That chair doesn't belong in this play

Playwright David Mamet, from the essay “Realism” in Writing in Restaurants:

In general, each facet of every production must be weighed and understood solely on the basis of its interrelationship to the other elements; on its service or lack of service to the meaning, the action of the play.

A chair is not per se truthful or untruthful. That one may say, “Yes, but it is a chair, an actual chair, people sit on it and I found it in a cafeteria, therefore it belongs in this play about a cafeteria,” is beside the point. Why was that particular chair chosen? Just as that particular chair said something about the cafeteria in the cafeteria (its concern for looks over comfort, for economy over durability, etc.), so that chair, on stage, will say something about the play; so the question is: What do you, the theatrical director, wish to say about the play?

… So what if the play is set in a cafeteria? … Our question is why is the play set in a cafeteria, what does it mean that the play is set in a cafeteria, and what aspect of this cafeteria is important to the meaning of the play. …

… Everything which does not put forward the meaning of the play impedes the meaning of the play. To do too much or too little is to mitigate and weaken the meaning. The acting, the design, the direction should all consist only of what bare minimum necessary to put forward the action. Anything else is embellishment.

Theologian Eugene Peterson, responding to the latest offensive from Team Hell:

We should read the entire Bible in terms of what drives toward Christ. Everything has to be interpreted through Christ. Well, if you do that, you’re going to end up with this religion of grace and forgiveness. The only people Jesus threatens are the Pharisees. But everybody else gets pretty generous treatment. There’s very little Christ, very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell.

Much of the dispute between the defenders of Hell and their dissenters is difficult to address, let alone resolve, because the two sides are not reading the same Bible. The volumes are identical, but the ways they approach the book are incompatible.

The result is a dispute that falls several steps short of disagreement. The nature and the locus of the disagreement remains hidden, prompting confusion, anger and fear — or, in Al Mohler’s case, an extravagantly feigned pose of supercilious lamentation.

We can see the outlines of the problem in Team Hell’s response whenever Rob Bell or Brian McLaren or C.S. Lewis makes a statement about the character of God. Team Hell is highly suspicious of such talk. They grasp just enough of what Bell et. al. are saying to perceive the seriousness of the threat to their position, but not quite enough to really hear and evaluate what is being said.

And so they leap to the conclusion that this is some bit of “liberal” trickery — some tactic for evading the clear truths clearly revealed in simple, propositional statements, which constitute the clearest and highest forms of truth. Thus we get things like the following, from Mohler, arguing that Rob Bell is just like a 1920s “liberal”:*

They argued that the doctrine of hell, though clearly revealed in the Bible, slandered God’s character. They offered proposed evasions of the Bible’s teachings, revisions of the doctrine, and the rejection of what the church had affirmed throughout its long history.**

For Mohler, as for most of Team Hell, we can see that there are two distinct categories. On the one hand there is what is “clearly revealed in the Bible … teachings … doctrine.” And on the other hand there’s this evasive, fuzzy-wuzzy, extra-biblical, anti-biblical notion of “the character of God.”

And with that preconception stuck in his head, he cannot accept or imagine or even hear what is actually being said to him. He cannot accept or imagine or hear the argument that the character of God as clearly revealed in the Bible is incompatible and irreconcilable with his fondness for Hell. The character of God is a “teaching” or “doctrine,” but it’s also much more than that. It is, in Mamet’s terms, the meaning of the play. Anything that contradicts it does not belong on stage.

That’s how Rob Bell reads the Bible. And that’s how Eugene Peterson reads the Bible. And that’s how I read the Bible. “Everything has to be interpreted through Christ,” Peterson said.

That’s also a Pauline approach to the Bible. It’s how Paul read the scriptures himself, and it’s how he wrote his own letters to the early believers, letters which we have since canonized as our own scriptures. The evangelists who wrote the Gospels of the New Testament wrote them this way too. And they tried to live that way too.

But this is not how Team Hell reads the Bible. They regard the idea of reading the entire Bible as “driving toward” any one point as a dangerous approach that prioritizes some passages over others. That opens the door to all sorts of “evasions” and “revisions.” For them every word in the Bible is sacred. And thus every word in the Bible is equally sacred. To allow for some grand theme or interpretive scheme or some larger picture of the character of God would be to challenge that equal sacredness of every single word.

And that would be dangerous. Reckless. It’d be like, I don’t know, imagine there’s a pearl merchant and he’s got all these different little pearls, each of which is valuable and important. It would be foolish for him to sell all those little sacred pearls in exchange for one big pearl of great price. You do something like that — you go looking for the big picture, the grand interpretive scheme, and you might wind up getting the little details wrong. Better to concentrate on all the little details. Because, remember, if you get too many of those little details wrong, God will send you to Hell where you’ll suffer conscious torment for eternity.

One more story that I’ve told before, but it underscores what Mamet and Stanislavsky and Peterson and Paul were all getting at. It illustrates the thing that Team Hell just doesn’t understand about the way Team Love reads the Bible:

So this guy is walking through Chartres about 800 years ago and he comes across a man hauling buckets of stones. “What are you doing?” he asks the man.

