Monday, July 12, 2010

Is Hell Real?


Over at another Christian friend's blog we got into a heated discussion about the existence of Hell (pardon the pun).

He began by positing an open question: “If Hell is real, and you know we Christians at least think it is, (that's why you call us delusional) shouldn't we warn you that it's a bad place? Wouldn't it be mean not to tell you?"

Since it was an open question, I replied in the forum appropriately by reminding him that, in actuality, if God is all loving... then there could be no such thing as hell.

Like Bertrand Russell I too, “really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.”

The Biblical Historian Robert M. Price elucidates:

...Sheol has somewhere along the line morphed into hell, by way of both the Greek Hades and Tartarus, underground realms where the Giants and Titan were chained up. The New Testament actually just takes over the two hells with their Greek names Hades in Matthew 11:23, Luke 16:23, and so on, and Tartarus in 2 Peter 2:4. Also, we read in the Gospels (and the Koran) of a fiery hell called Gehenna, or the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, originally simply a dump site.... We don't know exactly when Gehenna went from a geographical reference to a literal postmortem hell of flaming torment. Passages like Mark 9:43-48 could easily mean either one. (The Reason Driven Life, location 635 Kindle)
My friend's question of whether or not the concept of Hell is offensive and, if real, shouldn't Christians warn nonbelievers, I'm sorry to shatter any hopes Christians might hang on Hell's existence being real, but between you and me, I think there is adequate evidence to suggest it is not real. It's mythical.

What's more, if it were real, it is Christians who should worry about such a hate filled, barbaric, pitiless, unforgiving, cruel, torturous, evil, corrupting, despicable, stain on God's "loving" character.

Rather, I think it is like Robert G. Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, once put it:

Is it necessary that Heaven should borrow its light from the glare of Hell? Infinite punishment is infinite cruelty, endless injustice, immortal meanness. To worship an eternal gaoler hardens, debases, and pollutes even the vilest soul. While there is one sad and breaking heart in the universe, no good being can be perfectly happy. (The Great Infidels 1881)

This may explain why atheists get irate when Christians "warn" them of imaginary places. It's not only stupid... but a waste of our time. If I stopped by, knocking on your door, to warn you of the imaginary place you will go when you die, a place called "candy-land" if you don't believe what I believe... wouldn't that make me seem a little insane... if not annoying? So why do it to us?


The God of Hell should be held in loathing, contempt and scorn. A God who threatens eternal pain should be hated, not loved--cursed, not worshipped. A heaven presided over by such a God must be below the lowest hell. I want no part in any heaven in which the saved, the ransomed and redeemed will drown with shouts of joy the cries and sobs of hell--in which happiness will forget misery, where the tears of the lost only increase laughter and double bliss. (The Great Infidels 1881)

It's not so much hell we aren't comfortable with. As Ingersoll rightly points out--it's the God that would create such a contemptible place to begin with which we so adamantly detest.

My friend followed up my responses with the rebuttal:

"I guess you think I should be more concerned with a cruel and vengeful God as opposed to being offensive, but did you forget? It's not Christians who are offended by the concept of an imaginary place."

But this sort of thing pinpoints the problem I have with mainstream Christians. I do think Christians trivialize any and all aspects of the OT God's nature. They seem to me, to be worshiping the fuzzy smiling Fatherly God of the NT (as Pastor Rick Warren defines it) and trivializing or ignoring the implications of anything which would disprove that warm fuzzy nature. As the Biblical historian Robert M. Price put it, “When one says, on the one hand, “I love the world and God loves the world,” then says, “The wicked will be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” (Psalms 9:17, KJV), one wonders how to resolve the cognitive dissonance.”

I used to do the same thing too, until I came to realize that it was intellectually dishonest—as it amounts to little more than cherry-picking the characteristics you like best about God while ignoring the rest. I can no longer compartmentalize God... if he exists he must exist in whole. If he is the Christian God... then he has to be EVERYTHING the Bible claims... not just some of the things.

