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:
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:
Woody Allen has a famous joke from Annie Hall about how he’d ‘never want to belong to any organization that would have him as a member.’ I think it’s originally a Groucho joke (wag of the cigar, wag of the eyebrows). A variant on that line of reasoning is my own struggles with being a pastor; namely, I don’t want to belong to any guild that would have YOU as a member. Sounds harsh, I know, but what it comes down to in reality is just how incredibly, to-the-bone unfunny are most pastors.
I remember my first area clergy meeting when I pastored my first church part-time. All the pastors were making obvious churchy jokes, most of which had to do with church potlucks (do churches still do those?) and were no more sophisticated than knock-knock jokes. I mean, what I wouldn’t have done for just one fart joke.
I remember making a sarcastic remark (How in the hell did it take the Israelites so long to get to Canaan from Egypt?) and having everyone stare at me like I was an ape in the zoo.
And then I remember thinking to myself: ‘What am I doing here? I don’t belong here.’
By and large, pastors are hysterically unfunny. Genuine humor requires openness, surprise, authenticity and a lack of fear over your listener’s reaction- all of which are qualities required by faith but none of which are qualities encouraged by ministry. Instead pastors tend to gravitate toward the telegraphed, not-going-to-upset-anyone variety. In addition, most pastors are sinfully over-serious, advocating for social justice or eternal salvation.
Sadly, pastors are just extreme versions of most Christians. We’re NOT funny. Not funny as Christians (and you’re tempted now to cite Jeff Foxworthy or some lame ‘Christian comedian you should just stop reading). I know plenty of church people who are piss-your-pants funny outside of church but inside church they’re completely different people; or rather, they somehow believe we expect them to be different people.
I don’t say this just to be cheeky. It’s a profound theological problem. We’re in the midst of a sermon series this month called Razing Hell. We’re thinking through what the Church believes about Heaven and Hell and all the other Last Things.
Here’s the thing about those topics: We know the end of the Story, of history. No matter how things look now in the world or in our lives, God wins in the End. Things work out. There’s another version of reality other than the one given to us by the world.
If these facts of faith don’t lend themselves to irony, sarcasm, ridicule, satire and plain old joy I don’t know what does.
Maybe our lack of funny corresponds to having lost sight of our core story.Maybe we’ve substituted good news for legalism- which, by definition, can never be funny. Maybe this is why Jews and gay people are almost always funnier- they know there’s more going on in the world than meets the eye. Maybe our lack of funny reveals a lack of faith in that fact.
All of this is prompted by an article in Relevant Magazine.
Here it is:
Why can evangelicals produce worship albums, Amish romance novels, apocalyptic thrillers, marriage guides and devotionals in spades, but when it comes to producing comedy, in quantity and quality, we flounder?
There are certainly exceptions to the rule. Comedian Susan Isaacs (credits in Seinfeld and Parks and Recreation) offered up Angry Conversations With God (2009). Steve Taylor and Donald Miller gave us the Blue Like Jazz movie (2012)—and Miller’s book behind it. Jon Acuff, of Stuff Christians Like comes to mind. Add your top faith-filled humorists and the list will still be meager.
We did some digging to get to the bottom of why this is and talked to some laugh-out-loud Christians who manage to beat the odds and bring the funny. Here’s what we learned.
Humor is treason in a culture war
Much of evangelicalism has embraced a hostile relationship with the surrounding culture. A culture war requires a group of people to define itself through a conflict and identify a rival group whose very existence threatens its existence. The favor, of course, is returned, and hyperbolic insults fill the air.
CHRISTIANS ARE SERIOUS, HARD-WORKING PEOPLE. WE GET THINGS DONE, BUT WE’RE JUST NOT THE LIFE OF THE PARTY.
Humor requires the ability to admit weakness and a willingness to laugh at it. A joke is funny because it exposes the silliness bound up in the act of being human. Self-deprecation makes for good comedy, but it’s akin to putting bullets in your opponent’s gun in a culture war. Weaknesses can’t be just hidden from one’s opponents; their very existence must be denied. Miroslav Volf wrote, in Exclusion and Embrace, that a people group must be convinced of its moral superiority to feel justified aggressing against another party. You can’t laugh at yourself until you cede the moral high ground.
