Friday, July 21, 2006

What the h*** are you expecting God to do?

In C. S. Lewis's Problem of Pain, Lewis asks "What are you expecting God to do?" (instead of having people go to hell?). This atheist website offers some suggestions to the Almighty. Though, if God doesn't exist, it's going to be tough for him to take them. HT: Ed Babinski.

15 comments:

JD Walters said...

The scenario the 'daylight atheist' describes doesn't sound that much different from the Christian view at all. The Bible affirms that we will all "stand before the judgment seat of Christ" and will give an account of everything we have done and said. And this guy's account of Hell isn't that far off either. It is quite imaginable that 'fire and brimestone' might be just feeling for yourself the harm you inflicted on others. It also means the absence of God, alienation from God and others because of your own selfish choices and narcissism. So what's the guy's point? This sounds very much like what we Christians believe God is actually going to do. Of course it's also mixed in with his own wishful thinking and projection, whereas Christians have the stomach to face reality as it is and not discard some part of revelation because it doesn't accord with our own desires or our own conception of how we think God should act.

Mark K. Sprengel said...

What JD said and the comment "If they refused (although I can't foresee that ever happening)" doesnt seem very realistic, considering mans ability for self-delusion, stubborn pride and rebellion.

Edward T. Babinski said...

On the topic of "wishful thinking and projection" (that jd walters brought up) and jd's belief that Christians accept the "hard truth," perhaps jd hasn't considered that for centuries the Hebrews believed (along with other ancient near easterners) that everyone (expect a very limited few like Enoch and Elijah) wound up together in the shadowy land of eternal death, sheol. The Sadduceus continued to believe the Scripture taught such a thing even in the first century. The first religion to loudly and unequivocally proclaim otherwise in the ancient near east appears to have been Zoroastrianism, not Judaism. (Judaism's late book of Daniel was merely playing catch up.)

Be that as it may, the Bible appears to contain a number of different views of the afterlife. Even today Evangelicals can quote Scripture all they want but never get each other to agree on whether or not "soul-death" is true as even some members of the Evangelical Theological Society argue it is (including John Stott of Basic Christianity fame, an Intervarsity Press author), or whether "eternal tortuous punishment" is true; or "eternal shunning [hell lite]," or even if "universalism" might not be true. (Universalist theology was pretty popular among some early church fathers and schools of theology. It also made a comeback after the Reformation. And a major drive during the 1700-1800s as well. It relies partly on some universal promises found in some Scripture verses, and also on what is arguably a more central message of God. Keep in mind that over time many Christians have come to agree not with the letter of the Bible's O.T. and N.T. laws concerning slavery and female submission to males, but have come to agree that OTHER messages in the Bible are "more central" than the letter when it comes to slavery and female submission to males. Universalists aruge that God's plans seem broader when you examine the spirit rather than the letter of the book. Universalists also agree that the words used about hell are metaphorical, but add that hellish punishments were part of the apocalyptic first-century mindset and so God might have accommodated his speech to ancient Near Eastern metaphors about the afterlife, just as God also accommodated his speech to the ancient Near Eastern use of "exaggerations." Anyway, those willing to learn more about Evangelical Christian universalists have a lot of catching up to do with their reading.)

Adam Lee said...

Hello there,

I'm the author of Daylight Atheism; my thanks for the mention. I'd like to respond to this comment by J.D. Walters:

" The scenario the 'daylight atheist' describes doesn't sound that much different from the Christian view at all."

I strongly disagree with that sentiment. As I say in my post, I envisioned this scenario as a response to C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain, which specifically defends the idea of Hell as an eternal punishment and challenges those who find that idea abhorrent to come up with a superior alternative. My scenario differs from the Christian one precisely in that it has no Hell and no eternal damnation, but rather a finite period of purgation in which each person is punished exactly as they deserve and no more.

"Of course it's also mixed in with his own wishful thinking and projection, whereas Christians have the stomach to face reality as it is and not discard some part of revelation because it doesn't accord with our own desires..."

I hope you'll understand if I, as an atheist, consider that sentiment ludicrous originating from a Christian. If you do not discard revelation because it conflicts with your desires, then why have you not sold all your possessions and taken up the life of a traveling mendicant and evangelist, as Christ very specifically instructed his followers to do?

JD Walters said...

Adam Lee,

Maybe you should get your facts before you jump to conclusions. You might be interested to know that up until very recently (high school) me and my family traveled preaching the Gospel in India, Bangladesh, Italy and Greece before finally settling down. During this time we often had no money in our pockets and no way of knowing where our next meal was coming from. I say this with all seriousness: it's not just an evangelistic cliche. And we still live very much in poverty compared to most middle-class Americans.

