24 Feb 2013

A Christian vs. Skeptic on Heaven and Hell

All Posts, Religious 79 Comments

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.

79 Responses to “A Christian vs. Skeptic on Heaven and Hell”

  1. Matthew Gilliland says:

    I think you can frame it a bit more accurately. God isn’t “sending” you anywhere – you’ve chosen not to abide by the rules of his property, and thus don’t get the benefits of association with him. No libertarian can consistently argue that they have a “right” for any person to associate with them or to give them benefits of association, so why would the situation with a God be any different? Sin is “turning away.” It’s walking the other direction from association with God. Hell is separation from God – it’s a choice.

    • Archaeopteryx says:

      Has God established property rights to the earth or to human beings? If so, I must have missed that.

      • CA says:

        You don’t think if someone creates something — continuously — he doesn’t own it?

        • Chris H says:

          Do your parents claim a property right over you? Christians describe humans as God’s children I’ve never heard anyone seriously argue they “owned” their child.

          • Martin says:

            Romans and older civilization did describe fathers in that way. If the metaphor is as old as the religion, then “God as the father” would fit perfectly with the property right interpretation.

            • Chris H says:

              Alright, so if anyone here wants to adopt a Roman interpretation of child-rearing then this analogy could work. But forgive me if I don’t find such a view particularly appealing and I’d be willing to bet most people in the modern developed world wouldn’t find that view appealing either.

              • Ken B says:

                Well I confess about the time my son was in grade 4 I did have a hankering for those good old Roman days.

          • Drew says:

            False comparison. Humans don’t “create” their children in the same fashion that God creates (namely ex nihilo).

            • Drew says:

              I would also add — Nor do parents continuously sustain their children in the way that God continuously sustains all of creation.

              • Chris H says:

                I made a comparison Christians themselves make. If it’s a false comparison then perhaps Christians should stop using the terminology of being God’s children. But nevertheless, let’s get down to the real issue here. Does creation and sustenance imply ownership of intelligent, conscious beings?

                Well, on the one hand you make the distinction that God continuously sustains all of creation. So say a child has to be put in an iron lung for the rest of his/her life made possible by the parents who keep up the machine. In a very real sense, the parents are continuously sustaining their child. And yet I don’t think anyone would argue that child is the parents property. The bounds of morality wouldn’t allow the parents to sell their child they made and continuously sustain. Neither would it be moral for the parents to shoot that child in the head, torture their child, or even to starve their child. The act of creating an intelligent being puts a moral obligation on the creator not the created regardless of whether the created requires the creator to sustain itself.

                Finally there is the ex nihilo creation distinction. That also seems like a meaningless distinction for the question at hand. Property rights for humans don’t require ex nihilo creation to be justified. And imagine a scenario where a human, say through ultra-advanced technology, created a child literally out of nothing. The idea that that child would be property, which let’s be clear that property in humans is slavery, also seems wrong. The normal moral guidelines of parents owe an obligation to their children more than vice-versa would still stand.

          • Matt Tanous says:

            He doesn’t need to claim a property right over you (you being the soul that comprises the self, here). He just happens to own EVERYTHING ELSE EVER. In this sense, He doesn’t send you anywhere at all. He just forbids you entry to His house (i.e. all of Creation), and you are left in the void alone with your continuing suffering.

            • Ken B says:

              So you think Christianity requires souls then? Did they get this notion from the OT?

              • Drew says:

                Ken, they get this notion from Christ himself.

                Matt, you response reminds me of something else I wanted to mention — The defining characteristic of “the second death” (i.e. eternal damnation) as described in the Bible is complete separation from God.

              • Ken B says:

                From where exactly?

                Let’s be careful: I mean a soul that exists apart from a body. Where does Jesus talk about this?

                Why isn’t it in the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed?

              • Bob Murphy says:

                I don’t suppose this will work for you Ken B.?

              • Ken B says:

                Beforte I follow the link Bob I predict Matthew 10:28!


