Friday, April 09, 2010

The Problem of Hell and Honesty

The doctrine of hell is certainly a key component of Christianity.  Being "saved" means, in large part, being rescued from eternal damnation.  What motivates many in doing evangelism is saving the "lost" peoples of the world from being being cast into the flames of hell.

But hell creates problems for Christians too.  Are good people who are not Christians going to hell?  What about the millions, if not billions, of people who have not even heard the gospel -- will God torment them for eternity in hell?  Would a good, loving God send someone to hell because he was born in a Muslim community where he never heard the gospel?  What about babies, children, mentally-handicapped that are unable to "accept Jesus into their hearts".  Are they doomed?

There are plenty of Christian answers to questions like these.  One goes like this: God's justice requires that he punish people for their sins, and the punishment for sin is hell.  The problem with this is that surely a just punishment must be in some way commensurate with the crime.  But a punishment lasting eternity, is a punishment far beyond anything we can conceive, and far beyond any sin that a two-year old, or five-year old, or 20-year old or even the worst person you can image, could commit.  Surely it is not justice that forces God to dole out eternal punishment.

Another answer is that Hell is simply the consequence of sin. It is not like justice but more like gravity; we are all pulled down.  Only God can rescue us and he has provided a way for us to escape via belief in and submission to Jesus.  One might then ask, why does God require people be privy to this special knowledge in order to be saved?  What is going to happen to all the people who have never heard or who are mentally unable to understand?  If one is consistent, then one must conclude that they get shipped off to hell when they die.  It also makes one question God's goodness if he is populating this world with millions of people who he knows are never going to hear the Gospel and so are doomed to burn in hell for eternity.

But probably the answer that is most popular among Evangelicals is we get what we choose.  That is the theme of C. S. Lewis's book "The Great Divorce". Those that seek God, what is good and what is true, get to be with him for eternity (including for example the pagan God-fearer).  On the other hand, those that run away from God and seek evil, are banished from his presence for eternity (i.e. hell).  It is a nice resolution in the sense that what can be more fair than getting what you truly want, and it addresses the problem of those who haven't heard the Gospel.  The problem with this argument is that a key assumption is invalid; namely that pursuing God is equivalent to pursuing what is good and true.  Let me make this personal.  I am dedicated to seeking what is true and what is good.  And through my searching, (as reflected by others posts on this blog), I have concluded that the God presented in the Bible and taught by Christians is not good.  Furthermore, weighing the evidence as objectively as I can, I have concluded that this God does not exist.  So, if I am to be honest in pursuing what is good and true, I must reject the God of the gospels.  But according to most Christian doctrines, that would send me to hell.  The only way I can think of getting around this (as Pascal might advise me), would be to believe something I have carefully concluded is not true.   But surely there is something wrong if escaping hell requires me to be dishonest.

Now that I have finished this post, it occurs to me that I have repeated some of the themes of an earlier post.  Perhaps what is bugging me even more than hell, which I no longer believe in due to the reasoning above, is this: Christians are imbued with a feeling (and plenty of teaching) that the true Christian is honest whereas even the thoughtful non-believer is either dishonest or deluded.  However, I believe that careful analysis will show that very often the opposite is true.

1 comment:

  1. I like how you've pointed out some of the major inconsistencies that any thoughtful consideration of the belief in Hell ought to produce.

    Thankfully, (though contrary to much of what is claimed) Jesus himself did not believe in Hell!

    I've actually written an entire book on this topic--Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at, but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it to explain why.

    If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

    True, there are a few statements that made their way into the copies of copies of copies of the gospel texts which place “Hell” on Jesus’ lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

    Bear in mind that the historical Protestant doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures applies only to the original autographs, not the copies. But sadly, the interpolations that made their way into those copies have provided a convenient excuse for a lot of people to get around following Jesus’ real message.