We work to deliver results, not punchlines
We evangelicals migrated to America from Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and England. We are children of the Reformation, one and all. In 2009, Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer addressed the Conspire Conference at Willow Creek and noted that our Protestant roots shaped us to be a serious, hard-working people. We get things done, but we’re just not the life of the party.
Sociologist Max Weber coined the term “Protestant work ethic.” He theorized that while the Reformers removed good works as a prerequisite for salvation, those values never went away. Hard work and frugality became outward signs that a person had truly experienced salvation and was among the elect. Being industrious was as valued as having correct doctrine. As a result, evangelicals just aren’t culturally groomed to value the guy cracking wise in the back row.
Matthew Paul Turner, of JesusNeedsNewPR.net acclaim, adds, “Many of us don’t know how to value humor as it relates to Christianity, the Church or [ourselves]. Mostly because many Christians don’t know what to do with something regarding faith that is simply funny. While most humor contains meaning or a deeper thread to its funny exterior, those deeper meanings often go over people’s heads. It’s not that Christians dislike jokes or humor within the context of something bigger like a sermon or story, but when something or somebody is just funny, many Christians struggle to understand the point.”
CHRISTIANS STRUGGLE WITH CREATING HUMOROUS ART BECAUSE TOO OFTEN THEY DON’T WANT TO STRAY NEAR THE EDGES.
It’s hard to save the world with a limerick
It’s a bad habit, yet we do it often. We have a proclivity to commandeer artist forms for evangelistic purposes. This is true of many Christian art forms, not just comedy. Our music, movies and books are often shaped by a drive to persuade outsiders of their sin and lead them to Jesus. The problem is that in our drive to embed Gospel tracks into our jokes, we violate the genre rules that make comedy funny.
So, until it’s OK for a priest, a rabbi and a pastor to walk into a bar and no one gets saved, we’ll continue to struggle with producing quality humor.
One man’s humor is another man’s moral outrage
Several respondents learned (the hard way) just how hard it is not to offend the faithful with humor. Bryan Allain, author of Actually, Clams Are Miserable says, “To me, for something to be funny it has to be on the edge. Whether that is the edge of decency, the edge of expectations or the edge of sanity; if it’s right down the middle, it’s not going to make someone laugh. I think Christians struggle with creating humorous art because too often we don’t want to stray near the edges. Pushing the boundaries can open us up to judgment by those outside and inside Christianity, so instead of risking that for the joke, we play it safe and nobody cracks a smile.”
Chad Gibbs, sports humorist and the author of Love thy Rival and God and Football, adds, “I think with humor there is a fine line between what one person finds funny and what another finds offensive, and in Christian culture, that line is very blurry. So we err on the side of caution and produce safe humor—something bland, like ‘101 Jokes 4 Pastors.’ Problem is, safe humor is rarely funny.”
Matthew Paul Turner agrees. “The biggest reason is that whenever something humorous is created by church people, it gets beaten or edited to death by the gatekeepers,” he says. “That process is exhausting, often leading Christian people who can create funny to wonder, What’s the point?”
The point, Mr. Turner, is that we desperately need people to get us to laugh at ourselves and to stop taking ourselves so seriously. If we can learn to laugh at our own foibles, we’d be taking steps toward becoming a self-aware and humble community of faith.
We don’t need comedy to save the world, just ourselves. And sometimes it takes a court jester to lead the way.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
Scot McKnight’s been blogging about Hell at Jesus Creed. Here’s his post on Jesus’ teaching on Hell.
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 8:25; 12:14; 16:25; 21:41; 22:7; 26:52; 27:20; John 11:50; Acts 5:37; 1 Cor 10:9-10;Jude 5, 11.]
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.]
Dwight 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.
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 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.
