Dialogue w Agnostic on Basic Differences and Hell

Dialogue w Agnostic on Basic Differences and Hell November 30, 2018
Edward Babinski is an agnostic who has written quite a bit online. In April 2005, we had a little exchange, occasioned by a visit from an anti-Catholic Protestant, who was spewing fire and brimstone against us lowly, unregenerate, idolatrous “papists.” Ed was kind enough to defend me a bit — including the following statements, which were quite gracious indeed:
I think that if you dialogued with Dave and his blog friends you might recognize and even come to respect the sincerity depth of Dave’s faith, and the thoroughness of his arguments on every topic, without necessarily agreeing with his theological, doctrinal and creedal premises concerning everything he currently believes.
Our conversation was on a more fundamental level: of root premises and presuppositions. I thought it was very constructive  (rare enough between Christians and agnostics or “freethinkers” or “skeptics” — whatever a particular individual prefers to be called). It’s nice to simply have a “normal,” down-to-earth discussion once in a while, away from all the supercharged polemics. So here it is, with Ed’s words in blue, and my past words in green.

Wow, Ed. That was awful nice. I’m speechless.

Thanks for those kind words.

I guess I’ve really come to a unique place when I’m defended by an agnostic against a fellow (Protestant) Christian. :-) He thinks I will go to hell if I continue on my terrible path of Catholicism.

Wasn’t Constantine’s day all the way to the arrival to Pre-Enlightenment Europe filled with Christians who believed other Christians were going to hell? (At one point in time the entire Christian church split right down the middle, church fathers, saints and all, the Catholics in the West and the Orthodox in the East, simultaneously excommunicating each other.) 

That was in 1054. I don’t think there was so much of that back in the early Middle Ages (Constantine died in 337), and perhaps even after the split there was not as much of it as is commonly supposed. But any division among Christians is not good. If we oppose the “Reformation” (I mean, in the broad sense of it being another division; apart from the issues), then we must also oppose the Catholic-Orthodox split, and work towards reunification. Unfortunately, some very vocal parties on both sides are dead-set against it, as always, in these things. Human nature . . .

You don’t believe in hell.

I can’t conceive in my heart or my head that it would be “ethical” to “cast” people into a “lake of fire” (metaphorical or not) and impose endless suffering upon them;

Me neither; I believe that the choice is that of the persons who go there, not God; i.e., that their choice is to reject God. C.S. Lewis wrote famously that the doors of hell are locked on the inside, not the outside. The reality of rejecting God leads to a place in the afterlife (sensibly enough) where God isn’t, and it is a horrible place indeed (unbelievably terrifying). It is everything that atheists and agnostics believe neither in God nor in Christianity convince themselves that this world (conceived of as without God) is not. They obviously don’t believe that a Godless world would reduce to a state or condition or place like hell, but that makes it no less of an ontological reality. To be totally without God is to be in hell.

This is the choice. Human beings are (starting from conception) beings who have no end). That’s the nature of things, like it or not (I know, that’s another huge discussion itself, but here I am giving the internal Christian argument, and we believe in immortality). No one has to make the choice; therefore, it is hardly God’s fault. That would be like blaming a Governor who is totally willing to pardon a repentant, remorseful criminal, for the sentence of the criminal who flat-out refuses the pardon. Does that make any sense? Of course not.

Personally, I think the fiery polemic against hell (pun intended) only works (at all) within a Calvinist double predestination framework, because then the damned soul really had no choice, and the blame can more plausibly be put on God. But it doesn’t succeed against the soteriology and eschatology of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Arminian Protestantism.

There is plenty in the world which reflects the existential reality of existence without God, and without love (which is ultimately grounded in God; therefore, when God is completely taken out of the picture — which is not possible in this world –, there is no love; only hatred and evil, in hell). The Christian contends that hell is a continuation of the evils in this world (most of which are caused by men against men, committing evil acts, and lacking love). God offers a better way: the way of salvation, grace, and heaven.

I’ve always found it rather silly to blame God for hell, as if that were His design for fallen humanity. God has made it possible for any person to avoid hell — an existence devoid of His presence and light. If they choose to reject the gift, then that is their fault (and indirectly, also the devil’s, who deluded them into making such an abominable, absurd choice), not God’s. It’s not like men haven’t been warned. But Christian sermons, sadly, stress hell less and less all the time.

