(This is continued from The Case for Faith, Objection 6, Part 2; where Strobel raises nine objections to hell. The Complete Series can be found here.)
I’ve been thinking about Moreland’s presentation about hell. There’s really only two ways to dispute Moreland’s ideas about hell:
(1) Is Moreland accurately representing the Biblical description of hell? If he strays too far from the Biblical description, then he’s not really being an apologist for Christianity anymore.
(2) Is hell just? (If God is a just God, and hell is not just, then God cannot be a just God.)
Christians have a variety of opinions about what hell is. Some claim that there is no hell, and the people are simply annihilated (no consciousness). Moreland, claims that hell is just separation from God in the afterlife (people’s opinions on whether this involves pain varies). And, then there’s the traditional hell-fire and demons version of hell. It’s worse than the worst thing you can possibly imagine, and it continues for eternity.
Christians also have some different ideas about who goes to hell and who goes to heaven.
- Everyone goes to heaven (which is regarded as downright heretical among many Christians)
- People of many different religions will go to heaven (God will count their non-Christian piety as if it was Christian piety)
- Many different people are “chosen” by God to go to heaven whether or not they know it (and some Christians are not chosen by God)
- Everyone who hasn’t heard of Christianity will be saved because they never had a chance to accept or reject it (which put missionary work in a weird light, since it opens the possibility for people to reject Christianity, when previously they would’ve all been saved)
- Conversion to Christianity is allowed in the afterlife – lifting people out of hell and into heaven.
- Mormons believe in levels to heaven and hell, based on your actions in this life. Christians and Mormons (especially) get bonus points that get them into higher states of heaven.
Some of these ideas are hinted at in the Bible. Others require a heavy dose of re-interpretation. My own observation is that people pick and choose which they want to believe. If they have a hard time rectifying “God is just” with the injustice of hell fire, well, they can pick one of the options that suits their particular feelings. (Apparently, their so-called “relationship with Jesus” does not allow for the type of communication which settles these questions.) Personally, I find the “theology shopping” to be a bit distasteful.
The traditional descriptions of hell seem unjust. I don’t believe anyone has done anything to warrant eternal torture – not even Hitler. Further, the claim that someone must accept Jesus in order to avoid hell seems strange. Earlier, we saw Moreland try to imply that everyone who isn’t a Christian is willfully denying Christ and therefore deserving of hell. I think you’d have to be incredibly self-involved to claim that all religious non-Christians are somehow willfully denying Christ and following their religion because it is easier and more convenient. I actually think many non-Christians have worked far harder at their religion than most Christians living in the United States. The claim that they are willfully choosing the easy and convenient path is absurd, and could only be believed by someone who is terribly ignorant of other people.
There’s another reason the “must accept Jesus to be saved” seems strange: if God loves us and wants people to avoid hell, then He has a strong motivation to make the truth of Christianity obvious. It isn’t obvious. We can therefore conclude that one of the following must be true:
(1) God doesn’t actually love people very much, and He’s perfectly fine with people burning in hell because they made the innocent mistake of choosing the wrong religion
(2) Christianity is false.
(3) It’s not necessary to be a Christian in order to go to heaven.
(4) The people who are Christians exactly coincides with the people God wants in heaven. If you’re not a Christian, then God doesn’t want you (not even the Christian version of you). There are a few reasons this seems like a made-up answer. A quick look at the geographical clusters and absence of Christian belief over time and location doesn’t look like the result of divine will, but the normal pattern of religious growth.
Obviously, most Christians won’t accept any of those four options. In one conversation, a Christian argued that it’s not “being a non-Christian” which puts you in hell, but it’s sinning that puts you in hell. God is merely offering a life-jacket (Christianity) after you screwed up and jumped in the water (sinned). That answer still doesn’t work very well. If God wanted to give the “lifejacket” option of Christian salvation to the world, then why give it to some people (people living near Israel twenty centuries ago) but make other people wait for centuries (after billions of people died)? Why didn’t God give Christianity to pre-Columbian Native Americans? I don’t know about you, but if I was God, and I cared about Native Americans and Christianity was the only way to heaven, then I’d give them Christianity long before Columbus arrived. Fifteen centuries is a long time to wait. Are we supposed to believe that God sat back and went, “Oh, those poor Native Americans. If only they had Christianity. Oh well – what can I do about it? I guess they’ll have to wait another 40 generations until Columbus and some Christian missionaries arrive.” Are we really supposed to believe that the God who knows when a sparrow dies (Matthew 10:29) is the same God that let 500 million (pre-Columbus) Native Americans live and die without the possibility of salvation?
