The epistemology of Team Hell

What I particularly like about that Rob Bell video that caused all the ruckus this weekend is the way Bell grounds his discussion in the character of God.“What is God like?” Bell asks.

Not, mind you, “What does God like?” or, worse, “Who does God like?” but “What is God like?” What do we know of the character of God and how do we know it?

The Christian answer to both of those questions is, as that word Christian suggests, based on Christ — on Jesus of Nazareth, on the story of Jesus of Nazareth, his life and teachings, his parables and parabolic acts, and especially on his death and resurrection. I suspect that much of what has people so angry with Bell is that this is how he seems to be approaching these questions. “What do we know of the character of God?” We know what we see in the story of Jesus Christ. “How do we know what we know of the character of God?” It is revealed to us through the story of Jesus Christ.

By addressing those questions in that way, Bell has inadvertently offended the many American evangelicals who would answer them differently. They would say the Bible is the ultimate revelation and authority for Christians — the only sufficient, necessary and infallible source of certainty and clarity. This is why they’re likely to describe themselves not merely as “Christians” — a term suggesting, again, that Christ is the center — but as “Bible-believing Christians,” which is wordier, but more euphonious than “Biblians” or some such more precise term.

Bell’s question — “What is God like?” — is wholly different from the question they are asking — “What is the source of authority?” And the difference there suggests why this disagreement is likely to get heated. Not only are we looking at two different and divergent inquiries, but two different and ultimately incompatible epistemologies. Disputes involving competing epistemologies tend to get heated because by definition they involve two sides that are unable to agree not just on the correct answer, but on what constitutes a correct answer.

In that sense, Team Hell was right not to wait to read Bell’s book before jumping all over him for what they suspect he says in it. They already know that whatever position he arrives at, whatever answer he gives, he is doing so on the basis of some other approach than the one they are using — the one they insist is the only right and acceptable and authoritative approach — the “authority of scripture.”

I tried yesterday to approach this question on their terms — applying the same language and something like the same epistemology that the Bible-beaters beating Bell with their Bibles are using. But that attempt was bound to fail — bound not to be persuasive to those committed to the naive claim of dependence solely on the authority of scripture.

Appealing to the text won’t work when we’re reading the text in such disparate ways that we might as well not even think of it as the same text. I’m trying to show how three 2,000-year-old stories — or, really, three variations of a single 2,000-year-old story — cannot be read as support for what they call the “literal” existence of Hell because these stories aren’t about that. They’re about ethics and redemption and the indivisible relationship between the two. But that’s not what they see when they read these stories. They don’t even seem to regard them as stories, but rather as “authoritative” doctrinal propositions. And seeing as those authoritative propositions contain words like “Hell” and “torment” and “lake of fire,” that’s all the authority they need as confirmation.

Bell’s approach, likewise, is bound to fail with this audience. “Is the doctrine of Hell compatible with the character of God as revealed in the story of Jesus Christ?” will meet with the same response as any other question: Concordance, proof-text, wham! — authoritative answer.

“Did we ever imagine that the application of biblical authority ought to be something that could be done by a well-programmed computer?” N.T. Wright asked rhetorically, apparently expecting the answer would be “No.” But “the application of biblical authority” is being done in exactly that way. The old dead-tree concordances have been replaced by searchable online texts, allowing evangelicals to seek out “biblical authority” by behaving as though they themselves were nothing more than “well-programmed computers.” (Or, rather, poorly programmed computers. Like some early beta version of “Eliza,” actually.)

Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, and a prolific writer of both scholarly and popular theological books, asked that question in a 1989 lecture titled “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?

That lecture provides a patient and thoughtful example of how to attempt engaging the other side in a conflict involving competing epistemologies.

