On the blog for the movie Hellbound, several arguments are presented for and against various views of hell and related topics. What struck me as I read through them was that in just about every case, the arguments seemed to hinge on an either/or formula.
I find this tendency to reduce matters of ultimate importance to mutually exclusive dyads unhelpful. It is as if we really think that God and the realities beyond the physical as we currently experience it, realities that are only vaguely revealed to us, submit to easily-manipulated oppositions of yes/no, either/or, on/off, heaven/hell.
I admit, such dyadic reasoning works quite well when one is building a bridge. A certain quality of steel, in a certain shape, under certain conditions, either will or will not hold a certain weight. However, such reasoning functions quite miserably, for example, when it comes to intimate human relationships. Here, love/hate relationships are common. There is very little either/or when it comes to the actual experience of human relationships. Rather than a cold conclusion, a turbulent sea of shifting and often opposing thoughts and feelings much better describes how human beings actually experience their relationships with one another. No one ever found love with the proposal: “You either love me or you don’t.”
And if opposing dyads fail as useful tools in understanding human relationships, I submit that they fail colossally as tools in understanding human/divine relationships. Let me tell you a story.
When my daughters were children, Hannah was “helping” in the kitchen. After we finished sweeping the floor together she announced, “Now you have to give me a cookie.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I was a good girl. Good girls get cookies.”
Hannah was a bright girl, and she thought she had figured out the system: good girls are helpful: good girls get cookies: ergo, helpful girls get cookies. The system made sense to her, so now she was working the system.
I think we often do the same thing with divine matters. We take what little bits of information we have gathered about God and the Heavenly realm, form them into a system that makes sense to us, and then foist them back onto God--declaring those who do not submit to the reason of our steely logic to be either deranged or demonic.
In an ancient Orthodox Christian hymn, we are encouraged to pray to Paradise, that by the “rustling of Thy leaves” it would beseech God to make a way back to Paradise for us. Asking leaves to pray for you: not very reasonable if you ask me. But it is very profound.
St. James says that salt water and fresh water do not flow from the same spring. I wonder what he would have said if he had encountered modern kitchen taps--hot and cold water from the same spring? Of course I know what’s under the sink and where the pipes run. However, to one who didn’t know, it might seem a contradiction.
I think our knowledge of the heavenly realm is somewhat like St. James’ knowledge of modern plumbing. We know that God is just and God is merciful; how they connect under the sink, we do not know. We know that there is a river of life and a lake of fire, both in the Kingdom of the God of Love; how they connect under the sink, we do not know.
To say that mercy triumphs over justice (James 2:13) is not to say that there is no justice. What "eternal" means in our paradigm now, either eternal torment or eternal Life, may be very different from what it means in a realm in which time as we know it has passed away. What makes perfect sense now, may be meaningless in the age to come.
Yes, there are situations when it is appropriate to present the reasonableness of the faith; however, we err greatly when we attempt to reduce the faith to what is reasonable.
I think we would all understand better the things of God and the realm of the Kingdom to come if we spent less of our energy trying to reduce what little we may know about these things to the most reasonable syllogism and spent more time asking Paradise to pray for us by the rustling of its leaves.