Mark Driscoll is neo-Calvinist pastor Mars Hill Church in Seattle and a first class d*&%^$ bag (Exhibit A: He wrote a marriage book explaining how it’s the wife’s job to…you get the picture). He’s made a name for himself- and not a few enemies- by his no-holds barred personality and confrontational sermons.
As someone who has a bit of both those traits himself, I guess I can’t judge too harshly.
However, I can judge his exegesis of Luke 16, the very same scripture I used this weekend’s sermon on Hell.
I can only imagine that if Jesus read Driscoll’s assessment of the parable, then Jesus would ask: ‘Belief? Who said anything about ‘believe in me or you’re going to Hell?’ It’s about the rich man ignoring the poor man in need at his doorstep.’ I also like to think Jesus would say: ‘Well, you know it’s a parable. Maybe you should focus on the point and not get hung up on the details because it’s, you know, a story.’
For someone who claims preaching about Hell is ‘difficult’ Driscoll seems to evidence no restraint. He seems almost gleeful in his shoot from the hip pronouncements on the mysteries of eternity. But
I’ll let you be the judge.
“Let me say it clearly, … plainly, … loudly: You are in danger. Without Jesus, you go to hell,” the Reformed pastor told thousands at Mars Hill Church this past weekend.
Driscoll was preaching from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke – a New Testament book that he has been going over for the past year and a half with his church. But what made the sermon even more timely and that much more urgent was the recent debate on hell in light of the release of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Grandville, Mich., pastor Rob Bell.
Bell, who has been accused of heresy and preaching universalism, has made media rounds during his book tour this month. In a visit to MSNBC, the popular author was pushed four times by host Martin Bashir on the question of eternal destiny after receiving unsatisfying answers – or rather, unclear ones.
“Is it irrelevant about how one responds to Christ in this life in terms of determining one’s eternal destiny?” asked Bashir, who also accused the author of amending the Gospel so that it’s palatable.
“It is terribly relevant and terribly important. Now, how exactly that works out and how exactly that works out in the future, we are now when you die firmly in the realm of speculation,” Bell replied.
“You have to be very careful that we don’t build whole doctrines and dogma about what is speculation.”
Without naming names, Driscoll, author of Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, expressed profound concern over false teachings and messages that proclaim anything other than salvation through Jesus Christ.
“It greatly disturbs me when well-known pastors and preachers and authors get invited onto television … when the world is listening to them, the interviewer inquires of them ‘if you don’t believe in Jesus are you going to hell?’ and they squirm or they change the subject or they appeal to the emotions or they tell a story, they do anything but say ‘yes, if you don’t know Jesus you go to hell,’” the 40-year-old pastor said.
“Friends, this is the most serious of matters,” he told the congregation. “I’m not the judge but there are pastors that are going to hell. So be careful who you trust.”
For Driscoll, there is no ambiguity in Jesus’ teachings about heaven and hell.
Stressing throughout his sermon that his job is to tell the truth, Driscoll pointed to Jesus’ teachings on the hard-to-stomach issue of hell.
Jesus, he said, speaks of hell more than anyone in the entire Bible. Roughly 13 percent of his teachings and half of his parables are in reference to hell, judgment, or punishment, Driscoll noted.
“Some say Jesus is so loving, certainly Jesus doesn’t believe in hell. I would say the most loving person who has ever lived not only believes in hell but clearly, emphatically, repeatedly teaches on it, which must mean that our sin is more damnable than we can fathom if it requires the most loving person to speak in the most stark of terms,” he pointed out.
“The existence of hell, the instruction by Jesus of hell should reveal to us how sinful sin truly is and how rebellious we really are.”
From the get-go, Driscoll, who was raised a Catholic before converting at age 19, rejected as false several popular positions people hold about death and the afterlife, including naturalism (no soul), universalism (all or almost all go to heaven), belief in reincarnation (multiple, successive lives), annihilationism (suffer in hell a while but eventually cease to exist), and belief in purgatory (temporary punishment and ultimately going to heaven).
