October 19, 2017

Mark Shea: What in Hell are Christians Talking About?

Most people believe that there are consequences that follow from their own actions. Why not hell? PHOTO: Justin Luebke

As we saw previously in this space, I was having a conversation with some genial Lefty skeptics about Hell that was sparked by John Shelby Spong’s claim that the Church invented Hell to control people with fear. Since they were laboring under the assumption that it was just crowd control for people dumb enough to take smells and bells seriously, I challenged that assumption first by pointing out that Hell was simply the extension in to eternity of something they themselves believed: that our choices really matter and have real consequences.

However, because I was bringing God into the discussion, a third reader was offended and asked:

Are you saying you cannot have a conscience, good heart and compassion on your own?

Not especially, though that is true since all that is good is a gift of God, even for those who do not think he exists. But my point here is that you still assume that Hell is not a thing like cancer, gravity, and addiction (all of which result in Bad Consequence if we simply ignore reality and do whatever we like).

Jesus speaks of Hell as a thing like cancer, gravity or addiction. If you smoke three packs a day, try to fly off the Sydney Opera House, or start doing meth, you will kill yourself not because God is mean, but because reality is constructed thus and not otherwise. Hell is like that and not a thing like the bogeyman, invented by human beings as a form of crowd control.

In short, I’m telling you what the Christian tradition actually says: that Hell is corollary of the reality that sin is enslaving, corrupting, blinding and weakening and that it is possible for a human being to so give himself over to its power that he cannot escape it and ends by disintegrating into ex-humanity, permanently severed from the Good who is God and from all society with the rest of creation.

Again, offended, my reader replied:

You claim god makes good people regardless of belief. Then he makes evil people too just because? It’s all such nonsense.

No. I say that all goodness comes from God, who is the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. So a conscience, a good heart and compassion (even in the breast of an atheist, and I know some very good ones) are his good gifts to us, because he makes us in his image and likeness and loves us. These are exercised in freedom. God does not will evil and does not make us do evil. We choose it freely. And the effect of the choice is, among other things, bondage. Something every addict can attest. God does not desire us to be in bondage.

My reader seemed to warm to this and replied:

I think there are some wonderful things that people draw from religion. A person who embraces the love of their religion, ANY religion, is a person who betters themselves. That being said, there are more hurtful, harmful, callous and un-loving acts done in the name of religion than in the name of any other influence. It seems a very complicated task to separate the acts of mankind from those of religion when they are the very evidence of the religion. This article pointing to the man made creation of Hell, the well documented “miracles” created in Europe to control the masses, and so on. The 33% or whatever the number has fallen (or grown) to, that worship Trump do so in the name of God in many cases. They are taught to have faith and not question.

You answer your own point. The issue is not ‘religion” but God. Goodness may or may not come through ‘religion’. (Moloch worship is a religion.) But those who do evil for the sake of religion are typically doing it in pursuit, not of God, but of money, pleasure, power, and/or honor. Clearly this is the case with Christian Trump worshippers, for example, who do not say “boo” when commits his various assaults on common decency. Jesus is a mere human shield for that agenda, not the actual object of worship.

As to the supposed “man-made” hell, the article is massively illiterate. It is Jesus himself who is the source of the Church’s warnings about Hell, not somebody in the Dark Ages. All you have to do is read the gospels. And when it comes to fake miracles, you again need to be aware that nobody is more johnny-on-the-spot debunking them than the Church herself. The Magisterium (aka, “teaching office of the Church”) is characteristically skeptical of lurid accounts of miracles for the very good reason that miraculous claims that are debunked have the effect on most people that they have on you: leading them to the false logic of asserting that if some claims are fake, therefore all claims are fake.

Finally, I would urge you to check your snobbery. The blissful belief that the Church teaches people to “have faith and not question” is belied by centuries of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which, among other things, invented the sciences and which has ruthlessly questioned everything it lays its mitts on, including its own Scriptures.

Unsurprisingly, this was met with skepticism:

We will have to agree to disagree, I suppose. The Catholic Church has a long laundry list of negatives that you are aware of and don’t need debated. I don’t mean that as an affront, only that it gets us nowhere to debate faith in something that either is because one believes it to be or isn’t because one doesn’t accept the pretense that it does.

Of course it has such a list. And any Catholic with a brain will tell you so. Indeed, Pope St John Paul II spent years doing very public contrition for those sins before the Jubilee of the New Millennium. That’s why the notion that Catholics “shut up and don’t question” is just bunk. But none of that is the point here. The point is that the claim that Hell was cooked up by the Church to control people is simply a falsehood without foundation. It was preached, not by Dark Ages popes, but by Jesus. And the reason he did so is the same reason cancer is preached by doctors, addiction is preached by rehab specialists and gravity is preached by physicists: because if we don’t take into account the way the world actually works as we make our choices, it will end in destruction for us.

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