Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Why Hell is Glad that People Don't Believe in It

Why Hell is Glad People Don’t Believe in It

My dismay at David Bentley Hart’s recent book That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation runs deep in my guts. Last week in the New York times he trenchantly reiterated his brazen challenge to “the historical validity, biblical origins, philosophical cogency and moral sanity of the standard Christian teaching on the matter.” At about the same time as Hart’s New York Times piece appeared, I was reading alumni news from Yale Divinity School about the retirement of Professor Peter Hawkins, renowned and beloved scholar of Dante whose classes transformed the lives of countless Christians. With Hawkins work in mind, I keep asking myself what could possibly have compelled Hart in his article to call Dante’s images of hell “psychotic”? I am almost positive that David Bentley Hart’s recent article in the New York Times was penned from Hell, indeed, written by Hell’s second-most-famous demon, Screwtape.

In C. S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape, the demonic uncle of the young tempter Wormwood, advises his nefarious netherworld nephew the following: “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise… suggest a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that, he therefore cannot believe in you.”

It is a classic old textbook method of countering an objection through exaggeration.

Following this advice admirably, the philosopher and theologian Hart speaks to us of combusting babies, broiling souls, and weeping orphans. It’s, in his words, “a ghastly gallery of images,” an “opulent mythology of God’s eternal torture chamber.”

As an Old Testament Biblical scholar, I don’t buy that. I’m convinced that Hart’s version was authored by that second most famous of all demons, Mr. Lewis’ Screwtape.

Equally clever are Hart’s attempts to paint universal salvation as an acceptable, orthodox Christian viewpoint rather than a revisionist challenge to tradition and Scripture. This is official heresy since the Council of Constantinople condemned Origen’s version of it.

But the main objectionable tactic Hart takes is his reductionism, his dumbing down of the Biblical concept by refusing to take it seriously on its own terms. He reduces a theological question to nothing but a “troubling question of social psychology.”

This Wormwood-worthy tact is farcical and reflects poorly on Hart’s scholarly credibility.

For the sake of argument, let us grant Hart that thoughts of Hell’s torments are a symptom of psychological hysteria, that they reflect the deep emotional need of some believers, and that, above all, they are a potent instrument of social stability.

None of this explains away anything, and when all is said and done the sobering spiritual question remains front and center: What is the real and ultimate theological threat here?

Why does a revered theological giant such as the prophet Ezekiel speak of Egypt descending down deep in the Netherworld after death (Ezekiel 32:21)? Why does he lie weak and stifled there, a paralyzed, living-dead shade (probably, as in Isaiah 14:10–11, lying sick on a mattress of maggots).

The fate of Pharaoh and his forces is no mystery to Ezekiel, nor, indeed, to the earlier writers of the Book of Exodus. Far from desiring God and God’s reign, our obstinate, deluded Pharaoh made himself a god and pushed aside all desire for the reality of God. His “hardened heart” at the exodus is infamous. No wonder he lands immobile in Ezekiel’s Netherworld, frozen and hardened firm in the underworld’s deepest crevices.

Although David Bentley Hart calls Dante’s images of hell “psychotic,” I suspect that instead they are masterfully perceptive. Here, I agree with Prof. Ellen Davis of Duke University (a longtime friend of Peter Hawkins), who finds Dante to have hit the nail on the head.

To kick against God’s fundamental structuring of the world, as Pharaoh of Egypt did, is not to emancipate oneself from God’s “restrictive” sovereignty but to cut oneself off from all God-given, extant spheres of human movement and possibility.

It is to retreat from all created openings for human decision into an icy prison of one’s own making, becoming, as Dante writes, “like straws in glass.” Dante is surely right. Hell must get colder, not hotter in its depths, rendering those who are trapped there finally completely immobile.

Given the rampant modern drive for individual self-determination, this is a theological profundity that I deem crucial to grasp for human happiness. Hell, of course, is interested in the opposite human fate.

Stephen L. Cook is the Catherine N. McBurney Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature, at the Virginia Theological Seminary, where he has taught for the last quarter century. https://drstephenlcook.com/


Anonymous girlsparrow@gmail.com said...

thanks stephen i haven't read davids' book yet yet realize he can be possibly blunt combative and or a bit disissive nevertheless i feel you may be missing alot of his point and not taking other universalist presentations into account anyway before jesus you must admit or realize that we are not to believe professors preachers pastors denominations or church councils but only jesus that is the god he represents
we are not to listen to councils their opinions nor your nor mine nor davids we re to listen only to god the type of suffering in hell literal non literal ain't the point outer darkness aloneness away from love is as pain full as disorienting as flames if you havn't read "the inescapable love of god" by thomas talbot you may wanna "hope beyond hell" by gerry beauchemin is a THOROUGH biblical study of the subject, revealing that a sincere biblical approach can be universalist jesus promised to bring all to himself

Sun Sep 20, 04:29:00 PM GMT-5  

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