Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Checkmate For Hell - Part 6: Move 11

This is part of an ongoing series of blog posts, meant to be read in order.  In the first post, I introduced the concept of Universalism, and introduced the concept that I would be defending my position through a series of "chess moves".  I mentioned that I believe I have checkmate in 2 moves, but because a lot of questions would be left, I would use a series of further moves to keep the king in checkmate while I systematically removed the rest of the pieces from the board.  I would highly suggest you read the previous parts of this series before reading this one:
Part 1: Moves 1-3
Part 2: Moves 4-5
Part 3: Moves 6-7
Part 4: Move 8
Part 5: Moves 9-10

Psychological Background
Before we get into the next two “chess moves”, I need to explain a couple of psychological concepts that I will be referring to in these moves.  One of the things you are going to have to understand is that Hell-sayers fall prey to cognitive dissonance and employ confirmation bias to protect their views.  Yes, those are some highfalutin terms.  I will attempt to explain.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychology term which indicates the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions.  For example, a smoker will experience cognitive dissonance when they realize that smoking is unhealthy, but continue to smoke anyway.  Psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term after infiltrating a UFO cult led by Dorothy Martin.  The cult believed that Dorothy had received a prophesy from aliens that there would be a massive flood in the United States on December 21, 1954.  Festinger observed the cult members' fervor actually increasing after their prophesies failed to materialize results.  Why would these cult members continue in their fervor after it seemed obvious to outsiders that the cult had been proven false?  They had committed themselves to this cult in a big way - quitting their jobs, exhausting their savings, and repeatedly warning their families and friends of impending disaster.  So to shrug their shoulders, admit their error, and move on would not have been easy.  One cultist stated, after midnight on December 21 of 1954: "I've given up just about everything.  I've cut every tie: I've burned every bridge.  I've turned my back on the world.  I can't afford to doubt.  I have to believe."

There are three key strategies to reduce or minimize cognitive dissonance:

  1. Focus on more supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant belief or behavior. 
  2. Reduce the importance of the conflicting belief. 
  3. Change the conflicting belief so that it is consistent with other beliefs or behaviors.

Now, as you may have guessed, confirmation bias goes hand in hand with cognitive dissonance.  Confirmation bias is a tendency to favor information that confirms a belief or hypothesis, and people who display confirmation bias have a tendency to selectively remember information and interpret it in a biased way.  The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

So let's move on to move number 11:

Chess Move #11
Another common objection to Universalism is that people will bring up the wrathful God of the Old Testament.  Now this brings us to a topic I really wish I didn’t have to discuss, but after numerous conversations with one of my friends after presenting my ideas on Hell, it became apparent that I needed to address this issue in order to attempt to free him from an imprisoning idea of a wrathful God.  I would address issues such as the meaning of the word “all” changing meaning in the middle of a sentence without any contextual clues, or the question of “does God get what God wants?”, and my friend would display classic cognitive dissonance by refusing to address these issues, but falling back on the ideas of a wrathful God that the stories of the Old Testament seem to support, in his mind.

Now what my friend is doing is a little like the following analogy: imagine that my friend and I have both purchased a complicated jigsaw puzzle that is supposed to end up looking like a representation of a real life site that my friend and I have both seen and are familiar with.  My friend has struggled with this puzzle, and because of its difficulty, he took some of the pieces and put them back in the box in order to help him simplify things and focus on putting the other pieces together.  But once he had begun to put the other pieces together, rather than taking the other pieces back out of the box, my friend left them there and tried to force the pieces he was working with together.  The result was that he did end up with a picture, but it didn’t quite resemble the real life site that it was supposed to resemble.  When I tried to point this out to my friend, he took the box with the rest of the pieces and threw it under the couch, refusing to address the pieces within, and then he insisted that it is not the puzzle which is wrong, but our eyes that deceive us into thinking that the real life site doesn’t look like the picture he was left with.  But I refuse to say my puzzle is finished until I have both dealt with the pieces that were left in the box, and my resulting puzzle resembles the real life site that I can observe.  Meanwhile, my friend continues to try to force his puzzle pieces together with sheer brute strength and willpower.

