Quench not the Spirit

Rachel Held Evans responds to the recent Southern Baptist Convention resolution affirming belief in “conscious, eternal suffering” for all non-Christians, i.e., Hell.

She quotes from Rustin J. Umstattd, a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist seminary, who criticizes author Rob Bell for not realizing that we Christians, apparently, are not supposed to listen when our conscience starts screaming in protest:

It is clear that Bell is not comfortable with the idea that billions of people may suffer in hell. But then, who is comfortable with that? The majority of evangelicals who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell … are troubled by its implications. But being troubled, even deeply troubled, by the implications of the biblical text does not give us a reason to abandon the text or force it into a mold that rests comfortably with us. It should be our goal to let the Bible be the source and shaper of our doctrine.

Evans points out that Umstattd, like most Southern Baptists, believes in the idea of an “age of accountability,” even though the Bible is not the “source” of that doctrine.

The age of accountability refers to a belief that children under a certain age (usually twelve or so), will be granted salvation regardless of the religious affiliation of their parents. Most Baptists I know believe in the age of accountability, and even the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message makes it implicit in its statement that people are not morally accountable until “they are capable of moral action.”

And yet this concept is never explicitly stated in Scripture, nor does it appear in any of the historic Christian creeds. …

I am often told by fellow Christians that an inclusivist reading of Scripture is the result of a sentimental “bleeding heart.” And yet most of those people embrace without question the age of accountability and reel at the idea of a non-elect two year-old burning alive for eternity.   I believe we were created to reel at that idea, just as we were created to reel at the idea of a young Muslim woman being tortured forever by a God whose name she never knew.  I believe that our impulse towards grace is a reflection of God’s image inside of us, not a weakness of which we should be ashamed.

“Quench not the Spirit,” the Bible says. If the Spirit, as Umstattd suggests, leads “the majority of evangelicals” to be “troubled” by a particular interpretation of a handful of biblical passages, then perhaps it is that interpretation, rather than the Spirit, which has gone awry.

Conscience matters. If a doctrine offends the conscience of most believers — if a doctrine is so blatantly troubling that even its defenders can ask “who is comfortable with that?” — then maybe God is trying to tell us something.

Elsewhere I have pointed out that the doctrine of Hell is not as Bible-based as the Southern Baptist Convention wants to suggest. The Bible is not the source of that doctrine. Nor is that doctrine shaped by the Bible. The Gospel of Nicodemus is not part of the canon. The Apocalypse of Peter is not part of the canon. The Vision of Tundale is not part of the canon. To reinterpret the Bible’s very few, allusive uses of the word “gehenna” as references to the Hell of those later, noncanonical and deeply weird texts is a deeply disrespectful approach to scripture.

But let us for the moment bracket this exegetical dispute and focus here on the unambiguous message that Prof. Umstattd acknowledges his conscience is shouting at him.

I think he ought to listen to what his conscience is telling him.

Prof. Umstattd, I would venture to guess, would be incapable of torturing another human being, even briefly, let alone for any sustained period of torment. This is true of most people. It is even true of most Southern Baptists (despite that convention’s origin in defense of keeping torture, kidnapping and rape legal in the American South). And I am sure it is true as well of Prof. Umstattd. I am sure that the very idea of deliberately torturing another human being is repugnant to him viscerally, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

I do not think that the professor’s commendable inability to bring himself to maim and cruelly harm another human being reflects an insufficiency of holiness on his part. Nor do I think that this is how he perceives this lack of capacity for torture himself. He does not lament his having a conscience that forbids him to torture others. He does not view it as a moral failing on his part. He likely sees it, instead, as evidence of his fundamental humanity — evidence that he is a child of God created in the image of God.

And yet — despite what his gut, his brain, his heart and his conscience are telling him about torture — the professor is reluctantly convinced that God is capable of being the monster he cannot imagine allowing himself to become. And this places him in the unfortunate position of having to argue that this monstrosity is a function of God’s holiness

I do not think this word means what he thinks it means. I do not think this word can be made to mean what such an argument would require it to mean. I am fairly sure that if you construct a sentence using the word “holiness” in which the word “sadism” can be substituted for it without changing the meaning of the sentence, then you’re using it wrong.

If that is what this word means, then the heavenly hosts singing praises around the throne of God would have chosen a different word rather than accusing him of something as nasty and stomach-turning as holiness.

If “Holy, holy, holy” meant that God delights in that which causes our consciences to recoil — causes every fiber of our being, our gut, our intellect, our heart, our soul to scream out no, No, NO! — then those praises would be blasphemies. Then praise and blasphemy would be interchangeable.

That would be troubling. Who could be comfortable with that?

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  • Cootiio

    “Prof. Umstattd, I would venture to guess, would be incapable of
    torturing another human being, even briefly, let alone for any sustained
    period of torment. This is true of most people.”

    This is the only part I have a problem with.  As the Milgram obedience and Stanford prison experiments show, it does seem that most people are in fact willing and able to torture others up to and past the point of death.  Perhaps someone smarter than I could draw the connections that may be there between this unfortunate aspect of our humanity and otherwise good people’s willingness to be apologists for sadism.

  • Anonymous

    Mm. When Umstattd asks “who is comfortable with that”, that answer is, unfortunately, “People”. We have a well-documented ability for looking the other way, and even when our conscience has a chance to engage, we also happen to be pretty good at rationalizing such worries away. People will reliably do pretty terrible things if they’re told it’s for the greater good. They don’t even need to have that greater good demonstrated to them. They just need an authority figure. 

    Not to mention that the subject matter here is a larger number of people than the human brain is capable of emphasizing with suffering for a unit of time that’s near-impossible to grasp. Of course you can’t get people to have an appropriate emotional response to that. I defy anyone to have an appropriate emotional response to that. I can’t. It’s too big. I don’t even know what the appropriate emotional response to that would even look like. 

    Well. That’s how I rationalize away people like Umstattd, anyway. 

  • Anonymous

    Mm. When Umstattd asks “who is comfortable with that”, that answer is, unfortunately, “People”. We have a well-documented ability for looking the other way, and even when our conscience has a chance to engage, we also happen to be pretty good at rationalizing such worries away. People will reliably do pretty terrible things if they’re told it’s for the greater good. They don’t even need to have that greater good demonstrated to them. They just need an authority figure. 

    Not to mention that the subject matter here is a larger number of people than the human brain is capable of emphasizing with suffering for a unit of time that’s near-impossible to grasp. Of course you can’t get people to have an appropriate emotional response to that. I defy anyone to have an appropriate emotional response to that. I can’t. It’s too big. I don’t even know what the appropriate emotional response to that would even look like. 

    Well. That’s how I rationalize away people like Umstattd, anyway. 

  • Tom S

    The validity of the Stanford experiment is immensely questionable, but I think it does demonstrate that dehumanizing people and feeling that you are acting in a bloc with lots of others makes it far, far easier to be cruel beyond normal human limits- I wonder if the reason that people force themselves to believe the God would be so cruel is to justify themselves in the belief that, for instance, unlimited war in Muslim countries is acceptable. Even God doesn’t treat them as people, so why should I?

  • twig

    Read the longer version of Milgram and Stanford.  Try the book “Opening Skinner’s Box.”  It’s not as simple an experiment or conclusion as many people believe.

  • twig

    Read the longer version of Milgram and Stanford.  Try the book “Opening Skinner’s Box.”  It’s not as simple an experiment or conclusion as many people believe.

  • Anonymous

    Having read The Authoritarians again and the horror that is the Milgram and Stanford experiments, I would agree.

    It would be an interesting if thoroughly (by todays’ standards) inethical experiment to conduct a variant of Milgram with some of these people who believe Hell is ‘just.’  Actually… no, I confess, I’m not looking at it as an experiment, but rather as an object lesson, and therefore inethical and biased in the extreme.  I further admit that for most people, this could be considered a form of torture (though I doubt that any of Team Hell would really consider it tortuous.)

  • Cootiio

    “Prof. Umstattd, I would venture to guess, would be incapable of
    torturing another human being, even briefly, let alone for any sustained
    period of torment. This is true of most people.”

    This is the only part I have a problem with.  As the Milgram obedience and Stanford prison experiments show, it does seem that most people are in fact willing and able to torture others up to and past the point of death.  Perhaps someone smarter than I could draw the connections that may be there between this unfortunate aspect of our humanity and otherwise good people’s willingness to be apologists for sadism.

  • Anonymous

    To elaborate on Cootiio’s point, these experiments show that people who would never dream of abducting and torturing a stranger for kicks will nonetheless be willing to torture when it serves the purpose of the perceived rightful authority.

    The Milgram obedience experiment is a particularly good analogy – an authority figure tells the otherwise decent human that some third party must obey or suffer dire consequences, and the otherwise decent human falls into line. Everyone knows the rules, you see, and dreadful consequences are part of the rules, so really those people who refused to obey brought their punishment on themselves, and guilt lies with them instead of with the otherwise decent humans torturing them. The idea of questioning the authority figure, arguing that they should change the rules to take out the torture, just doesn’t occur, because who am I to question what Authority has handed down?

    All that, even when the authority is just some guy with a degree and a lab coat!

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     Loquat: The Milgram obedience experiment is a particularly good analogy

    Honestly, I think the Stanford Prison Experiment is the better analogy of the two, specifically because we see what happens when a blanket authority is given, but we also see what happens to those over whom authority is given.  The “guards” internalized their roles, as did the “prisoners.”  Everyone apparently just accepted, “This is the way the world is, now.”

    These are two bits from the Wikipedia write up:

    Prisoner No. 416, a newly admitted stand-by prisoner, expressed concern
    over the treatment of the other prisoners. The guards responded with
    more abuse.

    and

    Zimbardo aborted the experiment early when Christina Maslach,
    a graduate student he was then dating (and later married), objected to
    the appalling conditions of the prison after she was introduced to the
    experiment to conduct interviews. Zimbardo noted that of more than fifty
    outside persons who had seen the prison, Maslach was the only one who
    questioned its morality. After only six days of a planned two weeks’
    duration, the Stanford Prison experiment was shut down.

    I had never seen those particular notes before.  But if an interested observer who came in later saw the inhumanity, then mentioned it and was abused, that’s probably not good.  But then the bit where a whole bunch of outside observers looked in and only one actually said, “Wait.  This isn’t right.  Should you really be doing this?”

    It does kinda go a long way towards explaining how so many people can look at fundamentalist Christianity and its head torturer and say, “You guys know you follow a sadist, right?” and get told about god’s love in response.

  • http://infolepsia.wordpress.com Hantavirus

    This gets me every time, and I intend to complain loudly to the Internet every time the Stanford thing is brought up.

    The Stanford prison stunt can hardly be called an experiment. Controls were inadequate.There are questions of sample selection. The all-male environment raises many questions of gender. Reproducibility is dubious. All this affects the generalizability of the conclusions (and don’t get me started on cross-cultural generalizations, either — is anyone going to argue that these men went ino the “prison” without firm cultural patterns, lifted from mainstream US culture, about prisons, authority, violence, etc? One of them was explicitly imitating a movie character!) My rather cynical and uncharitable opinion on the whole thing is that Head White Dude Zimbardo and the other dudes were playing out a potent power fantasy, which has very little to do with an “experiment” of any kind.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     My rather cynical and uncharitable opinion on the whole thing is that
    Head White Dude Zimbardo and the other dudes were playing out a potent
    power fantasy, which has very little to do with an “experiment” of any
    kind.

    Which, indirectly, helps to support the idea that the Stanford Prison Experiment is actually a useful touchpoint in this discussion.

    Think about it.  Team Hell, as Fred has called them in the past, seems to be mostly made out of people who are playing out a power fantasy.  They claim that they’re just doing it because, y’know, that’s what they’re supposed to do according to what their holy book says.  Since we have excellent arguments from the Fred Clarks and Rob Bells of the world that Hell doesn’t have to be like that and the Bible itself leans more in support of the Team Bell position, the argument for Hell and the badness of Hell and the utter truthfulness of Hell is pretty much, “Because I said so.”

    And there’s plenty of self-selection involved, too.  Christians as a whole run the gamut from denying the existence of Hell (it’s a metaphor/) to seeing Hell as a sort of non-eternal cleansing period (like a sort of Purgatory) to seeing it as eternal punishment.  The latter group, at least the ones who find it necessary to stand up and say, “Nope, there’s a Hell,” seem to claim it either as a power/control thing or because they can’t actually imagine any other reason why someone would want to believe in their religion.

    So even if the Stanford Prison Experiment was flawed from a clinical perspective, it does still allow a pretty good view of what happens when people simply agree to a set of premises and then act according to a cultural interpretation of what those premises are.  The reactions of the prisoner who was inserted later and the various other outside observers then become all the more valuable, especially if we put those side-by-side with the Milgram Experiment.  If it was an obviously flawed and abusive system but most people didn’t even notice, can we not extrapolate that there is a lot in this idea of Hell that shows a flawed and abusive theology, but a lot of people simply walk on by without noticing/mentioning the problems?

  • http://infolepsia.wordpress.com Hantavirus

    Yeah, that’s a very fair point. I just object to Zimbardo’s “experiment” being given the trappings of unassailable and objective Science, as if it were the last word on human nature.

    (Milgram, though; there’s a proper experiment.)

    I do have to admit that I’m very far removed from all this discussion of Hell. Back when I was, what, 4 or 5 years old and still being raised more or less Catholic, I threw some sort of tantrum, declaring that I absolutely will not come to Christmas dinner, preferring to play with some new toy of mine. 

    My dad, frustrated with this, yelled from the other room: “If you don’t come here this instant God will turn you to stone!”, and I, rather unperturbed by this unlikely prospect, yelled back: “Nonsense, God would never do that!”

    Whereupon my dad laughed at this completely unexpected challenge, which was the only confirmation I’d needed that no, God doesn’t do that at all, it’s just a threat adults make when they can’t get their way.

    My apparent penchant for radical theology made me an atheist some years later, but that’s a completely different story.

  • http://infolepsia.wordpress.com Hantavirus

    Yeah, that’s a very fair point. I just object to Zimbardo’s “experiment” being given the trappings of unassailable and objective Science, as if it were the last word on human nature.

    (Milgram, though; there’s a proper experiment.)

    I do have to admit that I’m very far removed from all this discussion of Hell. Back when I was, what, 4 or 5 years old and still being raised more or less Catholic, I threw some sort of tantrum, declaring that I absolutely will not come to Christmas dinner, preferring to play with some new toy of mine. 

    My dad, frustrated with this, yelled from the other room: “If you don’t come here this instant God will turn you to stone!”, and I, rather unperturbed by this unlikely prospect, yelled back: “Nonsense, God would never do that!”

    Whereupon my dad laughed at this completely unexpected challenge, which was the only confirmation I’d needed that no, God doesn’t do that at all, it’s just a threat adults make when they can’t get their way.

    My apparent penchant for radical theology made me an atheist some years later, but that’s a completely different story.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    I just object to Zimbardo’s “experiment” being given the trappings of
    unassailable and objective Science, as if it were the last word on human
    nature.

    As well you should.  Even if he did follow proper procedures to the letter, there are any number of problems with sample size, unavoidable cultural biases, the knowledge that it was only designed to last two weeks, etc.  Although I suppose it’s telling that the knowledge it was only going to last two weeks didn’t so much cause the collective attitude to go in the direction of, “We’re not actually leaving society, this is more like a weird vacation, let’s all be nice to each other…”

    (Milgram, though; there’s a proper experiment.)

    And, on a wider scale, it’s the scarier of the two, since it basically showed that human empathy goes right out the window if we can’t actually see the person we’re harming.  And, really, it doesn’t necessarily come all the way back when we can.  Also, too, that bit where better than half of the population just plain won’t stand up to authority…

    Although I wonder how much of that was the gradual ratcheting up of the shock?  I don’t remember if any write ups I’ve seen of the experiment really explored that or if it even could be explored.  If you’ve already done something nine times it’s probably easier to do it the tenth, after all.  And if you start with something easy, it’s easier to do it when it’s hard.  Unfortunately, all the write ups I see tend to focus on the big implications and the relative paucity of the objections, so there’s no real analysis on where or when the objections occurred or at what point the people who stopped before the final shock chose to walk away.

  • http://infolepsia.wordpress.com Hantavirus

    No idea about that. I wish I still knew some psych students, they could probably point me to some more detailed literature than a Wikipedia article.

    I’m actually rather inspired by the people who refused to comply during Milgram experiments. It’s easy, when looking at the state of the world, to conclude that humanity is thoroughly corrupt; four objectors in ten, or even two in ten, is ample counterevidence. Moreso when you consider the reenactments done in various cultural settings, which do seem to show varying levels of obedience, depending on dominant cultural values. 

    It’s something to build on, I guess.

  • Anonymous

    While the study was flawed, the mere fact that he got the result he did proves that such a result is possible.

    Other groups have repeated the experiment also, and have gotten mixed results. The BBC did one (according to the Wikipedia article) in which they did not see the same level of abuses, though other researchers have seen similar results.

    Certainly none of these experiments prove any universalities of human nature, and, as all reactions, those involved are heavily influenced by their culture. It also seems to depend heavily on the leadership, or lack thereof. Which really reinforces the importance of authority.

    Aside from Milgram and Zimbardo and others, there’s also cases such as the man (I can’t find his name right now) who essentially raped up to 80 young women over the phone, mostly at fast-food restaurants, by calling their managers claiming he was a police officer and describing the abuses he wanted them to perform. One victim a few years ago got a $6 million judgement against McDonalds for not warning their managers against it despite dozens of complaints. (Google “Girl strip searched at McDonalds for the grisly details. I read one article a few years ago afte they caught the guy but can’t find it now.)

