Archives For Love Wins

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you this precis.

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1. Here’s a money quote that all but begs the reader to ponder whether the exclusive practice of adult baptism, premised as it is on human initiative, is absurd:

 

‘The Spirit is present in every action of redemption- completing it, perfecting it- so that to deny the divinity of the Spirit would be to deny the efficacy of one’s own baptism; as only God can join us to God (which is what salvation is), the Spirit who unites us to the Son (who bears us up to the Father) must be God.’

 

2. Often people object to the ancient, patristic doctrine of immutability, that is, the belief that God does not change, by lamenting that any God who does not change as we do is not a God to whom we can relate. More roughly put: ‘I don’t to want love God if God’s not like me.’

Here, DBH channels Gregory of Nyssa, perhaps the most important Church Father, to point out that, far from being an argument against, our mutability is but another sign of God’s immutability:

 

‘In the end, creaturely mutability itself proves to be at once the way of difference from God and the way of union with God. To begin with, change is a means of release from sin; that same changeableness that grants us liberty to turn toward evil allows us also to recover the measure of divine harmony and to become an ever shifting shape of the good, a peaceful cadence of change.

For creatures, who cannot statically comprehend the infinite, progress in the good is the most beautiful work of change, and an inability to change would be a penalty. We are pure movement; the changeable puts on changeless beauty, always thirsting for more of God’s beauty which is changeless because it encompasses all beauty.’

 

3. It’s Reformation Sunday coming up so there’s no better time to lay blame squarely at the feet of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the well-intentioned mis-adventure which held that all of Christian vision should conform to and initiate from scripture solely.

The problem of course is that existence itself begets particular questions of existence (‘metaphysics’) towards which the bible shows little interest but logic (another manifestation of God’s truth) demonstrates to be necessary.

For example, scripture- because its the narrative of a People- speaks often of God’s wrath and violence. However, the logic of creation betrays the unnecessariness and hence gratuity of life itself so God, at bottom, in God’s essence is Goodness/Love itself.

Anyways, here’s DBH weighing in on my side:

‘The God of scripture is infinite precisely as the God who loves and acts, and who can be loved in turn; infinite precisely because he will be what and where he will be. What though does this mean?

What has been said regarding being- and with what measure of coherence- when one has said that God is ‘infinitely determinate’ source of all being, the eternal ‘I Am’?’

This is not a question to be evaded by fideistic, biblicist recoil to some destructive (and largely modern) division between ‘biblical’ and ‘philosophical’ theology; theology that refuses to address questions of ontology can never be more than a mythology, and so must remain deplorably defenseless against serious philosophical criticism.’

 

4. Rob Bell got into a hot water for the wrong thing a few years ago. The heat came when he implied in his book, Love Wins, that the God of Easter Love has neither capacity nor inclination for the eternal torment of Hell. That God comes in the flesh for all is clear; equally clear is that God not ultimately getting all would be defeat not victory.

Rob Bell, though, should’ve caught Hell not for the above assertion but for the fact he shamelessly ripped it off from the ancient Church Fathers.

They believed that all humanity comprises the image of the God who is Trinity therefore salvation must include all of the human community.

Citing them, DBH writes:

‘Redemption is God assuming human nature in order to join it to the divine nature…salvation is that creation has been rescued from sin and death by the divinity that Christ has introduced into the entirety of the common human nature…all humanity is now transfigured in Christ, and is saved through its endless transformation into what God brings near; the human soul, assumed into Christ, is striving ever after, seeking the uncontainable plenitude of God…the salvation of all souls is inevitable because each soul is a changing image of the infinite God; the dynamism of the soul has only God’s absolute, changeless fullness as its source and end, and God’s eternity as its element.’

Scot, who was our Scholar in Residence, a few years ago gave a nice note of praise for my sermon on Hell at his Jesus Creed blog: click here to check it out.

imagesWe finished up our January sermon series, Razing Hell, this weekend, talking about the Second Coming. It’s been a great series from my end. I’ve gotten a ton of emails from folks at church and from around the world via Tamed Cynic.org. It’s reaffirmed for me that people, Christian or not, really do want to think theologically in a way that’s honest, respectful and practical to how they think about their everyday lives.

Case in point:

This weekend Dennis Perry did a masterful job of framing the Second Coming of a promise made by God. God’s made the promise to come again and set things right. Faith isn’t just believing ideas or signing on the dotted line. It’s believing God will keep that promise and orienting our lives, relationships and actions in the world accordingly. That’s a more biblical, I think, and certainly a more relevant way of thinking about the Second Coming than Hal Lindsay getting caught up in trying to read the ‘signs of the times.’

The series is over. We’ve talked about Heaven and Hell and Judgment and the Parousia. And already I’m getting a steady trickle of emails asking me the bottom line question:

Will everyone be saved? Or will some not be?

I’m flattered people think it’s a question I’m in a position to answer since presumably it’s a question only God can answer. My sermon on Hell (Hell is for Real) indicates that ‘No, not all will be saved…because we can freely choose to reject God.’

But admittedly that skirts the issue a bit. How do we think about the issue from God’s end? If no one chooses to reject God, then will everyone be saved?

Here’s my final answer.

It’s a question fraught with tension and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar (or not a very smart theologian). After all, inherent in the question is the tension between God’s gracious omnipotence and God’s merciful refusal to coerce love from his creatures.

Right- if God were willing to coerce the relationship he wanted with us, then the story of scripture could’ve been a hell of a lot shorter. What God wants though is authentic love and relationship and that can’t be forced. Can it be forced after this life ends?

But there’s the tension- logically if God desires love and relationship from us- salvation- then God will get what God wants. To say there is one of us God can’t save makes that person more powerful than God. If God desires loving relationship and God is all-powerful, then God could turn even the most resistant heart towards him.

Which is it?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Not having an answer for everyone else doesn’t change what God wants from you.

It doesn’t change how God made you: to love and desire him and his Kingdom.

Put it another way, Karl Barth’s (one of my Theo-Jedi Masters) way of putting it.

Scripture clearly tells us God came for everyone (John 3).

Scripture clearly tells us God died for all.

Scripture does not tell us that all will be saved.

We can’t say more than what scripture says.

But we can pray for it.

20121222_XHE004_0Some of you asked me that very question after my Hell sermon for our Razing Hell series. I didn’t have time to write up a response and, lucky duck, Scot McKnight beat me to it:

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The almost universal traditional view of hell in the Christian church is that it is a lake of fire, that it will last forever and ever and that the wicked will be conscious and tormented endlessly. So Edward Fudge, in his Hell: A Final Word , sketches what we find in the lake of fire text in Revelation.

The Lake of Fire in Revelation in Revelation 20:14-15

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

First, the lake of fire is probably related to Daniel 7′s river of fire, a fire that destroys evil world leaders (the Beast and the False Prophet).

