The end of December is a good excuse for highlighting some notable posts from earlier in the year. Let’s revisit, rehash, reheat and re-serve a couple from each month.
By pretending to believe that America is on the verge of collapse into a totalitarian tyranny, they can pretend to themselves that they are the vanguard of a courageous resistance. The Red Dawn fantasy isn’t all that different from any other childhood fantasy about what if there were dragons? And what if I was brave and good and strong? And what if I slew the dragon and everybody cheered for me because I was brave and good and strong and I slew the dragon? Wouldn’t that be cool?
The problem arises when, finding the world sadly devoid of dragons, they decide to invent other monsters with which to do battle — assigning the role of monster to their neighbors, their political opponents, their elected officials. Those People, they say, are monsters, demons, baby-killing Satanists, kitten-burning apologists. They’re evil. They must be stopped.
This problem is further compounded by the demagogues of talk radio and cable TV who find this timid, fantasy-obsessed demographic to be a lucrative audience. Unlike other listeners or viewers, you can guarantee their loyalty by reminding them that everyone else is a monster and must be avoided. And their obsession with the thrilling fantasy of impending revolution makes it easy to sell them things — to get them to invest in useless, inflated gold coins, for example. They present a con-man’s dream — people who will thank you for ripping them off.
That bogus abortion/slavery analogy is one that I used to find compelling and reassuring. It was a frequently invoked analogy in the evangelical community. We found it inspiring, but not because we knew much of anything about the actual abolitionists, slave or free. And not because we knew anything much at all, for that matter, about abortion. The inspiration didn’t come from any perceived historical accuracy or from the logic of an argument from analogy.
What was inspiring was being told that we were on the right side of the great moral struggle of our time. That claim didn’t have to be accurate or true or logical. It wasn’t meant to appeal to accuracy or truth or logic. It’s an emotional appeal. It’s the thrill that comes from being told that you are part of a great epic struggle — that even without ever really doing much of anything you will be looked back upon by future generations as a hero.
Just assent to the proposition, cast your reliably partisan votes, attend the occasional photo-op vigil and learn to frown disapprovingly at the designated people. Do these things and you can regard yourself as being Harriet Tubman’s equal in virtue, courage and commitment.
The function of the abortion/slavery analogy, in other words, is fantasy role-playing. It’s a game of make-believe, of dress-up and pretend.
The Bible simply is not part of Team Hell.
The Hebrew scriptures offer no support for Team Hell. None. The pages of the Old Testament mention “sheol,” or “the grave,” but not Hell. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and Amos are not a part of Team Hell.
Nor is the apostle Paul. Paul had much to say about “Heaven,” or at least about the heavenly meaning of resurrection, but nothing at all to say about Hell.
Team Hell loves to quote Paul despite this. They’re particularly fond of Paul’s frequent statements about accepting “this gospel” and no other gospel. Team Hell loves to apply such statements to Rob Bell or to anyone else they think might be deviating from their extrabiblical dogma. “There be some that trouble you and would pervert the gospel of Christ,” Team Hell says, as though this verse from Galatians were speaking of anyone who believes that Love Wins. And they warn that if anyone “preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”
But the thing is that this gospel Paul spoke of to the Galatians, the Corinthians and Thessalonians — the gospel that Paul laid out in an extended argument in his letter to the Romans — that gospel makes no mention of Hell. The gospel as Paul preached it, as he described it in his epistles, does not include the doctrine of Hell.
Whenever I hear someone say, “We’ve got to make the tough, painful choices to balance the budget” I know that I needn’t waste any more time listening to that person. He’s not really interested in balancing the budget, he’s interested in imagining himself as someone who is “tough.” And he’s so preoccupied with this need to feel “tough” that he is unwilling to do the arithmetic and see that the most urgent need when it comes to balancing the budget is not a “painful choice” but the choice to ease pain. Putting people back to work is not a painful choice. It’s what those people want — what they long for, hope for and pray for. It makes people happy and actually solves the problem. And for both of those reasons, the “tough” so-called “deficit hawks” don’t like the idea.
… The evangelical voters who responded to Pew’s polling want to cut the expense of unemployment benefits by simply cutting off those payments. That’s a reprehensible, degenerate impulse, but it’s also fiscal suicide. It means giving up on the possibility of collecting revenue from 14 million workers, and on the revenue from the productivity those workers could be contributing to their employers, and on the revenue and the wealth generated by their participation in the economy. It means telling every existing business in America that you must now get by with 14 million fewer customers. It means creating a self-propagating cycle of contraction — achieving an ever-smaller federal budget by having an ever-smaller economy. That’s not just cutting off your nose to spite your face, it’s cutting off your head to spite your nose.
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.
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.