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.

Hobby Lobby’s Slippery Slope

Hobby-LobbyI scoffed at the Hobby Lobby case when I first about it. I figured the company’s position on birth control coverage would be easily dismissed on the grounds that Hobby Lobby  is a nonreligious, for-profit entity, and therefore its complaints regarding birth control coverage were as irrelevant as a complementation business owner’s views on women working outside the home.Since complementarians must hire women no matter how zealously they dislike women with careers, I incorrectly assumed the Hobby Lobby case would be dismissed.

But now that there’s a good possibility that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Hobby Lobby, I think we’re faced with the possibility (and maybe even the probability) that Obamacare may ultimately become a trojan horse for the Right. Rather than usher in a new, more liberalized society, Obamacare may help reverse reproductive rights in this country.

I know that sounds alarmist, but it seems as though every concession Obama makes for conservatives, and every ruling the courts make, has undermined health coverage for women. Keep in mind that the very same companies who are complaining about Obamacare’s contraceptive policy had outsourced their insurance coverage to companies who did offer contraceptive coverage. Forcing women to pay out of pocket for contraceptives will mean fewer women have access to them. Combined with the war on women and the mass closing of women’s health clinics, I believe that we’re facing a return to the institutional misogyny of the 50’s.

Annual costs for contraceptives range between $131-$172 a year per person. That may not sound like much, but for many women that’s a financial hit they won’t be able to afford, and that in turn will result in more unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

And more than any principled stance against contraceptives, more unwanted pregnancies are social conservatives’ primary goal. Liberated women who are able to live the life they choose and marry whom they want to, when they want to, and have children when they want to (if they want any children at all) are viewed as The Enemy. In the view of social conservatives, modern society exists because patriarchy has lost its grip, and the best way for patriarchy to regain its hold over society would be to subjugate women, leaving them at the mercy of their reproductive system.

This also explains why evangelicals have so eagerly embraced their inner Catholic. What’s fascinating is how rapidly they’ve shifted from a long history of dismissing (and even mocking) the Catholic Church’s stance against contraceptives, to recasting their reading of scripture so it falls in line with an anti-contraceptive stance. Once again evangelicalism has shown itself to be extremely malleable when their societal ambitions conflict with their traditional theology, and society as a whole is being forced to submit to their views.

Sex In The Movies Part 2: Is Drama Evil?

macbeth-largeI spent Part 1 of my series on sexuality in movies trying to reframe the ongoing debate over depictions of sex in media. Rather than delve into whether a specific movie is worthy of our attention, I think it’s worth looking at why these debates unfold as they do.

It’s no surprise that the Puritans gave us the modern framework for these debates. But Christian distrust of the arts goes all way back to Tertullian in the year 197. In De Spectaculis, Tertullian writes:

You shall not enter circus or theatre, you shall not look on combat or show.

This quote, more than any of Paul’s admonishments in the Bible, is the one that launched social conservatism as we know it. And it’s interesting how we managed to retain the spirit of Tertullan’s warning while ignoring the fact that the “clean” alternatives American Christians condone (football, violent movies) fit Tertullian’s description far better than a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street does. The point here is that even today’s most conservative Christians find nuance within Tertullian’s statement and make more exceptions than he would have.

So how did we go from Tertullian to the Puritans? First, it’s important to note that the Puritans viewed the Catholic Church as corrupt papists. They were offended by the aesthetic excess of Catholic churches, as well as Rome’s embracement of Renaissance Art that glorified the human form. The Puritan view of the arts – which wasn’t quite as morose as you might think- functioned as a reaction to Rome by embracing minimalism. Puritans felt the need to “justify” their creative outlets by channeling them as expressions of faith (like writing psalms or reverent poetry). If you go back to the comments section of the Trevin Wax post that inspired this series, note how many commenters follow the Puritan argument that time spent away from God’s Word is time wasted.

So the American mentality towards the arts is actually a deep-rooted reaction towards the perceived creative excesses that the Catholic Church fostered. In addition to simple clothing and churches, the Puritan aesthetic also manifested itself in bans against graven images and depictions of the human form. It’s no accident that landscapes became so popular in America; outside of family portraits, depicting people in art was frowned upon.

This brings us to the theater. For more than a century, American Christians fought a vigorous war against plays or theater performances. They believed that drama was evil:

Make no mistake, the root issue that the believer faces is not the evil of the sinful content of drama, but the form of drama itself. In opposition to that evil the believer must look to the Word of God for direction and protection. By evaluating the form of drama in the light of Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity the believer discovers that drama is an evil which must be forsaken.

At first their main problem with theater wasn’t sexual content or subject matter. It was the belief that to act in a play is to deliberately lie. The actor portraying Romeo wasn’t really a lovesick man in love with a girl (whose part – like all womens’ roles – was usually played by a male actor). The actor portraying Macbeth wasn’t really a king. The whole show was based on actors intentionally deceiving the audience, and the audience reveling in the actors’ sins.

