Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hell is for Believers

There are many unintended ironies in Christianity and Christian apologetics. For instance, Christian apologists claim that their worldview is the only worldview which can consistently “account for” objective moral absolutes, but at the same time they claim that there exists such a thing as a “morally justifiable reason” for allowing evil and that their god has this (cf. Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 171; see also here). So much for the Christian god being “absolutely good.”

Or consider the claim that only Christianity “provides” the necessary preconditions for knowledge, but at the same time Christianity has no theory of concepts to inform a theory of knowledge. So in spite of all the “How do you know?” questions that presuppositionalists discharge in their debates, their worldview has no answer to how one can know anything and can offer nothing more than “We know without knowing how we know,” as John Frame has affirmed (see here).

Another example is the claim that the Christian god is a perfect creator and that it created everything in the universe, including human beings, but at the same time they say that human beings are inherently flawed and depraved creations in need of redemption (see here). According to this view, a creator that is perfect created creatures which are not perfect. This is like saying that “invisible things” are “clearly seen” (cf. Romans 1:20).

One of the more amusing ironies in the Christian religion is the doctrine of hell. According to some of the more outspoken versions of Christianity, hell is the supernatural wonderland of fire and brimstone where “sinners” go after they die and spend the rest of eternity broiling away in excruciating torture in a “lake of fire.” Of course followers of Christian sects which endorse this view of hell cannot help but imagine what this must be like, and this imagination conjures seriously dreadful emotions.

On the other hand, some relatively more milder notions of hell which characterize it merely as “separation from God” and give little detail beyond that. But still hell is to be imagined as a rather unpleasant destination.

But either way, hell has an evangelistic function: it is the stick which the Christian religion holds up to compel obedience. Hell is the consequence for failing to comply fully with Christianity’s teachings, however they may be formulated (it varies, you see). For those on the outside, the threat of hell is used to scare non-believers into the faith; for those on the inside, it is used to scare believers into never leaving the faith.

The threat of hell as a means of bringing people to the Christian faith has its limitations though. If a person is not persuaded that hell is real, its use as a threat will simply short-circuit and consequently have no evangelical traction. This of course heightens the risk of making evangelists who cite hell in their apologetic schemes appear all the sillier. Then again, the real purpose of hell is not to attract newcomers to the faith, for it is not a very attractive feature to begin with, and it is impotent before non-belief.

Its real purpose is to shut the doors behind the believer’s back once he’s confessionally invested himself in the Christian devotional program, preventing his exit from the faith after he starts to discover that Christianity is not quite what it was touted to be when he initially came under its influence. No believer who takes a careful look at what his religion commands him to believe will ever be fully satisfied with the “answers” it provides in response to his questions and the explanations it offers to assuage his doubts. And while believers are taught to believe that doubts are something to be neutralized, salvation doubt is in fact an integral feature of the devotional scheme (see for instance here). The purpose of the doctrine of hell is to raise the stakes on the believer by framing them in terms of consequences that are eternal, inescapable and inevitable. The notion of hell has no purpose for those who do not believe it is real; it only works on those who buy into this notion in the first place.

Many Christians will argue that, if you take away the threat of an eternal hell, human beings will no longer have any reason to be moral. If there is no punishment for immoral action, they reason, then this just opens the doors to those who want to revel in immoral action with impunity. Such arguments assume that man is inherently disinclined toward moral action in the first place, which simply begs the question in favor of Christianity by assuming a) the essential model of Christianity’s morality and b) the Christian conception of man as inherently disposed to what is not moral. The Christian understanding of man and morality entails the premise that, if men are free to choose between the moral and the immoral, they will naturally choose the immoral, and thus they need a stick to keep them in line with the moral. Whatever is considered moral on such a view, cannot be something that man is inclined to consider compatible with his own interests. Human beings are biological organisms which face the fundamental alternative of life vs. death. So if it can be said that human beings are predisposed to any action to begin with, it would be action which results in self-preservation. The implication then is that the nature of the moral code assumed by such argumentation does not allow for action aiming for self-preservation. 