                Yes that’s a good cite Bob, but I wonder if you are aware of the problems lurking here. This is a translation, into English, of the Greek. And the Greek was a translation of what Jesus said. The Hebrew and Aramaic words that likely lie behind that do not imply a transcendant immortal soul. Indeed the OT talks about killing the “soul”. I use scare quotes as we cannot be sure it’s the same word Jesus used. But what is pretty clear is that an immortal bodiless soul is a concept from the Greeks, not found in the Judaism of Jesus’s time. And indeed even psyche refers to something animals have. That”s why one of the creeds on the trinity elaborates to a “rational” soul/psyche.

                So while this cite does bolster the case that Jesus preached eternal life it does not refute the traditional christian understanding that that life is of a body resurrected. You have not caught Jesus teaching dualism here.

                We saw discussion here from many of you about the inspired work of the councils that defined the canon; they also defined the creeds. Souls are not in the creeds.

            • Chris H says:

              In that sense fine, but then all human claims to property rights in this world are specious and the only moral answer is to directly ask god for permission of what to use or not, no property for humans at all, and ultimately no defense for libertarian politics.

              You can’t own things someone else owned first.

              • Ken B says:

                Oh what a good point Chris H.

        • Archaeopteryx says:

          I don’t know what you mean by “creates something–continuously”. Are you making an argument for theistic evolution?

  2. Razer says:

    Or option 3, we go to Unicorn Land and play with unicorns all day. Just as likely as your magical kingdom in the clouds, isn’t it?

    • Dan says:

      I think you missed the point of the post. It was dealing with the “Christianity is a repugnant doctrine” view. Or maybe you understood the post, but you can’t even give that discussion a thought, even just for the sake of argument.

  3. Yosef says:

    Skeptic: Hang on then. What about all the people who died before Jesus came? Since you say you cannot spend a finite time in Hell (though I thought Jesus descended into Hell and brought people out. Well, maybe that’s for another time), then either those people never went to Hell, or spend eternity in hell. If the former, then what need is there for Jesus? If the latter, then why would God have people forever in Hell simply because they died before Jesus came?

    • Brandon Harnish says:

      This, I think, is a very good objection to the atonement theory presented here. It’s far too individualistic compared to how the Old and New Testaments talk about salvation.

    • Brandon Harnish says:

      Also, what about the people who died 5, 10, 15 minutes after Jesus died?

    • Matt J. says:

      Here’s how my son’s first catechism explains this question:

      Q. How were sinners saved before Christ came?
      A. By believing in the promised Messiah.

      Q. Before Christ came, how did believers show their faith?
      A. By offering the sacrifices God required.

      Q. What did these sacrifices represent?
      A. Christ, the Lamb of God, who would come to die for sinners.


      • Yosef says:

        Matt, thanks for your answer. What if sinners still believe in the promised Messiah, but not Jesus, are they saved? That is, what if people hold exactly the same beliefs today as they did before Jesus came. If they were saved then, are they also saved now? (And if so, what need is there for Jesus, if saved is saved)

        • Matt J. says:

          Yosef, once Jesus is revealed as the promised Messiah, believing in the Messiah and believing in Jesus are one and the same. When Jesus taught the people of that day and confirmed his teachings with miracles, the faithful believed in him. Jesus said of himself:

          Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
          (John 14:6 ESV)

          The apostle Peter also agrees:
          “let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—… This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

          (Acts 4:10-12 ESV)

          In Romans 10 Paul discusses the importance of Jesus being preached to the world so that people might believe in him.

          For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
          How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

          (Romans 10:13-15 ESV)

          • Yosef says:

            Matt, you say “once Jesus is revealed as the promised Messiah, believing in the Messiah and believing in Jesus are one and the same”. I know some people (e.g. Jews) who believe in the Messiah but not in Jesus. So what of them? My point is, either you say that Jews, for example, have to accept Jesus (in which case Jews which do not are damned, despite believing in a Messiah) or Jews can be saved without accepting Jesus (in which case why do we need Jesus)

      • Chris H says:

        In addition to Yosef’s question, is it not also the case that knowledge of God was highly geographically limited? Not just that people had been raised in a different faith but had at least heard the Judeo-Christian option, but that there is no possible way certain groups could have gained knowledge of God. Take the Americas for instance which had no contact with any Jews or Christians until Leif Ericson arrived around the year 1000 AD. Or are we assuming that God would have given a revelation to people who would have accepted Christ or performed the proper sacrifices before Jesus?

