Quench not the Spirit

Rachel Held Evans responds to the recent Southern Baptist Convention resolution affirming belief in “conscious, eternal suffering” for all non-Christians, i.e., Hell.

She quotes from Rustin J. Umstattd, a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist seminary, who criticizes author Rob Bell for not realizing that we Christians, apparently, are not supposed to listen when our conscience starts screaming in protest:

It is clear that Bell is not comfortable with the idea that billions of people may suffer in hell. But then, who is comfortable with that? The majority of evangelicals who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell … are troubled by its implications. But being troubled, even deeply troubled, by the implications of the biblical text does not give us a reason to abandon the text or force it into a mold that rests comfortably with us. It should be our goal to let the Bible be the source and shaper of our doctrine.

Evans points out that Umstattd, like most Southern Baptists, believes in the idea of an “age of accountability,” even though the Bible is not the “source” of that doctrine.

The age of accountability refers to a belief that children under a certain age (usually twelve or so), will be granted salvation regardless of the religious affiliation of their parents. Most Baptists I know believe in the age of accountability, and even the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message makes it implicit in its statement that people are not morally accountable until “they are capable of moral action.”

And yet this concept is never explicitly stated in Scripture, nor does it appear in any of the historic Christian creeds. …

I am often told by fellow Christians that an inclusivist reading of Scripture is the result of a sentimental “bleeding heart.” And yet most of those people embrace without question the age of accountability and reel at the idea of a non-elect two year-old burning alive for eternity.   I believe we were created to reel at that idea, just as we were created to reel at the idea of a young Muslim woman being tortured forever by a God whose name she never knew.  I believe that our impulse towards grace is a reflection of God’s image inside of us, not a weakness of which we should be ashamed.

“Quench not the Spirit,” the Bible says. If the Spirit, as Umstattd suggests, leads “the majority of evangelicals” to be “troubled” by a particular interpretation of a handful of biblical passages, then perhaps it is that interpretation, rather than the Spirit, which has gone awry.

Conscience matters. If a doctrine offends the conscience of most believers — if a doctrine is so blatantly troubling that even its defenders can ask “who is comfortable with that?” — then maybe God is trying to tell us something.

Elsewhere I have pointed out that the doctrine of Hell is not as Bible-based as the Southern Baptist Convention wants to suggest. The Bible is not the source of that doctrine. Nor is that doctrine shaped by the Bible. The Gospel of Nicodemus is not part of the canon. The Apocalypse of Peter is not part of the canon. The Vision of Tundale is not part of the canon. To reinterpret the Bible’s very few, allusive uses of the word “gehenna” as references to the Hell of those later, noncanonical and deeply weird texts is a deeply disrespectful approach to scripture.

But let us for the moment bracket this exegetical dispute and focus here on the unambiguous message that Prof. Umstattd acknowledges his conscience is shouting at him.

I think he ought to listen to what his conscience is telling him.

Prof. Umstattd, I would venture to guess, would be incapable of torturing another human being, even briefly, let alone for any sustained period of torment. This is true of most people. It is even true of most Southern Baptists (despite that convention’s origin in defense of keeping torture, kidnapping and rape legal in the American South). And I am sure it is true as well of Prof. Umstattd. I am sure that the very idea of deliberately torturing another human being is repugnant to him viscerally, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

I do not think that the professor’s commendable inability to bring himself to maim and cruelly harm another human being reflects an insufficiency of holiness on his part. Nor do I think that this is how he perceives this lack of capacity for torture himself. He does not lament his having a conscience that forbids him to torture others. He does not view it as a moral failing on his part. He likely sees it, instead, as evidence of his fundamental humanity — evidence that he is a child of God created in the image of God.

And yet — despite what his gut, his brain, his heart and his conscience are telling him about torture — the professor is reluctantly convinced that God is capable of being the monster he cannot imagine allowing himself to become. And this places him in the unfortunate position of having to argue that this monstrosity is a function of God’s holiness

I do not think this word means what he thinks it means. I do not think this word can be made to mean what such an argument would require it to mean. I am fairly sure that if you construct a sentence using the word “holiness” in which the word “sadism” can be substituted for it without changing the meaning of the sentence, then you’re using it wrong.