Making clear what Jesus made clear, the Seattle pastor known for his no-holds-barred attitude said everyone who doesn’t know Jesus will go to hell.
“Have you received Jesus? Have you trusted in Jesus? If not, you are in the path of the wrath of God. You are headed to the conscious eternal torments of hell,” he asserted.
Quoting Jesus, Driscoll underscored, “‘No one comes to the Father but by me.’ No one. No one. Buddhism, no. Hinduism, no. New Ageism, no. Mormonism, no. Jehovah’s Witnessism, no. Nice people, no. Good people, no. Generous people, no. Religious people, no.”
“There is no salvation apart from him (Jesus)!” he exclaimed.
Regarding a second chance after death, Driscoll stated plainly that there is no second chance.
“Your eternal destiny is sealed upon your death. This life is your only opportunity,” he preached.
“I’m going to bury a lot of people. So for me, this is not just heartless academic speculation,” he stressed. “It’s heartfelt pastoral affection.”
“I’m really worried about some of you,” he said as he became teary-eyed. “I love you. I can’t have your blood on my hands.”
While some try to elevate one attribute of God over another (such as love), Driscoll noted that while God is love the Bible speaks more of His holiness than anything else.
“God is love, and whatever God does is loving. God is also just. God is also holy,” he said. “Our God is also simultaneously, perfectly a God of wrath. Not just our God but the only God.
“God is holy. If we do not repent, we are in the path of His wrath.”
It is in love, however, that God sent Jesus “as our substitute, to go to the cross and give us eternal life,” Driscoll added.
Responding to questions about why God would create people if their future is hell, Driscoll stated, “People go to hell because they reject Jesus. We are in no way innocent.”
“This is not the world as God made it. This is the world as we have corrupted it,” he explained.
He continued, “What is astonishing is God would become a man to live in the world as we have destroyed it.”
The wrath of God was poured out on Jesus, he added, so that it may be diverted from us.
“That is the gift of salvation. That is the love of God.”
In one illustration, Driscoll stated, “It makes perfect sense to me that a convicted criminal goes to prison. Similarly, it makes perfect sense that a condemned sinner goes to hell.”
Hell, he noted, was made for the devil and his angels who rebelled against God. And just as prison was made to protect the rest of the public, hell was made to “protect us.”
“You need not go there. Trust in Jesus.”
Regarding what hell is like, the illustration in Luke reveals a place of torment with flames. It’s like being trapped in a burning building forever, Driscoll said.
Jesus also uses as illustration a place outside Jerusalem called Gehenna. There, children were murdered and sacrificed by fire to false demon gods.
It was a cursed place that became a garbage dump of the city where worms were always feasting and flames were always burning.
Near the end of his sermon, Driscoll pleaded with the congregation not to judge God.
“We have three-pound fallen brains. We have sinful dispositions. We have only been around for a few short years. We are not all knowing,” he pointed out.
“For us to sit on a throne even if it is an academic throne propped up by footnotes, asking the Creator of heaven and earth to pass before us that we might render a verdict regarding His holiness and justice is how all the trouble began in the first place.”
Driscoll urged the congregation and other listeners online to make a decision – eternal life or eternal death.
“You’re still alive so I’m pleading with you. Make your decision while you’re still alive.”
You can read more here.
Here’s a hilarious satire of the Medieval graphic of Hell from the Economist.
Why visit Hell?
Hell’s landscape is unrivalled. Its bottomless ravines, towering mountains and fiery floods have inspired artists for centuries. Pandemonium, the capital (formerly black Dis) has a strikingly cosmopolitan buzz and, as a bonus, is crime-free. Overweight and out of form? Hell offers the ultimate workout. Shed those extra pounds, and keep on shedding them!
If you like to travel light ’n’ easy, Hell is for you. Get all your jabs on site, and don’t bother to pack the sun cream. Only hypocrites wear clothes; fiery serpents and fat maggots are often the only attire. In a charming tradition, each visitor is presented on arrival with hot metal chains as a lasting memento of their stay. Get yours personally engraved at no extra charge.
