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Friday, 15 November 2013

To Hell with the Doctrine of Hell

Recently I read Alister McGrath’s book The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism, not because I was thrilled by the topic per se, but because I wanted to know what to do with doctrines that I cannot accept. I am primarily thinking of the doctrine of hell, what I have long considered labeling “the ugly mutant 3rd-limb of the Christian tradition.” In the following you will find a summary of McGrath’s book and, in light of McGrath’s conclusions, an attempt to come to grips with “what then must be done.

I know people who have rejected hell. “I don’t believe in hell,” is the phrase – and simple that as – poof! – it is gone. With this they discover a magical power latent in them to make doctrine disappear, and suddenly – poof! poof! poof! – original sin, the communion the saints, and the virgin birth are gone too! What used to be so hard for medieval Christians, the rejection of traditional dogma, has become the easiest thing in the world for us moderns.

I recognize much thought goes into this rejection of problematic doctrine, for which Hell will serve as a Hellpful synecdoche (that one is for Caleb if he is reading this). However, the thought that leads to this rejection seems to fall short of a crucial second stage: while it passes through critical analysis of the doctrine itself (“God is Love… hmm, that seems incompatible with eternal conscious torment...”) it does not pass through critical thought on the viability of simply rejecting doctrine (“well, I guess the natural conclusion is: ‘I don’t believe in hell!’”). My only qualm with this approach is that it is not all that it could be. For while doctrine can and should be criticised, to reject it often amounts to ignoring its real presence in history.

The fact is, Jesus talked a lot about hell, and one has to arbitrarily ignore those words while accepting the rest if one’s rejection is to be consistent. This is why a Christian, if they want to continue thinking Christianly, cannot say things like “I don’t believe in hell.” Hell is in Scripture, the historical document Christians make definitive for the terms of their discourse, and so one must have something to say about it. A person cannot say, “hell isn’t there in the Bible,” but she can say something like, “when Jesus spoke of hell he was referring metaphorically to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, which is what the Greek word Gehenna originally designated.” This is a valid position to take, one that continues to engage Scriptures, albeit on different terms, instead of ignoring them.

McGrath, glancing up at the above, would discern the heart of the problem to be not doctrines themselves but the lack of critical appropriation of doctrine. Simply put, the doctrine of hell is less problematic than what the Evangelical church in America has done with that doctrine (see Hellbound? if you aren’t convinced). The attitude which perverts doctrine is more terrible than a terrible doctrine in the hands of a thoughtful, justice-oriented community. Thus McGrath writes his book under the conviction that our attitude toward the concept of doctrine must be dealt with before any specific doctrines.

McGrath calls his book a “history of history – in other words, with the uses which past generations of theologians of the modern period have found for the doctrinal heritage of the past in their own theological deliberations” (ix). Concerning himself with the history of attitudes towards doctrine, McGrath develops the readers historical sense of what (some readers) might have gone in thinking were ahistorical truth-propositions. When we have come to grips with the socially-contingent nature of doctrines, we can no longer treat them as absolute formulations of the absolute. What truth there is in certain doctrines is a more complex phenomenon. Here is a summary of McGrath’s most important points.

What Doctrine is Not

1)      A self-enclosed “language game”: “Doctrine, like the kerygma, is not something that is just there, demaning that we take it or leave it: it is something which purports to represent adequately and accurately the significance of an historical event, and is open to challenge concerning its adequacy as an interpretation of that event” (31). To dismiss doctrines only an internally-meaningful language with no bearing outside itself (whether for the sake of defeating a specific doctrine [i.e. hell] or as a way of leaving the game altogether) ignores the obvious question of how the community has learned that language in the first place. It came from somewhere; it has a historical genesis.
Besides, to make this move ignores the self-expression of the communities themselves. It was not Athanasius’ understanding that homoousion referred only to other signifiers in the language game of the early church – rather, it had a real, ontological referent. “Doctrines express an experience which has been constituted by the language of the Christian community” (26)

2)      A collection of facts or free-floating propositions: just as doctrines cannot be reduced to the purely social epiphenomena of a language game, doctrines cannot be regarded as the absolute signifiers of Absolute truth. Doctrines are true insofar as they are integrated into communities of worship and service by giving direction and contributing to the self-understanding of the group as it relates itself to its founding narrative. Part of the modern failure of doctrine is the inability to correlate worship, service and doctrine.

