Hell. It had to come up sooner or later. And it takes center stage in Keith Parson’s contribution to The End of Christianity, chapter 10, “Hell: Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine”.
I took away one important lesson from this chapter: Keith Parsons doesn’t like Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin. In fact, I thought these were the two best lines in the essay:
“How can even the wickedest of human beings, a Hitler, Stalin, or Cheney, say, deserve eternal punishment?” (238)
“Socrates’s existence is so qualitatively superior to a fool’s that it would be better to be Socrates, even when he is having a bad day, than Sarah Palin having a good day.” (246)
Wow! Those are real zingers!
Imagine for a minute that John Lotus edited a book called The End of the Republican Party, a collection of essays purporting to show why the GOP is so misguided and errant that the party should be disbanded. And imagine that Keith Parsons wrote two essays in that book, one targeting Cheney Machiavellianism and the other taking issue with Jesus Camp Palin. Parsons may very well have written two fine essays critiquing Cheney and Palin. But his essay wouldn’t really be relevant to the Republican party per se.
Well that’s a book for a nearby possible world. But in the actual world the book we have is The End of Christianity and Parsons’ contribution targets hell. But even while those differences are significant, the parallels with the GOP example are significant because the doctrines that Parsons targets (primarily eternal conscious torment and secondarily exclusivism) are not essential to Christianity any more than Machiavellian philosophy or fundamentalist Christianity are essential to the GOP.
I have repeatedly critiqued eternal conscious torment (and exclusivism) in my writing both published and posted, and I’m part of a long line of Christians who have done so. As regards hell, countless Christians have argued for an annihilationist or universalist alternative conception. Nor is this a new development. Universalism in particular (defined as the universal reconciliation or apokatastasis of all things to the Father through Jesus Christ) has been a minority tradition throughout the last two thousand years. And of course defenders of both annihilationism and universalism would claim their views are to be found in the New (and Old) Testaments.
So while I could quibble with several points in Parsons’ essay, that really is a side issue. I share his revulsion for eternal conscious torment and his distaste for exclusivism. And I hold that revulsion and distaste as an evangelical Christian seminary professor. In fact, with a few tweaks his essay could be dropped into a collection of contemporary evangelical Christian essays on the doctrine of hell. (Nor does Parsons necessarily hit harder than his fellow evangelical critics. For example, evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock compared the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment to an eternal Auschwitz.)
And so we have an ironic conclusion that a book calling for an end of Christianity has an essay to which many evangelical Christians would reply yea and amen.