But hell (in its caricatured version, where all the blame lies with God, not wonderful, righteous, noble, non-fallen men) makes for great, melodramatic polemics, doesn’t it? I was just reading, e.g., Steve Lock’s “deconversion testimony.” He has a field day with hell. But he didn’t interact with the sort of reasoning and Christian response I have just given (at least not in that particular essay; maybe he has elsewhere; I’d love to see it).

nor can I conceive that any infinitely loving being would create creatures for such a fate; 

I can’t either. I believe that my apologetic above totally defeats this argument against (the Christian) God’s love (and/or omnipotent power to do what He wills). The fact remains that in the majority Christian view throughout history, God does not create any creatures for such an unthinkable fate. He creates them for heaven; to be united with Himself (and therefore to be totally joyful, happy, and at peace), and desires that all men go there, but He also refuses to make men robots, so some rebel against Him, just as the devil and the fallen angels did before man came onto the scene. It’s the myth of the autonomy of the creature: as if he or she is not totally dependent on God, and indebted to Him for being the Creator and the God of the universe and the Ground of Being for all creation.

nor can I conceive of how a finite creature could resist the will of God eternally.

God allows them to choose against Him. Everything else follows. I don’t know if they literally resist God for eternity or not (they may be so corrupt by the time they get there that this is no longer possible, and become like robots, without a will). But if they do resist God (or suffer remorse for their stupid, tragic choice against Him), and if they do it eternally, it is because no longer is it possible for them to be with God, or to attain to His blessings. That door was shut, by their own choice.

This is a large part of the reason why I do what I do; why all evangelists and preachers and priests do. I don’t want to see anyone end up in this horrific place, anymore than God does. He does not, and anyone who understands what hell is and has a shred of humanity and charity would not want anyone there, either. I want people to experience joy and happiness — so often missing or in short supply in this veil of tears and suffering. I want to see them fulfilled and living the life that God intended for them to live: up to and including eternity in heaven with Him.

On the other hand, I am quite content with the notion that persons like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. will end up in a bad place rather than in bliss with the persons who placed their confidence in Jesus Christ for their salvation (and other non-Christian people who, if they are saved, will be by Jesus, whether they know it or not). For that involves “cosmic justice.” A universe which had no such justice at all: where these evil tyrants wound up exactly the same as everyone else, is, to me, more terrifying of a prospect than hell. I wouldn’t want to exist at all in such a hideous, meaningless, nonsensical universe and world. Yet folks like Steve Lock (and yourself?) do not seem to be troubled by such things.

I believe that time and God are the best teachers. (Jewish aphorism)


In short, it’s not that I “don’t believe in hell,” but if hell exists, I can’t conceive of it otherwise than as folks like George Macdonald argued it must be, when he wrote:

I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing. 

Well, this is sentimental, mushy, moral chaos. They can both exist harmoniously in one being (they do, perfectly, in God), but they are not technically the same thing. Love (and mercy, or forgiveness, which are aspects of it) only ultimately makes sense when the recipient accepts it. But if they don’t, then the ontological nature of things is that they wind up with God’s justice and without the fruit of His love and mercy, which is heaven.

That hell will help the just mercy of God to redeem his children. 

The gospel and grace and all that promote and spread them do that. When someone rejects all that, then they have chosen to reject God’s mercy. God gives them the freedom to do so, so that when they positively choose to follow Him, it has the greatest meaning, not the meaningless of a robot who couldn’t do otherwise.

Such is the mercy of God that he will hold his children in the consuming fire of his distance until they pay the uttermost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and the Son, and the many brethren, and rush inside the center of the life-giving fire whose outer circles burn.

Well, that’s purgatory. But those in purgatory have already accepted God’s grace unto salvation. That’s the key. If they have not done so, then the purgatorial suffering would be meaningless, as it wouldn’t lead anywhere meaningful. Therefore, the only fires remaining in such a scenario are the fires of hell, or separation from God and His mercy.

