Monday, April 2, 2012

Mythbusters: Hell is Unrelenting

The third sermon in the hell series preached by my minister was on the severity of hell. He said that hell must be eternal for two reasons.

First, he said hell must be eternal because our sin is against an eternal being. Here is a quote from his sermon:

Colin Smith explains it this way:You may say, "Wait a minute. How can any sin deserve everlasting destruction?... The best answer I ever heard to that question was given by a
friend of mine…He outlined the stages of the following scenario: Suppose a middle school student punches another student in class. What happens? The student is given a detention. Suppose during the detention, this boy punches the teacher. What happens? The student gets suspended from school. Suppose on the way home, the same boy punches a policeman on the nose. What happens? He finds himself in jail. Suppose some years later, the very same boy is in a crowd waiting to see the President of the United States. As the President passes by, the boy lunges forward to punch the President. What happens? He is shot dead by the secret
service. In every case the crime is precisely the same, but the severity of the crime is measured by the one against whom it is committed. What comes from sinning against God? Answer:
Everlasting destruction.

Certainly there are provisions in the law for protecting certain groups of people who have heightened vulnerability, such as children, or those who are at increased risk for being harmed due to their role protecting or leading our country, such as police or the President. I’m not
well equipped to discuss the law or the rationale behind it, so I appreciate any insights on this point. If the point of the stiffer penalties is to protect these groups by deterring crime, then the analogy doesn’t apply to God. He doesn’t need protection in the same sense. Even if we grant that a sin against God deserves stiffer penalties than sin against another human being, I don’t see eternal punishment necessarily following from that premise. Does anyone else? I’d be
interested in dissenting thoughts.

Second, the minister said hell must be eternal because we are eternal beings. I’m not certain that we are eternal beings and neither were the author of a number of Old Testament books, such as Ecclesiastes, Job, Isaiah, and Psalms.

But even if we are eternal, is perpetual punishment the only option? Plenty of philosophers, such as Origen, have envisioned an afterlife where souls have the opportunity to undergo refinement until they finally reach heaven. If we have all eternity, surely that would be time enough
for a good proportion, if not all, to find themselves leaving hell behind. That would seem consistent with biblical passages about God wanting all to be saved. And what about an afterlife scenario where there is no punishment or reward? Why does eternity necessarily involve these two concepts?

While it might be more neat and tidy to conclude that eternal God + eternal man=eternal hell, I haven’t been convinced that the equation must be solved this way. I feel at a bit of a loss in knowing how to address these arguments more meaningfully, so I’d appreciate any ideas from
either side of the debate.


  1. I just can't imagine that failure to believe in any of the many gods is akin to punching God in the nose and worthy of eternal punishment.

    The truth is, God is hidden from humans if he/she is a person who actually exists. Unless credulity is a supreme virtue, as opposed to honest doubt, God couldn't punish his creatures for not making a leap of faith. On this faith basis all the gods do business.

    Isn't it more plausible to assume that the various priests and holy men, having no real proof of their credentials as spokespeople for the Almighty, used the threat of post-mortem, eternal punishment as a method of forced acceptance and control?

  2. We are so far removed from God, so imperfect in our knowledge, and so subject to our internal chemistry that for God to take such offense at our essentially trivial actions that He thought eternal torture was a justified option turns God into a hypersensitive monster.

    I am not sure, but I would wager that thinking along these lines is part of what ultimately drove the Catholics to come up with the doctrine of Purgatory, which, while not Biblical, makes much more sense to me than eternal torture. But I could be wrong about that. It may have just been the daunting question of what would God do about sins committed in between confessions.

  3. If I get into an argument over politics with that same teacher or that same cop at a neighborhood barbecue and I throw a punch, the legal penalty won't be any different than if I throw a punch at an accountant or a gynecologist. The different penalties are a result of the perceived disruption of the social order due to the function the recipient of the punch is performing at the time of the altercation.

    If I lunge at anyone who is wealthy enough to afford armed bodyguards or even at anyone who is carrying a concealed weapon I am liable to be shot and killed, but that's not a legal penalty for lunging. It's the permission that society gives to someone to defend themselves or others when they reasonably perceive that there is a threat of death or great bodily harm. The legal penalty may also be higher for lunging at the President out of the same kind of concern for social order that imposes a higher penalty for lunging at a uniformed police officer, but that is not the same thing as the right to use deadly force to repel an attacker.

    The fact that such a labored metaphor is the "best answer" the guy has ever heard to the question just goes to show much the notion of a loving God consigning his creature to eternal torment offends the sensibilities of any reasonable person.

  4. I really, really wish Christian apologists would stay away from the law when discussing God and Justice. They only reveal how little they understand about both the American justice system, and how little they understand theology.

