Two Questions for The Simpsons (& The Squidbillies)

 

In my bible college years, I watched The Simpsons three times a day: reruns came on at 5, 5:30, and 11, and I watched them all.  The Simpsons came out during my high school years (though I, having been an early adapter of the new Fox Network, was aware of their shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show).

The folks at my home church regarded The Simpsons as a bad show; watching it was a sin. For that reason, I had not watched much of it prior to Bible college.  On my first night at college, though, which was a lonely and scary night for me, I found and watched an episode (I didn’t have many choices; I had just moved in and hadn’t gotten cable yet, so I was stuck with network TV).  I watched the show incessantly after that moment all through my Bible college years and even into my ministry years.

I lost touch with The Simpsons after moving to California.  It’s been more than a decade since I watched an episode, either in prime time or syndication.   For some reason, though, I stopped on The Simpsons tonight while channel surfing (something I rarely have the time to do anymore) and saw the back half of an episode.  For some reason, this episode ended with Ned Flanders doing a closing song to the tune of “The Beverly Hillbillies Theme”.   You can hear most of that song if you forward to the end of this video (sorry, couldn’t time stamp it for some reason).

In that song, Ned says that if we don’t worship God, we will burn for all eternity, and that this burning is part of God’s great love for you and me (I’m paraphrasing, but I think I got the words right there, and I know I got the gist right).  Oddly enough, this was nearly identical to something I heard a couple years ago.  I was (again) channel surfing on a Friday night and hit an episode of The Squidbillies.  I’m not nearly as familiar with that show as I am The Simpsons, and I really don’t understand most of what I saw, but I know it was some sort of creature singing a song in church which told listeners that if they didn’t love God they would burn in hell (I tried to find that one and couldn’t).

There is a backhand critique in both of these songs/jokes.  Both of them are implying that there is something wrong with God/the Christian idea of God, that the reality of punishment for sin and/or Hell is contradictory to the reality of a loving God/a genuine relationship with God.  It is an argument against The Faith, in other words, suggesting that the principles of The Faith are inherently self-refuting and that The Faith must therefore be false.

And with that, the writers of The Simpsons and The Squidbillies had me.  Those quick song/jokes were so insightful that they immediately destroyed my faith in the God of the Bible and in any similar God.

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No, actually both these song/jokes just made me want to ask the creators of those shows two questions.  Those two questions are:

  1. Are you sure you understand The Faith correctly?  The creators of these shows clearly have problems with certain tenets of The Faith (either the love of God or the punishment of sin or both).  What they fail to realize, though, is that having a problem with something doesn’t necessarily mean there is a real problem with that something.  If you have a problem with something, the problem may be actually be you instead.  I think this is the case here.  I think the creators of these shows (and the many who will no doubt parrot their assertions) don’t understand The Faith, particularly The Faith’s teaching about the punishment of sin.  I don’t blame them for that; many Christians misunderstand these things, too.  But if you give it just a few seconds thought, you can easily come to a better understanding of them.  The life to come, The Faith asserts, is a life in which people spend an eternity with God.  Many people aren’t interested in spending an eternity with God; they wouldn’t accept it even if it was offered to them (which is constantly is).  And so there is naturally a life for them as well.  That life isn’t that great; no life without God is.  But that’s the life they have chosen, and that is the logical conclusion of their choosing.  Hell and/or the punishment of sin, then, is not so much a threat God uses to force people to love Him (which is how these show creators are presenting it); it is instead a reality God is desperately trying to prevent His children from experiencing.  These show creators have not understood this.  They have misunderstood this, and thus their backhanded critiques based on their misunderstanding is not legitimate.
  2. What alternative can you offer me?  Let’s say that’s not the case, though.  Let’s say the show creators have correctly understood The Faith and effectively undermined it with their backhanded critiques.  That’s still not the end of the story.  It is not enough for them to destroy my faith; they must also provide me with an alternative to my faith.  My faith gives me a way of life (not just “rules” to follow but goals to pursue).  My faith gives me meaning and purpose.  It gives me hope and peace.  In other words, my faith does a whole lot of good for me.  What are these show creators, then, offering in place of that faith?  What are they offering that can do all these things for me?  Are they offering me anything at all?  I don’t think they are, and even if they are, I don’t think it can do what my faith does.  And if they aren’t offering any alternative, anything to replace and compensate for my faith, then what good are their critiques?  If they don’t have any sufficient alternative to my faith, how can their critiques possibly be correct?  I don’t think they can.

I probably will never get to ask these show creators these questions, and that’s too bad.  I can ask them of you, though, you who have heard these critiques along with me and maybe been influenced by them.  I can ask you to ask these same two questions of these and any similar critiques.  And I believe that if you do, you will come to very different conclusions than the ones the creators of The Simpsons and The Squidbillies are offering.

 

Popes, Hells, And Good News

So the Pope said there is no hell.  Or maybe he didn’t.  The story came out one way one day and came out the other way the next.

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Now I don’t know if he did and I don’t know if he didn’t and I don’t care either way.  But I do know some in our modern times have said that.  A well-known and celebrated young pastor wrote a book which basically said that; the book argued for what is called universalism, that is, everyone is saved and “goes to Heaven” in the end (I think it did, anyway; I read the book but found the assertions vague).  There was a movie about Hell on Netflix which said that as well.   Most telling to me, a guy I was talking with once said the same thing.  A group of us were together.  One young lady in the group said she couldn’t believe in a God who would send people to hell.  This guy responded by saying, “I have good news!  There is no hell!”  This guy then proceeded to tell the young lady about annihilationism, the notion that people who don’t “go to heaven” are just obliterated rather than tormented for eternity.

