Hell—Yes

John Constantine descends into Hell in Constantine (2005). © Warner Bros. Pictures.

The doctrine of Hell has come under considerable fire in recent years. [1] One need only browse the rumblings on religion-themed Internet discussion forums and Web logs to glean that the notion of a God who eternally disciplines sinful humans in the afterlife is about as popular as parents who spank their children. [2] Over a year ago, popular author and pastor Rob Bell sparked intense debate amongst evangelicals with the publication of Love Wins, a book wherein Bell speaks favorably of universalism, saying: “Whatever objections a person might have to [universalism], and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it.” [3] Bell insists that he is not a universalist, but many within the evangelical community raised their voices in protest of this apparent attack on Hell from within our own ranks.

For my own part, I affirm the existence of Hell. I believe the Bible teaches that Hell is a real place, that it will be occupied, that those who go there experience anguish, and that assignment to Hell is permanent and based on one’s actions in this life. Furthermore, I believe that the alternatives to Hell—namely, universalism and post-mortem salvation—create more problems than they solve. A belief in the possibility of negative eternal outcomes as well as positive is the only option that validates our free will and grants meaning and purpose to our mortality.

The Biblical Nature of Hell

Many object to Hell on the grounds that eternal punishment is inconsistent with the notion of a tender and loving God who wants that none should perish. They desire a Christianity that only preaches love, forgiveness, and hope, “like Jesus.” The sentiment is highly ironic, for Jesus had more to say on the subject of Hell than any other figure in the Bible. [4] Lunde summarizes:

Throughout the teachings of Jesus, the concept of hell is used consistently to refer to the place of punishment and suffering prepared for the devil (. . .) and his angels (Mt 25:41; Lk 8:31), as well as for those people who reject God. Accordingly, those who reject Jesus (Mt 11:20-24 par. Lk 10:12-15; cf. also Mt 8:8-12 par. Lk 7:6-9 with 13:28-29; Mt 22:1-14; 25:41-46) and the prophets (Mt 23:31-33; Lk 16:29-31) reap it as their reward. In addition, those guilty of hypocrisy (Mt 23:15, 33; . . .), hateful language and intent (Mt 5:22), unfaithfulness (Mt 24:45-51 par. Lk 12:41-46), unrepentance (Mt 5:29-30; 18:8-9 par. Mk 9:43-47; . . .) and disobedience (Mt 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 25:30; Jn 15:6) are liable to its judgment. Predictably, its location is understood by Jesus to be in the depths, the very opposite of the heights of heaven (cf. Mt 11:23 par. Lk 10:15). [5]

Hence it is Jesus who teaches that Hell is a real place that will be the destination of at least some humans in the afterlife on account of their mortal behavior. Jesus also teaches that consignment to Hell is permanent, contrasting “eternal punishment” with “eternal life” (Mt 25:46), [6] while the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) speaks of a “great chasm” between those who have eternal life and those who are being eternally punished, so that those who wish to cross from one side to the other cannot (v. 26). Finally, the Hell preached by Jesus seems to involve conscious anguish or torment of some kind (Mk 9:47-48; Mt 8:12). These details about Hell are difficult to reconcile with universalism, annihilationism, or post-mortem evangelization.

What is Hell?

While the Bible has plenty to say about the existence of Hell and who is going there, arguably it has little to say on what Hell will actually be like. Hell means separation from God (2 Th 1:9). That much is clear. Hell is often described in terms of “darkness” or “fire.” However, for many these are obvious metaphors, for how often is something both fiery and dark? Much of the biblical imagery concerning celestial beings and Heaven is transparently symbolic. Nevertheless, the idea that Hell includes a component of physical torment has been a pervasive one throughout Christian history. From the early church fathers to the present, Christians have often depicted Hell as a place where God willingly inflicts gruesome physical torture on the wicked.

I can understand why non-Christians balk at such a view of Hell. I am a Christian, and I certainly do not want to believe in a deity who behaves like a patron in Eli Roth’s Hostel. For my own part, I believe that any anguish experienced in Hell is of the mental kind, “a sense of loneliness, of having seen the glory and greatness of God, of having realized that he is Lord of all, and then of being cut off.” [7] I have no biblical warrant for rejecting a physical torment component; I just find it difficult to philosophically sustain. [8] I do believe that any anguish experienced in Hell will be proportionate to one’s misdeeds in mortality (Lk 12:47-48; 16:25; Mt 11:21-24), so in that sense, I believe in degrees of punishment in Hell. [9]

Why Hell?

Even a Hell that espouses emotional torment as opposed to physical tends to evoke a number of objections: (1) Why can’t God simply forgive all and usher everyone into Heaven? (Universalism) (2) Why can’t people repent and turn to God at some later point in the after-life? (Post-Mortem Evangelization) (3) Why must Hell involve anguish and suffering of any kind?

My difficulty with (1) is that it potentially violates free will. At its best, it presumes that everyone who is in Hell is there unwillingly and that no one would ever freely choose not to be with God. This seems unreasonable. As one of the characters in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce explained:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened. [10]

At its worst, universalism makes God sound like a cosmic stalker who will not take “no” for an answer. By way of analogy, most of the women I know do not appreciate it when they turn down a man who has attempted to court them, and he continues to send cards and flowers and candy in an effort to change the woman’s mind. Such a man is not respecting the woman’s choice, but instead trying to force her through persistence to conform to his will. I am genuinely grateful to believe in a deity who respects our desires enough to allow us not to choose him, to allow us the option of Hell.

Very well, so God will not force us to choose him. So why not simply keep the option of choosing him open for as long as we need it? Can we not have the chance to repent and turn to him in the next life? Again, there is a serious problem with (2). If salvation can be obtained in the next life, what is the point of seeking it in this life? I cannot speak for others, but as a serial procrastinator, if I had the option of obtaining salvation in the next life, my way of worshiping the Lord would probably be the same as Homer Simpson’s: “By praying like hell on my death bed.” [11] Indeed, assuming the reality of eternal life and the existence of a divine creator, what is the point of mortality if our actions here do not lead to eternal consequences, for better or for worse? One could attempt to limit the chance for post-mortem evangelization to only those who did not have the opportunity to receive the Christian Gospel in this life, but then the Christian Gospel becomes as much of a curse as a blessing, for in spreading it, we take away the opportunities of others to receive it in eternity.

For the answer to the final question (3), on the necessity of anguish and suffering in Hell, I turn to Erickson:

[I]f God is to accomplish his goals in this world, he may not have been free to make human beings unsusceptible to endless punishment. God’s omnipotence does not mean that he is capable of every conceivable action. He is not capable of doing the logically contradictory or absurd, for example. He cannot make a triangle with four corners. And it may well be that those creatures that God intended to live forever in fellowship with him had to be fashioned in such a way that they would experience eternal anguish if they chose to live apart from their Maker. Humans were designed to live eternally with God; if they pervert this their destiny, they will experience eternally the consequences of that act. [12]

For all of these reasons, I say “yes” to Hell. I believe in it, I believe it is permanent and eternal, and I believe consignment to Hell takes place on the basis of our actions in this life. While the spirit of this age insists that the doctrine of Hell is one of Christianity’s weaknesses, I view it as a defensible doctrine and one of our philosophical strengths.

