That Bit About Brimstone

I try to stay positive, in life and in theology. Books and blogs that are all about “refuting” the other guy don’t really appeal to me very much. I’d rather here about why something is right instead of all the reasons somebody else might be wrong.

I mention this because the springboard for my comments in this post come from a fairly negative source, on a rather negative topic. Doug Wilson, the resident shock-doctor Calvinist (outside of the Neo-Calvinist movement), has written some harsh words about hell the other day that I thought would be useful for asking some important and pointed questions.

Now, Wilson starts off in a promising direction. The first sentence of his post is this: “I want to begin by acknowledging that the metaphors of damnation that we find in Scripture are quite possibly not literal descriptions.” So far so good. Given that Wilson is in essence a sophisticated fundamentalist, I found this to be a promising start. But it doesn’t take but another sentence to open up a whole host of problems. He writes, “But before assuming that I am quietly becoming a liberal, let me point something out about the nature of symbolic language.”

Now, this is problematic because it assumes that the great sin is to become “liberal,” whereas I was under the impression that the real problem was being “unbiblical.” Of course, these two terms are routinely conflated, but the point is that we really ought to be endeavoring to present what we see in Scripture regardless of whether that makes us seem like a liberal or a conservative.

But the real problem is what Wilson says next. His paragraph discussing symbolic language argues that the reality to which the symbol points is always bigger than the symbol itself. The nation is larger than the flag, the marriage is greater than the ring, etc. These are classic metaphors for Wilson to use, ones which he has always laying in the wings to be employed. But they are less than helpful when talking about apocalyptic and eschatological language, because these sorts of symbols frequently use bigger things to point at littler things. The “end of the world” metaphors of eschatological literature in the New Testament is really pointing at the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Hardly the end of the world, though it was the transition from the Jewish to the Messianic Aeon. The fact that Jesus said the stars would fall from heaven and said this symbolically, does not mean something actually bigger than a star is going to smash into the earth. Rather, he is quoting Isaiah 13, where cosmic collapse language is used to discuss the fall of a particular nation. So, as regards this sort of metaphor, the reality does not have to be worse, or bigger, or anything like that at all.

Here is the point the wheels start to come off Wilson’s train as he takes the curve at 150 MPH. He wants to preserve the horribleness of hell: he views it as evangelistic in nature. That is, serving God out of a fear of hell is a good and right and proper motivation for doing what we do. This is classic fear-based fundamentalism and Wilson would be right at home with Jonathan Edwards’ most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

He writes, “One of the reasons we object to language about judgment is that we believe that it corrupts our motives for coming to Christ. We should love Christ, not fear Him. Right, but as sinners we are in no shape to love Him, and our sins require us to fear Him.” I don’t see much of the Jesus of the gospels in this sort of idea. He didn’t treat the sinners he dealt with as “in no shape to love Him.” In fact, Jesus assumed the opposite. He assumed that not only did the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners need love, but that they would be far more reliably compelled to follow Him by the offer of love rather than fear – they got plenty of fear-based nonsense from the Pharisees and look how effectively that solved their problems. In fact, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,” (1 John 4:18). Fear-based theology is not theology at all, because theology is the study of God, and God is love, and love casts out fear.

The problem here is that everything about this sort of theology is messed up. It gets everything backwards. It thinks we need fear when we really need love, and it confuses vindictiveness with justice. Wilson writes, “We are so befuddled in our self-flattering conceits that we do not recognize that Heaven is the actual challenge to God’s justice. The problem is not how a just God could condemn anyone, but rather the problem is how a just God could allow any of our muddy boots even to touch the marble floors in His presence.” Here we have the ghosts of the “God is too holy for sin” doctrine, which is nonsense and hokum. This sort of God has more in common with the heathen gods of old than Yahweh of the Old Testament – or even Jesus in the New Testament. Where is it said that God is so concerned with the state of his floors that he is more concerned about that than about welcoming the broken? This whole concept of God’s character is ridiculous.

