Quench not the Spirit

Quench not the Spirit June 22, 2011

Rachel Held Evans responds to the recent Southern Baptist Convention resolution affirming belief in “conscious, eternal suffering” for all non-Christians, i.e., Hell.

She quotes from Rustin J. Umstattd, a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist seminary, who criticizes author Rob Bell for not realizing that we Christians, apparently, are not supposed to listen when our conscience starts screaming in protest:

It is clear that Bell is not comfortable with the idea that billions of people may suffer in hell. But then, who is comfortable with that? The majority of evangelicals who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell … are troubled by its implications. But being troubled, even deeply troubled, by the implications of the biblical text does not give us a reason to abandon the text or force it into a mold that rests comfortably with us. It should be our goal to let the Bible be the source and shaper of our doctrine.

Evans points out that Umstattd, like most Southern Baptists, believes in the idea of an “age of accountability,” even though the Bible is not the “source” of that doctrine.

The age of accountability refers to a belief that children under a certain age (usually twelve or so), will be granted salvation regardless of the religious affiliation of their parents. Most Baptists I know believe in the age of accountability, and even the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message makes it implicit in its statement that people are not morally accountable until “they are capable of moral action.”

And yet this concept is never explicitly stated in Scripture, nor does it appear in any of the historic Christian creeds. …

I am often told by fellow Christians that an inclusivist reading of Scripture is the result of a sentimental “bleeding heart.” And yet most of those people embrace without question the age of accountability and reel at the idea of a non-elect two year-old burning alive for eternity.   I believe we were created to reel at that idea, just as we were created to reel at the idea of a young Muslim woman being tortured forever by a God whose name she never knew.  I believe that our impulse towards grace is a reflection of God’s image inside of us, not a weakness of which we should be ashamed.

“Quench not the Spirit,” the Bible says. If the Spirit, as Umstattd suggests, leads “the majority of evangelicals” to be “troubled” by a particular interpretation of a handful of biblical passages, then perhaps it is that interpretation, rather than the Spirit, which has gone awry.

Conscience matters. If a doctrine offends the conscience of most believers — if a doctrine is so blatantly troubling that even its defenders can ask “who is comfortable with that?” — then maybe God is trying to tell us something.

Elsewhere I have pointed out that the doctrine of Hell is not as Bible-based as the Southern Baptist Convention wants to suggest. The Bible is not the source of that doctrine. Nor is that doctrine shaped by the Bible. The Gospel of Nicodemus is not part of the canon. The Apocalypse of Peter is not part of the canon. The Vision of Tundale is not part of the canon. To reinterpret the Bible’s very few, allusive uses of the word “gehenna” as references to the Hell of those later, noncanonical and deeply weird texts is a deeply disrespectful approach to scripture.

But let us for the moment bracket this exegetical dispute and focus here on the unambiguous message that Prof. Umstattd acknowledges his conscience is shouting at him.

I think he ought to listen to what his conscience is telling him.

Prof. Umstattd, I would venture to guess, would be incapable of torturing another human being, even briefly, let alone for any sustained period of torment. This is true of most people. It is even true of most Southern Baptists (despite that convention’s origin in defense of keeping torture, kidnapping and rape legal in the American South). And I am sure it is true as well of Prof. Umstattd. I am sure that the very idea of deliberately torturing another human being is repugnant to him viscerally, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

I do not think that the professor’s commendable inability to bring himself to maim and cruelly harm another human being reflects an insufficiency of holiness on his part. Nor do I think that this is how he perceives this lack of capacity for torture himself. He does not lament his having a conscience that forbids him to torture others. He does not view it as a moral failing on his part. He likely sees it, instead, as evidence of his fundamental humanity — evidence that he is a child of God created in the image of God.

And yet — despite what his gut, his brain, his heart and his conscience are telling him about torture — the professor is reluctantly convinced that God is capable of being the monster he cannot imagine allowing himself to become. And this places him in the unfortunate position of having to argue that this monstrosity is a function of God’s holiness

I do not think this word means what he thinks it means. I do not think this word can be made to mean what such an argument would require it to mean. I am fairly sure that if you construct a sentence using the word “holiness” in which the word “sadism” can be substituted for it without changing the meaning of the sentence, then you’re using it wrong.

If that is what this word means, then the heavenly hosts singing praises around the throne of God would have chosen a different word rather than accusing him of something as nasty and stomach-turning as holiness.

If “Holy, holy, holy” meant that God delights in that which causes our consciences to recoil — causes every fiber of our being, our gut, our intellect, our heart, our soul to scream out no, No, NO! — then those praises would be blasphemies. Then praise and blasphemy would be interchangeable.

That would be troubling. Who could be comfortable with that?

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  • Cootiio

    “Prof. Umstattd, I would venture to guess, would be incapable of
    torturing another human being, even briefly, let alone for any sustained
    period of torment. This is true of most people.”

    This is the only part I have a problem with.  As the Milgram obedience and Stanford prison experiments show, it does seem that most people are in fact willing and able to torture others up to and past the point of death.  Perhaps someone smarter than I could draw the connections that may be there between this unfortunate aspect of our humanity and otherwise good people’s willingness to be apologists for sadism.

