Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Hell

I've had this conversation relating some of my reasoning with several people now and it hasn't done much more than, at best, render my audience speechless, or worse, exasperate them. By now I've had a couple of chances to think about this concept a little more precisely so I'll try to express it here.

It isn't much more than the long-standing criticism of fundamental Christianity, namely, if God is so loving, why does he send so many people to hell? Mostly what I have to offer is a rebuttal to the common defenses of this attack.

Probably the most reasonable response to this question is:

God doesn't send people to hell, He lets people choose it for themselves. C.S. Lewis argued this very point quite eloquently; probably the concept has origins even earlier than that. And, for a time this answer satisfied me. It certainly makes sense to say that God loves us so much that ultimately giving us choice is a greater expression of love than forcing his presence upon us in heaven. So in this sense hell is simply an existence apart from God.

Essentially one could characterize the debate as such:

Criticism:

God is unloving for sending so many people to hell.
Defense:
Actually God is loving because he gives us the choice to choose Him or not.

Thus the responsibility has been placed on us to choose our eternal destination. And here is where I interject a rebuttal — but we didn't choose whether or not to be born.

The defense attempts to remove the judgmental characterization of God by placing the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. But a large portion of that responsibility was already decided when our parents — intentionally or otherwise — conceived us. So why should I be judged by my decisions when it wasn't my decision to even exist? If I had to choose whether to go to hell or to have never been born, I think the obvious choice would be the latter.

As an illustration, in bible studies I used to be involved in we would refer to John 12:47-48:

"As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day."

The illustration went something like this: Imagine you're taking a class. The teacher says, "Here is the textbook, you are responsible for chapters 1-5; there will be test in four weeks." If you choose not to study and get an 'F', is it really the teacher that is judging you? And the answer is, no, it's the textbook that is judging me; I brought this judgment upon myself because I chose not to study; the teacher didn't give me an 'F', I gave myself an 'F' because of my choices.

The corollary to my rebuttal then, is, how about the guy that decided not to enroll in the class? Why should he get an 'F' too?

The point of my rebuttal is this: there is no way of getting around the fact that God sends people to hell; at least, this defense falls short. Ultimately we are all thrown into a test we didn't sign up for but are expected to pass or fail depending on the choices we make with the circumstances handed to us.

Alternate defenses I have heard to the initial criticism are:

Hell is actually like never being born. This is a pretty decent idea. It does make for interesting interpretation of phrases like "eternal fire" (Matthew 25:41) and "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46, Jude :7) though. Also, as far as I know the main support of this concept is that the fire-and-brimstone concept of hell was developed later on to scare people into behaving. If you bring this up though, doesn't it lend credibility to the idea that heaven was also developed to inspire people to hope and is therefore also an imaginary concept?

People who don't [have a chance to] believe in Jesus are judged by a different standard — their consciences (Romans 2:15). This argument is quite liberal and opens up a can of worms for the typical fundamental Christian. Notably the interpretations of "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'" (John 14:6) and "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Romans 4:12) are difficult to resolve.

When I was part of an organization which believed that it was going to save the world in our generation, then the concept of God sending people to hell was not so hard to swallow — at least I could say I was part of a group that was actually doing something about it. And I really believed it; there really were at the time what looked like substantial results: lives significantly changed, lots of numerical growth. In time though the superficial glory faded — numbers dwindled and life changes either regressed or were more accurately attributed to community or even hype.

So sustaining this interpretation of Scripture means believing that many, many people are go to hell, for many, many generations to come. And thus I think the criticism is valid — can a God like that really be considered loving? Or is there some other interpretation that fits reality better?

Anyway as I said, this argument didn't make it very far with my audiences so far. I am curious if this makes sense to anyone out there.

9 comments:

Victor said...

it's the friendly! said...

I can understand where you're coming from with this, and have actually had thoughts along this same line in the past (maybe even had some conversations about it). But I've just kind of come to the conclusion that God is who he is, and we just have to deal with that, even if we didn't decide to be born. It is what it is, and we just have to decide to either work with it or rebel against it.

Victor said...

I think your perspective is common among the people that already accept that God exists. But the original argument approaches the question of God's existence critically. If God exists, then shouldn't his message be consistent? If it is not consistent, then perhaps that is evidence that this theology originated from human conjuring rather than divine revelation.

And so my stand is, do Christians have anything new as a far as a defense for this criticism?

Victor said...

joel leong said...

Here's my take. It blends some of the argument together. I don't believe hell is eternal suffing like externally intuced suffering (the whole fire and boiling culdring) but the spiritual existance of knowing that God exists and that you didn't want to be with Him. So in a way you do choose the fate you get but it just that you were wrong. As for the part about no choosing to be born and blaming that on God 2tim2:20-21 answers God makes us, we choose what we become and rom9:19-21 as a creator he doesn't have have permission from us to create us. I know that is circular but the bible says it. I believe the prophies is the answer to the human conjuring but in the end it has to be taken on faith (john20:29).

Victor said...

kip said...

Very interesting discussion, Vic.

