My Problem with Christianity: Part 2 — Hell, Cont.

I have written about it, I have read more about it and I have read and responded to your comments here and there is no doubt about it, it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

I have just finished reading What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills, which I found to be interesting in many ways. First I have to say that it has been one of the few times where someone has discussed the Bible (particularly the New Testament) and when they were done I didn’t wonder what the heck Bible they had read, because it sure didn’t sound like the one that I read while I was growing up.

I agree with very much of what Wills said in his book, especially the notion that Jesus was much more radical than most people give Him credit for. In fact, my first step away from the church was sort of a positive one, in that if I really believed in the Jesus of the Gospel — the sell everything you own and give it to the poor Jesus; the “take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus; that I was no where near doing any of that nor was I likely too. Therefore, to avoid hypocrisy I had to stop calling myself a Christian. Perhaps I will deal with that more fully in another post. Because I did want to get back to Hell. 🙂

In the book Wills titles one of the chapters “Descended in to Hell” but did not mention the supernatural place of eternal punishment even once in that chapter. Wills basically described the Passion and Crucifixion as the “descent in to hell.” One of the nice observations that Wills made in that chapter is basically, no matter how bad things get for you, Jesus has been there. Literally and physically. I can very much relate to this description of Hell. (Wills also gives a very different meaning to the sacrifice on the Cross than the “usual” interpretation, and I will get to that in another post as well.)

Wills never directly mentions the supernatural place of punishment in the book, but alludes to it a bit, so I am not entirely sure where his thinking might exactly lie. But at one point he describes quite clearly and quite succinctly the notion of Jesus as the God of the outcasts. Wills is absolutely correct that Jesus definitely hangs out “on the wrong side of town” with some rather unsavory characters — prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman soldiers and so on. And he also chronicles a number of the insults that were directed at Jesus by others in the Gospels for not only hanging around with such an “unclean” crowd, but also His rather lax attitude for many religious observances.

Wills comes to the conclusion (correct in my estimation) that Jesus comes so that there is no “clean” and “unclean” in either religious observance or in people themselves. He even goes so far (correct again in my thinking) as to say that God has a great affinity for the outcast, the screw-up, the thief and the unclean.

But still Wills seems to intimate that there is a Hell, a supernatural place of eternal punishment. I may be putting words in his mouth, but I did have this impression at the end of the book.

But for me, this is just too schizophrenic. How can God be the God of the “unclean” and still send people to Hell? Some commenters to my previous posts seem to feel that if you don’t act just right, believe just right, or learn the secret handshake, off you go. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. Wills goes on quite a bit about Judas, and how maybe Judas was Jesus’s favorite disciple and theorizes that Judas could well be in Heaven.

However, later in the book, Wills sides a bit with Martin Luther and says that no one can know for sure which way they are going after death. Certainly not a great comfort, but perhaps religion is not about comfort. But again, a bit schzoid. If after directly betraying Jesus, Judas might still be saved, surely the rest of us must be as well.
When I considered myself a Christian, I personally held the belief that Jesus did in fact die for all of our sins, including not believing in Him, rejecting Him and not acting as He did.  That Hell was, in fact, closed. To me, this is only view that makes any logical sense for a loving God. But almost no other Christians see it this way, which is OK.

In my later development, I decided to just drop the idea of a supernatural place completely. It is certainly true that we humans are plenty capable of creating our own hells, we don’t need eternal flames and funny looking guys with pitchforks. And this is where I still stand.

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4 Comments

Filed under Christianity, journey into Buddhism, Philosophy & Religion, Religion

4 responses to “My Problem with Christianity: Part 2 — Hell, Cont.

  1. shannan

    I once received a little story that illustrates the concept of needing to “accept” the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. Think of his gift as a “get out of hell free” card or a “free erasure of all your faults and short comings. Here is the story:

    WILL YOU EAT THE DONUT ?

    There was a certain professor of religion named Dr. Christianson, a studious man who taught at a small college in the western United States. Dr. Christianson taught a required course in Christianity at this Particular institution. Every student was required to take this course regardless of his or her major. Although Dr. Christianson tried hard to communicate the essence of the Gospel in his class, he found that most of his students looked upon the course as nothing more than required drudgery. Despite his best efforts, most students refused to take Christianity seriously.

    This year Dr. Christianson had a special student named Steve. Steve was only a freshman, but was studying with the intent of going on to Seminary. Steve was popular, well liked and an imposing physical specimen. He was the starting center on the school football team and the best student in the class.

    One day, Dr. Christianson asked Steve to stay after class so he could talk with him. “How many push-ups can you do?” Steve said, “I do about 200 every night.”

    “200? That’s pretty good, Steve,” Dr. Christianson said. “Do you think you could do 300?” “I don’t know,” Steve replied, “I’ve never done 300 at a time.”

