Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?

dantes infernoIn my first response to Mark Sandlin’s post questioning whether Jesus descended into Hell, I focused on the dubious motives that led to his conclusion. Now I’m going to address the theological merits of his post.

To begin with, I’ll repeat what I said to him: I don’t really have a dog in this fight. The existence of Hell makes scripture more theologically coherent, but the scholarly analysis regarding potentially misinterpreted verses is strong enough to be warrant consideration.

But to me, removing the doctrine of Hell raises a lot of problems liberal Christians haven’t satisfactorily answered. Not only does it render a number of key verses nonsensical, it also creates a slippery slope of theological problems: if Hell doesn’t exist, does Satan? If Satan doesn’t exist, do demons? If demons don’t exist, then what exactly was Jesus doing when He exorcised a legion of demons from a possessed man, leading them to seek refuge into a pasture full of 2,000 pigs that respond by hurdling themselves to their death?

Removing the existence of demonic spirits in these verses makes Jesus either a con man (which raises the possibility that his entire ministry was based on deception) or a fool (Jesus really thought He was exorcising demons, but he was too ignorant to know better). If one concedes the existence of these demons, then one must explain how they came to be and where they normally reside.

Liberal theology makes no genuine attempt to answer to these questions because by design, answers would rule out dissenting views. The need to accommodate all possible views trumps the desire to determine the truth.

But let’s get back to Hell. One of the straw men Sandlin trots out is mocking belief in Hell as belief in “Dante’s Hell.” It’s a straw mab because Sandlin doesn’t consider the existence of Hell in any form, and writing orthodox faith off as a misreading of a 14th Century poem makes it easy to avoid addressing the doctrine itself. But Dante’s vision of hell didn’t create the fire and brimstone imagery we are familiar with. Consider this passage:

And I saw on the north a place of various and diverse punishments full of men and women, and a river of fire ran down into it. Moreover I observed and I saw pits great in depth, and in them several souls together, and the depth of that place was as it were three thousand cubits, and I saw them groaning and weeping and saying: Have pity on us, O Lord! and none had pity on them. And I asked the angel and said: Who are these, Sir? And the angel answered and said unto me: These are they who did not hope in the Lord, that they would be able to have him as their helper.

This excerpt doesn’t come from Dante. It comes from the Apocalypse of Paul, a 3rd Century Coptic text that some Christian sects used as holy scripture. It’s startling just how graphic and specific the text (as well as the Apocalypse of Peter, a companion text that covers similar territory) is regarding the punishment awaiting the condemned:

 I further observed the fiery river and saw there a man being tortured by Tartaruchian angels having in their hands an iron with three hooks with which they pierced the bowels of that old man: and I asked the angel, and said: Sir, who is that old man on whom such torments are imposed? And the angel answered and said to me: He whom you see was a presbyter who did not perform well his ministry: when he had been eating and drinking and committing fornication he offered the host to the Lord at his holy altar.

 

And I saw another multitude of pits in the same place, and in the midst of it a river full of a multitude of men and women, and worms consumed them. But I lamented and sighing asked the angel and said: Sir, who are these? And he said to me: These are those who exacted interest on interest and trusted in their riches and did not hope in God that He was their helper.

To my knowledge, these texts are the earlIest indication that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah had been recast as a condemnation of homosexuality:

And I saw other men and women covered with dust, and their countenance was like blood, and they were in a pit of pitch and sulphur and running down into a fiery river, and I asked: Sir, who are these? And he said to me: These are they who committed the iniquity of Sodom and Gomorrah, the male with the male, for which reason they unceasingly pay the penalties.

Even though the Council of Nicaea dismissed the validity of these apocryphal texts, their influence has reached far beyond our memory of them. Clearly the belief in “Dante’s Hell” was already in place in many sects soon after Christ’s crucifixion. You can also find a thorough explanation of guardian angels in them, as well as condemnations of abortion and homosexuality that are far more explicit than any officially canonized text:

And near that place I saw another strait place into which the gore and the filth of those who were being punished ran down and became there as it were a lake: and there sat women having the gore up to their necks, and over against them sat many children who were born to them out of due time, crying; and there came forth from them sparks of fire and smote the women in the eyes: and these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion.