Time stands still here, as the ocean boils and the great abyss yawns before you. Feel the hot sand under your feet, watch the chimeras and gorgons frolic, take a trip on a demon’s back, smell the brimstone on the breeze! You know how you always hope holidays will never end? This one never will.
Getting to Hell
The quickest route is to sin big and persistently, and refuse to show remorse. The sin against the Holy Ghost gets you there in one, though no one knows exactly what it is.
The way to Muslim and Jewish Hell lies over a high bridge as thin as a hair. Primrose paths of dalliance (Shakespeare, “Hamlet”) offer a slower but more relaxing approach.
Currency in Hell
Money may well be the reason you are here; especially if you come from Cahors, the city of usurers, or worked for Lehman Brothers. But don’t bring cash or cards, unless you want them melted down and poured into your mouth through a funnel.
Top Sights to Visit in Hell
Hell Gate. In fact nine layers of gates, three of brass, three of iron and three of burning adamant. Don’t miss the famous inscription on the first: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. Satan’s paramour, Sin (aka “the Snakie Sorceress”), keeps the key and will make a scene, even though—since Christ harrowed the place in 33AD—the gate no longer shuts. Beware belching fire and three-headed dogs.
Satan’s palace. The architectural marvel of Pandemonium, made of pure gold (Hell’s major export, and the world’s bane). Its council chamber can accommodate “a thousand Demi-Gods on golden seats”, with 26 standing. Raised above it is Satan’s throne, far outshining “the wealth of Ormus and of Ind”. Photography is not allowed.
Satan himself. Frozen in ice at Hell’s core, gnawing on several sinners at a time, and with his three horned heads weeping gigantic tears of frustration, this extraordinary sight amazes everyone. Staggered entry at peak times, or when sated. Not suitable for vegetarians.
Chez Tantalus: See your dinner hover over you, but never quite get close enough to eat!
Bar Lethe: A popular, even crowded, establishment, despite the slow and surly service of barmaid Medusa. You’ll soon forget everything, including why you came.
Fresh ‘n’ Fruity: Hell has several branches of this surprising chain, where you can experience the fresh-picked fruit of your choice turning to ashes in your mouth. Fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil in season.
Holes of the Simoniacs: Dive head-first into these funnels of fun, and let a devil set the soles of your feet on fire!
The Sacks@Malebolge: Ten delightful mini-ditches in the trendy 8th Circle, specially designed for liars and flatterers. Enjoy an in-room massage from attentive demons.
Angel Rocks: A cheap and charming perch from which to brood on your circumstances.
The Third Circle Spa (M. Cerberus, prop.): Wallow in perfumed mud for as long as you like, and longer!
Il Sanguineo (7th Circle): Watch your body turn as red as this river of blood, in an exceptional toning experience!
Gay and LGBT scene
Much improved in recent years. Continual cruising is the norm in the 7th Circle, where anyone who stops encounters an intriguing rain of fire.
To sum up: “Hell: Your first resort, and your last!”
Below is my sermon on Hell for our Razing Hell sermon series. I used a large door in the course of my sermon to illustrate my points so the visual might be helpful to you. I will post the video later.
At the beginning of my ministry, I worked for a couple of years as a chaplain at the maximum security prison in Trenton, New Jersey. I enjoyed it. In a lot of ways, the Gospel makes more sense in a place like that than anywhere else.
But I didn’t enjoy everything about the job.
Part of my routine, every week, was to visit and counsel the inmates in solitary confinement.
It was a sticky, hot, dark wing of the prison. Because every inmate was locked behind a heavy, steel door, unlike the rest of the prison, the solitary wing was as silent as a tomb.
Whenever I think of Hell, I think of that place. But not for the reasons you might expect.
Whenever I visited solitary, the officer on duty was almost always a 50-something Sgt named Moore.
Officer Moore had a thick, Mike Dikta mustache and coarse sandy hair he combed into a meticulous, greased part. He was tall and strong and, to be honest, intimidating. He had a Marine Corps tattoo on one forearm and a heart with a woman’s name on the other arm.