  • Cootiio

    “Prof. Umstattd, I would venture to guess, would be incapable of
    torturing another human being, even briefly, let alone for any sustained
    period of torment. This is true of most people.”

    This is the only part I have a problem with.  As the Milgram obedience and Stanford prison experiments show, it does seem that most people are in fact willing and able to torture others up to and past the point of death.  Perhaps someone smarter than I could draw the connections that may be there between this unfortunate aspect of our humanity and otherwise good people’s willingness to be apologists for sadism.

  • Anonymous

    To elaborate on Cootiio’s point, these experiments show that people who would never dream of abducting and torturing a stranger for kicks will nonetheless be willing to torture when it serves the purpose of the perceived rightful authority.

    The Milgram obedience experiment is a particularly good analogy – an authority figure tells the otherwise decent human that some third party must obey or suffer dire consequences, and the otherwise decent human falls into line. Everyone knows the rules, you see, and dreadful consequences are part of the rules, so really those people who refused to obey brought their punishment on themselves, and guilt lies with them instead of with the otherwise decent humans torturing them. The idea of questioning the authority figure, arguing that they should change the rules to take out the torture, just doesn’t occur, because who am I to question what Authority has handed down?

    All that, even when the authority is just some guy with a degree and a lab coat!

  • Carl Muckenhoupt

    To quibble with things that are beside the point, the notion of “a young Muslim woman being tortured forever by a God whose name she never knew” doesn’t make a lot of sense. Muslims worship the God of Abraham, and have a concept of Hell. They don’t worship Jesus, but they certainly know his name: he’s considered to be the last of the great prophets before Mohammed.

  • Lori

    I have to agree with Cootiio and Loquot. I have no idea whether Prof. Umstattd would torture anyone or not I think available evidence indicates that if one creates the right circumstances most people would. Worse, the right circumstances are disturbingly easy to create. 

    Most people like to believe they wouldn’t torture, but acknowledging that is not at all the same thing as believing that most people actually wouldn’t. I don’t think that reality is particularly inconsistent with simultaneously insisting that “God is love” and “God’s nature requires him to torture the majority of humans for all eternity”. 

  • Barry

    I have a feeling that, discerning the nature of Hell and the fact of its existence or non-existence will become a central point in our maturing as a species and a religion, and how we understand ourselves and God.

    Why doesn’t God just make it clear one way or the other?  Like so many other points about the afterlife, its true nature is remarkably and seemingly intentionally ambiguous.  As if, I don’t know, God wanted us to, like, you know, learn something as we contemplate it?

    I wonder if God, somewhere along the line of watching humanity rise from its barbarian origins in preparation to handing us the Holy Scriptures, didn’t think, “You know, these folks don’t seem to understand that you shouldn’t do evil things in my name.  Who exactly do they think they’re following?  Maybe with a few unclear references to what would happen to those who live outside my name throughout my Bible, I’ll give them a couple thousand years to puzzle it out and maybe come to the conclusion they should’ve realized centuries ago…”

  • I am fairly sure that if you construct a sentence using the word “holiness” in which the word “sadism” can be substituted for it without changing the meaning of the sentence, then you’re using it wrong.

    Preach it, brother.

  • So what then are we to make of a god who lets thousands die in a flood or hurricane, who lets millions go unfed because of his self-proclaimed followers’ selfishness and bigotry, who permits his name to be used for justification for wars and tortures and crimes against humanity? Is this a holy god? If your god existed, if those angels really existed and really sang those words of praise to your god, then those would surely be hideous blasphemies.

  • Beady Sea

    For what it’s worth, in my fundamentalist upbringing there was a perfect solution to the lack of biblical support for the age of accountability: my parents rejected the age of accountability, and condemned those who believed in it as being unbiblical bleeding-hearts. If God wants to torture a two-year-old (or a fetus that was aborted in the first trimester) for all eternity, then whether we understand it or not, it MUST be the right thing to do.

    Good times.

  • “You know, these folks don’t seem to understand that you shouldn’t do evil things in my name.  Who exactly do they think they’re following?

    And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him.
    But they did not receive Him, because his face was set for the journey to Jerusalem.
    And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”

    But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.”

    That’s from Luke chapter 9, one of the canonical books these Bible-believing Christians should know by heart.  And yet they still do not know what manner of spirit they are of.

  •  I hate to quibble, but the Milgram experiments were about obedience to authority. The subject was instructed by an authority figure to inflict pain on a “victim”, but there were no threats or consequences, stated or implied, for disobedience. Questioning the authority got one of four responses, all of which were variations on “continue the experiment”.

    Milgram found that proximity to authority influenced compliance. A voice over a speaker or a telephone did not get the level of obedience that a man in a lab coat in the same room did. Since theological questions like these are wrestled over in our private spaces, at night when we cannot sleep, or in quiet moments of contemplation, usually priests or ministers are far away, and our compliance to their demands is lessened.