To further the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle, let's imagine that rather than the puzzle being a picture of a site, it is a portrait.  And let's imagine that upon finishing the puzzle, the picture I am faced with is of a man holding a portrait of himself that someone else has drawn.  On the man’s face is a mixed expression of compassion and sadness.  The portrait of him that he is holding definitely resembles him in some aspects, but it is also badly drawn, as if by a child: aspects of the man’s face are grossly disproportionate, and his face is twisted in a horrid expression.  Now, imagine that my friend has thrown away the pieces that would enable him to see that the portrait is just that, and he is convinced that this caricature is actually a photograph of the man, and so my friend is insisting – though it makes no sense – that both pictures of the man are accurate portrayals of the same person.  But what he ends up doing with this “god with multiple personality disorder” is that he brings out the portrait that is most convenient for whatever situation he faces at the time.  His “god” is a conflicted god of extremes.  If this is your god, what inevitably happens is that when you are faced with someone you disagree with, you pull out the wrathful god and ignore the loving god.  When you are faced with someone you care about, or when you are struggling yourself, you go to the god of love.  But I don’t believe that God has multiple personality disorder!  I believe he is “One”, as Jesus said!

After repeated conversations with my friend where he continued to bring up this idea of a wrathful God that he feels the Old Testament proves is true, I finally asked him a question that I knew he wouldn’t like.  I asked my friend: “what if the Israelites got it wrong?”  You see, the picture that Jesus gives us of God’s personality doesn’t seem to match the ideas of a condemning, wrathful God that the Israelites seemed to have in parts of the Old Testament.  So what if they got it wrong?

Now this idea really upset my friend – he accused me of going too far by questioning the Bible.  He believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, and points to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 as proof of this idea.  I will address this passage and what I think it means in a bit, but first I would like to point out some problems with my friend’s ideas on how to view the Old Testament and the ideas of a wrathful God within.

First off, let’s talk about Job.  One of the interesting things about Job is that he was not an Israelite, but an Edomite, as Job 1:1 tells us that he lived in the land of Uz, which was on the confines of ldumaea [Edom] and Arabia.  Now, as the story goes in the book of Job, Satan issues a challenge to God that if God will “strike everything he has”, Job will “surely curse you to your face.” (verse 11).  So God accepts, and Job loses…well, basically everything.  His family dies and he loses all of his possessions.  Job is stricken with grief, and Job’s friends arrive to comfort him, and it says in Job 2:13:

Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

When Job’s friends felt that it was appropriate to speak to him about what happened, the advice they give him is that if he would just recognize his sin and repent of it, God would surely forgive him.  But Job insists he has done nothing wrong, and for most of the book Job and his friends go back and forth in a continuing debate over these two conflicting points – Job’s friends repeatedly insist he must have done something wrong and is being punished, and Job insisting on his righteousness.  Job’s insistence on his righteousness is an interesting point to consider in light of Calvinism’s doctrine of Total Depravity (which we will deal with in the next "chess move"), by the way.

Then at the end of the book of Job, God speaks to Job, and makes him feel very small by asking him questions such as these:

Job 38:4-7
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?"

But lest you read this amazing and humbling passage with an angry tone, take a look at what happens afterwards in Job 42:7-8:

After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.  So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves.  My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.  You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”

Do you understand what just happened here?  First of all, I would say that if you are reading the questions God presents to Job with an angry tone, you don’t understand the plot – the end of the book shows us that God is not angry with Job.  Rather, He is lovingly questioning Job.  But second of all, the Bible just told us that another part of the Bible was…wrong!  If someone were to take the statements of Job’s friends and quote them in order to prove to someone else what God was like, they would be wrong!  More than that, though, it is interesting to note that what Job’s friends were saying to him is not unsupported by scripture either.  In Deuteronomy 28, it says that if you obey God’s commands you will be blessed in the city and the country, the fruit of your womb will be blessed and crops of your land and the young of your livestock, you will be blessed when you come in and when you go out, etc.  And then it says that if you do not obey God’s commands, you will be cursed in the city and in the country, the fruit of your womb will be cursed and crops of your land and the young of your livestock, you will be cursed when you come in and when you go out, etc.  So what Job’s friends told him is supported by Scripture!  So…which side is correct?  Is Job 42:7-8 wrong, or were Job’s friends and Deuteronomy 28 wrong?  And what does this say about the inerrancy of Scripture?

