The Highest Law

I was listening to an apologist recently who was trying to explain the problem of Hell. The apologist wanted to make clear that God did not want to send anyone to Hell, but that He had no choice because of our sinful nature. This struck me as something of a throwback to an earlier form of religion.

One of the hallmarks of polytheistic religion is how close the Gods are to humans. The Gods are usually just extremely powerful, wise humans. There is also always some kind of higher law above them that they cannot escape.

The Greek Gods were slaves to fate. The Norse Gods could not stop the coming of ragnarok (at least after the Norse were exposed to Christian apocalyptic thought). Most striking of all, the Hindu Gods were stuck dealing with karma and the cycle of death and rebirth.

Call this “the highest law,” or if you want to be pretentious, the “meta-divine realm.”

In theory, there is no “highest law” in Christianity. God is the ultimate and not bound by any restrictions. The danger here is practical: people might begin focusing on the highest law. This is what happened with Hinduism. Hinduism spawned many different sects that sought ways to escape the wheel of life and rebirth without the aid of the Gods, including Buddhism.

Let’s say that there is a highest law, which we will call the “law of purity.” God’s purity is absolute, and He cannot tolerate impurity. God’s nature is such that impure beings are forced away from him, the way that like poles of magnets repel each other. Therefor, impure beings cannot enter heaven, and instead are sent to hell. This is one of the ways that I’ve heard it explained.

If this is the case, then God is not omnipotent. The laws governing purity are more powerful than He and He cannot alter them. He can attempt to work within the rules of the purity system by sacrificing his son and thereby making everyone who believes in Him pure. But he cannot simply declare that everyone is pure, or change the rules of purity so that impure beings are no longer repelled.

If this is the case, then perhaps humans would be better off focusing their attention on the law of purity. We could make an end run around God, defeating the system of purity the way that Buddhists attempt to remove themselves from the wheel of death and rebirth.

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  • trj

    Having God’s actions be shaped by the law of purity also leads to the question of how God’s intolerance of impurity justifies eternal torment in Hell for the impure.

    • Len

      It almost makes the whole thing sound illogical.

      • trj

        Heh, yeah, who’d have thought. But come to think of it, how is it even possible at all for a pure being to consign most of humanity to Hell?

        • Azel

          “pure” might be meant in the same sense as aseptic : no impurity can be in sight and every impurity you come across must be destroyed.

      • Revyloution

        Yes, but it does support the ‘Hell is separation from God’ idea…

        • trj

          I wouldn’t say it supports it, but if you wan’t to use the argument that God is clinically adverse to impurity, you should also use the “Hell is absence from God” to be consistent. Some Christians do, some do not.

  • Gordon

    If there is a god, and he is good, but he cannot bear to have me in heaven, then I’m fine with reincarnating back on Earth. Heaven sounds awful.

    Of course he can, apparently, stand the presence of some quite awfl people, so long as they mutter something about Jesus.

    But still, it doesn’t justify hell, since the god could just send the impure back to Earth.

  • Andrew Hall

    A way around Yahweh? If there is, then perhaps there’s a path to getting rid of the sociopathic loon altogether.

  • Barry Hardee

    You can’t make an end run around God, if purity is defined also includes obeying the various commands of said deity.

    There are other ways of viewing hell within the historic Christian tradtion, such as annihilliation. Another would be similiar to C.S. Lewis take on hell in the Great Divorce, where hell is an extension of a person’s choices in this life, and is actually merciful because Heaven would truly be hell for someone opposed to God.

    Not saying that either is true, per se, just that there are other ways to view God, demands of purity, and our fate.

  • Joe

    Man, it looks strange when people capitalize ‘He’. Is your god a man at all? But capitalizing the first letter makes it look like ‘He’ is his name.

    Back to the argument, if the laws of purity govern god then reading then it’s obvious by reading the bible that these rules are dynamic – they change over time. This means god is a slave to the definition of purity, which is defined by man. God works for man.

    This also means that people will be demoted from heaven to hell, which would be a bummer if you had your floating cloud all set-up for eternity.

    • Revyloution

      Grammar. We didn’t write the rules, we just obey them.

      • Joe

        Surely the rules of Grammar should be secular.

        • Shrubber

          Yes, it should. Wanna be on the Texas State Board of Education? We need smarter people on this gig.

