The Briefing

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Wall Street Journal

Do We Still Need to Believe in Hell?

by Scott G. Bruce

The Briefing

Tuesday, Sept 18, 2018

Tags: Audio, Brett Kavanaugh, Hell, Sexual Assault, Theology

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It's Tuesday, September 18, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Political world turned upside down as Kavanaugh, accuser prepare to testify before Senate

The political world was turned upside down in recent days and the center of it all is the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be the next justice of the United States Supreme Court. Until just a few days ago, it appeared that the nomination was pressing forward of vote before the Senate Judiciary Committee expected by the end of this week, and then reportedly a vote of the full Senate scheduled for September the 24th, but that unexpected explosion that took place in the midst of the process of this judge's confirmation as a justice came at the hands, first of all of Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. She's the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

Senator Feinstein, just a few days ago announced that she had forwarded to the FBI unspecified allegations against the nominee, but then even in more recent days, it became clear that the accusation against Judge Kavanaugh was one of sexual misconduct when he was 17 against a young woman of roughly the same age. But then everything began to be transformed on Sunday with the news that the accuser of Judge Kavanaugh had come forward and publicly made herself known.

The accuser in this case is Christine Blasey Ford. She's a professor of clinical psychology in Palo Alto, California. The story began to unfold in which the professor made the charge that Brett Kavanaugh, along with three friends, had been drunk as teenagers and that two of the boys, actually then young men, had taken the woman into a bedroom where one of them identified as Judge Kavanaugh had assaulted her, put himself on top of her, and at one point having turned the music up, put his hand over her mouth to muffle any noise she might make. She was clear that beyond that, once he escaped, there was no further result. But of course, this raises a host of issues, issues that will be of concern to the United States Senate, issues that will certainly be of interest to the American judiciary, issues that will be of interest to American citizens and should be a particular interest to American Christians.

This is where we also have to peel back the onion, so to speak, and try to determine fairly and honestly what is really at stake here. Michael Gerson, former speech writer for President Bush and formerly a close associate of Brett Kavanaugh and the White House, got this much right when he wrote in his column in The Washington Post, "In the case of Judge Brett Kavanaugh versus Christine Blasey Ford, the moral issues are not fuzzy or unclear. It is seriously wrong, even for a teenager in a drunken stupor, to force himself on a woman. If it happened, it is seriously wrong for a Supreme Court nominee to lie about his past failures if he did. It is seriously wrong to make false inflammatory accusations if she has." Those are three absolutely straightforward statements and all three are irrefutably true. If anything, thinking Christians might want to amplify upon all three, not to minimize anything from any one of those three propositions and moral judgments.

The political context here is hot and it is undeniable given the fact that this new justice will replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely and rightly understood to be the crucial swing vote in so many five-four decisions. Both the Right and the Left, Conservatives and Liberals, Republicans and Democrats understand that the future direction of the United States Supreme Court, perhaps even for the better part of a generation is at stake.

That means a very great deal is at stake and all sides in this controversy clearly understand that. There was something deeply political about the way that Senator Feinstein had released the information to the press. There was something deeply political about the context in which the accusation arose in the first place, but there is also very clearly a legitimate issue of concern here and that's reflected in the fact that not only Democrats, but now several Republican Senators have indicated that there can be no going forward with this nomination until there is a more adequate understanding and clarification of what did or did not happen, what kind of credibility now attaches to the accuser? What kind of credibility now attaches itself to the accused?

The next step in the political context, specifically the operations of the United States Senate, is that we can now be sure that the judiciary committee will hold hearings in which both of these individuals will testify, Christine Blasey Ford is indicated, her willingness to testify and of course Judge Kavanaugh will also be called to testify in the immediate aftermath of the accusation. Judge Kavanaugh made very clear a categorical denial. He denied behaving in such a way when he was in high school or thereafter.

Part

How should Christians think about sexual assault allegations and the moral consequences of those allegations?

Well, let's look at this situation and try to figure out how Christians should think about the actual accusation and the moral consequences of this kind of accusation made in public. Now in the first place, we understand that just about everything in the picture described by this accuser is wrong, it's sinful. It should not have happened.

