Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Someone get Jonathon Edwards on the phone

Is it really possible Tom Wright doesn't know why Americans ask him about hell?

He's so swift in his judgements about America (what has gotten into him lately?) - and now Americans - as though he is completely clueless about why. Any American teenager who has studied American history or American literature for five minutes knows the answer.

We - even now, even after all this time - we are the children of the Pilgrims. We are the children of the Puritans. We are the children of New England. While the religious fervor of our Puritan founders may have waned, our need to know whether we are in the "elect" has not diminished. Americans have inherited the examined life of our Puritan mothers and fathers, we consistently and constantly examine our lives to know if we are in the elect, secularized though it may be now. Why do we put all our bad news on public cable systems and broadcast them all over the world - we must confess our sins, that we might not be doomed but in fact be saved. We examine our life privately as individuals and publicly as a nation - will we be saved?

This has a secular meaning now, but it's woven into the fabric of American culture. That N.T. Wright seems to be totally unaware of this significant part of the American character and history is quite frankly astonishing.

In fact, this element of our culture may be one of the most significant differences between America and England. They have stamped out the memory of their own Puritan history (and with good reason), but we have not. Our Puritan history was tempered by southern Jeffersonianism, just as strong and significant in shaping the American culture - that is, we can start again, we can return to the Garden, we can remake ourselves and start all over again, the New Adam.

American culture is founded on a hybrid of Puritan Jonathon Edwards and Enlightened Thomas Jefferson and what is surprising is that for all our learning, all our immigration of other cultures and creeds, still - after all these years, the force of our Puritan founders still runs deep like a river through our cultural life all the way to this day when Rob Bell dares to call the question.

Thursday, May 26
I have a dream

In the comments below, James writes, "We should not have engaged the issue of hell, as a Christian community, as we did. There was something very wrong about this debate."

That is true, the reaction to the publicity for the publication of Rob Bell's new book illustrated that again, this issue runs deep, but not just in our religious life, but also in the public sphere. Mercy seems to be missing from the shelves.  The "rush to judgment" was swift, and there seems to have been little time in the rush to consider why Rob Bell hit a nerve.

Bishop Wright appears to take the tack of "why all the fuss?"  He sadly dismisses the question, but not without issuing his own judgement in the process.  Why are Americans so concerned about hell (and why perhaps Bell did write his book)?

The fact remains, as Wright aptly observes, that Americans do consider hell more than he does.  In doing so he fails to grasp that this observation is integrated into the fabric of our society.  The Great Awakening in part is based on the premise that if we do not turn to God we are damned.  This causes a society to transform itself – by both liberal and conservative by the way.  It is the engine that pushes the train forward, that we may not be damned, but may be saved.  If anyone wants to understand America, this is key.

What I find fascinating about any kind of "damnation" - be it religious or secular - is that it continues to be such a force in our political and cultural landscape today.  It comes from both the religious and political left and the right, the differences being not that there is no damnation, but what criteria is identified to justify being condemned. Wright is naive if he thinks he can just sweep away the question with the wave of theological hand, dismissing those childish Americans with their preoccupation about hell. 

We can argue the theological underpinnings about whether hell exists or does not exist or who may or may not actually be there.  But the point here is that there is a strong concept that there are consequences of justice that if we do get it wrong we are condemned.

This is so deeply, deeply embedded into the American character that to dismiss it with a pontificating wave is just quite simply incredulous.  It would be one thing if Bishop Wright had never been to the United States or spent his entire career locked up in a tower, but the fact remains he has come across the pond on many occasions and since he might fashion himself inclined to care about justice issues he might want to consider digging deeper and ask the question Why rather than shut down the conversation as being irrelevant.

Of course it’s relevant - the concern with the environment is one thing, but another quite frankly is the entire issue of race and slavery.  America to this day is haunted by its slave-owning past.  Whatever the Dream might posses for new generations, there is still this ghost of slavery that permeates our national life even to this day. 

Martin Luther King Jr.'s genius, for example, was to appeal to the dream of something more, but he still appealed to the dream inherited by our Puritan ancestors - the Dream of the Promised Land.  But if we are not deemed worthy to walk into the Promised Land, it is then inferred we are condemned.  And that shame, that sentence of condemnation continues to haunt our society.  Dr. King appealed to the spiritual implications that if we did nothing to change our society to one where "one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers" we too would be like those horrific racists who blemished this land with their sin.  The implication is that if we do not do this, if we do not partake in the Dream of the Promised Land, we are doomed.  If there is no hell - secular or religious, then why work so hard to change the world in which we live? 

