Friday, May 04, 2007

A great bible class idea

Well, Richard Beck is laying out some principles for the class he is teaching at church, so this seems like a good time to share my latest Bible class idea. I guess you could use it for a sermon, too, but you should probably send the kids out of the auditorium/sanctuary first.

The idea revolves around a trend in recent horror films ... Hostel, Saw, Saw II, Saw III, and so forth. I haven't seen any of these films myself, but people who have seen them tell me that they represent a move from "horror film" to "torture film". In the past, it might have been difficult to get ahold of graphic depictions of torture, but I'm thinking that these videos should be pretty easy to find. (Though I guess if you're not up for the horror films, you could just make do with the fingernail-ripping scene from Syriana.)

So you get together some of the most gruesome scenes in this video, and you splice them together, back to back. When your class arrives, you sit them all down in front of a TV, turn down the lights, and play your video.

Be sure to set it to loop. Over and over and over.

When people start leaving, mock them. Tell them that it's embarrassing that they can't endure an hour of watching suffering and torture, when God intends to watch people to suffer in hell for eternity.

If anyone is still hanging around, read them the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.

For the one or two people who haven't left because you cleverly tied them to their chairs while the lights were off, read them the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15. Be sure they know it's in Luke 15, which comes right before Luke 16.

Then go find a new church. Hopefully, these people won't need you to help them work out a new doctrine of hell.


Steve said...

An interesting thought experiment. Apparently Origen and some other early church guys were similarly repulsed and held a view in the eventual restoration of all things. That is, everything, all creation, gets redeemed in the end. I'd like to think that as well. I do.

scoots said...

On the one hand, yes. But to split a hair: on the other hand, the point of the doctrine of hell is not sadism but justice.

If you put Hitler in a chair having his finger-nails ripped off, and then ask people to watch that, you'll get a different reaction.

I do think you have a strong point if you ask (as I believe you have in the past) how it could be just for God to allow people to be tortured for the kinds of sins most people commit, as opposed to the kinds of atrocities Hitler committed.

However, if you're going to use an analogy, it ought to be apt. I don't think the movies you mentioned are.

Matthew said...

"the point of the doctrine of hell is not sadism but justice ... If you put Hitler in a chair having his finger-nails ripped off, and then ask people to watch that, you'll get a different reaction."

God, I hope not. Torture is torture, no matter the victim.

Eternal torture could be called a lot of things, but never "just".

scoots said...

Yeah, the eternal part definitely makes it a lot harder to defend.

There are parts of Scripture that talk about people being punished more or less severely, which seems to suggest that punishment would be proportionate, which doesn't seem compatible with it being infinite. And as for physical torture/fire/etc., you could argue that the Lazarus story was just a fable rather than a description of what hell is actually like. (Although other passages suggest otherwise.)

And then another way to kind of mitigate a doctrine of hell is to see it as annihilation, such that the wicked are judged and then destroyed––pehaps painfully, and perhaps eternally, but not eternally painfully, if you take my meaning.

I have a good friend who absolutely believes in hell (talks about it more than anyone else I know, as a matter of fact), but who prays that God will save everyone instead; for those who don't want to give up the doctrine, I think that's a pretty desirable attitude.

And then I look at myself sometimes: the amount of energy I put into self-gratification and the amount of indifference I show toward any number of things or people that matter. I can't see myself deserving eternal torment, but if I got exactly what I deserved, I don't think it would be very pretty.

Matthew said...

Nod, those seem like good steps toward a better doctrine of hell.

Incidentally, I'd probably be a little more lenient than you in estimating "just what you deserve".

scoots said...

Maybe, but that would depend on balancing out the bad I've done against the good I've done. And on my more cynical days, I could argue that even a lot of the good I've done was probably aimed at making myself feel better anyway, so it's not as good as it would look.

I can only assume that if God finds good in us, it's in the parental relationship where the parent understands the child's limitations and affirms them according to that, rather than according to some standard of perfection.

On the other hand, the point still remains that I spend most of my time and money on myself, largely indifferent to the atrocities that go on in the world.

In another place and time, I could make the case that God would simply want me to do my best in my situation, treat people well, etc. But in a situation where we both (1) know of any number of atrocious injustices going on on a daily basis and (2) have things like money that can help redress those situations in specific ways, it's hard to see God looking down and saying, "well, Scott tried, but it's understandable why he bought that new CD-alarm clock for $70 last week, when he could have bought a normal alarm clock for $5 and used the $65 to help free a little girl from child prostitution."

God help us.

Matthew said...

"it's hard to see God looking down and saying, 'well, Scott tried, but it's understandable why he bought that new CD-alarm clock...'"

Given the parental relationship you mention, I don't think it's so difficult to picture God feeling this way about the situation.

Sure, you know, in some nebulous intellectual sense, that people are suffering. But people aren't built to feel deeply about people outside their immediate circle. Caring about people whom you've never met is a significant achievement of imagination, one that the Bible pushes us toward, but that few people are able to pull off.

So while the moral ideal may be self-sacrificing altruism, I think it's difficult to damn people for falling short of that. If God wanted to make self-sacrificing altruism the minimum requirement to avoid damnation, God should have had the foresight to provide better hardware.

scoots said...

I think you and I probably agree, practically speaking, on a lot of this.

