Taking God at His Word

A while back I pointed out one of the sayings of Jesus that seems to put him firmly in the hell-is-eternal-suffering camp, because he said it was better to go to heaven blind or maimed than to go to hell with a whole body. That’s an advantage that only makes sense if you stay in hell forever, because otherwise he’d be saying it’s better to be blind and maimed in heaven for all eternity than to be whole in heaven for all eternity after a relatively insignificant time in hell. Since the latter alternative is nonsense, it’s a lot more reasonable to count Jesus as someone who believed in eternal punishment.

Someone named brenda offers the following rebuttal:

“Obviously, that’s nonsense.”

Yes, it is nonsense. That is why only atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible literally. Atheists and snake handlers make a such loverly pair of clowns.

Oo, that one hurts, eh? It’s a good thing she never interprets the Bible literally, by believing, say, that Jesus is literally God Incarnate and literally rose from the dead. But what’s missing from this response? That’s right: she hasn’t told us what the correct/non-literal interpretation is supposed to be. And for good reason—the result is the same whether you take the story literally or not. Kinda takes the punch out, doesn’t it?

Of course, the first question we should ask is whether brenda is correct about the story not being intended literally. This looks to me less like a parable or metaphor and more like ordinary garden-variety hyperbole: Jesus is using an extreme example to illustrate his point, but there’s no indication he thought that heaven and hell were merely symbolic concepts rather than literal places. Nor does it make much sense to say that it would be better to go to heaven with a hand that was only figuratively cut off, as opposed to going to hell with a body that was, um, figuratively (and literally) whole. Either way you’d still be unmaimed, which kind of spoils the point of the story.

The point of Jesus story is that we ought to be willing to make sacrifices, even extreme and irrevocable sacrifices, in order to avoid going to hell. Granted, he probably didn’t intend for people to go around actually cutting off body parts (though there are a certain number of voluntary eunuchs on the list of saints, precisely because of this verse). That’s not the point. Jesus wants us to be willing to literally maim ourselves if that’s what it takes to get to heaven and avoid hell, because hell is forever. Yes, voluntary self-mutilation is extreme, but a whole body is of no use to you in hell, nor can we expect to experience the benefits of wholeness at some future point in heaven after having been sent to hell, at least in Jesus’ eschatology.

So either way, whether you take Jesus as advocating literal self-mutilation, or only some sort of metaphorical self-sacrifice, his point remains the same: hell is not a back door into heaven. It’s better to go to heaven via the only door there is, even at a substantial and permanent cost, than to go to hell with a complete set of body parts and then never be able to get to heaven. The whole story, whether taken literally or figuratively, makes no sense if hell is actually a good thing that purges us of our sins and then sends us on, perfected, to heaven.


  1. steve84 says

    If you don’t take it literally, then what’s the point? Might as well make up your own theology and morality

  2. baal says

    To some degree it is true that atheists also tend to towards literalism of the bible – the words on the page do have a meaning. The problem for atheists is that which words should be taken as literal and which should be taken as metaphor change depending on the exact person you’re talking to. Worse, I’ve even had the same person move the literal / metaphorical interpretation line on the same passages over time and in the same conversation on occasion. In that context, it’s entirely rational to take the book at face value and put the burden of explaining why that part should be a metaphor on the xtian.

    • kagekiri says

      Yeah, and the nice thing about the Bible is that so many parts are just horrible even if they’re only figurative.

      “Oh, God only figuratively meant to tear open the wombs of pregnant female prisoners of war and rape the virgins!” So…we should want to commit total genocide except for sex slaves…spiritually…???

      “Oh, God only figuratively made a law showing priests how to abort babies born out of wedlock with magic potions!” So, we should abort bad baby thoughts of our minds and sterilize their mothers…..or ideas? Symbols?

      “Oh, Jesus only figuratively meant that Jews were the only people he’d come to serve.” So he’s only figuratively extremely racist…what does that even mean?

      “Jesus only figuratively said that emotions, words, and desires are equal to violent and immoral physical actions.” Yeah, no idea how to spin this one.

      Those things are just not coherent “figuratively”, but even if they were, they don’t seem to say things that are particularly “godly” or “good” in any sane person’s eyes.

  3. Kevin K says

    This passage also belies the notion that you will be given a new “spirit body” in heaven — or whatever the phrase is used by Xtians.

    Nope. If you don’t have a right hand when you die, you won’t have one in heaven, either. Says so right there. Plain as day.

  4. hp9000 says

    I imagine that if hell existed, I’d suffer more with a whole body than with one that’s missing some parts. More skin surface to be burned and stuff. So I’ll probably start by chopping off my legs, and see about plucking my eyes out and getting some other body parts cut off as well. As an atheist, I’m going to hell anyway; at least I’ll try to minimize the suffering. /sarcasm

  5. babyskep says

    It seems to me that if one is to believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, then it all has to be taken literally. Which pretty much invalidates it as the word of God when you consider the preposterous things written therein.

    If one believes that some or all of the Bible is metaphor, then that automatically disqualifies it as inerrant and begs the question: why are we living our lives and governing our communities in strict compliance to it?

    I’m not trying to be funny or clever; I’m about 3 months into this skeptical/non-belief thing after years of being a so-called Christian. I just found it impossible to reconcile who I am with being a Christian.