George MacDonald (19th-century universalist Christian), excerpts from I Believe, Unspoken Sermons

This is a heresy. It comes from an excessive rationalism, which has no place for biblical paradox and proper, crucial, necessary ethical and ontological distinctions, such as those made above.

One must see the humor in these things. :-) I hope you can appreciate it with me, just as Shaw and Chesterton enjoyed many a laugh together.

They did, and I loved reading the book about their friendship and humorous debates, a book subtitled, The Metaphysical Jesters–as well as enjoying reading Chesterton’s novel about a Catholic character and a Shaw-like character trying to arrange a duel to the death over the topic of religion, which keeps getting interrupted by the police, until the Chesterton character and the Shaw character find they have become close friends while fleeing the police together. Chesterton even included two dreams in that novel, one in which the Catholic character dreams of a perfect Catholic world, but it turns into a nightmare of fascist proportions, while the Shaw character dreams of a world of angry irreligious anarchists, another nightmare. The dreaming brings them together. (Hmmm, MacDonald’s universalist novel, Lilith, one of Lewis’s favorites, also revolves around the power of dreams).

This is an interesting observation. I seek common ground with others (including agnostics and atheists, and those of other religions) as you do, and as (notably) Pope John Paul II did. But I think that the only rational explanation of the commonality (particularly ethical) that we find amongst ourselves (what Lewis in The Abolition of Man, called the “Tao”), is God’s existence, and the grounding in Him of all our deepest aspirations, dreams, and desires. Otherwise, it is all a big sick joke. Chesterton and Shaw felt themselves kindred spirits in this fashion because they were already made so by God. They found joy in these same things because that was innate, put into them by God, as their common creator.

The world is full of strange anomalies, isn’t it?

I find humor and humanity everywhere, except in those relatively few folks who are unable to converse with other people unless it is in the most literal “Bible-speak,” or citing quotations directly from Chairman Mao’s little Red Book, et al.

Yes; I agree. They are beyond both humor and rationality; hence they don’t enjoy conversation much. Why bother?

There’s an old Latin proverb that perhaps applies to such people, “Beware the man of one book.” I am NOT comparing you to such people. I am speaking in Christian terms of sects like the “Garbage-eaters,” who try to memorize the whole King James Bible and learn to communicate mainly by repeating Bible verses. They seem to me to have lost their souls and grown more like automatons.

I don’t know about their souls, but “automaton” seems to me to be a quite apt description.

Some sects of Islamic fundamentalists are probably like that too, to varying degrees.

Indeed; it’s a corruption of the proper function of religion. And, of course, to whatever extent a religion is false, it will lead people to be less human and less as God made them to be, not more, as all lies are the devil’s deceptions. Some of the greatest evils ever committed are done in the name of religion (and I include Marxism and Nazism as religions; the former is corrupt Christian messianism and the so-called “Social Gospel” and the latter corrupt pagan spiritualistic romantic mysticism), precisely because the best things in life have the greatest potential to become the most corrupted. Hence, we see similarly horrid corruption in other wonderful things: sex, money, normal family life, marriage, etc.

One thing you and I can agree on is the importance and necessity of critical thinking. 

We even agree on more than that, we agree in many matters of the heart as well. 

Absolutely. The deeper question is: why is that? And I think that the theistic explanations are the most plausible, in the end.

We can respect that in each other even though (as you say) we start from different premises and then reason to different conclusions.

I would say that I hold several ideas in mind simultaneously when it comes to the big questions and the claims of certainty that some people make concerning things beyond my sight or concerning supernature or the afterlife.

Technically, that (some of it, at any rate) would be a contradiction. I believe that one should maintain a willingness to always examine one’s beliefs; to “test” them, if you will, against reality. You can only rationally hold one of two mutually-exclusive views at a time, but you can be willing to go wherever you think truth leads. That is ultimately a very open-minded perspective; not closed-minded at all. But it doesn’t rule out strongly believing something now, either. We can believe in something strongly if we feel (in all good faith and conscience) that there is sufficient warrant or justification for it. But we can also hold to the theoretical possibility of being wrong, even on the deepest, most fundamental issues. That’s how I’ve always looked at things, as long as I started thinking seriously about them, and I think this is what it means to be “open-minded” and the opposite of “dogmatic” (in the very worst sense of that term).