If that is what this word means, then the heavenly hosts singing praises around the throne of God would have chosen a different word rather than accusing him of something as nasty and stomach-turning as holiness.

If “Holy, holy, holy” meant that God delights in that which causes our consciences to recoil — causes every fiber of our being, our gut, our intellect, our heart, our soul to scream out no, No, NO! — then those praises would be blasphemies. Then praise and blasphemy would be interchangeable.

That would be troubling. Who could be comfortable with that?

  • ako

    I think I ended up including that and coming in with the attitude of
    “everyone knows there’s a Ralph” because that was the analogy. I think
    it originally was that the employee never knew Ralph (or barely) but
    that he still got all the credit.

    I think the difference between “God exists” and “I know God” was important to the original analogy.  If I am wrong and it turns out there is a God, that doesn’t mean I have a relationship with him or see him helping me with my daily life.   You could do “God exists in the universe” in a way that many atheists would find, not convincing, but a recognizable description of experiences.  But by losing “I don’t see him or know him or feel any kind of meaningful connection with him”, the analogy loses the aspect that makes sense to atheists. 

  • Georgia Ingolfsland

    “But by losing “I don’t see him or know him or feel any kind of
    meaningful connection with him”, the analogy loses the aspect that makes
    sense to atheists.”

    If two scientists were discussing a theory, and the first (A Christian) brought forth an analogy for that theory without bringing God into the equation, the second (An atheist) would be able to continue that analogy without bringing God in also, right?  Especially because the scenario already includes that scientist’s worldview.

    It wouldn’t make sense for a third (Christian) scientist to come in and say, you left God out of that analogy, therefore it is wrong — because it wasn’t wrong to the person proposing it, it was only incomplete if you consider everyone in the entire world’s perspective.

    In my mind, it would make sense to just add that perspective to it.  Did you want me to include every “God perspective” in the analogy, or just atheism?  Because Ralph could have been twelve gods, or two gods battling each other, or a god that was purposefully trying to mess you up.  The list goes on and on and on and on.  I would have had to write a dissertation.

    I, personally, don’t think I will ever understand what went on here.  I mean, I understand that you wanted an atheistic perspective in the analogy, I just don’t understand why I was expected to provide that. 

    Geds started off the analogy with saying that if someone else who HE WAS AWARE OF got the credit, that would piss him off.  I was simply saying, if someone I admired got the credit, that wouldn’t piss me off.  I never said that was the end all of answers to the issue.  :)

  • Georgia Ingolfsland

    “I don’t believe God just throws a stack of papers at you (the Bible?)
    and goes to the break room.  I believe that he is ever-present and
    ever-working with and through myself and others.  So, if “Ralph” was
    portrayed that way in this scenario…as someone who never left the
    office, someone you look up to and respect and tried to be like, then
    the original comment about being a reflection of Ralph’s skill as a
    trainer would be the highest compliment.

     If you despised the
    attention that Ralph got and wished he would just go away so you could
    do your job in peace and reap all the rewards, then that comment would
    grate at you.  I see no way in which that makes you stop existing. All
    of us are affected by forces out of our control.  Pointing that out
    doesn’t make us cease to exist.  And it doesn’t make our actions any
    less ours.  Just that we acknowledge we couldn’t have done that without
    “Ralph” leading us.  We still were the one who chose to do it.

    I
    think a big problem, where we are getting stuck, is that we are working
    from a starting point that God exists.  You can’t ask questions about
    what God is like and who he is without assuming he is real.  Your
    beliefs don’t allow for that.

    At the end of the day, I know that
    neither of our perspectives can be officially declared right or wrong.
    Just different viewpoints of the same world. <3 "

    By the way, here is my original post where I actually acknowledge that what I just said wouldn't work from an atheist point of view and that I am not forcing my opinion on anyone else's views!

  • Heart

    I must admit, I don’t really understand what is meant by `God being the source of all that is good`. Does that mean that when we do good actions, it is actually God acting? And if so, does that mean we lack the free will to be good by ourselves?

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

    That…is a very philosophically contentious question. For some, it means that God, in created the world, created morality. This belief and its variants are known as Divine Command Theory.

    To others, that statement means that while we do good of our own free will, the only reason we are capable of it is the indweling of the Holy Spirit.