        If so, one would assume such a person would have tried to spread the Christian faith to avoid having other people be damned (unless they are a heartless asshole which would be a rather odd choice for God to give a revelation to). We also know that Christianity tends to at least get footholds in the vast majority of areas that people get exposed to it, which should imply that christian or jewish groups ought to have been found with no historical connection to the Middle East. The idea that no one, out of billions of non-Christian humans could have had a divine revelation, that not one of them would have been ready to accept such a revelation especially given Christianity’s popularity among huge varieties of ethnic groups is improbable in the extreme. But every Christian and Jewish group traces itself back to an apostle spreading the word or the land of Israel. None of them that I am aware of came upon revelation independently and locally (even Mohammed existed in an environment with lots of Christians and Jews influencing his ideas).

        So yes, given the immense improbability of no other group on Earth containing people inquisitive, good, or at least faithful enough to merit divine revelation other than the Jewish people throughout all of history, we then have to turn to other possibilities to see their probability. The first is that God can allow people to go to Hell without ever letting them know they have a choice in the matter and still be just. Given human moral intuitions (which if God exists should be something he gave us and therefore should be reliable) and that no human developed moral system seems to allow such a conclusion this also seems implausible. Another answer is the Judeo-Christian conception of God is incorrect, a highly probable circumstance given the number of different conceptions of God or the idea that there is no God. Finally, there is the idea that God is not actually just, which seems less probable than the idea immediately preceding but more plausible than the other options.

        None of this is proof I grant, but a rational person doesn’t look at a conclusion, say it is possible, and say therefore it is true. When proof is lacking we should rely on probabilities and nothing the Christian said in this dialog nor in that catechism actually excluded that any other option might be true. At best this is a possible option to take, but without establishing the improbability or even outright impossibility of other options that Christian is not acting rationally believing his conclusion over other options.

  4. guest says:

    Bob is the Krugman of Christianity

  5. Spooner says:

    If God is all good, then why did he create the conditions that made evil possible to begin with? I’m sure you’ve discussed this before, but I don;t think I have ever seen you post about it.

    • Murphy says:

      God gave us choice. Because we have choice we are necessarily limited. With choice we are given freedom to go our own way. The things spelled out for us are and/or were typically for our own good, especially when taken into context.

      • Spooner says:

        But God gave us a faulty mechanism for making choices, namely, fallible brains.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Just to be clear, commenter “Murphy” above isn’t me. I don’t have a problem with his answer, but just clarifying.

      • JFF says:

        False. There’s either an omniscient, omnipotent deity or free will, not both. There’s especially not half way on any of that.

  6. Gary says:

    Making things up to explain obvious plot holes and gaps in reasoning in your religion is nothing new. I could do the same thing right now to justify the existence and holy power of Santa Claus, but it wouldn’t make him real.

    Why are you so dead set on changing the minds of people content with reality? You have a mental deficiency and have to tell yourself stories just to get through life, that’s fine. But editing those stories hastily when someone points out they make no sense is not going to make them less absurd to someone who doesn’t need them.

    • Dan says:

      “Why are you so dead set on changing the minds of people content with reality?”

      Couldn’t he ask the same thing of you based on his worldview, and your comment?

  7. Jim Caton says:

    I acknowledge my shortcomings and work through them. I don’t do it for a ticket to heaven – if heaven exists- I do it because I am better off if at the end of each day I humble myself and embrace the fact that I don’t live up to even my own ideals. So I’m not convinced by this argument…

  8. Jim Caton says:

    And I think a symbolic interpretation placed alongside a literal interpretation is disingenuous. It’s having your came and eating it too.

