XFiles: Destination Hell

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 15.)

Last week, Geisler and Turek told us a fairy tale without a happy ending, about a king who disguised himself as a commoner so that he could discover the true feelings of the young maid he’d fallen in love with. This week, they take the supposedly real-life equivalent of that fairy tale, and give the ending not just one, but several grim twists. First, though, they have to make their little rhetorical point about how the Bible is the “box top” to the jigsaw puzzle of life.

We said that if we could find the box top, we’d be able to answer the five greatest questions that confront every human being. Since we now know beyond a reasonable doubt that the box top is the Bible, the answers to those five questions are:

Eh, I’ll summarize: our origin is “God did it,” our identity is “we’re made in God’s image,” the meaning of life is “we were put here so we could make choices that would send us to heaven or hell,” morality is “keeping God’s commandments and spreading the Gospel,” and our destiny is… Well, that’s the rest of this post.

To understand Geisler and Turek’s take on the “eternal destiny” of unbelievers, we need just a bit of a digression. One of the internal inconsistencies in the Christian gospel is the conflict between the humble, loving, self-effacing deity/king of last week’s fairy tale, and the barbaric, unjust, and downright evil concept of Hell, as originally taught in the early church. Various theologians have been trying, since almost the dawn of the church, to find some way reconcile Jesus’ teachings on the subject with the kind of God Jesus also taught. The results have been mixed at best, and it’s not uncommon for later generations to produce a theologian who sees the need to give it another go.

C. S. Lewis is one of the more recent apologists to try and come up with a way to make Hell work in the context of a loving heavenly Father. As he explains at great length in his book, The Great Divorce, Hell is not a place “where the fire never goes out,” nor is it a “lake of fire” that God has “prepared for the devil and his angels,” or at least not literally. Lewis’ Hell is a state of mind, in which sinners are tormented by their own thoughts and feelings, which they refuse to abandon. Heaven could be theirs at any time, but they stubbornly cling to their own evil ways, and thus are personally and exclusively the sole cause of their own agony.

Interestingly, even though this is not at all what was said by Jesus or by any of the apostles, the Lewis Hell seems to be gaining the status of Scripture in conservative Christian thinking. It’s a fascinating study in the evolution of Christian mythology because we can see new “eternal truth” forming in real time, 2000 years after Christ, by conservative Christians seeking some rationalization that will make them more comfortable with the contradictory things their religion teaches. Geisler and Turek give us an inside look at a doctrine in flux, as they present both Lewis’ “damned-because-I-want-to-be” Hell and the original, damned-because-God-damned-you Hell that Jesus taught.

C. S. Lewis said it best when he wrote, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there would be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it…”

You say, “God doesn’t send anyone to hell!” You’re right. If you reject Christ, you’ll send yourself there.

You say, “God will just annihilate those who don’t believe.” No, he won’t. Hell is real. In fact, Jesus spoke more of hell than he did of heaven… God is too loving to destroy those who don’t want to be in his presence. His only choice is to quarantine those who reject him…

You say, “God will save everybody!” How? Against their will? Some people would rather be ruined than changed. They’d rather continue their rebellion that be reformed. So God says, “Have it your way. You may continue your rebellion, but you’ll be quarantined so that you can’t pollute the rest of my creation.”

You see how the Christian doctrine of Hell is being molded and re-shaped to fit the sensibilities of modern, pampered, well-fed Christians like Geisler and Turek? In Jesus’ day, Hell was a place of torment, where the worm does not die and the fires are not quenched, and the sinner cries out for just a drop of water to cool his tongue and relieve some of the agony of the fires around him. Nobody goes there unless God (or His angels) throw them in. Lewis, however, wants to turn that into a self-inflicted mental state whose very substance is drawn from “self-choice.” God is not only off the hook, He’s completely out of the picture, deliberately excluded by the sinner himself.

Geisler and Turek like the sound of that, so they declare that it’s exactly right to say that God does not send anyone to Hell. But then, contrary to both Lewis and themselves, they declare that God does send people to Hell, as a method of quarantining them away from His other children. In fact, according to G&T, God doesn’t even have any choice in the matter: He has to send people to Hell. Evil, you see, is more contagious than goodness and righteousness. Evil has the power to make good people turn bad, but goodness does not have the power to infect evil people and them good.

