The Drunk Ex-Pastors and Hell

The Drunk Ex-Pastors podcast has evidently become quite a sensation in the post-modern exangelical world. It is two forty-something fellows that have been close friends for 25 years and still like to get together and lolligag — something rare in our deracinated frenetic world. I think people enjoy hearing even amateurish conversation on substantive topics because, even though we have become a debauched people that shouts banalities over the din of ubiquitous blared unmusic, deep down we know it is ridiculous to live that way. But specifically, there is a large attraction within a segment of evangelical heritage that feels the itch for post-modernism and this podcast scratches it. Both guys began as Calvary Chapel wonks, evolved into hard-core calvinism, from whence Christian apostatized into agnosticism and Jason into popery.  The guys are not clones of each other: I would peg Christian’s IQ at 10-15 points higher, but Jason is the more erudite, having graduated from Westminster Escondido Seminary. This complementary asymmetry gives an interesting dynamic.

There is a great deal of patter advocating a schoolboy leftism of the kind that is pushed by Huffpost and the ADL. That part may be worth a comment or two later. Mainly, however, I want to interact with a couple or three prominent theological themes of theirs because I think they are tapping into a widespread unease within the American church scene. In this post, I address the Doctrine of Hell (hereafter: DoH).

Christian has an intense relationship to DoH. Even when he was a Christian, he agonized over assurance and this was fueled by the fear of hell. DoH played a role both in C’s apostasy and in his subsequent apologetic for agnosticism.  Giving up the belief has brought great freedom for him: freedom to divorce without biblical cause, freedom to indulge in pornography and fornication, freedom to go hugely into debt then declare bankruptcy, freedom to consume a vast quantity of Hollywood pulp, freedom to stop worshiping God. Indeed, we could say that freedom from hell is freedom with a capital ‘F’ for C. So let us consider his arguments.

1. Hell is disproportionate justice; therefore, a God that meted out such punishment (even to one person) cannot exist.

2. Moreover, a God that sends most people to hell, as the DoH teaches, would not be a loving God and thus the God of the Bible cannot exist.

3. If Christians believed in hell and loved their neighbor, they would spend a great deal of time warning their fellow men of the perils that threaten; but they do not spend much time doing this; therefore, they either do not really believe it, or do not love their neighbors.

There are other arguments against hell that could be addressed; here, I only address these three, which seem to be the ones that mainly exercise the Drunk Ex-Pastors.

First, it should be noted that if it turns out that all men are saved, then ex hypothesi this will be consistent with both the attributes of God and with his revealed word; in a strange and wonderful way; but we have seen strange and wonderful fulfillments before. Consequently, every Christian can say without equivocation if there is no hell, then we will all rejoice.  That is not the question. The question is whether anyone is on safe ground confidently believing that all men will be saved (or at least not cast into hell sempiternally); let alone that “such a God” that does what seems to be threatened would be unjust and thus cannot exist. Let us reflect on each of C’s theses.

Arg #1. Hell is disproportionate justice

The thought here seems to be that any level of pain extended for an infinite amount of time must be disproportionate to the crime even of someone that was exceedingly wicked for his entire 70 years on earth. The rub here is the “times infinity” which seems to overwhelm any finite quantity. Note that if this argument is sound, the quantity of pain need not be the maximal possible for a human to experience. It is the infinite duration that seems to overwhelm any actualized quantity of guilt (for it seems intuitive that anything actualized must be finite). The proponent of this argument concedes that a finite amount of pain that lasted only a finite time, yielding therefore a finite pain times duration product, would not be subject to this objection.

Even this model needs to be refined, for every life on earth includes much pain, yet there are many people who claim they would like this life to go on forever. So it can’t be the mere presence of pain times infinite duration that offends, but somehow that the net situation is sufficiently painful, or insufficiently compensated by pleasures. So the argument needs to be refined to say that the net “pain minus pleasure” quantity (however that might be quantified) cannot be multiplied by infinity consistent with justice. This qualification to the meaning of “pain” will be assumed in what follows.

If the product of pain times duration is the nub of the objection, I point out that we know from calculus that a finite quantity times an infinite duration can in fact yield a finite product. An example is the declining exponential. The area under an exponential between any point and its declining tail is finite, even in the limit that the tail is extended to infinity. So a net quantity of pain that declined exponentially yet extended infinitely would have an integrated product that was still finite. This example shows that it is possible to slip into a fallacious way of thinking in subtle ways.

