Hell is… good?

 

Eternal damnation is good, because God is good.

For Christians like John Piper, God alone defines goodness, such that something is not good and so God does it.  Rather God does a thing, and so it is good.  Thus integral to questions about Hell is deciding (and how we decide) who God is, and deciding (and how we decide) what constitutes goodness.

Some Christians describe Piper’s perspective as a ‘high view’ of both Scripture and God’s sovereignty.  This high view amounts to prioritizing Scripture as the exclusive informer on this issue and, typically, identifying God exclusively as a sovereign or king.

Interestingly, for many Christians the “exclusivity” here is neither an option nor even a conscious choice, but is simply what is: their culture offers no other options, or excludes other options as (nearly) heretical.

Piper’s position (and the ‘high view’ of scripture that undergirds it) is thus handy because it intellectually “solves” any apparent contradictions with how God acts (or fails to act) and our understanding of God as infinitely good.  For Piper “it’s all good” with God, including Hell.

The problem is that intellectual solutions do not necessarily equate with either personal solutions or actual, real solutions.

More pointedly, Piper and others would insist that we take ourselves ‘out of our skin’ (or else harden our skin to rock) so that we do not feel loss as loss or hurt as hurt, and so do not perceive the notion of eternal punishment for finite actions as sadistic injustice.

The problem is that Piper is playing on one register while ignoring the other, and this in two ways.

On the one hand, he is taking a thoroughly modernist approach in prioritizing reason above the emotions, senses and other faculties.  For our emotions and senses clearly offer valuable information in everyday life (both to supplement and, at times, correct our reason) and are depicted in the Bible as essential to understanding God—humans are called to “taste” and “see” God’s goodness!

Thus true human understanding requires the use all our faculties that, for Christians, are God-given.

On the other hand, the exegetical basis on which Piper stands is remarkably one-sided.  By depicting God as primarily sovereign he ignores great swathes of the Bible that portray God as father and parent.  Re-stating Colin Gunton’s point, Piper is prioritizing the will to love.

Ironically then, by viewing God primarily as sovereign (with the goal, perhaps, of defending God’s ‘full divinity’) Piper denigrates our God-given humanity through falsely reducing us to rational beings who act according to our wills.  Even more ironically, this also strips God of so much of God’s own character, for God is love.  Piper’s position at best ignores this crucial point, at worst it imperils it.

For example, many people have abandoned Christianity because the goodness of God is contradicted by eternal, unending suffering just as it is when God doesn’t “show up” in the face of the hurt, loss, or evil in human existence.

Yet Piper’s view only compounds the issue because, according to his ‘high view’ of Scripture, God doesn’t need to “show up.”  To insist on such would reduce God to a puppet, not a king.  And on the injustice of eternal punishment, Piper and crew would likely side with St. Anselm: humans merit infinite, eternal punishment because they have transgressed an infinite majesty.

No, not so.

What I want is not a God who (purportedly) makes sense as a construct, but who loves me in ways that make sense in (and through) my lived existence—a God before whom I can sing and dance, and that I can adore as my children adore me: with joy.  Because no matter how powerful, clearly understandable, and awe-inspiring this God may be, I won’t bow to a tyrant—I won’t worship a beast.

We need a God who answers not with words, but with God-self; who answers not just our cries (or criteria or critiques) but ourselves.  Nothing less will do.

9 thoughts on “Hell is… good?

  1. It has been my longstanding belief that there is no hell… no sad, terrible, agonizing place we go if we are “bad”… What the hell (ha) does that mean anyway? … if a person is “bad”… whatever… It is my belief all souls end up in heaven… for reals… but that is a whole other story.

    Back to going to hell… As an imperfect and sinning human being, I would never EVER send any of my children to a fiery furnace for any of their so called transgressions… I love them way too much to do that. I feel compassion for them and empathize with their difficulties. They are my offspring, after all. They are wonderful and beautiful and I am right there with them every step of the way. Should they fall… I will pick them up again… not kick them down deeper into some freakin’ abyss.

    And then there is God… who is supposed to be far superiour in his love, understanding and compassion for human beings… and yet, Christiany has been teaching for years that this heavenly father… this magnificent, omnipresent symbol if goodness and light is gonna banish us to Satan’s house of eternal flames… Really? Like really? Call me naive, but I highly doubt it.

