A funny thing happened recently in the religious blogosphere. Pope Francis seemed to throw the gates of heaven wide open to everyone. The blogosphere was quite excited because this seemed to be a very progressive, tolerant approach to one of Christianity’s more offensive doctrines, the idea that God would condemn large numbers of people to eternal torture. Many blog posts and editorials were written, some by Catholics or at least people with some familiarity with theology, but most were written by religious journalists who fairly misrepresented what Francis had said. Then came the predictable walk-back by the Vatican, and the equally predictable disappointment of those who really wanted Francis to have taken the universalist route he was portrayed as taking.
Given the amount of misinformation and confusion surrounding this story, let me just let Il Papa speak for himself. According to NPR’s write-up of the incident, he said,
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all. And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: We need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: We will meet one another there.
For those wanting a little context, again from the NPR piece: “The pope was delivering a homily in the chapel of the Domus Santa Marta residence inside Vatican grounds where he has decided to live. He recites mass and delivers a homily there every morning except Sunday for Vatican employees and whoever else might be staying at the residence.”
And as a side note, I just noticed that I share my name with the humble boarding-house where the Pope lives. I believe it’s named after Saint Martha, the sister of Lazarus who asked Jesus to send her sister to help out in the kitchen when she was hosting the disciples, which is odd because in many ways I pride myself on being a Mary rather than a Martha in that pair. But I like the parallel. A humble, simple place where you can kick off your shoes and be at peace with yourself? That’s a lot of what I consider my best self. I can dig it.
Anyway, getting back to the Pope. Even before I saw the Vatican responded to this homily, I thought the press and blog reactions to it were largely misunderstanding his statement. I’m a lifelong Methodist who’s done a good bit of religious study as a Protestant, but I also have some familiarity with Catholic theology and practice, both through my maternal extended family which is mostly Catholic and through my own experience in the Catholic education system. (I attended a local parochial school for grades 6-8, and currently am doing a philosophy doctorate at a Jesuit college.) So I know just enough Catholic theology to be dangerous, and just enough Protestant theology that the similar points all bleed together. With that caveat in mind…
I’ve always been taught there’s a difference between redemption and salvation. Getting right with God requires two components: first the metaphysical work done by the Passion where a holy God is reconciled to a Creation mired in sin (redemption); and second, the acceptance of this new covenantal relationship (salvation). So when the Pope said “the Lord has redeemed all of us,” I didn’t understand that to mean everyone would be going to heaven; salvation (which involves each individual’s free choice to cooperate with God) also has to happen.
Now, the RCC’s position on salvation is actually much more open than many Protestant positions, and the post-Vatican II RCC emphasizes that “The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his Church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience.” It would take a better Catholic theologian than me to work out just what Vat-II meant by ignorance and what it would mean for a non-theist to “seek God sincerely.” (Is this even possible if you believe in an objective Good but not a personal God? If you are so repulsed by the abuses of religion that it is literally impossible to seek the God sincerely and follow the commands of your conscience simultaneously?) I do think there is more hope here for the non-Catholic and non-Christian who desires salvation than they would find in, say, an evangelical mega-church.
But I also think it’s clear that the Pope was talking about something very different in his homily. He was talking about redemption, not salvation. The point is that our worth as humans, as “crated children in the likeness of God,” does not rest on the state of our belief. Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and even more generally Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist – all are commanded to do good, and all can meet each other at this common ground. “If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, […] we will make that culture of encounter.” This says that _______ can do good as ______, and that they should be joined in that good work by anyone else who desires to do good. (Substitute in atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, libertarians, HP cosplayers into those blanks, whatever you like.)
This should be good news, really. It doesn’t even rely on the idea that you need saving; it affirms your worth whether you believe in any kind of an afterlife or not, because we are all called to do good. But when the Vatican said that the Pope had been misinterpreted (or else was just wrong here, depending on how you read those statements I guess), many non-Catholics and particularly non-theists seemed to prefer it when the Vatican said they were saving, implying everything that did about their need for Catholic salvation in the first place. Jews were (rightly!) outraged when the Mormon church baptized Holocaust victims, but when the RCC implied something very similar to this happened to non-Catholics whether they chose it or not, to many people this seemed like a Good Thing.
