By Shawn Anthony
This is the fourth 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 Second post was titled: Mechanics of Metaphor: Hell is a Shabby Hotel of Vicious Circles. The third installment was titled:Jesus of Nazareth’s Dialogue Regarding Hell
A literalist approach to the language of Scripture has been embraced not only by conservative aficionados, but also mainstream authors, poets, fictional entertainers, and dramatics. The result of this multi-faceted marketing, unfortunately, has been terrible misunderstanding and misrepresentation of metaphor as presented in Scripture. This misrepresentation is consequently accompanied by a syncretistic assimilation of misinterpretation into Christian faith and practice. The message of Jesus of Nazareth regarding a potential future state of separation between humanity and Deity, as a result, has been either demoted to cartoonish absurdity, or allied to petrifying fear and unhealthy conversion. The mishandling of metaphor (vehicle and tenor) has created a religious situation wherein it is very difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction.
Milton, in Paradise Lost, a Christian classic authored during a period when the fires of hell were as real as the flame illuminating the room and the paper upon which Milton wrote,1 seems more than content with a literal interpretation of Scriptural language:
“With vain attempt. Him the Almighty power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he with horrid crew
Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed
Such place Eternal Justice.”2
John Bunyan, in Pilgrim’s Progress, a tale, which according to the preface, “has been read [with the exception of the Bible] by more people than any other book in the English language,” is another example of how fictional art can find its way into doctrinal belief and practice.
“The path between the ditch and the quagmire was exceedingly narrow and Christian had to be extremely cautious to stay on it. It was almost like walking a tight rope over the bottomless pit in the dark. To go on was very dangerous, but it was just as hazardous to attempt to turn and go back. He crept along, feeling his way, and not knowing what minute he might come to the end of the path and plunge downward into death. In the middle of the valley, close by the path, was the mouth of Hell, from which came flames and smoke, rolling out toward the path. And there were hideous noises and doleful voices, against which Christian’s sword was ineffective …”3
Charles Spurgeon, a.k.a., “the prince of preachers,” was not one who espoused a metaphorical view of Scriptural language. His pulpit messages, much like early American revivalist preachers of Christianity, were often characterized by the use of literal imagery and language:
“But, in hell, there is no hope. They have not even the hope of dying – the hope of being annihilated. They are forever – forever – forever – lost! On every chain in hell, there is written ‘forever.’ In the fires, there blaze out the words, ‘forever.’ Up above their heads, they read ‘forever.’ Their eyes are galled, and their hearts are pained with the though that it is ‘forever.’ But I want to get over this as quickly as I can; for who can bear to talk thus to his fellow-creatures? What is it that the lost are doing? They are ‘weeping and gnashing their teeth.’ Do you gnash your teeth? You would not do it except you were in pain and agony. Well in hell there is always gnashing of teeth.”4
The ecclesial emphasis of language over subject is, however, far from limited to Spurgeon. Many of Christianity’s fundamentalist churches implement and advance a word for word literal account of hell – as delivered by Jesus, or so they argue. Heaven’s Gates & Hell’s Flames, a modern drama based upon the “Book of Life,” is, for example, considered to be an extremely accurate dramatization of a “Biblical” hell.
Christian Grantham, whose story was published in Xenogeny (a Nashville, TN gay weekly),5 recalls his experience at one of our nation’s many productions of this “Christian” drama.
“Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. The play travels a circuit of predominately Protestant venues selling VHS tapes, cassettes, and t-shirts to fund ‘the spread of the word of God.’ Scenes from the play feature emotional appeals from children who die and go to hell, forever losing the comforting presence of their mommy and daddy, unless the parents themselves were bringing up the back of the train. The play focuses on a number of cases where each character is living a day in their lives. As each dies they appear before the Book of Life where Jesus or Satan claims the eternal soul of the character caught center stage to something obviously bigger than the play itself. Besides hammering home a fire-and-brimstone element of traditional Southern Preaching, ‘Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames’ was reported to contain scenes promoting old world views on the fate of homosexuals and a less than glossed over New World compassion for people with AIDS.”6
Christian, as if he hadn’t already illustrated the drama’s misuse of Biblical metaphors, imagery, and language, continues on, while the obvious misuse of vehicle over tenor becomes increasingly obvious. The subsequent effect produced is only one which can be characterized by fear coerced “conversions.”
