Sunday, November 30, 2008

Why should Christians believe in hell? (Part III of III)

...the final chapter, until I decide to write another.

In the last two posts I discussed the implications of the two main doctrines of hell. I have found that under close scrutiny, they just don't hold up. So what are we left with?

Part III of III - The Doctrine of Universalism

The doctrine of universalism states that, necessarily, everyone is saved. I've been thinking about this, and there are three versions of this which I can see logically working. I'll call these the "instant salvation," "acclimation," and "graduated salvation," models--again, presented from most to least illogical.

The first type has some very interesting implications. There are some who claim that, since no one can logically be damned, then there is no need for a hell, and therefore everybody gets in. But since you'd probably not want to share heaven with, say, and unrepentant serial murderer, there must be some sort of transformation upon entrance. The first model would claim that, upon reaching heaven, the soul finds itself exposed to the full beatific vision, existing in full, unrequited contact with God. This exposure, the shedding of the epistemic distance from God which souls are ordinarily separated, will instantly reform even the craziest and most stalwart evildoer. Basically, when you get in, you'll be so pleased to be there, you can skip hand in hand with your own murderer through the pearly gates. But you've probably already realized the problem with this one (at least from our selfish human perspectives). "What's the point of leading my good life if I'm just going to share the reward with those sickos? I'm going to church six times a week!"

Which brings me to the second model. In this type of hell, there is no deus ex machina type instant have to earn it. In fact, it may take a short stay in hell to convince you that what you were doing on earth...maybe not so good. In this case, the length of the stay in hell and the severity of the punishment would be proportional to the magnitude of your earthly crimes, of course. But like I mentioned in the last post, the stay would only be of a finite amount of time, which would be all but unnoticable when compared to the infinite amount of bliss to which it leads. This is, as pointed out my Phil Professor, is a lot like the Zoroastrian conception of hell (which the Jewish and then Christian conceptions of hell were based upon) in which many people go to hell, but only in order to literally burn the accumulated sin from their bodies before ascending eventually to heaven. Also, since we're in comparison mode (and it'll provide me a good segway into my next paragraph), this tends to be a lot like Dante's Purgatory, the many levelled tower in which those who weren't quite bad enough to get into hell, but not quite good enough to get into heaven were sent to work their way up into the good graces. So even if you're a completely awful person, you can still make it into heaven, provided you don't mind a little work to get there.

Which finally brings me to number three in my list of universalist doctrines, the model which I'm calling "graduated salvation." I'm basically picturing the version of heaven writted about by dante in Paradise. In his version of heaven, there is a graduated system of nine divine spheres, which range from the souls who, though saved, are still slightly deficient, to the final sphere, in which the angels bask in the light emanated from God himself. Although, in a universalist view of this basic, graduated model, we would find that heaven would be divided in a similar way, and those who were closest to God in life would also be closest in death. In this way, there is no need for a hell or purgatory, just a very polite distance between the holy and the people like me. Punishment would instead be replaced by a sort of slighted contentedness, in which those who are farthest from the most intense salvation would feel the ache caused by the physical and epistemic distance from the creator, and would yearn to move to the higher spheres of enlightenment. If movement between spheres is allowed, this may be more like a version of the second model, but with the punishment greatly toned down.

So there you have it. Everything you've wanted to know about hell and more. Of course, I think it's all a load of rubbish, but that'll be reserved for a later post.

Enjoy, have fun, and try not to go to hell.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why should Christians believe in Hell? (Part II of III)

This time around we're going to be discussing the second in my series of posts about everyone's favorite subject: Hell! Today we're taking on damnation from a slightly different angle. To give you a taste of what I mean, C.S. Lewis describes this next conception of hell as being "locked from the inside."

ooh, what could he mean by that? I can't wait!

Part II of III - The Progressive Doctrine of Hell

Due to the many logical problems with the classical doctrine of hell (described in the previous post) the vast majority of "serious" theologians reject it outright, in favor of an approach which is more consistent with God's supposed nature. This leads to, in a broad sense, is the progressive doctrine of Hell.

