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Friday, March 18, 2011  

The Four Last Things Ever to be Remembered

"It is by living," Martin Luther famously wrote, "no--more--by dying and being damned to hell that one becomes a theologian, not by knowing, reading or speculating." This proposal seems especially apt as the American evangelical industry armors up against Rob Bell and his argument about the finitude of post-mortem suffering. Now there's no point in trying to draft Luther into a perditionless doctrine. He believed in hell, damnation, demons, and the divine hardening of Pharaoh's heart. His deity was no technocrat and his hell was no minor oath. But look at this immensely powerful and vivid claim, that one becomes a theologian by dying and being damned to hell, and consider how it comes by its power. We believe in Hell (to the extent that we do) because we experience it in this life, and we color our experiences in this life with our belief--actual, hypothetical, or only remembered in our cultural inheritance--in their final and eternal amplification. Luther did not play games with hell. We may assume that he meant this as literally as can be imagined, that one may be cast into and drawn out of hell in this life.

One would not get a sense, from the shocked and furious responses to Bell's book, that there is a major nuclear catastrophe in process, or a civil war in North Africa into which our country bids fair to be drawn, or that the health care system of the Ivory Coast is in collapse as turmoil rages there. If any useful talk of hell is to be undertaken, it needs to begin with the data of this life, of the hells we create for ourselves and each other with our godlike delusions, our moral vanity, our complacency, and our infinite desires. Yet the hell of America's evangelical traditionalists is a closed circuit, a strictly end-of-history reality with (it must needs be conceded) an only hypothetical existence. It is anticipated, of course, by the wrath-bearing actions and dispositions of the reprobate in this life. But it is fundamentally something Other, a vengeance for the heedlessness of those who live for this world and its many, tantalizing gods. Kevin DeYoung's review is probably the best example one could hope for of a traditional Calvinist critique of Bell's book (via One Eternal Day). DeYoung has recourse to the doctrine of double predestination (though he does not name it), which pretty much makes Bell's objections to hell disappear (at the cost, of course, of shifting them onto the nature of God himself, but that's another matter). Not to dismiss his response, which is learned and faithful to the historic Christian witness. It should be read, especially by mainliners whose antibodies don't react too promptly to confessional fundamentalism of DeYoung's sort.

But I continue to wonder where hell on earth fits into all of this. I do not dismiss the notion of hell because hell is incontestably real. Children suffer, lives are taken without a thought, worlds of beauty and reflection are destroyed in moments. And of all these things, fundamentalists likewise assure us, God is the proximate and righteous Cause. Innocent suffering is to fundamentalism what altruism is to neo-Darwinism, in Marilynne Robinson's analogy: a bad penny that is liable to turn up anywhere, in need of anxious explanation and extermination-by-redefinition. But that won't wash. Hell is the suffering of children. Hell is mindless death and destruction. Hell is poverty imprinting itself in the molecular biology of its victims. Do you need ghasts and ghouls more than these? Have you walked into the depths of human suffering and hungered to see yet more added in the name of God's justice? Then you are truly an athlete in theology. If you have not, then you'd probably better keep your speculations, however richly attested in the words of the New Testament, to yourself.

In a letter from Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer recalls his fear for his family during a bombing of Berlin:

It is remarkable how we think at such times about the people we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves. It is only then that we feel how closely our own lives are bound up with other people's and in fact how the center of our own life is outside ourselves, and how little we are separate entities.

This is truly a great mystery Bonhoeffer has named. The experience of such self-forgetfulness is perhaps the most 'religious' experience of all, and it is by no means confined to Christians. What Christian faith does, in the midst of such a man-made hell, is to extend that experience of being bound up with others beyond those we know and love to those we know and do not love and finally to those we do not know at all--to rejoice with those who rejoice, to weep with those who weep, and to embrace, as Calvin argued with unusual rhetorical force, all humanity as bearing the image of the God who made them. That is the sense in which faith is saving, I would argue, or the sense in which we truly experience salvation. Not coincidentally, it is the sense in which faith drives us to mend and protect the world from its continuing hellward lunge. "It’s as if Bell wants every earthly father to love every child in the world in the exact same way," DeYoung says, and I don't think I've quite gotten the point. I love my son more than anything, and though I punish him for the sake of correction I would not under any circumstances see him come to final and irremediable harm. Is God's fatherhood of humanity less literal than mine of Soren? Is my love defective, blinded by insufficient loathing of unholiness? Or is the Fatherhood of God a single-use metaphor, good for his blessing upon human patriarchy and his affection for the elect, but not for his relationship to the reprobate? I wouldn't mind the accusation of insufficiency in my own paternal love, or in my thinking on this matter. I hope I am still open to correction. But I confess that I sometimes find it difficult to think in more transcendent terms than these (though I am at least in good company; Bonhoeffer, after all, gave Christianity's intense worldliness a renewed dignity).

Finally, I look forward to seeing whether Bell's move away from the world to come as the creature of an individual judgment rendered finally and eternally against those who fail to adhere to the Christian gospel--however that adherence is understood, and it is understood in a dizzying variety of ways--prompts any new thinking about the role of the Church. If God's judgment looks more like Matthew 25--in which the nations (not the individuals) of the world are judged on their works of mercy (not their faith); or if Bell is right to any degree, it won't do to say "Everything we've always said is true, except there's no eternal individual torment." If this is so, the Church has largely misunderstood her role in salvation. We were not meant to be a factory for the making of new Christians, or a vendor of insurance against the wrath to come. We are rather to be a saving and not a saved remnant, an ark enduring against the powers of hell within this life and witnessing to the grace of God less through industrial expansion than through sacrificial love. Perhaps this is so and perhaps not, or perhaps it is both so and not so. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I don't think of myself as a universalist, because I am not interested in plans of salvation other than the Cross ("I resolved to know nothing among you but Christ crucified" strikes me as excluding secret unrevealed designs). But it must be conceded that the alternatives are unappealing, and not just because the thought of anyone enduring suffering forever is unappealing. For Protestants, at least, a belief in hell tends to entail immense sorrow at human destiny when it is taken seriously. Luther's awesome doctrine of grace ran into the hard reality that, in Luther's own eyes, so much of Europe continued to be deprived of the gospel, and in those places where the true faith was taught, it was ignored and despised. For those serious about this question, the world appears to be swimming in error, lukewarm faith, backsliding, hypocrisy, and slackness in good works--and that before considering those who claim another Christian confession or religion altogether. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that Christ's great triumph carries pitifully few in its train. If human nature, even fallen human nature, is so slightly to be restored and preserved in the world to come, one wonders why he bothered at all.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 2:13 PM
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