TIA Tuesday: The unfairness of Hell

There are a lot of arguments you could make with regard to the unreasonableness of the doctrine of Hell, but in Chapter 14 of TIA, Vox manages to come up with one so hopelessly garbled and confused that even he calls it “a particularly stupid one.” Not surprisingly, he does not quote any particular atheist making this particular argument, but he attributes it to atheists anyway.

This argument takes the possibility of the supernatural a little too seriously for any of the New Atheists, but one probably encounters it more often from Low Church atheists than one hears all the previous five arguments combined. And since it’s a Low Church argument, it is naturally a particularly stupid one that manages to ignore huge quantities of readily available evidence pertaining to human behavior while simultaneously assuming perfect long-term rationality on the part of every individual human being. This argument states that because Heaven is really good and Hell is really bad, the purported choice that God offers between the two really isn’t a choice, because what sort of idiot would choose to go to Hell? Therefore, it would be unfair for God to send anyone to Hell, and therefore neither God nor Hell can possibly exist.

Vox’s rebuttal (if such a such a misshapen argument could be said to provide an opportunity for rebuttal) is that people choose stupid things all the time, like gambling, drugs, promiscuity, and cheering for the Minnesota Vikings. Apparently, Vox’s opinion of the common man is so low that he imagines vast swaths of humanity being sort of people who, when offered the chance to suffer unimaginable tortures for all eternity, would respond, “Sounds great, where do I sign up!?”

Then again, maybe Vox doesn’t have quite so demeaning a view of humanity, and is merely playing along with the constraints imposed by the peculiar shape of his weird little straw man. If you’re going to base your rebuttal on the assumption that God offers people a choice between eternal bliss and eternal suffering, and some people intentionally and stupidly choose Hell, you’re going to end up making some pretty disparaging observations about those who make the wrong choice.

Then again, perhaps that’s the point of this whole section: to imply that atheists are stupid, and that they deliberately choose to go to Hell (and abuse drugs and sleep around and gamble and other stuff). “I thank Thee, God, that I am not like other men: drunkards, promiscuous, self-destructive, etc. etc…”

There’s a fundamental problem with Hell, and one that bothers a lot of people (including Vox, apparently), so he wants to deal with the issue somehow. He just can’t confront the problem directly, so he creates a disfigured mish-mash of artificial objections that he can use to brag about how superior he thinks Christians are to non-believers.

The fundamental problem is that it’s not fair to send people to Hell for their sins. It’s cruel, despotic, unjust, and barbaric—precisely the opposite of the sort of behavior that would be consistent with a loving and fair Heavenly Father Who was willing to do whatever it takes, including the death of His own divine Son, to make sure that none of His children would perish. So Christians have come up with all kinds of schemes to get God off the hook somehow, ranging from the notion that Hell is only a temporary therapy to “burn” the evil out of you, to the notion that sinners not only deserve Hell, but actively pursue it, and reject all attempts by God to rescue them and relieve their suffering.

None of these schemes really work, however. The idea that God would only torture His children temporarily, until He broke their will and coerced them into submission to His demands, is still barbaric, and flies in the face of what many Christians believe regarding free will. God is not a loving father, He’s a vicious bully who gets His way by hurting people until they holler “Uncle” and promise to become His little toadies. Is that the Gospel?

Or you could say that He doesn’t intend it as coercion, He is merely applying it as a therapy, to cleanse you from your sin. That’s a problem, though, because it’s supposed to be the blood of Jesus that has the power to cleanse you from your sins. There’s nothing in the Bible about pain and suffering having this power instead (and if it did, there’s lots of unfortunate people who ought to be getting free passes to heaven, faith or no faith!) But the Bible says God has the power to wash away sins. If God can cleanse you, then let Him cleanse you, but if it takes agony and torment to cleanse you, then let’s not waste our breath on this “blood of Jesus” nonsense.

You also have the problem of the way Revelation, and the parables of Jesus, portray people being thrown into Hell. There’s no mention there of “This is for your own good,” or “Throw them in the fire until they are refined and come out pure,” it’s all about “the smoke of their torment ascends forever.” Smoke, of course, is used in the Bible as a symbol for things that don’t last, just like real-life smoke quickly disappears and vanishes once the source of the smoke ceases. Thus, “the smoke of their torment” means their torment must last forever, since the smoke would not rise forever unless it had an eternal source.

