Written on March 24th, 2007 by Shawn Anthony
This is the second installment of a series of posts collectively titled: “The Literal Tenor of the Metaphorical Hell: A Literary Critique of Scriptural Language concerning Hell, The Human Soul and a Defense of Metaphorical Conditionalism.” The first post was titled: The Literal Tenor of the Metaphorical Hell.
The word “metaphor” claims an etymological root in the Greek verb metapherein, meaning “to transfer.” Simply stated, a metaphor serves to transfer the sense of one word to another. Many literary critics choose to explain metaphors in terms of the two words/subjects by which larger meaning is transferred: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor is the subject of comparison, or what is to be compared; the vehicle is the means of comparison, or that to which the subject (tenor) is compared.
A Lack of Metaphorical Preciseness and/or Distinction by Christian Interpreters
Literary enthusiasts have little – if any - problems with such metaphorical preciseness and/or distinctions; religious enthusiasts, on the other hand, seem to require much more dogmatism or certainty in textual interpretation(s).
Take, for example, Emily Dickinson’s poetic masterpiece “Hope is the Thing with Feathers.”
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Hope is neither a thing with feathers (a bird?), obviously, nor does it have feet to perch, audible capabilities to sing, or the ability to ask anything from anyone. A virtue – hope – is represented and relayed to the reader by a poet (Emily Dickinson) attempting to put tangible handles on an intangible but desperately needed and realized human necessity – hope. The language is a vehicle for the driving force (subject) or tenor of the text. If hope fails to exist apart from the metaphorical language implemented for purposes of explanation and/or the soul then much of the human experience is utterly wasted. Emily Dickinson got the point, obviously.
Another example, again from Emily Dickinson, exists in the melancholy “Because I could not Stop for Death.”
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no hast,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;
We passed the fields of grazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then’t is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.
Again, the obvious metaphors applied to death do not render conceptual death unrealizable apart from the language used to make it more relatable, cognitively speaking. It is unfortunate that Sacred literature often does not receive the same literary treatment. Unfortunately, any treatment diverging from a literalist interpretation is branded as a detriment to the religious, faith, and even doctrinal experience that is Christianity.
A strictly literate definition of metaphor speaks of the symbolic “transfer” of a word’s underlying meaning to another word but it is not limited to words alone but to concepts which seek words to better explain itself. This is the exactly the sort of event the Biblical author’s were facing (i.e., how to authentically convey a revelatory message regarding real evildoers’ eternal separation from “Absolute Truth and Beauty”).
The biblical literalist, however, fails to differentiate between the metaphor’s tenor, or underlying subject matter, and its vehicle, or the means (language) by which is related or explained. In other words, a metaphor is a metaphor because it has a authentic base subject to which it is perceptibly and linguistically connected. The result is a very real hell which can and should be realized in spite of the socio-cultural dilemma created by the vehicle (language) implemented by those to whom the original revelation was given.
This definition of metaphor, as defined purely within its literary limitation, is essential for the proper interpretation and/or understanding of plain Scriptural language and its important revelation.
This above advance makes zero concession, however, for the literalist who will, on one hand, interpret ‘fire’ and ‘burning’ metaphors as figurative, but, on the other hand, continue to advance the concept of a literal ‘burning of evil doers’ as reality. Pinnock, while explaining alternative interpretations of hell, explains this forced attempt at metaphor, while ignoring literary definition and function, into a pseudo traditionalist or literalist position:
[Metaphor] The most modest revision (and for that reason, the most attractive possibility for those who honor tradition highly) involves reconsidering the nature of the unending pains of hell, taking them in a metaphorical sense. Jean-Paul Sartre shows us how to do this in his play No Exit. He asks us to imagine hell as a shabby hotel where three sinners are forever tied to one another in a vicious circle and where each other mentally torments, and is tormented by, the others. There is no need for red-hot pokers or burning sulphur because “hell is other people.” This is most appealing because it sounds like the traditional view but without any physical suffering, only the intrinsic pain and remorse of a life lived for one’s self.1
It’s Only a Metaphor, Not a Mirror Description! But it Points to a Reality!
The proper definition and literary mechanics of metaphor must be understood so as to avoid such detrimental renderings of the doctrine. The language employed in the Scriptures is indeed metaphorical – as adherents to the Metaphorical view will readily admit. Espousers of the Metaphorical view, however, fail to comprehend and employ the technical and literary definition of metaphor if indeed the only desire is to amend the metaphorical vehicle while simultaneously remaining oblivious to the real and literary consequences of metaphorical tenor (it’s only a metaphor, not a mirror description!). Tenor is intrinsically rooted in an arguably universal (spans time and culture) concept regarding a future moment when evil – and those who espouse it – will be separated eternally from God. Any supplementary detail surrounding this separation must be derived exegetically from the Scriptures and the results – no matter how conducive or non-conducive they are to any particular view or tradition – must be both admitted and advanced by the Christian believer. The prerequisite is, of course, a literary understanding of the mechanics of metaphor. Only then can one approach Jesus of Nazareth’s dialogue(s) regarding this realm with any academic or exegetical confidence.
Watch for the third part of this series, titled: Jesus of Nazareth’s Dialogue Regarding Hell
1. Crockett, William V. Four Views on Hell. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992., 141.
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