Absolving God from Hell

Absolving God from Hell August 31, 2013

angry-toddler-girl-e1354783305338One day at the pool I saw a toddler almost march right off the edge of the pool deck and into the deep end. Her mother had called to her from across the deck, warning her in a very serious tone to STOP! RIGHT NOW! The little girl didn’t stop (you have met a toddler before, right?). In fact, after her mother’s warning she started walking faster, laughing hysterically. This whole scenario was delightfully entertaining to the girl, who lacked the maturity to understand that humans need oxygen, and that it’s hard to come by at the bottom of a pool. Seeing that her daughter would not heed her warnings, the mother darted across the deck with impressive speed, grabbing the child before she could make it to the edge. The little girl kicked and screamed when her mother grabbed her, protesting this turn of events, but that mattered very little. Before long, the child had become engrossed in another form of play and the scenario didn’t repeat itself. I have a hunch that if the child had tried it again, the mother would still have done the same thing again or else would eventually remove the child from the entire situation and go home.

Was that bad parenting? Should the mother have let the child fall into the deep end to teach her a lesson? Could a child actually learn anything from drowning? If that mother had decided not to intervene in this situation, would you applaud her or would you call Child Protective Services? Which action would most resemble the concept of God which you were taught?

People who believe in Hell try to absolve their construct of God from that monstrosity by talking as if he had nothing to do with it. They talk as if the existence of such a “place” were somehow beyond his ability to control. “God doesn’t send people to Hell,” they assure themselves, “people choose to go there; they send themselves.” Uh huh. I have two main responses to that. The first is to point out that this desire to absolve God from this atrocity doesn’t come from the Bible, in case you thought it did. The second thing has to do with the impossibility of that task. I’ll start by addressing the initial desire:

Have you actually read the Bible? I mean really read it? Not just a verse here and a verse there, taken out of context…I’m asking if you’ve ever spent significant time reading whole books of the Bible in one sitting? If you have, and if you came to the process with any semblance of an open mind, you would not be able to avoid the overwhelming sense that the writers of the Bible saw God as so completely “in control” of everything that everything ultimately goes the way he wants it to. In other words, the majority of the biblical writers had a strong sense of the sovereignty of God. Pretty much everything that happens goes back to him, according to them. I could list all the verses but this time I think I’ll spare you (I’d rather you do the reading yourself). No matter if we’re talking about storms, earthquakes, and the movements of the stars, or if we’re talking about the actions of kings or nobodies, good and evil alike, the Bible portrays a God in control of all of it. Here you will find no hand-wringing over man’s “free will” or whether or not it is possible to love God if you aren’t free not to love him. Those philosophical concerns would sound foreign to the ancient Hebrews and the earliest Christians. Those just weren’t battles they fought. Those are modern concerns.

I don’t blame modern folks for wanting to remove the object of their worship as far from this monstrosity as possible. When you’re trying to hold on to a concept of a loving, merciful, benevolent father, eternal conscious torment is a lot to process. The most natural thing to do is to shut it off and somehow mentally disconnect and disassociate the two notions as completely as you can. “My God would never do that.” But are you so sure? Do you feel that yours is a biblical view of God? Because when I read it, I see men portraying a deity who isn’t removed from the calamities that befall the human race. On the contrary, they portray him as directly causing them. Remember when God got so mad that he drowned every man, woman, and child alive, save for one family? He was so mad at people, in fact, that he didn’t just wipe out the human race; he also killed every living animal on the planet, sparing only two (to seven) of each species. Seems a little over the top to me, but that’s what it says. And it’s not as if the rains were just Nature doing its thing—this was presumably a supernatural, catastrophic rain that covered the entire planet in water (don’t even get me started on the physical impossibilities of this story; I’m just going with what the book says). You can’t remove the biblical God from the actions of this story.

That’s not even the only time he killed en masse. Remember when the God of the Bible killed one child out of every family in Egypt? That wasn’t natural causes, either. That was a supernatural massacre at his own hand. If you can accept those two stories, then it’s not all that difficult to swallow that Yahweh later instructed his people to run swords through the innards of every man, woman, and child in Canaan just because they had the nerve to be occupying land which the Israelites believed should have been theirs. Reading further, we encounter the prophets foretelling of the destruction of Israel through the mediate causes of foreign invasion; but we are told in no uncertain terms that it is Yahweh who brings this destruction on his people. The same can be said of the final destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, when the last remnants of second temple Judaism were obliterated. The Bible consistently portrays a deity who brings this death and destruction himself.

