Albert Mohler is upset. He came across a New York Times essay he didn’t agree with. Further, he was offended. He felt the essay was condescending. And he felt many other things too, no doubt, and he spends most of his writing telling us about those other things. All good and well, but it’s hardly a reasoned response to the essay.
The entire thing is a rant full of question-begging, non-sequiturs, and appeals to authority (sort of…). Those are all squeezed into what is basically a reaction to, not the argument or main point of the essay, but to the tone, words, and implications of the essay.
It would take several posts to address the entirety of his missive, but I only want to address a few points and then get to what Mohler is truly missing here. First, I will address some of the conclusions drawn, which we note, are neither logical nor good ones.
First, his fairly incredible claim:
Really? “All” of it? Does Mohler truly believe that unless hell means eternal conscious torture/torment for some, then we can just throw the rest of the Christian narrative out the window as well? What a reasonable and well thought out conclusion, but, of course, I’m joking—it is neither.
Second, he writes:
“This is not an unambitious argument he’s making here. He intends to shame Christianity into abandoning the doctrine of hell and for that matter, the doctrine of the afterlife.”
Wait, what? How does abandoning the doctrine of hell lead to abandoning a belief in the afterlife? That simply does not follow.
Next, in a similar vein, he notes:
“…In his book, Hart makes several arguments in support of his form of universalism, a universalism, by the way, that isn’t merely hopeful, but is absolutely adamant. He believes that every single human being will eventually be united with God through Christ. Period. He doesn’t believe in heaven, so to speak.”
What? How on God’s green earth would the above lead one to think Hart doesn’t believe in heaven—”so to speak” or otherwise? In fact, shouldn’t the reasoning (regardless of what Hart actually believes) lead us to conclude such is all (as to the afterlife) that Hart believes in, as it would appear heaven is everyone’s eventual, eternal abode?
Also, I find it quite telling (and disturbing) that if Hart had asserted only that he was, “merely hopeful,” he would have received a much milder reception. His confidence of course, is the problem, which in their minds, is a bridge too far. Think about that for a second. The certainty and confidence of the eternal conscious torture of a human soul is a bridge easily crossed, while granting some room for hopefulness is seen as, well, somewhat acceptable (“We’ll allow it”). We would really like you to cross the entire bridge with us, but if you can’t, we’ll just chalk it up to a weak (theology) stomach.
However, God forbid the man who would assert an extravagant, certain, redemption of all—well, now you’ve just gone too far, laddie. Mull that difference of bridges over a bit. Take all the time you need.
Once we put all these diversions (For instance, the focus on the New York Times) and weak conclusions aside, my own view is that Mohler here makes the exact failure that Hart is trying to reveal. The focus on Hart’s acerbic tone, his phrasing, and choice of words, over his argument, ends up making his greater point: Hart’s appeal is to our moral formation, our moral sensibility, our moral imagination, wherein we learn to be shocked by the right things.I’ve cited this story before and many are familiar with it, but I think it applies to what is really going on here. This is from Tony Campolo speaking to a Christian audience:
“I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact I just said, “shit” than the fact 30,000 kids died last night.”
In my mind this is how Mohler and all the others who have criticized Hart’s book for mostly his tone, are responding to his arguments. All they can focus on is his caustic style, or whatever, and in doing so, completely miss what he just told them: A doctrine allowing finite, damaged, imperfect, limited, and broken people/souls to spend an eternity in conscious savage torment and torture, is not a doctrine worthy of belief, given everything else we understand about the Christian God and narrative.
The fact they are more offended by his tone than an eternal conscious torture, is shockingly revealing. What does it say about us when we are shocked by one, but not the other? Hasn’t Mohler, with his focus on style/tone, revealed Hart’s greater point? Which isn’t to say that Mohler and those who agree with him are immoral or lack decency. I’m sure those who heard about the starving children but were more upset with an expletive were basically good people, moral people. This is again to miss the point.
If I hear Hart correctly (and perhaps I don’t), when he brings up something like, “a properly functioning moral intelligence,” he is suggesting something akin to the response of Christians to slavery. Christians had to understand they had, for centuries, not only misunderstood the issue theologically and philosophically, but, as important, that their moral sense of what should shock them was clearly off kilter.
When other Christians told them holding to slavery was not only a theological failure but a moral one too, they were more shocked by the telling than their holding the belief. Think about that. Looking back, we find this sort of cognitive dissonance incredible.
We know now that their spirits, their moral sensibility had to be challenged—they had to see how owning another person should be more shocking to their moral sense, than if they happened to hear the pastor use the word, “damn” or be caustic in his sermon condemning it. How does Mohler know we are not in one of those moments again when it comes to the doctrine of hell? He may be holding onto something that was held onto just as strongly when it came to slavery but was eventually let go and became a moral abhorrence.
If we are bothered more by Hart’s tone, words, or writing style than we are the idea God’s good creation includes a space for the eternal torture of souls, then one has made Hart’s very point about our moral intelligence, imagination, sensibility and compass.
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