At this point, Strobel begins to raise nine objections about Hell.
Objection 1: How Can God Send Children to Hell?
People recoil at the thought of children languishing in hell. In fact, some atheists like to taunt Christians by dredging up writings by nineteenth-century evangelists who used horrific language to describe the ghastly experiences of children in hell. For example, a British priest nicknamed “the children’s apostle” wrote these gruesome words:
A 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. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell — despair, desperate and horrible. ( p.248 )
Wow. I had no idea nineteenth-century evangelists used these kinds of fear-based tactics. Funny the things you learn reading Christian apologetics. I also can’t help but think about something I had read about flaws in human reasoning. It said that human thought tends to be disproportionately controlled by scary things – even when they are terribly unlikely to happen (like sharks or terrorists), in spite of the fact that more mundane deaths are orders of magnitude more likely (like car accidents). Perhaps that’s the religious value of hell – to create a terrible, scary fear that can be used to drive religious conversion.
Strobel then asks, “How can there be a loving God if children are subjected to hell?”
“Remember,” Moreland cautioned … “the biblical language about fire and flames is figurative.”
“Yes, okay, but still — will there be children in hell?”
“You must understand that in the afterlife, our personalities reflect an adult situation anyway, so we can say for sure that there will be no children in hell,” he began. (p.249)
Unfortunately, Moreland never provided a decent argument that hell fire was figurative. And secondly, he asserts (without evidence) that “in the afterlife, our personalities reflect an adult situation”. It’s no wonder that many Christian commenters complained about the chapter on hell – it appears that Moreland is constructing a more acceptable version of hell which doesn’t have a Biblical basis.
“And certainly there will be no one in hell who, if they had a chance to grow up to be adults, would have chosen to go to heaven. No one will go to hell simply because all they needed was a little more time and they died prematurely.” (p.249)
I think the quickest way to figure out when Moreland is making stuff up is when he uses the words “we can say for sure” or “And certainly”.
“Besides, in the Bible children are universally viewed as figures of speech for salvation. In all of the texts where children are used in regard to the afterlife, they’re used as pictures of being saved. There’s no case where children are ever used as figures of damnation.” (p.249)
I’m not quite clear on Moreland’s point. Because children are used figuratively in the New Testament (mainly to describe how Christians must become like trusting children or sheep), then all real children will go to heaven. Moreland is also being inconsistent. First, he claims that children who die will go to heaven based on what they would have chosen had they grown up to be adults. Now, he claims that all children go to heaven.
Moreland then claims that 2 Samuel 12:23 provides evidence that children go to heaven. The verse quotes King David regarding his young child who has died: “But now he is dead, why should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” While the verse is a bit difficult to decipher, Moreland seems to be interpreting the last sentence as “I will go to heaven to meet him; he will not return to earth.” The verse is actually not nearly as clear as Moreland claims. It could mean several other things, such as “I will go to mourn over his body, but he will not return to this earth”. Additionally, Moreland’s interpretation is questionable by the simple fact that Jews are agnostic about the afterlife. They talk about “Sheol”, but it’s unclear whether that’s a conscious afterlife or a euphemism for unconscious death. Many Christian Bibles simply translate it as “death”. “Sheol” is most definitely not heaven, however. It’s usually referred to in terms that sound like a depressing underworld, and somewhat hell-like. It’s the place everyone goes (both righteous and wicked). If Moreland was correctly interpreting King David’s words, then it would overturn Jewish beliefs about the afterlife (there is one). Moreland claims David and his son went to heaven (rather than both being in Sheol) – which is unsupported by the text. It relies on David knowing exactly what happens after death – is David always right? And, if that wasn’t enough, Moreland also makes the leap of claiming that David’s son went to heaven therefore all children go to heaven.
To get an idea of the ambiguity that exists on the subject, it should also be pointed out that the Catholic church recently changed it’s long-standing policy of claiming that unbaptized children go into limbo (they now claim children go to heaven):
the church held that before the 13th Century, all unbaptised people, including new born babies who died, would go to hell. This was because original sin – the punishment that God inflicted on humanity because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience – had not been cleansed by baptism.
