Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"If Thine Eye Offend Thee": Reflections on this week's reading, continued

"And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."

As Rachael said in our Bible study on Tuesday, "Bummer."

When I was on the path to becoming a Christian, one of the major stumbling blocks was the doctrine of hell. This is a stumbling block for many people, probably the biggest thing that leads so many people to consider Christianity and then reject it. Which is sad.

Let's start with the most obvious question about hell- I don't think, and nor do the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, or other major churches today, think that only Christians can be saved. Far from it. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). I think that all of us will have the opportunity to experience God, and the Logos, after we die. Some of us may not believe in God, or in Jesus, during our lives but have devoted our lives to serving our fellow man, and to trying to better our world, and to live in a spirit of love. Others of us may be deeply imperfect and flawed people but place our trust in Christ to help us become better. I think that both kinds of people have used their lives to prepare for the world beyond, and both of them, when they die, will be ready to know and love Christ. Belief in Christ, or even in a God, is certainly not a necessity to enter heaven. I think there's an Orthodox saying: we know where Christ is, but we do not know where He is not. He works through many kinds of people, Christians and non-Christians, believers and atheists, in His own way.

There will be a hell, no doubt, and we can hope that relatively few people will be in it. Some think, or hope, that in time Christ may have mercy even on them. Origen believed this (he was the Church Father who took literally the line about 'if your eye offend thee..." and castrated himself with a clam shell). And we can be confident that ultimately, no one who really longs for the Love of God will be denied it: as it is said, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matthew 7:7-9). As long as free will exists, however, it's possible that some will choose separation from God, even for eternity: "And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever" (Revelation 14:11). If we are free to choose good, then we are also free to choose evil.

But what will that horrible, unspeakable state of separation be like? Jesus gives a hint, in the word he uses for hell, "Gehenna". A couple years ago a short but grisly videotape was released, of Saddam Husayn's preparation for death by hanging. Though I turned it off before the actual execution, I saw enough to hear him being taunted by Shia guardsmen, partisans of his mortal enemy Muqtada al-Sadr, who shout, "Ila Jahannam"- go to hell. "Jahannam" is the same as the Aramaic 'Gei Hinnom', and the Greek 'Gehenna', and they all refer to the same thing. The Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where the Canaanites, before the Jewish conquest, would offer human (specifically, child) sacrifices to the god Molech, pictured as a man with the head of a bull.

Yes, I mean it. The Canaanites (and their Phoenician and later Carthaginian coreligionists) would sacrifice their own infants to Molech, by roasting them alive. The whole valley was inflamed with huge fires, whose smoke and flames would reach to the skies; drums would drown out the cries of the sacrificial victims: and in the midst of it all stood the great idol, the bull-headed Molech, called Baal or Tophet, whose metal structure would convert the screams of the victims into roars. Our human race has a great capacity for evil, and the abomination of child sacrifice which took place at Hinnom was one of them. During those dark days, which were briefly brought back under Manasseh, who abandoned Judaism for Phoenician religion and sent his own son to the fire, the valley of Hinnom became like a little hell on earth, complete with flames, screams and roars, and Jesus uses this evocative and chilling image to give us a foretaste of what separation from Godwill be like. "Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41-42).

Many people ask "How can a just God impose torture on His enemies in Hell?" But to ask that, I think, is to miss the point. It's by no means clear, first of all, that hell was made by God to begin with. The Nicene creed says that God is "the maker of heaven and earth"; it doesn't say that He made hell, and I don't think He did. I think that Gehenna is the creation of the enemy, the evil power that Christ calls the 'ruler of this world' (John 14:30), and that an early Christian visionary called 'the lord of this world that has ruled it from the beginning", and it is the place- the only place in our universe- from which God, and His influence, are entirely absent (or nearly so- I'll get to that). God doesn't want anyone to be in hell. He 'preached to the spirits in prison' once, and He may do it again (1 Peter 3:18). The only souls to enter hell will be those who have chosen, knowing what God and the truth are, to reject them: not out of ignorance, but out of malice, and who have chosen to prefer something else other than God.