Endnotes:
————–
[1] Pun intended.
[2] Speaking from personal experience, I hear more about Hell (in the form of objections to it) from skeptical friends and other unbelievers than I ever have from the pulpits of my home churches.
[3] Rob Bell, Love Wins (San Francisco, Cal.: HarperCollins, 2011), 111.
[4] Timothy R. Phillips, “Hell,” in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1996), http://bit.ly/xSwgh3.
[5] Jonathan M. Lunde, “Heaven and Hell,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green,Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 310-11.
[6] Ibid., 311.
[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998), 1243.
[8] Dan. 12:2 does pair “everlasting life” with “everlasting shame and contempt.”
[9] Likewise, I believe in degrees of rewards in Heaven.
[10] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco, Cal.: HarperCollins, 1973), 75.
[11] The Simpsons Movie, dir. David Silverman, 87 min., Gracie Films, 2007.
[12] Erickson, 1247.

Works Cited:
—————-
Bell, Rob. Love Wins. San Francisco, Cal.: HarperCollins, 2011.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1998.

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. San Francisco, Cal.: HarperCollins, 1973.

Lunde, Jonathan M. “Heaven and Hell.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall, 307-12. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Philips, Timothy R. “Hell.” In Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1996. Available from http://bit.ly/bdTMhH.

Simpson, Homer. The Simpsons Movie. Directed by David Silverman. 87 min. Gracie Films, 2007.

24 Comments

Filed under Theology

24 responses to “Hell—Yes

  1. Aaron

    You state: “I do believe that any anguish experienced in Hell will be proportionate to one’s misdeeds in mortality (Lk 12:47-48; 16:25; Mt 11:21-24), so in that sense, I believe in degrees of punishment in Hell.”

    Therein lies the problem. Any measure of punishment, when multiplied by eternity (infinity), is infinite. On the other hand, any misdeed done in mortality is, by definition, finite. One could be the worst creature ever to have been conceived, and do nothing but the most atrocious misdeeds every waking hour of one’s existence for the 80 or so years you have, and the “wrongness” of whatever you’ve done could still be quantified finitely.

    So in essence, as long as your Hell is eternal, there is no way for it to constitute a “proportionate” punishment to misdeeds during mortality, whatever they may be.

  2. Aaron,

    You are making an assumption about the nature of sin. You seem to see sin as completely transactional, that is sin is doing a wrong act for which one needs to receive punishment and/or make restitution. Inherent in this picture is that people are basically good, they just often make wrong choices. On this account, it might make sense to see an eternal hell as unjustified.

    But the traditional Christian notion (at least in Catholic and Protestant traditions) is that sin is also inherent in human nature. In Catholic teaching this is the doctrine of original sin, in Protestant teaching this is the concept of total depravity or some variation thereof. Thus punishment is assigned not just for what you have done, but for who you are. And if there is no changing who you are, you will eternally be of a sinful nature. Since you never overcome that sinful nature, the punishment must be as lengthy as is the nature, which means eternal punishment in this case.

  3. Aaron ~ This is a paper that I wrote for one of my classes earlier this semester. I had some of your objections to Hell in mind when I wrote it, but admittedly not your finite action/infinite punishment objection. So, let me address that now by saying that I reject the idea that so-called “finite actions” (i. e. actions committed in this life) cannot have infinite consequences, for several reasons.

    For starters, if it were true that we could not receive eternal punishment on account of what we do in this life, then it would also have to be the case that we could not receive eternal life. The only salvation or damnation anyone could believe in would have to be temporary, so rewards can always potentially be lost and punishments can always potentially be accrued. Certainly someone could believe in that, but if we’re able to continually progress as well as regress like that, why is there a mortality at all?

    Secondly, I don’t see why a punishment has to be temporally proportionate to the action that caused it. You say because it goes against a sense of justice; but that’s to assume that punishment is merely something that God is inflicting on us, rather than damage that we are causing to our own souls. Or to put it another way: we can think of plenty of actions in our lives now which have long-lasting consequences in spite of being very small and seemingly innocent at the time. I have to shelve my Mikes next time I decide to get pregnant because drinking even a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy could give my future daughter or son fetal alcohol syndrome. Is it really fair, that s/he could be born with a lifetime of disability over such an innocuous action on Mom’s part prior to birth? Well, in some sense, it is. The prenatal phase is so delicate, so fragile, that small things done wrong can have lifetime consequences.

    What I’m getting at is: I think, to some extents, Mormons have it right when they said we are “gods in embryo.” I think mortality is a delicate, formative period of pushing us towards the greater glory of what we are supposed to be, and I think small things done wrong can have permanent, eternal, self-inflicted consequences on our soul. And those self-inflicted damages can only be corrected through the intervention of God.

    Finally, I dispute the whole notion that sin is “finite.” Sure, sin is finite: if you experience time in a linear fashion. I may not feel very badly about something I did 15 years ago because, hey, it was 15 years ago. Who cares? But I don’t believe that God experiences time in a linear fashion. I think that all times are always ever-present before him. The sin that I committed 15 years ago, he is still witnessing and experiencing the pain of today, because from his perspective, I’m still there, doing it. There are no finite sins nor are there finite good deeds. All sin is infinite; all love and kindness is infinite. Once we have done something wrong, it is a permanent part of who we are and it is an enormous thing to ask God to not count it against us anymore.

  4. Aaron

    Well, I’m looking at the concept of “Hell” from the assumption of a just God. If God is not just, then Hell can be anything, and anyone can go there for any reason (or no reason) whatsoever.

    If we share the premise of a just God, then we must agree that God will only punish us for that for which we are responsible, right? So the notion of inherent sin doesn’t really resolve anything, either. If the Catholics are right, then God is potentially condemning us for something we didn’t do, and that’s unfair. If the Protestants are right, then God would be punishing us for something he built into us, and that is also not fair. After all, we didn’t create ourselves, right?

  5. Aaron

    That last post was to David. This one is for you, Ms. Jack.

    First as to your reductio ad absurdum regarding the eternal nature of punishments or rewards. Let’s look at it from a practical standpoint. If you send me a gift, even though I have done nothing to merit it, would your giving be considered morally reprehensible? Now what if you punch me in the face, even though I have done nothing to merit it. Would that be morally reprehensible? How is God any different? If he exists, then he is a free agent and it is perfectly within our common understanding of morality for him to give gifts upon whatever terms he deems right. But if he is to inflict some kind of harm on another, that harm must be warranted and it must be proportionate to the misdeed it seeks to redress. This is (ideally) how our own justice system works. If someone has done wrong, then they are held liable only to the extent of their wrong, nothing more. If they are found “guilty” of a crime, they are given a sentence commensurate with the crime. If our own justice system can effectively make such particularized punishments, then so can God’s. The golden rule is sometimes restated as follows: “do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” This illustrates the principal of doing no harm. You don’t necessarily have to do good to others (although there is nothing preventing you from doing undeserved good), but you must not do unwarranted harm. If Hell is a worse place than this world, and lasts for all eternity, then it constitutes an unwarranted harm. This seems consistent with how I understand traditional Christianity’s view of salvation as a gift that cannot be “earned” in an ordinary sense.

    On to your second point. Here, you seem to be limiting the criteria for one going to hell to actions that we knowingly commit that are damaging or self-limiting (for certainly God, being just, will not punish someone who ignorantly engages in such actions, not understanding their eternal consequences). If the criteria for going to hell were so limited, and if there were a reliable way of knowing what God’s will is, then this might be a workable system. But from what I understand, and as you seem to imply in your original post, Hell will also be populated with those who did not even have an opportunity to hear the gospel during mortality. You also seem to acknowledge that post-mortem evangelization is not an adequate fix to the unfair conundrum such a belief creates. As long as your conception of Hell contemplates the damnation of those who live and die in utter ignorance, it cannot be the product of a just God.

