The Pit of Despair

For once I’m going to write about something that is beside the point… Hell.  I can only imagine the gasps among the traditional Christian readers.  But, please hear me out.  As a forewarning, my discursion may take on as many layers as Dante’s “Circles of Hell,” as allegorically described in Inferno, the first part of his work Divine Comedy

Ever since my experience at the American Studies Program in Washington, D.C., I’ve increasingly found Hell to be less and less important.  I’m not saying, nor do I believe I’ll ever say, that Hell is of no importance, but it is overemphasized, at least in contemporary Christian culture.  Perhaps it’s in the way Heaven and Hell is generally discussed that really bothers me.  For example, how many times have you heard from a religious zealot: “do this and don’t do that or you’ll go here or there?”  How many times have you seen an hyper-enthusiastic evangelist wielding a Bible on the street corner yelling “turn or burn” to the masses?  Perplexing. 

Wouldn’t it be more effective and wise to focus on doing right here and now for justice and peace sake than to worry about going here and there sometime in the future?  Knowing God’s character and our responsibility to do righteousness on earth, wouldn’t He prefer us to expend our resources on making the world a little more how it ought to be?  Wouldn’t He prefer us to partner with Him as redemptive agents?  Wouldn’t the way we expend or don’t expend our resources on earth, coupled with God’s righteous judgment and grace, take care of what is to become of us in the future?  I think so.

Speaking of what is to become of us… I recently had a bit of an epiphany, or so I think.  At this risk of sounding like a plea for pity, which it’s not, I’ve experienced a fair share of loneliness lately.  Everybody knows how it feels because everyone has been there – a place we call Loneliness.  Interesting, we sometimes refer to loneliness as a place even though it is a feeling and/or state of mind.  We also refer to Hell as a place.  I wonder if Hell isn’t just a lonely feeling and/or state of mind.  After all, the descriptions of Hell in the Bible may just be allegorical just like Dante’s “Circles of Hell.”  Again, some gasps among the gallery, but think about the times you’ve experienced deep loneliness – it’s torture.  If the loneliness I experience here on earth is an iota of what loneliness in Hell would be like – separation from God – then wow, I want no part of it.

I actually have another thought on Hell, but what the hell… I’ll save it for a later article.  Until then, I’d really enjoy a good old fashioned discursion.

– Terrence

*Origin of Discursion: Witnessing contemporary Christian culture for years and waking up feeling lonely and thinking about what separation from God would feel like.  And, yes, the title is a tribute to a childhood favorite and classic – The Princess Bride.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Pit of Despair

  1. Christopher

    Terrence – your clarity of thought on this issue is so enlightening. Thank you. I couldn’t agree with your assessment more! And rather serendipitously, I happened upon your discursion immediately after having read this: What Salvation Isn’t.
    http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/theology/salvation_what_it_isnt.php

    I think you have touched on a very important theological difference between evangelical and more orthodox/liturgical Christianity. There are numerous shorthand idioms that many of our generation were fed as children growing up in the Vacation Bible School-esque Christian Ed systems. The first that comes to mind is that “Jesus is our personal friend and savior,” or, “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?” “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus.” “Have you been saved?”

    The problem with this way of teaching/thinking is that when the focus of faith is merely personal, and the end means is personal salvation through Christ, then the core message of Christ’s divinity is swept under the rug: that we are to worship God and love one another. We’ve made hell into a literal fiery pit with the devil, and heaven into a place on a cloud where all wear white robes and walk alongside a blue-eyed Caucasian Jesus with beautiful flowing hair. This overt simplification of something that is rather complex is ultimately antithetical to true Christian formation.

    Reminds me of a quote from the recent documentary, “For the Bible Tells Me So.” In it, a Pastor is quoted as saying, “It’s ok to have a 5th grade understanding of God – as long as you’re in the 5th grade!” Now we have entire generations of people who have their Jesus and they know they’re saved! They don’t need to do anything else because they know where they’re going when rapture occurs! What it means is they aren’t really here to serve others as Christ taught.

    And finally, your wonderful discursion follows the rise, fall and realization of Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson. You should listen to the complete interview on NPR’s This American Life.
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1273

    Essentially, Mr. Pearson comes to the realization that Hell is all around us: in the injustice that we allow to pervade our world. Hell is exactly as you, a separation from God. We have the opportunity to be “saved” from hell by confronting evil and injustice right now, and in this very place. Suffice it to say, he’s not a Pentecostal anymore, nor is he a wealthy man as he once was.

    Well said, Terrence. And your loneliness is a time through which we all must pass. I have been there myself. Stirring my hands to doing the liturgy of our daily lives, the justice work that must be done around us everyday, is what brought me out of loneliness and into the light. Based on your insight, you may be further along than you think.

  2. GCC

    I have so many thoughts on this subject, and the subjects hinted at, that I can’t decide which to write about. So I’ll just give a bulleted list.

    · The emphasis on heaven and hell reeks of paganism. It’s a dualistic concept that really isn’t present in the origins of ethical monotheism.

    · If we still had ecumenical councils like the good old days (when the pagans started becoming Christians and bringing their old ideas), I would bet good monet that this sort of heaven/hell thinking would be deemed heresy.

    · The idea of The Rapture sits right up there with the idea of Jesus Horses.

    · The emphasis on heaven and hell (in combination with other things) makes Christianity seem like a death cult. Christians should be aware of that.

    · I wonder if the people who know they’re saved are so vocal about the damnation of others because they’re not really all that sure they’re saved. As a result they need those other people to be damned. Because if the others are out then they must be in. So, maybe the emphasis on heaven and hell is indicative of a position of theological weakness and a weakness of faith.

    · The need to use the fear of hell as a persuasion tactic is an obvious sign of lack of truth. As soon as a religion has any element that preaches damnation, it is in a position to be used to control people through fear. Any such religion should be scrutinized deeply. Furthermore, isn’t this the kind of thing that was so awful about medieval Roman Catholicism?

    · The good that Christianity brings the world is not its moral ethics or anything of that nature. That’s all a rehash of old material. Rather, Christianity’s good lies in its unlimited ability to touch all corners of the world. As such, the Christian focus should be on its love of the alien, not the neighbor. Those who do not know God should be loved first. And it should be understood that love is selfless. Christian love for the alien should not need reciprocity and it should be respectful. To put it simply, Christian love and conversion may be antithetical. This is much easier to do if you aren’t convinced that the unbeliever, or even the wrong-believer, is damned.

    · The doctrines of biblical literalism and inerrancy are astonishing. It is so obviously connected to the emphasis on heaven and hell, and a weakness of faith. Furthermore, appealing to biblical authority in this way is another way to control individuals – i.e. it’s probably not what God had in mind. Plus, Bibliolatry anyone? Never mind, I can’t even deal with this one…

    · The individual emphasis on personal salvation is antithetical to the Great Commandment. Not only that, but it serves to divide churches, and take the focus away from God. Our Me-oriented society has fostered a Me-oriented soteriology. Liturgy helps prevent this be emphasizing the collective over the individual. The pursuit of individual satisfaction and justification (both kinds) has driven wedges between those who should be brothers and sisters in Jesus. If liturgy unites and theology divides, soteriology brings down temples.

    I know there were more thoughts this morning. I can’t remember though. This is a very fine post, Terrence. Thanks.

  3. Christopher, thanks for your comments. Sounds like our backgrounds are rather similar. You need to come to Sota for a visit this Summer. The Discursionists will glady visit you in Cali during the Winter. When you said, “They don’t need to do anything else because they know where they’re going when the rapture occurs,” it led me to think about those comfortable with their “salvation.” If we sit on our hands with rested assurance of our salvation, then should we so be sure of our salvation? It sounds like you’re apt to ask the same question, even of yourself – like me. Thanks again for your thoughts.

    Grant, you’ve discursed very well. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. You have some very valid points. Many of which I strongly agree. The only modification I would make, or probably clarification, is how we view the impact Christianity had on “moral ethics or anything of that nature.” Naturally, as a Jew, you would see it as nothing “new,” with which I agree but likely with a different twist. You would view it as something that mirrors Yahweh. I would view it as the continuation of Yahweh.

  4. GCC

    Here’s some clarification on how I see that issue: Whether or not Christianity introduces/d any new morality or whatever is, I think, insignificant. Christianity’s uniqueness lies less in its message, and more in to whom and how its message is sent. Christianity has the unique ability to bring God to the God-less in a universal manner. There can only be one creator-God, one God that exists eterally, apart from all creation. (Indeed, it is more likely that there is no God than there are truly multiple gods.) And Christianity, with its compilation of scripture, message of salvation, deep understanding of the core of God’s purpose, and universal identity, can bring that God beyond borders to people who haven’t understood before. I don’t think I see Christianity as a mirror image or anything. Extension is better. But, I think expansion might be better still. Everybody knows you don’t light a lamp and put the damn thing under a box. But I’d say if it’s an important, bright lamp, you don’t put it on a stand either. You run the thing in a relay around the world like they’ve been doing for the Olympics of late. Christianity is the runner. Whether or not Christianity lit the torch, to me, isn’t terribly relevant.

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