Hell on Earth: Could this burning theological difference indicate how Christians approach public life?
Bible quotes online: Preaching to the Choir?
Today, I saw a social media post similar to many I’ve seen lately, in response to the escalating crisis at the US border, where increased enforcement and detention of immigrants continue to cause controversy.
The post was from a progressive Christian source—in this case it was from progressive organization Kissing Fish (named after the Jesus “ICTHUS” fish and the Darwin fish walking out of the water with feet)—but was similar to many other such posts in citing one of the numerous Biblical references, found in both the Old Testament and New Testament, that talk about our religious obligation to be welcoming to the foreigner and the stranger:
“The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; You shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34)
It was likely meant to be an admonishment and wake up call to conservative Christians who continue to support the current administration’s policies. However, it seems like another case of concerned people on one side of the aisle preaching to their own choir, but not moving any of the equally concerned people on the other side of the aisle.
Among progressive and mainline Christians, the message will create lots of agreement and headshaking, about how the “other” Christian people can continue to call themselves Christian and still show so little mercy to immigrants.
But among many conservative Christians, the Bible quote will not seem incompatible at all with current policy. What is the problem, they might ask. As individuals, we help our neighbors and our communities, and as a country we are incredibly generous to other nations, but we ask that people follow the laws. If they follow the law and go through the legal process we’ve put into place, they will be welcomed. If they don’t follow the law, they face consequences for which they themselves are responsible for what happens to them and their children—not us.
A burning clue to the difference between Christians
As many pundits try to explain the ideological differences in our country between Democrats and Republicans, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the frameworks of belief that divide a specific subset of Americans, namely Christians who fall to different sides of the ideological spectrum.
Despite founding principles that work to create a divide between church and state, Christianity has a tremendous impact on American politics. However, there are differences between different types of Christians, not only from a theological standpoint, but also in the approach to public life. The reaction to the quote above is just one facet of the differences between Christians as they discuss what a “true” Christian approach should be in our political life.
There are a few different factors that add up to theological differences between Christian denominations, including different traditions, approaches to Biblical interpretation, and the influence of different teachers who have impacted the different modern denominations.
But one specific theological element came to mind as I thought about what could be, if not a driver of the differences in approach to the immigration and detention controversy, then a proxy for that theological difference.
And that element is Hell.
Hell in the Bible, in Pop Culture, and in personal belief
Popular culture has painted a variety of images of Hell over the centuries, but most modern Americans probably have some sense of the basic idea—a fiery perhaps subterranean place of eternal torture where Satan, demons, and sinners are sentenced after death.
Descriptions of such a Hell are not as well developed in Scripture itself as some theologies would suggest. Hell is non-existent in the Hebrew scriptures which were adopted as the Christian Old Testament. The word translated as Hell in the words of Jesus in the Gospels is “Gehenna,” which is also literally a valley outside of Jerusalem which had a long history of sacrifice, slaughter, and eventually became a sort of trash dump. In the book of Revelation, the writer John elaborates on the idea, describing a “lake of fire,” in which those not in the Book of Life are sentenced forever.
Hell has captured the imaginations of artists and poets throughout history, from Dante and his Inferno to the painter Hieronymus Bosch to Bugs Bunny cartoons to modern-day “Hell Houses” that use imagery of Hell to “scare the Jesus into you.” Popular culture has done much to elaborate on the imagery of Hell, whether it be from the Bible or borrowing from other mythologies which have snowballed into our current idea of the fiery Hell, somewhere down below us.
That said, along the spectrum of Christian theologies from conservative to progressive, there are different ideas of Hell.
Hell as an indicator of our views of justice
And those different ideas of Hell can be an indicator of differences of perspective on how things should function here on Earth, including the very nature of Justice itself. In fact, I would go so far as to say that those deep-seated ideas about Hell, and their implications for our public life, are so fundamental that there is little that someone on the other side of the aisle could say to shake them—without addressing the core theological ideas first.