    But your temporal analogies break down fairly quickly when transposed to the eternal. Sure, there are plenty of simple actions we can take in this life that will have long-lasting consequences. If I cut off my hand and throw it away, there will be no getting it back. For the 80 or so years I’m on this planet, I will be without a hand. But that’s just 80 years. That’s a blink of an eye on the eternal scale. There is no amount of bad someone can do in 80 years for which restitution cannot be made in some definite time period. Let’s pretend we live in a world where no one dies, but everything else is the same. Hitler was someone who tortured millions of Jews. What will his punishment be? It will be the cumulative sentence covering the torture of millions of people. Maybe it’ll be 50 years for each count. So Hitler gets locked away for the next 300 million years or so. In any case, there would exist a punishment commensurate to the crime, and that punishment would not be indefinite. Again, if our laws can do this, and God created us, then why can’t/won’t God do the same?

    As to your last point, if God is judging us from his perspective (whatever that may be), rather than our own, then that is fundamentally unfair. That would be like a sphere condemning a circle for not being three-dimensional. If God suffers from a disability that forces him to never “get over” sin, then he should snap his omnipotent fingers and figure out a better mode of existence. I know I’d be a pretty miserable person if all of my mistakes were always present in my mind and consciousness. It sounds like Christianity needs to make sin as serious as possible in order to justify the notion of an actual eternal Hell.

  6. Aaron

    Jack:

    Another thought occurred to me regarding the analogies you made about certain actions having long-lasting effects. What you are describing in such analogies is simple cause and effect. But when it comes to punishment for the violation of laws, the causal relationship is not uninterrupted. There is the intervening cause in the form of the judge or jury, which then determines a punishment. The judge and jury are independent agents and they break the chain of causality that is otherwise present in the examples you mentioned.

    Anyway, just wanted to add that. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the analogies don’t do enough to explain and/or resolve the apparent injustice inherent to the concept of sin, punishment, and an eternal Hell.

  7. Well, I’m looking at the concept of “Hell” from the assumption of a just God.

    I agree that God is a just god. However, how you think about justice will entirely change how you approach this problem. An anemic view of what justice is easily can lead one to conclude that hell must be unfair. The idea of justice in the Bible and in Christianity is much more full bodied and multi-facted than is the modern American version of the concept. Mormonism, having heavily imbibed the American version, also tends to be rather anemic.

    If we share the premise of a just God, then we must agree that God will only punish us for that for which we are responsible, right?

    Again, it seems you regard sin as transactional, that is individual acts are what is wrong, and these individual acts can be perfectly segregated and judged atomically (i.e. without reference to anything else). While I agree that individual acts of misbehavior are part of sin, the New Testament concept of sin is talking about much more than this. Its concept of sin also has a corporate component and is much more historically embedded. It’s not just that we do evil things, that’s a given. But why does each of us do evil things?

    The modern answer, which Mormonism shares to large degree, basically revolves around answers like bad education, insufficient will power, lack of behavioral training, etc. I have two problems with these types of answers. First, they ultimately fail to explain much, they are mainly putative solutions. Secondly, and even more problematic for me, is that they ultimately lead to despair. Everyone knows that increased willpower will lead to moderate improvement in behavior, but in the end causes its own set of problems (guilt, neurosis, etc.) and usually leaves problems not completely resolved.

    And here is where I think the Christian answer is much more satisfying. Why do we do evil things? Because we are evil, it’s in our nature. Initially, this leads to even more despair than the modern solutions. But then in Christianity Jesus dies for us, imputes his righteousness to us (or infuses righteousness if you are Catholic), and heals us. This lifts us out of despair and provides a solution to the problem, ultimately we are going to overcome our sinful nature through Jesus.

    Looking at sin and redemption in this light I think provides a coherent picture of why there is hell. It’s not just a place to put people who do bad things, it’s a place for people who should be there by their very nature. It’s not really all that different than making fish live in water, by nature they should live there, they can’t live anywhere else. Similarly, those who by their very nature cannot live in the presence of God have to exist somewhere else, and that place is hell.

  8. Aaron

    David:

    How is my view of justice “anemic”? Also, how is justice in the Bible and Christianity more “full-bodied” and “multi-faceted” than the modern American concept? (Also, just so you know–I’m a former Mormon turned agnostic, so I am with you on dismissing Mormon conceptualizations on these issues.)

    As to ‘natural’ sin vs. ‘transactional’ sin, I don’t think you’ve resolved the moral conundrum. Setting aside “transactional” sins altogether, how can God justly punish someone for his/her nature? I never made a choice to be human. I never even chose to be born. I never made the choice to create humanity in the first place. How is it that I am to be punished for things over which I have absolutely no control? If anyone should be ‘punished’ for creating naturally sinful beings, it is God.

  9. How is my view of justice “anemic”?

    I don’t know what your view of justice is. When I said, “An anemic view of what justice is easily can lead one to conclude that hell must be unfair,” I meant it as a possibility, that perhaps that was one place to look for why different people arrive at different conclusions as to the justice of hell.

    Also, how is justice in the Bible and Christianity more “full-bodied” and “multi-faceted” than the modern American concept? (Also, just so you know–I’m a former Mormon turned agnostic, so I am with you on dismissing Mormon conceptualizations on these issues.)

    American conceptions of justice tend to be individualistic, atomistic, and utilitarian. They also tend to eschew any talk about the essential nature of the human condition or of goodness. Americans tend to even shy away from talking about these things in the name of political correctness. See for example Steven Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.

    As to ‘natural’ sin vs. ‘transactional’ sin, I don’t think you’ve resolved the moral conundrum. Setting aside “transactional” sins altogether, how can God justly punish someone for his/her nature?

    You must not be a parent yet. If you were, you would understand the justice of punishing people for things in their nature.

    I never made a choice to be human. I never even chose to be born. I never made the choice to create humanity in the first place. How is it that I am to be punished for things over which I have absolutely no control? If anyone should be ‘punished’ for creating naturally sinful beings, it is God.

    I don’t believe God created naturally sinful beings. He made free beings who chose evil. Now because of the agency of other humans, plus our own, we are enmeshed in a matrix of injustice and sin. This leads everyone to sin.

    However, Christianity is not about karma, about making sure everyone gets punished for what they deserve. If that were the case, we would all be screwed. Grace is about not getting punished for anything, whether under your control or not. Grace is God’s solution to the problem that we are all in.

  10. Aaron

    I don’t know what your view of justice is.

    Okay, then describe an “anemic” view of justice. If you don’t think my view of justice is anemic, then I’m not sure why you used the word in the first place. Should I turn to the bible to gain a more correct understanding of justice? If so, which part? If I go to Deuteronomy or Leviticus, I’ll likely end up concluding that the most “just” punishment for a variety of offenses is death. Many of these same offenses wouldn’t even constitute infractions in America’s justice system. Other parts of the bible may lead me to believe that gang rape or child sacrifice are okay in certain circumstances. If someone indiscriminately used the bible as their moral compass, they’d be locked up in today’s society.

    American conceptions of justice tend to be individualistic, atomistic, and utilitarian. They also tend to eschew any talk about the essential nature of the human condition or of goodness.