Indeed, a Christian moral verdict on this will go beyond the limitations of the generalized secular verdict. Some in the secular community will go, “Well, boys will be boys.” But when you're talking about four teenage young males with what seems to be the accusation, clearly have a great deal of alcohol even to the point of something approaching a drunken stupor to say the very least, Christians know that that is itself a sinful and explosively dangerous context in which will–just to state the matter bluntly–nothing good can possibly happen. A next moral consideration has to be the moral importance of the accusation of a specifically sexual offense or sexual crime. In this case, the accusation is that this individual, now Judge Kavanaugh, as a 17-year-old attempted to force himself upon a teenage young woman and did so forcefully against her will–that's not to mention without consent–and then had pressed forward in a way that was, we are now told, interpreted by the young woman as being physically threatening and coercive.

This is where Christians, before we speak any further about this context in this controversy, must say this kind of behavior under any circumstances would be categorically wrong–sinfully wrong, wrong in multiple ways. Just about everything about the picture is wrong: who's in the room, wrong; alcohol being involved, wrong; drunkenness being approached, wrong; sex outside of marriage, wrong; sexual behavior of any form in this context, wrong; sexual behavior against consent, not only morally wrong but potentially criminally wrong as well.

But that then raises another issue that is also very important to the Christian worldview. It matters infinitely whether or not it happened. That is an absolute clarification, a matter of fact that might be very difficult to reconstruct after the span of about 35 years. Now, here we just have to remember how complicated situations like this have been and are now documented to have been.

For example, it is clear that an accusation made after this length of time might well be clouded by confusion in the past. That's not to say that it would be an act of dishonesty on the part of the accuser, but we simply have to rewind. In fairly recent history in the United States, going back to the 1980s and 90s, remember individuals who not only accused but convicted of crimes given what were then called “recalled memories,” when it turned out the crimes never took place. Now that is not to say that the trauma never took place, and the Christian worldview explains why a traumatic experience can be remembered and why it can also be misremembered. Now in the secular context, we are told that one of the issues, and this is understandable that would buttress the credibility of this kind of accusation, is the fact that the accusation was shared with at least someone in a documented manner some years before the accusation if there had been a span of time that had lapsed.

In this case, we are told that the accuser made the accusation against someone at that party potentially, if not actually now identified as Judge Kavanaugh as far back as 2012 or 2013. But this is where we still have to remember that 2012, 2013 is still a considerable distance going back to when the individuals involved were teenagers in high school. We are also told that Christine Blasey Ford had subjected herself to a lie detector test and it passed it, but once again that lie detector test is a test of intentional dishonesty. It's not a test of some kind of historical fact. That doesn't mean that the judge is in this case any more or less likely to have actually been guilty. It just means that that particular form of adduced evidence is not the clincher, that too many it might at first appear to be. By the time the hearings are eventually over in this case and by the time the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate will come to a vote as we expect they will, several questions are just simply going to have to be answered. Just how credible is the accusation, just how credible is the defense offered by Judge Kavanaugh.

Now, remember, we have an absolute contradiction of claims here. We have an accuser who claims that the event happened. We have an accused who claims that the event categorically did not happen. But then we also have to understand that in establishing that kind of credibility, one of the factors at stake is the fact that when you have someone as we're looking even to the larger secular pattern in the me too movement, when you have someone who shows up as a sexual predator, there's almost always a pattern of sexual predation.

There are almost no cases in the MeToo movement in which a powerful man, for example, has been toppled from power or position because of a single accusation, much less an accusation made decades ago for behavior that is alleged in high school. That's not to say that to Christians it's unimportant. It's not just to say it won't be vitally important in this political context. It is to say what you must be looking for is whether or not there is evidence of character that would show up, not just in the accusation of one, never to minimize that accusation, but what even in the secular context has been recognized as the commonality of a pattern. If there is such a pattern that will be a game changer. David Lat, who is a former federal law clerk and federal prosecutor in an opinion piece for the New York Times yesterday pointed out that the need for an adequate determination of these questions is necessary for the nation, for our democracy, for our constitutional system of government, for the accused, and also for the accuser.

