Objection #6: “A Loving God would Never Torture People in Hell”
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that he believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. – Bertrand Russel, atheist
Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice. – G. K. Chesterton, Christian (p.235)
All of Strobel’s chapters begin with a pro and con quote about the chapter’s main topic. I have to say, I found Chesterton’s quote to be amusing. I could almost imagine it being re-written by some hardline nationalist: “Our nation’s torture chambers, where we keep people alive while causing almost-fatal levels of pain, is our great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.”
Strobel then does a pretty good job of summarizing the problem of hell before meeting with J.P. Moreland:
Judge Cortland A. Mathers was in a quandary. Standing before him was a defendant who was guilty of playing a minor role in a drug case. She was a thirty-one year-old impoverished mother with a young family. She was remorseful over her crime. In the judge’s opinion, she deserved a second chance. Justice would be served by giving her probation.
But there was a problem: if Mathers found her guilty of the charge against her, he would have no choice under Massachusetts law but to sentence her to six years in the penitentiary. He knew that prison would scar her forever. More than likely, it would destroy her fragile family and leave her embittered, angry, unemployed, and destined for more trouble.
This is a system called “mandatory sentencing,” which removes the discretion of judges in disposing of certain kinds of cases. The positive side is that judges are prevented from being too lenient. But the negative consequence is that in some instances the automatic sentence can be too harsh — like in this case, where the defendant stood to serve move rime behind bars than most armed robbers.
And so Mathers made his choice: “Disobey the law in order to be just.” He declared her guilty of a lesser offense that did not carry a pre-set prison term and sentenced her to five years of probation with required counseling.
For a long time as a spiritual seeker, I found my sense of justice outraged by the Christian teaching about hell, which I considered far more unjust than a mandtory prison term would have been in the case before Mathers. The doctrine seemed like cosmic overkill to me, an automatic and unappealable sentence to an eternity of torture and torment. it’s mandatory sentencing taken to the extreme: everyone gets the same consequences, regardless of their circumstances. Step out of line with God — even a little bit, even inadvertently — and you’re slapped with an endless prison sentence in a place that makes Leavenworth [prison] look like Disneyland.
Where’s the justice in that? Where’s the proportionality between crime and punishment? What kind of a God enjoys seeing his creatures writhe forever — without hope, beyond redemption — in a torture chamber every bit as ghastly and barbaric as a Nazi concentration camp? Wasn’t atheist B.C. Johnson right when he charged that “the idea of hell is morally absurd?” (p.235-237)
There are some cases in the book where Strobel actually does a decent job summarizing the non-believers criticisms. Unfortunately, he seems to buckle at any answer that his ‘experts’ give.
“How should we even approach the topic of hell?”
Moreland thought for a moment, then leaned back in his green padded chair. “Maybe”, he offered, “we should distinguish between liking or disliking something and judging whether it’s right to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Many times something we like isn’t the right thing to do,” he explained. “Some people say adultery is pleasurable, but most people would agree it’s wrong. And often doing the right thing isn’t pleasurable. Telling someone a hard truth that they need to hear, or firing someone who isn’t doing a good job, can be very unpleasant.”
“And,” I interjected, “hell evokes a visceral response. People react strongly against the mere idea of it.”
“That’s right. They tend to evaluate whether it’s appropriate based on their feelings or emotional offense to it.” (p.238-239)
Moreland, here, is arguing that people have an emotional response first, and then judge hell to be wrong because of their feelings. In fact, it’s more the reverse: people judge hell to be excessive, and therefore, have an emotional response to it. I can’t help but imagine Moreland as a heavy-handed judge, arguing that mandatory sentencing it always ‘just’ even if we don’t like it. Fortunately, Strobel does make the point that our perception of justice and our emotions are “intertwined”.
“I interviewed Charles Templeton about this matter and he was very adamant. He told me: ‘I couldn’t hold someone’s hand to a fire for a moment. Not an instant! How could a loving God, just because you don’t obey him and do what he wants, torture you forever — not allowing you to die, but to continue in that pain for eternity? … There is no criminal who would do this!’ … what in the world do you say to that?”