Noticing my distinction between a loving God and the cruel deity who spawned the sulfur pits of hell itself, our friendly Christian asked:

"So are [you] saying this is a doctrine that does not offend you? I know the Christian God is offensive to you, but that's different."

I’m not so sure they are different. Any God who could torment hapless mortals for failing to believe, Buddhist children and all, is no better than the devil.

But since there is more than enough textual and historical proof that the concept of Hell is indeed fictional, then I cannot say it offends me personally.

What offends me is when such a fear tactic is used on young children at Bible camps to get them to give themselves over to Christ and become born again. Every Bible camp I worked at when I was a Christian used this fear tactic as one of the main tools for witnessing and conversion.

What's worse, we were instructed to ask the children if they would feel bad knowing they could never see their family again because they would be trapped forever in hell.

Fire wasn't so much scary to the children as telling them they couldn't be with their mommy, daddy, or brothers and sisters ever again. That was psychologically damaging.

So yes, the concept of Hell IS OFFENSIVE. I just don't put any stock into it.

Upon this reply my Christian friend asked me why it always comes down to the Children. Because that’s where it all begins!  

Some Christians will say: “God does not send anyone to hell… they choose it themselves!” 

C.S. Lewis even defends this position, in his work The Great Divorce as well as The Problem of Pain, in which Lewis insisted:
I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside…. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free. In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘what are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does. (Lewis, pp.101-102)

But such a view of Hell is doxastically naïve. What about that hapless little Buddhist child raised atheistically? She is a rebel without a cause? This is the first grave error C.S. Lewis makes. The second is that if God is going to damn nonbelievers to some postmortem destiny they never saw coming, then like the Muslim who believes in Allah’s power of divine forgiveness, if God is at all loving with the power to forgive—I must ask, then why the hell doesn’t he subject them to an grand postmortem process of sanctification?

It doesn’t seem like Lewis has thought it all through.

The bottom line is this—the concept of Hell is immoral. It is inconsistent to preach God is all loving but he’ll send unbelievers to Hell. It is a contradiction in his character.

If love accommodates even hell, what can’t it accommodate? And then, what does it even mean? (See Robert M. Price’s The Reason-Driven Life, Point to Ponder #16) And Ingersoll's words echo in my ears, "While there is one sad and breaking heart in the universe, no good being can be perfectly happy."

So either Christians can believe in an all loving, agape, sort of God... or they can believe in Hell and the God who created it. But they can't believe in both, not only because they cancel each other out, but because together they make Christianity both ridiculous and unbelievable. 

Questions to Ponder With Regard to the Notion of Hell:

1) What evidence do Christians posit for the authenticity of hell? The Bible? God? (Isn't this circular reasoning here?)

2) How does the Christian get past the cognitive dissonance I pointed out earlier? That God is all loving--that he loves the world and everything in it--but he will punish nonbelievers for eternity for something that's not even technically a crime--since he gave us free will to begin with.

I would also point out for more savvy Bible readers, who may be familiar, God prefers nonbelievers to lukewarm believers. "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth." (Revelation 3:15-16, RSV)

3) How can it be that Jesus, the divine head of the trinity in Revelation, prefers the cold? Is it perhaps possible that he yields the rejector of Christianity a certain measure of grudging respect? That he may recognize the nonbeliever as a seeker of truth?

4) Christians believe in a final or last Judgment. Again, a questionable event only referred to by a very faulty text, but giving them the benefit of the doubt, I am curious... will Joseph Smith and his magic underwear be present?

5) What about all the evidence, textual and historical, which we have that shows Hell is a fabrication, an anachronistic coupling of various Greek notions of afterlife with the Jewish locations of animal sacrifice. It seems if you grant the fact that the Greek which the Bible was written in uses three separate concepts and combines them into one ultimate Hell--you can be pretty sure this is a sign if literary embellishment--least of all a fictitious conceptualization. Do you go on believing even as there is evidence to suggest the idea of Hell only resides in the imagination of the Christian?

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist