The Fruit of Hell

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Over the years, I’ve learned how my mind processes new data, and I’ve found that I’m a combination of an early adopter and a late adopter. Specifically, I tend to be slow to actually accept that I’ve changed my mind, but I’m very quick to synthesize and incorporate new information into my mental map of a topic. So I quickly see what may need to change, but I’ll take months or longer to actually come around to fully accepting that I’ve changed.

This blog and podcast have always been about my journey, not anything absolute. I fully recognize that things I wrote just a year or two ago no longer reflect the specifics of my thinking about various topics. This doesn’t bother me particularly, because I’ll readily admit that I’m on a journey of discovery and rethinking my faith from top to bottom.

Part of that journey lately has been thinking about life after death, because when you’re raised evangelical and specifically in the Calvinist thread like I was, what one believes is in many ways the most important determinant of one’s eternal destiny. So when you start messing around with theology, most evangelicals implicitly understand that their salvation is at risk.

Now, I say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because these days I don’t really believe it to be true. But it certainly is how things were framed in my experience: we were taught or at least inherited the idea that if we were not very certain of our faith, it’s probably a sign that we are not truly saved and we’ll probably end up in hell.

Given the way that evangelicalism and especially reformed theology interprets the scriptures about salvation, this is quite understandable: we prefer to throw away or at least explain away the scriptures in James 2:14-26 that insist that faith alone is not enough to be fully alive in Christ. Instead, it’s all about “sola fide,” justification by faith alone. And if you believe in sola fide, it’s no big stretch to assert that you have to have the right kind of faith in all particulars to be justified. Because, of course, if you believe in something antichrist, how could Christ justify us for our sins based on that false belief?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about a few topics, and I’ve suddenly begun to see that they’re all interconnected. Specifically:

  • the doctrine of hell (and heaven)
  • fear as a foundational feature in certain doctrines
  • how churches control people
  • our modern (non-biblical) assumptions about church structure
  • assessing doctrines based on their fruit

So let’s dive into each of those.

Regarding the doctrine of hell, I’ve written an extensive set of articles about its foundation and origins and its scriptural support – or more precisely its lack of support. My writing and video recording presented three options, and explained why I was coming down on the side of one of them. I don’t want to rehash those discussions here, but suffice it to say that after continuing to muse on this topic for many months, I’ve been increasingly settled in saying with some confidence that I no longer believe that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is correct and Biblical. In fact, more pointedly, I believe that the doctrine of hell is demonic. But fully explaining that belief will require understanding the connection with all the other topics.

Regarding fear as a foundational feature, it should be easy to see how this is connected with hell. If the consequences of misbehavior of any kind – or misbelief too – is hell, there’s a really strong incentive to stay in line, doing and believing the right things with alacrity and diligence. Now, quite a few Christians believe that’s a good thing; it keeps weak-minded or weak-willed people in line and (if you believe in hell) keeps them in the Kingdom and prevents them from being lost to heaven forever. I disagree, but again, this is part of a whole and I’ll get to that disagreement soon.

Regarding control, it should be obvious how the previous two issues tie together. If you’re trying to corral a large group of people and keep them working well together, dissension is rather deadly. And if you can scare them into behaving for the betterment of your organization with a doctrine based on fear, especially the deep fear of eternal death and torture in hell, how much the better for controlling your church? In that sense, the doctrine of hell is an incredibly powerful tool for a church leader. But like The One Ring, any incredibly powerful tool is intoxicatingly dangerous and sets up the user of that tool for abusing the tool. As the English historian Lord Acton observed in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The doctrine of hell is, in my view, absolute power. It places the one wielding the interpretation of the Bible as literally more important than God themselves, because disputing that interpretation puts you outside the bounds of faith and thus headed straight to hell. And your own personal relationship with God is immediately less important than what the leader wielding the tool of hell tells you is the truth. Thus, in some practical sense, hell is more powerful than God.

But this tool, or more precisely the value of this tool, is a direct consequence of our modern assumptions about church structure. The assumption that a church SHOULD be large, and the assumption that one person or even a few persons should be directly in charge of a large number of other humans (even for their supposed benefit) is a post-biblical assumption. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with a large group of people with common interests and beliefs joining together – but if you look at the actions of modern churches, I’d argue that the majority of them focus a large fraction of their energy and budget on becoming and staying large. (We could talk about the many unhealthy reasons for that, like the influence of large salaries on megachurch leaders, or the intoxicating sense of thousands of people looking at you for leadership, or the pride of apparently doing so much for Jesus and the Kingdom, but that’s for another day’s discussion.)

But large churches inherently violate a lot of the principles we find in the scriptures, like the importance of close intimate relationships around a communion table (1 Cor 11:17-33), the idea of every individual in a gathering participating and bringing their spiritual gifts directly to bear on every meeting (1 Cor 14:26-33), like the idea of righteous leadership being related directly to humble serving instead of “lording it over one another” (Matt 20:25-27). These things are all impossible in a megachurch setting where a select (and well-paid) few participants serve and lead a large group of observers. And that very structure of mostly-observers robs them of chances to personally grow and experience God directly acting through their hands and voices each and every week.

