Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Burning Hell

Are you 100% to go to Heaven if you died today?

He doesn't know I'm doing this, but Eegahinc over at The B-Movie Catechism once suggested I cross swords with him, as it were, over a B-movie. Seeing as how his double feature review of Evil Behind You and The Burning Hell is temporarily delayed, I thought I would get in a post ahead of time before he could cover the subject so thoroughly and wittily that there would be no point in my following up.

One of the two movies he's reviewing in the near future, The Burning Hell, an evangelical film by Estus Pirkle, is available on YouTube, where I watched all eight painful segments in order to bring you this post. Though a little hard to watch, the video gets high marks from me because it opens with a picture of a spaceship. I'm not sure why it opens with a picture of a spaceship, but it's cool that it does. Maybe Pirkle is a Sci Fi Baptist.

It's not really a movie so much as a sermon with lurid illustrations. Estus Pirkle lectures for an hour on Hell while characters in costumes either act out Bible stories or writhe in flames. The acting is some of the worst I've ever seen, though there are a few exceptions: a character with an early death scene is convincing, and the guy playing Satan, though he has a minuscule role, is clearly enjoying himself. Through it all, Pirkle makes it clear that Hell is bad, that you don't want to go there, and that you definitely are going there unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. It's something like a mild video version of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which we'll get to in a minute.

Near the video's beginning, a couple of young men (I don't remember if they even have names) come to Mr. Pirkle in the office at the church where's he's about to preach a sermon, though somehow they don't realize he's a preacher. They want to talk to Pirkle about religion and quickly grow irritated with Pirkle's teaching about Hell. One of them, the film's only convincing actor, says, "I got some livin' ta do, you dig?" The two young men leave and then--you just know this is coming--the convincing actor has a motorcycle accident and transforms into what appears to be about six pounds of ground beef. His nameless buddy is bummed out and shakes his head sadly before returning to the church to hear Pirkle finish his sermon (reporting the accident can wait, apparently).

The man tells Pirkle about his friend's accident. Pirkle pats him on the back, tells him his friend's in Hell, and then goes on with his sermon, making sure to single out the young man every once in a while and threaten him with the same damnation his bike-riding buddy got. Pirkle illustrates his lecture with videos of actors in ultra-low-budget "period" costumes acting out Bible stories, though the modern instruments and wine glasses and other anachronisms produce an unintended comical effect.

Pirkle misunderstands a few biblical passages, though his misunderstandings are not severe. His first dramatization is of the story of Korah's rebellion from Numbers 16; in the biblical passage, the earth opens up and swallows Korah and his followers, and they go "down alive into Sheol" (16.30, NRSV). Pirkle insists this is the first biblical depiction of Hell, and in his dramatization flames shoot out of the ground when the earth opens. Pirkle apparently doesn't realize that early Judaism had no developed concept of Hell; rather, sheol is the shadowy region of the dead under the earth.

The longest dramatization in the film is of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Here we see Pirkle's theology most clearly: he takes Fundamentalism to a new level, insisting that this story is a literal historical event and not merely an illustrative fable, though whether he believes this about all of Jesus' parables or only this one is unclear. He gives a nod to tradition, naming the rich man Dives, and allows plenty of scenes of Dives living it up before finally keeling over, dying, and going to Hell. He also depicts Lazarus going to Heaven, and considering the low budget, it looks pretty good. Perhaps most interesting is Pirkle's twisting of the parable: in the passage in Luke, the only sin Dives commits is ignoring the poor beggar Lazarus at his gate; when Dives is in Hades and Lazarus is in the Bosom of Abraham, Abraham says to Dives, "Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony" (16.25, NRSV). In Pirkle's version, however, Lazarus accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior whereas Dives refuses; Dives's callous treatment of Lazarus is more-or-less incidental.

The viewer comments on the YouTube video aren't particularly nice. It's clear a lot of people don't like this movie, and it isn't hard to see why. For one thing, the bad acting and script-writing lend it a certain callousness: not only does a man skip off to church and leave the dead body of his buddy by the side of the road, but Pirkle singles him out during his sermon and tells him in front of a crowded room that his pal is damned forever and that he likely is, too. All of that may or may not need to be said at some point, but this is hardly the time or the place.

Theologically, the film's errors are two, and the two are directly related. On the one hand, Estus Pirkle feels fit to say exactly--by name--who is in Hell. He even gives a statistical estimate of how many go there each day and minute. The video also has an unintentional smugness: he makes it clear that you are in danger of Hell, but Estus Pirkle certainly isn't. Long-time readers may remember that I addressed that attitude in the short story "The Soul Chamber."