But mere death by sword or flame pales in comparison to the concept of eternal conscious torment which Jesus popularized. Whether or not those passages should be seen as authentic, I leave to you to decide. But if you say you believe that book is reliable, you must accept the fact that the concept of God to which you subscribe is not above violent retribution, even unto the eternal punishment of those who do not obey him. The Bible does not share your concern to remove God from this process, as if it were something that just happens and there’s not anything he can do about it. If you put any stock in the book of Revelation, it speaks of judgment in the most active terms. People don’t simply walk into the lake of fire, they are thrown into it. Many today seem to ease their cognitive dissonance about Hell by envisioning a scenario in which their God is completely uninvolved in it. Sometimes they redefine Hell in terms of privation, meaning simply that Hell indicates the absence of God, or being cut off from his presence. I’m not sure which Bible you’re reading, but you must tell the rest of us someday because now you seem to be working from a concept of God that is different from the one you had at the beginning. David famously said “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.” You can’t say you believe in the biblical concept of God and then say he is somehow removed from the presence and activity of Hell. That’s my first reaction; now for my second:

I want to go back to the toddler and her mother for a second. If that child had drowned in the deep end of the pool, would you have blamed the child or the mother? Did the child know any better? I suppose you could point to the mother’s repeated warnings, but would we really pretend that was enough? We all know good and well that since the little girl isn’t capable of grasping the danger in this situation, it falls to the mother to take matters into her own hands. “Oh, but God chooses to limit himself in such a way as to leave us free to make our own choices. He wants us to love him freely.” Riiiight. Would you chastise the mother for interfering with the toddler’s free will? Would the will of the toddler even be a relevant question at this moment? No, the consequences in this situation are far too grave to quibble about philosophical issues. The only thing that matters at that moment is saving the child from her death. It matters not how strongly the child protests; the mother is much bigger and stronger. As long as it’s within the mother’s power to do something about it, the ultimate responsibility falls to her. No one in his right mind would say, “Ah well. The mother warned her repeatedly, so if she drowned, it’s the kid’s fault.”

This poolside intervention illustrates why it’s impossible to remove the biblical God from responsibility for the concept of Hell. Not only is it contrary to the very book that gave you the idea in the first place (to the book’s shame), but it doesn’t even make sense when you think about it. As long as there is anything that can be done to prevent such an awful scenario, anything and everything should be done to stop it, even to the point of applying concrete, physical force. “Oh, but God did do something about it,” some will say. “He sent his son to die for us.” Okay, fine. Let’s put that option into our pool scenario and see how that works:

Imagine if, after the mother repeatedly warned her little girl not to walk to the edge of the pool, she then grabbed her other child, a son, and drowned him in front of the little girl just to show how bad that would be. Would that make the mother more like the biblical God? First of all, even if the mother later resuscitated her son, I would be calling Protective Services myself. But second of all, part of being a toddler is not being able to grasp the finality of mortal danger. Seeing another child drown isn’t gonna cut it. You’re gonna have to completely remove the child from this situation until she is old enough to either grasp the importance of staying away, or else is old enough to swim. It’s the same way with the concept of eternal torture. If there is such a thing, it won’t do to simply tell us it’s out there. Many of us don’t buy it. And it certainly doesn’t improve things to say someone got tortured as an object lesson for us. If the little girl in our pool scenario were able to grasp what the mother was doing to the little boy, she would probably run from the mother in absolute horror. Her mother is a monster.

People like me don’t believe in any of this stuff, and it’s not just because of the irrationality of what I’ve discussed here. Ultimately we don’t believe in this stuff because we simply don’t see any real evidence that people live on after they die, except in other people’s memories. I know people like to comfort themselves with the notion that death isn’t the end for a person, and for some it helps them believe when they hear people tell of visions they had on the operating table. But for others of us, we see natural causes for things like that (oxygen deprivation, for example). The whole notion of an afterlife sounds like make-believe. So the incongruity of eternal punishment with a picture of a both loving and sovereign God is secondary in importance. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point it out anyway.