(As an aside, these apocryphal texts also do a nice job debunking the myth that pre-Council Christianity was a more liberal faith.)

Sandlin spends the bulk of his post focused on the claim that Jesus descended into Hell. Along the way he provides some good information explaining why this part of the Apostles’ Creed is problematic:

The word used in the Acts verse is actually the Greek word hadēs and it just doesn’t mean Hell the way we think of it.

It simply couldn’t have.

 

Hadēs is a place of the dead – all the dead. It is not a place of damnation. It’s just where you go when you are dead. It’s the equivalent of the Hebrew word sheol: the abode of the dead.

 

The word used in the Acts verse is actually the Greek word hadēs and it just doesn’t mean Hell the way we think of it.

All of that is true, but guess what? The majority of Christian traditions (including evangelicals) don’t believe Jesus descended into Hell, either. In fact, you can find the exact same proofs against the Creed on John Piper’s website, and evangelical websites. None if them deny that Hell in these verses is better understood as Hades. The teaching comes from Catholicism,  and even Catholic websites acknowledge the merits of counterarguments, and state that it is better to say that Jesus ventured into the Land of the Dead. So disbelieving the claim that Jesus went jnto Hell is only a heresy if you’re Catholic, and even then the church is willing to acknowledge that it’s a very complex teaching.  Even the Catechism acknowledges that this is better understood as Hades.

The debates among these faith traditions isn’t over Hell; it’s what Jesus did while in Hades. So Sandlin isn’t breaking new ground here. If refuting Acts 2:31 led him to doubt Hell’s existence, then he wasn’t paying attention in seminary.

Mark Sandlin’s God

tumblr_lx0ndigYDi1r4u11so2_1280Somehow it’s appropriate that a few days after commenting about how touchy liberal Christians are about contrarian viewpoints on their blogs, I got a post of mine marked as “spam” on one of their blogs.

Blogger Mark Sandlin, who’s written a series outlining his beliefs called “Heresies From A Southern Minister,” apparently doesn’t like it when people challenge his heresies.

I’ll try to recreate the points I made to him here on my blog because they dovetail nicely with my last post. Many of Sandlin’s arguments in his series fit the equation for liberal arguments I proposed here last week:

A  A society that believes Y will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must believe Y.

In his post about Hell, Sandlin starts with a belief and presents arguments in favor of his predetermined outcome, which is a God that didn’t create hell. He openly states that his primary motive is personal rather than theological:

I don’t believe in Hell, and any confession that requires me to believe that Dante’s Hell is not only real but that Jesus went there…is not a confession that I care to confess.

From there Sandlin reverse-engineers his scriptural analysis so it falls in line with his goal Again, we see the liberal logic: conclusion first, scripture second:

A  A theology that believes Hell does not exist will be a more moral one.

B. Therefore, God must not have created Hell.

Despite his lack of objectivity, my second point was that Sandlin’s flawed approach does not necessarily lead to incorrect conclusions.

I remember an old episode of Cheers that illustrates this nicely. One of the main characters was Diane, a cerebral woman with zero understanding of football. In spite of her ignorance, she kept winning the bar’s football pool. Sometimes she based her choices on how a real-life confrontation between the team animals would play out ( “A bear against a dolphin?” she scoffed without realizing she had picked a major upset), while other times she picked them based which team color scheme she preferred.

Diane ‘s whimiscal approach echoes Sandlin’s approach to “heresy”. Sometimes he stumbles onto legit theological debate (there are good arguments that hell as we understand it might not exist) but other times he’s just plain off-target (like when he argues that you can be a Christian and not believe in Christ’s divinity.)

And while I didn’t compare his approach to a sitcom character in my post, I suspect that what irked Sandlin the most was my claim that he was arguing that God must endorse his beliefs because he’s really sincere about them. Sandlin has a vested interest in worshipping a God that didn’t create Hell, so he created one. Now maybe he’s right and God didn’t really create Hell. In that case his God is closer to the truth than the God I believe in that did create Hell. But the end result is due to Sandlin’s personal preferences rather than an attempt to try to understand God. HIs series is using the same shallow approach as tea partiers who comb the Bible for evidence that God loves the free market.

