26 November 2007

I Am Not Alone

Read this. Or skim it anyway. It's long. Or just follow the jump and read on. I am pleased this morning to find that although I've spent a good deal of time sitting here reading instead of doing something productive, I've learned I am not alone in wondering what to make of Christian doctrines of eternal damnation.

This paragraph comes from a site written by a Christian seeking to debunk notions of hell. I can't find his name, but he links to tentmaker.org. Anyway
How can a God who said He came to save the world –Who said He accomplished what He came to do (draw all mankind to Himself) end up terrorizing 99 percent of all humanity by burning them alive forever in a lake of fire!? Satan is the author of confusion, not Jesus. This doctrine which says that God is love and yet has allowed a course to run in which almost all of those He created will be ultimately estranged from Him is NOT sound doctrine, it does not bring peace to the soul, it TERRORIZES people! And it is perhaps the greatest lie Satan has ever perpetrated on this planet.

I asked this question earlier, in the dream post. What are we, indeed, to make of a God who is Love but who condemns millions--billions--of His created souls to everlasting torment in hell? The notion of an eternal hell, a lake of fire if you will, is a great contradiction in teachings of Christianity. How can we love our neighbors and turn the other cheek if we're being taught that the Blessed will be saddened "Not in the least" (Martin Luther) by seeing their loved ones tormented in hell?

What kind of religion of love produced this:

St. Thomas Aquinas: "That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks to God for it, a perfect sight of punishment of the damned is granted them."

Peter Lombard: "Therefore the elect shall go forth…to see the torments of the impious, seeing which they will not be grieved, but will be satiated with joy at the sight of the unutterable calamity of the impious."

Jonathan Edwards: “The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven.”

John Calvin: "There are babies a span long in hell."

J.I. Packer, writing in Christianity Today in 2002: "...love and pity for hell's occupants will not enter our hearts."

That's not a religion of love! That's a religion of hatred! Of glorying in the damnation of others! That right there, that kind of talk, that is what leads to hatred here on Earth, leads to people supposing themselves good Christians seeking to destroy all those who don't believe as they do! And the men who wrote those lines supposed themselves great Christians, great leaders of the faithful.

It's this doctrine, this doctrine that hell is real and final and that seeing souls tormented there will please the holy, this doctrine has spread so much hatred and wrath in the Earth--in the real, actual Earth, that we're stuck with right now no matter what comes next.

Compare against the Buddha, who said that because death means nothingness, no more consciousness, then the current life is all we have. Thus we must seek enlightenment in this lifetime, and thus we must do good and have mercy, and seek to ease the suffering of all those who share the Earth with us, because we all have just this short time. Life is suffering! Life is dissatisfying! But it is so for all people, and so we must each work to reduce the suffering of our brothers. What a great message!

And look again at Christ's message: turn the other cheek! Repent! Love they neighbor, and do not speak badly about him. Watch your tongue, only speak positively or not at all; engage in right works, have charity, be kind to all others, show them the light. Teach them of God's mercy and love. Overcome your enemies with love, as Christ overcame his enemies with love; lo, for Christ overcame even the grave with love. Christ didn't teach us to slay the wicked, he told us to love them and teach them. The Bible doesn't include any reference to "babies a span long in hell;" indeed, it may not even reference what we think of as hell.

MT 15:13-14, ...Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be rooted up, so ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind...
Not everyone who comes saying they know the word of God really knows, not everyone who teaches in the name of God teaches God's word.
MT 15:9, Their worship is a farce, for they replace God's commands with their own human teachings.
So much of religion is a human construct, it's tempting at times, especially for me, to say ALL of it is. But worship that ignores or cherry-picks parts from God's teachings is a farce. And worship that creates new layers not evident in God's teachings--babies a span long in hell, for instance, or indeed even the lake of fire itself--is worse still, not just a farce, but a man-made construct applied onto God's teachings by a preacher who doesn't think God's word is enough to win converts on its own.

That's the greatest damnation right there, people who feel they must add something else onto God's teaching to win people to the faith, because God wasn't good enough until they came along. Limbo, which Benedict XVI recently abrogated, is a good example. People asking questions about God wondered what became of unbaptized babies, so Catholic theologians created the idea of limbo, which has no scriptural basis. They added on to God's religion because it wasn't good enough on its own. How arrogant is that? It's the concept of Limbo that led to John Calvin's baby quote I've repeated here. Calvin was rejecting the Catholic creation of Limbo for what it was, a human farce, but he erred by insisting on something that Jesus certainly never said, that doesn't come from the Bible itself. Hell? Translated from "sheol" and "hades," both words meaning nothing more than "hidden" or "covered up" and both referring to the grave. What happens after death? You go to sheol--you are hidden, covered up, and we don't know any more beyond that.

Funny, mystical Talmudic Judaism and all that, but here they were thousands of years ago admitting that frankly, after you die, you go to sheol, the hidden place, and that's all there is to say about that. Indeed, let's go right back to Genesis, where God said that the penalty for eating from the tree of knowledge was death, not eternal damnation in a lake of fire. (I don't read Genesis literally and believe in evolution, but I like this part of Genesis a great deal because not only does it show God threatening Adam with death rather than eternal damnation, it shows God giving Adam a choice--God gave Adam free will from minute one.)

