Hell, and the Believers Thereof

Slacktivist has been talking a great deal about Hell recently, but unfortunately this is a topic where his characteristic weaknesses all come to a fore at once.  He doesn’t really go about making an argument; he merely states that these people are wrong and then attacks them for it.  As such, I thought I’d respond in the footnote-laden manner to which he is accustomed.  (The pertinent posts are here, here, and here.)

Let me clarify that I’m not attacking Fred Clark’s position.  Indeed, he never bothers to state his position, which is the first problem.  He supports Rob Bell, but never says specifically that his position is right.  He only says that the opposing position is wrong.  Thus he shields himself from criticism, and more importantly, he shields himself from analysis: sans details, we can’t possibly judge the relative strength of his position versus the ones he criticizes.  After all, even if the case for Hell were as terribly weak as he insists, it might still be stronger than the alternative.  But I guess we’ll never know*.

As I say, I am not criticizing his position; I’m criticizing his argument, because it’s weak and uncharitable and unfitting of someone as smart as him.  Slacktivist states that all belief in Hell rests on three passages:

The case for Team Hell, ultimately, comes down to three passages.These aren’t the only passages that mention Hell, but the others that do so do only that — mention it without any explanation of what the Hell they are mentioning means.

The passages are Luke 16:19-31, Matthew 25:41-46, and Revelation 20:11-15.  The verses that he didn’t bother to mention because, apparently, they’re irrelevant to the discussion include Matthew 5:22-29, Matthew 8:12, Matthew 10:28, Matthew 11:23, Matthew 18:6-9, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 23:33, Mark 9:41-49, Luke 12:4-5, Luke 13:22-30, James 3:6, and 2 Peter 2:4-9**.

The sheer quantity of verses should be an indication that the topic is important.  Slacktivist would, no doubt, point out that there are even more verses about his favorite topics, but let’s not play that game***.  Let’s address his assertion that these verses don’t actually say anything about Hell.  I can only attribute this to grossly inadequate contextual reading skills.  If something is mentioned in the text but not explained, you look for other places in the text where it is explained–say, the three passages that he mentions.  Then you can assume that, in the other passages, it means the same thing.  Conversely, if you want to see whether Hell is an important part of the three main passages or whether it’s just some kind of irrelevant offhand mention (more on that later), look at whether it’s also mentioned in other places.

But even the initial statement that the other verses don’t explain anything about Hell is nonsense.  Luke 13 is so direct that it throws into serious doubt Slacktivist’s assertion that the other three verses are the only important ones.  Even offhand references like Matthew 5 contain some content: Hell is, apparently, worse than losing a limb.  Put all the verses together and a fairly consistent and comprehensive picture emerges of a place of judgment, suffering, and separation to which people are condemned for their actions–without any need to reference the three “main” passages.

Notice how he’s framed the argument to put those he disagrees with on the defensive.  One is immediately forced to go looking for verses supporting one’s own view.  But it’s equally legitimate to ask him how many verses support his view–the initial score, by his own admission, is three verses to zero.  He’s attempting to cast his view as the “default” view that’s true until something else is proven, but there is no reason that should be the case, particularly since he holds a minority view.

Setting aside these dozen other highly pertinent verses, Slacktivist’s actual argument against the “main three” manages to scarcely touch on either the verses or the concept of Hell.  He instead starts aimlessly making unrelated statements.  First of all, that the authors didn’t care about the afterlife:

The author in each case is utterly disinterested in the cartography and logistics of the afterlife and each author is so consumed with the primary focus and meaning of what is really being said here that it’s hard not to imagine them being extremely angry to learn that their words would one day be conscripted by people mainly interested in arguing for the “literal” existence of Dante’s Inferno.

