Hell and the Ida Syndrome

By: Dale M. Coulter
Monday, May 30th, 2011

In the past few weeks, there has been another splash on the internet with respect to the doctrine of hell. Yes. . .again. It was created by the popular Christian speaker and author Francis Chan’s video about his forthcoming book, Erasing Hell. You can view the video at his website. I find it somewhat ironic that there is a rush on the part of some detractors to critique a video, not unlike the rush to criticize Rob Bell. But then, this is the brave new world of the internet.

Without commenting on Chan, mainly because I weary of dissecting comments on a video that are explicitly designed to market a book and thus must be provocative, it seems to me at this point that both the defenders and growing detractors of the doctrine of hell get it wrong, especially in the evangelical world where this debate is primarily being waged. I’ll try to spell out several areas that both sides need to deal with before they arrive at any conclusions about hell, but the debate reveals how persons can be “biblical” without being biblical. This current debate in and around the edges of the evangelical world has confirmed my own growing sense that one cannot be authentically biblical without immersing oneself thoroughly into the great river of Christian tradition. I say thoroughly because folks like Bell will stand on the banks of the great river and cherry pick select authors in the same way that many individuals employ selective scriptures as proof texts.

I think of this “method” as the Ice Dancing Approach, or maybe better put, The Ida Syndrome. What demarcates The Ida Syndrome is a concern to glide over the surface of scripture while rarely penetrating its depths. I’m not suggesting that persons intentionally refuse to dive deeply into scripture; rather, like many syndromes, they don’t always see that their understanding of depth amounts to attempting to glide effortlessly and elegantly across its length and width by picking a text here and fusing it with an idea there. It has the feel of a strong approach because many times the dance unfolds as a well-choreographed assembling of scriptural texts that point out genuine tensions between various parts of scripture or that isolate a particular trajectory.

To overcome The Ida Syndrome, one must immerse oneself in the great river of Christian tradition to determine how thinkers wrestled with the language and ideas underneath these texts to arrive at their conclusions. This takes a degree of time and effort that our technologically-driven culture of immediacy resists. In a sense, it has always been resisted within certain sectors of evangelicalism that think of sola scriptura as a license to start the interpretive project afresh as the best way to take scripture seriously. As I continue to tell my students, by diving deeply into these living waters of the Spirit, many times one realizes that what is being rejected is a particular interpretation of the tradition rather than the great river itself. In short, to be biblical ultimately is to identify the whole narrative fabric of scripture, how its ideas ebb and flow in a way that allows each doctrine to swirl in and out of others.

This is basically Irenaeus’ understanding of the rule of faith (regula fidei) in which the central narrative functions as a regulative principle that resists tendencies to fracture the whole. In its gliding here and there without ever considering the underlying ideas and their structural connections, the Ida Syndrome does not fully appreciate the regulative function of the central narrative threads that hold the entire plot of scripture together, which theologians have tended to identify as the economy of salvation.

Christians who wish to claim that scripture as a whole is inspired by God must be committed to seeking and defending a narrative continuity among the various voices of scriptural writers and writings. This is the case regardless of whether one can embrace inerrancy as a particular way to affirm the divine side of scripture. Central to identifying the basic plot structure of scripture is beginning to see the way in which doctrines flow in and out of one another. I am convinced that we see this point more clearly when we immerse ourselves in the great river of Christian tradition. The theological debates, devotional works, interpretive moves, wrestling with challenges of context, etc. by various thinkers scattered throughout the history of Christianity, all reveal the way in which these doctrines coalesce to form a larger narrative structure. As the Apostles’ Creed reminds us, there is a communion of the saints to which all Christians belong and out of this rich, fabric of the Spirit Christians must theologize.

In the debate over hell, I’ve seen The Ida Syndrome at work too much in the fracturing of the narrative fabric by both sides. For the present blog post, I can only make three points, but I’ll follow this up with further explanation in another post.

First, the doctrine of hell is a single feature of the larger Christian narrative regarding the problem of evil. Anyone who wishes to consider hell as part of the telos of a certain kind of human existence must take seriously what Christian tradition has had to say about the problem of evil. At minimum, this means wrestling with what became the consensus position about evil itself, namely, that it is a privation of the good. Evil is the absence of being, life, existence. Moreover, such a perspective on evil was adopted by Christian tradition in the third and fourth centuries because of its correspondence to the basic approach to the doctrine of creation and the claim that God created “out of no-thing.”