That’s what I feel that we Christians have in common with atheists and agnostics (the valuing of reason and evidence). But many of your number seem not to think that we do value reason. 

I think it best if neither of us start comparing the other with “many of our number,” because that seems to be where misunderstandings often begin.

I was making a sociological observation of something that deeply disturbs and troubles me, because it cuts off rational discourse and good will. I acknowledge that there are many exceptions to the rule, as with all generalities.

In fact I bet if I simply asked you questions all day long I’d find out specific things about you, your life experiences, and the particular and precise beliefs you have arrived at that I might have never even guessed otherwise, i.e., not if I began by assuming that you were just like “many of your number.” 

Indeed, and this was an aspect of our last dialogue which bothered me, because you assumed many such things, that not only weren’t true in my case, but arguably not in the case of most thinking, reasonably-educated Christians, either. But that’s another discussion. I think it holds true for both (broad) sides in the debate. Christians (including myself at times) often jump to many unfounded conclusions about individual non-Christians. This attitude is contrary to Christian charity. We are commanded to believe the best of people, not the worst. That’s how I try to live my life, by God’s grace. I would love to be asked a bunch of questions, for the purpose of clarification and further mutual understanding, and ask some of you, too. I am a Socratic, after all. That’s what we do. :-)

Part of my goal as an apologist is to convince atheists and agnostics of that very thing, if I never convince them of my theological beliefs. One can only try.

I don’t try to convince anyone to believe anything in particular at all, 

I don’t believe that for a second [I say this with a smile, in a “ribbing” sort of way; it’s important to note that body language “clue” as to my intent and attitude]. You obviously have points of view that you are interested in promoting, and that you would like to see people adopt. It’s foolish to deny this. The most obvious example is your ongoing polemic against young-earth creationism, and in favor of the theory of evolution.

but I would like more people to simply acknowledge which things they know the most about, and which they know the least about, rather than tying to get others to agree with them concerning their beliefs about all things seen and unseen, in nature and supernature, in this life and the next.

That’s a very Socratic approach, and one which I share to a large extent. But I do both things. I don’t oppose them to each other. I think that if we examine our premises very carefully and painstakingly, that the theistic and Christian outlook explains things far more plausibly and rationally than any other opposing view. I don’t find it forced or contrived at all; I truly believe that Christianity best “fits” reality. St. Augustine said that in our hearts was a “God-shaped void.” One might also say that in our minds and perceptions of reality is a “Christianity-shaped void.” When we fill it with that shape, reality makes a great deal of sense. Without it, it ultimately doesn’t.

That’s what I believe. Others disagree. My approach is, “let’s talk, and explore this further. These are some of the most important questions that all human beings ever deal with. Let’s learn from each other, and from each of our intellectual and spiritual journeys, rather than condemn and anathematize each other.” And so I am often bitterly disappointed at how rare such fundamental discussions are. It ain’t easy being a Socratic who loves deep, meaty dialogues.

At times it almost seems as if you wish you could believe, but sincerely cannot because of those different premises you referred to.

My only “wish,” I can honestly say, is to live after I am dead in a world as least as hospitable as this one, with friends at least as nice as the ones I have now, and with chances of gaining further knowledge and more friends.

If you believe in immortality, then I think you are already seeking heaven at some level (subconsciously or otherwise). If folks like me can convince you that it exists, and that it is a good, wonderful place, then I think we go a long way towards re-convincing you of Christianity. Lewis and Kreeft’s argument from longing / heaven is a profound apologetic, and largely unexplored. I would like to pursue it a lot more in my own apologetics, as a fruitful, provocative avenue. This gets back to my love of “Romantic and Imaginative Theology.”

We’ll pray for you. After all, it’s grace that helps us all believe.

I’m not sure what you mean by “grace helps us believe.” It only helps us believe? Is that what Paul said when he wrote, “We are saved by faith and that not of ourselves for it is the grace of God?” The word “grace” means “divine favor,” and if that divine favor is not granted then apparently you can’t have saving “faith” at all.

