Thursday 29 December 2011

A Facebook exchange on hellish religious language

Here's a Facebook conversation from a few days before Christmas. The thread (of which this is a part) is now buried deep down in the Unbelievable group and therefore probably not worth reviving, but I wanted to record my final comments for the sake of completeness, and to clarify my own thoughts:
Daniel Smith Sam, some Christians argue that language of hell and eternal torment is figurative for cessation of existence; it does not refer to literal conscious torment for eternity. This view is called annihilationism.

Other Christians, like myself, take the imagery of hell (fire and brimstone, etc....) to be symbolic. After all, it is difficult to see how there could be "outer darkness" in a literal furnace, so one of these texts at least must be understood non-literally. if humans were made for relationship with God, then to be separated from God for eternity would be a type of torment, albeit self-inflicted.

And as you guessed others, perhaps most, think that a literal furnace exists where the damned suffer eternally.

Point being, there is a range of views, and the issue is not at all settled, especially between the second and third conceptions of hell.
19 December at 05:07 · Like

Paul Jenkins ‎@Daniel, this is why I find religious language unhelpful. If someone threatens to beat me to a pulp, and I interpret that "figuratively" as nothing more than a threat to scowl disapprovingly at me, at the very least this indicates a failure of communication.
19 December at 09:42 · Like

Daniel Smith Paul,

I think your language is just as unhelpful. Figurative language is not "religious language." It's jut the way humans communicate. I don't say that I find scientific language unhelpful because "the sun rose at 6:53 A.M." is not literally true. Or at the end of a long day of work, "I am dead tired" is not literally true. Or "sometimes my wife has to whip me into shape," is (usually) not literally true. The fact that religious texts use language which all of us use every day is neither a defect in religion nor in religious language.

If someone threatens to beat you to a pulp, you take them literally in that you think they literally will beat you, but not literally "to a pulp." So even this implies a bit of figurative speech which needs to be interpreted. Easy to point the finger at religion, though. Maybe you should acknowledge that things just aren't always as clear as you want them to be.
19 December at 19:24 · Like

Paul Jenkins Daniel,

I acknowledge that things aren't always as clear as I'd like, and that there is a difference between being "beaten to a pulp" in the figurative sense and being beaten to a pulp in an electric blender. Both the figurative sense and the literal sense, however, would involve blood and mangled flesh rather than, say, superficial bruising. Therefore I maintain that my figurative use of "beaten to a pulp" is a legitimate use of language that conveys my intended meaning with a degree of accuracy.

This cannot be said of the difference between "literal conscious torment" in the "fire and brimstone" of a literal furnace on the one hand, and "cessation of existence" on the other. The two are not remotely comparable. The claim that one is a symbolic expression of the other contributes more to obfuscation than clarity.
20 December at 00:31 · Like

Daniel Smith Therefore you maintain that your use of language, while not literally correct, is correct enough in the context you're using it and for the audience you're communicating with.

I agree with you that annihilationism does not seem to be what passages about fire and brimstone teach. That view is based on other passages. Nevertheless you've conceded the most important thing: that figurative language is constantly is use. This makes it difficult to criticize the Bible on the basis that there are debates about what some passages contained therein really mean to say. I mean, we have the same debates in America about the constitution. This must prove that political language is totally worthless and imprecise, right?
20 December at 22:21 · Like
I do concede that figurative language is in constant use — it's part of what makes conversation interesting and expressive, and it certainly doesn't make political language worthless (although it can adversely affect its precision). But if "fire and brimstone" is figurative or symbolic language, and annihilationism is "based on other passages", at least one of these must be wrong, and in either case the language used to justify them is, indeed, unhelpful.