But I’m not finished yet.  In the beginning of John chapter 9 we see that people are still following the code of Deuteronomy 28 - Jesus and his disciples see a man born blind, and the disciples ask Jesus whether it was the blind man who sinned or his parents? Because if you live by the principle of Deuteronomy 28, it's logical to assume that this man was blind because he was being punished for sins, right? But Jesus disagrees! He overturns this concept! So who are you going to listen to, Moses or Jesus?

But there are more issues for you, if you believe in inerrancy.  In Genesis 19:24, we find something peculiar:

Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens.

Now why would it say “the LORD” did something, and then later clarify “from the LORD”?  Also peculiar is this one:

Jeremiah 50:40
“As God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah
And their neighbors,”
says the Lord,
“So no one shall reside there,
Nor son of man dwell in it.”

Why would God speak in the third person about Himself like that?  Digging a little deeper:

Amos 4:11
“I overthrew some of you,
As God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
And you were like a firebrand plucked from the burning;
Yet you have not returned to Me,”
Says the Lord.

Once again, why does God refer to Himself in the third person?  And why does the passage switch from “God” to “LORD” at the end of the verse?

Digging even deeper, we find that in Exodus 15:11, Moses asks: “Who is like you among the gods, O Lord?”  And Psalm 95:3 says that “the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods.”  So what is all of this about?  Well, the answer I will suggest is that the Old Testament Israelites were monolatrists – they believed that there were many gods, but worshiped only one, and believed that the god they worshiped was over all the other gods.  They believed that YHVH was the king of the gods.  From Wikipedia’s article on monolatrism, we find the following:
Recognized scholars have formulated a substantial case for ancient Israel's practice of monolatry.[3]
"The highest claim to be made for Moses is that he was, rather than a monotheist, a monolatrist. ... The attribution of fully developed monotheism to Moses is certainly going beyond the evidence."[4]
"As absolute monotheism took over from monolatry in Israel, those who had originally been in the pantheon of the gods were demoted to the status of angels."[5]
"The exclusivity of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel is an important element in Israel's oldest religious tradition. However, it is not necessary to ascribe the present formulation of the commandment ["you shall have no other gods before me"] to a very early stage of the tradition, nor is it advantageous to interpret the commandment as if it inculcated monotheism. The commandment technically enjoins monolatry, but it can be understood within a henotheistic religious system."[6]
"The Deuteronomic Code imposes at the least a strict monolatry."[7]
"In the ancient Near East the existence of divine beings was universally accepted without questions. As for unicity, in Israel there is no clear and unambiguous denial of the existence of gods other than Yahweh before Deutero-Isaiah in the 6th century B.C. … The question was not whether there is only one elohim, but whether there is any elohim like Yahweh."[8]

So the Israelites believed in many gods.  Christians today don’t believe in many gods – we believe in one God, expressed in the three persons of the Trinity.  So, the Israelites were…wrong.

But there’s more.  Look at these passages (emphasis added by me):
Deuteronomy 12:31
You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.

Jeremiah 19:4-6
For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent.  They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.  So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.

