Sunday Toons: More blaming the victimAugust 17, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Continuing his critique of my post on Compromising God, JP Holding devotes a separate page to the question of what atonement means, especially in light of his views on eternal punishment. (Oddly, he entitles his web page “Apologetics vs. Bible-based faith,” an apparent reference to a completely different and unrelated post.) And as usual, he begins by urging his readers to assume that I’m stupid (and thus can safely be ignored).
When people can’t get yoor basic stance on things right, you know you’re dealing with some stupid. Guess what that makes poor Dumplin’ Dumbash.
His address to my material on the atonement begs to assume that I hold a view of hell as “eternal torment.” Not quite — if by that Dumpy means literal fire and brimstone.
The gypsy strikes again: Holding has garbled what I said about his stance on eternal punishment. I didn’t call it “eternal torment” nor did I say anything about “literal fire and brimstone.” I used the same term Holding uses: “eternal punishment.” But perhaps that’s also wrong? Let’s look at the link Holding has posted (twice!) that explains what he really means about hell.
To start with, Holding introduces his notion of a “shame and honor” culture, allegedly typical of Biblical times, versus a “guilt” culture, allegedly what we’re used to today. According to Holding, we misunderstand the significance of ancient Middle Eastern references because we don’t possess this esoteric and scholarly insight into cultures built on shame and honor.
In several articles we have noted that there is a vast difference in attitude between modern Western society — a “guilt culture” — and the ancient Biblical world, which was an honor and shame culture. This popular summary will fill in the details for those new to the matter, but for the present we will stress the most relevant point, that in this world, honor was as important as paying the bills is to us; that which was honorable was, to the ancients, of primary importance. Honor was placed above one’s personal safety and was the key element in deciding courses of action.
Unfortunately, the article he links to, at doceo.co.uk, makes a number of points rather different from the ones Holding is making. Some might even say that they rather contradict Holding. For example, Holding claims that the modern West is a “guilt culture” and the ancient Biblical world was an honor-and-shame culture, but the article at doceo points out that both types of culture co-exist pretty much everywhere throughout history, using Watergate as an example of the shame-and-honor dynamic at work today (as in, “Even if Nixon could prove his innocence, nobody would believe him”). Doceo presents shame-and-honor as meaning that actual guilt or innocence are irrelevant, and that all that matters is whether or not people believe you are innocent or guilty. Shame-and-honor cultures have nothing to do with actual justice, and everything to do with PR, according to doceo.
This puts Holding’s views on atonement in a rather peculiar situation, since any misdeeds you commit aren’t really wrong, provided you can get away with them. Honor is not just placed above one’s personal safety, it was placed above honesty and morality as well. And it’s a culture that’s alive and well today (look up Swift Boat Veterans for Truth if you want just one example). In fact, Holding himself gives us frequent demonstrations of the shame-and-guilt culture that makes up a vibrant part of his own apologetic. For example, he quotes Malina and Rohrbaugh as saying that
what Jesus underwent in the Passion was a “status degradation ritual” designed to humiliate in every way: The mockery, the buffeting, the spitting; the crucifixion with its symbolic pinioning of hands and legs signigfying [sic] a loss of power, and loss of ability to control the body in various ways, including befouling one’s self with excrement. We focus on the beatings and think the purpose was mainly to inflict pain. But in fact, the pain was of secondary focus to the ancients, for whom such rituals were a “process of publicly recasting, relabeling, humiliating and thus recategorizing a person as a social deviant.”
Publicly recasting, relabeling, humiliating–that’s what his “parody” web sites are all about. The purpose is not to inflict pain, but to inflict shame upon the victim, as a means of isolating them from society and social influence. That’s why the theologyweb forums fill up pages and pages of posts nominating people for “Screwball of the Month Awards” without any attempt to confront the actual issues they raise. It’s not a right-vs-wrong culture, it’s a modern-day shame-and-honor culture, and we’re all quite familiar with it. Holding can dispense with the mystical hand-waving and arcane symbols glued to his pointy cap: the shame-and-honor business is not some esoteric secret that only scholarly initiates have access to.
Let’s jump ahead to the part where Holding directly addresses the question of eternal punishment.
Is it really fair for one who does not accept Jesus to suffer in Hell forever?
Several authors, some used by Glenn Miller in his series here, have set the pace for a new look at this question by dismantling the old-fashioned conception of Hell as a place of flesh being seared on sizzling grids, of torture devices and of extreme physical pain. In contrast Miller argues — even apparently without recognition of the Biblical world as an honor and shame society — that the components of eternal punishment in the Bible are shame and disgrace.
Isn’t it interesting that modern theologians, without God showing up in real life, and without any direct access to Hell itself, are able to make “new” discoveries about eternal punishment just by rejecting what men have said in the past and thinking up their own ideas about what Hell ought to be like? One of the advantages of academic theology is that, since everything is based on what men say about God, you can construct a whole “new look” for something as basic as the doctrine of Hell, just by going back over what’s already been said, and selectively emphasizing or de-emphasizing whatever ideas need to be made stronger or weaker.
This “new look” at Hell echoes the CS Lewis story, The Great Divorce, in that it essentially blames the victim for his continued presence in Hell.