  9. Isaac says:

    I appreciate the post but I have a problem with modern western Christianity where Christians try to persuade people to believe or try to present any rational argument for Christianity. God’s plan isn’t rational to man and what Jesus did wasn’t logical, that’s the beauty of it. I was the same type of Christian a few years ago but after being healed of crowns disease, praying for women in South Africa for HIV and aids and seeing them healed,I changed my tactics. Jesus and god our alive, there is no need to debate, only introduce. Why would anyone just believe in an invisible God and an invisible paradise? The gospel starts with loving, healing, THEN preaching. If you see someone get out of a wheelchair and walk after being prayed for, its a lot easier to believe in Jesus. Western Christianity relies too heavily on faith rather than the Holy Spirit which will give people the proof in Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit you can feel, hear, and sometimes see God rather than believing in an invisible theology based God.

  10. Isaac says:

    Are* alive, sorry.

  11. UnPractical says:

    “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?”

    Of course, that objection ignores two things (which Bob didn’t mention). First, it assumes that a person stops sinning after they die, and secondly, it ignores that sins (even in this life) are committed against an infinitely holy God. To assert that a lifetime of sin is not deserving of eternal punishment (even if we apply categories of time to the eternal state) demonstrates a particularly low view of the holiness of God.

  12. Dan says:

    I enjoyed reading this post, although it probably raised more questions than it answered. It gives me a lot of food for thought.

  13. Austin Slater says:

    Are you a Catholic, Robert? That’s my assumption, and since I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through college, I’ve developed an eye for these things. It’s kind of like gaydar or something, I guess. I don’t really take issue with people who admit that theism is somewhat irrational, but still have faith. My issue with Catholicism is that the belief system is often presented as being logically deducible, and faith is defended as being rational. Don’t take any of this personally, because as you can imagine I have many Catholic friends whom I respect immensely, and it’s not my intention to make your beliefs an object of ridicule.

    Here’s my main problem with Catholicism: the traditional account given to justify the Church’s authority is based on a circular argument. If I may, I think it would be easiest to explain the problem in question-and-answer or catechistic form. Let’s imagine a dialogue between a defender of the faith and a doubter…

    DOUBTER: Why should we believe any of the things written about Jesus in the Bible?
    BELIEVER: Because the writings contained in the Bible were divinely inspired.
    DOUBTER: But how do we know that?
    BELIEVER: In the early Church councils, the Fathers of the Church reviewed a great body of Christian literature, and after careful deliberation, they determined which texts were divinely inspired, and those texts formed the content of the Bible as we know it today.
    DOUBTER: But how do we know that the Church Fathers got it right?
    BELIEVER: Because they were representatives of the one true Church, we know that their decisions throughout the deliberative process were guided by the Holy Spirit, in a phenomenon similar to divine inspiration.
    DOUBTER: Okay, but then how do we know that this really was the one true Church?
    BELIEVER: Jesus told Peter, “I give you the keys to my Kingdom,” and “You are the rock upon which I build my Church.” These words clearly represent a delegation of authority to Peter by Jesus, whereby Peter would take over leadership of Jesus’ Church after Jesus’ death. From that point on, we can trace a line of apostolic succession whereby the authority given to Peter by Jesus was transferred to subsequent Popes.
    DOUBTER: But how do we we know that Jesus actually said these words to Peter, or for that matter, that Jesus was even divine?
    BELIEVER: It is clearly stated in the Gospels.
    DOUBTER: But why should we believe any of the things written about Jesus in the Gospels? Wait, I think I’ve already asked that question. In fact, that’s the question that led us to this point in the first place. You know, now that I think about it, doesn’t all widely accepted textual scholarship suggest that none of the authors of the Gospels were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life? Why should we accept the authenticity of a quotation attributed to Jesus by someone who had never even met the man? Is there textual tradition from the time between Jesus’ life and the writing of the Gospels to support the veracity of the Gospel writers’ accounts?
    BELIEVER: Well, no, but we believe there was a robust oral tradition that accurately transmitted the story of Jesus.
    DOUBTER: I’m no expert, but everything I know about oral traditions and the general phenomenon of orality vs. literacy indicates that without exception, when a story is told in an oral tradition, it changes every time it is told.
    BELIEVER: Hmmm…

