Search This Blog

Monday, March 19, 2012

Views of Hell - Part 3

I do not think it is entirely too presumptuous to say that the conditional/annihilationist view of Hell situates itself upon the premise of being prima facie more compatible with the Christian conception of an all-loving God. Though this view also boasts its own scriptural support, such support is largely secondary (or tertiary) in respect to the views compatibleness with logic and Christian notions of love and justice. This is not to say that the other views operate apart from expressed notions of logic, merely that the C/A view requires less logical epicycles in order to arrive at its conclusions.

The issue primarily turns upon the notion of infinity or eternality. The seemingly temporal crime of unbelief, under a traditional view of Hell, is to be met with an ostensibly cruel and infinitely long punishment of conscious torment. While no C/A opponent denies that hell exists—to them it is an unquestionable reality—all of them question the nature of hell. The horrific scene of everlasting suffering of body and soul, where the plight of the damned brings ecstatic delight to the ascended saints who behold it, is untenable for a mind committed to mercy, love and divine justice. The scene that proponents of the C/A view reject is nowhere more potently expressed then by the revered 18th century protestant theologian, Jonathan Edwards:

Hell is a spiritual and material furnace of fire where its victims are exquisitely tortured in their minds and in their bodies eternally, according to their various capacities, by God, the devils, and damned humans including themselves, in their memories and consciences as well as in their raging, unsatisfied lusts, from which place of death God’s saving grace, mercy, and pity are gone forever, never for a moment to return.

Scriptural Support for Conditional/Annihilationist view of Hell

Proponents of this view argue that the traditional view of the nature of hell is simply unscriptural and logically impractical. They do not deny the reality of hell (as many Universalists do) or that the ultimately impenitent sinners will indeed suffer there, they simply assert that the most theologically coherent, scripturally cogent interpretation of hell is that of final destruction rather than endless torture. You see brief shimmers of this idea in C.S. Lewis’ approach to hell when he refers to it as the “outer rim where being fades away into nonentity.” That is to say, Hell is not a new beginning of immortal, torturous existence, but a phasing into nothingness.

The Old Testament lays the groundwork for the vision of Hell that is portrayed in the New Testament. Firstly, it typically refers to Hell as a place of final destruction (see Psalm 37). Hell in the OT was translated Sheol (literally grave). The conveyed idea was absolute death and nonexistence. Isaiah 5:14 portrays it as Death itself with mouth wide open:

So Death will open up its throat, and open wide its mouth; Zion’s dignitaries and masses will descend into it, including those who revel and celebrate within her.
Jesus was not light on the topic of Hell and was potent in his warnings regarding it. He was, however, not explicit regarding the details. What we do see echoed in Jesus and other New Testament writers is the same idea of Hell as destruction and absolute death. For instance Jesus warned that we should fear God because he is the one who can destroy both body and soul in Hell (Matt. 10:28). Jesus was no doubt harkening back to the words and sentiment of John the Baptist who envisioned the impenitent wicked as chaff about to be burned (Matt 3:10, 12). The imagery is familiar, as Jesus also warned something similar in Matthew 5:30 when he referred to the wicked being thrown (as garbage) into the fire. This illustrious imagery resonated with the original audience as it was in reference to the valley outside of Jerusalem where sacrifices were given to Moloch and where garbage burned during the time of Jesus. The image of weeds or garbage being burned was a common one (Matt. 13:30, 42, 49-50), and it is hard to imagine how the original audience could interpret such imagery as representative of eternal suffering. Weeds burned up and were no more. Thus, this imagery seems to indicate the final destruction of the wicked by God.

Paul was less illustrious and more direct in his proclamation of hell as final destruction:

2 Thessalonians 1:9: They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (See also Gal. 6:8.)
1 Corinthians 3:17: If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (See also Phil. 1:28.)

Paul was clear that Hell was a place of ultimate termination of life. It was the finality of death, the permanency of destruction. Paul stated this clearly when he spoke of the destination of the wicked thusly: “Their destiny is destruction” (Phil 3:19). This sentiment is not unique to Jesus and Paul, but is expressed all throughout scripture. Peter even says that false teachers who have denied the Lord bring upon themselves “swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1, 3). Peter speaks of the “destruction of godly men” in 2 Peter 3:7, seemingly echoing the same Pauline sentiment that hell is not a place of eternal conscious torment, but rather of swift and everlasting termination.

