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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  • 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.

  • 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 :)

  • 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.

  • Mark Z.


    I don’t think religious ideas flow in neat lines of descent like that.

    To take our current topic: pre-exilic Judaism didn’t have a hell. By the time of Jesus, the idea of hell was commonplace enough for Jesus to make references to it; it’s hard to say how literally anyone would take those references, but they understood the concept well enough not to say “Wait, so Lazarus and the rich man went to different places after they died?” Hell seems to have leaked in from other traditions: Daniel, trained as a Zoroastrian scholar, mentions that some of the dead will be raised to “everlasting life” and others to “shame and abhorrence”, and one of the Epistles of Peter talks about fallen angels being sent to Tartarus, of all places. (And modern Judaism is mostly back to not having a hell.)

    And there are Baptist kids who read Dante or C. S. Lewis or Madeleine L’Engle and imprint on their ideas, even though they’re all outside that specific strain of Christian tradition. And so modern Baptist hell is a composite of Dante and Lewis and Goethe and Jonathan Edwards and Frank Peretti and Jack Chick and Warner Brothers cartoons. In five hundred years it will probably also be ruled by the Yama Kings.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


    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.

  • 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.

  • Anonymous

    1. Your birth experience — in pain and alone — is my recurring nightmare and the only thing that really scares me.

    2. I’m not sure that Lewis is describing depression so much as self-absorption. His characters in “The Great Divorce” aren’t incapable of believing in goodness or beauty — the Apostate says that Hell is Heaven with the proper attitude — they believe that their opinion is the only thing that matters. They reject good news not because they can’t recognize goodness but because it wasn’t their own idea. (The Tragedian is the best example of this when he rejects his wife’s testimony of Heaven because she suggested it first.)

  • Ok, yeah, I was being too narrow. Glad I joined in, though.

  • 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?

  • So do people really get addicted to video games? It’s not just a scare-journalist myth?

    Ooh, just had to pop in on this one. Short answer is, people really do get addicted to video games, and also it’s just a scare-journalist myth.

    Long version is that “video games” are an artistic medium, covering a ridiculously broad spectrum, and thus asking whether they are addictive makes as much sense as asking whether “drugs” are addictive. To extend the analogy, imagine if not one reporter in the mainstream media knew even the basics of medicine, chemistry, or biology, and yet you kept seeing news stories about whether “drugs” were harmful/addictive/what-have-you.

    To be sure, certain games (or even genres of games) are deliberately designed to be as addictive as possible.* This should not be a revelation. Much like with gambling or drinking alcohol, most people can be affected by the habit-forming factors and still maintain a healthy life balance. However, some people simply cannot — they will always have to choose between being addicted to, say, World of Warcraft (a notorious offender), or abstaining completely.

    There are plenty of other problems people have with “video games,” involving sex or violence or language or anything else that no one has cared about in R-rated movies for over a decade, but it’s nearly impossible for someone outside the “gaming” culture to know how to feel about a specific issue.

    From outside sources, you’ll only get completely useless, sensationalist crap, which will always miss the target even they’re ostensibly pursuing a noble goal. For comparison, look at GOProud’s general position of “we may be gay, but at least we’re not f**gy women like Democrats.” Gay rights good; GOProud fail.

    Unfortunately, inside sources are often only marginally more useful. This is usually because, as much as I love video games, the gaming industry is a vast wasteland of pure, unadulterated privilege. For comparison, look at the entire rest of the US neocon scene, as well as anyone you could call “liberal” but not “progressive.”

    So yeah. Some games can be and are addictive, but you will never ever ever learn anything useful about that from the people ostensibly reporting on it. Yay media.

    * Cracked actually has a nice article on ways that those specific types of games do that. Although their writers tend to use sexist and ableist language, so heads up.

  • 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.

  • Elysium (Heroes), Tartarus (Villains), and Asphodel (Ordinary Folks) – the third I had to look up so don’t trust me 100% on that one.

    And yeah, TVTropes has a great article about that actually called Everyone Hates Hades >.>

  • Anonymous

    alfgifu perfectly describes what I was always taught about the Bible. The Bible was written by humans inspired by God but not dictated by God. There is, in fact, a specific heresy called “Bibliolatry” in which a person takes the Bible as being dictated by God directly.

    The minister we had when I was in high school put it this way: God doesn’t change, but human understanding of God does. We learn more as we go along. The description of God in Numbers, with stuff like the destruction of the Midianites, says a lot about what humans were like in the Bronze Age. God as described in the later OT prophets is a much nicer person because the Israelites had become better people, more like ACTUAL God than the brutes in Judges. Part of what makes us better is studying how our forbears improved, so the nasty stuff stayed in the Bible. (Also, the story of the redemption of Israel from Egyptian slavery was the first time in human history that anyone thought that slavery was something that happened to themselves and also was something bad.)

  • 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.

  • Anonymous

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

  • 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!)

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

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • Froborr

    I know (or at least, hope and think I know) that this isn’t your intent, but there is a *very* fine line between this kind of bibliology (is that a word?) and anti-Semitism.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, Froborr. I didn’t mean to be anti-Semitic at all, but the line of reasoning I used certainly can lead to that conclusion.

  • 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.

  • 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


    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

    @Tim Raveling
    My area of study (a few years back now) was Anglo-Saxon England. Unfortunately all my notes are in storage, and so is my old computer, but I’ve done a bit of googling on my favourite key words and turned up:

    Some of the sermons of dear old paranoid Bishop Wulfstan in translation: here. Wulfstan might be described as the LaHaye of his day, with vastly better style. His short sermon De Anticristo hits a lot of the spots for end times prophecy and then urges all pastors to remind their flocks every week at least that the world is about to end.

    What looks like an extremely relevant essay on the development of the idea of paradise in the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond: here. Haven’t had time to read it properly, but from a quick skim the author is ticking off the major visions of the afterlife in the Anglo-Saxon world so it will give you more references if you want to get back to more sources.

    A book of translations from Old English which includes (right at the end, I’m afraid) the prose work “The Harrowing of Hell”, which is a dramatisation with verse elements as well: here Again, no time to read it in detail so I can’t vouch for the translation. You might find the other passages classified as religious verse and prose by the translators interesting as well, though I don’t think any of them are quite as relevant.

    Offline, you might also want to look out Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Feel free to skip over the historical account that makes up the first part of the book and straight to his collection of dream visions – you could find them quickly by searching for “Drihthelm” (spelling might vary) in the index.

    I’d also recommend checking out the Life of St Columba, who was always seeing visions of angels and demons (and drove off the Loch Ness Monster with a blessing at one point). About two thirds of the book is an account of the visions, with only a third left over for biographical details.

    Hope this lot is what you’re after!

  • 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.

  • @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.

  • Froborr

    The key points to remember are that modern Judaism has *also* had thousands of years of development since then, and that the Bible is the starting point, not the end-all be-all, for Judaism. So Judaism is *not*, as it’s sometimes depicted, Christianity 1.0. It’s a split; Christianity went down one path of development, and Judaism down another. Arguably, a first-century Jew might find both equally alien.

  • 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.)

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.