    Of course, none of these represent your own arguments, but this has been my experience in my education whenever I made such inquiries to theologians, professors, or priests. I’ve never found anyone who could answer such a series of questions to my satisfaction. One could of course argue that I’m taking an overly rationalistic or reductionist approach to these questions, but as I said earlier, I only take issue with the claim that there is a rational basis for faith. Rationalism and reductionism would seem to me to be the proper lenses through which to view such problems.

    I have another line of argumentation which can be applied to Christianity in general and which is more related to your original post, but I’m not as confident that this argument will stand up to scrutiny, especially from an Austrian economist. I think I came up with this after reading Pascal’s classic account of The Wager (Le Pari). As far as I know, nearly every notion of justice that has arisen in human cultures throughout history consistently incorporates two fundamental principles, namely reciprocity and proportionality. By reciprocity I mean of course that positive actions are met with positive reactions and that negative actions are met with negative reactions. I believe there is strong empirical evidence that this principle finds its roots in sociobiology (at least for about 80% of us, the other 20% being various species of sociopath who have their own evolutionary strategy to take advantage of the good faith of others, but let’s not get too much into that now). By proportionality I mean the sense that (even if this is a vague concept) “the punishment fits the crime.” Most societies throughout history would agree that you shouldn’t behead a child for stealing a piece of candy. There are of course many other considerations which complicate matters, but the principles of reciprocity and proportionality seem to be fundamental and universal. If we can establish that these are principles of justice from a normative and anthropocentric perspective, it presents problems for the notion of divine justice and Heaven and Hell. We know that any sins, or transgressions against the law of God, committed by Man must necessarily be finite in their magnitude, because Man, after all, is mortal. But the punishment of Hell is eternal, which indicates that there is a dimension of infinitude to it. I hear a lot about how God works in mysterious ways, but how could it be that a God who loves Man so much could allow for this kind of infinite punishment for a finite series of transgressions? Now, the Austrian economist in me says that we can’t make such interpersonal (or maybe “intersubstantial” in this case) comparisons of utility, but when the terms are such that one is known to be finite and another is known to be infinite, I think it works. Infinity is definitely bigger than a finite quantity. In fact, it’s a *hell* of a lot bigger. So from the anthropocentric point of view, Hell would seem to be to be an unjust punishment. Not only that, but if we were to assign a degree to it, we would have to say that it is infinitely unjust, because the difference between any finite quantity and infinity is infinity. So how is it that this God who loves humans could be infinitely unjust by human standards? Maybe God has His own notion of justice that eludes us, but I find it hard to think of banishment to a plane of eternal suffering as anything other than cruel. As I suggested earlier there are holes in this argument. Most notable would be the normative, anthropocentric approach to justice. But if you can agree to that part, I think the rest mostly holds up. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotations from James Joyce, toward the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

    —Then, said Cranly, you do not intend to become a protestant?

    —I said that I had lost the faith, Stephen answered, but not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Austin your radar is a little off. I was raised Catholic (but never got heavily into this kind of historical doctrine), but am now a born-again Christian. It is from a Protestant perspective that I wrote this post, but presumably my Catholic upbringing is still in there, trying to make it rational and not just a “leap of faith.”

      • Austin Slater says:

        Ahh, I see. That makes more sense, but I knew my Spidey sense was telling me something about you being Catholic. Anyway, hope you don’t take offense at the Joyce quote. It’s obviously playing off the cultural tension between Catholics and Protestants, but I find that most people who were raised Catholic, whether they believe or not, find it funny.

      • Ken B says:

        Born again or born from above?

    • Christopher says:

      Are you a Catholic, Robert?

