First Response to my Hell Article

Well, things happen fast in our hyper-connected world and there is already a review of my chapter “Hell: Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine” in John Loftus’ new anthology, The End of Christianity. Someone called “jayman 777” (I’ll call him “Jayman”) reviews it at this site:
In my essay I argue that the traditional doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell is morally indefensible. Could a just God create an eternal, punitive hell? My answer is “no.” Though he declares himself a universalist, Jayman thinks that my argument fails. Here I’ll take a look at his critique.
Jayman’s first complaint is that in the section where I present the traditional doctrine of hell, I include many non-Biblical quotations. This is so. For instance, I quote Tertullian, one of the leading Latin Fathers of the Church; I quote Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the foremost theologian and philosopher of Colonial America; I quote historian Paul Johnson’s account indicating that the three most influential medieval teachers, Augustine, Aquinas, and Peter Lombard all taught the doctrine of an eternal, punitive hell where sinners were punished physically as well as mentally and spiritually. I also quote Johnson’s excellent History of Christianity to show that the leading and most orthodox divines among Calvinists as well as Catholics taught the doctrine that one of the joys of heaven will be the contemplation of the torments of the damned.
Jayman argues that Christians are not required to take non-Biblical sources on hell seriously, since the most important question is the biblical doctrine of hell. My critique is aimed at the traditional doctrine of hell as expressed by the most orthodox, learned, and influential theologians, preachers, and teachers of mainstream Christian traditions, and this is why I cited the views of such persons. In short, my critique is aimed at the opinions of Tertullian, Augustine, Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, et al. My critique was not aimed at Jayman’s interpretation of some biblical verses. Of course, Jayman has the perfect right to stake out the grounds he thinks are most defensible, but I have the right to have my essay judged on its terms, not Jayman’s.
Jayman says that I “appear” to defend a literal interpretation of the scriptures that I quote (Mark 9: 47-48, Revelation 20:15, and Luke 16: 22-24). He then argues, supposedly against me, that these passages are hyperbole, parables, or otherwise not intended literally. I never endorse a literal reading of these verses. I do say that scriptural accounts of postmortem punishment are “highly evocative,” and they are. I later say that some passages sound literal, and they do. In Revelation chapter 20 it sounds like the damned are thrown into a lake of fire, not that they are suffering the burning of a guilty conscience or something like that. At any rate, the important question is not how I or Jayman take these verses, but how they were taken by the theologians, preachers, and teachers who shaped the traditional doctrine of hell. Every indication is that they took them literally. But whether taken literally or figuratively, these verses are vicious, ugly, and vindictive in spirit, and it is the spirit rather than the letter that usually counts. Besides, if God does not endorse a view of hell as eternal and punitive, then, having foreseen with his omniscience the terrible consequences of such a doctrine (and they have been terrible), he should have expressed in scripture a forthright and unequivocal repudiation of that doctrine. Scripture contains no such repudiation.
Jayman next considers my claim that even the worst sinners do not deserve eternal punishment. He distinguishes between punishment that is infinite and punishment that is eternal and argues that a finite amount of punishment could be made to last for an eternity. How? Well, suppose that God justly decides that a sinner deserves 10 units of punishment. On his first day in hell, he receives 5 units of that punishment. On the second day he receives 2.5 units of that punishment. On day three he receives 1.25 units of that punishment. And so on. That way, a finite amount of punishment could be meted out over an eternity of time.
But this is a very odd suggestion. Such a scheme would make it mathematically impossible that the sinner would ever get the full punishment that God deems that he deserves. Even after googol days, the sinner will not have suffered the full ten units of punishment that justice requires (and we must assume that God’s justice is perfect, i.e., that the sinner deserves exactly ten units of punishment, no more, no less). Of course, we might say that such a series sums to ten “at infinity,” but our sinner never reaches an infinite number of days in hell. So, according to this scenario, God’s just judgment is eternally frustrated. Further, what kind of punishment would admit of the precise kind of measure that Jayman imagines? On Jayman’s scenario, on the tenth day of his incarceration in hell, the sinner will receive exactly .009765625 of a unit of punishment. Does this make any sense at all? Besides, as Jayman admits, in my essay I respond to a similar suggestion that the sinner’s punishment will be finite however long he is in hell. My retort is that we need merely rephrase the problem to ask how everlasting punishment can be just.
Jayman’s response is:
…the just punishment for a sin is based on the nature of the sin and not how long it took to commit the sin. A murder that took a minute to commit is deserving of more punishment than a theft that took one minute to commit. When looking at the issue of justice, however, we need to look at the amount of punishment and not the duration of punishment. The duration of punishment seems irrelevant to me.”
But doesn’t duration itself add to the total amount of punishment? Galileo spent the last ten years of his life under house arrest. If you were given a choice of ten years of house arrest (i.e., you cannot leave your yard) and one week in the Colorado “Supermax” prison where they keep the Unibomber, which would you choose? I’d take the week at the Supermax. Of course, at home I would have my family, cats, books, DVD’s, music, and telescopes, and the week at the Supermax would be really awful with mean guards, crappy food, and stuck in your small cell 23 hours a day. Still, ten years without being able to leave your yard would be extremely onerous whereas it would all be over after a week in Supermax. Clearly, a light punishment of great duration becomes a heavy punishment, and one of everlasting duration becomes an unlimited punishment. My question therefore stands: How does limited sin merit unlimited punishment?
Finally, Jayman concludes by mentioning my argument addressing the traditional view that unbelief is sufficient for condemnation in hell. He notes that not all Christians hold this view. My argument addresses the ones that do.
In sum, in responding to my essay, Jayman either changes the subject or makes extremely dubious claims. In writing a polemical essay, one aims to provoke a response. However, I do hope that any other responses will be of higher quality than Jayman’s.