This wasn’t just a mild debate. Pious Christians rioted, ransacked, and drove out actors whenever anyone attempted to open a theater or put on a play. The war against plays was in many ways the first culture war, and it established the blueprint we still go by.

So how did the theater finally gain footing? Through church services. It was one of the the first artistic truces between church and art in our history, and it foreshadowed the church’s pattern of declaring new art forms Satanic until they found ways to utilize them for spiritual purposes.  And it happened because church attendance was in decline (yes, even in the 19th century, people backslid on attending church). A small number of pastors broke the hardline stance against theater and invited actors to perform morality plays that fit with the morning sermon. The plays were a hit, so the spirit of the free market overtook the spirit of Tertullian, and slowly but surely pastors stopped fighting against theaters.

The irony with our current debate over sex in media is that the church introduced the scandalous elements to our entertainment media. To compete with one another, some churches raised the stakes with more explicit themes. There wasn’t nudity of course, but adultery became the central topic of church plays rather than something that was vaguely hinted at.

Tracts went in the same direction. The first graphic depictions of murder and sex in American literature were written for longform tracts designed as a bait and switch to titillate readers, only to admonish them to stay away from such temptations and repent. As people grew bored with the tracts, the writers made them more salacious. The intent was to keep readers focused on the sinfulness of such behaviors. Eventually the envelope had been pushed too far and the church backed out of morality tales, unleashing them to secular culture.

My point is that the debate about whether The Wolf Of Wall Street is acceptable viewing fare should be seen as a continuation of the centuries-long distrust American Protestants have held towards the arts. And if you take that long view, it’s easy to see that a century from now Christians will probably be a little less neurotic about sex in movies than we are now.

I can understand it if some Christians view this as a validation of the slippery slope argument. And to a degree, it is.  But the problem is, as Tertullian illustrates, no matter how selective modern Christians portray themselves to be, they are much more lax in their entertainment choices than early Christians were. At a certain point they stand their own ground and see grays where Tertullian didn’t, and justify things they enjoy for no deeper reason than the fact that they enjoy it. They might put a Christianese spin on it, but it’s no different than the Christianese spin fans of Martin Scorcese movies use. Many of these these same strict Christians attend churches filled with Satanic rock music, graven images of Christ, and uncovered heads. They choose to ignore these things because they’ve accepted them as cultural norms, and therefore quite reasonable and even pleasant. They choose to battle over The Wolf of Wall Street but look the other way on football.

So I arrive at basically the same ambivalent place Trevin did, although I suspect that I’m much more willing to unapologetically embrace a director’s artistic vision. But this is an issue that Christians must figure out on their own. If Martin Scorcese’s movies lead you to temptation, by all means avoid them. The costs are greater than the gains, and you won’t be able to appreciate them if you can’t move beyond the sex or the violence. But history shows us that anyone making an emphatically declaration of what is or isn’t acceptable entertainment winds up reflecting the mores of their time rather than any universal guidelines.

The Right Seeks Converts, The Left Seeks Traitors

alec-baldwinBack in the 90’s I used to hang out at Christian messageboards. Ar first they helped serve as an outlet for the frustrations I felt dealing with the evangelicals I was hanging out with. Locking horns with fundamentalists online had fewer social consequences than doing the same with my Bible Study friends.

For me the most fascinating discussions took place when two fundamentalists found themselves on opposing sides of an issue, like the dating vs courting craze: Fundamentalist A would say that closely monitored dating was acceptable, while fundamentalist B would call A a foolish liberal and insist that courting was Biblically mandated. Or Fundamentalist A would b an Old Earth Creationist, while B would be a Young Earther.

Inevitably the more extreme Christian would accuse their brother or sister in Christ of being a heretic or dangerously misguided. A fascinating phenomenon would then take place: the fundamentalist whose faith was being questioned would start speaking like a moderate, and their tone would become much more polite while they defended their positions. This dynamic would escalate – the extremist becoming more aggressive, and the accused more delicate even as they pleaded for a truce – until an atheist or feminist showed up to give both fundamentalists a sweeter target.

You don’t see that happen on liberal forums. Liberals have a much harder time coping with dissension within their ranks. Witness the recent blowup regarding Alec Baldwin’s videotaped rant. I won’t delve into the particulars of Baldwin’s case; Wes Alwan has a good summary of it. Russell Brand is another example of a lefty found guilty of not being pure enough. Brand’s worthwhile essay (from which I lifted this post’s title) sums up the conservatism’s built-in political advantage well:

The right has all the advantages, just as the devil has all the best tunes. Conservatism appeals to our selfishness and fear, our desire and self-interest; they neatly nurture and then harvest the inherent and incubating individualism.