Do you remember the problem which I brought up in the last post, about the billions of the damned whose only crime was that they had never heard of this Jesus guy? This problem is done away with in the progressive doctrine. In fact, in this case the only souls damned are the ones who have freely chosen to exist in Hell, separated from God, for all eternity. But again, what does it mean to freely choose Hell over heaven, and is such a choice even possible? According to most accounts of this doctrine, everyone, at some point in their life (it can either be during life, or at the moment of death, depending on who you ask) is confronted with the choice between heaven and hell. This may take the form of a sudden religious experience, such as immediately receiving the beatific vision, having all of the knowledge of good and evil spread out before you for a brief, shining instant in which you make your choice, or instead, some claim that this decision is made piecemeal throughout the course of your life (given that exposure to the full beatific vision is said to be too brain-meltingly powerful for a living human to experience). Regardless, the stipulation is that every human, no matter how evil, is given a chance at a free choice. This choice must be free of doubt, clouded emotions, and ignorance, because anything else could not be said to be truly free.

This alternative continues to appease the stipulations put forth by our definition of God; he's still infinitely good (he'd really love to save everybody), but this time he's bound by the necessity of human free will. But who, given the choice between heaven and hell, with all of the knowledge of both alternatives at their disposal, would actually choose to spend an eternity in hell? Really, nobody. There will be a point when you're presented with the choice, between an infinite amount of good and an infinite amount of evil and suffering, and no one will choose the latter. But, there are those that claim that there is a catch here, and that the one way to get around this is to posit people who are deceiving themselves about the choice, in the way that someone may freely choose to become hopelessly addicted to heroin. Just like the addict who is basically choosing to lend their free will to the whims of the drug, the damned soul is choosing to deceive themselves about the heaven/hell choice. In this case, God's hands would be tied by the necessity of free will.

Ah, but therein lies the problem. It's in the initial choice, which isn't actually free. As I mentioned above, the ultimate choice between heaven and hell which needs to be made without any kind of interference, ignorance, or doubt. The choice of self-deception, if the individual truly knew where the choice would lead (hell), would never be chosen. Therefore, even the small number of self-deceivers will not and cannot be damned under the rule of a just and omni-benevolent God. Any free decision will inevitably lead the individual to heaven, even if, under some cases, the soul must be dumped into hell for a finite amount of time. In those cases, the amount of time is just long enough to look around, see how infinitely crappy hell actually is, and decide to jump ship for clearer waters.

But even in those cases, any finite amount of suffering, when compared to an infinite good, approaches zero, and all conditions for the omni-God are still met.

But wait, who's getting damned? Apparently nobody, which brings me to the third and final post, concerning the Doctrine of Universalism.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Why should Christians believe in hell? (Part I of III)

...when it makes no sense at all when looked at from the Christian perspective.

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the concept of hell. It's been the topic of discussion in my Philosophy of Religion class, and in discussing the hell's many implications, it's become very clear to me that it makes no sense at all, especially when considered from a theologically philosophical standpoint.

Let me begin with some definitions. Hell, whether or not it's a lake of fire or "the outer darkness" as my professor puts it, is a place or state of being where the souls of the damned are sent after death. It is a state in which, according to most theology, the damned soul is cut off from God, and thereby separated from all that is good, there may or may not be extra suffering tacked on as well. The God I will be referring to is the deity in the typical Christian sense, all knowing, all powerful, all good, etc. As as side note: no discussion of "satan" or "the devil" will be taking place, seeing that the theologians have long ago dismissed the logical possibility of the existence of such an entity. That may be fodder for a future post. Hell was therefore necessarily created by, and also sustained by, God (also perhaps future-post-fodder).

I'll also note that I'm splitting this topic into three separate posts, each devoted to a different version of damnation, because depending on what particular version of (Christian, in this case) theology you choose to believe in, there are some really horrible inconsistencies with each doctrine. Here we go.

Part I of III - The classical doctrine of Hell

There are three viewpoints I will discuss, arranged from the most problematic to the most logical (or more correctly put, "least illogical"). The first is what is known as the Classical Doctrine of Hell (CDH). This is the view which is adopted by most lay Christians (i.e. those who aren't otherwise theologians). In this view, hell is a place of eternal suffering where the souls of the damned are sent to be punished for their various sins. It is an irrevocable state; once you're in, you can't ever get out. This doctrine is easily the most problematic of the three, and even though it is probably the most common conception of hell, it is also the one which is most incompatible with Christian dogma. To begin, there is the conception that this hell is eternal. This fact leads to the situation in which you are infinitely punished for a finite crime committed in life (for example, murder). In fact, I will argue that any crime committed by a human is necessarily finite, it would be absolutely impossible for a human mind to conceive of, much less perpetrate any infinite act. This includes even breaking one of the "big 10". Should you be punished in hell for all of eternity for coveting thy neighbor's wife? Really? Therefore, any infinite conception of hell is nothing more than cruel and unusual punishment. Would an omni-benevolent God allow this? The answer is clearly no. Even a god who is infinitely bound by justice would only allow punishments which are proportional to the crime commited.