Since Wright is better at this than I am, and since what he has to say here seems rather relevant to our discussion of the clash between Love Wins and Team Hell, allow me to excerpt a longish bit from Wright here:

When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations. They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation. “Authority” is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible. Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church? Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

… The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look. In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions. (1) How can any text function as authoritative? Once one gets away from the idea of a rule book such as might function as authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder. (2) How can any ancient text function as authoritative? … (3) How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative? How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative? It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you. But what would you do if, instead, he began “Once upon a time …”?

… the regular views of scripture and its authority … inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is  — a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book. They function by turning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book. This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it and whatever words beginning with ‘in-’ are used to label it. I propose that what we need to do is to re-examine the concept of authority itself and see if we cannot do a bit better. …

… We discover, as we look at the Bible itself, that God’s model of authority is not like that of the managing director over the business, not like that of the governing body over the college, not like that of the police or the law courts who have authority over society. There is a more subtle thing going on. God is not simply organizing the world in a certain way such as we would recognize from any of those human models. [God] is organizing it — if that’s the right word at all — through Jesus and in the power of the Spirit. And the notion of God’s authority, which we have to understand before we understand what we mean by the authority of scripture, is based on the fact that this God is the loving, wise, creator, redeemer God. And [God’s] authority is [God’s] sovereign exercise of those powers; [God’s] love and wise creations and redemption. What is [God] doing? [God] is not simply organizing the world. [God] is, as we see and know in Christ and by the Spirit, judging and remaking [God’s] world. What [God] does authoritatively [God] does with this intent. God is not a celestial information service to whom you can apply for answers on difficult questions. Nor is [God] a heavenly ticket agency to whom you can go for moral or doctrinal permits or passports to salvation. [God] does not stand outside the human process and merely comment on it or merely issue you with certain tickets that you might need. Those views would imply either a deist’s God or a legalist’s God, not the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. And it must be said that a great many views of biblical authority imply one or other of those sub-Christian alternatives.

But, once we say that God’s authority is like that, we find that there is a challenge issued to the world’s view of authority and to the church’s view of authority. Authority is not the power to control people, and crush them, and keep them in little boxes. The church often tries to do that — to tidy people up. Nor is the Bible as the vehicle of God’s authority meant to be information for the legalist. … Rather, God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings, to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human. That’s what God is in the business of doing. That is what [God’s] authority is there for. And when we use a shorthand phrase like “authority of scripture” that is what we ought to be meaning. It is an authority with this shape and character, this purpose and goal.

(Please don’t settle for this excerpt. Go read the whole thing — his musing on how a narrative might be “authoritative” is particularly fascinating.)

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  • Anonymous

    The video’s preview frame is totally “invisible cheeseburger”. :)

  • Sean Kozma

    I like the look of the new site, Fred.

  • The extraordinary thing about that video, for me as someone’s who’s already decided that Christianity is not for them, is that a Christian pastor is more or less echoing my thoughts over the whole ‘heaven’ question. I think of it a little differently – focusing more on the sort of person one apparently needs to be to get to heaven, according to the evangelicals, and how spending eternity with them would be eternal torment of a sort that would make being eternally roasted seem pleasant by comparison. Being bored and alone for eternity is a terrifying prospect to me.

    Anyway, I’m aiming to go where Ghandi went, if there is indeed an afterlife that is not merely another life – although if Ghandi got a special You’re An Amazing Person afterlife then I will be forced to go somewhere else.

  • I have a huge problem with the whole “afterlife as a reward or punishment” model anyway. I find it offensive to my sense of ethics. I tend to side with Einstein (I think it was him) when he said that it’s a questionable person who needs the promise of reward or threat of punishment to do the right thing.

    The idea of a heaven that is the consequence of decent people who live ethical lives is a bit more appealing to me, but it’s theologically problematic. To my mind, God started out with two sinless creations (angels and humans) and things got mucked up pretty quickly (Lucifer mucked it up when it was angels, Adam and Eve mucked it up when it was humans). And yet, I’m supposed to believe God’s going to have better luck and that luck is going to last forever with attempt number three when He’s already starting out with humans who have demonstrated they can muck it up? I know “third time’s the charm,” but come on….

