Doug Wilson on the Problem of Heaven

Doug Wilson recently published an article addressing a student’s doubts and questions about faith.

I recently received a letter from a student who was struggling in his faith, and the crux of the struggle was how the love of God, as described in the Bible, could be reconciled with some of the choices of God, as described in the Bible.

There are many examples of this problem, so let me pick just several representative ones. God is a loving God, and yet He is the one who commanded the slaughter of entire nations, and He is the one who declares the one who has done nothing but “not hear about Jesus” as reprobate and condemned.

The student’s questions center on a problem, namely the problem where entire nations are slaughtered in the Old Testaments and anyone who doens’t hear about Jesus is automatically condemned to hell.

With this question, and all others like it, everything rides on unspoken assumptions. What do we believe mankind is actually like? If we believe that God does to us what the Bible says He does to us, but we don’t believe what the Bible says we are like, then of course the result will be injustice. We will have a problem because we try to combine one part of the biblical narrative with our rosy evaluation of ourselves, and we can’t do it. But combining the entire biblical narrative with itself is easy.

I’m not sure I like where this is going…

To return to the two issues above, God tells Abraham that his descendants will not be given the land yet because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Gen. 15:16) In other words, the judgment of God in these matter was not a blind rage, but rather exquisitely just. And the other nations that were wiped out — what were they actually like? We have a controversy with God, and so we assume that they were all peaceful little Cananites, flowers in their hair, dancing in meadows with pan flutes. But that is not what they were like at all. And as for the reprobate who does not believe in Jesus, we must remember that he is not condemned for “not knowing about Jesus.” He is condemned for violating the standards of his own conscience in fundamental ways, and for doing so every day of his life.

If a judge sentences a man to hang, this is of course unjust if we leave out of the picture the crime that the man was convicted of. But what is our basis for leaving this out? That crime is only “irrelevant” if our dedicated aim is to condemn the judge.

The Bible says that if we don’t believe in Christ, the wrath of God remains on us. But the wrath of God does not rest on us arbitarily or capriciously, as though we were a planet filled with innocent, doe-eyed smurfs. No, the Bible removes the inconsistency by reminding us that we are by nature objects of wrath.

If you start with the assumption that humans “don’t deserve it” then of course you will come to the conclusion that we don’t deserve it. And if the Bible insists we catch it anyway, then the assumption collides with our conceited faith in ourselves — and we will think that the Bible is advocating a fundamental injustice.

But what if we are flattering ourselves? What if the doctrine of a final judgment is not a doctrine of raging injustice, but rather raging justice? We may come to realize that our problem was not really with the justice/injustice part, but rather with the raging part. If everlasting Hell were unjust, then it would be possible for some to console themselves there. But the everlasting Hell is just, and that means there is no consolation.

If we were race of innocents, and some god were flipping coins to determine who would be lost and who saved, then there might be something to talk about. But we are not a race of innocents. Look around. As Chesterton says somewhere, the doctrine of original sin is the one foundational doctrine of the Christian faith which can be demonstrated and empirically shown.

In other words . . . the problem of evil isn’t a problem because people are just getting what they deserve. The slaughter of the Canaanites? They deserved what they got. People who live and die without hearing about Jesus and then go to hell without so much as a chance for repentance? They deserved what they got.

And yet somehow, Wilson also has to bring in original sin. People don’t just deserve slaughter and eternal torture because of the things they do, but also, well, because they are born guilty.

Another point I want to make. What’s that old saying about the punishment fitting the crime? Yeah. The trouble is that there is no possible way that any finite crime is deserving of eternal torture. I mean, Wilson’s suggestion is that every one of those Canaanites deserved to be slaughtered, and that every person who has no opportunity to hear about Jesus and thus no chance to attain salvation deserves eternal torture. For what?

I guess I simply don’t take the same horrifying view of humanity that Wilson does. I don’t look at Sally heading off to preschool and think “she deserves to be slaughtered.” I don’t look at Sean, trying to be a good daddy and live a good life and think “he deserves eternal torture.” And yet, that is what Wilson is suggesting: that everyone—everyone—is so horribly rotten and twisted that they deserve slaughter and/or eternal torture. I’m sorry, but I simply can’t believe that. Wilson would argue that that is why I see the slaughter of the Canaanites, or the idea that even those who never have a chance of salvation must be punished with eternal torture, as a problem.