Are we progressing toward some secular "New Adam" as Jefferson may have dreamed, a natural new aristocracy of the great - Americans do seem to continue to look for the perfect man, the perfect leader and if one is lacking, that too is broadcast from the housetops.  But at the same time, it is not still the Promised Land that we journey toward, knowing too that if we don't make it, if we are found with "sin the camp" we expose it for all the world to see on CNN or in The New York Times so that we might be found worthy and be saved.

In England, the Puritans of course temporarily overthrew the Monarchy (and of course, Oliver Cromwell then finally became a despot king of sorts himself). But in America, we temper our secular Puritan fervor with a native optimism so clearly articulated in recent years by Ronald Reagan.  That optimism tempers the searing and often cranky eye of judgment that we experience in our harsh assessments of our cultural experience.  But that optimism was severely tested by 9/11.

Is 9/11- that one act - done more to shift the landscape of American society than any other single event in modern American history?  Was it not catastrophic?  Did it in many ways reveal that Jonathon Edwards' warnings are ingrained - or were ingrained - into the conscience of a nation even if we don’t remember why:

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; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. - From Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

The implication is there, if we can't seem to grasp why we are so worried - not just for the safety of our nation, but our own corporate salvation.  9/11 was like a visible picture of hell in real time, one that we all who witnessed that day in person or in television, yes, in real time will never forget.  The questions that are raised from it - are we safe, are good, are we blessed, are we saved are not so easily answered.  From the recent "economic downturn" it appears that many thought there was no longer any sort of interior moral compass to compel people to do good and thus apparently shut their eyes turned revered financial institutions into Darwinist casinos banked by the indebtedness of the naive and the stupid.  Will those bankers go to hell?  Will the debtors go to hell?  Why should they worry if there is no hell?  If there is no hell, is there no justice?  And if there is no justice, then what compels us to do good?

I wonder if the characteristic American optimism is in some ways based on the inherited certainty of hope that this country is indeed "in the elect," that it is "the Promised Land," the "City on the Hill," and that if you can make it here, you will not be "some loathsome insect over the fire," but be redeemed.  You are free here to do good.  We sing of that great land in our national hymns and we believe.  But what if all is not well?  And what if there is no hell, after all - then does that mean there is no Promised Land after all?  If there is no hell and everyone gets to go, then why do we work so hard? 

Again, these ideas are couched in the religious terms of the New England settlers, but they are translated today into secular American thought.  The Puritan investment into the American culture runs deep, but it is not without consequences.  They may have passed on their robust commitment to work and a future hope, but that commitment also carries forward to the ashes of 9/11 and reveals the fear of judgment from that day, that it all was just a dream after all and judgement is upon us, or worse, Hitchins is right.  There is no God.

And so we turn to N.T. Wright for an answer.


Alice C. Linsley said...

I've wondered about N.T. Wright lately also.

This is perceptive, Mary. The Puritan heritage runs deep in America. We also have the Quakers, the Anabaptists and the Catholics. America has far greater religious diversity than England. And historically, hell is a real concern to all these Christian groups.

Unknown said...

That is true - but the influence of the New England Puritans in shaping what would become the American culture was substantial and even though it's now "secularized" - it still remains deeply embedded.


TLF+ said...

The Sistine Chapel, Dante, Faust (which has both English and German versions)... many popular images and assumptions about hell come from Europe. Even the French Existentialists played with the concept.

It's not so much an American invention as an American retention or continuation.

I agree with BB that much was mediated through the Puritans and still asserts itself, even in secular form. Just look at the environmentalist blend of rigorous moral demands backed by warnings of global annihilation!

Chip said...

Wright's lack of understanding is not at all surprising to me, BB. Richard Kew wrote a blog post a few years back after he moved to England noting that American Anglican/Episcopal concerns were essentially lacking in England, and that what was going on in TEC was largely unknown to them. Given that present-day events are not on their radar screen, it's not surprising that elements of history would be unknown.

There's a large gap between American evangelicals and British ones, most pronouncedly outside of Anglicanism, but also within. When I was at Wycliffe Hall a few years ago, one of their summer tracks was on global warming and what Christians can do to face the crisis. Try to imagine that at a theologically conservative American evangelical seminary! Also, from what I understand, the majority of English evangelical Anglicans are politically liberal -- very different from here in the U.S.