And I think you need to read your Bible a little more carefully. Those instructions were to Jesus' original band of itinerant followers, living in Roman-occupied Palestine, which called for that particular approach to evangelism. Later Paul said that "I have become all things to all men, so that by all means I may win some", and he had many wealthy friends in the cities he visited who didn't forsake all and travel around with him but provided valuable background support.

The Bible is a very complex document, with advise and instructions to suit a wide variety of circumstances. Just imagine if every Christian down through the ages had sold everything and traveled around preaching. Then there would have been no Christian universities to preserve classical learning in the Middle Ages, no Christian-run hospitals to care for the sick during the plagues (cf Rodney Stark, "The Rise of Christianity"), no great Christian art or music, etc. There are many different ways to spread the gospel. My point about not arbitrarily discarding revelation was that we don't shrink away from the parts which bother us, like the idea that Jesus was indeed the Son of God with exclusive access to the Father. It would be much more palatable to modern sensibilities to have a 'tame' Jesus, simply a great teacher full of sentimental love for everybody but who didn't make any theological claims whatsoever. In fact, that is just what Dan Brown and the Jesus Seminar try to sell: the acceptable Jesus, the Lion of Judah with its nails filed and its teeth plucked out.

I also think you need to read C.S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce" for a better idea of how he actually envisioned hell. You might have your eyes opened.

Adam Lee said...

"Maybe you should get your facts before you jump to conclusions. You might be interested to know that up until very recently (high school) me and my family traveled preaching the Gospel in India, Bangladesh, Italy and Greece before finally settling down..."

Nevertheless, you did still settle down, did you not?

"Just imagine if every Christian down through the ages had sold everything and traveled around preaching. Then there would have been no Christian universities to preserve classical learning in the Middle Ages, no Christian-run hospitals to care for the sick during the plagues (cf Rodney Stark, "The Rise of Christianity"), no great Christian art or music, etc."

I agree. Of course this commandment is ridiculous; you don't have to convince me of that! Nevertheless, that is what Jesus taught. The New Testament instructs his followers to sell whatever they own, to keep all necessary possessions in common, and to take no thought for the morrow. That is because the New Testament clearly envisions Christianity as something that would exist for only a short time until the second coming and the end of the world, which would occur within the lifetime of Jesus' original followers. It doesn't command Christians to settle down and raise families - in fact, the NT strongly encourages its followers not to marry or raise families because they thought there wouldn't be time for that! (Matthew 24:19, 1 Corinthians 7:29). This turned out to be wrong, of course, and Christianity has only flourished to the degree it has by neglecting these commands, which was my point. All Christians pick and choose which biblical verses to follow and which to disregard; it is inherent in the nature of Christianity.

"I also think you need to read C.S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce" for a better idea of how he actually envisioned hell. You might have your eyes opened."

I have read and reviewed The Great Divorce, here. It did not change by one iota my position that the idea of Hell is a sadistic and evil doctrine, no matter how it is envisioned. Maybe you should get your facts before you jump to conclusions.

JD Walters said...

You really expect me to believe that the New Testament is a 'he' and it instructs 'his' followers to forsake all?

See that's the problem with people like you when they try to discredit the Bible. You have no grasp of nuance or context. That's like claiming that the Bible says there is no God by slicing up Psalm 14:1 ("The fool has said in his heart, there is no God") and removing the "fool has said in his heart" part. That's not how you do responsible Biblical exegesis. Also, notice that the 'all things in common verse' is in the historical sense: "And all who believed were together, and had all things common" (Acts 2:44). It is describing what was the case in the early Jerusalem church, it is not giving a command. And who is it, anyway? The New Testament has several different authors writing in several different genres. If you think the Bible is some big 'instruction' book you're sadly mistaken.

I don't doubt that Jesus' early followers expected His return within their lifetimes. That only reinforces the conclusion that they must have had some experience of the risen Lord which was very real for them. Why otherwise would they have expected a dead man to come back? Notice also, however, that this fact argues against your conclusion. Why would a group expecting an imminent apocalypse go out and preach? Why didn't they sequester themselves in hiding in the desert, like the Essenes did? In fact that's one of the reasons some scholars cite to explain why the Gospels weren't written right after Jesus' death (which I don't necessarily accept): if Jesus is coming back soon anyway, there's no need to record his words.

