Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Hell - a test case for your idea of Christian evidence

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That there is a place or state of Hell seems clear enough to most real Christians - but what Hell means, who it is for - what kind of people, what kind of proportion of people - and the matter of whether Hell is a default state or if not whether it is an imposed punishment of a self-chosen destination... these are matters of great disagreement among Christians.

My purpose here is simply to point out that how Christians discuss Hell is specific evidence of how they understand and evaluate Christianity in general - and indeed each Christian can reflect on their own way of discussing the subject of Hell as a way of diagnosing their own evaluation scheme.

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At one level it is trivially obvious that primary understanding of Hell comes from the authority structure of whatever Christian denomination to which you are affiliated - what I am interested by is what comes next. If further evidence is asked for, or evidence for the view of authority, then differences emerge.

For many people the proper way to understand Hell is to examine the Bible verses which reference Hell - or precursor or related concepts of Hell such as Sheol. These verses are then compared and synthesized to generate a picture of Hell.

I would call this a bottom-up or legalistic approach.

This view seems to suggest that Jesus Christ introduced Hell, and depicted it as a worse place than Sheol: a tormenting place rather than a place of ghostly dementia and witlessness; and that people were to be judged and sent to Hell.

It seems hard to avoid that Hell is a punishment - and Original Sin makes Hell seem like a default for humans primarily because of the transgression of Adam and Eve.

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At the opposite extreme is the way I personally tend to approach understanding Hell, which is very 'broad brush' - and that is by (for example) looking at the overall implication of Jesus's ministry in the Gospels.

What I see there is that Jesus was clearly preaching Good News. For me this sets the boundaries for whatever concept of Hell is settled upon - that it had to be something which was Good News in the context of the New Testament, against the backdrop of Jewish and Pagan ideas about the afterlife.

Whatever Hell is, therefore, as a package the destiny of the soul after life as described and promised by Christianity must be much better than anything on offer from paganism and Judaism.

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As further evidence, I take very seriously the broad brush context of the first and second commandments (to Love first God, then secondly they 'neighbour' as thyself) plus the repeated concept of God as Love; and the further consideration that all Men we are (in a profound sense) God's children (Sons of God).

So whatever Hell is, and whoever it is for, must be seen in a context of familial love, a Fathers love of children.

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A third factor is that in my broad brush way of considering the Bible - the Old Testament is all about the free will, choice and agency of the 'characters' - Adam and his family, Noah, the Kings and Prophets, smaller characters like Ruth, and even baddies like the Pharaoh in Genesis... they are all seen choosing and taking the consequences of their choices - and everything hinges on these being real choices.

So, the fact that Jesus was preaching Good News, that God is love, we are his children, and we have real free choice including the freedom to reject the Good News... all these broad brush considerations set fairly sharp bounds for how a Christian should conceptualize Hell.

So I see what Christ did as wholly Good News, a gift of salvation-by-default; and Hell as an anomalous and self-chosen state (not a punishment, not a place someone is sent against their wishes) - a destination chosen by free will, and against the deepest wishes of God.

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(This is not universalism nor Namby Pamby, Pollyanna-ish wishful-thinking - because I believe that many people have chosen, more are choosing and probably many more will in future choose, Hell - and that Hell really is Hellish. And also that Satan and his demons are at work increasing the numbers of people who make such choices. But although this situation surely angers God, as it would any loving parent if their children chose to reject family, goodness and love; this situation is primarily a source of deep, eternal sorrow to God - as it would be for any loving parent.)

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And in all this, there has not been not much place for the close analysis of chapter and verse and unravelling hard or ambiguous passages; there is no role for legalism - leave aside the microscopic examination of individual words and issues of the translation of Hebrew or Greek concepts.

Now, ideally I would want to be able to synthesize the broad brush with the chapter and verse sources of evidence - because ultimately they are not in conflict, and all contradictions must be superficial and not deep, apparent and not real.

But what matters is which level is primary: what needs to be reconciled to what.

Many or most modern Christians are bottom up - and reconcile the broad brush with the chapter and verse - I am pointing-out that the top down and broad brush view is of at least equal validity to legalism (and has the great advantage of being much less dependent on the minutiae of translation and historical context).

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