Don’t Take Me Literally! (Hellfire edition)

I’ll be responding to the very interesting discussions developing on yesterday’s thread on baffling inconsistencies displayed by people on both sides on the religious divide after I turn in my senior thesis powerpoint for review before my presentation tomorrow.  I need to finish not only the powerpoint and talk, but also a glossary of tech terms (4chan, DDoS, etc) and add a content advisory note, since some of my primary sources include obscene and anatomically impossible epithets.  (Yale folks, let me know if you want to sneak in, even if you’re not in JE.  I may be able to swing it.)

In the meantime, I wanted to link to Friendly Atheist, who identified another weird practice/doctrine conflict among a certain subset of believers.  Many churches believe a wide range of people go to hell after death, but don’t acknowledge those behaviors at funerals.  The funeral director Friendly Atheist cited said:

I have worked about 3,000 funerals in my 10 years as a funeral director and I have NEVER heard a pastor state conclusively that the person they are memorializing is going to hell… although I’ve heard thousands of messages that state CONCLUSIVELY that the deceased is in heaven!!!

There’s been some fancy preachwork done by pastors for those who lived less than clean, God honoring lives. I remember one pastor saying about a man who blatantly hated God, “This man didn’t like God, but he was a man who loved the outdoors. And anybody who loves the outdoors is like a lover of God because God created the outdoors.”

It’s not just hard-line evangelicals who feel uncomfortable acknowledging the logical consequences of their beliefs.  Plenty of my Christian friends subscribe to theologies that strongly imply I will go to hell when I die, but they don’t feel compelled to evangelize to me, and, if pressed on the point, tend to adopt a somewhat wishy-washy position (“I can’t know what God will do”) or just wave their hands and say “I guess the Church teaches you’re going to Hell, but I don’t think I can do anything about it.  It’s up to God.”

If it weren’t for the fact that these friends are very ready to help in other, supposedly lower stakes circumstances and, in other contexts, care about me a lot, I would suspect them of not being particularly invested in my well-being.  As it is, I can only conclude they don’t really believe the tenets of their religion.

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  • Anonymous

    I've been to plenty of Catholic and Conservative Protestant funerals. Catholic ones never mention hell, but they have the caveat of refusing funerals to non members, so they can be relatively sure that anyone they give a funeral too is going to heaven according to their theology.I HAVE, however, seen very conservative protestant preachers heavily imply the deceased is going to hell. The worst being when a non-church goer had his funeral at a Southern Baptist Church at his parent's request and the preacher told the entire audience that those who didn't know Jesus wouldn't understand the gravity of this loss and should come to know him ASAP.-Andy

  • Iota

    This is off topic but: hope you dazzle the audience at your presentation. 🙂

  • Thanks a lot, Iota!

  • Interesting post. It's notable that the Catholic church will never pronounce someone as having gone to hell, but will canonize those who've passed the test for sainthood — three testified miracles posthumous at least, and there may be other requirements I'm not aware of.In thinking about this, it's a little interesting that I can't ever remember hearing about it being possible for a person to negatively impact those on earth after death, but it apparently is possible to postiively do so. So… miracles via praying to Mother Theresa or Padre Pio count toward canonization. I wonder why someone invoking a curse in the name of a particularly evil deceased person might not count as grounds for declaring them as being in hell. The scales seem pretty balanced: Catholics think that God and the various rankings of angels can benefit lives and work wonders… and that the devil and his various demons can possess and affect you. They might even believe that the devil/demons can affect material things to "test" you.Anyway… if both "realms" are believed to have access to living mortals, and if holy living persons can continue to have such access after death… why not the same for evil people who want to torment those still living and carry out the eternal bidding of their new master in hell?That was kind of a weird train of thought! It just came to me…

  • "As it is, I can only conclude they don't really believe the tenets of their religion."Maybe they have concluded that overtly evangelizing you would be counter-productive? If they irritate you by constantly hassling you about Jesus, you'll stop hanging out with them and future opportunities will be lost. Sometimes it's best to keep a low profile and wait for the right moment.Like St Francis said – preach the gospel constantly. If necessary, use words.One reason why virtually no one (leaving aside Phelpsists) will make a positive statement that someone is in hell is that redemption is so easy. It doesn't even take a second, and it isn't visible. So the most depraved sinner can be saved by a moment's deathbed repentance.