About Keith Parsons
  • Ben

    Yeah, my response was basically that the "10 units" of punishment either don't count as torture since they fade away to virtually nothing and hence it doesn't make any sense of what scripture is saying ("the worm never dies" etc. as though we care about micro-organisms that are eating our bodies all the time unnoticed) or that the torment "fades" to a still tormenting level which still constitutes eternal torment for finite crimes. Either way, jayman777 is wrong.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons wrote:

    But doesn’t duration itself add to the total amount of punishment?

    Yes, of course it does.

    Here is another point to add to those you make: Knowing that the punishment will never end would make almost any punishment unbearable.

    Most of us can pull ourselves together enough to go and face the pain and discomfort of a visit to the dentist, or even of surgery necessary to preserve or regain health or mobility. But we know or have good reason to believe the pain will be of limited duration.

    What if you were going to a dentist appointment that you knew would never end? The pain and discomfort might, in itself, be bearable, but after sitting in the chair and being drilled on for an hour, what if you suddenly came to realize that you would never be able to leave the chair, that the drilling would go on, and on, and on, hour after hour, day after day, FOREVER?

    That knowledge or belief that you were faced with eternal dental drilling would make any further pain and discomfort horrible and unbearable, psychologically.

    So, not only would the eternal duration of modest pain be cruel and unjust, but the knowledge that the pain would never cease would make the experience horrible beyond words.

  • Bradley Bowen

    I recently picked up a book called Erasing Hell by Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle (2001, Published by David C Cook). It is a fairly conservative Christian viewpoint based on the naive assumption that the gospels give highly reliable accounts of the teachings of Jesus.

    Nevertheless, one key argument seems right to me: "Jesus grew up in the world of beliefs described in the last chapter. He would be expected to believe the same stuff about hell that most Jews [at that time] did. And if he didn't–if Jesus rejected the widespread Jewish belief in hell–then He would certainly need to be clear about this." (p.73) Since the teachings of Jesus appear to coincide with contemporary Jewish belief in hell, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus accepted this belief.