What Doctrine is:

1)      Doctrine is progressive: “The need for a ‘rebirth of images’ underlies the genesis of doctrine… The mere repetition of NT formulae had to give way to something more difficult, something more threatening and challenging – the formulation of doctrine, as a synthesis through which the formative and ineliminable conflicts of the Christian tradition could be resolved, or held in creative tension” (3). Thus it is not a conservative but a progressive impulse that moves communities to formulate doctrine in the first place, though, eventually, it is a conservative impulse that moves communities to preserve and teach their doctrine. 

2)      Doctrine is a historical necessity: “The inevitability of doctrine arises… partly on account of the need to interact with a language and a conceptual framework not designed with the specific needs of Christian theology in mind” (4). In a Hellenized environment, the very way of engaging with the Event of Jesus Christ involved doctrinal formulations. There are other contexts where, at least intellectually, this is how the Gospel may be processed.

3)      Doctrines well up from a community and bind it together: “Doctrine is an activity, a process of transmission of the collective wisdom of a community, rather than a passive set of deliverances” (11). Thus doctrines mostly come from outside scholastic thought. To name two examples: “it was the sacramental life of the Christian community which evoked the doctrine of original sin; … [and it was] popular piety which gave rise (1950) to the dogma of the assumption of Mary” (11).

4)      Doctrines have life only insofar as they are meaningful to the community: Pivotal to sustaining doctrine is “the concept of ‘reception’” (11). It is the community that supports doctrine, not the other way around (though there is some mutuality). “Doctrine presupposes the existence of the church” (12). This is perhaps the most counter-intuitive point to some, whose logic seems to run, “because Christ forgave our sins (doctrine of atonement), we gather as a community of redeemed sinners to perpetuate and announce this doctrine.” Rather, doctrine is “an insider phenomenon” (12), and without the context of a community of worship and mission they are, quite rightly, dry and barren, without any function whatsoever and therefore in need of a trash can.

5)      Doctrines help carry the Event that formed the community in the first place: “the impulse which animates the genesis of doctrine is thus prior to any specific doctrinal formulations as such – yet, paradoxically, requires precisely some such doctrinal formulation if it is to be transmitted from one generation to another” (12). The proper context of doctrine is in its role as mediator of the tradition, which is the interpreted experience of the Gospel event. Because it is only through these traditions that the Event can be continually engaged, doctrines are directly concerned with encountering the truth guarded and sustained by the tradition. “Doctrines define the object of faith – God – not in order that God may be comprehended but in order that the believer may relate to God in faith” (78).

6)      Doctrines function as a social demarcators: doctrine is “linked with the affirmation fo the need for certain identity-giving parameters for the community, providing ideological justification for its continued existence” (38). This is not necessarily a positive facet of doctrine, but nonetheless a historically significant one.
Importantly, doctrine was in the early church only one such social demarcator. Christian communities were organized around a core which was not doctrinal but doxological, “a cluster of attitudes, practices, beliefs and expectations, shaped by patterns of worship adoration and prayer” (40-41). As the church itself became culturally normative under Constantine, the imperative of doctrinal uniformity intensified with increased social status and responsibility. All the same, the medieval heresies were “social and political movements, posing a challenge to medieval society which far transcended the sphere of ideas” (42). Heresy did not just have intellectual implications but social ones. Over time the tendency has been for church communities to invest more of their identity in doctrinal formulations. 