Kinda makes you think about the relative strength of good and evil, eh?

You say, “You Christians just want to scare people with hell!” No, we just want people to know the truth. If that scares them, maybe it should.  We certainly don’t like what the Bible says about hell. We wish it weren’t true. But Jesus, who is God, taught it, and for good reason. It seems to be necessary. Without a hell, injustices in this world would never be righted, the free choices of people would not be respected, and the greater good of a redemption could never be accomplished. If there is no heaven to seek and no hell to shun, then nothing in this universe has any ultimate meaning… We struggle through this life for no ultimate reason and Christ died for nothing. WIthout heaven and hell, this incredibly designed universe is a stairway to nowhere.

You might want to read that twice. G&T are claiming that without Hell, life would have no meaning, injustice would never be righted, and there would be no respect for free choice. And they also say that they don’t like what the Bible says about Hell. That may be partially true, since they clearly like what Lewis said better than what Jesus said. But while they certainly don’t want to be seen as being the kind of people who condone the eternal torture of the wicked, they’re clearly Hell’s fanboys, given the extremes they go to in order to try and make Hell sound like a good thing.

As for Hell being the only possible means by which injustices are righted, let’s think about that. What does Hell do to right injustices? What does quarantining the diseased do to right injustices? If you’re going to say that Hell rights injustices by torturing the evildoer, then let’s just go ahead and admit that we’re teaching a God who throws people in Hell for the purpose of torturing them. And then let’s admit that when God allows people to avoid Hell by believing in Jesus, the injustices they’ve committed go unrighted.

As for life having meaning without Hell, maybe Geisler and Turek should talk to some of their fellow Christians who do not believe in a literal, real Hell, and ask them if they do, in fact, find any meaning in life. Never mind asking atheists, who have no problem finding all kinds of meaning in life, without an evil sock-puppet god to threaten them. Just ask other Christians if their lives have meaning, without Hell.

They’re getting a bit warmer when they say that “redemption” is pretty pointless without Hell. After all, who needs a Savior if there’s nothing to be saved from, right? And this, I think, gets to the heart of the Christian ambivalence towards Hell. The doctrine is as horrid and barbaric today as it was when Zoroaster first invented it, but it’s an essential part of the Atonement myth. Jesus’ death was brutal and inhuman, so in order for it all to “make sense,” there must be some even more brutal and even more inhuman consequence that he averted by allowing himself to be crucified. Christians need Hell to help them continue to deny that Jesus’ death was as pointless as it was savage.

Chapter 15 ends with Geisler and Turek using a straw-man “atheist” to argue that life has no meaning, allowing them to retort that they have evidence that life does have meaning. It’s the same old game plan of pretending that Christianity is the only source of real meaning in life. Pure marketing bullshit, of course: not only are there other philosophies that find meaning in the universe, but Christianity isn’t very good at the meaning it does claim to provide.

Think about it: how intellectually and morally destitute does a religion need to be before it has to resort to Hell as an essential source of meaning? We’ve got a loving heavenly Father Who loves us so much that He wants us to be with Him forever in a two-way, intimate, personal relationship so close that marriage is only an approximation of the believer’s relationship with God. And oh, by the way, He has created a special place of fire and endless agony that is the ultimate eternal destination of most of His beloved children. And that’s the meaning of life.


Christianity finds meaning in mythic accounts of Ultimate Blessing and Ultimate Punishment in some far-future “next world,” and that’s because it sucks so bad at recognizing the meaning and purpose that are already present in this one. Ask a Christian to explain what meaning or purpose they find in this life, and they’ll fail. They may try to answer, but their answers will all be stories about things they believe happened in the invisibly-distant past, or the invisibly-distant future, in some world outside of our own. Ask for the present, material, here-and-now meaning and purpose of life, and they can’t do it. Not only does Christianity fail to teach them how to recognize materialistic meaning and purpose, it encourages believers to actively ignore even the possibility such things could exist.