But this has not stopped those who actually felt called to forsake all from doing so. Some obeyed Jesus and Paul's commands to give away all their possessions and preach the Gospel. Some obeyed Jesus and Paul's commands to serve the group through their wealth and resources. Some obeyed Jesus and Paul's commands or injunctions to serve through art, music and science. All of these people are being true to the Gospel. It is not a matter of ignoring certain verses. It is a matter of prayerfully deciding, in a spirit of humility and love for God, which of the verses apply to your own particular situation.

Jason said...

Some decent comments from both JD and Adam, actually!

(I doubt it's necessary, but just in case, I'll warn JD that Ed's recommendations are only for sake of being contentious: he's been opposing an 'Evangelical' Christian universalist of his own reading-acquaintence tooth and toenail on every point he can imagine for years--without even paying close enough to realize this person _is_ a universalist! Including when this person bothers to talk about it! Ahem. {g})


For Adam: I agree, Lewis didn't substantially change his theology on this (so far as I can see) from his first book after his conversion (_The Pilgrim's Regress_) to his last (_Letters to Malcolm_). (I like to call it the Can<>Shall position. {s}) He knew and respected the Christian universalist theologian George MacDonald, though. (A large portion of _The Great Divorce_ is his attempt at making peace on this topic with the man he elsewhere was fond of calling his Teacher.)

{{a finite period of purgation in which each person is punished exactly as they deserve and no more.}}

Well, there are verses here and there (including especially from Jesus by report) which point in that direction, too.


The key issue, perhaps, is what the punishment is supposed to be _for_. This is where theologians from varying schools make different use of the textual witness. If, for instance, Jesus is reported saying (especially in reference to an OT quote on the subject) that the fire in Gehenna is supposed to be accomplishing _peace_ for _everyone_, then personally I think that makes a crucially important difference in how various things should be interpreted. But opinions vary, to say the least. {sigh}{s!}


For JD: um, well a very large and vocal number of Christians (including many Christian authorities) _have_ been very busily engaged in telling people the Bible is one big instruction book, with a character basically the same as being the 4th Person of the Trinity (so to speak {s}); and they've been doing it for a _very_ long time. I wouldn't blame Adam if he's gotten that as a message.

Good work on the distinction of vocation, though.

Jason Pratt

Adam Lee said...

"You really expect me to believe that the New Testament is a 'he' and it instructs 'his' followers to forsake all?"

JD, really. Given the condescension with which you lecture me about context, I would hope you could keep two sentences of my post in mind at the same time:

"Nevertheless, that is what Jesus taught. The New Testament instructs his followers..."

In response to the rest of your post, I'll note only that you have completely conceded both my points: that the authors of the New Testament expected Jesus' return to occur within their lifetime, and that the falsity of this expectation requires modern Christians to disregard certain biblical commands that are based on that expectation. Though you try to put the best face on this by calling it "prayerfully deciding... which of the verses apply", any observant person can see for themselves exactly what this means, and how blatantly it clashes with your original declaration that Christians "[do] not discard some part of revelation because it doesn't accord with our own desires or our own conception of how we think God should act".

For Jason:

"A large portion of _The Great Divorce_ is his attempt at making peace on this topic with the man he elsewhere was fond of calling his Teacher."

I suppose in a certain light that's true; but as I recall, Lewis' way of making peace on the topic was to depict MacDonald (who was by this time dead and unable to speak for himself) as agreeing completely, from the afterlife, with Lewis' own views. It strikes me as similar to Sun Myung Moon declaring that Jesus, Mohammed and the Buddha have changed their minds and are now vehement supporters of his.

Let us not forget that the title was not chosen at random. "The Great Divorce" was an ironic commentary on William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" - Lewis' point by choosing this title was that such a marriage could never take place, that Hell and its cargo of damned souls must remain forever and eternally separated from the bliss of Heaven.

I am interested in hearing, however, which verses you had in mind that point to a finite period of purgation and no more.

JD Walters said...

Adam Lee,

Prayerfully deciding which Scriptures apply best to your situation does NOT equal disregard for some portions of revelation. And Christians still believe that Jesus will return; we just take his injunction seriously that "But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32). Now you can argue as many have that this was contrived in response to anti-Christian arguments that Christ had not returned as his earliest followers expected him to but you have no way of proving that. And you have not responded to my observation that Jesus' disciples' apocalyptic expectations make it very likely that they did actually experience the risen Lord. Why would they expect a dead man whom they knew was dead to return within their lifetime?

