All have seen

All the ends of the earth
have seen the salvation of our God:
sing joyfully to God, all the earth. – Psalm 98:3

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

American Hell

Carson Clark has posted a video of N.T. Wright commenting on the American spectacle of Rob Bell's book on hell and the Christian response to it.

Wright on Hell & Bell from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.
My remarks:

There is something both fascinating and gruesome about how we have dealt with all this Rob Bell stuff. It says a great deal more about us, I think, than it does about God, or hell.

John Dyer has an excellent analysis of the situation from before the book was released: Love Wins and Truth Prevails but speed kills ‘em both. He also wrote a version of this for Christianity Today entitled “Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers: How Social Media Changed Theological Debate” – and points out, lusciously: “The commenters seemed to agree with the post by attempting to enact its main point.”

I was terribly taken aback by this whole “perfect storm” Dyer describes, realizing that the way the video was released, its content, the book blurb preview, a few chapters released to reviewers but not the whole book … was about to set the Christian community into Jerry Springer mode. We would have a lot of yelling, and very little substance.

Reviews of the book seemed to indicate that it was rather fast and loose in hermeneutics and other areas. I haven’t had a chance to read it.
I was tremendously impressed with Rob Bell’s fielding of questions at his interview with Lisa Miller. He is an incredibly talented man, when he’s working a field where he’s adept. But getting into the larger issues of Christian faith is not his thing; he is much better at imaginitively beckoning us to consider the awesome expansiveness of God’s love, and its implication for ourselves and those with whom we interact.

In this interview, Bell set out one of the founding premises of his book, and I think also, the presupposition behind much of the American argument:
That hell tells us a lot about God’s character; and that a person’s view of hell says a lot about what they think of God.

I would agree here in a qualified sense, but primarily disagree.

Hell would tell us a lot about God’s character if we knew quite a bit about hell, and were able to understandingly discuss it. What we think about hell does tell us something important about our our belief in God, if we allow this belief to be important in conditioning our view of God – e.g., if we dwell on it.
I would argue, very simply:

We can not imagine hell, or that which rightly belongs to God, in matters of judgment which are “ultimate” from our perspective as embodied humans in our present state here on earth. It seems to me that Christ’s words on judgment, His few words on hell, and the general literary qualities of His words, and those of the apostles, should indicate to us: “This is way beyond our grasp … the categories which we use to try to understand these things are simply not cut out for such things … we will end up in contradictions and probably many false classifications if we try to move too far in this territory.”

Thus: we should not dwell on hell, nor should we hold detailed beliefs regarding hell, nor should whatever beliefs we have in hell, be particularly important in conditioning our ideas about God, or “telling” us what we believe about God – simply since we must acknowledge, this is beyond our capacity of thinking, imagining, and perceiving.

A correlary: does what we think about the physical nature of the cosmos, tell us a lot about who we are, who God is, or what justice is?

I would say: “No. It doesn’t matter if we think that over billions of years it is expanding or contracting; whether it has edges, or somehow folds upon itself in a single, circle-like continuum; this breaks the very boundaries of our imaginations. Whatever our beliefs about this, we still tend to agree on how to treat our neighbours, what we need to do in life, etc. etc.. Changing from one viewpoint to the other is not likely to have serious consequences for the important aspects of one’s world view.”

So I am in profound agreement here with N.T. Wright. I think that dispensationalism and “literal” readings of prophesies somehow found their ways into American consciousness in a way that is rather unique – not only amongst those who consciously believe in such things, but even amongst atheists. It’s a part of Americans’ shared imagination, as it were – effecting the imagination at a deep level. All Trinitarian churches have believed in hell; most have abided by Scripture’s implicit warnings in the language regarding hell, and the explicit warnings regarding arrogance, preventing detailed speculation regarding hell itself from becoming an important part of the collective imagination or the way in which we tend to view things.
Americans tend to be pioneers – thinking no territory can’t be mapped out and fruitfully occupied. There is something very admirable in some of the ventures of the imagination where Americans have dared to go, where others have not. But not all exercises of the imagination are profitable; some most certainly blight the soul, or numb the mind. And I would suggest that hell is somewhere our minds and imaginations don’t need to go.
People of other cultures tend to respect boundaries more; and are more aware of “proprieties” – that our very finitude demands of us that we respect certain limits. Americans with their pioneering mentality seem to think that all limits are equally surmountable.

With hell, this is simply not the case.


James said...

One extra thought:

Part of N.T. Wright's genius here is that he dismisses not only Rob Bell's arguments, but the whole playing field of discourse, with one fell swoop: "This is very American, my friends."