With that kind of disadvantage, the Left needs all of the help it can get. Instead, we see liberals engaging in a constant cycle of purging sinners like Baldwin, and doing so with more zeal than the conservatives who already despised the man for his politics. Women’s heath care clinics are being shut down across the country and liberals are busy fretting over whether Hollywood actors known for their off-color remarks can still be a part of the club.

Now you might be thinking that I’m guilty of making false equivalencies here. That fundamentalists sparring over doctrinal issues are in no way similar to Baldwin’s gay slurs. But here’s the point: in my examples, Fundamentalist B believes that A is preaching a false Gospel. In the end they come to no compromise, and B still believes that A is facing damnation. But they know how to make a truce and focus on their real adversaries.

Think about this: many evangelicals adore Glenn Beck. I know many evangelicals who buy Beck’s books, subscribe to his website. and follow his radio show religiously (pun intended). These people all know that Beck is a Mormon. They also believe that Glenn Beck is going to hell when he dies. That Beck’s religion has doomed millions to hellfire. They believe that Rush Limbaugh is bound for hell, too. And so is that doomed Catholic Rick Santorum.

These people don’t just disagree on minor issues like whether you can tell raunchy jokes and still be called a feminist. They believe that the moral foundation of their allies is built on falsehoods. And they look away. They take a utilitarian view and decide that these people are useful for their causes. Limbaugh and Beck might be going to hell, but they’re great at giving marching orders and rallying the troops. Not only do they get to stay in the club, they get promoted to be their loudest voices. Santorum is a warrior for one of their biggest causes, so they hold their nose, tolerate his Catholic values, and praise all the good he’s done for the pro-life cause. In spite of their reputation of being simple-minded sheep, the Right is able to approach politics with enough nuance to recognize that even heretics can join the team if they serve a useful role. While liberals fret whether they should ever allow Alec Baldwin to utter another word on causes that he’s supported for decades.

Are Liberal Churches Dying?


It’s funny that I started this blog with the intention of focusing on conservative Christianity, but the hot topics in the blogosphere have led me towards more critiques of liberal Christianity. Recently Ross Douthat, Scott Mcknight, and Tony Jones engaged in an interesting discussion about the future of liberal Christianity. I highly recommend reading each of these articles (including Ross’s initial post, which I did not link to), but I tend to side with Ross’s take more than the others. I admit that I’m a bit of a latecomer to this dialogue, but since it’s an ongoing issue I’ll chime in anyway.

All of them agree that the liberal church is dying – at least its current form. I agree. I live near Penn State, which is a small town with a population that doubles in size when college is in session. The surrounding boroughs have a population of  40,000, and the university currently has approximately 42,000 students. There nothing but farmland and Amish for miles around us – the nearest city is Harrisburg, which is ninety miles away. (This gives you a good idea why the Cult of Paterno has been able to fester unchecked for so long. It’s essentially a giant compound of JoePa indoctrination.)

But enough about Penn State. I’ve spent most of my energy being one of the lone voices willing to recognize the rotten core of Paterno, the university, (and even the community) that I’m burned out on the topic. Maybe another day I’ll tackle it here.

My point of raising demographics here is that, due to the well-educated population (our county almost always the lone county in the middle of the state goes blue in Presidential elections) the town has the potential to be a hotbed of liberal Christianity. The future leaders of the left-wing side of the faith, so to say. It isn’t.

The town’s church population can be summarized as follows: two Catholic Churches (one of which is the “main” Catholic church in town, while the second church is more contemporary.) We have about five main evangelical churches comprising different denominations. The relationship between them is very friendly, and collectively they’re big enough to collaborate and have as big an impact on the community as the Catholic Churches. There’s also a lot of mainline churches of varying sizes, and on the outskirts you’ll find more overly fundamentalistic churches (they even advertise themselves as being fundamentalists!). These churches tend to have much less cultural influence on the community than their Catholic and evangelical counterparts.

Among all these churches, you’ll find only four that recognize homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. I think that the homosexuality question is a good barometer for the theological tone of the community. In my view you have to look where the young people are attending to gauge the future of the faith. They will be the ones raising new families in church and becoming the next generation of pastors and leaders.

Despite all of the talk about evangelicals growing tired of the politicization of Christianity and the rigid stance against environmentalism and homosexuality many churches take, young people aren’t flocking to the liberal churches. They’re flocking to the evangelical churches.

I’ve attended about half of the churches in town at some point over the years. Most recently I’ve begun attending the Episcopal Church. The evangelical churches are young. Everywhere you look you see teenagers, college students, young couples. There are older members of course, but the energy within these churches is in their youth. One of the Baptist churches in town  has huge branch campuses attended almost exclusively by teens and college students. The church I recently left had an average age of 40, meaning you had a steady stream of couples having kids and raising them in the church. The next generation of Christians.