    How do American conceptions of justice tend to be individualistic, atomistic, and utilitarian? And if they can be described as such, how does that make them inferior to biblical and/or Christian conceptions of justice?

    As to your second point, you’ll need to clarify your meaning. I doubt I’m going to go read an entire book just to understand your position. But I can think of a couple examples off the top of my head that would seemingly contradict your position. Minors, for instance, are protected by many state laws simply by virtue of their minority. Seniors too. Women are accorded special privileges in the workplace when they are pregnant. Disabled people also get special help in a number of ways. All humans, by their very nature, are deemed to have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    You must not be a parent yet. If you were, you would understand the justice of punishing people for things in their nature.

    I’m not a parent yet, but if you attempt to explain your position a little more clearly, I just may surprise you with my ability to comprehend. Incidentally, I doubt a single parent in the history of humankind has ever eternally punished a child for something in their nature. Once again, temporal punishments do not serve as adequate analogies for the type of punishment contemplated by the Christian Hell.

    But another interesting question is who decides what is part of our nature, and whether that ‘natural’ trait is undesirable. If a society decides that women are naturally prone to infidelity, does that justify female genital mutilation? If albinos are seen as demon spawn, shall they be killed at birth? What if, as science progresses, we are able to identify specific genetic combinations that identify likely sociopaths or violent aggressors? Shall they, too, be preemptively punished for their natural tendencies? It’s a slippery slope to argue for the justice of punishment simply by virtue of one’s nature. Do you see why I prefer to stick to punishment for “transactional” wrongs, as you term it?

    I don’t believe God created naturally sinful beings. He made free beings who chose evil.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but you appear to be contradicting yourself. Are you saying that only Adam and Eve weren’t naturally sinful, but now by virtue of their sin, the rest of us are? Is this another example of the superior form of justice we are to glean from the bible? If such a principle were to be infused into our society, then we would be punishing the offspring of criminals. We would make their children serve the remainder of their prison sentences if they die before the sentences have run. That (thankfully) only happens in comic books. Again I must ask: why does our own justice system appear so vastly superior to that of the bible and, by inference, God’s?

    Now because of the agency of other humans, plus our own, we are enmeshed in a matrix of injustice and sin. This leads everyone to sin.

    I’m a little confused as to this matrix of injustice and sin (especially the injustice part). And again you seem to espouse a sense of justice that contemplates the punishment of children for the sins of their ancestors. That’s just bronze age thinking. We left that behind millennia ago. Even Mormons (in theory) got that part right (although they botched it up with the whole blacks/priesthood thing).

    Grace is about not getting punished for anything, whether under your control or not. Grace is God’s solution to the problem that we are all in.

    Okay, but you’re still dancing around the problem of those who die in ignorance, not having been exposed to the Christian message. How can a just God send them to hell? Mormons try to get around this by saying that the spirits of the ignorant are taught the gospel in the spirit prison, but as Jack hinted, this raises other problems. And even if someone is exposed to the Christian message, why should they be expected to embrace it wholeheartedly? Furthermore, why is God so concerned about belief? Shouldn’t he be more concerned about honesty, integrity, and treating others with respect? The Christian emphasis on belief as the primary prerequisite for salvation is truly baffling.

  11. Aaron,

    A couple of questions for you:

    How long did it take you to study your way out of Mormonism?

    How long did you take to study Christianity before arriving at your current conclusions?

  12. Aaron ~ You said:

    If you send me a gift, even though I have done nothing to merit it, would your giving be considered morally reprehensible? Now what if you punch me in the face, even though I have done nothing to merit it. Would that be morally reprehensible? How is God any different?

    God is different because God isn’t punching anyone in the face for doing nothing wrong. God is punishing everyone who has done something wrong, all the while offering those very same people an escape from deserved punishment.

    That said, I’ll concede your greater point on this one. I can see how gifts freely offered are not objectionable while punishment that doesn’t seem to fit the crime is (although I’m not conceding that punishment in Christianity does not fit the crime).

    if [God] is to inflict some kind of harm on another, that harm must be warranted and it must be proportionate to the misdeed it seeks to redress. This is (ideally) how our own justice system works.

    Yes, you keep comparing Christian hell to our own justice system. But it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison because our own justice system doesn’t have the option of eternal punishment—and you don’t know that humankind wouldn’t use it if we did. In America, our most permanent punitive options are the death penalty (available in 33 out of 50 states) and life-in-prison without parole (available in 49 out of 50 states). We regularly issue penalties which don’t really make up for the severity of the crime, but we stick with them out of sheer utilitarian necessity. Example: the average time served in the US for a rape conviction is 5.4 years. I wonder how many of the victims would agree that the justice system is issuing a penalty “commensurate with the crime,” as you say. For my own part, I can think of plenty of crimes where I would have no remorse about an indefinite punishment if the guilty party showed no signs of contrition for what had been done.

    Along those lines, you later say:

    There is no amount of bad someone can do in 80 years for which restitution cannot be made in some definite time period.

    You seem awfully confident about that. Frankly, I find that amazing. I don’t know what your life experience has been, but mine includes a close family member who was pulled over by a cop who then raped her, as well as a childhood friend who was kidnapped, raped and murdered. I’m not sure what kind of restitution you think a murderer or a kidnapper or a rapist could make to the families and victims he or she has injured. Let’s take someone who kidnaps a baby. Even if the baby is found and returned to its family twenty years later, the damage is done. That family is never going to hold their child in their arms again. How would somebody make restitution for that? The crime was effectively eternal. Why shouldn’t the punishment be, if the guilty party shows no remorse?

    (This happened to Amy Pond on Doctor Who last season, and she did not take it well!)

    Regarding my second point: I deny that there is any such thing as a person who goes to Hell in ignorance. I believe in limited soteriological inclusivism. To sum it up:

    Exclusivism = Jesus is the only way to heaven, and Christianity is the only way to Jesus.
    Inclusivism = Jesus is the only way to heaven, but Christianity is not the only way to Jesus.
    Pluralism = Jesus is not the only way to heaven. Other religions lead to heaven just as adequately as Christianity.

    So I think that there will be people who have never heard the Christian gospel in heaven, because I think that there are people in other religions who are following Jesus without knowing it. (See C. S. Lewis’ Calormene warrior from The Last Battle for an example of inclusivism.) There are actually some fascinating historical confirmations of people who had not heard of Christianity or Judaism following something that looked remarkably like Christianity or Judaism. But I don’t believe that only those who follow proto-Christian theology will be in heaven, either.

    Going back to the subject of Hell, I essentially see Hell in three different ways:

    (1) Hell is punishment inflicted for wrong-doing
    (2) Hell is damage that human beings are doing to themselves when they sin
    (3) Hell is a choice not to be with God

    Clearly, you object very much to (1) if it is eternal, as most of your objections here go back to the strictly punitive model. It’s not clear to me how much you object to (2) and (3).

    If I cut off my hand and throw it away, there will be no getting it back. For the 80 or so years I’m on this planet, I will be without a hand. But that’s just 80 years. That’s a blink of an eye on the eternal scale.

    That’s interesting. How do you plan on getting your hand back after you die? If we exist eternally, the only way you’re getting that hand back is if a higher power graciously restores it to you. If there is nothing after this life, then the moment you cut off your hand, it was effectively gone forever.

    Sin is like that. Once it’s done, the damage to the soul is permanent. The only way to fix it is to ask God for restoration—and the good news is, that is what he graciously offers.