Philosophical Roots for the Traditional View of Hell

It seems absurd to believe that there is no valid basis for interpreting Hell as a place of final and permanent destruction of the human person. In fact, the argument against this view typically stems, not from a scriptural standpoint, but an early Hellenized philosophical stand point. The view of the immortality of the soul is deeply rooted in early Greek philosophy. This view had a prominent influence on the early Christian understanding of the soul and has continued to survive through the ages. Naturally, this belief has provided the lens for how Hell is interpreted. If the soul is necessarily immortal, then there could be no such destruction of personhood in Hell, as the annihilationist is suggesting. As I believe any earnest study of the Bible will show, there is no such understanding of the natural immortality of the soul to be found. God’s gift of eternal life has always been a gift, and if we relegate it to necessity, we have, perhaps, denigrated this gift and have wrongly assumed that we are naturally immortal.

The Pros and Criticism of the Annihilationist/Conditional view

The pros of the annihilationist view are many. First, it is a more viable view in relationship with our common sensibilities as human beings. It makes more sense considering our notions of divine Justice and Love. Furthermore, it presents earnest seekers with a viable alternative to the either/or dichotomy between the traditional view of Hell and Universalism. The vileness of the traditional view of hell is a weapon in the hands of enemies to the Christian faith and has, in many ways, silenced sensitive Christians on the topic all together.

The traditional view would criticize the C/A view as not interpreting the imagery of Hell in a literal sense. Moreover, others argue that the conditional view of immortality inaccurately interprets the passages that interpret hell as death and destruction, pointing to passages like Hebrews 9:27-28, that illustrate judgment happening AFTER death (meaning, of course, that it cannot be assumed that death itself is judgment). The aforementioned criticism, however, may miss the point that the Annihilationist is actually making. Proponents do not refer to death of the physical body itself as judgment, but that hell itself, as second death, is not the cessation of the physical body but the absolute destruction of the human soul.

Clark Pinnock, an outspoken advocate of the C/A view, reflected on this issue of why the doctrine of Hell is continually being questioned:
In a recent book defending the traditional view of the nature of hell, Robert Morey complains that in every generation people keep questioning the orthodox belief in everlasting conscious torment, even though the basis for it has been laid out time and again in books like this. The explanation for this is simple: Given the cruelty attributed to God by the traditional doctrine, it is inevitable that sensitive Christians would always wonder if the doctrine is true.
I think Pinnock makes a valid point. And perhaps he's also right that the best alternative to the traditional notions of Hell is the C/A view, given that it accomplishes what the metaphorical view tried to do, yet still maintains a view of hell's actual existence, defending it against the scripturally untenable Universalism. 

A Thought on Seminary

I am in seminary. And I have a few problems with it. Many seminaries, far from being factories of the unity and ecumenism they preach, are mills of division, equipping their students with sharpened stones to kill and dissect scripture and study its entrails like ancient haruspices. Teachers and students alike, froth at the mouth and slobber over the theological pedants of antiquity some of whom are self-righteous and hypocritical prigs, others are redeeming lights whose actions in history are studied and admired but not replicated, at least by students of higher theology. In our punctilious pretensions as learned seminarians, we mock and defame less educated Christians as “fundamentalists” (a term that has irreparably condescending connotations thanks to its continued pejorative use among “intellectuals” or liberal Christians). What makes this all the worse is that in the same hypocritical-breath we praise unity and call for a utopian ecumenism. 