The mainline churches, on the other hand, are old. The Episcopal Church is full of friendly elderly people and almost no one under 40 in sight. So you have a strange paradox of gray-haired Christians eagerly embracing both liberal theology and liberal politics, and young, dynamic churches boning up on Creationism and revving up for the culture wars.

If you’re young and a liberal Christian in this town, you’re invisible. You probably don’t attend church, and you probably aren’t inclined to seek one out.

Part of the problem is that the liberal churches generally don’t advertise themselves. They advertise their food drives and soup kitchens, but the conservative churches do their share of that, too. In fact, the right-wing churches are the biggest advertisers for the liberal churches, although the advertising is universally derogatory. I didn’t realize that the local Episcopal Church respected homosexuals and had a environmental committee until I heard evangelicals grumble about the Episcopals’ godless embrace of both causes.

But the bottom line here is that it’s not just a question of attendance numbers. It’s also a question of bringing in and nurturing the next generation of Christians. The liberal churches are depending on their longtime members to keep things going. When they leave this realm, the church may leave it, too. The evangelical churches are growing even as we speak, and given the transient dynamic of a college town, they’re sending of dedicated Christians already conditioned to attend and volunteer to become the future of the church. Liberal Christianity is dying, and one of the reasons it’s dying is that it hasn’t attempted to reach young people.

Liberal Christians Have it Backwards

I’ve seen a number of variations of Susan Strouse’s   essay about her path to liberal Christianity. The moment of revelation for her came at a friend’s funeral:

“I attended a funeral and happened to sit next to a friend from my interfaith women’s group. The service was in an Episcopal church, and when the priest read the gospel, I heard the words I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me through the ears of my friend—who is Jewish. I myself have read that text at countless funerals, but this time I was appalled by its apparent exclusivism. I was profoundly disturbed by this and found myself unwilling to leave her sitting in the pew when it was time to go up for Communion.”

I empathize with her reservations. It’s always awkward to be in a social setting and realize that you or you friends are not welcome to partake in the ritual at hand. But let’s use a less extreme example. I have frequently found myself in attendance at Catholic Mass. Usually this has been because I was visiting Catholic friends or family members. The Catholic Church practices closed communion. I am not Catholic.

Now for the longest tine I didn’t understand the reasoning behind closed communion. I was a Christian, after all. How dare the Catholic Church deem me unworthy of the Eucharist? I confess that at times when I was a teenager I went ahead and took Catholic communion anyway because darn it, I was a believer. But as this blog explains there is a legitimate reasoning behind the Catholic practice of closed communion. I recommend that you read it if you have time, but the gist of it is that the Catholic understanding of communion is radically different than the Protestant understanding, and it is an insult to Catholic beliefs to be presumptive enough to partake in their sacred ritual if one does not accept their beliefs.

Strouse’s reasoning illustrates the biggest flaw I see in Liberal Christianity. Liberal Christians begin with a diagnosis that God is problematic, then prescribes a man made solution intended to accommodate society’s unease with God. Who God is and what God desires is irrelevant. What matters is what people want from God, and what desires they believe God should reasonably expect of them. In theory the end result would create the most pleasant and harmonious society.

The highest priority for Liberal Christians are societal rather than religious. Interfaith dialogue is the goal, and to attain it individual religious beliefs must be subservient to it. Interfaith dialogue cannot work unless people of all faiths water down their beliefs to make allowances for other possibilities.

So a Muslim cannot state that the Koran is the Word of God,  Christians cannot state that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jews cannot claim to be the Chosen People.Each of these beliefs is in conflict with one another, and while one can pay them lip service as possibilities, they cannot be taken seriously.  So while most of the debate over Interfaith dialogue comes from Christians, it is equally insulting to the closely held beliefs of people of other faiths.

In the case of controversial verses like John 14:6, there are two basic tacts Liberal Christians take. One is to dismiss the Bible outright as unreliable, and the other is to claim that it doesn’t really say what it appears to say. Strouse goes for the latter approach. I don’t want to focus here on proofs that her reasoning is in error, what I am concerned with is the “Man first/God second” dynamic I see within Liberal Christianity. There are many ways that it manifests itself , but all of them – whether we are debating Hell’s existence or the Ordination of women – begin with the wrong premise. This is not to say that all liberal conclusions are false. Rather, it is to say that correct answers are arrived at almost by accident.

The question should not be what kind of God would most effectively accommodate all beliefs and modern sensibilities. The question should be who is God, and what does He (or if you prefer, She) want?  If God wants everything you want and believes everything you believe, then there’s probably something off. We have to accept that God’s Will is not our will, and that mean sometimes we’ll disagree with God, perhaps even strongly disagree.