    As to your last point, if God is judging us from his perspective (whatever that may be), rather than our own, then that is fundamentally unfair.

    What’s unfair about it? Do you also object when the Japanese judge Americans according to Japanese culture when the Americans are on Japanese soil? Even if the Japanese inform the Americans what’s expected of them?

    The universe is God’s. He’s allowed to judge people by his perspective, and so long as he informs us of what’s expected of us (Christianity contends that he has done this), I fail to see the injustice in it.

    It sounds like Christianity needs to make sin as serious as possible in order to justify the notion of an actual eternal Hell.

    I don’t say this to be condescending, Aaron, but you come from an LDS background, and by your own admission, your study of traditional Christian theology has been pretty minimal. Mormons do not have a robust concept of what sin is and why it is bad. The LDS conception of sin is highly rooted in strict obedience: it’s bad because God said not to do it. I did 15 hours of religion credits at BYU and not once did we ever talk about what sin is or why it is bad. In contrast, one of my theology classes here at TEDS had a unit on sin which included reading five chapters from our theology textbook.

    My point is, Christians aren’t “trying” to make sin as bad as possible. We really, really do think it is bad. The Bible seems to talk about it a lot and take it pretty seriously, so we’ve taken it seriously, so it’s something we’ve put a lot of thought into. You may not agree with our answers, but that doesn’t mean we’re artificially trying to inflate the problem to justify our existence.

  13. Aaron

    Jack:

    Yes, you keep comparing Christian hell to our own justice system. But it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison because our own justice system doesn’t have the option of eternal punishment—and you don’t know that humankind wouldn’t use it if we did.

    And you don’t know that we would use it if the option existed, so we are both left to speculate. However, most of our current sentencing guidelines are based on a minimum number of years, with certain aggravating factors that may lengthen the sentence. Also, it isn’t uncommon for criminals to be sentenced to consecutive terms for each crime committed. So for example, someone who is convicted of 10 counts of second degree murder, with a minimum sentence of 20 years each, may receive a cumulative sentence of 200 years. Of course the convict will never live that long, but that still doesn’t change the nature of the sentence. You are also correct that some sentences are described as “life in prison,” however such sentences have always (by default) been made in the context of “life” not lasting more than 100 years or so. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to equate the permanence of “life in prison” as we currently understand it to the permanence of eternal punishment (which, being finite beings, we are unable to comprehend).

    For my own part, I can think of plenty of crimes where I would have no remorse about an indefinite punishment if the guilty party showed no signs of contrition for what had been done.

    Now you’re introducing another criterion for going to hell: lack of remorse. Is it your position that a lack of remorse at one point in time justifies an eternity of punishment? Or would it be that punishment should last only so long as the person exhibits a lack of remorse? I think you can see where I’m going with this once again. Just because someone may feel a lack of remorse at some time shortly after the sin, this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t change their mind after a thousand years of the physical and psychological torments of hell.

    You seem awfully confident about that. Frankly, I find that amazing.

    I understand that people do horrible things. But people are remarkably resilient and people can recover from just about any trauma, given enough time. I previously used Hitler in a hypothetical world where there is no death. He’s about as bad as one can get. He was arguably responsible for the deaths of millions of innocents. Truly a horrible, horrible person. But if you were to try to quantify how awful he is, it would still be dwarfed by the incalculable nature of eternity. I mean, try to picture yourself a trillion years into the future. Try to imagine all the things that would have transpired from the time your family member was raped. It’s hard to think about because humans have no experience living eternally. And if there is immortality for all, then the worst that can possibly be done on this world is murder. A trillion years from now, this life will almost seem like it never happened. It would be similar to the first few seconds of our mortal lives, and do you remember the pain or discomfort associated with your own birth?

    I deny that there is any such thing as a person who goes to Hell in ignorance. I believe in limited soteriological inclusivism.

    Good. That sounds like a good step toward a more workable theology. But if you don’t need Christianity (in this life) to get to heaven, then why the emphasis on belief in Jesus? Naturally there will people who live a lifestyle in conformance with Christianity’s moral code; that’s not hard to do. Christianity isn’t a very unique or original system of morality. If soteriological inclusivism is the way of things, then Christianity’s appeal must be focused on some special, unique benefit it confers on someone during this life. But any such benefit is relatively trivial on an eternal scale. So if heaven entrance requirements come down to earthly comportment regardless of proclaimed belief or religion, that’s something I find more palatable (even though I don’t believe it’s based in reality).

    (2) Hell is damage that human beings are doing to themselves when they sin

    This is pretty much covered in #1. Self-damage is just a component of wrongdoing.

    (3) Hell is a choice not to be with God

    Okay, but if it just came down to a simple choice, I can’t really conceive of anyone opting for an eternity of torment over the tranquility of heaven. I mean sure, maybe traditional notions of heaven sound utterly boring, but doing anything for eternity would get ‘boring,’ including burning in hell.

    That’s interesting. How do you plan on getting your hand back after you die? If we exist eternally, the only way you’re getting that hand back is if a higher power graciously restores it to you. If there is nothing after this life, then the moment you cut off your hand, it was effectively gone forever.

    Sin is like that. Once it’s done, the damage to the soul is permanent. The only way to fix it is to ask God for restoration—and the good news is, that is what he graciously offers.

    For the sake of argument I’m operating under the presumption that humans will have some eternal existence. So of course my analogies won’t work too well when put back into a non-eternal context. Okay, so that’s your good news about sin and forgiveness, but I submit that the bad news is that if you don’t figure all this out in the 80 or so years you’ve got, then you’re screwed for all eternity.

    The universe is God’s. He’s allowed to judge people by his perspective, and so long as he informs us of what’s expected of us (Christianity contends that he has done this), I fail to see the injustice in it.

    For the record, I find that contention highly debatable. If God were doing a good job at communicating his will to us, there would be substantially less religions on the earth. And the injustice I see is that now we seem to be getting punished by some disability of God’s nature, i.e. the fact that he feels sin for all eternity. If we’re supposed to be perfect, even as he is perfect, then why didn’t he imbue us with this ‘quality.’ Why did he make us remarkably good at getting over the horrible things that happen to us and moving on? God is presumably omnipotent and omniscient, right? He should be able to figure out a way to exist without continually suffering for the sins of his children.

    I don’t say this to be condescending, Aaron, but you come from an LDS background, and by your own admission, your study of traditional Christian theology has been pretty minimal.

    I don’t think your characterization of the LDS view of sin is entirely accurate. Everything you and David have said so far could be gleaned from LDS doctrine. The BofM teaches that the “natural man” is an enemy to God, that sin makes you unworthy to be in God’s presence, it leads you away from him, “no unclean thing can dwell in his presence,” etc. Somewhere in the D&C it says that God can’t look upon sin with the least degree of tolerance. There’s even language in there that says if you go and repeat a sin you’ve repented of, all your previous sins come rushing back! So don’t shortchange Mormons on how serious they take sin. Too much sin and you get excommunicated. (They’ll probably excommunicate me someday, too.) Do a search on “sin” in Mormon scriptures and you’ll get plenty of results.

    You may not agree with our answers, but that doesn’t mean we’re artificially trying to inflate the problem to justify our existence.

