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.

Gay Marriage Is Here To Stay

O'Keeffe_Georgia_Ram's_Head

Kevin DeYoung has a post over at The Gospel Coalition entitled 5 Reasons Not To Give Up On The Marriage Debate. The title is self-explanatory, and while much of it is just a restatement of the Right’s talking points against gay marriage, there are some tidbits worth dissecting.

His first point addresses The Baby Wars. While DeYoung doesn’t even come close to advocating for Christians to pump out offspring so they can win the ideological battles with sheer numbers, he does accept the premise that demographics predict our ideological future.

I must confess that back in the 90’s I bought into this thinking, too. I didn’t advocate it of course, but there was a cold logic to the idea that the culture that passed on its traditions to the largest number of offspring would gain influence in future generations, while those that produced fewer or no offspring would fade. Classic examples of this were the Shakers (who believed in lifelong celibacy) and Mormons, who are known for large families  (and of course polygamy). If you couple Mormon birth rates with their evangelical zeal, it looked to me as though America’s future belonged to Mormons.

But recent data has confounded these assumptions. According to Pew Forum, the much-discussed Nones are the largest growing religious category, and people nowadays are much more likely to leave their childhood belief system. (It should be noted that this goes both ways: an atheist who turns fundamentalist falls into this category as much as a fundamentalist turned atheist.)

So clearly the picture is more complex. What matters is that DeYoung’s assumption about birth rates isn’t playing out as expected.

Discover magazine addresses at least part of this conundrum. The Austrian study cited by Razib Khan found that being traditional doesn’t mean that one is deeply religious:

Berghammer found that people following the ‘traditional’ lifestyle were more to have 3+ children than those following the ‘modern’ lifestyle. What’s more, traditionalist individuals were more likely to be religious (all Catholic in this analysis).

But – and this is the crucial bit – among those who followed a traditional life path, there was no relationship between their depth of religious belief, or their Church attendance, and the number of children they had.

Exactly the same was seen for those following a modern life path. Although this was more popular among non-religious women, those religious women who did follow this trajectory had no more children than the non-religious.

There was also no difference between the religious and non religious in the chances of remaining single and childless.

Berghammer concludes from this that the critical factor in determining fertility is the choice of life trajectory. Once this has been decided, then religiosity has no further effect on fertility.

DeYoung’s 2nd point baffles me. He leads off with a deeply arrogant assumption:

When you think about how quickly public opinion has swung in favor of gay marriage, it’s clear that the new conclusion has not been reached because of deep, ethical reflection.

It’s this kind of mentality – the assumption that any serious thought about a moral question can only lead to one conclusion – that has annexed evangelicals from mainstream America, and created epistemic bubbles wherein people convince themselves that election polls are all wrong and Romney isn’t losing Ohio.

Gay marriage isn’t growing in acceptance because of hipness or because it’s fashionable to be in favor of it. It’s growing because marriage is inherently unhip. Marriage is the most conservative social institution. There is no clearer way members of our culture signal their desire to become part of the fabric of the community and live a life in accordance with traditional family structure. Gay marriage is popular because it embraces traditional American values rather than contests them. When it became apparent that the gay “lifestyle” was no different than the straight “lifestyle,” the only people left fighting against gay marriage were bible thumpers weened on AIDS- era urban legends.

A recent Daily Show skit illustrates just how far we’ve come. Daily Show pundit Al Madrigal visited the reddest of red states and staged public gay marriage to gauge the reactions of the people around them. Everywhere they went the gay couple received applause and congratulations. The message of the skit became their inability to find antigay hostility.

One final anecdote on this point. Last year I was in a third grade classroom where the teacher was reading a story to the kids about Georgia O’Keefe. At one point, when the teacher mentioned O’Keefe’s marriage, a student asked whether she married a boy or girl. No one was shocked or surprised by the question (except perhaps the teacher); in these childrens’ minds, marrying someone you love no longer carried the requirement of gender. When wide-eyed little girls assume gay marriage has always been with us, then the issue has long since left the realm of urban hipsters.