Ultimately,  Sandlin was making the case for a God who makes no demands upon him. Whatever he believes, God must be fine with it precisely because Sandlin would not worship a God who expected more of him. If your faith doesn’t move you out of your comfort zone or force you to consider the possibility that God might disagree with you or demand that you do things you don’t really want to do, then I would argue that you don’t really have faith. You just have an ego that you like to talk about in the third person.

Peter Enns & The Sovereign Grace/ TGC Scandal Pt 2

christianity-todayIn my last post, I gave some context regarding the ongoing dispute between Tullian Tchividijan and The Gospel Coalition. For more details on the scandal, I highly recommend you check out the links in Part 1. Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to dive into Peter Enns’ response to the controversy:

1. First of all, I’d like to reaffirm my respect for Peter, so people don’t misinterpret my intentions. However, I think he opens up a lot of interesting ideas that are worth further analysis.

I’l begin with Enns’ contention that the belligerence Tchividijan experienced is endemic to Reformed Theology. This implies that the Reformed movement is inherently problematic and therefore falls short of being good theology.

I tend to be skeptical whenever people make a “fruits-based” argument against a theological position. At face value much of Enns’ critique of the Reformed mentality (especial as manifested by The Gospel Coalition) rings true. But the truthfulness of a belief system isn’t dependent on how that system impacts its advocates’ behavior. I happen to strongly disagree with Reformed theology. But in theory Calvinists could be insufferable bores and also have a correct understanding of God. Their behavior is not evidence for or against their theology.

For example, in my view Richard Dawkins is a very unpleasant person. But his understanding of science is rock solid, and he could still be correct when he argues that God doesn’t exist. Feminism is correct when it argues that patriarchy is a major problem in our society, but their constant infighting turns people off. Evangelicals could be right when they say that God has called them to convert people. But evangelists are frequently off-putting and rude.

I don’t dispute the argument that some belief systems cause more harm than others. But since we’re all sinners, there will be fruits-based evidence against any belief system.

2.  I don’t believe that there’s any evidence that members of the Neo-Reformed movement are more prone to “fight” against their ideological opponents than other Christians are. There’s aways been an adversarial streak in American Christianity. And to be fair, a lot of the reasoning behind it comes straight from scripture. Over the last few years the Neo-Reformed movement has dominated online discussions about modern evangelicalism, but it’s important to keep in mind that an equal number of evangelicals identify themselves as Arminians, and no one would claim that Arminian evangelicals are any less prone to an “us against the world” mentality. And let’s not forget that liberal Christians are just as likely to take up the fight for their theological beliefs.
3. Quite a few people got tripped up over Enns’ statement that he “doesn’t really care about this issue.” I highly doubt that Peter’s implying that he’s indifferent to child abuse or the need for justice. But his reasoning behind his statement – that he has “no personal stake in the outcome” – strikes me as overly cynical.
For one, our ability to discuss and act on newsworthy problems would be dramatically handicapped if we only focused on those stories that personally affected us. In that case, why would anyone outside of the Gulf Coast report on the Hurricane Katrina? Most Americans had no personal connection to the disaster, and the degree to which the region has failed to rebuild doesn’t affect them one iota.
And even if it’s not readily apparent, the outcome of this scandal might impact Enns. Many people are speculating that the fallout could doom The Gospel Coalition and possibly the Neo-Reformed movement itself. I doubt that the impact of the scandal could reach that far. But if Enns is correct that the Reformed Movement is inherently belligerent, then the collapse of their movement should result in less belligerent brand of Christianity taking hold. That’s something that Enns clearly desires (as do I.)
4. I agree with Peter’s statement that “the world isn’t watching” to see the results of TGC’s shakeup. But word of the chid molestation scandal itself is bound to spread, especially given the likelihood of additional investigations and trials. And yes, souls have already been lost. Some of the people who have been hurt by SGM have left the faith and never looked back.