Getting back to Moreland and Stroble — Moreland takes the “separation from God” viewpoint. People aren’t burning in hell, but they’re all very, very sorry that they didn’t convert. Your sorrow is like the burning of hell fire – but it’s all psychological. Further, you can’t accept Jesus in the afterlife. Why not? Because of free will. (Huh?) You “chose” to be a non-Christian in the physical world. God is “honoring” your free-will. But, the “decision” you made in the physical world is the only one that matters. Decisions in the afterlife are not good for anything because… uh, nevermind. Moreland’s point about “free will” and “decisions” being binding when you make them in the physical world but not in the afterlife are actually pretty inconsistent.
Objection 5: Why Doesn’t God Just Snuff People Out?
(Interesting tidbit: the Jehovah’s Witnesses preach that people are just ‘snuffed out’. There is no eternal life in hell.)
Another aspect of hell that’s especially troubling to people is that its duration is eternal. But what if hell didn’t last forever? Instead, what if God annihilated people — that is, snuffed them out of existence — instead of forcing them to be consciously separated from him forever and ever?
“Surely,” I said to Moreland, “that would be more humane than an eternity of regret and remorse.”
“Believe it or not, everlasting separation from God is morally superior to annihilation,” he replied. “Why would God be morally justified in annihilating somebody? The only way that’s a good thing would be the end result, which would be to keep people from experiencing the conscious separation from God forever. Well, then you’re treating people as a means to an end.” (p.254-255)
I really don’t understand why Moreland says annihilation = “treating people as a means to an end”. At the same time, he says that God must honor their free will choice of “rejecting Christianity”. Why can’t self-annihilation be a free-will choice? Further, a few pages earlier, Moreland claimed that the reason people exist is:
He had made us with free will and he has made us for a purpose: to relate lovingly to him and to others… And if we fail over and over again to live for the purpose for which we were made … then God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives, which is separation from him.” (p.241)
To me, there’s something about “he has made us for a purpose” that equals “treating people as a means to an end”. Apparently, Moreland doesn’t see it that way.
There’s also some problems with his “Why would God be morally justified in annihilating somebody?” claim. First of all, God kills lots of people in the Old Testament – pre-flood humans, Egyptians, Canaanites, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. In many cases, this is because they were “bad”. So, apparently, God is morally justified in killing people (even children), but not annihilating their souls. I’m unclear on why God can do one but not the other. Also, by phrasing the question that way, he places the onus on the listener to come up with a reason. If you can’t come up with a clear answer, then you’re supposed to conclude that Moreland is right. But, most people probably couldn’t provide an answer to “Why would God be morally justified in killing somebody?” By Moreland’s logic, we should therefore conclude that God isn’t morally justified in killing someone. But the Bible tells us that God did kill people. Therefore, God acted immorally?
Second, in an earlier chapter (“Objection #4: God and the Killing of the Innocents”), Norman Geisler argued that God can kill anyone because God owns all creation (in the same way that you own the bushes in your yard):
“People assume that what’s wrong for us is wrong for God. However, it’s wrong for me to take your life, because I didn’t make it and I don’t own it. For example, it’s wrong for me to go into your yard and pull up your bushes, cut them down, kill them, transplant them, move them around. I can do that in my yard, because I own bushes in my yard.
Well, God is sovereign over all life and he has the right to take it if he wishes. In fact, we tend to forget that God takes the life of every human being. It’s called death. The only question is when and how, which we have to leave up to him.” (p.168)
If Geisler was right, then I don’t see how God would not be “morally justified in annihilating somebody”. I always find it amusing when Christian experts claim to have the one unassailable truth, but then their arguments step on the toes of other Christian “experts”. It just shows how internally inconsistent their answers are.