    Milgram also discovered that proximity to the ‘victim’ grealy influenced compliance. A victim in another room, banging on the wall and talking through a speaker, unseen, generated more compliance than a person present, visible, and audible. Empathy, it seems, is a factor against authoratiarian obedience. Sadly, the eternal torments of the damned can only be imagined, but even that level of empathy is enough to make people unwilling to comply.

    I think the Milgram experiement is a useful tool for this discussion, because ultimately, this is a fight between Authoritarians and those who oppose authority for its own sake. Look at the pull quote:

    But being troubled, even deeply troubled, by the implications of the biblical text does not give us a reason to abandon the text or force it into a mold that rests comfortably with us. It should be our goal to let the Bible be the source and shaper of our doctrine.

    I don’t want to Godwin the thread, but that’s an Authoritarian statement if I’ve ever seen one. It is a straight-up call to obedience in the face of any and every moral objection.

  • Anonymous

    Mm. When Umstattd asks “who is comfortable with that”, that answer is, unfortunately, “People”. We have a well-documented ability for looking the other way, and even when our conscience has a chance to engage, we also happen to be pretty good at rationalizing such worries away. People will reliably do pretty terrible things if they’re told it’s for the greater good. They don’t even need to have that greater good demonstrated to them. They just need an authority figure. 

    Not to mention that the subject matter here is a larger number of people than the human brain is capable of emphasizing with suffering for a unit of time that’s near-impossible to grasp. Of course you can’t get people to have an appropriate emotional response to that. I defy anyone to have an appropriate emotional response to that. I can’t. It’s too big. I don’t even know what the appropriate emotional response to that would even look like. 

    Well. That’s how I rationalize away people like Umstattd, anyway. 

  • Anonymous

    Mm. When Umstattd asks “who is comfortable with that”, that answer is, unfortunately, “People”. We have a well-documented ability for looking the other way, and even when our conscience has a chance to engage, we also happen to be pretty good at rationalizing such worries away. People will reliably do pretty terrible things if they’re told it’s for the greater good. They don’t even need to have that greater good demonstrated to them. They just need an authority figure. 

    Not to mention that the subject matter here is a larger number of people than the human brain is capable of emphasizing with suffering for a unit of time that’s near-impossible to grasp. Of course you can’t get people to have an appropriate emotional response to that. I defy anyone to have an appropriate emotional response to that. I can’t. It’s too big. I don’t even know what the appropriate emotional response to that would even look like. 

    Well. That’s how I rationalize away people like Umstattd, anyway. 

  • Anonymous

    For Prof. Umstattd, the exegetical argument is not something to be bracketed while you look at an alternative source of evidence. One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism is that the Bible is more authoritative on theology than we fallible humans; if our best exegesis indicates that God is engaged in infinite torture, then the matter is settled and our conscience is irrelevant. The only scope where Fred’s argument applies is where there are multiple reasonable alternatives for interpreting the text; Umstattd thinks there is only one, and therefore Rob Bell is indulging in wishful thinking to assuage his conscience.

  • Samantha C.

    I think at least there’s something in acknowledging that it is a horrible thing, rather than trying to find ways in which it’s actually something good. I do think that on some level….I’m not sure how to describe it.

    I mentioned on Slacktiverse a little way back a story when a woman was trying to convince me to believe in an afterlife and heaven because it was a much more pleasant alternative (to her) to the idea that everything would just end after death. She argued that the idea of no afterlife was so painful, and believing in heaven was much better. I argued back that yes, it was a really lovely idea, and pleasant and nice. But none of those nice feelings make it more or less true.

    I don’t believe in the truth of an afterlife or a loving god no matter how nice the ideas might be. So in a way, I can sympathize with the position that believes in the truth of hell, no matter how much better and nicer the world might be without it. I don’t believe that the most pleasant option is necessarily the truest.

  • The funny thing is, their hell is more like the Muslim Hell:

    The Qur’an and Sunnah offer detailed descriptions of the methods of
    torture in jahannam. The Qur’an states the punishments will be: the
    burning of skin, only to be replaced for reburning;[6] garments of fire will be worn, and boiling water will scald the skin and internal organs;[7] faces on fire;[8] lips burnt off;[9] backs on fire;[10] roasting from side to side;[11] faces dragged along fire;[12] bound in yokes then dragged through boiling water and fire.[13]
    The sunnah introduces punishments, reasons and revelations not
    mentioned in the Qur’an, such as the majority of hell’s inhabitants
    being women who were ungrateful to their husbands;[14] that the least-suffering person in hell will have their brain boiling from standing on hot embers;[15]
    and that ‘if somebody commits suicide with anything in this world, he
    will be tortured with that very thing on the Day of Resurrection'[16] and in hell.[17]

    Those who are doomed for Hell will eat Zaqqum and drink scalding water. Zaqqum is a tree that grows in Jahannam. It has fruit, shaped like devils’ heads, which the damned are compelled to eat to intensify their torment. The Qur’an says:

    [44.43] Surely the tree of the Zaqqum,[44.44] Is the food of the sinful[44.45] Like dregs of oil; it shall boil in (their) bellies,[44.46] Like the boiling of hot water.[18]

    Other verses in the Qur’an describe different kinds of foods for the doomed in Hell, even exclusionary suggestions:

    [88.6] No food will there be for them but a bitter Dhari (thorn-fruit)[19]

    [69.36] Nor hath he any food except the foul pus from the washing of wound,[20]

    Some point out these seems to be contradictory descriptions.[21]

    Islamic sources indicate that all evil creatures, both human and jinn (including Satan himself) will be tormented by the Angel Maalik and his Zabaniyah.