    At any rate, yeah, despite the lack of rigorous controls in all the experiments I’ve read about, it does show a willingness on a shockingly large percentage of people to be terribly cruel when they think they are under the aegis of some higher authority.

  • http://infolepsia.wordpress.com Hantavirus

    I’m really not arguing with this, though. I think these are important conclusions, and would probably accept them even if we didn’t have more-or-less rigorous studies; anecdotal evidence, after all, often points to actual patterns worth investigating properly.

    My objection is, first of all, with treating the Stanford prison experiment as self-fulfilling prophecy, and second of all, with making the leap from “volunteer college-aged men from the US in the 1970s” to “most people”, which really doesn’t seem self-evident to me. Not in an experimental situation with this much complexity and so many variables unaccounted for.

    I’ve read about that cop impersonator guy some time ago, and it still gives me the shivers. But what I see as insufficiently examined in this whole disgusting affair is that people, when they hear about it, start blaming the victims for their gullibility, as if it should be obvious that no Real True Cop, defenders of the meek and oppressed that they are, would commit such heinous acts. Which is both outrageous and laughably naive.

  • Carl Muckenhoupt

    To quibble with things that are beside the point, the notion of “a young Muslim woman being tortured forever by a God whose name she never knew” doesn’t make a lot of sense. Muslims worship the God of Abraham, and have a concept of Hell. They don’t worship Jesus, but they certainly know his name: he’s considered to be the last of the great prophets before Mohammed.

  • Lori

    I have to agree with Cootiio and Loquot. I have no idea whether Prof. Umstattd would torture anyone or not I think available evidence indicates that if one creates the right circumstances most people would. Worse, the right circumstances are disturbingly easy to create. 

    Most people like to believe they wouldn’t torture, but acknowledging that is not at all the same thing as believing that most people actually wouldn’t. I don’t think that reality is particularly inconsistent with simultaneously insisting that “God is love” and “God’s nature requires him to torture the majority of humans for all eternity”. 

  • Anonymous

    I would, actually, be rather chilled to recognize that Prof. Umstattd would not only accept the torture of ‘unbelievers’ for eternity, but would, if told to by God, undertake such torment of others himself, wielding the whip with a bold and righteous and merciless hand.  This is what we’ve learned from Milgram and the Stanford Prison experiment.

    So… who are the devils, again?

  • Barry

    I have a feeling that, discerning the nature of Hell and the fact of its existence or non-existence will become a central point in our maturing as a species and a religion, and how we understand ourselves and God.

    Why doesn’t God just make it clear one way or the other?  Like so many other points about the afterlife, its true nature is remarkably and seemingly intentionally ambiguous.  As if, I don’t know, God wanted us to, like, you know, learn something as we contemplate it?

    I wonder if God, somewhere along the line of watching humanity rise from its barbarian origins in preparation to handing us the Holy Scriptures, didn’t think, “You know, these folks don’t seem to understand that you shouldn’t do evil things in my name.  Who exactly do they think they’re following?  Maybe with a few unclear references to what would happen to those who live outside my name throughout my Bible, I’ll give them a couple thousand years to puzzle it out and maybe come to the conclusion they should’ve realized centuries ago…”

  • http://hummingwolf.livejournal.com/ Hummingwolf

    “You know, these folks don’t seem to understand that you shouldn’t do evil things in my name.  Who exactly do they think they’re following?

    And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him.
    But they did not receive Him, because his face was set for the journey to Jerusalem.
    And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”

    But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.”

    That’s from Luke chapter 9, one of the canonical books these Bible-believing Christians should know by heart.  And yet they still do not know what manner of spirit they are of.

  • http://hummingwolf.livejournal.com/ Hummingwolf

    I am fairly sure that if you construct a sentence using the word “holiness” in which the word “sadism” can be substituted for it without changing the meaning of the sentence, then you’re using it wrong.

    Preach it, brother.

  • http://www.inklesspen.com Jon Rosebaugh

    So what then are we to make of a god who lets thousands die in a flood or hurricane, who lets millions go unfed because of his self-proclaimed followers’ selfishness and bigotry, who permits his name to be used for justification for wars and tortures and crimes against humanity? Is this a holy god? If your god existed, if those angels really existed and really sang those words of praise to your god, then those would surely be hideous blasphemies.

  • Rikalous

    Since no actual theists have responded to this yet, I may as well give it a shot.

    The alternative to letting people do evil in God’s name would be God coming down from the heavens to say “Cut that out,” every time someone is about to do something wrong. After all, it doesn’t make sense for him to intercede to stop supposed Christians and let everyone else do as they please. So now we’ve got a situation where everyone throughout the world is being nice and playing fair, at the cost of doing good for goodness sake. After a few generations of this, the concept of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, rather than to earn brownie points from Big Brother, would probably have disappeared.

    The natural disasters question is harder to answer, but I think it’s the same kind of thing. Matter and forces have certain observable properties, and if those properties are suddenly altered for the benefit of humanity, that’s a sign on the magnitude of the “missile attack that fails mysteriously and doesn’t hurt anyone” from the beginning of Left Behind. One such occurrence would see some converts. If it kept happening over and over, the most diehard atheists would see that something’s up, and that leads to the “brownie points from Big Brother” thing from last paragraph.

    Besides, an infinitely long paradisiacal afterlife would heal a lot of wounds.

  • Jeff Hokanson

    What are you doing to feed the poor?? Such an elevated view of the human race. 90% of suffering is man on man with natural disasters probably consistong of less than 10%. If the worst actions of man (rape, murder, abuse, etc.) Consist of say 20% of that 90%, 70% falls into the catagory of ‘good’ people like you and me being responsible for the rest/majority of the evil in this world. So let’s all blame God for our actions and hypocricy…

  • Anonymous

    Hey, God made us knowing full well what we would become.  If I build a robot that ends up slaughtering a school bus full of children, who do you think a court of law would blame?  The robot, or the robot maker?

  • Beady Sea

    For what it’s worth, in my fundamentalist upbringing there was a perfect solution to the lack of biblical support for the age of accountability: my parents rejected the age of accountability, and condemned those who believed in it as being unbiblical bleeding-hearts. If God wants to torture a two-year-old (or a fetus that was aborted in the first trimester) for all eternity, then whether we understand it or not, it MUST be the right thing to do.

    Good times.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

     I hate to quibble, but the Milgram experiments were about obedience to authority. The subject was instructed by an authority figure to inflict pain on a “victim”, but there were no threats or consequences, stated or implied, for disobedience. Questioning the authority got one of four responses, all of which were variations on “continue the experiment”.

    Milgram found that proximity to authority influenced compliance. A voice over a speaker or a telephone did not get the level of obedience that a man in a lab coat in the same room did. Since theological questions like these are wrestled over in our private spaces, at night when we cannot sleep, or in quiet moments of contemplation, usually priests or ministers are far away, and our compliance to their demands is lessened.

    Milgram also discovered that proximity to the ‘victim’ grealy influenced compliance. A victim in another room, banging on the wall and talking through a speaker, unseen, generated more compliance than a person present, visible, and audible. Empathy, it seems, is a factor against authoratiarian obedience. Sadly, the eternal torments of the damned can only be imagined, but even that level of empathy is enough to make people unwilling to comply.

    I think the Milgram experiement is a useful tool for this discussion, because ultimately, this is a fight between Authoritarians and those who oppose authority for its own sake. Look at the pull quote:

    But being troubled, even deeply troubled, by the implications of the biblical text does not give us a reason to abandon the text or force it into a mold that rests comfortably with us. It should be our goal to let the Bible be the source and shaper of our doctrine.

    I don’t want to Godwin the thread, but that’s an Authoritarian statement if I’ve ever seen one. It is a straight-up call to obedience in the face of any and every moral objection.

  • Lori

     I hate to quibble, but the Milgram experiments were about obedience to authority. The subject was instructed by an authority figure to inflict pain on a “victim”, but there were no threats or consequences, stated or implied, for disobedience. Questioning the authority got one of four responses, all of which were variations on “continue the experiment”. 

      

    Yes, authoritarianism is the mahor factor “circumstances” that make torture possible and even likely. And yes, the Milgram experiments were about obedience. HOwever, there’s really not much of a quibble to be had in the context of this discussion. 

    There was a reason Milgrim used (apparent) infliction of extreme physical pain as the test behavior. What the subjects were lead to believe the were doing was torture and people like to believe they wouldn’t torture. A large percentage of them are wrong. 

  • Lori

     I hate to quibble, but the Milgram experiments were about obedience to authority. The subject was instructed by an authority figure to inflict pain on a “victim”, but there were no threats or consequences, stated or implied, for disobedience. Questioning the authority got one of four responses, all of which were variations on “continue the experiment”. 

      

    Yes, authoritarianism is the mahor factor “circumstances” that make torture possible and even likely. And yes, the Milgram experiments were about obedience. HOwever, there’s really not much of a quibble to be had in the context of this discussion. 

    There was a reason Milgrim used (apparent) infliction of extreme physical pain as the test behavior. What the subjects were lead to believe the were doing was torture and people like to believe they wouldn’t torture. A large percentage of them are wrong. 

  • Anonymous

    Excellent points.

    The quote is also a surrender of agency on the part of the person to a distant an impersonal authority, which makes it even more chilling.

  • Anonymous

    For Prof. Umstattd, the exegetical argument is not something to be bracketed while you look at an alternative source of evidence. One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism is that the Bible is more authoritative on theology than we fallible humans; if our best exegesis indicates that God is engaged in infinite torture, then the matter is settled and our conscience is irrelevant. The only scope where Fred’s argument applies is where there are multiple reasonable alternatives for interpreting the text; Umstattd thinks there is only one, and therefore Rob Bell is indulging in wishful thinking to assuage his conscience.

  • ako

    One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism is that the Bible is more
    authoritative on theology than we fallible humans; if our best exegesis
    indicates that God is engaged in infinite torture, then the matter is
    settled and our conscience is irrelevant.

    So is there a better answer in that religious tradition than “Infinite torture is now officially a good and moral thing!”?  Because I can’t wrap my head around a belief system that ranks “Torture is wrong” as less important than “Believe what this book says!”

  • Caravelle

    That reminds me of a sorta paradox I ran into thinking of facts and certainty. Basically according to my conception of the universe, it’s more certain that the Earth is very old than that I exist. After all lots of different people studying the question systematically over centuries have come to the conclusion that the Earth is old, and if it were false it would have drastic implications on the nature of reality. On the other hand, most people don’t even know I exist, and even the evidence that exists about me wouldn’t be that hard to fake. My close family and friends know I exist and that’s pretty much it; if I didn’t exist it wouldn’t change the fundamental nature of reality much at all.

    Except that if I don’t exist, then every single conception I have about anything, including the universe, goes out the window so it’s impossible to have anything be more certain than “I exist”.

    The difference between this and considering “believe the Bible” to be a stronger imperative than anything one can derive from believing the Bible, is that the Bible isn’t the only possible window we have on reality.

  • Samantha C.

    I think at least there’s something in acknowledging that it is a horrible thing, rather than trying to find ways in which it’s actually something good. I do think that on some level….I’m not sure how to describe it.

    I mentioned on Slacktiverse a little way back a story when a woman was trying to convince me to believe in an afterlife and heaven because it was a much more pleasant alternative (to her) to the idea that everything would just end after death. She argued that the idea of no afterlife was so painful, and believing in heaven was much better. I argued back that yes, it was a really lovely idea, and pleasant and nice. But none of those nice feelings make it more or less true.

    I don’t believe in the truth of an afterlife or a loving god no matter how nice the ideas might be. So in a way, I can sympathize with the position that believes in the truth of hell, no matter how much better and nicer the world might be without it. I don’t believe that the most pleasant option is necessarily the truest.

  • Beady Sea

    Saying it makes them uncomfortable is different than saying it’s horrible. Typically the argument would be that, as a matter of biblical principle, hell is “good” insofar as it is the way that the universe should work, and God is right in sending people there. It may be “tragic” but not “horrible” (i.e. it is still a just and deserved punishment — the sad part isn’t that God hits you, it’s that you _make_ him hit you). There’s a real disconnect between the personal discomfort and realization of the implications regarding God’s morality, which is usually lampshaded with “mumble mumble finite humans can never understand mumble”…

  • Rikalous

    So in a way, I can sympathize with the position that believes in the
    truth of hell, no matter how much better and nicer the world might be
    without it. I don’t believe that the most pleasant option is necessarily
    the truest.

    “Bad thing X is so because that’s how the universe works” is very different from “Bad thing X is so because an omnipotent, loving being wills it be so.”

  • Samantha C.

    I don’t know that it IS so very different. It might bring upon doubts that the being is truly omnipotent and omnibenevelent, or it might just be accepted as something the person can’t understand and make sense of. It might be something that troubles and concerns and can’t be reconciled, but is still believed. If I believe that “bad thing X is so because my deity might not actually be all-good”, I still believe “bad thing X is so”, because that’s how the universe works.

    I’m not arguing that Fred OUGHT to believe in hell, or anything like that. I’m not arguing that the Rob Bell side is wrong for finding and believing in other interpretations. In this case, the alternate versions are believable and sensical. I’m just a little skeptical of the idea that seems to come out of this post that if something you believe feels less than ideal, it must be wrong. The world isn’t ideal, and I at least respect someone willing to say “yes, this belief is troublesome, but that doesn’t make it untrue”, because I’ve said that for the other side.

  • Gaudiorrr

     I agree: the difficulty with saying “God loves us and so would not torture us for eternity” is that we’re talking about a being who came up with:

    *pain
    *death
    *

  • Gaudior

     Arrrgh, my apologies, I did not mean to post that yet.  As I was saying:

    I agree: the difficulty with saying “God loves us and so would not
    torture us for eternity” is that we’re talking about a being who came up
    with:

    *pain
    *death
    * entropy
    *a world in which resources are limited

    Not to mention natural disasters and our ability to act without empathy and so on.  People say that evil exists because humans have free will, but God was the one who set it up such that our having free will meant that other people could be harmed by our choices.  We’ve learned to compensate for all these things, draw strength and wisdom from them.  But that doesn’t change the fact that they are bad things, and God either made them that way, or is not actually powerful enough to change them.  God is either omnipotent or omnibenevolent, not both. 

    So while I don’t believe in Hell (I am so not a Christian), I don’t think it’s all *that* inconsistent to think that a God who invented/allowed to come into being, say, disease, would also be the kind of God who would invent/allow to come into being, say, Hell.  I would not worship such a God either way, because I have no particular respect or admiration for sadistic psychopaths, but I could see it. 

  • Gaudior

     Arrrgh, my apologies, I did not mean to post that yet.  As I was saying:

    I agree: the difficulty with saying “God loves us and so would not
    torture us for eternity” is that we’re talking about a being who came up
    with:

    *pain
    *death
    * entropy
    *a world in which resources are limited

    Not to mention natural disasters and our ability to act without empathy and so on.  People say that evil exists because humans have free will, but God was the one who set it up such that our having free will meant that other people could be harmed by our choices.  We’ve learned to compensate for all these things, draw strength and wisdom from them.  But that doesn’t change the fact that they are bad things, and God either made them that way, or is not actually powerful enough to change them.  God is either omnipotent or omnibenevolent, not both. 

    So while I don’t believe in Hell (I am so not a Christian), I don’t think it’s all *that* inconsistent to think that a God who invented/allowed to come into being, say, disease, would also be the kind of God who would invent/allow to come into being, say, Hell.  I would not worship such a God either way, because I have no particular respect or admiration for sadistic psychopaths, but I could see it. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/j.alex.harman John Alexander Harman

    I’m probably not the first to say this, but I haven’t read much further down the thread.  The thrust of this post, as I see it, isn’t to suggest that the belief in hell must be false because it is so morally troubling.  I think what Fred is saying here is that the statements “God is good” and “God will torture the majority of humans for all eternity” are mutually exclusive, at least for the value of “good” that any normal, mentally healthy human being with a functional empathetic sense would use; if one of those statements is true, the other must necessarily be false.  The statement that “Because God is good, God will torture the majority of humans for all eternity” demonstrates that the person making that statement is using a definition of “good” that could only be accepted by a sadistic sociopath, and further believes that god, like the speaker, is that variety of monster.

  • http://www.sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

    Even though I am someone who believes in Heaven (some sort of spiritual state, anyway), I can relate to this. 

    One of my reasons for belief in Hell (when I believed in it in the Baptist manner), was exactly this:  Existance as we know it isn’t all cookies and rainbows. There are brutal truths. One only has to look to nature and see that lions do not eat tofu or to look to our own lives to realize that pain is sometimes the only way we learn anything. I could not accept a theology that didn’t account for a bit of brutality – I saw it as honest.

    I’m universalist-leaning now, but part of the reason I can accept that is the idea that not everyone gets a “free pass” right away – that there is a “bad” spiritual state for the Hitlers of world to be in for a while (I just like the idea of it not being utterly eternal). Still, the idea that “it’s not ALL touchy-feely” is a big thing with me.  