“Breaking my back to feed my family,” the man says. “Same thing I do every day.”

A bit further along the guy meets another man who is hard at work with a chisel. “What are you doing?” he asks the second man.

“I’m making rectangular blocks, two feet long, one foot high, one foot deep,” the man says. “Same thing I do every day.”

Then an old woman with a bucket and broom arrives to sweep up the dust and debris the carver was making. “What are you doing? the guy asks the woman.

“Same thing I do every day,” the old woman says. “I’m building a glorious cathedral, a work of art that will stand for centuries.”

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The fundamentalist-modernist controversy played out in the 1920s here in America, ending with the fundamentalists’ withdrawal, for decades, from public life. Ever since the fundamentalists have re-emerged — as Neo-evangelicals, or evangelicals, or Republicans — they have struggled to make up for all that they missed in the world during the main part of the 20th century. One consequence of this is that whenever they encounter someone who disagrees with them, their first thought is of the last argument they remember having. Thus they tend to believe that anyone disagreeing with them must be some kind of modernist theologian from the 1920s. Hence the endless variations of something like this exchange: “About 4.5 billion years, why do you ask?” “Bultmann!

** Yes, here you have a sola-scriptura, anti-traditional Southern Baptist American evangelical suddenly basing his argument on “what the church had affirmed throughout its long history.” It is kind of fun to re-read Mohler’s rant imagining it as a defense of the papacy rather than a defense of the doctrine of Hell — you only need to change a few words here and there to make it work for one medieval embellishment rather than the other. And of course the biblical case for the papacy is just as strong.

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  • LunaticFringe

    “On the one hand there is what is “clearly revealed in the Bible … teachings … doctrine.” And on the other hand there’s this evasive, fuzzy-wuzzy”

    I for one will not take this slander against the Church of the Hairless Bear.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richard-Dolder/100000925313902 Richard Dolder

    I think it really boils down to the question.
    Is god a tyrant? That is to say does the law, including moral law apply to god.
    If a man were to do the things we accuse god we would call them evil, do those same judgments apply to god?

    I think they would say no.
    I would say, yes of course. No one is above the law.

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

    Hm. I think this presumes a number of things that are worth saying out loud.

    I mean, it seems obviously pointless to rail against an earthquake for being evil when it kills thousands of innocent people. More generally, if moral law is understood as a set of rules for deciding what is good and what is evil, then moral law seems irrelevant when talking about earthquakes. If we want to actually accomplish something useful — if we want to save lives, for example — our efforts are better devoted to understanding how earthquakes get that way and how to prevent them from causing harm in the future, than to worrying about whether earthquakes are evil or not.

    Personally, I think it makes sense to judge people the same way. But I appreciate that not everyone agrees with me: some folks feel that for people, moral law is important.

    So if X kills a thousand people and X is an earthquake, we don’t judge X as evil, but if X is another person, many people do judge the person as evil.

    It seems to follow that moral law applies differently to different kinds of entities.

    So, when you say that moral law applies to god the same way as to humans, you seem to be saying that god is more like a human than like an earthquake.

    Perhaps you’re right. I’m certainly not arguing the point — I don’t think arguments about the nature of god lead anywhere worthwhile.

    But, as I say: it’s probably worth saying that out loud.

  • http://www.aqualgidus.org/ Michael Chui

    So, when you say that moral law applies to god the same way as to humans, you seem to be saying that god is more like a human than like an earthquake.

    Yes, this is accurate. An easy and obvious basis is “Man was made in the image of God.” But less religiously, it’s the concept of intentionality: you have to recognize the consequences of your actions in order to be morally responsible for them. I.e., if God is producing earthquakes when he shifts on his butt and farts, and he doesn’t even notice, then the moral problem is different. But in terms of Hell, the doctrine is very specific that he judges and sentences each soul individually.

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

    Understood.

    For my own part, if there exists a sentient and eternal being that created the universe, is aware of future events, and is actively involved in manipulating both large-scale and small-scale events, then it seems to follow naturally from that premise that this being is far less like me than _anything_ I have ever experienced.

    So lines of theological argument that depend on god’s relative similarity to a human don’t make much sense to me.

    But I accept that not everyone thinks that way. And as I said initially, I don’t think arguments about the nature of god are productive, _especially_ when they take the doctrinal beliefs of particular human tribes as a starting point.

    So if such arguments make sense to someone else, that’s great and wonderful.

    I nevertheless endorse being clear about the role that sort of similarity is playing in a particular argument.

  • Anonymous

    Well here is Screwtapes opinion of team hell

    I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naif? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

  • ako

    One thing that sticks out for me (thanks to years of reading Slacktivist) is the way Team Hell structures their Biblical arguments. There’s a lot of prooftexting, using quotes from a wide selection of scattered verses, without a lot of discussion of context or meaning, and a tendency to play “My verse trumps your verse!”