I’ve explained before what other logical inconsistencies I find in the concept of Hell. I’ve also explained why this concept is one of the the four things which make me an anti-fundamentalist. Because the whole notion is so irrational, my preference would be to ignore the topic entirely. It’s not even essential to a belief in God or the supernatural. One can believe in God and not believe in eternal punishment. Some well-known Christian teachers and writers have even decided they don’t buy it anymore. But where I come from, they do believe in it, and it impacts the way they think and act whether they admit it or not. I have had people treat me with terrible contempt, both in person and online, and they have clearly felt they were doing the most loving thing possible. Why? Because if I’m going to Hell, then no measure of intimidation should be spared in order to scare me out of such a destination. No temporal punishment should be withheld; we’re talking about eternity here, right? That’s the kind of thinking that operates under the surface and it leads people to be unkind toward each other. It’s a terrible doctrine and it needs to go.

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  • I was a believer until I had children. With each successive child, my doubts increased. After my third child was born with some major developmental delays and a run in with an old time hell and brimstone pastor, I left the church. I held onto my belief in God, though, until I could no longer rationalize the concept of a loving Father with what I was learning about true parenting and unconditional love of your children. I can’t call myself an atheist yet, as I do still believe in a universal energy which connects each of us and I am unsure of what happens after death. But your argument here makes the utmost sense to me.

  • Thanks, Derb. As far as I’m concerned, if the majority of the world believed what you just described, it would be a significant improvement.

  • Boxcar

    It is amazing reading this and how similar it is to my own experiences. The more I read the bible the more the concept of free will and a loving interventionist god just did not make any sense. The last paragraph really hit home, dealing with family members who love me and are trying to “save” me from going to Hell. Maybe Hell is the ones you love beating you over the head with their bibles and telling you how wrong you are?

  • Everything you have written here is what I struggled with the entire time I was a Christian. Coming to terms with it is what eventually led me to leave Christianity all together. I have a really hard time understanding people who still believe this way calling their god a kind and loving god. The god of the Bible is anything but kind and loving. Actually, he is quite the psychopathic asshole. My mom, who is still a bible believing Christian, asks me all the time what I am going to do if I am wrong. I told her that I will gladly burn in hell before serving a god like that! I don’t think most Christians actually read their Bible. I have read it through twice, and some books more than that. IMO, if you havn’t read it, I don’t even want to hear what you have to say because you don’t know what you are talking about. Unfortunately, most of the people I know have read it, and still believe every word : / Great post, as usual!

  • Since this post opens the door to Theodicy, I’ll bring up a question I ask of Theists whenever they use the “free will defense”:

    A chap named Albert Fish molested over 400 children (by his own account) and killed many and ate a few. If God had just caused Albert’s parents to skip their first date, the Werewolf of Wysteria would never have lived, and all those children would not have been traumatized, killed and eaten by Albert. But we are told that God wants to protect free will, so He didn’t interfere with the meeting of Pa and Ma Fish. He didn’t interfere with Albert’s antics at all – to protect Albert’s free will, we are told.

    But, again, questions are begged: Was God protecting the free will of the children when Albert was molesting them? Why did God put Albert’s free will above that of the children? All God needed to do was distract Albert when that trolley came by, and whammo, no more Brooklyn Vampire. Then all those children would have been saved.

    Just about any normal human being, if she or he knew what Albert was doing, would have called in the cops. Any parent that we would call “loving” would have died trying to save their children from Albert. But the Ultimate Parent, the so-called “loving God” sat on His hands the whole time.

    Why?

  • Wow, another great post and as usual, amazing comments from your readers.

    I began to seriously struggle with my faith at 18 as I began Bible College, after being saved for 15 years. I was single until I was 31. Women in Church always told me that I would understand God better once I became a wife, I didn’t. They also told me that He would make more sense to me once I had children, He didn’t. Like derb mentioned, instead of finding answers to life long questions I only had more questions and grew more and more pissed.