The lack of understanding cuts both ways. Some of us see the Muslim population in England increasing and think that Islam is about to overwhelm England. But when Richard Turnbull, Dean of Wycliffe, visited last fall, he worked to counter that perception and said that it was far from the truth.

Dale Matson said...

Your observation was perceptive and expressed well. I recently posted a piece about Hell on Soundings. http://sanjoaquinsoundings.blogspot.com/2011/05/hell.html. Wright claims he is not a universalist but it was not clear if he believes in annihilationism. I really think the theme song for the modern church should be John Lennon's "Imagine".

Kevin said...

Not sure how many Puritans are wandering around or what impact Johnathon Edwards had with the Roman Catholics evangelizing the Southwest or Cajun country or with the droves of Baptist who settled the South and Midwest. One thing is pretty sure, the doctrine of hell does play a pretty big part in the Scriptures, Jesus references Hell much more often than Heaven.

I'm kind of left wondering why +NT is surprised by it, maybe his flock is not reading their Scripture as much. If Catholics, Calvinist & Baptist all can agree on this one area and without much variation and each proclaiming it in their own way.

I am perplexed why British Evangelicals would be so different.

Anonymous said...

Wright's observations seem to be inviting pop culture status. Sad. And desperate.

James said...

What Wright said, is very important, and needed to be said.

We should not have engaged the issue of hell, as a Christian community, as we did. There was something very wrong about this debate.

Whenever we talk about hell, we must recognize: Jesus talks about it more than most preachers - but does not talk about it in a way as if we can learn things about God from hell - and does so in language that's clear that we can't profitably dwell on it, or study it in a way that will enrich our knowledge of it.

If we assume, as Rob Bell does - that our view of hell tells us a lot about God - we are doing something profoundly wrong.

Please note how ingenious this statement of N.T. Wright is. It essentially brushes away Rob Bell's founding premise and reason for the whole book.

This is a masterful gesture; and acknowledging our blindness to this could bring us great healing in the rather nasty debates which we have been having.

I've written more on this topic in a short article, American hell, where bb leaves a comment which, I think, inspired her to write this article. But bb, please go back and read it, or think about Rob's founding premise. And I think that you will better appreciate N.T. Wright here.

It's essential not only to understand the words here, but the implications - it's that which reveals just how utterly brilliant and profound this response is.

Dale Matson said...

"Whenever we talk about hell, we must recognize: Jesus talks about it more than most preachers - but does not talk about it in a way as if we can learn things about God from hell - and does so in language that's clear that we can't profitably dwell on it, or study it in a way that will enrich our knowledge of it." So we should disregard what Jesus had to say? He came to reveal the Father and His statements about Hell are things we should reflect on.

Kevin said...


I highly disagree. I think anyone who is interested in the doctrine of hell is at least on a path that understands a Holy God. This is a far cry of the "Moralistic therapeutic deism" that Christian Smith has found, which actually would be the dominate contemporary American view of God, oddly especially in the overall Evangelical culture. The doctrine of hell at least fit more in line with the sermon St. Peter gave in the Book of Acts chapter 2, which is so radically different than what we hear preached from pulpits today. One should ask why Jesus victory over death and being made right is so absent. That I'd say is the true dangerous thing.

While I'd concede the danger of focus on hell in view of another, I think it's healthy when we begin to see our own predicament. You CAN'T have any Good News without the bad news.

I'd challenge you that our view of grace is only true when we understand what we are saved from. You are correct our view of hell does tell us a lot about our view of God, without it we come up with a jolly, grandpa-Santa Claus type god, which is NOT the God of Scripture. Truly, until we have a clue about Justice and God's wrath against rebellion, we can not truly plum the depths of His Love and Mercy - else we come up with a form of cheap grace. The doctrine of hell is only half the story, but a necessary half to understand the whole.

James said...


I would suggest that what we should derive our knowledge of God on those things which God has clearly revealed about Himself, and those things which we can understandably grasp with human cognition.

Hell and ultimate judgment are "God's things" and so far beyond our grasp, that if we are to try to make inferences about other things, beyond what we are taught in Scripture, we are fooling ourselves.

I would suggest that there is nothing which we can profitably learn about God by making inferences from hell, which can not more profitably be learned from what God has already told us about Himself in more clear language.