    It’s kind of funny, from an atheist perspective, because “The Bible is full of contradictory bits that make no sense when you read all together” is a common atheist view*, and the same people who go into a frothing rage when you suggest that these bits contradict the other bit will be all “This verse says the opposite of the other verse you’re using to prove your point! Bam! I win!” without saying anything about what it means that the bits appear to contradict the other bits. (That’s also why I think it’s unfair to give fundamentalists credit for following what the Bible ‘really’ says, and dismiss other theological approaches as ‘just picking whatever sounds good’. Because fundamentalist prooftexting is very much “These bits support my idea of what’s right, so I’m going to ignore how they seem to contradict the other bits!”, and Rob Bell-style or Fred-style theology is at least seeing the contradictions and looking for ways to make sense of it.)

    *Common, not universal, just to be clear.

  • Anonymous

    Well Ako I believe in God because I believe that God is love

    and love conquers all

  • Anonymous

    If you don’t mind my asking, what do you mean by “God is love”? God is an emotion? God is an entity that is capable of emotional states, and is constantly in a state we refer to as love?

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

    If you don’t mind my asking, what do you mean by “God is love”? God is an emotion? God is an entity that is capable of emotional states, and is constantly in a state we refer to as love?

    Speaking for myself, rather than flat, I’d say that the idea of “God is love” involves an understanding that love isn’t an emotion. The kind of love meant there is generally agape, and that’s about doing rather than feeling. What we Christians usually mean by that cliche is that God, as we understand God, is something whose nature is thoroughly informed by absolute, limitless compassion in every way.

  • Anonymous

    “Speaking for myself, rather than flat, I’d say that the idea of “God is love” involves an understanding that love isn’t an emotion. The kind of love meant there is generally agape, and that’s about doing rather than feeling. What we Christians usually mean by that cliche is that God, as we understand God, is something whose nature is thoroughly informed by absolute, limitless compassion in every way.”

    Fair enough. In your view why do natural disasters exist then? Or, if you prefer, why did this being of limitless compassion choose a way of creating and shaping life that basically runs on suffering (evolution)?

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

    Fair enough. In your view why do natural disasters exist then? Or, if you prefer, why did this being of limitless compassion choose a way of creating and shaping life that basically runs on suffering (evolution)?

    I don’t know.

    What I used to believe was Young-Earth Creationism, which nicely solves the question, at expense of contradicting all the known facts.

    But, while I don’t believe in Adam and Eve as history, I do believe in the idea of Original Sin, at least after a fashion. The world seems to not be as it should be, and I believe in an obligation to work towards bridging that gap.

    I hit a pivotal moment in my personal theology a few years back when, long story short, I realized I was no longer a conservative Evangelical, and had the choice between becoming an agnostic or a much more liberal Evangelical. Slacktivist actually helped me make the choice, but the other key piece that slipped into place was rereading The Silver Chair, and realizing that I agreed with Puddleglum: even if Jesus wasn’t the Christ, living as though he was, and serving the God he preached even if He didn’t exist, was a good path for me to follow (especially after cross-pollinating it all with some Zen, but that’s another story entirely).

    All of which is to say that I don’t have a great answer to the question of suffering, other than to do what I can to make the world around me better as I can.

  • Anonymous

    I believe that God is love because when the more love you give the more love you receive it is the only thing in existence where I know that that happens.

    That is who I believe God is.

  • Froborr

    Entropy.

  • http://xaonon.dyndns.org/ Jim Wisniewski

    Say rather “The Bible is full of contradictory bits that make no sense when read all together and interpreted literally“. It’s the “every word means exactly what it says” attitude that leads to self-contradiction; allowing for metaphor generally avoids that, but RTCs are pretty loath to do that.

    Mind you, even after allowing that many of us atheists still take issue with the supernatural claims and other aspects of the book, but that’s a disagreement on a much different level of analysis.

  • http://twitter.com/sotonohito55 sotonohito

    I’m not trying to be an atheist asshole, but I really don’t get how Fred has concluded that the character of the god described in the Bible is incompatible with Hell. The deity described in the Bible seems perfectly compatible with the idea of eternal damnation. This is especially true of the Old Testament God, but also true of the NT God.

    Jesus talks about hell, it isn’t his major theme but it’s always lurking in the background. In Revelation God is depicted as a vengeful deity who will unloose horror and torture on the Earth. Paul, chosen spokesman for God, is a narrowminded bigot with a hate on against women and an obsession with obedience. All of that says something about the character of God, and to me says that he’s fine and dandy with hell.

    Obviously this is complicated by the bits where Jesus says things that nice and forgiving. It’s further complicated by the fact that Jesus is cited as giving multiple, mutually contradictory, explanations of what a person has to do to get into heaven.

    Which brings me to the common atheist position that the Bible is basically filled with enough contradictory stuff that you have to pick and choose to get anything coherent, Fred has chosen to focus on the nice bits, Team Hell has chosen to focus on the unpleasant bits.

    But I don’t get how Fred reads the Bible and concludes that the totality of the text points to a deity with a character incompatible with the idea of hell. I like Fred’s deity better than I like the deity described in the Bible, but I don’t see Fred’s deity in the Bible.