Second, in Revelation the Beast, the False Prophet and Satan/Serpent are thrown into the Lake of Fire. The place for the unholy trinity of evil. They are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Only they are said in the Bible to be tormented endlessly.

Comment: Yes, Fudge is right; no one else is said to be tormented forever. But wicked humans are tossed into the same Lake of Fire in the next chapter. But Rev 14 has humans with much the same finality — humans, the smoke of their torment, endless.  More importantly, God is thereby now theologically and logically connected to endless torment. The unholy trinity may be upgradings of sin and evil and wickedness but they are still said to be tormented endlessly. Fudge appeals next to a human — Hanns Lilje — but this is an argument from a human or an authority or an experience. It doesn’t for me wipe away the glaring reality of an endless torment administered by God. The problem of endless torment is now officially connected to a theological problem.

Death is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14). Hades is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14).

The Lake of Fire is the Second Death. The death of the age to come. Lake of Fire is defined by Second Death, meaning that Second Death is the ruling image.  The two options are life (eternal, city of God) and death (final, second death, Lake of Fire). Humans enter the Lake of Fire, the Second Death: Rev 21:8.

So for Fudge all texts dealing with endless torment are explained, destruction is seen as the ruling image, Death is the outcome, and the absence of life is the outcome for the wicked. For Fudge the emphasis — undeniable — in the Bible is a fire that consumes or destroys, not a fire that purges or that torments. Edward Fudge makes the best case of anyone alive today for the annihilationist viewpoint.

We’re winding down our sermon series, Razing Hell, this weekend talking about the Second Coming.

When many people think of the Christian belief in the eschaton, last things, it’s the last judgment they have in mind. Many Christians have Michaelangelo’s grave depiction of the last judgment, in which an irate Christ rejects the damned at his feet and the martyrs surrounding Christ seem to delight in their torment, seared in to their minds.

Michaelangelo’s painting is evocative and beautiful in its way but biblical it is not. It’s true imagery of the last judgment populates a number of Jesus’ parables. Jesus speaks of judgment coming like thief in the night. He speaks the faithless being cast into darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Still, the sense of resentment, self-righteousness and revenge that animates much Christian preaching on judgment is antithetical to Jesus’ own preaching on it. Judgment in Jesus’ parables isn’t about what will happen one day. It’s meant to compel faithful behavior in the here and now.

Jesus’ judgment is not vindictive.

Yet neither does scripture give us a God who is smiling, doting old man. For as many Christians who erroneously espouse a resentful, vindictive God there are as many Christians who act as though God is not entitled to judge us.

God is, as Hebrews says, a consuming fire (12.28).

What gets lost too often is that the fire of God is the fire of loving judgment- a purifying fire. God’s judgment is not a closure on relationship with us; God’s judgment is the means by which God opens relationship with us. The Last Judgment is no different, theologically, than the judgment preached by the prophets or worked on the Cross. It’s a judgment in which our Sin- that which separates us from God- is burnt away.

As Gregory of Nyssa understood it, there’s no actual difference between the fire of God’s judgment and the light of God’s glory. It’s one and the same. It’s only our perception and experience of it that changes.

This is what separates the inhabitants of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The spectrum is marked by the extent people can stand to be in the light of God’s glory.

When it comes to belief in the Last Judgment is that at the end of time, all of us will be held to account (1 Corinthians 3). There is no distinction between believers and unbelievers, between the saved and the not-so-much. There is no easy, get-out rapture before the judgment. All of us will be held accountable for the mercy shown to us based on whether we too have been merciful to others (Matthew 25). Have we returned grace with grace?

The Christian hope is that we will all be judged but that the Judge is the Crucified Christ. The King who judges us is the one who died for us while we were sinners. This is a Judge determined not lose us.

 

This week we close our Razing Hell sermon series by talking about the Second Coming, probably the Christian doctrine most burdened by fanciful, unhelpful interpretations of scripture. Here’s NT Wright’s take:

We’re finishing up our Razing Hell sermon series this weekend talking about the Second Coming, a doctrine that’s gotten muddled and weighed down by the silly (and not very old) idea that God’s faithful will be ‘raptured’ and whisked off to heaven before Christ comes back ‘to judge the living and the dead.’ Apparently the Creed should have an asterisk there: *except the faithful who have a rapture ticket out of here.

Here’s NT Wright explaining why so many self-professed biblical literalists, literally lose the plot when it comes to rapture theology.

van impeWe’re winding up our Razing Hell sermon series this weekend by talking about the Second Coming of Christ, terrain normal Christians cede to the fundies, which is a shame because we need the full trajectory of our story to shape our present faith and action in the world. I already pointed out what I take to be the problems with the Left Behind rapture way of reading scripture. As a corollary, here are some of my own guidelines when it comes to talking about the Second Coming.

  • Christians must be mindful that, because this is a matter of deepest mystery, the bible’s speech is necessarily imagistic, metaphorical and parabolic. The bible, so to speak, gives us poetry about the End not prose. It’s poetry rooted in and consistent with what God has shown us in Christ but it’s still poetry. It’s not a photograph or rote dictation of the future that awaits us. Jesus never returned from the grave to describe the landscape or furniture of heaven.
  • Our hope is grounded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From the beginning of creation, the purpose of this God has been to share God’s life and love with creatures. Our speech of the End cannot be in contradiction with what the love shown to us in the Son, and our hope of the End must be in harmony with the aims of God revealed at Good Friday and Easter.
  • Our hope cannot be expressed dualistically. Just as evil and sin are privations, no-thing, our understanding of the End cannot then predict a final conflict between Good and Evil as though Evil were a living, equal opponent to God. Likewise, our hope is holistic. God has declared everything good not just our ‘spirit’ or soul. Our speech about the End cannot then distinguish between the material and the spiritual, the body and the soul, the personal and the communal. We don’t hope to escape this body. We don’t hope to escape this world. Our hope is for God to restore everything and every part of us.
  • Our hope in the End relativizes all earthly power. This is what animates John’s Revelation. ‘Rome’ won’t last forever and will lose eventually; therefore, we need not take its power seriously. We need not fear and we need not succumb. God wins in the end. Literally, we have all the time in the world to live faithfully.

 

  • Our hope is for an End. What makes Christians different, from say Eastern religions, is that we believe Time and History will come to an end. Time and History are not cyclical. This End is not, as contemporary apocalypticism suggests, a violent closure; it’s an End that is a fulfillment of this creation. A fulfillment that leads to a new creation.

My Crush On Older Women

Jason Micheli —  January 23, 2013 — 2 Comments

Yes, shameless title to get you to click on it.