  • Dave

    But how do we answer the question of what God is like? Surely we answer by listening to what God has to say in the words and actions of his Word, Jesus Christ.

    It is often commented, but is true that the most loving person who ever lived is the person who in the Bible warns people of the danger hell more than any other – out of love, to save us from it. And in his actions we see hell experienced by him on the cross – out of love, to save us from it.

  • Mr. Clark,

    Daylight Atheism has taken issue with a the “mere rhetoric” argument, as well as with an apparently important omission from your list of verses. Link to the main:

    I’ll post that second part here:

    “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.”

    —Matthew 13:49-50

    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.”

    —Matthew 7:13-14″

    What is your response to these verses?

  • Reed1gm

    This is just Silly. The idea that you know God better if you only read the nice parts of the bible is every bit as silly as the idea tha Gandhi is in hell. Editing out the most absurd parts of a Farce still leaves you with a farce. You are intigent enough to know a lie when you see it, don’t go into church and tell them the problem is that they aren’t lieing well enough and then give them pointers on how better to fool you.

  • Anonymous

    Well, on the plus side, despite not being the most atheist friendly place ever, we still get the Real True Atheists over here. *sigh* Is there no rest for the weary?

  • wow,what vid was that!!what to say..

  • hf

    @Benjamin Cano: That seems like an ugly passage to me, sure. But it consists of Jesus explaining parables where people throw something away. Fire suggests “destruction”, not eternal torment.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I think Fred overstated the case back when he said you couldn’t find any account of eternal Hell in the Bible. His current claim seems closer to mine: you can’t form any coherent doctrine of Hell based on the Bible, because the authors never had that goal in mind. And this may hold true even if you ignore the part about throwing Hades into Hell as too obviously metaphorical.

  • hf

    Also, while the parable of the fish and the nearby, almost identical parable of the weeds don’t define evil, the same chapter does have a parable of seed sown among thorns. Jesus here calls the thorns “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches,” which “choke the word”. Presumably we should remember this when he talks about angels throwing “all causes of sin and all law-breakers” into a fiery furnace. First of all, this makes the furnace sound more metaphorical (at least in the online translation). I don’t know how you’d go about throwing “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” into fire. Second, it sounds a bit more like everything else Jesus says in these stories, a bit more like this.

  • Madhabmatics

    There Is No Balm In Gilead

  • Jojo

    You are going to hell yourself! period!

  • Sean Kozma

    Your certitude of the fate of others souls is funnier than the funniest comedian. It is not given to you to determine who goes where, nor even to know that decision, regardless of what you may think.

    But you continue to pretend like you know the mind of God. That always seems to go over so well with Him.

  • Rusty

    It is interesting that those like Rob Bell, when asking the question “What is God like?,” like to leave out the fact that God is, in addition to being love, merciful, kind, good, etc., also holy, just and righteous. He is all of these and when we realize that, punishment for sin makes sense. I agree will Rob Bell on beginning with the character of God (not just by looking at Jesus’ life and actions but by taking into account), but see no conflict with His character and his works, including casting the unrighteous into the lake of fire. When we do that (look at all his attributes), eternal punishment is not incompatible with His character.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You’re goalpost-moving. Punishment making sense I’ll buy. Eternal punishment for finite fault? Not so much.

  • In theory (practice is another story), the whole point of punishment is to act as a corrective and teach the punished person what is and is not an acceptable way to behave.

    The problem with eternal punishment is that it completely breaks this pattern. Not only does the punishment never end, but the person being punished never gets a chance to act on the lessons learned. Therefore eternal punishment serves no other goal than to enshrine vengeance and bullying.

  • Surely, your argument only makes sense if it is “just” to mete out infinite punishment for temporal sin. It seems much more like condemning someone to an eternity of punishment for anything less than an infinite sin would be perfectly unjust

    (For a very long time I believed in hell something like what i believe about capital punishment: In abstract principle, possible. But no actual person could actually merit receiving it)