June 5, 2008
June 7-8, 2008, weekend

June 6, 2008


Do you know what I mean by "civil religion"? It's the phrase used to describe the widely accepted spiritual beliefs and assumptions that politicians, especially, tap into when they say things like "God bless America" and "May Providence guide our land." At any rate, on her blog, Andrea Useem, a journalist from Virginia, has posted this thoughtful entry about Sen. Barack Obama's skill at drawing on civil religion and how that might benefit him in the fall election. Maybe, but I think Sen. John McCain understands how to pull water from this well, too. So we'll see.

* * *


Do thoughts of spending an eternity in hell motivate you to believe a particular religious creed or to act in a way that you think will help you avoid that?


And what does your religious tradition teach about hell?

The June 3 issue of the Christian Century, generally considered a mainstream or liberal Christian voice, contains a collection of essays from various theological thinkers about hell. In some ways, it's a little surprising to see such a publication devote so much space and energy to a subject that, frankly, doesn't get a lot of attention these days in Mainline churches.

Perhaps even more intriguing is the almost unanimous insistence among the writers that the doctrine of hell has -- and must have -- an important place in Christian theology and that people who want to throw it out give away far too much.

The piece seems not to be available online, but I want to give you a few highlights and invite you to think about -- and tell us -- how important to you and your faith is the idea of hell.

* ". . .it is simply impossible to take seriously orthodox Christian doctrine and not have a lively, indeed passionate, interest in the issues of heaven and hell. . . . We have been shamed by Freud, Marx and Feuerbach into thinking that concern with afterlife is a childish fantasy that is not worthy of the attention of mature, responsible persons. And in buying into this shame, we have trivialized both the gospel and our own lifes." -- Jerry Walls, Asbury Theological Seminary.

* "Hell is a nonnegotiable item of Christian vocabulary. . . . To abandon this sort of talk, as some Christians recommend, is a strange and sad form of self-hatred. . ." --Paul Griffiths, Duke Divinity School.

* "Condemnation to hell is comparable to an exile from where the departed has no longer the resort to return, has not even recollection of what was home.. . .Yet, in a paradoxical way, for the Christian there is a hope against all hope. As it is confessed in the Apostles' Creed: God in Christ descended into hell. That nothing is out of God's reach, even the depths of hell, is what affords hope, the promise of life." -- Vitor Westhelle, Lutheran School of Theology of Chicago.

* "Christ has robbed death of its sting and deprived the devil of many a tasty meal, but hell persists, we are told, because freedom of the will requires it and justice demands it. . . . Abolish hell, and see how salvation dims down. . . . Abolish hell, and a host of smaller obsessions will fill the gap." -- Carol Zaleski, Smith College.

* ". . .eradicating references to hell is shortsighted and has troubling consequences for the shape of our witness to the gospel. To be sure, there is much about Christian teaching on hell that is subject to critical scrutiny. But in its most basic form, it serves as a warning concerning the judgment of God against evil, injustice and callousness in the face of human need and brokenness." -- John R. Franke, Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, Pa.

* "Hellfire and brimstone preachers can't digest their own message. Those who really want to save souls or spread divine love -- even those who use belief in hell as the orthodoxy test -- are the ones who teach us to love God for God's own sake." -- Martin E. Marty, Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago.

* "This is my only hope: to be moved by God into that Christ-formed participation that risks such pain, such confession, such rage that it risks coming so close to the devil that laughter may be impossible." -- Amy Laura Hall, Duke University.

To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.(My column tomorrow will do a little deconstructing on the nation's formational religious story.) 



Just Thinking,

Do you suppose those being tormented in Hell curse God?

a theist

"Well, a theist, I have to go back to my original question, which was Can God not be just without being "vengeful and vindictive"?"

Yes, but that has nothing to do with Hell.

Destruction as a relief from eternal torment?? So, as if death (apollymi) is not a sufficient reason, we'll toss in Hell.

Hell seems to be an invention of theologians to get more people to believe. (I'll risk death, but not eternal torture.) But if you only profess a belief to avoid Hell, I think you've missed the point.

"And were it not for Hell, what would we need salvation from?"

Eternal separation (apollymi) from God.

"For what was the Sacrifice made?"

To allow you to spend enternity WITH God.
Now answer my question.

"Why would God want or need to punish with eternal pain and torment? What’s in it for God?"

a theist

"Do you suppose those being tormented in Hell curse God?"

And that matters because....?

a theist

The following is taken from another website.

"This reminds me of a book on this subject: Two Views of Hell. Edward Fudge argues for annihilation; Robert Peterson argues for eternal suffering. On the cover of this book are two men, both with hand over face in an expression of dread or horror. The point being made with the graphic is that even though there are two views of hell, no matter how you look at hell, it is ghastly. God is merciful, but the person who opposes God refuses his mercy and therefore suffers."

a theist

For a great refutation of PDJ see



Hey, a theist, weren't you on my side before you weren't on my side? :)

This was something I had never really thought about before, but those who have been banished to Hell surely keep sinning. It would be illogical to think that people would go to Hell and stop sinning after doing so all of their lives. Perhaps the torment that goes on there limits the type of sinning they are able to do, but at the very least, they very likely curse God for their fate. So if Hell is the place where people receive punishment for their sin, and let's say just arbitrarily that some person spends 100,000 years in Hell paying for his sins (who knows how long God would deem appropriate punishment), and during those 100,000 years he cursed God every single day. So he receives another 100,000 years of punishment for cursing God, during the serving of which he continues to curse God every day, etc. So when would the debt ever be paid to the point that he can find relief in annihilation?

a theist


I'm trying to be on the side of truth, and I really believe that the truth that Hell is more important to preachers than it is to God.