The Dangers of Doctrine:

1)      Loyalty to out-of date, misunderstood doctrines: Though “the genesis of doctrine lies in the exodus from uncritical repetition of the narrative heritage of the past” (7), there is always a danger of sinking into an uncritical repetition of the forms of that very exodus. The possibility of taking for granted the adaptations of scripture into the cultural framework undergone by our ancestors of the faith forever haunts us. The only true way out of this danger is through doctrine. “The Nicene crisis over the non-biblical term homoousios highlighted the inadequacies of a theology of repetition, of the strict adherence to archaic verbal formulae. The meaning of the past was threatened with obliteration through  the passage of time, as the church lost sight of the original meanings of past forms and, by failing to restate and interpret them, became prone to the temptation to invest them unconsciously with new and unintended meanings” (6).

2)      Self-entrapment in a fixed doctrinal identity: Though doctrines serve and have served as important social demarcators, there is a possibility that communities dispense of all other social demarcators but doctrinal boundaries. Unfortunately, this has more of an entrapping effect than anything else on the community, who find themselves in a straightjacket and punished for any attempts to escape. Because doctrine is linked with specific historical circumstances, it is important for churches to be as flexible as those circumstances are fickle. For example, it is only at present that “agreement [may] be reached between Lutheran and Roman Catholics on justification… [since] the doctrine of justification by faith alone was of essential importance as a criterion of social cohesiveness to sixteenth-century Lutheranism in its formative phase: it has that function no longer” (46). McGrath notes, importantly, that “this is not to deny that the doctrine is true, even if its central insights may be accommodated within a different framework acceptable both to Roman Catholics and Lutherans” (47).

3)      The doctrinal eclipse of the Gospel event: “Doctrine provides the conceptual framework by which the scriptural narrative is interpreted. It is not an arbitrary framework, however, but one which is suggested by that narrative, and intimated (however provisionally) by scripture itself.” The danger is therefore located in the possibility that doctrine strays too far from its biblical roots, grows strong enough to compete with those biblical roots, and, when it comes down to it, wins the cage-match. For some Evangelicals, the necessity of having “a personal relationship with their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” has, for all intents and purposes, achieved doctrinal status. This “doctrine” forms the basis of their spirituality, so much so that not even the Bible can undermine it!
Luther saw the same phenomenon among “Platonic” Christians, who, he thought, were more loyal to the categories of a platonic metaphysics which formed their doctrinal language than they were to scripture itself. Thus his concern became “to allow the scriptural narrative of Jesus as Nazareth, as it is focused upon the crucified Christ, to generate its own framework of conceptualities. Luther’s autonomy of the scriptural narrative does not involve the rejection of metaphysics; it merely denies to any preconceived metaphysics the right to impose its interpretive framework” (65). Let that last point be noted among those who repeat Sola Scriptura uncritically.

What about Hell then?

Clearly, given all that McGrath has explicated, to treat the doctrine of hell as a proposition about the nature of reality is to take so much for granted that it nearly makes its rejection meaningless. As we can see from McGrath’s history, when doctrines have become so abstracted from community life, liturgy, social demarcations, etc., that their essence is that of a metaphysical truth claim within a self-consistent philosophical system, they are no longer what they used to be; they have become lifeless and questionable not on the level of their ontological viability (for all we could ever know, there is a hell, and we must remain in this epistemological humility) but on the level of their spiritual, sociological and ecclesiastical significance.

Based on McGrath’s analysis of the history of doctrine, I want to propose that to reject hell as a doctrine is not nearly so radical, nor so psychologically efficacious (in terms of finding peace and purpose), as rejecting the attitude towards doctrines that makes the doctrine of hell so oppressive in the first place. Fundamentalist who react against their roots by rejecting the most utilized doctrine, hell, have not entirely liberated themselves, for some in fact still fear its possibility (“what if there is a hell, and I’m going there because I don’t believe in it…!” – it hits them in the quiet of the night) and most feel that their liberation can only be meaningful if they are under the aegis of yet another doctrine, this time the doctrine of “the nonexistence of hell.” They are fundamentalists either way, because their attitude to truth and doctrine stays the same. Neither are they totally psychologically liberated, even if they cease to fear damnation every second of the day.