We’re nearing the end of a sermon series, Razing Hell, that’s tackled topics like heaven, hell, purgatory and the second coming. I’d be remiss if I didn’t post these thoughts from Fleming Rutledge, the best damn preacher in the English language. I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…fleming-portrait-2008

Here’s a sermon on heaven from her.

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There are a lot of apocryphal stories about the great theologian Karl Barth, but this one sounds just like him. A well-meaning lady asked him, “Dr. Barth, will we see our loved ones in heaven?” Barth replied, “Not only our loved ones!”

When I was at Union Theological Seminary in the early 70s, I was very fortunate to have a tutor named Christopher Morse. He was a lowly graduate student at the time. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is on the cover of Time magazine. Well, not exactly…but there was a cover story on heaven at Eastertide, and it featured not only the work of the well-known English bishop and scholar N. T. Wright, but also the new book by Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes.[1] I thought about his book right away when I looked at the Psalm appointed for today.

You might not have noticed it, but Psalm 48, which we just read, is about heaven.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised

in the city of our God!

His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,

is the joy of all the earth,

Mount Zion, in the far north,

the city of the great King.

Throughout the Bible, heaven is identified as a city which, in God’s own time, will come from heaven to be established on earth. That comes as a great shock to many people. Heaven is in the clouds, isn’t it? To be sure, Jesus is repeatedly said to have “come down from heaven,” and gone back into heaven at the Ascension, so it’s logical that we might think of heaven being somewhere in the stratosphere. But that’s not the way the Scriptures present it. The theme of Christopher Morse’s book, which Bishop Wright is also working on, is that heaven is not a place where God lives so much as it is wherever God comes to us and acts among us. Therefore heaven is not only in the future, but, as Jesus said many times in many ways, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Wherever the activity of Jesus Christ is, heaven is already impinging upon this world.

The world that we now see, which seems so real to us, is passing away.[2] Think for instance of Jesus’ important saying,

Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

This isn’t a difficult passage to understand, and it’s well known. It means a lot more than meets the eye, however. It’s not about what we’re going to take with us into the afterlife, as though we were some pharaoh or warlord piling up grave goods. It’s about the life we live now, and what’s important. Earth and heaven are not so much contrasting locations as they are present priorities. When we dispose of our money and goods by giving them away, we are acting on the conviction that this world is not our home. As St. Paul says in Philippians, “our commonwealth is in heaven” (4:20). This is a major theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews. We read that Abraham left his home, and went out by faith alone, “not knowing where he was to go,” trusting in the promise of God; “he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10). This chapter in Hebrews is the famous roll call of the Old Testament saints, who lived in this world according to the world to come, because “they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16).

Now this has been seriously misunderstood to mean that this world doesn’t count. On the contrary, it counts very much. It is this world into which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to be with us and to live and die for us, not simply to carry us off into the sweet by-and-by, but to show us how to live here, now, in such a way as to testify to the reality and power of who God is and what he is doing among us. After Christ’s ascension, his disciples are told in no uncertain terms by angelic visitors that they are not to stand looking up into heaven but to look instead for what heaven holds for them here, right here in the age that is passing away on earth. They therefore return to the city of Jerusalem, and behold! the Holy Spirit comes upon them with the powers of heaven and sets them in motion to change the world with the news of what God has done (Acts 1-3).

We only have one life in this world which is passing away, so the kingdom of heaven is already at hand in the way we live our lives in the present. It is at hand, not because we are journeying toward God in the familiar conception, but because God has journeyed to us and continues to arrive by the power of the Spirit. Wherever that happens, that is the kingdom of heaven taking shape even now. As Professor Morse writes,

Whatever comes from God is said [in the Bible] to come “from heaven”…References to heaven as God’s dwelling place emphasize not a place of confinement but the direction from which God…act[s] in relation to the earth.[3]

So the reality of God is the reality of heaven. Heaven is not just where God lives off in the clouds. Heaven is where God is working through human beings to make his loving purposes known. For instance, a little piece of heaven takes shape when a church building that might have been abandoned suddenly finds itself full of new life. Your vicar Betsy Fisher would be the first to say that she is not doing this. God is doing this.

But now what is all this about a city? If heaven is a city, what are we doing up here in Dutchess County? How did we get the idea that heaven is a garden in the sky? It’s interesting that the two most prominent gardens in the Bible are the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane, and you know who pops up in them both, don’t you? Satan, that’s who. I suppose we like to think of going back to the Garden of Eden the way it used to be before Satan got hold of Adam and Eve, but that’s not the biblical vision. There isn’t any suggestion in Scripture that we’re “closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” The biblical vision is that God “has prepared for us a city.” The city is sometimes called Mount Zion, sometimes Salem (city of peace), sometimes the heavenly Jerusalem.

Now I’m a city lover, but not everyone is. There are many people who think that living in New York City would be hell. Here’s where we really have to be open to poetic imagination. The description of the City of God in Revelation is not a literal description. It’s meant to invoke awe and wonder. These passages tell us about the majesty and glory of God and of God’s ultimate purposes for us.

In the book of Revelation there are two cities. One is evil and one is the kingdom of God. Babylon is the symbol of all that is wicked in the world, and Babylon is doomed to destruction. There’s a very powerful description of this in chapter 18:

…the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for Babylon, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen…wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls…The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from [Babylon], will stand far off, in fear…weeping and mourning aloud,  “Alas, alas, for the great city that was…bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! In one hour all this wealth has been laid waste.” (18:11-13, 15-17)

That is a picture of the world that is passing away.

But now wait a minute. We like the part about nobody buying slaves any more, but what about all that other stuff? Will there be nothing beautiful in Zion?

Indeed there will. The description of the City of God is clearly meant to stun us with its magnificence. The city walls have twelve wide-open gates meant to welcome countless myriads of people from every tribe and nation on earth. The gates are built of every kind of precious stone, while the buildings of the city itself are “pure gold, clear as glass” (Revelation 21:18). We may ask, how can gold be “clear as glass”? Phrases like this should tip us off that this is not “realistic,” at least not in terms of this passing-away world. The vision is meant to open the doors of our imaginations to a world that is coming into being from a realm far beyond our capacity to describe. It’s a way of reminding us that God is infinitely larger and more unexpected than our paltry ideas of God. You might remember the line from the hymn, “Holy, holy, holy” where we sing “all the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”[4] What’s that all about? Well, the image is in Revelation 7. Before the throne of God is a crystal sea, and the 24 elders (who represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles) “fall down before…the throne and worship;…they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…’” (Revelation 4:10-11). So we aren’t supposed to be asking dumb questions about how the elders can keep on throwing down their crowns over and over ad infinitum. The idea behind the image is that all glory and honor and power belong to God—and the kingdom of heaven means being free, even now, from all pretense that we can construct it ourselves.