Despite clear Biblical references to people being thrown into Hell against their will, some Christians like C. S. Lewis have salved their consciences regarding Hell by imagining that sinners voluntarily leap into Hell in order to run away from a God they hate. It’s got to be rather difficult to run away from an omnipresent being, but Lewis imagines that they achieve this to some degree by blinding themselves with the agonies of Hell. So it’s all their fault, get it? God isn’t being unfair at all, no matter what it says in Matthew 7 and 25.

The reason Hell doesn’t sit well within Christianity is because Christianity claims a Jewish heritage, but the doctrine of Hell is a foreign import. Read back through your Old Testament, and you’ll find that Moses knew nothing about a future resurrection and judgment in which the sinners were to be cast into eternal punishment. In the Law of Moses, salvation and blessing, and punishment and cursing, are related to this mortal life, not the alleged next one.

Nor did these ideas enter into Jewish thinking through the revelations of any particular Jewish prophet. You won’t read of Samuel or Isaiah or Joel saying, “Hey guys, guess what? God just told me we’re going to live forever, and that there’s going to be a resurrection where He judges all the deeds we’ve done in this life.” Before the Babylonian captivity, neither the Jewish prophets nor the Jewish people show any awareness of this kind of doctrinal thinking.

After the Captivity, however, everybody knew that the Pharisees believed in resurrection and angels and all sorts of doctrines that are strikingly similar to Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. It’s not that any Jewish prophet revealed these ideas, it’s just that, somehow, the Jews who returned from Persian lands were familiar with Persian religious concepts, and treated them as their own.

So why believe in Hell? If it’s a foreign import, and not really part of Mosaic Judaism as originally taught to the Israelites, why not just send it back to Persia and be done with it? Well, unfortunately, Christians are as hooked on Hell as any cocaine addict is on his pharmaceutical weakness. Without a Hell to be saved from, you see, there is no need for a Savior to come and die to save you from the judgment to come. Christians need to say most people are going to Hell so that they can have a threat horrible enough to justify losing their Messiah to capital punishment.

That’s is the fundamental impetus of the Gospel: to explain how God could let people crucify a man that Christians regarded as His special Messiah. It’s backwards thinking: given that Jesus is dead, what story can we imagine that makes it sound like this is all part of some inspired master plan? It doesn’t so much come from analyzing what a loving, omnipotent Father would really do, since a loving Father wouldn’t create a Hell in the first place, or at least not for most of His own children to suffer eternally in. The problem is more immediate: Jesus is dead, now how can we make this sound like God is still in control?

Hell, for all its flaws and contradictions, is an essential part of that rationalization. It doesn’t matter whether Hell makes God look cruel, despotic and unjust, what matters most is dealing with the immediate problem, Jesus’ death. If Hell can be a terrible fate looming before all mankind, then Jesus’ death can be seen as a noble sacrifice intended to save us from that fate. It’s all part of The Plan, you see. Otherwise, Jesus’ death makes no sense, and the Gospel is a non sequitur.

Just because it meets men’s psychological needs, however, doesn’t mean that Hell is actually true. Hell is such a flagrantly inconsistent and irrational knot in the Gospel knickers that most Christians try to excuse it in some way, and some abandon it entirely. Since truth is consistent with itself, we can safely conclude that Hell is not part of real-world truth. It cannot be separated from the Gospel core, however, which means that the whole Resurrection story is in doubt. Christians don’t have a good answer for this one, and that’s why Vox has to invent an absurd and barely-recognizable straw man in order to have something to “refute.”

 
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Posted in TIA, Unapologetics. 14 Comments »

14 Responses to “TIA Tuesday: The unfairness of Hell”

  1. Ric Says:

    Wow, Vox’s argument is pretty damn incoherent.

  2. Jayman Says:

    I don’t think your post deals adequately with views of hell that do not involve eternal torture of the damned. It seems that all your objections to hell can be answered by those Christians who hold to the universal restoration of all things.

    * If the punishments in hell are proportional to the sins of each person then they are, by definition, just.

    * God’s corrective punishment and eventual restoration of all things is consistent with a God who will do all things necessary to save all of creation.

    * The analogy of hurting someone until they scream “Uncle” is not an apt analogy. A better analogy is a parent punishing and educating a child to make the child a better person. Persuasion (as opposed to coercion) does not necessarily violate free will.

