10 Oct 2010

Thoughts on Hell

Religious 15 Comments

Aristos writes to me with a suggestion for today’s post:

[H]ow about addressing this one that [my daughter] brought me. God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die a painful and humiliating death. He knows that we are “screwed up,” so why does He hold the threat of Hell over our heads? She asked me if, once everything was revealed, anyone would deny God’s majesty. I said “I doubt it,” to which she said, “Then the idea of Hell is unfair, for in the end all is revealed.”

It made me think. Either there is no Hell, or God is not so merciful.

This is of course a tough one. (Though for me personally, the toughest one is God ordering the Israelites to kill babies. Yikes.)

OK, if we take the Bible at face value, then Aristos was right to tell his daughter that everybody would know exactly what the deal was, after death. There are at least three passages saying that, at some point, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess to God. And of course, if the events described in Revelation come to pass, even Christopher Hitchens might raise an eyebrow.

So I would agree with Aristos and his daughter, that everybody will realize upon death that the Christians were right. (Of course, I am assuming for the sake of argument that…the Christians are right. What we are doing in this post is exploring whether God is fair, if reality is structured the way that Christians believe it to be.) Incidentally, this doesn’t mean that every Christian is going to say, “Ah, God is just as I imagined Him.” Of course not; our puny minds can’t possibly comprehend a Being of infinite power, goodness, and intelligence. (Personally, I can’t decide if I would find it horrifying or hilarious if God ended up looking like Alanis Morissette.)

So here are some of my thoughts on this issue:

* It seems that the critics of God want it both ways. On the one hand, they are mad that He allows bad things to happen; why does He let bad people get away with stuff? But on the other hand, they are mad that God ultimately punishes the bad people.

* If we are going to have any type of free will, then it seems the world has to have the general attributes that it currently does: Evil is seductive and advantageous in the short-run, but it is actually self-destructive in the long-run. Now a lot of evil’s corroding effects take place even in this world, but ultimately things get settled up–good is shown to be the right course of action–in the next world, for all of eternity.

* There are several places in the Bible where “doing God’s will” is likened to an intellectual feat. In other words, person A obeys God not because he’s a “good person” but because he knows something that person B, who disobeys God, does not know. (For example see my favorite verse.) So in this sense, our time in this world really is a test, in every sense of the word. Yes, after the teacher grades our answers, we’ll all get our scores back and see if we passed. Everyone will know, at that time, if he or she did well on the test.

* Now if we were bound under the Mosaic law, then I think Aristos and his daughter might have a valid point. It does seem a bit unfair that an omnipotent being sets up this system, whereby we have to follow an incredibly complex set of rules or else get punished for eternity.

* However, evangelical Christians (I can’t speak for other groups) think that, in a sense, we had the coolest TA ever come to our study group before the big exam, and he gave us the answer to every question. Instead of answering the really tough questions, we just have to put, “See the work of the TA,” and the teacher will give you credit on it. So yes, if that TA had never shown up, then the whole thing might seem horribly unfair. But with the TA–and the teacher knew all along he’d send the TA to help his students–things are radically different. (This analogy works on some levels, but not on others. Discuss.)

* OK but let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: How in the heck is it fair for God to threaten eternal torment, especially when a lot of people don’t believe in Him for purely intellectual reasons? In other words, why should they be punished for an honest mistake?

Well this is a tough one. Here’s a few things. First of all, I view hell as the absence of God. In other words, if you die and “go to heaven,” what that really means is that you are in the intimate presence of God Himself, for all of eternity. (If that’s not heaven, what would be? Heaven could be nothing more nor less than that.)

So, if that’s what heaven is, then I think all hell “need” be is that you spend the rest of eternity not with God. You sit there and sulk in your own narcissism, forever. Yes, you’re “free” and “independent,” and you realize that it is pure agony.

I admit I do not fully understand it all. There are plenty of things that seem questionable to me about God’s plan. But part of what I mean when I say I “have faith” is that I trust in the character of God. More specifically, I trust the character of Jesus. The guy who spoke the parables, the sermon on the mount, and so forth, was definitely a much better man than I am. And He said that no one is good except God, i.e. the same person who did some pretty serious things in the Old Testament.

As far as the narrow point of current atheists being honestly unaware that God exists, all I can say is this: Now that I have flipped, I find my previous views to be shockingly simplistic. I can remember how confident I was that I had “blown up” my Christian friends’ worldview, and in retrospect I can’t believe I didn’t see the invalid leaps in my own position.