The twelve gates will be large enough to bring in all the wealth of the passing-away world. These treasures will no longer be hoarded or sold, but will be brought in to adorn the dwelling place of God with his people. The Revelation to John continues:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb [of God, who is Jesus Christ]. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light…By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it…they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Revelation 21:22-26)

So you see, there’s a place for all the art and culture and riches and diversity of the nations of the earth in the city of the kingdom of heaven.

But now I bet that some of you are not so happy with this city idea. It’s hard to let go of the notion of a garden of paradise. What is it that God is doing with this city? Well, this, too, calls for imagination. There isn’t enough time in one sermon to do justice to the resplendent description of the city in Revelation, with the ramparts and towers that we read about in Psalm 48—Mount Zion, “beautiful in elevation”—but just listen to this passage (John is speaking):

Then [the angel] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God…through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit…and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

A few years ago you may remember “The Gates” in Central Park. The artist who calls himself Christo filled the park with huge orange banners designed as a network of passageways that you could walk through. Having lived and worked downtown, I didn’t know a thing about Central Park until “The Gates” occurred. I walked the entire route from 110th Street to 59th Street under the banners. The whole population seemed to be there, in all its incredible ethnic diversity—that is what cities are supposed to be, filled to the brim with people of “all sorts and conditions.” It won’t be just our loved ones in the city of God, but all the ones we didn’t love and who didn’t love us, either. Something else will be going on.

Anyway, in Central Park during “The Gates,” there was an atmosphere of reverence—there was very little noise. People talked in hushed tones if they talked at all, and even children seemed awed. The “healing of the nations” seemed, just for a few weeks, to be possible. In recent years Central Park has come to be the most beloved urban green space in the world. And it is right in the middle of the city.

Now of course Central Park is not the Kingdom of heaven. There are still robberies and muggings occasionally. I would feel a bit nervous walking through the “north woods” section alone. Satan has not been banished. But there are reminders, here and there, of the river of life that flows from the throne of God. I was in the Conservatory Garden last week, and in the late afternoon I sat down beside the Secret Garden fountain, with its lovely statue of a young boy and girl. The atmosphere was almost worshipful. The water dripped into the pond. The sun slanted through the leaves. Many varieties of birds came to splash in the fountain, throwing spray into the air. A few children wandered through, very quietly. Opposite me sat two women. One of them was in her eighties—not much older than I am. The other was probably fifty-something. They sat quietly, without saying a word, looking at the scene, lost in thought. I observed them discreetly for a long time.

I am not a sentimental person, but I thought I could detect a narrative. The older woman was well groomed, but she seemed frail, perhaps ill. The younger woman, I thought, was her daughter, or perhaps a niece or devoted younger friend. The two of them did not look isolated from one another, as two people sometimes do when they are not speaking; they looked connected.  I noticed particularly that the younger woman was not taking the opportunity to look at any electronic device. The two of them seemed to be drawing something from the scene that was mutual between them both. After a long time—perhaps 45 minutes or more—they seemed to decide without words that it was time to go. Arm in arm, they very slowly departed—very, very slowly, as if reluctant to leave, yet carrying away with them something of what they had shared together in the garden in the middle of the city.

 Then I [John] saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard [an angelic]…voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with human beings. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

And [God] who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

(Revelation 21:1-5)

Amen.


[1] The article is not very good. Time and Newsweek used to have excellent religion editors, but those times are long gone. Christopher Morse’s book, however, is very good indeed—though not for the faint-hearted.

[2] “For the form of this world is passing away”—I Corinthians 7:31

[3] Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes, New York: T & T Clark, 2010,  p. 10.

[4] Hymn, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty!” Reginald Heber (1783-1826).

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This weekend for our Razing Hell we go backwards a bit to explore exactly what Christians have meant by Purgatory.

Here’s NT Wright’s quick reflection on Purgatory.

In my sermon on Sunday for our Razing Hell series I mentioned how many people I’ve encountered in ministry who’ve been damaged by Christians talking fast and loose about Hell.

One of the first pastoral visits I ever made was to an 80-something woman who was only days from dying. Her niece was somehow connected to someone in my church and asked that I stop by to see her. Still a seminary student, I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Long story short, I learned from the dying woman that 60 years earlier she stopped worshipping, stopped attending church, stopped practicing her faith all together, convinced God looked upon her with condemnation and would one day send her to Hell.

Why?

Because she’d divorced her husband and her priest told her matter of factly that she would go to Hell for it. And sixty some years hence she lay in an adjustable automatic bed on her enclosed porch, struggling to breath and swallow, but holding on to life because she feared the after life.

A corollary of God being the Word made flesh is that words matter.

What we say about Hell (and Heaven) can do harm.

This week NPR is doing a series of stories about the ‘Nones,’ those who report to pollsters that they identify with no religious tradition. The series is called ‘Losing Our Religion.‘ On Monday, the report included a young person who bailed on Christianity because of callous Christian speech about Hell.

Today, the report highlighted a widow who righteously rejected her faith after Christian peers tried to sugarcoat her grief by telling her that her dead husband was in a ‘better place.’

Here’s the transcript. Click here to listen to the story.

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The Mile High Gliding facility at the Boulder Airport in Colorado is one of Carol Fiore’s favorite haunts. And it’s a perfect day for flying: clear, breezy and with a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains.

Fiore used to fly gliders regularly, but a few years ago she stopped. Flying them had become painful.

“I felt, in a way, that I was searching for something that wasn’t there,” Fiore says. “I was looking for that laughter and that incredible time that I had flying with Eric, and he wasn’t in the plane with me. I was by myself.”

Eric was Fiore’s husband for 20 years. After they married, he flew F-15s in the Air Force. Then the couple moved to Wichita, Kan., where he was a test pilot for the airplane manufacturer Bombardier.

On Oct. 10, 2000, the plane Eric was co-piloting crashed upon takeoff. When Fiore arrived at Via Christi Hospital, she learned that her husband had sustained burns over 50 percent of his body.

“Then I found out they had given him his last rites,” she says.

That wasn’t a surprise, since Via Christi is a Catholic hospital. But even after Fiore announced that Eric would not want anyone praying for him, a priest hovered and prayed, day after day. Finally, she kicked the priest out.

Bristling At ‘A Better Place’

“I think that was a turning point in the whole religion thing for me,” Fiore recalls. “That was the point when I said, ‘You know what?’ — and I told Eric this when he was laying there on the bed — I said, ‘Eric, I don’t care anymore that we have to pretend not to be atheist.’

” ‘We respected people’s religions our whole entire life and I can’t do it anymore,’ ” she told him. ” ‘People are going to respect you now, and you told me you didn’t want them praying over you, and that’s it.’ “

Fiore told everyone that she and Eric were atheists. And still, as he lingered near death for 36 days, people offered religious consolation. “God has a plan,” they told her. “Eric is going to a better place.”