As for verses which support a 'finite' purgatory, not that biblical passages talking about this subject are not clear about this either. Most of the verses which refer to 'eternal death' or 'eternal hellfire' use the Greek word aionion, but 'neverending time' is not the only or even the most ancient meaning of this term. It is also translated 'age' as in 'end of the present age', etc. and could very well refer to either a finite length of time (such as an age) or actually refer more to the quality of the state itself, i.e. 'zoen aionion' might not actually mean 'life everlasting' but life of a certain quality, contrasted with death. And besides the book of Revelation refers to two 'judgments', one which takes place at the Lord's return, separating those who explicitly followed the Lord from those who didn't, and a 'second death' after the millenium of God's rule on Earth. Presumably this time is purgatory for those who did not follow Christ, at the end of which God reviews their 'disciplinary record' and those who still refuse to repent will then be cast in the lake of fire.

But remember, this might not actually have much to do with time as we know it. The angel in Revelation cries out at some point, "time shall be no more". It might be a completely different mode of existence.

Alethes Ginosko said...

Adam said: I have read and reviewed The Great Divorce, here. It did not change by one iota my position that the idea of Hell is a sadistic and evil doctrine, no matter how it is envisioned. Maybe you should get your facts before you jump to conclusions.

This probably has to do with your view of the God that you do not believe in. An understanding of God and sovereignty will yield an understanding and clarity of God's ways.

Psalm 111:10
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom

Proverbs 1:7
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge

Mike D said...

I would like to suggest some favorable attributes of the concept of Hell that alternatives do not seem to do as well.
1) Hell provides a sense of justice for the guilty who avoid the consequences of their action in this life. One of the freedoms we enjoy on earth is the potential of doing evil and not experiences the negative consequences. For justice sake, these wrongs should be accounted for.
2) Hell ascribes significance to human decisions. What we do in our lifetime matters. This life is important. There is no "redo" if we make mistakes. A lifetime is not a practice game; life is the real thing with enduring consequences.

Jason said...

For Adam: {{as I recall, Lewis' way of making peace on the topic was to depict MacDonald (who was by this time dead and unable to speak for himself) as agreeing completely, from the afterlife, with Lewis' own views.}}

Of course, GMcD had died before Lewis was even born, so far as I recall, but that’s beside the point.

More to the point, if Lewis was simply making McD agree completely with his own views, he wouldn’t have had McD rebuking him (on more than one occasion) in the story--including in that final portion.

Most importantly, what he has McD say there, is still based on some qualifications McD _did_ in fact write (though not in so many words) regarding salvation from hell.

Specifically: God never gives up acting toward reconcilliation, and so hope always remains; but to say for _sure_ that such reconciliation _will_ certainly succeed (even though we can always legitimately hope for it) would be to disregard the element of free will on the part of the derivative person. McD specifically avoided making the claim of certain success; and Lewis latched onto this.


There’s actually very little theological innovation (if any!) going on at the end of chp 13, where the issue becomes explicit. McD (as a fictional character) _is_ presenting his position (held as a real theologian) _from within his qualification_.

Lewis is clearly plumping for a type of eventual annihilationism (even at the end of the book), and trying to contrast this (though respectfully) to a blunt Universalism as held (putatively) by McD and St. Paul. McD’s (fictional) reply qualifies the universalism claim along lines which he _did_ qualify it (if not quite in those words)--but he begins by shooting against the annihilationism claim, too!

“If ye put the question [of universalism or not] from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But [by contrast to this!] if ye are trying to leap on into eternity... when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears.”


So the most Lewis could wring at the end of the day, was to use McD’s (actual) qualifications (about the impropriety of disrespecting the choices of God’s children by predicting the certain repentence of all rebels before the fact), as a way for Lewis to suggest that maybe annihilation could be true after all--_but_ while also being obliged to admit that the same qualification-ground nerfs Lewis from being able to make a similar claim of certainty.

It still comes down to a difference of theology between them, on whether God will ever give up or not. McD historically agreed that if God ever did concede defeat then annihilation of the sinner would be the logical result; but so far as I can find he always insisted that God would never concede defeat. Lewis tried out various options of God reaching a defeat in the case of at least some rebels, all throughout his corpus, though the results varied a bit. (Both men were doing their best to respect the scriptural witness, though in different ways.)


{{Let us not forget that the title was not chosen at random. "The Great Divorce" was an ironic commentary on William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"}}

True.

{{Lewis' point by choosing this title was that such a marriage could never take place, that Hell and its cargo of damned souls must remain forever and eternally separated from the bliss of Heaven.}}

This, however, is false--otherwise he would never have presented (fictional) confirmation (by testimony and eyewitness in the story) that people in hell could be redeemed and enter heaven.

Insofar as Lewis’ theological point goes in TGD, he’s arguing that hell must eventually cease to exist _one way or the other_. (With himself and GMcD representing the two options.) The divorce ends one way or another, with the death or the reconciliation of the damned. The continual existence of hell would be a way of “embracing both alternatives”, which Lewis rejected.