    Anyone have some insight here?

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    It’s further complicated by the fact that Jesus is cited as giving multiple, mutually contradictory, explanations of what a person has to do to get into heaven.

    Largely because Jesus isn’t all that interested in discussing “getting into heaven”.

  • Mark Z.

    I’m not trying to be an atheist asshole, but I really don’t get how Fred has concluded that the character of the god described in the Bible is incompatible with Hell. The deity described in the Bible seems perfectly compatible with the idea of eternal damnation. This is especially true of the Old Testament God, but also true of the NT God.

    It is definitely not true of Old Testament God. The pattern with Old Testament God is that there’s always a way forward. See, for example, Jeremiah: the prophet proclaims hellfire and damnation and The End Is Nigh right up until the Babylonians arrive and sack Jerusalem. Then he goes into exile with the rest of the survivors and his message changes to “Don’t lose hope, God still loves you.” If Old Testament God had a hell, it would be a place of exile, where you wander in the wilderness or labor in captivity for a season until you’re ready to make another run at life. One part purgatory, one part The Halls of Mandos.

    Obviously this is complicated by the bits where Jesus says things that aren’t nice and forgiving. It’s further complicated by the fact that Jesus is cited as giving multiple, mutually contradictory, explanations of what a person has to do to get into heaven.

    Yes, it’s almost as if Jesus was trying to show the right way to live, rather than to lay out a system of rules for getting into heaven after we die.

  • Heart

    I’m not so sure about your reading of the Old Testament God. Possibly true for those he has chosen, but others…not so much.

  • Anonymous

    Thing is, I think that this *is* the same debate that was going on in the twenties. I strongly suspect that Fred would give the same reply as Bultmann, as Borg, or as John Shelby Spong if pushed to give an answer to, “So what happened to the physical body Rabbi Yeshua bar Joseph after he was executed as an insurgent in the year 33 CE?” Now then, Clark, Spong, and Bultmann might all say that Christ lives in us all if we work hard for social justice here on Earth and that in the larger quest for love and social justice we shouldn’t focus on such minutiae as what did or didn’t happen outside of the walls of Jerusalem on one particular day, but such an answer causes those of a more supernatural bent to get suspicious.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    I strongly suspect that Fred would give the same reply as Bultmann, as Borg, or as John Shelby Spong if pushed to give an answer to, “So what happened to the physical body Rabbi Yeshua bar Joseph after he was executed as an insurgent in the year 33 CE?”

    Really?

  • Anonymous

    I might very well be wrong (since Fred is fairly cagey in actually saying what specifically he believes about, say, the existence of the supernatural in the world), but Fred’s rhetoric generally tends to match those of folks who don’t actually believe in the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith. In my experience, when people say that Christianity isn’t about pie in the sky when you die, but rather about establishing social justice on earth, that’s a pretty good indicator that they don’t believe in the part about the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come except as a general metaphor.

    Fred’s got a few atheist readers who are also pretty sure he’s a positivist in his worldview, and he’s never actually gone gone out of his way to disabuse his admirers who think of him as a Straussian atheist of their notions.

    As I’ve said, I may be wrong, since as I noted above, Fred’s pretty good at avoiding being pinned down in a statement of what he does and doesn’t believe about the actual historicity of supernatural events described in the Christian Bible.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    I might very well be wrong (since Fred is fairly cagey in actually saying what specifically he believes about, say, the existence of the supernatural in the world), but Fred’s rhetoric generally tends to match those of folks who don’t actually believe in the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith.

    I don’t know about that, but it tends to match my rhetoric, and I definitely believe in the supernatural aspects of Christianity.

    In my experience, when people say that Christianity isn’t about pie in the sky when you die, but rather about establishing social justice on earth, that’s a pretty good indicator that they don’t believe in the part about the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come except as a general metaphor.

    Again – Christianity is not about pie in the sky when you die. I believe that very strongly. I also ABSOLUTELY believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come.

    You’re making some pretty big assumptions.

  • http://profiles.google.com/porlockjunior Dan Drake

    @Deird
    “Christianity is not about pie in the sky when you die.”

    I understand this, or believe I do; and it seems right to me; and it’s the central point of this exchange. (Speaking here as an interested outsider to Christianity, and something of a Puddleglumist.)(Also, remembering the end of Pilgrim’s Regress.)

    But there’s a second point that seems to want an answer: the previous comment’s assumption that the alternative is its being “rather about establishing social justice on earth”. I’d bet that neither you nor Fred takes that position at all. Not while accepting the resurrection of the dead.

    It’s almost a Duhhh point, but the dichotomy seems to show a void in understanding what vast numbers of Christians believe their religion is all about. Not to mention other montheists and still other religious views. It seems a point worth making whenever this void shows up in discussion.

  • Enoch Root

    “Much of the dispute between the defenders of Hell and their dissenters is difficult to address, let alone resolve, because the two sides are not reading the same Bible. The volumes are identical, but the ways they approach the book are incompatible.”