Did you follow the link?

First - we believe what we want to believe. So I have to ask why would you want to believe that God is in the torture business?

(You're going to respond that eternal torture is not what you want to believe, it is truth. Of course that ignores the postion presented in the link. In the face of good rational arguments on both sides, you picked the side you prefered.)

Now answer my question.

"Why would God want or need to punish with eternal pain and torment? What’s in it for God?"
(Third time I've asked.)

Are you an ordained minister?

a theist


Your last paragraph is irrational!


Really? I must have worded it poorly, as I found it to be a significant argument. It is built on the premise that I think we have all agreed on that (a) Hell is a place of torment for the punishment of sin. (b) If the punishment for the sin committed on earth is not everlasting, then it is for some specific time period appropriate to the sin committed. (c) During that time period it is unreasonable to expect the tormented sinner would somehow quit sinning. (d) God must justly punish that sin as well. (e) The premise says that Hell would be the place where that sin would be punished, so the sinner would again spend some specific period of time being tormented. This takes us back to (c). The only way that a sinner would be punished by annihilation rather than torment in Hell to break this cycle would be if God changed His mind during that cycle and decided that annihilation is a more appropriate punishment than Hell. But God does not change (immutibility of God, established in Malachi 3:6, etc.). Therefore punishment in Hell must be everlasting.


"Why would God want or need to punish with eternal pain and torment? What's in it for God?"

I'm sorry if it seems I haven't answered your question. I feel like I have answered it. God's justice requires it.

"I really believe that the truth that Hell is more important to preachers than it is to God." That's an interesting thought. I can think of one preacher in particular who talked about Hell more than He talked about Heaven - oh, but He was also God, so that may not support your position very well.

It's a little surprising to me that this idea of annihilation has come up to be an argument in these days when it has been considered to be heretical for 1500 years. I really need to learn to stop being surprised at things like that.


a theist,

"Are you an ordained minister?"

I am a licensed but not ordained minister.

Just Thinking


Apparently you don't believe that God wants to destroy evil or simply cannot get the job done. In the new existence, there isn't supposed to be any more evil ... what, except in this little corner where God hides his favorite torture dungeon? You believe that He wants to keep evil alive forever so that he can torture it?

How many infants have been damned to this eternal state by their Church? How many people who simply never heard the Gospel message are damned to this place of eternal torture by a Church? Or how about the souls so damned because they weren't dunked in water properly? The list goes on and on and on for the sniveling cowards of this world who think that the ONLY reason to follow God is because of some warped idea they have of their god and hell. I think that this is good enough reason NOT to follow such a god--there doesn't need to be another one.

The only bigger monster than the god that you worship, PDJ, is YOU for thinking that this is the way God behaves. I'd sooner be in hell than with such a monster.


Just Thinking,

I believe God can get the job done the way He wants to get the job done within His character.

Are you trying to say that God is not a monster for allowing the torment of sinners for a million years or a billion years, but somehow is for allowing it to continue for eternity?

That's some really ungracious speech. I have seen what you have written about who God is, who Jesus is, and how one is saved, so I understand you to be a brother. This issue is secondary if not tertiary. I have stated my position, which I think is both Biblical and logical. So at this point I think that's all I want to say about it.

Just Thinking

PDJ, of course my speech is harsh toward anyone who blasphemes the name of God for their own selfish purposes. You just cannot imagine why someone would *want* to *follow* God unless there was a threat of eternal torment, and yet you wonder why my speech is ungracious? Oh, really? Are you that corrupt?

You build a theology by picking *one* verse that you like because it seems well-suited to your purposes of beating pagans into submission to *your* god, and then you justify this dreadful nature, inconsistency, and contradiction by impugning God's character and divine nature with "That's just the way He is." You dismiss your petty miscomprension with, "Well, God can be any way he wants." Your god is created in *your* image instead of the other way around, and *your* image is one of a vengeful god who will *never* be finished punishing people that you two don't like, and who stands with a finger pointed ready to get people on technicalities and yell, "Aha! Got you, now." "Aha! Nobody told you about the Gospel. Gooooood, I get to punish and torture you forever, and it's THEIR fault." "Aha! Nobody dunked you correctly in water and said the magic incantation. Gooood, I get to punish and torture you forever, and it's THEIR fault."

Your god has some sick desire to keep evil alive for eternal retribution. And I want to worship that image of god? For what purpose? To exist eternally with some monster from whom there is no escape? That sounds like the absolutely worst possible marriage to me. Your version of hell doesn't make me want to follow *your* god, PDJ! Your hell/god makes me want to get as far away from *your* god as I can possibly get! It's that's in hell, fine.

a theist

"God's justice requires it."

Circular reasoning.

Well said JT. 6/10/08 10:59 AM Post.

OOOO “heretical”

According to whom?

Read Edward Fudge yet, PDJ?

Licensed but not ordained?????? Do you have a church over which you preside? Cause I think you can get a minister’s ‘license’ on the ‘net for $20. My son got one.


My aim is to take Jesus seriously and He is "not willing for any to perish" "where the worm dies not" in a place of "outer darkness".
I think Jesus uses hell as a way of warning us to take our sins seriously. I have faith in Thy Will Be Done and in that my God promises! I have a personal relationship with God so that I may live in the light of God's will. I feel any sinner will always have an opportunity to go towards that light at any time, even in death because to Him belongs the glory, forever and ever! I am uncertain whether there could be any place where God is not present.

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