I’m not very trendy or au courant, so I’m often informed of the latest craze well after it has taken root. I thought I was safe, however, in my general assumption that seriously being accused of being a heretic was in mothballs. Imagine my surprise in the past 4 weeks to encounter 4 people — that’s one per week folks — being either actually accused of heresy or expressing concern that they would be. Two of the people I know personally, two are authors of books questioning traditional interpretations of Biblical scriptures.
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one’s religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion.
I originally planned to steer clear of the recent book getting a lot of press about questions of “what is hell” and “is hell real.” If you missed it, there is a good AP story about the book, the author, and some of the fall out connected to his public questioning here: What is hell? Book stirs debate about afterlife – Yahoo! News.
I told a friend of mine who implied it might be good for Esse Diem that I considered it but rejected it as meaningful conversation, as it seems to go nowhere fast. The people I’ve encountered who believe in hell are not moving, and I can honestly see why: It’s a great no-lose position. I actually saw a woman spell it out online: “If I am right, you will burn in hell and I will be in heaven with God. If I am wrong, I’m still not going to hell. Goodnight.” Except I am editing her closing remark. It wasn’t that polite and was closer to a parting comment more common on the street.
You have to hand it to her. That’s pretty solid on the face of it. True, I win. False, I win.
Except sometimes, even the most hardcore not-gonna-change-my-minders open up, and I say better late than never:
The Roman Catholic Church has admitted to erring these past 359 years in formally condemning Galileo Galilei for entertaining scientific truths it long denounced as against-the-Scriptures heresy.
Pope John Paul II turned up Saturday for a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help set the record straight on behalf of the 17th century Italian mathematician, astronomer and physicist who was the first man to use a telescope and who is remembered as one of history’s greatest scientists.
Excerpt from Chicago Sun-Times, November 1, 1992, William D. Montalbano
So here we go, friends. Let’s be absolutely clear about what the position of the woman who holds onto hell with white knuckles really is: It’s a fear-based insurance policy that claims to be faith-based, but in fact represents an inner terror and insecurity that, to me, is about as far from what God wants for us as you can get.
This does not mean anything goes and nothing matters — far from it. But I think we so often confuse the concepts of being punished by sin and being punished for sin. (A side note for anyone turned off by the word “sin” — I know it has a lot of baggage, but it is the best word for describing what is meant by violating a moral code of conduct decreed by a divine entity. That is all intended here.)
My own understanding of sin in my faith tradition grew exponentially when I started to think as an adult about why a society thousands of years ago recorded some things as sinful and warned heavily against their consequences. I began running informal experiments on my own life, and lo and behold, there developed a reliable pattern of misery connected to violating the principles of the 10 Commandments. Note: Have not tried them all. Not planning to try them all. Rest assured, my “study” is complete and everyone is still alive.
I don’t think God punished me. I think I punished myself by not taking some good advice about how to live a healthy life connected to some core concepts that hold society together. And I think that is what divine influence in this world wants us to understand — we are important to one another. We need to take care of ourselves and our neighbors. We need to focus on systems of justice and love and caring and honor in order to live our healthiest and happiest lives. When we fall away from these systems, we hurt ourselves.
I’ll close with why I finally decided this is a good topic for this blog. I believe that what we teach children shapes our world in ways we cannot even fathom. Ask yourself this question: If you had never heard of hell, and one day at age 30 someone told you that you should embrace the idea, would you?
Engraved portrait of Italian physicist and astronomer Galilei Galileo (1564 – 1642) sitting at desk and reading book. Engraved by Samuel Sartain from a painting by H.W.Wyatt. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
16 thoughts on “And I Thought Heresy Was So Last Century…”
Out of all the other theological, political, sociological differences why is belief in hell the one that gets you called a heretic?
You should listen to this episode of This American Life from 2005: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/304/heretics/
And coming from another heretic I can tell you it’s worth being kicked out of any institution to be able to serve God out of love over fear.
Thank you for your comment, Zack. You reminded me of some other people I know who have struggled with this accusation, so if I extend my time frame by only a few weeks I can get up to 6 people in about 12 weeks.