    Like Tonya, I would always refer back to the Bible to answer my questions. I too was terribly let down with it’s resolve for my doubts. For someone (God) who wasn’t the author of confusion, His all time best seller seemed like the most chaotic book I’ve ever read. For years I explained away most of my interpretation of the Bible with cultural differences and scripture being wrongly translated. Then it finally dawned on me “Wouldn’t the Creator be above culture, sexism and racism? Being that He is everywhere all the time and knows everything, wouldn’t He clearly explain Himself to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness?” I longed to know Him, love Him and follow His commands and seriously tried to do so. It just wasn’t working. The more I studied His “love letters” the less sense He made to me.

    As Michael mentioned, I had a very hard time understanding free will. After all, I had a choice in what I did, but I was born into sin because of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? I was also smart enough to know that children often pay for the sins and crimes of their parents and even their grandparents, doesn’t sound like free will to me. As Michael mentioned, why would God excuse the free will of a sick criminal over the free will of his victims, especially little children?

    Too much bull shit for me, Godless. That’s why I left and I am glad I did.

  • Donald Butts

    Aren’t life and death made so much simpler by the mere act of removing God from the picture? Worked wonders for me.

  • Bonnie

    or God could have just made Pa and Ma Fish infertile and not interfere with anyone’s free will at all right? Funny how God ‘gives’ children to some and withholds them from others. I’m not sure how anyone can believe God is deeply involved in our every day lives to the point of ‘miracles’ and not see that same God as a complete Asshole.

  • Bonnie

    Confusing also is the idea that God made you exactly as you are and yet he made you with qualities that will eventually land you in heaven or hell.

  • The Fall of Adam and Eve is another example, Supposedly, an all-knowing, all-controlling being set Adam and Eve up so that they would disobey an unexplained command. When they did as he expected – and as he had arranged – he punished them and all their descendents. After cackling “gotcha!” to himself for a millenium or so, he smacked his forehead and said, “OMG! What did I do! I’ll have to bring an innocent sensate creature into the world so that by torturing him I can claim that I have punished all the unborn humans that will ever be, but will still be allowed to shield at least those who now obey a new unexplained command, namely, to worship that tortured creature as if he were equal to me. As for the non-human animals, they will stay as they always have been, which is the same as humans were after I punished them.” This example is especially important, because it is the one that Paul based Christianity upon.

  • mikespeir

    Unquestionably, this was the issue that most haunted me as a Christian, and the one that played the biggest role in eventually driving me from the Faith.

  • You may have covered this question elsewhere, but I usually ask of theists at what point in the cosmic picture did god create hell?

    1. If he created it before he created man, he can’t be a loving creator. for this would mean he had every intention to punish man even before he created them.

    2. if at the same time he created man, the reason in one is still true, that he had destined to punish a given section of humanity from the word go

    3. if he plans to create it later when all of us idea[assuming we become extinct] then he can’t be all merciful and forgiving.

    These are the three scenarios that cone first to my mind, I know several other scenarios can be developed out of this question that would dissuade the theist from the idea that he serves a loving deity if there was one.

    Great post

  • It does work wonders!

  • Tonya, I can empathize…I don’t consider my mother a bible-beater, but she is a firm believer and is shocked that I no longer am. And that god sure is an asshole…

  • Godless, another wonderful post. I enjoy reading each one more than the last. I hope to one day write as well as you. Thanks for sharing and I look forward to the next one.

  • I have all the variations of hell from various theists as you describe here, the one thing I cant ever understand is how all these interpretations are so different. Its like you say “do you read the same bible I do.” Or is it more an issue of how much power they need to wield to keep you under their spell of eternal life and eternal monetary contributions.

  • mikespeir

    The generic reply will be that Hell was “prepared for the Devil and his angels,” per Matthew 25:41, and not for people. People only qualify, as an afterthought, because they follow the Devil. But that doesn’t solve the problem at all. The problem is, pretty much the same issues you brought up could be applied to the Devil and his angels.

  • I’m a new reader, just wanted to say hello and express my joy at finding another person who is “Godless in Dixie”. I live in Georgia, and though I am a transplanted Yankee, I am married to a born and bred Southerner whose family are rural Southern Baptists. You may have some idea of what that means. I have no stunningly intelligent comments at the moment, because I’m just soaking it in, but I really enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more.