    Now, before you believe I’m a ninny for placing my hopes in an afterlife of any kind — I also have a pet self-created theory in which both athesits and believers are right about it in essense.  It has to do with perceptions and the brain/mind being unable to adequately process oblivion and it all winds up being subjective.  Could attempt to explain it, but it may take a while. I invented the idea for a fiction short story I wrote and have just sort of kept the concept ever since.  Yeah, I’m weird.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tony-Prost/100002434484052 Tony Prost

    The funny thing is, their hell is more like the Muslim Hell:

    The Qur’an and Sunnah offer detailed descriptions of the methods of
    torture in jahannam. The Qur’an states the punishments will be: the
    burning of skin, only to be replaced for reburning;[6] garments of fire will be worn, and boiling water will scald the skin and internal organs;[7] faces on fire;[8] lips burnt off;[9] backs on fire;[10] roasting from side to side;[11] faces dragged along fire;[12] bound in yokes then dragged through boiling water and fire.[13]
    The sunnah introduces punishments, reasons and revelations not
    mentioned in the Qur’an, such as the majority of hell’s inhabitants
    being women who were ungrateful to their husbands;[14] that the least-suffering person in hell will have their brain boiling from standing on hot embers;[15]
    and that ‘if somebody commits suicide with anything in this world, he
    will be tortured with that very thing on the Day of Resurrection'[16] and in hell.[17]

    Those who are doomed for Hell will eat Zaqqum and drink scalding water. Zaqqum is a tree that grows in Jahannam. It has fruit, shaped like devils’ heads, which the damned are compelled to eat to intensify their torment. The Qur’an says:

    [44.43] Surely the tree of the Zaqqum,[44.44] Is the food of the sinful[44.45] Like dregs of oil; it shall boil in (their) bellies,[44.46] Like the boiling of hot water.[18]

    Other verses in the Qur’an describe different kinds of foods for the doomed in Hell, even exclusionary suggestions:

    [88.6] No food will there be for them but a bitter Dhari (thorn-fruit)[19]

    [69.36] Nor hath he any food except the foul pus from the washing of wound,[20]

    Some point out these seems to be contradictory descriptions.[21]

    Islamic sources indicate that all evil creatures, both human and jinn (including Satan himself) will be tormented by the Angel Maalik and his Zabaniyah.

    According to Sahih Bukhari 4:54:483 to 4:54:486, Muhammad said that fever is from the heat of the hell, and may be cooled with water.[22]

  • Anonymous

    But Fred, can’t you see the fault in your logic? While I reject the idea of Hell as unbiblical, you are still elevating human moral reasoning above that of God. If you’re reading the same Bible as I am, you believe in a God who has literally, painfully and indiscriminately killed millions of people, by fire, water, beasts, and just plain killing them. How does your conscience deal with this except by placing it in God’s hands?

  • Shay Guy

    Are claims of concern trolling falsifiable?

  • Anonymous

    Concern trolling? What does that even mean? Isn’t it just an excuse to shut down and ignore dissent?

  • Samantha C.

    I suppose what I forgot to say is, I’m troubled by the belief that Justice isn’t absolute, that good people are sometimes falsely imprisoned and that criminals are sometimes let free. I’m troubled by the belief that romantic-style true love isn’t likely to exist and that many people find themselves stuck in relationships that fell sour, despite the most pure of feelings when the love began. I believe a lot of things that trouble me, but that by itself isn’t really a reason to go searching for alternate beliefs, if I still think they’re true by the evidence that I’ve seen.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll check in here as the somewhat more theologically conservative concern troll and note that as much as the conscience recoils at something like unending torture, the conscience also recoils at the notion that the unrepentant go unpunished.  I mean, we get angry when Goldman Sachs pays an inadequate fine.

    The whole reason that the Smirking Bad Guy Who’s Getting Away With It is such a stock figure on things like cop shows is that he works as a villain because seeing the evil get away with it touches on our most primal impulses of justice and righteous indignation.

    Conscience pulls in a lot of different directions.

  • Beady Sea

    I’ll check in here as the somewhat more politically conservative concern troll and note that as much as the conscience recoils at something like hanging a child because they picked someone’s pocket, the conscience also recoils at the notion of a pickpocket going unpunished.

    Or to take off the satire tags: there is not a fine line between “no consequences for bad behavior, of any kind, ever” and “suffering that is infinitely worse in duration and intensity than what was caused by the sufferer.” There is in fact a HUGE FRAKING CHASM. An infinitely large one, in fact. Disproportionate punishments can be (and often have been) a greater injustice than the bad actions they were supposed to punish. And hell is, inherently and by design, as disproportionate as it is possible to be.

  • Anonymous

    There are a lot of different ways of understanding punishment of the unrepentant that don’t amount to something like hanging a pickpocket.  CSL’s Great Divorce is one. There’s also the Cappadocian Fathers who toyed with the idea of non-eternal hell.

    There are plenty of things that make me hope that there is some sort of accountability in the universe (like, say, up and conquering a country with little or no provocation which opens up a power vacuum and sectarian war that leaves hundreds of thousands dead).

  • Beady Sea

    Of course — but those aren’t the understandings of “hell” that Rob Bell is objecting to (or that his critics are defending). Anything that amounts to a literal eternity of suffering is much worse than hanging a pickpocket. But if you are skeptical that an eternity of suffering is what will really happen, or suggest that such an outcome would be actually immoral, you get the kind of responses from mainstream Evangelicalism that Rob Bell has faced.

  • Georgia

    I think the problem with this point of view is that we think of ourselves as better people than “those deserving of Hell”.  We lump people into categories of saved and not-saved and somehow in our heads that equals deserving and not-deserving.  The reality of Scripture is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.  When you view yourself as equally deserving of “Hell” (judgment) as Hitler or Stalin or your next door neighbor, you begin to beg for all of their souls to be saved from it, regardless of what they have done.  If you believe yourself “saved” that is an injustice, also known as mercy.

  • Caravelle

    When you view yourself as equally deserving of “Hell” (judgment) as
    Hitler or Stalin or your next door neighbor, you begin to beg for all of
    their souls to be saved from it, regardless of what they have done.

    I can see the syllogism but I reject your premise. For one thing, cute of you to equate “Hell” and “judgment”. They are two extremely different things. I absolutely do view myself as equally deserving of judgment as Hitler or Stalin. But if this judgement follows any standard of justice I’d remotely agree with, I do not view myself as deserving the same penalty as Hitler or Stalin. Not even close.

    Nor do I think Hitler or Stalin deserve the penalty of eternal suffering.

    Basically the whole “We are all bad, God is infinitely good, therefore we are all equally bad compared to that, therefore we all deserve infinite punishment” denatures the word “deserve” and is plain bad maths. As such I’d even go so far as to call it a dishonest argument, because it resorts to counter-intuitive concepts so as to confuse the mind into accepting a conclusion that doesn’t follow.

  • Georgia Ingolfsland

    I didn’t mean to equate Hell with judgment.  I was saying I don’t believe in Hell (thus the quotation marks), but I do believe in judgment.  Probably just ruined that sentence grammatically.  Sorry if I’s too cute for ya ;) 

    “We are all bad, God is infinitely good, therefore we are all equally
    bad compared to that, therefore we all deserve infinite punishment”
    denatures the word “deserve” and is plain bad maths.
     
    In other words, I agree with the above.

  • Georgia Ingolfsland

    I didn’t mean to equate Hell with judgment.  I was saying I don’t believe in Hell (thus the quotation marks), but I do believe in judgment.  Probably just ruined that sentence grammatically.  Sorry if I’s too cute for ya ;) 

    “We are all bad, God is infinitely good, therefore we are all equally
    bad compared to that, therefore we all deserve infinite punishment”
    denatures the word “deserve” and is plain bad maths.
     
    In other words, I agree with the above.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

    When you’ve been screaming in unendurable pain for 100 quintillion years, you have only just begun.  

    Next time you should think about stealing pencils from the boss.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    When you’ve been screaming in unendurable pain for 100 quintillion years, you have only just begun.  

    Next time you should think about stealing pencils from the boss.

    O_O

    …Wait.  What “next time”?

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    I’ll check in here as the somewhat more theologically conservative
    concern troll and note that as much as the conscience recoils at
    something like unending torture, the conscience also recoils at the
    notion that the unrepentant go unpunished.  I mean, we get angry when
    Goldman Sachs pays an inadequate fine.

    Wait, what?

    Are you really drawing a moral equivalence between “being tortured forever by a horrid plan enacted at the behest of a supposedly loving god” and “getting slapped on the wrist for helping bring down the entire world economy, then allowed to go on about your business while the political talk shifts to how it was too much regulation that brought terrible ruin upon us all?”  Really?

    At least go with the standards if you’re going to draw equivalence: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, that jackass who put an inch long dent in my door the other day, y’know, actual evil people deserving of punishment on a vast scale.  And be aware of the fact that what we think other people deserve and what other people actually deserve is an entirely subjective thing when we are the victims.  Moreover, what we think we deserve and what we actually deserve is also subjective.  That why we have developed law codes and attempted to create impartial judiciaries.  We look at Goldman Sachs and say, “That’s a travesty of justice,” because the fine is obviously too low and they are allowed to stay in business even though they engage in ethical practices that would gag a weasel.  But if every single executive were to be drawn and quartered while their families were required to watch before they, themselves were executed with a bullet to the back of the head we’d look at that and say, “Holy shit!  That’s not what we do in civilized society.”  And that doesn’t even get to the question of eternal punishment and the torture which said punishment implicitly (or explicitly, depending on who’s talking) contains.

    Let’s consider Hitler.  50-70 million people died over the course of WWII.  Let’s say every single death was his fault and take the high side.[1]  That’s 70,000,000 lives laid at his feet.  Give him a life sentence and call that life sentence 100 years for every one of those lives.  You know what number we get?  Seven billion.  That’s seven billion years in prison.

    For those playing the home edition, that’s a mind-bogglingly long time.  It’s also just over half the age of the universe.  And about half-again as long as the Earth is old.  So a life sentence for every single life taken by the go-to human monster of all-time doesn’t even get us to the age of the universe, let alone this concept we call “eternity.”

    Also, too, since we’re talking about it in terms of human justice, this assumes he’ll be in some sort of supermax prison, as opposed to hanging out in an agonizing lake of fire while demons poke him with sharp sticks or whatever the image of hell from your favorite medieval painting is.

    So, I guess my point is this: my conscience recoils at the idea of Hell far more than it recoils at the idea of someone not getting the punishment they deserve.

    And, when it gets right down to it, if we’re still talking about Goldman Sachs, it’s not even my conscience that recoils.  It’s my sense of fairness and any faith I might have once had the that government actually will do something to protect people against big, faceless, greedy, moral-less corporations.

    [1]Which, obviously, we cannot and should not do.  The Japanese were setting up the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere long before they officially joined the Axis.  So it’s possible, if not probable, that there still would have been a Pacific War no matter what happened in Europe.  And with stuff like the Rape of Nanking tallied against the Japanese, well…Hitler wasn’t the only horrible person.

    Moreover, there’s the question of the punishment for civilians killed by activities of war v. people who signed up and engaged in military activities, which…yeah…never mind, I won’t get in to that.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    I’ll check in here as the somewhat more theologically conservative
    concern troll and note that as much as the conscience recoils at
    something like unending torture, the conscience also recoils at the
    notion that the unrepentant go unpunished.  I mean, we get angry when
    Goldman Sachs pays an inadequate fine.

    Wait, what?

    Are you really drawing a moral equivalence between “being tortured forever by a horrid plan enacted at the behest of a supposedly loving god” and “getting slapped on the wrist for helping bring down the entire world economy, then allowed to go on about your business while the political talk shifts to how it was too much regulation that brought terrible ruin upon us all?”  Really?

    At least go with the standards if you’re going to draw equivalence: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, that jackass who put an inch long dent in my door the other day, y’know, actual evil people deserving of punishment on a vast scale.  And be aware of the fact that what we think other people deserve and what other people actually deserve is an entirely subjective thing when we are the victims.  Moreover, what we think we deserve and what we actually deserve is also subjective.  That why we have developed law codes and attempted to create impartial judiciaries.  We look at Goldman Sachs and say, “That’s a travesty of justice,” because the fine is obviously too low and they are allowed to stay in business even though they engage in ethical practices that would gag a weasel.  But if every single executive were to be drawn and quartered while their families were required to watch before they, themselves were executed with a bullet to the back of the head we’d look at that and say, “Holy shit!  That’s not what we do in civilized society.”  And that doesn’t even get to the question of eternal punishment and the torture which said punishment implicitly (or explicitly, depending on who’s talking) contains.

    Let’s consider Hitler.  50-70 million people died over the course of WWII.  Let’s say every single death was his fault and take the high side.[1]  That’s 70,000,000 lives laid at his feet.  Give him a life sentence and call that life sentence 100 years for every one of those lives.  You know what number we get?  Seven billion.  That’s seven billion years in prison.

    For those playing the home edition, that’s a mind-bogglingly long time.  It’s also just over half the age of the universe.  And about half-again as long as the Earth is old.  So a life sentence for every single life taken by the go-to human monster of all-time doesn’t even get us to the age of the universe, let alone this concept we call “eternity.”

    Also, too, since we’re talking about it in terms of human justice, this assumes he’ll be in some sort of supermax prison, as opposed to hanging out in an agonizing lake of fire while demons poke him with sharp sticks or whatever the image of hell from your favorite medieval painting is.

    So, I guess my point is this: my conscience recoils at the idea of Hell far more than it recoils at the idea of someone not getting the punishment they deserve.

    And, when it gets right down to it, if we’re still talking about Goldman Sachs, it’s not even my conscience that recoils.  It’s my sense of fairness and any faith I might have once had the that government actually will do something to protect people against big, faceless, greedy, moral-less corporations.

    [1]Which, obviously, we cannot and should not do.  The Japanese were setting up the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere long before they officially joined the Axis.  So it’s possible, if not probable, that there still would have been a Pacific War no matter what happened in Europe.  And with stuff like the Rape of Nanking tallied against the Japanese, well…Hitler wasn’t the only horrible person.

    Moreover, there’s the question of the punishment for civilians killed by activities of war v. people who signed up and engaged in military activities, which…yeah…never mind, I won’t get in to that.

  • Lori

     I’ll check in here as the somewhat more theologically conservative concern troll and note that as much as the conscience recoils at something like unending torture, the conscience also recoils at the notion that the unrepentant go unpunished.  

    If the recoil you feel when thinking about a pickpocket going unpunished is even close to the recoil you feel at the idea of unending torture then frankly you scare the shit out of me.

    I mean, we get angry when Goldman Sachs pays an inadequate fine. 

    Other than Matt Taibbi I bow to no one in my anger at Goldman Sachs, and yet I don’t want to see Lloyd Blankfein tortured. 

  • Anonymous

    If the recoil you feel when thinking about a pickpocket going unpunished
    is even close to the recoil you feel at the idea of unending torture
    then frankly you scare the shit out of me.

    No need to be frightened.  I’m a man who can’t even bring himself to shove my cat off the bed when she claws at my lower lip at 2 in the morning. 

    But speaking of sadism, I would be disturbed by a world in which, say, Torquemada receives a post-mortem welcome of “Come on in!” without a recognition of his own crimes.  It’s also the reason why I think that one of the best posts Fred ever made was when he discussed the notion of a possibility of the idea of hell as a full realization the enormity of one’s own sins and grace being the ability to get past that.

  • Lori

     No need to be frightened.  I’m a man who can’t even bring himself to shove my cat off the bed when she claws at my lower lip at 2 in the morning.  

    I’m glad to hear that. 

    FWIW I think it’s totally fine for you to boot your cat out of bed when she claws your face.

  • Becky

    AndrewSshi –
    Apart from what others have said about infinite torture being an inappropriate punishment for any sin – I think in the kind of Christian philosophy Fred is criticizing, there is also the issue of who gets punished.  A lot of people are condemned to hell even if they are repentant for the wrongs they have done, if they fail to repent in Jesus’s name.  I understand why the idea of hell in the abstract as a place where people who escaped justice in life get it in death is appealing to people, but the RTC version of hell where everyone who isn’t an RTC goes, regardless of what they’ve done, how repentant they are, and how much they’ve already paid for their sins in this life – it doesn’t really satisfy the conscience in any way.

  • Gettophilosopher

    I for one welcome my horrifying, monstrous lord and savior!

    http://codinghorror.typepad.com/.a/6a0120a85dcdae970b0120a86e32a6970b-pi
    ;)

  • Anonymous

    Unbidden, the following scene from Penrod sprang to my mind:  (From the Gutenberg project):

    With an ejaculation of horror, Mrs. Bassett sprang to the window and
    threw open the blinds.

    Georgie’s back was disclosed to the view of the tea-party. He was
    endeavouring to ascend a maple tree about twelve feet from the window.
    Embracing the trunk with arms and legs, he had managed to squirm to a
    point above the heads of Penrod and Herman, who stood close by, watching
    him earnestly—Penrod being obviously in charge of the performance.
    Across the yard were Sam Williams and Maurice Levy, acting as a jury on
    the question of voice-power, and it was to a complaint of theirs that
    Georgie had just replied.

    “That’s right, Georgie,” said Penrod encouragingly. “They can, too, hear
    you. Let her go!”

    “Going to heaven!” shrieked Georgie, squirming up another inch. “Going
    to heaven, heaven, heaven!”

    His mother’s frenzied attempts to attract his attention failed utterly.
    Georgie was using the full power of his lungs, deafening his own ears to
    all other sounds. Mrs. Bassett called in vain; while the tea-party stood
    petrified in a cluster about the window.

    “Going to heaven!” Georgie bellowed. “Going to heaven! Going to heaven,
    my Lord! Going to heaven, heaven, heaven!”

    He tried to climb higher, but began to slip downward, his exertions
    causing damage to his apparel. A button flew into the air, and his
    knickerbockers and his waistband severed relations.

    “Devil’s got my coat-tails, sinners! Old devil’s got my coat-tails!” he
    announced appropriately. Then he began to slide.

    He relaxed his clasp of the tree and slid to the ground.

    “Going to hell!” shrieked Georgie, reaching a high pitch of enthusiasm
    in this great climax. “Going to hell! Going to hell! I’m gone to hell,
    hell, hell!”

    With a loud scream, Mrs. Bassett threw herself out of the window,
    alighting by some miracle upon her feet with ankles unsprained.