But some theologians claim that annihilation is what’s taught by the Scriptures. They say the Bible teaches that while the punishment of hell is eternal, the punishing isn’t eternal. [My note: in other words, the punishment (unconsciousness death) is eternal. It isn't a perpetual, conscious torture.]
Annihilationists like to cite Psalm 37, which says the wicked “will be no more,” “like smoke they [will] vanish away,” and “transgressors shall be altogether destroyed.” And they point to Psalm 145:20, where David said, “The Lord preserves all who love him; but all the wicked he will destroy.” And Isaiah 1:28: “Rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.” They also contend that the metaphors used by Jesus are evidence of annihilationism: the wicked are “bound in bundles to be burned,” the bad fish are thrown away, and the harmful plants are rooted up.
Moreland stood firm. “No, it’s not the biblical teaching,” he insisted. “Whenever you’re trying to understand what an author is teaching, you begin with clear passages that were intended by the author to speak on the question, and then move to unclear passages that may not be intended to teach on the subject.
“Now, how about these passages concerning hell? The Old Testament has clear passages on hell being everlasting. Daniel 12:2 ["Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt."] says at the end of the age, the just are raised to everlasting life, the unjust to everlasting punishment. The identical word for everlasting is used in both instances… And that passage is clearly meant to be teaching on this question.
“In the New Testament, in Matthew 25, Jesus offers a clear teaching where he’s intending to address the question of the eternal state of heaven and hell, and he uses the same word everlasting to refer to both. [Matthew 25:30 "And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Matthew 25:46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."] (p.256-266)
Looking up the context of Daniel 12 and Matthew 25 does show that they are teaching about the afterlife. Although, Matthew 25 is also full of metaphors. Unfortunately for for Moreland, these same chapters seem to imply actual punishment in the afterlife (not simply separation from God and psychological regret). Moreland seems to pick and choose.
But, I pointed out, the annihilationists also cite the biblical language of fire as evidence that people are destroyed rather than languish forever in hell. As well-respected British pastor John R. W. Stott put it: “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable,’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructable. Out expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever.”
Moreland, however, was adamant. “The flame language is figurative,” he said. “In Revelation, we are told that hell and death are cast into the lake of fire. Now, hell is not something that can burn. It’s a realm. That’s like saying heaven could be burned. Heaven’s not the kind of thing that burns. And how can you burn death? Death isn’t something you can set a torch to and ignite it. (p.266)
Actually, I don’t understand why a realm can’t burn. Rome burned. Jerusalem burned. As for death being cast into the Lake of Fire, that would have to be figurative. Revelations is saying “death” will cease to exist – it will be annihilated. (Is Moreland arguing that “death” will merely be separated from God?) In any case, I’m wondering why Moreland needs to be so adamant about anti-annihilationism. It seems to be a tangent, with no real bearing on the question of whether hell is just. If people were annihilated, it’s not like anyone could suddenly argue that God is being unjust. (I actually find annihilationism more morally acceptable than eternal torture.) It seems that Moreland is just off on a tangent defending his own definition of hell. And, even though Moreland goes on about how “flames” are just figurative, the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t have any Biblical references to support his claim that hell is separation from God. All he has is the repeated claim that the fire is figurative, and some half-logic to argue that God couldn’t annihilate anyone.
Of course, there are always verses that aren’t brought into the argument (showing just how dangerous it is if you rely simply on Moreland’s Biblical references).
And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
Moreland’s definition of this verse seems to be “anyone not found written in the Book of Life was separated from God”. That seems like a stretch.