I was thinking about the discussion about immigration, and putting myself in the place of someone who thinks more conservatively about both politics and theology, and a thought came to me: if I believe that God is ready to throw a person into Hell for an earthly infraction such as lying, stealing, or not believing in Him, what is it for me to support an administration that puts someone in a cage for not following the rules?
In a world view in which God demands obedience first and foremost, in which obedience is rewarded by eternal life and disobedience is met with eternal punishment, mercy is not incompatible with detention centers. Much like God, we help those who follow the rules (and try to help those who don’t, if they will only finally comply), but in the end, if someone doesn’t follow the rules, their ultimate fate, whether it be having their children taken from them to sleep in cages or eternal torment in the fires of Hell, is still their own responsibility.
In contrast, if I look through immigration through the opposite lens, namely, a Christian who does not believe that Hell is a place of eternal torment that God still sends people to when they disobey or do not believe, the picture looks very different.
For some Christians, Hell is not at all what Dante and others said it was—a subterranean concentration camp for sinners—but is a symbol for what life in sin is like, apart from God. Life in the trash heap—a very literal one, right over there outside the city gates, for the people that Jesus was talking to.
For some Christians, Hell is a metaphor for annihilation, not eternal torment, and those who refuse the call to be part of God’s grace are not tortured eternally, but simply fail to go on existing after death.
For some Christians, whatever Hell was originally intended to mean, it is no longer relevant, because the radical love of Jesus is so great that no one can refuse his gift of salvation. Another way of looking at that would be, if Jesus sacrificed himself for the salvation of mankind, wouldn’t that free gift be a giant waste if people were still being thrown into the fire for not believing it?
In any case, there are Christians who, instead of basing theology on an effort to remain obedient and avoid a future in Hell, are focused more on the redemption aspect of Christian theology. Instead of being focused on the authority of God and the necessity of following the rules to receive mercy, they are focused on the generous gift of mercy despite the rules.
In this theological view, it makes sense that scriptures about showing mercy and love and acceptance outweigh the legal ramifications of doing so. In this view, it makes sense why, when seeing pictures of children in cages, the reaction isn’t to castigate the parents of those children for bringing them here in questionably legal circumstances, it is to say, this is not right, no matter what the “official” rules say.
An authoritarian view vs a nurturing view
In many ways, these two viewpoints—one based on authority and one based on nurturing—fit very well into the narrative frameworks established by the Republican and Democratic parties.
In one narrative, one is pretty much on their own, and if one follows the rules, one is rewarded, but if one breaks the rules, under any circumstances, those are the breaks. Just as St. Peter won’t be listening to any explanations about systemic injustice or extenuating circumstances at the heavenly gates, we don’t want to hear them either.
In the other narrative, our lives are intertwined, and systems of justice and economics are viewed as influencing the way we live, so we are constantly concerned with fixing the systems in place to make things fair and equal, even to the point of accidentally letting someone who does deserve punishment go free.
Dialogue requires facing the real differences
Despite my attempts at fairness, I’m sure anyone who reads my work knows where I stand on these issues. But honestly, this article isn’t an attempt to make converts to my point of view. It is, however, an attempt to look honestly at the fact that even when Christians are talking among themselves, there are multiple viewpoints and theologies, and that the relatively small slice of theological real estate occupied by Hell is only one element of the many differences between us.
The differences are real, and they are important to take into account when we are talking with one another. Both progressive and conservative viewpoints—and a range of variations in the middle—have support from scripture, tradition, and history. Both are part of deeply held spiritual beliefs that are not easily shaken by a blog post, social media post, or a tweet.
I believe dialogue is possible—particularly among believers who are willing to approach theology with the idea that we all see through a glass, darkly, and that none of us have it figured out completely.
But unless we recognize those differences—and how unshakeable those differences are in those we debate—we will just be throwing ideas at each other that increase the divide, growing support among people like us and causing those different than us to dig in even deeper.
When we realize how deeply rooted these beliefs are, and that even throwing Bible verses at one another isn’t going to cause an instantaneous change, then maybe we can begin to do the difficult and intentional work of finding compromise, if not mutually agreeable middle ground.