The paradox of pitchforks, a devilish problem

I want to turn here away from the doctrine of Hell in itself to explore briefly a bit of the folklore that has attached itself to it. Specifically I want to look at the odd notion that Hell exists as a physical location that is also the workplace of hordes of devils and demons. That is, the idea that Hell is a place where such creatures are employed rather than a place where they are punished.

"Capital Sins and Hell," in Florence Cathedral, by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari

I refer to this as folklore because it isn’t actually part of any official dogma or doctrine. It is not, to be clear, something that those I’ve been calling Team Hell believe to be true. Their selectively literalist reading of Matthew 25 differs greatly from my own understanding of what that passage is saying, emphasizing Jesus’ reference there to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and interpreting that as a didactic teaching about the specific reality of such a place, rather than an emphatic allusion intended to stress the main point of the story (feed the hungry, clothe the needy, comfort the sick). But they do not believe any more than I do that it refers to Hell as a place “prepared for the devil and his angels” to help them find gainful employment.

Yet this idea persists, dogging the contentious doctrine of Hell throughout the centuries and inextricably binding itself to it. This is an unavoidably common image conjured up by the word “Hell” — this unshakable idea of a fiery landscape dotted with horned, goat-footed creatures tormenting the damned with pitchforks. No matter how cautious and studiously precise the theologians of Hell try to be in defining that place or state, this idea always lingers close at hand — the connotation to their every denotation.

On the one hand, this is a very strange bit of folklore. Why should these devils and demons escape the punishments being meted out to mortal sinners? “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven,” Milton’s Satan said, but where did either Milton or his Satan get the idea that he would “reign” there? Why has it become common to think of Satan as something like the CEO of Hell, rather than one of its prisoners? Why have so many preachers and artists — dating back many centuries before Milton — seemed so convinced that Satan would be a torment-or in Hell, rather than a torment-ee?

From that angle it doesn’t make much sense. But viewed another way, the idea has a compelling logic to it.

Let’s stipulate that the damned are to be tortured for eternity. OK, then, who exactly will be doing the torturing? It seems unseemly to imagine God directly involved, personally poking the gangrenous flesh of sinners with a heavenly pitchfork. And it’s unimaginable that this eternal duty could be delegated to the angels, who desire nothing more than to spend eternity in the presence of God, singing praises. Nor could this task be delegated to the saints. They’re saints, after all, and thus such an assignment would be for them an eternal punishment nearly rivaling that of the souls they would be assigned to torment.

This job, if it must be done, is clearly devils’ work. Only a fiend could carry out such an assignment. Only a demon — a monstrous, soulless, malevolent and wholly unholy creature — could devote itself to eternal torture, unrestrained by mercy, unhampered by revulsion or repugnance.

And thus we come to the paradox of pitchforks. Any creature capable of eternally wounding another creature with a pitchfork lacks the authority to wield that pitchfork, rightfully belonging at the other end of it. The pointy, business end of it.

What the paradox of pitchforks means, of course, is that this enduring bit of folklore doesn’t really work. It doesn’t solve the problem it sets out to solve. It kicks the can a bit down the road, but doesn’t ultimately address the uncomfortable question it arises to deal with, namely the disturbing thought of God’s culpability in this unholy devils’ work. Here the idea of devilish sub-contractors working on God’s behalf does no more to protect God from complicity than the charade of “extraordinary rendition” does to protect the United States from complicity in the abuse of those we allegedly handed over to be tortured. All those goat-footed devils in the medieval frescoes and illuminated manuscripts, this idea says, are God’s proxies — God’s servants, God’s employees.

And so we’re back at the original problem, putting the pitchfork back into the hand of a fiendish God. That was the very disturbing notion that I believe prompted us to concoct this whole devils-and-pitchforks business to begin with.

Not everyone finds this notion disturbing, however. Some argue that God is not subject to the paradox of pitchforks because God is perfectly holy and perfectly righteous and therefore perfectly capable of tormenting a suffering creature with a pitchfork, eagerly, forever, without any loss of moral authority. I understand the form of this argument, but it seems to be based on several words not meaning what I think they usually mean.

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  • Anonymous

    Only slightly apropos to the pitchfork demons, but I had a dream a couple nights ago wherein there was a pattern of stones arranged for some reason on the campus of my old high school, on which lots of text were carved in some language that wasn’t English …

    … so a group of the local fundamentalists had decided that these stones must relate somehow to the summoning of demons …

    … and I was trying to argue that they were wrong, and I read the text on the stones, and hey what do you know I can read it (it’s a dream, go with it) …

    … and the text prominently featured references to the Doctor …

    … so I thought well that’s all right then,

    and I can recall waking up a little bit and feeling comforted and reassured by that thought.

    So there’s something I think I can understand about the attitudes and thoughts of Team Hell, that there’s something really scary out there, so scary you want to hide behind the sofa, but here’s someone who will protect you from that scary thing.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    Not everyone finds this notion disturbing, however. Some argue that God is not subject to the paradox of pitchforks because God is perfectly holy and perfectly righteous and therefore perfectly capable of tormenting a suffering creature with a pitchfork, eagerly, forever, without any loss of moral authority. I understand the form of this argument, but it seems to be based on several words not meaning what I think they usually mean.

    I tackled this in a comment on another blog which was discussing the whole divine judgement/divine wrath topic. I came to the conclusion that for these people “Godly morality” is not the same as “human morality,” and that God expects humans to act “moral” in a sense that is completely different for Him to act “moral.”

    The inherent problem with this model in my mind is that it means that it completely shatters the notion that humans could become more “godly,” because acting more “godly” would mean acting in ways that are not okay for us to act because it’s only okay for God to act that way.

    Not to mention, it really throws a wrench in that whole “Jesus is God” thing, because Jesus clearly models “human morality” rather then “Godly morality” and calls people to follow his example.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > for these people “Godly morality” is not the same as “human morality,” and that God expects humans to act “moral” in a sense that is completely different for Him to act “moral.”

    I agree with this, actually. Actually, I would make a stronger claim: it seems to me that it could not possibly be any other way.

    I don’t know what my understanding of morality would be if I could entirely know the minds of all the people I’ve ever met… still less if I could know the minds of all the people in the world… still less if I could know the minds of all the people who ever lived… still less if I could know the minds of all the people who might have lived but didn’t… still less all the people who might live in the future.

    I don’t know what my understanding of morality would be if I could know what will result from an action being taken, or not being taken.

    I don’t know what my understanding of morality would be if I genuinely experienced the human condition as a not-especially-advanced point on a vast continuum.

    I can’t even begin to imagine.

    But I know for a near certainty that whatever morality a mind capable of those things might consider good and right and proper for itself, that morality is simply not accessible to me.

    > it completely shatters the notion that humans could become more “godly,” because acting more “godly” would mean acting in ways that are not okay for us to act because it’s only okay for God to act that way

    That’s not clear to me.

    My understanding of morality is not accessible to a three-month-old, but I fully expect that every three-month-old can come to access my understanding of morality. It just takes time, and experience.

    And, yes, what kind of behavior is “okay” will change for that child during that process, as it did for each of us.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ JarredH

    My understanding of morality is not accessible to a three-month-old, but I fully expect that every three-month-old can come to access my understanding of morality. It just takes time, and experience.

    We’re not talking about the kind of moral maturing that goes on from age three to adulthood. I do not see any way that one could get from “turn the other cheek when people hurt you” to “pour boiling coals upon such people for all eternity” through maturing morally. It requires a complete rejection of one point of view to a view that diametrically opposed to it.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    @JarredH — Perhaps you’re right. I’m certainly not endorsing the “pour boiling coals upon people for all eternity” view of morality, which I consider to be entirely a product of human thinking.

    That said, I’m fairly certain that whatever moral view *is* held by an intelligence capable of that sort of vast perspective, it is a view I cannot encompass and would likely find unacceptably disquieting.

  • Jason

    @Falconer-

    So there’s something I think I can understand about the attitudes and thoughts of Team Hell, that there’s something really scary out there, so scary you want to hide behind the sofa, but here’s someone who will protect you from that scary thing.

    “hide behind the sofa”, eh?

    Couldn’t they just start watching Doctor Who? (-;

  • Anonymous

    I don’t actually believe that Hell exists, but when I believed in it as a child and teenager, I just figured that the torturing was done mostly by machines and magic. If it really was a lake of fire, you could be in it with a screen above your head so you can’t escape, and that requires nobody, so long as you have a machine or magic to get you into the lake in the first place. Or you could be strapped onto an conveyor belt and just rotate around to various horrific torture machines. Or Satan could use robots to do the torturing.

  • Alex

    Now that I’ve read over some of the earlier comments more carefully, I like the idea that Hell is sanctioned by God, with his sidekick Satan (the one who tested and tempted people’s faith as a willing part of God’s test-and-smite strategy in the Old Testament, not the prideful rebellious Seraph largely invented by Milton misreading Isaiah) in charge of the place. Satan thus serves as both prosecutor of the tempted and warden of the finally condemned. It’s an internally consistent idea if you actually believe in a God who sends people to Hell for their sins. Again, not something I believe, but it is at least consistent with Old Testament God.

  • Anonymous

    “Pitchfork Paradox” would be a great name for an emocore band.

    I just finished reading Escape from Hell, by Niven & Pournelle, the sequel to their earlier Inferno. Both novels are modern-day depictions of Dante’s Hell as experienced by a 20th-century agnostic. The protagonist actually spends a good portion of the first book hypothesizing that he’s being screwed with by evil aliens, before his skepticism finally cracks and he is forced to accept that this can only be God at work. This leads into the problem of God being apparently evil (at one point, one of the damned laments “We’re in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism”), and the protagonist tries to determine whether there is a reason and utility to Hell, while simultaneously trying to get out of course.

    Niven & Pournelle portray their Hell as a place of last-ditch redemption, Purgatory’s basement in a way, the destination of special cases who can’t be made to face up to their sins any other way. It’s not eternal — although that fact is not advertised — and theoretically anyone can leave once they have reached a state of true atonement for the things that put them there. (The sequel is basically all about the protagonist making a grand tour of Hell to confirm that it’s at least possible for anyone to escape, even those turned into trees or buried in ice.)

    I wouldn’t say the books portray God as good or competent — by story’s end that issue is still very much in question — but Niven & Pournelle do at least manage to offer a Hell with purpose, and something at least approximating justice and spiritual growth. We meet many demons (and humans) who are overseeing the place, and are described as doing God’s work in Hell. Interestingly, the pitchfork-demons acknowledge that they are God’s employees, while Satan himself seems to be just another inmate whom nobody answers to.

  • Froborr

    Argh, I am torn!

    On the one hand, oohh, sequel to Inferno.

    On the other hand, has Niven written anything good since the 80s?

    Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a gripping hand…

  • Anonymous

    @ Froborr: In my dream the night before last I was being trained for some important mission by a) one of my actual Senseis, b) a graceful but unknown lady in a black gi and c) someone who, now I come to think of it, vaguely resembled Terry Pratchett’s Sergeant Jackrum. It also had a race of sort-of fairies (looked like drawings of tiny fairies but increased to adult size without being adjusted to adult proportions) who had a name I can’t quite remember – started with a ‘c’ and ended in ‘mper’ or ‘uper’ with some other vowels and things in the middle.

    @ Dave and Izzy: I don’t share your impulse to punish rather than redeem utter evil, probably because I find it too hard to imagine somebody being actively evil without any redeeming features. However, if I did, my current temptation would be to assign all my colleagues who are eating delicious cake in front of my face in the middle of Lent to some mild Pit somewhere.

    @ Alex: I think it would be possible to have an internally consistent God and a Miltonian Satan. It would require Satan to be a bit thick and God to be manipulating the situation to co-ordinate an organisted torture chamber for hell without looking responsible. God looks nastier and more underhand, but also more likely to continually smile and claim to be shiny and good. I’d hate to be the poor soul (or angelic being) who cottoned on to the ruse. There’s probably a story in there – our hero(es) race(s) to alert Satan (who is still a nasty bit of work) to the divine scheme in the hope (but not the certainty) of making things slightly easier for the souls in torment by disrupting the devils’ chain of command.