    According to Sahih Bukhari 4:54:483 to 4:54:486, Muhammad said that fever is from the heat of the hell, and may be cooled with water.[22]

  • Anonymous

    But Fred, can’t you see the fault in your logic? While I reject the idea of Hell as unbiblical, you are still elevating human moral reasoning above that of God. If you’re reading the same Bible as I am, you believe in a God who has literally, painfully and indiscriminately killed millions of people, by fire, water, beasts, and just plain killing them. How does your conscience deal with this except by placing it in God’s hands?

  • Samantha C.

    I suppose what I forgot to say is, I’m troubled by the belief that Justice isn’t absolute, that good people are sometimes falsely imprisoned and that criminals are sometimes let free. I’m troubled by the belief that romantic-style true love isn’t likely to exist and that many people find themselves stuck in relationships that fell sour, despite the most pure of feelings when the love began. I believe a lot of things that trouble me, but that by itself isn’t really a reason to go searching for alternate beliefs, if I still think they’re true by the evidence that I’ve seen.

  • Beady Sea

    Saying it makes them uncomfortable is different than saying it’s horrible. Typically the argument would be that, as a matter of biblical principle, hell is “good” insofar as it is the way that the universe should work, and God is right in sending people there. It may be “tragic” but not “horrible” (i.e. it is still a just and deserved punishment — the sad part isn’t that God hits you, it’s that you _make_ him hit you). There’s a real disconnect between the personal discomfort and realization of the implications regarding God’s morality, which is usually lampshaded with “mumble mumble finite humans can never understand mumble”…

  • Anonymous

    I’ll check in here as the somewhat more theologically conservative concern troll and note that as much as the conscience recoils at something like unending torture, the conscience also recoils at the notion that the unrepentant go unpunished.  I mean, we get angry when Goldman Sachs pays an inadequate fine.

    The whole reason that the Smirking Bad Guy Who’s Getting Away With It is such a stock figure on things like cop shows is that he works as a villain because seeing the evil get away with it touches on our most primal impulses of justice and righteous indignation.

    Conscience pulls in a lot of different directions.

  • Beady Sea

    I’ll check in here as the somewhat more politically conservative concern troll and note that as much as the conscience recoils at something like hanging a child because they picked someone’s pocket, the conscience also recoils at the notion of a pickpocket going unpunished.

    Or to take off the satire tags: there is not a fine line between “no consequences for bad behavior, of any kind, ever” and “suffering that is infinitely worse in duration and intensity than what was caused by the sufferer.” There is in fact a HUGE FRAKING CHASM. An infinitely large one, in fact. Disproportionate punishments can be (and often have been) a greater injustice than the bad actions they were supposed to punish. And hell is, inherently and by design, as disproportionate as it is possible to be.

  • Gettophilosopher

    I for one welcome my horrifying, monstrous lord and savior!

    http://codinghorror.typepad.com/.a/6a0120a85dcdae970b0120a86e32a6970b-pi
    ;)

  • Shay Guy

    Are claims of concern trolling falsifiable?

  • Anonymous

    Concern trolling? What does that even mean? Isn’t it just an excuse to shut down and ignore dissent?

  • Anonymous

    Unbidden, the following scene from Penrod sprang to my mind:  (From the Gutenberg project):

    With an ejaculation of horror, Mrs. Bassett sprang to the window and
    threw open the blinds.

    Georgie’s back was disclosed to the view of the tea-party. He was
    endeavouring to ascend a maple tree about twelve feet from the window.
    Embracing the trunk with arms and legs, he had managed to squirm to a
    point above the heads of Penrod and Herman, who stood close by, watching
    him earnestly—Penrod being obviously in charge of the performance.
    Across the yard were Sam Williams and Maurice Levy, acting as a jury on
    the question of voice-power, and it was to a complaint of theirs that
    Georgie had just replied.

    “That’s right, Georgie,” said Penrod encouragingly. “They can, too, hear
    you. Let her go!”

    “Going to heaven!” shrieked Georgie, squirming up another inch. “Going
    to heaven, heaven, heaven!”

    His mother’s frenzied attempts to attract his attention failed utterly.
    Georgie was using the full power of his lungs, deafening his own ears to
    all other sounds. Mrs. Bassett called in vain; while the tea-party stood
    petrified in a cluster about the window.

    “Going to heaven!” Georgie bellowed. “Going to heaven! Going to heaven,
    my Lord! Going to heaven, heaven, heaven!”

    He tried to climb higher, but began to slip downward, his exertions
    causing damage to his apparel. A button flew into the air, and his
    knickerbockers and his waistband severed relations.

    “Devil’s got my coat-tails, sinners! Old devil’s got my coat-tails!” he
    announced appropriately. Then he began to slide.

    He relaxed his clasp of the tree and slid to the ground.