    To yet others, it means that when we do good, either God is directly acting through us, or that he is guiding our actions.

    A fourth common interpretation is that God exemplifies everything that is good. This doesn’t entirely square with the “source” thing, but there you go.

    The last interpretation that I regularly come across is that God, being the creator, is responsible for the existence of all good things in the world, even if “good” exists above and apart from him.

  • Caravelle

    Ah, so much for calling it a day.

    By the way, here is my original post where I actually acknowledge that
    what I just said wouldn’t work from an atheist point of view and that I
    am not forcing my opinion on anyone else’s views!

    Actually, you said your analogy was working from the assumption that God exists. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work from an atheist’s point of view. It is perfectly possible for atheists to exist in a world where God exists; it’s just that either they don’t perceive God, or they do and mistakenly attribute that perception to something non-divine.

    Conversely, I could take offense at any intimation that God does not
    exist, which has happened repeatedly throughout the course of this
    conversation.

    Indeed you could; and it’s because I hate it when people do that and I think they shouldn’t do it that I’d been defending you against what I perceived to be Geds position. My only dispute with you was that I thought you’d used a bad analogy. I’m a bit terrible in that way : I’ll attack bad arguments regardless of whether I agree, disagree or couldn’t care less about the conclusion. (I say it’s terrible because that tendency can be used as a derailment strategy and I don’t want to be That Person. Seems to have worked GREAT here…)

    It actually disturbs and insults me that I am the only one having to answer for my “offensive” beliefs.

    I don’t think your beliefs are offensive at all; that’s the argument I was (trying to) tell Geds all along. And it turns out I misunderstood him and he didn’t think your beliefs are offensive either. Much. Oh I don’t know anymore.

    Look, I’m sorry I brought it up. I should have found some other way to explain why I thought your analogy was wrong. I’m sorry that I’m made you feel attacked over your beliefs.

    I still don’t know what your analogy was meant to say or what you thought Geds was saying but whatever. (“we’re all just sharing our point of views here” doesn’t help; a conversation doesn’t work by throwing random thoughts at each other. What I say will depend on what I think others said and what I want to convey.)

  • Caravelle

    But yeah, this thread really just goes to prove that Godwin’s Law doesn’t apply to ethics debates.

    How did people have those things before WWII ?

  • Caravelle

    Heck, while we’re at it…

    You can’t ask questions about what God is like and who he is without assuming he is real.  Your beliefs don’t allow for that.

    Of course they do. People speculate about entities they think are imaginary all the time. Sure, they’re harder to constrain than entities we actually see evidence for, and if we don’t assume logic is valid they can’t be constrained at all, but we can always speculate.

  • Rikalous

    People speculate about entities they think are imaginary all the time.

    For evidence, see all the discussion we’ve had about Nicky, Rayford, Buck, and the gang.

    How did people have those things before WWII ?

    I’m sure they had some sort of metric of ultimate evil, which might just have been Satan. It’d be interesting to know if there was an actual person who was Hitler before Hitler was.

  • Rikalous

    When J Random Unfamiliar-With-S&M and K Random
    S&M-Isn’t-Top-Of-K’s-Mind hear ‘sadism’, it’s not value-neutral
    connotations that spring to mind. It’s negative connotations. Which is
    much more relevant, I think, to Fred’s point.

    Yes, but what I was trying (and, evidently, failing miserably) to say was that even if one doesn’t take a dim view of sadism, Fred’s point still works.

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

    Mostly by talking about torturing and killing babies. A joke among some of my philosophy friend, self included, is that ethics is one big dead baby joke.

    (Personally, I usually hate ethics as a field, not because of this obsession with harming infants, but because I feel meta-ethical questions like, “Is there such a thing as good or evil?” and “How do we know this?” have not been sufficiently answered)

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

    Mostly by talking about torturing and killing babies. A joke among some of my philosophy friend, self included, is that ethics is one big dead baby joke.

    (Personally, I usually hate ethics as a field, not because of this obsession with harming infants, but because I feel meta-ethical questions like, “Is there such a thing as good or evil?” and “How do we know this?” have not been sufficiently answered)

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

    Mostly by talking about torturing and killing babies. A joke among some of my philosophy friend, self included, is that ethics is one big dead baby joke.