Point being: God detests child sacrifice.  So why would God ask Abraham to do something He detests?  For the answer, I go to this essay on what Jews believe:
Some Christians might claim that Gd seemed to want human sacrifices, because Gd appeared to demand one from Abraham, when He commanded the sacrifice of Isaac. This is a misreading of the biblical text in Genesis. When one reads this section carefully, one sees something quite different.
Most Jewish biblical commentators interpret this incident as a test of Abraham's loyalty: Gd wanted to see if he would actually kill Isaac, his own son. However, a number of Jewish commentators from the medieval era, and many in the modern era as well, read the text somewhat differently. The early rabbinic midrash "Genesis Rabbah" imagines Gd as saying "I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac." Rabbi Yona Ibn Janach (Spain, 11th century) wrote that Gd demanded only a symbolic sacrifice. Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi (Spain, early 14th century) wrote that Abraham's imagination led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes "How could Gd command such a revolting thing?"
Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), writes that child sacrifice was actually "rife among the Semitic peoples," and suggests that "in that age, it was astounding that Abraham's Gd should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it." Hertz interprets the Binding of Isaac as demonstrating that human sacrifice is abhorrent. "Unlike the cruel heathen deities, it was the spiritual surrender alone that Gd required."

Could it be that Abraham was wrong about God?

But there’s more.  Ask any atheist or agnostic who is not burdened by dogmatic beliefs that cannot be rationalized, and they will tell you that there are many contradictions in the Bible.  Check out this impressive list for some examples (there are plenty more lists like that one out there, by the way).  Those who believe in the inerrancy of scripture will insist that this is not so – there are no contradictions in the Bible.  But if that is what you believe, you have a lot of explaining to do.

So what’s the answer to this problem?  Well, let’s go back and look at 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

What does the verse say?  Does it say that scripture is inerrant?  No – it says “God-breathed”, and it says that it’s “useful”.  Many people have read into the phrase “God-breathed” and taken it to mean “inerrant”.  But there’s a problem with that.  Because there’s something else that was God-breathed.  What did God do after He created Adam?  He breathed into his nostrils and gave him life.  Adam is God-breathed.  Is Adam inerrant?

Another question that the inerrant believers can’t answer is this: 2 Timothy 3:16-17 was written before the canonization of the Bible, so how does Paul know that everything that will later on be canonized by different people is going to be inerrant?  And if this verse was written before the canonization, then what does the term “scripture” refer to?

And there's one really weird thing you'll find if you believe that every single word in the Bible is directly inspired by God and inerrant - Paul doesn't think this way.  Take a look at this verse:

1 Corinthians 7:12
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.
Did you catch that?  "I, not the Lord" - Paul is specifically telling us that he's making a judgment call here, and that he has no word from the Lord to back it up.  Wait a minute, that's ok?  And if that verse in the Bible isn't directly inspired by God and inerrant...how can we know what else in the Bible is like that?  Do we just assume everything else is inerrant but that one verse?  Oh, but there's others:
1 Corinthians 7:25
Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.
Here Paul is again making a judgment call without any direct word from God!  And again:
2 Corinthians 11:17
In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool.
Three examples where Paul is specifically telling us that things he's written down did not come directly from the "word of God"!  Things that are in the Bible.

The problem is that those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible have historically been the defenders of slavery, persecuting scientists for believing that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, burning witches and heretics at the stake, crusades, and a whole slew of other evils.

But the Bible doesn’t say that the Bible is inerrant.  The Bible says it is God-breathed and useful.  So, back to the original question: how do we deal with the picture of a wrathful God that seems to be presented in the Old Testament?  Well, I don’t think that much of what we see in the Old Testament was meant to be seen as doctrine.  I think it was meant to be seen as history.  I believe that when we read about “the word becoming flesh” in John 1:1-18, and when we read Jesus telling us not to put new wine in old wineskins in Mark 2:21-22, what this implies is that we should interpret the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus, rather than interpreting Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament.

Jesus was always surprising people by contradicting commonly held beliefs and doctrines of the day – he was always upsetting the status quo.  But in order to understand this, and in order to understand why Jesus said and did the things he did, we need to understand what the status quo was.  We need to understand how the Jews viewed God in order to see how risky Jesus was; how radical he was; how he contradicted the status quo.  We need the history of the Old Testament.  But maybe we’re not supposed to take everything in it as doctrine.

