I was eavesdropping again – a dirty habit, but I’m a bad person. T had once again effortlessly collected a claque of male admirers (and wasn’t the little gay guy snarky with envy!), and was drunkenly explaining to them what a hypocrite her mum was. Seems that her mum would never let her listen to that dreadful ungodly rock music when she was a teen, and yet it turns out her mum is a big fan of Meatloaf! Meatloaf, who released an album with “hell” in the title! “Hell”, I say!
Well, T, allow me to explain.
Have you ever burned yourself? On a stove, touching a hot car engine, brushing against a heater – have you ever received a burn? One that actually cooked the top layer of flesh, leaving a browny/grey mark? Just think for a moment about that.
Ok. Could you ever, ever, ever grab someone’s arm and plunge it into a chip fryer? Could you ever pour boiling fat on someone? Ever? Could you ever pour a pot of sizzling oil on a teenager? A 10-year old child? Could you hear their screams, see their face and scalp go crispy and burned, and then do it again to the next person in line?
No? Nether could I. I could never, never do a thing like that. No without going insane.
But Jesus can. And he will.
The bible clearly states that hell is not just “darkeness” or “separation from God”. It is being punished with fire. For ever and ever. And people don’t just wind up in hell of their own volition, as C.S.Lewis so unbiblically describes. They are bundled up like wood and tossed into the fire at the command of Jesus. It says so. In the bible. You know it does.
Any mum would do anything at all to keep her child from that. The dreadful, dreadful threat of it. The savagery. The unending cruelty of it. Always, for a believing christian, there’s that horrible reality. All you can do is try not to think about it. All you can do is hope that you have done your christianity correctly, that you are not one of the billions destined for the fire. That your kids are not.
It’s that ole cognitive dissonance again, causing the hypocrisy.
And yet …
God is good, right? He’s like the ultimate good-by-definition good. So you have to believe, then, that it’s good to throw the unbelievers into hell, to be burned and burned forever. It’s a good, and right, and proper, and correct and reasonable thing to do. It’s so right to do it, that only a bad person would suppose it was wrong.
But the sins that you are notionally thrown in hell for – sassing your mum, listening to rock music – how could the possibly warrant such a thing? How could any act? When you look into it a bit further, you work out that the condemned-or-not decision doesn’t really have anything to do with the things you do: the things most people think of as sins. The atonement takes care of all that – forgiveness is as simple as asking for it. The only sin that God actually cares about is unbelief, and in the NT, unbelief is a deliberate choice. The real underlying issue is: whose side are you on? Are you with God, or against him? Do you obey god, or are you in rebellion? Where lies your allegiance?
That’s the real issue. I worked it out it back in the days when I believed, that that’s what it was really about. But I never took the next step. Allegiance. Rebellion. These are political terms. God is a king. And hell, therefore, is a political prison. A gulag, where king God sends the dissidents against his rule to be tortured. That’s what it’s about. It’s not so much the murderers who go to hell – a simple “sorry about the murders, God” takes care of that. It’s the scoffers and blasphemers.
But, God is our father, right? LOL. Every patriarchal despot that’s ever been has called himself a father to his people, including Papa Joe Stalin and Uncle Idi Amin. God is our “father” and wants our “love”, but what is it to love God? Jesus states it plainly: “if you love me, you will obey my commands.” And if you do not obey, then you do not love him, and if you do not love him, you are not his child, but his enemy. Everyone is one or the other.
And why does God fry his enemies in the fires of eternal hell? Because that’s just the kind of thing that Kings do. Remember who wrote this shit. The bottom of the pyramid back in the first century. People who lived under Herod. People who saw in the roman circuses what kings and kings of kings do.
It’s a very, very old idea, of course. A patriarch back in the early OT wanted a lot of sons, because sons are what you need to fight the sons of the guy living at the other end of the valley, sons are what you need in order to steal his sheep. Kids were disposable – things you had, things you owned. Look at the attitude to kids in the book of Job. God punishes Job by wiping out his children, and that’s ok. At the end of the book, they get replaced with some more. Fungible. And no mention of the couple of dozen wives that bore these kids, either. Only the patriarch actually matters.
It goes back further, to Genesis 1, where the spirits (the word is “Elohim”, it’s plural and it means “spirits”) the spirits created the world and what was in it, and then each spirit created a race of men, each in his own image and likeness. Jehovah owned Adam like a patriarch owns his livestock, his wives, his sons – because Jehovah was Adam’s father. He made him. That’s why Adam had a duty of obedience. That what jave Jehovah the right to punish him in his body. Even to kill. Read the story of Abraham and Isaac: there’s not a hint of a whisper of the notion that Isaac’s life was not Abraham’s to give.
It’s this same authority, then, that a king claims when he calls himself his people’s “father”. It’s this that is the real meaning of God’s fatherhood of his people. A duty to obey. Or be punished. A billion dollars worth of cathedrals, of crosses and robes, millenia of fire and savagery, of wars, of inquisitions and burnings, all because God has the right to hurt us. He made us. He is our father. And when we disobey him, it makes him so angry.
Finally: did it ever strike you how horrible heaven is? Mark Twain put it best:
Consider the deafening hurricane of sound — millions and millions of voices screaming at once and millions and millions of harps gritting their teeth at the same time! I ask you: is it hideous, is it odious, is it horrible?
Consider further: it is a praise service; a service of compliment, of flattery, of adulation! Do you ask who it is that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane compliment; and who not only endures it, but likes it, enjoys it, requires if, commands it? Hold your breath!
It is God! This race’s god, I mean. He sits on his throne, attended by his four and twenty elders and some other dignitaries pertaining to his court, and looks out over his miles and miles of tempestuous worshipers, and smiles, and purrs, and nods his satisfaction northward, eastward, southward; as quaint and nave a spectacle as has yet been imagined in this universe, I take it.
It is easy to see that the inventor of the heavens did not originate the idea, but copied it from the show-ceremonies of some sorry little sovereign State up in the back settlements of the Orient somewhere.
Could you handle it? After living – or trying to live – a productive, useful life here on earth, learning, working, building your skills; would you want to do nothing but tell God just how awesome he is forever? The floor is made of gold that is as transparent as glass, and looking down through it you can see the torments of the damned. But you are safe and happy, because you have been made sinlessly perfect, and it doesn’t bother you a bit. Look! Down there! There is your child, your mother, your lover – wailing in pain. They didn’t repent properly, didn’t believe exactly the right doctrines, “lost their faith” towards the end, maybe even took the mark ‘o the beast™ so they could work and feed their families. And so they are condemned. But you are ok – you feel nothing for them. All the tears have been wiped from your eyes, you have your crown, and a white stone with your name on it. Anyway: there’s nothing you can do for them now – God just isn’t forgiving people anymore.
Think about the songs we used to sing: “Holy holy holy is the lamb, worthy to be praised!” forever and ever. What sort of person whats to hear that? What sort of person wants to be flattered by his inferiors over and over, unendingly for eternity? What sort of person creates the greatest created beings, the cherubim of the throne – 12 miles tall and fire-breathing awesome, so that their entire job and purpose in life is to cover their eyes and cry holy? Why: the same sort of person as throws anyone who won’t do it into an eternal lake of fire! A middle eastern petty despot. A Herod. A Saddam Hussein. That’s the kind of person the God of the bible is.
And some people want a personal relationship with him.