By using the image of Gehenna, Jesus connotes not just a place of suffering, but a place of hatred. The horrors that took place in the Valley of Hinnom were not acts of God, or of His angels: they were things that people did to each other. Jesus didn't simply analogize hell to a flood, or a fire, or an earthquake, or a plague or other natural evils: he analogized it to a place in which the only torments are those we imposed on each other. Similarly, I believe that whatever the torments of Gehenna may be, they are first and foremost torments imposed by the lost on each other. I don't think that God, himself, or His angels, torment anyone. They aren't _in_ hell; so how could they take on administrative or punitive roles there? The most powerful, and most chilling image of Gehenna I've seen is in the later chapters of Dante's Inferno, in which Dante and Virgil are making their way across the frozen lake of the ninth circle, the circle of the Traitors, populated by men like . Frozen in ice, gnawing on each other's flesh, are the Cannibal Count Ugolino of Pisa and his mortal enemy Archbishop Ruggiero. Imagine what Gehenna is like: a place where pairs of history's great villains, mortal enemies if there ever were, endlessly tear at each other's flesh. Hitler and Stalin, Pilate and Caiaphas, Al Capone and Bugs Moran, Saddam Husayn and Osama bin Laden. I have no idea if any of these people are actually there, but it gives you an idea. The other interesting thing is that the lost souls in Dante's hell are generally incapable of talking about anything except themselves and their past history on earth. While this is interesting for the reader, it also points to the truth that in Gehenna, any sense of mutuality and of love is absent.

Because the nature of Gehenna- of any place from which God is absent- is that it's a place without friendship, without love, without companionship, without affection. When we are separated from God in life, we still have our friends, family and people we care about. Not in Gehenna. Because love, friendship, affection, and all those good things come from and have their roots in him. If the lost could love, they wouldn't be in Gehenna: "Every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). We can cultivate them but we can't create them. They are from God, and a place from which God was absent would be a place where love, friendship, affection and beauty were also absent. Because if anyone in Gehenna had any love left, even the smallest spark, God would work with it. God cares more for rescuing one lost sheep than for all the 99 that were never in trouble (Luke 15:7) and He can do it, even after we die. He and his helpers would blow on that spark until it was a fire. But everyone, even in life, is busy at work making themselves into a better, more loving person or a worse, more self-interested one. That process is usually imperceptible in daily life, but after we die it continues, more and more, until it reaches one of two endpoints. We either become full of the love of God, or full of the love of self: either full of love, or empty of it. A child of God, or a child of Gehenna.

In "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoyevsky, we find the story of a wicked peasant woman who dies and goes to Hell. Out of mercy, her guardian angel tries to think of the good she has done in her life, but can't think of anything- she has done almost nothing good. Then the angel remembers, and pleads before God, that she once gave an onion from her garden to a beggar woman. God says that if the angel can give her the onion skin and pull her out of the "lake of fire" (Revelation 20:14) , she can enter Heaven. And so the angel gives her the onion, and starts pulling. And miraculously, the onion is strong enough to support her and she starts rising into heaven. But the other lost souls in the lake of fire see this, and they grab her ankles and try to be pulled out as well, crying "Save us!" The old woman is furious and kicks them away, saying, "I'm saved, not you! It's my onion, not yours!" And the moment she says that, the skin of the onion breaks and she falls back into the lake of fire, where she remains to this day.

The power of this story, like the power of the Gospel reading, lies in the fact that it shows us God's love as well as the terrible consequences of evil. God is so loving that he will rescue a totally corrupt woman from Gehenna, for the sake of the one tiny deed of compassion she did in her life. For the sake of that one onion, He was willing to give her a second chance, even after death. That is the kind of love that God has for each one of us. God the Son shed His blood for us, and surely He will give us the opportunity to repent if we really want it. But the terror of this story is that it shows that some people don't really want it. They may say that they want salvation, and that they love God, but in truth they love themselves and their pride more, and they would rather stay in Gehenna, alone and self sufficient, than enter heaven along with their fellows. "It's my onion, not yours". This is the fundamental creed and premise of Hell. This is the dark side of free will: that there will always be those who use it to choose evil, and who choose selfishness rather than love. Even when God in his power extends mercy to us and allow us to be pulled into heaven by the skin of an onion, some of us may choose to stay in Gehenna and lord it over our fellows. Our free will is strong enough to break that onion skin that God of his own power would not allow to be broken.

"What is Hell?" asks Father Zossima in "The Brothers Karamazov" (which you all should read: a brilliant book by a tortured genius). And he answers, "It is the condition of being unable to love". Indeed. That is why Christ uses the immage of the Valley of Hinnom. Because Gehenna, like the Hinnom Valley, is first and foremost a place without love. It isn't just a place of suffering (Earth has plenty of that, as does the cleansing fire). Nor is it just a place where God is absent. First and foremost, it is a place where love is absent. And that, truly, would be the most terrible place it's possible to conceive.