  • Alex

    @alfgifu: see, that just comes back to the problem of God being not only evil, but really pettily evil and way more concerned with His image than the substance of his actions. Fine for fiction, but I can’t ascribe those traits to the God I worship in academic discussion.

    @Peanutsandraisins: at least the way I look at it, it’s not that Hell’s prisoners torture each other. It’s that the stronger, eviler ones will set up a hierarchy of brute force (however “brute force” is measured in the afterlife) like you see in prisons, since in this idea of Hell, that’s exactly what it is – a prison with no oversight or rehabilitation programs or chance of parole.

    Now, as a Christian, I don’t believe in any Hell like the one described here, nor do I imagine people would receive the eternal punishments referenced in the Bible simply by being non-Christians. The idea is simply that if you are a person who’s honest with himself about his failings and tries to be a better person (that being my idea of what “repentance” or “being saved” means), good things will happen to you after you die. If you are not, bad things will happen. I am not qualified to comment on what exactly these “good things” or “bad things” are, or how long either lasts, since I have no experience of being dead.

  • Anonymous

    @Alex: Oh, yes, I certainly wasn’t suggesting it as a possibility for reality, just as another internally consistent model that made sense once you ditched the requirement for God to be good.

    I think the whole of my opinion about heaven and hell can be summed up as: we don’t really have much evidence to go on, but I trust God as revealed incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.

    I hope for universal redemption, but as I said above I know I’m rubbish at imagining the sort of evil that probably can exist. It’s not my place to make any judgement calls about who’s in and who’s out and I am extremely glad of that.

    Since we’re so low on evidence, I find the discussion more interesting for what it reveals about the people taking part in it here and now, on Earth, than for what speculation takes place about the afterlife.

  • Peanutsnraisins

    It’s that the stronger, eviler ones will set up a hierarchy of brute force (however “brute force” is measured in the afterlife) like you see in prisons, since in this idea of Hell, that’s exactly what it is – a prison with no oversight or rehabilitation programs or chance of parole.

    An interesting idea, which raises some questions. If the stronger residents of hell set up a kind of fiendish totalitarian state, does that mean there can be rebellion and overthrow of the leaders? Could the weaker, but possibly more numerous, good unsaved folk gang up and set up a representative democracy in hell? If the leaders (Satan and his chief lieutenants, or the chief humans) are just too strong, and rebellion is impossible, could there be communities formed by the weaker residents for mutual comfort and support? And underground railroads, as it were, helping the less-evil escape to a place of, well, less evil?

    The whole idea seems to me to be based more in fiction than reality. In fiction, you can have an infinitely powerful dictator who cannot be overthrown- in reality, every dictator knows that rebellion is always possible. In fiction, humans are capable of infinite cruelty and misery- in reality, even in miserable times, some humans find ways to be happy and caring anyway. Which means that for a hell to be real, then the nature of our reality would have to change.

    I suppose it could be justified as “it’s the afterlife, of course things are different, the old reality is gone”. But then how, or why, should anything from that utterly different, weirdly inhuman afterlife be applicable to us here today? I suppose it’s mostly idle speculation, but it’s also giving me story ideas…

  • Peanutsnraisins

    One problem I’ve had with the “hell’s prisoners torture each other” idea is that it assumes everyone who ends up in hell will be a torturer. It’s the same assumption L&J make in Left Behind- that all unsaved people are horrible, fiendish creatures who really would rape and kill and steal if they thought they could get away with it, and will as soon as they are let loose in hell.

    Obviously this ignores the reality that many “unsaved” people are not fiends, and would work against the fiends if imprisoned with them.

    One way around this is with Matthew 25’s “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me”. The righteous unsaved really *are* saved, whether they think they are or not, leaving only the fiendish ones to hell. This has always struck me as both presumptuous and patronizing, and also as contradicting other Christian doctrine (whether it’s baptism or saying the magic words, or whatever, most Christians seem to me to think that there has to be a conscious choice in becoming a Christian).

    Another way around it is the idea that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world makes people be better than they would be on their own. Again, this is presumptuous (“you’re really a fiend inside, you just don’t know it!”), and brings up a question of free will (how free are we if some or most of the choices are closed off to us?).

    I don’t believe in hell, so I think it’s all academic anyway, but I’m curious if there are ways to keep the idea of a torturey hell while also acknowledging that there are many people (many of whom have explicitly rejected a Christian God) who are not fiendish enough to be torturers.

  • Peanutsnraisins

    One problem I’ve had with the “hell’s prisoners torture each other” idea is that it assumes everyone who ends up in hell will be a torturer. It’s the same assumption L&J make in Left Behind- that all unsaved people are horrible, fiendish creatures who really would rape and kill and steal if they thought they could get away with it, and will as soon as they are let loose in hell.

    Obviously this ignores the reality that many “unsaved” people are not fiends, and would work against the fiends if imprisoned with them.

    One way around this is with Matthew 25’s “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me”. The righteous unsaved really *are* saved, whether they think they are or not, leaving only the fiendish ones to hell. This has always struck me as both presumptuous and patronizing, and also as contradicting other Christian doctrine (whether it’s baptism or saying the magic words, or whatever, most Christians seem to me to think that there has to be a conscious choice in becoming a Christian).

    Another way around it is the idea that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world makes people be better than they would be on their own. Again, this is presumptuous (“you’re really a fiend inside, you just don’t know it!”), and brings up a question of free will (how free are we if some or most of the choices are closed off to us?).

    I don’t believe in hell, so I think it’s all academic anyway, but I’m curious if there are ways to keep the idea of a torturey hell while also acknowledging that there are many people (many of whom have explicitly rejected a Christian God) who are not fiendish enough to be torturers.

  • LanceThruster

    ~ The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary, men alone are quite capable of every wickedness. ~
    Joseph Conrad

    Read more: http://www.finestquotes.com/select_quote-category-Evil-page-0.htm#ixzz1GsTZZI8R

  • Froborr

    It’s been a few years since Milton class, but IIRC, when Satan says that line he’s giving a Rousing Speech ™ to the other fallen angels, and pretty much any time Satan talks to anyone else in Paradise Lost, he’s lying. I seem to recall, once he got on his own and we got to hear some of his internal monologue, his sentiments are closer to the Faust quote below.

    Also, that “but the bad people need to be punished or it’s not fair” attitude is why I say I don’t believe in justice. First of all, I think the phrase “bad person” is effectively meaningless, though I confess to occasionally employing it for rhetorical purpose. Second of all, what good does it do? When someone is punished, the amount of suffering in the world increases; it becomes a worse place. If that punishment ultimately serves to make the world a better place by preventing worse suffering, okay, that’s good–but shouldn’t we seek to create as little suffering as possible in the process?

  • hapax

    If I were to believe in a torture-y Hell with a CEO Satan (which I don’t), I’d kind of opt for spinning out the Sufi conception of Satan.

    (Short version: God creates Adam, and proud of His handiwork, requires all Creation to submit to humanity as God’s image. Iblis, mindful of the obligation to submit to and worship God alone, refuses. Iblis is punished to Hell for his disobedience, but remembered an honored as an uncompromising monotheist.)

    In this scenario, Hell would serve as basically Satan’s answer to God: “You claim these pitiful creatures are Your Image? See how far they have fallen! They deserve not my submission, but my contempt and punishment, for dishonoring the place you have created for them!”

    Which, yeah, turns torture into a form of worshipping the Greater Good, and ick ick ick [reaches for the brain scrub]

    Actually, I believe in Hell the way I believe in dragons — which, as Chesterton reminds us, are necessary to children’s stories as a way of making the powerful evils and horrors of this world concrete for the sole purpose of giving us the knowledge that they can be completely vanquished.

    Dragons exist to be slain; Hell exists to be overthrown and emptied. The story tells us that this has already been done, is always being done, and invites us to participate in the doing.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    Thanks to everyone for the kind words! Feel very hugged. :-)

  • Anonymous

    One more hug to you Kit. You’re doing the right thing.

  • Heart

    One thing that I always found strange about the argument that the prisoners in Hell torment each other is that it is often said side by side with the idea of `grace, not works` as the determining factor for whether you go to heaven or not.

    If good people can go to hell simply for not following God, what is to stop them from being good people in hell. I’ve heard people argue that when you’re not with God, you can’t be good, but that implies that all good actions are actually God acting through us, which brings up the issue of free will, which then loops back to Hell since that’s the justifaction for sending them to hell in the first place. It’s weird.

  • Mark Z.

    Heart: One thing that I always found strange about the argument that the prisoners in Hell torment each other is that it is often said side by side with the idea of `grace, not works` as the determining factor for whether you go to heaven or not. If good people can go to hell simply for not following God, what is to stop them from being good people in hell.

    You’re getting deep into Calvinist territory there, where one of the core principles is that there are no good people. Grace is what enables people to be good, and also what enables them to go to heaven. In hell, they’re denied the grace of God and thus are unable not to be jerks. And the justification for sending them to hell is not that they’re bad people*, but that God can send anyone to hell if he wants. Calvin said that that’s a pretty horrible thing for God to do, but didn’t see any other option consistent with his theology.

    * As Jesus said, “Do you think they were worse sinners than anyone else in Jerusalem?” Except that was about people killed in an earthquake. I’m pretty sure Judgment Day is supposed to be less random than that. It’s not called Wrong Place At The Wrong Time Day.

  • Froborr

    Calvin said that that’s a pretty horrible thing for God to do, but didn’t see any other option consistent with his theology.

    And, of course, Calvin being Calvin, it didn’t occur to him that his theology might therefore be wrong.

  • Froborr

    Something in this thread, I can’t place exactly what, is reminding me strongly of a parody of a Chick tract in which Jack Chick dies, goes before God, and learns that his brand of Christianity is completely false. Specifically, I remember God says, “Why would a being of infinite power and knowledge need to sacrifice itself to itself to change a rule it made itself?” When Chick is unable to answer, God tells him “try again” and reincarnates him.

  • Anonymous

    On depression, I have a kooky theory about brain chemistry and the emotional experience. I’ve read lots of reports that talk about how people under the influence of hallucinogenic chemicals often have experiences that they interpret as deeply meaningful in a spiritual or religious sense. Some religions have used chemicals deliberately for this purpose, resulting in drugs called “entheogens,” or loosely translated, “god-inducers.”

    Recently, there’s also been some revived study of hallucinogens and entheogens as antidepressants. If these work, then I wonder if the experience of depression might be justifiably explained as an emotional and psychological experience like being deserted by deity. That is, if the entheogens fix depression by making up for a lack, then whatever the entheogens produce is what the person lacked beforehand.

    I realize that this is not how science works, and this isn’t a scientific argument. But my experience supports the idea that depression is like being absolutely sure that God hates you (or, at least, doesn’t love you and doesn’t care enough to hate you either) and the world is devoid of all meaning and purpose.

    Edited to fix word choice error.

  • Kristy

    This thread reminds me of the Heinlein short story – I think it’s called “Coventry.” The basic idea is that future humans have set up, more or less, Utopia. It’s a perfect society, everyone is provided for, everyone is free. The only rule is that your exercise of your own freedom cannot harm anyone else or impinge on their freedom. Those who prove, repeatedly, to be unwilling or unable to live by that rule (or those who find the endless peace and harmony to be insipid and boring) have two choices. They can willingly submit to psychological adjustment (it never specifies what this entails, but it’s implied to be as gentle and non-coercive as the rest of the society) to get them to the point where they can stand to live peacefully and respectfully with others, or they are allowed to gather whatever belongings they can carry with them and are shown – gently, kindly, but firmly – to the door. They can come back any time they want, but as before, they either need to show that they can live in this utopian society, or they need to undergo psychological adjustment to bring them to that point, before they can re-enter.

