Too Strong a Medicine

Illustration of Dante's Inferno, Canto 7
"Okay, okay! I'm sorry I downloaded pirated music, alright?"

“I can’t believe that God would send my sweet old [fill in the blank] to hell just because she didn’t believe in Jesus!”

Sound familiar?  I think we’ve all heard some variation on this sentence at one point or another, and when you get down to it, it does seem pretty out-of-proportion, doesn’t it?

Having Jewish relatives complicates the issue even more.  After all, the standard Christian stance on redemption and hell sounds even more grossly unfair when you consider the long history of Jews being persecuted in the name of Jesus:  “So you’re saying that the Christians who persecuted, robbed, tortured, and killed my people for thousands of years went to heaven, but those of us on the receiving end all went to hell because we don’t believe that the guy whose name they were doing it in could possibly be the Messiah?”

“Well, those doing that weren’t real Christians” is not even a fig leaf of a covering on the absurdity of it all, especially when you consider that some of the most anti-semitic statements in history were penned by “sainted” men like Justin Martyr, John Crysostom, and Martin Luther.

But I digress.  The subject of Yeshua’s real relationship with the Jews is one that I touch on in Ben Joseph and His Brothers and which I probably need to develop further another time.

For the moment, I want to concentrate on the subject of judgment and hell in a more general sense.  I was provoked into writing this post by one over on the Experimental Theology blog that helped to jell together some thoughts I’d been pondering for a while:

The problem with the penal substitutionary metaphors is that they are so very strong. Too strong to be deployed on a regular basis. And that is the real problem. It’s not so much that penal substitutionary thinking is wrong, it is rather that it is wrongfully deployed. Penal substitutionary atonement is at its best when deployed rarely and only in the most extreme circumstances. It can’t be everyday fare. The trouble is that it IS everyday fare in many churches. Penal substitutionary atonement is like a very strong acid. It has to be handled with care. And if you handle it as much as we do in our churches, often and carelessly, you end up with chemical burns. Thus many Christians are pulling away from churches in pain.

So when is the proper time to deploy penal substitutionary atonement? Like I said, penal substitutionary thinking is at its best when it speaks to profound human guilt. Specifically, some of us have committed such awful sins that our self-loathing, guilt, and shame destroy the soul. We cannot forgive ourselves. Only a very strong concoction can wash us clean. Penal substitutionary atonement is that chemical bath. It’s strong acid–You deserve death and hell for the life you’ve lived–making it the only thing powerful enough to wash away a guilt that has poisoned the taproot of a human existence. Nothing more mild (e.g., the moral influence views I so love) can speak to this issue.

So, it seems to me, there is a proper time to pull the beaker of penal substitutionary atonement off the theological shelf.

But here’s the trouble. Most of us live bland bourgeoisie lives with bland bourgeoisie sins. Few of us have lived catastrophically immoral lives. Thankfully so. But this creates a bit of a disjoint when a preacher throws penal substitutionary atonement at us. It just doesn’t resonate. The strong acid just burns us. The notion that God demands our death for these slight infractions AND that God will condemn us to an eternal torment of excruciating pain makes God seem, well, rather crazed.

via Experimental Theology: Reading the Bible with the Damned.

If that’s the case, what is the solution?  It is not to adopt a universalist stance, as Richard Beck does elsewhere on his blog (another subject I keep meaning to get around to tackling).  Indeed, his attempt to preserve a hell of such duration that it could be called “eternal” while still keeping a door open for universalism isn’t any better in practical terms, as he tacitly admits:

To begin, if you’ve been reading along you know I believe in hell. Again, the only difference between Christian universalism and the traditional view is what happens way, way down the line. Think long term. Think about billions and billions of years of hell. So psychologically speaking, from the perspective of the tormented person, there really is no practical difference between the universalist view and the traditional view. Think about it. Our minds can’t even comprehend a number like, say, a Googolplexian. Practically speaking, we are talking here about an eternity, even if the number is finite as the universalist contends.

To be sure, some universalists might balk even at a Googolplexian of torment. That’s fine, but that isn’t the point I’m trying to get at here. What I’m trying to gesture toward, in floating these incomprehensibly large numbers, is that the traditionalist just isn’t thinking hard enough about what an eternity of conscious torment really implies. More, how could a traditionalist justify an eternity of torment as more just than a Googolplexian of torment? Does justice necessarily involve eternity? And if it does, I’d love to see the moral logic behind that argument.

Heck, we’re aghast at the extremely finite tortures inflicted by the villan in the movie Se7en against the seven deadly sins–how horrified would we be if he had somehow stretched those tortures against his rather venial victims out over decades, let alone if he somehow had the power to stretch it out over centuries, millennia, or the life-span of the sun.

