Where do our ideas about hell come from?
Jesus' teaching about hell flipped popular imagery of the afterlife upside down—and offered a radical, transformative vision of God.
This year we are presenting the Raven Award on Nov. 12 to Kevin Miller for his documentary with a question for a title: Hellbound?. Autocorrect doesn’t like the question mark, especially when it’s followed by a period, but I’m glad Kevin used it. Because the idea of hell raises all kinds of questions, particularly about the relationship of God to sin. (For Adam, it raises questions about God’s justice – read his reflections here.) For me, the idea of hell raises questions about punishment, like these:
Does God punish sin in this life and if so, how?
Does God punish unrepentant sinners in the next life with eternal suffering?
These questions have corollaries, of course:
Does God reward the righteous in this life and if so, how?
Does God reward a life of righteousness with eternal bliss?
This is going to be a problem. This chapter on faith and science and quantum mechanics is going to be a problem. Why? Well, because this faith and science thing has been done to death. Did you know that the Vatican has an observatory and that one of the authors of Red Shift Theory was a Jesuit? Yep. The famed Scopes Monkey Trial was more than a century ago and those of us in the Protestant Mainline have long ago made peace with it. The Vatican apologized for the oppression of scientists, most specifically it said that Galileo was right. Scientific inquiry and Biblical interpretation are not the same thing. So what's Rob's purpose for this chapter?
Well, it's manifold. He's an evangelical. He's writing in some ways to other evangelicals, specifically those who have felt cut off from the tradition. Here in the States, the classic evangelical line holds echoes of the arguments used during the Scopes Monkey Trial. Some in that Christian tradition are still fighting that fight. Heck, some progressives are, too. Powerful (if false) dichotomies have been established.
Yesterday, I discussed some of the historical bases for our contemporary understanding of Satan. Today, I’ll consider how hell evolved as part of the Christian faith.
In Old Testament scripture, the resting place for the dead is called Sheol. While some believe this is the same as hell, there are indications to the contrary. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Sheol is a place of rest for both righteous and wicked, with no distinction.
Not everyone is happy about it either.
In the third chapter of Malachi, the prophet recognizes the consternation of faithful Jews who are frustrated that the wicked share the same fate. In Ecclesiastes, the priest Koheleth claims that serving God is vanity. For him, the fact that the righteous are treated the same as the wicked and vice-versa should be a call to eat, drink and be merry.
With respect to any relationship between Satan in the Old Testament and Sheol, there is none.
(I was invited to take part in a debate about hell at a university recently, but unfortunately, the dates don’t work with my schedule this time. But since it’s an interesting topic, and one about which many folks have questions, I thought I’d share a couple of short essays I’ve written on the subject.)
While Jonathan Edwards wasn’t the first to preach about hell and condemnation, his ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ sermon in 1741 crystallizes the beginning of a modern movement in the church. Edwards employed fear of punishment as a primary means for conversion and doctrinal adherence. Meanwhile, his congregants fainted in the aisles and clung to the pews to avoid being dragged down into the abyss.
We can argue day and night about whether fear-based theology is effective, biblically accurate, or even necessary. But it’s worthwhile to consider where our contemporary ideas about hell and Satan even come from.
Today, we’ll begin with Satan; we’ll save hell for tomorrow.
Superstorm Sandy left behind an indelible image of the future.
I first heard about the movie “Hellbound?” (coming out this fall) at Wild Goose Festival. They were offering an advance screening of the movie, and although I was just passing by the tent at the time, the subject matter stopped me where I was. A thoughtful, well-researched, accessible discussion about the history, purpose, and prospects of hell in Christian theology?
The film opens with reflections on September 11th, including a 10-year anniversary memorial event at the site. And as would be expected, the infamous picketers from Westboro Baptist Church were there, complete with signs bearing slogans like “Thank God for 9/11″ and, of course, “God Hates Fags.” The movie progresses to, let’s say, more educated points of view, focusing more on the front end on those who advocate for a real hell that is populated with innumerable souls experiencing eternal conscious torment.
But then the movie breaks off from the oft-quoted pro-hell camp and considers the social and historical backdrop for hell, as well as extensive screen time for the doubters and skeptics about the reality of such a place. Folks offering counters to the “traditional” evangelical view of hell include Brian McLaren, Frank Schaeffer, and an Eastern Orthodox priest, all offering fascinating tidbits meant to expand our understanding of where this modern-day understanding of hell even came from, let alone whether we claim a God who would send people there.
The film picks up on the recent media buzz generated by Rob Bell's controversial bestselling-book Love Wins, taking that debate into new levels of intelligence and depth.
Like any good documentary, we have the entertaining attention grabbing parts, which aren't hard to find when your topic is Hell and damnation:
We meet people at a death metal concert, take a tour through "Hell House" where actors attempt to traumatize teens into the kingdom by reenacting scenes from Columbine. Then there are the street interviews with the rather obviously mentally unstable and angry folks from Fred Phelps' church, holding their "God Hates Fags" signs and screaming at anyone who passes by.
The movie quickly moves beyond this however, delving into the deeper issues at hand. Unlike so many other Christian films, Hellbound? is neither sentimental nor sensationalist. The word that comes to mind instead is depth.
After writing up my first list of Ten Cliches Christians Should Never Use, some folks wrote me with other suggestions. After simmering on it for a while, I came up with a second list of ten to supplement the first.
And as there was some confusions from a handful of fellow Christians about the intent of the articles: these are not intended to tell you to believe or not believe a certain set of things. Christians have a Public Relations problem; that much is self-evident. So in as much as I can respond to that, I want to offer these as advice on how to change the way we approach people about our faith.
On to the next ten cliches for Christians to avoid …