The motivation to be “good” on such a view, is not to achieve some kind of ultimate reward that the doer can enjoy for himself (since an ultimate reward on such a view is impossible – the only thing that could come close to qualifying as an “ultimate reward” on the Christian view is “salvation,” and Christianity is very clear that human beings cannot earn this reward), but in order hopefully to avoid eternal punishment. If one accepts this kind of morality and the view that human nature is predisposed to the immoral, the system is essentially rigged to predispose human beings to look for loopholes, and the more they look for those loopholes, the more they find and the bigger they get. Just consider the Catholic Church and its history.

The proper alternative to all of this is the rational alternative – namely the view of man that recognizes his biological need for values, and a morality focused on values which man can rightfully earn by his own effort and at his own expense by means of mutually consensual trade with others. The motivation for moral action, then, is the achievement and preservation of one’s own values, which can only foster moral responsibility, independence, self-esteem, a sense of moral purpose, and a life enjoyed without guilt. None of these virtues are possible on a consistent application of the Christian worldview. Alternatively, if one fails to pursue the moral path, he loses out, for he will end up sacrificing his values. Indeed, sacrifice of values is what Christianity calls moral in the first place. So the contrasts couldn’t be clearer.

On the Christian worldview, there is no reward possible for what it considers “moral” behavior; on the Objectivist view, values – up to and including an enjoyable life – are the reward of moral behavior. Objectivism proves that moral behavior is achieved without the threat of hell. The threat of some cosmic punishment to compel moral action is not morally necessary; for on the Objectivist view, moral action doesn’t need to be “compelled” in the first place – a person wants to what is moral, for he gains from it directly. So the notion of punishment in hell misses the point. Also, belief in hell is clearly irrational, for one would have to ignore the fundamental distinction between reality and imagination in order to pretend that it is real, and one must at the very least pretend that hell is real for it to have its desired effect, i.e., psychologically brow-beating man into a worthless, spiritless schmoo.

So the notion of hell is clearly not for those who adopt rational philosophy. On the contrary, hell is only for believers.

As part of the requirements of their worldview, Christians believe the following things about hell; it can also be safely said that they also fear these things. It is important to note the contrasts between believers and non-believers on each point:
Believers believe that hell is real.  
Non-believers do not have this worry.  
Believers believe that there is a hell waiting for some people after death.  
Non-believers do not have this worry.  
Believers hope that the hell they imagine to be waiting for some people after death, is not waiting for them.  
Non-believers do not have this worry.  
Believers are motivated to do whatever it takes to avoid winding up in hell.  
Non-believers do not have this worry.  
Believers believe that it is possible to profess belief in Christ and yet still wind up in hell for eternity.  
Non-believers do not have this worry.  
Believers consider hell to be a destiny most feared.  
Non-believers do not have this worry.  
Believers can never be fully assured that their salvation is eternally secure and that they will escape an eternity in hell.  
Non-believers do not have this worry.
Of course, how any individual believer reacts to the notion of hell depends on what he comes to understand it to mean. The “bite” of hell is in the details of its description. Various passages in the New Testament describe it as a place with a lake of fire, where the souls of deceased sinners cook for all eternity with no hope of escape. If asked where this place is, believers will give you different answers, but none can show us where it is on any map. It is accessible to the human mind only by means of imagination: we must imagine Christianity’s hell if we are to understand what it is supposed to be. For hell to be something one believes (a minimum requirement in Christianity), the believer has no alternative to imagine it. Of course, it helps to adhere to a worldview which blurs the distinction between reality and imagination. So Christianity is the perfect setting for such dreadful depictions.