The reasons commonly brought up to defend this version of Hell mostly align with the thoughts that God is bound to be infinitely just. He would love to save everybody (thereby fulfilling the omni-benevolence condition) but just isn't able to, but only because he is bound by justice. This sounds great, until you consider the act of the atonement. During any conversation with a Christian, you'll inevitably be bombarded with the argument of "Jesus died for our sins!" What does this even mean to someone who believes in an infinite hell? In most cases, the sacrificial act of Jesus was committed in order to fulfill the God's burden of justice, to wipe the slate clean, in order to assure that everyone can be saved. But wait, if the justice explanation is scrapped by the atonement, there is no reason why God couldn't just save everyone.

So then the Christian will retort, as they often do, with the argument, "Well, of course everyone can be saved, as long as they believe in Jesus!" Stop right there. First off, this kind of argument is completely awful, you just need to think about it for a bit. You're telling me, that I've got a soul, and the only thing I need to do is believe in a particular jewish evangelical magician? It's that arbitrary? On top of that, even the Christians can't agree on which Christians will be saved--Catholics will say that only those adherent to Catholicism will be saved, the Mormons claim that only Mormons will be saved, and so on. Should the devout Muslim, or the Buddhist monk, or the amazonian aborigine, be damned forever just because they weren't born in the correct geographic or cultural situation? No, and the Christian should be ashamed by their implicit condemnation of the vast majority of people in the world, just because they're not part of the club.

Next time you find yourself in a crowded space, look around at the people there, and imagine half of them burning forever in a lake of fire. Do this, and then reconsider the Classical Doctrine.

If you find yourself a bit hesitant about the CDH, don't feel bad, because there are alternatives, which brings me to my next post: the Progressive Doctrine of Hell.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A good day for a protest fact, the NATIONAL day for a protest.

Getting back to the blog's hot topic of recent weeks: Gay Marriage. As you all know, Nov 15 was slated to be the national day of protest, against the marriage bans which were voted in during the recent election.

At least 250,000 people were estimated to show up at protests all over the country, and based on some of the images I've seen of the Los Angeles and Boston rallies, it must have been more than that. I mean, there were three protests scheduled for Oklahoma, the most homogeneously conservative state in the country. It was amazing to see the kind of support that this cause can muster, even in the heart of Hateful-hick-istan. Okay, maybe that's a bit much (I don't think so), but I was very privileged to attend the rally held here in Stillwater. It wasn't huge, maybe thirty or forty people, but it was certainly bigger than I expected.

The start of the protest was scheduled for noon. I strode in, with much needed soy latte in hand (it was about 40 degrees out, with a biting wind), not knowing what to expect. What I found there was the most enthusiastic group of people I think I've ever seen. The mood wasn't anger, or distrust, but that of hope and happiness. This is encouraging, given that these people have every right to feel angry and distrustful right now.

I was greeted very warmly by a few of my friends and the most amazing lady who demanded I receive a sticker. They read either: "Gay? OK!" or "Oklahomo!" I chose the former.

And so we stood, for about an hour and a half, flashing peace signs and cheering wildly whenever a car would honk its support. The day's events may not have changed the laws, but it's definitely made me feel better about the whole affair.

A bit of existential comedy

...from Demetri Martin, wordsmith extraordinaire.

This is a series I found recently on youtube; and I must say, it's very brilliant. It features the brilliance of Demetri Martin, in a semi-autobiographical piece about life.

If you're into existential comedy, as I know you are, you should definitely check this out.

Demetri Martin - if i

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

Friday, November 7, 2008

Prop 8 Update

...a small consolation.

the ACLU sent out a press release today which contained a bit of good news for those estimated 18,000 people who entered into same-sex marriages in california.

It looks like they get to keep their married status!

The gist of the release is that there's nothing in the language of the Prop 8 bill that would retroactively strip the marital rights from these couples (no ex post facto wins!). I'm very glad to see this result, I was terrified that these people would be once again stripped of their freedoms, by this absolutely atrocious amendment.