Everyone Has A Theology

SpockFinal1If you take a peek at my biography, you’ll notice that this blog was inspired by my tendency to get misidentified as a fundamentalist or an atheist, depending on the discussion at hand.  Recently I found myself in the thick of a debate that illustrates my predicament.

Don Burrows has a post at Unfundamentalist Christians that, for the most part, I agree with. He outlines his scholarly case for a less harsh interpretation of one of scripture’s biggest “clobber passages” against gays: Romans 1:26-27, which states:

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.”

I recommend reading his post because a brief summation doesn’t do it justice. But his main point is that:

“Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute.”

In other words, not only is a liberal, gay-friendly interpretation of Romans 1 a more accurate one, but the passage doesn’t even reflect Paul’s beliefs. My first instinct when I read this was to raise my brow like Spock and say “fascinating.”  I’m not sure if I buy into it, but since I already subscribe to the argument that Romans 1 shouldn’t be used as a clobber passage because addresses male prostitution,  I’m open to it.

However, once I skimmed the comments section, my evangelistic instincts came to the forefront. There were a lot of very good comments in response to Burrows’ post, as well as a few zealous conservatives preaching repentance and arguing for the traditional interpretation of Romans. While I disagreed with their take, I agreed with their “big picture” preaching for salvation and repentance. And since the conservatives had the salvation message covered and the liberal case for Romans had been well stated, I dove in to contest a couple of the more problematic tangents.

I won’t restate my posts since they’re still readily available for you to read, but the two issues that I contested were one person’s disbelief in hell and an argument for treating the Bible as a sort of postmodern guidebook that should be reinterpreted depending on one’s culture and era.

Neither of these arguments were made by Burrows himself, but due to my defense of the conservatives’ responses on these topics, he did assume that I was taking a position against Biblical scholarship (even though I distanced myself from the anti-gay reading of Romans.)

To be fair to Burrows, I stated my case awkwardly. I said that “Any argument a person makes about interpreting scripture is rooted in theology.” A better way to phrase my point would be to say that everyone’s interpretation of scripture is rooted in their assumptions about God.  Everyone has a theology in the sense that their beliefs about God are founded on assumptions (secular or otherwise) that have a historical precedent. This isn’t the same as saying that one cannot set aside their personal convictions about God and do high-quality Biblical scholarship. And I’m not saying that everyone believes in God to some degree.

But it does mean that ultimately ones’ motives for studying scripture (and how they apply those findings to their worldview) are founded upon their assumptions about God. Those views can change, of course. But Burrows defines himself as a progressive Christian, and therefore he views the text through a progressive lens. And that’s a lens with its own theological history. The conservative poster Burrows was criticizing was merely presenting his own lens, and whether the man knew it or not, he too was staking out a position based on theological precedent. Therefore, from my view, the conservative poster’s desire to introduce other passages of scripture was consistent with the framework of the debate.

I don’t know whether Burrows approached Romans with the preconviction that homosexuality is as morally justifiable as heterosexuality, or if his studies led him to liberal conclusions. But usually there is a degree of predetermined reinforcement involved; liberals will read Burrows’ blog seeking confirmation of their beliefs, while conservatives will read Al Mohler’s blog for the same reason. That doesn’t mean that either man has insincere motives or that their arguments are therefore always correct (or incorrect). But it is rare for either side to change their minds based on the evidence presented to them, no matter how well researched it is.

To illustrate my own bias, I have always believed that homosexuality is as moral as heterosexuality. Over the years I have read many arguments from each theological viewpoint, and by default I’m much more willing to consider Burrows’ arguments than anything Mohler has to say about the topic.

But over the years my views have shifted a little bit. I still believe that most of the passages about gay sex in the Bible refer to male prostitution, and that the concept of loving homosexual relationships would be alien to ancient Hebrews. I also believe that Jesus embraces monogamous homosexual relationships. But now I’m much more willing to concede that it’s likely that the Bible would have condemned homosexual love, if the issue had existed back then. So while I feel that conservatives’ Biblical proofs are flawed, I do think that their beliefs about homosexuality are probably more in line with Biblical times. The most we can say regarding the Bible and homosexual love is that it says nothing about it. In my view homosexual love is consistent with Christ’s teachings about loving relationships, but like a lot of other issues (patriarchy and slavery, for example), the people who learned at Jesus’ feet would most likely be on the wrong side of the moral coin.