“When he was in the hospital and they said that, he was lying in a bed with tubes coming out with 50 percent burns and no face,” Fiore says. “Is that a better place?”

Fiore continued to hear the sentiment after Eric’s death. “I’m an atheist,” she says. “Eric is in the ground, rotting. I know it sounds horrible to say that, but that is where he is. How is that a better place?”

After Eric’s funeral — which was held in an airplane hangar, not a church — Fiore was flailing. She was hardly able to take care of herself, much less her two young daughters. All the grief groups she found were attached to a church … so she tried the self-help section of Barnes & Noble.

“I was searching frantically for anything that would help me get through this,” Fiore recalls. “But everything I found had to do with God: putting your faith in God, believing that God had some sort of plan. I found nothing to help me.”

Fiore realized she would have to go it alone. She and her two girls moved from Wichita to Loveland, Colo., and as a coping mechanism, she began to write a book — not yet published — about her husband, as well as a grief workbook for atheists.

But mainly, it’s her daughters who give Eric’s tragic death some measure of meaning.

“I don’t believe in an afterlife and I don’t think I’ll see him anymore,” Fiore says. “But I just have to look in Tia’s eyes and hear her laugh, and hear Robin talk about history the same way that Eric did, and know that he is still there.”

Fiore’s daughter Robin, a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, plans to go on to graduate school in science. She says she sees her father’s genetic influence in herself and in her sister.

“As an ecologist and as a scientist, we believe that when you die, your energy becomes part of a system again,” Robin says. “So there is a sense that he’s part of a system again. And in that way, I guess, people can never really be gone.”

And yet, her mother believes it’s harder for her to grieve because she’s an atheist.

When Mari Bailey’s son, Michael, was killed by an acquaintance in Phoenix in 2004, she lost not only her son but her faith as well.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR

“I often envy religious people who have that devout faith,” Fiore says. “They know that they’re going to see their … loved ones again when they die. But I don’t believe that. Sometimes, I wish I did.”

Faith Shaken, But Rarely Destroyed

This is a sentiment that Joanne Cacciatore, a professor at Arizona State University, hears often. After her baby died in 1994, Cacciatore started the MISS Foundation, a grief group for parents that has since extended nationwide. She also began focusing her research on how people grieve after a child dies.

Cacciatore says the group has observed that people with some type of spiritual base don’t necessarily cope more easily with the loss, but “they tend to take comfort or solace by the fact that they’ll be reunited with their child at some point,” she says.

Cacciatore says she’s seen nonbelievers embrace spirituality, and religious people wash their hands of God, in the aftermath of tragedy. But most often, she says, tragedy shakes your faith but doesn’t destroy it.

“What we find in the research — my own research and in other studies — is that their faith is generally challenged in some way,” she says. “And yet, they tend to come back full circle to a place of spiritual belief or faith.”

One theme is clear, Cacciatore says: Religious leaders are really bad at comforting people in grief. She surveyed more than 550 families, asking whom they found the most helpful during those first terrible days: first responders, doctors and nurses, social workers, psychologists, funeral directors or spiritual leaders.

“And of all of those, the spiritual leaders actually came in last,” she says.

This is something Mari Bailey can understand. She’s parked across from a brown stucco house in Phoenix. And while it isn’t her home, she knows it well.

“When you walk in, there’s a kitchen, a very small kitchen,” Bailey says. “And that’s where Michael was shot.”

Her only son, Michael, was 21, fresh out of the Navy and newly enrolled in culinary school when he was killed in that house in August 2004. Bailey’s last memory of her son is vivid, hopeful.

“Michael had changed into his chef’s uniform, with his checkered pants and poofy hat, and he looked so cute,” Bailey recalls. “He said, ‘Well, Mom, I’m ready for school.’ He said, ‘I love you,’ and gave me a big hug. And that was the last time I saw him fully conscious.”

After school, Michael went to a friend’s house. An acquaintance dropped by and started yelling and waving a gun around. He shot Michael close up, square in the chest.

“That was when my world just shattered,” Bailey says. Soon, her faith would follow.

‘I’m Alone In This … I Need To Save Myself’

After Michael died, Bailey sought solace at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, where she and her siblings were baptized and took their First Communion. The priest there told her, “We all have our crosses to bear,” and, “It was time for God to call Michael home.”

But Bailey thought a priest couldn’t possibly understand the pain of losing a child.

“I just remember thinking, ‘That’s it. I’m done with the Catholic religion,’ ” Bailey says. “I think it got more personal with God when I tried just praying on my own. Then I became more angry and I questioned, ‘Why do I need to be praying at all? Why is my son dead? And what kind of God lets a child be shot?’

“And, I think that was more me, not only just leaving the Catholic religion, but that was me leaving God, too,” Bailey says.

But that decision brought her no relief.

“It was hard. It was a really hard break from religion to, ‘Uh oh, what am I going to use to save me now?’ And I really came to the realization that, yeah, I’m alone in this and I need to save myself,” she says.

Bailey saved herself by learning everything she could about traumatic grief — the subject of her dissertation.

Education helps her, she says, because “even though you might be falling apart into a million pieces, you at least know why, and where you’re at in the process. And you also know what’s going to happen next, according to the research.”

The research suggests one of the best ways to heal is to help others. Bailey runs a grief group for students in the high school where she teaches, and another for parents whose pain is usually fresher than her own.

Bailey is also on the board of directors of Parents of Murdered Children, for which she leads a monthly meeting. At a recent gathering, mothers told of children whose end was too violent, too soon: a son killed in a random gunfight; a daughter killed by a burglar; a son killed by his cousin; a daughter killed by her jealous partner.

It is here, in the pain, that Bailey feels a little more whole. And yet, she can’t quite abandon the hope of seeing her son again.

“For the sake of Michael, I just need to believe that there is more to life beyond death,” she says. “Because if it’s not, than that means that my son’s life is over completely.”

Bailey wishes she could believe in God again. But, she says, “I just can’t.”

rich_man_and_lazarusScot McKnight’s been blogging about Hell at Jesus Creed. Here’s his post on Jesus’ teaching on Hell.

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The traditional view of hell rests on four pillars: that the OT says nothing; that the Jewish view at the time of Jesus was one of eternal conscious punishment; that Jesus’ view was thoroughly Jewish; and that the NT authors follow Jesus. Edward Fudge, in Hell: A Final Word , subjects each of these to examination in a readable, accessible format. The first pillar is wobbly; the OT does speak about the “end” of the wicked and the idea is one of a “consuming” fire (not tormenting fire). The second? Wobblier. There were three views: a consuming fire, a purifying fire, and a tormenting fire. Third? Today we sketch Fudge’s short chps on what Jesus taught, and I shall sketch his sketch.

