Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 23

Chapter 23: An Eternal Eye for an Eye

Randal opens chapter 23 by stating:

“[A]ccording to mainstream tradition the purpose of hell is ultimately retribution.”

But that’s not the only thing. Randal doesn’t just want us thinking God is only a vengeful God. This isn’t about revenge, Randal informs, but rather:

“God’s payback is perfect justice, not crass vengeance.”

Okay, so let’s just assume for the sake of argument that this is true. How is this even supposed to work… this so-called ‘perfect justice’?

Randal explains.

“[O]ne could explain hell as a just retribution for sins for which the debt is infinite. In other words, the debt is an eternal punishment because the sins are infinite in gravity. Thus that’s what damnation is all about. It’s God’s just payback on human sin and rebellion.”

Really? So, picking up sticks on the Sabbath is a sin worthy of eternal damnation? Because that’s what the Bible says, and clearly the crime doesn't fit the punishment. Or would Randal simply say that this part of the Bible is mistaken with the nature of sin? This game of pretending to know which parts of the Bible are divine and which are the mistakes of mundane mortals is rather arbitrary and far too dependent on selection bias to be trustworthy.

That’s only the first problem that pops out at us. The other problem is the amount of unfounded assumptions one has to entertain simultaneously to even pretend to take Randal’s version of hell seriously.

For starters, you have to assume hell is real. Next, you have to assume sin is actually a thing—that there is a metaphysical process to how sin works—and that we can understand this metaphysics in light of a better understanding of God. Which means, we have to assume God it real too. And not just any ole god either, but the Christian God. Then you have to assume this God is perfect, otherwise it couldn’t be perfect justice but, in point of fact, crass vengeance. Then you have to assume that you’re right about every single one of these assumptions and that there is no possibility whatsoever of being mistaken, and only after this final assumption, do all of these assumptions get you to the point where you could claim anything like Randal does above.

How many assumptions was that again? I counted at least six or seven.

I don’t know about you, but six to seven baseless assumptions sounds extremely shaky for answering the thorny question of what is hell good for with any certainty; at least the sort of certainty Randal thinks he has. But this is to be expected, because when you’re dealing with imaginary places like hell, the only thing you have to rely on in terms of where you can apply scrutiny is conjecture, and so assumptions are all you have to work with.

This is why theologians like to buttress concepts like “hell” and “sin” with flowery metaphysical language. If they can make these concepts fit with their definition of God via a lot of semantic toiling, then at the very least these concepts will sound compatible with their theology. And if it’s compatible, then there is a chance that it’s viable. But finding a viable theological framework to talk about these things is a far cry from actually proving these things constitute any form of reality, metaphysical or otherwise.

Randal then goes on to say:

“Christians often explain the justice of hell by talking about how abhorrent sin is to God. We need to compare ourselves not to other fallible human beings but to the perfect standard of the God-man Jesus. If we do that we can see more clearly the justice of retribution in hell.”

A couple things.

First off, how can a perfect being find sin abhorrent? At most sin would register as, well, not that perfect being because only that being can, in itself, be perfect. Sin and anything else is by definition imperfect when compared to that perfect being. So, how does that perfect being view sin as more or less imperfect than any of the other imperfections? What criteria does a perfect God use to say that this imperfection is less perfect than this one when held up to his perfection?

It doesn’t actually make sense to ask, because it would require the theologian to know the mind of God, which they can’t possibly do. But it’s enough to show that Randal’s idea of a perfect God who punishes sin is logically flawed in this way.

Second of all, has Randal read the Bible? Where in the world does he get the idea that the God-man Christ was perfect? I am assuming he is going along with what most Christians believe here, as he doesn't feel the need to contend it. Perhaps we must be fair and chock it up to Randal’s strong Christian bias. After all, he is a theologian who teaches at a seminary, surrounds himself with like-minded theologians and Christians who’d never challenge him on such an asinine comment. 

Once again I can’t help but feel Randal could benefit from his own advice. Especially the advice he gave about familiarizing oneself with other professional historians and their work. There are a lot of historians who believe Jesus was just a man, not a perfect God-man, and what’s more, they’re views are not fringe. It is the standard secular view of the historical Jesus. To ignore them, or dismiss them, in favor of your Christian bias and then pretend they don’t even exist so people will simply concede to your point is simply dishonest.

Even if you do not consult with other historians views on the historicity of Jesus question, we can determine Randal’s claims about Jesus Christ being the perfect little God-man false simply by reading the Bible.