So the notion is there.  And I have a few thoughts about that notion.  These thoughts don’t take that notion on directly; I’m not going to try to prove that Hell is real.  But they do contribute to a proper understanding of it the notion.  In particular, they show that the notion is meaningless, that it not good news and does not (or at least should not) affect the way a person lives and things.  Here are those thoughts:

1. Jesus’ message was not about escaping Hell and/or going to Heaven.  It was about the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ first public message, which I call His “inaugural” or “thematic message”, was not that people could escape Hell.  It was also not that people could go to Heaven.  It was that this thing He called “the Kingdom of God” (“kingdom of Heaven” in Matthew, which is why some people mistakenly think He is talking about the life to come) being near (that is, near in space, not near in time).

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In the Model Prayer of Matthew 6, Jesus further defines this Kingdom of God concept:

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The “good news” or Gospel, then, was not people could go to Heaven/not go to Hell when they die.  It was that God’s perfect and good will was beginning to be done on earth (was invading and overtaking earth, actually), and people could be a part of that, entering and furthering that kingdom.  It was a good news not just for now but for later, not just for the hereafter but the here.

That is what the good news still is, and that is how the good news should be understood.  It should be understood more as a partnership than a business deal, more as marriage than as a beneficial arrangement.  My wife and I married in 2005.  When my wife came down the aisle, she told me she loved me.  Can you imagine if she said something else?  What is she said, “Now you’re sure that if I marry you I get to live in your house, right?  If I go through this wedding, I get to stay at your place?”  How mercenary and stupid that would be.  I wasn’t offering her a place to stay in return for her hand in marriage (though that of course did happen; she did come to live with me).  I was offering to share my life with her, asking her to join my in my life’s work (which she did!).

It is the same with God.  Going to His house after the wedding ceremony (that is, going to Heaven) and not being left outside (that is, going to Hell) are part of the process but not the parts that are emphasized that much.  They are givens.  What God really wants and really offers is something far superior: a chance to share His life and work.  To someone who thinks this way (that is, the proper way), the existence or non-existence of a Hell is really meaningless.  Such a person would walk with, serve, and obey God regardless of whether there really was or was not such a place.

2. There will be loss for those who don’t participate in the coming of the Kingdom of God whether they go to Hell or not.  Let’s say there is no Hell.  Let’s say there is no annihilation, either.  Let’s say everyone, from committed follower of Jesus to militant atheist and everyone in-between, gets to go to Heaven when they die.  That means everyone wins, right?  Everyone gets the same thing.

Not at all.  Those who have not walked with, served, and obeyed God as I described above, those who have not entered and advanced that Kingdom Jesus talked about, will still lose.  Even if they are in the same place as those who did enter and advance the Kingdom, they will lose.  I think Paul describes something like this in 1 Corinthians 3:

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Some think Paul is talking about “degrees of rewards” there.  And that may be true.  There may be such a thing as degrees of rewards in the life to come.  However, even if there are not such formal degrees of rewards (that is, even if God doesn’t put ten stars on one person’s crown (to use an old-time image) and only two on another person’s), there will still be some sort of informal degree of rewards.  Even if everything is the same across the board for everyone, there will still be those who enjoy or appreciate the life to come more than others.  A militant atheist, for example, would spend eternity with the knowledge that this eternity is the very thing he spent his life working against, while a person who entered and advanced the kingdom would spend eternity with the knowledge that this is the very thing he spent his life working for.

So even if Hell is off the table, there is still a risk of loss here.  There is still the reality that a person loses something if they don’t enter and advance the Kingdom as Jesus invited them to.  And thus there is still reason for a person to enter and advance the Kingdom even if universalism was true.

3. The idea that you would accept annihilationism rather than pursue eternity is bizarre.  This is a different train of thought, but one I find equally legitimate and convincing.  Whenever this notion that there is no Hell, even if the alternative to Hell is annihilationism, people seem to be relieved and comforted.  They seem to think annihilationism is an acceptable future, in fact.  They seem to say, “Hey, I won’t go to Heaven, but I won’t go to Hell, either.  I’ll just cease to exist, and I’m fine with that.”

My question is, “Who would be fine with that?”  Who would be fine with annihilationism, and why would they be fine with it.  The opportunity to exist forever in the paradise for which originally intended is right there.  It is not hard to seize that opportunity; all you have to do is believe in and love Jesus.  Why would anybody not do that?  Why would anybody choose annihilation over that?

Imagine someone went to the doctor and was told they had a disease that would kill them in six months but could be cured by a simple pill.  Imagine further this person said, “No, I’ve had 50 good years.  I’ll just take that and be happy.”  Wouldn’t we seriously question this person’s actions?  Wouldn’t we seriously question their thought process and value system?

It is the same here.  Shouldn’t we seriously question the thought process and value system that says, “I’m not interested in pursuing an eternal existence.  I’ll be happy to take my 80-or-so years and leave it at that”?  I think we should.  I think we certainly should question it if we are operating on it.

On the first day of seventh grade, my math teacher asked the class how many of us would be satisfied with a B.  None of us raised our hands.  He told us half of the previous class had raised their hands.  I couldn’t understanding being satisfied with less when it came to a grade or an academic career.  And I seriously can’t understand being satisfied with less when it comes to existence, to your very person and life.  It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ famous statement:

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There is good news, but that good news is neither universalism nor annihilationism.  The good news is that Jesus has invited us not just to live in His house but to contribute to His kingdom.  He has called us not just to go to Heaven when we die but to join Him in bring Heaven to earth.