CHRISTIAN: Praise God! He sent His only Son to die for our sins, so that we could have eternal life.
SKEPTIC: That is a repugnant doctrine. Putting aside all the scientific and logical flaws, look at what a tyrant your so-called God is. He is saying that if we don’t worship him, he burns us forever. What the heck is that?
CHRISTIAN: No, you’re looking at it the wrong way. God isn’t sending you to hell for your failure to worship Him or to accept Jesus. Rather, He sends you to hell because you are objectively a sinner. You broke the law many many times during your life, knowing full well what you were doing, and thus He is going to punish you as the criminal you are. However, although He is infinitely just, He is also infinitely loving, merciful, and self-sacrificing. Jesus is willing to take your punishment for you, because He is the best friend you could possibly have. Yet even here, God respects you as an autonomous individual. If you don’t want Jesus’ offer of help–to take your punishment so that you can enter into paradise on His behalf–then God will respect your decision. If you think you don’t need Jesus’ help, and you want to face the judgment of God on your own merits, go right ahead. God will let you choose that door, if that’s what you want.
SKEPTIC: *sigh* OK fine, God isn’t officially torturing you forever, because you didn’t accept his son. Rather, he tortures you forever, because you–what? Ate pork? Didn’t go to church? Said “go*dammit” in anger? Even if you did something that Christopher Hitchens would agree is bad–like you were a serial killer–it is still monstrous that you should get punished for eternity. Whatever happened to punishment fitting the crime? I can’t even believe I’m arguing with you, but you seem like such a fair, rational person, except when it comes to the Jesus stuff.
CHRISTIAN: This is just another great example of how you’re reaching the wrong conclusion, because you’re not being consistent. You will accept one or two things about my worldview for the sake of argument, without taking my entire worldview in one fell swoop to give it a fair shake. You and I have already argued about whether the notion of a Christian God is compatible with Misesian economics. My answer to you then was that God is outside time–He created time as we know it, just like He created space. So it wouldn’t make sense to have God put you in hell for, say, 3 years if you were a serial killer, but only 2 months if you were just an adulterer. There’s no such thing as “3 years” once you’re in the afterlife. It’s just one everlasting moment of total consciousness.
SKEPTIC: OK fine fine, if you believe a guy could walk on water and feed 5,000 people with some fish, I guess it doesn’t shock me that you could say time doesn’t exist in hell. Still: We agree that God set up the rules, right? So what kind of messed up system has a person be in agony when he honestly thought the weight of scientific evidence and rational inquiry, came down on the side of atheism? Why should such a person be subjected to, what you yourself stress, is infinite torment?
CHRISTIAN: I grant you that hell is often portrayed in this manner, like you’re the same guy you were on earth, but now you’re being dipped into a lake of fire. However, suppose that’s just a metaphor to scare you straight. Suppose that what hell really is, is something more like this: After you die, you achieve “total consciousness,” in the sense that you gain a complete understanding of everything that happened in the material universe from the moment of creation until the final judgement. You realize just how inconceivably wonderful life on earth could have been, for all those thousands upon thousands of years of human civilization, had everyone simply obeyed the rules God gave them. But instead of that, of course, people disobeyed. And it’s not just that they broke seemingly arbitrary commands. No, they did things that they themselves knew were wrong, according to their own professed moral code. The difference is, from their elevated perspective in the afterlife, people can see just how damaging their transgressions were. One offense, which seemed minor to the offender at the time, magnified over the centuries into a mountain of total human suffering, in the sense that had the person not committed that teensy weensy violation of his own professed moral code, then millions of humans over the next few centuries would have had much better lives on the margin. So can you imagine what it would feel like, to see just how wonderful life could have been–no wars, no crimes, no broken homes, no sickness in the sense we think of (because you now realize that too is a product of fear, anxiety, poverty, substandard sewage systems, and other things ultimately traced to immoral behavior)–but we humans screwed it up in our ignorant, spiteful pride? And that the person realizes his own role in that? I submit such a realization–which would be eternal, since time no longer passes–would be pure hell.
SKEPTIC: (pauses) Hmm, that’s very clever, I see how you’re trying to turn it around, so that it’s not God punishing you, but you punishing yourself. Let’s ignore that rhetorical trick for the moment. Even if I stipulate everything you just said, why wouldn’t the same perpetual hell ensnare the Christian? After all, you think your actions on Earth are depraved–you know that even now, with your limited knowledge of how human actions relate to each other, and how the “cycle of sin” perpetuates itself. So how does the fact that you said a prayer inviting Jesus into your heart when you were 8, counteract all of the grief and despair that should hit you like a ton of bricks after you die and realize just what a scumbag you were on Earth?
CHRISTIAN: The person who previously acknowledged he was a sinner, and needed the help of Jesus, can handle the psychological shock of seeing the depth of his crimes. He didn’t realize how much of a sinner he had been, but at least he hadn’t fooled himself into thinking he was “basically a decent person” while alive. And since he has accepted Jesus’ gift of salvation and acknowledged that Jesus is God, such a person in the afterlife now stands in the direct presence of an omnipotent Being who is the source of all truth, beauty, goodness, wisdom, mercy, and love. That is such an awesome moment of comprehension that he literally forgets about all of his crimes on Earth; that stuff is no longer important.
There are two possible states in which one can exist in the afterlife. Since there’s no time in the sense we perceive it in this life, these states are eternal. In one state–called “hell”–you are completely narcissistic, focusing on your transgressions and realizing what a fool you had been, over and over and over again, throughout your life. You are filled with an infinite amount of regret, agony, sorrow, and fury at the horrible system that let this outcome occur.
In the other state–called “heaven”–you are completely selfless, focusing on something that is far more important than anything that ever happened on Earth. You are in the direct presence of a Being that is the fulfillment of every spiritual, philosophical, rational, benevolent, logical, creative, poetic, and romantic yearning that humans have ever had, in their greatest moments. You are filled with an infinite amount of awe, adoration, joy, gratitude, and love at the wonderful system that let this outcome occur.
In which state do you want to exist, forever? The choice is yours.