    (Personally, I usually hate ethics as a field, not because of this obsession with harming infants, but because I feel meta-ethical questions like, “Is there such a thing as good or evil?” and “How do we know this?” have not been sufficiently answered)

  • Georgia

    I think it is a possibility that we are two people who literally cannot understand the way the other thinks…haha. I kept trying to express myself in order to get some closure for the conversation because regardless of everything, I respect you and this conversation a lot! (and because I’m apparently Ashley Hebert).

    But at this point I’m willing to concede. I’ve gone back and read over everything trying to find the specific things we disagreed on, and it just got more and more muddled. I’m sorry that I kept dragging the dead horse out of the grave and beating it even harder. :)

  • Keromaru

    I think of it as sort of a partnership.  When you do something good, you and God are working together in some invisible way to accomplish it.  You and God are pursuing tho same goals, in other words.

    It’s worth noting that in the Bible, when God works through people, the person still gets credit and praise for helping God do it.  Moses is still described as the greatest prophet, Abraham is still celebrated as patriarch, etc.  Heck, the whole reason Christianity has the concept of saints is to credit exemplary Christians for their work and insight.  In a way, it’s kind of like these people acted as conduits for God.  

    It may be in a similar way (not the same way, mind you) that Lauren Faust can deserve credit for the success of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, from a creative standpoint, but it’s still a Hasbro property.  Yeah, I went there.

    Here’s how St. Teresa of Avila put it:

    “Christ has no body but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    Compassion on this world,
    Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
    Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
    Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
    Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
    Christ has no body now but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    compassion on this world.
    Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

    I also just picked up -The Orthodox Church- by Kallistos Ware, which has this to say on salvation and the Church:

    “‘Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church.’  Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church [that is, the Orthodox Church] is necessarily damned?  Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved.  As Augustine wisely remarked: ‘How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!’ . . . There may be members of the Church whose membership is known to God alone.  If anyone is saved, he must -in some sense- be a member of the Church; -in what sense-, we cannot always say.

    He also has this to say on Hell:

    “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God.  It is heretical to say that all -must- be saved, for this is to deny will; but it is legitimate to hope that all -may- be saved.  Until the Last Day comes, we must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception.  No one must be excluded from our loving intercession.  ’What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian.  ’It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for the men for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures.’  Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the Devil.”

    I also found an interesting point in an essay by Jurgen Moltman: that God’s last word isn’t judgment.  It’s “Behold, I make all things new.”  Renewal is the goal, not just judgement.

  • ako

    It sounds like you’re feeling a bit jumped on, and I don’t mean to contribute to that.  I’m not hurt or offended and I don’t feel you wronged me.  I’m actually interested, which is why I keep going back to the analogy and trying to clarify the distinction from my perspective.

    The way I read Geds analogy, it was about having one’s good works credited to a being who one doesn’t know and doesn’t have a relationship with, which describes the perspective of many atheists on having our good works credited to God, whether or not it turns out that God actually exists.  If God doesn’t exist, our good works are being credited to a nonexistent being.  If God does exist, our good works are being credited to someone we don’t know and have no experience of being guided or assisted by.  Your analogy presupposes not only the existence of Ralph, but the active helpful mentoring, which doesn’t fit the experience of atheists at all. 

    I think it would actually be interesting to extend it to other religions.  I suspect it would be something like “No, Sarah was the one guiding and mentoring me!  I’ve never even met Ralph!”

  • ako

    To further clarify, Geds didn’t portray a world where atheism was true in the analogy, but he showed an important part of how many atheists experience things.  Your extension of the analogy added in how many Christians experience things, but changed things so atheist experiences were now left out.  Is that clear?

  • Caravelle

    Yes, it’s too bad because I’d like to understand you too ! And I enjoyed this conversation. I’m sorry I made you feel attacked.

  • Georgia

    Yes, I should have worded it thusly:

    While Ralph threw his papers at you and walked out, he trained me by never actually leaving! He enabled and continues to enable me to do my job because he is always there to answer my questions and without him I would be useless at work.

