Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Hell...

My appreciation for and hatred of Chuck Klosterman continues apace. But I’m making my peace with it, so I’ve got that going for me. I’m reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs right now and, much like Killing Yourself to Live, it makes me want to write long, pretentious, self-aware essays. Of course I did that before I ever read any of Klosterman’s work. I’m just aware of it now. So I guess it’s kind of postmodern… I feel like starting this post thusly: I should really be sleeping, but instead I’m writing. I’ve moved from my couch to my bed, which sleep experts tell me is a terrible idea. So I’m sitting on the left side. It’s a queen-size and it’s never occupied by more than me, but still I sleep on the right side only, as if I’m waiting for the occupant of the left to come home from a weekend out of town. Right now I’m not technically writing in my bed. I’m writing in someone else’s bed. I just don’t know who that is. But I won’t start it that way. That’d be self-aware, pseudo-hip, pretentious, and not particularly good writing…* Anyway… Over the course of the weekend I met two girls. One of them has a boyfriend with whom I share a name. The other one may or may not have been single. I find them both fascinating at the moment and, to be perfectly honest, some tiny little part of my brain hopes that I never see either one again, never get to know anything else about them. It’s weird, I suppose. I mean, it’s not like I have anything against either one of them, nor would I expect to. But lack of information can be far, far better than actual information. Sometimes the mystery makes people more interesting than they actually are. Sometimes it simply makes the universe more interesting than it actually is. There seems to be a critical mass of information on any given subject. When you hit that critical mass you have to reject the object of which you have just learned or you have to accept it for what it is. Either way you have to learn to move on with your life. We hit that critical mass with people. It’s most obvious in romantic relationships. I’ve decided in the past that I was in love with someone, that my life would be forfeit without that person in it. I like to believe that I’ve been that person for at least one person in my life. But here I am, sitting on the left side of my bed because there’s no one to occupy it instead. There isn’t even a lamp over here, or a second night stand. It’s just empty space. I’m okay with that. So far anybody I’ve met who I thought would occupy this half has ended up reaching that critical mass of knowledge with me or I with her and we’ve gone our separate ways. It might have taken longer for one side or the other, because it always does, but it’s been okay in the end. That’s how the world works. One of the things that I have a hard time understanding is how I can explain to people why I’m no longer a Christian. It seems a lot of people assume there was a specific moment where I said, “Nope, can’t do it anymore.” Most of the people I went to or would have probably gone to church with seem content to assume that there was a single moment wherein I got really really really really hurt and mad at god and just walked away. Non-Christians, at least of the sort who were never really committed to the whole church thing, don’t necessarily seem to think that, but there’s still a weird undercurrent where they seem to think one day I had an (anti-)epiphany and, hey, no more religion. The truth is that there simply wasn’t a point where it all changed. I hit that point of critical mass and it became inevitable I’d leave, but it was far from instantaneous. I went through life gathering information and experiences and one day the neat little puzzle Christianity had so kindly put together for me didn’t fit together any more. One of those places of extreme difficulty was the entire concept of Hell. Slacktivist really describes the main issue best, so I’ll just summarize. Basically, hell comes up all of three times in the Bible. By which I mean the Christian Bible. There are a couple references to Sheol in the Jewish Bible, but out of all of those passages about all that other stuff the eternal punishment thing barely comes in to play. Yet the Christianity with which I grew up made its entire theology about avoiding hell and trying to convince everyone in the pews to try to convince everyone they knew to avoid it, too. It never really added up, especially when you actually approach the Bible and see what it has to say about avoiding the place. And that message is far different from any message I got from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. See, the conventional Christian message is that you have to pray “The Sinner’s Prayer” and “accept Jesus in to your heart.” The more I read the Bible, though, the more I realized that no one ever said “The Sinner’s Prayer.” I started to wonder if anybody who got preached to in the Book of Acts actually managed to make it to heaven. Then I thought about the societal Christianity in the Medieval period and realized that the vast majority of the people there would have called themselves Christians and never made it in to heaven according to the system in place at my church. Then I started paying attention to what Jesus actually said about who goes where. Matthew 25:33-36 says, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” Jesus never said, “You didn’t pray the Sinner’s Prayer.” He said, “You didn’t help the people who needed it.” Yet this is the source (I’d assume) of the works v. faith argument. Honestly, too, I think it was a license to be lazy. See, if all you have to do is pray a prayer and you’re good, you never have to be uncomfortable. You never have to put yourself out and try to change the world. You can just, as people I knew did, sit back and wait for the Second Coming. Thing is, though, I don’t think the vast majority of Christians actually believe in hell. Well, they don’t believe in hell as a punishment for the unbelievers. Honestly, I think hell is just a thing that gets thrown out to keep the faithful in line. I was constantly worried that I was going to do something so horrible that it would get me sent to hell. Well, maybe not constantly, but it came up on a regular basis. I regularly got, “You’re not good enough because of [this], [this], and [that] and god’s pissed,” messages. I don’t claim that my anecdotes count as data, but it sure seems that more time was spent trying to rile up the faithful to keep them acting properly than actually getting them to go do some outreach. Eventually I realized it was all bullshit. It seemed that Paul was the one who tried to bring in the weird concept of holding to a specific belief. But then James said that true religion was to look after widows and orphans in their distress. Meanwhile, Jesus divided the sheep and the goats according to which ones helped the poor and, in general, had compassion. The Bible doesn’t present the pat explanations of how to get saved that the churches I used to attend would have us believe. I think that for most people in the pews those oversimplified and inhuman answers were profoundly uncomfortable, too. It seems far more likely that if there is a Jesus and he judges the quick and the dead he’d be far more interested in how you respond to John Scalzi’s essay on Being Poor than how you respond to the Bridge Diagram. If that’s the case, I actually have very few problems with Jesus and religion in general. Of course that was only one aspect of my reaction to the critical mass of questions. I suppose it’s probably about time to get to a couple posts I promised a long, long time ago… -------------------------------- *I hate myself for everything I did here.


PersonalFailure said...

I hit critical mass with religion at a very young age, and hell was also my problem. I could not accept that my Jewish best friend was going to burn forever.

Critical mass for belief in god took a lot longer.

Gozreht said...

If I am reading you correctly, I am also a teacher of history. But I am also a Christian though. I believe what you said is true, Christians do not understand the real concept of hell. There are actually other words the Bible refers to that we all clump together as "hell". The Greek word of Hades, the term Sheol, and the term Gehenna are a few. The word hell wasn't really even a word in biblical times. But due to translation many of these words again got clumped together to mean the same thing. I guess people (Christians) stopped studying what the word of God really is and our own ideas now cloud the way.

I invite you to read something I haven't written yet. :)

I will do it sometime in August. I will attempt to teach what I feel "hell" really is. I would like your input as a "non-believer" as I have written it. In the meantime I have a poll on my site to see what others think about it first.

Take care and I hope one day it all becomes clear again to us all. Best wishes and keep on studying history.