29 October 2020

God's sweet revenge

Hell as interior decoration. BBC's Andrew Graham-Dixon in the TV series The Art of Russia.
Grayson Gilbert wants us to know that "There Are No Atheists in Hell." 

Is this the kind of good news that Pope Francis means when he reassures a grieving child that the child's unbelieving father will not be rejected by God? (In other words, that atheists are not automatically condemned to hell?)

Not exactly. Judge for yourself:

At the end of all days, every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord. They [that is, atheists, with their "concealed hatred of God"] will not confess that He is Savior then because He will not be a Savior to them then. There is nothing they can be saved from. They squandered away a lifetime of opportunity to repent and believe the gospel; there are no second chances. It is assigned once for man [sic] to die and meet judgment. There is no hope for the one who dies under the consuming wrath of God, but just as there remains no hope for those who do not believe upon Christ prior to their death, there will be no lingering skepticism. There will be no doubt. There will be no unbelief. All will believe and will either go away to eternal death or eternal life, for there will be no atheists in Hell.

In my ongoing attempts to find out why certainty about eternal torment plays such a central role with some Christian thinkers, I took Gilbert's approach and the Pope's approach and let them play out in my imagination. I imagined the atheist father of the child whom Francis consoled in the video linked above, and, on my mind's stage, had him appearing before God's judgment seat.

Gilbert's God: "What are you looking at me like that for? See, I'm real, you damned atheist. You had a lifetime of opportunity to repent and believe the good news, but you squandered them away in (a) riotous living, or (b) helping other people to the best of your secular self. Go to hell and fry forever!"

(I know we're supposed to imagine them roasting or broiling, or as the vivid icon in Ivan's the Terrible* office shows, boiling in oil, but my mother used this specific curse when she was really angry: "Go to hell and fry forever!")

(* That punctuation is an inside joke.)

The Pope's God: "Surprise! Maybe now you'll believe me. Beloved, welcome to my house!"

Yes, I'm having fun now, but actually I'm angry. What evangelist in his or her right mind thinks that we can build a case for a loving and merciful God by insisting on God's final revenge on those who cannot cross the threshold of faith, not because their atheism masks a "concealed hatred of God" but because (1) they can't work it out intellectually, despite genuine efforts, or (2) they've never heard a coherent and credible presentation of the Gospel offered without hidden agendas, or (3) most members of God's fan club they know seem to revel in malice, racism, xenophobia, violence, or greed.

I'm not the only angry one. When early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay, in writing his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, got around to dealing with this damnation business, he had nothing but scorn: 

As for that doctrine which these propositions [Propositions 5 and 6 of his Apology] chiefly strike at, to wit, absolute reprobation, according to which some are not afraid to assert: That God, by an eternal and immutable decree, hath predestinated to eternal damnation the far greater part of mankind, not considered as made, much less as fallen, without any respect to their disobedience or sin, but only for the demonstrating of the glory of his justice; and that for the bringing this about he hath appointed these miserable souls necessarily to walk in their wicked ways, that so his justice may lay hold on them: and that God doth therefore not only suffer them to be liable to this misery in many parts of the world, by withholding from them the preaching of the Gospel and the knowledge of Christ, but even in those places where the Gospel is preached, and salvation by Christ is offered; whom though he publicly invite them, yet he justly condemns for disobedience, albeit he hath withheld from them all grace by which they could have laid hold of the Gospel, viz.: Because he hath, by a secret will unknown to all men, ordained and decreed (without any respect had to their disobedience or sin) that they shall not obey, and that the offer of the Gospel shall never prove effectual for their salvation, but only serve to aggravate and occasion their greater condemnation.

I say, as to this horrible and blasphemous doctrine, our cause is common with many others, who have both wisely and learnedly, according to Scripture, reason, and antiquity, refuted it.
Gilbert's God: Johan, you're in for it now. Robert Barclay is roasting or frying (take your choice) with all those others who tried to gain followers for me without warning them about the awful consequences should you fail to convince them. Turn or burn!

In one of my previous attempts to deal with hell's advocates, I granted that, theoretically, it is possible for someone to become aware of God's grace and mercy and deliberately reject it, but is that the real situation of everyone who finds themselves outside the camp of certified Christians? And, as long as we're imagining this vain and hypercritical God who says, "Love me or else!", what fate awaits those Christians whose anger, hunger for power, or imperial enmeshments repel potential believers?

I have a gentle question for these pro-hell Christian intellectuals:

If you and I were to go into a quiet corner where colleagues whose approval you crave, the buyers of your books, and your media audiences all can't hear us, would you agree that God's mercy might extend to those in Matthew 25 who unknowingly fed Jesus when he was hungry, clothed him when he needed clothes, and visited him in captivity, without doctrinal conditions? I suspect many of them would say "yes." What keeps them from proclaiming this? (Or are they really all beyond hope?)

Jesus mentions the outer darkness and the flames of eternal torment more than once -- perhaps most vividly in describing the fate of the rich man who did not open his gate to Lazarus. He says or implies that committing evil acts, abusing children, ignoring his explicit invitations, and blaspheming the Holy Spirit, all put us in spiritual danger of going to the bad place prepared for the devil and his angels. But where does it say that a person of good will who cannot believe in God will only find out his or her error when it's too late to escape eternal torment?

I'm serious. If you really believe this, try to persuade me. Please try to make your persuasion consistent with a holy and all-merciful God; no lesser God will do.

Related posts: God's sweet revenge, part two;  More heat than light (in which we see Al Mohler utterly misunderstand and misrepresent the reasons why some Christians reject his concept of damnation); We will never see another non-ChristianHell, holiness, and Jerusalem.

Will I be in danger of eternal torment for linking to this Bible study on hell?

A somewhat more pro-hell summary. And another.

Oregon's e-sticker: "I voted."
On Tuesday, USA's national election day, Judy and I plan to spend the day on a visit back to the zoo.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee's majority staff report on the administration's family separation policy.

Russia's annual commemoration of the victim's of Stalin's purges was held online this year. (And here's why I will be very careful in the future when considering linking to rferl.org and its Russian-language service, svoboda.org.)

Vasilii Vereshchagin: A Russian artist who painted the true face of war.

Once again, Heather Cox Richardson summarizes another day in U.S. politics.

Kim Wilson and Rick Estrin enjoying each other's musicianship:

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