    I think another difficulty lies in that, while you believe and perceive that Ralph threw the papers and left, I believe and perceive that he is standing by you ready to offer the same assistance to you as to me. So in that case, the perception of the atheist clouds the “reality” of Ralph. This is why our analogies of the “reality” of the situation would be in opposition and possibly offensive to one another. (ps I am not at all offended by atheism, but I did feel slightly ganged up on a few times. Nothing I’ll lose sleep over and still enjoying the discussion!)
    I never intentionally cut out what he said.

  • Georgia

    Oops. To continue, I never meant to cut out what he said, but in this case what he feels is “reality” is in direct opposition to what I feel is “reality”. Our analogies were destined to be opposed as each automatically discounts the other’s reality.

  • Georgia

    And I think extending the analogy to other religions would be very interesting as well…I just didn’t think of it as a pre-requisite.

  • ako

    I understand.  I don’t think you intentionally tried to distort or leave out anything.  And I understand why you felt ganged up on.  Portions of this discussion didn’t go well, but we seem to understand each other now, so that’s great!

    The basic problem of what’s really there is always going to create an issue in these discussions, because we’re all humans with limited human brains and limited human perceptions, which gets in the way of a perfect understanding of reality. 

  • Georgia

    Definitely. I wonder if we could start the analogy from square one.

    An atheist: Don’t give Ralph credit for my work! I’ve never been helped by him or even seen him!

    A Christian: But, he’s right there!

    :D. Like I said, two perspectives on the same world. <3

  • Caravelle

    I think another difficulty lies in that, while you believe and perceive
    that Ralph threw the papers and left, I believe and perceive that he is
    standing by you ready to offer the same assistance to you as to me. So
    in that case, the perception of the atheist clouds the “reality” of
    Ralph.

    Which is similar to the scenario where Ralph is helping without the employee’s knowledge.

  • Georgia

    “Which is similar to the scenario where Ralph is helping without the employee’s knowledge.”.

    Correct. And then this is where Christians would begin to differ.

    Team Hell would split into three perspectives:

    1. You see Ralph! Why are you pretending you don’t?
    2. You saw Ralph once, but then you put that blindfold on and choose to ignore what you once saw.
    3. You want to claim all the glory for yourself, so you deny what is evident. (I admit, I included this in my original analogy and it was the reason for part of the offense. However, I meant it to be applied for Christians who act this way, whereas, those very Christians would apply it to people who don’t believe)

    I prefer:

    4. Ralph is there and he will let them know it when he decides to do so, just like he did with me. I must respect each individual’s view of their own life and experiences. I don’t believe in eternal, conscious torment, but reconciliation. So, I believe with all my heart that if you sincerely seek, you will sincerley find. I have a duty to tell people this because it is good news!

    This view in itself would probably offend some, simply because it differs from their own. I apologize for that, but I’m not sure it can be helped…if it can, I want to know how!

  • ako

    I like that version of the analogy.  And I understand about struggling with offensiveness – a of the “imaginary friend” and “magic pixie” references thrown around on some atheist blogs are reasonable descriptions of how religion appears to some people who are looking at it from the outside, but can be really offensive to a lot of people with religious beliefs.  There’s always a tricky balance of trying to express one’s own understanding of the world without being needlessly hurtful (I don’t believe that avoiding offending people is the most important thing, but like any other form of rudeness, it should only be used when it’s the least harmful way to accomplish something more important).

  • Georgia

    True. I am not personally offended by those things. One of my good friends jokingly refers to my “Sky King” and I think it’s funny.

    I don’t think my personal belief in a Sky King should be offensive to him, though. And it’s not :).

    I definitely would recoil at any attempt to use God to purposefully offend, and if offense is taken, I always apologize for the offense, but not my beliefs. The apostle Paul specifically admonishes Christians to speak with love and always be at peace with everyone. It is my hope to fulfill that. <3

  • Georgia

    An inverse of the analogy might be:

    Christian: My friend Ralph here really helped me out with this.

    Atheist: -looks around- Uh, who are you talking about?

    :D

  • - Leigh -

    I recently had a discussion with my boyfriend’s father (who is a pastor), where he made exactly that point. He steadfastly stood by the position that everyone who goes to hell is responsible for their own punishment, since they chose not to obey God. I tried to point out that God at least bears the responsibility of making the punishment so extreme (eternal torment). However, the pastor continued his mantra of “God isn’t responsible for the choices these people make–they are the ones choosing eternal torment.”