Tuesday, February 02, 2010

On the Use of Hell as a Moral Enforcement Mechanism

A friend of mine has been asking an interesting question lately: "What is killing the church?" I'm not entirely sure that I accept the premise. It's not entirely clear to me either that a.) the church is dying (though it is certainly in decline in the West - whatever is meant by "the West"), or that b.) if it is dying, its impending death is not from natural causes. That said, the question is a very interesting one, and it has produced some good conversation.

I've appreciated many of the answers offered - including my evil twin's contention that if the church is dying it is because, at least in evangelical circles, it has been more concerned with making converts than with making disciples, offering up salvation as a cheap good to be purchased as a form of fire insurance, bought with the price of a single, rote prayer, affecting only one's afterlife, and not one's life.

Some offerings, however, have bothered me a little. One of them - which was also commonly offered as a source of the decline of the small country church I briefly pastored - is roughly this:

In our collective rush to theologically accommodate a culture uncomfortable with "Biblical truths," we have abandoned language and beliefs concerning hell, which has in turn caused us to lose all sense of accountability.

There are a number of contentious premises in this kind of argument. The first - a not-at-all-uncommon one, which is by no means unique to this kind of argument - is that it makes sense to speak in monolithic terms of "the church" and "culture." There are, of course, good theological reasons to speak of "the church." Christian unity - while rarely if ever existing in history - is an important theme in the Christian tradition. Just because there is no single historical entity called "the church," which has a single population unified by a single set of beliefs and practices, does not mean that it is entirely nonsensical to speak of such an entity. We should just understand that such an entity has not yet come into existence in history, and may never do so. It is a kind of eschatological vision - a vision of what might be God's ultimate intention - and not a statement of what is.

Monolithic language of "culture" is more problematic, because it doesn't even point to some eschatological reality out there on some distant horizon. Simply put, there is no single entity called "culture." It does make sense to speak of "cultures," but even there we must be careful, for there is no pure distillation of any single culture. Don't believe me? Fine. Try this: What are the defining attributes of, say, American culture? Do you think you could find any two people to agree on some comprehensive list? I don't. But perhaps that's because the category is too big. What about a subculture within American culture? OK, you could divide by geography, and pick a state, or even a city. Or perhaps a neighborhood within a city. But you still would have an almost impossible time coming up with a list of attributes that everyone within the "culture" in question could agree on.

Or, perhaps, you could find a subculture within "American culture" that is divided by some kind of common interest rather than by geography. What, then, might be the defining attributes of, say, "punk culture," or "hip hop culture"? Could you ever find common agreement on those, or on any other identifiable subculture? I sincerely doubt it.

That doesn't mean that all language concerning culture should be abandoned as nonsensical. It just means that great care should be exerting when discussing culture. There are aspects of American culture that have been heavily influenced by the Christian faith. There are aspects of the way that the Christian faith is often practiced in the United States and elsewhere that have clearly been shaped by aspects of American culture. The relationship between the Christian faith and whatever conglomeration of cultures it finds itself surrounded by in any given region is a very complex and mutually interdependent one. A great many books have been written on the subject, including Lamin Sanneh's excellent Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture.

It just doesn't make sense to say that "the church" has totally given in to "culture." It certainly might feel true - especially in the midst of theological disagreement. But that doesn't mean that it is true. There is no single entity, existing in history, called "the church"; there is no single entity existing either in history or anywhere else called "culture"; and the relationship in any location between the practice of the Christian faith and the various cultures surrounding said practice is never a one-way street.

But that's a trivial concern. The real concern is the use anywhere of hell - or, rather, the fear of hell - as a kind of moral enforcement mechanism. This is not uncommon, and I have no interest in picking on any particular person. This is a pretty common move, made not just in the conversation my friend hosted on the causes of the impending death of the church, but really almost anywhere the practice of the Christian faith feels threatened. And, no doubt, more than a few places where it isn't. The notion here is that hell - or, at least, the fear of hell - is a good and proper motivator of moral behavior. If only language concerning hell were employed more, people would behave better.

This is often connected - as in the case of the church I once pastored - to some telling of the Myth of the Golden Past. The Myth of the Golden Past can be found almost anywhere. It simply points to some generally undefined point in the past, and says, roughly, that things were so much better then. If only we - whoever and wherever "we" are - could return to that point - or, at least, the values of that point - we would be so much better off.

This myth is a naive telling of history, glossing over all of the problems of whichever period has been idealized, and using it as a critique of what is wrong in the present. Insofar as it identifies real problems in the present it does have some use. But, because the idealized past it presents has no real reality to it, but is rather a fiction created by a naive remembering, the solutions offered in the telling of this myth are rarely if ever helpful. Usually this myth is wielded as a weapon against progressives in any context, who are moving a particular group away from the sins of the past. (See, for example, the way political and social conservatives in America use an idealized retelling of the 1950s as a critique of both present social problems and the liberals who they blame for said social problems.)

So here the solution to the present problems faced by the church is to return to an age of doctrinal purity when the faith did not just cave in willy-nilly to a culture more concerned with making everyone feel good than with telling God's hard truth. If only we - whoever "we" are - hadn't jettisoned our doctrine and language of hell (though it is by no means clear to me that beliefs concerning hell are really in decline - hellfire and damnation preachers still abound, if not quite in the force they had in the first Great Awakening when Jonathan Edwards penned his famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"), then we would have the kind of moral accountability that would eliminate the various social, cultural, and personal sins that have relegated the church to the margins.