    Our hero in this story is someone who finds the Utopian paradise restrictive and stifling; he wants to leave and go to “Coventry” (the free lands outside the borders), imagining that there he can, essentially, reign in Hell. The problem, he quickly finds, is that Coventry (and, one imagines, Hell) is by definition filled with people who don’t play well with others, don’t respect other’s rights, and don’t really mind hurting people – and

    I doubt Heinlein was intending to write a heaven/hell allegory, but it’s not a bad one. “If you don’t want to live in a benevolent, peaceful, happy society, you don’t have to. You’re free to leave at any time. We’d like you to stay, but if you don’t want to be happy and peaceful, we won’t force you. Just remember that out there, we don’t set the rules. (That’s sort of the point of “out there.”) We can’t control what happens to you if you leave. But just remember, you can come back any time you want.”

    Significantly, Heinlein being Heinlein, even by the end of the story, it’s still pretty ambiguous whether he thinks the safe and peaceful Utopia or the barbaric, dangerous Coventry is better :) But part of the point, to me, is that neither one has to be “better” than the other. The important thing is that you have a choice.

    (I’m also reminded of the Dante-ish “Hell” created Below Stairs in the book “Waiting for the Galactic Bus.” In that one, the book’s nominal “Satan” was surprised to find that some humans not only expected, but seemed to want or need some sort of punishment in the afterlife. He obligingly created some, but made sure that the area contained several well-lit exits which the damned were encouraged to use…)

  • Froborr

    How is Coventry-style Hell any different from Earth?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659001961 Brad Ellison

    All the boys and girls who can play well with others have been filtered out?

  • https://profiles.google.com/ravanan101 Ravanan

    Perhaps Earth is Hell.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    @Kit Whitfield – Yeah, my psychiatrist has mentioned that kind of therapy ><

    *Long story. Short version: I live with my mom, who makes good money for a single person; but can't really afford to pay for me and pay her own bills. They used to say "Okay, we're just looking at your personal income." now it's "We're looking at everyone in the house's income." American healthcare ladies and gentlemen; if your depressed but really would rather work than go on disability, then you'd damned well better be able to crawl out of your hole mostly alone.

    On the upside, thanks to the internet, I may well be able to do that if I can get my webcomics rolling. Yes it's a long shot, but no one wants to hire me as-is, so traditional work isn't forthcoming, and my writing abilities are decent. Art is improving rapidly too. Er, yes, basically I'm digging myself out with a pencil, keyboard, and a bottle of pills. (. .) It'll make a great autobiography title if it works, eh? <,< (What? I can dream dammit…)

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    @JJohnson — I’m sorry it’s being hard.

    In my limited experience, the key to this sort of therapy is mindfulness… that is, developing the habit of being aware of what is going on with you right now, this moment, this instant. Often, things like depression and anxiety have a way of flattening out over time, once that habit is established. So you might be able to make some progress just by doing that.

    The “this instant” part is important, though. It isn’t “Oh, yeah, I do X and Y and Z all the time”… it’s “I am currently thinking about the things I do.” That turns out to be very hard for most people to sustain, although it usually gets easier with practice.

    It’s also worth saying that nothing works for everyone and individual cases vary. Still, it’s worth experimenting with.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Yeah. That’s going to be the trick I think ><

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    JJohnson – have you read Feeling Good by David Burns? That’s a good book on the subject.

    You say it doesn’t sink in: you may have encountered these already, but in case you haven’t…

    One way of doing it is to put it to yourself in percentages. It goes sort of like this:

    1. What’s the thought that’s making me unhappy?
    2. To what per cent do I believe it?
    3. Okay, are there any thinking errors in that thought?
    4. Is there any evidence for this belief? Is there evidence against it? Let’s think about the evidence against it in particular.
    5. How many alternatives to this belief can I think of? (They only have to be ‘maybes’, not things you definitely believe.)
    6. Okay, what per cent do I believe it now?

    The answer to 6 is almost never ‘zero per cent’; usually it goes from 80 or 90% to 40 or 50%. But the point is that that’s a big improvement, and that it gets easier with practice.

    (Note: if it’s more than one thought, you list them all and start by tackling the one with the highest percentage.)

    Another method is to try to find the toxic core beliefs. It goes sort of like this:

    You take a negative thought, and ask yourself, ‘What does that mean to me?’ Then, when you have an answer to that, you ask the same question again. You ask it about five times. So, for instance, it could go:

    1. I don’t want to go out tonight. (What does that mean to me?)
    2. I don’t have enough energy. (What does that mean to me?)
    3. I won’t be able to do my job. (What does that mean to me?)
    4. I’ll lose my job and be unable to support myself. (What does that mean to me?)
    5. I’ll be a failure. (What does that mean to me?)
    6. There’s no point in living if I can’t succeed.

    Then, once you’ve got it down to the core belief, you challenge it as above.

    Don’t know if any of that helps, but might be worth a try.

  • Anonymous

    @Kit Whitfield: I read part of Feeling Good some years ago, and I was irked by the way it seemed to present any “negative” thought as harmful and to be eliminated, regardless of whether that thought was true. I also found the insistence that we can be happy if we control our thoughts appropriately disempowering rather than empowering, because it implies that if we’re not happy, we’re not appropriately controlling our thoughts.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    While I admit I have doubts about making it work alone… I’m going to try this again; and follow these explicit steps.

    It can’t hurt anything, and it has potential – which I need. Thank you Kit for being so very, very awesome; it’s pretty hard to talk about this stuff in RL; even with my psychiatrist when I see him. Err… basically what I’m saying is thank you for taking the time to try to help.

    If nothing else, absolutely nothing else – it means something to me that someone cared to spend a few minutes offering ideas.

  • Kristy

    Froborr – How is Coventry-style Hell any different from Earth?

    Brad Ellison – All the boys and girls who can play well with others have been filtered out?

    Essentially :) There’s nothing intrinsically bad about Coventry (and quite a few good things). It’s just that a) there is no external force requiring people to play nice, and b) everyone there is there because they didn’t want to live in a society that requires you to play nice. Doesn’t mean everyone who prefers Coventry is a bad person – in the story, there’s a surprisingly large number of perfectly nice people living in Coventry. But it’s not safe, it’s not orderly, and you’re on your own.

    To apply this to Hell – it’s not necessarily bad, and it’s certainly not intended as a place of punishment. But it’s a place entirely free of God’s interference/benevolent dictatorship, inhabited solely by people who for one reason or another don’t wish to live in God’s presence or don’t enjoy Heaven. So… you’re gonna get what you’re gonna get, and it won’t all be nice. (And if some of the inhabitants happen to be fallen angels with enormous powers, well… that’s gonna play out exactly like you’d expect. to bring it back to the original topic.)

    (BTW, I should point out that as a reincarnationist, I don’t actually believe in either heaven or hell – but like many fictional constructs, I find them endlessly fascinating to talk and think about!)

  • hapax

    @Ben E. H. (if you find that shortening of your nick annoying, I apologize) —

    I’m not sure why you pick Dante as the key figure here. As others have pointed out, there have been widely-circulated and very influential “Visions of Hell” back to at least the fifth century C.E. — heckopete, they practically form a popular genre of medieval literature.

    They all vary from one another on details and structure, of course, but I can’t think of anything particularly unique about Dante’s version, except that it was extremely beautifully written and he highlighted the prominent places in Hell reserved for his own political enemies.

    Dante was a poet, not a theologian.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000030681868 Ben E. Hexapodiaasthekeyinsigh

    It doesn’t need to be Dante, just a source from further up on the tree o’ religions than the set of branches I was looking at. That source influences all branchings and forkings below it, whether that influence is known by a majority or not. To counter the influence, you have to bring the branches back together or go at them one at a time. This is, of course, a simplification that ignores cross-branch influences (no pun intended), and probably other things I haven’t thought of. It is, of course, all just my ideas, with no scholarly basis that I know of (not that I know of much). I picked Dante because he’s famous and I’m not a historian.

    By the way, this isn’t even my full nickname, not that i care. disqus just picked up my fb name until it ran out of characters. There’s a “t” missing at the end of the middle name, and my last name (as well as the additional nickname appended to it) is entirely gone. “Ben” (or “That guy with the really long name”) is totally fine.

  • Mariposakitten

    hapax – no, i gotta back Ben up on this one. Dante was certainly only one of many who spun visions of Hell, but by the same logic, Shakespeare was only one of many playwrights during the English Renaissance. We know they were others, but when people think of plays during that time period, they think of Will – and when they think of Hell, the immediate image generally comes from either Dante or Milton. He was a poet not a theologian, but he was a poet who gave the world an iconic image of Hell that’s lasted for centuries. I think it’s fair to say the man had some slight influence :)

  • Anonymous

    The justification for the RTC hell that I’m most familiar with, and that I have the most difficulty getting myself to not believe, is: God is so wonderful that rejecting God truly is a crime deserving infinite punishment, one that outweighs all the good the person who rejects God may have done for other people. In this line of thought, the people in heaven would understand the gravity of the sin of rejecting God, and would therefore realize that the people in hell really did deserve eternal punishment. I think one of the strongest arguments against hell is that heaven wouldn’t really be heaven if the people there knew friends and loved ones were experiencing hell, but if God somehow made the people in heaven understand why hell was necessary, would they be in pain at the suffering of their loved ones?

    I’m trying to get myself to not believe in any hell, because right now the fear of hell is paralyzing my efforts to really think through whether I truly believe in any form of Christianity and, if so, exactly what form. I identify as a liberal Christian, but I’m afraid to explore non-Christian alternatives because of the possibility of hell.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    To me this gets to the heart of a philosophical conversation I had with myself as I was leaving faith behind.

    Namely this:

    If there is a God, then God must be both good and loving in order to be worthy of worship – power is not a justification on it’s own. No good or loving God would send people to eternal torment, especially because God is aware of *why* people are the way they are – including all the various factors they had little control over. (Abuse heaped upon them, disorders, even things we humans aren’t even aware of.)

    So either God is good and loving, and there is no hell, because hell is antithetical to God; or God is evil or at least uncaring, and unworthy of worship.

    I have seen some RTCs try to justify worshiping an obviously unjust vision of God by virtue of “But God created us, and the universe we live in, and is infinitely powerful”. To which I respond that neither creation nor power are adequate for being worthy of worship.*

    You create and have power over your children – are you allowed to do what you want with them? Of course not.

    I want to clarify here that I am not arguing that God is necessarily evil. I know it might read that way possibly, but what I’m actually saying is that:

    If there is a God, then either that God is loving and kind, and truly just, and knows who we are and most importantly, why we are the way we are**… or that God is selfish and uncaring or outright evil; in which case that God is unworthy of it’s own creation. Whether we could do anything about that is irrelevant – on a principled level it’s the simple truth.

    Of course all that said, while I don’t believe in God(s) myself; if I were to do so I think I’d believe in a benign or benevolent God. As awful as the world is, it does continuously improve***; so all things considered I have a hard time seeing an evil God as actually existing. Such a deity would have pitched a fit and destroyed it all long, long ago.

    Err…

    To put this back in context of your post:

    Hell cannot exist if God is worthy of worship. So either A) God is good and Just, in which case there is nothing to fear B) God is evil or uncaring, in which case we’re all doomed as such a deity’s ‘heaven’ would not be good, let alone hell, or C) There is no God, only what we make.

    For what it’s worth, both A and C are both the more pleasant options, and I feel the more likely.

    (I apologize for both the length and repetition in this post; this is one of the more complex things I’ve grappled with in my departure from belief and so it’s particularly difficult to collect my thoughts on in any useful capacity; and even harder to condense it down. Hopefully it’s understandable at least though.)

    *In fact I’d argue power is utterly irrelevant. Martin Luther King Jr. was not, what I would call powerful in any absolute sense (he had a powerful message yes, but as a person he was not particularly so) – yet he receives adulation and respect in extremely high measures; and for good reason. Because he was by and large, a good person; and because that powerful message meant something. The point being that a very-good but near-powerless God would be more worthy of worship and adoration than an all-powerful but uncaring or actively malevolent God.

