Here at the public library, I just overheard a remarkable conversation.
A middle-aged woman with a couple of kids and a slightly older gentleman were sitting at adjacent computers. The woman was earnestly explaining that the Church does not consist of a building, but of people. She also said something I didn’t catch about the Rapture (the belief that when Jesus returns all true believers will be taken up to meet him in the clouds).
The man disagreed and said, “What I’ve been told is…”
Last time, I promised this post would consider the purpose of hell. It has been so long since that promise that some of my readers may think that I have actually gone there, but fear not: I have not and neither will you.
Alive and well so far, let’s turn to the cheerful subject of why hell is so important to evangelical Christianity.
1) Without hell, Jesus’ death on the cross is meaningless.
Several years ago, one of my daughters, who was a Christian, said she was worried about going to hell. At the time, I was still a Christian too, but, in the midst of my four-year period of deep questioning, there were some things I had figured out. I assured her, “Don’t worry. The doctrine of hell is ridiculous. A just God would not punish anyone for an infinite amount of time for sins committed in this lifetime’s comparative blink of an eye. Infinite punishment for finite sins makes no sense.”
She immediately saw the truth of my argument and stopped worrying about hell.
There are some beliefs that are so morally reprehensible that to dignify them with even a one-word response would only add to their offense, yet so common among otherwise decent people that one feels compelled spend a thousand words refuting them.
The list of such beliefs includes the conviction that African-Americans were better off enslaved in the South than left to their own devices in Africa; the assertion that poor people are just lazy; and the cultural attitudes behind the “honor killing” of rape victims.
Akin to these, but even higher on the list, is the belief advanced by no less a Christian luminary than C.S. Lewis, that “the gates of hell are locked on the inside” because the souls confined there for eternity are in rebellion against God and do not wish to be with him in heaven.
Men get a bad rap for being sex-obsessed — only concerned with how many notches they have on their bedposts. Yes, sex is important to men, but let’s remember that most men would literally risk their lives to protect their girlfriends or families. In fact, even men who “act like animals” would do this, for male animals, too, will fight to the death to protect their mates.
Let that be in the back of your head as you read Exodus 21:2-6.
All the languages of the world are not sufficient to express the filth of polygamy. It makes of man a beast, of woman, a trembling slave. It destroys the fireside, makes virtue an outcast, takes from human speech its sweetest words, and leaves the heart a den, where crawl and hiss the slimy serpents of most loathsome lust. … The marriage of the one man to the one woman is the citadel and fortress of civilization. Without this, woman becomes the prey and slave of lust and power, and man goes back to savagery and crime.
So proclaims the great agnostic orator of the 19th century, Robert Ingersoll, in his meditation Some Mistakes of Moses.
But did Moses really make a mistake? Does the Bible allow polygamy?
Did you know that the Bible allow you to sell your daughter? Exodus 21:7-11 sets out the conditions:
If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed [bought back]. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
Although God promises prosperity to those who obey him, sometimes an Israelite would become so poor that he would have to sell his children. (Side question: What do you make of that? Do you think people are poor because they are bad?) Anyway, such dire circumstances did arise and Exodus 21 gives God’s instructions.
Paul Copan, whose book, Is God a Moral Monster?, has been the subject of the last several posts, is quick to point out that this passage only says, “If a man sells his daughter….” It is a law for how to deal with “specific examples that don’t necessarily present best-case scenarios.” That’s true: the passage does not command anyone to sell his daughter, nor does it come out and endorse the idea of doing so. However, it does endorse (even command) how the transaction is to go down given that it has been decided. Those of us who take moral objection to the Bible should not complain about the “if” situation, but we have every right to object to the “then” part that follows.
So what “then” is in store for the daughter in this passage? Are we talking servant-with-benefits — a sort of prostitution with the cover of another job — or an honorable state of matrimony?
If your husband were to accuse you of cheating on him, would you be willing to rely on this test to reveal the truth?
The priest shall bring [the suspected adulteress] and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband … may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell….”
Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
…[The priest] is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, … her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children. (Abridged from Numbers 5:11-31)