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?