    But the reason I bought the book was the defense of the idea of hell the authors give in Chapter 6. They give a sincere and candid explanation of why they accept the doctrine of hell, and it is basically the answer to the problem of suffering that Job gets: Who are you, a puny finite moral, to question the actions of the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good creator of the universe?

    That one chapter is well worth reading, just to see the mindset of a conservative Christian believer. Here are a few tidbits from Chapter 6:

    "For much of this book we've been discussing some unpopular topics: judgment, wrath, and, of course, hell. If you're like me, there's a part of you that doesn't want to believe these things. But as we discussed in chapter one, the more important question is not whether or not you want to, but could you believe these things…?" (p.131)

    "It has taken me forty-three years to finally confess that I have been embarrassed by some of God's actions. In my arrogance, I believed I could make him more attractive or palatable if I covered up some of His actions. So, I neglected speaking on certain passages[of the Bible], or I would rush through certain statements that God made in order to get to the ones I was comfortable with." (p.132-133)

    "Who do I think I am? The truth is God is perfect and right in all that He does. I am a fool for thinking otherwise. He does not need or want me to 'cover' for Him. There's nothing to be covered. Everything about Him, and all He does is perfect." (p.133)

    "And sending people to hell isn't the only thing God does that is impossible to figure out. The Bible is bursting with divine acts that don't make a lot of sense to us. (p.134)

    The authors then give several examples of things God does in the Old Testament that are bizarre or morally repugnant.

    "The fact is, Scripture is filled with divine actions that don't fit our human standards of logic or morality. But they don't need to, because we are the clay and He is the Potter. We need to stop trying to domesticate God or confine Him to tidy categories and compartments that reflect our human sentiments rather than his inexplicable ways.
    We serve a God whose ways are incomprehensible…" (p.135)

    I couldn't have said this any better myself.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Correction: Erasing Hell was just published in 2011, not in 2001.

  • Ash

    "We serve a God whose ways are incomprehensible…"

    Bradly, this statement is reasonable if we presume that the Abrahamic God is real. But the moment we assume that there is no such god and that the Bible was written entirely by humans, then God's actions suddenly make a great deal of sense…his actions and commandments reflect human desires, fears, and instincts in every way. Understanding God only requires letting go of faith in his incomprehensible and unlikely existence.

  • Dan

    Uh, it's "google," not "googol." :P

  • Bradley Bowen

    Ash said…

    But the moment we assume that there is no such god and that the Bible was written entirely by humans, then God's actions suddenly make a great deal of sense…his actions and commandments reflect human desires, fears, and instincts in every way.
    Yes, the bizarre and morally repugnant actions of Jehovah are completely unproblematic from the point of view that the Bible is a purely human book.

    The existence of Jehovah by itself does not make his alleged actions incomprehensible; the problem comes in when someone asserts that Jehovah is 'God' meaning that he is 'a perfectly good, all-powerful, all-knowing person'.

    Apart from this claim, we could just take Jehovah to be a selfish, foolish, bloodthirsty demonic spirit.

  • Keith Parsons


    The "answer" to Job–once you strip away the splendid poetry–boils down to "shut up." Maybe better it would be "I don't have to tell you. Nyah Nyah." Such an "answer" seems more problematic for believers than for unbelievers. God's attributes of omnipotence and perfect goodness appear to entail that there is no gratuitous evil. Belief in God's omnipotence and perfect goodness therefore seems to commit you to the following proposition P:

    P: God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting all actual evils.

    Since a proposition cannot be more probable than one it entails, one who holds that it is probable that an omnipotent and perfectly good being exists must hold that P is at least probably true. Yet the Job "answer" seems to preclude one from holding that. If we admit that a vast amount of evil appears wholly unjustified, on what possible basis could one reasonably affirm that, nevertheless, it probably is? You cannot say that our experience of God's goodness justifies us in holding that God has morally sufficient reasons even where it appears to us that he does not. Such a reply assumes that our limited experience of good and evil is sufficient to inform us of what (sub specie aeternitatis) IS good or evil. Yet such an assumption is precisely what the "answer" of Job denies.

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