    **And this is key. A genuinely just God who is omniscient knows how few of us are really awful people and could be infinitely forgiving because such a God would know all the myriad things that put a person on a given path. Even atheism. I imagine such a God would be rather understanding, given some of the err, louder, members of God’s fanclub.

    ***Look to history and see how far we have come. For all the horror and injustice of today, it is the best time in history to be alive in the vast majority of the world. Sometimes, I suspect, our world seems so dark simply because the light is now bright enough that we can see it all clearly – that we finally know precisely what has always gone on in the darkest corners and hidden back alleys. The world is not worse than before, we are simply aware now of what was already there; and with awareness – resolution.

  • Caravelle

    I think one of the strongest arguments against hell is that heaven wouldn’t really be heaven if the people there knew friends and loved ones were experiencing hell, but if God somehow made the people in heaven understand why hell was necessary, would they be in pain at the suffering of their loved ones?

    Yes ? Do the parents of a serial killer not feel pain at the execution ? Or in most other countries, do they not miss him and feel sad about him being in prison ? Even if they accept the legitimacy and even the necessity of such a punishment ?

    For that matter, doesn’t a parent feel pain seeing their children go through a painful but necessary medical procedure ?

    As hapax pointed out, how much convincing would it take to make you not feel pain at the idea of your loved ones being in hell ?

    That said I don’t think we should assume there can be no pain in Heaven, especially a universalist Heaven. There are many different kinds of pain and I don’t think all of them are antithetical with the idea of a very, very, very good place. But that doesn’t really work with the Ultimate Heaven/Hell dichotomy, because knowing someone you love is in the Ultimately Horrible place is a bit too painful for an Ultimately Perfect place.

  • Toonces

    It was John the Baptist who gave us the pitchfork: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor”. Guess who he was talking about. I think it was Luther who dressed the devil up in red pajamas and gave him horns. It was supposed to be form of ridicule. Evidently the devil hates being laughed at.

    Anyway, being a member of Team Hell, I’d like to suggest that we see things a little differently than you say we do. Can we stipulate that God is good? And just? If we don’t agree about that there’s no point in going further. I think Dante was on to something with the miserific vision. I agree with you that it’s not Satan’s job to torment sinners but that it happens quite naturally just by being together. He is such a great sucking negation and hatred that just to see his reflection would fry mortal eyeballs. Being cooped up with him would be hell.

  • hapax

    I think one of the strongest arguments against hell is that heaven wouldn’t really be heaven if the people there knew friends and loved ones were experiencing hell, but if God somehow made the people in heaven understand why hell was necessary, would they be in pain at the suffering of their loved ones?

    Surely you had a dear friend, or a beloved relative, who “rejected God” — either was an atheist, or worshipped the Divine in a manner anathema to Christianity.

    If not, choose a person of goodness and greatness whose conception of the Sacred did not in any way conform to your own — Gandhi, say, or the Dalai Lama.

    Now think of what it would take to “make you understand” why that person MUST suffer eternal torture. How suffering without end was necessary to make God be God.

    If you understood that, accepted that, *endorsed* that conclusion, would you still be YOU?

  • Anonymous

    You’re probably right, hapax, that I wouldn’t be. Or at least, I wouldn’t be a good person. I do have a dear friend who is an atheist because she is a survivor of religiously motivated child abuse. I absolutely don’t believe in any intellectual way that she’s hell-bound, because she is the epitome of a good person who cares about other living beings–she’d pass the Matthew 25 test with no problem. However, there’s still this stupid stubborn part of me that’s afraid I will go to hell if I reject Christianity–or even if I don’t, because I walk by homeless people without giving them money and don’t give much to charity, even though that’s because I’m unemployed.

    Maybe my fear of hell is just my anxiety issues talking rather than anything with a rational basis.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Sounds painfully familiar to me kisekileia.

    I’ve mentioned in other threads that I was so utterly terrified because of what my church had taught me, that when a harvest moon would come up I would be utterly afraid that it was the end of the world about to start. (The whole “Moon as red as blood” thing) Some tiny part of me still has that reaction.

    However whether you believe or not – ask yourself this:

    Would a God worth worshiping want you to be afraid?

    That is, if God is up there, and worth anything, then do you think that God wants you to be happy, healthy and safe; or fearful of God’s judgment?

    I’m pretty sure the former is the more accurate. Whether you believe or not is something only you can decide, but fear, I don’t think is something any good God would want to inspire. (Awe, perhaps, but not “please don’t toss me in the horrible fiery pit” fear.)

    —–

    Course also in response to your previous post I wanted to note this about forgiveness:

    Remember that, if God exists; and Heaven exists, then we’re talking about infinite time. No crime one can commit on Earth in the brief span of time here can compare to an eternity of torture – there is simply nothing one can do to warrant that.

    What I suspect, is that once you die, and are in heaven, and all the worldly baggage you have is stripped away*. Suddenly you’re confronted with everyone you ever helped and everyone you ever hurt in life, and an unlimited amount of time to make restitution for the wrongs and to go even further with the rights.

    That’s just how I see it. I’m not basing that on the Bible or anything else – like I said, ultimately I don’t believe. But it’s how I think a just afterlife would have to be; and if it’s an unjust afterlife… well like I said, we’re doomed in that scenario regardless.

    Just my two-cents anyway. (Hopefully I’m not being too annoying with all this >.<)

    *Including things like say… sociopathy. Imagine a criminal – someone genuinely rotten in life – who now suddenly feels all the grief and remorse they should have in life. What do you think their reaction is? Especially since they can seek out their own victims and repent directly.

    Remembering that this is a place where time is unlimited. In such a situation, no crime is unforgivable. In a sense it creates a purgatory-like situation even though one is already in Heaven. Purgatory is imposed from within by guilt over ones actual evil deeds in life. (This as opposed to the imagined guilt a depressed person may feel in life – I'm assuming that depression isn't going to follow one into Heaven. If it does, fuck that!)

  • Anonymous

    @JJohnson: I guess a truly loving God wouldn’t view whether a person accepted or rejected God as the most important thing determining whether they should be punished eternally, because love doesn’t consider what other people think of oneself a higher priority than everything else they do. If God didn’t have control over whether acceptance/rejection of God was important enough to determine one’s eternal destiny, this God wouldn’t actually be the entity with ultimate power over the universe. There’d have to be something else with more power.

    I’m not sure whether a being that understood everything about how each person came to be the way they are would always forgive everyone on those grounds, though. Lots of people do some things that are pretty horrible, even if they’re not on balance horrible people. I kind of like the idea of purgatory for that reason, and because you’d have to change people somewhat to make us all be able to live together without some of us creating pain for others, a problem that heaven allegedly lacks.

    This makes me wonder about the traditional idea that the Christian God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. But that’s yet another can of worms to open.

  • Dea Syria

    What Clark is arguing here with all of this team hell nonsense, is that the proper way to read the Bible is for moral instruction (curious about all the genocide it recommends, but that’s another matter), and strip away the apocalyptic mythology–more Bultmann than Baptist. But if you don’t have hell, you can’t have any other apocalyptic myth either–no heaven, no judgement, no salvation, no resurrection. He can’t have it both ways. He just needs to ditch the whole nonsensical construct and concentrate on morality like a sensible person.

  • hapax

    Blast it, I hit “Like” when I meant to hit “Reply”.

    Dea Syria, you must have been a joy to teach in English class. “There’s only two ways to read MACBETH — if you accept that there were ever kings in Scotland, there MUST have been witches as well. You can’t have it both ways. Why don’t you just read the play and realize that Willy Wagstaff was simply condemning regicide, like all sensible persons?”

    Because that there might be more interpretations of “Heaven” and “Hell” than are allowed for in your personal philosophy is simply not permissible, is it?

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Pretty much what I was going to say.

    Heck, this thread is rife with examples of heaven without hell, and Fred’s Team Hell series itself takes issue with the very idea that hell exists; with the Bible generally backing him up.

    And as myself and others have noted, Hell in the modern sense is largely a storytelling invention anyway; trying to use it as theology is like using Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter as scripture.

  • Dea Syria

    I see you agree with my point that the whole thing is fictional.

    You have to look at the context, which Fred does not here. The NT wasn’t written in a vacuum. Look at the Inter-testamental apocalyptic literature. Once you realize that that is the background of the gospel authors, you’ll see they believed in Hell, and that divine punishment and divine reward (which doesn’t exist in the OT either, except as prosperity in life) go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.

    Actually, in tis series Fred committed the gravest sin I’ve seen from him. He says that Paul doens’t believe in Hell because he doesn’t dwell on it in his letters. But Fred calls those letters Paul’s Gospels. No. Paul’s Gospel’s was his oral preaching carried out before the letters, which only touch on the odd point here and there. We haave no direct access to what Paul’s Gospel was.

  • Froborr

    I see you agree with my point that the whole thing is fictional.

    I was wavering between “troll,” “jerk not aware zie’s trolling,” and “stupid troll.” Thank you for settling the question.

    You have to look at the context, which Fred does not here.

    No, you don’t. Analyzing a work in itself without worrying about historical externalities is an essential component of close reading, which is in turn either the starting point or the entirety of all modern critical approaches.

    And if you believe (as, IIRC, Fred does) in the universal applicability of the Bible, it follows that it is designed to speak in different ways to different people at different times, and hence how Paul may have interpreted it is not necessarily relevant to how modern readers interpret it.

    (Actually, this is true of all literature: What the author thinks zie’s writing is not necessarily what the reader reads. That’s how you get everything from plot holes to unintended sexism.)

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Indeed, this is why we have the concept of “The Death of the Author” in lit crit.

    Of course on that count I’m one of those people who likes to see things both from the DOTA perspective and from the perspective of the author, their context* as well. I think both are useful in understanding a work – since knowing what the author intended can have a profound impact on the way a work is read.

    Of course that’s just literature annnnnd I’m geeking out. >_< well okay there is, but not many things! At least he didn't make us read it in Old English*)

    Errr… suffice to say that yes: There is a perfectly good reason to take a work out of it's original context in order to examine it; just as there are good reasons to examine it in-context. For something that's supposed to be universally applicable like the bible, the former makes infinitely more sense.

    Seriously shutting up now.

    *Given by other writings and the accounts of contemporaries, as well as times and general attitudes of the day.

    **I mean real Old English, not Middle English or that bastardization of it Whereth Everyoneth Tacketh an Eth-eth ontoeth everythingeth. Actual Old English isn't really understandable by a modern English speaker – it really is a whole 'nother animal and (from my limited understanding) more related to German than anything; since it's from before the Normal conquest and the heavy dose of French and Latin influences fundamentally altered the language toward it's present form.

    For the interested, I ran across this recitation – of the opening http://www.1066andallthat.com/english_old/beowulf_prologue.asp

    I can't vouch for the pronunciation; but it does give you an idea of just how far removed true Old English is from modern English. If you're like me you probably got about 2-3 words out of the entire thing, and the rest didn't make much sense. (Though I suspect that someone with some understanding of Scandinavian or Germanic language might have better luck.)

  • hapax

    JJohnson — I highly recommend Seamus Heaney’s gorgeous verse translation of BEOWULF, with the Anglo-Saxon text on facing pages.

    As it happens, I *have* studied “Old English” (and yes, boy howdy, does knowing German help!) but I still can’t translate without paper and pencil and two dictionaries at hand. Still, I think Heaney does a beautiful job of capturing both the flavor and the sense*, and it helps to have the original right there, for the rhythm and alliteration.

    *FWIW, I don’t think anyone did a better job of catching the unique sound of AS poetry than Ezra Pound’s SEAFARER, as much as it distorts some of the sense.

  • Anonymous

    JJohnson — I highly recommend Seamus Heaney’s gorgeous verse translation of BEOWULF, with the Anglo-Saxon text on facing pages.