    An esoteric question: “What is the nature of God?”

    An exoteric answer: “If you don’t do the proscribed things, you’ll go to hell.”

    Any Christian who wants to explore the ambiguities of life will wonder at the nature of God.

    Any Christian who wants to demolish the ambiguities of life will demand that there is a Hell and that they know how to avoid it.

  • Anonymous

    Just for the heck of it, and because I’m feeling gutsy today, I read the Mohler piece. What struck me as interesting, starting with the point where he says

    The early liberals just could not and would not accept a doctrine of hell that included conscious eternal punishment and the pouring out of God’s wrath upon sin.

    Notice the way Mohler characterizes the inhabitants of hell. They’re always “sinners” when they aren’t fully dehumanized, as in the line I quoted above, where there is “conscious … punishment” but no one is mentioned as experiencing the consciousness, and God’s wrath is poured out on sin, not on people. My point isn’t that Mohler doesn’t believe people–real people–will go to hell; clearly he does have that belief, at least intellectually. My point is that the way he talks about those in hell tends to dehumanize them. For whatever he may say about the doctrine of hell being just fine, no problem, he persists in rhetorically dodging the point that he is talking about real, actual people spending multiples of their human lifespan being tortured.

    Here’s another one:

    Rob Bell believes that the doctrine of the eternal punishment of unrepentant sinners in hell is keeping people from coming to Jesus.

    The ones punished in hell are “sinners,” and the ones who might come to Jesus are “people.”

    It’s well known that one way we gear ourselves up to be able to accept waging war is to dehumanize the enemy. It seems it is also necessary for maintaining Mohler’s doctrine of hell.

  • http://style92.livejournal.com/ style 92

    it’s easier if you’re just talking about “sin” as opposed to people. Because if you start talking about “people” in hell, you’re going to start running into people who are there that don’t deserve to be.

    Keep in mind, when I tell this story, I was raised in a very “Say the Magic Words” style church school. When my teacher say what was needed to be saved, she would say “to proclaim Jesus as Lord and ask for salvation!”

    And I would say, “teacher, what about those people who were never given a fair chance to be saved?” And she would say “who do you mean, Scott?”

    And I would say, “Well, for example, all of those indians who lived and died in the americas before 1492. They never heard of Jesus. How were they supposed to get saved?”*

    The Teacher would say, “Well, the Bible says no man is without excuse.”

    I would ask “but how would they know about God as you define it?”

    Teacher would respond, a little smugly, “Why, The Bible says that creation testifies God to all people!” Other students nod approvingly, as if this should shut me up.

    But still, I see a weakness and press in on it. “But you said we have to confess Jesus Christ, which is much more specific than just a “God of Creation.” In order to be saved, you say we have to know the story of Jesus and affirm it. You can’t get that specific story, that specific name, just by looking at nature. So, again, how were the people who died without ever having heard that story, supposed to be saved?”

    Teacher, looking as if she had never considered this, grants the point, and merely says, “But if you have thought of this difficulty, so has God, and surely in his fairness he will have thought of something.”

    That’s as far as she would go. suggesting that there would be an accommodation for people who had never heard the gospel, but no idea what it would be.

    This to me was the biggest problem with hell. It’s fundamentally unfair for a fairly large chunk of humanity, who get sent there just for not knowing any better.

    *This was all just an intellectual exercise, trying to poke holes in the logic of “magic word conversion.” I’m quite aware of how badly things started to go once they missionaries actually did start coming over.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Slack, Everybody:

    I’d like to know just Team Hell’s history. Not of the current Team Hell, but of the concept of Eternal Hell from the time of Christ on. Especially how Hell became so hyper-detailed.

    Christ’s metaphor for hell was Gehenna, i.e. the Jerusalem City Dump. In other words, a Discard Pile. How did this image of a discard pile get elaborated into a Hell with inventive tortures described in lip-smacking detail. I’m not talking about Dante, but of earlier alleged visions of Hell (one that comes to mind is a medieval one called “The Visions of Piers Plowman” but I don’t know any details). All these visions building an elaborate and detailed map of Hell that Dante turned into high literature and Team Hell uses as its justification and proof.

    How did all these images and visions of Hell get started, when the original reference appears to be an idiom for a garbage dump/discard pile?

  • Anonymous

    If I remember rightly, Gehenna wasn’t just the Jerusalem city dump, it was also the place outside the walls where those who worshiped Baal were purported to sacrifice children, assuming taking them “through the fire” meant sacrificing them. So you have associations with torture and fire early on, elaborated and improved upon through the centuries until you get Hell as we think of it.

  • Ice9

    Striking: –They offered proposed evasions of the Bible’s teachings, revisions of the doctrine, and the rejection of what the church had affirmed throughout its long history.–

    Evasions, revisions, rejection. All three beg the question decisively and precisely–intentionally therefore. Of course that’s the point of the post, and the conflict, but still I’m shocked at the naked certainty of the phrasing. Where there is no room for argument, there is no room; that does not even dress up as solicitude and concern for ones’ opponent’s immortal soul. That’s nuts; hell, that’s eliminationalism in a nutshell.