    Not your existence, but the existence of a permanent hell. Sin has to be extremely serious to justify eternal punishment. It has to have cosmic properties that go way beyond the actual consequences that flow from it. Masturbation is a sin, right? But it arguably causes minimal harm to the “sinner” or anyone around him. It only becomes bad when some religious man (or book) declares it to be so. But even the more serious sins are nothing on an eternal scale. A trillion years from now, people in heaven aren’t going to care one wink what happened here on earth. That’ll be ancient history. Right now we care about it, sure, but that doesn’t really count for much.

  14. Aaron

    David:

    My journey out of Mormonism (and then Christianity) took place over the past year. But I don’t see how that’s relevant. This discussion isn’t about me, nor is it about you. It’s about what makes rational sense from a set of shared premises (many of which I am only sharing for the sake of argument). I could have renounced Christianity in an hour and it wouldn’t affect the strength or weakness of my arguments. They will stand or fall on their own merits (or lack thereof).

  15. My journey out of Mormonism (and then Christianity) took place over the past year. But I don’t see how that’s relevant.

    OK, I’ll ask again. How much time did you spend looking into traditional/orthodox Christianity?

  16. Aaron

    Maybe a month or two. But again, this discussion isn’t about me.

  17. Aaron,

    I’ll try and very briefly answer the main points you raised.

    First, you cited various ways in which the Bible has a bronze age mentality. You cite specific examples of gang rape and child sacrifice. As far as I know there is no passage anywhere in the Bible that condones either act. Both happen in the Bible but both are either subtly or explicitly condemned.

    But as for your general hermeneutic stance, you seem to prefer a hyper-literalistic interpretive stance on the Bible. You sound like a lawyer, so let me just suggest you treat the Bible in the same way you would treat the U.S Constitution. It has a complex interpretive history, later parts supercede earlier parts, and a flatly literal interpretation leads to lunacy (which is why it has never been done). Christians treat the Bible similarly, or at least non-fundamentalists treat the Bible that way. I think Mormons and ex-Mormons tend to see the Bible as basically like a GA talk, a list of do’s and dont’s. While the Bible does have rules, Christians are more interested in seeing the Bible as revealing who God is and how He has revealed Himself to humans.

    It’s a slippery slope to argue for the justice of punishment simply by virtue of one’s nature. Do you see why I prefer to stick to punishment for “transactional” wrongs, as you term it?

    Yes, I see why you want to stick with it. However, I think in the end what secularists end up doing is smuggling in presumptions about nature through the backdoor. They generally don’t see themselves as doing this because, well, it seems natural to them. On this I again recommend Steven Smith’s book where he lays this problem out in great detail. It’s a fairly compact book and is not theological, it’s a legal book written by a lawyer (a Mormon I believe).

    Instead of smuggling in nature arguments through the backdoor and pretending they are not there, Christianity is up front about arguing for essences and natures. I find this both more honest and more coherent.

    Okay, but you’re still dancing around the problem of those who die in ignorance, not having been exposed to the Christian message. How can a just God send them to hell?

    I’m not dancing around the issue. I’m a Christian inclusivist.

    Furthermore, why is God so concerned about belief? Shouldn’t he be more concerned about honesty, integrity, and treating others with respect? The Christian emphasis on belief as the primary prerequisite for salvation is truly baffling.

    Belief is much more than just saying the sinner’s prayer. Belief is a very expansive concept in Protestant Christianity. Belief turns rule following into acts of love. While honesty, integrity, and treating others with respect are good things, the true Christian seeks to do even better than that. The true Christian seeks to take up the cross of Jesus daily, which means to die to the world and seek to redeem it like Jesus did. The problem is that this is pretty much impossible as we all fall short of this every day and it’s simply too much to humanly do. But each Christian takes up his or her cross daily in the belief that God will strengthen us, forgive us, redeem us, and ultimately redeem the world. Indeed we believe that the death of Jesus guarantess that is in some sense already a reality, with a future redemption of all creation to come.

    That is why belief is so important to Christians.

  18. I forgot one more thing. Having studied Christianity for short a month or two, my impressions is that you never did reject it, you would have to know more to reject it. You have rejected Christianity only slightly more than you have rejected Hinduism.

    I’m one of the few ex-Mos I know of who ended up in Christianity. However, I have spoken with many ex-Mos on the internet and my advice to them is generally the same. First, I’d like them to give Christianity a real chance. I know Mormons like to argue they are Christians, but Mormons really only want inclusivity in the Christian club in the most superficial of senses. Having thought my way out of Mormonism and into Christianity, in my experience thinking like a Christian is utterly foreign from thinking like a Mormon. In some ways Mormonism hinders thinking like a Chrisitan because the vocabulary is the same but all the meanings are different.

    If they don’t want to go that route, then I suggest they just go and be a secularist and not think they have magically debunked Christianity. To debunk a worldview means investing serious effort into being able to think as if living in that worldview, which most people simply don’t want to do. I understand this is not everyone’s cup of tea, so I don’t fault people for simply checking out of religion entirely, especially after the traumatic experience of exiting Mormonism.

  19. Aaron

    While the Bible does have rules, Christians are more interested in seeing the Bible as revealing who God is and how He has revealed Himself to humans.

    But how well does the Bible even do that? The god of the old testament is a jealous one who condones the wholesale slaughter of his own “sinful” people, and the genocide of other nations. The god of the new testament appears more eager to forgive. He intervenes to turn people to him instead of destroying them (Paul). If god is supposed to be unchanging, these differing perspectives on god are more likely evidence of shifting attitudes among societies, which they then project on their deities, rather than different manifestations of the same god. Mormonism’s god has undergone similar transformations, from the more severe and vengeful depiction during the 19th century to the very loving, forgiving, merciful heavenly father described in the syrupy voices emanating from the conference center. I think the bible is useful in giving us different perspectives and philosophies that people have about god, but I don’t see it as saying too much useful about god itself.

    However, I think in the end what secularists end up doing is smuggling in presumptions about nature through the backdoor.

    Are you saying that you think my hypothetical analogy re science being able to detect sociopaths doesn’t match up to the type of human nature for which god might inflict punishment? How does it not measure up? You’re saying god will punish us for things in our nature over which we have no control. In the same way, you and I have no control over what was put in our genes. If society were to come up with a foolproof way to identify natural genetic sequences which predispose someone toward sociopathy, then by your logic, such persons should be punished in some way, regardless of their conduct. Maybe we’ll make them wear tracking devices. Maybe we’ll pass a law saying they can’t own firearms. Maybe we’ll send them to special schools, or mandatory therapy designed to correct whatever is wrong with them. I don’t think such laws would hold up in court–the slippery slope is too great. Our penal codes require some type of overt, volitional action (transaction) before punishment is inflicted. I’m having trouble seeing how a just god can feasibly punish someone for something in his/her nature, absent some overt and volitional act depicting that nature.

    I’m not dancing around the issue. I’m a Christian inclusivist.

    That’s great, but then I would pose the same question I made to Jack: why Christianity? If people can go through their entire lives without hearing about Jesus at all, and still get to heaven, then aside from whatever marginal benefit Christianity might provide during the instance of this mortal existence, it serves no real purpose. If it all just comes back to basic comportment coinciding with Christian moral principles (which aren’t very unique), then what is the point? I’m trying to envision how that might play out: a tribesman from Papua New Gunea who, during his life, had never heard of Jesus but he lived honorably, respecting others and making amends where he went wrong, arrives at the pearly gates. Whoever is waiting there tells him that because of his earthly comportment, he is eligible to go to heaven as long as he accepts Jesus, otherwise he will suffer in hell for all eternity. The choice is a no-brainer and practically nonexistent. Thus, in reality, the choice was already made, and it had nothing to do with Jesus.