    Mr. Kinosling, feeling that his presence as spiritual adviser was
    demanded in the yard, followed with greater dignity through the front
    door. At the corner of the house a small departing figure collided with
    him violently. It was Penrod, tactfully withdrawing from what promised
    to be a family scene of unusual painfulness.

    Mr. Kinosling seized him by the shoulders and, giving way to emotion,
    shook him viciously.

    “You horrible boy!” exclaimed Mr. Kinosling. “You ruffianly creature! Do
    you know what’s going to happen to you when you grow up? Do you realize
    what you’re going to BE!”

    With flashing eyes, the indignant boy made know his unshaken purpose. He
    shouted the reply:

    “A minister!”

  • democratic socialist

    I’m glad that Umstattd used the word “orthodox” with a lowercase ‘o’. Certainly the Orthodox church does not subscribe to his non-canonical, non-traditional, non-scriptural theology of the afterlife.

  • Nepean Ian

    Concern trolling means offering purportedly helpful suggestions while pretending to be sympathetic to a point of view (or trying and failing to be sympathetic), when in fact those suggestions undermine that point of view.  “Stop fighting this unwinnable battle” is concern trolling if the person saying it is a member of the opposition who is trying to undermine the morale of the people he’s purportedly helping.

    I don’t see anything in this thread that would qualify as concern trolling.

    In reply to AndrewSshi,  I would like to see blameworthy Goldman Sacks executives fined and denied the opportunity to play the market.  Prison time is justifiable as a deterrent.  Having them drawn and quartered would be evil, torturing them for eternity all the more so.

  • Anonymous

    Well I believe that when I die I have to answer to God and the only thing I can say is: I haven’t done your will please forgive me.

  • Anonymous

    Well I believe that when I die I have to answer to God and the only thing I can say is: I haven’t done your will please forgive me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marshall-Pease/1324310862 Marshall Pease

    @Monoblade: (seemed like a fair question to me: “be patient with them all”)

    God formed the human spirit “in our image, after our likeness.” So we can trust our true nature, although our true nature is overlain by our fallen nature.

    I take the Good Counsellor that Jesus promised to be the voice of that Holy Spirit. I know many people don’t understand how one tells the difference between that voice and one’s own inner monologue, but it seems to be something most people can learn to do. Baptists accept the doctrine of the Holy Ghost, don’t they? (If non-thesists want to call the Voice of the Spirit their own better nature, I don’t mind, as long as they pay attention to it.)

    I can’t think why belief in Hell should be on the list of stuff Required for Salvation anyway. In our church we say: I’m not planning to go there, so so what? Practice daily, no need to worry. 

  • Hawker Hurricane

    @geds:disqus irt a war with Japan… both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy from 1919 to 1941 that thier main enemy in the next war would be each other.  Both sides designed ships, made war plans, and trained based off this assumption.  The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, the London Naval Treaties of 1930 and 1935 only postponed the war both sides expected.  The German war with France, Holland, Russia and England gave Japan the opportunity (by tying up all the planned enemies except the U.S.).  But Japan would have attacked even if they weren’t formally allied with Germany.
     
    Yes, I are a history know it all on the internet, won’t someone please help?

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    irt a war with Japan

    I knew someone was going to come along and fill in the blanks on the footnote-based parenthetical thought in an already overly long comment…

  • Georgia

    I would love for anyone (or Fred, eventually) to take a crack at the earlier questions about God ordering or performing acts of mass murder and genocide…though I believe Jesus was Messiah, this disturbs me to no end.  I feel like Fred talks about God’s love a lot and then ends his posts before addressing issues like this.  I am very blessed by this site, though :)  Including all the wonderful comments.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    The alternative to letting people do evil in God’s name would be God coming down from the heavens to say “Cut that out,” every time someone is about to do something wrong. After all, it doesn’t make sense for him to intercede to stop supposed Christians and let everyone else do as they please. So now we’ve got a situation where everyone throughout the world is being nice and playing fair, at the cost of doing good for goodness sake. After a few generations of this, the concept of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, rather than to earn brownie points from Big Brother, would probably have disappeared. 

    I spent 36 years of my life working with little kids, and I can tell you from both experience and observation, telling them “Cut that out” every time they are about to do something wrong is how you teach them to do good for goodness sake.

    You certainly don’t teach them by letting them go their merry way and then years later, when it’s too late for them to make amends, punishing them for it.

  • cjmr

    “You certainly don’t teach them by letting them go their merry way and
    then years later, when it’s too late for them to make amends, punishing
    them for it.”

    Depending on the age of the child, even ‘minutes later’ is too long for them to comprehend the correction…

  • Anonymous

    But I think you have to do a lot more than just tell kids, “Cut it out.”  That might work to get the kids to behave in the  moment, but it doesn’t build empathy or develop moral reasoning in the long-term.  The examples set by adults, attachment (kids learn to love by being loved), their brains developing to the point where they can take the perspectives of others, explanations about why certain behaviors are wrong–all those play a part.

    So is God going to sit down with each one of us every time we do something wrong to do all that? 

  • Anonymous

    But I think you have to do a lot more than just tell kids, “Cut it out.”  That might work to get the kids to behave in the  moment, but it doesn’t build empathy or develop moral reasoning in the long-term.  The examples set by adults, attachment (kids learn to love by being loved), their brains developing to the point where they can take the perspectives of others, explanations about why certain behaviors are wrong–all those play a part.

    So is God going to sit down with each one of us every time we do something wrong to do all that? 

  • Rikalous

    I’m not so sure that analogy works. You need to tell little kids to cut it out because little kids aren’t smart enough to understand morality. Ideally, people are going to grow out of that. I don’t think any adult’s going their merry way ignorant of morality; there’s the golden rule and the eightfold path and the general understanding that we shouldn’t hurt people.

    In case you’re going to bring out the argument that we’d be able to understand an omnipotent being less than a little kid could understand an adult, I’d like to point out that we’re more advanced than both frogs and dogs, but we certainly don’t train frogs the way we do dogs.

  • chris the cynic

    I don’t have time to read everything right now, so sorry if this has already been said.

    I don’t think that the Milgram’s experiments really apply here.  Taken out of context what Fred said definitely seems to be disproved by them, but in context Fred is saying what he is saying as part of a comparison to the situation of God.  In the theology in question God is not being ordered to create Hell, nor is God compelled by any outside force.In the theology in question God is choosing for himself to inflict Hell on existence.  Since Fred is drawing a direct comparison with that, I think it is reasonable to interpret what he is saying about people and torture as being applied to people who are not being pressured by an outside force and are in control of their own circumstances to the extent that the decision to torture cannot be attributed to the circumstances.  If you don’t interpret it that way then the analogy breaks down even without looking to things like Milgram’s experiments because the situation of God and the situation of the human in question are too different to meaningfully compare.At least that’s what I think.

  • chris the cynic

    I don’t have time to read everything right now, so sorry if this has already been said.

    I don’t think that the Milgram’s experiments really apply here.  Taken out of context what Fred said definitely seems to be disproved by them, but in context Fred is saying what he is saying as part of a comparison to the situation of God.  In the theology in question God is not being ordered to create Hell, nor is God compelled by any outside force.In the theology in question God is choosing for himself to inflict Hell on existence.  Since Fred is drawing a direct comparison with that, I think it is reasonable to interpret what he is saying about people and torture as being applied to people who are not being pressured by an outside force and are in control of their own circumstances to the extent that the decision to torture cannot be attributed to the circumstances.  If you don’t interpret it that way then the analogy breaks down even without looking to things like Milgram’s experiments because the situation of God and the situation of the human in question are too different to meaningfully compare.At least that’s what I think.

  • Michael Cule

    The doctrine of an age of accountability, though it’s obviously vital to the Baptists if they are going to make the idea of adult baptism work, is so far from being supported by the Bible as to be heretical by the standards of much of the rest of Christianity which supports the idea of Original Sin tainting humans from the womb onwards and therefore the idea of infant damnation.

    C.S. Lewis (who was mentioned above) goes so far as to defend the idea in THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS. (He does put the defense in the mouth of Screwtape himself who must be pretty  much the Last Word in unreliable narrators.)

  • Anonymous

    much of the rest of Christianity which supports the idea of Original Sin tainting humans from the womb onwards and therefore the idea of infant damnation.

    That’s arguable, too.

  • Mackrimin

    Hell…

    I have a question for you. Were the Nazis evil?

    Before answering that, please remember that the Nazis _honestly believed_ that Jews were out to kill them. They _honestly believed_ that Jews were evil and could not be redeemed. They were wrong, of course, but… suppose they had been right. Would the concentration camps have been alright?

    I realize there were many people besides the Jews who were murdered in the camps. That’s not the point. The point is: were the Nazis just deluded do-gooders? Or were they evil?

    So, as far as I can tell, the question “Is there Hell?” is really just another way of asking “Is God Hitler?” And I realize I could very well end up regretting putting this in writing, but it doesn’t change the reality of it.

    So, _is_ God Hitler? _That_ is the question you need to answer. Everything else – including, but not limited to, the existence of a cosmic concentration camp known as Hell – follows naturally.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    So, as far as I can tell, the question “Is there Hell?” is really just
    another way of asking “Is God Hitler?” And I realize I could very well
    end up regretting putting this in writing, but it doesn’t change the
    reality of it.

    And…I looked at that one, blinked a couple times, took in a deep breath and thought, “Holy shit.”

    I now have a strong desire to write a science fiction novel in response to this question.  And that’s not to minimize the question.  That’s to say, “I honestly cannot figure out a way to respond to the idea contained in this question without creating an extended narrative around the idea.”

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    So, as far as I can tell, the question “Is there Hell?” is really just
    another way of asking “Is God Hitler?” And I realize I could very well
    end up regretting putting this in writing, but it doesn’t change the
    reality of it.

    And…I looked at that one, blinked a couple times, took in a deep breath and thought, “Holy shit.”

    I now have a strong desire to write a science fiction novel in response to this question.  And that’s not to minimize the question.  That’s to say, “I honestly cannot figure out a way to respond to the idea contained in this question without creating an extended narrative around the idea.”

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    “Is God Hitler?”

    No. Don’t be flippant. God isn’t Hitler, because God isn’t even remotely human! It’s natural to anthropomorphosise the deity, but he’s not human. The codified rules and ethics and morality of the Bible are for humans, and God isn’t human.

    I know we fall into the is/ought chasm when we ask “shouldn’t God be moral in the way humans are moral?” but God’s treatment of humans isn’t analagous to the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. It’s analagous to human eradication of smallpox, or the ecological movement to prevent species from extinction. One does not charge a grizzly bear with murder if it kills a hiker in the woods.

    The question “Is there Hell?” isn’t just “Is God Hitler?”, it’s “Should we expect God to follow the moral standards he expects us to follow?”

    My dog is forbidden from even touching the kitchen garbage bin. Every week, I empty that bin into the can, and drag the can to the curb to be taken away. It’s OK for me to get into the garbage but it’s not OK for my dog to because he looks for scraps, hurts himself, rolls in nasty smelling things and makes a mess. I just pull out the bag, tie it up, and take it away.

    TL;DR version: For now we see through a glass, darkly

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    My dog is forbidden from even touching the kitchen garbage bin. Every
    week, I empty that bin into the can, and drag the can to the curb to be
    taken away. It’s OK for me to get into the garbage but it’s not OK for
    my dog to because he looks for scraps, hurts himself, rolls in nasty
    smelling things and makes a mess. I just pull out the bag, tie it up,
    and take it away.

    So, when your dog does get in the garbage bin you respond by beating the everloving shit out of it and then saying to some other, random dog, “I did that because I love dogs,” right?

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    Well, if my dog attacks and kills another dog, I have my dog put down. Should other dogs be upset with me for doing this? Should I be judged as a dog-killer who deserves death? If I put down my dog for killing a cat or another dog, and then turn to another, random dog and say “He had to be put down, for the good of everyone”, am I being hypocritical? Or am I following a different set of rules than my dog, because of my different perspective and capacity?

    To reply to another remark:
    And I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t judge God.
    My dog can’t judge me, because it lacks the capacity for reason. My dog doesn’t have thumbs, or a knowledge of sanitation, so it literally cannot grasp why I can handle garbage and it can’t. He might try to, but it’s a futile effort. I’m not disparaging my dog, he’s sweet and loving and loyal and wonderful. He’ll also roll in the most vile-smelling stuff on the planet and expect to climb on the couch and snuggle afterwards. And he quite literally is unable to understand why this is unacceptable to me.

    I cannot create the universe out of nothing, cannot create the earth and all the living things that walk on it. So attempting to judge a being that can do those things could very well be beyond my capacities.

    Maybe it seems like a cop-out to take this position, but ultimately we’re talking about an inhuman, utterly alien entity that quite literally defies understanding. There is nothing even remotely human about God, and it’s a categorical error to try to judge him by human standards. (Now, Jesus, OTOH…)

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Maybe it seems like a cop-out to take this position, but ultimately
    we’re talking about an inhuman, utterly alien entity that quite
    literally defies understanding. There is nothing even remotely human
    about God, and it’s a categorical error to try to judge him by human
    standards.

    Are you sure you really want to go there?  Because I’m pretty sure that the very first book of the Bible strikes it down.  To wit:

    Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. – Genesis 1:26-27

    If we’re god’s image, than we sure as hell can judge god by human standards.

    Also, too, comparing humans to dogs is a non-starter.  The thing about dogs is this: they are, by definition, unreasonable creatures, in that they cannot reason.  I cannot tell a dog, “You can’t mess with the garbage, but I can,” because they can’t be taught anything more than simple language and they completely lack the ability to think in the abstract, anyway.

    Humans can be reasoned with (well, most of…some of…occasionally).  The very bit where god apparently decided to send a written set of laws to make that happen ought to be proof that god seemed to think so at one point or another.

    So if god sends a list of contradictory rules in a falsifiable book and god’s followers then add a whole bunch of extra junk to said collection of contradictory rules and then they say, “Well, we can’t understand it, because god is beyond us,” then that god is doin’ it really, really wrong.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    If we’re god’s image, than we sure as hell can judge god by human standards.
    Depends on what it means to be “in His image, according to His likeness”. Not trying to play word-games here; “through a glass, darkly” has a lot of meanings depending on whose translation you use.

    Part of the problem is that we’re working from what appears to be an incomplete understanding, right from the start. God doesn’t tell us very much about Himself or about Creation; he mostly just tells us about ourselves.

    Also, too, comparing humans to dogs is a non-starter.  The thing about
    dogs is this: they are, by definition, unreasonable creatures, in that
    they cannot reason.

    Can you shape clay, and breathe life into it? Remove the rib of a living being and make that part into a new, separate living being? We can reason and think… to a point. But isn’t it at least possible that there are things beyond our capacity to understand? Thinking about nonlinear time and other advanced physics concepts makes my head hurt; I really do have to strain to understand some of the concepts. Isn’t it possible there are things in Creation that are as far beyond our current understanding as reason is to a dog? (I recall Fred writing about a story of a two-dimensional line traveling on a plane, talking to one-dimensional things, and so on…)

    The very bit where god apparently decided to send a written set of laws
    to make that happen ought to be proof that god seemed to think so at
    one point or another.

    Yes, he sent down laws. For us, not him. And he tended (OT God) to make rather strident punishments to enforce those laws, which suggests he didn’t trust reason that far.

    So if god sends a list of contradictory rules in a falsifiable book and
    god’s followers then add a whole bunch of extra junk to said collection
    of contradictory rules and then they say, “Well, we can’t understand it,
    because god is beyond us,” then that god is doin’ it really, really
    wrong.

    Or God’s morality includes something resembling the Prime Directive. Why don’t we see miracles in the modern age? I mean real, anomalous, meets-the-burden-of-proof miracles, not subjective stuff. Why don’t amputees who pray for their limbs to be restored ever get their prayers granted? Either God doesn’t exist, God doesn’t love us, or Divine Morality (as distinct from Mortal Morality) stops him from acting.

    I’m not saying Team Hell is right, I’m not trying to argue against the existence of God, I’m just trying to point out that as explanations go, “God’s rules are not Man’s rules” is neither unreasonable nor improbable, and manages to fit the evidence thus far.

  • Izzy

    Okay, but “God’s rules are not Man’s rules” leads directly to what I like to call the Argument from Lovecraft. To wit: if God is an entity whose moral standards are so different from ours that we cannot comprehend them–if the difference justifies torturing people eternally for not believing*–then what exactly distinguishes God from Cthulhu and Azathoth?

    Because the books I read are pretty clear about what kind of entities go around using “I’m bigger than you so you have to do what I say” as an argument.

    *And I’m pretty vindictive. I could totally see sentencing Bernie Madoff to get a daily crotch-kicking for twenty years.

  • Joshua

    Well, the number of tentacles for a start…

  • Joshua

    And, hate disqus, as usual. My comment about the number of tentacles was in reply to Izzy’s question asking what separates the Christian God from Cthulhu. At least Disqus seemed to get my name right this time.

  • Beady Sea

    @Izzy I like the “Argument from Lovecraft” concept. It’s long been my opinion that the more vindictive conservatives worship a god that is indistinguishable from a Buffy big bad (complete with plans to bring about the end of the world).

  • Izzy

    Thanks! And yeah. The cult in Silent Hill also comes to mind. 

  • Anonymous

    Huh, that’s funny.  Whenever I start hearing someone speak of God as alien and unknowable, I also start thinking about the Cthulhu mythos.  And then their arguments start sounding silly.  Jesus is the son of (or is some earthly incarnation of) God, right?  Thus, if God is an incomprehensible being whose actions are beyond all reason, then shouldn’t Jesus reflect this nature?  Maybe he would make a little sense because he is part human, but the rest of the time he would be baffling to his followers and to the reader at home.  I admit that I’m no great scholar of anything biblical, but I doubt I’d ever find a passage that goes like this:

    Jesus’ follower:  Why did you heal that Roman soldier’s slave?  He was not of our tribe!
    Jesus: Verily, thine understanding doth fail thee for ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!!!  