Mr. Lat defends Judge Kavanaugh against virtually every single accusation made by Democrats in the Senate and beyond against him and his nomination, but he then goes on to point out that it is in the interest of all these issues to be closely considered, less there be any haste or rushed to judgment that the nation at large will regret. David Lat understands rightly that the key issue here is the character of an individual who would sit as a justice on the United States Supreme Court and speaking to that issue of character. He asked a question openly as to whether or not there is some kind of pattern that would indicate a deficiency of such character. In his piece for the New York Times he wrote, "Speaking of Kavanaugh, he's almost universally praised by his former clerks who are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. He's a devoted husband and father of two daughters who is celebrated as a leader in the federal judiciary when it comes to hiring and mentoring women."

At the same time, there is evidence that the accuser in this case, Christine Blasey Ford, has indeed made some form of a consistent argument making a similar form of accusation against Judge Kavanaugh going back years before his nomination to the United States Supreme Court. These are two big irreconcilable arguments. These are two sides of a moral dilemma that the nation is going to have to face squarely. This is a moral situation that a secular society finds almost impossible to understand and unpack it in a political context in which the stakes are high and misrepresentations are many. It's a situation in which we have a secular society that doesn't even know how to explain moral character or what kind of moral character should be expected, and you have a context in which the crucial events took place 35 years ago, which points to our utter human limitation in trying to reconstruct the past on an event on the basis of this kind of evidence claim and counterclaim. And another inevitable issue to arise certainly to the nation's attention in the midst of all of this is how we factor in not only the passage of time, but the reality of age.

We're a society that sends decidedly mixed messages about young people, teenagers, and the entire era of adolescents, that phase in human life. We're a society that doesn't have any clear way of explaining to what degree or another behavior in high school should be reflective of adult character. It's a demonstration of the fragility and the limitations, the falsity of the secular worldview that in an issue of this kind of consequence with the stakes so high, all of these questions arrive just at the time our society has rendered itself virtually incapable of handling any of them, not to mention all of them together.

Part

Can we escape the knowledge of God’s judgment? Why Hell is a deeply offensive concept to the modern mind

But next, just because it seems in this slide to the fitting place to go, we shift to talk about the subject of Hell, and believe it or not, Hell showed up and the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal. The article is by Scott Gee Bruce, a professor of medieval history at Hofstra University. The headline in the article, and once again this appeared Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, "Do we still need to believe in Hell?” Now, just pause to ponder for a moment that here you have one of the most influential secular newspapers in the world asking whether or not we still “need to believe in Hell.” Now, as you're looking at this article, you might come to the conclusion that there must be a book behind this.

Indeed there is. It's entitled The Penguin Book of Hell. It's just been released by Penguin Classics in the series, which includes the Penguin book of, well just about everything. Penguin has put out an entire series of these well regarded guidebooks and collections, usually annotated and edited by a scholar over the last several decades. But in 2018 what arrives is The Penguin Book of Hell complete with hellish art on the cover and, by no coincidence, it is edited by none other than Professor Bruce, the author of this article in the Wall Street Journal turning to the article, Bruce begins by citing a controversy I discussed on The Briefing in which the current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis, appeared to indicate that he's not so sure about the doctrine of Hell.

And by the way, that follows on a certain kind of doctrinal revisionism that Roman Catholics have given themselves to about Hell for a matter of decades now. It's not insignificant that Benedict the 16th, the Pope proceeding Francis, generally identified as a theological conservative, also decided to at least play around with the idea of revising the concept of Hell as a place of everlasting torment by God's judgment. But as Bruce writes, when it comes to the issue of Hell, "The New Testament is clear on this doctrine."

That's really important. Here you have an historian, none other than the editor of the new Penguin Book of Hell telling us that at least when it comes to Hell as a place of judgment and the outpouring of God's wrath, a place of eternal conscious torment, it turns out the New Testament is very clear. That's an intellectual achievement, having a statement like that have that kind of clarity and candor show up in an article on Hell, oddly ironically timed in 2018 and published in a paper such as the Wall Street Journal. But the interesting thing is how quickly professor Bruce, having admitted that the New Testament is very clear on the doctrine, then celebrates the fact that most people don't believe in it anymore.

Bruce makes the claim that ideas of eternal conscious torment by divine decree predate Christianity, but then he goes on to make a moral verdict about Hell. The Christian understanding of Hell, the biblical understanding of Hell when he writes, "By any measure Hell is a cruel and oppressive concept, a place where sinners suffer unspeakable torments for all eternity, for sins committed during their mortal lives." Now what that tells us is that Hell, the Hell revealed in Scripture, the Hell which has been a part of classical Christian theology is actually a deeply offensive concept to the modern secular mind.

