Final thoughts about eternal damnation

Not that I’m dying or anything, I just have one blog post left in me about hell before I focus on politics for a while (which is its own kind of hell). Or maybe hurricanes.

Anyway, here is another quote from the New York Times article about hell getting a makeover:

While the catechism says that Jesus spoke of hell as an ”unquenchable fire,” it says hell’s primary punishment is ”eternal separation from God,” which results from an individual’s conscious decision.

”To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice,” the catechism says.

This argument–that a loving God doesn’t send you to hell, you basically send yourself there–is familiar to me.  But it has always struck me as completely bogus.  First of all, God makes the rules about who goes to hell.  Second, He doesn’t publish the rules.  I learned a lot of rules growing up, but those can’t be the right rules, because otherwise everyone is going to hell.  For example, I learned that missing Mass on Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation was a mortal sin.  Was it true back then?  Is it still true now?  Have the rules changed?  No one is going to tell you.  I read an online essay about hell where the author opined that failure to follow the Church’s rules on contraception was a grave sin, possibly meriting hell.  True?  Who knows?  This is like Calvinball, except if you lose at Calvinball, you don’t suffer eternal torment.

Speaking of eternal torment, the real reason for this post is that I wanted to quote from Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which rivals Joyce’s sermon for a great vision of who you are messing with if your are considering missing Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation:

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God. However you may have reformed your life in many things, and may have had religious affections, and may keep up a form of religion in your families and closets, and in the house of God, it is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction. However unconvinced you may now be of the truth of what you hear, by and by you will be fully convinced of it. Those that are gone from being in the like circumstances with you, see that it was so with them; for destruction came suddenly upon most of them; when they expected nothing of it, and while they were saying, Peace and safety: now they see, that those things on which they depended for peace and safety, were nothing but thin air and empty shadows.

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: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

Awesome stuff.

Americans like their candidates religious, but not really religious

So the Republican senate candidate from Indiana has gotten himself in hot water for saying that pregnancy resulting from rape is the will of God:

“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God,” Mourdock said. “And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

On the one hand, God intended the baby to happen.  On the other hand, God didn’t intend the rape that resulted in that gift from God, which is sort of confusing.  This is somewhat different from the “legitimate rape” comment that got another Republican senate candidate into trouble.  The latter was just bad science; the former is theology.  As I say, I find the theology somewhat confusing, but not absurd, from a Christian perspective.  Bad things (like rape) happen as a result of free will; God permits them even if He doesn’t approve of them.  But God is in favor of life, and He is certainly opposed to the unjustified ending of life.  And presumably that is the case Mourdock was trying to make.

Kevin Drum makes the point that this is a pretty conventional religious belief. It’s just not the sort of thing a politician (in particular) is supposed to say out loud:

What I find occasionally odd is that so many conventional bits of theology like this are so controversial if someone actually mentions them in public. God permits evil. My faith is the only true one. People of other faiths are doomed to spend eternity in Hell. Etc. There’s a lot of stuff like this which is either explicit or implied in sects of all kinds, and at an abstract level we all know it. Somehow, though, when someone actually says it, it’s like they farted in church. Weird.

I don’t find it particularly odd, though.  Americans like religion, but most of us are not especially religious when it comes to actual dogma.  So people like Mourdock or Rick Santorum who are really religious make us uncomfortable.  And they make the mainstream media, who are even less religious, even more uncomfortable.  So good politicians always skate around the implications of their (supposed) religious beliefs, because they don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.

I see all of this from the perspective of a lapsed Catholic.  For example, Catholic theology is about as clear about abortion as it is about anything.  Abortion is murder.  Murder is a mortal sin.  People who commit mortal sins will go to hell. So, to a true believer, the fifty million or so American women who have had abortions since 1973 are going to hell (except for those who subsequently repented).  So are the doctors and nurses involved in the abortions.  Maybe all the politicians who vote in favor of abortion rights are going to hell too.  It would have been great if someone at one of those primary debates had asked Santorum about all those people going to hell.  (Santorum, by the way, thinks the Mourdock controversy is “gotcha politics.”)  I wonder if Santorum would have been a good enough politician to skate around it?