    WWCD?

  • Anonymous

    Part of the point of Jesus being human is so God will be more comprehensible to humans. It’s not a very productive use of Jesus’ time to talk about things he knows they can’t understand, so he’ll usually just make an offhand reference to the topic or say “I show you a mystery” or something. Most of the references to hell in the New Testament are of this kind, actually – the setting for a parable, a quick mention of eternal fire or outer darkness when he’s talking about charity, etc.

  • Izzy

    Okay, but “God’s rules are not Man’s rules” leads directly to what I like to call the Argument from Lovecraft. To wit: if God is an entity whose moral standards are so different from ours that we cannot comprehend them–if the difference justifies torturing people eternally for not believing*–then what exactly distinguishes God from Cthulhu and Azathoth?

    Because the books I read are pretty clear about what kind of entities go around using “I’m bigger than you so you have to do what I say” as an argument.

    *And I’m pretty vindictive. I could totally see sentencing Bernie Madoff to get a daily crotch-kicking for twenty years.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Part of the problem is that we’re working from what appears to be an
    incomplete understanding, right from the start. God doesn’t tell us very
    much about Himself or about Creation; he mostly just tells us about
    ourselves.

    Then god is a total failure as a communicator.  If god’s point in communicating is to say, “This is who you are, this is who I am, this is how everyone should behave, this is what will happen,” then god has to know one of three things will happen:

    1. The message itself will be muddled.
    2. The messengers will muddle the message.
    3. The receivers of said message will hear it wrong.

    According to my own fundamentalist upbringing, that was the problem with the Old Testament and Jesus was sent as the correction.  But if you parse out who Jesus was and what Jesus said (ignoring the bits where I, as a historian, find the whole Jesus story suspect at very best), then Team Hell gets it completely and totally wrong.  They take as proof texts of Hell points where Jesus is actually saying, “Don’t be a dick,” then proceed to miss that message which is obviously there and turn it in to Dante’s Inferno-level details of what Hell looks like and who is there (who, much like when Dante wrote said book, have a 1:1 correlation with their own political enemies).

    So we can’t actually learn anything about god from Team Hell.  But we can learn an awful lot about them.  But that brings up another problem, since it means we have to look at this Jesus as an attempted correction of god’s message of grace.  But this is the same god who brought on Noah’s flood, commanded genocide, and will bring about final judgment which will involve an outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth even if Hell is only reserved for Satan and his minions.  Also, too, it’s the same god who spared Ninevah over the objections of Jonah.  So this god looks to be, at best, a flip-flopper of Mitt Romney-esque proportions.

    I can’t trust this god.  I won’t trust this god.  At this point the explanation that this god is the result of a couple thousand years of human invention is the much more obvious explanation.

    Or God’s morality includes something resembling the Prime Directive. Why
    don’t we see miracles in the modern age? I mean real, anomalous,
    meets-the-burden-of-proof miracles, not subjective stuff. Why don’t
    amputees who pray for their limbs to be restored ever get their prayers
    granted?

    If god’s morality includes the Prime Directive, did that god only put the Prime Directive in place after, say, Jesus?  Because the Jewish Bible is filled with stories of god intervening and the narrative makes said intervention explicit.  And one could argue that Jesus was an ultimate example of violating the spirit and letter of anything approaching a Prime Directive.

    Either God doesn’t exist, God doesn’t love us, or Divine Morality (as distinct from Mortal Morality) stops him from acting.

    You’ve just formulated a succinct variation on the Epicurean Paradox:

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and
    willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then
    why call him God?”

    The only value that worshiping such a god holds is if that god is the one forcing us through pain of eternal torture.  As such, Team Hell’s god cannot be properly compared to Hitler, due to the fact that Team Hell’s god is infinitely more evil than Hitler could ever be.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    Can you shape clay, and breathe life into it? Remove the rib of a living
    being and make that part into a new, separate living being? We can
    reason and think… to a point. But isn’t it at least possible that
    there are things beyond our capacity to understand?

    Also, too, this argument is a complete non-starter.

    Let’s bracket off the bit where, y’know, evolution and shit happened, so god isn’t actually necessary and actually rather non-apparent in the creation of actual human beings.  It’s a lovely, poetic sentiment for the idea of a creator god.

    Humans can’t create life, but we are capable of understanding the mechanisms of life and we are extremely adept at creation.  I know that I value the things I build more than the things that I just purchased because, y’know, I made that.  Sometimes the things I built don’t do what I want them to do, so my response is to try to fix them.  Also, too, I’ll often blame myself for not doing a good enough job/not forseeing the future.  And if my creation is so messed up that I have to trash it and start from scratch, well, my creation doesn’t have an eternal soul which I created to go with it that will be tortured forever once it hits the trash bin.  That’s kind of an important part of the equation.

    If god is a master craftsman who sits outside of time and can see all, then god should know where creation will mess up.  And god should either create something that won’t or make the necessary fixes.  It is a poor creator who blames that which is created for not working properly.  It is an especially poor creator who then creates a place of infinite torture without the possibility of parole in which to store those broken creations.  Even humans, in our vast capacity for cruelty, have hit the point where most of us see that cruel and unusual punishment is wrong.  And we didn’t create each other (well, y’know, mom, dad, and child aside…).

    So, again, the only real explanation of an infinite, graceful god that also includes an eternal Hell is that god is an infinite asshole.  I’m perfectly willing to accept this notion of god, but at that point the “love” of god is the “love” of an abuser.

  • Georgia

    I think Jesus is the “necessary fix”. The Good News and all. I wonder and question all the same things you do, though. How does God hold the creation responsible for how it was created? But then, maybe he won’t. Who knows.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     I think Jesus is the “necessary fix”. The Good News and all. I wonder
    and question all the same things you do, though. How does God hold the
    creation responsible for how it was created? But then, maybe he won’t.
    Who knows.

    Yeah…this actually brings up one of those things I was wondering if I should clarify.

    I grew up evangelical.  These days…well, I call myself a functional atheist.  I’m willing to discuss gods, entertain the notion of gods, and I’m rather fond of Coyote.  But I see no real need for any gods and I see no need to worship something just because someone else seems to think such a thing exists.

    In this particular conversation, I’m hewing specifically to the notion of god as given by Team Hell (who were a big part of my Christian past).  So Jesus does work as the necessary fix on a philosophical level.  But in that world, the eternal Hell is no longer necessary.  So I take a completely different tack in attempting to deal with arguments for a graceful Jesus in conjunction with an eternal Hell than I would with a different idea of Jesus and/or Hell.  Because I see a graceful god as represented through Jesus and eternal Hell as being mutually exclusive, much as Fred and Rob Bell would.

    It’s just that I have no real dog in the fight.  It’s just intellectual exercise for me.

  • Georgia

    No need for clarification :). Its sorta there in the text that you are not zen with the whole “God” thing. I’m all about intellectual exercises, though I have also been stating my true opinions. Team Hell has been a big part of my past as well, and finding this site has been a huge sigh of relief and has enabled me to continue in my faith. :)

  • Anonymous

    Geds: “It is a poor creator who blames that which is created for not working properly.”

    This.  I am an animal trainer and have always identified with the craftsman analogy as it is very similar to what I do with my charges.  Each animal comes to me with a unique personality and abilities and it is my job to shape them through training.  As a good animal trainer I don’t force the animal into a position for which it is not suited.  Instead, I allow the animal to indicate where it would excel and then help it achieve its full potential.  I cannot condemn it for being what it is and I sure as hell won’t throw a life away because it doesn’t fit with my plan.  I just change the plan instead.

    As I see it, God is in the same position.  If He is a truly good craftsman then He refines what exists rather than trying to force His creation into being something it is not.  And when He reaches the end of His work, instead of destroying it because the result was not what He intended, He smiles and says, “This is good.”

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

     I cannot condemn it for being what it is and I sure as hell won’t throw a
    life away because it doesn’t fit with my plan.  I just change the plan
    instead.

    Yep.  I hate crating dogs.  I got a new dog in January who was crate trained, but I didn’t want to just leave her in a crate all day while I was at work.  She’s fine with the crate, but I’m not.

    So after I’d had her for a while I decided to experiment.  I’d been leaving her out of the crate if I was just gone for an hour or so and she was fine.  So on a Friday when I was only going to be at work a half day I left her out.  She was fine, then fine the following Monday.  Tuesday I came home to walk her at lunch and she’d been digging up the carpet.

    I got pissed.  I then realized that there was literally nothing I could do that would teach the dog not to dig up the carpet.  So after about five seconds I thought, “Well, there goes the pet deposit.”  I then did some research and found out that female Carolina Dogs are diggers.  It’s what they do.

    So back in the crate it is until I can get a place where I don’t have carpet or I at least own the carpet.

    Also, too, she got giardia right after I adopted her and rang up $400 in vet bills within six weeks.  That sucked, but I had a really, really hard time holding it against her.  Even when she puked on my couch.

  • Caravelle

    Humans can’t create life, but we are capable of understanding the
    mechanisms of life and we are extremely adept at creation.  I know that I
    value the things I build more than the things that I just purchased
    because, y’know, I made that.  Sometimes the things I built don’t do
    what I want them to do, so my response is to try to fix them.  Also,
    too, I’ll often blame myself for not doing a good enough job/not
    forseeing the future.  And if my creation is so messed up that I have to
    trash it and start from scratch, well, my creation doesn’t have an
    eternal soul which I created to go with it that will be tortured forever
    once it hits the trash bin.  That’s kind of an important part of the
    equation.

    And you know that when a mad scientist does create consciousness, and treats it that way, they’re considered to be an evil mad scientist. Or should be.

    That’s one thing that depresses me with the idea of AI. You just know that if we ever create artificial consciousness, we’ll be evil to it. Not “create eternal torture for defective units” evil (unless it makes some corporation a lot of money), but certainly “conscious ? That thing isn’t really ‘conscious’. The idea of giving it rights is preposterous” evil.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not saying Team Hell is right, I’m not trying to argue against the existence of God, I’m just trying to point out that as explanations go, “God’s rules are not Man’s rules” is neither unreasonable nor improbable, and manages to fit the evidence thus far.

    Does it fit? As interesting as I find the concept of an unknowable and inhuman god to be, I’m not sure you can really apply it to a Christian framework without excising so much of the source material that I’m not even sure why you’d bother starting with Christianity in the first place. The Bible describes its god quite extensively, in decidedly human terms, referring at length to kindness, love, righteousness, jealousy, mercy, wrath; further, it states that this god is deserving of our absolute love, worship, and respect. This is all absolutely meaningless on anything other than a completely human level – indeed, we cannot accuse a bear of murder when it mauls a hiker in the woods, but neither can we praise it for its compassion when it fiercely protects its young. We cannot describe its action in terms of malice or love, because the words as they apply to humans are meaningless to bears. 

    If we decide that something is outside the scope of human judgment, that ascribing human characteristics to it is incorrect, then we should not then worship it for carrying out whatever purposes it may have, nor should we assume that it has our best interests at heart. And at that point, the whole question renders itself irrelevant to the discussion which is actually taking place, because it has defined a god that neither of the involved parties believes to exist.

  • Georgia

    I see what you are saying, but humans have a tendency to personify everything! Especially in literature. In fact, if your subject is something “other” and it is not personified to some extent, the reader will lose interest. I think it can be valid to acknowledge the aspects that we can understand of God, like love, or try to describe him in human terms, while still remaining aware that He is “other”.

  • Anonymous

    Sure. I appreciate and advocate the use of metaphor to assist in the understanding of unintuitive concepts; however, Dogget was, to my understanding, describing an entity to which a direct comparison between the human emotion of love and whatever approximately equivalent value an inhuman god places upon humanity, would be flawed and largely useless as an analogy; while it might be said that this god’s regard for humanity may potentially be akin to a human’s regard for a pet, we must still bear in mind the fact that the psychology of this god is still completely unintelligible to us, and that excessive reliance on this metaphor will only hinder our attempts to understand whatever thought processes this god might have. 

    This is as opposed to the conventional Christian notion of a god that, while ultimately operating on a far higher level than ours, can still be characterised in human terms, feels emotions we can relate to, and is ultimately worthy of our sincere and faithful worship. While the question of how we can make sense of this god’s apparent purposes and actions is related to the similar question regarding the god that Dogget describes, they remain separate and distinct debates, rooted as they are in fundamentally different entities. 

  • Georgia

    I agree and disagree :)  I don’t think anyone would hold that God can be entirely categorized in human terms.  Christians would believe that he has revealed himself in ways that we can relate to and understand, but that his love and goodness is to the utmost and that, at the end of the day, is incomprehensible because our world is chaotic.  These are not easy ideas to accept, which is probably where “faith” comes in.  It’s a choice to believe something even when it is hard or won’t explain itself logically. 

  • Anonymous

    Sure. I appreciate and advocate the use of metaphor to assist in the understanding of unintuitive concepts; however, Dogget was, to my understanding, describing an entity to which a direct comparison between the human emotion of love and whatever approximately equivalent value an inhuman god places upon humanity, would be flawed and largely useless as an analogy; while it might be said that this god’s regard for humanity may potentially be akin to a human’s regard for a pet, we must still bear in mind the fact that the psychology of this god is still completely unintelligible to us, and that excessive reliance on this metaphor will only hinder our attempts to understand whatever thought processes this god might have. 

    This is as opposed to the conventional Christian notion of a god that, while ultimately operating on a far higher level than ours, can still be characterised in human terms, feels emotions we can relate to, and is ultimately worthy of our sincere and faithful worship. While the question of how we can make sense of this god’s apparent purposes and actions is related to the similar question regarding the god that Dogget describes, they remain separate and distinct debates, rooted as they are in fundamentally different entities. 

  • Bificommander

    Just a side note:
    “If we’re god’s image, than we sure as hell can judge god by human standards.”
    “…sure as hell…”
    I found that phrase delightfully ironic given the topic Does Hell Exist.
    Was it on purpose?

  • ako

    Maybe it seems like a cop-out to take this position, but ultimately
    we’re talking about an inhuman, utterly alien entity that quite
    literally defies understanding.

    That makes me wonder two things:

    1)If the entity is so inhuman and understanding-defying that one could use words like “Justice” and “Morality” to refer to it endlessly torturing everyone who doesn’t do what it wants, while not communicating what it wants, and “Mercy” to refer to not endlessly torturing the people who are lucky enough to guess correctly, why should I assume words like “Salvation” or “Paradise” mean anything good when this creature is involved? 

    2) Why does this incomprehensible alien being sound so much like something an authoritarian human would invent to get compliance?  (Not all varieties of Christianity sound like this, but the “Follow these instructions I give you and you will go to infinite happyland!  Don’t follow and it will be the infinitely horrible torture!  And this is all just and deserved so you have no right to be angry about the coercion!” versions sure do.)

  • Beady Sea

    Well, if my dog attacks and kills another dog, I have my dog put down. Should other dogs be upset with me for doing this? Should I be judged as a dog-killer who deserves death?

    OH MY GOD I assume someone else has already replied to this but come ON. If your dog attacked and killed another dog, and you slowly and systematically tortured your dog while preserving its life as long as possible, ensuring that it was in intense agony without letting it die, telling it all the while “Well, you killed another dog; what choice do I have?” then I would certainly think you were one sick motherfucker. If you were a mad scientist who found a way to make your dog immortal specifically so you could prolong this torment, then that would be even worse.

    You keep conflating temporary, temporal unpleasantness (punishment or consequences for bad actions), or regrettable necessity (putting down a dangerous animal) with the deliberate eternal torture of sentient human beings. Stop it.

    Also your “I can take out the trash and my dog can’t” -> “God can torture people forever if he feels like and I can’t” metaphor is REALLY messed up.

  • Izzy

    Yes, this.

    I am a theist, and I don’t have a problem with Christianity as such, even though it’s not my religion. I can accept the various theodicy arguments for why evil exists in the world.

    Hell is another thing altogether. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/j.alex.harman John Alexander Harman

    Maybe it seems like a cop-out to take this position, but ultimately we’re talking about an inhuman, utterly alien entity that quite literally defies understanding. There is nothing even remotely human about God, and it’s a categorical error to try to judge him by human standards. (Now, Jesus, OTOH…)

    In that case, we are absolutely not talking about the God of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, who “made Man in his own image” and displays many recognizably human traits (if not particularly respectable ones — He acts like a petulant tyrant or abusive parent a lot of the time) throughout the Torah/Old Testament/Quran.  The kind of God you’re talking about should not be the object of worship; one could not call such a God “good” because the word “good” would have no identifiable meaning when applied to such a being.

  • Gaudior

    The codified rules and ethics and morality of the Bible are for humans, and God isn’t human.

    I don’t see how we can judge God using anything other than our own human beliefs, ethical understanding, and insight, though.  That’s all we’ve got. 

    And I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t judge God. 

  • Anonymous

    “For we are a vain and jealous People, and you shall have no People before us.”

    Sorry, what you said — no reason we shouldn’t judge God — reminded me of a phrase from the Tharkold Sourcebook for TORG.  The quote above is not spoken by the Jewish people, but is said by, well, the whole of Humanity in the face of a demonic invasion.  I get the impression that miracles in that particular world-setting are basically humans going into God’s gun-cabinet, saying ‘I’m just going to borrow this Smite-O-Matic for a moment,’ and then heading off to use it before bringing it back with a few rounds fired off.  High-coolness-factor setting, too bad the meta-setting and the game itself was kind of awkward.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Your roleplaying game intrigues me and I would like to subscribe to your sourcebook!