  • Positing the devil doesn’t lighten the burden an iota. We will ask whoever posits the devil to tell us why their god had to create the devil or why did the god allow the devil to continue living.
    We are in agreement here. The problem doesn’t go away

  • I feel your pain, Christina, and I’m glad our common friend put you onto the blog. Pop in anytime :)

  • ffauth

    Neil,

    You have presented a very accurate description of hell as described in the Bible. Indeed, the God of the Bible seems to view every sin, no matter how small, as meriting eternal damnation. As far as the specifics of what that entails, it’s hard to say what might be considered imagery vs. reality, but there is no question that Revelation, in particular, appears to attest to ECT. (as an aside, Revelation contains a lot of spiritual imagery that I don’t think is intended to be literal. But I don’t want to go down that path). We can agree that the Bible basically teaches that hell is no place man wants to go, is full of pain and suffering, is created and prescribed by God as a punishment for any kind of unforgiven sin, and is eternal.

    The Bible also pretty clearly teaches that not all people are God’s children. Certainly those destroyed by the Israelites in the OT were not considered “God’s people” or “His Children” at all. He may be their creator, but he views those sinful people who are not his children as unforgiven and wicked. The analogy of a mother running for her toddler who is pool-bound doesn’t really hold. God doesn’t consider those people his children. However, there are clear instructions within the NT of how God expects Christians to behave to all people, and any sort of intimidation / meanness that might be levied on you is clearly out of line. There is a clear separation between what God is allowed to do and what man is allowed to do (e.g., vengeance, for one, is reserved for God.)

    As a former Calvinist, you probably are familiar with Paul’s dealings with this in Romans 8-9. Reformed Christians believe that people naturally do not accept God or receive Christ because they are sinners (inherited sin) and God chooses not to reveal himself. While the Bible does teach God’s sovereignty throughout, it also teaches man’s responsibility for his sin. I don’t think there’s any possible human-logic-based reconciliation of these two concepts. And the Calvinist essentially declares “It’s not for me to question God’s motives.” Calvinists are the supreme subscribers to Divine Command Theory.

    You are right that churches have largely moved away from preaching fire and brimstone. One justification might be that Christ and the NT authors rarely discuss it. But more probably, you’re right. It doesn’t line up with our culture’s understanding of proportional punishment, and so we avoid it to be more palatable to the masses.

  • Wow. Where to begin.

    //Indeed, the God of the Bible seems to view every sin, no matter how small, as meriting eternal damnation.//

    Imagine if our court system worked that way. A parking ticket would mean life imprisonment. I can’t imagine a world in which that makes sense. And infinite punishment for finite crimes (even “thought crimes”) may sound logical to you but for people like me it does not.

    //The analogy of a mother running for her toddler who is pool-bound doesn’t really hold. God doesn’t consider those people his children.//

    Again. Wow. So much for sending his rain on the just and the unjust. Maybe that was referring to Noah’s day, when he just killed everybody the same. But by your logic he wasn’t concerned about those people because they weren’t his children.

    So your answer is that the mother in the pool scenario is NOT like your God in that she actually went through the trouble to save the girl. Your version of God wouldn’t have done that. He would have just let her drown. Actually, considering the Noah story, I suppose she would have crossed the pool deck only to hold the girl under herself.

    //However, there are clear instructions within the NT of how God expects Christians to behave to all people//

    So God would have his children act better, more loving, more forgiving, than he himself would behave towards those people. Jolly good.

    //One justification might be that Christ and the NT authors rarely discuss it. //

    Paul didn’t discuss it much but Jesus is actually the source of this whole concept for Christians. He’s the one who taught the concept (he may have been repeating a concept popular in second temple Judaism, but that’s another discussion.

    I’m familiar with Calvinism, yes. And your logic would fit well within it. I find that whole system primitive and barbaric, frankly.

  • ffauth

    Neil,

    Starting from the bottom, first.

    //I’m familiar with Calvinism, yes. And your logic would fit well within it. I find that whole system primitive and barbaric, frankly.//

    I don’t think it matters to Christians (and particularly Calvinists) whether God *seems* a particular way to them, whether barbaric or otherwise. That would be foolish. If God is really God, then how He “seems” isn’t really an important point. The question is who he really “is”. It’s a logical fallacy to say that I don’t like the way something “is” and therefore I don’t accept it – you and I agree on that.I don’t think that’s what you’re saying at all, by the way. Just pointing out that the basis for belief shouldn’t be on whether we think it’s the way we want it, it should always be based on the way it actually “is”. I recognize you don’t.