Put another way, the souls are being given their choices: will they divorce heaven, or will they divorce hell?

The theological distinction between Lewis and GMcD (put another way) is whether God will ultimately divorce the condemned, or whether He will continue trying to reconcile them. I think it must be admitted that Lewis is trying to come down on the side of God ultimately divorcing the condemned; but his attempt certainly doesn’t involve simply making McD agree completely (from the afterlife) with Lewis’ own views.


{{I am interested in hearing, however, which verses you had in mind that point to a finite period of purgation and no more.}}

It depends a bit on what you mean by _purgation_. There’s quite a lot of this scattered through the canon, actually, if one knows what to look for. (A lot more than I can cover in a comment. More like a book or two...)

The particular verses I had in mind, however (insofar as ones pointing toward a termination and/or proportionality to punishment), were the famous Matt/Luke(Q?) parable about the final cent (Matt 5:25-26; Luke 12:58-59), and the (somewhat less-well-known) parable unique to GosLuke (12:42-48, presented as being given on the final leg of the final trip to Jerusalem, apparently) about how punishment shall be assigned in the day of the return:

“Now, that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes; but the one who did not know and committed deeds worthy of blows shall receive but few.” (vv 47-48a, NASV 1977 edition; need to upgrade my copy of the NASV, obviously... {g})

This particular case is also a good example of a strongly prevalent theme in the canonical Gospels: an exceedingly high proportion of what Jesus reportedly has to say about (what is in effect) hell, is directed toward misbehaving servants _of His_. (Though that category in itself could be considered to be everyone, in a way. {shrug}) Come to think of it, this particular parable quoted is one of the few which talks about punishment being given to people who might be specifically considered non-Christians at all. (v 46b, the misbehaving slave shall be assigned “a place with the ‘unbelievers’” as the NASV1977 puts it--though the key term could also mean ‘those who cannot be trusted’, I think.)


These shouldn’t just be taken as prooftexts outside a larger theological context, of course; but they’re indicative of something found with some regularity _in_ that larger context, too: eventually the punishment ends (either certainly, or as an ideal goal--though those texts are usually interpreted along the lines of annihilationism, i.e. limited hopeless punishment, when not being incorporated somehow along the lines of traditionalism, i.e. permanently continuing hopeless punishment.)

Jason Pratt

Jason said...

For JD: {{Most of the verses which refer to 'eternal death' or 'eternal hellfire' use the Greek word aionion, but 'neverending time' is not the only or even the most ancient meaning of this term.}}

That’s true, whether the word is used as a noun ‘eons of the eons’ or ‘into the eon’ (or variants), or as an adjective ‘eonian life/crisis’ etc. As far as I can tell from a close study, ‘eonian’ as an adjective (as used in the canonical NT anyway) most properly refers to something inherently of-or-from God. (Compare with how God may be referred to as the Everlasting. Similarly, the common Matthean phrase ‘kingdom of the heavens’ is a translation into Greek of a common Aramaism, referring to God indirectly by reference to the heavens. )

{{Presumably this time [between the two judgments in RevJohn 21] is purgatory for those who did not follow Christ, at the end of which God reviews their 'disciplinary record' and those who still refuse to repent will then be cast in the lake of fire.}}

Hadn’t really thought of that before--not impossible; but not the end of the story even then, either. There’s this whole other final chapter in RevJohn, too. Much hopeful niftiness there, though the pieces have to be put together (they’re scattered a bit, like a jigsaw puzzle.) _Very_ purgatorial in character.

Another nifty bit of purgatorial hope in RevJohn, from a place even less expected than RevJohn 22 (in my experience): the butt-kicking of the unrighteous, ending out chp 19 (from v 11 onwards). Key portions of it are practically a targum on Psalm 23! He’s _shepherding_ them with that rod of iron--that’s what the Greek literally says, though it’s practically never translated that way in English--and what’s happening to the armies is the same thing as the Hebrew verb in Psalm 23 means, commonly translated ‘follow’. Uh, no, more like _pursuing to overtake and throw down_! Psalm 23 is being enacted in RevJohn 19 for the rebel armies; just as we’re supposed to be praying for it to be enacted toward _us_ when _we_ misbehave... (may mercy most certainly _hound us_ for all the days of our soul...)

Jason

the Cogitator said...

I have posted a fairly lengthy reply/contribution to this thread at my blog: http://veniaminov.blogspot.com/2006/07/hell-used-to-be-so-nice.html