Saturday, August 29, 2015

Does Hell Exist?

In the modern popular Christian imagination Hell is a fiery abyss into which the ungodly are cast at the end of the ages, where they will suffer throughout eternity.  Oddly enough, the word "Hell," as such, does not appear in the Bible.  In ancient Israelite and Greek thought there are two principal words that describe the abode of the dead.  In Hebrew thought Sheol, generally translated by the English words grave, hell, pit, is the underworld where a person's shade went at death; they continued there in a shadowy semi-existence.  Sheol included both the good and the wicked (Jacob: Genesis 44:29, 45:31; the wicked: Psalm 31:17).

            In the ancient Greek tradition Hades is the God of the underworld and the area he rules is the "House" of Hades.  Hades (frequently translated Hell in the New Testament) is the universal destination of humankind upon death, although even in the fifth century BCE some special dead ascend to the "upper air," and a privileged few enter the "Isles of the Blessed."

            In the early Christian tradition the designations Hades and Gehenna are exclusively places of torment in fire for the unrighteous (Matt 5:22; Luke 16:23-24; Rev 20:11-14).  Gehenna is the valley of Hinnom , where it has been suggested that the killing by cremation of children as an offering to Baal and Molech, possibly gave rise to the notion of a hell of fire (Matt 5:22; 2 2 Kgs 23:10; 2 Kgs 16:3; 2 Chron 28:2-3).  The Israelite tradition was also likely influenced by ideas of the underworld as a fiery place of punishment during Judah's captivity in Babylon (587 BCE; 2 Kgs 25).  The concept appears in later Israelite writings (2 Esdras 7:36; Sirach 7:17; Judith 16:17; 2nd Isaiah 66:24; Ethiopic Enoch 90:26 and 54:1-5).

            Other words for the abode of the dead/punishment are also used in the New Testament. Tartarus (2 Pet 2:4) is the lowest part of the underworld, even deeper than Hades.  The underworld is also described as the Abyss, Bottomless Pit (Luke 8:31; Romans 10:7; Rev 9:1-2), and the Outer Darkness (Matt 8:11-12; 22:13; 25:30).

            In the Middle Ages Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote a poetic imaginary vision of a guided trip through hell, purgatory, and paradise, the three spiritual realms of departed spirits, reflecting the views of the medieval Christian church.  His vivid descriptions of the suffering of the dead rival in many ways the later (1743-1758) preaching of Jonathan Edwards ("Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"), who terrified his congregation with warnings of the damnation awaiting them unless they repented:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire...Therefore, let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.

This view of hell as a place of terrifying punishment is alive and well in the modern Christian church and even in the popular imagination of the un-churched.  Does such a place exist?  Of course it did in the imagination and faith of Dante; and Jonathan Edwards clearly believed that it did, and it was likewise very real to his audiences, who responded to his preaching with hysteria, distress, and weeping.

            But does it exist in the material universe as well as "exist" in imagination and belief?  The short of the matter is this: if you believe Hell exists then surely it does—as might other specific locations of faith, such as the Pearly Gates and streets of gold (Rev 21:21), New Jerusalem (Rev 21:2), and Purgatory (not in Protestant and Jewish Bibles, but in the Catholic Bible: 2 Maccabees 12:40-45).  These latter "places" are part of the imagination and belief of the writer of Revelation.

            We don't know Hell by means of our primary senses (seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, hearing), but rather through our minds (i.e., as an idea, or item of faith and/or superstition).  Hell does not in fact exist in the normal ways we think of things existing—that is, as a locatable and visit-able "somewhere," or as something that occupies space and time at a certain longitude/latitude, and/or parsecs location.  Could it "exist" as part of a spiritual universe that perhaps overlays our material universe, and/or is "over there spiritually" in parallel to our material universe, although not a part of it?