If we weren’t in church, I’d also tell you he was a blank-hole.
So…you get the picture.
Whenever I visited solitary he’d buzz me inside only after I refused to go away. He’d usually be sitting down, gripping the sides of his desk, reading a newspaper.
I hated going there because, every time I did, he’d greet me ridicule.
He’d grumble things like: ‘Save your breath, preacher, you’re wasting your time.’
He’d grumble things like: ‘Do you know what these people did? They don’t deserve forgiveness.’ He’d grumble things like: ‘They only listen to you because they’ve got no one else.’
Once, when we gathered for a worship service, I’d invited Officer Moore to join us. He grumbled that he’d have ‘nothing to do with a God who’d have anything to do with trash like them’ and refused to come in.
Instead he sat outside with his arm crossed.
The locked prison door between us. About halfway through my time at the prison, Officer Moore suffered a near fatal attack; in fact, he was dead for several minutes before the rescue squad revived him. I know this because when he returned to work, he told me. Tried to throw it in my face.
‘It’s all a sham’ he grumbled at me one afternoon.
‘I was dead for 3 minutes. Dead. And you know what I experienced? Nothing. I didn’t see any bright light at the end of any tunnel. It was just darkness. Your god? All make believe.’
Even though I don’t put much stock in the light at the end of the tunnel cliche, that didn’t stop me from saying: ‘Maybe you should take that as a warning. Maybe there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for you.’
He grumbled and said: ‘Don’t tell me you believe in Hell?’
‘What makes you think I wouldn’t believe in Hell?’ I asked.
‘You actually believe in it?’ he asked, as though I’d surprised him for the first time.
‘Well, Jesus talks about Hell,’ I said, ‘more than the rest of the Bible combined.’
‘Oh, and since I don’t believe in your Jesus, I’m going to Hell? Is that it?’
He pushed his chair back and fussed with his collar. He suddenly seemed uncomfortable.
‘When Jesus talks about Hell,’ I said, ‘he doesn’t say anything about unbelief. It would be easier if he did. Jesus talks about Hell, he talks about people with contempt towards their neighbors, religious people who are gossips and hypocrites, people who refuse to help those in need. Those kinds of people.’
Officer Moore stared at me. ‘So what the Hell’s Hell like then?’ he asked, smirking. ‘Fire and brimstone, I mean, really?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘fire, brimstone, gnashing of teeth, those are probably all metaphors.’ He let out a sarcastic sigh of relief. So then I added: ‘They’re probably metaphors for something much worse.’ That got his attention. ‘I’ve got a book you should read sometime,’ I said and walked to the first cell.
During the course of my ministry, I’ve met far too many people who’ve been hurt by Christians who spoke callously or cavalierly about Hell.
That’s the last thing I want to do.
So today I want to be uncharacteristically restrained and non-confrontational.
Sort of. I say sort of because I also know that for most of you, like for most middle and upper class Christians in America, Hell is an absurdity. You tell people to go to Hell, but you don’t actually believe in it. So today I want to be uncharacteristically straightforward. No sarcasm or jokes, sorry. I don’t want to give you another reason to think the doctrine of Hell is just an absurdity.
Now, it can be misleading to say ‘the doctrine of Hell’ because within the Christian tradition there are a variety of perspectives.
What I want to do today is walk you through three of the primary ways the Christian tradition has conceived of Hell. I want to point out the strengths and problems in each view, and then I want to offer you what I think Jesus is trying to teach us when he teaches about Hell.
God takes the sinner. Throws them into Hell. And locks the doors. Forever.
In this view, Hell is physical and spiritual anguish.
As the rich man in Jesus’ parable begs: ‘Cool my tongue for I am in agony…warn my brothers so they don’t come into this torture chamber.’
And in this view, Hell is endless. You never escape. You can never repent. And you never perish.
This is Dante’s image of God’s inferno, where the message above the doors to Hell read: ‘Abandon all hope.’