How about Cain and Abel? Cain was banished, not sent to an eternal lake of fire and damnation. Cain and Abel is a parable and not a literal story (in my view), but if the writer seeking to teach from this parable also wanted to teach about eternal damnation, why would he simply have Cain banished? Hell is a recent invention, not ancient at all. Indeed, the Mosaic Law in Deuteronomy and Leviticus discusses blessings to come in this life, on this Earth, and curses that may come in this life, on this Earth. The penalty for disobeying God's commandments wasn't eternal torture in hell, it was real. It was present, and it was handed down by judges who's job was to determine what you had done wrong, and punish you in accordance with the law laid down by God. This is all very earthly stuff, and there's no mention of eternal damnation here.

The Jews burned children alive in the valley of the son of Hinnom (ga ben Hinnom, Gehenna in Greek, a place name that would later be translated as "hell") to appease their god Molech. God says in Jeremiah 32:35 that such a thing never even entered His mind. Why would God say that if He intended to--in fact was at that very moment--burn millions of souls in a lake of fire for all eternity? The fact is, the Tanakh has no mention of hell in it at all. It refers to death as sheol, being hidden and covered. It admits that death is unknown and unknowable. It does not claim the existence of hell.

Jesus spoke to listeners well-versed in the Tanakh, with great understanding of what "sheol" meant, and with a long cultural tradition of what ga ben Hinnom (Gehenna) was--a valley where the ancient Jews had sacrificed their children, angering and saddening God. A valley where the Jews had burned hundreds of thousands of the Assyrian invaders, the army of Sennacherib, after God slew them in the night as they laid siege to Jerusalem. A valley that in Jesus' time was a trash dump, a place where the bodies of executed criminals were thrown, where the refuse of the city of Jerusalem was burned. To be sent to Gehenna meant to be utterly wiped away from memory, burned with the garbage and common criminals. It did not have the connotation of eternity, except in the sense of being forgotten. It was a real a present calamity, and a threat that the Jews would have well understood--to be threatened with burning in Gehenna meant being forgotten by all, including God.

That's what hell should be, really, not a lake of pain and torture but the notion of being forgotten forever, never to return. That is what Jesus warned of. If the souls of the blessed will be raised again from the Earth, what will happen to the souls that were condemned? They will be forgotten. They will no longer exist. The blessed won't take comfort in watching the damned writhe in agony; they will have forgotten the damned. They won't remember them at all.

That's my own interpretation of course, and I just warned against that, but it is at the very least closer in my mind to what Jesus actually taught and what his listeners actually understand from their own religious writings than is any lake of fire or any span of babies.

Buddha said death was nothingness. Here we see that sheol also is an unknown end, the grave, being covered, being hidden. Jesus spent time in sheol, where He was hidden, covered, unknowable. When He returned He didn't describe his time in a burning lake of fire. He didn't even describe His time at all. He didn't come back and talk about a bright light, a corridor, meeting all his friends who'd passed away. He didn't bring a message from John the Baptist or Moses. He didn't spend time hanging with His pals. He was hidden. He defeated death and rose again from the grave, and that is sufficient, that is enough. That is all that we need to know. And Jesus' words and actions are consistent with sheol simply being a place of nothingness. What did Jesus do in those three days? He was gone, removed from the Earth, as we must all be. But he came back to show us that it could be done through faith in Him and God.

Here's another good bit. From Isaiah, 46:10, "I will do all my pleasure." God will do everything He wants to do. He is God, after all. 55:11-12, "It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit. It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it. You will live in joy and peace..." And what is it God wants to do? Ezekiel, 33:11, "As surely as I live, says the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live." If God will do all He pleasures, and he wants everyone to live and does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, why would hell exist? Why would God, who created everything, create a place for the wicked to be tormented for all eternity if He doesn't take any pleasure in that? Why, also, would any Christian theologian exclaim that the righteous would take pleasure in seeing the torment of the wicked, if God Himself would not? What were these people smoking?

Indeed, continuing on in Ezekiel 33, God notes that He will destroy those who are wicked, and again that the wicked shall surely die. Die, be destroyed. They will not rise again from sheol, in other words, but where does God say here that He will torment them eternally in a lake of fire? Why would he do that? He just got through telling them he wants them all to come to Him, and if that is what He wants then surely in time He will cause it to happen.

You may think me crazy. But I'd like to see concrete scriptural evidence for hell as envisioned by Calvin and others. Instead I see Isaiah noting (53:11) that Christ's salvation would be satisfying to God: When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of what he has experienced, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins."

Even in Isaiah 66:22-24, the Lord does not threaten the unrighteous with eternal suffering. Their bodies will lie in a ditch, and the worms that eat them will never die, and the fire that burns them will never go out. The bodies will lie there, and all who pass by will be horrified (they certainly won't rejoice and find comfort in watching the bodies of the unrighteous burn). That certainly speaks to the notion that God will indeed destroy those who turn against Him, but it doesn't make any claims about lakes of eternal fire.

Hell is a human construction, a human notion, used by humans to frighten other humans into behaving in a certain way, a way that for many hundreds of years allowed the vast majority to live in grinding poverty while the privileged few grew fat off their work, all while claiming to glorify God. Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called "God is not great: how religion poisons everything." I agree with the latter clause, because we humans create religion and use it to exert power over others, even to the point of breaking the rules of the religion we created. God, on the other hand, is surely Great, if we could just get around to finally living as He suggested, instead of using Him as a sword and a ram to slay and batter those around us.

1 comment:

Sholom said...

If the beatified can find within themselves the ability to gloat at the punishment of the damned, then they are not truly righteous.

בנפול אוייבך לא תשמח - Do not rejoice when your enemy falls. (Bible, somewhere-or-another; definitely in the Old Testament, probably Psalms or Proverbs.)