But Wilson goes on:

If there are ten innocent citizens rounded up, and five of them are shot by a despot, there is a gross injustice. But if there are ten inmates on death row, and the governor pardons three of them, there is no injustice done at all to the remaining seven. The only question of possible injustice arises with regard to the three who were pardoned. In other words, the question of justice does not arise when we are talking about Hell. It does arise when we are talking about Heaven.

The question is not “how can a just God send people to Hell?” The question concerns how a just God can allow sinners into Heaven. A God-centered concern about justice would worry far more about Heaven than Hell. A self-flattering, man-centered approach would worry aloud, and does worry aloud, about the purported justice of Hell. But we needn’t worry. The Scriptures teach plainly that at the point of judgment,every mouth will be stopped. The Bible tells us that when it comes down to it, there will be nothing to say. The debates will be over.

First of all, Wilson contrasts being “God-centered” with being “self-centered.” I don’t think you can really hold those up as the only two options. It is completely possible to be altruistic and other-centered without belief in God. Further, I don’t think that some amount of being self-centered is necessarily a problem, especially if you posit the existence of a God who loves us. Let me give an example. I love Sally very dearly, and I want her to be happy and live a fulfilled life. Would I be pleased if she started making her every decision based on me and what I want? Do I want her to subsume her very self into pleasing me? No! If I did, then I would be being self-centered, and not displaying real love. It is Wilson’s God that is self-centered, not me. But for Wilson, it’s only right for God to be self-centered, because people don’t matter except inasmuch as they make God happy. There is something very broken about that entire theology.

Next, notice that Wilson is trying to turn the problem on its head. Wilson is dispensing with the question of how anyone could deserve eternal torture by making it his premise. In Wilson’s world, every person, man, woman, and child, is deserving of eternal torture from the outset. God has every right to smite them dead or cause any amount of harm to them. The real problem, he says, does not concern how God can send people to eternal torment but rather how he can let any of us, rotten twisted beings that we are, enter heaven. Once again, Wilson and I are starting from two very different points when it comes to viewing people. But how does Wilson resolve this problem, this problem of God’s allowing some of us, disgusting slime that we are, to enter heaven?

The real problem, the problem of justice and Heaven, is resolved in the cross. Christ died as a blood atonement so that God could be both just and the one who justifies. God could be just and send us all to Hell. He could be the one who justifies and let us all into Heaven on a boy-will-be-boys basis. But in order to be both just and the one who justifies, Christ had to bleed.

And … that didn’t actually make this make any more sense.

Let’s remind ourselves of Wilson’s scenario:

If there are ten innocent citizens rounded up, and five of them are shot by a despot, there is a gross injustice. But if there are ten inmates on death row, and the governor pardons three of them, there is no injustice done at all to the remaining seven. The only question of possible injustice arises with regard to the three who were pardoned.

Wilson is right. Simply pardoning citizens who are on death row is unjust, especially pardoning some and not others. So what is Wilson’s solution to this? Continuing his analogy, he has the governor’s son killed and then just fiat declares that that makes pardoning some of the ten death row inmates—though not all of them—just. But how? How does the death of a powerful innocent suddenly make setting guilty people free just when it wouldn’t otherwise? In fact, I would argue that it’s more unjust to require the death of an innocent in order to legitimize setting convicted criminals free than it is to just set convicted criminals free.

And beyond that, how is it just to free some convicted criminals and not others, murdered innocent person or not? I suppose it might be just if you gave everyone the option of mending their ways and then freed those who pledged to do so and not those who were not repentant for their past crimes. But, if we’re going to follow with Wilson’s analogy, some of the criminals wouldn’t even be notified of the option of being freed (just like people who never hear of Jesus’ sacrifice). Again, how in the world is that just?

I grew up thinking that Wilson was a great thinker and that the theology he crafted was deep and profound. But from the idea that we humans naturally deserve slaughter and everlasting torture to the idea that the death of an innocent man somehow makes releasing convicted criminals just, I’m really not sure how I thought that anymore. I don’t know if Wilson’s essay convinced the student who wrote to him expressing doubts, but I know it sure didn’t do me any good. Or maybe, just maybe, it did.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.