Posted: Oct 08, 2013 8:02 pm
by Byron
Will's curiosity is hereby satisfied!

My introduction ties hell back to Jesus of Nazareth, followed by a statement of why heaven and hell are irrational, illustrated by Calvinism and Arminianism, universalism, and heresy burnings. The conclusion lays down the challenge for the rebuttal. And boy, what a challenge it is.

To Gehenna With You

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire.

I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehenna?

There's more, much more.

These specimen counts, one from each synoptic gospel (Mark 9:43, Luke 12:4-5, Matthew 23:33), serve to illustrate the point. Jesus of Nazareth, ground zero of Christianity, is recorded as believing in the fires of Gehenna, the origin of Christianity's hell. It's unsurprising. As Dale Allison notes*, the language of the apocalyptic prophet was the language of extremes, the language of judgment and damnation. Yes, the church could have inserted the hellfire-sermons into Jesus' mouth (if this tack is taken, it cedes biblical reliability, and is thus a self-defeating argument from an orthodox perspective), or Jesus could have been wrong and still divine (calling into question the Incarnation). The first option is possible (and the second is beyond the scope of historiography), but the third is the more probable. Jesus likely spoke in this way. It fits.

Jesus, being a self-proclaimed herald of Adonai's judgment by fire, wasn't concerned with building internally-coherent theological systems. Waste of time when the God of Moses was about to remake the world into paradise. Adonai was perfect. He would judge who he would judge, by his own standards, which account to no mortal person. Where were we when God made the Leviathan? We are Job, standing wretched and in awe of God's power, and we don't get to question the heavenly bossman. Slaves don't get a vote.

Yet here we stand. The eschaton never happened, and Christianity's been left with 2,000 years to rationalize Jesus' doomsday preaching, an exercise as pointless as trying to rationalize hate or desire.

Christianity's pillars have crashed to the ground under the burden of their structural flaws. Its doctrine of salvation is all that remains.

Let's finish this.

Salvation Woes

Hell is irrational, for the reason that what precedes us has been irrational: it contradicts the rest of Christianity's claims.

Christian orthodoxy tells us that God in Christ is all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing. It also claims that this omniscient and omnipotent God of love deliberately created billions of human lives with the foreknowledge that they would be tortured for eternity. By him. Hell, we are told, exists at God's pleasure. He chose to create it, as he chose to create beings that he knew would fall short of his merciless code of justice, cast adrift by his imperfect salvation plan of performing a blood sacrifice of himself to himself. The potter is responsible for the pot.

Since the mechanism of salvation is irrational, heaven is taken out along with hell.

If the orthodox picture of hell is correct, God is worse than Satan. At least the Devil is acting under duress. The Trinity has no such excuse. The buck stops at the heavenly throne.

Calvin and Arminius: Cartoon Theology

The mess that Christianity gets itself into by defending the indefensible is illustrated to perfection by these two competing schools of protestant soteriology. Team Calvin sacrifices all on the altar of internal-consistency, and it succeeds, at the price of making God a monster. Arminianism tries to salvage something of God's love, at the cost of incoherence. Neither are compatible with Christianity's wider claims.

The two schools are named after two 16th century theologians: Arminianism, the Dutch theologian Jakob Hermanszoon, Latinized as Jacobus Arminius; Calvinism, the French John Calvin.

The minutiae of these two schools is an excellent alternative to a horse tranquilizer, as are the debates about whether their namesakes believed in them. Here, it'll serve to lay out the basics, and leave the rivet-counting to the theology geeks. They're welcome to it.

Calvinists take the logical route, and say that an all-powerful God decides who to save and who to damn before anyone is born. Double-predestination, as it's called in the jargon of the trade. God is made a consistent psychopath, contradicting the "love personified" stuff most effectively.

Arminianism balks at this, and says that people are responsible for their own fate. Well, sort-of. Various contortions involving God's role in allowing us to make our own choices are worked in. One for the rivet-counters. It doesn't get God in Christ a pass, since he remains all-power. If people are given a choice, it's on terms set by the Almighty, and no person's sin could justify an eternity of fire. In the Arminian framework God's "mercy" is nothing but buck-passing. Always, the potter is responsible for his work.

This is the mess that the doctrine of hell leads to. Is there another way?


For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Paul of Tarsus (Romans 11:32)

Jesus of Nazareth (likely) preached that humanity would be split into the saved and the damned. Paul of Tarsus, Pharisee and convert, preached that all would be saved. His letter to the Romans builds up to a climax in which God redeems all of his people Israel. The above quote isn't cherry-picked: it's the culmination of Paul's argument. He declares that "a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in," and then, "all Israel will be saved." Paul is here operating within the same Jewish apocalyptic framework that Jesus preached from, but his message is taken to a radically different endzone.

The Bible says, plainly, that the damned will be cast into the everlasting fire of Gehenna. It also says, plainly, that all will be saved. It contradicts itself, as well it might, having different authors with different understandings. Another kick in the teeth for "biblical reliability," if one were needed.

Universal salvation is a thread of mercy that's run through Christianity since the beginning. It's not rational, although it fits Christianity's axioms a damn sight better than heaven and hell, but it is a beautiful idea. If the religion had embraced it then perhaps it would have been the force for good that it wants to be, and, in the actions of its finest adherents, on occasion is.

Christianity didn't embrace it. It chose to embrace the harshest edge of Jesus' teaching. Not simply because it was believed to come from his lips, either. Orthodox Christian institutions have set aside all that awkward stuff from the Galilean about selling you goods to feed the poor, embracing peripatetic austerity, being perfect, and following your convictions unto death. No, hell had an appeal that those demands lacked, and it's not an appeal that's rooted in rationality. Heaven and hell, judging your fellow women and men, casting your enemies into fire, that reaches to the darkest part of us. A part of us that's the antithesis of reason.

