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Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught about God's Wrath and Judgment Paperback – August 23, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Fear of hell has been instrumental in gaining converts to Christianity, Baker asserts in this critique of traditional assumptions about a punishing torment awaiting sinners and non-believers after death. Assistant professor and coordinator of the peace studies program at Messiah College, Baker argues for a kinder, gentler image of the afterlife that better comports with the supposed nature and intentions of a gracious and loving God. One result is that the book includes refreshing ways of thinking about how justice might be reconciled with forgiveness. It frequently relies, however, on popular Christian assumptions about God and a nutshell "message of the Bible" that not every reader may agree with. This is odd because Baker discusses biblical texts that challenge reductionist assertions. While the book's conclusions are intriguing and sometimes convincing, Baker's vehicle for pursuing and communicating them through annoying anecdotes and exchanges with three individuals cheapens an otherwise sophisticated argument. This should be a useful book for Christians struggling to reconcile Jesus's sacrifice and a loving God with the place of punishment and the necessity for justice.
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"This should be a useful book for Christians struggling to reconcile JesusÂ’ sacrifice and a loving God with the place of punishment and the necessity for justice."--Publishers Weekly, Religion Bookline, June 30, 2010
"A lively, thoughtful and accessible rethinking of one of the most disturbing notions in Christian theology, the prospect of eternal damnation. Put this book on your 'must read' list." John D. Caputo, Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Humanities and Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University
"What I tried to do in my book The Last Word and the Word After That, Sharon Baker has done in Razing Hell - with more brevity, more levity, and probably with more clarity and accessibility too. Highly recommended." Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christianity (brianmclaren.net)
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So I come to Baker’s Razing Hell wanting to be transformed and be “like Christ” but not wanting the baggage of eternal hell. In other words, I am, in the spirit of full disclosure, a biased reader, rooting for Baker to be right, and that can be problematic. But nevertheless I will try my best to review her points and see how convincing they are.
Sharon Baker, a theology professor, takes the role of Virgil in Dante’s Purgatorio, helping three students, Eric, Brooke, and Lisa, who are struggling with the doctrine of eternal hell. One has an unsaved grandmother who is dying and she is tormented that her grandmother will suffer in eternal flames.
Through a series of conversations with her students, some at a sushi bar, Baker explains to them, and us the readers, how the hell doctrine creates inconsistencies with God’s love. Baker asks, “Are we stuck with it?” And if we make hell temporal, a place of purification like purgatory, are we “selling out to a feel-good theology?”
Her goal in this book is to convince us that eternal hell does not fit with Gods’ love and forgiveness while at the same time argue that without hell we can still worship a God who demands justice.
While I wanted to believe her and while I sympathized with her objectives, I found that some of her points needed more support so that after reading this book I did not have some teary-eyed epiphany and grand assurance about living in a universe where eternal hell does not exist. Nevertheless, she makes some compelling points.
One compelling point is that when we believe in a Hell God, we take on his wrathful personality. We may be called to love, but we also share God’s Jungian Shadow for anger and judgment.
Another compelling point is that a loving God makes us repent more than the Hell Monster. In what is my favorite passage in Baker’s book, “Forgiveness doesn’t come after repentance; it leads to repentance.” God is so loving, Baker argues, that our hearts melt from his unconditional love and his reaching out to us. In contrast, the Hell God loses our trust and causes our hearts to harden because the Hell God, who will eternally torture about 666 billion people in Baker’s estimation, is a debased God unworthy of our worship.
This is a huge contrast from orthodox Christian writer Thor Ramsey who in his book The Most Encouraging Book on Hell Ever argues that eternal hell honors and glorifies God. Without eternal hell, Ramsey argues, God is a lame Santa Claus figure with no authority.
She creates a hypothetical figure, an evil doer named Otto who enters the fire as an unrepentant sinner after he dies and in the fire he experiences the purity of God’s love and agonizes over his life of sin until his heart melts and he can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
I found a lot of Baker’s reinterpretations of hell fire to be creative and more the result of wishful thinking than rigorous argument. Additionally, her study of the words for eternal, “olam” and “aion,” needed more development because orthodox writer Ramsey in the aforementioned book discussed eternal in the New Testament with a convincing sense that it means forever and ever.
To Baker’s defense, however, Dale Allison, a very rigorous Christian scholar, does elaborate on the word eternal in the Bible as meaning an indefinite period of time and not forever and ever in fifth chapter of his book Night Comes.
Another point that needed more development is Baker’s argument that the Cross is not a tit for tat sacrifice in which an angry God demands a “pound of flesh” for a pound of sin but a metaphor for our purification.
Baker selects passages from Proverbs and Isaiah which show a God who no longer wants our sacrifices; instead he wants our pure hearts and holy lives. The Cross in other words is about our purification, not our need for a blood sacrifice. This seemed like a very selective interpretation.
I’d like to see Baker revisit the notion of eternity and the meaning of the Cross, but all in all I sympathize with Baker and her three students. Many of us, including Dale Allison, try as much as we can to follow step with the orthodox doctrine of eternal hell but such a doctrine drives us into a deep depression. Even pious believers who embrace orthodoxy, such as the 15th Century Japanese converts described in Francis Xavier’s letters grieved with tears after realizing their lost family members were being tortured in hell for all eternity. As Dale Allison writes, “The good news Francis proclaimed was mixed with some awfully bad news.”
I agree with Sharon Baker that this bad news does not glorify God, as Thor Ramsey proclaims. But I think she should expand some of her chapters to make some of her arguments more airtight. Still, I find Baker a sympathetic narrator and a good writer, and I recommend her book in what is one of life’s biggest debates.