C. S. Lewis wrote a book titled The Great Divorce in which Hell is depicted as a microscopic world that is smaller than a piece of dirt in heaven (though inhabitants do not realize this except by a special “bus trip” to heaven). Within that microscopic world, people constantly get tired of the company of others and move themselves farther and farther out into the “boondocks” away from others. Napoleon is presented as having done this, and two modern travellers who go to his house arrive to find him pacing back and forth muttering over his failures, for which he blames everyone else. Lewis, we think, was on to something here, even though he did not mention an honor-shame dialectic. The person who is ashamed cannot come into the presence of God, but would indeed be driven away from it by the very nature of the dialectic, seeking to get as far away from the presence of the greatest glory and honor as possible. Literally speaking, “Hell” would be a life on the lam — always trying to get yourself further and further from God’s holiness, but because God is omnipresent, and because in Him all things move and have their being, never being able to succeed.
So not only is it the sinner’s own fault that he finds himself in Hell, it is the sinner who exiles himself there, and who drives himself further and further from all that is good and right and true. His suffering is indeed eternal, but it is self-inflicted suffering, and not a divine punishment imposed by a vengeful God.
It’s easy to see why this notion of Hell would be more appealing in modern times, since it absolves God from the injustice of imposing infinite penalty as payment for finite crimes. One can’t help but wonder, however, why Jesus and the apostles never seem to have heard of this idea, and why it takes a “new look” from modern apologists like Miller and Lewis to discover that the Christian Church has had a mistaken view of Hell for all these centuries.
Miller says of the passage in Luke, of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man: [The rich man’s] “quality of life” is equated to the quality of life that the beggar Lazarus had during his lifetime (e.g. lack of getting all of his basic needs met in community). Note that a beggar was a person of the lowest social status, and therefore one of the most “shamed” individuals.
Just for fun, let’s read the part that Miller didn’t quote from Luke:
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
Not that this is any challenge at all to a practiced theologian: he’ll just explain that the text doesn’t literally mean what it says. But it’s interesting that Jesus seems to be drawing his stories from an “old look” view of what Hell is like, rather than following the model of The Great Divorce. Meanwhile, let’s look at Holding’s conclusion, the bottom line on how he views Hell and eternal punishment.
The data would indicate that the primary focus of eternal punishment is the denial of the honor accorded to those who reject God’s offer of salvation, and who bear themselves the shame and disgrace Jesus took in their stead. Therefore there is no inequality in the “suffering” — these persons have denied God His ascribed honor; they are denied in turn the honor that is given to human beings, who are created with the intent that they live forever in God’s service, reigning with Christ and serving him. They choose rather the shame and disgrace of serving their own interests; they are also shamed in accordance with their deeds (i.e., Hitler obviously has more to be “ashamed of” than, say, a robber baron). By denying their ascribed place in the collective identity of humanity, they are placed outside the boundaries, excatly as they desire to be and to the extent that their deeds demanded.
This is a nice, neat, academic little theory: it matches the punishment (shame and dishonor) to the crime (shame and dishonor), absolves God of any guilt He might accrue from torturing His prisoners, and makes everything the sinners’ own fault. It even puts “suffering” inside scare quotes, as though Hell itself isn’t really suffering. It has all the modern, liberal sensibilities, and has shed the brutal barbarities that have so often characterized the doctrine of Hell in the past.
Really, it’s hard to fault this notion, especially since we have no real-world frame of reference for Hell itself, against which to measure the accuracy or inaccuracy of Miller’s and Holding’s claims about it. It exists in its own little epistemic reality, self-contained and self-referential, a pure-thought product of humans thinking about what other humans have said. For all that, though, if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, the larger reality with which this view ought to be consistent, there are some problems.
First of all, as the doceo site points out, shame-and-honor is an inferior system: we ought to base social status on true innocence or true guilt, as in the “guilt culture” that is more prevalent in the modern West. Secondly, doesn’t it strike you as odd that God would be bound, by “epistemic realities” beyond His control, to punish people for sin, only to have both the offense and the appropriate punishment defined by fallible, pride-based human perceptions about what “honor” is?
Third, if both crime and punishment are to be defined in terms of shame and honor, how could humans successfully shame God? As Prov. 26:2 says, “Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, So a curse without cause does not alight.” If God is so perfect and so good that we have no charge to raise against Him, then how can any of our actions dishonor Him? If anything, he who sins dishonors himself, not God. Fourthly, what kind of loving Father casts His own children into the outer darkness as eternal punishment for dishonoring Him?
Fifthly, if you deserve to go to Hell for dishonoring God, and if God the Son must suffer even more humiliation and degradation on your account, why should anyone wind up in heaven? Even if we accept Holding’s “patronage” view that the Cross only applies to believers, doesn’t that mean that believers are responsible for shaming God twice? And lastly, if it’s merely a question of shame and honor, wouldn’t it be possible to escape from the punishment by just swallowing your pride and returning like the prodigal son, bearing your own shame? People do that sort of thing, you know.
Hell is a topic for which our only sources of information are the things that men have said about it. It’s a fairly malleable doctrine, becoming brutal when times are brutal and civilized when times are civilized, but in the end we find nothing in the real world that corresponds to any such place or condition (except metaphorically). Holding’s views may not be typical, but they do share the common weakness of being based solely on the things men say about things that don’t really match anything we can observe in the real world. Gullibility doesn’t have to be naive: you can achieve great heights of gullibility by constructing intricate, well-researched, and carefully footnoted rationalizations for believing what men tell you despite the lack of real-world consistency. And when you’re done you can tell yourself that you are smarter than a whole bunch of other people.
For whatever that’s worth.