    * The nature of atonement through the blood of Christ is hotly debated and I don’t have time to go into it. Suffice it to say that the purpose of hell is both to punish and to correct and therefore it does not directly overlap the purpose of Christ’s death that you state.

    * Revelation 14:11 and 19:3 do not say the smoke will go up for an eternity, rather they say the smoke will go up “to the ages of the ages” (Young’s Literal Translation).

    * Matthew 25:46 says that the damned will go away to kolasin aionion, “age-abiding correction” (J.B. Rotherham Emphasized Bible). This underlines the finite nature of the punishment as well as its corrective nature.

    The second half of your post is not entirely accurate. The Torah does not provide details on the afterlife but it does mention Sheol (the abode of the dead) in passing. The resurrection of the dead is mentioned in Daniel 12:2. There are numerous Jewish documents from before the Christian era with details concerning the afterlife. Thus, there is no basis in asserting that hell is a foreign import into Christianity needed to explain Christ’s death since hell was well-entrenched in Judaism when Christianity arrived on the scene (though it should be pointed out our stereotypical views of hell may not match first-century Jewish/Christian views of hell).

    Due to the lateness of the Zoroastrian primary sources it is difficult to reconstruct what Zoroastrians believed during the Babylonian exile. I am not aware of Mithraism containing a belief in a future bodily resurrection and judgment. The Jewish resurrection beliefs tie in with OT motifs meaning theories positing borrowing from pagans provide no explanatory power.

  3. Freidenker Says:

    @2
    Well, speaking as a person who was raised Jewish, theology class taught me that the afterlife did not exist in the bible. This is Jewish tradition claiming that Jewish tradition did not incorporate the afterlife before Glut Bavel.

    Regardless,

    A.Who exactly decides what’s “proportional”? If I curse the name of God, do I deserve the same punishment as a serial-rapist and killer?
    B.Since the Jews make less of a fuss about heaven as Christians do, this is a question I have for Christians:
    I do think that if God is a father-figure, he should have some means of educating unruly Children. That said, why must he educate them in completely barbaric and violent ways? When I was unruly, all I got was a severe talking-to. I didn’t have to be burnt with burning feces (That’s Jewish tradition for ya) just so I could start acting nicely. This is an important distinction, since you said that hell is supposed to educate and not coerce, or rather “persuade” and not “coerce”. In that respect, you are completely incorrect: “to persuade” is to use reasoning and logic to create a positive outcome. To coerce is to use violence. God, then, uses violence and not logic when he tortures souls in hell. Torture is not a means for persuading people.

  4. jim Says:

    Punishment is never ‘proportional’ when taken out of a ‘benefits derived’ context. For instance, I might be given life imprisonment for killing someone. My incarceration serves several hypothetical functions:

    It takes a known murderer off the street, thereby thwarting another such act.

    It serves as a warning to others that certain behaviors are not acceptable to society at large, and will be punished-perhaps persuading some to think twice before they commit a crime.

    It fulfills a need for vengeance in many people; not saying that this is necessarily the best motivating factor, but…most of us like to see people get their ‘what fors’ now and again, logically justified or not.

    However, in no way does my imprisonment ever even begin to balance the books for the crime I’ve committed. It’s apples and oranges. That’s the problem with hell, temporary or eternal; it serves no purpose. One might argue differently on the weight of my third point, but I’d argue that actions initiated solely by revenge are irrational, and unjust.

    As far as hell’s ‘corrective nature’ goes, this just seems to be another murky attempt at defending the indefensible. What, is some torment required to straighten out certain immoral characteristics of a person’s nature? But certainly everybody falls short of perfection, even Christians. Don’t Christians continue to sin, right up to the day they die? Will they need a little time in the purging fires as well, then? Or does having accepted Jesus somehow whitewash them in the eyes of God? Then I’d ask, why not use the same process on the others, instead of torturing them first? Is it a question of free will? But, then wouldn’t all the torturing violate that principle? And around we go.

    So much for another torturously construed argument.

  5. Galloway Says:

    DD: ” The fundamental problem is that it’s not fair to send people to Hell for their sins. ”

    Or, as someone (Bertrand Russell?) once said, “An infinite Being, possessing infinite mercy, could not logically condemn His children to an infinite punishment for finite crimes.