I would agree with him, in that it is productive to "shake things up" a bit. But what's essential is also how we "shake things up." I'd add: we were not shaking things up very well as a Christian community with the spectacle as it unfolded. I refer to it as a "spectacle" because ... it was mostly a lot of people observing a fight, pure and simple ... with very little actual thinking going on. What was hurled around were a lot of epithets, without much backing. "Well the early church fathers said ..." (which early church fathers, in which context, with what kind of reception?) "If you believe that, then you are a [insert some social categorization here]." Primarily a "battle" of trying to hash out which social groups those fighting belonged to, and then prognosticating on the futures of such social groups and classifications. Will evangelicals now (...) start doing and thinking (...)? Will x and y now no longer be evangelicals? Without much thought to the very legitimacy of the presuppositions behind the debate, or the nature of what caused that sorry debate (as John Dyer so aptly described).

James said...

I should add:

I have heard many sermons in many churches, many of them "Evangelical." I think that "hell" is much more prominent in American popular culture, and the American imaginations of the church, than it is in the church itself. I have very rarely heard sermons which emphasize hell, and believe most American pastors to be implicitly following Christ's own example, and that of N.T. Wright, in not making hell a central theme of their preaching. In fact, few mention it as frequently as Christ Himself did.

Hell is more likely to be brought up in theological conversations by laypeople, who presumably have been significantly influenced by American popular culture.

Perhaps Rob Bell did need to come along and "shake us up" in a rather sad and unhealthy way, in order for N.T. Wright to come along and pop the balloon. Part of the problem is American Christians overwillingness to allow popular culture to mold their ideas of what churches like, and what in particular "evangelicals" are like. We must accept factual evidence; but by no means must we uncritically embrace the mythology. If laypeople are taught critical attitudes toward American mainstream media's presentation of Christianity ... they would very likely become kinder, gentler folk, and less likely to pounce on "hell" as a topic for reflection. I am afraid that much of America's "fundamentalism" is primarily to be found in the media which purports to characterize it.

Anyone who is unaware of how American popular culture and mainstream media are somewhat involved with their own mythologies regarding Christianity can do little better than visit

Matt Huggins said...

Tom W. dances a bit on this. With greater clarity, coherence and humility than Rob W., but he dances nonetheless.

I see detailed talk of hell as much like the banter of the disciples about who would be first in the kingdom. Christ did not ignore these discussions, but used the occasion to speak to the real nature of His kingdom.

I think a truly regrettable aspect of the "Love Wins" episode is how talk of hell, as such, has obscured forthright discussions concerning the reality of God's holiness and His prerogative to deal--in His manner of justice and mercy--with those of His creatures who rebel against Him. Our telling of the Gospel too often fails to establish adequately the "default setting" into which we are born, as members of a race condemned to futility and, eventually, destruction on account of our transgressions. So much more great and urgent, then, the Gospel.

Perhaps there is inadequate accounting, in these debates, of the history of God's relationship with His people, from beginning to end. The strong resistance to giving full consideration to the nature of God's judgment would seem to be a refusal to take into account how God already has dealt with humanity. If the blessings and punishments received by the people of the OT, including Abraham and the Israelites, were both temporal and, in several key respects, typical, then why is it we expect the blessings after the work of Christ has been accomplished to be greater than their OT correlatives while we expect final judgment for unrepentant sinners to be somehow less severe than that administered in the OT for unbelief and other sins? Even if one insists on over-spiritualizing the NT, mustn't they contend with the threat of a spiritual suffering far more intense than that which we see in our day-to-day lives?

He does no favor who refrains from loudly announcing the imminent arrival of a freight train to those who linger on the tracks.

The Archer of the Forest said...

Excellent, James. I didn't realize you were blogging.

I posted a response to this on my blog. It was initially going to be a comment here, but it was too long for a comment.

James said...

Thank you so much for your response, Ryan. For those stumbling across this blog at future dates, a direct link to Ryan's post: here.

Sort of ironic that your post started as a comment here - btw., feel free to leave multiple comments here if you like - my own post started as a comment over at Carson's blog.

I must echo your sentiments about much of what I see in American evangelicalism. I was thinking about this in response to some of Carson Clark's excellent blog entries. Probably first though I ought to do an appreciation of American evangelicalism, which I'll likely call: "Why Liberals should support conservative Evangelical churches: because Liberation Theology says they should" (as you can imagine, that argument needs a few paces to take off, and is unlikely to be "popular" amongst ... well, just about any group of Christians, and will probably be written mostly for my own evil chuckles). And then a piece which will be more critical, though I hope ... constructively so.

Blessings to you, and thanks for introducing me to your lovely blog!

James said...


I agree completely with what you're saying here. Wright would have done much better had he first clearly stipulated: there is a definite context which we must keep in mind, whenever we bring up the subject of hell; and said something of that context. Here, sort of dangling in medias res, speaking of hell and hell alone ... he seems as if he may be not appreciating the larger picture which we must always be careful to sketch out, before speaking of things such as hell. But I think that very likely he'd agree with you, and find space to criticize his own, "too direct" approach here.