The only fault of fundamentalists is that they simply draw a line in the proverbial sand and maintain that they will yield not an inch more to modernity and its holy empiricism. In many ways, such a high view and commitment to scripture and an unyielding faith against the forces of scientific pretension takes more strength and religious fervency than those more liberal Christians who have yielded all to modernity and postmost-modernity and sacrificed faith upon the secular alter of decadence and decline. Many so called fundamentalists love Jesus very much and are zealously working to mitigate social ills and are bound by conscious and scripture to alleviate the suffering of the poor and marginalized. This is not to say that fundamentalists are not wrong on many theological points, it is only to say that these differences should not be considered so polarizing.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

John Wesley and Calvinism

I am not a Methodist but I do have a deep appreciation for its founder, John Wesley. There is nothing that pleases me more than his sharp critiques of the Calvinistic notions of predestination and other consequences of Calvinistic assumptions. Let me give a brief overview of Calvinism for those not familiar with the theological distinctions:

Classical Calvinism is marked by a strict adherence to five primary theological points, acronymically presented as TULIP. To skip only to one of these points would do injustice to that point, given that all five points are logically tethered to one another. The first point is known as (T) Total Depravity. This depravity marks man's total inability to do good apart from God. We are dead in our sin. This inability logically inhibits our ability to respond to God's gracious sacrifice. Therefore, (U) God's Unconditional Election is necessary for salvation. God must choose, before the foundation of the world, the inheritors of salvation – implicitly dooming all others to hell by virtue of their non-election. Of course, the non-elect need not be efficaciously involved in the sacrifice of Jesus, leading to a (L) Limited Atonement, an atonement made only for those who were chosen. Given humankind's total inability to respond, those who were chosen and efficaciously involved in the atonement must also be unavoidably drawn to God by way of God's (I) Irresistible Grace. The four aforesaid points inevitably culminate in the (P) Perseverance of the Saints. That is to say, those who are chosen and drawn will never lose their salvation since such salvation is wholly a property of God's work and not humankind's.

When refuting Calvinist doctrines of particularism, he avoided analytical or philosophically sophisticated approaches in favor of analogical ones – making his work accessible to less sophisticated crowds. For instance, in a renowned summary of his views, Predestination Calmly Considered, Wesley said the following:

Our blessed Lord does indisputably command and invite 'all men everywhere to repent' [Acts 17:30]... But now, in what manner do you represent him while he is employed in this work? You suppose him to be standing at the prison doors, having the keys thereof in his hands, and to be continually inviting the prisoners to come forth, commanding them to accept of that invitation, urging every motive which can possibly induce them to comply with that command; adding the most precious promises, if they obey; the most dreadful threatenings, if they obey not. And all this time you suppose him to be unalterably determined in himself never to open the doors for them, even while he is crying, 'Come ye, come ye, from that evil place. For why will ye die, O house of Israel' [cf. Ezek. 18:31]... Alas, my brethren, what kind of sincerity is this which you ascribe to God our Saviour?
The aforesaid is a prime example of the heart of Wesley's criticism of Calvinism. Wesley was certainly willing to embrace tensions and mystery in regard to the character of God (I am thinking the Trinity and hypostasis). He was not willing, on the other hand, to accept the deplorable human contrivance of the insincerity of God. Like the above analogy, how in the world can we imagine that God both sincerely begs for us to escape from sin's prison all while he is unilaterally holding the door (from which we would escape) shut.
Wesley found himself in the midst of a dynamic but strong Calvinistic theology in England. Calvinism became a battle point within Wesley’s own ranks and even his close friendships (e.g. George Whitefield).Wesley's understanding of salvation is particularly well attested because of his criticism of Calvinistic soteriology (understanding of salvation). Moreover, Wesley does not mask his vituperative disgust for what he considers blasphemous doctrines. Indeed, in Wesley's famous sermon, Free Grace, he retorts that Calvinism,
...destroys all [God's] attributes at once: It overturns both his justice, mercy, and truth; yea, it represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust. More false; because the devil, liar as he is, hath never said, "He willeth all men to be saved:" More unjust; because the devil cannot, if he would, be guilty of such injustice as you ascribe to God, when you say that God condemned millions of souls to everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, for continuing in sin, which, for want of that grace he will not give them, they cannot avoid: And more cruel; because that unhappy spirit "seeketh rest and findeth none;" so that his own restless misery is a kind of temptation to him to tempt others.[1]
Wesley was intuitively aware of the a priori presuppositions that propelled Calvinism, namely particularism and an unconditional notion of salvation. It is these assumptions that dictate how a Calvinist reads the Bible, consequently leading to interpretations that seem unaligned with plain readings of the text. Wesley illumined these presuppositions when he said:
Indeed, the two latter points, irresistible grace and infallible perseverance, are the natural consequence of the former, of the unconditional decree. For if God has eternally and absolutely decreed to save such and such persons, it follows, both that they cannot resist his saving grace, (else they might miss of salvation,) and that they cannot finally fall from that grace which they cannot resist. So that, in effect, the three questions come into one, "Is predestination absolute or conditional?" The Arminians believe, it is conditional; the Calvinists, that it is absolute.[2]
Wesley challenged the presuppositions of an absolute and unconditional predestination based on the very language of biblical revelation. Wesley insists that biblical language, with its warnings and conditional imperatives, simply does not permit the Calvinist hermeneutic. He further challenges this doctrine on the bases of what it does to the image of God. It turns Jesus into, “ ...[a] hypocrite, a deceiver of the people, a man void of common sincerity.[3]” If God superimposes His will upon your own – if ever you had a will of your own – it seems more like a form of cosmic rape than it does an act of goodness. For Wesley, then, it was a holistic understanding of scripture and God's relational interaction with humankind that informed his assumptions. While, quite oppositely, it seems certain a priori assumptions are what inform Calvinist readings of the text. It was critical assessments like this that did not endear him to his Calvinist contemporaries. In fact, it was sermons like the aforementioned and the feelings held therein that proved to be the proverbial thorn in the side of ecumenical attempts. Nevertheless, Wesley's strong condemnation notwithstanding, he viewed Calvinists as brothers in Christ who merely held to malformed doctrines. And I agree.