    From experience, I know that GOD IS LOVE… pure love… and there is absolutely no love in sending someone to be tortured and brutalized in a pit of flames for all eternity. There just isn’t. That idea is the result of man’s imperfect thinking… our misunderstanding of scripture… our inability to understand God’s boundless compassion, wisdom and ability to forgive. We are not God.

    There is no hell. That, I know for sure.

    So yup… I agree with you Mr. Monteith… and I will not “bow to a tyrant – I won’t worship a beast” either.

    Carry on.

  2. Hey Mr. Monteith,

    Just checking in on this detail. I can’t make sense of the first sentence… am I missing something or is it missing something?

    “For Christians like John Piper, God alone defines goodness, such that something is not good, and so God does it.  Rather God does a thing, and so it is good.”

    Moonbeam

    • Hi Mama Moonbeam,

      Yes, that first sentence strikes many people as quite odd. It comes from my second post on hell, which follows an earlier post where I introduced John Piper and his views.

      Piper’s basic point (and the view that he shares with many Christians) is that the Christian God’s key quality is sovereignty. God alone is God, and God brooks no equals. But this doesn’t just mean that God is the only God, or that no living being (past, present, or future) can ever compare to God.

      It also means that God is the source of all things. Not only physical objects (like trees and grass) but qualities (like love and goodness). So because God is without equal, God’s goodness cannot be judged by any moral standards other than God’s own (because God is all good), according to any knowledge other than God’s (because God is all-knowledgeable) and by any entity other than God-self (because God is all powerful, and only God could have the right to judge God).

      The upshot of this position is that God’s actions are to be taken as standards. So because the Bible claims that God is good—completely good—and because there is no “yard stick” or standard pure enough to measure God’s goodness (only God can measure God-self), any and every action of God must be good. This is what I mean when, for Piper, “God alone defines goodness, such that something is not good, and so God does it. Rather God does a thing, and so it is good.”

      Now I think that the general view of God’s superiority and inequality to all others is both supported by the biblical text and makes sense. We also see much of Christian theology flow from this understanding (such as creation ex nihilo—God’s creation of all that is “from nothing”).

      Yet this view is problematic on several counts. First, it demands a compliant and uncritical orientation toward truth claims. But when is it every good to surrender our intellect and uncritically accept a viewpoint? In this sense, Piper’s stance has more to do with credulity than faith. Second, it also makes this demand in relation to our emotional discernment. But when is it good to ignore our feelings of revulsion or outrage in the face of a viewpoint? In this case, Piper’s stance means becoming heartless in the face of what appears sadistic and abusive.

      In short, with Piper’s view we must essentially forego all human participation—intellectual and emotional—in the act of evaluating who God is and how God acts. So if we don’t “get” that Hell is good, or if we can’t ignore our negative feelings about it, that’s our problem.

      Nice, huh?

      And as I’ve been arguing in this blog, Piper’s perspective ignores the reality that all of our understandings of the Bible are interpretations, and that there are several different interpretations of hell. Further, it ignores the biblical injunctions to interact with God by way of our senses, understanding, and emotions! So the Psalms urge us to “taste & see” that God is good, Isaiah urges us to come to “understanding” with God, and the letters of John remind us that God is love.

      Lastly, in essence Piper’s view maintains that because we cannot judge God flawlessly, as God deserves, we cannot judge God at all. This hankering for completeness is thoroughly reminiscent (as the photo-negative) of René Descartes’ insistence that people can know things with certainty. And like Descartes, for Piper it’s all-or-nothing: either we judge God perfectly, according to a standard that only God could attain, or we accept whatever God does as good.

      Bollocks.

      For of course, the reality is that we can (and do) judge God. We judge that God is (or is not) real, that God has (or has not) “shown up” at various points in our existence (in times of great need, in answer to prayer, in unexpected situations, etc.).

      Thus Piper’s is more accurately expressed as: God cannot be judged with comprehensiveness and finality by any standards other than God’s own, and by any entity other than God-self. But the truth is that we judge God in the same way that we judge all things: provisionally and imperfectly. We do NOT have to be able to adjudicate with completeness or perfection in order to adjudicate ‘at all.’ This is bogus.

