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A Hell of a Thing to Believe

Human beings spend a lot of time arguing about whether or not our beliefs are true. Even in these strange days where “I feel like” seems to have replaced “I think that” as the ultimate, ahem, trump card in a given dispute (how can you argue with a feeling?!), we still invest a fair amount of intellectual, emotional, and rhetorical energy into arriving at truth and convincing others of what we believe to be true. Even amidst of the mountain of lies that can sometimes seem to overwhelm our socio-political discourse, the truth of the matter still seems to matter to us. 

But of course we as the inheritors and shapers of late modernity can quite easily give the strong impression that the meaning of life is a primarily a cognitive exercise, an arms race to the top in the “who has the most right content in their head when they die” game. We probably pay less attention than we ought to the behaviours that our beliefs demand, and how our behaviours (or the absence of behaviours) shape and reinforce what we think. And we probably pay even less attention still to the kinds of people the things we believe are inevitably turning us into.

Last week, I read Brian Zahnd’s new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. It’s a quick read but an important one, particularly for those raised on the “angry God” theology made famous in the Jonathan Edwards sermon that Zahnd’s title is a riff on (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), and which various outposts of zealous evangelicalism have seized upon ever since. At one point, in a discussion of the doctrine of hell, Zahnd frames the matter in an interesting way:


I’m very leery of making claims of certitude about precisely what is meant by hell and exactly who goes there. I regard it as extraordinarily dangerous and detrimental to the soul to go through life convinced that everyone except people like me are going to wind up in hell.

I was struck in a new way by what Zahnd did with that one sentence. He has spent some time in the chapter talking about the truth of the matter, which is obviously important. He has reevaluated a few key biblical texts, he has made a few Christological arguments, he has appealed to human experience of the world. But here he pauses on a very different set of questions: What do beliefs do to those who hold them? What kind of people do they turn us into? What does the content in our head do to our souls?

I don’t know that my beliefs about hell (or anything else) were ever quite as zealous as Jonathan Edwards or the red-faced preachers of American evangelicalism, but there was a time when I did believe that my little clan was the only one that God would be deigning to save. And it was a belief that almost certainly did something to me. I don’t think it was good for my soul to believe that every human being I encountered on the street who didn’t check off all of the boxes I believed that God required was destined for hell. Check that, I know it wasn’t good for my soul to believe this. Every interaction was tinged with the question, “I wonder if they’re with the good guys or the bad guys?” I was probably incapable of simply encountering another person without having the “in or out” question rumbling along in the bowels of my brain. This can’t be a good thing for the growth of a soul.

Is it possible to believe that everyone who doesn’t believe what you believe is going to hell and still be a kind, decent, loving human being? Sure. I’ve known people like this. But maybe all this proves is that it’s possible to be better than your theology (which, to be fair, most of us should be hoping for). Or that some theology is really difficult to consistently live out while still being able to live with yourself. We human beings can be quite skilled at and willing to live with an enormous amount of cognitive dissonance.

Is it possible that God requires us to have beliefs that can easily turn us into less than we were made to be? Sure, it’s possible. It’s possible that life really is an arms race in the “right beliefs in my head” game. All kind of things are possible in the world. But for the Christian, the appropriate question is, “Is it likely that this is what the God revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ has in mind for a human life?” When we look at Jesus—at what he said and did, how he lived and died—do we get the impression that what matters most to God is that human beings arrive at a prescribed number of right ideas before they die? Possibly. But not likely.

Of course it should go without saying (but probably doesn’t) that there are all kinds of beliefs and ways of holding them that can be corrosive to human souls. Conservative evangelical eschatology is an easy target, in many ways, and its spokespeople have been loud enough for long enough to warrant whatever criticisms come their way. I use this example only because I am familiar with the terrain. But I have encountered language just as vile and hateful and dismissive of real human beings on the “liberal” end of the belief spectrum as I have on the “conservative.” The belief that I (and everyone like me) am right and everyone else is wrong (and stupid, possibly even damnably so) is not the province of any particular ideology or perspective. It is a uniquely human proclivity. And it damages our souls—whether these souls are liberal or conservative or somewhere in between—in precisely the same way.

What are our beliefs doing to us? It’s a question worth asking. Are the things that we believe moving us toward the likeness of Christ or away from it? Are we becoming increasingly gentle, kind, loving, patient? Are we growing in self-control, peace, and joy? Are our lives characterized by a deep and settled faithfulness? Are we leaving fear behind and being made perfect in love? Or are we becoming harsh, spiteful, fearful, anxious, impatient, and proud? It’s not a straight line, I know. It’s not as though right beliefs always and only produce the right kinds of human beings. We are rather more complicated creatures than that, alas. But they certainly help. And their absence can certainly hurt.

In the ninth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives the Pharisees an assignment. Quoting the prophet Hosea, he says, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” It’s an assignment the Pharisees struggled mightily with. It’s an assignment that we still struggle with. Sacrifice comes easy to us. We are only too eager to sacrifice others on the altars of our ideological purity. Mercy is the harder road. But it is mercy, I suspect, that will save our souls. In the receiving and, perhaps just as importantly, in the giving.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. John H. Neufeld #

    I have the impression that you misquoted the title of Zahnd’s book, “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.”