Jesus Himself also does not, in His example, encourage us to make inferences about God from characteristics of hell.

The thought of making inferences from characteristics of hell is, in my opinion, part of the mistaken Western tendency that we can cognize and imagine more or less everything equally; and cognitively "grasp" and control everything our minds might touch. I would suggest that this Western approach needs to be tempered with humility when we are trying to come to conclusions in areas which are most obviously beyond our imaginitive and cognitive grasp.

Our responses to the ugly and the reprehensible needn't always be, "so what does this tell us about God?" Sometimes it's following God's own instructions and turning away from such things, to dwell on that which is beautiful and edifying. What happens in hell is utterly horrid and I would suggest that this is so beyond what our minds can fathom, that we can't create for ourselves new ideas about God by reasoning on hell. All that we might be able to learn profitably, we already know from things which God Himself has told us directly, not requiring our inferences via discourse on hell.

James said...

Kevin, I agree with virtually all you say. Hell is certainly a part of how we see things and we can not afford to simply dispose with it. It is most certainly a part of the greater picture and has something to say about God and justice.

I would simply add: not a lot. We should not allow hell to a significant extent to condition our view of God. We should follow Christ in His example in this.

E.g., the reasoning: "God really is, when you come down to it, rather moralizing and angry, since He puts people in hell for eternity."

I would say: here, we are focusing on hell to provide us information about God; as such, bad theology. We are making assumptions about divine agency and human agency based largely on our very, very sketchy knowledge of hell. In general, we should hermeneutically dwell on Scripture which is clear to us.

"The Bible says hell is eternal" - yes, it does; this is good theologizing, especially since it does not attempt to draw conclusions about things which we don't already know from the rest of Scripture.

I am also not saying that we can't write books on hell; simply - when we do so, we must be acutely cognizant of the limits of human concepts when dealing with ultimate things which belong to God; and we do best to do so especially prayerfully, given how utterly horrid and terrifying hell is.

Hell is there; hell is hell. This should be enough for us. When we want to contemplate God, let us dwell on God Himself; we acknowledge that hell is hell, and that is enough, without mentally "going there" (we can't - and we merely punish ourselves with our own worst fantasies when we try).

James said...

Allow me to put things this way:

When we begin to imagine and understand hell, we are so violently repulsed by the horror of the spectre of the lack of God's presence, that we quickly come to the realization that we do not belong there, and that we are in great need of God's presence. This should have the effect of us immediately calling out to God, and leaving the imagining of hell, with our realization that we weren't "really there," and that this imagination was but a futile, human attempt at imagining something which we couldn't possibly imagine in any realistic, vivid sense.

If we do not experience this, we are merely fooling ourselves in thinking that we have somehow imagined or cognized hell.

There are topics where our knowledge of A and B can lead us by inference to truths C and D. My point here is: that which we know - in no clear, and distinct manner from scripture about hell - should never lead us on to C and D unless we do so with great care and prayer, and when we discuss these things with others, this should also be characterized by prayer and care.

At times, our engaging in this debate about Rob Bell and hell was not adequately characterized by prayer and care, nor proper respect of our own finitude, and how these matters of such great importance utterly dwarf our imagination and reason - how they condition us, our thinking, and our thoughts - instead of us being able to produce cogent, rational descriptions of such things.

So I'd say, for hell especially, when we teach about this topic, and think about it, let us be especially solicitous in using Christ's own words and those of the apostles - without engaging in too much "embroidering" upon them.

Kevin said...


First, I'd completely disagree with you that we can not comprehend hell. I think in a fallen World with WWII or 9/11/01 or Mi Lai, that we actually have a far better grasp of hell than we do of Heaven. That may be why it is used so much in Scripture as a motivator or why St. Paul doesn't give us a picture of perfection or a World made right, but as a woman in labor pains (suffering we can identify, but unknown joy and sense of anticipation).

On the rest, if I accept your position, I am having trouble seeing where God as revealed in the book of Jeremiah, Ezekiel or Habakkuk fit in or a Jesus who end his most popular sermon with such a stern warning. I do think it is tempting in any relationship to focus on the other as we want to see them (a engaged couple usually ignores all that will end up an irritation later) the fact is that the other party exists outside of our image of them and is a real person and who they truly are. While in our relationship with God, all the brokeness is on our side and the is no shadow of turning in Him, not to say there is not some difficult attributes for us to accept. While we may be saved from God's wrath, His wrath is an attribute, so if we love Him, truly all of who He is than we must accept those parts that are hard for us to deal with and a healthy bit of fear is actually good for us.