      That’s funny. I am a Catholic. And every time I read the Sunday Posts I can’t help but think “Bob, you’re such a Protestant”.

      • Austin Slater says:

        I hadn’t read any of Bob’s religious posts before this one. I found nothing in the post that indicating he was a Catholic. That’s why I said, “That makes more sense” when he explained his beliefs to me. When I said I have an eye for spotting Catholics, what I should have said is, I have an eye for spotting people who were raised in a culture wherein the predominant religion is Catholicism. Basically, my mind works like this: I see an Irish-looking guy with an Irish name whose speech patterns suggest either that one or both of his parents were from the northeast or possibly the midwest, or that he grew up in one of the aforementioned areas; therefore, in my mental “file” for Bob Murphy, I add the tag, “Catholic.” So… yeah, I’m not a psychic. I just stereotype people for the sake of efficiency in my cognitive computation.

  14. Joseph Fetz says:

    I have a question for clarification, and it involves three cases? What of:

    1) the man who has no concept of God and his teachings?
    2) the man that becomes fully conscious and repentant of his “sins”, but is not a believer?
    3) the man who is not a believer, but has also never sinned?

    I guess that’s technically three questions. I am just curious.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Joseph Fetz, my response to your questions:

      1) the man who has no concept of God and his teachings?

      I don’t know. I think everybody has a concept of God, but obviously there are some people who never heard about Jesus so I’m not really sure on this point. I *do* know that I watched a pastor give a magnificent take-down of the Christians who want to say something like “if you didn’t ever hear about Jesus then you don’t go to hell.” He pointed out that sharing the gospel is then the worst crime you could inflict on somebody.

      2) the man that becomes fully conscious and repentant of his “sins”, but is not a believer?

      I’m saying this is impossible. Localized knowledge man. Hayek to the max.

      3) the man who is not a believer, but has also never sinned?

      Also impossible, except for Jesus. But yeah if you could do it, then you wouldn’t go to hell, either in the Biblical teaching or in my attempt to rationalize it here (because you wouldn’t feel guit or regret).

      • Austin Slater says:

        One of my theology professors (whose son was an atheist) made a persuasive case for the possibility of non-believers being admitted to Heaven. His argument followed along similar lines as the argument that virtuous people who had never heard of Jesus could be saved. It might be the case that some people through no fault of their own were exposed to extremely persuasive people who presented an alluring argument for atheism. If one were to go along and be coaxed by such a “devil’s advocate,” he would not be at fault, but rather in a similar state of ignorance as the person has never heard of Jesus. Maybe you don’t find this so persuasive, and maybe he was just trying to rationalize the fact that his son was a good person despite his atheism, but it works well enough for me.

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        Thanks, and you’re definitely being consistent here. But here’s another question: What of the man named Dick Cheney?

      • Matt M says:

        I’m probably way late and nobody is checking this thread for comments anymore, but I’ll take a chance and ask anyway.

        If hell, as you describe it, is essentially the state of being infinitely aware of your own sins and how they have contirbuted to human suffering, wouldn’t each person then basically receive a “different” hell than everyone else. Like, presumably Stalin has a lot more shortcomings to be made aware of than some guy who never initiated aggression against another person but simply chose to violate the sabbath.

        Under that reasoning, I would think the “hell” that those who have never even heard of Jesus are sent to is probably the most tame version of hell possible. They might see a vision of how great things could have been for their family or society if only they had heard of Jesus, but it would also essentially be through no fault of their own.

        Isn’t this also basically what Dante set up? A sort of waiting-room in hell for those who never heard of Jesus and/or died before his coming?

        • Ken B says:

          It is. Homer is there. But that is based on the idea of limbo, since disavowed by the church I believe.

  15. Austin Slater says:

    ERRATUM: Looks like I put 1 too many “to be”s in there, but otherwise I think it’s alright.

  16. Eric Greene says:

    Thanks for this commentary. Its great to get some discussion on this.