I hope readers here will visit your blog to learn more about the courageous work you and your wife have engaged in Cambodia. You are both inspiring to me. Keep strong, and blessings to you and Eve in all that you do!
Also, Zack, I have no idea from a purely theological perspective why this one issue is so likely to generate a major reaction. I can give you my educated guess.
In my experience — and please understand, this is not just with the church — controlling people with fear is a last resort. Anyone doing this and/or relying on this to get compliance knows that once that is gone from the toolbox, you are in real trouble if there are not other motivating and compelling arguments in place that people will support.
Hell is scary. It is the scariest thing in the toolbox, and it works on a lot of people a lot of the time. I am much more attracted to efforts that draw people to something they find desirable and meaningful vs. efforts that drive people away from something they don’t want.
Someone once told me, “Hell is truth seen too late.” I think in this world, there is a lot to that. The conversations get interesting when you ask, “With God, is there ever such a thing as too late?” I don’t have the answers, but I just know what I believe.
I believe with God all things are possible, and there is never such a thing as too late.
Well, hell certainly isn’t the popular concept in these modern times, is it? Unless it’s referring to an Adam Sandler movie. If you take Christian Scriptures and faith seriously, it’s certainly a serious topic to try and fully understand. Here are some humble comments:
There of course have been lots of manipulative uses of theology by power-hungry leaders, for sure. It’s easy to throw words like “heretic” (well, not so easy these days, because there are seemingly fewer and fewer “believers” to traditional Christian concepts…so maybe the believers will be the new “heretics” vs. humanism/naturalism?) against someone who simply disagrees with you.
I can’t imagine how anyone, with a full understanding of God’s love, could use concepts like hell as a “nyah, nyah, nyah” sign off. Anyone who’s read the Bible with open eyes would discover a God whose heart mourns for his lost children.
As it relates to the reality/mythology of hell: at some point, belief systems can get so watered down as to almost become unrecognizable. Unpleasant concepts (traditional believers would say “realities”) may be more comfortable to deny or avoid than to deal with, and I do think concepts like sin and the possibility of eternal separation from God (“hell”) are realities to be dealt with.
Why? Because I get pretty uncomfortable trying to outsmart Jesus. Was Jesus trying to control people with fear-mongering with his talk of hell? Or loving them enough to warn them? Jesus, with any straightforward reading of his teachings, clearly warned of the implications of a non-repentant, self-centered (vs. God-centered) life…And “hell” was one of those implications. For someone who believes Scripture is divinely inspired, there is certainly lots of room to discern what exactly the nature of hell may be, what with all the brimstone and pitchfork imagery that developed over time. But eternal judgement, darkness, separation…”Gehenna” dump heaps of fire, etc. All images clearly expressed by Jesus, who claimed through his teaching and death/resurrection to be the expression of God’s grace to save us from those things and ensure our eternal life with God.
If Jesus was/is God, as traditional Christianity and his own words claim, or even if he was just a human with a special pipeline of revelation from God, I’m not sure why Jesus would not have taught more clearly that “hell” (he used various words for it) wasn’t a reality and something that he needed to die to save us from. If he knew better, why would he teach it and connect it to his purpose on earth?
Does the Bible, or Jesus specifically, teach that even those who overtly reject God get a second chance later…Perhaps after experiencing what separation from God is like, they finally “get it”? I find that most who subscribe to that position are not satisfied with the personification of God’s grace/mercy in Jesus and his sacrifice/salvation as evidence enough of God’s love and mercy. Surely if God is love, he would not allow a human to live eternally with the implications of rejecting him, would he? Yet, the clear teaching from Jesus is that believing him, following him, letting him forgive us – or not – has eternal consequences. Again, I can’t imagine Jesus – if he was remotely divine, loving, or wise – leaving something like that out. He was pretty clear – “I am the way, the truth and life; no one comes to the Father except through me,” and “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Assuming any of this is real, I’m sure Jesus used the limited language of humans to get his point across. How can you express concepts like heaven or hell in a way a limited human could remotely understand? Yet the intent of his teaching is pretty clear on the topic.