Biblical Slavery Part 3: Female Slaves

human_trafficking_by_me19leela1-650x346Today’s installment of my series on Biblical Slavery will focus exclusively on the plight of female slaves. My goal here is to get readers to resist the temptation to fall back on Christian counterarguments  and allow themselves to stop and think about the horrors female slaves were subjected to. A more detailed analysis of the apologetic arguments regarding Biblical Slavery will be forthcoming in Part 4 of this series.

In my view,  the ghastly nature of Biblical Slavery truly reveals itself when we consider how women were treated. Let’s look again at Deuteronomy 20:15:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When theLord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.”

This scripture reaffirms the patriarchal structure of Old Testament society: women were subhuman plunder, sexual prizes to be won in victory. Even Hebrew women were viewed as little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. And if there’s any doubt, Numbers 31 tells us exactly how female slaves were to be used:

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people.Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man,  but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

I know that there’s a huge temptation here to delve into the murderous side of this passage, but let’s set that part aside and focus instead on the last part. Why was it important for Israelites to select girls who hadn’t slept with man, and how exactly does one go about screening them?

I’m quoting this verse in its full context to address one of the most common apologetic defenses of it: namely that the Midianite women were at fault for the mess that started the battle that Numbers describes. In case you’re wondering, the enticement the passage refers to was tempting Israelite men into worshipping Baal by intermarrying across cultures.

Now to be fair, marrying across cultures during Biblical times wasn’t the same as doing so nowadays. Scholars estimate that the population of Palestine (which includes Judea and neighboring nations) never exceeded 1 million during the 7th Century BCE, when Deuteronomy was likely written. So any culture that lost large numbers of its men to rival religions risked extinction. And make no mistake: intercultural marriages weren’t any more romantic or respectful towards women than Israelite marriages were.

Of course, that doesn’t justify the severity of Moses’ command. We know from Numbers 31 that 32,000 girls were captured that day. It goes without saying that that these captives were not willing participants in their fate. We know that the primary value of female slaves in Biblical times was their reproductive ability (and, let’s face it, sexual gratification for the victors).

Biblical Law forbade men from committing adultery even if it was cross-cultural, and it also condemned unmarried women who were not virgins to death by stoning. I recommend Joe Pranevich blog if you’re curious about Old Testament marital customs. He has an excellent overview of virginity tests and the consequences newly married wives faced for failing them. (Long story short: a bloody sheet from a broken hymen was the key piece of evidence.)

Given that Israelite soldiers wanted to avoid the sin of having sex with nonvirginal slaves in the first place, pubescent female slaves were most valued since they could bear children, but they were not old enough to be married or savvy enough to rebel. Young girls also eliminated adultery concerns, and the nature of their enslavement meant that they were forced to marry and have sex with the men who slaughtered their families. If you have any doubts about the idea that female slaves were coveted for sexual gratification, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 emphasizes that girls were in face selected  for that reason:

“When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

Stop and think about what this must have been like for these young women. How many of them were willing participants in their marriage? How many chose not to leave simply because life cast out of society was worse than being marriage to your conqueror?

Many Christians will insist that allowing female captives a month of mourning was exceedingly compassionate. But we’re talking about institutionalized rape, molestation, subjugation, and physical abuse. A month of mourning hardly qualifies as compassion, and I doubt anyone could cope with a traumatic experience in such a brief window of time, especially since there was no escape from it. If you were a female prisoner of war, you wouldn’t get freed after seven years like male Hebrew slaves, since you were your rapist’s wife and the mother of his children. The verse that permits sexually unfulfilling slaves to be freed doesn’t indicate compassion either, since these women were now sexually tainted and therefore unwanted pariahs in a strange land that would have treated them worse than slaves.

I want to emphasize this point again: by any moral understanding of a woman’s dignity and her rights as a human being, the Old Testament instituted a system of socially condoned rape. Under the Law slaves did not own their bodies; their masters did. Their best case scenario would have been a variation of Stockholm Syndrome, where the woman would have fallen in love with her captor and rationalized her fate as a blessing so she could cope with it.