Now, I can tell from the looks on your faces that this is the view of Hell you best know and most resist. You can feel the problem in this view even if you can’t articulate it.
It’s a moral problem. It’s hard to imagine the god who died for us turning around and turning us over to perpetual torment?
And the word perpetual gets at the problem. There’s a problem of proportion. Even the very worst of human sin is finite. That it should meet with infinite punishment is disproportionate.
The graphic imagery of this view of Hell can lead to caricature, and it’s easy to dismiss a caricature.
But notice. Who doesn’t seem to object to the idea of Hell as punishment? Lazarus.
Notice too- the rich man knows Lazarus’ name; therefore, he must’ve known Lazarus’ suffering.
And the rich man did nothing.
And Lazarus died.
Lazarus isn’t gleeful over the rich man’s punishment, but neither is he troubled by it.
Behind all the Medieval exaggeration, what this view of Hell is trying to proclaim is God’s promise that one day he will judge sin and evil and set things right.
Of course, people tell me all the time ‘I believe in a God of love; I don’t believe in a God of Judgement.’ But before you completely brush aside the notion of a Judgmental God, listen to this. It’s from Miroslav Volf. He’s a theologian from the Balkans and in the ‘80‘s he was tortured for being a Christian:
“If God were not angry at injustice, God would not be worthy of our worship. The practice of Christian nonviolence requires the belief that God will one day judge. If you disagree, I suggest imagining that you are in a war zone (which is where my paper was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats cut.
Imagine telling them that they should not punish their enemies because God does not judge or punish. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home to insist that an all-loving God does not judge or punish. You would do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind” (Exclusion and Embrace, 303).
Rather than God throwing people into Hell and locking the door closed behind them.
Picture instead God throwing open the doors of his Kingdom and saying: ‘Get out of here. Leave’
This understanding of Hell recognizes that scripture’s imagery for Hell is…imagery. Annihilation isn’t about physical punishment. God instead judges by saying to the sinner: ‘Depart from me.’ And because it’s in God’s presence that we live and move and have our being, once the judged sinner departs from God’s presence they simply cease to exist. Poof.
You can think of how the rich man in the parable no longer has a name after he dies. Whereas in life the rich man probably had thousands of Twitter followers, in death as he departs from God’s presence he loses his name and eventually his very self. He’s in the process of disintegration.
The strength of this view is that it holds onto the biblical importance of God’s justice while avoiding the nasty visual of God tormenting sinners endlessly.
The problem with this view of Hell, however, is God’s sovereignty. If God is all-powerful and God desires to share fellowship with us in God’s New Creation then how is it that some are lost forever? How is it that the Sovereign, all-powerful God fails?
Universalism pictures a Hell where the doors are never closed.
Although Universalism has always been considered a heresy, it has just enough Gospel-logic to it that it’s never died away. In other words, God created all of us. God called Israel to be a light to all nations. God so loved all the world that he took flesh in Jesus, and while we were sinners Jesus died for all of us. Therefore, ultimately God will get what God wants. All will be saved.
You could point to the parable today- how it shows a chasm between the rich man and Heaven but even still the rich man doesn’t appear to be permanently lost to God. The rich man can see Heaven and speak to Abraham. And it’s true the rich man is punished, but it’s not clear that he’s damned. Abraham calls the rich man: ‘My son…’
Despite being a heresy, Universalism persists because it points out what the Eternal Punishment view frequently obscures: the allness of what God desires. But the problem with Universalism is that it emphasizes what God desires at the expense of what we desire. God’s grace in this view is so irresistible it is, in fact, coercive. In the End, ultimately, we’re not free. We can’t freely choose NOT to choose God. Our loving relationship with God then is more like an arranged marriage.
Those are three ways the Christian tradition has viewed Hell. In the end, I believe all three of them are inadequate.
Here’s why: Christians believe that in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, God has defeated Sin, Death and the Devil once and for all, it is finished- that’s why I never talk about the Devil.
Christians believe Jesus suffered for us, took our punishment on himself, descended all the way into Hell to experience the forsakenness due us.