There is very little language in the Bible of God “throwing people into hell”, like an impatient crotchety old man (although there are some “throw” verses). There are lots of examples of God pleading, warning, reasoning with humans to stop what they were doing because judgment was coming. Having read the whole Bible a few times, I find the majority of biblical examples and warnings are much more along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ famous quote: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”
What a wonderful and incredibly thoughtful reply, Jeff….I am amazed by the time and the effort you gave to put together this array of ideas and personal feelings and questions. Clearly, you have thought about these ideas many times and turned them around in your own mind. That you would be so open with sharing these very intimate and personal thoughts is a gift to this exchange.
I’ve said plenty here today, I am sure. I’ll leave the floor open for others who I hope will add to this conversation, but I’ll be back in soon.
My last thought for the evening is simply a rather un-formed but genuine reaction to your questions, and that is my own fascination with the mystery of the Trinity.
One of my favorite stories is about a farmer who lived a fairly isolated life in Appalachia being “educated” about the intricacies of the Holy Trinity by a rural missionary. At one point he lit up and shouted, “YES! Of course! 3 into 1. Like a turkey foot.”
Do we know the whole foot? Do we want to? Can we?
Pretty good stuff.
In Love Wins Bell addresses this topic of exclusivity, and he firmly believes that Jesus IS the only way, All paths DON’T lead up the same mountain, but he puts it as “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” basically Bell holds out hope that you can still be saved on the other side of death, and that those who are trying to do God’s will whether they know the name of Jesus or not will be saved. That in essence the doors of heaven will remain wide open forever for anyone to be a part of it.
During my own journey I re-read the book of Matthew several times since his gospel talks a lot about hell, and noticed that Jesus never said “those who don’t believe in me will go to hell” or “those who reject me” but rather evil-doers, the unrighteous etc. Jesus never talks about faith in Him as a requirement for heaven interestingly. Bell goes over that a bit in his book too, and he does a good job of pointing out just how foolish it gets to be when we start to play the “who is in who is out game”. Bell thinks Jesus is often talking about real hell here on earth now (and living in Cambodia with people who remember the Pol Pot regime I agree there is real hell here). He also thinks there will be real hell afterdeath, whether there will eventually be anyone in it after an eternity of being loved on by the most creative lover of all is uncertain up to our own free will still.
I could go on, but Bell says it better then me so if you haven’t read the book I highly recommend it if not just to get an idea of where all these heretics are coming from. I’ve been accused of “not taking the Bible seriously” and “ignoring parts I don’t like” “because it’s not popular” etc. but Bell does a great job of taking all the passages very seriously, taking Jesus’s teachings very seriously, and I really think he came to his view through careful study of the scripture.
Some people tend to think there are hoards of people who no longer hold a traditional view, but coming from a very small emergent group in a town loaded with many traditional christian churches, and now working with Christians in Cambodia it is very difficult to find a place to worship let alone find a place to work doing and hold to these beliefs. The traditional view of hell is still the norm, strongly held around most of the world. It’s a lot more popular to hold a traditional belief in hell right now for sure.
I think sometimes in America we forget that not everyone knows about Jesus and if they have heard of Him they might be talking about a very different Jesus then what we are thinking of. Around Christmas time I had some students ask me if Jesus really was fat, wore red, lived at the north pole and had a big white beard. No wonder they weren’t interested in Christianity, and if I really thought those students were going to burn in eternal torment for not believing in Jesus I’d be going crazy right now. I still think they need Jesus, and want them to know the Jesus who healed the sick and taught love for your neighbor and proclaimed that the kingdom of God is here, because we desperately need heaven on earth right here.