“Before the play began, the double door entrance was closed and made a locking sound. We were told to exit through a single rear door if we became ’scared.’ Needless to say I remained throughout but could see why some kids would have to leave. Satan’s voice was digitally synthesized to match our imagination’s best version of the “eternal tormentor,” and the lighting effects televised fear to a literally captive audience. The scenes directed toward the LGBT community and people with AIDS did not take place. As the play ended, a minister made a plea for those wanting salvation from the hell that now had their hearts racing. As 30 or so approached the stage I walked to the rear exit where an attendant would not let me exit. He claimed that the producer of the play didn’t want anyone to leave and that the door was suppose to stay shut. After repeating my intent to leave (with a smile, of course), he conceded and moved as I opened the door.”7
The ecclesial prrioritization of metaphorical vehicle over tenor is not limited to drama productions alone. This priority is linked to anything and everything remotely related to Jesus of Nazareth’s language concerning a future separation from God (the tenor of his metaphors). This is an incredibly unfortunate reality because of the effect such linking has upon individuals who are authentically searching for understanding regarding a potential separation between humanity and God. Too, the focus upon such non-essential language (vehicle) has a seriously detrimental effect upon the Church of Jesus of Christ. The church seems overtly hostile.
A “Bible Believers’ website article, linked to a “correct doctrine” button, entitled “The Burning Fall,” illustrates this unfortunate point vividly:
THE BURNING FALL: “Revelation 20:15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. Try to imagine for every second, throughout eternity, your body with the most excruciating sunburn. Add to that the awful pain of your whole frame scalded with boiling water. To this, add the agony of bodily movement. The skin stretches. Untold daggers of pain flash through your body. You want to hold still, but the burning from the flames will not allow it. The bubbling brimstone makes you scream. Your hair is on fire. Your feet and hands blister, while you gnaw your tongue, trying to relieve the torment. Your throat is raw from screaming and wailing. Spasms of anguish drop you into the molten lava. You go under the surface gnashing your teeth. The burning brimstone flows into your mouth; runs down your throat and into your stomach. You are on fire inside and outside. Lava, red hot and smoking, flows in your ears. As your eyes try to focus in the endless, everlasting, permanent dwelling place of total torment and torturess surroundings with your burning and a feeling of melting of your eyes overwhelms you, you look and focus on worms that have totally engulfed your body. They are crawling on and in you. You can feel them. A scream comes from your burning, flaming, fiery lips. A cry for ‘Water’ is felt throughout your whole being. You are falling in the darkness. You feel something solid. Oh, if you only could stop falling! Your body tries to cling to the solid surface. Suddenly…you are slipping. Again, you fall into the bubbling lake. You swallow another mouthful of burning slime. The horrid smell of blazing sulphur combine with the sickening odor of burning hair and scorched flesh. Nausea overwhelms you. Something suddenly reaches out of the darkness and grasps you in terror. They begin to gnash on you with their teeth. All the time you are both screaming at the top of your lungs. You shake the gnashing person off in the darkness. Breathing heavily from the concentrated exertion, you fill your lungs with smoke. While you cough and gasp, the word ‘WATER!!!’ escapes your inflamed lips again. Your throat is on fire. Your tongue feels like a white-hot iron against the parched roof of your mouth. Your gums pulsate with agony, while every nerve in your teeth stabs you with flashes of indescribable permanent pain.”8
Again, there is an awful detriment in misreading or misunderstanding metaphors. It is extremely easy, at least in religious/Christian circles, to become preoccupied with one literary attribute of metaphor over another. In the aforementioned cases, believers attributed primacy to metaphorical vehicles implemented by Jesus while ignoring the metaphorical tenor. Too, they honestly believe that if they were to do otherwise they might be forever damned to the frightening hell they have created.
Watch for the fifth part of this series, titled: The Hell that Does Exist.
1. The literary world is very much aware of the extreme differences existing in Christian literature prior to the eighteenth century and that authored post eighteenth century. Writers in the Dante or Milton tradition meant, in part, for their literary universes to be ‘real.’ Authors in the MacDonald or Lewis tradition revolve around more fantastic worlds and characters, see C. N. Manlove, Christian Fantasy : From 1200 to the Present (Notre Dame, IN University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.: 1992).
2. John Milton and Scott Elledge, Paradise Lost : An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, 1st ed. (New York: Norton, 1975), 1.44-50,61-70.
3. James H. Thomas, John Bunyan, and John Haysom, The Pilgrims’s Progress (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 5.
4. C.H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons, 3 ed., 5 vols., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1983), 314-315.
5. A homosexual perspective regarding the drama is vitally important. The drama is, afterall intended for this person, right? The perspective given by this particular person illustrates the danger in prioritizing vehicle (metaphorical language) rather than tenor (the underlying subject matter toward which the vehicle points).
6. Christian Grantham, Heaven’s Gate and Hell’s Flames [Internet Site] (Xenogeny, 1995 1995, accessed 03/02 2003); available from http://www.christianandvince.com/writing/hell.htm.
8. The Bible Believers.com, The Burning Fall [Internet Site] (The Bible Believers.com, accessed 03/02 2003); available from http://www.biblebelievers.com/Nimeskern1.html.