      So having cleared away the unhelpfulness of John Piper’s view, the questions are:
      a) What do we make of God, and of God’s goodness, relative to Hell?
      b) How do we go about making this assessment?

      In the first instance, I challenge the prevailing, evangelical view that God’s main characteristic is sovereignty. I believe that God is equally (and contrastingly) Father and parent. And where the primary response to a sovereign is obedience to the truth (validity) of this sovereignty and what it entails, likewise the primary response to a parent’s love is love.

      So I hold (and indeed, it has been my experience) that love and truth—truth and love—are co-central to God’s character and to human existence. And it is within the productive tension between love and truth that we are best situated to understand (and relate to) God and, indeed, to be ourselves as who me most (and best) can be.

      In the second instance, I challenge the prevailing, evangelical view that we must privilege knowledge of facts (as the terribly disjunctive notion of biblical “data”) over acquaintance with persons (as one’s relationship with God). And because the English language unhelpfully sees knowledge as superior to acquaintance, I prefer the French: savoir knowledge (acquisition of facts) as opposed to connaître knowledge (relationship with persons).

      So instead of prioritizing the Bible as read through either an anti-intellectual insistence on avoiding interpretation or an anti-emotional heartlessness, I believe that we assess God’s character and judge God’s goodness by means of our interpretations of both experience and Scripture, as evaluated by both our intellect and emotions. Savoir and connaître; love and truth.

      But I think I’ll leave it here: this is another post in the making. Anon.

  3. I get all of that Mr. Monteith… Piper is quite hung up on his whole “sovereignty” thing… personally, I think Piper has his head up his……… I suppose is may not be very “Christian” of me to even suggest such a thing… well, whatever… My confusion came as a result of the wording of that particular piece… “such that something is not good, and so God does it. Rather God does a thing, and so it is good” What I understand from this is that Piper feels that God is responsible for all bad… which in turn is actually all good… cause God is good and God is responsible for everything… is that it? Whatever… What I am trying to discern is what you are saying exactly above… that something is not good, and so God does that thing… as well, as God does a thing and so it is good… is that it? I think the word, “Rather” is what is confusing me… Okay… maybe that just made it even more confusing…

    • Hi Mama,

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Yes, I think that your conclusion is correct: “What I understand from this is that Piper feels that God is responsible for all bad… which in turn is actually all good… cause God is good and God is responsible for everything… is that it?” And for me this is very problematic.

      For in my opinion it should be disturbing for anyone to think that God is the source of evil (or what most people, under most circumstances, would perceive to be evil) and if God truly does act this way then this is not a reason to accept Christianity, but to reject and fight against it.

      Instead, my view is that we can and should “judge” God’s goodness in the way that we can and should judge (or assess) any truth claim that we come across: provisionally and imperfectly. In fact, the Bible encourages us to do this (for instance, the Psalms advocate that we “taste and see” that God is good).

      And this is nowhere more true than where people experience evil. In the face of evil, God must “show up.” But of course, no matter what the circumstances (be it experiences of evil or curious inquiry), we also have a responsibility in how (and how well) we assess whether God shows up. To do so, we must both understand some things about God (in order to know what we can and cannot expect of how, and under what conditions, God may show up) and be aware of how skilled we are (or are not!) as “assessors.”

      In other words, in order best to assess who God is and how God is interacting (or is failing to interact) with us we must become competent readers of our world, our fellows, and ourselves (where the last of these means being good readers of our history and honest and yet inspired writers of our own story).
      Hope this helps.

  4. “Yes, I think that your conclusion is correct: “What I understand from this is that Piper feels that God is responsible for all bad… which in turn is actually all good… cause God is good and God is responsible for everything… is that it?”

    My conclusion about Piper’s stance is correct… My conclusion about Piper’s stance is correct. Holy shit.

    I was up thinking about this whole idea the other night… It dawned on me, in horror, as I was lying in bed, that if God is perceived as responsible for everything, good AND bad… that absolves me of any responsibility for my actions… at least on some level. What that seems to mean is if I hurt another that particular act is ultimately what God wanted for that person. God is responsible for that hurt… and that hurt is actually good for that person because everything God does is good and all things come from God.