    But I would also ask: what does your Christian inclusivism say about those who do hear about Jesus during mortality, don’t ever declare any type of belief in him, but otherwise live their life consistent with Christian principles? Heaven or Hell?

    Belief is much more than just saying the sinner’s prayer. Belief is a very expansive concept in Protestant Christianity. Belief turns rule following into acts of love. While honesty, integrity, and treating others with respect are good things, the true Christian seeks to do even better than that. The true Christian seeks to take up the cross of Jesus daily, which means to die to the world and seek to redeem it like Jesus did.

    So how does this figure into Christian inclusivism? Because naturally, my tribesman from Papua New Guinea is never going to go through the internal mental workings described above with respect to taking up a daily cross. Besides, what does that even mean? What is the character of the “acts of love” that this mental framework is supposed to bring about? It sounds like the internal devotion of a “true” Christian is forever out of reach of someone who has not been explicitly taught about it. I understand that belief is important only insofar as it translates into actions, but it almost sounds like you’re saying that the caliber of actions/belief cannot be attained without some kind of conscious, specific, Christian affirmation.

    If they don’t want to go that route, then I suggest they just go and be a secularist and not think they have magically debunked Christianity. To debunk a worldview means investing serious effort into being able to think as if living in that worldview, which most people simply don’t want to do.

    I don’t know that I’m required to “debunk” Christianity. That would imply that it already enjoys some measure of presumptive truth, which I don’t think it does. However, you are correct that I’ve never tried to seriously debunk it. Rather, I’m starting from the null hypothesis that Christianity is simply one more man-made religion. I haven’t seen or experienced compelling evidence to challenge that default position, and thus see no reason to budge from it. It seems we would agree that Mormonism is easy to dismiss; its fraud is painfully obvious in many respects. Christianity is more resistant to outright dismissal, in my opinion, due to the fact that it is much older and less documented. Jesus never wrote anything down (that we know of), unlike Joseph Smith. Everything we have that was written about him dates to some 20 years after his death, at earliest, and not even those original texts are available. The documentary record is much more sparse. There is more room for speculation and benefit of doubt. With Mormonism, I never started from the null hypothesis. I was born into the religion and grew up assuming it was true. It was only after realizing that many its foundational events did not happen as I was originally taught that the house of cards came tumbling down. So yes, my approach to Christianity is different and more skeptical, but at the same time, more realistic I think.

  20. Well, Aaron, I just erased a very snarky post because I thought better of it. Have a nice day.

  21. Aaron ~ I agree that we’re both left to speculate to some extent on what the justice system would or would not do if eternal punishment were an option. However, I’m not the one who has been using the human justice system as a contrast. You say it’s a stretch to equate “life in prison” with eternal punishment; I notice that you left out the death penalty, which is both permanent and seen as commensurate with the crime committed. I actually think that the death penalty is more or less the mortal equivalent of Christian annihilationism. It shows that we don’t have to speculate much on whether or not human beings might reach for eternal punishments if they had the option. They already do.

    (Incidentally, I’m opposed to the death penalty, but that’s completely irrelevant to our topic.)

    Yes, it’s true that I introduced lack of remorse as another criterion for hell. That’s in part because I don’t think repentance and remorse are significant components of the current justice system, which you keep referring back to, and I’m wondering where they figure into your complaint. As I understand it, with our justice system, remorse and repentance might get someone a lighter sentence, but it’s far from a requirement. A convicted rapist who serves his 5.4 years is free to go. He doesn’t have to regret what he did in order to go free. Should God work the same way? Should the rapist get XYZ years in Hell and then he’s free to come to heaven where he can hang out around his former victim?

    I think that there will be people in Hell who have no remorse for the things they have done in this life, who are unlikely to ever show remorse for it. Will there be people who want to turn to God and repent in the next life? I’m not sure. I tend to think that if people do not turn to God and repent in this life, then they probably never will. They may desire to change course out of self-preservation or shame, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to say, “What I did was wrong, and I need you, God, to come and change me.” But I really mean what I wrote when I quoted C. S. Lewis in my article, that “No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.” If such a person did exist, and God wished to grant them mercy, I wouldn’t complain. I simply don’t believe at present that such a thing will exist.

    You said, “A trillion years from now, this life will almost seem like it never happened.” And then later, in a similar vein, you said, “A trillion years from now, people in heaven aren’t going to care one wink what happened here on earth. That’ll be ancient history.” I’m not certain how you can know this. The universe itself is only 6,000 years old, yet people are still concerned about things that happened at the very beginning, like God putting dinosaur bones in the earth to fool us.

    You said, “It would be similar to the first few seconds of our mortal lives, and do you remember the pain or discomfort associated with your own birth?” I don’t, but that’s because my hippocampus wasn’t developed to the point of retaining long-term memory. I still have scars from things that happened very early in my life which I don’t remember (like the one on my ankle from where they put the IV when I had to be hospitalized with meningitis at 6 weeks of age). I still remember very vividly several painful things that happened early in my life. I realize that you’re speaking in analogy, but to some extent, so am I.

    if you don’t need Christianity (in this life) to get to heaven, then why the emphasis on belief in Jesus?

    Because the purpose of Christianity is not merely to save souls. It is to make disciples, to turn this broken world into a perfect one, and to make human beings into glorious, divine creatures. You say that Christianity “isn’t a very unique or original system of morality,” but on that we couldn’t disagree more. Christianity teaches us that Jesus Christ had it all. He was God of the universe, equal with the Father, all-powerful, all-knowing, radiant, glorious, loved and fulfilled through his relationships with the Father and the Spirit. But he saw that we needed help, and he gave it all up and laid it all down and became like us, and then lower than us, all so that we could become like him. Christianity teaches that the only power that’s ever worth having is the kind that you willingly give up in order to empower others. It’s a vision that could transform this world where everyone is always obsessed with grabbing as much power as they can for themselves—and only then will they think about maybe giving a little bit up to help others.

    There may be a few odd religions that teach something like that, but don’t try to tell me that’s a common view of how to fix the world, because it isn’t. So that’s why Jesus. Because the central message of Christianity is completely dependent on who Jesus is and what he did.

    (That, btw, is the start of the answer to your other objection to Christianity. God didn’t have to save the world through Incarnation and Atonement. He did it that way to teach us about who he is and what he wants us to be: people who will pour out ourselves to help others, even if it means death.)

    Okay, but if it just came down to a simple choice, I can’t really conceive of anyone opting for an eternity of torment over the tranquility of heaven.

    I don’t think that it comes down to what you would call a “simple choice,” as in Door #1 vs. Door #2. I think people will choose not to be with God because they’re mired in self-justification, because they really believe they know what’s better for themselves than God does, because they truly aren’t sorry for the wrongs they did in this life, and because the holiness and perfection of God will not mean peace and tranquility for those who are still in their sins.

    Okay, so that’s your good news about sin and forgiveness, but I submit that the bad news is that if you don’t figure all this out in the 80 or so years you’ve got, then you’re screwed for all eternity.

    That’s one way of looking at it. From my perspective, “screwed for all eternity” isn’t news at all. It’s just what most of us are by our own merits. For God to even offer us another option is the news.

    If God were doing a good job at communicating his will to us, there would be substantially less religions on the earth.