1. Wesley's, Free Grace
2. “What is an Arminian?” Works (Jackson)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why I am not a Feminist

I have a 10 year old at home, and she is always saying, “That’s not fair.” When she says that, I say, “Honey, you’re cute; that’s not fair. Your family is pretty well off; that’s not fair. You were born in America; that’s not fair. Honey, you had better pray to God that things don’t start getting fair for you.”
There is no other theory more summarily assumed and imposed by institutions of higher education and mass media than that of egalitarianism (the idea that all people are exactly equal in all respects and distinctive social roles are the unfortunate byproducts of cultural indoctrination). What is important to note is that I do not care if this hypothesis is true. What bugs me particularly is that there is never any material, historical, spiritual or cultural reasons given for believing that it is! This apparently natural human state of general human equality is an assertion as naked as the day we were born. Scientific naturalism certainly gives no reason for believing in such human equality—in fact, there are very good biological reasons for rejecting the hypothesis outright. There are no anthropological or cultural reasons for believing it –some gynocentric claims of a mythical prehistory notwithstanding. Spiritually, as a Christian, I am compelled to believe that persons are of equal worth and essence through the power of the living Christ. I am not similarly compelled, however, to believe that this equality of worth translates into an equality of functionality. I prefer the idea of diversity, the idea that sees the homogenization of cultures into a politically correct equalitarian state as preposterous and morally wrong.

Life is not fair, or equal. So if you make claims to metaphysical entitlements that are manifestly illusory, then it is your own fault when you are met with reality.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bye, Bye Religious Liberty...

The measure was among the most sweeping of several congressional efforts to broaden the current religious exemption in the birth control rule, which only fully exempts explicitly religious organizations such as churches from its requirement that worker health plans include contraceptive coverage with no out-of-pocket charges.
Many opponents of the Blunt amendment suggest that contraceptive pills are a fundamental right of health that cannot be impeded by religious liberty in a privatized healthcare system. That sort of thinking is operating at the height of stupidity. If a Catholic hospital was charitably formed and founded upon specifically catholic principles, it is unadulterated arrogance and is the very antithesis of freedom and liberty to suggest that they must defy their longstanding beliefs to cower to the whims of a frivolous, totalitarian state. There is absolutely no legal precedence that would allow the government to mandate doctors to defy their religious convictions, unless of course they went through the necessary steps of amending the constitution to appeal the constitutionally protected rights listed in the 1st amendment.

I don’t have some vested interest for or against contraception, I generally just don’t care. I do, however, have a genuine interest in human freedom. There will be no shortage of contraception available for those who need it from institutions that do not have a specific, longstanding doctrine against it. Get over it.