I’m trying to recall who I’ve read who argued against literary analysis that creates a narrative about how the work was created, the idea being that you shouldn’t say something was “hastily written” or the like because you don’t actually know whether it was or not and it distracts you from the actual content of the text.  I think it was Marianne Robinson, but I’m not sure.  Certainly anyone who has taken a literature class in the last 20 years knows that what the author was trying to say isn’t always the most important part of the work.  Point being that Slacktivist doesn’t know whether the authors cared about the afterlife or not–he doesn’t care, so he’s projecting his belief onto them.

He is generally correct in his next statement:

The point of these passages, clearly, is ethical instruction and I don’t think they can really be made to accommodate any other reading. Luke 16:19-31 is not about Hell and it’s not about how to avoid being sent to Hell. It’s about how you and I ought to respond to the beggars at our gates. Matthew 25:41-46 is not about Hell and it’s not about how to avoid being sent to Hell. It’s about how you and I ought to respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and imprisoned.

But he then draws the conclusion that, because Hell isn’t the main point of this passage, Hell isn’t relevant to those passages at all.  This is odd.  He seems to deny that one passage might make two or more different points.  It’s a particularly curious thing to overlook in this context: You can’t and shouldn’t separate a statement about punishment from a statement about what is being punished.  For instance, it wouldn’t make sense (and would be mean) to tell your kid “I am willing to send you to your room!  I will do it if I need to!” if you don’t also say under what conditions you will send the child to his or her room.  Thus passages of ethical instruction are precisely where one would expect to find explanations about Hell.

Here he also makes this irrelevant attack:

The strongest case for Team Hell, in other words, involves a perverse reading of passages that excludes the very reason those passages were written.

As if one would have to forget the ethical meaning in order to notice the eschatological one.  I suppose he says this because he he wants to forget the eschatological meaning to emphasize the ethical one.

On the other hand, if, as Slacktivist suggests, these passages aren’t saying that people might get punished in Hell (even as a secondary point), then Jesus is using a Space Whale Aesop****.  It’s fair to let the parables off the hook because they’re metaphorical anyway, but Slacktivist’s apparent conclusion that when Jesus says “The Pharisees will be condemned to Hell for their hypocrisy,” he actually means “The Pharisees are hypocrites but whatever, it’s cool,” is a dubious one.  Jesus warning people about real danger fits makes sense; threatening people with imaginary danger does not.

In short: Even if not that many verses talk about Hell, the logical interpretation is still going to be that they say what they seem to say.

And that’s the extent of Slacktivist’s actual argument.  He spends the rest of his time equivocating and attacking people who disagree with him, like so:

Insurmountably awkward, I think, for those members of Team Hell who want to insist that these passages must be interpreted “literally” in support of a sadistic notion of eternity. Because if we read these passages in the “literal” manner that would allow us to regard them as teaching the existence of Dante’s Hell then we must also “literally” accept what they say about who that Hell is for. (And it clearly isn’t for Gandhi.)

Some background is in order here.  The Slacktivist blog’s main occupation, and the main reason for its popularity, is its ruthlessly meticulous ongoing dissection of the Left Behind series.  He has made a strong argument that the Christianity taught in Left Behind is practically unrecognizable as anything derived from the Bible: First, because they believe so strongly in salvation by faith that they seem to consider good works to actually be suspect, as a sign that you don’t believe enough in salvation by faith alone, and second, because they not only believe in the damnation of all non-Calvinists, but they seem to be actually looking forward to it and reveling smugly in the knowledge that they are going to be saved and other people won’t.

What Slacktivist is doing here is lumping all Christians who believe in any sort of Hell–that is, virtually all of them, including groups like the Catholics that vehemently reject Left Behind Christianity and vice versa–in with that narrow group.  The irony that one of his other criticisms of Left Behind is its tendency to lump all non-Christians together in one group is apparently lost on him.

Having, apparently, proven that Hell doesn’t exist to his own satisfaction, he goes on to spend the next two posts attributing terrible motives to people who believe in it:

The odder, larger question is why the members of Team Hell so very much want this imagined eternal torment to be true. It can’t simply be that they believe this because “the Bible tells me so,” because, as we have just seen, the biblical case for this belief is terribly, terribly thin. So, again, what’s really going on here? And why?