    (Seriously, never heard of TORG before, but that sounds interesting got links by any chance Mink? Or a full name mebee? (I’m assuming TORG is an acronym?))

  • Narm00

    (Seriously, never heard of TORG before, but that sounds interesting got links by any chance Mink? Or a full name mebee? (I’m assuming TORG is an acronym?))

    Basically, a number of other realities have invaded Earth. Those places on Earth they occupy now operate by the rules of that reality – so you get pulp adventure, high fantasy, horror, etcetera. The aim of your PCs – who can be natives of Core Earth or any of the other realities involved – is to stop the invasion.

    It was a 1990s game originally published by West End Games; following the selling off of WEG’s properties, Torg was bought by German game company Ulisses Spiele, who are reportedly planning a new edition.

    The name TORG started out as an in-house acronym – ‘The Other Roleplaying Game’ – but morphed into an actual name over time.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Ahh, interesting sounds a bit like RIFTS.

  • Anonymous

    They came out at the same time, if I recall, and they’re both attempts at multi-genre games.  They take two very different routes for that.  I kinda prefer Torg; it’s more esoteric, which kind of fits my interests better.  (Then again, I also like Unknown Armies, so-o-o-o… grain of salt. ^_^ )

  • Anonymous

    They came out at the same time, if I recall, and they’re both attempts at multi-genre games.  They take two very different routes for that.  I kinda prefer Torg; it’s more esoteric, which kind of fits my interests better.  (Then again, I also like Unknown Armies, so-o-o-o… grain of salt. ^_^ )

  • Anonymous

    Actually TORG is the name of the game itself when it was released by West End Games, well-on twenty years ago now.  (The name TORG *is* an acronyn… but it means “That Other Role-Playing Game.”  West End was at the time the publishers of the first (d6) Star Wars RPG, and of the immensely twisted Paranoia RPG.  TORG was a side-project but they never found a proper name for it that they liked, so they left it as ‘TORG.’)

    The game itself was due for a revision when West End crashed and burned, but recently a hardcover and PDF of the v1.5 rules was released.  To be honest, the system is kind of awkward, though interesting, and nothing to write home about; it was kind of inelegant, and new systems were stapled on with every sourcebook.  Taken in whole, it was pretty flexible, though.  (I find it a twisted perversity that it came out at the same time as Palladium’s Rifts RPG, the other way of doing a multi-genre game, and that after all this time it’s Rifts that’s still going, vice Torg which was at least different and intriguing and tacked the ideas of subjective reality in a game.  Rifts is on life support and held up solely by Keven Siembieda’s force of personality and a Macross cannon, but it’s still going.)    I’ve been trying to hit up the TORG links in my folder but most seem to be dead.

    I’ll message you elsesite, I think I have some noncopyright materiel I can forward to you!

  • Hawker Hurricane

    “you shall have no People before me, for I am a jealous People” – from ‘For I am a Jealous People’ by Lester Del Rey, 1954 novella.  Jehovah abandons the human race in favor of a group of invading aliens, who Jehovah promised Earth as thier ‘promised planet’.  The quote starts one of the chapters.
    (Cannot log into Disqus at work.  Megasigh.)

  • Anonymous

    Huh!  I’ll have to look that up!  Thanks very much!

  • Anonymous

    Huh!  I’ll have to look that up!  Thanks very much!

  • Hawker Hurricane

    “you shall have no People before me, for I am a jealous People” – from ‘For I am a Jealous People’ by Lester Del Rey, 1954 novella.  Jehovah abandons the human race in favor of a group of invading aliens, who Jehovah promised Earth as thier ‘promised planet’.  The quote starts one of the chapters.
    (Cannot log into Disqus at work.  Megasigh.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    Your theological reflections about your dog remind me of my theological reflections about my cat, when he broke his toe and needed surgery

    Truffle is not an easy cat to give medicine to. None of them are, but Truffle is 13 some odd pounds of pure muscle and mean, and has a finely honed instinct for self defense. So far, I’ve been able to corral him in the sink area of the divided bath morning and night for over a week to give him his drops, and most of them seem to be going inside. None of the scratches he’s inflicted on me have been very deep. Despite the fact that Truffle has managed to remove almost all his stitches, he is recovering well, and has only escaped the house once . . .
    It is at times like this, when corralling a terrified cat determined to fight to the end to avoid the medicine that is going to save him from a horrible, possibly life-threatening infection, and getting scratched for my pains, that my thoughts turn theological. Maybe this is what our relationship with God is like, I think. We don’t understand when he is doing things that will ultimately benefit us. We fight and scratch and yowl and rip at our stitches. Maybe there is some beneficial plan behind events that only seem bad from our limited perspective.But then I go on to think about the situation from my perspective. I know my cat is a cat. I don’t expect him to like or understand surgery, stitches, medicine, confinement. I know that from his perspective, these are horrible events with no redeeming features. If I had the power to make antibiotics taste yummy and wounds zip themselves closed without uncomfortable stitches, I would exercise it in a second and not worry about whether I was interfering with his little kitty-cat sized free will in the process . . .And I certainly don’t judge him for not seeing the injury and medical treatment from my perspective. How could he? He’s a cat . . . I love the courage he exhibits in the presence of a being who is many times his size and who seems determined to poison him. I love the ingenuity he shows in removing his stitches and sneaking outdoors. I don’t love the results, because they are bad for him, but I love the traits. And I knew when I took on the responsibility of living with a cat that it would mean moments like these, and I did it anyway.So theology isn’t my thing. Obviously I am not qualified to be God.

  • Lori

     TL;DR version: For now we see through a glass, darkly  

     

    In it’s purest form this is pretty much a recipe for authoritarianism. IMO anything that points you down that road has some very serious problems. I don’t see any way for “Don’t question your deity puny human” to be a good way to form a moral outlook. 

  • http://joshbarkey.blogspot.com/ Jlbarkey

    Again, points to you for the subtle “Princess Bride” reference.

    Points, also, for giving me more freedom to believe in a God who is not a torturing monster. As you probably well know, it’s not an easy thing for a fundagelically raised person to give up. So, thanks for the leg up. 

  • Anonymous

    The defenders of “eternal conscious torment” want this issue to be about comfort and discomfort, because then believing in a hard-to-stomach understanding of hell can be part of how they earn their salvation. The heresy of our time is doctrinal Pelagianism in which believing in “tough truths” is the means by which you prove your loyalty to God (and earn your salvation) rather than sacramental observance (as it was for medieval Catholics circa Reformation era) or personal piety (as it was for Pelagius in his original debate with Augustine). Justification by faith in Christ’s atonement is the way we escape the hell of self-justification inside of which all Pelagians remain damned.

    The question is whether God’s honor and holiness are entirely abstracted from our relationships with each other in the human community. Most of the prophetic passages in the Old Testament that describe God being angry have to do with His solidarity with the oppressed. I would argue that God judges in solidarity with the victims of sin. Whatever else is true, the social order that denies humanity to its most marginalized members will have no place in God’s eternal presence. Those whose identity is entirely invested in the social order that needs to be destroyed for the kingdom of God to be established will probably experience some form of “eternal conscious torment.” Confessing Christ as Lord means renouncing your investment in worldly forms of power; that’s why it saves you.

    I have argued on my blog that the “Because I said so” caricature God of Calvinism is probably the product of colonial Christian discourse in which slavery and conquest had to be justified as part of divine providence. http://wp.me/p1zbcB-38

    Another tributary that feeds into the river of the Calvinist angry God is a misapplication of St. Anselm’s satisfaction theory that used an analogy which was applicable in feudal discourse but has outlived its usefulness. Anselm’s argument was that Christ needed to be both human and divine in order to atone for our offense against the infinite honor of God. That made sense to people who lived in the time of kings. Calling God’s honor “infinite” as the basis for our need of Christ’s atonement is extra-Biblical and only a supporting argument in Anselm’s theory. The Calvinists have absolutized Anselm’s feudal perspective and made it the basis for understanding God’s nature. http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/gods-holiness-and-hospitality/

    Check out what I’m writing. I think we’re on the same page.

    God’s peace,
    Morgan

  • http://www.facebook.com/deankchang Dean Chang

    So I read Rob Bell’s books “Love Wins” and shortly thereafter, read all his other books too.  I’m not overstating it when I say it has changed my life.  I can’t speak to his exegesis or theology (although I am working on learning more) and I don’t agree with everything he writes, but what his books did for me was they permitted me to reconsider “orthodox” tenets of Christianity that I have held on to all my life.  In fact, a friend of mine asked me whether I was serious when I said I needed a book to tell me that maybe hell is not what we were taught it was like and I emphatically said “YES”, it took a book to tell me it was ok to reconsider it, absolutely!  Some of you may find that odd (my friend who is no longer a Christian certainly did), but for those of you who grew up Evangelical, maybe you will understand when I say it was earth shattering.

    It happened again shortly after I read “Love Wins” when I found out that there were other theories of the atonement besides the penal substitutionary model.  I was totally flabbergasted.  There are OTHER theories of the atonement and no one has ever told me about them?  So on the subject matter at hand, I really think that penal substitution and the doctrine of hell go hand in hand.  If you accept there may be other theories of the atonement, such as the moral influence theory which I happen to like, then the doctrine of hell can change quite dramatically and quite naturally as well.  What if WE killed Jesus, not the Father, and what if the point of the atonement was not to placate some angry deity but to show humanity that God’s capacity for forgiveness is infinite?  What if God came down in human form to show us how to live a perfect life and we tortured and murdered him for it, and his response was “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”?  What if the only thing that is left for us to do is to accept that forgiveness?  What if for God, “justice” is reconciliation, not vengeance?  What if our meager concept of “justice” as punishment is why read the Bible the way we do?  Does it make sense for God’s concept of “justice” to be just man’s concept “infinitized”? 

    No joke, when I read about the moral influence theory of atonement I started bawling like a baby and I can’t even remember the last time I cried about anything.  Check out these two excellent posts:

    http://existdissolve.com/2007/06/justice-so-called-reconciliation-and-the-execution-of-a-dictator/

    http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng11.html

  • seniorMom

    I’ve been reading several books by Marcus Borg and they’ve caused me to rethink my theology of almost 70 years.  My tentative conclusions:  There is not just one way of being a Christian; theology is human words about God and is not infallible; the Bible contains human reflections on the  human/God relationship; God is central to our existence–in Him we live and move and have our being.  There is so much to think about in Borg’s writings—one needs to approach them with the thought, “Yes, this might be so.”  After spending the major part of my life in fundamentalist/evangelical churches, it is very refreshing to find a branch of Christianity which offers an alternative to Biblical literalism and exclusivity.

  • Beady Sea

    What if WE killed Jesus, not the Father, and what if the point of the atonement was not to placate some angry deity but to show humanity that God’s capacity for forgiveness is infinite?  What if God came down in human form to show us how to live a perfect life and we tortured and murdered him for it, and his response was “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”?  What if the only thing that is left for us to do is to accept that forgiveness?
    I am an atheist, but your god sounds like a much nicer fellow than the one I knew growing up, and in a few words you gave possibly the first cross narrative I’ve heard that doesn’t make me feel sick to my stomach o_o

  • Michael Cule

    Thank you ever so much for posting the James Alison page.

    Unlike you I did not cry on reading it but laughed out loud until the tears came.

    The hypothesis that God offers himself in sacrifice to show mankind a way out of the trap of wrath and pride that makes them demand an absolute justice that they are in no way capable of even knowing when they see it… Well, it struck me on the happiness centres of my brain.

    Perhaps part of it is because it reminded me of a line from Wilson and Shea’s ILLUMINATUS trilogy that keeps coming back to me. (I know, I know… From the sublime to the ridiculous…)

    At the climax there are horde of Nazi zombies climbing out of a lake to slaughter the assembled masses at a rock festival (it’s that sort of a book). And various characters all of whom are tripping on acid see the oncoming horror in varying ways. One of them is an English secret agent who says: “No, no… It Pooh and Kanga and Alice and Peter Pan….” And one of the other characters turns to him and says: “That’s not who they are. That’s who you are if you call that any sort of a fucking identity!”

    So in Alison’s hypothesis God is saying to mankind when it proclaims a god of vengeance and wrath and eternal punishment: That’s not who I am. That’s who you are. If you call that any sort of a fucking identity.  
     

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    I forget who said it, but there is a quote I feel very, very applicable to this situation:

    Live a good life, for if God is just, then regardless of belief, God will look on your deeds and you shall be saved.  If there is no God, then you will be gone, but your memory through your good works will continue after.  If God is unjust then God is unworthy of worship in the first place.

    Thus if Hell exists for punishing humans for finite deeds, God is unjust and unworthy of worship.

    If Hell does not exist, then either God does not exist or God is just and understanding.

    Finally, in regards to “Human Morality” vs “Godly Morality”, I will simply say this:

    If the human conception of morality is more merciful and just than God’s morality, then it is God who is out of line.*  Just because one creates something does not give one ultimate power over that thing; and to worship power itself (“Because God can smite the crap out of us”) is not justification in my mind.

    *I’m temporarily speaking from a position where I take the existence of God as laid out by Christianity is true.  It’s not what I believe but for the purpose of this exercise the perspective is important.

  • Mackrimin

    “Is God Hitler?”

    No. Don’t be flippant. God isn’t Hitler, because God isn’t even remotely human!

    I’m not flippant. I’m asking a perfectly reasonable question. I, a human, would not submit my worst enemies (who I _hate_ beyond anything you could imagine) to burning forever (seriously, do you have any idea how much burn wounds _hurt_?). I have a hard time imagining a God to be morally inferior to me.

    It’s natural to anthropomorphosise the deity, but he’s not human. The
    codified rules and ethics and morality of the Bible are for humans, and
    God isn’t human.

    I agree. God is not human. God is supposed to be better than humans. If he can’t even live up to human rules of ethics, just what kind of God is he?

    Or, to put it another way: “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

    _I_ refuse to consider God a cosmic Nixon, how about you?

    I know we fall into the is/ought chasm when we
    ask “shouldn’t God be moral in the way humans are moral?” but God’s
    treatment of humans isn’t analagous to the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews.
    It’s analagous to human eradication of smallpox, or the ecological
    movement to prevent species from extinction. One does not charge a
    grizzly bear with murder if it kills a hiker in the woods.

    So now you consider your God equivalent to a non-sentient species, or thinking of humans that way.

    The
    question “Is there Hell?” isn’t just “Is God Hitler?”, it’s “Should we
    expect God to follow the moral standards he expects us to follow?”

    Yes, we fucking should. Otherwise, they’re not moral standards, they’re the “obey me or die” standars of Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-Tsung.

    If you think that these are standards that _you_ ought to follow, go ahead: however, _I_ figure I’m alread fucked and will act accordingly. Namely, ignore theeee Hitler-God a much as I’m capable.

    My
    dog is forbidden from even touching the kitchen garbage bin. Every
    week, I empty that bin into the can, and drag the can to the curb to be
    taken away. It’s OK for me to get into the garbage but it’s not OK for
    my dog to because he looks for scraps, hurts himself, rolls in nasty
    smelling things and makes a mess. I just pull out the bag, tie it up,
    and take it away.

    My kitchen garbage is stored beyond a door the dog can’t open.

    What’s your point?

    TL;DR version: For now we see through a glass, darkly

    That’s no excuse to wear a blindfold.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    I have a hard time imagining a God to be morally inferior to me.
    What about a God that’s morally alien to you?

    I agree. God is not human. God is supposed to be better than humans.

    Remember where I mention the “is/ought” chasm? You just fell into it. God is not human. God ought to be better than humans. Can’t go from one to the other. We can’t talk about what God ought to be, we can only talk about what God is based on scripture and theology.

    If he can’t even live up to human rules of ethics, just what kind of God is he?
    Alien.

    So now you consider your God equivalent to a non-sentient species, or thinking of humans that way.
    I consider God (in the context of this discussion) as a non-human species. Again, a grizzly bear kills a hiker in the woods; we don’t call it “murder” or “evil”.

    Otherwise, they’re not moral standards, they’re the “obey me or die”
    standars of Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Mao
    Tse-Tsung.

    And again, you keep trying to make God human. He’s not. He can’t be, not and still be God. “Thou Shalt Not Kill”? He created mortal life, all death ultimately lies at his feet. “Thou shalt not covet”? He is a unique entity in all of creation, without equal; it’s categorically impossible to covet his neighbor’s wife or ass because he has no neighbors. “Honor thy father & thy mother”?

    Keep testing out moral maxims on a creator entity and you go down the rabbit hole pretty fast. I’m not saying God doesn’t have his own rules, they’re just not like ours.

    My kitchen garbage is stored beyond a door the dog can’t open.

    What’s your point?
    Well, one point is that you don’t trust your dog’s ability to exercise free will against its baser instincts. But the larger point is that because I have different capacities, I follow different standards. Animals regularly suffer from famine as a result of over-predation and over-population; the concept of ecological stewardship is beyond them, so we don’t hold animals as “evil” or “wrong” for doing so. But humans do understand these things, so we object to species extinction.

    That’s no excuse to wear a blindfold.
    We have a system morality for ourselves, but it’s quite literally hubris to expect that an omnipotent creator deity would be required to follow those same standards. Is it really wrong to kill every dodo on the planet if you’re able to bring them all back to life with a wave of your hand, or create new ones with a mere thought?