There are other problems with the thought experiment. An assumption, for example, is that the punishment is limited to the allegedly finite quantity of crime on earth. However, what if the punishable sin itself continues unabated during the punishment? What if the punishment is (say) dwelling alone in a dry land, and the punishment will end after one day, the moment true repentance would take place? We sinners are standing on shaky ground indeed to assume that we would repent under those conditions. If we won’t repent now, in a condition of pain and conscience, why do we think we would later, when the conscience would be more seared?

Our Lord told of a man in just such a hypothetical circumstance — Dives calling out to father Abraham. As John Murray pointed out, so far from repenting, Dives continued to express an exceedingly wicked sentiment. By asking for someone to rise from the dead to convince his still-living brothers, Dives implied that the evidence for God and his judgment was shaky, uncertain; implying further in a self-pitying way that his own heart had always been in the right place and only lacked sufficient evidence. In effect, he was blaming God for his unbelief and wickedness — and continued to do so in hell.

Whether the story is meant to be read literally or as a parable, the deep meaning should serve as a frightful warning to accompany the complaint that hell would be unjust because disproportionate. Each moment could be exactly proportionate to the previous moment, and go on like that forever.

Arg #2. Sending most of humanity to hell not consistent with Love

This generally functions as a kind of ad hominem, more murmured than stated, and often coupled with a scoff at ”Calvinism” in particular. Oddly enough, though, Calvinism has the resources to explain (near) universalism. (I say “near” because it is hard to escape the texts that deal with Judas, though there is a Renaissance fresco in Florence that seems to hold out hope for even this; but Dante did not go there). But there is no contradiction between Effectual Calling and supposing that all are eventually called effectually. There is no contradiction between Definite Atonement (often called “Limited” for acrostic purposes) and the thought that all are definitely atoned for. Per se. I am not saying that we have a right to teach near-universal salvation, nor even hope for it. I am simply pointing out that there is no specific, unique contradiction between it and Calvinism.

All of that is only to dispense with the anti-calvinism murmur. In reality, most of believing Christendom probably does, in fact, assume that most of humanity will be lost. Our Lord seems to imply it with the “narrow is the way and few that find it” teaching.

But C. S. Lewis already explained the fallacy of pain summation. If ten people have a level 8 toothache, this is not equivalent to a level 80 toothache. The amount experienced by each subjectivity is the totality of the pain. Even if one imagines that each one would “feel the pain” of the other, this still would only add an additional finite amount of psychological pain to a finite immediate summation so to speak. However, it highly likely that hell will represent the complete dissolution of community into isolated selves, so there would not even be that.

If hell is a problem, it is a problem even if only one ends up there. The additional complaint of too many ending up there is a cavil, not a serious complaint.

Arg #3. Christians do not really believe in hell, or they would always be warning about it

Our Lord Himself, from whence the DoH chiefly derives, did not always speak of it on every occasion. This alone should indicate that C’s complaint about Christians must be wrong, even if we can’t explain why. However, let us explore it a little bit to see if some clarity is possible.

First, the objection needs to be made more precise. The assumption as it stands seems to be that one might “believe” Christian doctrine as a result of the fear of hell, so that this belief would become the basis for avoiding it. But this is to confuse belief with belief-about-belief. A coerced belief is not actually a belief. Consider an analogous situation: a street preacher convinces you that failure to believe that the earth is flat will send you to hell. So you say, “Therefore, I believe the earth is flat.” But do you really? Your mental reservations about geosynchronous satellites and ships disappearing over the horizon still nag. In what sense do you actually believe the earth is flat, even though you said it? In truth, you do not believe it. You want to believe it, to avoid hell. But belief is not something that can just be created against contrary reason.

The Cowardly Lion kept saying “I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks.” But for all that, does he really believe in spooks, or does he merely hope his empty incantation will make the witch’s flying monkeys show mercy?

Of course most of our beliefs are based on authority. Most people believe the earth goes around the sun not vice versa because they have been told by various authorities such as teachers and movie-makers that that is the deliverance of “science,” which is therefore trustworthy. Likewise, it is entirely reasonable to believe in hell on the basis of the authority of God’s word. What I am opposing here is the thought that the belief in the authority of God’s word could itself be established by the threat of hell.

Hell creates a solemnity given that people are already convicted by conscience of their guilt before God. Absent the resonance of conscience, it is hard to imagine why the threat of hell would connect at all. And indeed, this is the most frightening aspect of the current defection from belief in hell — the prospect of so many people whose conscience declares themselves not worthy of it; bringing us full circle to the initial objection.