Zack, especially since I became a parent I have developed a conflict with the red suited one. I feel like the biggest jerk in the world saying I don’t like Santa Claus….I do. It’s just that I wish he would get his own holiday! 🙂
Thanks for bringing this along, Elizabeth! Bell is getting more and more press, and I’m definitely going to read some of him before making up my mind. Across the years, I’ve come more and more to the universalist side of the idea, not because I have received some celestial insight, nor because I think that Scripture is consistent on the topic (another of those paradoxes, that loving God vs sending any of his kids to hell thing – I certainly couldn’t send anyone to hell if I were in charge of that: not Hitler, not Caligula, not anyone, and I’m far less loving than I hope God is). On the other hand, I’m also going to try not to attribute motives to others, so I don’t know that church fathers have actually, intentionally preached hell just in order to control or benefit rather than as something they, too, bought into. That said, and without any real answers, I find that rejecting the concept of hell does give me the freedom to act responsibly, to judge others less than I’m inclined to at times, to try to spread a little love as I go. If I don’t buy into hell, I’m not acting in fear of it but am acting on my own volition. Zack is right on in his noting that Jesus wasn’t terribly ambivalent on the topic, and we’re pretty self-confident at best when we decide to buy into some of His ideas but not into others. So, I go (sometimes blithely) along, rationally figuring that hell just doesn’t compute in a world of a loving God, and emotionally hoping, and praying, that your online woman source isn’t right after all.
Bob, great thoughts, thank you for bringing them here and sharing. I do agree with you that there is no single hat every religion is wearing to try to control people with fear. I tried to intimate that by saying this behavior is not restricted to the church, it is human behavior in a range of settings. I am glad you brought that up, because I would not want anyone to think I believe all religion is trying to scare people. Not at all, and frankly sometimes people react in fear to perfectly harmless things and situations because of their own issues, and no one but those individuals can change that.
Remember the Groucho glasses story? “Maybe if something doesn’t make sense, we aren’t focused on what the writer is trying to tell us.” I think there is much of that in these questions about a loving God and the concepts of hell.
By the way, I don’t know much, but I know that person I described is filled with fear. Brimming. I also know anyone in that state of mind is somewhat fragile and worthy of sympathy but not worthy of concern that he or she is a credible spiritual resource.
I find unmanaged fear and spiritual growth do not compute; though it has been in some of my own scariest times that openly and honestly turning that fear over to, as Zack said, “the most creative lover of all,” I have discovered renewed courage.
Overall, I think we’re in energetic agreement!
Alenda Lux Ubi Orta Libertas!
Elizabeth- Delighted you decided to blog on this topic. I know my recent FB posting of an article about the new book on hell was one of the catalysts in your decision-making process. Hopefully, Gina & Todd will find their ways over to your blog & we can all continue our discussion.
For now, let me add a few thoughts:
1. The Bible speaks over & over again AGAINST fear! Fear is clearly NOT from God.
2. The hell that comes to most of our minds is far more attributable to the horrifyingly detailed levels described in Dante’s Inferno than it is to anything found in the Bible.
3. Good luck finding the story of Satan being a fallen angel in the Bible. It isn’t there.
4. As I understand it, the original text can, & probably should, be translated that Jesus died BECAUSE OF our sins rather than FOR. Though close in meaning, this difference introduces the idea that perhaps God does not require a blood sacrifice of God’s child or God in human form as Jesus to save us all from eternal damnation for our sins. This alternate interpretation of a traditional understanding seems much more in line with the Jesus & His teachings of the Gospels.
Wonderful contribution to this conversation, J! Thanks for finding the post.
Those fine gradations of meaning carry a lot of weight, and are so important. (And that Dante! What a troublemaker.)
Shirley Guthrie, my theology professor at Columbia Seminary, said in class one day:
“The only people who are going to hell are the ones that get to heaven, look around, see who is there, and decide they don’t want to stay.”
He also said that that one of our best images for God might be that of the “perfect parent,” and what parent, in the end, would turn a child away. “God is FOR you, not against you.”
For whatever that’s worth. Of all the stuff I learned in seminary, it’s Shirley’s pithy one-liners that have stayed with me.
I’m anxious to read the Rob Bell book, as well.
Guthrie sounds brilliant. Something about that line leaves open the idea that we still choose hell, which may satisfy everyone in this conversation. I love professors!
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