    VD: ” Everyone makes foolish decisions that combine short-term pleasure with long-term pain, and the fact that a correct choice should be completely obvious to any rational
    individual . . . ”

    It’s not so much that a great many individuals choose to defy God by trading short-term pleasure for long-term torment, but rather, a matter of them NOT believing God or his eternal punishment is reality and not just a fable. Or, perhaps the Christian notion that ANYTHING can be forgiven weakens their resolve to obey their God instantly, and at all times.

  6. Jayman Says:

    Freidenker:

    * I did not claim that education can only come about through pain.

    Jim:

    * You grant that earthly punishment can act as a deterrent so you must grant that punishment in the afterlife can also act as a deterrent. It seems you’ve refuted your own assertion that hell serves no purpose.

    * I never said that punishment somehow balances the crime nor did I claim pain is the only method to bring about correction.

    * Yes, the Christian would have to be sanctified in some way upon death because he is not of perfect character.

  7. Chigliakus Says:

    “You grant that earthly punishment can act as a deterrent so you must grant that punishment in the afterlife can also act as a deterrent. It seems you’ve refuted your own assertion that hell serves no purpose.”

    I’d grant that yes, in theory, punishment in the afterlife can act as a deterrent. In reality a Christian is just as likely to sin as an atheist or a member of a faith that lacks hell or an equivalent. In addition it’s still unjust as it’s trivially easy for someone considering committing a crime to verify the existence of jail, but impossible for someone considering committing a sin to verify the existence of hell (or god for that matter). I won’t get into the ridiculousness of needing a deterrent for your own creation’s actions or the inadequacy of the free will explanation.

  8. jim Says:

    Jayman:

    A deterrent to what? According to doctrine, we’re automatically guilty due to original sin. You might make the argument that the more a person sins, the more hell he gets. Of course, I was under the impression that sinful acts flow from the original sin nature. Ugh, the doctrine is all so convoluted, I guess you can read pretty much anything into it that you choose.

    Your take on hell is interesting, if unusual. All in all, I’d say your view is less unjust than the eternal sufferings crowd, though I fear you’re in a tiny minority. Or are things shifting? Any major denominations or sub-groups embracing this ultimate restoration of all things idea? Especially any conservative ones? Anyhow, thanks for your input.

  9. John Morales Says:

    My take: It’s clear to me that someone who genuinely believed in Hell and eternal punishment would never knowingly sin.
    Accordingly, I disbelieve that the majority of those who profess such belief in fact do – and this is not, in my opinion, a cynical stance.

  10. Jayman Says:

    Chigliakus, the mere fact that someone is unaware of a coming punishment does not necessarily make the punishment unjust. No one complains when a criminal who thought he could get away with his crime is punished.

    Jim, I was thinking that the prospect of future punishment would give someone pause before sinning. I don’t think original sin changes anything here since it does not rule out salvation (nor do I subscribe to the view of the doctrine you appear to have).

    Regarding the restoration of all things, I would first of all contend that it is found in the NT (e.g., Acts 3:21; Romans 5:18; Colossians 3:19-20). Pick up a literal translation of the NT (e.g., Young’s Literal Translation, Green’s Literal Translation, J.B. Rotherham Emphasized Bible) and you will find that the doctrine of eternal punishment cannot be found, it is age-during or age-abiding punishment. Certain ancient Jewish sources also point to a punishment of a limited time frame (I believe that there is one that says a soul will spend a maximum of 14 days in Gehenna). Universalism can also be found in Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. It is an ancient belief.

    It has made a come back since the Reformation but is not an official position of any denomination I am aware of (some denominations of the 18th and 19th century were absorbed into Unitarian Universalism). Rather Christian universalists are spread throughout many/all denominations. You may want to keep an eye on the Christian Universalist Association (not a denomination) which was founded in 2007.

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    You mean Col. 1:19-20, right?

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  13. Chigliakus Says:

    “Chigliakus, the mere fact that someone is unaware of a coming punishment does not necessarily make the punishment unjust. No one complains when a criminal who thought he could get away with his crime is punished.”

    I doubt anyone would try to argue that a criminal who thought he could get away with a crime came to this conclusion because he didn’t see any compelling evidence that jail existed. If that were the case we’d question his sanity, and rightly so. The vast majority of citizens have had to deal with the criminal justice system in one way or another, even if it’s just serving jury duty or paying a traffic fine. Unlike the idea of god or hell, we don’t have to take anyone’s word on the existence of police, courts or jail.

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