So that’s partly why I write these Sunday posts. I want to disabuse current atheists of the idea that “only morons could possibly be Bible-thumpers.” Maybe I’m totally wrong, but this isn’t something you can dismiss in a few moments. For sure, studying science does not automatically lead one to reject the existence of God.

Speaking of which, if any cynics want to point me to digestible blog posts or articles attacking either Christianity or theism in general, I’d be happy to try to tackle them in upcoming Sunday posts. I’ve got one in the queue already.

15 Responses to “Thoughts on Hell”

  1. Steven R says:

    I came across this yesterday. Interesting thought exercise.

    How could God prove his omniscience?


  2. Daniel Hewitt says:

    I think all hell “need” be is that you spend the rest of eternity not with God. You sit there and sulk in your own narcissism, forever.

    This is exactly what CS Lewis speculated hell would be like in The Problem Of Pain. And it’s how he portrayed it in The Great Divorce. Interestingly enough, he also portrayed it as a place where scarcity and material need do not exist.

  3. fundamentalist says:

    Excellent post! I just have a few additions:

    “In other words, why should they be punished for an honest mistake?”

    The question assumes that the problem is knowledge. It’s not. As Paul wrote in Romans, people know the truth but suppress it. Paul, the Psalmists, and others make it clear that the creation tells us something about God, mainly his majesty. Our consciences tell us about morality and how far we miss the mark. In fact, Paul suggests in the first chapters of Romans that God will use our own words against us at the last judgment (those who haven’t responded to the Gospel). In other words, he won’t use the commandments in the Bible to prove that we are sinners, he will use the judgments we pronounce against others as the standard to judge us by.

    If people respond appropriately to the knowledge available to them about God in the creation (this is why the debate over evolution is so important) and their conscience, then God provides more knowledge about himself to them until he has someone give them the Gospel. This requires miracles and I think there is ample evidence that such miracles happen if you know about the history of missions. Also, see “Into the Den of the Infidels” from Voice of the Martyrs for examples of how people who knew no Christians learned of the Gospel and became believers.

    Also, keep in mind that the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of every person on the planet from the time they are little to persuade them of the truth. The sad thing is that most people continually rebel against what they now about God and suppress the truth in unrighteousness, as Paul wrote.

  4. Jean-Olivier Racine says:

    Not yet a regular reader of your blog. Was planning on becoming one, but I must admit this makes me hesitate a bit. Yet, I will probably read these posts, as I like to challenge my own beliefs all I can.

    The reason I have a bit of a problem with the post is that I feel cheated. The whole of the post is about arguing about specific points of your faith, which is all fine to me although of no true relevance. Where I feel cheated is that the conclusion about cynics thinking all believers are morons and the statement that science does not automatically dismiss God seems like they are 1) put into my mouth as an atheist reader, 2) unjustified considering the content of the post. Nothing in the post leads one to conclude to either statement.

    And if I must answer to you, my objection with religion is rather a simple one. In science, one cannot simply conclude something exists because of the absence of proof against it. And as Steven’s link points out, the opposite is also true. Once can only refuse, as a skeptic might really well have done more than a cynic, to emit an opinion on the subject.

    This does not mean that we atheist all think you guys are morons, we just think that any attempt to make God undeniable, like it has been done so many times in the past, is idiotic. And I think that whenever science is in disagreement with religion (Christianity or other for all I care), science has the last word. Regardless of what the bible says. In such cases, this means that either our interpretation of the bible is wrong, or that the bible as a whole is wrong. But one cannot say which. What cannot be said, however, is that the bible is right regardless of science.

    And as conclusion, I’d like to propose a Sunday post subject: cynicism. How would you attack the selfishness argument?

    Here’s a starting point:


    Although I do not accept the given argumentation as valid and complete.

    Thanks for the blog!

  5. fundamentalist says:

    Jean-Olivier, the link you provided says the book is unavailable for viewing. Still, the thing I find strange about the idea that you can’t find God with science is that the whole premise assumes that God is part of the material world. Science works only with the material world. If God is not matter, then there is no way for science to investigate him. So science doesn’t say that there is no God; it uses the wrong instrument. Uses natural science to investigate God is like using a microscope to study the planets. There is no reason to accept the materialist assumption that only the material world exists. A good discussion of this is in Feser’s “The Last Superstition.”