But let's never forget that this isn't the fault of God. He wishes, more than almost anything else, that no one be in Hell. The only ones there will be, in the end, those who have chosen it. And he doesn't add to their torment. If anything, he makes it milder and gentler than it would be otherwise.

There are many apocryphal writings, visions of Heaven and Hell, from the early Christian and medieval eras, some of which I looked into once for a paper for a lit class in college. In a number of them, some figure- either St. Paul, or the Virgin Mary, or one of the saints- entreats Christ to have mercy on the lost souls, and He does. Some visions see Christ bringing their suffering to an end- this is what Origen believed would happen. Others see him allowing some repentant souls into heaven- there is a tradition that He did this for people like Emperor Trajan after he died. Some envision- including the fourth century poet Prudentius- the lost souls being granted temporary ‘vacations’ from Gehenna, and apparently there were medieval legends of saints who claimed to encounter Judas on such a ‘vacation’. Some see him granting a respite from suffering for the lost souls, for a day and a night every Easter. As the fourth century “Apocalypse of Paul” describes it, Christ says to the souls of the lost,

“Yet now because of Michael the archangel of my covenant and the angels that are with him, and because of Paul my dearly beloved whom I would not grieve, and because of your brethren that are in the world and do offer oblations, and because of your sons, for in them are my commandments, and yet more because of mine own goodness: on that day whereon I rose from the dead I grant unto all you that are in torment refreshment for a day and a night for ever.”

An vision called the ‘Descent into Hell of the Mother of God' (again quoted in the "Brothers Karamazov") says something similar, except here it is the Blessed Virgin Mary who pleads for the lost, and the lost souls are allowed two months of refreshment every year, from Good Friday to Trinity Sunday. Whatever the truth of such visions and legends is, and whatever core of genuine mystical experience there is, I think these are more than just pure fictions. I think there is something to the idea, and that in some way God through whatever residue of His influence continues to operate in Gehenna, makes it less horrible than it would otherwise be, and will save all who truly desire it. For His mercy can never truly end, even against those who hate him, whatever form that mercy finally takes. And if His mercy can reach, in small part, even to Gehenna, how much more will it infuse every aspect of life in heaven?

1 comment:

Stan Rogers said...

My take on that passage (and the similar passages in Matthew 5 and 18) has been consistent since childhood: this Jesus guy wasn't afraid to be snarky to get a point across, was he?

A lot of "meaningful" interpretations have grown up around this passage over the millenia, and most of them arise because there is, or has been, no allowance for snark. I grew up with the majestic resonance of the KJV, and (perhaps because it was a part of my "native tongue" from early exposure) could read a bit of sarcasm, even cynicism, into the passage there, but I've been able to find that tone consistently in the Greek and in all of the reasonable (not just word-substitution) translations I've ever read. All that's missing is the "header sentence", that one thing that would have blown the punchline, so to speak, making the passage accessible to even the most serious, humorless and self-righteous (and they are, by the way, the ones to whom the passage is directly addressed):

"Are you so very sure that you've eliminated every trace of lust, greed, cruelty, etc., from your heart, mind and soul?"

To those who can convince themselves that they have entered a state of absolute purity of thought and conscience, any remaining problems must belong to the offending parts. You say you've done away with lust, yet your eyes continue to check out the hotties? Gotta be the eyes, then. You've put greed and laziness away for good, but your hands keep on shoplifting? It's the hands -- get rid of them.

The point of the passage, as far as I can tell, is to accept your failings and weaknesses as your own. That doesn't mean embracing them; it means that there will probably always be work to do. If you ever feel that you've reached a point of spiritual perfection, you're kidding yourself. It would literally mean that anything "you" seemed to be doing, thinking or feeling that was not absolutely loving, charitable, forgiving, and so forth, was an externality beyond your control, the fault of the organ or appendage that committed or experienced the anomoly without the cooperation or complicity of your perfected self. Better to have it off, then, than to have it drag your innocent soul into torment for crimes it didn't commit. Obviously, that's ridiculous.

In essence and meaning, this passage is identical to the dust-mote-and-beam passage in Luke 6, although nobody has ever read "we must carry out an anti-heretical crusade on this account" into that particular passage.

As long as we recognise our shortcomings and are willing to try to overcome them, there is hope. The moment we believe that we have done all there is to do, we are lost. And that remains true whether or not we believe in eternal torment, since it also affects us in the here and now. If you believe that it is proper to the human condition to be good, to be loving, to help one another through this life, then there is no room for the elevation of self above others. We are, all of us, human, and none of us are perfect.