Hell and soteriology Part 1: Bill O’Reilly’s accidental insight

Chris Skinner, a biblical scholar who blogs at Peje Iesous, got a good laugh at watching Fox News host Bill O’Reilly getting schooled by Notre Dame New Testament prof Candida Moss — “Scholar v. Blowhard on Jesus (Or: Candida Moss Shows How Schockingly Ignorant Bill O’Reilly Actually Is).”

Skinner piles on, deservedly, highlighting and underscoring several of the ways this brief interview exposes O’Reilly’s utter incomprehension of what he’s talking about.

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Skinner is right about the facts of the matter, but O’Reilly’s popularity and influence have never been dependent on the facts of the matter. As a biblical scholar himself, Skinner wasn’t watching this interview the same way that most of O’Reilly’s audience is. The things that made him laugh at loud — or that led other biblical scholars, like James McGrath, Mark Goodacre and Chris Keith, to cheer Moss’ triumph — weren’t likely things that other viewers would see or pick up on.

That’s part of O’Reilly’s game plan. He doesn’t care if biblical scholars think he’s a buffoon, he just wants to make the Fox audience think that he knows just as much as any biblical scholar. And he’s good at this game. After Moss says it would be “anachronistic” to call Jesus a “socialist,” O’Reilly pretends not to know what anachronistic means. Why? So that a few sentences later, he can pretend that she just called Jesus an “anarchist” — “For you to say that he was a socialist in an anarchistic way, or whatever it was you said, is bunk.”

Neat trick, that. Other demagogues should take notes. (See also the way O’Reilly takes care to refer to his guest as “Dr. Moss,” which sounds respectful unless you know that it’s shorthand for “pointy-headed, ivory-tower obscurantist who doesn’t understand realamerica.”)

What struck me most in this exchange, though, is what Chris Keith notes about “the way in which one of Jesus’ ‘hard sayings’ played out in this interview”:

In addition to citing the Lukan beatitude “Blessed are the poor” (which differs from the Matthean “Blessed are the poor in spirt“), Dr. Moss points out that Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to give away all his possessions in order to enter the kingdom (Mark 10//Matt. 19//Luke 18).  O’Reilly accuses her of reading this parable literally. … But the Gospels never present this story of Jesus as a parable; they present it as an event from his life.  O’Reilly responds the way almost all readers of this story tend to respond — surely that’s not what he really meant. But the text is on Dr. Moss’s side here. … The Gospel authors sure seem to think that Jesus meant just what he said, as does the young man who walks away, regardless of how hard that is for us to swallow. The very point is that this is impossible, which is why the disciples, who are also befuddled at who in the world, then, can be saved, get some further teaching from Jesus. … Any interpretation of this text that removes the impossible nature of Jesus’ demand has a hard time squaring with the text itself because it was meant to point toward an impossibility. What we do with this theologically and practically is a separate issue, and I’ll be the first to own up to having a bank account and failing to give away everything I have, despite calling myself a follower. But Jesus never said, “Well, of course, I don’t really mean that.”

Moss does not euphemize or equivocate about what the text says that Jesus said or that Jesus said this as a direct assertion of fact. Jesus said that if you don’t give away your wealth to help the poor, then you will go to Hell. Period.

As Keith wrote, O’Reilly’s reaction was typical of “almost all readers of this story … surely that’s not what he really meant.” I think he’s genuinely gobsmacked that Moss, cheerfully but emphatically, doesn’t go along with that. She refuses to play along with “surely that’s not what he really meant.”

And so O’Reilly takes the next usual step — which is also typical for “almost all readers of this story” — and he starts talking about Hell. If Jesus actually said and meant what Moss rightly notes he said and meant, O’Reilly tells her, “then you’re going to Hell and I’m going to Hell and everybody watching is going to Hell!”

To O’Reilly’s credit, the Gospels tell us this was also the reaction from Jesus’ disciples: If what you’re saying is true, then we’re all damned to Hell.

I’ll agree with Keith that what we do with that practically is a separate issue. (Jesus’ reply about camels and needles doesn’t offer much practical relief from the uncompromising moral obligation he’s just laid out.) But I don’t think that what we make of that theologically can be a separate issue. Here is one of the few biblical mentions of Hell and what it teaches us about Hell is utterly incompatible with everything you’ve probably been taught to associate with the idea.

But here’s the remarkable thing — the accidental insight O’Reilly’s aghast response points us toward — every mention of Hell in the Bible is just like this one.

If that’s what the Bible repeatedly and consistently says Hell means, then O’Reilly’s question and the question of Jesus’ disciples certainly seems appropriate: “Who then can be saved?”

We’ll look at that question in part 2.

 

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