You see, most people are not trained to see the Bible as a story – they’re trained to take digestible, bite-sized chunks of the Bible, and trained never to even consider that these chunks don’t fit together in a coherent manner.  But I am saying that the Bible needs to be seen more like the telling of a story, or even a joke.  Consider a joke – it has a beginning, a middle and an end.  Let’s say I tell you I’m going to tell a joke, and then I say “a string walks into a bar and asks for a shot of tequila, and the bartender tells him that they don’t serve strings there.”  And then I stop.  You say you don’t get it, and I tell you the point of the story is that strings don’t belong in bars.  You tell me that’s not such a good story, and I call you a faithless heathen who is denying the will of God!  So we part ways, and later on you relay this story to a friend of mine from the same church.  My friend apologizes on my behalf, and tells you that he has a better way to illustrate the story – he says “The string goes outside.  He ties himself into a knot and messes up his hair.  Then he walks back into the bar and orders a tequila, and the bartender says ‘hey, aren’t you that string that was just in here?’”  My friend stops there.  You say you still don’t get it.  My friend says the point of the story is that if someone rejects you, you should change your look and style, and go on with your life.  You say you still don’t get it, and my friend replies “oh, ye of little faith!”  My friend walks away in disgust.  You leave the conversation, puzzled and a little upset at our reactions.  Later on you meet a pastor, and tell him about what happened, and he smiles and says we didn’t tell the ending – he says “the string says ‘nope, frayed knot!’”  Now, any one of the three pieces of the joke would not make sense without the others.  But this is how people who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible read it.  They take it in bite sized chunks and refuse to see that all the pieces are supposed to fit together as a narrative that changes our perspective of what the story is really all about by the end.

In I Thessalonians 5:19-22, we are told:

Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.

This passage encourages us to be contemplative – to thoughtfully examine what we hear and what we read.  Traditionally, one might apply this to writings of various theologians and secular authors.  But what if it applies to the Bible as well?

There is a rabbinic tradition known as midrash – in this tradition, those who study the Torah should consider multiple possible interpretations of a passage, and should seek to align their interpretation with religious and ethical values.  Maybe it’s time to stop being so militant about literal interpretations of the Bible, and start trying to follow the principle of midrash?

In “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived”, Rob Bell writes:

Some communities don't permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most. Lots of people have voiced a concern, expressed a doubt, or raised a question, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe: "We don't discuss those things here."

I believe the discussion itself is divine. Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the book of Lamentations, and Jesus responds to almost every question he's asked with...a question.

What would happen to our faith if we could enter into the conversation? What would happen if we welcomed the conversation of others, even when we disagree - if we saw disagreement as "iron sharpening iron", rather than as a danger? What if we welcomed those we disagreed with rather than casting them out as heretics? What if we could thank those we disagreed with for helping us to flesh out our own thoughts, rather than allowing disagreement to break relationships apart? How might that change the world?

Tune in next time for some more chess moves:

Chess move #12: Calvinism is Totally Depraved
Conclusion: Testing the fruits.


  1. I want to comment on more of this... and maybe I will later. I'm not totally in the inerrancy camp, but a lot closer to it than you seem to be. I just want to comment on the Jewish thought concerning Abraham bit... the following article does it for me:http://www.maverick-christian.org/2013/10/abraham-sacrificing-isaac-not-what-you.html

    1. Oh sure - I've seen other articles that took a similar approach to the story of Abraham and Isaac. But I'd emphasize that there are many, many "contradictions" - and not all of them can be answered the same way that the story of Abraham and Isaac has been. Some can be answered by saying that one side of the "contradiction" must be taken as metaphor/symbol. Then the "contradiction" disappears. Then one might ask: did the Biblical writers intend this passage to be taken as metaphor/symbol? And after asking that question, we might also ask: does it matter?

      But some contradictions are not so easily dealt with. The important thing, for me, is to keep questioning. I'm what you'd call an "infalliblist" - I believe that if we were to understand the purpose of the Bible as a whole, it is infallible. Every "contradiction" can either be answered as one side insisting that the other be taken as metaphor/symbol, OR as one side trumping the other. But when I say that the Bible is "infallible" in this way, I must also admit that it is very difficult to work it all out and thus I can't guarantee that my interpretation is infallible....