    //Imagine if our court system worked that way. A parking ticket would mean life imprisonment. I can’t imagine a world in which that makes sense. And infinite punishment for finite crimes (even “thought crimes”) may sound logical to you but for people like me it does not.//

    It certainly does not sound *proportional* to me at all. Whether it’s logical is another thing. The purpose of hell as described in the Bible is wrath, not discipline – huge difference. Our justice system is not designed primarily to punish. It is designed to protect society, deter wrongdoing, and rehabilitate (if possible). No where is hell described that way in the Bible. Hell is squarely and uniquely reserved for God (i.e., vengeance belongs to him alone). As far as I know, we have no similar construct on earth.

    //Again. Wow. So much for sending his rain on the just and the unjust. Maybe that was referring to Noah’s day, when he just killed everybody the same. But by your logic he wasn’t concerned about those people because they weren’t his children.//

    Precisely. He was not concerned expressly about those people, and hence why he wiped them out. In fact, rain falling on the just and unjust sort of points this out. There are people who are “unjust” – meaning “not forgiven”. To argue otherwise would be foolish. The Bible never claims God loves everybody. The God of the Bible loves his children exclusively. Nevertheless, God instructs man to treat everyone around him as he wants to be treated, so the ethics of how God behaves is sort of irrelevant to man.

  • ffauth

    Sorry – at the end of the first paragraph I said, “I recognize you don’t.” – I was starting another sentence and dropped it, but failed to delete that. Please disregard it.

  • //If God is really God, then how He “seems” isn’t really an important point//

    I didn’t actually assert anything about God just then, I asserted something about Calvinism, as a theological system. You would think that a profound sense of the fallibility of man would lead Calvinists to hold somewhat lightly to their own theological constructs, since the reliability of one’s theology is dependent upon the reliability of the theologian. But instead, most Calvinists believe their system is infallible. That being the case, I guess I can see how a Calvinist would take a disagreement with that system as tantamount to an attack on God, because to the Calvinist, the two are indistinguishable ;)

    //Hell is squarely and uniquely reserved for God//

    See, when some read that “God is love,” they take that to mean that everything he does is loving. Even punishment would then have to be redemptive and not just him satisfying his own anger. But you disagree. Your view is that Hell is just God being really pissed off to the point that he must torture people forever.

    //The Bible never claims God loves everybody//

    So I’m assuming when you read 1 Tim 2:4 and it says God “wants all people to be saved,” you would probably do what Calvinists do and find a way to not make it really mean “all people.” Am I right?

  • ffauth

    I actually recognized your initial comment was about a theological system rather than God himself; however, I think that to be fair, in some sense the two are indistinguishable from an argumentative perspective. If you believe God is revealed in the Bible, and you believe Calvinism more or less accurately reflects that, then a belief in/about Calvinism is essentially a belief about God himself. Putting the “Calvin” piece in there just serves to identify a set of understandings/beliefs.

    I would say that I think many Calvinists do hold to a certain sense that they might be wrong. I’m a little baffled by this line of argumentation though. Calvinists don’t think that *they* are condemning the unjust. They think they are simply reading what is written and interpreting it accordingly. Sure, one’s understanding could be wrong. It’s sort of the beauty of believing that a certain sphere of things is reserved for God and not man. Man has a certain role relative to God (to obey Him and proclaim the “good news”).

    //See, when some read that “God is love,” they take that to mean that everything he does is loving.//

    That is true. They do. I don’t think that necessarily follows. “God is love.” is a pretty broad statement. Taken in the context in which it is written (1 John 4), it was written from a Christian to Christians. I don’t think it says anything about the justice-oriented qualities of God.

    //Even punishment would then have to be redemptive and not just him satisfying his own anger.//

    Why? The Bible is quite clear that God sometimes satisfies his anger swiftly and sometimes he forebears with men. God provided a means of salvation for his children. In that sense, he “is love.” He did not provide that means for everyone.