    Take the example of the boy hitting a student and then a policeman, etc. Assuming it was the same act—fist on other person--they are all considered the same crime. (Assault and Battery)There is no difference between other student, policeman or President.

    Students hitting other students are charged with Assault and Battery all the time—they are in a juvenile justice system. Schools may choose (for a number of reasons) to not pursue the crime other than detention, but I can assure you the other person can! A police person may not be so inclined to be forgiving, and would more likely charge them. Equally under the juvenile system.

    Note, too, Secret Service shooting someone rushing to punch the president is NOT justice—it is NOT punishment for a crime. This analogy mixes its metaphors. It is protection for an intended crime. Secret Service is no judge, jury or executioner. What a terrible comparison, if you think about it.

    Note, however punching a fellow at a bar fight (Assault and Battery) is not the same as punching your spouse (Domestic Violence), nor the same as punching a police officer while being arrested (Resisting and Obstructing Arrest), nor the same as punching your sparing partner (no crime.) There are reasons vested in protecting these particular individuals having to do with vulnerability.

    Is the Christian arguing God needs more protection than anyone else? (As you aptly point out.)

    I haven’t been commenting on this Hell series, because I tend to be completely indifferent to the concept. However, when someone starts mangling the justice system, my ire gets riled.

  5. Doug B,
    I tend to agree with your hypothesis as to the origin of hell. It's interesting that you note the problem with making faith or credulity the criteria. The minister stated that he believed it to be much more fair than using behavior as a standard because no one would have a chance to be saved if it were based on our behavior while "everyone" has a chance to be saved if salvation depends on faith. In other words, we can't be perfect but we can all have faith in Jesus.

  6. The Wise Fool,
    The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner is a great resource and talks some about the formation of Purgatory. One of the early concerns was what to do with unsaved babies, so yes, I think, we've been uncomfortable with eternal hell for just about as long as the concept has been around.

  7. Vinny,
    Good point about the function of the individual being assaulted being the key factor. There really is much wrong with the analogy.

  8. DagoodS,
    I was glad to see you and Vinny commenting on this. I wanted to hear the perspective of something with a legal background to see what I might be missing in assessing the scenario. It was an even more muddled analogy than I realized.

    I look forward to being personally indifferent to the topic of hell as I am to the topic of Zeus. I've made progress and this series has helped me work through my beliefs. However, it continues to impact the behavior of so many that I may never be indifferent at a social level. Or even as it relates to my children and the beliefs that they form over time. I don't want them to go through the same torment as me. The problem with hell (and to some extent heaven) is that people can live exclusively for the future to the detriment of the present and be less responsive to addressing injustice, pollution, and poverty now because "this world is not our home." It can also lead to terrible crimes against others for the sake of avoiding hell or sending more people to heaven. However, I also know much care for the disinfranchized does come from religious organizations.

  9. @DoOrDoNot

    But the Bible teaches that faith alone, or without works, is dead (James 2:17) and that without holiness no man shall see God (Heb. 12:14). Jesus stated the criterion for entering the Kingdom of Heaven not as being those who say "Lord, Lord" but those who "do the will" of his Father. So the minister's point on that really makes no sense using biblical logic.

  10. Hi there,

    Yes, I agree with the other commenters on the law analogy. I finished, not too horribly long ago, a course on international law, which was interesting to say the least. But the folks who want to use a legal system to defend something, like this hell argument, would do well to remember that there are a lot of different ways to approach law. The US has a system based on precedent; Russia's system is based on the legal code without consideration to precedent (as I understand it, anyway), and international law amounts to things that states agree to; but then if it's not convenient they can easily reneg. So... I'm thinking a better analogy is needed, if one wants to explain the eternalness of hell. I have actually read something that said that because the sin is not eternal, then hell can not be. So there's that. :-)

  11. Another problem I have with the analogy is that God is supposed to be the omnipotent omniscient lawgiver. It sounds to me like the minister thinks that there is some higher set of rules that binds God. He doesn't like sending people to hell, but he is only allowed to give a break to people who correctly guess the one religion to which He really revealed the one true path to salvation.

  12. Is too, yes I was thinking that the example was parochial in scope. Didn't know about that class. Interesting.

  13. Vinny , is your objection a sort of formulation of the eurhyphro dilemma? I think it is a problem.

  14. DoOrDoNot,

    I think that it is part of the same conundrum. I think the pastor has made peace with the idea of a loving God that torments his creatures for all eternity much in the same way that he has probably made peace with the idea of a loving God who orders his people to slaughter women and children. He knows that these are huge stumbling blocks for those who are less mature spiritually than he, however, and he has to tap dance around God's responsibility for their sake.