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:

Booksite with links for title on Kindle, iPad, and Nook:

God Money/Wealth/Mammon: NPTS Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture

North Park Seminary’s Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture this year (September 30th – October 1st) dealt with the “Money and Possessions” in Scripture and Christian Tradition.  It was a challenging time.  Part of the challenge was because, as Hugh William pointed out in his paper, the Scriptures don’t  provide a singular perspective on wealth (money) and Possessions.  Though, perhaps surprisingly common threads are traceable through the textile of the Scriptures.   The being wealthy and having possessions isn’t necessarily condemned, however  the Wealthy are often condemned as those who have often unintentionally gained their wealth and comfort through oppression of others.  Also, consistent is the sense that those of means are to use those means to care for the poor and marginalized, and are not to gain their wealth in exploitative and oppressive ways.  God blesses with wealth and calls the poor blessed.  Generosity and justice are the marks of God’s people.   Money, Mammon, wealth is a power easily can become that which we serve and worship, at times without our realizing it.  Around our possessions, wealth and money we can find ourselves in a place of self-deception believing we can control our wealth possessions, not noticing that our possessions are actually a power that controls us and whom we serve.

To ask about what Scripture and Tradition say about wealth and possessions reinforced for me they ways in which, even for the middle class and poor in this country,  seeking to save money through inexpensive consumer items might be a part of a system of dishonest wealth, ie. wealth dependent upon oppressive and exploitative means. Do we know, do we make ourselves aware of, the conditions under which an item is made and finds its way to us?  Also, those exploited and those who consume the inexpensive consumer products are at times the same people.  Are we aware of the ways in which those with less in this country benefit from the cheap labor in other  countries.   Wealth, exploitation, oppression become a messy question when we begin not only to look at what Scripture says but what those Scriptures mean for us in our context.  And as one begins to probe it is perhaps not so easy to disentangle oneself from the reality that much of our wealth in the US and the West is based on less than just treatment of others, and the exploitation of labor.  This is complicated by the reality that even if one isn’t relatively speaking very wealthy, one to some degree benefits from certain exploitative practices.  But it would seem from scripture that it is less important how much one has, but what one does with it and how one has what one has.

As one who seeks to be knowledgeable of how people are treated in the production and delivery of my goods and services I have to admit that there is much I don’t know.  Living in a New Monastic community I am realizing, thanks to the symposium, that at best I limit my involvement in our system that creates wealth through unjust and “dishonest” means: I have been and continue to be a beneficiary of exploitative processes.  In part because I have bought that debt is the way to prosperity.  I have been tempted and at times in my life bought that “making money” is what is needed to have a living.    I’m coming to see that we have handed over (perhaps it was always in the hands of these powers, I don’t know) our livelihoods and our futures to those whose only purpose is the making of and managing of money.   Unfortunately it seems that we have believed we could control Mammon, and are currently in a situation of being fed up with the god money, but are unwilling to admit that we as a culture and society already bowed down to that God.  Repentance and the sign of repentance in seeking other ways to live without financiers, and speculators and the stock market seems the way forward.  But we are entangled and more entangled than we have yet been willing to acknowledge.   We need to not only attempt to address injustice of the current system but create alternatives that exist within and along side the system of the power of  Mammon.  Ultimately, it is the Kingdom of God that is that alternative.

My “Questions to Occupy America” post in the Priestly Goth Blog is in part a fruit of this symposium.

North Park Theological Seminary Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture

I try to make it each year to NPTS’s Symposium on the Theological interpretation of Scripture though that actually means I on average make it every other year.  This year the theme is “Money and Possessions.”

Last time I was there I live blogged the Symposium in 2009 as well as wrote a couple of reflections.  This year I will try my had at tweeting the symposium. #NPTS$&stuff.

The presenters of papers this year are: Mark Husbands, Hugh Williamson, Gary Hoag, Kelly Johnson, Javier Comboni, Bruce Longnecker, Helen Rhee, Jonathan Bonk. William Willimon is preaching at the Saturday morning worship.

I will also post here my thoughts over the course the next few days.