Friday 17 December 2010

Libels on Christianity: Christ sends bad people to 'hell'/ there is no 'hell'


One of the most devilish inversions concerning the modern concept of Christianity is that Jesus Christ came to Earth to send 'sinners' to 'hell' - where sinners means bad people who break the rules, and hell means a place created by God to torment people (with fire etc).

Christians who accept this characterization of Christianity then feel that they have to say that there is no hell, and everyone will go to heaven.


(Presumably (on this view) people go to heaven whether they like it or not, whether they believe it or not, whether they choose heaven or not. Presumably (on this view) God is seen as being like a modern 'nanny state' bureaucrat who knows what is best for other people, and so makes decisions for them, runs their life for them, and then tells them - repeatedly - that they are happy about it...).


(Presumably hell was all a big, two thousand year delusion, inflicted by evil priests hoodwinking a gullible populace into obedience to their arbitrary dictates. Or maybe it was a misinterpretation, a basic misunderstanding, which we theologically sophisticated moderns can see straight-through... Sarcasm Alert!)


Of course some Christians themselves may say something like this, when pushed into a corner, but really - it is unreasonable to expect everybody to have a perfectly coherent and explicit theology - and most of these people are probably, mainly concerned with trying to avoid the greater danger of moral relativism. Would we expect every devout Marxist accurately (and at the drop of a hat, in the heat of a hostile debate) to be able to expound the details of their master's philosophy?


My point is quite simple. Hell was in existence before Christ was incarnated (presumably, in existence since The Fall).

Hell was where all souls (everybody's soul) went after death, and was called Sheol (by the ancient Jews) or Hades (by the ancient Greeks).

It was a place of shadows, ghosts, probably a lack of free will - which might mean that dead souls cannot make free choices, and therefore cannot be saved by their own choices.

So, everybody's soul went to 'hell' after death, and it was a state from which there was no-way-out because 1. souls could not get-out of their own free will, having none; and 2. there was nobody to rescue them.  


Christ came to offer the chance of a rescue from this universal human fate to those who chose, of their own free will, to take this chance on the conditions he made (acknowledging Christ as Lord, love, humility and so on).

For people to remain themselves (i.e. not to be merely crushed into unfree obedience by superior strength), people cannot, should not, be forced to accept this offer.

So people are still free to do as was always the case before Christ - they may not believe the offer, they may not believe in souls, or Sheol, or they may not want to pay the price.

Hell is therefore, as it was since The Fall, the default state for human souls; by contrast heaven (i.e. becoming like God through communion with God) is merely a chance, an option, an offer, made not because we personally deserve it, but because of God's love, or Grace.

This is why the Gospel was good news; that is why it was a rescue, that is what is meant by Jesus saving souls.


But all this is a long way from the popular libellous notion that Christianity is essentially about God coming to earth as Christ to start a regime the essence of which was the novel technological sanction of this freshly-constructed prison/ torture chamber as a punishment for human disobedience to his recently-devised laws.


I wonder where that falsehood might have come from?

I also wonder why so many people are so keen to believe that falsehood? 

Actually, I don't wonder...



Anonymous said...

A variation I've often heard is that Christ introduced the idea of hell as a place where people are tortured, as opposed to the shadowy "house whose people sit in darkness" imagined by the Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Jews.

Certainly the Christian hell was not a new idea in any absolute sense. The Greeks had their Tartarus as well as their Hades, and the horrific poeticaly-just punishments devised there for the likes of Sisyphus and Tantalus clearly served as an inspiration for Christian writers such as Dante. The Chinese also believed in a remarkably Dante-like hell (with 18 circles instead of 9) long before Christ.

Still, though, I think there may be some justice to the claim that Christ was the first to introduce hell-as-torture into the Jewish religion. Many of the Old Testament prophets clearly believed in Hades/Sheol, but one searches the Bible in vain for any pre-Christian hint of Tartarus.

Bruce Charlton said...

wmjas - thanks for this lucid and informed comment.

What you make clear to me is that, if Jesus is indeed the Christ, then to believe that he introduced hell-as-torture, and did so without explicitly mentioning the fact he was doing it, is a reductio ad absurdum.

This can be interpreted either that because Christ is real then the idea of Him as inventor of hell-as-torture is obviously absurd hence must be rejected; or that Jesus really did invent hell-as-torture hence he was not really the Christ.

What is impossible is that Jesus was the Christ and also he modified Hades into a torture chamber.

Either moving-in closer to look at the specifics of the Gospel message, or taking a step-back to look at the big picture of Christ in the history of the Jews, both reveal that the idea of Christ introducing hell-as-torture is a mistaken interpretation.

I suppose that the misinterpretation comes from the contrast: when Sheol was inevitable it was accepted (regarded with horror but miserable resignation).

However, when there was an infinitely-preferable alternative, Sheol became, by contrast, so bad that its badness could not be exaggerated - hence the descriptions of torture.

(Also there was corruption, as always, distorting Christianity into state propaganda - etc.)

I have been critical elsewhere of the Inkling Charles Williams; but I believe he had a profound grasp of these matters in a modern context when he talked and wrote of hell (after Christ) as a chosen state - people getting after life what they wanted during life - but that this turns-out to be very different form what they hoped it would be.

The big problem that we moderns have is excessive abstraction, we cannot make this feel real to ourselves. We do not even let ourselves be aware of mortality as a reality.

The ancients had no such problem, indeed they were almost overwhelmed by the reality of mortality and the soul after death.

This is the nature of our difficulty as individuals. Our modern culture is so existentially wrong, so far gone, our assumptions and premises so crumbled, that we cannot reason and we cannot intuit either (our reasoning mere logic, and our intuitions become merely imaginations).