Last week I wrote against what I identified as the Ida Syndrome (the Ice Dancing Approach to scripture). With its attempt to glide across the expanse of scriptural texts, I described this approach as a more sophisticated version of proof-texting. Its basic components are as follows: 1) mistakenly equating depth as a well-choreographed assembling of scriptural texts or isolating a particular trajectory within scripture; 2) selective reading of parts of Christian tradition as somehow supporting the whole; 3) a failure to understand the underlying ideas and structural relations between various doctrines within Christian tradition; 4) a fracturing of the narrative whole of scripture in favor of supporting a particular position.
These components continue to work into the interpretive project within evangelicalism as the continuing debate about hell reveals. And let me be a little bold here: Sometimes, and I did say sometimes, an embrace of the Ida Syndrome really amounts to a lack of theological imagination, by which I mean a failure to allow the great river of Christian tradition to fill the mind with images and ideas that provide the foundation for interpreting scripture. I have found that some theologians or thinkers who claim, “it’s not a logical or rational position,” simply lack the imagination to see (in Johannine terms) how something could be the case. They fall back onto “logic,” but what counts as logical is not what follows the rules of logic, but what they imaginatively conceive as possible. This is one reason why Christian writers like Dante or even C. S. Lewis reverted to mythical and poetical accounts in order to place Christian ideas into a new imaginative framework so as to reveal what is indeed possible.
With this in mind, let me further identify some of the doctrines that are related to the doctrine of hell and the questions it poses.
First, any consideration of hell as a telos of human existence must wrestle with atonement and how it occurs. In my perusal of Rob Bell and some of the bloggers who support and resist Bell’s interpretation, I have found the doctrine of atonement repeatedly coming up. In particular, it is a particular theory of the atonement known as penal substitution. On both sides, there seems to be a lack of historical understanding about when and where penal substitution came about, and how it functions in relation to other doctrines. Reformed folks, in particular, defend it because it sits best within a conservative Reformed framework that supports the Reformed doctrines of election and predestination.
Historically, penal substitution represents a Reformation intensification of Anselm of Canterbury’s account of satisfaction as the primary lens to view the atoning work of Christ. Thus, it emerged in the 16th century in particular because it fit well with forensic ideas that were on the rise, particularly from 1530 on. In addition, penal substitution has always had its detractors within Protestantism, and even within the revivalist stream of Protestantism that fuels the evangelical movement. It was attacked by Reformed revivalists who considered themselves followers of Jonathan Edwards like Edward’s grandson, Timothy Dwight. It also came under attack in the holiness movement around the 1870s as Christus victor emerged from German writers (most notably the Blumhardts) to support the idea that bodily healing was part of the atoning work of Christ.
Any discussion of hell should take into consideration how the atoning work of Christ actually happens. If it is Christus victor, as one could argue the Book of Revelation supports, along with Paul and the Gospels, then this will alter the way one thinks about God’s wrath and Christ’s death as an act of judgment. It is primarily an act on judgment on those enslaving powers of humanity, which includes sin as a “disease” at work within humans.
Second, any consideration of hell as a telos of human existence must wrestle with the full implications in relation to the image of God and its restoration in the sanctifying work of the Spirit. I have found that some of those who reject the doctrine of hell seem to be rejecting extreme versions of forsensic ideas in which salvation is really about a transaction by which individuals get into heaven. Jesus’ work is essentially reduced to a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. Such detractors do not even realize that they actually continue to operate within an extreme version of forensic justification. Thus, they simply claim that all are forgiven and justified in Christ and thus get out of jail whereas the anti-Bell folks claim that only those who have consciously embraced Christ in faith are justified and thus get out of jail.
Both perspectives fail to understanding the developmental dimension of human life as exemplified by the doctrines of creation out of nothing and sanctification. I am beginning to think that it is a relatively recent trend within Christian tradition to consider the original humans as created directly by God in a state of perfection from which they fell. Instead, from at least Irenaeus on, the original humans were viewed as innocent but incomplete and thus in need of growth and development. As Hugh of St. Victor puts it in the twelfth century, humans were created with being, but they needed to develop into beautiful being. They needed to be “formed.” This is the point behind the doctrine of sanctification. It is about restoring God’s original intention of beautifying humans through a cooperative process in which humans put on Christ and so come to reflect the beauty of the one eternal Son.
But, if humans really must grow and develop, then the opposite is also the case. They can not only cease to grow, but actually trend in the opposite direction by deforming their lives rather than forming them. I find it interesting that in its original Latin context, the term vitium (vice) referred to physical deformity like arms and legs that are misshapen. This was utilized as a metaphor for what happens to humans infected with the disease of sin. The point here is that any extreme form of forensic analysis is simply wrong and does not take into account how choices develop ingrained dispositions or characters.
So, what is hell? Is it something that humans create? This is certain what Dante suggested in Inferno, and even the atheist, Jean-Paul Sartre affirmed in his play “No Exit.” After figuring out rather quickly that hell does not consist of torment, fire, or physical torture, Sartre’s characters slowly realize what Garcin announces at the end, “There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people.” In Sartre’s version of hell, three individuals who were abusers of others in life are thrown into a single room where the characters they spent a lifetime cultivating now spend a second lifetime destroying one another through the subtle art of psychological assassination.
Third, the current discussion of hell is opening back up the issue of character development in relationship to human destiny and thus the question of purgatory. If one is going to argue that hell must be left behind, then one will have to grapple with how character development occurs. This is where the discussions about “innocent” suffering become quite complicated. Certainly, infants and children who die in abusive situations are innocent sufferers, but the Christian tradition has always discussed such cases in terms of exceptions because neither infants nor children can make genuinely moral decisions. The same is true of those with mental disabilities.
There is always a point at which humans become responsible for their own development as moral agents and thus become the shapers of their own character and destiny. In most of history, this age was viewed as being between 12 and 14 years, but in the past 150 years, we have pushed that age up to 18 years old, at least, in terms of making decisions as an adult citizen. So, when does a person become responsible for the shaping of his/her own character? If through free choice, humans make decisions about what they will do and who they will become, how can even God simply reverse character without violating human freedom? Does this not turn human activity into a relatively meaningless exercise? The implication, of course, is that if there is no hell, then there is certainly a long purgatorial experience after the death of many persons. As the followers of the series Lost saw, this what that show ultimately pointed toward.
Well, once again, I’ve gone a little long in my post. I hope that my readers will see how the doctrine of hell forms part of a larger tapestry that must be taken into consideration. The simple rejections by some fail to take that larger tapestry into consideration, and in my view, do just as much damage to the faith once delivered as those who single out one trajectory within scripture as THE only way to understand hell. Both groups continue to promote the idea the Christian tradition must be picked apart and dismantled, and sometimes this dismantling extends to scripture itself.