“The key to answering Templeton is in his wording,” Moreland began. “He has loaded his question to the point where it’s like asking, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ No matter how you reply, you’re doomed from the outset if you accept his wording … for one thing, hell is not a torture chamber … God doesn’t torture people in hell, so he’s flat wrong about that,” (p.240-241)
Moreland goes on to argue that hell is not torture, but rather, it is hell is God separating our soul from himself in the afterlife and any suffering is due to our remorse. It’s not hard to see why a number of Christians objected to Strobel’s presentation in this chapter. They argue that Moreland’s definition of hell is watering-down the Biblical description. (An accusation Moreland denies.) He seems to want hell to be poetic justice for people who (in his opinion) spent their entire lives rejecting and rebelling against God. However, Moreland’s definition of hell seems to be taken completely out of thin air, and other than his own imagination, I’m not sure where he even came up with the idea.
“Templeton also makes it sound like God is a spoiled child who says to people, ‘Look it you’re not willing to obey my arbitrary rules, then I’m going to sentence you for it. You need to know that my rules are my rules, and if I don’t get my way, then I’m going to make you pay.’ Well, of course, if God is just a child with arbitrary rules, then it would be capricious for him to sentence people. But that’s not at all what’s going on here.
“God is the most generous, loving, wonderful, attractive being in the cosmos. 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)
There are so many objections that I have to Moreland’s argument here:
(1) God made humanity for one purpose: “to relate lovingly to him and to others”? Let’s be fair here: being sent to hell has nothing to do with how “lovingly” you relate to other people. Really, God puts people in hell for not loving him – which sounds awful. “Love me or suffer eternally”?
(2) Moreland doesn’t provide any justification for saying that God has “absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives, which is separation from him.” Why does God “have absolutely no choice” on the matter? If I ask for a bicycle my whole life, does God “have absolutely no choice” but to give it to me in the afterlife?
(3) Moreland argues that hell is a permanent state in the afterlife, but why is “separation from God” a permanent thing in the afterlife? He argues that God doesn’t want to be separated from us, but is just giving us what we want. However, but Moreland’s real argument is that God gives us “what we wanted at the moment of death”. Even though you’re conscious in the afterlife, it’s too late to change your mind. Moreland is really arguing that if you decide in the afterlife that you don’t want to be separated from God – well, it’s too late (even though God wants it, too). God is still going to enforce separation forever because that’s where you were at when you died.
(4) Moreland characterizes “not believing in Christianity” as asking for separation from God throughout our entire life. With that description, Moreland gleefully skips past all the complications – the fact that no one makes a fully-informed decision on religion, the fact that Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists aren’t willfully demanding separation from God, but are sincerely deluded. Are we supposed to believe that Native Americans in pre-Columbian America were guilty of demanding separation from God – as if they were willfully denying God, rather than simply being ignorant of the Christian religion? A lot of the arguments in Strobel’s book begin with the assumption that you know exactly who God is, and you know the Christian God is the only real one – and then coming to some conclusion based on that unspoken assumption.
“One more point: it’s wrong to think God is simply a loving being, especially if you mean ‘loving’ in the sense that most Americans use that word today. Yes, God is a compassionate being, but he’s also a just, moral, and pure being. So God’s decisions are not based on modern American sentimentalism. This is one of the reasons why people have never had a difficult time with the idea of hell until modern times. People today tend to care only for the softer virtues like love and tenderness, while they’ve forgotten the hard virtues of holiness, righteousness, and justice.” (p.241-242)
First of all, I highly doubt that people have never had a difficult time with the idea of hell until modern times. Further, Moreland’s complains about “American sentimentalism”, but I recall Strobel quoting Bertrand Russell at the beginning of this chapter – who is British. Charles Darwin (also British) made much the same argument against the doctrine of hell in the 1800s:
I can indeed 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.
Of course, we have to ask: if this quote is an example of excessive “sentimentalism” from the very same man that creationists want to paint as father of Nazi atrocities? Darwin: he was just a big softy when he wasn’t demanding genocide?
In any case, Moreland’s argument is reduced to simply “if you think hell is too harsh, it’s because you’re too sentimental – your judgment is too clouded to see the truth”. I simply don’t buy that argument. Moreland needs to make an argument for the justice of hell, not tell readers that their perception is too skewed to see its justice.
“So in the wording of his question, Templeton has given us a spiteful being who has imposed these unfair arbitrary rules and who ultimately stomps his foot and says, ‘If I don’t get my way, I’m going to torture you forever.'”
Moreland’s intense blue-gray eyes locked with mine. “Nothing,” he stressed, “could be further from the truth.” (p.242)
I just love when Strobel’s experts make some dramatic claim, and they strike a pose (“Moreland’s intense blue-gray eyes locked with mine.”) that says ‘believe me, even though I’m basically just telling you what I believe (without actual evidence) and that I’m not going to budge on this issue”. Further, Moreland tries to discredit Templeton’s argument by reinterpreting it in a way that is easy to discredit (a spiteful being who stomps his foot, etc) and then claims that it’s Templeton’s description.