I recognize that healthy small groups can overcome this limitation – where Sunday is merely a temple experience, and the weekly intimate small group is the synagogue experience where the true life of the church is lived together. But if that’s the true life of the church, why waste so much energy and time on the giant temple experience – and all the building and salaries and so forth? Again, it robs the people of God of the resources to actually do what Jesus focused on, in the name of efficiency and control. Nearly 95% of most church income in America goes to the church organization and costs, and only a few percent into serving its community and the needy and oppressed.

So this tool of control based in fear, in that sense, is a trap – it offers an intoxicating way to keep a large group in line with a doctrine which is ultimately serving the institution and its finances and “rulers,” not the Kingdom and Jesus’ commandments.

So we get to the final topic: the fruit.

There are alibis for each of the preceding topics. Fear of truly bad consequences is not always bad and sometimes is needed for discipline – when it’s not abused and abusive. Keeping an organization healthy is good – if the organization is truly righteous. Small groups mean that a large parent organization can facilitate the true work of the Kingdom – if it can overcome the wastefulness and the pride that are common.

But all these alibis require all those caveats. And in practicality, I’d propose that far more often than not, the negative consequences are present in great measure.

This comes down to assessing the fruit of a thing, as Jesus commented in Matt 7:16-20, and as we know by sheer intuition in all areas of our lives if we’re self-reflective. It’s critical to assess the effectiveness and value of a thing against its ultimate and most probable costs.

I’d say that it’s certainly possible for good fruit to result occasionally from a questionable or even an evil situation – merely because God is committed to the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven. God will work with even very flawed people or organizations to do whatever good is possible – but it’s not the best situation by far, and it’s not where we should settle. So I think the better thing is to assess, what’s the most common outcome of a given doctrine? And based on that overall, big-picture answer, then we can get a sense of how holy that doctrine is.

As a simple example, consider slavery. For many generations, slavery was widely assumed to be just fine by Biblical standards. The Bible is chock-full of commands about how to treat slaves, and contains not a single command to free every slave – making it obvious that from the context of the Bible’s authors, slavery was just part of the background fabric of life. So we have verses like Ephesians 6:5-9, which were used for centuries – even until the mid 20th century – to argue that slavery was a desirable state of affairs for mankind, and was directly supported by the Bible.

But when you step back and look at the fruit of that absolutely and provably Biblical doctrine, it was rotten through and through. There is no way one can look honestly at slavery (if one is not benefiting from it at least) and not realize that God is not fine with it, and that its fruit is oppression and torture and fear and hatred and division and greed and broken families and so many more bad things beyond naming.

The argument is often made that the misuse of a doctrine isn’t necessarily proof of its badness. This was often said with regard to slavery – that a righteous slaveowner lifted up and fed and housed his slaves and made their lives infinitely better than they would have been otherwise. But this is a poverty; it denies fundamental personhood and the Imago Dei and a basic right to freedom for each human. And a doctrine that regularly produces bad fruit should be very suspect – and looking honestly at slavery made it quite clear that the 99th percentile answer was “slavery produces very very very bad fruit in nearly every observable situation.”

So we have to look at every doctrine and assess, what is its true fruit. Not, what is the best case if perfect people perfectly followed that doctrine, but what is the routine, common outcome? If the typical outcome is harmful to most people, I’d assert that the doctrine is inherently faulty – because it does not produce a harvest of righteousness, but the harvest is evil on balance. One does not assess a harvest based on one or two or any number of individual fruits – but on the overall outcome. If most of the fruit in the pile is rotten, it was a bad harvest, even if some good specimens can be found and exalted as proof that it CAN be okay.

So when we synthesize all these topics: the fear of the doctrine of hell being used to control people and keep them well-corralled in an organization that doesn’t look much like the church envisioned and experienced by the early church and that wastes inordinate amounts of money and produces a crop of privileged and rich leaders and very few truly mature disciples, I can only conclude that the doctrine of hell is, rather than biblical, actually demonic and antichrist.

I readily admit that there are verses that can easily be used to support eternal conscious torment in hell. But there are actually far more that can be used to oppose that doctrine. And if I look at the fruit of ECT and hell and I see a harvest of rottenness, I have no choice but to oppose the doctrine of hell.

So let’s take this back to where I started, and my observation about being a late adopter in some ways. I find that often I have a very hard time truly thinking through all the corners of a position while my mind is busy fighting against adopting that position. I am spending so much energy on wrestling with the fundamental issues, the easy-to-see issues, that I don’t have the energy to pursue the secondary and tertiary topics around it. So while I may be an early adopter of new concepts, I find that I am late at adopting them fully: I’ll sit in a place of mystery for quite some time while my mind percolates on the implications of changing my position. At some point, my mind flips over that “line in the sand” and my energy is no longer devoted to wrestling with myself about the fundamentals: now I have time to explore the fringes, and figure out what I really think at depth.

And that’s where I am right now on hell: it took me many months to shift course from my evangelical roots that were very hell-focused. But now I finally settled into a different course, and I’ve started to understand the corner conditions and the margins of the problem – and seeing the ugly fruit of the hell doctrine is now becoming easy for me.

I hope this discussion has been useful to you, on two different fronts. One, the underlying problems with the doctrine of hell. But two, giving yourself permission to marinate on a doctrine or dogma for months, if nothing else to let your trauma and habits and patterns of thinking from that doctrine settle and quiet down, so you can hear the more nuanced thinking that’s necessary to truly adopt a different position and be able to articulate it at length.

Thanks for joining me, and we’ll talk again soon.

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