What is this revised attitude towards doctrine which promises this liberation and meaning? There are two major adjustments. It is important to keep in mind, though, that what allows these two adjustments of disposition is the impossibility of a rigid fundamentalist attitude to doctrine itself – rather than just to certain important doctrines, those deemed the “fundamentals” – due to the historic instability of the concept, as demonstrated in McGrath’s study.

1)      First, doctrine must be existentially significant to be significant at all. As an intellectual set of presuppositions, doctrines are meaningful only within a philosophical system – in other words not personally meaningful. Therefore doctrine ought not to be approached as a naked belief (on the level of opinion, reasonable or not), but “as a means of generating an atmosphere of expectation, of removing obstacles, of orienting oneself in an appropriate manner, in order that the risen Christ may be encountered and known, and his benefits appropriated” (127). When doctrines become abstract enough to be debated without more than loyalties to an intellectual system being at stake, they have became not means but obstacles to the appropriation of the Christian faith. I do not think that the current justification/sanctification debate between Piper and Wright is the best example, since it is so important, but it may became dangerously centered around ecclesiological loyalty to those who follow it. When it is used appropriately, “doctrine is belief oriented towards action, in order that Christ may be ‘grapsed’” (127).

2)      The second adjustment in attitude includes a humility that is read to hold doctrine accountable to Scripture. However, this is a nuanced point which can mean many things to many groups. It does not simply mean we must chuck anything that is not directly found in Scripture (the Trinity would have to go if this were the case), but that which does not follow from the best interpretation we have of Scripture at the moment. Because our scriptural hermeneutic is historically contingent and ever-growing/changing, consequently so are our doctrines. There is a hierarchy here which goes: Jesus > the NT account of Jesus > interpretation of the NT > the doctrines that follow from this interpretation. When this hierarchy is reversed, doctrines grow cold and stagnant. I’ve heard it said by someone that they would rather lose their Christology than their doctrine of scripture. This is an example of a reversed hierarchy, because the person of Jesus provided the force for the formation early church communities, their collected stories (which became the gospels), the resultant doctrines, etc., in the first place. As McGrath is careful to remind us, the authority of scripture rests on what is before Scripture: both “the authority of scripture and the manner in which scripture is to be interpreted, rest on its perceived ability to mediate the experience of the risen Christ to posterity” (129).
Basically, what this amounts to is a “non-dogmatic attitude to dogma,” or doctrine, sustained by a historical sense of the variety and transiency latent in the concept. This attitude also implies a pre-engagement and pre-commitment to the truth of Jesus Christ, who revealed a radically new way of living and loving which is passed on through the diverse rivulets and rivers of the Christian tradition and who cannot be known outside of these mediums (scripture, traditional spiritual practices, doctrine, etc.). In this sense, it is the Event of Jesus Christ that Christians owe ultimate allegiance to first, while doctrine comes second – even though it is doctrine which, in part, gives Jesus Christ to us.

Why is this attitude important?

When you have your differences, what is the best way to create a constructive dialogue? Oddly enough, it may be to find differences on a new level. For example: being a liberal disagreeing with a conservative on a doctrinal point is one thing; disagreeing with a conservative about the difference between liberals and conservatives is a whole other can of worms. This tack prevents you from simply “agreeing to disagree” – the most unproductive or results, albeit the most mutually mollifying option available. “Disagreeing about the disagreement” is where it’s at. It may take you both into a realm beyond your conservative or liberal loyalties, and will at least prevent the dialogue from ending prematurely.

In summary, then, this is what I would suggest to those critical of certain doctrine: instead of rejecting the doctrine, which is the reactionary thing to do (one is still playing the other’s game), it is better to reject their ideas of what doctrines are, which ground all their particular doctrine. By pulling this rug out from under them, you have done the military equivalent of taking out the enemy’s mastermind rather than taking out their infantry, one by one. This, I argue, is the radical and productive response. It circumvents all the bull-manure and gets right down to the disagreement that really matters. 