1. Gehenna, Jesus’ typical term, is a trope for the place of destruction/fire south of Jerusalem. It cannot be proven to have been the dump in the 1st Century.

2. What happens there? The wicked are destroyed, they perish there. Matt 10:28: “fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell/Gehenna.” The issue is if “destroy” means “destroy” or “preserve forever in a destroying state.”  Fudge thinks traditionalists ruin the meanings of words on this one: destroy means destroy, not preserve forever. Had he meant preserve forever he could have said it that way. He then lists eleven uses of “destroy” in the NT and shows that each means “destroy”: why not in Matt 10:28? [Matt 8:2512:1416:2521:4122:726:5227:20John 11:50Acts 5:371 Cor 10:9-10;Jude 511.]

3. Gnashing of teeth means anger, not pain. Cf. Acts 7:52-54.

4. Eternal punishment fits with other uses of “Eternal” as an adjective: salvation (Heb 5:6), redemption (9:1), judgment (6:2), punishment (Matt 25:46), destruction (2 Thess 1:9). Big conclusions: the term refers to something in the Age to Come, it is endless and it refers to the result of an action. An action leads to something being permanent: one is not redeemed forever, one is redeemed and then lives forever; one is not judged forever, one is judged and then has consequences forever. [I sense a technicality here that is not as tight as Fudge says it, but there’s a good observation here.] Eternal punishment refers to eternal capital punishment. The second death. 2 Thess 1:9 says it is “eternal destruction” so that eternal punishment is eternal destruction —  and eternal fire refers to fire that destroys forever.

5. Rich man and Lazarus: it’s a parable; Fudge sees Jewish folklore at work here; it’s Hades not Gehenna; this parable says nothing about hell; it’s not literal; it aims to motivate Jesus’ contemporaries to care for the poor with the threat of irreversible consequences. [There are negations here that are not necessary, but in the main I agree with much of what Fudge says in this section.]

Douthat_New-articleInline-v2Dwight Shrute isn’t the only person who loves Battlestar Galactica. Sure that probably makes me lame. Whatever, it’s awesome. It’s also theologically resonate and a spot-on imagining of the Exodus story played in out in the wilderness of space.

Apparently, Ross Douthat is also a fan. Here are his reflections from a few years ago in First Things, pairing BG with Heaven, Lost with Puratorio and Sopranos with Hell.

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There was a time in American life, not so very long ago, when the only significant relation between religion and popular culture seemed to be the tedious symbiosis enjoyed by such envelope-pushing television producers as Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley and the conservative Christians who loved to hate them. The pattern repeated itself endlessly: Some line would be crossed (a bared buttock, a profanity, a dollop of anti-Catholic bigotry) and the Moral Majority or the Catholic League or the Traditional Values Coalition would mount a protest or a boycott, which in turn only ensured higher ratings for the television show in question and incentives for further envelope-pushing the next time around.

Today those battles are all but finished, and the religious side has lost. It was beaten in part by provocateurs like Bochco and the broader left-wing campaign against anything that even hinted at censorship. But it was also defeated by forces beyond the control of either artists or agitators. Technological change, above all, doomed the fight for decency in American popular culture, as every successive technological innovation weakened the power of regulators, moral and otherwise, while expanding the venues where human weakness could be exploited for fun and profit (mainly the latter). Russell Kirk famously called the automobile a “mechanical Jacobin,” but the fissiparous, fragmenting effects of cable television, DVDs, and the Internet make the Model T look Burkean by comparison. The-Sopranos-Season-1-Bios-Tony-3

The result is the unrestrained and unrestrainable popular culture of today, where every concept, no matter how lowbrow or how vile, can find a platform and an audience. A television show that proves too violent for NBC ends up on Showtime; an FCC crackdown on a raunchy radio host only nudges him into a lucrative new spot on satellite radio; a community that manages to keep X-rated movies out of its theaters and video stores is just pushing money into the pockets of sleaze merchants who peddle their wares over high-speed Internet connections. Small wonder that America’s movies and music and television shows make us enemies in traditional societies around the world—and small wonder, too, that many cultural conservatives, despairing of their country’s future, embrace withdrawal from the world into a narrow, well-defended Christendom, where their families and their faith can be protected from the lowest-common-denominator swill that washes against the walls outside.

Yet religious believers have also profited in certain ways from the crack-up of the old middlebrow, PG-rated common culture, even if it’s sometimes hard to see the gains through the gore and exhibitionism. This is the great paradox of twenty-first-century popular culture in America: For all its profanity and blasphemy, the new culture arguably takes religious issues and debates more seriously than it used to in a more decent, less decadent era.

Or perhaps it isn’t a paradox at all: There was a time, after all, when many religious thinkers were skeptical of the kind of mass culture that had its American heyday at mid-century, critiquing its homogeneity and complacency, tackiness and philistinism. They rose to the defense of the old dispensation only because the alternative—the mainstreaming of the 1960s counterculture, with its contempt for every tradition and authority—seemed far worse. (The Bells of St. Mary’s might not be The Divine Comedy, but it was better than Basic Instinct.)

The counterculture has largely won, and our society is in many ways the worse for it. But there are opportunities in defeat as well as victory, and places where new life can spring up amid the ruins. The old gatekeepers were at best superficially conservative and favorably disposed to religion only because they believed in being inoffensive about every segment of the mass market on which their films and shows depended. Now the incentives to be uncontroversial are far weaker. Which means that, along with all the dreck and smut and mediocrity, there’s more room for idiosyncrasy, controversy, and political incorrectness as well. These can be the raw materials of blasphemy, but they can also be the stuff of popular art that drills deep into issues—theology and human destiny, sin and redemption, heaven and hell—that the old mass media treated with kid gloves.

True, God has to compete with Paris Hilton and Family Guy for attention, but at least He’s in there fighting.

Consider recent developments in science fiction and fantasy. These are genres that have traditionally provided fertile ground for metaphysically inclined fiction, but for a long time their presence in the American mass media began with Star Trek and ended with Star Wars—fun but shallow entertainments whose take on religion mixed Daniel Dennett with Deepak Chopra, secular condescension with New Age mumbo-jumbo. As late as the early 1990s, the only sci-fi show of any merit on television was Star Trek: The Next Generation, a U.N. bureaucrat’s fantasy of the twenty-fourth century, in which a crew of asexual socialists in leotards kept the galaxy safe for cultural relativism and conflict resolution.