  • http://www.facebook.com/deankchang Dean Chang

    Well, I figured I would interject because it sounds like you guys are talking past each other.  Maybe I can help.  Jesus said anyone who has seen me has seen the Father, if you say that we need to start from scripture, it makes sense to start there.  I think it’s unfair for people to criticize others who have a different concept on the doctrine of hell as people trying to make an “unpalatable” doctrine more palatable.   It’s not that at all.  It’s trying to understand hell based on what Jesus did and taught, both of which seem antithetical to hell being a place of unending conscious torment. 

    Secondly, it’s not clear to me you can detach God’s conception of morality from man’s conception of morality because then the definition of “morality” loses all meaning.  What does it even mean to say that God’s concept of morality is different from ours?  I don’t think it means anything at all.  You’ve just side-stepped the discussion.

    Paul said in Colossians 3:13 “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  What are your thoughts on that verse?  Paul didn’t give any preconditions on forgiving your brother, you just do it, that’s it.  Could that possibly also be how the Lord forgives?

  • Lori

     Remember where I mention the “is/ought” chasm? You just fell into it. God is not human. God ought to be better than humans. Can’t go from one to the other. We can’t talk about what God ought to be, we can only talk about what God is based on scripture and theology. 

     

    Given that we see through a glass darkly what makes you any more confident that who/what God is can be known any more than it we can know what God ought to be. After all, Fred is talking about scripture and theology, he simply has a different theology and interpretation of scripture than the hell pushers do. 

    If you’re trying to claim that it’s possible to simply read the “plain truth” of the Bible then you’re off on a whole other (totally unsupportable) argument. 

     Well, one point is that you don’t trust your dog’s ability to exercise free will against its baser instincts. But the larger point is that because I have different capacities, I follow different standards. Animals regularly suffer from famine as a result of over-predation and over-population; the concept of ecological stewardship is beyond them, so we don’t hold animals as “evil” or “wrong” for doing so. But humans do understand these things, so we object to species extinction.  

    The other point, which you aren’t acknowledging, is that you treat your dog better than your god treats humans. 

    You observe your dog’s behavior, consider the differences in your capacities and then put the trash were your dog can’t get to it. God allows humans the free will to sin and then (long after the fact when there’s no corrective value) he punishes them endlessly (and thus totally out of any possible proportion) and we’ve not supposed to question that—because God (supposedly) said so. 

    That is some seriously nasty shit. 

  • Lori

     Remember where I mention the “is/ought” chasm? You just fell into it. God is not human. God ought to be better than humans. Can’t go from one to the other. We can’t talk about what God ought to be, we can only talk about what God is based on scripture and theology. 

     

    Given that we see through a glass darkly what makes you any more confident that who/what God is can be known any more than it we can know what God ought to be. After all, Fred is talking about scripture and theology, he simply has a different theology and interpretation of scripture than the hell pushers do. 

    If you’re trying to claim that it’s possible to simply read the “plain truth” of the Bible then you’re off on a whole other (totally unsupportable) argument. 

     Well, one point is that you don’t trust your dog’s ability to exercise free will against its baser instincts. But the larger point is that because I have different capacities, I follow different standards. Animals regularly suffer from famine as a result of over-predation and over-population; the concept of ecological stewardship is beyond them, so we don’t hold animals as “evil” or “wrong” for doing so. But humans do understand these things, so we object to species extinction.  

    The other point, which you aren’t acknowledging, is that you treat your dog better than your god treats humans. 

    You observe your dog’s behavior, consider the differences in your capacities and then put the trash were your dog can’t get to it. God allows humans the free will to sin and then (long after the fact when there’s no corrective value) he punishes them endlessly (and thus totally out of any possible proportion) and we’ve not supposed to question that—because God (supposedly) said so. 

    That is some seriously nasty shit. 

  • Kish


    Remember where I mention the “is/ought” chasm? You just fell into it. God is not human. God ought to be better than humans. Can’t go from one to the other. We can’t talk about what God ought to be, we can only talk about what God is based on scripture and theology.

    The is-ought fallacy consists of, “This is, therefore it should be.”

    There’s nothing fallacious about using the terms “is” and “ought” in other contexts, and there’s nothing fallacious about saying, “God isn’t human. God is supposed to be better than humans.” If God isn’t morally better than humans then there’s absolutely no reason to worship him.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    That’s no excuse to wear a blindfold.

    Can I steal that and, like, make a bumper sticker or something?

  • Douglas E

    Speaking of God’s killing: http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2007/01/how-many-has-god-killed-complete-list.html

    “In a previous post,
    I’ve listed and counted God’s killings in the Bible. But I only
    included those that said exactly how many were killed by God. I came up
    with 2,476,633.

    But that didn’t include some of God’s most impressive slaughters.
    How many did God drown in the flood or burn to death in Sodom and
    Gomorrah? How many first-born Egyptians did he kill? The Bible doesn’t
    say, so there’s no way to know for sure. But it’s possible to provide
    rough estimates in order to get a grand total, and that’s what I’m
    attempting here.

    Total with estimates: 25 million”

  • http://hummingwolf.livejournal.com/ Hummingwolf

    An article published in The Independent earlier this year:  The Uncomfortable Truth About Mind Control:  Is free will simply a myth?.  “One of the illusions about human behaviour is that it stems from personality or character, but social psychology shows us that often human behaviour is dominated by the roles that we are asked to play.”  The article talks about the Milgram experiment discussed in this thread, but also other experiments, including one with Milgram & his students asking people to give up their seats on the New York subway.

  • Hawker40

    Someone used a portion of this…

    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” — Marcus Aurelius

    And I like to paraphrase it as…
    “If God is just, I have nothing to fear, even if I don’t believe.  If God is unjust, you have nothing to gain, no matter how much you believe.”
    And a leader that doesn’t live by the rules he forces me to follow is a hypocrit.  I say throw him down and vote in someone else.

  • Hawker40

    Someone used a portion of this…

    “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” — Marcus Aurelius

    And I like to paraphrase it as…
    “If God is just, I have nothing to fear, even if I don’t believe.  If God is unjust, you have nothing to gain, no matter how much you believe.”
    And a leader that doesn’t live by the rules he forces me to follow is a hypocrit.  I say throw him down and vote in someone else.

  • Anonymous

    Ah, so much to reply to. Forgive me for lumping everything together.

     @Rikalous:

    After a few generations of this,
    the concept of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, rather than
    to earn brownie points from Big Brother, would probably have disappeared.

     

    The problem is that if that is the goal, it’s not working, and it’s not working in a really big way. That is, people, including Christians, are
    not in fact “doing the right thing because it’s the right
    thing. They’re generally not doing the right thing (including Christians), but what they do that (they believe) adheres to the rules of their respective religions is pretty solidly focused on getting the brownie points.

     

     @ Georgia:

    I think the problem with this point of view is that we think
    of ourselves as better people than “those deserving of Hell”. 

     

    True for some people, undoubtedly. But I haven’t seen anyone here make that argument. Actually, what we’re saying is that no
    one
    is deserving of Hell. As Geds has shown most aptly.

     

      @  Marshall Pease: blockquote>I know many people
    don’t understand how one tells the difference between that voice and one’s own
    inner monologue, but it seems to be something most people can learn to do.

     

    How? I know people make that claim. But I don’t know of any where the distinction can be reliably shown, and I know of many cases where the claim is made that the person was being guided by “that voice” and where it’s fairly evident that they weren’t.
     

    And finally, @ChrisDoggett:disqus : actually, you’d put your dog down because it is inconvenient for a human in this society to have a dog who attacks other dogs. Presumably, if you loved your dog and had the resources, you would arrange for him to live in a place where he wouldn’t be able to attack other dogs. So I don’t believe it’s that you have a higher understanding of justice than caninekind (although I think you do–I just don’t think it’s relevant in this case). It’s that dog behavior must be forcibly modified to fit into human society, us having the opposable thumbs, and all. Mind, I’m not saying it’s acceptable for a dog to attack other dogs. But I don’t think you can say that you put the dog down because he merited death for killing another dog. If a dog kills another dog, and we can save that dog (witness the surviving dogs that belonged to Michael Vick, among others rescued from dog fighting), we do.

  • Ingolfslandg

    Yes, I was addressing that in the rest of my post.

    I think the problem going on in the conversation at the moment is the way Christians view morality versus the way others view it. The quotes about our good deeds earning us justice are not how the Christian God necessarily works. I think what Chris may be trying to get at is that human morality is “as dirty rags” to God. Preserving us from judgment (I do not believe in eternal conscience torment) may not be as it seems. If you view sin, or evil itself, as “behaving in a way that is opposed to what you were made for” (ie loving God and loving your neighbors), then judgment could be viewed from another angle as reconciliation with our true selves and with God. But like Chris was saying, that judgment looks foreign and alien to us.

    Our morality is important, but the matter of utmost importance is that God is merciful, though we are not good, like him. I’m not trying to offend anyone in this, just attempting to state more bluntly what is being veiled under cats and dogs at the moment :).

  • Georgia

    Just to clarify further, Dash :). What I was trying to say in my original post is that when confronted with our own unworthiness, we will all yearn for mercy for everyone, even Hitler. I truly believe that God feels the same way. But judgment and mercy are not irreconcilable. It would seem that Hell and mercy are.

    And obviously, not everyone will agree that we are unworthy, and I understand and respect that.

  • Caravelle

    The thing is, if God’s morality is alien then God isn’t good. Which is fine, and seems to be an implication Chris fully accepts, but a lot of Christians don’t.

    Basically, the problem of evil/pain (the existence of an eternal painful Hell is in that family) comes from three mutually exclusive claims : God is good, God is omnipotent, and bad things exist. And all responses to the problem come down to getting rid of one of those claims : either God isn’t that good, or God isn’t that omnipotent, or bad things aren’t that bad.

    So, say : “God’s morality is alien to us”==”God isn’t that good”. “God loves the HIV virus as much as a human”==”God isn’t that good” and “bad things aren’t that bad” (via redifinition of “good” and “bad”). “Satan did it”==”God isn’t that omnipotent”. “Free will does it”==”God isn’t that omnipotent” and “bad things aren’t that bad” (because they allow free will, and free will is Good). etc.

    The former two claims are theological, the main problem is that people who believe in God tend to really like them. The last one is experiential so denying it is less of a problem from a theological point of view, but it can range from blatantly false (“God will keep bad things from happening to you !”) to plain unpleasant (“that millions of people die horribly is for the greater good !”). And the tighter one hangs on to God’s goodness and omnipotence, the more unpleasant or unrealistic one’s denial of bad things has to be.

  • Georgia Ingolfsland

    I think it is actually us that aren’t good.  God’s morality is alien to us = He is good.  Our morality is flawed = even our “good” is not fully good.  Even the most sacrificial thing a human can do could be selfish, self-serving, self-motivated, etc.  If we are good in the true sense of the word, it is coming from God.  So bad things = bad, and human effort = bad.  God = good.  God working through humans = good. 

    The rest I have no answer for, as I am still searching for it myself. I agree with you.

  • Caravelle

    See, I would put that in “God isn’t that good” via redefinition of “good”.

    What I mean is, what does it mean that our “good” isn’t fully good ? I’m not talking about the good actually found in humans, I mean the platonic ideal of “good” as humans imagine it. If we call that platonic ideal “not good” then what’s left ?

    I can perfectly imagine alien moralities. For example, in solitary species were the only good is survival and altruism is for suckers. Or in fully eusocial species where the individual has no value and the only good is the propagation of the society. I can imagine that if, say, sharks or ants were conscious their definition of “good” would be extremely different from mine.

    And that would make their definition of “good” not good for me. Not “better than good”*. Just “not good”.

    Basically, how can God’s conception of good be more good than my platonic, perfect idea of good ? It can be different, that is clear, but I don’t see in what sense it can be better.

    That isn’t to say moralities can’t be compared, and somebody’s platonic ideal of “good” can evolve. But those things usually involve arguments, and standards, and criteria, and utility functions. Things that are meaningless when an omnipotent being is involved, and anyway it invites one to judge God’s morality which is exactly what the argument was supposed to avoid.

    *As a matter of fact I have found it’s useful to look at good and evil on an altruism/selfishness axis – with evil pretty much always translating into excessive selfishness. By that standard the morality of ants (or of cells in a body) should be “better than good”. Except that the morality of ants is horrifying. To me that shows that there isn’t really a straight line from “evil” to “good”, where something could be even better (by standards we’d accept) than the most good we can imagine.

    In fact I conceptualize the good/evil altruism/selfishness relationship as a curve like an inverted parabola : very low at extreme selfishness, going up, hitting a maximum which is our psychological ideal of “good” and then going back down in the direction of extreme altruism. And our actual behavior is a bit to the left(=selfish) side of that maximum.

  • Georgia Ingolfsland

    I’m shifting over into devil’s advocate mode, because this is where things get dicey for me and I tend to argue the same point as you, but I also want to continue the conversation and hear your perspectives.

    Our good isn’t fully good because it isn’t based on God.  Our intentions are universally selfish.  If love is not at the root of why we are doing something/helping someone/behaving a certain way then it is meaningless.  If love IS at the root of what we are doing, its because God is there because God is love. 

    Good-ness, from God’s perspective, is based on intent and sincerity and belief in Him, not necessarily the actual action.  Take, for example, the scene from Titanic where the rich a-hole gets to go into a lifeboat because he grabs a scared little kid and pretends that he’s her father.  Was this a “good” action or an “evil” one?  His intent certainly wasn’t to save the child, but rather himself.  And yet, he did save her. It might be an example of God using humanity to make something good happen, even though that was never our intent.

    As far as the “platonic” version of good you speak of, I suppose it must be wrong because our eyes are veiled. ;)

     

  • Caravelle

    I’m shifting over into devil’s advocate mode, because this is where
    things get dicey for me and I tend to argue the same point as you, but I
    also want to continue the conversation and hear your perspectives.

    Sure ! This is an interesting discussion, so thank you.

    Our good isn’t fully good because it isn’t based on God.  Our intentions
    are universally selfish.  If love is not at the root of why we are
    doing something/helping someone/behaving a certain way then it is
    meaningless.  If love IS at the root of what we are doing, its because
    God is there because God is love. 

    I think that going into details like that is especially dangerous because it exposes one to nitpicking. For example, “our intentions are universally selfish” : no they aren’t. Well, they are in the sense that we only do good things because it feels good, or because it would feel bad not to, but in that case love changes nothing. We only help people we love because one property of love is that it makes helping others feel good. And it’s not even an exclusive property of love : conscience, guilt or pride can also make good acts emotionally rewarding or bad acts emotionally unpleasant.

    It’s not that I can’t see a good argument for love being the only thing that stops us being selfish (it certainly is a very important factor), but I suspect it would involve tweaking the definition of “love” to make things work out.

    Good-ness, from God’s perspective, is based on intent and sincerity and belief in Him, not necessarily the actual action.

    The intent vs actions conundrum certainly is a feature of the human quest to define “good”. That sentence makes it sound as if you’re putting God on one side of that very human debate. Doesn’t that imply that God’s definition of “good” is something humans would recognize as such ? (or worse, for people on the other side of that debate : a concept of goodness that humans have considered and explicitly rejected !)

    As far as the “platonic” version of good you speak of, I suppose it must be wrong because our eyes are veiled. ;)

    Well, of course a platonic version of good would be wrong, as I don’t believe one exists. As far as I’m concerned the platonic ideal is, well, a platonic ideal. They work great as a kind of abstract placeholder, but it’s important to stay very fuzzy when considering them because most of the time when you focus on that ideal and imagine what it would be like it doesn’t just turn out not to exist, it turns out not to be a coherent or well-defined concept at all.

    I think Beady Sea explained it better than me actually. Basically, if we consider “good”, and consider it more, and think it through and test it and refine it to be as coherent and airtight and realistic a concept as we can get… if the best concept of “good” humans come up with isn’t even a vague approximation of God’s concept of good, then what good is God’s concept to us ? How is it more relevant than an ant’s or a shark’s concept ? (or a hermaphroditic sea slug… that’s the species where some people think they’re an evolutionary dead end because their sex life is so horrendous)

    And if it is relevant to us, given it’s so unlike human morality shouldn’t the two “good”s get different names ? Like, “good” and “swirk”. As in, “Wow, I spent all this time promoting the smallpox vaccine because I thought it was a good act, but it turns out it isn’t swirk at all ! And who knew beating one’s children was so swirk ? I wasted my life !”.

    Note that a lot of the problems with God being good disappear if God is less omnipotent.

  • Beady Sea

    Good-ness, from God’s perspective, is based on intent and sincerity and belief in Him, not necessarily the actual action.

    But we imperfect humans (whose platonic version of good apparently doesn’t look anything like God’s) ALSO base goodness substantially on intent and sincerity (we can’t always measure that in the real world, but that doesn’t matter to the platonic ideal). As to “belief in Him,” well if God looks at two actions that are identical in intent, sincerity, and effect, and likes one of them better because somewhere in the back of the actor’s mind they also assent to an abstract theological proposition the other person may never even have heard of, well, God is kind of a dick.

    All of that aside, though, none of what you’re saying goes as far as justifying eternal torture. What you’re saying is just about how God evaluates OUR actions, and doesn’t say the first thing about why it’s wrong for us to torture people temporarily, but OK for God to do it forever. No amount of intent and sincerity and belief-in-self on God’s part is going to convince me that is not an evil thing to do.

  • Anonymous

     And all responses to the problem come down to getting rid of one of those claims : either God isn’t that good, or God isn’t that omnipotent, or bad things aren’t that bad.

    Nicely put.  I think you can also get there by getting rid of the idea of a conscious, personal God – but that probably implies abandoning claims one AND two.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    I think the problem going on in the conversation at the moment is the
    way Christians view morality
    versus the way others view it. The quotes
    about our good deeds earning us justice are not how the Christian God
    necessarily works. I think what Chris may be trying to get at is that
    human morality is “as dirty rags” to God.