The Calvin-influenced preacher of Colonial America, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), delivered in his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God the following vividly imagined description of what happens to “the sinner” once he’s been condemned to punishment:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked, his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night, that you was [sic] suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I find a spider in my house, I typically swat it directly and swiftly so that it’s got no chance of getting away. I certainly don’t seek to torture it by dangling it over a fire. And admittedly my “wrath” for the thing does not “burn like fire.” I just want it gone from my immediate vicinity. I am not concerned about spiders living elsewhere – they’re free to exist so far as I’m concerned. Go eat a fly or something, is my view. But the Christian god, as it was imagined by Edwards, must really “abhor” spiders, and other things that it is said to have created. It abhors them so much that it wants to torment them. Perhaps it created some of its creatures specifically for the “pleasure” of tormenting them. What kind of character does such a view attribute to one’s god? It takes delight in tormenting living things which can experience fear and pain? And Christians are human beings which worship a being which is imagined to have such a character? That’s quite a statement. In fact, reading through what Edwards has to say here, I get the impression that this god of his is quite easily manipulated by its creatures; they can disobey it, and this gets it to react quite predictably. It may as well not have a will of its own at that point. I’m reminded of the point which Oskar Schindler makes to the Nazi Untersturmführer, that “power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t.” This seems to be saying that, to the degree that this is true, any time the Christian god punishes the wicked, it is under something else’s control.

But I digress. Just know that Jonathan Edwards, like many Christians today, would very much prefer that you be moved with fear. So be ye warned! The wrath that you have kindled in the creator of the universe will have its revenge on thee!

Catholic writers have had their fun depicting hell as well. The English Roman Catholic priest John Furniss (1809-1865) wrote the following description of a child being tortured in hell. Keep in mind, he wrote this for children to read:
You are going to see again the child about which you read in the Terrible Judgement, that it was condemned to hell. See! It is a pitiful sight. The little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out. See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor of the oven. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell-- despair, desperate and horrible! The same law which is for others is also for children. If children, knowingly and willingly, break God's commandments, they must also be punished like others. This child committed very bad mortal sins, knowing well the harm of what it was doing, and knowing that hell would be the punishment. God was very good to this child. Very likely God saw that this child would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished much more in hell. So God, in His mercy, called it out of the world in its early childhood. (John Furniss, The Sight of Hell)
The take-home message here for those who believe in a divine judgment, is that such judgment should be feared, for it can wind up sending you to hell, which is to be feared. The precondition for fearing any of this, however, is believing that it is at all true, even partially. And who believes these things? That’s right: believers believe these things. So these things are really for them to be concerned about. Since non-believers recognize all of this to be a most heinous fantasy indulged by those who ultimately detest their own humanity, such imaginative fears have no effect on them. The hell that folks like Edwards and Furniss imagined, is really for believers. It’s not for anyone else but them.

Because hell is such a crucial doctrine in Christianity, belief in hell is one of the indicators that one is a true believer. So if a person is not sure whether or not he is a believer, among the questions he might ask himself are:
- Do you believe that hell as Christianity has us imagine it, is real?  
- Do you believe that some people will go to hell after they die?  
- Do you believe that hell is a place of eternal misery?  
- Do you think you would be happy in what Christianity calls heaven?  
- Do you think you could be happy if any of your loved ones were sent to suffer in hell for all eternity?
Let us consider: What would happen to Christianity if one were to take out the doctrine of hell? Would Christians still “fear” their god? Would repentance still be an issue? It seems that such questions are live issues for Christians.

Over on Triablogue recently, blogger John Bugay recently posted an entry titled A Neurosurgeon’s Near Death Experience. The original article begins here. The neurosurgeon claims to have come back with a three-part “message” stating:
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.” “You have nothing to fear.” “There is nothing you can do wrong.”
Since this is supposed to be a “message,” it is implied that it is intended for all persons who receive it. The last point – “there is nothing you can do wrong” – certainly does not seem compatible with the Christian worldview, which essentially tells human beings that they can do nothing right. Coupled with this, the message that “you have nothing to fear” suggests that there is no need to worry about some eternal punishment. This “message” does not seem to come from a source which expects people to be worried about hell. So it is hard to see how it can be cited as confirming evidence of the Christian worldview.