Here he’s echoing a point he likes to make when fringe bits of Christianity, or the population at large, make stupid claims, such as that Procter and Gamble are Satan worshipers.  Since such a belief is so wantonly untrue as to require continual willful self-deception to maintain it, he argues that you really have to want it to be true in order to believe it, generally because it makes you feel superior (“at least I’m not a Satan worshiper like them”).

It should be obvious why you can on no account apply the same logic to theology.  Since theology isn’t concretely provable, it all comes down to what you personally do or don’t find convincing (or, more emotionally, what does or doesn’t resonate with you), and the range of religious beliefs there are testifies to how subjective that measure is.

For the sake of my Catholic and Orthodox friends, I’ll mention tradition here.  It’s perfectly legitimate to say that, over the past two thousand years, lots of people smarter than Fred Clark have come to the conclusion that Hell does indeed exist, and that therefore it probably does.  This is quicker than reading the fifty or a hundred pages Thomas Aquinas dedicates to the subject.

So it’s profoundly insulting, not to mention hubristic, for Slacktivist to say “You didn’t believe my argument because you hate people and want them to burn in Hell.”  But that’s what he says.  Is he suggesting that Thomas Aquinas, too, was just sadistic, and that he wrote a five-volume treatise merely as a cover?  (Yes, Slacktivist uses the word sadistic.)

I’ll end with Slacktivist’s description of what he sees as the only possible way to argue for the existence of Hell:

This is why Team Hell’s strategy is always the same:

Step1: Loudly attack opponents of Hell as heretics and Bible-deniers.

Step 2: Loudly assert that the doctrine of Hell is biblical.

Step 3: Even more loudly re-assert that the doctrine of Hell is biblical.

Step 4: Repeat Step 3 until you’re the only one left talking.

Obviously Slacktivist has listened to everyone who has ever supported the existence of Hell or he wouldn’t make such a dismissive blanket statement.  It’s pretty clear, though, that he hasn’t listened to himself, because his argument consists of loudly attacking proponents of Hell as sadists and Bible-deniers, loudly asserting that the doctrine of Hell is unbiblical, and then repeating ad nauseam.  He doesn’t even need to shout anyone else down, because he is a blogger, and there was no one else talking to begin with.


*One does sometimes come to the conclusion that one view is wrong without knowing what he correct view is.  For instance, I might say, “I don’t know how to balance state budgets, but cutting teachers’ benefits isn’t the right way.”  The key here is admitting you don’t know the answer in order to open up a conversation.  Slacktivist isn’t interested in having a conversation.  He clearly thinks he knows the right answer, so his refusal to share it seems to be deliberately trying to avoid defending it.

**I could add to this list every verse that mentions being saved, since you logically have to be saved from something bad, unless one is defending a sort of grocery-store salvation, where you’re assured you’re getting “tremendous everyday savings!” but you never find out under what circumstances you wouldn’t be getting those savings.

***He would bring up how many verses there are talking about, say, caring for the poor.  But that’s irrelevant because that isn’t the topic at hand, unless he’s going to argue that the Bible only says one thing, determined by what topic has the most verses.

****For the uninitiated, some morals are subtle and therefore hard to portray as they actually occur, so it’s easier to show fantastic consequences that are greatly in excess of, or completely unrelated to, the actual consequences.  For example, “save the whales or they might have a consequence on our ecosystem” is difficult to show on screen, so Star Trek IV shows the alternate result “save the whales or a space probe may come and destroy Earth.”  This is not usually considered a very strong literary technique.

Image is of course the Gates of Hell from William Blake’s excellent illustrations of the Divine Comedy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


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One response to “Hell, and the Believers Thereof

  1. Pingback: Hell Again, and the Inescapable Smuggery | Chimaera

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