    (emphasis mine)

    This is demonstrably not “how Christians view morality.” It is how some Christians view morality, but it damn well wasn’t how I was raised — and my family (and many of my friends’ families) are Catholic, the denomination that supposedly, stereotypically, beats you over the head with original sin and guilt. No, my family taught me that the God we worshipped together every Sunday regarded our acts of kindness, generosity, and selflessness with delight, not as “dirty rags”!

    One of my favorite hymns from Mass was the one based on the parable of the sheep and the goats:

    “Whatsoever you do
    For the least of my people,
    That you do unto me.

    “When I was hungry you gave me to eat.
    When I was thirsty you gave me to drink.
    Now enter into the home of my Father.

    “Whatsoever you do…” &etc.

    I’m not Catholic now, but the idea that God delights in every human kindness is a worthwhile one, and as such it has followed me into my new spiritual home of Wicca.

    I think the way you are describing God’s morality versus human morality is a plague and a curse. Not only does it encourage self-hate on the individual level, but, worse, it encourages the whole congregation to dismiss kindness, generosity, mercy, and justice as irrelevant. If God doesn’t care whether we do good deeds — if God actively despises our good deeds — why do them?

    And in fact we can observe these results in those subculture pockets where your description of “how Christians view morality” holds true.

  • Georgia Ingolfsland

    I apologize for generalizing, but you misunderstand me.  God delights in our acts of kindness, etc because they are of himself.  He doesn’t despise good things, its just that we are incapable of doing them without him.  I don’t think it encourages self-hate in the least.  I think it encourages individuals to strive to become their true self, the way they ought to be.

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    I apologize for generalizing, but you misunderstand me.  God delights in
    our acts of kindness, etc because they are of himself.  He doesn’t
    despise good things, its just that we are incapable of doing them
    without him.

    Why?

    I profess no belief in god.  I find the concept of god held by most religions to be antithetical to the idea of good, as religion is most often used as a specific codification of tribalism, which is simply a form of justification of othering (which, it should go without saying, is a Bad Thing, in that the first step towards destroying someone is making that person in to the alien other).

    When I do good things, I do them because they are (to me, at least) self-evidently good.  And I am capable of doing those good things (from engaging in charity to simple, everyday tasks that could be summed up as, “Don’t be a dick.”) without any direction from any other being.  So now you’re either saying that I am a paradox or that I lack free will and am incapable of acting outside of the will of a god I do not believe in.

    [I don’t think it encourages self-hate in the least.]  I think it
    encourages individuals to strive to become their true self, the way they
    ought to be.

    This thought does not follow from the previous thought.  We need to bracket off the self-hate bit, as it’s part of a different conversation, but:

    The true self and the ought self are two different things.  If I ought to be nice, but my true nature is that of a sociopath, then moving towards one precludes the other.  Moreover, if I cannot do good apart from god and it is god’s will that I ought to do good, then doing good moves me more towards the ought self and away from the true self.

    To put it another way, if my father wants me to be an accountant but I want to be an actor, my true self wants to go to acting school while my ought self should go to accounting school.  If my father then says, “I will only pay for accounting school and I will use my large amounts of political and monetary influence to make sure you never get in to any acting school, you never get any work, and you die lonely and destitute on a street corner somewhere unless you do exactly what I say you ought to do,” I cannot, by definition, find a way to move toward both my true self and my ought self at the same time.

    Of course, if we’re breaking it down to the basic level of “god good, god created humans in god’s own image, therefore humans were created to be good and should be good,” then this isn’t an inherently big problem.  But if it’s, “Every human should be a Christian in the mold of Team Hell,” we have a huge problem.  Either way, though, we’ve taken free will completely out of the equation, which then violently reintroduces the question of theodicy to the issue and invites a very Calvinistic interpretation of the nature of god.

  • Monala

    I agree.  I was once part of a church that taught that all our deeds were filthy rags.  But I saw passages that contradicted that teaching; examples of nonbelievers such as King Cyrus of Persia  whom God called his servant, and the many people who were neither Jews nor Christians in the New Testament that Jesus praised for their faith or kindness.  And then there’s Hebrews 13:16 which says that God is pleased when we do good and share with others.  How about Romans 2, which says that if Gentiles do what is right, it shows that the law is written on their hearts?  And the many exhortations of the Bible to love others, to forgive, to share generously, to be patient, etc….. 

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Chris Doggett: Well, if my dog attacks and kills another dog, I have my dog put down.
    Should other dogs be upset with me for doing this? Should I be judged as
    a dog-killer who deserves death?

    Well, I wouldn’t say you deserve death, but I’d certainly question your fitness as a dog owner. Sure, you hear about some dogs turning dog-killer without warning, but it’s generally a good idea to find out if the dog was poorly treated or maybe being trained for a dog-fighting ring.

    I prefer Coleslaw’s reaction to “misbehaving” pets, frankly. And I dearly love and admire my own cat who is sweet and loving at home but will attempt to take a vet’s arm off at the shoulder. He’s being a cat just as hard as he can. It’s my job to put limits around it. Ditto with cat-proofing the trash rather than punishing him for getting into it.

    I consider God (in the context of this discussion) as a non-human species. Again, a grizzly bear kills a hiker in the woods; we don’t call it “murder” or “evil”.

    But we don’t tell each other that grizzly bears are holy and worthy of worship.

    As Izzy says, your logic presents no difference between God and Cthulhu. For God to be relevant to me, to say nothing of worship-worthy, God has to be something I would recognize as good. “Bigger than me” is not an adequate substitute. “Bigger than me and
    incomprehensible” only gets my fear, and maybe my rage if it’s abusing
    me and mine. Now, tack on “and more loving
    than any human could possibly be,” and then we’ll talk.

  • Anonymous

    And again:

    A conservative is afraid that somebody is going to get something they don’t deserve. A liberal (or progressive? in this case) is afraid we all might get EXACTLY what we deserve.

  • Becky

    Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.” The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.  Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 
    Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the
    wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you!
    Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
    The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
    Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
       “If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
    Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”
       He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
    Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”
       He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
    Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”
       He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
    Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
       He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
    When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.
    Genesis 18-20:33 (emphasis mine, obviously)

  • Beanmhor

    “Prof. Umstattd, I would venture to guess, would be incapable of torturing another human being, even briefly, let alone for any sustained period of torment. This is true of most people. It is even true of most Southern Baptists (despite that convention’s origin in defense of keeping torture, kidnapping and rape legal in the American South).”

    I am asking in total ignorance: what happened in the convention’s origin that defended torture, kidnapping and rape in the American South?

    looooooooong time reader and thank you for all of your entries. I send many of them far and wide around the wired world.

  • mcmurphy

    The southern baptists split with the norther baptists in 1845 over slavery, so the convention explicitly condoned kidnapping, and the torture and rape were let go.

  • Anonymous

    Pain and death exist.  We don’t understand, perhaps, why they are part of life.  There are a lot of things we don’t understand.  Pain and death we don’t like, so they are a special subcategory of that which we do not understand.  A question is, are pain and death inherently evil?  I would say, no.  Which reminds me of a story:  A certain monk would travel from town to town, and flagellate himself publicly until a few coins had been thrown into his begging bowl. Then he would move on to the next town.  He was considering the idea of discontinuing this practice, and talked it over with an acquaintance.  “What!?” said the acquaintance.  “Give up showbiz?” 

  • Anonymous

    Pain and death exist.  We don’t understand, perhaps, why they are part of life.  There are a lot of things we don’t understand.  Pain and death we don’t like, so they are a special subcategory of that which we do not understand.  A question is, are pain and death inherently evil?  I would say, no.  Which reminds me of a story:  A certain monk would travel from town to town, and flagellate himself publicly until a few coins had been thrown into his begging bowl. Then he would move on to the next town.  He was considering the idea of discontinuing this practice, and talked it over with an acquaintance.  “What!?” said the acquaintance.  “Give up showbiz?” 

  • Caravelle

    I used to be a little bit sympathetic to Team Hell, by the reasoning that truth is truth, not what you like. Therefore the people who believe in Hell against their own instincts because they think it’s true there actually is a Hell are following their beliefs in good faith, and what’s wrong with that ?

    Of course there’s the bit where there isn’t that much evidence for Hell, so thinking that Hell is true is rather arbitrary and doing it against your instincts becomes weird.

    That said, more and more I’m thinking that a belief in Hell is actively harmful. Because when you look at God’s bad behavior and the literalists defending it, for example by analogizing it to parental control, and you go “but that’s BAD ! Would you treat your children that way ?”… Well, that’s when you remember that there is quite a movement in fundamentalism to actually treat your children that way. And they base their reasoning on the Bible.

    Sure, there are authoritarians everywhere and they will justify their authoritarianism in whatever ways they find, but I’m less and less convinced that some authoritarian aspects of the Bible aren’t feeding the authoritarianism of fundamentalism as well.

    After all, 100% of fundamentalists aren’t total authoritarians. A lot of those who aren’t get out eventually, but by that time damage has already been done.

  • ako

    I used to be a little bit sympathetic to Team Hell, by the reasoning
    that truth is truth, not what you like. Therefore the people who believe
    in Hell against their own instincts because they think it’s true there
    actually is a Hell are following their beliefs in good faith, and what’s
    wrong with that ?

    It’s kind of amazing how much “This is the Harsh Truth!  You don’t want to be one of those soft-minded Wishful Thinkers, do you?  Then accept the Harsh Truth!” can work as an emotional argument, even when the evidence is against the harsh ‘truth’.   Most people like to think they’re smart/sensible/tough-minded/intellectually honest/whatever it is they associate with being able to face difficult truths, and it makes it a lot nastier to sell them something nasty by calling it a difficult truth, and easy to dismiss actual evidence-supported positions as just wishful thinking, based on nothing more than how harsh and difficult to accept they aren’t.

  • Caravelle

    And the irony is, those same people will then decry materialism for its lack of meaning, lack of Cosmic Justice or lack of an afterlife.

  • http://www.sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

    I’ve seen this a lot.  People can get very proud of “thinking the harsh thing” – see my own post below. 

    I encounter it all the time with athiests on forums who love to crow ( regarding their own belief in oblivion, presumably to people who believe in Heaven – though the places I see this they usually wind up crowing this mostly to each other and getting pats on the back for it) “I’d rather believe a harsh truth than a plesant lie!”

    Like, every other response if the topic is Death and Dying “I’d rather believe a harsh truth than a plesant lie!”  and proceed to act like “believing in the harsh truth” makes them inherently INFINITELY BETTER than anyone who “believes a lie” even if the “lie” is a sincere belief.   And pretty much…. “just because what I believe is harsh.” 

    And, of course, they’ll turn around and snap at anyone who believes in Hell because it is harsh and their belief in nothing is much more pleasant. 

    In turn, people who truly believe in an eternal Hell can get to feeling proud because they’re willing to face a “harsh truth” about what “mankind deserves” that most of mankind runs away from or rebells against.

    Before anyone yelps at me for being a Fundie, please see my earlier post.  I’m not. In recent years, I’ve become more Fred’s stripe of Christian and am actually… kind of agnostic about the whole thing. I hope for stuff but do not “know” and I favor the idea of a non-eternal Hell (but *something* to slap some empathy into very bad people before they get to enter Heaven).

  • Mackrimin

    My dog can’t judge me, because it lacks the capacity for reason.

    Your dog can and does judge you. It doesn’t understand many or most of your actions, but it can tell just fine whether you love it or not. Not in any abstract sense, of course, but in the practical sense of “does my master pet me or kick me when he passes?”

    I’m not disparaging my dog, he’s sweet and loving
    and loyal and wonderful. He’ll also roll in the most vile-smelling
    stuff on the planet and expect to climb on the couch and snuggle
    afterwards. And he quite literally is unable to understand why this is
    unacceptable to me.

    But then again, I haven’t said anything about something being acceptable or unacceptable to God; I’ve said that handing down sentences of eternal torture makes him the ultimate tyrant – _if_ he does such a thing, that is.

    In your analogy, it would be like kicking your dog to death for dirtying the couch. Or torturing it to death, as slowly as painfully as possible, for killing another dog.

    I cannot create the universe out of nothing,
    cannot create the earth and all the living things that walk on it. So
    attempting to judge a being that can do those things could very well be
    beyond my capacities.

    None of which changes the fact that “You dare disobey me? I’ll send you to Hell!” is something Hitler would say, and every other tyrant in history for that matter.

    Maybe it seems like a cop-out to take this
    position, but ultimately we’re talking about an inhuman, utterly alien
    entity that quite literally defies understanding. There is nothing even
    remotely human about God, and it’s a categorical error to try to judge
    him by human standards. (Now, Jesus, OTOH…)

    It _is_ a cop-out. And a failed one, at that, since you inevitably end up describing the Great Cthulhu, not God.

    Besides, speaking of Jesus, didn’t he flat-out say that God is good?

  • Mackrimin

    What about a God that’s morally alien to you?

    You mean the Great Cthulhu?

    Please understand that all of this is utterly irrelevant to my original argument. The Nazis _were_ morally alien to normal humans, or at least tried to; they followed a morality where putting people to concentration camps was okay, and took the resulting bad conscience as something to be proud of – because, apparently, being able to do horrible things while your conscience is screaming at you to stop is a sign of being hard, and hardness is something to be proud of. It’s actually pretty fascinating, and quite disturbing, to see just what kind of insane troll logic an entire nation followed.

    Does any of this mean that Nazis are/were any less evil? And is what you’re really saying that it’s okay for God to be a Nazi? Because it’s really starting to sound that way to me.

    Remember where I mention the “is/ought” chasm? You just fell into it. God is not human. God ought to be better than humans. Can’t go from one to the other. We can’t talk about what God ought to be, we can only talk about what God is based on scripture and theology.

    Yes. So what does the scripture say? Do they support your claims?

    I seem to recall something about man being made in God’s image.

    I consider God (in the context of this discussion) as a non-human species. Again, a grizzly bear kills a hiker in the woods; we don’t call it “murder” or “evil”.

    We don’t call a grizzly bear a murderer, because a grizzly bear is not capable of comprehending the concept. A grizzly bear is not “alien”, it’s simply lacking moral capacity.

    Also: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand
    an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand
    an accounting for the life of his fellow man.”

    Inhumanity doesn’t seem to excuse anything, as far as scripture is concerned.

    And again, you keep trying to make God human. He’s not. He can’t be,
    not and still be God.

    Then how do you explain Jesus? Just some deluded guy?

    “Thou Shalt Not Kill”? He created mortal life,
    all death ultimately lies at his feet.

    And, according to the scripture, is ultimately crushed underneath them. You know, that whole resurrection thing?

    “Thou shalt not covet”? He is a
    unique entity in all of creation, without equal; it’s categorically
    impossible to covet his neighbor’s wife or ass because he has no
    neighbors. “Honor thy father & thy mother”?

    You _do_ realize that “he can’t break these laws” and “he is unbound by these laws” are saying the complete opposite thing, right?

    Keep testing out
    moral maxims on a creator entity and you go down the rabbit hole pretty
    fast. I’m not saying God doesn’t have his own rules, they’re just not
    like ours.

    I’m not “testing” anything, I’m simply pointing out that breaking certain moral maxims in certain ways – such as torturing people forever – is pretty much the definition of evil. To this, your response was “God is Cthulhu”, and what seems to be shaping into some variant of “you’re not evil if you don’t think you are”, which is complete nonsense.

    Well, one point is that you don’t trust your dog’s ability to exercise free
    will against its baser instincts.

    I expect my dog to exercise its free will the second my back is turned. I simply don’t expect it to want the same things I do. That would be quite unreasonable, since it’s a separate entity.

    But the larger point is that because I
    have different capacities, I follow different standards. Animals
    regularly suffer from famine as a result of over-predation and
    over-population; the concept of ecological stewardship is beyond them,
    so we don’t hold animals as “evil” or “wrong” for doing so. But humans
    do understand these things, so we object to species extinction.

    I fail to see how any of that would excuse torturing those animals. If anything, your analogies make Hell seem even more unjust, by reminding us of the gap of understanding between the judge and condemned. Or do you think that torturing mentally disabled people – which, as you’ve pointed out, we are to God, if not even lower – is okay?

    We
    have a system morality for ourselves, but it’s quite literally hubris
    to expect that an omnipotent creator deity would be required to follow
    those same standards. Is it really wrong to kill every dodo on the
    planet if you’re able to bring them all back to life with a wave of your
    hand, or create new ones with a mere thought?

    I’m not requiring anything. I’m asking about whether an omnipotent creator deity who did evil things would be evil. The specific evil action I’m talking about is torturing people hideously forever, not killing dodos. Your attempts to avoid answering this question has thus far led you to declaring God to be Cthulhu in all but name, followed with comparing his actions to those of a nonsentient grizzly bear, followed by denying Jesus, followed by comparing yourself to a dog.

    The problem stems from you trying to defend three ideas simultaneously:
    1. There are universal good and evil.
    2. God does evil things.
    3. God is not evil.

    These can’t all be true, at least one must go. Thus far, you seem to be leaning towards letting idea 1 go (which also takes the two others with it, since you can’t very well do or be evil if no such thing exists), but can’t bring yourself to outright say it. The problem is, it also takes with it the concept of justice, thus removing the most common defence of Hell, and makes its alleged existence reflect even worse on God’s character: either he’s a horrible tyrant who tortures dissidents, or he just likes hurting people. Oh, and he’s also a two-faced hypocrite, who made rules for people he has no intent of following himself, and kept hiding his true character from them.

    Frankly, I think it’s easier to simply accept that “God tortures people endlessly and is therefore evil” or “God is not evil and therefore won’t torture people forever” are the self-consistent alternatives, while “God is not evil despite doing evil things” is nonsense.