This idea however was criticised by Peter Abelard, a French scholastic philosophiser, who said that babies who had no personal sin didn’t even deserve punishment.
It was Abelard who introduced the idea of limbo.
Father Brian Harrison, a theologian, told the BBC News website that while limbo may have been a “hypothesis”, he argues that the clear “doctrine of the Catholic Church for two millennia has been that wherever the souls of [unbaptised] infants do go, they definitely don’t go to heaven”.
In short, Moreland’s answer to this objection can be summed up as: making stuff up and exaggerating Biblical support for his position. At the same time, I’m not quite sure whether Moreland’s ideas actually contradict the Bible. There are some pro and con arguments that can be made for each side. Most evangelicals are heavy on the “must convert or go to hell”, so they could probably haul out a few verses (Romans 5:12, John 3:16, John 14:6) against Moreland’s position (assuming that they were willing to argue that children go to hell). Of course, evangelicals aren’t always right (they just think they are). In contradiction to that view, there’s the fact that Jesus forgave people who neither converted nor asked for forgiveness (Luke 23:34). To Moreland’s/Strobel’s benefit, I don’t think “How Can God Send Children to Hell?” is a good argument against Christianity unless there is a strong Biblical basis for claiming that children actually do go to hell.
Objection 2: Why Does Everyone Suffer the Same in Hell?
“It violates our sense of fairness that Adolf Hitler would bear the same eternal punishment as someone who lived a pretty good life by our standards, but who made the decision not to follow God.”
“Actually,” he said, “everyone doesn’t experience hell in the same way. The Bible teaches that there are different degrees of suffering and punishment.”
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Type and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgement than for you…. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
Moreland closed the book. “Jesus is saying that people will be sentenced in accordance with their deeds,” he said. (p.250-251)
Actually, that’s not what the verse says. In Biblical teachings, there is a “day of judgment” where people are held accountable for their actions. Presumably, God berates each person for how badly they lived their lives. But, these verses that “show” that there are different punishments always say things will be worse on the day of judgment. Whether this means they will get a worse eternal punishment or whether it simply means they will be more throughly berated (and then given the same punishment) isn’t clear. The Book of Revelations suggests that everyone gets the same punishment:
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done…. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelations 20:13,15).
There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle-room in that statement. Everyone gets judged, but having your name in the book of life seems to be the only thing that matters. It very much sounds like all the unsaved get the same punishment: being thrown into the lake of fire.
“There will be degrees of separation, isolation, and emptiness in hell. I think this is significant because it emphasizes that God’s justice is proportional. There is not exactly the same justice for everyone who refuses the mercy of God. (p.250-251)
I also take issue with Moreland’s characterization of non-Christians as “everyone who refuses the mercy of God”. This is simply a trick so that he can more easily convince the reader that they are deserving of hell.
Objection 3: Why are People Punished Infinitely for Finite Crimes?
How can any wrongs we’ve committed in this life merit eternal punishment? Isn’t it unfair to say that a finite life of sin warrants infinite punishment? Where’s the justice in that?
“Wouldn’t a loving God make the punishment fit the crime by not making hell last forever?” I asked as I sat back down on the edge of the couch. “How can we do anything in this life that would warrant eternal torture?”
“First, we all know that the degree to which a person warrants punishment is not a function of the length of time it took to commit a crime. For example, a murder can take ten seconds to commit; stealing somebody’s Encyclopedia Britannica could take half a day… My point is that the degree of someone’s just punishment is not a function of how long it took to commit the deed; rather, it’s a function of how severe the deed itself was. (p.251-252)
It’s true that the severity of a crime isn’t based on the amount of time it took to perform a crime (although “time” and “planning” does figure into it: first degree murder – which is premeditated, carries a worse penalty than second-degree murder – which happens in the heat of emotion, such as killing your wife immediately after discovering her in bed with another man). However, Moreland only manages to show that “time to commit the crime” and “duration of punishment” are not necessarily connected. He hasn’t shown that an eternal punishment is warranted for any crime.
“And that lead to the second point. What is the most heinous thing a person can do in this life? Most people, because they don’t think much about God, will say it’s harming animals or destroying the environment or hurting another person. And, no question, all of those are horrible. But they pale in light of the worst thing a person can do, which is to mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God himself.