Like I said in my last post, when we think of Biblical slavery, we should pay respect to those who suffered under it and keep in mind that these were real people, not characters who exist only to teach moral lessons to future Christians. By acknowledging the full scope of what female slaves endured, we reflect the kind of compassion and empathy Jesus called us to embrace. Anything short of that condones the dehumanization and subjugation of women.

(The artwork at top was made by Daniella at Deviantart.)

Biblical Slavery Pt 2: Staring Into The Abyss

haiti-earthquake-child-rescued-by-rescue-workerIn part 2 of my series on Biblical Slavery, I want to get beyond the Biblical text itself and concentrate on how horrific Biblical Slavery was.

Before I delve into this, I want to make a distinction. Most of the time when Christians debate this topic, the accusation is made that the person criticizing Biblical Slavery is slandering the Gospel and blaspheming God. This was the charge levied against me in the debate which inspired this series. As I see it, these are separate issues, Critiquing Biblical slavery is not the same as deciding how to apply our analysis.

As I see it, part of the reason we understate the cruelty of Biblical Slavery is our tendency to react more strongly to recent historical events. Multimedia is a big reason for this. When you have visual documentation in addition to textual account, the historical event becomes more real to us. It is harder to dismiss the scale of the tragedy.

For example, the deadliest earthquake in history took place in Shaanxi, China in 1556. More than 800,000 people died. That’s a staggering number, but no matter how hard we try to picture a tragedy of that magnitude, it’s not as real to us as the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The web is full of moving photos from the Haitian earthquake, showing the dust and blood-covered faces of victims and bodies buried under rubble. We don’t have photos from Shaanxi’s earthquake, so in our minds 800,000 dead isn’t much more than a statistic.

We can go through any number of tragedies in history and find the same dynamic: Lincoln’s assassination ranks among our nation’s worst tragedies, but JFK’s assassination captivates us more because it’s the more recent event, and the media made his life more immediate and real to us. We don’t need Daniel Day Lewis to get a sense of what Kennedy sounded like, but we can watch Kennedy debate Nixon or give his “Ask Not hat You can Do” speech any time we wish to. And thanks to the Zapruder film, we’ll always have the visceral horror of watching Kennedy’s last moments.

So the problem isn’t just that Christians gloss over Biblical slavery for apologetic purposes. With few exceptions, slaves in the Bible were just nameless, faceless prisoners of war whose lives weren’t important enough for history to acknowledge. American slavery offends us more because its embedded in our constitution like a scar. We can read about individual slaves and see their faces. American slavery is also our country’s legacy, and we still struggle to come to terms with that legacy. To put it bluntly, slaves in the Old Testament were members of long-dead nations, so they seem less human to us.

Now I’m sure some Christians want to defend slavery by emphasizing the Law’s directives for Hebrew slaves. We’ll get to them in Part 4. I think it’s more important to contemplate the treatment of non-Hebrew slaves.

Let’s begin by looking at the passages from the Law that dictate treatment of non-Hebrew slaves. First up is Leviticus 25:44-46,  which tells us where and how Hebrews acquired slaves:

“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”

Deuteronomy 20:10-15 goes further and tells us that no matter how a military campaign turned out, the surviving women and children were doomed to become slaves. Men, however, only became slaves if they surrendered:

“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When theLord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.”

So let’s stop and think about this. The slaves were people whose families and villages were decimated. They were captured knowing that they were going to live the rest of their lives as the property of the people who murdered their friends and families. Most people would agree that waking up every morning and serving under these circumstances would be psychologocally abusive even if one served under a compassionate master. If you found out that an American soldier had been captured in Vietnam and had spent the last forty years toiling in rice paddies, the kindly demeanor of the Vietnamese family that owned him would not mute your outrage.

Note also the distinction made in Leviticus 25: the Hebrews weren’t allowed to treat fellow Israelites ruthlessly. Slaves from other nations were a different matter.