    They compose this way? That’s sort of shocking. I’ve been taught, and so teach, that theologians are especially well versed in rhetoric. The Talmudic tradition, disputation, Aristotle. It’s one thing to arrange a point to seem unassailable; it’s another thing to arrange a point so that it argues that there is no argument, thereby ruining its own argument in a happy puff of victorious smoke.

    This may be some kind of record. He begs the question that begs the question. He begs the question as a form of worship. The teachings are unevadable. The doctrine is unrevisable. That which the Church has affirmed is unrejectable. Scary.

    Ice9

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw
    It’s further complicated by the fact that Jesus is cited as giving multiple, mutually contradictory, explanations of what a person has to do to get into heaven.

    Largely because Jesus isn’t all that interested in discussing “getting into heaven”.

    I don’t see how not being interested in discussing something leads to “multiple, mutually contradictory, explanations” of that something, though. I’m not all that interested in discussing red nail polish. So rather than giving “multiple, mutually contradictory” statements about red nail polish, I’d be more likely to say things like, “You know, I don’t find red nail polish all that fascinating. Let’s talk about something else, like blue hair dye.”

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    I don’t see how not being interested in discussing something leads to “multiple, mutually contradictory, explanations” of that something, though.

    What I mean is…

    Kathy listens to a whole bunch of fairytales, all told by the same person.

    When they get to the end, she protests, “But, in one story, you said that Cinderella went to the ball and ran away and dropped her shoe, and then married the handsome prince. And in the other story, you said that Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger and fell asleep, and then got woken up by a kiss and married the handsome prince. How are we supposed to listen to you when you keep giving all these inconsistent explanations of how to marry the prince? Which one’s right? How do we get to marry the handsome prince?”

    At which point the storyteller can only say, baffled, “But… that’s not what the story’s about.”

    Jesus didn’t ever sit people down and say, “Hey kids, here’s how to avoid hell in three easy steps.” He occasionally told stories in which people ended up in hell or in heaven, but as a rule, I don’t think that’s what the story was about.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    That makes sense.

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

    What a speaker says and what a listener hears don’t always run parallel. See Hell, where Jesus telling us our responsibilities towards beggars is heard as a promise that there’s eternal torment waiting for sinners. Same thing happens to talk that listeners take to be about the nuts and bolts of salvation.

  • Anonymous

    Mohler’s shtick here is pretty much the same as his shtick with the BioLogos evolution thing that Fred mentioned before: snidely accuse his opponent of trying to make Christianity hip and fashionable by gutting its central doctrines. Then as now he refuses to admit that his opponents are motivated by an idea that they think is really, truly true; it’s almost like he doesn’t understand the concept of thinking something is really, truly true.

  • ako

    Say rather “The Bible is full of contradictory bits that make no sense when read all together and interpreted literally”. It’s the “every word means exactly what it says” attitude that leads to self-contradiction; allowing for metaphor generally avoids that, but RTCs are pretty loath to do that.

    Good point. I haven’t heard explanations I personally find convincing for all of the bits that make no sense on a literal level, but factoring in metaphor makes several of the portions hang together much better.

    Deird, your fairy tale metaphor is really interesting.

  • http://twitter.com/anatman jerry anning

    it seems to me that if hell existed, the mythology implies that it either always existed or came into being at the fall at the very latest. (note: i am very much a gnu atheist so this comment is an exercise in hypotheticals.) as such it presumably existed in the old testament period. given the way so much of the ot revels in horrible slaughters and ghastly (earthly) punishments for even trivial things, if hell existed as a concept then, there would certainly be lurid accounts of the postmortem fates of jezebel and ahab, the priests of baal, etc. i see no such accounts in the ‘standard’ protestant versions of the bible. i’m no apocrypha expert but afaik, the only such account is in the bizarre and relatively recent book(s) of enoch.

  • Anonymous

    sotonohito: The deity described in the Bible seems perfectly compatible with the idea of eternal damnation. This is especially true of the Old Testament God, but also true of the NT God.

    I don’t know about the Old Testament. I don’t think the concept of hell is even mentioned there, right? Instead, God is supposed to punish people in this life (hence all those plagues and whatnot).

    Headless Unicorn Guy: I’d like to know just Team Hell’s history. Not of the current Team Hell, but of the concept of Eternal Hell from the time of Christ on. Especially how Hell became so hyper-detailed.

    Christ’s metaphor for hell was Gehenna, i.e. the Jerusalem City Dump. In other words, a Discard Pile. How did this image of a discard pile get elaborated into a Hell with inventive tortures described in lip-smacking detail. I’m not talking about Dante, but of earlier alleged visions of Hell (one that comes to mind is a medieval one called “The Visions of Piers Plowman” but I don’t know any details). All these visions building an elaborate and detailed map of Hell that Dante turned into high literature and Team Hell uses as its justification and proof.

    How did all these images and visions of Hell get started, when the original reference appears to be an idiom for a garbage dump/discard pile?