Paul of Tarsus wasn't immune to this instinct. As E.P. Sanders has noted, Paul wasn't a systematic theologian: he was a charismatic leader, operating on the fly. His letters are inconsistent. Paul does, in what's probably his earliest surviving work, his apocalypse-drenched letter to the Thessalonians, talk of God's wrath -- but by the time of Romans the better part of Paul had won-out. Perhaps the better part of Jesus of Nazareth would have won-out had he not gotten himself killed in the belief that Adonai was about to end history. We'll never know. What we can know, if we let ourselves see it, is that Jesus was a very human man, subject to very human instincts, for good, and for ill. He wasn't God's Word incarnate. He was a man, irrational as all men sometimes are. His preaching of Gehenna made emotional, not rational, sense.

Context casts such different light on things. In the mouth of a disempowered folk-prophet, a belief in Gehenna, that springs from a yearning for justice denied, is sympathetic. It's when Jesus' teaching was fused with the power of Christendom that belief in hellfire fulfilled its terrible potential. Christianity transformed Jesus' cry in the wildness into a mechanism of oppression.

We are back to power. Back to the appeal to the cudgel.

Find Something to Burn

What can we do, there's nothing to do
about sickness and hunger and dying.
What can we do, there's nothing to do
nothing but cursing and crying.
Fine something to burn.
Let it go up in smoke.
Burn your troubles away. ...

Caryl Churchill, Vinegar Tom

How did the saintly Thomas More justify making bonfires of his enemies in the name of the church? By the very quality that lead to him embracing martyrdom and being declared a saint: a dogmatic belief in his ideals. There's no contradiction between the man of conscience and the heretric-hunter. They're one and the same.

Heretics and their writings were burnt as a diseased corpse was burnt: to stop contagion. The scariest thing is that, from More's perspective, lashing people to a pyre and burning them alive made sense. It was, in reality as he saw it, the merciful thing to do. He wasn't a monster. He was doing what he honestly believed to be good. As so many evil men do.

The curious thing isn't why More burnt, but why the church ever stopped.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn't mince its words**:
Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire."

If you honestly and truly believe this, it makes sense to burn the books that contain heresy and the heretics who preach it. What's a moment's agony compared to an eternity of flame?

Yet again, we're confronted with actions that contradict dogma. The modern church doesn't believe what its catechism claims to, not really, or it would be seeking to light the fires still. Vatican City would host the burning of heretics under the protection of the Swiss Guard. It doesn't, because, giving the lie to anti-Catholic hysteria, the church has become a good deal more merciful in practice than its catechism ought to allow, as protestants have stopped hanging witches and "sodomites." Deep down, it balks at the implications of its teaching. It's become better than its supposedly divine revelation should allow. Reason has, in its small way, triumphed over dogma.

The dogma however remains. It is a naked appeal to force. Do what God says or he will torture you for all time. The catechism's justification?
The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny.

They are an "urgent call to conversion." Scaring people into compliance is rational from a viewpoint of amoral institutional survival. It is irrational from a viewpoint that claims God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. The Calvinists' brute logic makes claims that "God is love" meaningless, "love" here stripped of any substantive meaning, reduced to William Lane Craig's Divine Command Theory. Love is whatever God says love is. If God says hell is love, then love it is. If this Humpty Dumpty God exists, he's no more than power, making words mean whatever he says they mean. Not good, just strong.

That isn't the orthodox Christian assertion. It is, however, the inescapable outcome of its doctrine of salvation.

... Sometimes its witches, or what will you choose?
Sometimes its lunatics, shut them away.
It's blacks and it's women and often it's Jews.
We'd all be quite happy if they'd go away.
Find something to burn.
Let it go up in smoke.
Burn your troubles away.


Orthodox Christianity claims that an omnipotent god, who is love and goodness personified, creates sentient creatures with the intention that they are tortured in fire for eternity. If this is so, the words "good" and "evil" are stripped of any substantive meaning, and are reduced to "whatever God says that they mean." Euthyphro is decided squarely in the arbitrary column. We are reduced to cowering before the God of Job, who ruins lives, and slays loved ones, to win a bet with Satan. If such a god exists then rationality is meaningless. Power is all.

The irrationality of the premise is highlighted in the theological trainwreck produced to make it fit together. Every effort is made to strip God of responsibility for his own actions, while simultaneously, forcing humanity to take full responsibility for theirs. The attempts fail. If God in Christ is, as orthodoxy claims, all-power, then everything leads back to him. Hell exists only because God allows it to exist. People are tortured in hell only because God allows them to be tortured. People enter the kingdom of heaven at God's whim. He could, if he wanted, save all. He choses instead to torture many for all time.

Christianity has produced so many attempts to ameliorate hell that it's plain that many Christians are appalled at the implications of their doctrine. The salient thing is that they haven't changed it.

The seeds are there, in the universalism of Paul of Tarsus, and early church fathers like Origen (himself a hair's breadth away from being declared a heretic, albeit for other teaching). Christianity hasn't let them sprout, because to do away with hell would be to do away with dogma, not to mention a useful recruiting sergeant. Christianity's irrationality is again highlighted in its intransigence. It knows that the dogma of hell is wrong, but won't end it, because to do so would be to challenge the power of the church and its claims. Power is what it's about. What it's always been about, ever since the threat of Gehenna fell from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago.

* * *

Will is now tasked with explaining why the Christians' God of love tortures people with fire for all time, for the sin of not believing in him, when God has chosen to create them with that failing.

"Good luck" appears superfluous, but I wish it, all the same.

* Allison, Dale C., "The Problem of Gehenna," Resurrecting Jesus, T&T Clark, 2005
** Catechism of the Catholic Church, IV, Hell