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Visions of Hell
by Matt Blanchard
MAY 28, 2008 TAGS:
Bill Weise is a clean-cut real estate agent from Southern California. His wife, Annette, describes him as emotionally stable, churchgoing and certainly “not a complainer.”
Yet Weise can’t stop talking about what happened to him on Nov. 23, 1998, the night he tumbled into one of the raging theological debates of modern times, the night he was plucked from his bedroom and sent straight to hell.
“We came home from a prayer meeting on the night of the 22nd, went to bed, and at 3 o’clock in the morning, the Lord picked me up and dropped me off in a prison cell in hell,” Weise explained in a recent television interview. “I did not realize where I was, but I noticed immediately the heat.”
Sharing his cell, Weise says, were two 13-foot-tall reptilian creatures, pacing around and cursing God. When they noticed Weise arrive, the first one set about breaking Weise’s bones against a stone wall, and the second one used its huge claws to tear the flesh from Weise’s body. Later, Weise beheld a lake of fire crammed with sinners, and was carried up a long tunnel to kneel at the feet of Jesus before being returned to his house in California. It’s a story Weise has spread worldwide since the release of his book: 23 Minutes in Hell: One Man’s Story of What He Saw, Heard and Felt in That Place of Torment.
The funny thing about hell is that a decisive majority of Americans believes it is an absolutely real place, but those who try to describe what goes on there come off sounding like lunatics.
The pressure to explain hell comes from its enduring – indeed rising – popularity. According to a recent Harris poll, far more Americans believe in a literal hell (62%) than believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution (42%). Twice as many believe in hell than in witches, and hell beats out UFOs (35%), ghosts (41%) and the Virgin Birth (60%).
In fact, polls by the Gallup organization claim to have tracked a long upward trend for belief in hell, rising from 52% in 1953 to a peak of 71% in 2001 before relaxing to 69% last year. That’s a 13 percent jump for literal hell from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush.
With that popularity comes a second pressure: To a growing segment of believers, hell doesn’t make much sense. A battle rages between traditionalists and reformers on Christian message boards and in academic journals. Books like Hell Under Fire (2004) and Whatever Happened to Hell? (2003), as well as a flowering of new eyewitness accounts, are all part of an ongoing effort to answer the perennial, paradoxical question:
If God is infinitely wise and infinitely good, why does he operate a steaming, subterranean torture chamber with 13-foot-tall lizards?
It’s an ancient conundrum that is even now tying theologians in knots. At least four major views compete for adherents: Traditional, Catholic, Annihilationist and Universalist.
Weise’s vision represents the Traditional, or Eternal Torment hell, which posits a real place with real pain that continues for all time. It’s the hell of St. Augustine, the hell of conservative evangelicals, and the hell described by Puritan Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God”:
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! .... O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: It is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit….”
In Weise’s narrative, Jesus passively observes souls plummeting into hell and feels badly: “He wanted me to go tell people that he loves everyone, and he doesn’t want anyone to go to hell,” Weise reports. “He wept over people going into hell.... It hurt him so much, the amount he allowed me to feel, I couldn’t stand it.”
Yet Eternal Torment hell is under heavy attack. Consider an aggressive 2005 article in the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, entitled “The Injustice of Hell.”
This essay aims to establish two theses. First, hell is unjust. Second, God ought not to (or perhaps cannot) impose hell on human beings.
The author, philosophy professor Stephen Kershnar of SUNY Fredonia, argues that since no human is capable of infinite wrongdoing, no human could possibly deserve infinite punishment for an infinite time period. Ergo, hell is unjust.
But if hell is unfair, an endless crime against humanity, shouldn’t any logical person conclude that God is a criminal?
Catholicism, the second major hell philosophy, claims to have put this pesky question to bed. While Pope Benedict XVI recently said hell is both real and eternal, Catholics put the blame for eternal damnation squarely on humans. In an influential 1999 editorial, Jesuit scholars explained it this way:
It is not God who condemns men to hell, but man who freely condemns himself to eternal perdition…. It is man who inflicts it on himself, refusing the salvation that God offers him. Rejecting the grace and love of God, man condemns himself to the deprivation of God, which is precisely what hell is.
Yet some scholars call this blaming the victim. If God sets up a system whereby humans can so easily end up in hellfire, then God’s fingerprints are all over this thing. Kershnar makes the point with the vivid analogy of a school principal who sets up a rather unusual rule to punish students who get in fights:
If [the principal] sets up a system whereby the janitor forcibly sodomizes fighters, then the principal is responsible for the fighters’ suffering even if they have made themselves liable for it.