    • Azel

      I prefer to see the promotions : escaping a fire pit is not so bad…

    • Yoav

      Once the rule change do you get a pardon from hell? Lets say someone was sent to hell in 1BCE for eating a shrimp, the following year jeebus is born and tell us that his daddy was just kidding, do you really think a merciful god would have banned bacon? What happen to our dude, does he go on being fried to a crisp or can he now go to the great north Korea in the sky where he can praise Kim-jong Yahweh for ever.

      • Joe

        Come to think of it, one gallup poll on ethics of gay marriage, capital punishment or even something like Sunday opening hours could cause this particular god some serious amount of paperwork.

  • Transformed

    Again, how unfortunate it is that we as humans (if we are to take the bibe/ christianity seriously) have to wonder what god ‘really’ means by what is claimed in the bible. And we (even christians) can agree that these claims seem to change over time. I’ve heard christians justify this by claiming that god’s mind is apt to change with changing cultural climates. Here again, the never- ending dissection of the claims are so available for division that it is afforded to alter doctrine as one sees fit. Why isn’t this an obvious reason to discard the whole premise (any dogmatic premise) in the first place?

    Again- if I have to read the bible and proselytize his message in a way where I admit that the bible isn’t already self evident, then it is as much ME writing the bible as it is anyone else. No other manual, textbook, self help book, any sort of non fiction reading material, or material that makes justifiable claims about the universe reads the same way the bible does. There’s much I get from it, but not much I can (mentally) add to it. It seems to be the reverse with the bible, in order to get anything out of it, I have to (mentally)add quite a bit to it. Concepts of heaven and hell are no different….

  • Transformed

    Concepts of heaven and hell are no different….

    **** and likely at the top of the list of topics most imaginative within the bible.

    • Len

      I’ve heard christians justify this by claiming that god’s mind is apt to change with changing cultural climates.

      It’s wonderful that the never-changing God adapts himself to how society currently is (or should be, in some people’s minds).

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The apologist wanted to make clear that God did not want to send anyone to Hell, but that He had no choice…

    Who makes these rules that God must follow?

    • UrsaMinor

      Answer that, and you will solve the Euthyphro Dilemma.

  • busterggi

    Ah, but if god is the creator of an impure universe then god is also impure and would therefor be forced away from himself & into Hell.

    Where he probably spends most of his time yelling at demons to get off his burning lawn.

    • Clint

      Blah blah blah free will blah blah blah man is sinful blah blah Faith™ blah the fall blah blah god is perfect blah blah Ginger blah blah you don’t understand blah blah…

      (Sorry, channeling standard smug Christian response.)

  • Alex Greaves

    It’s a shame that the idea you got from the apologist was one of a higher law – and it would be a greater shame if that’s what the apologist intended to teach.

    The Bible’s teaching (in my opinion) is not that God CANNOT do this or that, but that he WILL NOT do this or that, due to his character. So, God could send good people to Hell or bad people to heaven, but he’s revealed that he won’t, because that would go against who he is. To draw an analogy: an atheist COULD, for example, get baptised, go to church and teach kids about Jesus in Sunday School, but WON’T because it would go against who he/she is.

    Though, whether Hell is in line with God’s revealed character (of love, goodness, justice, etc.) is a separate argument entirely.

    • Yoav

      Your analogy is rather weak. Many atheists are, unfortunately, still forced to hide their lack of faith due to fear of how their environment will react. These atheists will be sending their kids to church/mosque/temple and teaching them about Jesus/Mohamed/Moses, they may not like it but they still do. The way you try to twist it still come down to god having no choice over sending people to hell, it doesn’t really make a difference if you call it a higher law or his nature he’s still compelled to act a certain way.

      • Alex Greaves

        I realised immediately after posting that my analogy was a bit weak – it confused a person’s character with a person’s preferences. However, I’m struggling to pick a better one.

        I trust, though, that the principle makes sense.

      • Alex Greaves

        Scrap the above reply. This is what happens when you reply to things late at night: you read the post but forget what it says!

        I’ll keep this bit:

        I realised immediately after posting that my analogy was a bit weak – it confused a person’s character with a person’s preferences.

        But I’ll add this:
        I trust that you are a person who holds to many of the morals that many other people in Western society hold to (I’m assuming you’re a member of Western society – correct me if I’m wrong). Thus, I’d hazard a guess that you would have a problem with indiscriminate torture (given you read this article). So, would you indiscriminately torture someone, given the means and the choice? Of course not! But could you indiscriminately torture someone, given the means and the choice? Of course!