In related news, there is a legal battle planned between civil rights lawyers and the state. The civil rights crowd is fighting to establish the fact that this amendment, in that it strips rights from a specific portion of the population, is against the will of the california state constitution, and if they can prove their case in court, the amendment will be removed.

So, keep tuned for the results as they come in, because believe it or not, this affects all of you.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Election

...because everything that changes stays the same.

It's obligatory that every blogger write about this election, if for the simple reason that it's too big not to write about. They'll throw out words like, "historic," "unprecedented," and "momentous" to describe last night's events, and recount shed tears of either joy or fear upon their hearing of the results. Yes, this election could turn out to be the most important event in the history of the nation, and I'm unbelievably happy that after twenty months of clawing and scratching and speaking, Barack Obama has won.

But I'm not going to go in that direction. It's been done. What I would like to talk about instead are the other decisions which were agreed upon last night.

I bought two bottles of wine last night. They were: a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, a medium bodied white which I would slightly chill and toast, if the events called for celebration, and a pinot noir from california, a medium red which smells of blackberry, which would console me if the political tides did not favor my point of view. You can undoubtedly see my motives in picking the two wines. (I was going to pick a reisling and a cab instead, since their characters are more opposed than my selections, but the two I chose have white and black in their names, and I felt that was more appropriate as a symbol.)

This post is not about wine. It's about which wine I was drinking at the end of the night.

I chose the pinot. The black. Let me tell you why.

Even though Barack won overwhelmingly in the general election (my sauvignon was already in the fridge), as I mentioned earlier, there was much more at stake in this election that just the presidential race. Four measures were voted on, and passed, that turned my celebratory tide. Four measures which caused me to turn away from happiness into despair.

They were:

Arizona Prop 102 - Ban on Gay Marriage
Flodida Amendment 2 - Ban on Gay Marriage
California Prop 8 - Ban on Gay Marriage
Arkansas Initiative 1 - Ban on Gay Couples Adopting Children

In the midst of a historic election, an election in which the racial divides in this country were broken down in the most profound way possible, these four measures passed. These measures publicly and officially stripped rights from a specific segment of the population. These measures were fought for with religious bigotry, fear, and ignorance. These measures deny those people in loving, homosexual relationships the same rights as heterosexuals, in a way that can only be described as overt discrimination. In the case of California's Prop 8, it forcibly divorces gay couples who were wed earlier this year. It's a truly monstrous act by the people of these states, an act which reflects poorly on our nation as a whole. How long must it take, how many times do we have to fight for the equality of a specific group only to see another become the social scapegoat before we can realize that we are all citizens of the same nation, that the barriers which once divided us were only in our minds, put there by our strange culture of us versus them?

I don't understand. This has all been done before, and it seems we still haven't learned our lesson. There are people out there who, it seems, feel that they are more entitled to the rights and privileges of this nation than others. We're in a strange place; though, the egalitarian movement has come so far, but still we have to continue fighting. Bravely, women fought for their rights, just as minorities did, just as the gay community is now, but my point is, why don't we realize that this kind of ugly discrimination will never last? Let's come together, strip away the fighting, forgo the cultural scars of an extended battle, and realize that we'll only be truly happy as a cohesive society when everyone is free-- when we're all equal in the eyes of not just the government, but each other.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


For this year's jack-o-lantern, I wanted to make something that would really scare Oklahomans. So I present to you: the Barack-O-Lantern!

When the photo was taken, it's in the "a bit saggy" phase of the pumpkin morphology, but it's still good. And I used a scented candle for the inside, so it now smells of rotting pumpkin and vanilla.

I stayed home all night, in the hopes that, in classic halloween tradition, countless happy costumed children would parade past my door and I could make their night a bit brighter with a fistful of candy. Instead, I sat anxious by the door, with a five-pound bag of candy held tightly in my grasp, and received zero happy costumed visitors. Zero. Circle-slash kids.

I have no clue what might have happened, I did all I could to tell them that this particular apartment was prime time for some trick-or-treat goodness. I mean, I had the barack-o-lantern placed outside, the outside light was on, I even specifically taped up a sign proclaiming "No razor blades in this candy!" But perhaps I was wrong in my assumptions and kids don't visit apartments after all. Or maybe this apartment complex, as I've previously thought, really is just inhabited by sad, single people.

Oh well, happy halloween, I've got a giant bag of candy to eat now.