    For what it’s worth, I second this recommendation. I haven’t read it in a while — my folks have the only copy I’ve ever seen.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    I shall have to keep this in mind (^_^)b

  • Dea Syria

    I addressed this point just above. But I consider the idea that the bible is meant to be universally applicable as bizarre. It has a specific temporal context, and a specific audience in mind. Of course, I’m a historian, not a literary critic.

  • Anonymous

    It’s literature. If it weren’t universally applicable in some fashion it wouldn’t be.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Yes, but the thing is the Bible is 3 things rolled into one, which makes it a very complicated text.

    It is a History book (accounting the life and times of the people of the day, in the same way most very very old texts do that – by stories.)

    It is also a piece of Literature, again telling us stories, some of which are elaborated from real events, but others are probably wholly fictional; think the Parables that Christ tells, or even some of the more bizarre stuff which was likely allegorical even then. This is where I see a lot of non-Christians make a mistake when attacking Christianity through the Bible.*

    Namely: Not everyone, especially not everyone throughout history, most especially in the early days of the church, thought like a modern day fundamentalist preacher. Allegory as you’ll remember, was *extremely* common at the time; and most early Christians are either converted Jews or Romans, both of which had a good chance of being well-educated for the day.

    My point here being: Fundamentalism, that is “Every passage and every page and every idea must be 100% True and Taken As Such; or else the whole thing is False”, is not the only way to look at the Bible. In fact it is, in the grand scheme of things, the minority way. It’s a grossly oversimplified solution to an enormously complex text.

    Finally it is, of course, also a religious text laying out belief both on how you treat other people and how you interact with the divine – and the many-many-many different traditions of Christianity that have come since the days of the early Church interpret it in very, very different ways. This is the part where universal applicability comes in, as a holy book has to remain relevant throughout history.

    Now it’s not my call to judge whether or not it has in fact done so; but I think Fred does a pretty good job looking at things through a modern lens and bringing applicability from the Bible to the modern world.

    *Full disclosure – former-Christian atheist here. Also – I’m not saying “You can’t question the passages and their meaning” – not by a longshot. My point is that you also cannot attack an entire faith by using the Very Literal Interpretation Of It’s Holy Book; when the very people who follow it very often do not. Even Fundamentalists, who claim to, clearly do not in a lot of areas. (The old Leviticus hypocrisy for instance: No to gay sex, but shrimp is awesome.)

  • Dea Syria

    Close reading is a technique of analyzing literature, for its literary merit. It has nothing to do with situating a work in its place within the history of ideas. What Fred is doing is akin to reading the Commentaries of Caesar, saying–look Caesar doesn’t mention the Ptolemaic system, so he must have thought the earth goes around the sun. Even though he doesn’t mention the matter, its almost 100% certain that Caesar held no such belief, because it would have been extraordinary for someone with his background and education, and if he had felt strongly enough about it to dissent form the commonly held view, he would surely have mentioned it. The though world of the gospel authors and Paul is firmly rooted in Jewish apocalyptic. If they were going to deny of change some important part of it, they would mention it. Paul makes a pretty big deal out of identifying the risen Jesus with the angel of the presence for instance–he doesn’t hide his light under a bushel. In fact the bits Slactivist wants to dismiss as metaphors or whatever he says are actually excellent and direct evidence that the Gospel authors accepted hell as part of the apocalyptic world view they embraced. Of course, if the Gospel authors did not believe in Hell, then Slactivists’s problems would just be beginning–how could he then explain the universal and uniform acceptance of the doctrine of hell in the first generation of patristic authors? Since its clear that the post-Gospel church accepts heel unreservedly, does that mean that legitimate authority stops with the Gospels? Why then does Slactivist accept the idea of a church if its doctrine is unsound? The team hell idea is completely incoherent and does not stand the slightest scrutiny.

    What is really going on, is that Slactivist finds the idea of hell morally repugnant (which it certainly is), and he is using sophistry to try to deny it without denying salvation, but the two ideas are intimately linked in their intellectual origins in the world of apocalyptic Judaism. Just turn the argument around (hell is real, and when the authoritative text mentions hell its a metaphor of just a side issue of no significance), and you’ll how desperate it is.

  • Froborr

    Actually, Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time rarely to never identified a place of eternal punishment for dead humans, which is what Hell means in this context and what Fred is arguing against.

    If the concept truly were as widespread in the intellectual environment that birthed Christianity as you say, you would expect to see it in modern Judaism, which descends from the same intellectual environment. But what little modern Judaism says about an afterlife generally doesn’t include a Hell (Gehenna is closer to Purgatory). That suggests that eternal damnation entered Christianity after it completed its separation from Judaism, and then was back-read into the standard interpretations of Biblical passages, similar to how the “sin of Sodom” changed from inhospitality, murder, and hatred of the poor to homosexuality in the early Middle Ages.

    the two ideas are intimately linked in their intellectual origins in the world of apocalyptic Judaism.

    Even if this is true, so what? Even someone with lots of good ideas can occasionally have a bad one or vice versa.

    Close reading is a technique of analyzing literature, for its literary merit.

    The point of close reading is not to measure merit, that’s far too subjective to be worth anyone’s time.

  • Anonymous

    I find that Fred is actually fairly cagey as to whether his Christianity is of the more supernatural variety or more along the lines of the faith of Spong and Borg.

    My general hunch is that Fred’s eschatological vision is generally more along the lines of bringing social justice to everyone here on Earth under the inspiration of the teachings of Jesus. Which is to say, I’m actually pretty sure that he’s on your side but uses the interpretive framework of the New Testament to give his ideas structure.

  • Dea Syria

    That’s what I think too. Christianity has tremendous meaning for him and he can’t abandon it, even though it doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes I talk as if the ‘pagan’ gods are real, because the world of which they were a part has such meaning for me, but I know they aren’t real.

  • Anonymous

    What Clark is arguing here with all of this team hell nonsense,

    Oh yeah, you’re not biased at all.

    is that the proper way to read the Bible is for moral instruction (curious about all the genocide it recommends, but that’s another matter),

    Does the Old Testament recommend genocide, or does it engage in justification and scapegoating? “We have to fight these guys — God commands it.” “We won that battle, so God was on our side.” “We lost that battle, so who pissed God off?” “There is plague in the land — I knew that census was an affront to God!”

    and strip away the apocalyptic mythology–more Bultmann than Baptist. But if you don’t have hell, you can’t have any other apocalyptic myth either–no heaven, no judgement, no salvation, no resurrection.

    Bullshit. It doesn’t have to be a hell in another dimension to which you go after you die. In the Levant around the time of Christ, life was already such a sad vale of tears. There were conquerors, plagues, infant mortality, slavery, starvation, thirst, cycles of fat years and lean years, plenty of suffering. Does an apocalypse need more than the promise that the conquerors will be thrown off, the slaves will be unyoked, and everyone will eat and drink their fill?

    He can’t have it both ways.

    Sensors indicate a false dichotomy three points starboard of the bow!

    He just needs to ditch the whole nonsensical construct and concentrate on morality like a sensible person.

    I don’t know how long you’ve been reading this blog, but it seems to me that Fred does little other than concentrate on morality.

  • Dea Syria

    Then let me put it this way. Heaven and hell are part of apocalyptic mythology–a view of the world that includes god and magic. If that view of the world is true than you have complete description of it. Since out only knowledge of such a world comes from authoritative scripture, what basis would you have to start picking and choosing, tampering with it. Paul did so, claiming he had special revelation, but that is the sort of thing it would take.

    As for the genocide:

    The is from deut. 20; the speaker is god. He is instructing the Israelites on how to commit genocide:

    10]
    “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it.

    [11] And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.
    [12] But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it;
    [13] and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword,
    [14] but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.
    [15] Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here.
    [16] But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes,
    [17] but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per’izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb’usites, as the LORD your God has commanded;
    [18] that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.
    [19]

  • Froborr

    You don’t get to decide how other people’s religions work.

    Most of the Christians in this thread, Fred included, have already explained that they do not treat the Bible as an inseparable whole. It is a work written over millennia, by many authors, and reflects the biases and attitudes of those authors.

    I mean, think about it. Do we have to choose between quantum mechanics and relativity because Einstein was right about relativity and wrong about quantum mechanics? Of course not, that’s absurd–both are highly useful and viable theories.*

    *Admittedly, as there are occasions where they contradict, one or both is incomplete. That’s human knowledge for you.

  • Anonymous

    10]
    “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it.

    [11] And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.
    [12] But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it;
    [13] and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword,
    [14] but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you.
    [15] Thus you shall do to all the cities which are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here.
    [16] But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes,
    [17] but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per’izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb’usites, as the LORD your God has commanded;
    [18] that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the LORD your God.
    [19]

    In order to argue that these verses are prescriptive, that they are actually God’s actual orders to the Israelites, you’d need to disprove that they were actually handed down by the Israelite’s leaders, that they were handed down after the smiting of each of the groups mentioned therein, and that there weren’t any pre-existing grudges between the Israelites and those groups.

    In short, please disprove to me that these verses are in the Bible because the Israelites got a mad-on against the Amorites, the Canaanites, etc., and not because they were handed down by YHWH.

  • Dea Syria

    I don’t think you have quite idea. At the level of the narrative, the text says it s a direct quote from god, in the same way it says the 10 commandments come from god, that is the only ‘evidence’ of what god tells human beings in the biblical world view–the authority of th text. If that authority isn’t enough to mark this out as a divine command, then there aren’t any divine commands in scripture.

    If you want to start analyzing the historical context of the text, that is another matter. There never was a conquest of the land. This is all the fantasy of an unknown author writing sometime after the Babylonian captivity (possibly much later), who is engaging in grandiose fantasies of destruction to compensate for his actual state of helplessness.

  • guest

    I don’t think you have quite idea. At the level of the narrative, the text says it s a direct quote from god, in the same way it says the 10 commandments come from god, that is the only ‘evidence’ of what god tells human beings in the biblical world view–the authority of th text. If that authority isn’t enough to mark this out as a divine command, then there aren’t any divine commands in scripture.

    There’s no real evidence that it’s a ‘divine command’, either. What you have is someone else saying that God said … which is, at best, second-hand, and at worst just someone’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. (Funny how those ‘commands’ always seem to justify what the locally-powerful want.)

  • hapax

    I had a professor once who argued that the New Testament passages that were most likely to be the authentic words of Jesus were the so-called “hard sayings” — those that went against all our selfish “gut instincts” and socially-reinforced desires (e.g., “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple”.)

    I don’t have any particular problem applying the same rubric to the Hebrew scriptures.

  • Dea Syria

    one else is the author of the bible. If you are going to be a Christian and accept the authority of scripture, you have to accept it. There is no more basis for rejected that passage than any other.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659001961 Brad Ellison

    one else is the author of the bible.

    Seems like a word’s missing there. I’m guessing “No,” but am not 100% on it.

    If you are going to be a Christian and accept the authority of scripture, you have to accept it. There is no more basis for rejected that passage than any other.

    I am, however, pretty sure that you’re not the authority I need to be consulting on how to understand or interpret the scriptures of my faith. I am, however, made curious as to what credentials you have to back up your blanket assertions on the correct way to interpret the Bible.

  • hapax

    Well, that clears THAT up.

    Apparently I am not a Christian and do not accept the authority of scripture.

    Who knew?

  • Anonymous

    [No] one else is the author of the bible.

    Sounds like someone needs to introduce you to J, E, D and P.

  • Anonymous

    But if God is infinite, isn’t rejecting God an infinite crime? Or is that beside the point because an omnibenevolent God would not consider rejecting God such a terrible thing?

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    The latter. Because an omnibenevolent God understands why one would reject the existence of such a being given everything that’s gone on in the world.

    Let me put this another way:

    Say you have a parent and a child – the parent does what they can for the child; but the parent’s actions or motives are misinterpreted and the child drifts away and eventually rejects their parent utterly.