    In one of the earlier Hell-related threads I plugged Alice Turner’s book The History of Hell as a good look at the evolution of the Christian conception of hell. The short version is that the popular Christian view of hell (as opposed to any actual doctrine or teaching) owes a lot to the Sumerian, Greek, and Roman underworlds, Plato’s writings, various bits of early Christian writing that didn’t make it into the Bible (like the Gospel of Nicodemus, which deals with Jesus’ harrowing of hell), countless pieces of vision literature describing hell, medieval art and religious plays, works like Dante and Faust, etc etc. Turner’s book goes into all of this, and while I wish some things were expanded on more, on the whole it’s a pretty good overview.

  • Amaryllis

    I’m not sure if this answers your question, but I’d like to point you to what Fred said almost a year ago, on the Saturday before Easter Sunday:

    This day, the Saturday that can’t know if there will ever be a Sunday, is the day we live in, you and I, today and every day for the whole of our lives. This is all we are given to know.

    Easter Sunday? That’s tomorrow, the day after today. We’ll never get there in time. We can believe in Easter Sunday, but we can’t be sure. We can’t know for sure. We can’t know until we’re out of time.

    Here, in time, there’s just this day, this dreadful Saturday of not knowing.

    There are some things we can know on this Saturday. Jesus is dead, to begin with, dead and buried. He said the world was upside-down and needed a revolution to turn it right-way-round and so he was executed for disturbing the peace. He came and said love was greater than power, and so power killed him.

    And now it’s Saturday and Jesus is dead and we’re all going to die and everything I’ve told you about him turns out to be in vain and everything I’ve staked my life on turns out to be in vain. Our faith is futile and we’re still hopeless in our sins. Jesus is dead and we are of all people most to be pitied.


    “But in fact,” St. Paul says, the game changes on Sunday. Come Sunday power loses. Come Sunday, love wins, the meek shall inherit, the merciful will receive mercy and no
    one will ever go hungry for justice again. Come Sunday, everything changes.

    If there ever is a Sunday.

    And but so, this is why we hope for Sunday and why we live for the hope of Sunday. Even though we can’t know for sure that Sunday will ever come and even if Saturday is all we ever get to see.

    We can’t know. What we believe isn’t all that important. What matters for living through such a Saturday is the hope that, somehow, someway, in some “Day of the Lord,” love wins.

  • Anonymous

    Notice the way Mohler characterizes the inhabitants of hell. They’re always “sinners” when they aren’t fully dehumanized

    I was noticing this as well, especially towards the end when he claims that if God doesn’t subject “sinners” to eternal torture, justice isn’t being done for the victims of murder, rape, molestation, etc. Because there’s no such thing as disproportionate punishment when God’s doing it!

    And, of course, he totally ignores the argument that a God who’d throw Gandhi into hell for failing to convert to the correct religion doesn’t seem terribly just. I’m guessing he realized trying to justify that would only backfire among people likely to be swayed over to Team Love.

  • Anonymous

    Not to mention that the notion of justice is basically “justice is done when the other person is hurt really badly.”

    Also, style92, it almost sounds like we had the same Sunday School teacher. :-) (Except I didn’t press the tough questions like you did.)

  • Mark Z.

    I was noticing this as well, especially towards the end when he claims that if God doesn’t subject “sinners” to eternal torture, justice isn’t being done for the victims of murder, rape, molestation, etc.

    Which is a ridiculous argument to make, because Mohler’s religion teaches that murderers and rapists can completely avoid hell if they make a commitment to Jesus Christ. So God is a stickler for “justice”–except when the bad guy is on his guest list, in which case, tough shit, murder victims!

    (Yes, Mohler’s theology has an answer to that, too: Ted Bundy, for example, didn’t escape punishment by professing faith in Christ shortly before his execution. Rather, Jesus graciously volunteered to be punished for him. So now God really does insist on “justice” but only in the sense that he has to punish someone.* This is formally called “penal substitutionary atonement”, and like the existence of hell, it’s one of those doctrines that officially non-creedal denominations like the Southern Baptists will insist is absolutely essential, and will viciously slander people (and/or fire them from pastoral or seminary posts) for questioning. Big surprise: Mohler is very much in favor of it.)

    * Particularly wacky with the folk tradition that Pontius Pilate became a Christian later in life: we’re forced to conclude that Jesus was crucified for the sin of crucifying Jesus. Which is victim-blaming on a level I can’t even imagine.

  • SeniorMom

    Some of us say these words in the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday: I believe in His Son, Jesus Christ. He was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontus Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell…….On the third day He rose again……

    I remember a Mother’s Day interview series in a local paper a few years ago. One mother when asked what she saw as her most important job as a mother said it was to make sure her children got to heaven. No words about being compassionate and contributing citizens of this world and making it a better place.

    I also remember another mother who tied herself in knots after the tragic death of her son in an automobile accident. She didn’t know if he had accepted Jesus as his personal savior. When she was told that yes, he had as a child in a children’s meeting or Sunday school class prayed the prayer assuring this she was comforted, knowing his place in heaven was secured.