    “Going to hell!” shrieked Georgie, reaching a high pitch of enthusiasm
    in this great climax. “Going to hell! Going to hell! I’m gone to hell,
    hell, hell!”

    With a loud scream, Mrs. Bassett threw herself out of the window,
    alighting by some miracle upon her feet with ankles unsprained.

    Mr. Kinosling, feeling that his presence as spiritual adviser was
    demanded in the yard, followed with greater dignity through the front
    door. At the corner of the house a small departing figure collided with
    him violently. It was Penrod, tactfully withdrawing from what promised
    to be a family scene of unusual painfulness.

    Mr. Kinosling seized him by the shoulders and, giving way to emotion,
    shook him viciously.

    “You horrible boy!” exclaimed Mr. Kinosling. “You ruffianly creature! Do
    you know what’s going to happen to you when you grow up? Do you realize
    what you’re going to BE!”

    With flashing eyes, the indignant boy made know his unshaken purpose. He
    shouted the reply:

    “A minister!”

  • democratic socialist

    I’m glad that Umstattd used the word “orthodox” with a lowercase ‘o’. Certainly the Orthodox church does not subscribe to his non-canonical, non-traditional, non-scriptural theology of the afterlife.

  • Nepean Ian

    Concern trolling means offering purportedly helpful suggestions while pretending to be sympathetic to a point of view (or trying and failing to be sympathetic), when in fact those suggestions undermine that point of view.  “Stop fighting this unwinnable battle” is concern trolling if the person saying it is a member of the opposition who is trying to undermine the morale of the people he’s purportedly helping.

    I don’t see anything in this thread that would qualify as concern trolling.

    In reply to AndrewSshi,  I would like to see blameworthy Goldman Sacks executives fined and denied the opportunity to play the market.  Prison time is justifiable as a deterrent.  Having them drawn and quartered would be evil, torturing them for eternity all the more so.

  •  Loquat: The Milgram obedience experiment is a particularly good analogy

    Honestly, I think the Stanford Prison Experiment is the better analogy of the two, specifically because we see what happens when a blanket authority is given, but we also see what happens to those over whom authority is given.  The “guards” internalized their roles, as did the “prisoners.”  Everyone apparently just accepted, “This is the way the world is, now.”

    These are two bits from the Wikipedia write up:

    Prisoner No. 416, a newly admitted stand-by prisoner, expressed concern
    over the treatment of the other prisoners. The guards responded with
    more abuse.

    and

    Zimbardo aborted the experiment early when Christina Maslach,
    a graduate student he was then dating (and later married), objected to
    the appalling conditions of the prison after she was introduced to the
    experiment to conduct interviews. Zimbardo noted that of more than fifty
    outside persons who had seen the prison, Maslach was the only one who
    questioned its morality. After only six days of a planned two weeks’
    duration, the Stanford Prison experiment was shut down.

    I had never seen those particular notes before.  But if an interested observer who came in later saw the inhumanity, then mentioned it and was abused, that’s probably not good.  But then the bit where a whole bunch of outside observers looked in and only one actually said, “Wait.  This isn’t right.  Should you really be doing this?”

    It does kinda go a long way towards explaining how so many people can look at fundamentalist Christianity and its head torturer and say, “You guys know you follow a sadist, right?” and get told about god’s love in response.

  • Anonymous

    There are a lot of different ways of understanding punishment of the unrepentant that don’t amount to something like hanging a pickpocket.  CSL’s Great Divorce is one. There’s also the Cappadocian Fathers who toyed with the idea of non-eternal hell.

    There are plenty of things that make me hope that there is some sort of accountability in the universe (like, say, up and conquering a country with little or no provocation which opens up a power vacuum and sectarian war that leaves hundreds of thousands dead).

  • Lori

     I hate to quibble, but the Milgram experiments were about obedience to authority. The subject was instructed by an authority figure to inflict pain on a “victim”, but there were no threats or consequences, stated or implied, for disobedience. Questioning the authority got one of four responses, all of which were variations on “continue the experiment”. 

      

    Yes, authoritarianism is the mahor factor “circumstances” that make torture possible and even likely. And yes, the Milgram experiments were about obedience. HOwever, there’s really not much of a quibble to be had in the context of this discussion. 

    There was a reason Milgrim used (apparent) infliction of extreme physical pain as the test behavior. What the subjects were lead to believe the were doing was torture and people like to believe they wouldn’t torture. A large percentage of them are wrong. 

  • Lori

     I hate to quibble, but the Milgram experiments were about obedience to authority. The subject was instructed by an authority figure to inflict pain on a “victim”, but there were no threats or consequences, stated or implied, for disobedience. Questioning the authority got one of four responses, all of which were variations on “continue the experiment”. 

      

    Yes, authoritarianism is the mahor factor “circumstances” that make torture possible and even likely. And yes, the Milgram experiments were about obedience. HOwever, there’s really not much of a quibble to be had in the context of this discussion. 

    There was a reason Milgrim used (apparent) infliction of extreme physical pain as the test behavior. What the subjects were lead to believe the were doing was torture and people like to believe they wouldn’t torture. A large percentage of them are wrong. 

  • I’ll check in here as the somewhat more theologically conservative
    concern troll and note that as much as the conscience recoils at
    something like unending torture, the conscience also recoils at the
    notion that the unrepentant go unpunished.  I mean, we get angry when
    Goldman Sachs pays an inadequate fine.

    Wait, what?

    Are you really drawing a moral equivalence between “being tortured forever by a horrid plan enacted at the behest of a supposedly loving god” and “getting slapped on the wrist for helping bring down the entire world economy, then allowed to go on about your business while the political talk shifts to how it was too much regulation that brought terrible ruin upon us all?”  Really?

    At least go with the standards if you’re going to draw equivalence: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, that jackass who put an inch long dent in my door the other day, y’know, actual evil people deserving of punishment on a vast scale.  And be aware of the fact that what we think other people deserve and what other people actually deserve is an entirely subjective thing when we are the victims.  Moreover, what we think we deserve and what we actually deserve is also subjective.  That why we have developed law codes and attempted to create impartial judiciaries.  We look at Goldman Sachs and say, “That’s a travesty of justice,” because the fine is obviously too low and they are allowed to stay in business even though they engage in ethical practices that would gag a weasel.  But if every single executive were to be drawn and quartered while their families were required to watch before they, themselves were executed with a bullet to the back of the head we’d look at that and say, “Holy shit!  That’s not what we do in civilized society.”  And that doesn’t even get to the question of eternal punishment and the torture which said punishment implicitly (or explicitly, depending on who’s talking) contains.

    Let’s consider Hitler.  50-70 million people died over the course of WWII.  Let’s say every single death was his fault and take the high side.[1]  That’s 70,000,000 lives laid at his feet.  Give him a life sentence and call that life sentence 100 years for every one of those lives.  You know what number we get?  Seven billion.  That’s seven billion years in prison.

    For those playing the home edition, that’s a mind-bogglingly long time.  It’s also just over half the age of the universe.  And about half-again as long as the Earth is old.  So a life sentence for every single life taken by the go-to human monster of all-time doesn’t even get us to the age of the universe, let alone this concept we call “eternity.”

    Also, too, since we’re talking about it in terms of human justice, this assumes he’ll be in some sort of supermax prison, as opposed to hanging out in an agonizing lake of fire while demons poke him with sharp sticks or whatever the image of hell from your favorite medieval painting is.

    So, I guess my point is this: my conscience recoils at the idea of Hell far more than it recoils at the idea of someone not getting the punishment they deserve.

    And, when it gets right down to it, if we’re still talking about Goldman Sachs, it’s not even my conscience that recoils.  It’s my sense of fairness and any faith I might have once had the that government actually will do something to protect people against big, faceless, greedy, moral-less corporations.

    [1]Which, obviously, we cannot and should not do.  The Japanese were setting up the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere long before they officially joined the Axis.  So it’s possible, if not probable, that there still would have been a Pacific War no matter what happened in Europe.  And with stuff like the Rape of Nanking tallied against the Japanese, well…Hitler wasn’t the only horrible person.

    Moreover, there’s the question of the punishment for civilians killed by activities of war v. people who signed up and engaged in military activities, which…yeah…never mind, I won’t get in to that.

  • I’ll check in here as the somewhat more theologically conservative
    concern troll and note that as much as the conscience recoils at
    something like unending torture, the conscience also recoils at the
    notion that the unrepentant go unpunished.  I mean, we get angry when
    Goldman Sachs pays an inadequate fine.

    Wait, what?

    Are you really drawing a moral equivalence between “being tortured forever by a horrid plan enacted at the behest of a supposedly loving god” and “getting slapped on the wrist for helping bring down the entire world economy, then allowed to go on about your business while the political talk shifts to how it was too much regulation that brought terrible ruin upon us all?”  Really?

    At least go with the standards if you’re going to draw equivalence: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, that jackass who put an inch long dent in my door the other day, y’know, actual evil people deserving of punishment on a vast scale.  And be aware of the fact that what we think other people deserve and what other people actually deserve is an entirely subjective thing when we are the victims.  Moreover, what we think we deserve and what we actually deserve is also subjective.  That why we have developed law codes and attempted to create impartial judiciaries.  We look at Goldman Sachs and say, “That’s a travesty of justice,” because the fine is obviously too low and they are allowed to stay in business even though they engage in ethical practices that would gag a weasel.  But if every single executive were to be drawn and quartered while their families were required to watch before they, themselves were executed with a bullet to the back of the head we’d look at that and say, “Holy shit!  That’s not what we do in civilized society.”  And that doesn’t even get to the question of eternal punishment and the torture which said punishment implicitly (or explicitly, depending on who’s talking) contains.

    Let’s consider Hitler.  50-70 million people died over the course of WWII.  Let’s say every single death was his fault and take the high side.[1]  That’s 70,000,000 lives laid at his feet.  Give him a life sentence and call that life sentence 100 years for every one of those lives.  You know what number we get?  Seven billion.  That’s seven billion years in prison.

    For those playing the home edition, that’s a mind-bogglingly long time.  It’s also just over half the age of the universe.  And about half-again as long as the Earth is old.  So a life sentence for every single life taken by the go-to human monster of all-time doesn’t even get us to the age of the universe, let alone this concept we call “eternity.”

    Also, too, since we’re talking about it in terms of human justice, this assumes he’ll be in some sort of supermax prison, as opposed to hanging out in an agonizing lake of fire while demons poke him with sharp sticks or whatever the image of hell from your favorite medieval painting is.

    So, I guess my point is this: my conscience recoils at the idea of Hell far more than it recoils at the idea of someone not getting the punishment they deserve.

    And, when it gets right down to it, if we’re still talking about Goldman Sachs, it’s not even my conscience that recoils.  It’s my sense of fairness and any faith I might have once had the that government actually will do something to protect people against big, faceless, greedy, moral-less corporations.

    [1]Which, obviously, we cannot and should not do.  The Japanese were setting up the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere long before they officially joined the Axis.  So it’s possible, if not probable, that there still would have been a Pacific War no matter what happened in Europe.  And with stuff like the Rape of Nanking tallied against the Japanese, well…Hitler wasn’t the only horrible person.

    Moreover, there’s the question of the punishment for civilians killed by activities of war v. people who signed up and engaged in military activities, which…yeah…never mind, I won’t get in to that.

  • Anonymous

    Well I believe that when I die I have to answer to God and the only thing I can say is: I haven’t done your will please forgive me.

  • Anonymous

    Well I believe that when I die I have to answer to God and the only thing I can say is: I haven’t done your will please forgive me.

  • Beady Sea

    Of course — but those aren’t the understandings of “hell” that Rob Bell is objecting to (or that his critics are defending). Anything that amounts to a literal eternity of suffering is much worse than hanging a pickpocket. But if you are skeptical that an eternity of suffering is what will really happen, or suggest that such an outcome would be actually immoral, you get the kind of responses from mainstream Evangelicalism that Rob Bell has faced.

  • Georgia

    I think the problem with this point of view is that we think of ourselves as better people than “those deserving of Hell”.  We lump people into categories of saved and not-saved and somehow in our heads that equals deserving and not-deserving.  The reality of Scripture is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.  When you view yourself as equally deserving of “Hell” (judgment) as Hitler or Stalin or your next door neighbor, you begin to beg for all of their souls to be saved from it, regardless of what they have done.  If you believe yourself “saved” that is an injustice, also known as mercy.

  • Rikalous

    Since no actual theists have responded to this yet, I may as well give it a shot.

    The alternative to letting people do evil in God’s name would be God coming down from the heavens to say “Cut that out,” every time someone is about to do something wrong. After all, it doesn’t make sense for him to intercede to stop supposed Christians and let everyone else do as they please. So now we’ve got a situation where everyone throughout the world is being nice and playing fair, at the cost of doing good for goodness sake. After a few generations of this, the concept of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, rather than to earn brownie points from Big Brother, would probably have disappeared.

    The natural disasters question is harder to answer, but I think it’s the same kind of thing. Matter and forces have certain observable properties, and if those properties are suddenly altered for the benefit of humanity, that’s a sign on the magnitude of the “missile attack that fails mysteriously and doesn’t hurt anyone” from the beginning of Left Behind. One such occurrence would see some converts. If it kept happening over and over, the most diehard atheists would see that something’s up, and that leads to the “brownie points from Big Brother” thing from last paragraph.

    Besides, an infinitely long paradisiacal afterlife would heal a lot of wounds.

  • Rikalous

    So in a way, I can sympathize with the position that believes in the
    truth of hell, no matter how much better and nicer the world might be
    without it. I don’t believe that the most pleasant option is necessarily
    the truest.

    “Bad thing X is so because that’s how the universe works” is very different from “Bad thing X is so because an omnipotent, loving being wills it be so.”

  • @Monoblade: (seemed like a fair question to me: “be patient with them all”)

    God formed the human spirit “in our image, after our likeness.” So we can trust our true nature, although our true nature is overlain by our fallen nature.

    I take the Good Counsellor that Jesus promised to be the voice of that Holy Spirit. I know many people don’t understand how one tells the difference between that voice and one’s own inner monologue, but it seems to be something most people can learn to do. Baptists accept the doctrine of the Holy Ghost, don’t they? (If non-thesists want to call the Voice of the Spirit their own better nature, I don’t mind, as long as they pay attention to it.)

    I can’t think why belief in Hell should be on the list of stuff Required for Salvation anyway. In our church we say: I’m not planning to go there, so so what? Practice daily, no need to worry. 

  • This gets me every time, and I intend to complain loudly to the Internet every time the Stanford thing is brought up.

    The Stanford prison stunt can hardly be called an experiment. Controls were inadequate.There are questions of sample selection. The all-male environment raises many questions of gender. Reproducibility is dubious. All this affects the generalizability of the conclusions (and don’t get me started on cross-cultural generalizations, either — is anyone going to argue that these men went ino the “prison” without firm cultural patterns, lifted from mainstream US culture, about prisons, authority, violence, etc? One of them was explicitly imitating a movie character!) My rather cynical and uncharitable opinion on the whole thing is that Head White Dude Zimbardo and the other dudes were playing out a potent power fantasy, which has very little to do with an “experiment” of any kind.