        So, if we can draw a distinction between would/could for humans, why can we not draw the same distinction for God?

        • Yoav

          The difference is that, if I read you correctly, then you take it as if god won’t is an absolute, that there are no possible circumstances under which god will act differently, how is that then different that can’t?
          This is where your analogy fail, while I won’t torture someone indiscriminately I can’t be sure how I would react, for example, if someone held somebody I care about at gunpoint and threatened to kill them unless I tortured a stranger. Hopefully I’ll never have to face this kind of dilemma but the fact that there is a conceivable possibility that I will act in a different way makes all the difference.

        • Sunny Day

          Because humans can be shown to exist is just one that comes to mind. The omni, omni, omni biblegod not so much.

        • trj

          For a truly omnipotent being the only real limits on its behavior are self-imposed – which is what you suggest. This naturally leads to the question: For what reason does God put such moral limits on himself when he doesn’t actually have to, being omnipotent?

          Presumably you think God has a reason for behaving a certain way. Which would indicate that he adjusts his behavior according to an extrinsic principle or ideal. Whether he chooses to do so voluntarily or not doesn’t change that the principle is superior to God.

          You might argue that the principles God follows don’t have to be external to him. But if you want to also claim that God is omnibenevolent, then you will either have to accept that there are limits to what can be considered benevolent (in which case God is still restricted by an external standard) or you must define benevolence to be simply whatever God chooses to do at any time (in which case it doesn’t matter one way or the other what God does, we are reduced to simply obeying his whims, and the definition of benevolence loses all meaning). Take your pick. This is just Euthyphro’s dilemma restated.

    • PsiCop

      Re: “Though, whether Hell is in line with God’s revealed character (of love, goodness, justice, etc.) is a separate argument entirely.

      I would say that eternal torment for people who are, after all, only doing what they were created to do, utterly contradicts the idea that God could be “loving” or “good” or “just” or anything else along those lines.

      This leaves one to assume one of the following possibilities is the case:

      1. God is an inherently conflicted being; he really is “loving,” but he really also wants people to be tormented eternally.
      2. God is too “loving” to allow people to be tormented eternally, meaning that hell doesn’t exist after all.
      3. Hell exists because God is not “loving” at all, even if his believers would like to think he is, and even if he might wish them to think so, too.

      • Joe

        You’re missing the most likely possibility: man invented god, heaven and hell.

      • Yoav

        A little while ago some guy tried to get me all hooked on jeezoooos and as part of the setup for his pitch he was trying to tell me how my disbelief is due to my inability to reconcile the suffering in the world with god’s perfect love. I wish I had a camera to catch the look on his face when my reply wasn’t what he was told to expect but instead I just explained that the whole problem is moot if you’re willing to consider god may be either fictional or an asshole.

        • vasaroti

          The whole problem is moot because we don’t have souls.

    • Len

      .. is not that God CANNOT do this or that, but that he WILL NOT do this or that, …

      So he’s a cantankerous old fart who throws a hissy fit.

  • WarbVIII

    Think I must agree with Joe..which of course explains the condradictory rules and exclusionary content of rules from god.


    How can an all powerful god ‘want’ anything and still be all powerful? I’ve never been able to get my head around that one.

    • Custador

      What would God want with a space-ship?

  • Ron

    The doubter says:

    “I could never follow Stalin. He puts people in the Gulag.”

    That is what doubters tell themselves to rationalize their rejection of
    Stalin. But the truth is that Stalin does not send anyone to the Gulag.
    It is those who have hardened their hearts against him who send
    themselves to the Gulag through their bourgoise attitudes and
    counterrevolutionary actions. This was not Stalin’s plan at all. He
    truly wants everyone to go the Worker’s Paradise. And it grieves him
    that so many harden their hearts against him. But he will not force
    anyone into the Worker’s Paradise against their wishes, he respects
    their free will.

    So if you don’t want to go to the Gulag, just open your heart to the
    love of Stalin. And stop resisting him.

  • Jonathan M.S. Pearce


    Jonathan, UF is not here as a tool to grant you access to a demographic you can sell to. Please desist from posting comments filled with links to stuff you get paid for.