    What makes you think that? Maybe that’s why only 47% of the country believes in evolution? Because scientists aren’t doing a good enough job of communicating scientific realities to us?

    You keep on using the term “disability” in a mildly-pejorative sense to describe my beliefs about God’s nature. But I don’t see it as a disability for God to exist outside of time. I said that God always feels our sin because it’s always present before him. But God also always feels the good that we do for others, and the love and pride that he has for us as beings made in his image. It isn’t a bad or a good thing; it just is.

    You ask why God couldn’t have made us differently, or why he can’t change his mode of existence to not be offended by our sin anymore, and you invoke his omnipotence in this complaint. But “omnipotence” does not and never has meant that God can do things that are logically not possible. God can’t make a rock so big that he can’t lift it; he can’t make a round square; he can’t make a bird-amphibian. It may very well be that he cannot take us out of time so that we see the world the way he does, nor can he change his mode of existence so that he no longer experiences it that way.

    I don’t believe that God made us to be good at forgetting sin though. I think we trained ourselves to do that in order to justify what we’d become.

    I’m going to forgo responding further for now on the differences between sin in Mormonism vs. sin in traditional Christianity, not because your response isn’t a good one that merits time, but these replies are getting longer and longer and I think it’s really beside my bigger point.

    Masturbation is a sin, right?

    My answer to that question is, no. Masturbation in and of itself is not inherently a sin, and I think it is possible to masturbate without sinning. Some evangelicals would agree, some would disagree.

    It is true that Christianity sometimes prohibits things which, in and of themselves, don’t cause a lot of harm, but only because it is believed that they can lead to greater harms. Anger and lust are two examples. This isn’t really much different from, for example, speed limits in our own laws.

  22. Aaron

    It shows that we don’t have to speculate much on whether or not human beings might reach for eternal punishments if they had the option. They already do.

    I’ll try not to belabor the point, but this still ignores the reality that all of our punishments are constructed under the assumption of mortality and its incidental limitations. If people could not die, we cannot with any certainty conclude that some crimes would merit indefinite, or permanent, sentences. That’s the juxtaposition we’re working with when contemplating an eternal hell, and it is completely foreign to human experience.

    I think that there will be people in Hell who have no remorse for the things they have done in this life, who are unlikely to ever show remorse for it.

    Ever/never are strong words. You’re speculating here (unrealistically, in my opinion), but if you’re right, then that’s fine by me. We can agree that lack of true remorse merits punishment; therefore, if someone persists in lacking remorse for all eternity, let them be punished for it.

    I tend to think that if people do not turn to God and repent in this life, then they probably never will. They may desire to change course out of self-preservation or shame, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to say, “What I did was wrong, and I need you, God, to come and change me.”

    More speculation. Eternity is a long time in which to have a change of heart. I find it hard to believe that there will be some people who will not reach an acceptable state of mind to warrant forgiveness. Again, if they refuse to change their heart (which is a willful, volitional act), let them suffer for it. But to categorically declare that this life is it, if you don’t figure it out here then you’re doomed, is hopelessly unjust.

    I’m not certain how you can know this. The universe itself is only 6,000 years old, yet people are still concerned about things that happened at the very beginning, like God putting dinosaur bones in the earth to fool us.

    Oh great now you’re just messing with me! Am I being punked? Ashton? Where’s Ashton??

    Christianity teaches that the only power that’s ever worth having is the kind that you willingly give up in order to empower others. It’s a vision that could transform this world where everyone is always obsessed with grabbing as much power as they can for themselves—and only then will they think about maybe giving a little bit up to help others.

    This is all well and good, and I’m sure the global effect of a heartfelt application of such principles would be phenomenal. But the real question is how is this Christian belief/perspective (to the extent it is shared by all Christians) superior to similar ideas found in concepts of secular self-actualization, the “Nirvana” of some eastern traditions, Mormonism’s sense of charity and pure service, or altruism? Is there any significant distinction between the high points of worship across various faiths that you could point to and say “See? Right there. THAT is what will get you into heaven.” I doubt it. Consider the following excerpt from the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl, who was Jewish: “”[B]eing human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” If C.S. Lewis had written that (with maybe a few Jesus references), you’d happily slap a Christian label on it and say “This is it! This is what we’re going for!” So I would reiterate that while the internal mental affirmations of traditional Christianity may be unique in their own right, they don’t necessarily lead to any visual or measurable outward manifestations that are significantly different than those produced by the sincere followers of many other religions or moral philosophies.

    Have you ever seen the movie “Groundhog Day”? I mentioned it to you the other day as one of my favorites because it carries a powerful message. It shows a man who is essentially given eternity. At first, he’s a hedonist and seeks pleasure at the expense of others. This makes him miserable. Next, he tries to win over the girl in the movie (who could represent true happiness or perfection or self-actualization, depending on how you want to look at it), but his attempts are devious, ulterior, and insincere. Only toward the end of the movie does he realize that true happiness comes from selfless service to others, particularly those who have no way of repaying him (for everyone in the town forgets his deeds at the end of the day). After the release of the film, the director started getting an enormous amount of letters from people and organizations for which the movie’s message resonated powerfully. Hasidic Jews, the Yoga community, psychiatrists. They all lauded the message and metaphor of the movie claiming it to be such an accurate manifestation of their particular beliefs or philosophies. The director commented that they were seemingly unaware that the reason for this is that the message is a universal one. It’s one of service. Back in my believing days I marveled at how I could pull countless scriptures from the bible and BofM that would perfectly illustrate the principles of the movie (I even planned on using it as a “talk” once I became active again). Now I’m content in recognizing that the “good” that religions strive for is more or less the same. I used to scoff at the idea that all religions were just different paths to the same destination, but as an agnostic I find that view to by more palatable than any other.

    That’s one way of looking at it. From my perspective, “screwed for all eternity” isn’t news at all. It’s just what most of us are by our own merits. For God to even offer us another option is the news.

    But none of use chose to be born. None of us chose to be potentially screwed for all eternity. That prospect was apparently forced on us when things got hot and heavy in our parents’ bedroom one night. Where there is no choice in the matter, the default result cannot be eternal punishment under a just God.

    What makes you think that? Maybe that’s why only 47% of the country believes in evolution? Because scientists aren’t doing a good enough job of communicating scientific realities to us?

    Considering modern science has only been around for a few centuries, and the theory of evolution for less than two centuries, I’d say science is doing a damn good job. God, on the other hand, has presumably been around since the beginning of the universe (6,000 years of course) and there have been thousands (but more likely millions) of different religious traditions and beliefs about him/her/it during that time. There still isn’t a consensus. Could you get 47% of religious people to uniformly agree on the fundamental nature of God? Could you get 10%? Not a chance.

    But “omnipotence” does not and never has meant that God can do things that are logically not possible. God can’t make a rock so big that he can’t lift it; he can’t make a round square; he can’t make a bird-amphibian.

    But my appeal to God’s omnipotence doesn’t require him to do anything logically impossible by definition. The logical impossibilities you cite are dissimilar to the notion of God simply having a different mode of existence. That’s only “impossible” if you adopt a certain religious view. The logical impossibilities you mention are impossible regardless of any particular religious belief.

  23. However, for many these are obvious metaphors, for how often is something both fiery and dark?

    Ask Gandalf.

  24. David Clark wrote:

    An anemic view of what justice is easily can lead one to conclude that hell must be unfair.

    Hell is unfair. I guess this means I have an anemic view?

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