Christians will of course react to such an idea by insisting that the removal of hell also removes consequences for immoral behavior. But this has already been dispelled above. Christians might also respond to the idea of removing hell from their belief system by saying that it would leave Christianity with an unjust god, a god which does not punish the wicked. But this ignores the fact that Christians already believe in an unjust god, since all human beings are said to be worthy of eternal hell, and yet their god chooses to write the names of some in “the Book of Life,” thus sparing them from their deserved punishment in spite of their “sins.” The doctrine of salvation already necessarily implies that the Christian god can choose when to apply justice and when to withhold it. Such a god is not absolutely just.

And of course, a god which claims to have a “morally sufficient reason” for evil, as Greg Bahnsen imagines the Christian god, cannot in any way be considered a just god.

So the Christian cannot be consistently concerned about justice here, for his own worldview’s doctrines undermine the very notion at every turn.

Such pointers only confirm that the purpose of the doctrine of hell is to condition the psychology of the believer, and that concerns about whether or not their god is just are essentially moot and very likely part of the devotional program’s way of keeping the believer distracted from what’s really happening to him psychologically. And ultimately, one’s answers to these questions will reflect the kind of character he has chosen for himself. Since many people value happiness, here’s another question for believers to ponder. Suppose that, after he dies, the believer finds yourself in heaven. Would he be happy? Could he be happy? Would he be happy if his own mother were burning forever in hell? If the believer claims that he would not know that his mother was in hell, would this be because he didn’t know where she was at all, or because he had been told that she was in heaven and he had just not yet reunited with her there? If he didn’t know where his mother was spending eternity, could he still be happy in heaven and not be concerned about her well-being? If she were actually in hell and the believer was told that she was in heaven, and because of this news he was happy, wouldn’t his happiness in heaven result at least in part from deception? Or, would the believer just not care about his mother and her eternal destiny in the first place?

Such questions are not about the theological teachings about religious doctrine, but rather about the character of the believer. Debates over theological teachings will only allow the believer to evade the deeper character questions that he needs to face as a believer. But if he seeks to evade, then this in itself tells us about his character.

Needless to say, I’m glad these aren’t my problems.

by Dawson Bethrick

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24 Comments:

Blogger Ydemoc said...

Dawson,

Thanks for another thought-provoking entry.

It got me thinking about how Christians always say that without their god, we can't account for anything -- morality, logic, certainty, consciousness, existence, etc.

So does this mean that their god also accounts for the conscious torment that they claim a non-believer will experience in hell? To ask it another way, are they saying that those in hell won't be able to justify experiencing such torment for all eternity, unless they acknowledge that their god is the basis for it?... no basis for experiencing all the pain and suffering, unless it's acknowledged that their god is "Hell's Developer, Builder, Architect, Rental Agent, and Landlord" -- all rolled into on?

Yet believers also maintain that hell is a place where non-believers send themselves.

So which is it? Does their god account for hell, as well as for the experience of pain and suffering for all eternity?

Or would the Christian say that their god does not account for hell, and for the pain and suffering, allegedly, experienced there?

Ydemoc

October 12, 2012 12:34 PM  
Blogger Justin Hall said...

hey Ydemoc, Leper is back yet again...

October 15, 2012 1:36 PM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Justin,

Thanks for the notice. By now, you're probably well-aware that I've already posted a reply to him over on your blog.

Ydemoc

October 15, 2012 3:08 PM  
Blogger Justin Hall said...

yes I see that speedy!

October 15, 2012 3:38 PM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Dawson,

May I also add that, at least according to my Christian relative, blasphemy is also for believers.

In a phone conversation the other day, this relative said that he chooses to believe that I am a "seeker" but not an atheist. How's that for denial?

His assertion is nothing more than an attempt to quell the anxiety he has as a Christian -- self-imposed fears that belief has built up in his brain.

It's pretty neurotic.