  • Iota

    @ Hendy – would you like a serious answer at at least part of your question? 🙂

  • FWIW, I don't understand Christians that claim to have knowledge of who will and will not end up in Hell, or even of what behaviors will definitely land you there.Also, your friends might just realize they're not up to the task. I really, really suck at making Christianity sound compelling and worry constantly that every time I talk about it I just drive someone further away. I've actually been consciously trying to talk about Christianity *less* lately because of this. I don't think you need to be as crazily neurotic as I am to come to similar conclusions. I still feel incredibly guilty that I suck at making Christianity sound compelling, but unfortunately guilt doesn't make me a better evangelizer.

  • Matt Gerken

    I think you're discounting prayer. Also, the Catholic Church just doesn't do the "this behavior sends you to hell" thing. At first I was confused when I learned about Catholic funerals for suicides (which seem like the most clear-cut case of imminent hellfire), and then I realized that even in those instances there is A) the possibility of repentance even in a brief moment between life and death, or B) the presence of a mental illness or demon such that the person is guiltless. So we really can't be sure, and we ought to pray for the soul of the person after the fact. Since God is outside of time and knows about future prayers at the moment when a person dies, these intercessory prayers are considered powerful. Kevin's favorite example is a rich guy in Germany, I believe it was, who realized that he had led a wretched and terrible life and that he was probably going to Hell. So used his money to build housing where the rent is like $1, but you must agree to say prayers a certain number of times per day for the salvation of the rich man's soul. Admittedly that sounds like cheating, but who knows?Evangelization is also just tricky. As Tristyn says talking about Jesus too much or in the wrong way can be massively counterproductive. Better to start with living a Christian lifestyle while acting charitably towards all. Attempt to live out the beauty of Christ's love and sacrifice and perhaps you will show it to others without any words passing between you. I've seen this happen to an atheist or two- which frankly is a time or two more than I've seen someone adopt Christianity through pure philosophizing or argument.

  • Roz

    For a Christian family, the thought that a loved one might be in hell would be incredibly distressing. So how uncaring would someone have to be to bandy around speculation during their grief? Another way to think of the "who goes to heaven and who goes to hell" question is this: Those who have allowed God to bring them into his family go live with him. Those who have said, "No thanks" get their separation from God cemented. "Being out of the presence of God who's the source of everything good" is a pretty precise definition of hell.

  • @Iota: sure.

  • @Roz:,—| Those who have allowed God to bring them into | his family go live with him. Those who have | said, "No thanks" get their separation from God | cemented.`—If my survey of the available evidence disallows me to even have belief in some form of god, much less adhere to whatever that god's moral requirements are… what then? Believers all to often assume that non-believers are saying anything like, "No thanks" at all to belief in god.Please think of it more like the the concept of god or some specific theological framing of him simply "not computing." I wouldn't classify your dis-belief of my claim to have a pebble that weight 1000lbs as your saying, "No thanks" as if you had a choice to believe. The thought is so foreign and opposed to what you know of the world and material properties that the idea would simply not compute.This brings up a whole separate discussion as to which party (mere humans or trans-temporal omni-max being) holds the responsibility for manifesting belief. Why is the problem of non-belief or wrong belief so widespread of one true god reigns, wants nothing more than for me to be "brought into his family," and if my eternal destiny depends on such matters?

  • Matt and Tristyn, please make that case to Chris.

  • Anonymous

    I haven't commented before, but I do click over to this blog occasionally from Conversion Diary.I think you're wrong that Christians don't try to evangelize you because they don't really believe in hell. I think they don't try to talk to you about hell because they've never seen that conversation go well, and they're afraid to alienate you by talking about it that directly. My father is an agnostic. Unfortunately, if I believe what the Bible says, I have to believe that he will go to hell when he dies. I can't tell you how much pain that gives me. If I had the choice, I would gladly choose oblivion after death over heaven if I could keep him from going to hell. God doesn't give me that choice. Do I like the idea of hell? No. I hate it. I don't understand why its necessary, and its hard for me. Do I talk to my dad about hell? Maybe once every 15 years… and its not because I don't think he's going there. It's because I am deeply afraid of offending him so much that he'll never choose Christ. I have never had a positive conversation about hell with someone whose heart is not soft toward God. And his is not… so I wait, and I pray, and I don't say much… but its out of fear, not out of lack of belief.- Ellen from A Suburban Saga