  1. I completely agree that loyalty to this error-filled doctrine has propelled the church with its ideas about hell through the centuries. It was such a burden that I decided to study the subject thoroughly from the Bible alone and was amazed to find that the clear answers are there. God doesn't keep millions of people alive for the sole purpose of tormenting them forever. There is a lake of fire and it has a purpose, but our traditional doctrine of hell does not reflect it. After years of study, I have started to publish what I found: http://thinkabouthell.blogspot.com

    1. That is excellent - there are few doctrines that give themselves to obsessing over like the doctrine of hell, so I'm sure your research will find some readers. Have you seen the documentary "Hellbound?" If not, it is really worth checking out: http://www.hellboundthemovie.com/

  2. No, I haven't seen Hellbound, but did buy the movie "Hell and Mr. Fudge". I just started my blog last month, but have added quite a few posts. Did you visit it? Would you mind choosing something to read and making a constructive comment? Thanks, and I will check out the movie.

    1. Hi Theresa - I did visit your blog and skimmed a few of your posts. It is really interesting stuff. Right now I am swamped with various things and don’t have much time to give even my own blog; however, when I have more time, I’d love to give yours some more attention.

      I do have one comment, right away. It is a very, very specific idea of hell you go after (i.e. eternal conscious torment), one which had, because of its vindictive spirit, originally made a home in vindictive hearts... and now unfortunately resides in even more or less well meaning, but perhaps unreflective, people. It is, therefore, a historical aberration you are dealing with. It is good to keep that in mind. You’ll find some of the church fathers espousing it (e.g. Augustine has quite the juicy description of the eternal torment in City of God), but one can only understand why if one understands the history. What I’m saying is, the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment is not “biblical,” as you argue, but that is not the decisive argument. The doctrine is vindictive and loveless; its imaginative scope does not rise above the retributive zeal of a slighted school boy. It is a doctrine that emerged in certain historical conditions that bred a spiteful spirit in some minority Christians. It is not integral to the tradition.

      Ultimately, getting caught up with doctrines, reading the bible with scientific exactness, waging fact wars with biblical “data,” etc. is not the point. It is useful among certain expressions of the Christian faith. But it is good to remember that love is the best, and ultimately the only real argument. Meister Eckhart, in a wild blaze of passion, said once that he opt for hell with Jesus than have a heaven without Him. This is love. If God is a god who puts people in eternal conscious torment, I would have to take my stand against him. That god is simply evil.

  3. Thank you for that feedback. I look forward to more feedback when you have time on specific posts. I do touch on the philosophical impossibility of God authoring ETC in the posts "Confession: I have always hated hell" and "WHAT IF we are wrong?" But I've had people tell me that is just emotionalism! I do plan on posting a couple studies on God's character and "what God desires". Blessings!

    1. Also, can I have permission to reprint your comment on my blog? Or you could copy and paste your comment somewhere on my blog. I am trying to get a discussion started!

      Thanks again.

    2. No problem, I should have posted it on your blog in the first place. It is there now, under your most current post. Hopefully that helps you kick-start something! I'll join in when I get the chance.

  4. Imagine what would happen if the authorities found out that cult leaders and parents in a particular cult were telling their children that if the children did not obey the rules of the cult, they would be tossed into a boiling pot of liquid fire.

    The leaders of the cult and the parents would most likely be put in jail.

    So if conservative Christian clergy and parents threaten their little children with claims that an invisible ghost god is going to burn them alive if they do not obey the church's rules, should these clergy and parents be subjected to the same punishment as the leaders and parents of the cult?

    Should the teaching of Hellfire and damnation to children be a crime?

    1. That analogy has nothing to do with the historical doctrine of hell. If you mean the way some modern fundamentalist Christians (and fundamentalism is entirely modern creation, with no roots historically--I have a post about that if you're interested) use the doctrine as a fear tactic--one of the worst forms of child abuse--then yes, I do think that efforts should be made to reform/punish. Actually doing so would be incredibly complicated, however, and would pose risks to the wider religious community that is practicing a more life-giving faith.