So to say God chooses to send us to Hell is to suggest that there’s something God did not accomplish in Jesus, something God did not defeat on the Cross. And that’s the glaring theological problem with the three traditional views of Hell. The premise, the assumption, behind each of them is that Hell must be something God chooses for us.
But, in scripture, especially in Jesus’ teachings, Hell is something we choose for ourselves. And that’s scarier than pitchforks and gnashing teeth.
It’s not that God needs to be reconciled to us. He does that on the Cross.
Hell is our refusal to be reconciled to God. Hell is something we choose.
Look at the parable. The rich man doesn’t ask to get out. He doesn’t repent. He doesn’t beg for mercy. Like an addict, he denies the reality and severity of his situation. He shifts the blame: ‘Abraham, warn my brothers so they won’t end up here too.’ Meaning: I didn’t get a fair shake; I don’t deserve to be here. What’s the first thing the rich man says? ‘Send Lazarus down here to wait on me.’ The rich man’s not trying to get out of Hell. He’s just trying to get Lazarus in. He still sees Lazarus as beneath him. Who he chose to be on Earth is now all he is in Hell. He’s just a ‘rich man.’
The rich man made himself the Lord of his life. He loved himself more than he loved God. He lived his life as though the world revolved around him just as a Kingdom revolves around a King.
Imagine if the rich man were in God’s New Creation where God is Lord and King. If the rich man were in heaven, heaven would feel like Hell to him. He’d be in agony. As Orthodox Christians say, the ‘wrath of God’ is only how those who reject God experience God’s love.’ To those who turn their back against God, heaven feels like hell.
Could God forgive the rich man’s sin and welcome into heaven? Of course. God already forgave him. On the Cross.
But would the rich man choose heaven?
Even in Hell he doesn’t choose it.
The question people always want to ask is:
Is it possible for God to forgive Hitler and Stalin and let them into Heaven?
But that gets it all backwards.
The better question is:
Would they choose Heaven?
The still better question is: Would we?
And this isn’t just abstract speculation about where we’ll spend eternity. No, whenever the bible teaches about eternal life it does to call attention to your present, earthly life.
I know enough about enough of you to know that this where you should pay attention:
The flames of Hell that scripture speaks of- Jesus is trying to show us how those flames burn within each of us.
Within each of us there is something:
anger, resentment, contempt, greed, self-love, self-loathing
that if we don’t put it out, if we don’t ask God to extinguish it,
it can consume us.
In this life.
And into the next.
If you don’t believe me or know what I’m talking about, ask any divorced person in this room what it’s like to have such anger it nearly burns your life down.
A few days after our conversation about Hell, I left in Officer Moore’s mailbox a copy of a book, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.
It’s a fable about the residents of Hell taking a bus trip to Heaven. They’re given the option to stay but, one by one, they choose to turn and go back.
I had dog-eared some pages and highlighted some text for Officer Moore, hoping we could talk about it the next time I saw him.
Specifically, I highlighted these words:
Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Your will be done.’
I left the book in his mailbox.
A week later I went to solitary to see if he wanted to talk.
As always he refused to buzz me in but this time when I mentioned I was there to talk to him, he didn’t give in. He wouldn’t let me in.
I asked if he read the book.
Not saying anything, he got up and walked to the entrance door, his body was one big snarl.
He slid the book between the bars.
‘A whole lot of nonsense’ he grumbled at me.
And then he told me to go the Hell away.
Here’s what Jesus wants you to realize:
In this life and the next,
Hell is prison where the doors are locked from the inside.
As I’ll articulate in my sermon this weekend for our Razing Hell series, the problem with the Medieval understanding of Hell is a moral problem. It’s not proportional: finite sin = infinite punishment. Additionally, how can the blessed in God’s New Creation love God and enjoy him forever if eternal torment is going on downstairs?
Mr Deity skewers this question. And please, get the John the Baptist/Forerunner joke.
FYI: Some missed my ‘this is vulgar’ warning on the Woody Allen video. This has some humor in it too that some may not like.