Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chaos and Fictional Theology

by Ben Howard

As a writer who occasionally has opinions about Christianity I am required by divine fiat to have a definitive position on the issue of the afterlife. A footnote to this rule hastily added in recent years forces me to write about this topic at least once a year to stay in good standing with the (possibly imaginary) powers that be.

Now, before I dive into my very well thought-out, possibly genius, and definitely correct opinion, let me make one quick note: Almost all discussions about the afterlife are stupid, or at least whatever synonym of that word I need to use to both not insult the participants of the conversation and make it clear that I do not see the value in their thoughts on hell, heaven, or divine realms of puppies/ice cream/Backstreet Boys montages.

Clear? Good.

With that out of the way, I'd like to tell you my useless (but remember, totally correct) opinion. I believe in annihilationism.

If you're unfamiliar with annihilationism, be assured that you're not alone. While it was one of the beliefs about the nature of salvation and eternity that some of the Church Fathers subscribed to, it has been a minority view throughout history. At its essence, it bridges the gap between traditional beliefs in hell and universalism. There is no eternal conscious torment in annihilationism, but neither is eternal life granted to all. Instead of hell, those who are not saved are “annihilated,” which sounds a bit violent until you realize that it essentially means they die (like everybody else) and then stay dead instead of being resurrected.

To explain how I came to hold this position, let me discuss two things I hold as universal givens: sin and death. When I use the word sin, I don't mean sin as an individual’s actions or even habits and inclinations. Instead I use the word sin in a metaphysical sense, as the force that un-creates God's good creation. To my mind, this is the central crisis of the Christian story, creation vs. un-creation, existence vs. non-existence, with sin as the force which pushes us closer and closer towards the non-existent, un-created side of the equation. This act of un-creation ultimately results in death, not just the death of an individual, but the death of all existence, everything and everyone.

And while this may seem bleak, here's the kicker, in this telling of the story Christ's sacrifice doesn't save us from our sin. Instead he overcomes the consequences of our sin by resurrection and new creation. Resurrection and immortality are graciously bestowed on a grateful people rather than prizes earned by good behavior or gifts given to all without their desire or consent. Also, it eliminates the unjust punishment present in spending an eternity in hell for a finite number of crimes. We aren't punished for sin; we simply receive the natural consequences of our existence. We live and we die, just like everyone; there just isn't an infinity-length encore.

This belief is simply logical to me, it's clean and direct. It's a system wherein, if you believe in an afterlife, chances are you're right. If you don't believe in an afterlife, chances are you're right too. It treats everyone equally and we all experience the same fate for our actions. It's clear, it's to the point, and it's just.

It makes so much sense.

Which is why I'm also convinced it's completely wrong.

Think about your favorite book, or your favorite movie, or whatever fictional story happens to resonate with you. Think about how the story progresses, how it moves from point A to point B to point C, always laying down more narrative track following the route the author has laid out in advance. The author may even get a bit creative and jump around, perhaps it starts at point C and works backward, maybe it starts in the middle, exploring backstory as it goes, but it always tells an ordered story. If it's a good story you'll get little bits and pieces that explain the motivation of the characters, quick asides about their pasts, small scenes that further illuminate their personality, all of it building incrementally to the final climactic moments. All of it makes perfect sense.

But that's what fiction does; it makes sense.

In contrast, our own lives, our own stories, present us with a far less cohesive narrative structure. Of course order still holds sway over most areas of our lives, causes have their effects, questions have their answers, and crises have their resolutions, but there also exists something else: chaos. And chaos is what ushers in the unpredictability, it's what keeps things from being neatly arranged, ordered, tidy.

And it's the reason why, despite answering all the questions I may have about death and the afterlife, my own closely held beliefs are just too clean and orderly. They are fiction, not reality. 

Yet I don't know what an accurate theory about the afterlife would look like with it's chaos-inflected jagged lines and logic-averse inner constructs. My mind recoils at the complexity such a theory would require, like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a child who has just mastered the ability to count to three. Reality exists to boggle the mind.

But we must believe something, and in the end I believe what I believe, all the while uncertain and almost entirely convinced that what I believe is wholly incorrect. And with this uncertainty come the seeds of humility, not fully developed, but growing, slowly. The ability to listen to others, who I'm convinced are just as wrong as I, and respond with a modicum of grace. 

Universalism? No, but maybe.
Hell? No, but maybe.
Aliens? No...but maybe? 

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHowardOPT.  

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