    If that parent genuinely cares about their child, then they’re going to be open to reconciliation at some point, right? The rejection hurts, especially if it’s over a misunderstanding… but ultimately the love the parent has for the child outweighs the pain of the initial rejection, especially if the child later comes to recognize that the parent was always trying to do what was best.

    So if someone rejects belief in God, because they see no evidence; then later dies and finds out “Oh… I was very, very wrong” – then a just God is going to say “C’mere you big screw up *hug*”. When there’s eternity at stake, 80 years on the outs isn’t that much, is it?

    Again that’s just my perspective. I hope it’s useful though, some way or another.

  • Anonymous

    It is very useful. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

  • Froborr

    But if God is infinite, isn’t rejecting God an infinite crime?

    Total non sequitur. Absolutely no reason for this to be true at all. You could just as equally say that since God is infinite, and you are not, nothing you do can possibly harm or upset God.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Froborr I like that. That’s what I was trying to get at, but with a lot less baggage.

  • Anonymous

    But if God is infinite, isn’t rejecting God an infinite crime? Or is that beside the point because an omnibenevolent God would not consider rejecting God such a terrible thing?

    Does it matter if it’s a terrible thing if God is a well of infinite forgiveness?

    I’ve heard people discuss the argument that since God is infinite, doing something that the divine disapproves of is causing infinite pain and/or insult to God, and therefore that the only just punishment is infinite pain for an infinite span of time.

    But I tend to think that any God who is truly infinite would encompass infinite mercy and forgiveness, as well.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    As with so many such questions, I find that Smullyan’s take on this speaks to me:

    God: In the first place, I am never angry. In the second place, I do not think at all in terms of “sin.” In the third place, I have no enemies.

    Mortal: By that do you mean that there are no people whom you hate, or that there are no people who hate you?

    God: I meant the former although the latter also happens to be true.

    Mortal: Oh come now, I know people who have openly claimed to have hated you. At times I have hated you!

    God: You mean you have hated your image of me. That is not the same thing as hating me as I really am.

    Mortal: Are you trying to say that it is not wrong to hate a false conception of you, but that it is wrong to hate you as you really are?

    God: No, I am not saying that at all; I am saying something far more drastic! What I am saying has absolutely nothing to do with right or wrong. What I am saying is that one who knows me for what I really am would simply find it psychologically impossible to hate me.

  • Froborr

    God: No, I am not saying that at all; I am saying something far more drastic! What I am saying has absolutely nothing to do with right or wrong. What I am saying is that one who knows me for what I really am would simply find it psychologically impossible to hate me.

    …because they’ve taken too much SAN damage.

    Sorry, I find that sort of claim unbelievably creepy, but that’s sort of irrelevant to this conversation.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I have no idea what “SAN damage” means.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659001961 Brad Ellison

    Damage done to one’s sanity. The term derives from the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, which, being based on the work of Lovecraft, needed a way to track not only physical injury to the characters, but also the mental trauma sustained by exposure to the Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. So seeing horrible or alien things, and learning truths that shatter the fragile framework of reality as your poor investigator character understands it incur SAN damage, which can eventually lead to your character ending up as a gibbering cultist or asylum inmate (in addition to the chance of ending up as Mi-Go food, or simply shot by gangsters, which is how my investigators always tend to go out).

  • Anonymous

    Oh, like the Nightmares stat in Echo Bazaar. (If it gets too high, you go to the place dubbed “A state of some confusion”, otherwise known as “stark raving crackers”, and you can’t come back until your Nightmares are at zero.)

  • Froborr

    My favorite similar stat is in the COMPLETELY AWESOME video game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. If your Sanity drops too low, the game starts doing really freaky things: the image on the screen tilts, the background music changes, and you randomly get weird, brief hallucinations followed by your character screaming “THIS ISN’T REALLY HAPPENING!” and a return to normal, my favorites of which are:

    1) You press Save and the game announces it’s deleting all your save files.
    2) You walk into a room and you’re in another time, for example while playing as a monk in a medieval French cathedral you walk into the nave and it’s a World War I field hospital.
    3) Bugs start crawling across the TV screen.
    4) Blue screen of death.
    5) Swarm of enemies and an “Error: Controller not found” message.

  • Anonymous

    That must be fun. Dunno if I’m being sarcastic.

  • Madhabmatics

    I used to think those effects were silly until I stayed up several days and hallucinated for real, then they became really terrifying.

  • Froborr

    Having done that once several years prior to the games, I found them terrifying from the start.

  • Anonymous

    @Froborr re: Eternal Darkness —

    Yes, that’s a perfect game.

    Once my wife was playing that in the middle of the day when the power went out. She thought for a split second that the black screen of the TV was another trick of the game’s!

  • Froborr

    The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying games, based (rather loosely, at times) on H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction, use the SAN stat to track the mental health of the player characters. When one takes sufficient SAN damage, one goes mad in any of a variety of ways. Many of the creatures in the game are so monstrous, so at odds with normal everyday human experience, that merely looking at them can cause SAN damage.

    Basically, I was saying that just because it’s impossible to hate something doesn’t mean that thing is good. It could mean that thing is very, very evil and able to override free will.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Ah, I see.

    Thanks for the explanation.

  • Anonymous

    God: No, I am not saying that at all; I am saying something far more drastic! What I am saying has absolutely nothing to do with right or wrong. What I am saying is that one who knows me for what I really am would simply find it psychologically impossible to hate me.

    Pfft. Way to appeal to authority, there, and invalidate/belittle peoples’ lived experience.

    And what Froborr said. I failed my saving throw against God’s divine radiance!

  • hapax

    In fairness to the argument, I think that this may be close to the actual experience of some theists — at least those who base their theism on personal enounters with Divinity.

    From my own (limited experiences) and what mystics I have read, it often comes down to “Wow! That was INCREDIBLE! How do I understand / interpret / express that Ineffable Glorious Niftiness within the framework of my culture’s dominant Religiospeak?”

    (And, generally speaking, the person who tries usually ends up written off as a “nutjob”, a “heretic”, or otherwise irrelevant.)

    Which doesn’t mean, of course, that an appeal to subjective experience holds any intrinsic authority. But it does go a bit to explain why some people think it ought to*.

    *MY experience, that is. YOUR experience was clearly the result of mental illness / illusion / a bit of undigested beef. THEIR experience was obviously faked.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    It can also be an inference made in the absence of such personal ineffable glorious nifty encounters.

    For example, an atheist whose referent for an actual God is the structure of cause and effect in the world might, upon fully understanding that structure of cause and effect, find it impossible to hate it simply because it’s not the kind of thing that it makes any sense to hate, even when it results in atrocities.

    Various kinds of theists might make the same kind of inference based on their own referents for God.

  • Froborr

    For example, an atheist whose referent for an actual God is the structure of cause and effect in the world might, upon fully understanding that structure of cause and effect, find it impossible to hate it simply because it’s not the kind of thing that it makes any sense to hate, even when it results in atrocities.

    This atheist finds this paragraph to make zero sense. My referent for “God” is that provided by the most common beliefs in my culture, slightly modified by the traces of Jewish theology in my upbringing. Part of that referent is personhood; God is a conscious entity, a person. None of this is remotely or can be remotely true of “the structure of cause and effect in the world,” which is not a person and therefore not God. Indeed, since I believe there is a structure of cause and effect in the world, if that were my referent for God I would believe in God.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I’m sorry I’m not making sense. I can sort of see why, and in retrospect I ought to have expressed myself differently (or perhaps just kept silent in the first place), but I’m unprepared to try again right now.

    In any case, your description of your conceptual frame makes sense to me, and I agree that an atheist whose referent for God is a person who exemplifies the most common beliefs about God in their culture naturally concludes that God doesn’t exist.

  • Anonymous

    In fairness to the argument, I think that this may be close to the actual experience of some theists — at least those who base their theism on personal enounters with Divinity.

    I’m sorry if I’ve given offense.

    I just find the argument that it is psychologically impossible to hate God to be dismissive of anyone’s different experience. Maybe some people have touched the divine and been repulsed by what they experienced. Seems like telling them they just haven’t understood their experiences correctly is patronizing at the least, and pretty much the same as plenty of privileged people have said to marginalized people.

  • Anonymous

    In fairness to the argument, I think that this may be close to the actual experience of some theists — at least those who base their theism on personal enounters with Divinity.

    I’m sorry if I’ve given offense.

    I just find the argument that it is psychologically impossible to hate God to be dismissive of anyone’s different experience. Maybe some people have touched the divine and been repulsed by what they experienced. Seems like telling them they just haven’t understood their experiences correctly is patronizing at the least, and pretty much the same as plenty of privileged people have said to marginalized people.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > I just find the argument that it is psychologically impossible to hate God to be dismissive of anyone’s different experience.

    Sure. And the argument that it is psychologically impossible for someone who knows God for what it really is to hate God (which is what Smullyan actually said) is similarly dismissive of anyone’s actual experience of knowing God for what it really is and hating it.

    Absolutely agreed, as far as that goes.

    I can’t speak for Smullyan, but I admit that I wasn’t seriously considering that there were any such people in the world, so I guess it’s true that I was dismissing their experience.

    But… well, to be honest, I still don’t see how there can be any such people. I’m not trying to defend my dismissal here, I just don’t get it.

    The people I’ve met who consider themselves to know God for what it really is mostly fall into two buckets: most atheists, who consider themselves to know God for a character in a story with no physical referent at all, and a few theists, who seem to imagine God as a very simple entity. (Most theists I know don’t consider themselves to know more than the smallest fraction of what God really is.)

    The former group don’t consider God any more worthy of love or hate than Santa Claus or Darth Vader… it’s just a character in a story. The latter group don’t generally hate it, although I’ll admit their emotional stance with respect to it puzzles me.

    That said, I acknowledge that my ignorance is not a constraint on the world, and if there are any people out there who both consider themselves to know God for what it truly is and hate it, I would find it potentially enlightening to hear from them… especially to hear how they first became aware that they fell into that class… should they choose to discuss it.

  • hapax

    Falconer — I wasn’t offended, just musing.

    Actually, you have an excellent point about the possibility of a repulsive mystical experience. I don’t think I’ve read one that purported to be true (note “not having run across this” =/= “this doesn’t exist”) but I do recall being shaken by a short story I once read in OMNI about an alien race that, for research purposes, pulled humans out of various historical periods, and were usually mistaken for for that human’s notion of the Divine.

    There was a brief but memorable episode in which the aliens snagged a woman condemned to Auschwitz, about to die in the “ovens”, and the horrified alien reported “She thought I was her God — and she HATED me!”

    *****

    Thanks for the good computer wishes. The Geek Squad poked and prodded and restored and reinstalled for two weeks and finally conceded “We have no idea what’s wrong with this thing.” However, as of today, it hasn’t crashed on me yet (knock wood) — maybe it has been chastened by its prolonged stay in Coventry…

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I apologize for belittling/invalidating people’s experience.

    I must admit, though, I don’t understand the experience I belittled/invalidated. Perhaps that’s just because my own experience doesn’t include the sort of knowledge of God for which hate makes any sense at all.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean anyone is obligated to explain or justify their reaction. My lack of understanding is my problem.

  • Anonymous

    I apologize for belittling/invalidating people’s experience.

    I must admit, though, I don’t understand the experience I belittled/invalidated. Perhaps that’s just because my own experience doesn’t include the sort of knowledge of God for which hate makes any sense at all.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean anyone is obligated to explain or justify their reaction. My lack of understanding is my problem.

    Oh, I was responding to your quote from Smullyan, not to you. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel ashamed.

    I haven’t experienced anything that was recognizably Divine. For all I know people have experienced it and come away with something different.

    Please see my response to hapax above, because I don’t want to repeat myself here.

  • Kristy

    God is so wonderful that rejecting God truly is a crime deserving infinite punishment, one that outweighs all the good the person who rejects God may have done for other people.