Going back to the Abraham and Lazarus story, though, I think it addresses exactly this point we’re getting at. The guy in hell wanted to go tell people what it was really like down there, because their imagination wasn't getting the job done.

Abraham's response was: “They have Moses and the prophets. They should listen to them.” In other words, God’s instructions should be sufficient to get us to act in obedience, even if we don’t have the direct experience to drive us.

If I'm reading that right, then, our care for people we are close to is simply a function of being human (like you suggest); our care for people we don't know is the best indicator of whether we care about God.

Matthew said...

"our care for people we don't know is the best indicator of whether we care about God"

That seems fairly biblical, and yes, we probably agree regarding how people ought to behave. It just kind of makes me uncomfortable that you classify as "damnable" what I would classify as "human".

scoots said...

On the other side of things, if hell were only annihilation and not eternal torment, would you say it would be defensible for God to destroy those who just behaved in the expected human way, but save for eternal life those who responded in obedience?

It would seem reasonable for God to only want the people who really cared about God. Sort of C.S. Lewis’ old line––there are two types of people: those who say to God, ‘thy will be done,’ and those to whom God ultimately says, ‘ok, thy will be done.’

Matthew said...

Bypassing the question of "choice" for a moment ... I think such a choice would have to be very explicit. I don't buy that bit about the rich man and the prophets. If someone comes back from the dead and tells me to shape up, I'm listening.

So I can't accept the justice of saying, "you lived this way, so obviously you wouldn't like to be with God for eternity, BLAM!" I'd expect God to show up and say, "look, here's me, and being with me feels like this ... and the alternative is annihilation, which feels like this ... now, which would you prefer?"

Paul said...

I think reading St. Paul's often quoted passages in I Cors. 13 about what love is and isn't and what love does and doesn't do, it's hard to square the idea of a loving God with hell.

But of course there are plenty of gospel verses depicting not only a Jesus consistent with Paul on love, but a Jesus telling everyone who doesn't believe he's the Messiah that they're going to hell.

As I recall, that's the most often cited reason for sending people to hell - not believing Jesus is the Messiah.

Seems to me to introduce a whole additional layer of difficulty with the idea of hell. I mean, it seems apparent that there are plenty of worse offenses...

Matthew said...

"Seems to me to introduce a whole additional layer of difficulty with the idea of hell."

No argument coming from me.

Darin said...

I didnt want to ask this question without first thinking about the subject, but now i ask,

So what is your theology of hell?

scoots said...

@ matthew:
I'd expect God to show up and say, "look, here's me, and being with me feels like this ... and the alternative is annihilation, which feels like this ... now, which would you prefer?"

Your suggestion would assume that love for God is primarily a feeling or an experience. I think the whole point is that love necessarily entails action. So if a person has read Matthew 25, where Jesus says that anything we do for a person in need is actually a deed on behalf of Jesus, and if they love Jesus, then they’ll take him at his word and do those things. If they don’t do those things, then either they don’t think Jesus said these things, or else they don’t love him.

This might seem unfair to people who don’t believe Jesus is necessarily sent from God in any direct sense. But if Yahweh is the only one out there that can actually offer a spot in heaven (i.e., other gods are made up and therefore can’t do anything for us after we die anyway), then Yahweh gets to set the terms. He chose Jesus as the judge, and Jesus said that he would welcome in those who love him. The setup, at least on the heaven side of things, seems straightforward and fair.

Hell, then, is of course where the difficulty comes into play. If hell is only annihilation, then I think what I said above is an adequate explanation. If hell is eternal torment, then I agree it’s a whole other problem.

One way “out,” I think, is that Jesus prophesied worse punishment for people who heard his message and refused to repent. The idea is that these are the people who already knew and believed the Scriptures, and so they should have known and accepted the work of God when they saw it. For those people, rejection of Jesus’ message is seen as rejection of the God they claim to serve––the ultimate in arrogance––and God punishes them with eternal torment.

For other folks (say, people who didn’t already believe the Scriptures and therefore wouldn’t recognize Jesus for who he was), we could hope that the punishment is gentler.

Matthew said...


While I hesitate to declare that anything metaphysical "cannot exist", I can't come up with any way to understand "hell" that doesn't make God either uncompetent or monstrous.

So I'd say that if a good God exists, hell doesn't.

Matthew said...

And by "uncompetent" I of course mean "incompetent" ...

Uncompetent? Where the heck did that come from?

Matthew said...


I suspect that we have a fundamental difference of opinion on how to approach topics like this one.

Your approach seems to be kind of scientific or naturalistic ... you start with an assumption that God exists and then investigate the things that claim to reveal this God, to find out what God is really like. If God turns out to be evil, then too bad for us.

My approach is a bit more idealistic, I guess ... I start with the assumption that the most important claim that people have made about God is "God is good". So looking at the evidence that I can see, both the way the world seems to be and what various faith groups have to say about it, and what these groups have to say about God, I'm trying to figure out what a good God might be like, and, given the evidence available to me, whether it is reasonable for me to even believe that there is such a God.

One significant implication of this difference seems to be that I am a bit more demanding when it comes to God's goodness. I demand that God's goodness be a goodness that people can understand, and in fact that a good (personal) God be held to the same standards as any other person. So if it is unacceptable for Darin to annihilate a person, much less torture him forever, it is equally unacceptable for God.