You have to understand that God is infinitely greater in his goodness, holiness, kindness, and justice than anyone else. To think a person could go through their whole life constantly ignoring him, constantly mocking him by the way they choose to live without him, saying, ‘I couldn’t care less about what you put me here to do. I couldn’t care less about your values or your Son’s death for me. I’m going to ignore all of that’ — that’s the ultimate sin. (p.251-252)
Moreland is engaging in ‘trumping up’ the crime so that it seems like eternal punishment is reasonable. He turns simple unbelief into “mocking God” right to his face. The fact of the matter is that the 2/3rds of humanity which isn’t Christian isn’t saying, ‘I couldn’t care less about what you put me here to do. I couldn’t care less about your values or your Son’s death for me. I’m going to ignore all of that’. The problem is that Moreland’s argument depends on Christianity’s truth being obvious to everyone on earth. Any religious apologist could recycle Moreland’s argument to make “eternal punishment for not converting to X” sound more reasonable. The Islamic version of this argument would condemn Christians for failing to bow to Allah, and condemn them for the blasphemy of saying Jesus is God. Complain that you didn’t know? Too bad. Similarly, we could consider another situation. Imagine I’m an invisible man. At some point last week, I acted to prevent some horrible accident that would’ve killed you. You don’t realize what I did, and I complain that you must be a terrible person because you never even said a simple “thanks” for saving your life. How ungrateful you must be! Of course, there’s an obvious flaw with my complaint: you don’t know. The same problem applies to Moreland’s argument – he assumes perfect knowledge in order to make people appear to be horrible and nasty – and therefore, worthy of hell.
In the United States, the most serious crime — murder — is punishable by its most severe sanction, which is being separated from society for life in prison. And there did seem to be a certain logic in saying that defiantly violating God’s ultimate law should bring about the ultimate sanction, which is being separated from God and his people for eternity. (p.253)
Saying that the “ultimate crime” merits the “ultimate punishment” sounds like twisted logic. First of all, the “ultimate punishment” in the United States is the worst punishment that the United States has decided to employ. The United States has ruled-out cruel and unusual punishment. The United States has ruled-out torturing someone to death, keeping them alive for decades while torturing them, killing their family members, etc. Thus, the “ultimate punishment” is not the worst possible punishment, it is merely the worst acceptable punishment. The “ultimate punishment” of hell is literally the worst possible punishment. Further, failing to convert to Christianity is not the “ultimate crime”. At the very least, people would need to have perfect knowledge about the truth of Christianity in order to be fully guilty.
Objection 4: Couldn’t God Force Everyone to Go to Heaven?
“You said that God is grieved by the necessity of hell.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Then why can’t he simply force everyone to go to heaven? That would be a simple solution.”
“Because that,” replied Moreland, “would be immoral.”
“If you were to force people to do something against their free choice, you would be dehumanizing them. You would be saying that the good of what you want to do is more valuable than respecting their choices, and so you’re treating people as a means to an end by requiring them to do something they don’t want.” (p.253-254)
Yes, I’m sure all the screaming people in hell will be angry if God took them out of hell. Moreland also seems imply (as usual) that human beings are making fully-informed decisions on these matters – something which is absolutely untrue.
“God respects human freedom. In fact, it would be unloving — a sort of divine rape — to force people to accept heaven and God if they didn’t really want them. When God allows people to say ‘no’ to him, he actually respects and dignifies them.” (p.254)
No doubt, if Allah turned out to be in charge, Moreland will be appreciative of the “respect and dignity” God is giving him by putting him in hell. The whole argument is pretty silly. Moreland says that some people might still reject God even if it means eternal hell, therefore, no one is allowed to choose in the afterlife. (And, if they cry for help to escape hell, isn’t God disrespecting their “free will” by leaving them there?) And Moreland compares ‘putting people in heaven instead of hell’ to rape?
(I have to admit, I didn’t expect to disagree with every one of Moreland’s answers. I half-expected that there would be a few where I’d go – “okay, I can agree with him on this point”. Oh well. The other 5 objections to hell will be covered in the next review.)