    That’s one hell of an assumption. (…ye gods, pun not intended. It’s late; forgive me.) I was raised Methodist; the idea of Hell was always a purely philosophical question. For me, the hardest part of turning from Christianity to Paganism was that idea that God is all-good. I believed it. I wanted to believe it. I was the best little apologist out there; I’d read the essays on the problem of evil, I knew most of the arguments for why the Bible didn’t really support things like homophobia, I had glib answers for most if not all of the common accusations against Christianity. I wanted it to be true. More importantly, I wanted it to be good.

    But it couldn’t stick. Despite all the rhetorical powers at my disposal (I have the five-point Merit: Raised By A Debate Coach), in the end I couldn’t convince myself that God is, in fact, wonderful. At least, not the God described by Christianity. I’m not and have never been an atheist; I do believe in the divine. I believe the guiding force of the universe is essentially benevolent. And I do not believe that that divine, benevolent force is named YHVH. And while I’m not equipped to say whether that gentleman does or does not exist, if He does, I’m not convinced He’s good. (I’m just saying. Based on available evidence, He’s got a sketchy side to His personality that personally, I’m not comfortable with.)

    And if you’ve reached the point where you can admit that God is good only if you ignore most of His holy book and at least a plurality of his followers… let’s be honest, you should probably just admit that you’re not Christian anymore and start shopping around for a new religion.

    So (she concludes, having rambled far longer than she intended), Kisekileia, your starting point should be: based on everything you know, everything you can find… IS God wonderful? Is He good? Is He worth worshipping? If you can honestly answer yes, then there you go. But if, in your heart of hearts, you don’t actually think so… then maybe it’s time to look elsewhere.

    (On a completely unrelated note, what does your name mean? It’s really pretty and it looks Hawaiian and I love names and words and I want to know!)

  • Kristy

    …bloody…

    Apparently I cannot go back and edit. Nor can I preview my posts to make sure things like blockquotes went through properly. I just have to guess and hope for the best.

    Rage. Rage and sorrow and rage. Rage and sorrow and a plea to forgive the shitty formatting. Also, rage.

  • Anonymous

    @JJohnson: I don’t have any helpful advice, but I have many internet ((hugs)) if you want them.

    @kisekileia: If you’re looking for something that will reassure you on an emotional level that it’s ok to consider non-Christian positions, you might find it helpful to talk to God about it. I know this sounds a bit strange, but I found that it really helped to pray something along the lines of: “God, I’m really unsure and scared about this, but I’ve always believed that you are good and loving and want the best for me. I want to explore whether I am right to believe in you, so I’m going to let go of your hand for a while and go looking. If you are there, and I get confused and don’t come back, I trust your love for me will not change and we’ll have a good laugh about this somewhere down the line.”

    I also reasoned that if God was real and really loving and really wanted me to follow Jesus, then God would find some way to let me know. Which didn’t turn out well, actually, because I spent ages waiting for the big sign in the sky that would read something along the lines of “I love you! Come back!” And then getting really miserable (and angry) when nothing turned up. So I wouldn’t recommend that second bit.

    @Dea Syria:

    I see you agree with my point that the whole thing is fictional.

    That doesn’t sound as though you read the same post by Hapax as I did. As far as I can see, she hasn’t said anything in this thread about her own beliefs.

    Also, ‘gospel’ just means ‘good news’. It seems perfectly reasonable by me to apply that word to what Paul was sharing in his letters. It also seems reasonable, since as you point out we don’t have Paul’s own statement of his personal faith, to use the letters to work out what that was.

  • Anonymous

    @Kristy and @alfgifu: I still think liberal Christianity is a viable option. I’d like to stick with it if possible, but I can’t make an honest decision about whether to do so if I’m paralyzed by fear of hell. I like the talking to God idea.

  • Dea Syria

    so you’re unable to detect irony?

  • Froborr

    Ah yes, troll defense #47: I was being ironic, you people just can’t take a joke!

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    @Kit Whitfield: I read part of Feeling Good some years ago, and I was irked by the way it seemed to present any “negative” thought as harmful and to be eliminated, regardless of whether that thought was true. I also found the insistence that we can be happy if we control our thoughts appropriately disempowering rather than empowering, because it implies that if we’re not happy, we’re not appropriately controlling our thoughts.

    @kisekileia: I think the advice in Feeling Good is best directed towards depressive thoughts. Aimed at ordinary worries in someone mentally well, yep, it can be a bit excessive. On the other hand, if you’re depressed then your own thoughts and feelings really are the major cause of your problems, because you have a disease that keeps whacking you with inappropriately negative thoughts and feelings. (Disclaimer: depressed people can and often do have genuine problems as well, because depressed people are people and people have problems. And being depressed doesn’t do those problems a lick of good either.)

    I wouldn’t recommend it as a general self-help book; I think it’s best applied to a very specific kind of situation.

    @JJohnson: any time. Hang in there: you’re better than the disease wants you to believe.

    The only other piece of advice I’d give right now (though if you spot me on the board and want to talk to me about it again, consider yourself invited) is this: depression is a disease of extremes and absolutes, and we can’t beat it at its own game. Perfectionism correlates with it pretty well … and when we realise that, we can try to stop being perfectionist, only to find that the disease then starts beating us with ‘being perfectionist about not being perfectionist’.

    In the same way, I think it’s possible that the depression could do a pretty good number on you by telling you that because you don’t feel completely better, feeling a bit better isn’t worth anything. Small steps are good steps, whatever that vicious disease says.

    If you need someone to talk to, you can e-mail me at kitwhitfield at hotmail dot com. Because of baby stuff I may not always be quick off the mark replying, but the offer stands if you like. :-)

    @Nicholas Kapur – thanks for the very interesting explanation of video games! Always nice to learn something new. :-)

  • Amaryllis

    Just passing through…mostly to test whether I got this “avatar” business right…so here’s a word about Perfection, Perfection.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    Am I the only one who sighs a bit at the idea of computer games perpetuating all the myths about sanity and mental illness that make it so hard for people to realise when they have a mental illness, or accept that somebody else has a mental illness and isn’t just being a wimp? I mean, I can see how it might add fun to a game and be a way of getting imaginative, and I’m all for fun and imagination, but … sigh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659001961 Brad Ellison

    It doesn’t bug me too much, I guess mainly because video games also perpetuate the myth that eating an entire turkey that you find bricked up in the wall of a Dracula’s castle will allow you to recover from axe-induced trauma, and that if you swallow a bottle full of pain killers after getting shot eight times you’ll be in great shape to dive through a doorway and smoothly execute the bad guys inside with the twin uzis you’re carrying. Be it physical or mental, video games have always, always delivered highly abstract and unrealistic depictions of illness and trauma.

    Of course, upon reflection, I’ve never had a personal stake in the matter, so my nonchalance about is probably also due to privilege.

  • Anonymous

    …now you mention it I can see how Echo Bazaar is problematic in that respect, yes. *is dolt*

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    You aren’t the only one, though I’ll admit it’s not especially high for me in the sort order of pernicious myths perpetuated by popular culture.

  • Froborr

    I completely understand your point, but honestly never thought much of it before because I identify “sanity” and “madness” as being the very outmoded concepts you’re talking about, as opposed to “mental health” and “mental illness.” Like “rightful king,” they have no place in reality, but I’m not bothered by them as a generic convention.

  • Froborr

    And also probably a healthy dose of privilege. While I’ve dealt with mental health issues most of my life, I’ve never really run across anyone IRL who doesn’t believe my issues (depression/PTSD/AvPD) are real. I know such people exist, but I’ve been privileged enough never to encounter them.

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    I don’t think so.

    I think this is as much art imitates the period in which it is produced as much as anything. After all, books, while not capable of the whole controller-screwy type stuff, also bring out the same tropes, as to TV series and movies.

    Basically media at-large tends to have some iffy ideas; or, in some cases, it’s not so much that the idea is iffy but rather that there’s an artistic concept going on and they don’t know another way to justify it.

    Least that’s how I see it >.>

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    I guess mainly because video games also perpetuate the myth that eating an entire turkey that you find bricked up in the wall of a Dracula’s castle will allow you to recover from axe-induced trauma

    That isn’t a myth, though. Or at least, I’ve never heard of anyone who believed it. I have however heard of many, many people who believe that if you aren’t clawing the walls and shouting about insects under your skin, you aren’t ‘mad’ and should stop whining. :-(

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659001961 Brad Ellison

    This is indeed true.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    As I understand it, the image of devils specifically-weilding pitchforks came from Dante, where one of the circles of Hell is burning pitch.

    Not everyone finds this notion disturbing, however. Some argue that God is not subject to the paradox of pitchforks because God is perfectly holy and perfectly righteous and therefore perfectly capable of tormenting a suffering creature with a pitchfork, eagerly, forever, without any loss of moral authority.

    This is how Islamic and Calvinist theology solves the paradox — by placing God literally beyond Good and Evil, only Omnipotent Will. (Sort of a cosmic Triumph of the Will?) In this solution, God can will Evil as well as will Good because “He is the Creator, and We Are The Creatures.” And it all becomes a matter of Power and Power Alone — God just has the Biggest Boot, that’s all. You hear the echoes of this meme from double-predestination Fatalism to the portrayal of God in Left Behind.

  • Froborr

    Ah, good ol’ Abraxis.

    You know, it’s been a couple of years, I think it’s time to re-read Demian and Magister Ludi.

  • http://hummingwolf.livejournal.com/ Hummingwolf

    Dave: Though I understand others’ issues with it, thank you for the Smullyan quote. You have reminded me that I really need to re-read The Tao Is Silent one of these days.
    :-)

  • Heart

    I’m kind of reminded of Desus from Exalted here. The guy is completely horrific, but is hailed as one of the world’s greatest heroes in part because he has enchanted himself so anyone who sees him automatically ascribes the best to him…himself included.

    The result is the Joker, except him and everyone else think that he is Superman.

  • Amaryllis

    AndrewSshi: My general hunch is that Fred’s eschatological vision is generally more along the lines of bringing social justice to everyone here on Earth under the inspiration of the teachings of Jesus. Which is to say, I’m actually pretty sure that he’s on your side but uses the interpretive framework of the New Testament to give his ideas structure.

    I can’t speak for Fred, of course, but I think that many Christians wouldn’t see it as a one-or-the-other choice.
    “Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” can both be true right here in this world. And maybe, what happens after death is where that contradiction is resolved, in a way that it can’t be within the span of a limited human life.

    Italicizing rather than “replying,” because I’ve noticed that “jump to comment” doesn’t always work, at least not for me. Is there a trick to it?

    —-
    Echoing the recommendation for the Heaney Beowulf. And if you don’t mind dealing with Amazon, you can get a paperback edition quite inexpenceslaus…I mean, inexpensively.

  • Anonymous

    Headless Unicorn Guy: As I understand it, the image of devils specifically-weilding pitchforks came from Dante, where one of the circles of Hell is burning pitch.

    That predates Dante; most of Dante’s Inferno is based on earlier stories of people having visions of hell, usually as part of near-death experiences. During the middle ages there were countless such stories, and one of the most popular was the vision of Tundal, which features a mountain that’s half covered in fire and half in ice. Demons used big forks to lift up and toss sinners back and forth between the two sides.

    On that note, it seems that the earliest accounts like these during the 200s or so featured angels punishing devils and sinners alike, but by the 900s at least it had switched to devils usually being the ones in charge of hell, and taking delight in torturing sinners.

  • Anonymous

    Scyllacat, I actually liked that rather than finding it triggering. Speaking of religiously triggering, though:

    V whfg ernq n cbfg va nabgure pbzzhavgl ol fbzrbar jub ybirf gur irefr Yhxr 8:48: ‘Gura [Wrfhf] fnvq gb ure, “Qnhtugre, lbhe snvgu unf urnyrq lbh. Tb va crnpr.”‘ Mvr yvxrf guvf irefr orpnhfr jura mve fvfgre qvrq, “orvat noyr gb cynpr gung irefr va ure pbssva jvgu ure jnf n jnl sbe zr gb erzvaq hf gung [fur] unq orra urnyrq va gur jnlf gung znggref.” (Qverpg dhbgr sebz gur cbfg.)