Granted that DoH cannot convert the soul, then what is the reason for Scripture or Christians presenting DoH to unbelievers? It is evidently not for the purpose of inducing belief. It may be just to show (eschatologically) the fearsome depth of depravity, such that even such a threat cannot shake sinners out of their torpor. Dr. Johnson seemed to suggest something along these lines. That is, it may be a publication of a reality whose purpose is wholly different from what the skeptic assumes. It may be that few or none of the redeemed are actually kept in the faith by the fear of hell.

Many Christians think they were brought to faith by the threat of hell. However, if so, this can only have been a gracious stepping-stone. I trust that most, after tasting of the joy set before them for a time, would testify that it is this positive thing that now holds them, not fear of the negative. For if after walking with Christ, it turned out that one would abandon Him the moment the threat of hell were taken away, such a one should question whether he is in the faith. Suppose God provided you with a push-button which by pushing it, would exempt you from hell regardless of what you did the for the rest of eternity. Would you push it? Examine ourselves!

Given that belief induced by the threat of hell is no belief at all, we have a clue as to why Christians are not constantly shouting warnings to everyone. It wouldn’t do any good in isolation from much more. Nurturing and admonition is called for, not flag-waving. This is something unique about this reality — it is infinitely dire, yet the solution requires stealth, not hysteria.

Think of a brain surgeon. You want him applying his knife skillfully, with forethought and preparation; you do not want him busting into your room waving the scalpel with a wild look in his eyes.

In his sermon to the Athenians, Paul mentions a coming Judgment but only after discussing Creation, the attributes of the invisible God (and thus the foolishness of idolatry), the inability to resolve the One and the Many without this God, and the trajectory of history culminating in Jesus Christ. It is a totality message. The idea that Christians should go about pretending to induce belief by ceaselessly talking about hell misses the point at several levels, and this does not indicate that they don’t really believe it.

I will address a couple other of the Drunk Ex’s themes anon.

Brief Intermission: Tribute to Greg Bahnsen

A brief side-bar is needed in this autobiographical sketch of life-changing books. Spanning the interval 1983-1993, no single book stands out, but that was the period of my association with my dear friend and mentor Greg Bahnsen. Though I am avoiding mentioning names in this bookish auto-biography, his needs to be mentioned as the greatest single personal influence on my life in adulthood.

In view of that, it will perhaps be thought odd that I do not count any of his books as life-changing. Indeed, I found many of his books pedantic, even annoying. We had opposite tendencies at the aesthetic level. It is hard for me to imagine anyone becoming a Theonomist through reading Theonomy or its sequels. Then again, he may have felt the same way. Theonomy was actually a comparatively small part of his life, less in fact (by way of negation) than for many of his vitriolic opponents.

One of his teachings that drove deeply into my soul was the ramified implications of Matt. 18. Beyond the obvious three-fold “method” taught there for correcting offenses, Greg taught that even if you have a legitimate grievance, if the way you got to this point was via gossip, slander, tale-bearing, or prevarication, then you had to first go back and fix those errors before “continuing.” The putative grievance had to be left on the table until those errors were dealt with properly. Often, it turned out that the grievance all but vanished by the time those steps were taken — or at least, could be covered in love. What this taught me was that Matt. 18 is not some bureaucratic “manual of discipline,” but something much deeper: an insight into what it means to be human, and to be a human with integrity. The requirements of privacy and caution are not just little nuisances, but go to the heart of the matter. I have continued to develop this theme and hope to write on it anon.

Twice I turned against him. Both times, God gave me the heart to seek reconciliation, and Greg was gracious in a way that was itself life-changing. When I came to him the second time, I was moved to the core by his statement that the whole purpose of his ministry for the previous ten years may well have been, in God’s providence, just to set the stage for that moment. And afterwards, my offenses were never mentioned or remembered.

I will not try to summarize all the many ways he changed my life. That has come out before and will continue to do so. In summary, I will simply say he was a man of a great heart. Indeed, in the divine comedy, the literal heart ailment that killed him well before the age of 50 can be taken as a metaphor for his life. Like our Lord, he can be said to have died of a broken heart.

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #4

4. 1976 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Throughout the grinding of our souls in the gears of the great Nighttime Institution, when our souls are pulverized and our flesh hangs down in tatters like a beggar’s rags, we suffer too much and are too immersed in our own pain to rivet with penetrating and far-seeing gaze those pale night executioners who torture us. A surfeit of inner grief floods our eyes. Otherwise what historians of our torturers we would be! (Vol 1, chap 4).

I can remember how passages like this made my hair Continue reading