Although many believe Jesus never sinned, Jesus does many things which are considered sinful by Jewish law. Jesus was guilty of things like talking back to his parents, disowning his family (and instructing others to do the same), calling other people nasty names (i.e., vipers and charlatans), drinking too much wine (an accusation made by Jesus detractors but one which he never denied), not obeying the laws of the Sabbath (eating grains and traveling with the disciples on the Sabbath), and inciting insurrection were all viewed as criminal acts in Jesus’ day. To be unaware that these things were seen as criminal, and thus imperfect, acts which conflict with God’s laws as they were viewed at the time simply shows an overwhelming ignorance of the source material. Either that or a bald faced dishonesty in an attempt to simply ignore it, and portray Jesus in an altogether more saintly light, so that followers won’t be burdened with the task of having to address the inevitable questions which arise when you realize Jesus couldn’t have been a perfect man, son of God or not.

Now some apologists try to say that Jesus was challenging the old laws, because they had grown twisted and imperfect over the years, and so he was sent as the final arbiter of God’s law. But this simply ignores all of the historical context and nuance surrounding Jesus. I would say that if you are ignoring the very historical context and nuance in which Jesus is set, then you simply aren’t concerned with asking honest questions, as you obviously don’t care to deal with the material in a straight forward and honest way. If that’s the case, then why would anyone care to listen to what you have to say on the subject?

Randal continues on to make a strained analogy about hygiene, and how peasants who can only wash their faces with mud fall short of the perfection of a pristine King. Sheridan calls him on the poor analogy, and Randal simply side steps, affirming that it was meant in a more general sense. After all, according to Christians everyone is fallen and godly perfection is always something just out of reach.

Randal and Sheridan then debate whether hell is a matter of free-will. That is, they discuss whether God allows people to disobey him because he honors their free choice to sin. Again, the problem here is that if God were a perfect being, he would view free-will just as an imperfection in the same way hell is an imperfection when contrasted against his perfection. It really doesn’t make sense to say God honors one imperfection over another. 

Besides this quandary, there is the idea that a perfect being wouldn’t require the existence of external free-wills to validate his perfection, since in order to recognize God’s perfection in the Christian paradigm, one has to contrast the perfection of God against the imperfection of man (and mankind’s sinful ways). If, on the other hand, free-will was part of God's nature, and therefore he allows it because free-will is one reflection of his perfect nature, then he could not condemn people to hell for following their free-will, because God could not dictate the right and wrong choices of others because that would seek to limit free-will to his choice, which he couldn't do if free-will was truly a reflection of his divine perfection--since, and this is the kicker, in the limiting of free-will he'd by definition be devaluing himself and thus diminishing his perfection. 

So it seems what Randal is doing here is desperately trying to harmonize the idea of a perfect God with the doctrine of original sin and redemption from it, so as to claim his chosen faith of Christianity makes sense in light of, or even despite, these observations.

Randal then affirms:

“Maybe hell is an eternal self-chosen path of destruction: the ultimate self-imposed exile.”

This concept of hell is basically what C.S. Lewis argued for in his book The Great Divorce, which was Lewis' answer to William Blake’s wonderful treatise The Marriage Between Heaven and Hell. In his gorgeously illustrated poem, Blake explains:

"Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell."[1]

Many Christians found Blake’s conceptualization profane, because Heaven and Hell were not separate existences, but more of like two parts of the same whole, as with the Oriental notion of Yin & Yang. In essence, Heaven and Hell combined to make the same state of affairs, and they balanced one another.

Such a unique view did away with the entire concept of “sin” altogether, and for many Christians, such an idea was viewed as profane. Why? Because without sin, how could we come to learn about the glory of a perfect and righteous God?

Perhaps a better way to look at the Christian concept of heaven and hell is to agree with Blake, that God realized in order to invoke progression, both states of sin and glory have to be realized simultaneously. But this raises the thorny problem we alluded to earlier, that God predestines sinners to hell, as such would be required to have true progression over all. But as everyone knows, infinite punishment for finite crimes cannot be perfectly just, and we run into the problem of God’s imperfection all over again.

Although William Blake’s theology has room for an imperfect deity, as he doesn’t care to establish God as a perfect being, the Christian theology does not—which requires God to be perfect in order for his punishment to be just—otherwise God is a ruthless tyrant. Which is why we find Randal desperately seeking to harmonize the noted discrepancies.

“But I do think this is at least a more plausible account of hell. It seems to present hell in such a way that God can be perfectly loving and good and still allow people to go there by their own free will.”

