give up Christianity altogether because they are convinced that the conservative version they’ve grown up with is the only possible one.

    Now I have several questions in order to better understand your position.

    Are you kind of persuaded there will be wonderful afterlife for everyone or is it just a hope?

    Interestingly you seem to be both a divine deterministic and a Universalist. Am I right?

    • I’m pretty much agnostic about the afterlife. It isn’t there in almost the entire Old Testament, and it has turned into something problematic in much modern Christianity, and so I think that we need at the very least to shift away from focusing on such things. I explore my thoughts on this in The Burial of Jesus in some detail.

      • I shall definitely read this book, the only problem is that I have a nearly endless list of books to be read :=) but yours deserves some priority. I suppose I will also find interesting videos on your Youtube channel.
        I’m also an agnostic but for me eternal life is very important, not only on a personal level but also for justice sake.
        I see no other way the evils of the world can be redeemed.

        But you’re right that it led and still leads many Christians to disregard the concrete problems of this world.

        To my mind this is due to their (profoundly blasphemous) belief God is going to throw into hell everyone having not made “a decision for Christ” during this earthly life.
        This leads them to send out many preachers to “save” people while completely neglecting their earthly needs.

        2013/10/5 Disqus

  • Andrew Dowling

    Ian brings up a great point. Going off of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels (and the very similar teachings found in the lone Jerusalem-based Jewish Christian document in the NT, the Book of James), salvation is contingent on what you DO; how you respond the situations life throws at you, how you respond to the cries of the poor and marginalized; how you treat others etc.

    It displays a concept so alien from most Protestant interpretations of Paul (confess your status as a sinner and that Jesus died for you, and voila, you are saved) that many strands of Reformed/evangelical theology basically treat Paul as the “TRUE” revelation of Jesus, and that Jesus’s teachings were more or less there to show us how unworthy we are to attain them. In this theology Jesus’s actual teachings (like the one mentioned above) are practically ignored and Jesus’s importance is reduced to the act of dying on the cross and the subsequent atonement action. Consequently, this focus on individual salvation ends up creating a culture that permits and even encourages horrible moral infringements (especially persecution of the “others” outside the salvation circle) . . which is exactly the opposite of what Jesus was trying to create IMO.

    I always find it incredibly frustrating how conservative Christians love to pinpoint obscure Bible verses about homosexuality and role of women to live and die on, but simply ignore the MULTITUDE of Bible verses both OT and NT about wealth and poverty. Ugh . . .