Monday, March 06, 2006

Smells Like Golgotha: Chapter 44

UPDATE: Before I fade out, I should point you to Charles's freshly-typed (so fresh you can smell the ions) Lenten essay on hell over at the always high-quality Liminality. Give it a read.

Me, I'm not a believer in hell. As our pastor said, "No Santa Claus God," by which he meant, "No God who rewards and punishes according to archaic conceptions of justice." Our church is mainstream Presbyterian (PCUSA), so there's very little hell-talk. I remember a good deal more fire and brimstone back when our family used to go to Emmanuel Baptist Church, just off Route 1 in Alexandria, Virginia, across from the Sequoia neighborhood where I used to live as a kid. Those Southern Baptists loved their hellfire.

On a philosophical level, I have trouble with the notion of a God (whose attributes are all supposedly "omni-," including the attribute of omnibenevolence) who constructs a thing called hell as a place/state reserved for the unrepentant. I'm also unconvinced that sinners can damn themselves if classical theism is to be believed: it was the omnipotent God who constructed the reward/punishment system, which means the system reflects God's biases and levels of tolerance-- levels that apparently are not infinite, which contradicts the idea of omnibenevolence. This contradiction is a big hint, for me, that hell is more of a human construction than a divine one, no matter what religion we're talking about.

But one could counterargue that core theological notions aren't meant to be logically consistent. I'd buy that: if, for example, we try to make logical sense of the idea that the Christ is both fully human and fully divine (see Dr. Vallicella's recent examination of that point), we run into contradiction right away. For a philosopher, this is problematic because logic is the main tool in the philosopher's toolkit, but for most people of faith, logic has little bearing on the spiritual life. Unfortunately, once we enter the realm of the non-logical, it becomes hard to say anything at all. Urgent questions of meaning remain (discursively, at least) unanswered.

The holy is, if nothing else, paradoxical. I think Charles does a very good job of delineating some of the salient paradoxes and showing how one man of faith wrestles with them. He and I may not agree on whether hell exists, but we do agree that our discussion at Puccini was enriching, and that the food kicked ass. Perhaps a brief glimpse of the celestial.



  1. Just checking, Kevin, but was "fade out" a programmatic phrase of some kind?

  2. "Before I fade out" = "Before I drift off to sleep"


  3. Thanks for the link and the comments, Kevin. I agree that it is sometimes difficult to apply logic to theological arguments, but I also believe that God created us to reason, so I try to do my best in that department. I don't always succeed, but then again I am at best a novice philosopher.



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