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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  • http://algol.wordpress.com/ SororAyin

    Yes this. Catholic doctrine teaches that the one consolation of souls in Purgatory is that they know they will be admitted to Heaven eventually. Nobody is ever sent from Purgatory to Hell.

  • http://algol.wordpress.com/ SororAyin

    I was Catholic once. I used to contemplate passages like this one frequently. Doing so led to me to wanting to become a nun. I nearly went through with it, too.

  • Verna

    I shouldn’t be shocked at the depth of bad theology posted here but there it is.

    What O’Rielly says is irrelevant. What Moss say is just incorrect. A blatant exposure of her lack of biblical comprehension.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Care to elaborate?

  • Marshall

    Receiving isn’t the same thing as taking, just as giving isn’t the same thing as losing. Taking is how rich people got that way.

    Look at Acts 4:32-36: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet”. Then in Acts 5 The Apostle Peter starts to take and the whole thing falls apart. Personally I think the problem was that the “owners” didn’t give to the poor, they gave to the apostles. Of course giving to the poor is much harder; you have to get personally involved.

  • Marshall

    Yea, word study! “Children” here, “paidion”, is diminutive used generally for kids “pais” (where do you get “not first born”?), related to a number of words about instruction or education. Such diminutives are generally used to show disrespect for servants, like calling a fully-grown Black man “boy”, but I don’t think that’s Jesus’ intent here. “Suffer” is archaic usage from the KJ; modern translations use “let”. I don’t think Jesus found kids painful, rather he’s saying, “These are the ones I can instruct, the ones who can be equipped to live in the Kingdom.”

  • Marshall

    “Faith that Works”, nicely put.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    Jesus hates poor people, Bible says so.

    (That’s just a guess)

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    When God uses a word, it means just what Verna chooses it to mean—neither more nor less.

    You may think that the question is whether a word can mean so many things, but the real question is just who is to be master, that is all.

  • Jim Roberts

    I don’t think he meant anything dimnuitive toward the kids at all, but rather that he was, contextually, referring to them as “little servants/children” rather than just “little children.” (A firstborn, or a child already designated as an heir might, I suppose be called a “pais,” but outside the Bible, it’s not something you’d see often – it’s been a few years)
    UItimately, the message I see in that passage is that he’s looking for people who are ready to learn to live a life in service to others.

  • Anne Marie

    Notre Dame is not a Jesuit institution.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Your nonsensical paragraph simply muddied the waters more. If you want to tell someone something they said was incomprehensible just say so instead of trying to one-up with the semantic gamesmanship, please.

  • Marshall

    Diminutives are used in many languages to express friendly family-like intimacy. I don’t get it from this passage, but yes, following Christ is about life in service to others. People who expect life to be in service to them are those rich folk who have something they need to give away. … hope you saw my reply to Panda Rosa this morning.

  • Anne Marie

    I couldn’t believe that interview. Dr. Moss stated that unless we give away everything that we are going to hell. I was embarrassed for her. She did not look like someone who had given away everything. The book clearly states what it is.

  • Anne Marie

    What a terribly sad, uninformed comment. A total misrepresentation of the interview. He did not act “outraged” at all. Amazing.

  • R Vogel

    Poor Bill, when you surround yourself with morons, you assume you are a genius. Proving the old adage: In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is King

  • Baby_Raptor

    The fact that you disagree with something does not make it sad, uninformed or a misrepresentation.

  • Jim Roberts

    Err, I’ll do my best. Since the person I actually wanted to get clarification from has given that clarification and we’re now having a lovely conversation, I can’t say I’ll place it as a high priority.

  • Jim Roberts

    And a little after that passage is where the apostles say, “Look, we’re kinda bad at the whole ‘preaching and waiting tables’ thing. Can someone please take over the ‘waiting tables’ part?”

  • Jim Roberts

    I did, and just responded to it!

  • LunarG

    Notre Dame is a Catholic institution, but not a Jesuit one. It’s run by the CSC, not Jesuits.

  • Lunch Meat

    I’ve heard the same person say “Of course homosexuality in the Bible and homosexuality today are the same thing and have to be treated the same way! It’s the same word!” as well as “Poor people in the Bible were poor through no fault of their own, not like poor people today who are lazy and deserve it, so that’s why we don’t have to give them free stuff.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    FRACTALLY WRONG argh I am glad I do not have to deal with this person. Sorry you do have to, Lunch Meat.

  • Lunch Meat

    I finally defriended her a few days ago, and we don’t see each other since we graduated. She’s probably just as happy to be rid of me.

  • Veleda_k

    Good thing those ancient Israelites spoke English! And were somehow able to predict a word that wouldn’t be coined until 1868! I guess that’s what happens when you have god on your side.

    I’m sure this person’s treatise on poverty would be… fascinating.

  • Marshall

    We’re on the same page here, so to speak. Also the part where people are hoping to let Peter’s shadow fall on them. I imagine that John 21 comes after the whole early Jerusalem stuff … it all falls apart, and Peter says Fuck it boys, let’s go fishing. But Jesus shows up and says, let’s try again, pay attention to the basics here.

    And sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. It’s a struggle for everybody. Good thing in the end we are judged through Grace.

  • Kirala

    He needs that bit in a rather later song where the singer’s desperate attempts to say “It’s not my fault/ I’m not to blame…” while the choir continually reminds me that his line is SUPPOSED to be “Mea culpa”.

  • Kirala

    Yes, while Dr. Dumpty’s experience has revealed some difficulties with some words, particularly verbs, determiners such as “all” are similar enough to adjectives that “you can do anything with” them.

  • Jim Roberts

    “And sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. It’s a struggle for everybody. Good thing in the end we are judged through Grace.”
    This is why I laugh a little whenever someone talks about God’s “plumb line” measurement of our worthiness. It’s no so much a plumbline as a rule of thumb.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Fuck you all.

  • Mark Z.

    Yes, please explain your position.

  • Marshall

    Eh? Tony Jones was using that phrase the other day not as a measure of “our worthiness” but as a measure of God’s activity as expressed in the Bible. So it’s my turn to not understand you.

  • Jim Roberts

    Oh, sorry, I don’t remember that in the original link.

    When I was a kid, there was this flannel graph illustration that had “sin” on one side, “righteousness” and a thread running down the middle. The teacher showed us that when we sin, the line goes further and further to that side, and that our righteousness is never enough to put us back over.

    She then put a cross at the bottom of the thread, which pulled it straight. That was, according to her, the only way to be “saved.” Even then, I was thinking, “Wait, so the best the God of the universe can do is make me adequate? Weak.”

  • Lorehead

    I take it that’s not why you call yourself Soror?

  • http://algol.wordpress.com/ SororAyin

    I am an occultist these days. Occultists often take a special name to symbolize their spiritual aspirations. In several hermetic traditions (the Golden Dawn most notably), the members refer to each other as ‘soror’ or ‘frater’ to express camaraderie. I’m not a member or any order or lodge or anything like that, but I decided to use the term as a gesture of solidarity.

  • Lorehead

    Ah, thank you.

  • http://estneillaamata.blogspot.com/ JulianaSundry
  • auroramere

    Or a kind of afterlife excommunication, consequences undefined: “cut off from your people.” I don’t know how that’s been interpreted around the various branches of Judaism over history. But it makes me think of the current Ashkenazi liturgy in a Conservative or low Orthodox shul: may he or she be bound up in the bonds of eternal life. Staying with your people, remaining bound with them, in some kind of perpetuity.

  • auroramere

    And it’s a pleasure to read.

  • tricksterson

    Catholicism doesn’t believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible.