Jesus chased the money-changers out of the Temple with a whip of cords. The way the story is told in the Gospels he put them to flight, chased them out the door, then basically hollered after them “And stay out!”
The money-changers had it coming because, Jesus said, they had turned a house of prayer into a den of thieves. They were profiting from others’ poverty and ripping off the poor — just the sort of thing that we would expect Jesus would find infuriating. He was angry on behalf of the poor victims, and thus he was angry at the money-changers.
Christians have always wrestled with and wrestled around this story because the whole whip-of-cords business seems a bit out of character for Jesus. Whole libraries have been written trying to reconcile this story with the things Jesus says elsewhere about turning the other cheek (or attempting to dismiss one side or the other of this conundrum).
But note what doesn’t happen in this story.
Jesus does not pursue the money-changers out into the streets and start beating them until every drop of blood drawn by their usury is repaid by another drawn by his whip. He does not corner them and flay them bloody. He does not tirelessly thrash their gory, beaten bodies until nightfall, and then on and on until dawn, and then throughout the next day and the next and the next, until the days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into months and the months into years of ceaseless, pitiless torment throughout which he uses his gifts of healing to ensure that they never escape this endless torture through the welcome release of death.
That would have been horrifying. It would have been monstrous. It would have been an injustice far worse than the cruel injustices for which the money-changers deserved to be punished.
And for anyone even slightly familiar with the character of Jesus as revealed and recorded in the Gospels, such a thing would be not just unthinkable, but an ugly slander against the good character of a good man. For those of us who believe that Jesus is divine, it would be a blasphemous slander.
Such a thing would also be a vile slander of the money-changer’s victims and a hideous distortion of the justice they deserve. Those poor victims deserved protection from such exploitation and they deserved compensation for what was stolen from them. They deserved to see their dignity upheld by seeing an appropriate punishment meted out on their oppressors. But they do not deserve to see those oppressors tortured forever and ever, without end.
Nor would they want to see that. Suggesting that such endless torture is what the victims deserve is a perverse distortion of justice. Suggesting that such endless torture is what victims want is a a perverse distortion of them.
It’s both an insult to those victims and an impediment to their hopes for justice, because the slander that such disproportionate retribution is what victims want and what they mean by “justice” creates the fear that rationalizes the continuing denial of that justice. (“Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”)
This is the problem with the folklore-turned-dogma of Hell. It blasphemes against God and it blasphemes against the victims of injustice with whom God identifies. It makes them both monstrous sadists — immortal, eternal versions of Ramsay Bolton.
Here again we have the paradox of pitchforks: Any creature capable of eternally tormenting another creature with a pitchfork lacks the authority to wield that pitchfork and rightfully belongs at the other end of it. To accuse God of wielding that pitchfork, or even of being capable of wielding it, is to accuse God of being infinitely unjust.
All of which is why I disagree — respectfully, but vehemently — with this quote from Fleming Rutledge that Richard Beck recently shared:
We must believe in hell because there is no other way to take seriously the nature and scale of evil in the world. We must believe in hell because there is no other way to do justice to the victims of darkness. We must believe in hell because, without it, Christian faith is sentimental and evasive, unable to stand up to reality in this world. Without an unflinching understanding of the radical nature of evil, Christian faith would be nothing but a suburban bedtime story.
This only works if we take the use of the English word “hell” here as a cipher, as a proxy code for some concept of ultimate, eschatological justice that is not itself wholly incompatible with everything we mean by and everything we yearn for when we speak of justice here and now. But this is not what the English word “hell” means. It refers, instead, to the folklore of eternal conscious torment we translate back into Greek and Hebrew texts.
And to say that this idea or ideology of “hell” is necessary “to take seriously the nature and scale of evil in the world” is wretched nonsense. To say that such an ideology of “hell” is necessary “to do justice to the victims of darkness” is an affront to those victims themselves, demonizing them into pitchfork-wielding monsters who thirst for eternal vengeance for their temporal suffering.
I think what Rutledge is saying is really a slightly more eloquent variation of the “OK, then, what about Hitler?” question that inevitably arises in any discussion of the folklore of Hell post-1945. That is, as I’ve said before, actually a good question. Or, more accurately, it’s two good questions confused into one:
The first question is something like, “Do you believe that there will be some kind of ultimate accountability for evil?”
My answer to that question is yes. I believe there will be. I can’t prove this, mind you, but I believe it. And this assertion — that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice — can be defended and supported by that Bible we evangelical Christian types put so much emphasis on. The same defense and support cannot be found for the sordidly detailed idea of a sulfurous netherworld to which all non-RTCs will be consigned for eternity.
The second question is trickier, something more like, “What, exactly, happens to someone like Hitler after he dies?”
That is, to borrow Barack Obama’s rough paraphrase of the Book of Job, a question above my pay grade. To ask that question is to ask, in the words of the play cited above, about the “undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns.” In other words, I don’t know. And anybody who says they do know shouldn’t be trusted.
“Justice, at its best,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “is love correcting everything that stands against love.” The ultimate, eschatological form of this correction is beyond my knowledge and likely beyond my imagining. But it will be corrected, and that correction cannot and will not be, itself, something that stands against love.
We certainly do need “to take seriously the nature and scale of evil in the world.” We are compelled to seek whatever justice we can for “the victims of darkness” here and now, in this world, and to long for a more perfect and more complete justice in the life of the world to come. But we do those victims no favors if we embrace a cruelly unjust idea as the model of justice either here or in the hereafter.