    September 8, 2017
    • Yikes, wonder what kind of subterranean theological hang ups that kind of a slip says…

      I made the correction—thanks for pointing it out 🙂

      September 8, 2017
  2. This is a bit off-topic, but at some point could you write about reconciliation, how it relates to forgiveness and what it is exactly (or even inexactly LOL!) Maybe you already have written about it and could direct me to the blog(s)? Thanks!

    September 9, 2017
    • Possibly. Is there something specific you’re thinking of? For example, are you thinking of interpersonal reconciliation or reconciliation on a larger scale (i.e., Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process)? Just curious. Thanks.

      September 10, 2017
  3. Just searched the term on your site and read the 2007 quotation from Miroslav Wolf… intriguing! but somewhat puzzling . Would you unpack the final sentences at some point:

    …the memory of wrongdoing is needed mainly as an instrument of justice and as s shield against injustice. Yet every act of reconciliation, incomplete as it mostly is in this world, stretches itself toward completion in that world of love. Similarly, remembering wrongdoing now lives in the hope of its own superfluity then. Even more, only those willing to let the memory of wrongdoing slip ultimately out of their minds will be able to remember wrongdoing rightly now. For we remember wrongs rightly when memory serves reconciliation.

    Thanks! and my apologies for dropping my query into this blog post!

    September 9, 2017
    • I read Volf as saying that for now, our task is to forgive but not necessarily to forget. If we just pretend bad things haven’t happened, justice is not done, and it leaves the door open to further abuse/injustice.

      But every attempt to genuinely forgive and repair a relationship (even if we don’t pretend nothing happened) is a kind of signpost to a future when we can genuinely forget, because we can finally leave the justice aspect of things with God. In the meantime, we don’t remember wrongs done to constantly hold it in front of people or to maintain leverage, but simply to tell the truth about what happened and to forgive it anyway, as Christ has done for us.

      This is what I think he means by “memory serving reconciliation,” at any rate.

      September 10, 2017
      • Thanks for taking the time to comment. It is a personal reconciliation process that I am part of. Never having had any experience with this, I am trying to learn about how to do it. Reconciliation is certainly more than just going through the motions and “moving on.”

        What you say about telling the truth about what happened and forgiving anyway as Christ has done resonates with me.

        In the meantime before i got back to your blog, I found a long and challenging article by Dr. Timothy Keller– I believe he also references Miroslav Wolf.

        It seems to be a long and complicated process:No sooner do you think that you have forgiven – at the same time as being be true about what happened – and also have not resorted to being vindictive or angry, then a sub-optimal thought pops into your head about being just that.

        I guess one can’t prevent instinctive responses?… but obviously one shouldn’t act on them!

        A nun once said to see Christ just behind the person who is angry with you and maybe you are angry with, so I try to do this…It helps put me into a better state towards God and the other person.

        Thanks again. What you wrote was really helpful!

        September 21, 2017
      • You’re most welcome. Yes, it is as you say—a long, complicated process. But a necessary and life-giving one, too. We need to forgive and we need to be forgiven. This is part of the human condition (perhaps one of the harder parts!).

        September 21, 2017
  4. Paul Johnston #

    How would you contrast Mr. Zahnd’s work here, with Rob Bell’s, “Love Wins”?

    The title, “Sinners in the hands of a loving God” at least implies a recognition of the tension between sin/ repentence and love/forgiveness many found lacking in Mr. Bell’s work.

    September 9, 2017
    • Zahnd is less sentimental and vague than Bell, in my view :). He does not eliminate the possibility, even necessity, of some kind of post-mortem “hell,” even if he’s clear that it looks quite a bit different than our Dante-fuelled imaginations have often described it. He sees hell as a kind of divine ratification of the human determination to be bent inward (away from God and others). Very similar to C.S. Lewis, in that way, I suppose.

      September 10, 2017
  5. Paul Johnston #

    A “doors locked from the inside” understanding. Maybe so…..whatever hell is or isn’t, knowing that one’s choices seperated oneself from eternity with God, from love and from one another is surely a hellish outcome.

    As a Roman Catholic it is a part of our creed to acknowledge Christ’s decent into hell prior to his ressurection.

    Why would Jesus literally go to hell before ascending into heaven?

    September 12, 2017
    • How do you interpret that statement in the creed?

      September 13, 2017
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Oh boy, sorry I missed this one, Ryan. September was a very difficult month for my family.

    Hmm, if “descent in to hell” is the last word on a person’s existence then Christ’s visitation there seems beyond cruel.

    I have to believe that salvation was still available to them.

    January 30, 2018
    • Me, too, Paul.

      I’m very sorry to hear about your September. I hope and pray things have improved since then.

      January 30, 2018
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Yes, thank you Ryan, they have. My father passed away early in September and while we are still processing grief, God has surrounded us with love. My biggest concern is for my Mom. To lose a partner of 67 years is not an easy circumstance to recover recover from.

    January 30, 2018
    • So sorry to hear of your loss, Paul. May the peace of Christ surround and sustain you all, particularly your mother.

      January 30, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        With all my heart, I thank you, my brother in Christ. 🙂

        January 31, 2018

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