“You said hell is not a torture chamber. Then what is it?”
“The essence of hell is relational,” he replied. “Christianity says people are the most valuable things in the entire creation. If people matter, then personal relationships matter, and hell is largely relational.”
“In the Bible, hell is separation or banishment from the most beautiful being in the world — God himself. It is exclusion from anything that matters…” (p.242)
One of the things I noticed even when I was a Christian was the amazing tendency for preachers and theologians to confidently state things as “Biblical” when they were clearly just personal opinion. Preaching seems like a whole group of people honing the skills of drama, voice intonation, and confidence to convince people of things that they had no real basis for believing. In many cases, it’s just some idea tenuously extrapolated from their holy books. There are people who argue that the Bible teaches annihilation for non-believers (no hell, just oblivion). They claim that any references to hell are either a parable, or a temporary punishment before oblivion. (I don’t know how they explain verses like: “And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:46)
Most Christians argue that the Bible teaches fire and brimstone. (Link: What the Bible says about hell) Moreland, on the other hand, acts like he heard directly from God – he has the real scoop, even though his description is at odds with Biblical descriptions. In reality, he just reminds me of television psychic making empty predictions. I could, at least, give Moreland half a point for sticking to the Biblical description of hell, but he doesn’t even do that – instead, he seems to just make-up is own personal explanation of hell.
“Make no mistake: hell is punishment — but it’s not a punishing. It’s not torture. The punishment of hell is separation from God, bringing shame, anguish, and regret… But the pain that’s suffered will be due to the sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment from God, his kingdom, and the good life for which we were created in the first place. People in hell will deeply grieve all they’ve lost.” (p.243)
Moreland reinforces this idea that we will want to be with God, and (because God is loving), He will want to be with us. But, God will enforce eternal punishment nevertheless because you: (a) rejected him earlier, (b) were a devout muslim, buddhist, or hindu, (c) failed to see any evidence for the Christian God, etc.
I would also add that the Bible’s description of hell is a bit different than Moreland’s:
The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:49-50)
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)
It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)
[He who worships the beast or receives the mark of the beast] will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” (Revelations 14:10-11)
If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelations 20:15)
I see an awful lot of references to “eternal fire”, “burning sulfur”, and “lake of fire” – despite Moreland’s assertion that hell isn’t like that.
Hell is something God was forced to make because people chose to rebel against him and turn against what was best for them and the purpose for which they were created. (p.243)
There’s something terribly dictatorial about torturing someone eternally because they failed in the “purpose for which they were created” (and that purpose was to worship you). As a software developer, I work in a field where people contemplate the possibility of creating true (conscious) artificial intelligence. If I created an artificially intelligent being – I wouldn’t build it to worship me (even if I was superior to it). And if it failed in the purpose that I built it for (whatever job I wanted it to do), I certainly wouldn’t torture it eternally. That would require an enormous level of sadism to do that to a conscious being. In fact, I can’t imagine anything more sadistic than torturing a conscious being for eternity.
In order for Christians to accept this situation, it seems that they have to make continually repeat the assertion “God is just, therefore hell is justice” whenever the “hell seems terribly unjust” thought comes into their minds.
“You know, when people founded the United States, they didn’t start out by creating jails. They would have much rather had a society without jails. But they were forced to create them because people would not cooperate. The same is true for hell.” (p.243)
The comparison of hell to jails just doesn’t hold up. First of all, when people “founded the United States”, they rejected the idea of cruel and unusual punishment. Also, Americans tended not to lock them up for the rest of their lives. No one would’ve ever approved of torturing criminals for the rest of their natural lives because of a crime they committed. American jails are temporary and not torturous, but that’s what hell is – eternal torture. Further, there are several reasons we use jails: as punishment (“they deserve it”), as correction (hoping that people’s experience of jail will teach them to avoid crime in the future), and as a method to segregate them away from the rest of society (murderers, rapists, etc – who will harm innocent people). Hell serves as punishment – and that’s all. It’s eternal, so it can’t correct anyone’s behavior. And, as a method of segregation – well the torture is unnecessary for that purpose, and besides, there are plenty of non-Christians who wouldn’t be dangerous to the citizens of heaven. It’s not like Ghandi is going to go on a rampage.
“When I was about ten years old, I was taken to Sunday school, where the teacher lit a candle and said, ‘Do you know how much it hurts to burn your finger? Well, imagine your whole body being in fire forever and ever. That’s what hell is.”