  • Hawker Hurricane

    @geds:disqus irt a war with Japan… both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy from 1919 to 1941 that thier main enemy in the next war would be each other.  Both sides designed ships, made war plans, and trained based off this assumption.  The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, the London Naval Treaties of 1930 and 1935 only postponed the war both sides expected.  The German war with France, Holland, Russia and England gave Japan the opportunity (by tying up all the planned enemies except the U.S.).  But Japan would have attacked even if they weren’t formally allied with Germany.
     
    Yes, I are a history know it all on the internet, won’t someone please help?

  • Georgia

    I would love for anyone (or Fred, eventually) to take a crack at the earlier questions about God ordering or performing acts of mass murder and genocide…though I believe Jesus was Messiah, this disturbs me to no end.  I feel like Fred talks about God’s love a lot and then ends his posts before addressing issues like this.  I am very blessed by this site, though :)  Including all the wonderful comments.

  • The alternative to letting people do evil in God’s name would be God coming down from the heavens to say “Cut that out,” every time someone is about to do something wrong. After all, it doesn’t make sense for him to intercede to stop supposed Christians and let everyone else do as they please. So now we’ve got a situation where everyone throughout the world is being nice and playing fair, at the cost of doing good for goodness sake. After a few generations of this, the concept of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, rather than to earn brownie points from Big Brother, would probably have disappeared. 

    I spent 36 years of my life working with little kids, and I can tell you from both experience and observation, telling them “Cut that out” every time they are about to do something wrong is how you teach them to do good for goodness sake.

    You certainly don’t teach them by letting them go their merry way and then years later, when it’s too late for them to make amends, punishing them for it.

  • irt a war with Japan

    I knew someone was going to come along and fill in the blanks on the footnote-based parenthetical thought in an already overly long comment…

  • Samantha C.

    I don’t know that it IS so very different. It might bring upon doubts that the being is truly omnipotent and omnibenevelent, or it might just be accepted as something the person can’t understand and make sense of. It might be something that troubles and concerns and can’t be reconciled, but is still believed. If I believe that “bad thing X is so because my deity might not actually be all-good”, I still believe “bad thing X is so”, because that’s how the universe works.

    I’m not arguing that Fred OUGHT to believe in hell, or anything like that. I’m not arguing that the Rob Bell side is wrong for finding and believing in other interpretations. In this case, the alternate versions are believable and sensical. I’m just a little skeptical of the idea that seems to come out of this post that if something you believe feels less than ideal, it must be wrong. The world isn’t ideal, and I at least respect someone willing to say “yes, this belief is troublesome, but that doesn’t make it untrue”, because I’ve said that for the other side.

  • chris the cynic

    I don’t have time to read everything right now, so sorry if this has already been said.

    I don’t think that the Milgram’s experiments really apply here.  Taken out of context what Fred said definitely seems to be disproved by them, but in context Fred is saying what he is saying as part of a comparison to the situation of God.  In the theology in question God is not being ordered to create Hell, nor is God compelled by any outside force.In the theology in question God is choosing for himself to inflict Hell on existence.  Since Fred is drawing a direct comparison with that, I think it is reasonable to interpret what he is saying about people and torture as being applied to people who are not being pressured by an outside force and are in control of their own circumstances to the extent that the decision to torture cannot be attributed to the circumstances.  If you don’t interpret it that way then the analogy breaks down even without looking to things like Milgram’s experiments because the situation of God and the situation of the human in question are too different to meaningfully compare.At least that’s what I think.

  • chris the cynic

    I don’t have time to read everything right now, so sorry if this has already been said.

    I don’t think that the Milgram’s experiments really apply here.  Taken out of context what Fred said definitely seems to be disproved by them, but in context Fred is saying what he is saying as part of a comparison to the situation of God.  In the theology in question God is not being ordered to create Hell, nor is God compelled by any outside force.In the theology in question God is choosing for himself to inflict Hell on existence.  Since Fred is drawing a direct comparison with that, I think it is reasonable to interpret what he is saying about people and torture as being applied to people who are not being pressured by an outside force and are in control of their own circumstances to the extent that the decision to torture cannot be attributed to the circumstances.  If you don’t interpret it that way then the analogy breaks down even without looking to things like Milgram’s experiments because the situation of God and the situation of the human in question are too different to meaningfully compare.At least that’s what I think.

  • Michael Cule

    The doctrine of an age of accountability, though it’s obviously vital to the Baptists if they are going to make the idea of adult baptism work, is so far from being supported by the Bible as to be heretical by the standards of much of the rest of Christianity which supports the idea of Original Sin tainting humans from the womb onwards and therefore the idea of infant damnation.

    C.S. Lewis (who was mentioned above) goes so far as to defend the idea in THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS. (He does put the defense in the mouth of Screwtape himself who must be pretty  much the Last Word in unreliable narrators.)

  • Gaudiorrr

     I agree: the difficulty with saying “God loves us and so would not torture us for eternity” is that we’re talking about a being who came up with:

    *pain
    *death
    *