    And saying that “science” proves something is not accurate. Science can do nothing, because science is merely a set of tools. Only scientists can use those tools and make assertions. And since scientists are human, scientists can make mistakes. Now it’s true that the vast majority of scientists believe that the theory of evolution makes God unnecessary. But there are a small minority of scientists who disagree and think the theory of evolution is bad science.

    And let me dispel the idea that creation scientists don’t recognize some aspects of evolution. Evolution within and between species is totally recognized by creation scientists; they just insist that there are observable limits to the process so that it cannot create new types of animals. As you know, almost all of the evidence for the theory of evolution is between species of the same animal, what creation scientists call microevolution, or what ranchers call selective breeding. The evidence for macroevolution, the change from one animal type to another, is almost non-existent.

  6. Ben Douglas says:

    “It seems that the critics of God want it both ways. On the one hand, they are mad that He allows bad things to happen; why does He let bad people get away with stuff? But on the other hand, they are mad that God ultimately punishes the bad people.”

    I wish to address this point.

    The non-theist’s objection to the concept of hell is not that God punishes bad people. It’s that God punishes good people who happen to have minor historical, metaphysical, and/or theological disagreements regarding the divinity of this or that alleged deity. In other words, it does not matter if I am Jesus-incarnate in terms of my good works according to evangelical Christianity (at least, as I was raised into it), I will still be sent to hell if I don’t utter the correct phrase.

    I am, of course, assuming that Dr. Murphy believes one is admitted to heaven on the basis of a proffered belief in the divinity of Christ, that he died on the cross to pay for man’s sins, etc. If he believes that heaven is solely a destination for people whose bad deeds outweigh the good they’ve done (as determined by an omniscient creator, of course), then I am mistaken.

    Perhaps this is a good topic for a future Sunday thread: Is God consequentialist or deontological?

    Anyway, I enjoy these Sunday posts, even if I don’t see eye-to-eye with Dr. Murphy.

  7. fundamentalist says:

    Ben, you make a good point. A lot of people don’t think Christianity is fair. Society is based on rewards for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior. Muslims believe Christianity is unfair for punishing one man, Jesus, for the evils of others. However, I think both attitudes are true anthropomorphism. Christians are often accused of anthropomorphism, but non-Christians are the true anthropomorphs, because they try to make God to be a human judge.

    Christians may not think God is playing fair in human terms, but they don’t insist that he act like a human. They take him as he is revealed in the Bible, and much of what he did int he Bible we don’t understand the reason for it. Whether we like what God does or not, we are stuck with the way the Bible reveals him to be. In fact, scholarly Christianity insists that God is so unlike us that we can’t really understand him; we can know a few things about him, but we can’t know him exhaustively. So we accept him as he has revealed himself.

    It’s logical to assume that God has communicated with mankind at some point about himself. After all, a major attribute of humanity is the ability and necessity to communicate with each other. If God hasn’t communicated to humanity about himself, then he would be a very hard hearted God and even less like us than the Bible portrays him. Our problem is to determine which of the claims to be God’s revelation of himself is true revelation.

    In sum, the difference between theists and non-theists is that non-theists start with humanity and try to build a god that conforms to their ideas of what God should be like. In other words, God to them is a super human. Theists on the other hand try to discover God in nature and revelation.

  8. Jean-Olivier Racine says:

    Robert, thanks for the reply. On the first point, I actually very much agree and is essentially what I meant by “[…] any attempt to make God undeniable […] is idiotic”.

    On the second point, the very assumption is made, yet again, that the absence of knowledge on a phenomenon proves that God exists. Maybe my wording, using science in its non specific and broad sense made this unclear, but your statement about creationism is exactly what I was referring to when saying one should suspend judgement. Absence of knowledge about the mechanics of new species creation does not in any way prove that God is present, only that our current explanation is incomplete or wrong.

    I do not think that you would agree that the lack of hard evidence towards the source of inflation creation means that inflation is God created. Why would it be different for evolution? I think this gets back to your initial point: if God exists, in cannot be proved so by science (or scientists). This also means that absence of science does not prove God either.

    In any case, as many before me pointed out, there would be no point in faith or freewill if God could be proven to exist.

    • fundamentalist says:

      If I may butt in while you wait for Robert’s answer, I think you’re exactly right. If macro evolution is wrong, that does not prove the existence of God. It merely eliminates one of the arguments against the existence of God. And it demonstrates that science is the wrong tool to use for the study of God. So what are we left with? We’re left with philosophy and using reason and the rules of logic. And Christians have a vast arsenal for the proof of God in that area.