    “Do you think you could?” again asked the professor.
    “Well, I could try,” said Steve.

    “Can you do 300 in sets of 10? I have a class project and I need you to do about 300 push-ups in sets of ten for this to work. Can you do it? I need you to tell me you can do it,” said Dr. Christianson.

    Steve said, “Well… I think I can… yeah, I can do it.”

    Dr. Christianson said, “Good! I need you to do this on Friday. Let me explain what I have in mind.”

    Friday came and Steve got to class early and sat in the front of the room. When class started, the professor pulled out a big box of donuts. Now these weren’t the normal kind of donuts, these were the big fancy kind, with cream centers and frosting swirls. Everyone was pretty excited that it was Friday, the last class of the day, and they were going to get an early start on the weekend with a party in Dr. Christianson’s class.

    Dr. Christianson went to the first girl in the first row and asked, “Cynthia would you like one of these donuts?”

    Cynthia said, “Yes please.”

    Dr. Christianson then turned to Steve and asked, “Steve, would you please do ten push-ups so that Cynthia may have a donut?”

    “Sure.” Steve jumped down from the desk, did ten quick push-ups, and then returned to his desk. Dr. Christianson put a donut on Cynthia’s desk.

    Dr. Christianson then went to Joe, the next person, and asked, “Joe do you want a donut?”

    Joe said, “Yes.” The professor asked, “Steve would you do ten push-ups so Joe can have a donut?” Steve did ten push-ups and Joe got a donut. And so it went, down the first aisle.. Steve did ten push-ups for each person before they received a donut.

    Dr. Christianson continued down the second aisle until he came to Scott. Scott was on the basketball team, and in as good of physical condition as Steve. Scott was popular and never lacking female companionship. When the professor asked, “Scott would you like a donut?” Scott’s reply was, “Yes, if I can do my own push-ups.”

    Dr. Christianson said, “No, Steve has to do them.”

    Scott said, “Then I don’t want one”

    The professor shrugged and then turned to Steve and asked, “Steve, would you do ten push-ups so Scott can have the donut he doesn’t want?”

    With perfect obedience Steve started to do the push-ups. Scott yelled, “HEY! I said I didn’t want one!”

    Dr. Christianson said sternly, “Look, this is my class, these are my desks, and these are my donuts. Just leave it on the desk if you don’t want it” And he put a donut on Scott’s desk.

    Now by this time, Steve had begun to perspire and was starting to slow down a little. He just stayed on the floor between sets because it took too much effort to get up and down.

    As Dr. Christianson started down the third row, many students were beginning to get a little angry.

    Dr. Christianson asked Jenny, “Jenny, do you want a donut?”

    Jenny’s answer was a firm, “No!” Then Dr. Christianson asked Steve, “Steve, would you do ten more push-ups so Jenny can have a donut that she doesn’t want?” Steve did ten…Jenny got a donut.

    By now, a growing sense of uneasiness filled the room. The students were beginning to say “No” and there were all these uneaten donuts on the desks. Steve also had to put forth a lot of extra effort to get these push-ups done for each donut. There was a pool of sweat on the floor beneath his face and his arms were beginning to turn red because of the physical effort being put forth.

    Because Dr. Christianson could no longer bear to watch Steve’s hard work go for all these uneaten donuts, he asked Robert, the most vocal unbeliever in the class, to watch Steve do each push-up to make sure he did all ten in each set.

    As the professor started down the fourth row, he noticed some students from other classes had wandered in and sat down on the steps along the radiators that ran down the sides of the room. He did a quick count and saw that there were now thirty-four students in the room. He started to worry that Steve would not be able to make it. He went on to the next person and the next and the next. Near the end of the row, Steve was really having a hard time. It was taking a lot more time to complete each set. Just then, Jason, a recent transfer student, came to the room. He was about to enter when at once all of the students yelled, “NO!! Don’t come in!!”

    Jason didn’t know what was going on.

    Steve picked up his head and said, “No, let him come.”

    Professor Christianson said, “You realize that if Jason comes in you will have to do ten push-ups for him?”

    “Yes, let him come in. Give him a donut.”

    Dr. Christianson said, “Okay Steve, I’ll let you get Jason’s out of the way right now. Jason, do you want a donut?” Not even knowing what was going on, Jason said, “Yes, I’ll have a donut.”

    “Steve, will you do ten push-ups so that Jason can have a donut?” Steve did ten very slow and labored push-ups. Jason, bewildered, was handed a donut and sat down.

    Dr. Christianson finished the fourth row and started on the visitors seated by the radiators.

    Steve’s arms were now shaking with each push-up in a struggle to lift himself against the force of gravity. Sweat was profusely dripping off of his face and there was no sound except his heavy breathing. By this time, there was not a dry eye in the room. The very last two students in the room were two young women, both cheerleaders, and very well-liked. Dr. Christianson went to Linda and asked if she wanted a donut. Linda said, very sadly, “No, thank you.”