This is where I think the honor and shame paradigm of the Scriptures, a paradigm mostly lost on Western students of the Bible, provides the answers.  To quote J.P. Holding, from whom I picked up the concept in the first place,

The ‘logic’ of hell in the bible is surprisingly simple: You receive back the treatment/effects you gave other agents (including God and yourself) with some kind of multiplier effect. [The bible is full of images of this reciprocity concept: reaping what you sow, being paid back, suffering loss as you had despoiled others, unkindness for unkindness shown, apathy for apathy rendered, ‘eye for an eye’, proportional judgement, etc]

This is suited as well to what we have said of honor debts and shame as a response. You dishonor God; you receive dishonor in return. Appropriately your required response is to acknowledge your own need — in effect, giving up your “honor” — by admitting that you need God’s help to pay the debt. . . .

So in conclusion on this tangent: The data would indicate that the primary focus of eternal punishment is the denial of the honor accorded to those who reject God’s offer of salvation, and who bear themselves the shame and disgrace Jesus took in their stead. Therefore there is no inequality in the “suffering” — these persons have denied God His ascribed honor; they are denied in turn the honor that is given to human beings, who are created with the intent that they live forever in God’s service, reigning with Christ and serving him.

They choose rather the shame and disgrace of serving their own interests; they are also shamed in accordance with their deeds (i.e., Hitler obviously has more to be “ashamed of” than, say, a robber baron). By denying their ascribed place in the collective identity of humanity, they are placed outside the boundaries, excatly as they desire to be and to the extent that their deeds demanded.

Set aside penal substitution for a moment.  Beck is correct that most people today can’t relate to that concept–true as it is–because they do not see their everyday sins in the concept of a high crime deserving enormous, let alone eternal, punishment.  However, everyone can relate to the concept of being shamed.  Even though it has not been the primary driving force behind our morality in the West for a few centuries now, we still routinely hide the things that our “in group,” whatever that might be, finds shameful and draw attention to the things they find honorable.

But to the eyes of an omniscient God, we cannot hide our shame, nor can we exaggerate our honor.

The world deals with this in one of two ways:  Many people will make the Holy One out to be in their own image, liking what they like, hating what they hate, and at worst being indifferent to their sins (“Oh, God doesn’t care if I do [fill in the blank].  It’s not like I’m hurting anybody.”).  Others will deny the omniscience of God, like those who reinterpret the Bible to be about alien visitations ala the History Channel’s Ancient Astronauts show.  After all, if “God” is just an alien intelligence from another world, it’s not likely that he is able to see what you do behind closed doors or peek into your innermost thoughts.

The tomb of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai

Those who are closest to the true Eternal One don’t have that as an option, Jews least of all.  I know many of my Jewish friends and family who say, “Well, I’m Jewish and I’m living a basically good life, so I don’t need to worry.”  They don’t know their own heritage or their own rabbis.  It is recorded that when R. Yochanan b. Zakkai came to the end of his life, his disciples found him weeping.

He said to them, “If I were going to be brought before a mortal king, who is here today and tomorrow gone to the grave, who, should he be angry with me, will not be angry forever and, if he should imprison me, will not imprison me forever, and if he should put me to death, whose sentence of death is not for eternity, and whom I can appease with the right words or bribe with money, I should weep.

“But now that I am being brought before the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who endures forever and ever, Who, should He be angry with me, will be angry forever, and if He should imprison me, will imprison me forever, and if He should put me to death, Whose sentence of death is for eternity, and who I cannot appease with the right words or bribe with money,

“and not only so, but before me are two paths, one to the garden of Eden and the other to Gehenna, and I do not know by which path I shall be brought, and I should not weep?”

They said to him, “Our master, bless us.”

He said to them, “May it be God’s will that the fear of Heaven be upon you as much as the fear of mortals.”

His disciples said, “Just so much?”

He said to them, “Would that it were that much.  You should know that when a person commits a transgression, he says, ‘I hope no one sees me.'”   (b. Berakhot 28a)

Without R. Yochanan, there would be no more Judaism, and no more Jews.  The Holy One worked through him to preserve Israel through the long, dark night we would suffer apart from our Messiah, and every rabbi which followed came out of his academy.  It was R. Yochanan who said that even though the Temple had fallen, Jews might still find atonement in charity and prayer.  And yet, he was so aware of his secret sins, however small they probably were by the standards of most, that he feared the shame he would face in the eyes of Hashem and the punishment which he might be meted out.

The proper tools for removing the chametz from our lives

In the knowledge Yeshua’s Sacrifice and in union with Him we can have the peace that eluded even so great a rabbi.  He has taken upon His infinitely honorable being all of the shame and degradation of the sins that we have committed so that they could be seen as truly sinful at the same time that we were bestowed His honor so that we might stand without shame in the Presence of Hashem.  It is more than an atonement, the mere legal covering over of sins in a legal sense; it is forgiveness, the complete removal of our sins and all our shame “as far as the east is from the west” (Psa. 103:12).  It is the ultimate bedikat chametz, the Cleansing of the Leaven, all of the chametz (leaven) of our chattot (sins) not merely put aside, but placed on a piece of wood, wrapped in a shroud of death, and burned.

Perhaps penal substitution from an eternal Hell is too strong a medicine for many today to drink, but an escape from guilt and shame and the gift of an eternal life in the World to Come that we don’t deserve and could never earn–those too are offered in the Pesach Lamb, and are the ultimate yearning of almost every heart.


3 Replies to “Too Strong a Medicine”

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