In his article, Bruce then points to the 19th century, quite accurately, by the way, is the hinge in this question, when he writes, "Hell lost some of its purchase on humankind in the 19th century when new scientific theories such as Darwinism eroded the authority of the Bible and the tides of sentiment turned against God's wrath in favor of his mercy." Wow, that's really important because here you have the specific indictment. In this case, virtually celebrated of the fact that a theory such as Darwinism eroded the crucial authority, none other than the authority of the Bible. But then he goes on to talk about a cultural shift in worldview in which he describes the tides of sentiment turning against God's wrath and favor of his mercy. Now that by the way is true. Protestant liberalism in the 19th century sought to redefine the understanding of God away from a biblical God who is infinitely loving and infinitely holy, and that means a God who responds with both mercy and wrath in turn.

Well, you had God redefined simply in terms of human benevolence. God is simply the infinitely benevolent one. God was robbed of his righteousness, of his holiness, and thus, of course, of his wrath. But here's where Christians, biblical Christians also have to understand that God's wrath is not merely a dimension of his personality. It's not an emotive state. It is instead the righteous application of God's own holiness to his judgment, and that's why the Scripture defines human beings in our sinfulness as under the right judgment of the wrath of God rightly deserved and rightly poured out upon sin. This reminds me of the famous quip made by the Yale Theologian, the late Helmut Richard Niebuhr in which he described liberal theology with these words, "A God without wrath brought men without sin, into a kingdom without judgment, through the administrations of a Christ without a cross." But it's also extremely important to recognize another one of the claims made by professor Bruce, and that is the claim that in our increasingly secular and liberal age, for many people, especially the most self-identified as progressive as amongst us.

Hell has been translated from a supernatural verdict and a place of everlasting torment of God's judgment against sin into as describes "a powerful metaphor for the most extreme suffering and squalor in this world." In his introduction concerning Hell in The Penguin Book of Hell. Bruce writes, "Despite the erosion of traditional religious beliefs in the modern era, Hell has survived and prospered, while the belief in Hell as an actual place has declined in recent centuries, the idea of Hell has endured as a dominant metaphor and frighteningly as an inspiration for how to treat other people." Elsewhere in his introduction, professor Bruce writes, "Despite advances in scholarship that if called into question the authority of the Christian Scriptures and scientific developments that have changed the way we think about the human race and our place in the cosmos. The idea of Hell has remained tenacious in Western thought and modern discourse. Hell serves as an all pervasive metaphor for any kind of difficulty." It's important to recognize Bruce's claim that Hell is oddly persistent even in the secular age, but this is where Christians understand that of course it is, and not only is it always will be. Why? Because we can't escape the knowledge of God's judgment and we can't escape even the understanding of Hell. That is a part of what it means to be made in God's image.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, we understand that God has put eternity into the hearts of humanity. Again, a part of what it means to be made in his image, that eternity is an awareness that also reminds us constantly, if not unconsciously, of the reality of pending divine judgment. How does any human being escape Hell only by the sheer grace and mercy of God demonstrated to us in the atonement, accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ? That is the very good news, the infinitely good news, the eternally good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now this new Penguin Book of Hell, that is the occasion for the article, the very book edited by professor Bruce is in the end not all that helpful, although it is very interesting, but I'll let the last word on Hell come from one of the selections. Professor Bruce chose for his book, a selection from the 17th century puritan preacher, John Bunyan, the famous author of Pilgrim's Progress and one of his less familiar works on Hell and on Heaven entitled The Resurrection of the Dead and Eternal Judgment or The Truth of the Resurrection of the Body both of the Good and Bad at the Last Day. Well, John Bunyan has a great deal to say about Hell and what he says is very biblical. I will let his words be the last words of today's edition of The Briefing.

Bunyan writes, "Now, when the wicked are thus raised out of their graves, they shall together with all the angels of darkness, their fellow prisoners be brought up being shackled in their sins, to the place of judgment, where there shall set upon them Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Lord Chief Judge of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth.”

And that's a good and timely reminder that to confess Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords is also to recognize that Jesus Christ is Judge of Judges.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'm speaking to you from Nashville, Tennessee and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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