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Monday, February 13, 2012

Views of Hell - Part 2

Our next view is in many ways birthed out of Christian antipathy towards the Literal Orthodox View of Hell as a place where human persons are burned in fire for a literal eternity. Many disillusioned Christians and genuine seekers wondered how, if Heaven is supposed to be a perfect place where tears will never again find reason to swell and pour and hearts will never again be burdened with sorrow, they could possibly be at ease when they would know full well that many of those they loved and cherished are in the depths of unrelenting flames. In the comment section of the first series post on Hell, I wrote the following:
To go to a burn unit and see the abject suffering and dismal pain endured by souls no less human than my own. To see eyes that cannot shut, or ones that will never open again. To see hearts that long for death to alleviate the paroxysms of agony that their afflictions bear upon them with ruthless persistence. I don’t care what skeletons are in the closets of those who suffer such anguish, my heart weeps for them! Yet to imagine that an ineffable amount of human souls whose inevitable crimes against a perfect God are to be met with nothing short of this, and perhaps much worse, for a literal eternity, seems sadistic. Where tears are formed just at witnessing such temporal anguish, what heart could bear it for infinity?
If in heaven I am no longer moved to sorrow by the suffering of human persons, I wonder how in any real way I would still be myself, and in fact, how I could still be considered loving.

The Metaphorical View of Hell

How pervasive the vanity of man, that he would so defile the sanctity and sovereignty of Scripture by replacing its clear meaning with the allegorical machinations of a clearly fallen and fallible mind. Or by letting their emotions dictate meaning when reason is against them… Or at least that is what I imagine many think when even the word metaphor is used in conjunction with the word (or any variation of the word) Scripture. I mean, if God really wanted for us to know something, why not just flat out say it? Right?

Unfortunately (at least for those who are of the aforesaid persuasion), the Bible is rife with illustrious metaphors (e.g. Isaiah 28:8; John 4:14; 7:37; 2 Pet. 2:17), profound parables (e.g. Matt. 5:14-6; 7:24-27, 9:16,17; 13:3-23) and intense hyperboles (Matt. 18:9; Luke 9:60; 14:26). From the mythopoetic imagery of the first chapter of Genesis, traveling through the incredibly touching allegorical and anthropomorphic images in the psalms, all the way to the bizarre and at times grotesque imagery of John’s Revelation, metaphor has been one of the Bible’s constant companions. To deny this is to in many ways to deny the Bible outright.

But what has this got to do with Hell? A lot, I think. As the early Princeton scholar, Charles Hodge, commented:

There seems no more reason for supposing that the fire spoken of in scripture is to be a literal fire, than that the worm that never dies is literally worm.
Ironically, one will find that one of the most famous and outspoken early reformers and prolific and talented exegetes, John Calvin, a firm proponent of scriptural authority, would have agreed with Hodge's later-made comment. I do not very much like Calvin, but it is a note worth making.

Of course, we should not affirm a metaphorical view of Hell simply because it conforms better with our sensibilities, as I think this does, in fact, undermine scriptures authority (a problem anticipated by an earlier commenter). But having a high view of scripture is not tantamount to believing that everything the Bible says is literally true, as this does horrible injustices to some of the rich parables and metaphors employed by the biblical authors. What we know is that early Jewish rabbis would employ hyperbole in order to make clear the urgency and importance of certain points. Among scholars, this is simply referred to as rabbinic hyperbole. It seems probable that Jesus was fond of using this common rabbinical device, as evidenced in Matthew 5:29:

If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
Now this has some radical implications if we take it literally! (As Origen did!) First, it assumes that it is the parts of the body responsible for the crime that are uniquely in need of punishment, rather than the person who brought that part into motion. Secondly, it assumes we should be chopping away at our bodies. We would be dead very quickly if we did not rightly recognize this as hyperbole and metaphor! (Similar hyperbole can be seen in Matthew 7:5; 19:24; Mark 6:23; 11:23; Luke 9:60; 14:6.)

Having distinct theological precedent for metaphor and rabbinical hyperbole in the New Testament, it remains a distinct possibility that such vehicles of meaning are being employed to deliver the message of Hell, and those with a Literal Orthodox view of Hell have simply mistaken the medium of the message (hyperbole, metaphor) as the message itself. The most obvious reason for thinking that the images of Hell are used to draw attention to the severity of God’s punishment against the wicked and not the actual existential features of Hell itself is that there is conflicting language used to describe Hell in the New testament. Not only is it described as fire, but it is described as darkness too (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; 2 Peter 2:17; Jude 14). Luke 12:47 also describes hell as a place where they are beaten with many blows. Either Hell is a place of pitch blackness, an unquenchable lake of sulfuric fire, endless and actual bodily beatings, where the maggots that feed on you are immortal and of course, ceaseless weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or, instead, all these images may culminate in the ultimate meaning that Hell is a grim and severe reality.

Criticism of this View

What is unique about this view is its versatility with other views. The metaphorical view, for instance, is a springboard for conditional or annihilationist views of Hell, that, like the metaphorical view, see literalism as a part of the problem. This means that criticisms of the metaphorical view will have to be specific to the subtypes of this view (yes, there are a lot of views on Hell!). For instance, many who hold to a metaphorical view of hell still believe that Hell is a place of conscious and everlasting punishment – they simply make no claims to the nature of the punishment. The criticism of this view is that it may not even be an improvement from the Literal orthodox view. How do we know that this eternal, conscious punishment is not something just as bad, or worse, then the view it seeks to oppose? For instance, the theologian J. I. Packer warns:

…the mistake is to take such pictures [of Hell] as physical descriptions, when in fact they are imagery symbolizing realities… far worse than the symbols themselves.
This, then, is hardly an improvement. There are some who are more than willing to bite the bullet on this issue and accept that Hell is as the literal orthodox view (and some strands of the metaphorical view) explains, and agree that Christians will witness their suffering from Heaven and rejoice. One professor puts it this way:
Once we see the glory of Christ and the hideous nature of sin as God sees it, hell will be understandable. If my own mother were being carried to the mouth of hell, I would stand and applaud.
If this logic is sufficient for some, let it rest were it does and may nothing further be said about it. As for the other criticisms, they will have to be made against some of our other views that require this metaphorical foundation.

More forthcoming in the next part of the series…