  • Roz

    Hendy said:"Why is the problem of non-belief or wrong belief so widespread of one true god reigns, wants nothing more than for me to be "brought into his family," and if my eternal destiny depends on such matters?" I'm not sure I'm accurately tracking what you're saying. Is it that if there's a God who wants to bring people into his family, why is he so subtle and undiscoverable about his existence?You raise a good point. If someone is looking for the truth as honestly and as well as he can and ends up not believing in God, what's the situation? In my experience, some people have that exact experience. Some, on the other hand, are so wedded to a world view of being master of their own ship and in charge of determining what's right for them, that they espouse the position of searching for the truth while judiciously selecting which evidence they'll allow to be considered in order to protect the status quo. Regardless, Christians should always take the approach that we are unable to determine who is going to hell and are unwilling to speculate. (I wish we all had the self control to do that.) Let me use an illustration of a way to think about it that might be helpful even though I'm not sure it would be defensible in theology class.Imagine that, at the moment of your death, you find yourself with God, without any illusions or preconceptions — really met him who is powerful, majestic, completely good, and completely in love with you. If he said to you, "Here I am. I love you. Will you come be with me?", how would you respond? You would likely answer "yes" if your life had been an ongoing effort to adhere to truth, love and goodness the best you were able. You would have been moving toward God because all good things come from him. If, however, your life had been an ongoing pursuit of self-aggrandizement, power; characterized by using other people for your own purposes, and unwillingness to subordinate your desires to anything, you would probably find what you see distasteful and want nothing to do with God, at which point he might then say, "Have it your way, then." Separating yourself from all that is good, true, beautiful and life-giving is, in fact, hell.This is decidedly not to say that it is by any way other than Christ's death that we are reconciled to God. I just suggest that if God were to choose to be innovative to make the offer of that mercy to someone, he's perfectly entitled and capable of doing so.

  • Benji

    Roz said:"In my experience, some people have that exact experience. Some, on the other hand, are so wedded to a world' view of being master of their own ship and in charge of determining what's right for them…"You may be putting the cart before the horse here. If a person comes to the tentative conclusion to reject belief in gods, based on all available evidence and using sound reason, then it follows that that person is master of their own ship, to use your words.There are variations of this that come up all the time in atheist/theist conversations. Atheists, I've been told, know full well they're in rebellion against god. For me, that's being equivalent to being told that I'm in rebellion against Santa Clause. Atheists, I've been told, hate god. Again, that's like being told that I hate the tooth fairy.Being told that I just like being master of my own ship (is that a Seinfeldian euphemism?) and therefore I'm not somehow honest about my reasons for not believing in god kind of misses the point. I'm master of my own ship because no one else is going to be. I have to take responsibility for my life because I have no magical sky elf to thrust it all upon.

  • Iota

    @ HendyTo the best of my knowledge, all this starts with the dogma of the "Communion of Saints". The logic is this: the Church is a community joined in Christ, so that everyone who is in communion with Him is part of the Church. This applies to the Saints in heaven (Church Triumphant), the souls in purgatory (Church Suffering) and those on earth (Church Militant). It is through Christ that a properly disposed Catholic on earth can effectively intercede for a soul in purgatory and it is through Christ that a saint can intercede for someone on earth. The souls in hell obviously don't share in the Communion.Two additional reasons would be:- God is truthful. The devil is not. So his witness as to the state of some particular soul, AFAIK, carries no weight. – Remember All Saints day? Or the Litany of the Saints? Canonised saints aren't all the saints in heaven. There are saints who will never be canonised (for many reasons). The saints that ARE or will be canonised also "severe" the church here on earth as role models. In this context, what purpose would it serve to make pronouncements about the souls in hell?Readings:The Communion of SaintsSouls in purgatory – intercessionAs usual, always feel free to verify what I'm writing here. 🙂

  • Iota: "God is truthful. The devil is not."In my reading of The Bible the Devil has always been honest in its dealings with humanity whereas God has lied on many, many occasions.Saints require miracles, which do not occur (damn you science!) so why believe in that part of Christianity?

  • @Iota: I still see no reason why a deceased "working evil" could not shed light on the state of their soul, nor why the Catholic Church provides for the dead in heaven to interact with those on earth while those in hell do not.The Church believes that the trinitarian God can interact with earth, as can angels. When individuals die and go to heaven, they can apparently interact (with God's "permission", I suppose) with those on earth as well, which is the whole basis for canonization.Well, the Church has a very strong tradition that the earth is actually subject to the rule of the devil, and it also believes that the devil and demons can possess people and perform other "negative miracles." So… why aren't those who apparently wanted to be cutoff from God participating in the devil's plan for the destruction of the souls on the world? Why wouldn't the Church have a view of plausibility toward a dead person in hell working "negative" miracles?It would seem that whether the devil is "truthful" or not doesn't have much to do with it.

  • Iota

    @ March Hare – How serious are you in that post, how serious is your question and why do you want me to answer?