As it is with the belief system he embraces, this is all just another mind-game that he's playing with himself. For even if I was just "seeking," (which I'm not; I'm championing rationality), it should bring him no comfort. How could it -- with such passages as Rev 3:16 that "...because you are lukewarm -- neither hot nor cold -- I am about to spit you out of my mouth" and Math 12:30, "He who is not with me is against me..." -- unless, of course, he is just suppressing what his bible teaches?!

Plus, we are also told by some Christians (and the bible itself) that "no one seeks for god." (Romans 3:11)

Anyway, to make it absolutely clear to him where I stand, I swore (promised him) that I would never, ever embrace something as irrational as god-belief or Christianity. But even this wasn't sufficient to convince him.

So I asked if it would help to convince him if I blasphemed the "holy spirit."

He said, "You don't even believe in the Holy Spirit."

(True! Yet in the same breath, he calls me a "seeker"! These Christians -- they're all over the map! Why, even last night, he pulled out the classic, "You're not really an atheist. You're an agnostic, because you can't 'prove' that god doesn't exist."

So I attempted to explain to him the best I could that because arbitrary claims have no epistemological status, they do not even enter the realm of proof. I gave examples. But, not surprisingly, it had no impact... like talking to another Hezekiah.)

In any event, my conclusion? Blasphemy is for believers.

I only wish I'd been quick enough on my feet to use a paraphrase of your line: "Oh, that's right... I totally forgot... blasphemy *is* the believer's problem!"

Ydemoc

October 16, 2012 8:01 AM  
Blogger . said...

Ydemoc,

What do you think about Justin's little temper trantum? Seems like his medicine was a little too bitter.

October 16, 2012 7:55 PM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Richard (Hezekiah),

You wrote: "What do you think about Justin's little temper trantum? Seems like his medicine was a little too bitter."

His blog, his rules. You remember your policy on your blog, don't you?

Bring something substantive to the table rather than being just a heckler, and I'm sure he would gladly welcome you back.

Ydemoc

October 16, 2012 8:14 PM  
Blogger . said...

What I said is substantive. Justin is obsessed with TAG and me.

October 16, 2012 8:18 PM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Richard,

I cannot speak for Justin and his blog, but I would venture to guess that if you're truly interested in discussing substantive issues, that you demonstrate this on a consistent basis, instead of chiming in with what are, usually, nothing more than insults or snide comments.

Ydemoc

October 16, 2012 8:31 PM  
Blogger . said...

Ydemoc,

I've talked about many substantive issues in the past. Remember my blog? For some reason you never came by.

October 16, 2012 8:47 PM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Richard,

On your blog, you displayed a tremendous tendency, whether deliberate or just unwittingly -- perhaps due to your religious zeal -- to misrepresent what it was that many people wrote. And you did this on a consistent basis. So I had no interest involving myself in such shenanigans. Plus, your grammar was atrocious. (I see that it's improved somewhat -- congratulations!)

As I've stated in the past, most of the time, I do not have a problem responding to such tomfoolery on this blog. But there comes a point when -- as I'm sure even you can understand -- one needs to "shake the dust off of one's feet," when it comes to responding to nonsense.

And as you can tell, right this moment, because your questions to me seem to be on the level, I am responding to you with a tad more respect than would typically be the case.

Just to be clear: I'm not at all bothered by a little banter once in awhile, as it can sometimes make for a lively discussion.

But if it's done all the time, then what happens is that one ends up earning the kind of reputation that Hezakiah Ahaz earned.

To regain a little respect, you'll have to demonstrate that you've changed your ways. You've had a few moments in the past where you've brought something to the table. Why not try to do it on a more regular basis?

Again, I'm only speaking for myself here, but my suggestion isn't so hard to understand, accept, or accomplish, is it?

Ydemoc

October 16, 2012 9:15 PM  
Blogger . said...

Ydemoc,

what's your obsession with Grammar?

I have no desire to engage in any discussions. I have to save my soul from the fire. That's why I left from blogging.

October 16, 2012 10:01 PM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Richard,

You wrote: "what's your obsession with Grammar?"

Your question assumes that I have an obsession. Grammar helps with clarity. If someone keeps making mistakes over and over, it detracts from proper understanding. If it's done constantly, it becomes annoying.