And that’s basically where Geisler and Turek end the main body of their book: clinging to Christianity because they cannot acknowledge or even perceive the meaning of life outside their own narrow and superstitious world view. Their hypocritical boasts echo hollowly in a vast intellectual and moral wasteland, proclaiming that their confused and self-contradictory “evidence” has demonstrated “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the Bible is Truth and that it takes more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian. Any honest reader will walk away unconvinced, unless of course he would prefer to be as deluded as Geisler and Turek. For those who truly yearn to believe, Geisler and Turek’s rationalizations will work as well as any other, I guess.

But wait, there’s more: the book has three Appendices: “If God, Why Evil?”, “Isn’t That Just Your Interpretation?” and “Why the Jesus Seminar Doesn’t Speak for Jesus.” Stay tuned.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “XFiles: Destination Hell”

  1. Swimmy Says:

    “If there is no heaven to seek and no hell to shun, then nothing in this universe has any ultimate meaning…”

    Oh, for crying out loud.

    Look, guys. “Meaning” is contingent. It HAS to be contingent, it can be no other way, because objects that do not have minds do not find meaning. The rocks and the trees don’t care if you die.

    Even if heaven and hell are meaningful to God, that doesn’t mean they’re meaningful to me. God is just another mind, just another contingency, nothing ultimate about it. I could accept their existence fully and still find other things more important. So could you. Why does it seem that apologists can’t deal with this? It’s not exactly earth-shaking news that some things are important to some people while other things are important to other people. A paperclip maximizer would find heaven and hell totally uninteresting: “That’s nice, but is heaven filled with the maximum number of paperclips? Hell the minimum number? No? Back to work, then.”

    It would be nice to cobble together the modern instances of “hell is separation from God” in popular apologetics texts. There’s another sighting in Tim Keller’s The Reason For God.

  2. mikespeir Says:

    More than anything else, it was the notion of Hell that turned me from the Christian religion. (And, BTW, it really doesn’t matter what flavor of eternal unpleasantness we’re talking about.) Forget the “What about the ones who’ve never heard?” question. Why would anyone believe who has heard? What about this outlandish story is so compelling that anyone would deserve eternal punishment simply because they can’t buy into it? No amount of rationalizing, by myself or anyone else, could quite convince me there was any justice in that.

  3. Susannah Says:

    My mom used to write the lyrics to Christian hymns. I was thinking of one the other day, a song depicting the meaningless of life without Christ and the eventual joy upon finding him. I realized, suddenly, that this was what she believed, what I had believed and passed on to my kids, simply because we had “accepted Jesus” so terribly young – still infants, really – that we had no conception of life “outside”.

    We were told that no non-Christian was ever “really” happy; they only pretended, to hide the internal angst. No non-Christian had any purpose in life; they only invented fake, meaningless, temporary goals (collecting paperclips, anyone?) to hide their aimlessness.

    And we had no way of realizing the falsehood in these teachings because we had no experience, no data.

    Not until we faced life “without Christ” and realized that the world had opened up, that there was a wealth of joy and purpose and meaning out there. That we had been lied to, by those who were only passing on the lie that had imprisoned them.

    My poor mom!

  4. mikespeir Says:

    ‘Not until we faced life “without Christ” and realized that the world had opened up, that there was a wealth of joy and purpose and meaning out there.’

    And like you say, Susannah, there’s no making them believe that. I wouldn’t have believed it.

  5. Tacroy Says:

    God is too loving to destroy those who don’t want to be in his presence. His only choice is to quarantine those who reject him

    Wait wait wait… Do G&T believe in an omnipotent God? Because if they do, saying “His only choice” is inherently contradictory; an omnipotent God by definition always has an unlimited number of choices. He could declare that green is actually red and that therefore Hell is not necessary, and it would be true. That’s what omnipotence means.

  6. John Morales Says:

    Heh. Good point, Deacon. (you too, Swimmy).

    If Hell is a separation from God, where we stew in our own thoughts, then I’m already in Hell, and really, it ain’t bad. 🙂

  7. pboyfloyd Says:

    Quit stewing in your own thoughts and ‘get with the program’!

    There’s kids’ minds to twist! There’s science to be injected with religion! There’s ‘them’ to oppose! There’s a country to theocracize!

  8. pevo Says:

    fantastic article.