A decade later, the landscape looks very different. The cost of bringing what J.R.R. Tolkien called “a secondary world” to life has dropped, and the possibilities for creativity have widened. The two great Christian fantasies of the century just past—Middle-Earth and Narnia—have been given vivid, wildly successful big-screen treatments. The dreadful Star Wars prequels were briefly eclipsed by The Matrix, whose blend of religious allegory, pop philosophy, and balletic violence aimed much higher than George Lucas ever did (though The Matrix descended into pretentious incoherence in the later installments). And the best sci-fi show on television today isBattlestar Galactica, a “reimagining” of a short-lived late-1970s series about the last remnants of humanity fleeing a genocide perpetrated by their own creations—a race of humanoid robots called Cylons—and searching for our species’ last refuge, a mythical planet called Earth.

The brainchild of a frustrated Star Trek scribe named Ronald Moore, Galactica is deliberately designed to be the anti-Trek: Instead of a bloodless, hygienic future in which the human race seemed to have outgrown every recognizable human aspiration on its way to outer space, the show depicts a star-faring humanity driven by familiar motivations—religious faith chief among them. At its best, Galactica isThe Longest Day crossed with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, chronicling a gritty man-versus-machine interstellar war (fought with bullets and nuclear weapons rather than the usual phasers and photon torpedoes) that has as much to do with theology as politics. The original series borrowed from Mormon cosmology, but the newer, better incarnation pits the Greco-Roman polytheism practiced by the humans (they worship the ancient Mediterranean pantheon, and each of their “Twelve Colonies” is named for a sign of the Zodiac) against the crusading monotheism of the Cylons, who are convinced that their human progenitors worship idols and that they themselves are God’s latter-born, perfected children, destined to inherit the universe from a flawed and sinful humanity.

This may sound like an allegory designed for know-nothing liberals: crazy fanatical monotheists (think Osama Bin Laden or Jerry Falwell) pitted against tolerant pagans (think Berkeley, California, or maybe Burlington, Vermont). But Moore’s show is far too clever to slide into that trap. The human polytheists, in practice, have a great deal in common with the Abrahamic monotheists of Planet Earth: They’re a people of the book, divided between fundamentalists who take the sacred scrolls literally and more latitudinarian believers who don’t, and divided, as well, on all the culture-war questions—notably abortion—that divide our own semi-Christian West. And the Cylon monotheism, too, appears riven by theological factionalism, with tenets that are open to quasi-Buddhist as well as Mosaic interpretations.

More interesting still, the fundamentalists in both faiths have a tendency to be proved right, and the skeptics wrong. Prophecies are fulfilled and ancient scrolls prove accurate, and the religious choice, in any given situation, is likely to be the right one. The Old Testament overtones of the show’s conceit—twelve tribes looking for a promised land—aren’t accidental, and as Galactica‘s quest narrative proceeds, so does the audience’s awareness that the story is unfolding according to some larger design.

Whether this design belongs to the Colonists’ pantheon or the Cylons’ single deity remains uncertain. Both sides, despite their theological differences, seem bound to a common destiny in ways that neither understand; like Jews and Christians after Christ, they’re joined in brotherhood and enmity, till the end of their quest or perhaps the end of time. But however their relation turns out, it’s likely to dovetail with the show’s overarching premise—the idea, at once old-fashioned and subversive, that human history has an Author.

The same set of issues—meaning and purpose, common destinies and divine interventions—dominates the action on Lost, ABC’s addictive serial about the survivors of a plane crash who find themselves marooned on a South Pacific island, cut off from any hope of rescue. Most of the castaways carry secret sorrows or hidden sins: There are murderers and adulterers, drug addicts and former mental patients, an African warlord and an ex-torturer from the Iraqi Republican Guard. And the island is attuned to all of them in some mysterious fashion, speaking to the survivors in dreams and visions, pushing them into strange obsessions and dangerous quests, delivering healing to some and sudden death to others.

The creators of Lost have repeatedly denied that their characters are literally in purgatory, which was a popular theory among early viewers of the series, and most of the evidence from later episodes suggests that they’re telling the truth. Still, the show’s island is at the least a purgatorial landscape—it’s no coincidence that several of the characters are Catholic, lapsed and otherwise—where the things that the castaways carry from their previous lives provide the raw material for suffering, struggle, and growth.

But the show has larger ambitions as well. The island isn’t just a supernatural catalyst for individual redemption; it’s a microcosm of Western modernity (many of the characters, not coincidentally, share names with modern political philosophers—there’s a Rousseau and a John Locke, a Hume and even a Mikhail Bakunin), and a place where the two most powerful forces in recent human history, utopian hubris and scientific arrogance, have worked themselves out with what appear to be disastrous consequences.

At some point, long before the plane crash, the island was the site of an overlapping series of experiments on everything from genetic engineering and radical life extension to parapsychology and magnetism, which apparently involved cooperation between a sinister multinational corporation and a Walden II-style commune of idealistic scientists. The landscape is littered with the detritus of these efforts—abandoned hatches with cryptic instructional videos, empty zoos and laboratories, mysterious processes that may still be working themselves out—and populated by what appear to be the experiments’ surviving custodians, a group of people known only as the Others, whose purposes remain inscrutable even as they emerge as the castaways’ antagonists. The shadow of a larger apocalypse hangs over the narrative as well since, whatever the experiments were meant to do, they seem to have created the possibility of a world-ending cataclysm.

Meanwhile, the castaways are divided among themselves both personally and philosophically, constantly arguing over whether their lives on the island are governed by purpose or blind chance, and whether faith or reason is a surer guide in their strange circumstances. Some of the characters are Christian, others embrace a kind of New Age island-worship, others cling to a stringent materialism. At its best, the show seems capable of synthesizing all these elements and building to a metaphysical battle royale, in which the various forces at work in our own civilization struggle with one another for mastery, and nothing less than the fate of the world hangs in the balance. At it worst—well, Lost is in its third season now, and there are disturbing signs that the show is running out of steam, and that the creators may have thrown too many mysteries into the air without a plan to catch them. (This is known among television doctors as the X-Files Syndrome.)

However the saga of the castaways manages to finish up, though, it’s clear that Lostultimately shares with Battlestar Galactica a certain degree of cosmic optimism. With God (in some form) taking an active role in the narrative and nothing less than the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, it seems like a safe bet that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the heroes. This is the nature of fantasy and epic, at least in the context of a Christian culture—by raising the stakes, the genre gives away the ending. Frodo will always destroy the ring; Aslan will always defeat the White Witch; Harry Potter will always put an end to Voldemort. A price will be exacted along the way, but, however dark the story gets, the logic of eucatastrophe still holds, and with it the knowledge that the light will overcome the darkness.