You wrote: "I have no desire to engage in any discussions."

Then why complain about Justin? Why ask me about it? What do you care? If you don't care, why should anyone else?

You wrote: "I have to save my soul from the fire."

Then don't play with matches.

You wrote: "That's why I left from blogging."

Well, since your latest response gives no indication that you intend to change your ways, I would suggest that you continue along that track.

Ydemoc

October 16, 2012 10:16 PM  
Blogger . said...

Ydemoc,

you afraid of the dark?

October 16, 2012 10:19 PM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Richard,

You wrote: "you afraid of the dark?"

I took time to give you suggestions that might help you get reinstated over at Justin's blog. In response, you just come back with more out-of-context nonsense.

What does your question have to do with anything?

My conclusion? It hasn't been a fair trade, since I'm getting nothing in return. So I'm done responding to you for now.

I tried.

Ydemoc

October 16, 2012 10:35 PM  
Blogger . said...

Ydemoc,

Justin caught a fit because the tables got turned on him. Sometimes it's too easy. He asked a mocking question but, when he got turned on him, he immediately turned the moment into a chance for him to make believe that I was the problem. When I left to do some soul searching, he was the main one always mentioning me. I'm always watching.

October 16, 2012 10:53 PM  
Blogger Justin Hall said...

Given that I strive to consistently be honest with myself and squarely face the facts I must admit there is some merit to your criticism. Perhaps I simply could not come to terms with the fact that you up and left with no clear resolution to what was nearly a year long verbal conflict. Further I will take the implied advise in your statements and attempt to think of you no more.

October 16, 2012 11:22 PM  
Blogger . said...

Justin,

it's kinda funny that you admit that you can't stop thinking about me. But I remember when you finally realized that any type of argument that attempted to validate induction begged the question. So, instead you claimed it was perceptually self-evident and didn't need to argue for it. In fact, you called Dan a "dumbass" for supposedly wanting an argument for the self-evident. I was wondering if you think about him too?

October 16, 2012 11:46 PM  
Blogger Justin Hall said...

you statements are clearly not intended to advance understanding but are instead crafted for the purpose of baiting and argumentation for its own sake. Setting aside the fact that a man can change his mind and change it yet gain you need to understand that you have scored your point and scored it well. There is a plethora of other divergent interests of mine and you as you pointed out maybe unwittingly should not and are not going to be one anymore. Good bye Richard.

October 16, 2012 11:56 PM  
Blogger . said...

Justin,

Is the world made up of only beliefs or is there such a thing called knowledge?

October 17, 2012 12:12 AM  
Blogger Justin Hall said...

Ydemoc, I have something up you might find interesting. I know we have different political views but I still respect and understand from where you are coming from. Just wanted you feedback

October 17, 2012 10:27 PM  
Blogger Ydemoc said...

Justin,

Thanks for letting me know about your recent piece. I jotted down just a few notes that jumped out at me while I gave it a quick read.

I hope to post them some time later in the day over on your blog.

Ydemoc

October 18, 2012 6:28 AM  
Blogger _ said...

Justin and ydemoc the two "amigos".

It is always nice to see the comraderie between you guys.

Justin I was wondering if you're gonna ban ydemoc from your blog since he disagrees with you?

October 18, 2012 1:15 PM  
Blogger Robert Bumbalough said...

Regarding the doctrine of hell, it's probably a late first century invention stemming from the early competition for converts between the many eastern Mediterranean salvation cults of which the Christianities formed only a small fraction. Dawson nailed its purpose. It was invented to slam the door on the believer. The early Christians were illiterate, poor free holders and slaves who desperately wanted to hope in a fantasy of justice in a afterlife. Of course they had no chance to square matters up with the Roman killing machine. Psychologically those for whom the doctrine of Hell was fabricated needed such a device to contrast against their hope of pleasure beyond the grave in order to feel culturally superior to those heinous oppressors.

January 25, 2013 7:45 AM  

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