Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 22

Chapter 22: What Hath a Most Perfect Being to Do with a Most Horrendous Hell?
If we were to answer the question proposed in the title, it would simply be: nothing. A perfect being would have no use for a hell.

Sheridan begins this chapter by sharing about his past. His parents were divorced, and when his biological dad died, his step dad (an Evangelical Christian) said that Sheridan’s real father had died and gone to Hell. Sheridan wants to know what Randal’s thoughts are on the subject, and Randal mentions, 

“[T]hat’s an area that I’ve wrestled with for a long time.”

Sheridan asks:

“Do you think a God who is, as you say, the most perfect being would really damn some of his creatures to hell forever?”

Randal begins by stating that most Christians tend to avoid the problem. Randal says the fire-and-brimstone sermons are of a bygone time, incompatible with today’s suburban Jesus, and notes “Most churches dropped the topic of hell years ago.”

When Sheridan asks why, Randal states that

“Some Christians take the disappearance of hell as evidence that we are ‘capitulating to secular culture’ and ‘losing a sense of God’s holiness.’ I agree that describes part of our increasing discomfort with hell. And I think these are troubling trends.”

Why Randal uses single parenthesis to quote what some Christians think isn’t clear. It seems like he may be quoting those aforementioned Christians indirectly, but he may just be highlighting the points by distinguishing them from the rest of the sentence.

What strikes me as silly, however, is that Randal thinks that people growing less superstitious is a “troubling trend.” Why would becoming less superstitious be troubling? I don’t know, and Randal doesn’t care to explain.

Even so, Randal explains another reason for why hell has ceased to be viable.

“I suspect that at least some of our discomfort with hell results from a heightened perception of its morally problematic nature.”

Problematic is perhaps going to easy on the unethical concept of moral blackmail and the place devised to ensure loyalty and worship through the threat of punishment and torture, including those who choose not to worship God.

At any rate, Randal continues:

“[I]n my experience Christians often treat the doctrine of hell in a way that parallels their treatment of herem violence: We either ignore hell or we misrepresent it.”

Randal then goes on to say that the idea of hell is much worse than most people think. He reminds us that the mainstream traditional doctrine of hell holds that hell is essentially ‘eternal conscious torment.’

For some odd reason Randal then mentions that Christians believe in different types of damnation, citing Calvinist Christians doctrine of predestination, and God sending people, whomever he wills, to hell—but that other Christians believe there are different prerequisites to getting into the hellfire club.

He then talks at some length about the Catholic Church rejecting the idea of limbo, noting that “Christians doctrines can change and develop through time.”

Randal then informs there is even a split on the concept of salvation, citing theologian Karl Rahner’s idea of “anonymous Christians” who would consist of people who have never heard of Jesus’ atoning death but who may still be saved by Christ. I guess it’s sort of like Mormon baptism of the dead, in the sense that you can save the person retroactively, often times against their will or without their knowing it.

Sheridan doesn’t buy into the various interpretations of salvation or damnation, but still wants to know Randal’s opinion about it. Randal goes on to say:

“Christians are not driven to their views out of hatred for others. Rather, they come to their views out of a conviction that this is what the Bible teaches. They don’t relish the doctrine. They simply find themselves obliged to accept it.”

Next, Randal says it’s important to get the facts straight and starts quoting scripture. Giving us his own exegesis of Matthew 25:41, he informs:

“I’ll tell you this much: the ‘eternal conscious torment’ reading of this text is definitely out of sync with contemporary notions of justice.”

Randal goes on to add:

“Increasingly, jurisprudence is focused on reforming and restoring the offender. As for deterrence, there the rationale for punishment is to provide consequences that will dissuade others from engaging in criminal activity… Unfortunately, the judgment of hell fits neither of these rationales. The point of hell certainly cannot be reformation if the person is to be punished forever.”

Randal then makes the analogy that the concept of a Hell House,[1] yes the kind that are popular at Halloween, could represent a virtual representation of a metaphysical hell that would work just as effectively to scaring people into being on their best behavior, but admits that “With a divine hell house there simply is no need for real people to suffer forever.”

Basically this equates to Randal’s claim that hell isn’t intended as a place for suffering, per se. Sheridan wants to know, if so, then “what’s the point?”

Suddenly the chapter comes to a close. And we haven’t learned whether a perfect being would fashion a hell let alone require one. We haven’t learned much of anything really. Randal talked a lot on unrelated topics for most of the chapter. Chapter 23 is entitled “An Eternal Eye for an Eye.”

[1] Hell houses are haunted house styled attractions run by Christian organizations. These depict real life situations of sin, such as abortions and drunk driving, and the torments of the unlucky damned to Hell for their folly and transgressions. Usually the attractions concludes with a depiction of heaven and a voucher that asks if you’d like to repent of your sins—as a hook to try and get people to ask forgiveness and accept some Christian salvation. Most Hell house events are typically operated in the days preceding the triduum of Hallowtide. A popular documentary about the Hell house phenomenom was made by director George Ratliff in 2003.


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