Well, sorry to burst Randal’s bubble, but it really doesn’t.

If God was a perfect being, his perfect foreknowledge would alert him to the fact that people would go to hell based on his allowance of free will, and if so, his perfect love would prevent him from allowing this unfortunate series events ahead of time, as a perfect being could not go against his perfect nature. Therefore logic dictates a perfect being would have done away with either free will or the doctrine of original sin. If such a being existed, which do you think is more likely to be the thorn he trims off the rose’s stem?

As it turns out, the doctrine of salvation is extremely problematic in and of itself. Theologian and New Testament scholar Robert M. Price explains there are 3 reasons why the Christian concept of salvation is dysfunctional. First, Price mentions that even a doctrine of salvation by grace is still only a variation on the age old theme of salvation by works. Secondly, he mentions that the heaven and hell dichotomy reflects the hierarchical thinking of class and race, and depicts the distinction ancients made between the elite classes and the peasants and destitute—noting one is worthy while the other is not. Therefore the desire to get into heaven and achieve eternal wealth and happiness, to become lords under a sovereign king, reflects the ambitions and desires of feudal men more so than it reflects any representation of God. Finally, Price informs that the concept of salvation is so over-simplified as to be dysfunctional. He states: 

“So we see that scripture contains not only a smorgasbord of conceptions of afterlife or the lack of it, but also a variety of prescriptions as to how to attain it (Doing rightly and walking humbly before your God? Faith alone? Faith plus works? Receiving your reward, literally "wage," from your heavenly Father? Keeping the Torah? Renouncing the Torah?)”[2]

Randal’s concept of a perfect God is simply proving to be contradictory—but Randal is trying everything in his power to harmonize the contradiction away since, it is obvious, he wants his perfect cake and he wants to eat it too.

Reluctantly, Randal then admits:

“Well, I have to admit that I see some very serious problems with the idea of a wholly self-imposed eternal damnation.”

Randal then goes on to inform:

“The problem is that in the Bible hell is not described as a place where people are simply left to their own self-destructive choices. Rather, it’s described as a place of punishment that God has set aside for the wicked.”

Indeed. So how does Randal propose to solve this dilemma? By pointing to the Bible.

“[A]ccording to the traditional doctrine nobody is in hell yet. In the Christian view, people do not get consigned to hell until after the resurrection, and the resurrection is a future event.”

We may be forgiving when we hear a chorus of atheists rejoice with a sarcastic halleluiah. After all, if you don’t believe in Christianity, let alone the resurrection of the God-child, then you’re never really in any danger of going to hell! 

Of course, if the Resurrection (capital ‘R’) does occur, I’d like to think that most rational nonbelievers would simply accept the facts and be pardoned their honesty and healthy skepticism. In fact, a perfect being would be obliged to pardon all atheists on the realization that they were not being willfully defiant, contrary to what fire-and-brimstone preachers might preach from the pulpit, but rather were simply waiting for convincing evidence. Being witness to an official Resurrection of the Christian son of God would be pretty convincing evidence. But until that actually happens, like Randal said, hell can only be conceived of as a far off future event. And if you’re a rational human being, atheist or otherwise, you’re probably not in any danger of going to hell any more than you're in danger of dying and ending up in Candy Land.

But maybe that’s giving Christians too much benefit of the doubt already? After all, most truly rational people who look toward the evidence do not waste exorbitant amounts of their time pondering the metaphysical nuances of imaginary places, unless, of course, they’re a theologian.

Those familiar with the origin of the Christian concept of hell know full well that tracing the Biblical term’s etymology is no easy task. The concept, contrary to the opinion of most Christians, is not novel and actually stems from an amalgamation of various concepts of hell and the afterlife which predate it. It does not help matters that all five of the concepts that Christians formulate their notion of hell stem from religions other than Christianity (that just goes to illustrate how derivative the Christian concept of hell is).

In the Bible, for example, there are five independent terms that have been conflated to form the Christian concept of hell. They are Abaddon (the Hebrew word for “destruction” frequently being translated as “hell”), Gehenna (an actual geographical location in Jerusalem located in the Valley of Hinnom, Hades (borrowed from the Greek concept of the underworld), Sheol (the Jewish word for “place of the dead” that literally translates to “pit” or “grave” but was translated as “hell” over 31 times in the NT alone), and last but not least Tartarus (the name used in Greek mythology for the dungeon of the Titans which resides far below Hades, and is referred to as the dark abyss, which appears in 2 Peter 2:4). It is clear that all these terms, along with their cultural contexts, get superimposed and amalgamated in order to form the Christian concept of hell. The fact that most Christians seems to be unaware of the extremely mythical origins of their concept of hell doesn’t make it any less mythical.[3]

Of course all of this doesn’t take into consideration the vast similarities of hell and the afterlife that exist outside of Christian thought, including probably the most prominent version residing in Persian Zoroastrianism, which both Judaism and Christianity were heavily influenced by.