In response to the first error, the Catechism states, "although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offence, we must entrust judgement of persons to the justice and mercy of God" (par. 1861). To some, this may sound like we're softening up, and indeed, there's something comfortably edgy and hard about Pirkle's you're-going-to-Hell style of preaching, but that doesn't change the fact that it is God, and not we, who ultimately judges. To warn people of Hell is our business, but to name people in Hell is pure hubris. Had Pirkle realized this, he could have eliminated much of the film's callousness.

The second error is the Calvinist doctrine of Eternal Security boiled down to its barest basics, that form of Christianity most often chosen for contempt and parody: the teaching that those who use Jesus' name like a magic password will rise to Heaven while everyone else will fall headlong into eternal flames. So firm is Pirkle in this doctrine that, as already mentioned, he uses it to twist Christ's parables. Such a teaching certainly has no historical authority; you can read the lurid martyr stories in Eusebius, for example, who makes clear, as Jesus does, that those who deny Christ under pressure can lose their fellowship with him. Being a Christian does not abrogate a person's free will; he still has the capacity to make the terrible choice to separate himself permanently from God. St. Paul certainly understands this: in Galatians 5.21, after he's finished a standard vice list including such things as quarrels, envy, and drunkenness, he tells his Christian audience, "I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (NRSV). He isn't speaking about outsiders. He's speaking to his readers.

And then there's the most famous sermon ever preached in North America, Jonathan Edwards's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Many Reformed Protestants consider Edwards the best theologian North America has ever produced. He has some real accomplishments, and so it is regrettable that he is most famous--or perhaps infamous--for this sermon. Many people hate it. Probably fewer have actually read it. Even if we criticize it, we should remember its merits, for it is, after all, a rhetorical masterpiece:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.
The deficiency in Edwards's sermon is that he presents an arbitrary God without any real love or mercy. Edwards's God does not love sinners and want them to be saved but "abhors" them. In Edwards's view, damnation is an exercise of God's wrath, which is correct so far as it goes, but Edwards forgets that damnation is also an exercise of man's free will. To Edwards it is not so much man who has turned away from God as it is God who enjoys dangling man's feet over the fire. This is the greatest problem with Calvinism's more extreme forms. There's a hint of similar thinking in Pirkle.

Besides what I have mentioned, I have no real objections to Pirkle's film. Although its imagery is cheesy, meditations on death and Hell are old and venerable parts of our religion. Certainly the earliest Church, as the New Testament makes clear, was full of apocalyptic expectations: believers are to keep awake and keep alert because Christ is returning soon to render to all the things done in the body, both good and bad. Later saints would encourage people to meditate on death for the same reason--it can come at any moment, and so we must be prepared. Though in a world of moderate safety and long life spans and generally soft living it's easy to mock the Billy Grahams who warn us that we could walk out of the sermon and step in front of a cement truck, the fact is we could. Life really is uncertain. Death or the Second Coming really can come at any moment. Though Pirkle's mode of delivery may be questionable, his basic message that death and possibly damnation are looming is an important one. Any homilist who fails to address this is shirking his duty.

And though Pirkle's pictures of Hell with people in funny makeup covered in maggots and writhing in flames are perhaps in low taste, depicting Hell and even meditating on it are not new. The most famous literary depictions of Hell come to us of course from The Divine Comedy, which draws heavily on The Aeneid, and from Paradise Lost. Dante depicts Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven with successive, organized layers, whereas Milton depicts Hell and Heaven as landscapes. Personally, I prefer Milton's vision; though Dante captures the sense of progression necessary for his poem, Milton's sense of exploration is more evocative, and the reader will note that it is Milton's vision that more closely informs C. S. Lewis's image of Heaven and Hell in his own version of Paradiso, The Great Divorce.

On the meditative side of things, just to show that meditating on Hell isn't merely a Christian eccentricity, I have Geshe Rabten's The Essential Nectar, a Buddhist commentary on Yeshe Tsöndrü's The Essential Nectar of the Holy Doctrine, a guide to the Tibetan Lam rim. It includes some nicely lurid meditations on Buddhist Hell, including gems like this:
While you are burning, hell guardians come and inflict other types of suffering. They may pull your tongue out of your mouth, stretch it enormously, and plough it up like a field. Several of them may stand around you and open your mouth with pincers and other tools, pull it out so that it is very big, then put in red-hot iron balls, or boiling molten metal, which burns your stomach and all your entrails. [par. 219]
The Christian concept of meditating on Hell is a means of arousing a life of virtue. G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy notes that it is a bad idea to think of sin in terms of disease; we cure disease largely through rest, but we cure sin through vigorous action, by buffeting the body and making it our slave. Remembering Hell or death or the Second Coming makes the need for such vigorous action appear urgent, and without urgency, we quickly sink into lethargy.

And now I invite you to peruse the meditations on Hell from St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. I also invite you to anticipate with me the upcoming discussion at The B-Movie Catechism.
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