I have always had a problem with "eternal suffering" concept, and when involved in my "previous church group," I just kept it on the back-burning for various reasons. I had a discussion with Jeff Fisher back then (and he preached on it) and I will try to paraphrase:

When Jesus talked about hell, like "it's better to gouge out your eye than get thrown into hell," the word he uses refers to a valley (I think it was Gehenna) where originally idols were thrown and then garbage. The Jews (I think possibly to this day) were/are constantly burning the garbage. So the basic picture Jesus was trying to paint was, if you live your life lawlessly (with respect to the Moral law, not rules and regs), you are essentially spiritual garbage, like the wrapper on that frozen burito you had for lunch, and you are thrown in the trash and destroyed completely. The fire keeps on burning until every last bit is gone.

This is how I view hell and going there not dependent on Christianity, but on observance of the Moral law -which is summed up: love your neighbor as yourself. I think if people live like that (and not a Christian) they will be judged as righteous. I say "not a Christian" because people/leaders can be selfish egomaniacs in the name of Jesus and destroy the faith of many (not naming names).

As far as "getting in" to heaven, I don't see it as getting graded, as the ICC is infamously known for. Quite honestly, from a biblical perspective, you get the "F" but God looks at Jesus' "A" and lets you in. I think the point is to take the book and give it a try.

Peath out, Napoleon.

Victor said...

Thanks for taking the time to offer up your perspectives, Joel and Kip. Kind of like old times eh? Of course we're all over the map these days...

I'll try responding to each of you.

Joel, I've read your response a couple of times to make sure I understand it correctly. What I am getting is that your take is that hell is not really that bad, at least, it's not exactly like being tortured eternally. Right? And as far as not choosing to be born, you accept the biblical perspective on it, which is to say, who are we to question God.

I suppose the first part makes the second somewhat easier to swallow, and I guess in some sense it could be grouped along with the "hell is actually like never being born" argument under the heading "hell is not really as bad as everyone has made it out to be."

Kip, from what I gather it sounds like the same thing, basically that hell is not eternal torment but annihilation.

Additionally it sounds like you're saying that people who don't necessarily believe in Jesus could still go to heaven if they live according to the Moral law, or "living a 'good' life."

If that's true, then as I mentioned in the original post, I think that brings up a lot of other issues for a Christian, namely, if people can get to heaven without knowing Jesus, then why bother? Doesn't Christianity become equivalent to any other religion or philosophy of life? And how do you interpret the scriptures mentioned earlier?

Overall I think the concept of hell either being annihilation, or in someway not as bad as eternal torture, is definitely interesting and I intend to express some more thoughts on the idea in a future post.

Victor said...

Kip said...

Hey Vic,

Just a quick comment. Jesus' parable of the wedding banquet I think express what I am trying to say (or I guess I am paraphrasing him). The people invited had other things to do when it came time to have the banquet (i.e. christians), so the king sent his servants to go out and invite everyone they could find (i.e. non-christians). I still think Jesus is the way, but I think a lot of churches (every one?) are polluted with pride. We humans are fragile creatures and religion can be very damaging. Conformity to the present structure is usually demanded, and those with other opinions are ostracized (similar to those went to "new moon festivals" or ate meat sacrificed to idols - it was not a sin to God but some people were disgusted and judged those people as sinners - what do you do if you are a part of that church with people like that?)Jesus chose his apostles from those who rejected the religion at the time. Why would it be inconcievable that Jesus would do the same today?

Ok, not a quick commment...

I think Jesus matters because people need an image that there will be someone to judge them at the end of their life. How judged? I think Jesus made it simple - unless your righteousness exceeds that of the pharisees. Where would you see more pharisee-type people, in the church or out?

Well, that's what I think...

Victor said...

Right, okay, but now I'm confused. Are you making the distinction between Pharisees and Christians, or Christians and non-Christians? My original issue is regarding people who don't believe that Jesus is God in the flesh. In your perspective, what happens to the person that lives a "good" life but doesn't necessarily come to believe that Jesus is his personal savior?

Victor said...

Kip said...

I think a lot of modern day Christians are the Pharisees of yesterday. For example, the rules and expectations developed by the ICC that went beyond the Bible, the focus on performance as a measure of righteousness.

I think that God is good and knows us very well. So he really knows how stinking bad we can be on the inside. I think those that have accepted Jesus and tried to obey and be humble in their sin will be saved. I think there are people walking around trying to do the right thing but who don't want to have anything to do with Jesus (for various reasons - perhaps burned by religious leaders, whatever) who, on the Judgment day, will see Jesus clearly (His power, love etc and also see their own ignorance, stubbornness etc) and will bow in humility and ask for forgiveness and will be granted it. It's like the thief on the cross - what did he really do to earn anything, other than recognize the truth? Or those who were called to the harvest at the eleventh hour and got paid the same wage (a paraphrased parable).

Some people will be at that spot. I won’t. If I try that with God, he’ll see right through my BS.

Victor said...

I see; very interesting. So one who lives a "good" life will ultimately go to heaven, but the motivation to share Jesus is still there because it is still a matter of knowing him when judgment comes.

I think it's certainly a nice concept and everything seems to fit; of course fundamentalists will certainly criticize the idea of having a choice after death. But anyway in my mind these are all just semantics.