A Helluva Post on the Rectification of Names
What the hell does that title mean, you may well ask! Well, let’s jump right in.
“Rectification of names” is a significant concept in Confucius‘ thought. Simply put, it means calling things what they actually are, and acting accordingly. Or to put it succinctly, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Don’t step in s*%$ and call it peanut butter!” In the course of another lengthy blog discussion, I’ve thought more about some issues I’ve already been pondering, especially in relation to the doctrine of Hell, in the run-up to outing myself as a universalist. I am persuaded that there needs to be a lot of rectification of names in this area, because I think an awful lot of people are stepping in theological s*%$ and calling it eschatological peanut butter.
Let’s start by laying some groundwork. Traditionally, the three major Abrahamic religions have all taught the continuance of human existence after death. The first Abrahamic religion, Judaism, has traditionally been rather vague about this–it is usually phrased in terms of the “world to come”, with the terms “paradise” and “heaven” rarely if ever used, and “hell” (in this context, translations of the Hebrew Šě’ôl, “Sheol” or Gê’ Hinnôm, “Gehenna”) even vaguer. Broadly, the idea of an eternal hell is not integral to Judaism.
On the other hand, it has historically been front and center in both Christianity and Islam. That is, both of these religions have taught the following:
1. All humans will continue to exist after bodily death.
2. All humans will be divided after death into two categories, the damned and the elect.
3. The damned will be those who have been evil, sinful, etc. (we’ll discuss exact criteria later); the virtuous will be elect.
4. The damned will be consigned to Hell, where they will be tortured and punished for all eternity. The saved will go to Heaven (Paradise, the Garden of Allah, etc.) where they will experience eternal bliss.
This description has been broad-brush and has hewed fairly close to the traditional views. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to the four points above as the Traditional View of Hell, which I’m abbreviating TVOH. Now let’s look at it and see what we can dig out of it.
First, the TVOH necessarily implies one of two things about the damned. One is that the damned–leave aside for the moment the exact criteria by which they became damned–deserve their fate. Let’s be explicit: we’re saying that one possible implication of TVOH is that a finite human being, capable of only a finite (even if large) amount of sin, evil, or miscellaneous mischief, can deserve, in full justice, an eternity of punishment. Thus, under this assumption, it is fully just and appropriate that God damn such people for eternity. This has been more or less the view of most strains of Christianity over the centuries.
The second possibility is that God more or less arbitrarily damns certain people for reasons we cannot understand. Bob goes to Hell, Jack goes to Heaven–simple as that. This view has been characteristic, to varying extents, of St. Augustine, the Jansenists, traditional TULIP Calvinism, and Islam. I’d hasten to add that adherents of this view, like those of the first, would argue that it is just. The difference is that the adherents of the first view would view the justice of damnation as being comprehensible or explicable in human terms, at least in principle; whereas for the latter, God’s actions are just simply because He’s God. The perfect exemplar of this view is Augustine’s teaching that unbaptized infants go to Hell. He acknowledged that this seemed rather unpleasant, but that (given this theological position) that was just how the cookie crumbled. God does it, it’s His action, therefore it’s just–case closed. The Church, unable to stomach such an extreme view, softened it with the concept of Limbo; but if nothing else, Augustine’s view was perfectly logical, given his presuppositions.
Either of these positions could be defended, and both have been defended. The argument for the first usually boils down to saying that though in their proximal effects, all human sins are finite, they are ultimately sins against God, who is infinite. A sin against the Infinite is therefore of infinite import, and thus deserving (if unforgiven) of infinite punishment. This, in my view, is really the only way to defend this perspective; but one doesn’t hear it much any more. First, it’s not completely clear that this analysis is correct. Second, it seems to give more weight to God’s justice than to His purported mercy, and implies Him to be more rule-bound than personalistic. Finally, it begs the question of whether the deck was stacked against humanity to begin with.
As to the second view, that God’s judgments are more or less inscrutable and arbitrary, there are people who are well-meaning, sincere, and basically good people, by no means deficient in intelligence or logic, who hold this view, or something like it, while at the same time maintaining God’s infinite love, mercy, and compassion. I have to say that I have never understood this. Such a God seems to me to be monstrous and demonic; but some people seem to be able to believe that such a God is not so. All I can do is scratch my head. On the whole, though, this view is little defended; and even those who hold some form of it will usually argue that God is just in arbitrarily damning the lost, since they deserved it. That’s not even coherent; but it shows that there is some subliminal discomfort with the idea of an absolutely arbitrary judgment.
Thus, in our first step towards rectifying the names, we have to say that the existence of Hell means either 1. a) infinite punishment for finite sin is just or 1. b) God is a capricious tyrant.
Next is Christian attitudes towards Hell. Given the TVOH, many (if not most) of the human race is going to Hell forever. Is that a horrible tragedy, or should we laud it, even rejoice at it? In the introduction to later editions of his Dare We Hope that “All Men Be Saved”?, Hans Urs von Balthasar expressed astonishment and dismay at the strength of the response to his book, which posited the mere possibility (he was a soft universalist) of the salvation of all. He said that many vigorously denounced him, insisting not only that God did damn some, but that it was necessary for Christians to believe, nay, to want these lost souls to be damned. Balthasar was quite taken aback; he rightly pointed out that Christians are supposed to desire the salvation of all, even if they don’t believe it will be achieved. He feared that there was a deep-seated vindictiveness being expressed by his critics; and I agree with him.