  9. Jean-Olivier Racine says:

    As a side note, I think that a possible mis-reading of my comment is due to the fact that I kinda called myself an atheist, since it was the word that was used in your post. A better word would certainly be agnostic. Although I don’t believe in God, I certainly don’t believe we can say there is none.

    • fundamentalist says:

      Many people move on to the philosophical arguments for God because they don’t want to remain in limbo as you have chosen to do, and they recognize the limits of science in the debate. People don’t have to be agnostics; there are answers in philosophy. Again, I highly recommend Edward Feser’s “Last Superstition” as an intro to the philosophical debate.

  10. K Sralla says:

    Hell. Now that is a troubling subject. All students of the New Testament realize that the Jesus of the Gospels speaks more often of Hell than of Heaven. But then someone will say, “but I thought Jesus only taught about love and foregiveness?”

    In the synoptics, here is a typical type of statement from Jesus: “Those who do not repent will be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, or “those found outside of the Kingdom of God on the day of judgement will be gathered up and burned” says Jesus.

    It seems to me that the idea that is too often missed in missed pop theology is a full enough view of God’s Holiness and justice (this does not negate the Love of God), along with the view that no Human Being is either Holy or completely just. Jesus is teaching that within the Kingdom of God, no sin nor evil will defile his heavenly domain. If then his ultimate plan is to usher in this perfect Kingdom of righteousness, then we must ask how he plans to accomplish this in light of flawed and fallen humanity (don’t ask me how or why God designed his creation in a way that it would fall, since I don’t know).

    Firstly, God must blot out our sin. In the Greek, the word is aphesis, which is often translated “forgive”. In the fullest sense, aphesis means that our past, present, and future sin will be done away with. In other words, God must transform us from sinful to sinless, both in a present legal sense and in a real sense. Therefore, in his ultimate redemptive plan, those who end up outside his Kingdom on judgment day are separated from God forever in the prison of Hell. I’m not sure what all that entails, but Jesus paints this reality as agonizing compared to the reality of eternal citizenship in the Kingdom. In the eternal prison of Hell, there will be the just punishement of God for all those who are not brought into his Kingdom through repentance of sin and faith in the Jesus of the Gospel. Troubling even to many Christians is the deeper yet explicit teaching of Jesus (and later the Apostles) that this repentace and faith is something that is granted to Humans only by God’s grace and mercy, and not by intellectual gymnastics. This grace sent to some and not others occurs despite the demand by God that every living person on earth repent of their sins and believe on Christ for forgivness, plus the guarantee that whosoever will call on the name of the Lord in this manner will be saved.

    One final thought on Hell. It is scary, and it is supposed to be. We don’t know really what the metaphor of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” means experimentally, however we understand that it is not good. Christians also understand however, that God is not sedistic, and will not torment anyone unjustly. That is about the extent of what we can say.

  11. Geoff says:

    Some comments from a Messianic/Skeptic perspective:

    1. Being mad at God for not punishing evil is one thing, but objecting to eternal punishment from God is quite another. Eternal punishment is unjust.

    Surely, God can do whatever he wants, but this is no reason to believe in eternal punishment.

    2. Eternal punishment given to one person outweighs all evil acts ever committed in the world. This is not “equal weights and measures”.

    3. From my Messianic perspective, the Mosaic laws are still binding (cf. Matt. 5:17, Luke 16:17). Gentiles are legally obligated to the Torah less than Jews are (cf. Acts 15:19-20). It seems to me more likely that God wants his laws to be obeyed (however complex) than he would punish us eternally for breaking them.

    4. The TA analogy, though it correctly explains evangelical soteriology, adds insult to injury. Not only do those going to hell get a eternal spanking because of ignorance, honest mistakes and objections, but those going to the eternal party in heaven get there by on a free ride by no merit of their own. Injustice upon injustice.

    5. I agree, Science doesn’t necessarily lead one to disbelieve in God, but it will bring you darn close to disbelieving in eternal punishment, ancient biblical miracles, or any special revelation that God supposedly requires everyone to believe and by which humankind will all be judged.

    Here’s a short excerpt of David Hume:


    From it, a relevant quote:

    “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish.”


  12. Geoff says:

    Note that my skepticism is not against the belief in a God as Creator, but rather against belief in revealed religions and belief in revealed religious texts (i.e. any of the books considered to be the “word of God”).