BabyBlue said...

I can't believe Tom Wright doesn't know why Americans ask about hell? Is he completely ignorant of our history - hello? He's so swift in his judgements about America - and Americans - as though he is completely clueless about why. Any American teenager who has studied American history or American literature knows the answer.

We - even now, even after all this time - we are the children of the Pilgrims. We are the children of the Puritans. While their religious fervor may have waned, the need to know whether we are in the elect has not diminished. Americans have inherited the examined life of our Puritan mothers and fathers, we consistently and constantly examine our lives to know if we are in the elect, secularized as it is now. Why do we put all our news on public cable systems and broadcast them all over the world - we must confess our sins, that we might not be doomed but in fact be saved.

This has a secular meaning now, but it's woven into the fabric of American culture. That N.T. Wright seems to be totally unaware of this significant part of the American character is quite frankly astonishing.


James said...

Interesting thought, bb. I'm not sure, though - first off, would self-examination in light of asking one's self about one's election necessarily imply thinking about hell? One knows already, and confidently, that hell is quite awful; speculation regarding details doesn't seem to follow. Also: one might think that Arminians would be more prone toward such self-examination in the first place, to determine whether they had lost the faith.

Finally: that this specific habit with extra specificities as consequences has been retained over the centuries ... might be doubtful.

I'm more likely to look at American pop culture here. As the biggest of haven in free enterprise and the selling of ideas and cultural artifacts ... Americans have been quite brazen in the pursuit of commercial interests, going much further than European countries. I'm thinking particular of mentions of hell and devils in early American cartoons, for example. Religious symbols are powerful, even if brought outside of their usual contexts. It only makes sense to use religious symbols in order to heighten drama, unless cultural forces discourage this. And in America, this hasn't been the case.

Nations which are predominantly Catholic have generally tended to do better in curbing commercial tendencies of using religion and religious symbols for the purpose of commercial gain, especially when bringing in contexts which could confuse. Protestants tend more to think that the strong, God-fearing individual will resist, and has no need to worry about such things. Catholics are more concerned about society in general, and thus attuned to long-term effects of such commercialization.

The United States in particular has known, from early in the twentieth century, rather "crass" uses of religious symbolism for the purposes of creating contrasts and heightening drama.

But you may be right. I've just found this video, a discussion between a history professor interested in depictions of hell in America, and a philosophy prof. Haven't watched it yet. Perhaps I shall tomorrow.

James said...

Watched aforementioned video with history prof. Part about American history was not particularly enlightening.

The Archer of the Forest said...

I would love to read your thoughts on how Liberation Theology should be supportive of Conservative Evangelicalism. Being from the American South, I have always had a love/hate relationship with Bible Belt Evangelicals. While I don't agree with them theologically too often, I do sympathize with them because a lot of their churches and, to an extent even their theology and worldview, largely evolved from shunnings and even historical persecutions from more historically mainline denominations, particularly in colonial or pre-colonial centuries. While I don't agree with their world views too often, I do understand where they are coming from.

David V said...

For those that believe we are "children of Pilgrims" (which seems hard to believe, given that the Pilgrims went bankrupt and ended up in exile on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket), I simply point to Island at the Center of the World.

James said...

Veen, you old spoil sport. You know very well how fun it is to dress up on Thanksgiving Day with paper hats with buckles drawn on them and other such lovely accoutrements. Historical accuracy is for grouches.

By the way, the Dutch are taking over Antwerp as well these days. A lot of Flemmish people assume I'm Dutch, which is kinda funny.

Kevin said...

I have not read Rob Bell's book, so my comments are from reviews of it, still I think he has fallen off the horse.

That said, I am mindful that he writes from a certain context and in the US, this last decade we've seen people with signs saying "Thank God of IEDs" and the two before that was one Baptist preacher the main stream media loved quoting when he would shoot off at the mouth, usually he ended up retracting. There has been a crop of preachers who all seem to have fallen off this one side of the horse, that I wonder if it is not such an aversion to what is an adherent misrepresentation of fullness of Scripture that they are not in part they pull back only to go off the other side.

So it's not without some sympathy that I say what I do, but it's still dangerous. I think the greater error that lead to the lessor is the propensity to give the Scriptures a contemporary meaning [maybe a bigger rabbit trail than I wish to take on here].

Per +NT, he is just being ignorant. I mean that in the truest sense of the word. I think he is such an egg-head that he'll respond to Rob Bell's book because it is a book, but maybe completely blind to contemporary American culture, to the point that he does not understand that he is annoyed by what could be a pastoral moment (meaning if my thesis that is a counter reaction to some errant uses of the doctrine of hell, that those Americans who "so fixated on hell" are actually asking a teacher they respect, a question from their context which is bothering them).