That’s correct. That’s what orthodox Christianity holds. We cooperate with it; it helps us do that, but it is the entire cause, in the sense that we could not have initiated it ourselves, or carried it out without the grace. Contrary to what anti-Catholics think, this is perfectly orthodox, Tridentine Catholicism, too.

Paul also wrote about God creating some pots just for destruction (perhaps “chamber pots” is the metaphorical intent), and hence God favors to (or grants “grace” to) some of us pots, not to all. That seems to have been Paul’s reasoning on the issue. So grace is far more than just a help. 

One must balance these passages with the ones that speak of universal atonement and God’s desire that all come to the knowledge of the truth and salvation.

Of course the issue to me is not grace at all, it is the totality of my particular knowledge and reasoning skills that I have built up during my life, as well as my reactions to a multitude of things I have read about or seen in the Bible, science, psychology, history, Christians, as well as having studied myself and my own experiences carefully (both as a Christian and after leaving the fold).

We seek truth by rational means. But of course, there is such a thing as a grace-filled or grace-influenced mind, too, and such a thing as a mind filled with various false or misleading presuppositions and hostilities; many of which might be unduly biased by non-rational aspects of life, and the will. I’ve learned in my many years of apologetics to never ever underestimate non-rational and purely emotional factors in why folks believe what they believe.

Speaking of which I received this email just today, and have received other like it on at least a monthly basis since writing LTF: ” * Private Message * for Ed Babinski Dear Mr. Babinski: Just a quick note of thanks for your website and publications. As a former charismatic myself, I often find comfort and encouragement from writings like yours. I once taught at a Christian Pentecostal university, as well, until my disbelief became too much for them (and reason prompted me out, too!) and I was asked to leave. Like yourself, I was immersed in that world for a time, even published with nationally-known Christian publishers (Baker Books), but for the first time in decades I can say that I am free. Thanks again for your courage and example to others! G. S. C., Ph.D. State Historian, North Dakota

We all seek others of like mind and experiences; it’s human nature. It confirms us in our opinions. When I have read of such “deconversions,” I always found rather large holes in them, and misunderstandings of Christian positions. Or else people actually do understand the Christian views they rejected, and have built up a huge animus against what they wrongly think Christianity is. The arguments about hell or the problem of evil are perfect examples of this: people get really mad at God and so they lash out at Him by pretending that He doesn’t exist. How rational is that?

It’s like the mindless ludicrosity of radical feminism: these women hate men and try to be as much like them as they can. Then when they get past that anger and Sartre-like disappointment, they lash out at Christians, who embody the same beliefs that they found so distasteful in the God Whom they no longer accept as “being there.” So now Christians become the scapegoats for the hostility against the Christian belief-system. I am generalizing; don’t tell me I’m applying all this to you. I’m not.

If you are open to the possibility, I challenge you to allow God to make Himself known to you. 

I am always open to that possibility and in fact prayed for it last night, as well as continue to do so on a fairly regular basis.

Excellent. Good for you. I think you’re very consistent in this, within the worldview that you have staked out; insofar as I understand it correctly.

Neither do I fret that God does not exist. I sometimes imagine I am living in a godless universe. Other times I imagine I am living in a Deistic universe, sometimes with, and sometimes without eternal life for human beings (Einstein’s view was that God existed, but it was Spinoza’s god and no personal afterlife). Sometimes I imagine that the religious world of devout human beings and their holy books, beliefs and practices, contain intimations of God though not an inerrant revelation in matters of doctrine and practice, and that our purpose is to continue to discover not only the general purpose of helping one another, but also to help each other discover the individual purposes and focuses of our fellow human beings’ lives, purposes that make life worth living for each of us. Hindus believe there are several major paths toward God, one being personal devotion to God and to others, another path being meditation, another one being the path of acquiring knowledge and gaining in wisdom.

Fascinating; thanks for sharing these deeply personal thoughts of yours. One of the purposes I have in this dialogue is for Christians to see how deeply reflective and thoughtful non-Christians are (or can be). This mitigates against the sinful, stupid judgmentalism that so often reigns, and fosters better understanding and conversation. There is a ton of potential for great discussion in much of what you write above, that would be good to explore in-depth, as occasion arises.