    Some questions that have been thrown around today, concerning the nature of hell and the punishment of the sinner.
    -What about children who never got the chance to accept Christ, being young enough to be unaccountable for their actions?
    -What about people who never had the opportunity to learn about Christianity?
    -What about those who live good lives, yet never embrace Christianity?
    -What does life after death look like? Is there a heaven and hell, or is there more to the description?

    I am a Mormon, and I believe that additional scripture from ancient prophets has been revealed that strengthens the Bible’s position as the Word of God. The Book of Mormon (scripture written by ancient prophets that lived in the Americas around the period of 600BC – 300 AD) adds testimony of the truthfulness of Christianity, and clarifies some of the doctrines concerning salvation and how it is achieved through our Savior, Jesus Christ.

    I believe that in understanding other’s viewpoints, a well rounded education in different religious beliefs is a powerful tool. If you are curious about Mormonism, there is no better way to understand it than to read its core book of scripture (along with the Bible).

    If you want to read the Book of Mormon, here is a link below for the Book of Mormon app, which is free:


    If you’d rather get a hard copy, it is also free to obtain, if you use the link below:


    • Josh says:

      Key word is “adds”.

      I’m sorry, but I am hard pressed to believe revelation of another without some evidence of God’s approval in it. I narrow down what I believe God’s “stamp”. 1. truthful revelations (as such prophets and apostles predicted) 2. signs and wonders (like Jesus’ miracles). It is also a hard thing to believe Jesus warnings in Revelation of adding to or taking away of this book without direct conflict with the Mormon faith.

      The prophet Jeremiah was adamant about weighing the predictions of prophets in his day to test wither or not God was in it. I have examine the Mormon faith. They know better not to predict anything worthy of examination and scrutiny. Jesus predicted the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and Jeremiah predicted Israel’s 70 years of exile but the Mormon’s predict that Satan is attacking the home by pornography and by harmful consumption of caffeine. What is that in worth? I want to know when is the end of the world? That’s worthy of scrutiny.

      With that said, I respect you. I am holding off anymore concerns about your faith and I want you to know I am literally praying for you right now. I only comment because of your links to Mormon sites and your desire to bring others to the Mormon faith. I believe you are blind but my thoughts and prayers are on you.

  17. REACTION says:

    Doesn’t creation presuppose the existence of time? How can one create without cause and effect?

  18. Egoist says:

    “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.”


  19. JMM says:

    Bob-What about the problem of evil? If God is good then why do brutal things happen to little chiildren?

    • Ken B says:

      The short answer — and I wish I were making this up — is that they don’t. We as finite beings are in no position to judge that it wasn’t for the best.

      We have been around this particular tree many times.

      • Egoist says:

        “they don’t.”

        and then

        “We as finite beings are in no position to judge”

        uh huh.

        Next thing we’ll hear is that God is not evil, but good….and oh by the way, nobody is in any position to judge God’s goodness or evilness either.

        • Ken B says:

          It’s like you’ve read these threads before!

  20. George Ford Smith says:

    The skeptic in the dialog is like a Harlem Globetrotter opponent. The rational position is atheism.

    “Atheism is significant only if and when it results from this habit of reasonableness. The American child who grows up to be a Baptist simply because his parents were Baptist and he never thought critically about those beliefs is not necessarily any more irrational than the Soviet child who grows up to be an atheist simply because his parents were atheist and because the state tells him to be an atheist. The fact that the Soviet child in this particular case may have the correct position is irrelevant. So it’s no so much what one believes, or the content, as it is why one believes as one does. . . .

    “I’m going to suggest that if you are concerned with reasonableness, then your foremost concern in any discipline, certainly religion, should be with the truth of religious claims. When the atheist is confronted with the claim that God exists, he’s concerned first and foremost with the question, ‘Is that claim rationally justifiable?’ As corollaries of that, he will be concerned with, ‘What is God?’ How do we define that term? Is the definition intelligible? It’s not. And secondly, even if we can make some sense out of the concept of God, is there any evidence or supporting arguments in support of the existence of a god? Again, there are not. The atheist, proceeding from the habit of reasonableness, will ultimately reject the claims of religion and the claims of theism as false. And therefore he will reject the belief in God as being unreasonable. . . .