    This is the certainty that evangelicals/fundamentalists crave. When you belive in the certainty of a heaven to be gained there must also be the certainty of a hell to avoid.

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

    @Sotonohito: 99% of Paul’s misogyny is found in the pastoral epistles which most biblical scholars agree weren’t written by Paul. For the most part Paul saw women and men as equals (though he very much believed in gender roles, and his few actual comments about women are in the context of violations of said gender roles). He’s definitely big into obedience though. And as for Revelation…well that’s another one of those contradictions to be resolved (Gen 8:21, meet entire book of Revelations)

    @ice9: part of the problem is that they aren’t really theologians, and in fact their particular brand of Christianity strongly discourages the study of theology. Theology is too critical, too scientific for their absolute insistence of doctrine. (btw is that handle an 8-Bit Theatre, Touhou, or some other reference?)

    @ Mark Z: So do they think that if, say, a rapist’s family member volunteered to undergo punishment in place of the actual criminal that justice would be served? Or is Jesus the only one allowed to do that?

  • Reigning in Spain

    I think I’m just tremendously tired, but the meaning of the last story was completely lost on me. Could anyone be so kind as to explain it?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t speak for Fred, but as I see it, the point of the last story–the one about building the cathedral–was about not seeing the forest for the trees. Fred has in the past made the point that the places in the Bible that are usually adduced in support of the concept of hell are actually about something else. Here’s one place where he’s explained it (Feb 28 of this year, before the Patheos move): “Team Hell Gets Loud.” And here’s an earlier one from March 2, 2009: “H – E – double hockey sticks.” (Yes, my lookie-up skills are incredible. Bow before my wonderfulness.)

    Jesus tells a story about how we’re to treat the poor, and someone notices that Dives, the character who fails in his duty to the character who represents the poor, seems to be uncomfortable in the afterlife and immediately focuses on what that discomfort might be, precisely, and what the rules of it are, and how the whole thing might work, ignoring the point of the story, which is how we are to treat the poor.

  • http://robyrt.livejournal.com/ Robyrt

    I like Fred’s argument here, but I don’t think it really solves the problem. I’ve talked to a lot of evangelicals who assert that “the character of God as clearly revealed in the Bible” is exactly the kind of person who would send billions of people to burn in Hell forever, while agreeing with the method of interpretation Fred advocates.

    It is, however, good to remember that Mohler’s insistence that every word of the Bible is equally important is simply not true. Even once you put aside the copy errors and double narratives, like any work of literature there are key themes and ancillary ones, background details and significant conversations. The “inerrancy of scripture” doctrine refers to the meaning, not the form.

  • Anonymous

    flat: I believe that God is love because when the more love you give the more love you receive it is the only thing in existence where I know that that happens.

    Isn’t that pretty much how hate works too?

  • Tehanu

    Not sure about that. Both Christians and non-Christians can, and often do, respond to hate not with more hate but with disdain — which is not the same thing, although I’m willing to admit it’s in the same general ballpark — or, more to the point, with pity and concern. I suppose there are psychopathic personalities who respond to genuine love and caring with hate or anger, but I don’t think most people do.

  • Rikalous

    It doesn’t take a psychopath to respond to love with something different. People can become con men, casanovas, or other varieties of manipulator who consider people’s love of them a means to an end. I’m sure there are also some lousy parents out there who respond to their children’s unconditional love with “Shut up and quit bothering me, brat.”

  • Anonymous

    For the most part Paul saw women and men as equals (though he very much believed in gender roles, and his few actual comments about women are in the context of violations of said gender roles).

    Ravanan, I haz a curious.
    In your opinion, can you have strict gender roles, and someone around to lecture you about violations of said, without misogyny?

    To take it a step further, can you have the above situation while failing to address women at all unless and until there is a violation of those roles, without misogyny?

    Re: the actual post:
    Given that part of my actual, real life job is finding such places where people are talking past one another and figuring out how to get one consistent thing out of it, I am somewhat surprised that I never saw the disconnect Fred illuminates here.

    I wonder how many other ways there are. Every time I see myself looking at a binary (Team Love or Team Hell, in this instance) I am trying to teach myself to find a minimum of one more way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.mcirvin Matt McIrvin

    She couldn’t be too specific, because if people who never heard the Gospel get some kind of automatic accommodation, then spreading the Gospel becomes a tremendous disservice to humanity: it’s like a terrible memetic virus which puts people at risk of eternal infinite torture the moment they hear it. Better to keep it a secret!

    The same kind of problem comes up in Catholic theology with people who die as unbaptized infants. Do they go to Hell or to Heaven? Sending them to the flames seems monstrous, but if they go to Heaven, someone will inevitably get the idea that you should kill all babies to preclude any risk that they’ll become damned later on. So the doctrine becomes intentionally vague.

    The notion of an infinite punishment (and, for that matter, maybe the idea of an infinite reward as well) inherently ties people into logical and ethical knots, no matter how it’s handled.


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