This eschatological optimism contrasts sharply with the pessimism of the best realistic show on television today: The Sopranos, which is ending its six-season run on HBO this spring. Where Galactica and Lost are shows about getting through purgatory to heaven, or at least a promised land, The Sopranos is a show about what it means to go to hell. Like The Wire, another HBO production (and the leading candidate for The Best Show on Television title once the Soprano family enters the afterlife of reruns), The Sopranos offers a devastating critique of American life. Unlike the kind of social commentary that Hollywood still churns out—in which everything would turn out better if only conservatives weren’t so busy oppressing homosexuals or women or maybe unionized employees—it isn’t interested in easy sociological answers or cheap political point-scoring. And while even the best episodes of Galactica and Lost are ultimately pop-culture ephemera, HBO’s mob show is closer to real art: Dostoevsky crossed with Emile Zola, a novelistic meditation on the nature of societal corruption and personal sin.

There have been pop-culture portraits of mob kingpins descending into hell before, of course—think of Michael Corleone fading into shadow at the end of Godfather II. But the artistic temptation is always to make this fall splendid and Miltonic, a matter of a few grand and tragic choices rather than the steady accretion of small-time compromises, petty sins, and tiny steps downward that usually define damnation.

The Sopranos dares instead to explore the terrible banality of evil, depicting ordinary people held prisoner by their habits and appetites who choose hell instead of heaven over and over again, not with a satanic flourish but with an all-American sense of entitlement. Sin is never glamorized or aestheticized: The violence is brutal rather than operatic, the fornications and adulteries are panting and gross rather than titillating. The characters’ sins breed even physical dissolution: obesity, ulcers, hemorrhoids, constipation, cancer. The show offers a vision of hell as repetition, ultimately, in which the same pattern of choices (to take drugs, to eat and drink to excess, to rob and steal and bully and murder) always reasserts itself, and the chain mail of damnation—in which no sin is an island, and gluttony is linked to violence, sloth to greed, and so on—slowly forges itself around the characters’ souls.

The only players in this drama who seem capable of escape are Tony Soprano himself, the mob boss and antihero who makes repeated excursions into psychotherapy, and his wife, Carmela, whose guilt over her husband’s lifestyle coexists with an unwillingness to give up the possessions and status that his criminality has won for her. The arc of the show, over six seasons, has traced their attempts to leave their sins behind—Tony’s dialogues with his therapist and halting steps toward self-knowledge; Carmela’s religious forays, adulterous fantasies, and abortive quest for a divorce. These always end in failure, partially because the avenues they choose tend to be therapeutic rather than truly redemptive (the show is particularly hard on psychotherapy’s pretensions) and partially because actually escaping seems to mean giving up too much: the combination of bourgeois comfort and the kind of “freedom” that the Mob life offers, a freedom to do as you please, unhindered by any societal restraint, that is gradually revealed as the worst prison there is.

In one of the show’s darkest and most telling moments, Tony’s nephew and lieutenant, Christopher, plans to betray the Soprano family and go into the witness-protection program with his fiancée, who has been blackmailed into becoming a government snitch. But while refueling his glossy black Hummer in a gas station, he finds his gaze drawn to the family across the pumps from him—the runny-nosed kids, the harried parents, and above all their battered station wagon—and in that instant decides that it’s better to have his fiancée killed than to accept the constraints of life outside the mafia. The freedom to do whatever you like in this world, it turns out, is just another word for choosing your SUV over your lover.

Whether The Sopranos‘ creator, David Chase, believes in a literal hell I have no idea—but his show believes in it. Just as Lost and Galactica tease out their metaphysics through hallucinations and dream sequences, The Sopranos deals frequently in private visions—mainly Tony’s richly detailed dreams, which are more psychological than metaphysical, but also a pair of theologically fraught near-death experiences.

The first belongs to Christopher, after a second-season car accident briefly stops his heart, and it lands him in hell, which turned out to be an Irish bar—every Italian’s idea of the inferno—populated by deceased “soldiers” from his crime family, who give him a message to carry back to his bosses: “Three o’clock.” (That hour of the day, with its Good Friday associations, has been associated with bad news for members of the Soprano family ever since.) The second near-death moment, meanwhile, belongs to Tony himself, a several-episode sojourn in limbo following his shooting at the hands of his senile uncle. It concludes with him literally going toward the light and finding himself at the door of a brightly lit family reunion, where his mother (a monstrous woman who once took out a hit on him) and the rest of his departed relatives have gathered to greet him.

Whatever afterlife waits for him aside, it clearly isn’t heaven.

The question, of course, is whether the audience gets the point, or whether The Sopranos‘ faithful viewers are in it for the same reasons the mobsters are: the adrenaline rush that comes with any violent or sexual encounter, no matter how degrading it may be. This is the problem for any artist who seeks to show sin as it is. Does depicting an act make you complicit in it, even when you stand in judgment?Last Tango in Paris makes loveless sex look like hell on earth, for instance, but there are still people who watch it for titillation, just as there must be some segment of The Sopranos‘ audience—young men, in particular—who spend their time cheering on the killers, identifying with the mobsters instead of profiting from their hell-bound example.

And even if The Sopranos isn’t glamorizing sin, you only have to flip down a few channels to find a dozen shows that are. Battlestar Galactica may be a step up fromStar Trek, in terms of both artistry and philosophical seriousness, but is it worth enduring the ever-vaster wasteland of basic cable to make that step up possible? Or again, is the chance to see the story of Christ’s Passion as Mel Gibson reimagined it—blood-drenched and harrowing and brilliant—worth giving the same R-rated carte blanche to Quentin Tarantino, or worse, the makers of torture-porn thrillers likeHostel and The Hills Have Eyes?

This is an important argument for cultural conservatives to have, but for the time being it’s also largely theoretical. The old standards for mass culture, on television and the silver screen—minimal violence, no nudity, and no ideological conflict that couldn’t be solved by asking What Would JFK Do?—are long gone, and no political pressure is likely to revive them. Religious believers can take the risk of competing in this riotous marketplace, where there’s a great deal to gain but even more to lose, or they can withdraw from it and tend their own cultural gardens, like the new St. Benedicts that Alasdair MacIntyre envisioned at the end of After Virtue. There doesn’t seem to be a third way out.

And yet, whether they choose to withdraw or stay, believers should be wary of overstating either the horrors of the present era or the virtues of the American pop cultural landscape gone by. By a host of cultural indicators, American society was better off in the 1950s than it is today, and the constraint and self-censorship of that age’s mass media had a great deal to do with this achievement. But the old order turned out to be built on sand, and the generation that was weaned on the movies and TV shows of the 1950s, with their League of Decency seal of approval, grew up to think of orthodoxy as a dead hand and tradition as an epithet. Today’s generation, if they turn to the right channel and find the right show waiting for them, may instead discover the truth of Chesterton’s dictum: “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”

None of this means that religious believers, and particularly religious parents, don’t have understandable reasons for trying to wall their families off from the worst of what American pop culture has to offer, whether by canceling their cable subscription or packing up and moving to Ave Maria Town.

But if they do, they ought to at least consider bringing a DVD player along with them.