  • @Benji:,—| Being told that I just like being master of my| own ship (is that a Seinfeldian euphemism?)…`—Now that was hilarious.

  • @Roz:,—| If he said to you, "Here I am. I love you. Will | you come be with me?", how would you respond?`—I actually have no idea. My life on and off completely sucks because I lived as an all-out Charismatic Catholic doing outreach, getting married and having kids according to what I thought god wanted, buying a house specifically to be by other Christian friends in our circles, etc. for the last seven years. So… think of what that's like for me now if you would.My wife and I are now in counseling because religion is about the most divisive thing ever now, we don't know how to raise our children, I'm still ridiculously connected to this Christian community and am emotionally paralyzed going to huuuge events of more than a hundred people who don't know I don't believe in god anymore, and all but my very close friends don't even contact me anymore (not in a malicious way… the interaction just fell away).Things are much better, but I've had to listen to my wife tell me she wouldn't marry me if she could do it over again (knowing what the future would hold, that is; although she's retracted that and said that she actually would now), and at one point that she hated the baby inside of her (born last August) because it was half me.And all because my survey of the evidence has led me to a position of non-belief.I can't speak for what it would be like to be in the presence of "pure love" — perhaps I'd fold at the leg joints and bow down. I really don't know. If I had my wits and wasn't petrified of burning eternally or smitten with exploding tingly love, I might address such a being like I would anyone else who said they loved me and yet remained hidden away while I was left in the dark, groping and trying to cope with about the biggest life-change occurrence one could go through emotionally and situationally, perhaps with the exception of some serious illness/injury or loved one's death.I guess there's my from-the-hip answer to that question.

  • @Iota,I don't know which parts of Christianity you believe but my post was honest and if you disagree with any of it then please let me know why you think I am wrong.In Genesis the devil tells Eve what will happen if she eats from the Tree of Knowledge but God has said she will surely die – who was truthful? Not that it happened, obviously, but using The Bible the devil is not as bad as Christians make out. Or look to Job, or Jesus in the desert. I don't recall the devil ordering anyone to wipe out any tribes (e.g. Amalekites) or sacrifice their own son (Abraham) or have I simply not read The Bible in a while?

  • @Leah,Catholics presume that your salvation requires your own cooperation. If you have made it clear that you don't plan to cooperate, coercion to effect it will be both counterproductive and evil. I cannot in justice use bad means that will alienate you from my faith in the hopes that they will convert you. In fact, obnoxious behavior to that end could well be the sin of scandal, impeding you from adopting the faith.@Hendy,in what way could the exploration of your conjecture about curses lead to the salvation of souls? If, as I would expect, the answer is "none," then the Church has no reason to bother with the question.@Dave,you are exactly right. We do not know the state of another person's soul, and perogative of judging it is reserved entirely to God.@Tristyn,Catholics DO presume to know what puts somebody in Hell (google "Mortal Sin" on, so that we can teach you what not to do, as well as what to do. But as I hope I've made clear, we cannot ever be sure if you have actually committed a mortal sin.@Hendy,Your rejection of the possibility of the existence of God is clearly grave sin. I cannot be sure it is in fact made with full knowledge and freely assented. Because I cannot know these two things about ANYONE'S grave sin, I cannot know if anyone is in fact in Hell.@March Hare,"Saints require miracles, which do not occur (damn you science!) so why believe in that part of Christianity?"That is a completely, utterly, totally dogmatic statement, without any foundation whatsoever. Science cannot disprove miracles. As Chesterton said, "The materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle." Not all truths may be ascertained by the scientific method, and idolatrous reverence for it is irrational.I do believe in miracles, because things happen for which "God decided to intervene" is the most reasonable and simplest explanation. It is not scientific belief, because that requires repeatability. God's omniscient decision that His intervention in a specific and unique situation will be beneficial is no more reproducible than last Teusday. And yet I have no doubt you believe in last Teusday. There will never be laboratory evidence for God because "Under carefully controlled test conditions, the subject will do whatever it damned well wants" — the more so if it is omnipotent.As for Genesis, while it is truth, it isn't history. If you go reading it with the same mindset as you take with The New York Times, the National Enquirer, or The Decline and Fall of the Third Reich, you are going to get it wrong.