You, gentle reader, will be the judge of that.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Friday, August 14, 2015

Matter and Spirit: Making Sense of it All

I have seen no visible evidence of spirit (whether good, benign, or evil), except for the concrete temples humans erect in honor of a good and Great Invisible Spirit, their fearful responses to what they perceive to be evil Spirits, and their confessions about both.  Hence I begin with matter.
Observation #1: If the universe is not eternal, it had a beginning. If it is eternal, it is our "Alpha and Omega" (Revelation 1:8).
Observation #2: It does not appear that the universe is eternal, however, since its expansion at a rapid rate is an indication of remarkable change (hence, it is not eternal because it changes).  This datum makes the idea of the known universe originating in a Big-Bang-from-Nothing a plausible theory.  But from whence came the elements necessary to produce a Big Bang and what ignited it—if nothing existed before the Big Bang? The igniter and matter-from-nothing constitute the Ground of all Being (G/B) in that they have brought an end to Non-Being and revealed Being.  But both igniter and matter-from-nothing are invisible, unknown, and unknowable since they are parallel to and not immediately tangential (touching lightly) to the universe.  If they were tangent to or part of the universe, then universe, as eternal (see Observation #1), has simply perpetuated itself.  Hence, there is an Unknown-Unknowable-Before-the-Big-Bang.
Observation #3: In popular religious thinking G/B is accorded the designator "God."  But G/B contrary to popular thinking is not part of the physical universe or even involved with the universe, a fact that is verified by observation of the known natural and social worlds.  The survival of the fittest (i.e., Darwin's more plausible theory of the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection) rules out any master plan for the universe and its denizens, and it seems to be the case with social organisms as well, for they succeed or fail based on human ingenuity and energy, and that, one must suppose, includes the church.  In short, no guidance or care exists for Being (things as they are).  We and the universe have simply emerged into Being, and must do the best we can.  Our fate hinges on good genes, lady luck, and natural selection.
Observation #4:  human beings are, however, universally "religious."  To judge by our universal preoccupation with religion or religious-like actions endemic to all human cultures humans seem to have in some way come by a concept of a Divine-Other (D/O) and seem to have a vague sense, awareness, or impression of D/O—or they claim to.  The limitations and imperfections of our sense of D/O accounts for the contrasting varieties of human religious expressions:  we sense in part and imperfectly so.  Because of the universality of the religious preoccupation, however, our "sensing" D/O seems plausible; so where does the concept of D/O come from, or does it arise from within us—that is, the concepts of D/O are latent in our genes and/or DNA?
Observation #5: Certainly it is possible that we each generate the concept of D/O from within ourselves, or perhaps it is generated by a few and learned by others.
Observation #6: Possibly concepts of D/O arise from G/B from "the other side" of the Big Bang.  But how might that occur, if G/B is not and never was a part of our experienced reality (see Observation #2).  Astrophysics suggests a possible parallel.  Scientists discover unseen planets that orbit stars (those tiny pinpricks of light in the night sky) in distant solar systems by watching for the gravitational effect of an invisible planet on a visible star: "when the star has a planet orbiting around it, the star wiggles slightly from the gravitational attraction of the planet" (Nick Cohen, mathematician, physicist).  I am suggesting that there may also be a similar effect from an "attraction" between Being and non-Being that prompts a universal religious response.  The scientist sees nothing except the effect of the gravitational pull (the wiggle), and does not actually see the planet or the gravitational attraction.  It is similar to the physical/emotional attraction between lovers.  Claims of "sensing" D/O may be a similar "wiggle" effect between human psyches and D/O.  The only evidence of gravity between the star and the postulated invisible planet is the "wiggle"; the only evidence of D/O between Non-Being and Being is a human religious response.
Nothing is certain, but those seem to be the possibilities; how do they seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Sunday, August 2, 2015

From where does our Sense of the Divine come?

