Review: Daniel Meeter, Why Be a Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)

Daniel Meeter’s Why Be a Christian (If No One Goes to Hell) is a mixed bag.  At points the author’s analysis is spot on, at times a little heavy handed in what he rejects, and at moments deeply moving.  Some of this mixed bag is that I clearly am not the author’s audience: I’m a lifelong Christian and a pastor, I long ago wrestled with questions of Heaven and Hell and in my way came to analogous conclusions of the author (I just never wrote a book on them.)  While I know that what Meeter’s calls conventional Christianity, the faith of those who raised me in and taught me the faith only resemblance to Meeter’s “conventional” Christianity was their traditional Christian beliefs about the afterlife.  Interestingly enough this form of the Christian faith I was raised in  while we believed in hell, the reasons given for being a Christian are all the reasons outlined in Meeter’s book.   So I wonder are his somewhat idiosyncratic (and defensible from scripture) position on heaven and hell, necessary to make the point he was trying to make.

He admits the book isn’t really about the afterlife, heaven or Hell, it is an introduction to the Christian life and faith. As a summary of Christian life and faith for the uninitiated, it is a great book.  The author presents Christian faith clearly and without deriding or dismissing other faiths and religions lifts up Christianity as a desirable spiritual path.  Yet, this summary is framed in a critique not only of a contemporary conventional view but one long held by orthodox, evangelical, catholic tradition. So, how is a new Christian or returning Christian to navigate this idiosyncrasy?

So, while I understand that the present misuses and misunderstanding of both heaven and hell (that basically deny the importance of the resurrection) would need a critique of these conventional misunderstandings, I think the presenting as orthodox the rejection of the traditional view is a little misleading as well.  Also I think the positive presentation of Christian faith for the seeker could have been presented without throwing the doctrines of hell and the afterlife out the window.  In this sense I think the author throws out the window the baby of traditional doctrine of an afterlife separated from God (Hell) with the dirty bath water of cultural accretions, misunderstandings, and plain old mistakes of what Hell is.   He simplifies the Hebraic view and treats it as static denying that Gehenna has its own evolution within Hebraic thought. Meeter pits Hebraic ideas against Hellenistic, but Hebraic thought and culture are not normative nor are they the word of God.  The author’s talk about Gahanna while at points accurate is also misleading, since Jesus is using a physical place as a metaphor for a spiritual state, and the pairing of an undying worm with constant fire, doesn’t seem to be the description of a physical place.  The fire of Gehenna would go out, and any worms there will die eventually. I agree with him that hell, or unending torment isn’t the reason to be a Christian.  I even agree that the popular versions of Hell distort what it might actually be, but I think the doctrine of Hell stands, and to some degree the author gets Hell wrong even as conceived by C.S. Lewis and Dante. Thus for both Dante and Lewis as representatives of imaginative presentations of hell from an orthodox and catholic perspective don’t see the torment so much as external punishment but that in hell, God gives us what we said we wanted in this life.  The traditional hope of the restitution of all things is that even after death our souls may awaken to God’s love that is a consuming fire.  The traditional doctrine is more complex than the conventional view that Meeter rightly critiques but in his critique conflate the two. Meeter gives short shrift to Tradition in part due to an anti-Hellenistic bias.

In the end I think you can keep much of the traditional view of the afterlife and keep the emphasis of the book on other things like, love, relationship with God, saving your soul etc., as the reasons for being a Christian.  I have always seen and been taught to see the afterlife as consequence, or corollary to who and what you were in this life.  I have over time come to view heaven less and less as something way out there, and more the deep dimension of the created order where God’s will is done.  In the end I feel the author had a bone to pick on the afterlife.  A bone I share if you are talking about many contemporary conventional views of the afterlife, but I disagree that Augustine’s and Calvin’s views as such, and thus of the Christian Tradition, are the same as the current conventions.  What I’d rather have seen is showing how the current views are (often in subtle and minor ways) distortions of the views held in the Christian Tradition. Thus a great book of introduction to Christian faith and practice is muddied by an unnecessary rejection of tradition.

Daniel Meeter’s blog: http://oldfirst.blogspot.com/

Booksite with links for title on Kindle, iPad, and Nook: http://shookfoilbooks.com/Why_Be_a_Christian.html