Moreland nodded as if he had heard that kind of story before.
“Now, some kids god scared,” I added. “I just got resentful that this guy was trying to manipulate me. I think lots of people have this sort of experience. You have to admit that when it comes to talking about hell, the Bible certainly does have a tendency to refer to flames.”
“That’s true,” Moreland replied, “but the flames are a figure of speech.”
“Are you going to soften the idea of hell to make it more palatable?”
“Absolutely not,” came his reply. “I just want to be biblically accurate. We know that the reference to flames is figurative because if you try to take it literally, it makes no sense. For example, hell is described as a place of utter darkness and yet there are flames, too. How can that be? Flames would light things up.” (p.244-245)
I can certainly relate to the resentment that occurs when someone tries to use hell to bully you into believing. Other religions get to use the same bully stick. Islam, for example, threatens hell for unbelievers – and goes into more detail about the torture. Quite accurately, Robert Ingersoll refered to hell as the “scarecrow of religion”.
The bible typically describes hell with flames, but there are a few sections that talk about darkness (1, 2) where it refers to “the darkness” or “outer darkness”. It’s not clear that this is even supposed to refer to hell. Where Moreland gets the claim that hell is utter darkness, I don’t know. To explain these verses, one could assume that there are different parts of hell (the Bible does seem to say that some punishments in the afterlife will be worse than others). Or maybe the smoke in hell is think enough to suppress much of the light (this happens inside burning houses – they become filled with smoke).
Moreland tries to reinforce his “the flames are just a metaphor” idea by bringing up other metaphors in the Bible:
“In addition, we’re told Christ is going to return surrounded by flames and that he’s going to have a big sword coming out of his mouth. But nobody things Christ won’t be able to say anything because he’ll be choking on a sword… In Hebrews 12:29, God is called a consuming fire. Yet nobody thinks God is a cosmic Bunsen burner. (p.245)
The problem is that while these are clearly metaphors, Moreland provides no reason that hell fire is a metaphor. His entire argument is reduced to: there are metaphors in the Bible, therefore sections x, y, and z are metaphors. Huh?
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “Have you ever been around somebody who was unbelievably good looking, extremely attractive, and a lot smarter than you are? When you’re in a social situation, people want to listn to him, not you. Suppose you don’t care for that person, but you’re kept in a room with him twenty-four hours a day for thirty years. That would be an unbelievably difficult experience.”
“Now, multiply those qualities ten thousand times, and that’s a little bit of what God is like. He is real, real smart. He’s very attractive. He’s a lot more morally pure than we are. And if people do not fall passionately in love with him, then to force them to have to be around him forever — doing the kinds of things that people who love him would want to do — would be utterly uncomfortable.”
Each day we’re preparing ourselves for either being with God and his people and valuing the things he values, or choosing not to engage with those things. So, yes, hell is primarily a place for people who would not want to go to heaven.”
I said, “So, in effect, by the way we live our lives we’re either preparing ourselves for being in God’s presence and enjoying him for eternity, or we’re preparing ourselves for an existence where we try to make ourselves the center of the universe and we have no interest in being with God or the people who love him.” (p.246-247)
This was a bizarre change of argument for Moreland. Now, he’s saying that everyone in hell is so arrogant and narcissistic that they can’t stand to be around God. That’s why they’re in hell – to be away from Him. The odd thing about this argument is this: just a few pages ago, Moreland was telling us that:
“[T]he pain that’s suffered [in hell] will be due to the sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment from God, his kingdom, and the good life for which we were created in the first place. People in hell will deeply grieve all they’ve lost.” (p.243)
First, he says people in hell will “deeply grieve all they’ve lost”, but now he says people in hell can’t stand to be around God anyway. So which is it? Both? They can’t stand to be apart from God, but are so narcissistic that they can’t be around him either? It’s just bizarre. Further, Moreland wants to convince us that everyone in hell is arrogant and narcissistic? Really? The Muslims who are getting down on their knees and praying five times to a false god named Allah – they’re submissive to Allah, but arrogant when it comes to God for real? The Jews who won’t even say God’s name – they’re so arrogant that they’re above God? It’s only the wonderful Christians who are humble enough to let God be God? My only guess is that Moreland wants to paint such a nasty picture of non-Christians that the reader feels good that they suffer eternally. It’s such an unrealistic dichotomy Moreland tries to paint here: you humble yourself and worship God (synonymous with “Christian”), or you “make ourselves the center of the universe and we have no interest in being with God” (synonymous with non-Christian).