It’s also worth noting that peace is defined as an opposing nation’s willingness to surrender, rather than an agreement to respect borders. I know that I’m guilty of applying modern moral values onto an ancient culture when I say this, but that’s a messed up definition of peace.

In the next part of my series, I’ll focus on the treatment of female slaves.

Biblical Slavery Pt 1: Facing The Problem

TribesofIsraelMapOver at The Gospel Coalition, I recently got into a friendly debate over Biblical slavery. (Side note: our debate has almost nothing to do with Jarvis Williams’ original post.)  Obviously this is an intimidating topic for anyone to tackle, but I’m going to try to whip my thoughts into a coherent analysis.

Part of the problem with Biblical slavery is that websites that delve into it fall into one of two partisan camps: the theodicy argument (slavery is evidence that God is evil and/or the Bible isn’t morally trustworthy) and the apologetic argument (Biblical slavery wasn’t really that bad).

The theodicy view is admittedly the stronger argument. It’s difficult to deny that slavery is a repulsive institution, and it’s a matter God Himself establishes via Old Testament Law. And personally I find most apologetic defenses weaselly and intellectually dishonest (although I’ll give credit to my debate partner for conceding the uglier aspects of slavery). In general evangelical Christians tend to downplay the most ruthless verses and – most importantly – the unspoken implications of said verses -and paint a Disneyfied picture of well-behaved slaves obeying their kindly (and temporary) masters.

As I see it, the first thing we need to do when we approach the topic is to set preconceived assumptions about the Bible aside. Christians tend to begin with the premise that because the Bible is Holy, slavery must be contorted in such a way so that it keeps God’s reputation untainted, while nonchristians use slavery as a wedge to topple the Christian position.

So let’s look at Biblical slavery as a practical problem. We’re dealing with a group of nations who were constantly at war with each other. Something needed to be done with the collateral damage (i.e. prisoners of war and civilians). In Joshua’s case, the answer was genocide. In most other cases, slavery was the answer. The third option – letting survivors practice their faith and culture under Hebrew rule – wouldn’t have been realistic. The odds of facing organized revolt or a collaboration with a third invading nation were too great. So slavery was the least awful option.

The problem is that once we concede that something horrible was going to happen to the losing side, we’re left with the choice between secular justifications and divine justifications. The Bible supplies divine justifications, and just as importantly, God’s rules for Biblical slavery are more reprehensible than they had to be.

Now I’m sure at this point I’ve lost a lot of evangelicals. To even entertain the notion that God may have instituted a morally bankrupt system violates what my debate partner called “the righteousness of the Law…and the Lawgiver.” As I’ll get to later, I do believe that there are ways to condemn Biblical slavery and maintain faith in the righteousness of the Lawgiver.

Given the breadth of this topic, I’m going to break my argument down into a multi-part series.

I’ll call Part 2 Starting Into The Abyss. By that I mean that if we’re going to talk about Biblical slavery, we need to get beyond the tendency to focus on the letter of the law and focus on the implications it had for the men, women, and children who suffered as slaves, and remember that these were living, breathing people as real as you and I.

Part 3 will focus on the plight of Female Slaves.

Part 4 will be Weighing the Christian Arguments. Even though much of the Christian defense Biblical slavery tends to compare it favorably to American slavery, I’m going to avoid discussing American slavery as much as possible. In my view we don’t need to cite American slavery to critique Biblical slavery any more than we need to cite The Trail of Tears to criticize Joshua.

And speaking of Joshua, I’m going to resist exploring the genocide issue as much as possible. The two topics are often paired together, but I think Biblical slavery warrants examination on its own.

In Part 5, I’ll attempt to Reconcile What We Know, which I think speaks for itself.

The Philippians 4:8 Test

rafael_constru_o_arcaTrevin Wax’s Wolf of Wall Street post is the gift that keeps on giving. During the course of the second wave of debate threads in comments section, I stumbled onto an interesting formula.