    I replied with, “…V jnf ernyyl qrongvat jurgure be abg gb cbfg guvf, ohg: Ubj pna lbh fnl gung fur jnf “urnyrq va gur jnlf gung znggre” jura fur qvrq? Gung frrzf pybfre gb qravny guna snvgu gb zr.”

    I just…ugh. THAT was triggering–not to the point of making me cry, but pretty much every muscle in my body is tense right now. That’s just…that’s not healthy faith, I don’t think. It looks to me more like a refusal to wrestle with the difficult questions brought up by the fact that God (at least usually) doesn’t heal people in the real world as is done in the Bible. It freaked me out. I hope my response wasn’t too insensitive–the post was in a Christian community.

  • http://twitter.com/scyllacat Scyllacat

    I know, kisekileia, I have had those moments.

    Ntabfgvpnyyl, qbhogshyyl, V thrff jr znxr urnira/nsgreyvsr sbe n jnl bs erqrrzvat bhe vqrn bs Tbq ol fnlvat Tbq qvqa’g urny uve va guvf jbeyq, ohg mvr vf unccl naq jubyr va Tbq’f jbeyq abj. Ohg lrnu, Tbq qvqa’g urny zl qnq, ab znggre gung V xarj uvf snvgu jnf fgebat. Vg qvqa’g ernyyl ghea zr ntnvafg TBQ ohg vg fher nf urpx ghearq zr ntnvafg gur crbcyr jub fnvq gung ynpx bs urnyvat ==ynpx bs snvgu. Nccneragyl, vg gnxrf zber guna gung. Jub’qn guhax vg? (/-fanex)

    “urnyrq va gur jnlf gung znggre” pbashfrf zr, gbb. Ohg jura V srry “pbaarpgrq” gb gur Havirefr, V qba’g arrq gb oryvrir Tbq vf erny, gung V nz rgreany, be gung guvatf jvyy trg “svkrq,” orpnhfr vg nyy pbzrf nebhaq ntnva.

    Yeah, it’s a mixed bag in here. Thanks for replying in the spirit it was meant.

    (And no, I don’t know how triggery, but it makes me feel nervous, the way I go around slinging bits together.)

  • http://mistharm.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    It’s a tough one to call; but my personal rule of thumb for stuff like that is, if it brings comfort to the still living, and doesn’t contradict the life and legacy of the deceased; then it’s best to just let people have their thing.

    (For instance, that kind of thing would be way out of line if the person in question were a lifelong atheist; but I would see zero problem if the person in question were also a Christian.)

    But that’s me; loss is painful and, since it’s permanent, you have plenty of time to get on with the ‘acceptance’ part of it. Anything that softens the initial blow without grossly distorting who that person was in life is welcome, I think.

    But that’s me; I don’t deal with loss particularly well. I still tear up over my grandma, who’s been dead for 14 years.

  • Anonymous

    kisekileia and hapax have hit on my main problem with the concept of hell as popularly understood: the effect is has on the concept of heaven.

    How joyous and, well, heavenly, can the place be for the presumably compassionate, empathetic, charitable people in heaven knowing that friends, loved ones, admired strangers- really anyone- is having an equal and opposite, horrific and, well, hellish, experience somewhere else?

    Either those in heaven are made unaware of what is happening in hell (ignorance is bliss?), the concepts are mutually exclusive, or the RTCs are right and heaven is for the sadistic, joyously gloating over the suffering of others.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=659001961 Brad Ellison

    How joyous and, well, heavenly, can the place be for the presumably compassionate, empathetic, charitable people in heaven knowing that friends, loved ones, admired strangers- really anyone- is having an equal and opposite, horrific and, well, hellish, experience somewhere else?

    A question theologians have been kicking around for a while now. One of the nastier answers is that observing the damned getting their just desserts for all eternity is one of the pleasures of Heaven. Other,s as I recall, have kicked around ideas about the nature of eternity making Hell and Heaven non-contemporaneous.

    Calvin Miller’s reworking of John’s Revelation has a rather nice concluding image, of Heaven expanding infinitely while Hell contracts, until it is gone entirely and nothing is left but the eternal joy spreading out in all directions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jason-Zurek/1194844994 Jason Zurek

    One of the other discomforting responses I have heard is that those in heaven simply wont remember the people they knew in hell. Which, you know, getting mind-wiped always sounded pretty horrific to me as a child.

    I never cared much for stereotypical descriptions of either heaven or hell, really. Streets paved with gold just sound tacky.

  • Anonymous

    Streets paved with gold just sound tacky.

    And impractical. Gold is real easy to bang up.

    Pre-typo-correct sentence read ‘God’. Insert snickers here.

  • Anonymous

    The thing is, the statement “she was healed in all the ways that matter” logically leads to the conclusion that the ways in which she wasn’t healed don’t matter. I have trouble understanding how someone could actually find comfort in the belief that their sister’s physical death was insignificant and not worth mourning.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > I have trouble understanding how someone could actually find comfort in the belief that their sister’s physical death was insignificant and not worth mourning.

    Hm. This doesn’t strike me as especially difficult to understand: once something is irrevocably taken away from me, it is emotionally rewarding to believe that it’s valueless.

  • Anonymous

    Okay, the OP has come back and explained herself (thought not after I got a mod warning for actually daring to ask difficult questions about something that didn’t make logical sense *eye roll*). Apparently the sister’s situation had improved before her death to a point greater than anyone could reasonably have expected, and the fact that she did die was expected and presumably paled in significance compared to the other improvements that happened before her death.

    ETA: The mod accused me of lack of compassion. My reaction was more along the lines of, “What the OP is saying makes about as much sense as someone enjoying having the stomach flu. WTF?”

  • Anonymous

    if one assumes hell is as the myth says, there are only two things that make “logical” [or, at least, internally consistent] sense.

    either, A) some NEW type of demon – call it a devil, to separate it from the original, demons-who-were-once-angels – was created to serve this purpose, or;
    B) these are ANGELS – sure, they rebelled, but that doesn’t make them the type of beings who like, enjoy, get kicks out of, torture. maybe THEIR torture is the torture of others.

    if we take a slightly different postulate – that the “myth” of hell is as given, then i can only assume that Lucifer [Satan et al] fell because that was the PLAN, so that there WOULD be a populace, that all those once-angels-now-demons ARE doing “God’s Work”

    or perhaps, if there is an actual hell that PEOPLE go to for some length of time, it’s more of a jail-then-rehab, and Lucifer[Satan et al] is serving HIS time and HIS rehab by running the ward for the rest of us.

    or, maybe, Heinlein was right, in his novel Job. [gotta admit – that’s my favorite idea of Hell-as-a-real-place, even though i don’t believe in hell at all]

    i hope i didn’t repeat anyone – it’s after 7am and i’m so VERY tired, too tired to read all the comments… sorry if i did

  • http://pecunium.livejournal.com Pecunium

    I think I was about 11 when I really started to grapple with this question (it was also about the time I started considering the priesthood). The only way it works is for God to be all-loving and all compassionate.

    It’s a bit complex, perhaps even tortured, but bear with me.

    1: God and Satan are adversaries.
    2: God is displeased with mortals who break the rules.
    3: Satan is planning a assault on heaven.

    4: God sends the souls of those He is displeased with to Satan.
    5: Satan Punishes them.

    At this point the system falls apart. If Satan is pissed at God, and looking to overthrow is Kingdom of Heaven, why would he be doing God’s Work in tormenting the souls he gets sent? I think, if I were being tormented by Satan, I’d be Pitching for God when the Assault on Heaven takes place. How much worse can it be if God Wins? Is he going to ship everyone back to Hell (reminds me of the army joke, “What are then gonna do, send me to ‘x’?” where “X”= place one is when speaking).

    So, that means, if Satan is punishing people, that he is in cahoots with God. It’s possible God is so petty and vengeful that He is willing to punish infinitely for the actions performed in a finite life, and one with so confused a moral landscape as the one presented (whom shall one turn to for answers to the question, “What does God demand of me?”. I am fond of Micah, myself, “Do Justice, Love Mercy, and walk humbly with my God”. But what of Fallwell (what a name for a preacher), or Dobbs, or (God forbid) LaHaye and Jenkins?).

    I was also reared a Roman Catholic. I have purgatory as a model. Think of it as probation. That makes Hell like prison. One gets out of prison. When… well to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, when one has rehabilitated oneself. What is that rehabilitation? To come to a place where one knows why what evils one practiced were evil. I think the mortal sin, the one that condemns one to “hell”, is lack of awareness. Being able to do evil, and not know it for evil.

    I understand torment, and torture, and painful epiphanies. Stripping those unmerciful ideas, those failure to be just, and gaining the ability to walk humbly with one’s god.. that is, IMO, the only real way Hell can be justified (as presented).

    There are any number of useful arguments for other definitions of hell. I am open to persuasion, but if the “Fire and Brimstone” model of Eternal Torment ™ is the one we are working with, then the only way it makes sense is for it to be redemptive.

  • Markbwr73

    I am not familiar with the typ of hell you people are talking about? I have always understud hell to be a lake of fire where you burn for (forever and ever )with no chance of relief. which is little difference in the story of Lazeras and the rich man who burned in hadies and begged for lazeras to have his tongue cooled with water. the thought of burning in flames for forever hummm . pretty rough hmmmm being poked with forks and harassed by demons hmmmm servral diferent faiths useing serveral bibles probbly with simular stories about hell hmmmm commic books? how do commic books serv as documentation? this whole demon pitch fork thing dosen’t sound impressive to me. how is this any worse than being beaten rapped continually starved and worked hard enough to die from exuastion loss of sleep being burned but not to death exposed to the cold others torterd in front of you? Hey we as humans do this stuff to each other all the time and always have and some people do live through it ! I have encounterd people who are permanently disfigured crippled and mentally ill from such human abuse. Besides does anyone actually know any real true facts about Hell? DANTE was a writer he had a dream and wrote about . I don’t know anyone who has been there ,not interested in going there . But I believe it exists as well as heaven ,I also believe that if your human you probbly arn’t going to understand everything an all konwing all capable does. But I do understand this people often spend alot of time argueing over details when they could just do whatever it is that needs to be done . How do you know derision and confusion arn’t tools? Well this dumb southern boy is hungry and im gona eat and read my bible see ya.

  • dutchs

    So what do things like James 5 mean when it warns the rich that a day of reckoning is coming? We all know perfectly well they will mostly die in bed, comfortable to the end. Even in the OT, the vast majority of the evildoers who eventually brought about the collapse of Israel and Judah lived out their lives in peace, and only an unlucky few saw the collapse. Even those, I’ll bet, managed to buy a cushy life in exile.

    The downtrodden will rise up? Oh, please. The Tea Party would like nothing more than an excuse to lash out.

    So if the rich oppressors are pretty much guaranteed to escape any punishment in this world, and there’s no other reckoning, then all those verses about social justice are empty rhetoric, maybe there to con the rubes into thinking justice will eventually prevail. Oh, you think Wall Street is evil? Who gives a rat’s @$$? Not flippant, a serious question. How does your opinion matter in the slightest? You have zero power to do anything and you deny that God does, too. So who cares in the least what you think? They’ll just have to console themselves with their mistresses, yachts and private jets, and die knowing they screwed everybody and got away with it to the very end.

    If you’re going to criticize the idea of hell, criticize what theologians have actually said and not what you know from The Far Side, or even Dante or Milton. In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis notes that by ennobling Satan, Milton did an enormous amount of harm. To Lewis, Faust is a better image of Satan than Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles is urbane and well mannered, whereas Faust is greedy and utterly selfish.

    Hell is usually pictured as a place of torment, but a toxic waste dump is probably a more appropriate image.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You know, I don’t think Fred’s ever critiqued the idea that those deserving of punishment get it after death. What he’s critiqued is the idea that those deserving of punishment get nothing but punishment, forever and ever amen.


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