And Revelations 14:9-11:
“If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
I think this is a very much a pro-eternal torture verse. Not the little “separation from God” + “deep psychological regret” that Moreland promotes. In fact, in many places, it seems that God actually delights in heaping terrible punishments on people in the afterlife. This is different from the God Moreland describes earlier with “God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives, which is separation from him”. In Moreland’s description, God seems regretful and sorrowful over people’s fate – which is more useful if you want the blame on the sinners and minimize how bad the punishment is. Moreland’s God is going out of his way to avoid punishing people, and separates people from Himself only because He has to. Of course, as we get into the nastier eternal punishments, it becomes harder to defend the morality of God. But, I’m sure the talk of nasty punishment does a pretty good job of scaring people into converting to Christianity.
Objection 6: How Can Hell Exist Alongside Heaven?
“If heaven is supposed to be a place without tears, then how can there be an eternal hell existing at the same time?” I asked. “Wouldn’t those in heaven mourn for those who are suffering forever in hell?” (p.258)
This is a pretty good argument. I remember Charles Darwin using this as a pretty good argument against Christianity:
I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.
If Christianity were true, then many Christians would have parents, children, spouses, etc who are in hell. I suppose one answer might be that God “drugs up” everyone. If you were on morphine in heaven, you wouldn’t really be in a state of mind to feel the least bit of sadness about anyone else. Of course, your feelings would be a lie (based on a psychoactive substance), and you’d be incapable of feeling bad about it (which hints at suppressing free-will). I’m guessing most Christians wouldn’t like the morphine comparison because of that. Or maybe he could justify happiness in heaven with a little “out of sight, out of mind” (you aren’t thinking about people in hell, so you aren’t unhappy). Of course, people will still occasionally think of their loved ones in hell unless God does some sort of brainwashing (though, most Christians would also find that answer distasteful).
“First of all, I think people in heaven will realize that hell is a way of honoring people as being intrinsically valuable creatures made in God’s image,” Moreland said. (p.258)
Ridiculous. Keeping people alive when the pain is so bad that they’d prefer to die is “honoring people”.
“Second, many times a person’s ability to enjoy something comes from growing older and gaining a more mature perspective. When my children were young, one child was not able to enjoy a gift if the other child got a present that she thought was a little bit better. When they got older, they were able to enjoy their present, irrespective of the other person’s. In fact, if they were worrying about what the other person got, they would be allowing the other person to control them.” (p.258)
I really don’t think the “I can’t enjoy my present because I have envy” situation quite compares to the “I can’t enjoy heaven because I’m feel sadness for the suffering of my parents/children/friends in hell”. He frames it as “maturity”, but I don’t think that’s a step in maturity. In fact, I would think the opposite would be true: when you were young you could ignore the suffering of others more easily. As you got older, you began to feel more empathetic towards them. That’s part of the reason children can be so cruel – they can be oblivious to the suffering of others. And the last sentence about “allowing the other person to control them” also doesn’t compare. Are we supposed to believe that “feeling bad for your child in hell” amounts to “your child is controlling you”? Should we feel the same way about crippled children in wheelchairs: “if I feel bad, I am allowing that child to control me”? Or homeless people: “If I feel bad for that homeless person, I am allowing them to control me”? By using the word “control”, Moreland is getting people to react in a knee-jerk way (i.e. wanting to resist that control). Does Moreland seriously think that people suffering in hell are “trying to control” people in heaven – as if they don’t have enough problems of their own?
“C.S. Lewis said hell doesn’t have veto power over heaven. He meant that people in heaven will not be denied the privilege of enjoying their life just because they’re consciously aware of hell. If they couldn’t, then hell would have veto power over heaven.” (p.258)
“hell doesn’t have veto power over heaven”? That sounds remarkably jingoistic – a neat little soundbite that’s designed to lead people to a predefined conclusion without much thought. What is it supposed to mean? That your sadness for people in hell will never diminish your happiness in heaven?
“You have to remember that the soul is big enough to have an unperturbed sense of joy, well-being, love, and happiness, while at the same time having a sense of grief and sadness for others. Those are not inconsistent states in a person’s life, and it is a mark of a person’s character and maturity that they’re able to have those states at the same time.” (p.259)
I don’t know. If I was in heaven, and I was actually aware of the suffering of people in hell, I think I’d have a hard time maintaining perfect happiness. I don’t think that’s a lack of maturity.
(There are still three more objections to hell in this chapter.)
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