A good metaphor gone bad can do a lot of damage. Like a loose cannon. Hell is a bad neighborhood for metaphors. Taken literally Hell can be hell. So it is that many evangelical Christians are abandoning the concept. Jumping ship on the Manichean outlook that has policed bad behavior for two millennia now. A recent article on National Geographic by Mark Strauss discusses why many leading conservatives are now casting Hell into the pit and looking for ways to make God look better. Like many metaphors, Hell best resides in a world of black and white. A dualistic world where there are no shades of gray (certainly less than fifty of them). A world where any behavior can be understood as good or bad, forward or retrograde, never neutral. You’re either for us or against us. There’s no Switzerland in this geography. That’s precisely why so many people want to keep Hell on a leash.
Hell probably never would’ve become such a motivator for good had Jesus not mentioned it. Prior to its encounter with Zoroastrian beliefs, Judaism held that the dead quietly resided in Sheol, a dreary place, true, but hardly fiery real estate. You worked out justice here on earth because that was the only chance you had. The dead were sleepier than early morning commuters and they received neither rewards or punishments. It was a much more egalitarian view of things. The dualistic Zoroastrians saw paradise and torment as a great image to explain evil in the world. The sorting takes place after this life is over. Jesus used such language as well, and the image became canonical.
Evangelicals are now starting to think through the implications of all this. A God with the kinds of anger issues that condemn people literally forever might be problematic. Sure, we may get angry at our enemies, but only the most truly heartless person has no pity on their suffering. What does it say about God if his anger lasts for eternity? Some, therefore, are trying to put the metaphor back into Hell without losing the strict divisions for which the good news crowd is famous. Instead of full-time Hell, perhaps there’s part-time Hell with time for repentance. Or simple annihilation. Metaphors lose their power when they come to be taken literally. Hell is such a loose canon. Doctrine among the doctrinaire is often non-negotiable. Although some may try, as a whole, the fires of Hell can never be extinguished. At least to those who understand figures of speech as statements of fact.
One of the most remarkable things about Christianity is its fascination with the end of the world. Far from being the obsession of nineteenth-century dispensationalists alone (the other Mr. Darby), the earnestly anticipated end goes back to Paul of Tarsus, the first known Christian writer. Before even a Gospel was penned, this sect was expecting the end to come any day now. It still is, at least among many sub-sects. My wife, however, recently sent me a story on National Geographic about a map collection from the 1480s that depicts a geography of the apocalypse. If you were wondering where to make that left-hand turn, this book may be for you. One wouldn’t want to drive a German mile into Hell without an indicator signal on.
The story by Greg Miller describes this late Medieval manuscript and its assurance that the world will end in 1651—talk about your great disappointment! The unknown author of the codex feared Islam almost as much as Donald Trump but instead of running for the GOP nomination he wrote a book showing just how the end would take place. Illustrated, of course. Map is territory after all. I grew up reading fundamentalist tracts that did essentially the same thing. The more progressive bits of the propaganda left out the actual dates because an earlier Miller seems to have missed the doomsday boat, along with various and sundry telltale timekeepers. There in front of me I could nevertheless unfold the future and once the European Common Market gets its tenth member—wait, what? Has yet another head of the beast been lopped off?
Maps give more than directions.
Ironically, early Christianities were anti-materialistic. Money was considered the root of all evil and communism was the ideal. If you doubt me ask Ananias and Sapphira. They thought long-term investment was a bit of a foolish notion—something that I have somewhat naively, if unintentionally, followed my whole professional life. You can’t be vested without three years of servitude after all, and I was expecting the Second Coming after one year. Two, tops. If only I’d had a roadmap. It’s only 1777 German miles from Lübeck to paradise, so maybe I can catch the next doomsday boat and still get there in time.
With the weather that has dropped down over much of the US this past week, I can’t help but think of the religious implications of the weather once again. I’ve had a couple of discussions of my weather book, and perhaps it will be worth reviving; meanwhile the meteorological divine is alive and well. I recently had the chance to look through a November edition of National Geographic. We used to subscribe, but with the loss of too many jobs and the attendant moves, they became literally too heavy, and since the magazine is relentlessly prolific we finally had to donate our back issues to a loving home. In any case, this November’s issue proffers a cover story on Tim Samaras, the storm chaser who was killed by a tornado back in May. It was tornados that first led to my interest in the divine implications of the weather since the twister is often described as the symbol of an angry deity. The article on Samaras, however, took a different approach to the tornadic.
Describing the fatal May 31 tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma, Robert Draper, the article’s author, tends more toward language of the diabolical. Defining the terminal whirlwind as a “dense, moist leviathan,” Draper adopts the language of the chaos monster of antiquity. Over time leviathan came to be associated with evil (although originally it was morally neutral), even with the devil. That isn’t a biblical assessment but in a modern world swiftly becoming depleted of superlatives, leviathan has come to stand in for Satan. A few sentences later the trees are shaking “as if possessed by the devil.” Weather is often the provenance of the divine, but it can also be the tool of the devil. And since this was a fatal storm, one must be careful of blasphemy.
I have never witnessed a tornado first-hand, but I have been within a few miles of one or two. The utterly savage and random nature of the destruction translate to one of the most frightening atmospheric conditions imaginable. Reading about the growing storm, knowing that it will eventually murder the protagonist, reminds me of the stresses that led to my line of research at the very beginning. We have overcome so many of our natural predators that being completely vulnerable to the weather bestows a kind of metaphysical cast to it. We can still be frozen, washed or blown away, or overheated by the weather. It can desiccate us and begin wildfires to consume us. Its scale is immense. The origins may seem celestial, but the results infernal. Perhaps I will return to my book on the weather; it is clear that it remains one place where human power must bow before something so immense that it can only be divine or diabolical. Or both.
At a hotel during a recent excursion, I saw a National Geographic (I think) special on Gobekli Tepe (this is the fate of those of us kept from a daily sustenance of academic listservs bearing the most exciting news). Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site in Turkey, discovered several years ago by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute. It is an odd site, dating back to some 11,000 years ago, that consists of megalithic (big stone) constructions earlier than Stonehenge or the great pyramids of Egypt, both dating from the Bronze Age, roughly. The complex of odd buildings seems to be religious in function because they bear no practical purpose, and the implications of the site are that our earliest steps towards civilization have been misinterpreted from the beginning. We have been taught that domestication of plants and farm animals led to fixed centers of living. Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion led to settled life and farming came later.
The implications of this are rather startling for those of us who’d been working on the assumption that religion developed as a way of keeping the gods happy after people had the luxury of surplus food brought on by agriculture. It turns out that hunter-gatherers learned to live in settled locations because of religion. That is, religion, instead of being just another component of culture, is what led to culture in the first place. In a climate where the most vocal intellectuals insist that religion must be shut down, chopped off at the roots, and burned in the oven of rationality, we see that none of us would be enjoying our urban lifestyles if religion hadn’t brought us together in the first place.
There is no doubt that religion may be taken to extremes, and that when it is, it becomes dangerous. Religion, however, is no foe to rational thinking. Gobekli Tepe is a site of astounding engineering for Stone-Age hunter-gatherers. Engineering is applied science, and so these people were using their understanding of the world to establish a ritual site for the practice of their religion. They needed to live nearby, although they still had to spend their days chasing animals and gathering foodstuffs along the way. Religion made them realize that life together was a necessity for humanity to thrive. We should take a more balanced view before declaring religion a source of evil only. We may never be able to coax the gods into the laboratory, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a very important function for human civilization. If they are taken in reasonable doses, they might even lead to astounding transformations.