Friday, January 17, 2014

The Ninth Circle

Maybe you’ve heard the expression ‘the Ninth Circle of Hell’ used to describe an excruciating week at the office, a brutal exam or a particularly acrimonious divorce — hyperbolically, one hopes.

The Origin of the Expression

Over six hundred years ago, an Italian named Dante Alighieri wrote an epic poem entitled Divine Comedy. Inferno (Italian for ‘hell’) is the first part of the three-part poem, and it’s from Dante’s allegorical exploration of hell that the concept of the nine circles comes. Hell is depicted as a series of concentric circles representing a gradual increase in wickedness — and corresponding torment — that have their culmination at the very centre, where Satan is held in bondage.

The Ninth Circle of Hell is reserved for the treacherous: Cain, who killed his brother, is there in Dante’s poem, along with Mordred, murderer of King Arthur, Brutus and Cassius, traitors to Julius Caesar, and Judas Iscariot, betrayer of the Lord himself. Judas is charmingly pictured being gnawed at by Satan, Satan’s claws skinning his back, in perpetual agony for eternity.

The Grain of Truth Behind It

While Inferno is an allegory, an extra-canonical work of fiction, and contains a bazillion things that haven’t the remotest basis in the Bible, Dante’s fundamental conception of hell — that there are degrees of punishment for sin — comes from the teaching of the Lord Jesus himself:
“He said to his disciples, ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.’ ” (Luke 17:1,2)
The obvious implication of the words “it would be better” is that the punishment of someone who puts a spiritual stumbling block in his brother’s way will be worse than that of the person whose sin is confined to his own body or heart. There are degrees of punishment. The eternal consequences of some sins are more to be feared and avoided than others.

Stumbling Others

But, like Satan himself, man is rarely content to quietly exercise his free will before God and choose his own destiny; he feels compelled to invite, trick, persuade and compel others to join him in his freefall from grace.

We see this tendency in the concept of Pride parades: It’s not adequate for the majority to sit out the lifestyle debate; we are coerced to get out and celebrate those who are alleged to have won it. It’s almost inevitable in most socialized health care systems: Minding one’s own business when a mother decides to abort her unborn child or a doctor decides to help her is not sufficient; we are compelled by law to fund slaughter with tax dollars.

When we sin, our consciences do their God-given job and make us miserable (at least we hope they do; when the human conscience stops working entirely it’s a bad sign indeed). Our first inclination in trying to deal with our discomfort is usually to seek validation and affirmation from other people that our conduct is really not so bad after all. So we invite others to share in the blame with us. Perhaps the punishment we fear (all the time denying its reality) will not be so great if we can just spread it around a bit.

Satan wants to make sure he has company in Gehenna when he arrives. But co-opting others to share in one’s sins is treachery. It would be better to have a great weight hung around your neck and be tossed into the ocean than bear the responsibility for tempting others to sin.

You know where I’m going with this, right? I’m still stuck on the concept of an ‘evangelical’ atheist, guys like Peter Boghossian, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who are not content to privately disbelieve or question the reality of God, but actively attempt to “talk people out of their faith”.

The Benefits of a Christian Life

Follow my logic here: I’m a Christian seeking to please God. So I live fairly moderately, avoiding certain pleasures in this life and occupying myself with Christ while seeking to know and serve Him. As a result of this choice I have made, I enjoy peace, joy, fellowship with other Christians, comfort in times of grief, strength when I am weak, the conviction that nothing in my life is without meaning, hope of eternal life, friendship with heaven (which, if it turns out to be imaginary, is something I will never be the wiser about) and a view of history and the universe that makes more sense than any I’ve been offered by secular wisdom, among many, many other things. As a very minor byproduct of this worldview and relationship, I also happen to avoid venereal disease and reduce my chances of lung cancer, cirrhosis of the liver and other miseries that make one’s life less desirable. Because the teachings of Christ enjoin me to, I work hard, pay my taxes and try to lead a quiet life, so I make a fairly decent citizen. When I need money, I pray instead of inventing a Ponzi scheme or robbing a bank.

Right, enough self-congratulation: Not saying for a second that I am remotely sinless. But I am way less self- and socially destructive than I was before I knew Christ and, more importantly for the purpose of this post, I am unbelievably less self- and socially destructive than I would be if I embraced the worldview of the evangelical atheists.

I’m not unique in my discovery of the earthly benefits of the teachings of Christ. There are very large numbers of people like me out there. And you can call us all nuts if you like, but you cannot say we’re failing to enjoy our very short time on earth. This ‘God Delusion’ produces a life without regret for the person who fully embraces it and lives it out, and even for some of us that simply stagger along living it in a much more half-hearted way than we should. (Those who are merely pseudo-religious may not enjoy their earthly experience quite so much, but I doubt Peter Boghossian and his ilk would really have much issue with those folks if you could get the two groups talking.)

As a very natural part of this lifestyle, from time to time I seek to share what I am enjoying with others who don’t understand it. If it’s what I really believe it would be odd if I didn’t, don’t you think? And if some of them happen to end up agreeing with me about Christ and opting for the same lifestyle, I’m not sure they’ve lost very much at all.

Two Possible Outcomes

Now, when I die, what happens? One of two things: Either I and others like me are completely deluded and, having lived a life that made us happy on this earth, we simply cease to exist — or we’re not, and something else happens. If that ‘something else’ is that we end up meeting Allah, well, oops. But let’s take it as read that evangelical atheists are not worried about meeting Allah so it’s not really an area of concern for either of us.

And if the ‘something else’ turns out to be anything like what the Bible teaches … well, we’re not the ones with the problem.

Back to the Evangelical Atheists

What sort of miserable, twisted personality seeks to rob another human being of all the emotional and lifestyle benefits that come with the Christian life for … for what? So the successful converts to atheism can hit the bars, brothels and the casinos and ‘eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’? So they can swell the ranks of the overweight, the suicidal and the terminally miserable? So they can help bankrupt the health care system? So they can cheat their employers, slack off and go on welfare because, hey, why not? So they can scream and wail and fall on coffins at the weddings of loved ones because that’s all, folks? So they can camp out in the cold with the Occupy gang and resent the rich and powerful because their only hope is in this life?

You’d have to be sociopathic to fail to see that talking people “out of their faith” is a recipe for causing them a world of hurt, unless you are so completely sure of your position that you genuinely believe you're doing the right thing. Except the evangelical atheists don’t consistently demonstrate such certainty. Richard Dawkins says he is “6.9 out of seven” sure of his beliefs, adding “I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very very low”. He has also used the term ‘agnostic’ to describe himself, rather than ‘atheist’.

Whew! Well, that’s okay then.

You’d have to think such calculated, immoral behavior is, well, treacherous. That it’s a betrayal of your fellow man. That it could set you up for an eternity in the Ninth Circle.

If there is one, of course.

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