    - Custador

    • Custador

      On the other hand, if your book really is the shiznitz, talk to Vorjack about writing a guest post about it.

      • Jonathan M.S. Pearce

        I sent him it last week, I think. Fair cop though. The Youtube video is relevant, though!

        • Custador

          Fair one. Repost it if you like (I didn’t save it).

        • vorjack

          I sent him it last week, I think.

          *cough* Significantly earlier than that, I think.

          He’s partially justified, Custador. I agreed to give him a review, half finished it, then got side tracked.

          • Jonathan M.S. Pearce

            The problem is not just with hell, it is with heaven and the eternal soul, it is for free will existing in heaven with no pain, but not on earth. For these concepts to make sense, the eternal soul needs to be viable in the first place. Christians are up against it because we can so easily map out the contorted evolution of all three ideas in the bible itself. The Greeks have a lot to answer for. To be able to see something develop so athropogenically means that they have to be deluding themselves not to realise that this has not been revealed from the start, especially since the eternal soul being punished or rewarded well, er, eternally. It makes no sense!

            The Torah offers no systematic definition of a soul; various descriptions of the soul exist in classical rabbinic literature. They believe the nephesh is the breath of life, and later developed the middle and higher souls that are slowly created over time depending on the actions and beliefs of the individual.

            Essentially, many notions of the soul developed after the Greeks invaded and controlled Israel. The Hellenisation of Israel meant persecution for the Jews in their beliefs by Greeks, and Hellenised countrymen. This led to the debate of the problem of evil being opened. Why is it that the good, God-fearing people suffer in the world, whilst the bad get away with it? Previously, justice was essentially thought to be meted out on earth, but this didn’t seem fair enough. After the Maccabean Revolt in around 200 bce, the Jews succeeded in getting their own independence, and in the books of Maccabees, we start seeing the notion of a soul develop. Having been suppressed by the Greeks, it is hardly surprising that their notion of a soul was completely Greek in its ideology. Christianity followed shortly after, with its notion of a soul in the slipstream of this ideological development. The immortality of the soul now allowed for justice, no matter what people did on earth, no matter where, no matter when. No action, or even thought, could go unseen to the omni-God, who would mete out punishment or reward on the back of this newly immortalised concept.

            So if all of the issues around the soul are sorted, you still have infinite punishment for finite crimes meted out by an all-loving god.

            And then there’s Satan…

          • Custador

            Go stand in the corner of the server, Vorjack, and think about what you’ve done.

            • Jonathan M.S. Pearce

              I wish I could ‘like’ comments on this blog!

            • Custador

              Vorjack, on a serious note, if you’re too busy to write a review I’m off for the next two weeks so I’m happy to do it.

            • Jonathan M.S. Pearce

              I’ll send you a copy if you want! Let me know. My email is

            • Custador

              I’ll email you my address tomorrow.

          • Jonathan M.S. Pearce

            No worries, Vorjack, i know running a blog is a hugely time consuming thing!

  • Gopal Coimbatore

    Stumbled upon this website…

    Misrepresenting another philosophy/religion doesn’t make your argument correct or better. Specifically, I am speaking of misrepresenting Hinduism.

    • Vorjack

      Given how diverse Hinduism is, exactly how do you misrepresent it? Almost any variation is apt to be found somewhere in the Indian subcontinent or beyond.

      • Gopal Coimbatore

        First, there’s no such thing as ‘Hinduism’ – I suppose you knew that – now that I’ve read a few more of your posts :)

        Next, the law of Karma/reincarnation is NOT ‘the Highest Law’. Interestingly, you mention it in as many words in another post (Repealing Karma) and call it a ‘Principle’ – much better term. :)

        The ‘sects’ did NOT spawn to find ways of ‘escape’ without the aid of GOD. Clearly, that’s impossible. Yes, some learned person did propagate such ideas and there were people ready to question/try before either accepting/rejecting such a possibility.

        Finally, Buddha himself was SILENT on the existence of divine – for reasons well understood. He NEVER rejected GOD.

        • Gopal Coimbatore

          Reading further, I realize this website is mostly directed at Christianity, or rather the followers of Christ (neither at Christ, or his teachings – am I correct?). That being the case, a few errors on other philosophy/religion is certainly well within the ‘experimental error’ :) May be I was too quick on the trigger.

          Please accept my apologies… I’ll go my way.