Christians who lean on the reactionary side of the Culture Wars often cite Philippians 4:8-9 as one of their proof texts for avoiding movies with lots of swearing or naughty bits:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Christians who cite this verse assume that it clarifies the debate: if you don’t obey Philippians 4:8, then you’re a backsliding believer (at best). As I pointed out in Part 1 and Part 2 of my series about R-rated content in movies, the boundaries of this debate have shifted so dramatically over time that it’s impossible to set up objective standards.

Then I had my eureka moment.

It started with a little back and forth about the Philippians passage (you can find it in the bottom half of the comments section). Initially my point was that Christians used Philippians to discourage movies and stories that tackle complex stories in a mature fashion. But I also wanted to prove that Wolf of Wall Street scored better on the “Philippians Test” than conservatives assumed. Here was my breakdown of the movie:

Is WoWS true? Yes, it is.

Is it honorable? That’s debatable. It attempts to uphold honor by scrutinizing dishonorable people, but there’s some disagreement beyond the Christian bubble about how effective it is.

Is it just? Not sure about that, although sometimes you can say a lot more about justice by focusing on injustice. The documentary Blackfish focuses on injustice towards whales, but showing a tragic problem did more to motivate people towards justice than a happy ending would have.

Is it pure or lovely? No, but most of the stories of the Bible aren’t pure or lovely, either. By definition all stories must contain sin, otherwise there is no conflict and therefore no story.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? Absolutely. It’s getting rave reviews and being discussed as a candidate for Best Picture.

My conclusion was that, if you score it conservatively, WoWS passed 2 out of 5 categories. If you allow for more nuance in storytelling and are willing to accept movies that don’t spell out moral lessons with speeches or the villain’s comeuppance, then it scores a 4 out of 5.

But the point I had hoped to emphasize was that no story can pass the “pure and lovely” part, and therefore no story can pass the Philippians Test. To make my point, I put one of the most popular evqngelical movies- Fireproof – through the test:

Is Fireproof true? Yes, it is, for the same reason WoWS is: the movie depicts the human condition.

Is it honorable? That’s debatable. It tries to be, but the behavior of the characters is loathsome even after the “happy” ending. Unlike WoWS, Fireproof want us to praise very disturbing behavior.

(For more about how reprehensible the movie is, check out Sarah Moon’s analysis and Waneta Dawn’s multi-part breakdown of the movie.)

Is it just? Absolutely not. The movie depicts a woman who is married to an abusive husband and implies that her only justifiable choice is to remain in an unhealthy relationship. The abusive husband never stops being abusive; he just finds new ways to control her. The movie wants us to believe that she needs to change even though she wasn’t at fault for his behavior in the first place.

Is it pure or lovely? No, for the same reason WoWS isn’t pure: it depicts sin. Almost every story will fail this category.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? Absolutely not. It fails on every artistic level as a movie: it’s poorly acted, poorly directed, etc.

So Fireproof scores 1 out of 5 – even worse than WoWS.

Then I realize that I was aiming to low with Fireproof. What if we apply the Test to the Bible itself?

Let’s put Noah through the Test:

Is the Noah’s Ark story true? This is trickier to answer than Fireproof or WoWS. If you’re a fundamentalist, then of course it is. If you believe in Divine Inspiration,  then it’s true, but not necessarily a historical event. If you’re a liberal Christian or a nonchrisitan, then it’s probably not true.

Is it honorable? Again, this is debatable. It honors God, but the story itself is about global genocide and ends with Noah getting drunk and cursing his son for seeing him naked. No one acts honorably. 

Is it just? This is also debatable. If you believe that God was justified to cause the flood and everything that happened follows God’s Will, then sure, it’s just. But anyone willing to look at it more critically will find no justice in the story.

Is it pure or lovely? No. Even if you believe that the story passes the above categories, you can’t get beyond the fact that it’s an ugly story.

Is it excellent or worthy of praise? It’s one of them most well-known stories in the history of western culture, so I’ll have to say it’s excellent. Although nowadays it’s mainly remembered because of its awesome visuals and the role it plays in creationism and theodicy debates.

So depending how you score it, Noah’s story scores anywhere between 4 out of 5 or 0 out of 5. So even one of the most famous Biblical tales doesn’t pass the Philippians Test.