    • Former Senator Larry Craig says

      I’m going to answer your second paragraph on behalf of my believer friends: we (that is, they) aren’t. People who aren’t inerrantists, in my experience, view the Bible as something like a cross between a palimpsest and the I Ching: on the one hand, a semi-historical document with nuggets of fact buried under layers and layers of metaphor, shaky translation, church politics, evolving worldviews, etc.; on the other hand a collection of koans which, while confusing or even meaningless on the surface will, upon proper consideration, yield some kind of inspiration.

      And these people “govern their communities” in accordance to the Bible only in the limited sense that they seek out a church where most people’s interpretations more or less agree with their own.

      That doesn’t make their faith any less incomprehensible to me, but since they’re not actually interested in running my life it makes it possible for us to get along.

  6. says

    I look forward to Brenda coming back with a description of the widely accepted process through which Christians (aside from those fringe fundamentalists) determined which parts of the Bible are literally true and which are metaphorical.

    • hp9000 says

      It’s actually quite simple: what makes sense is true and what doesn’t is metaphorical. This is always a moving target: in the past, talking snakes and donkeys, a flat earth at the center of the universe, walking zombies and demons causing diseases were true but now they’re metaphorical. At some point in the future I suspect (I hope, actually) that they’ll say that god is metaphorical and drop religion altogether, but I won’t hold my breath for that.

      • Former Senator Larry Craig says

        Eh, some fringe groups are already there, like Unitarians or Reconstructionist Jews.

    • says

      In a debate with a theist one time, I exasperatedly said something to the effect of, “I wish there was some guidebook to know which parts of this text are supposed to be metaphorical and which are supposed to be literal!”

      She gleefully replied, “There is a guidebook! The Bible!” It was almost as if the word guidebook had provoked a Pavlovian response to smile and shout “Bible!”

      I said to her, “You mean to tell me the bible itself specifies which parts of it are meant to be taken at face value and which are not?”

      You could almost see the gears of logic turning and the pins of rational thought falling into place.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        And that’s true, but some of the parts that tell you which passages to take at face value, are themselves spiritual and thus not to be taken literally.

  7. ericblair says

    “That is why only atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible literally”

    Most of the objections skeptics and atheists have to the bible use the logical principle of reductio ad absurdum. In order for this to work, you start with the assumption that your opponents’ position is valid and proceed to use examples and counterexamples to show how ridiculous that position is.

    So, of course, when arguing against biblical ideas in this fashion, you start with adopting your opponent’s point of view. That does not mean that you accept that point of view, but that you use it as a starting point for your syllogism.

    It’s obvious that brenda has never studied propositional logic. Despite Star Trek, logic is not an alien concept, but a human creation, and it does have rules. One of those rules requires that the validity of absurd notions be treated as possible (but not necessarily probable) for purposes of argumentation and proof.

    • says

      This is also the same confusion that results in accusations that atheists really do believe in God and are just angry at him because they object to all the evil stuff God is reported to have done or condoned in the Bible. Umm. Yeah. If God really had destroyed the world in a flood or killed all the first-born of Egypt or approved of slavery or blood sacrifice or killed a fig tree for no reason or healed and fed some people but did not get rid of all disease, injury, or hunger, then yes, he would be evil and not worth worshipping or following. That doesn’t mean he does or ever did exist. Just like Voldemort or Iago or Sauron or Uriah Heep.

      We are assuming for the sake of argument that the stuff narrated in the Bible actually happened as related. Just like Deacon Duncan assumes in his latest takedown of Justin Martyr that Jacob, Moses, Judah, David, Saul et al. existed, and the historical narrative in the Bible is basically taken at face value. We’re saying even if such and such in the Bible is so, it’s still factually wrong, still inconsistent, still immoral, or whatever.

      • Brian M says

        Well…for some of us this is how we arrived at where we are at now. The vile nature of Yahweh.

        Maybe I want to still be a believer…I’m not a good atheist. But I cannoty be a Christian either, so I waffle between hard core atheism and a vague Gnosticism that is, to me, the only theology that answers the Problem of Evil.

  8. wholething says

    Guys and gals, you have to have the Holy Ghost in you to know these things are figurative even if you don’t understand the figurative interpretation. You have to have faith and patience that you will gain the understanding in good time. Just because nobody has made sense of it in 2000 years doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And Jesus is coming back any second. And Kent Hovind is a super-genius. And Peter Popoff is an authentic miracle worker. And you should invest in the Ark Park. If you don’t believe all that, you’re all in a handbasket on a road paved with good intentions.

  9. Donovan says

    Just once I’d like one of these “sophisticated” Xians to sit down and spell out just what is is the DO believe. They won’t, of course, because while it may be different than a literal interpretation of the Bible, it won’t be any less insane or laughable. “Oh, no, I don’t believe that crazy stuff, I believe this crazy stuff.”

    Be willing to state what you believe and why, and be willing to stand with that idea through victory or defeat, or shut the hell up.

  10. Paul Murray says

    THe mistake people make is thinking that the various authous of the bible all helf the same opinions. Some of them thought that hell was eternal suffering, some thought that being tossed into the lake of fire was “the second death”. It’s only later glosses on the words that takes “the second death” to mean something other than a final execution followed by nonexistence.

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