In fact, there is no place in any of the 66 books of the bible that states Jesus was punished by God in our place. Divine retribution against sin is not the picture we see on the cross. We see Jesus going to the cross crying out that the Father would “forgive them, for they know not what they do,” not, “Father, add this sin to the sins you’re going to whip me to death for.” In Hebrew and Greek, “righteousness” and “justice” are exactly the same word, and refers to a process of restoration, not the meting out of the strict letter of the law (on this subject, check out Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 255-258; Perry Yoder, Shalom; Marshall, Beyond Retribution 47-50; Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, 62), and thus function under the category of love and mercy, not judgment. Wilson, of course, leaves his definition of “justice” entirely undefined and functioning as an assumption, not an argument.

This is where exegesis comes into play, and where all this gets interesting. Most of his citations about hell are actually taken from the parables of Jesus. As a number of scholars (including N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope) has established, the rhetorical function and purpose of the parables is not to teach eternal truths about the afterlife, but are actually designed to confront Israel with her own violent behavior. Jesus is essentially warning Israel that if they do not shape up, Rome will deem them in need of a good re-conquest and reduce them to the smouldering trash-heap in the canyon outside Jerusalem. That is, they are 1) this-worldly, and 2) dealing with Israel, not general humanity, and 3) addressing Israel as a community, not as individuals. This in turn means they’re not about hell, but about this-worldly destruction of a nation-state by another nation-state. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus doesn’t communicate anything about the actual experience of the afterlife, because it is first of all a metaphor about who God is going to vindicate in the here-and-now, and upturns Israel’s expectations by God’s decision to side with the poor and oppressed rather than with the rich and powerful, and is connected to the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 (another image associated with final metaphysical judgment that should be understood as dealing with Israel again, in the first century), in which the sheep are accepted on the basis of their kindness and care for the poor and oppressed.

The central passage Wilson appeals to is Revelation 14, where the wicked are said to be tormented in front of the angels and the Lamb forever and ever. But Revelation is frequently subversive of this kind of imagery – in fact, the whole NT is. The “terrible day of Yahweh” of Joel 2 full of destruction and wrath is fulfilled by the tongues of fire and mass conversions (Acts 2). In Isaiah 61, the “day of vengeance” is parallel to the “year of Yahweh’s favor,” a vengeance fulfilled by Jesus’s ministry of care for the poor and sick and oppressed (Luke 4). Even in Revelation itself, the wrath and fury and violence brought by Jesus against his enemies is a slaughter by the sword that comes from his mouth, the word of G0d – that is, Jesus slaughters His enemies in conversion. So we should already be prepared for the fact that the text might be behaving a bit disingenuously with its own choice of language. The worshipers of the beast said to be punished by the wine of the wrath of God (Rev. 14:10) is fulfilled in the next section, when the angels reap a harvest of bread and wine, a sacramental picture symbolizing the final martyrdom of the Church crushed for their faithfulness to Jesus’s call to enemy-love (Rev. 14:14-20). These two pictures can’t be separated from one another because the first is fulfilled in the second (compare Rev. 14:10, 19-20). Thus, the wrath promised to the wicked is fulfilled when the Church loves her enemies and is killed by those enemies for the sake of the gospel. Hardly a picture of wrath or hell there. And, of course, in Revelation 19, Jesus ride out with the Church to slay his enemies with the conversion of the gospel (Rev. 19:15). The metaphorical and symbolic powers, the beast and the false prophet, are cast into the lake of fire, but their servants and armies are slain by the gospel of Jesus – the humans are converted (Rev. 19:21).

So where does this leave us with regard to hell as a concept? I honestly don’t know. There isn’t much in Scripture that actually addresses some kind of metaphysical location for the damned in the supernatural sense. The actual passages, or at least the vast majority of them, are singularly focused on the national destruction of Israel, pictured in symbolic terms and using archetypal figures and are therefore irrelevant to the discussion. I am disinclined to accept universalism, since God respects us enough to honor the wishes of those who would refuse to dwell in His presence. God is love, as we have said, and love “does not insist on its own way,” (1 Cor. 13:5). Greg Boyd’s comments here and here and here are worth exploring for those interested.


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