The Gospel Coalition Update

Jesus-HomosexualitySix weeks ago I posted a tally of the disproportionate number of articles about homosexuality at The Gospel Coalition. Since a month has passed since the last tally, here are the latest numbers. Since January 2012, the site has posted:

31 articles about the theological case against homosexuality and/or gay marriage.

17 articles about evangelism.

8 articles about caring for the poor and/or the Social Justice movement.

4 articles about divorce.

A Great Idea

I’m pleased to give a shout-out to a cool new website that’s just launched. The site is called Not All Like That  (aka NALT) and it’s loosely based on the format of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project. The site explains its purpose better than I can:

The purpose of the NALT Christians Project is to give LGBT-affirming Christians a means of proclaiming to the world—and especially to young gay people—their belief and conviction that there is nothing anti-biblical or at all inherently sinful about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

I’ve posted Fred Clark (aka Slacktivist‘s) video above as an example of the clips you can find on the site. Most videos are by everyday people who don’t have a blog or a forum to share their thoughts.

This is potentially a huge step forward for liberal evangelicals and the gay Christians we support. It’s the kind of project that can potentially squash the public narrative that Christians hate gays (or that they’ll “love” them provided they stop being gay.) I know I might sound overly optimistic. But it’s a good time to be optimistic. The site has just launched and it already is getting a lot of buzz.

I also would like to point out a few things about the organization. First, I’m not affiliated with NALT, so please don’t take this post as self-promotion. Also, many outlets have said that this is Dan Savage’s project. As I understand it, NALT is  John Shore., Wayne Besen, and Evan Hurst’s brainchild, and Savage has publicly endorsed it.

Also, a number of sites on the Right and Left have criticized NALT. There’s no point countering the arguments on the Right – you can close your eyes and predict their complaints without reading them. But for the critics on the Left who complain that the site isn’t exactly what they think LGBT desire or need, I’ll say this:

I have been at the ground floor of the formulation of a number of new ministries. It’s hard work. These ministries always start as conversations between friends who decide to take action on their shared vision.  The process of forming these ministries (and I do consider NALT to be a ministry) is a long process that can take months or even years of meetings, seeking out volunteers, crystalizing the ministry vision, budgeting and raising money (if need be), and so on.  It’s hard as hell, and a lot of great ideas die because the process is so challenging.

If you look at NALT and find it lacking in some way, then get off the sidelines and form a ministry that fits your vision. No one is stopping you, and the LGBT community can only benefit from multiple pro-gay ministries. If the site does something that warrants criticism, then by all means do so. But give it time to breathe and spread its wings. Ministries are never static. Ministry visions always shift as founders see what works and what doesn’t, and the ideas of volunteers influence the direction it goes. Budget and workforce also make a huge difference. The point is that the site just launched, and there are bound to be hiccups before it smooths things out.

The Gospel Coalition Update

Jesus-HomosexualityTwo weeks ago I posted a tally of the disproportionate number of articles about homosexuality at The Gospel Coalition. The current total is:

27 articles about the theological case against homosexuality and/or gay marriage.

12 articles about evangelism.

6 articles about caring for the poor and/or the Social Justice movement.

4 articles about divorce.

Priorities, Priorities

Jesus-HomosexualityI came across a post by Kevin DeYoung over at The Gospel Coalition entitled Common Fault Lines In The Evangelical Approach To Homosexuality. The content of his post is self-explanatory; he discusses four arguments used to counter the conservative evangelical view of homosexuality. (Full disclosure: I am strongly in favor of gay rights and a reading of scripture that affirms both gay marriage and homosexuality).

I was most intrigued by his second argument, entitled  “We Are Hypocrites Because We Aren’t As Passionate About Divorce.”