    “I think it will come as no surprise to anyone if I point out to you that most Christians, if they were raised in a Moslem culture, would be Moslems, not Christians. Most Moslems, if they were raised in a Christian culture, would be Christians, not Moslems. And because atheism, at least in American culture, represents an unorthodox position, this accounts for why by and large atheists are independent thinkers. . . .

    “. . . the onus of proof is on the person who asserts the truth of a proposition. If I say to you, X is true, I am intellectually responsible for providing some kind of reasons for accepting it. If I do not provide you any reasons or I provide reasons that are invalid, you are legitimately justified in rejecting my claim to knowledge as unfounded and hence irrational. This is probably the single most important principle in regard to the defense of atheism. The theist asserts an affirmative proposition; he asserts that a god or gods exist. The burden of proof falls entirely upon the theist to prove or demonstrate the reasonableness of that claim.”

    Excerpts from a transcribed speech given by George H. Smith (no relation), 1976. You can find the speech here:


  21. joeftansey says:

    “My answer to you then was that God is outside time–He created time as we know it, just like He created space.”

    “Creation” has no meaning outside space and time.

    “There’s no such thing as “3 years” once you’re in the afterlife. It’s just one everlasting moment of total consciousness.”

    “Everlasting” and “eternal” have no meaning outside time either. Technically, neither does experience. So the notion that we could experience anything in a timeless vacuum is, again, contradicted by definition.

    “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”

    Like the part where society could have been awesome, if it hadn’t been for the gays. And it would have been even more awesome if we had all stoned them like we were supposed to… Oh but I’m using the “human” definition of “awesome”, which is different from the metaphysical one. See homosexuality has inextricable metaphysical significance, unlike all the other things human beings can do with one another.

    Seriously. You’re a libertarian. Bla bla bla OT doesn’t apply anymore, but would it have EVER been okay to kill someone for being gay? Not that there isn’t plenty of capital punishment for non-libertarian “crimes” in the NT either.

    • Ken B says:

      We always hear the same two claims on these issues

      1. You need god for morality
      2. All those awful OT things, well that was from a time when people weren’t ready yet to really understand morality.

      These seem contradictory. After all if we can develop enough to know killing gays is wrong, what do we need the god for. And now if we can reject what’s in the OT, what do we need the god for. Seems like we make judgments and someone slaps god’s imprimatur on them ex post facto.

  22. Jorge Gato says:

    I just have to say, 100% pure awesomeness, one of my favorite Murphy posts ever.

    Glory to Christ!


  23. Sir Tenenbaum says:

    First you need to prove that your god exists before we argue about his qualities.

  24. Andrew Keen says:

    That was beautiful Bob.

  25. David Barr says:

    I’m a Christian. Reading your post I would say that it looks like you don’t believe in hell. Or rather you are redefining hell as the sense of guilt you have after you die for doing bad things. What scripture to you have to back up this novel idea? It’s an interesting idea, but you’re presenting this information to skeptics like it is Christian teaching, and I think that it is nothing of the sort.

  26. Jake Tidmore says:

    I see little proof on these religious speculations. Well, let me rephrase that to a more honest appraisal: I see no proof.
    Personally, based on seeing so many cultures, religions, and mores around the world, I think that religion is something that humans have on the outside. It can be something like skin color or a family physical trait; or, it can be one’s language or gestures (language does not communicate internally does it?); or, it can be one’s wardrobe, cultural or current fashion.
    I think this is what makes human secularism the most important view of human kind. It strips away the superstition, the clashing belief systems, the onerous world of gods and goddesses, the overly paternalistic nature of social norms, etc. There is only one rule: Honor all beings.
    There is no narcissistic or vengeful god, no lawyerly parsing of some dusty old tomes, no bombarding other humans with the notion that they’re inferior, guilty, unworthy, and stupid.

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