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:
http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/review-of-chapter-10-of-the-end-of-christianity/
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.

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Spot the Fallacy #2: Fine-Tuning and the Prior Probability of Theism
About Keith Parsons

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