Similarly, since God made the universe, He can’t escape blame simply because He’s not the one actually, um, doing what the janitor was doing. If you run the show, you share the blame, Kershnar and others argue, adding that “the principal would be every bit as blameworthy if he set up a robot who would sodomize the fighters.”
It was just this sort of logical mess that gave rise to a third school of hell, Annihilationism, which holds that while souls are immortal, God annihilates the wicked in hell rather quickly. Theologian Clark Pinnock published an influential defense of Annihilationism in 2004:
Christian theology simply cannot depict God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he will not even allow to die…. One could, I suppose, fear such a God, but how could one love and respect him?
Annihilationists downplay the Book of Revelations, which actually suggests Christ and the angels will be watching while sinners get the sulfur treatment. They focus instead on passages like Paul’s promise of “everlasting destruction” for the wicked. To them, hellfire is a highly efficient incinerator, not a weenie roast.
But the bitterest damnation divide opens over Universalism, the belief that all souls eventually make it to heaven. Some Universalists argue that God maintains an open-door policy in hell, providing time off for good behavior and the chance of parole.
Even more generous Universalists, like Baptist Bishop Carlton Pearson, argue that hell simply cannot exist – a position that got Pearson declared a “heretic” by leaders of his faith in 2004. By denying hell, Pearson lost everything: his congregation, his church, and the support of his family. He built a new church – and then he joined the board of Planned Parenthood.
“Now they're saying I've gone a step beyond heresy,” Pearson told a reporter last year. “Now I am a reprobate, and I will be turned over to Satan. I am the anti-Christ, a wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.”
The bitterness goes both ways on Christian websites, where Universalists and Traditionalists wage open war. It got so hot on traditionalist Matthew J. Slick’s site, he shut down his Universalism discussion board.
“To be honest, only one group of people has treated me worse than the Universalists and that is the Satanists,” Slick told his readers. “I was compared to Bin Laden and told that my belief in eternal damnation was satanic…. I was called an idiot and a dope…. I was told that ‘my God’ was an eternal baby burner…. I was compared to perverts.”
For better or worse, observers say the battle of hell is trending toward Universalism these days, but the real outcome may not be known for a century. If it all seems like small potatoes, a scriptural squabble, rest assured that to thousands like Weise it is as momentous as the Reformation.
Perhaps that’s why, at the climax of Weise’s 23 minutes of torment and redemption, he claims to have asked Jesus a question: “Lord, why did you send me to this place?” Jesus replies that the whole adventure had a Traditionalist goal: “Because many people do not believe in hell. Even some of my own people do not believe that hell exists.”
“Tell them I’m coming back very, very soon,” Weise says Jesus told him. “I’m coming back very, very soon.”
Should Weise’s Jesus make good on that promise today, tomorrow or next week, he may find he has some explaining to do. Half the Christian world is questioning his torture policy.
Be sure to read Natalie Pompilio's companion piece, "Visions of Heaven"
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Anonymous wrote on June 3, 2008 1:45pm
i guess that (previous comment, which was me) is essentially an instance of the Universalist vision. -SV [Report Comment]
Anonymous wrote on June 3, 2008 1:43pm
i dont put much stock in those polls. who answers pollsters, and seriously at that, anyway? i get the impression that a lot of people answer these things unthinkingly, perhaps because they're too polite to have said no and are then just rushing through it. also, a belief in karma, reincarnation, and shades of gray can resolve these difficulties quite nicely: what better place for God to locate gradations of Heaven and Hell than right here on Earth? It then becomes possible for there to be rewards and punishments in an "after"-life (next-life) of infinitely many variations (in Hinduism, the top tier below some "ultimate" Heaven consisting of some sort of joining with God or everlasting joy would be comprised of all possible variations of human birth), and the traditional and "Universalist" mindsets could both be true, where some sinners could be seen to go through *seemingly* endless tortures and punishments for unimaginably long stretches of time before finally attaining salvation. [Report Comment]
obit fan wrote on May 29, 2008 11:01am
Fantastic piece! Seriously thoughtful and seriously funny. Would like to keep hearing from Matt Blanchard. Perhaps an interview with someone who has come back from the dead? Matt's research capabilities are certainly up to the task! An Obit Fan. [Report Comment]