Dom Bede Griffith’s (C. S. Lewis’s lifelong friend) dialogued with Hindu priests and Buddhist monks in India and defended eastern religions even from Vatican attempts to belittle or mischaracterize them.

We must correctly characterize opposing views. That’s an ethical and intellectual duty. We Catholics are quite familiar with mischaracterization and distortion of what we believe, so we can sympathize, believe me.

It won’t come (if it does) from intellectual argument (most likely). It’ll come when you are all alone, gazing at the stars or at a sunset, and wondering if all of this has an ultimate meaning or no meaning in the end, and if your existence will cease some 30-40 years henceforth.

You seem to be assuming that there are only two choices, 1) no meaning whatsoever to life, or, 2) meaning lay in accepting the dogmas, doctrines and holy book of one particular religion.

As a Christian, one would fully expect that of me, yes. I believe Christianity to be truth, and the thing that gives meaning to life. My main point above was not Christian dogma, but rather, that epistemology and/or conversion is not always a matter of mere intellectual formulations, but often of rather mystical or non-rational (but not irrational) aspects.

As I said, I remain open. Are you open to imaging the world and seeing it through other eyes that leave open questions whose answers you currently take for granted, i.e., leaving open questions to which you believe you already possess the absolute answers?

I always have been (in the particular sense that I briefly described above). That’s why I’ve undergone many conversions myself: from nominally Christian spiritualist pagan to evangelical Christian to Catholic; from political liberal to conservative; from pro-choice to pro-life; from sexual liberal and radical unisexist to one who advocates a Catholic traditional view of sexuality and family, from junk food junkie to health food advocate, etc.

Have you studied some of the multi-sided, maybelogic philosphical questions that folks like Robert Anton Wilson and Raymond Smullyan raise in their works? Check them both out on the net.

I don’t know; I’m not familiar with these two men.

Wilson recently wrote at his site: I don’t believe anything, but I have many suspicions. 

Isn’t a suspicion a belief that something might be true?

I strongly suspect that a world “external to,” or at least independent of, my senses exists in some sense.

How profound . . .

I also suspect that this world shows signs of intelligent design, and I suspect that such intelligence acts via feedback from all parts to all parts and without centralized sovereignty, like Internet; and that it does not function hierarchically, in the style an Oriental despotism, an American corporation or Christian theology.

All kinds of emotional and hostile baggage here; a perfect example of what I noted above . . .

I somewhat suspect that Theism and Atheism both fail to account for such decentralized intelligence, rich in circular-causal feedback.

Pantheism or Panentheism must be the answer then, huh?

I more-than-half suspect that all “good” writing, or all prose and poetry that one wants to read more than once, proceeds from a kind of “alteration in consciousness,” i.e. a kind of controlled schizophrenia. [Don’t become alarmed — I think good acting comes from the same place.] 

I sometimes suspect that what Blake called Poetic Imagination expresses this exact thought in the language of his age, and that visits by “angels” and “gods” states it an even more archaic argot. 

These suspicions have grown over 72 years, but as a rather slow and stupid fellow I do not have the chutzpah to proclaim any of them as certitudes. Give me another 72 years and maybe I’ll arrive at firmer conclusions.

I think this sort of thought is ultimately playing around with logic and truth; a kind of sophistry. That’s not to deny that it is sincere or heartfelt, even deeply-felt. I mean that it is ultimately (as a purely intellectual judgment) a game and frivolous, and not particularly serious thought that would challenge us to progress along the path of better understanding the great perennial questions that mankind has always struggled with. But they’re interesting; I’ll give the man that much, at least.

[excluding lengthy quote from someone else; perhaps another time]

We’ll just have to keep making our arguments and see what happens, I guess. In any event, thanks again for your kind words.

Thank you too, for yours.

And y’all be nice to Ed! Don’t treat him like the anti-Catholics treat us, but as a fellow human being (as we believe, made in the image of God), who has dignity and deserves to be heard. 

Only those who listen will hear.

Sounds like a typical Hebraic, biblical statement!


(originally 5-17-05)

Photo credit: skeeze (1-13-16) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]


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