I’ve been thinking about this in light of the most recent Forward Thinking challenge, which prompts bloggers to write about cruelty. Specifically:
We all have cruelty in us. We are all subject to relishing the suffering of others. Sometimes in a clean conscience, sometimes in an ambiguous space in our minds where we go on excursions outside of good and evil, sometimes as a guilty pleasure. We are sometimes self-aware about it, sometimes self-deceived. No one says to us, “Moral people should be cruel.” If you ask people straight up, in simplistic terms, “is cruelty good or evil?” Most will flatly say it is evil. But is it flatly evil?
Would we be better off rooting all the socially accepted cruel practices I enumerated out of human nature for good? Are at least some of our cruel pleasures good for being pleasures? Is it fair that we be cruel and enjoy some of those pleasures since others will get their turn to take pleasure in our own suffering too? Is the world better on balance with some cruel pleasures or does the damage done by cruelty either always or too commonly do more damage than the increases in pleasure can justify? How much more pleasure than pain must the world net from cruelty for a given kind or instance of it to be justifiable? Some philosophers claim that cruel pleasures shouldn’t count as good at all when we weigh the value of an action by how much pleasure it creates. Is that true? And even if we have to put others through certain rigors that will hurt them, for their own good, is it morally despicable to feel cruelty when we do it or, as long as it has to be done anyway and we don’t make it worse than it has to be, is a little fun in doing so permissible? If so, when and why and what are the limits? How do concerns for larger issues of social justice affect what is acceptable or not in our cruelty?
Dan gives a series of examples – sexual fantasies like BDSM that take pleasure in the humiliation of others, a FB acquaintance who “was fantasizing about how awesome it would be were someone to break into his house and he got to shoot them,” the glee we feel when an evil person gets his just deserts – and in some of these cases, I’m not sure I’d classify the impulse as cruel. Cruelty, to my mind, involves actual harm. A rape fetish where you get off from actually raping people would certainly fall into that category, but BDSM seems more built on a fiction, with a partner who willingly degrades themselves (indeed, they usually find the degradation erotic from my sketchy understanding of the situation).
And while I was a little uncomfortable when people cheered on the execution of Osama bin Laden, I think that reaction can be motivated by a desire for justice. I know I wept at the Sandusky conviction simply because a bad man would get some bit of justice for the pain and destruction he’d doled out. I like to think those tears were motivated more by relief that justice was reaffirmed, that those boys would have someone saying what they’d been through was unacceptable, rather than Sandusky’s suffering. All of this made me ask what exactly I think of as cruelty. It’s a complicated concept, to be sure, but I think a good starting place would be this: someone is actually suffering in a way that is neither just nor necessary for some greater good, and you enjoy it.
Using that working definition, it’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot about heaven and hell that seems downright cruel. Most Christians, myself included, were taught that God loves humans, loves them so much He’d willingly sacrifice His only begotten Son to save them, but that those who refuse this gift will be tortured in hell for all eternity. The Lutheran Satire group actually explains this mindset better than I can, when they have some chipmunks representing the Westboro Baptist Church explain why they condemn the folks they consider sinners.
Long, long ago lived a Calvin named John
Who went crazy when things didn’t fit.
So when the Bible said some but not others,
well, John didn’t like this one bit.
‘How could a God who is sovereign not save someone,
if for that person He died?’
That’s what John wondered until he surmised
that God must not have actually tried.
God only loves you and gave you His Son
if you sing in the heavenly song.
But if you end up in hell, this must mean
that God hated your guts all along!
We take this nonsense one step even further
and say if you’re caught up in sin,
Then we can know that Christ isn’t your savior
and God wants to fillet your skin.
At the end of the song (around 2:50), God Himself speaks to the Westboro Chipmunks, saying, essentially, that he doesn’t want to condemn anyone to hell, and sent Jesus to die so they wouldn’t need to be. That’s the standard Christian response to this question – that God would love to save everyone but for some reason can’t. If you can square that with omnipotence, it at least avoids the charge of cruelty. But on the face of things I don’t see how that’s viable. At a minimum, it seems an omnipotent God should be able to obliterate those who refuse salvation, so they don’t suffer.