Granted it is good for us when we ponder in terms of ourselves verse the other worthy sinners out there, else we end up in a Pharisaicalism. However to say that we should avoid such topics is to contradict St. Paul who tells us OT stories were written for our benefit and uses a passage about judgment as his example. +NT in this clip, could be concern that is the intent (which would be loving if he bothered to express it instead of an ironic condemnation into a logical non sequitur about not being a universalist to another logical non sequitor about focusing on certain attributes of God (benefit of the doubt, I hope extremely poor editing job).

Here I think Luke 13:1-5 is Jesus' archetype to those type of issues, for He does not compromise on hard facts, if one reads He does not deny an element of judgment, but He does redirect the question, not to some other attribute of God, but into self-reflection, remaining with a hard attribute.

I'll concede that most people we hear about the doctrine of hell, especially who makes it into the mainstream media are not pleasant (most lacking any concept of the Gospel) and may be what you seem to be reacting towards. It seems that many of the books that be published recently go to the other extreme and present what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." I dare say that may be more deadly than the Pharisee who condemn a minority sexual sin while ignoring all others (including the ones directly dealing with them), because most of us prefer the easy path, the one that does not challenge us. In that light +NT should be more worried why the British are not asking such questions anymore (America may have had Edwards, but they had Whitfield and Wesley).

I think the solution is be "Whole-istic" (spelled that way for a reason). A Christian who wants to know who is going to hell or what temperature it going to be (presumably think it's a judgment on another he'd like to see roasted) can at least be pointed towards the verses about hell which should give him some pause and hopefully some self-reflection, but a Christian who only sees God's mercy and grace could be ignorant of his own peril - which is why I think it is imperative teach the whole council - hopefully then we can have even the smallest grasp of "but for the grace of God, there go I" and see those outside with true pity and motivated to live out Romans 12-16, 1 Peter 2:11-17, the first part of the Sermon of the Mount before Jesus warns of hell, etc.

Unknown said...

I've updated with a new section called "I have a dream."


Kevin said...


Addressing you but more a general comment (mostly to help in a media with no non-verbal or tones that not connected to the banter above). The point of my first comment is that I'd disagree with you that Edwards is in the fabric of America, but Edwards was a preacher of the Scripture, so while he would disagree with Catholics or some Baptist who also formed this nation, Edwards strived to be Biblical as the others I believed also strived, so same source material.

One thing about Edwards is that "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" needs to be read with "The Excellency of Christ. "

I guess the warning for us it while I'd debate you on the measure Edwards had in total, England not only had Whitfield, Wesley but then Chesterton or Spurgeon, not even beginning to touch the Anglican divines, all after the rebellions and turmoil of the English Reformation. It seems to me that +NT might have a few more questions if he were on the same stage with C.S. Lewis, but I guess things have drastically changed.

James said...


I'd suggest that in using WW2 etc. to help you imagine hell - you still aren't imagining hell. You are understanding better what fear, pain, anxiety, loss, and hate might feel like; and any of these may also be felt by those in hell, but this is still not really "imagining hell."

That, were you to actually begin authentically imagining hell - I would suggest ... you would be so repelled by this imagining that you would immediately cease from this imagining and cry out to God.

Does this make sense?

Kevin said...


I think you have confused what I wrote. I did not say we know and experience actually or at its deepest level, I wrote we maybe better equipped to grasp the warning in our fallen state than we are to ponder the goodness of God.

It does not mean that pondering the blessings is not healthy, but you presented a situation where I read it that we need to just accept the hard things because they are beyond us while encouraging us to ponder the more difficult that really are beyond us and in Scripture often revealed by the former [God so loved the World that He sent His Son to save us from Himself -- or maybe as CS Lewis pondered a life absent of Him and full of ourselves - thinking how the Great Divorce the dragon of lust is easier to empathize with than riding the horse charging off].

So I get what you are saying with authentic reality and a shadow of that reality. I was counter that we maybe more capable of pondering a life with out God, in the horrors we experience in a post Genesis 3 world than we are the fullness of Redemption, so it didn't make sense ponder the pleasantness without the harshness.

Anonymous said...

Good post, thoughtful comments. Thanks to all who are participating.