TIA Tuesday: The unfairness of HellNovember 11, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
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.”