    WHOA!

    Is that really Piper’s slant?

    Like for reals???

    WOW!! Then, what I understand that to mean is if I raped someone… or if I were raped, it would be God’s will and it would be ultimately good for my victim or for me because all things come from God and therefore are good… Please tell me I am missing something… Please tell me I have taken this idea too far… That makes no sense at all, because I imagine Piper is most likely against abortion, and well, abortion would be from God, too… along with murder, suicide and sexual abuse. I am feeling sick at the moment.

    Please tell me this is incorrect. And if not, please tell me this man is clinically insane and has been admitted to the nearest hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Something doesn’t make sense here…

    Maybe I need to read some of Piper’s works cause, hot damn, I am losing faith in Christianity… your blog isn’t really helping things, Mr. Monteith… (then again, maybe reading Piper’s works would make it much worse…)

    Maybe I need to start a faith practice of my own called Jesusology… where all we do is follow Jesus’ primary teachings on love… on love… on love… on love… and on love… and let go of all these crazy ass ideas about what God is and is not responsible for… Uhhh… GOD IS LOVE! That’s it people… end of story… let’s just call it a day.

    Maybe I am missing something entirely and Piper is a sheer genius and I am a fool.

    All I know for real is that I am not consumed with who did what, which event came from God, who needs to be punished, who is going to heaven, who is going to hell, why am I here… blah, blah, blah… What I am consumed with is the power of LOVE and LIGHT and TRUTH in my life… I am also consumed with a deep longing to bring this gift to others… the gift of living a life guided by these principles above all else.

    Amen.

    • Hi Mama Moonbeam,

      Yes, this is a pretty icky viewpoint. I think that John Piper would put a bit of a spin on things, but he really wouldn’t soften it too much. He (and others who hold this view) are in dire jeopardy of attributing evil to God and removing human responsibility from those who commit it. And they are usually great proponents of theodicies: ways of explaining that, whatever the situation may be, it’s not God’s fault (really, it’s your / my fault). I’m not a fan of theodicies either, as you may guess.

      And, to be clear, Piper’s view is not my view. But I do think that his view is important. I think it is crucial to know and understand these things because this is what–for many–Christianity is and how they portray it to others. Hence, in part, the reason for my blog: to explain that there are other, better ways of understanding God, self, earth, and others. And I want to do this because I have encountered God–the Christian God (explaining how and why I think this to be the Christian God and not some other I will put off for now) and my life has been transformed by this encounter and the ensuing, ongoing relationship I have with this entity (and explaining what exactly this looks like I’ll also defer).

      The point I’m making here is this: I have fallen in love with God, and in embracing God I have embraced (and been embraced by) the greatest truth-for-me: to be deeply loved by one whom I deeply love in return. And I desire nothing more than that this love should grow–that it should flourish and abound. I desire to share this truth-for-me like I would show off pictures of my newborn children: because they fill my world and I am filled with so much delight that it just spills out of me. I desire to share this truth-for-me (which I argue is likewise God’s Truth) because in doing so I am close to my beloved, and there’s nothing better in this world than being near (and in step with) the one that you love.

      With that in mind, you may understand when I write that I am, if not “consumed,” then deeply troubled by views such as John Piper espouses. And although I sympathize with your strong feelings about being “consumed with . . . the power of LOVE and LIGHT and TRUTH” in your life, I am also concerned to present my views about this God to others in ways that are both understandable and compelling. In other words, I hear (and respect) your feelings but also want to know them more clearly and, potentially, challenge them in light of what I write here.

      I realize that we hold a variety of views (and hold them for a variety of reasons) and I would not want a world of people who think and see the world as I do. But in certain regards I really am trying both to convince and to woo / invite my readers to consider their views in light of the Christian perspective that I am presenting and, where they differ, I really am arguing (i.e., offering reasons and explanations) for why I think that my perspective offers more truth and more love.

      Clearly I have a long road to go, but this road is delightful. This is what I take the gospel writers to mean when they quote Jesus: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Thanks for your comment.

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