    The professor quietly asked, “Steve, would you do ten push-ups so that Linda can have a donut she doesn’t want?” Grunting from the effort, Steve did ten very slow push-ups for Linda. Then Dr. Christianson turned to the last girl, Susan “Susan, do you want a donut?” Susan, with tears streaming down her face pleaded, “Dr. Christianson, why can’t I help him?”
    Dr. Christianson, with tears of his own, explained, “No, Steve has to do it alone. I have given him this task and he is in charge of seeing that everyone here has an opportunity for a donut whether they want it or not. When I decided to have a party this last day of class, I looked at my grade book. Steve is the only student with a perfect grade. Everyone else has failed a test, skipped class, or offered up inferior work. Steve told me that in football practice when a player messes up, he has to do push-ups. I tol d Steve that none of you could come to the party unless he paid the price by doing your push-ups. He and I made a deal for your sakes. Steve, would you do ten push-ups so Susan can have a donut?” As Steve very slowly finished his last push-up, with the understanding that he had accomplished all that was required of him, having done 350 push-ups, his arms buckled beneath him and he fell to the floor.

    Dr. Christianson turned to the room and said, “And so it was, that our Savior, Jesus Christ, cried to the Father, ‘into Thy hands I commend my spirit.’ With the understanding that He had accomplished all that was required of Him, He yielded up His life for us. And like some of those in this room, many leave the gift on the desk, uneaten.”

    Two students helped Steve up off the floor and to a seat, physically exhausted, but wearing a thin smile.

    “Well done good and faithful servant,” said the professor, adding,”Not all sermons are preached in words.”

    Turning to the class the professor said, “My wish is that you might understand and fully comprehend all the riches of grace and mercy that have been given to you through the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God spared not His only begotten son, but gave him up for us and for the whole world, now and forever. Whether we choose to accept His gift to us, the price for our sins has been paid. Wouldn’t it be foolish and wouldn’t it be ungrateful just to leave it laying on the desk?”

    I have come to my own personal conclusion as a nurse that has seen people in comas that never come around, knowing that hearing is the last sense to go, and that there is still brain activity, it’s very likely that there may be thinking of some level going on as well. It seems logical to me that during that time, those who “chose not to have take the donut” might have the opportunity to change their mind. I am also humble enough to know that I do not have the mind of God and have no idea other than what my Christian faith teaches me about who goes to heaven and hell. Although I belief strongly that because of Christ, I have a “get out of hell free” card, I chose to live my life in love not in fear of hell or the loss of salvation. The kind of radical love of others and the “marginalized” that society deems not worthy- the same people the sadduces and pharisees rejected. I know that Crash has heard me say this before- but I prefer to live after a motto of Mother Theresa’s- “Preach the gospel always, when necessary, use words”. My biggest prayer is that whatever the criteria be, that no one, especially those I love (yes, selfish on my part) be turned away.

  2. Hi Shannan, I was wondering when you would pop in. 🙂

    Nice story, but theologically it misses the point, I am afraid. Is Tich Nhat Hahn “foolish and ungrateful” not to “accept” Jesus’s sacrifice? I perhaps might be, but he (and many other sincere spiritual seekers) is very familiar with the Christian message, but “foolishly” continues in his unbelief (in the saving power of Jesus that is…). Does the get out of Hell card apply to him? If it does, why? Because he is a sincere spiritual seeker? Because he seems to be a pretty good person? Or just because Jesus truly died for all of our sins? That is to say, do we get the”get out of Hell card” whether we “accept” it or or not?

    If we accept the existence of Hell, then as Keith has pointed out so clearly, Christianity is in fact an exclusivist religion (and reality). That means that there is some criteria for who goes where. If you hold to the “saved by faith” theory, then Heaven is some sort of “members only” country club, which it might be, but seems so wrong to me. If it depends in some way on our actions, then what did Jesus die for? Did he just lower the bar a bit so us ordinary folks could get in, sainthood no longer required?

    I decided many years ago (you know exactly how many years ago 😉 ) that if Jesus really died for our sins then Hell ceased to exist. Yes, that is unfair, Hitler and I are going to heaven. But it is “unfair” in the way that Jesus says that God is “unfair” in some of His parables.  It seems to me that is the kind of unfairness that exists if Jesus died for ALL of our sins — including the “sin” of not eating the donut.

    When I believed in God, I believed in God the softie. The message of Jesus makes more sense that way, I believe. And because of that, in Christian terms, I believe your prayer has already been answered.

    But you knew I thought that. 😉

  3. Hell is where God sends all the self-righteous Christians. That solves the problem of hell for myself.

    “The Christian resolve to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” – Nietzsche

  4. I could not agree more!

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