  • Arkanabar, you presume to tell me my reading of the Word of God is wrong? On what basis? Where do you get your authority to decide the correct reading of The Bible?Miracles that have been investigated by debunkers have always been shown to have much more likely naturalistic explanations. So while you are correct that science cannot disprove the existence of miracles it can show that claimed miracles are unlikely to be true, yet the Catholic Church, in its infinite wisdom, can call miracles and attribute them to specific dead people?Be aware that it is not only Catholics that claim miracles and millions believe in them in other cultures yet, when viewed on youtube, they are seen to be fraud – either people lying or amateur magic tricks.If you have an example of when a supernatural explanation is more likely I'd love to hear it.

  • Iota

    @ March Hare. I'm glad you asked Arkanabar about authority in interpreting the Bible. Because that's where it all actually starts, IMO. Questions about knowledge are, at some point, questions about authority.1) We both know the Bible wasn't written in English. At least one of us knows from experience that translation is not a simple mechanical process. So it makes sense to ask questions about the methods, nature and reliability of various translations. Since – I assume – neither of us knows ancient Hebrew or is a Bible scholar, at some point we defer to some authority (e.g. by selecting a translation to read).2) Then there are various literary genres and conventions present in the Bible. I partly specialise in non-Biblical narratology, but I can't single-handedly analyse the whole Bible (to claim that would be tremendous blind pride on my part). I would assume that’s also unlikely in your case. So again, both of us defer to some authority.This also applies if you think the Bible should be read literally, verse by verse, without any regard for literary conventions. Since that's just ONE of the ways of reading it, you have to somehow answer to your own satisfaction why that would be the best one.3) Finally there are all manner of bits and pieces of cultural knowledge that would have been obvious to the ancient authors but that aren't intuitive to a 21st century American or Western/Central European. As an example: I heard a very cogent argument that "knowledge of good and evil" would, in the ancient Hebrew context, be understood as "direct experience of good and evil" since knowledge implied experience. In other words, that to "know" evil Adam and Eve had to commit evil. This is a potentially important tidbit and again, you have to choose an authority when referring to things like this. Of course I can try to explain part the problem you posit using the framework of authorities I trust. Although I'd prefer you pick just one instance, since, as a certain smart popular-science book once taught me, asking very general questions takes a lot less time and space than answering them. 🙂 But if you really want me to do that, we need to settle two things:1) There would, clearly, be limits to my analysis, since I am not an authority and there is a point where all I can do is refer you to someone else. I need to know if you acknowledge that or if we'd be just playing Biblical infinite regress.2) I'd like you to explain why would you prefer my exposition than that of a well-trained Roman Catholic Bible scholar (a higher authority)?

  • Iota

    @ Hendy. As usual; I MAY be wrong, as usual, so feel free to verify that with an expert. :-)"The earth is actually subject to the rule of the devil,"We may have experienced Catholicism differently, but I'd say the view is much more nuanced. I’d highlight, for example, that humans are also, among other things, called to further God's rule on earth (viz. the words of the Our Father prayer).As for the main part of your question:When the Church doesn't make a pronouncement that's just that. It doesn’t mean the unpronounced thing doesn’t happen (analogy – gravity worked before the requisite scientific laws were formulated). In other words, if the Church does not say who’s certainly in hell, it doesn’t follow that no one surely is (although it does follow we are allowed to hope Mr. X may not be there). I don’t know and haven’t been able to find out, so far, whether the Church has any opinion about the capacity of the damned to influence those on earth. But assuming the Church doesn’t have an opinion (for now), it would simply mean the Church has not pronounced on this. Nothing more and nothing less. At this point let’s go back to the logic of the Communion of the Saints. Bearing in mind that it doesn’t make it impossible for the Church to make pronouncements about the damned but explains why we are interested in the saints and souls in purgatory, why – as Arkanabar asked – SHOULD the Church be interested in obtaining such knowledge about the damned?What the Church DOES say about hell – CCC

  • Iota,1.1 – 100% agree.1.2 – I don't presume to think the literal, or any reading is correct. By definition I think it's all fiction and all I can do is take it at face value and then argue any interpretation that is put forward as and when it is. However Christians are really sneaky about this and hide behind the mythology and only state what they believe when someone inaccurately ascribes them a literal reading of a verse. Maybe it's not intentional, but it sure appears so from here.1.3 – Well fine, but I am arguing against the generally accepted, common or garden, Christian/Catholic belief, if you want to get all apologetic or make some non-man-in-the-street interpretation then at least lead with it…2.1 – Don't care what others say, explain what you mean, explain why you think it's true, refer to other people's arguments if you wish, but, ultimately, explain why anyone should think that way and why millions of believers do not share your interpretation and why they're wrong.2.2 – Because it's probably all fiction and there is no higher authority for your understanding than you.