His response is as follows:

Wehner contends that we “employ something of a double standard” because we do not show the same fierce opposition to divorce, even though it has been far more devastating to society. I’ve written about this before: comparing evangelical attitudes to homosexuality with evangelical attitudes to divorce is comparing apples and oranges..But the analogy with divorce is ultimately misleading.

Furthermore, many evangelical churches are just as staunch in their opposition to unbiblical divorce. I know we take it very seriously at our church. The reason we are not fired up on the blogs about it is because there are no denominational groups I’m aware of rallied around the central tenet that divorce is a blessing from God. The legality of anti-divorce legislation was not recently put before the Supreme Court. There are no Facebook campaigns in favor of unbiblical divorce. Homosexuality is the issue right now, so it’s natural that evangelicals, like everyone else, would be passionate about it.”

I edited his response for the sake of brevity, but feel free to read the whole thing. DeYoung underestimates how much heat the topic of homosexuality has drawn over time. Homosexuality has been the issue for evangelicals for decades. Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s I used to skim the messageboards at various Christian sites like Christianity.com, The “Homosexuality” subfolder on these sites dwarfed other topics. It was also the only category on Christianity.com that came with restrictions. You could only participate in discussions about homosexuality if you were against it. Anyone who made a statement in favor of homosexuality or provided a scientific or Biblical argument in favor of homosexuality would get banned from the site and their post deleted. So even with the pro-gay side muted, the topic still dominated the forum.

I understand that The Gospel Coalition is passionate about their views on homosexuality. But what has struck me has been the disproportionate amount of time spent on it, as well as the repetitiveness of the articles it posts about the topic. Not only are there numerous posts arguing against gay marriage or homosexuality itself, but the same arguments are repeated point-for-point ad nauseum.

So I decided to do a little unscientific research. I wanted to know how often the site posted articles about homosexuality and/or gay marriage. And I wanted to compare those numbers to the volume of articles about three other topics: divorce, poverty, and evangelism.

My methodology was as follows: I only counted articles that were specifically about homosexuality, evangelism, etc. I did not count any articles that mentioned these issues as a subtopic. I also did not count any articles that were news items. So the posts announcing the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage were not counted. The posts that analyzed the ruling from a religious context were counted. Since the site has archives that go all the way back to 1996, I simplified my search for sanity’s sake. So I decided to only count results that date back to January 2012.

One of the nice things about The Gospel Coalition’s search engine is that it brings up multiple forms of a given word, so searching “homosexual” brings up articles that include the words homosexuality, homosexuals, etc.  This made my research easier.

So for articles about homosexuality, I searched the terms “homosexual” and “gay.”

For divorce, I searched the term “divorce.”

For articles about serving/helping the poor, I searched “poor” and “social justice.”

For articles about evangelism, I searched “evangelism,” evangelize,” and “Great Commission.”

In each example, I cross-checked my results to make sure I wasn’t double-counting, so if an article used the words “homosexuality”, and “gay,” I only counted it once. My results were as follows:

24 articles about the theological case against homosexuality and/or gay marriage.

11 articles about evangelism. Almost half of them were written by Trevin Wax.

5 articles about caring for the poor and/or the Social Justice movement.

4 articles about divorce.

A few additional notes: there were a very small number of articles that mentioned divorce within its text. There were fewer articles that mentioned terms related to the poor. Dozens of articles mentioned evangelism, and the number of articles that mentioned homosexuality totaled 1,100+.

Since a large number of the articles on the site are advice-oriented (i.e. how the church should handle divorce or treat divorcees), one would hope for more input on divorce. So DeYoung’s apples and orange defense falls flat.

And given how hot the discussion over Social Justice and the Christian Left has been recently, there’s no excuse for that topic’s sparse showing, even if they wanted to dissuade people from pursuing Social Justice ideology.

And given the importance of the Great Commission and the constant opportunity for newsworthy items about church outreach and missionaries, the showing for evangelism is embarrassing.

Granted, I know that it’s just one site, but TGC is a major force online, and it reflects the priorities of its churches and readers. Whatever Christians think about homosexuality, the evidence shows that it’s more than just a hot topic. It’s an obsession.