I recently commented on William Lane Craig’s justification for hell here. The afterlife is a big topic and there is much more to say, but I do want to give a few more responses to the idea of an all-loving god creating a place of eternal torment. The idea is ridiculous on its face, with WLC’s response just a childish retort that would only satisfy someone who’s already a believer. He says, in effect, “Well, maybe God has reasons for hell that we don’t understand. Have you considered that?”
Sure, that’s possible, but why go there? Where’s the evidence? When we’re handed a claim that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, we should reject that claim.
Hell is hellish
Some of my arguments rest on heaven being a good place and hell a bad place, so let me quickly respond to the claim that hell isn’t that bad. Some say that God annihilates souls that don’t make the grade. Some say that “the gates of hell are locked on the inside” (C. S. Lewis), and hell’s inmates want to be there.
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) makes clear that hell is a very unpleasant place. There’s also mention of “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “the fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Revelation 21:8), and the warning to “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
If we’re on the same page that the Bible argues that hell is bad, let’s proceed.
1. God’s perfect justice
A common Christian position states that God’s perfect justice obliges him to judge us severely, but what is “perfect justice”? Fundamentalists imagine that it’s a mindlessly inflexible demand for perfection, but there are other possibilities. Perfect justice might mean, for example, not a rigid justice, but a judge that is perfect in his evaluation.
Why would justice be binary, with only heaven and hell as the possible options? Can’t it be a spectrum? Couldn’t your life be graded on a scale? A wise human judge would understand that we are imperfect and wouldn’t demand perfection. That judge might evaluate each person’s life against their potential to see how morally they played the hand that life dealt. Enlightened justice along these lines sounds more appropriate for an omniscient god than Christianity’s barbaric justice.
We’re told that God’s perfect sense of justice is offended by our petty imperfections, but why would it work that way? We can’t hurt Superman physically, for example, so how can we hurt God’s sense of perfect justice? Is he emotionally a fragile flower who goes to pieces when he sees someone leave too small a tip or say an unkind word?
A finite human can be injured, offended, or overpowered, but not so an infinite God.
2. God can just forgive
Why can’t God just respond to insults and infractions the old fashioned way—by forgiving? That’s what we do. That’s the lesson Jesus gives with the parable of the Prodigal Son.
It turns out that God can just forgive, and we find evidence in the Bible. God makes a new covenant with Israel and Judah in Jeremiah 31:33–4 and says, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
In Isaiah 43 (after much whining about how Israel hadn’t made enough sacrifices), God concludes, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Is. 43:25).
What’s all this handwaving about how God’s perfect standard of justice requires a human sacrifice? If God can forgive, the crucifixion wasn’t even necessary.
3. One size fits all
God takes a baggy, one-size-fits-all approach to judgment. If you’re perfect (or if you’ve accepted Jesus, which makes you effectively perfect), you go to heaven. Otherwise, it’s hell.
That’s a simple rule, but we don’t do it that way on in the West. The rejection of “cruel and unusual punishment” dates back to the English Bill of Rights in 1689. Even in its harshest interpretation, where justice should be retributive and criminals should suffer, justice is proportionate to the crime.
Don’t tell me that God’s hands are tied. If he made his one-size-fits-all justice rule in a momentary lapse, he can just make a new rule. He changed his mind and forgave Israel, so he can do the same thing today. He’s omnipotent, right?
Or if God is wedded to the idea of a binary decision (you’re in heaven or you’re not), he could just annihilate the bad people. Eternal torture is so 1000 BCE.
Continued with more arguments on the illogic of hell in part 2.
My grandfather used to say,
“A Republican can’t enjoy his dinner
unless he knows somebody else is hungry.”
— seen on the internet
Image via Ras Alhague, CC license