Setting aside the theological problems here (which are substantial), I’m also very concerned by the way so many religious people seem to relish this fate for people that are even enough. In their headline announcing the bin Laden execution, the New York Post famously told bin Laden to “ROT IN HELL!” More commonly, I’ve seen lots of Christians express a kind of smug satisfaction that someone they consider a particular sinner – the party girl who might be having fun now, but will pay for flaunting God when she dies and gets sent downstairs. (Never mind the fact that people go to sell for sinfulness rather than particular sins….)
The problem is of course that there’s nothing anyone could do – not Hitler, not Stalin, not bin Laden – that would make eternal suffering a just punishment. A single person can pile up a lot of destruction, but you’ll never get to infinite destruction – we only live a finite amount of time and can only cause a finite amount of pain in any one moment. It can’t add up to anything that deserves hell. And it’s certainly not serving any greater good that I can see.
As a Christian, my theological response to this problem is complicated, and evolving. I currently come closest to inclusivism, the idea that one path (IMO, Protestant Christianity) comes closest to absolute truth but that other religions also have some access to truth and that a person can be righteous and “seek God sincerely” and “follow the commands of his conscience” in the RCC’s words without actually becoming a Christian. As for those people who don’t choose to do this, I believe God will obliterate them and they will cease to exist, perhaps after some finite, just punishment for their sins (but certainly not the unlimited torture people associate with sin). This is as I said an issue I am still thinking about and struggling with. And I’m not alone. Rob Bell didn’t sell 200,000 copies of Love Wins because people were comfortable with the picture of heaven and hell most churches were teaching.
What’s not complicated is this: if you can look at someone you believe is hell bound and feel happy about it, celebratory even, that’s cruel. It may be an understandable human weakness in the case of someone like bin Laden, but it’s still cruel. Heaven and hell is never about justice – the reward and punishment is always out of proportion to what we deserve – and if their suffering serves any greater good you couldn’t get at through universal conversion or obliteration, the ball is in those people’s court to explain what exactly is going on here. I can’t see it. If hell is necessary, we at least shouldn’t be taking joy in it.
In light of that, I see why non-Christians and particularly atheists would be disappointed to hear the pope wasn’t actually saying they were heaven-bound. The fact that non-Christians are so hungry to hear a Christian leader say they aren’t going to hell is understandable, particularly when so many Christians seem happy about their final destination. Christian theology may require some kind of belief in hell, although I believe there’s room for views other than the eternal-torment model. But whatever our theology, we owe it to our non-Christian friends and neighbors to consider what message we send when we look forward to theirs (or anyone’s) never-ending torture or a Second Coming that will leave them behind to horrible fates even before their death.
This future may be true. It may be unavoidable. But it’s damned hard to respect and love our non-Christian neighbors when we look forward to their suffering like this. No wonder so many people were excited when they thought the pope contradicted this narrative, and no wonder so many people – even Christians – are drawn to books like Rob Bell’s. These reactions tell us something important about how the Christian beliefs about the afterlife are perceived by these people.
Truth does not become untrue just because it is hurtful, even tortuous. If the eternal-torment theology turns out to be true, the fact that it’s deeply offensive to so many people won’t change that fact. But we are also responsible for the way we relate to this belief, and what that relation tells our non-Christian neighbors about our respect and love for them. The Jesus I try to follow put it well (sing it with me if you know the words):
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
I think my fellow Christians – all people, really, but since this is a Christian belief, my fellow Christians in particularly – would do well to consider how we speak what we think is true. In particular, we Christians should ask whether the way we talk about hell comes from love or cruelty. Personally, I think all those news pieces on the pope’s homily are trying to tell us something.
This is written for the Forward Thinking blogging challenge, on the topic of cruelty. I will include a link to the other submissions once that’s available. In the mean time, you can find more about the project here, or the specific prompt this is in response to here.