Hell is thus offered up as both an effective and appropriate moral enforcement mechanism. A means by which to control behavior and to impose a code of behavior consistent with a particular Christian theology.

Before I say what I think - from a Christian perspective - is horribly wrong with this kind of argument, I should note what is right with it. It is connected to the historical development of beliefs about the afterlife. Notions of good and bad afterlives are found in at least some strands of almost every religious tradition, and they generally (though I'm painting with a really broad brush here) begin as a kind of theodicy, a kind of defense of God's or the gods' justice.

One of the great scandals of life is that moral behavior seems so disconnected from outcomes in life. The righteous often suffer. The wicked often live lives of lavish luxury. This calls into question the fundamental justice of the universe. And, while there are some subtle moves available - like my argument here - concepts of heaven and hell are a neat and tidy way to recalibrate the moral scale of the universe. It may, such beliefs argue, seem as though wickedness is too often rewarded, and righteousness too often punished. But, things only seem that way. There is a-whole-nother layer to reality, another life or lives beyond this one. And the one's moral activity in this life impact one's fate and standing in the nest life or lives.

But is such a move - appealing to hell as a kind of moral enforcement mechanism, with the fear of hell serving as a motivator for moral behavior, and hell itself balancing the universe's scale of justice - a Christian move. One the one hand, insofar as the move is made by many Christians, my from-the-ground-up view of religion compels me to say that it is, in fact, Christian, in the sense that it is a belief that many Christians hold. But, is it properly Christian, motivated by Christian theology. I'm not so sure that it is. And I am sure that, whether it can be described as "Christian" or not, positing hell as a moral enforcement mechanism is a bad move.

And that (finally!) brings us to the point. Here, in list form, is what I think is wrong with using hell as a moral enforcement mechanism (sure took long enough to get here!):

1. Fear of hell - like fear of any punishment, and contrived consequence for misbehavior - is a poor motive for doing good and avoiding doing bad: One who behaves in a particular way simply out of fear of punishment can hardly be called a moral agent at all, much less a good moral agent. A good moral agent is someone who wants to do good for the sake of doing good. The good itself has a kind of positive appeal. Claiming that hell - and only hell - presents us with moral accountability in a way that eliminates bad behavior is not only manipulative, crippling moral agency; but also sells the good itself short, as though it has no appeal on its own.

Fear of hell, in other words, creates moral infants who can never understand the positive appeal of the good.

2. Connecting hell - and damnation, the opposite of salvation - to moral behavior - while consistent broadly with the history of negative afterlives outside the Christian tradition - fails to understand and appreciate the distinctive role of grace in the Christian doctrine of salvation: Broadly, Christianity asserts that Christians are saved by God's grace, through the saving act of Jesus Christ, and NOT through our own effort and moral behavior. Even most pietistic theologies, which do connect salvation with moral behavior, do not assert that moral behavior causes or prevents salvation, but rather that good moral behavior results from and gives evidence to salvation already caused by grace.

Thus, where hell is a stand in for the opposite of salvation, the true home of those who stand outside salvation (a problematic doctrine in its own right), connecting moral behavior to fear of hell - where behaving morally both results from and alleviates said fear - is a denial of the saving role of God's grace. If hell is in fact an option, and the opposite of salvation, then still, in a Christian understanding, it is not moral behavior that would save one from hell, but rather God's grace.

3. Hell itself makes God a cosmic tyrant and a bully: John Wesley famously said of the Calvinist understanding of God (as he understood it), "Such a God would be unworthy of worship." That is exactly how I feel about a God who creates and sends people to hell, a place of eternal torment without any hope of relief. No properly functioning moral agent would create unrelenting suffering for anyone or anything. Such suffering - without the possibility of any redemptive value - is the very embodiment of evil. Yet those who posit hell as a moral enforcement mechanism offer an understand of God as the cause of eternal torment.

Oh, sure, there are subtle moves available to try to move the cause of the suffering from God to the one suffering, but that calls divine sovereignty into question. If God created hell, and if God ultimately decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, then it is, in fact, God who is the agent responsible for creating eternal suffering in those that God also created. God thus ultimately created them for suffering, which makes God morally worse than the child with the magnifying glass frying ants in the backyard on a hot summer's day, for at least the ants' suffering has some end - even if said end is only death - and at least there is some hope that the child will one day grow up and cease being so callous to the suffering that s/he creates in other sentient beings.

I know that was a lot of words to say only a little, but hopefully it spurs at least a little thought concerning the use of hell as a moral enforcement mechanism.

1 comment:

Yale said...

Regardless of how it is described and envisioned, the nature of hell is that it is a circumstance which we naturally need to go away from and stay away from.

As for heaven, regardless of how we would like to think of it, it is a place having properties that we want to experience, a place of salvation, a place of salving, a place of peacefulness...

If X is hell and Y is heaven, where is a kind of not always kind, but always, and in all ways, fair kind of God is to be found in the above? You may find bits of an answer to that question (although surely not THE Answer) below.


If you find my view of how a not always kind, but always fair God "systematically operates" of any interest -- and whether or not my view of God resonates with yours, lets start a con-versation.

Max pax, Yale@GreenTyme.org