This week a read an article in Answers in Genesis’ Answers Magazine asserting that if you think God’s cruel for sending people to eternal torture in hell, well, you just don’t truly understand God’s goodness (yes, yes that is indeed their argument), and a post by the Slacktivist in which muses that it must be awful to believe that God isn’t as loving as you want him to be. Reading these two in tandem brought to mind the “wager” I created while exiting religion. So hang on to your seats as we set off to explore Answers in Genesis’ argument, the Slactivist’s solution, and my wager.
Answers in Genesis on God and Hell
Here is an excerpt from an article by Tim Challies called “What Kind of God Would Condemn People to Eternal Torment” and published in Answers volume 7, July-Sept. 2012, p. 58:
On what basis can I so strongly and confidently assert the necessity and existence of eternal, conscious torment in hell, even if my heart naturally cries out in rebellion against the thought? Only because God’s word is clear on the matter. The Bible describes hell as a place where God pours out His wrath on people who have been created in His image. God the Father has appointed His Son to be the eternal Judge who will condemn people to hell. This is not momentary or temorary torture dispensed by Satan or his demons, but eternal torment poured out by God himself. This punishment will be inflicted upon conscious human beings, people who know who they are, what they were, what they have done.
It is truly, literally impossible to imagine a worse reality than this one. Yet the Bible, the best of books by the best of authors, the perfect book by the most trustworthy of authors, tells us it is so. If this is His judgment, then anything less wouldn’t be worthy of an infinitely holy, just, and good God.
Who am I to question God? If this infinitely holy and just God declares that hell exists and asserts that hell must exist, then rebellion against His will reveals a failure in my own understanding of justice and goodness. Do I know better than God? Or is it possible that I am far worse than God, infinitely worse, and that I fall woefully short of a complete understanding of God’s goodness and sin’s wickedness?
In other words, your conscience may cry out against condemning people to eternal torture for finite sins, but that’s because your conscience is broken. God may look horrible and evil, but actually he’s loving and good, it’s just that your ability to tell good from evil is flawed.
What follows in an excerpt from a post by the Slactivist, a progressive Christian blogger, called Permisison Granted, Officially:
It must be an awful thing to believe that God will not allow you to be as loving, merciful and generous as you wish you could be. It must be an awful thing to want to be more loving, but then to think that God forbids it and, thus, that your desire to love is somehow wrong.
I think there are more than a few American Christians who just wish that someone would give them permission to heed their conscience rather than heeding the unloving, unkind, unmerciful things they have been taught about LGBT people.
So, OK, then. If you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to love LGBT people and to welcome them without qualification as equal members of the church, you have it right now. I’ve even made up a certificate.
In other words, if your conscience tells you to love gay people but what you’ve been taught about God forbids you from doing so, well, it’s what you’ve been taught about God that is flawed, not your conscience. If what you read about or are taught about God conflicts with what your conscience tells you, it’s your conscience, and what your conscience tells you about God (i.e. that he is good and loving, and that that means accepting everyone regardless of their sexual orientation) that is correct.
What follows is an excerpt from a post I wrote last summer, called Libby Anne’s Wager:
When it comes to the question of God, there are four basic options:
1. There is no God.
2. There is a God, but that God does not care about humans.
3. There is a God, and it is a good and loving God.
4. There is a God, and it is an evil and hateful God.
In the case of options one or two, what we do or do not do here on this earth does not ultimately matter in a cosmic sense and will have no consequences after death. In the case of option three, a truly loving God would care more about whether we live by love and help others than about whether or not we believe in him or her. In the case of option four, do we really want to serve a God who cares more about legalism than love, a God who sentences humans to eternal torture for not worshiping him or her? Therefore, whether one believes in a God, or in the correct God, matters less than does whether one lives by love.
The above is fairly self explanatory, but what really happened was that at some point I came to a realization that many who make the journey from religion to atheism have: that I was more moral than God. That the God I’d been taught about growing up, if he existed, was evil and cruel, and that my own sense of morality rebelled against his genocides and demands for blood. I realized that if there was a God it was either this (or another) evil God, or it was a God who truly was a God of love, and that that God would never condemn people to eternal torture regardless of their beliefs.
I could have responded to this realization by joining the Slactivist and trusting my conscience over what I’d been taught about God and over what a literal understanding of the Old Testament indicates, but I didn’t see any more actual evidence for this good God than I did for the cruel God, so I didn’t.
So, exactly what’s going on here?
First, Answers in Genesis does an odd bait and switch with options three and four of my wager: They argue that yes, yes that evil and hateful God does exist, but that actually he’s a good and loving God and that when we look at him and think he’s evil and hateful it’s just that our sense of right and wrong and good and bad is flawed. What makes him good and loving is, well, the fact that he says he’s good and loving. If we think what he says is good and loving isn’t, well, we don’t understand goodness or love!
The Slactivist, in contrast, opts for option three. Are there passages in the Bible that claim to be by God and say things that seem to us to be mean and hateful? Well, then those passages must not actually be by God, or must not actually mean what they might first look like they mean! Because God is a good and loving God, who loves everyone, and anything anyone says about God that makes him seem other than good and loving must of necessity be wrong.
Growing up, I was always told that those Christians who preached only love and not judgement were making up their own religion, and inventing their own God. This lovey-dovey God who was a-okay with gay people? He was a figment of their imagination. It was the God laid out in the Bible that we must accept, whether we liked him or not, because that was the God who was truly good and righteous, whether we understood it or not. In contrast, I would imagine that Christians like the Slactivist would accuse conservatives of being constrained by a book to keep God in a box rather than understanding his true goodness and love, which transcends any box or restriction.
I sometimes feel like conservative Christians and moderate/liberal Christians have different starting points: Conservatives start with a literal understanding of the Bible and go from there while moderates and liberals start with what they know to be good and loving in their consciences and then filter what the Bible says through that. But of course, I know this is too simplistic. Conservatives have plenty of their own filters – generally their pastors or Bible study manuals – while moderates and liberals have plenty of Bible verses that endorse their conscience-based approach. Still, it’s interesting to think about.
This discussion also points out that moderate and liberal Christians do agree with atheists on at least one thing: that literal God of the Bible, the one conservative Christians tend to emphasize? He’s evil and cruel, he’s not worth serving, and he doesn’t actually exist. People make him up. Conservatives’ take on him, in contrast? Well, he may look evil and cruel, but we swear, he’s not. It’s just that our consciences are off and the things he does that seem evil and cruel are actually good and loving.
Oh, and the other thing this post has made me realize? I dislike Answers in Genesis even more than I had previously realized.