When Athanasius, for example, theologizes about the telos of sinful human existence, he does so within the twin poles of creation out of nothing and evil as nothing or a privation of the good. Scriptural terms like death and corruption take their meaning from the broader discourse that begins with creation out of nothing and can end in a horrendous descent back into the nothingness out of which life emerged.

Second, in the Christian tradition dealing with the problem of evil has always factored in suprahuman beings known as angels. The strict universalist who wishes to follow an Origen or Gregory of Nyssa down the “Colossians” road (Col. 1:15-20) that all things will be reconciled must wrestle with how this relates to fallen angelic beings. And here, there can be no special pleading for external factors such as “they were abused as children.” In other words, the simple appeal to external factors such as abuse, etc., to explain the fallen behavior of angelic beings does not work unless one is willing to begin to talk about God’s failure to provide a proper environment of nurture, etc., for these beings. Or, one could simply reject the existence of angels altogether, but this would remove a narrative thread in the overarching narrative of salvation. It would be to capitulate to The Ida Syndrome. Any talk of hell should keep in mind that there are significant scriptures, some from the mouth of Jesus no less, that clearly indicate hell was prepared “for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 12:8-10).

Third, any exploration of hell as a potential telos of human existence must take seriously human freedom as a central feature of human psychological dynamics. There is certainly an important thread within Christian tradition that has viewed divine judgement as God directly turning persons over to their own freedom. I take this to be a  consistent way of interpreting the fall of human existence as well as the “devolution” of fallen humanity into ever-deepening forms of slavery to sin. Hence, Paul’s analysis in Romans of God “giving up” persons to the unfolding dynamics of their own choices (Rom. 1:24-32), or John’s analysis of the first four seals as God “permitting” or “allowing” the unleashing of human forces (e.g., famine through collective human economic activity) on earth (Rev. 6:2, 4, 8).

Of course, such an analysis must consider the doctrine of sin as a human condition, not simply in terms of human behavior or acts. And here is one of the rubs. Conservative theologians place the stress on the internal psychological dynamics that comprise human fallenness. They focus on the disordering of human desire and emotion from birth as the primary factor in explaining destructive, sinful human behavior. Liberal theologians have tended to focus on external or environmental factors as primary in explaining sinful behavior. Sexually abused persons have become “polluted” by others, which means that their sexual desires and emotions were warped by environmental forces. The fact of the matter is that both the internal and the external dynamics must be taken into consideration. Mere appeal to humans who have been abused  as explaining their behavior and thus a reason why there can be no hell fails to see that counter examples can be given of persons who grew up in relatively stable environments that afforded many advantages to them, and yet they still turned into monsters. I am forever reminded of Nazi soldiers reading Goethe even as they gased thousands of Jews. Were all of the Nazi’s abused, or, to put it in sharper terms, were they all determined by environmental factors, and if so, what does that tell us about human freedom?

I’ve gone too long here so I’ll pick up some of these points in a future post. Suffice it to say, we must resist the tendency to embrace The Ira Syndrome by beginning the arduous task of reading scripture in the communion of the saints, the great river into which we were all immersed when we were baptized.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Monday, May 30th, 2011 at 9:27 am and is filed under Church History, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “Hell and the Ida Syndrome”

  1. Robert Spruill says:

    Dr. C,

    I attended a small Bible College of my own denomination for my undergraduate studies in Bible. I remember that we did not have one class in the history of Christianity beyond our own movement and I rarely heard mention of the beliefs of other traditions except to build “straw-men” arguments which could be easily torn down in order to bolster confidence in our own exegetical superiority. I believe I needed one three-hour lecture in your Church History class to realize just how naive I had been. I had spent a considerable amount of time thinking that I had the theological equivalent of an olympic swimmer’s preperation when in reality I had only been splashing around in the theological kiddie-pool! I am afraid to say that I think the average layperson and, indeed, many professional clergy are in the same position that I found myself before discovering the rich histroy of Christian theology. I think many of the more polemical arguments on both sides of this debate could use a bit of time in the historical section of the library. They may find that many of the arguments and ideas they have today are simply repeats of earlier situations played out across the spectrum of Church History.

    • Yes, for too long the history of Christianity has been used as a rod to beat on a theological opponent. The Reformation was just as much about how to interpret the history of Christianity as it was how to interpret the Bible. The central question was whether the medieval church went wrong or not; or, from an Anabaptist perspective, whether the “Constantinian church” went wrong.