It just seems to me, in order to take the Christian idea of hell seriously, you have to either ignore all of this or else be completely ignorant of it.

Randal goes on to inform that he views things like “lake of fire” and “outer darkness” to be metaphors of the suffering found in hell, not literal descriptions. Well, of course, he’s partly right and partly wrong. In ancient times people probably believed in an afterlife just as Christians do today. Their idea of the underworld was probably just as real to them as Christians think hell is, but the difference is that ancient people weren’t literate and didn’t have the Internet. They had no way to check for themselves if their ideas were based on myth, superstition, or anything else for that matter—which makes their opinions pretty irrelevant. 

I would say the same goes for most Christians who believe in hell today, their opinions are irrelevant, because we do have the ability to check bulwark of historical information related to these ideas, and the concept of hell proves to be mythical. Simply because an apologist chooses to ignore the evidence to emphatically restate his conviction that hell exists is no reason to assume it does ourselves. After all, I’d like to think we skeptics hold ourselves to a higher standard of rationality than the religious apologist.

It’s because of this knowledge that I hold to the position that hell is no more real than Candy Land, and anyone who thinks otherwise has to have some extremely convincing evidence, given what we know about the origin of the Christian concept of hell. You’d be surprised at how many people become offended when I cannot even bring myself to take their belief in hell seriously. For me, the very idea is outrageous, to the point of being absurd. To ask me to consider it, even hypothetically for the sake of argument, is like asking me to consider that Candy Land is real simply for the sake of an argument. The very notion is absurd. Why would I concede to such an outlandish position simply to talk about the pros and cons of a belief which I full well understand to be derivative of other myths?

Needless to say, this makes reading Randal’s chapters on hell extremely aggravating for me—and I can’t help but roll my eyes every time the term “hell” gets mentioned with a serious tone of voice.

Randal then goes on to say that the Christian concept of hell (don’t mind my giggling), although traditionally held to be a place of eternal tourment and suffering, is not the only view of hell. He mentions that one could take another view of hell, citing:

“To begin with, there is annihilationism. This is the view that after the resurrection those who are not in relationship with Jesus will be destroyed.”

Randal then informs that this options if far more desirable than eternal torment, but I guess, only if you’re a Christian, since it seems undeniably a Christian sort of problem.

“[T]here’s one more minority report. It’s called universalism… the view that everybody will be saved.”

Randal then goes on to inform that universalist Christians believe there will be an ultimate reconciliation of all creatures to God.

Of course Randal informs Sheridan that he doesn’t share the convictions of the universalist, but that he doesn’t dismiss their conceptualization of reconciliation altogether, instead opting to call himself “a hopeful universalist.”

He goes on to say:

“I find the arguments at least possibly true—even if not likely true. That is, I’m left saying that it is at least possible that God’s love will win out eventually and save all people. It may only be a million-to-one shot. Or maybe the odds are better than that. I’m really not sure. But I think there are enough hints to let me rationally hope that all people will be saved.”

Enough hints… where? In the Bible? So the Bible says hell exists and you support the claim with appealing to the Bible? One might challenge Randal to show how that isn’t circular reasoning. Because, in all truth, that is what it looks like. And then the question becomes, how can Randal base his certainty on hell in a fallacy?

This brings us to the end of a rather long chapter. In chapter 24, Three Types of Relativist and Two Types of Evil, Randal wants to explore the nature of the indignation felt by the atheist at such things as divinely commanded genocide and eternal torment—presumably to raise the issue of objective vs. relative morality. At least, that’s the direction it seems he wants to take the conversation. After two blinkered chapters on mythical places contained in a book of fairytales, I more than welcome the change of topic—and I certainly didn’t think I’d find myself saying that considering how frequently Randal likes to change topics!

[1] Read the text online at: 
Sadly, the woodblock plates are not reproduced with this version of Blake’s poem. The plates are what complete the masterpiece, so I recommend you track down a copy. I recommend the Dover fine art edition which reproduces the plates from the original poem in their entirety.

[2] See Price’s article “Economics of Salvation” available online at:

[3]For more on the Christian concept of hell, see:


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