The Bible generally describes the Judeo-Christian God as tangible essence existing somewhere in space and time as part of our universe—essentially an entity of the world.  The modern Christian church perpetuates that concept of God in its hymns, sermons, liturgy, prayers, etc.  In the most ethical biblical concepts of God, however, God is far less like we are—that is, like another inhabitant of our physical universe, only more powerful. There are at least two concepts of God in the Bible that mostly bypass the general view: in 1Kings 19:12 God is conceived as "a still small voice"; and in John 4:24 God is described as "spirit."
               Spirit may still be tangible, however; depending on how it is conceived.  If spirit is conceived as an entity that takes up space, like visible steam from a tea kettle, or the nearly invisible vapor arising from a heated substance, or the taste left in the rum cake when the "spirits" have evaporated, then it is tangible. If spirit is not left-over taste, or vaporous mist—or something barely visible to the naked eye; that is, if spirit does not leave an image on the retina of the eye, what is it?
               I would suppose that God, as intangible spirit, is likely a denizen of a parallel spirit(ual) universe, a complex that does not occupy space and time. In this case, God is not a part of the physical universe, but "over there" in the spirit(ual) universe, along with other invisible spirits (good, evil, and unclean), demons, devils, Satan, and other spiritual forces, such as angels, the Prince of the Power of the Air (Ephesians 2:2), the Principalities and Powers in heavenly places (Eph 3:10), the world rulers of the present darkness (Eph 6:12), the spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places (Eph 6:12), angels, principalities, powers (Romans 8:38), etc.
               I prefer the description in 1Kings 19:12.  This description rejects the dramatic physical manifestations of God, such as wind, seismic convulsions, and fire (1 Kings 19:9-13).  God is conceived, for good or ill, as no more or less than a particular sense or awareness of a divine small voice, whether in the mind or vibrating on the ear drum is unclear.  It is once stated that Elijah "heard" the voice (19:13), but people "hear" voices and even carry on conversations—in the mind, in dreams, in "visions" without the voices resonating on the ear drum.  Twice the voice is not "heard," but simply "there" (19:12), "and a voice came to him" (19:13)—that is to say, "an awareness" of a voice.  Being sensed, the Divine is always incomplete and imperfect; it does not exist over apart from us, but perhaps arises from within us.
               We all sense the Divine differently—whether it is a divine righteousness that must be appeased (sensed by Paul), or a divine emptiness (sensed by Ecclesiastes), or a divine legalism (sensed by "Moses"), or a divine capriciousness (sensed by Job), or the sense of the sacredness of all life (sensed by Albert Schweitzer).  In sensing and experiencing the Divine, we do not have the same sense or experience. Consider the sense of the Divine projected in the mystical Orthodox tradition or the philosophical Roman Catholic tradition, or the charismatic Assemblies of God tradition, or the emotional fundamentalist Baptist tradition.  The difference of religious experience is most marked when the various international religions of the world are considered; Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, Taoism, and Islamic traditions provide striking testimony as to how diverse religious experiences can be.
               Whence have come those fleeting impulses that have led out in such startlingly different religious experiences?  Are they "sent" to us from "out there"?  That is, have they come from that parallel invisible universe of the Spirit and not from within us?  There is no critical answer to this question. All the evidence is anecdotal and testimonial.  It consists only of the experiences claimed by those who believe in and attest to the parallel universe.  There is nothing to analyze except their confessions and anecdotal experiences—not even a fleeting image on the eye's retina.
               Is it possible that our various senses of the Divine arise from within each of us? That is, the impulses come not from "out there" but from somewhere in the cortex of the human brain, or they are built into our DNA.  If that is the case, some of us would seem to be hard-wired either to receive Divine impulses or more probably to create a sense of the Divine.
               In the final analysis, the question of whence originates the sense of the Divine is unanswerable, but then the answer may not matter at all.  In the long run, human beings are better for having sensed the Divine—however imperfectly so.  The difficulty lies in vetting what people claim to experience as the Divine; I recall that Paul thought Satan could "disguise himself as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).  The warning is inevitable: be wary of those who claim to have a definitive knowledge of the Divine.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University