Several years ago, there was a back-and-forth between the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things, and New Oxford Review editor Dale Vree over a remark by the former that implied a universalist viewpoint (specifically a soft universalist viewpoint, Fr. Neuhaus having a view similar to that of Balthasar). Vree, in the most hostile terms imaginable, essentially implied Neuhaus to be a borderline heretic, and probably a reprobate, for entertaining even the possibility of universal salvation. The exchange went on for some months, eventually dying down, though Vree did not give a single inch on his views.
As I was researching for this post, I ran across this post and this one, at this site. The author is an atheist, and I disagree with some of his views. Still, the first linked post, entitled “Christians Love Hell More than Heaven”, makes some sobering points, and is worth quoting at length, my emphasis:
In a previous post, I wrote about how religious believers use Heaven and Hell . Basically, they can’t enjoy Heaven unless they are sure others must suffer in Hell.
Sure, believers may feel offended by this analysis. If you ask them, they probably would deny enjoying the idea of hell. People deny all sorts of things if admission makes them look bad.
Does this atheist have some special insight into religious minds that believers themselves don’t have?
Actually, plenty of Christians know exactly how Heaven and Hell is supposed to work in the minds of believers. Just days after my post, The Christian Post published an article saying that real Christians must believe in Hell, or else they will go to Hell. This article, “Universalism: For Whom the Bell Tolls? – It Tolls for Thee” by Kevin Shrum , is an attack on the idea of Universalism — that everyone eventually receives salvation and goes to heaven.
In Kevin Shrum’s hands, Hell becomes just about the most important part of all of God’s creation. [H]e “has been in ministry for 29 years…and is an Adjunct Professor of Theology for Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.” So he knows about Christianity, all of genuine Christianity, I guess. Well, at least he knows Hell, and he likes what he sees.
Shrum announces his contempt for anyone favoring Universalism, such as the Universalist he is addressing in this article, megachurch leader Rob Bell :
Shrum goes on to explain why Universalism cannot be God’s plan:
“… if Love Wins in the way you are reported to say that it does, why be a Christian at all? I don’t get it. If, in the end, nothing really matters (how I live or who I serve) because God will save the worst of us even if we refused to follow Jesus in this life, why follow Jesus in this life at all? Why live holy or make any attempt to really love my neighbor?”
Wow — Schrum actually just said that you can’t really love your neighbor unless you can hate another neighbor enough to send them to Hell.
This crude moralism is there in Schrum’s own words:
“If universalism is true, I’m going for the best of what both worlds have to offer – eat, drink, and be merry in this life for tomorrow I will die, and when I do die I get heaven no matter what happened this side of eternity. And what’s my reward? I get away with it!
Are you kidding! I’m a ‘stinkin’ sinner’ who is already uninterested in and struggling with changing my ways, so if I don’t have to and I can still get heaven and if thumbing my self-important finger in God’s face has no eternal consequences, this is awesome and I for one am all about it. If universalism is true I may or may not be faithful to my wife, depending on if it benefits me; I may or may not love my kinds, etc.”
Evidently, being worthy is all about pleasing an authority figure who demands sacrifice, and one’s sacrifice is worthless unless others are punished for not making that sacrifice too.
In the flurry of letters and comments unleashed during the Neuhaus/Vree brouhaha, several commenters in those benighted, pre-blogosphere days said pretty much the same thing: that they would live how they liked were it not for the fear of Hell, and that therefore to teach universal salvation is an invitation to immorality and societal collapse–the same kind of thing Shrum is quoted as saying above.
Now all great theologians have said that virtue is its own reward and that doing right merely out of fear of punishment is, while better than doing evil, nevertheless the least laudable form of behavior. To put it in psychological terms, pre-conventional or conventional morality (doing right because of fear of punishment or desire to conform to society) is good in that it at least keeps you from doing wrong and keeps society safe, but people ought to aspire to post-conventional morality–doing right for its own sake and not being bound in a straightjacket of fear and draconian rules. Apparently, many of the proponents of Hell are not only not post-conventional in their moral outlook, but they think that even the concept of it is a bad, if not potentially disastrous, thing.
So to rectify names a bit more:
2. a) Many Christians actually see Hell not as a sorrowful thing, but a vital necessity and an active good.
2. b) As a corollary, they have an active desire to see malefactors damned. In short, it’s not just a tragedy, but an active attitude of, “Yes, those m*^%$#@*&^%$#s are getting what they deserve! Justice is served! God is not mocked!”
2. c) As another corollary, such people seem to have a model of morality that is at best conventional, if not pre-conventional, a model which they project on everyone else; that is, they assume that people are driven so much towards selfishness and sin that only threats, the bigger the better–preferably the infinite and eternal threat of Hell–can keep them in line.
2. d) As a final corollary, this implies that these people have rather disordered inner lives themselves. In short, they are not saying, “Because of the love of God and the grace He gives me, I no longer have a desire for sin X,” or even the less exalted, “Though I am strongly tempted to X, I don’t want to be that kind of person,” but rather, “I wanna do X soooo bad, but if I do I’m gonna burn, so I’ll refrain. As long as all the other yahoos who give in will burn.” To me, this is clearly the subtext of Shrum’s statements above. In short, it is (at least on a subconscious level) not about becoming a better person as an end in itself or or becoming more loving or decent or getting closer to God. In short, it’s not about personal transformation–it’s about personal preservation. That is, it’s about keeping the rules sufficiently to get picked to go to the head of the eschatological class.
This post has looked at the blunter aspects of the TVOH and those who hold it. It gets much subtler than that, though, which is what we’ll look at in the next post.
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.
Posted on 02/11/2012, in Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged afterlife, Catholicism, Christianity, damnation, heaven, Hell, religion, salvation, theodicy, theology, universalism. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.