    //Your view is that Hell is just God being really pissed off to the point that he must torture people forever.//

    //So I’m assuming when you read 1 Tim 2:4 and it says God “wants all people to be saved,” you would probably do what Calvinists do and find a way to not make it really mean “all people.” Am I right?//

    You betcha.

  • ffauth

    Whoops, forgot this one:

    //Your view is that Hell is just God being really pissed off to the point that he must torture people forever.//

    I would say the Bible says that he “does”, not that he “must”.

  • And do you teach this view to young children? Or do you wait until they are better prepared to face the horror of it, like the Motion Picture Association does? Maybe around 17?

  • “And do you teach this view to young children? Or do you wait until they are better prepared to face the horror of it, like the Motion Picture Association does? Maybe around 17?”

    I know that’s right, Godless! Right before my deconversion I would follow along to my oldest child reading (who was six at the time) Old Testament scriptures out loud. He had been saved since he was two and a half and while in second grade he read the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), Joshua, Judges, Proverbs and Psalms. He also read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Now, I’m not a mom who continually shelters my children, but I found myself skipping A LOT of verses, and even chapters throughout those books in the Bible. The crazy thing is, I knew when we were getting close to those certain passages a chapter or two ahead because I remembered how much they bothered me throughout my Christianity. Those were the same scriptures where I tried to explain the hateful and murderous God away, and tried my best to create a gentle and loving one instead. Obviously, that didn’t work out because it can’t.

    As atheists looking back at almost forty years of indoctrination, my husband and I actually understand Westboro Baptist Church’s doctrines and tactics a little better. Yeah, there’s some sweet stuff in the Bible, but boy is there a HUGE amount of death, hell, rape, murder, stoning and cursing people with infertility going on!

  • As a former Christian who had forty years of indoctrination before becoming an atheist that is….

  • ffauth

    Not sure if this reply is going to the right place. The short answer is yes, my wife and I do teach them, no we don’t skip verses, and my kids are well adjusted, well spoken, confident, and long suffering. (Of course, they’re mine, so I’m biased.)

  • Lee

    Good post Neil.

    ffauth: //Hell is squarely and uniquely reserved for God (i.e., vengeance belongs to him alone). As far as I know, we have no similar construct on earth.//

    ffauth, trust me when I say I mean no disrespect in this statement, but you do realize how insane this sounds right?

    The reason we don’t have a “similar construct” here on earth is because humans figured out this would be bad for their survival (see evolution) and by nature are not generally vengeful, narcissistic, bloodlusting, psychopathic, genocidal, maniacs. You’re right about one thing…hell (which is absurd) should be reserved squarely and uniquely for the Judeo-christian God (more absurd) for his actions as written in the scriptures. I think the scriptures have it all wrong, God should be the one in Hell, not Satan…Satan merely tried to enlighten mankind and God punishes him/us for eternity? Whatever… Imagine a heaven where Satan ruled, we’d all be gifted with incredible knowledge of the universe which I believe is the ultimate “fix” to our plight here on earth…knowledge applied as wisdom and application to truth seeking (see science). The notion that your God should be exempt from even the most basic moral codes humans figured out over some 500k years (not 6k years) for mere survival is crazy talk. Any God as described in the scripture should at the least hold itself to a higher moral code than us lowly humans, don’t you agree? “Vengeance belongs to him alone”? Instead of vengeance, why not EDUCATE his creation and enlighten us to a more preferable path than one of sin, redemption, and eternal praise for such an asshole. If there is a greater plan, share it with us for “Christ’s” sake. Before you make the argument, the Bible is not an education. Any claim as such is laughable.

    I wish there existed a “godless pill” so that individuals could understand, if only for a brief time, the absolute freedom and exhilarating power one feels once he sheds the twisted molasses of evil concepts proscribed by the scriptures. Having spent 25 years of my life mired in that filth, I can attest to the awe that stands ready to inspire if one simply starts seeking truths about our wondrous natural universe instead of deceiving themselves into such superstitious gobblygook. Or better yet, stave off reading of the bible and churchgoing for one month, and pick just one or two books for the other side and truly let yourself engage in those concepts (I highly recommend any of Dawkins, Russell, Ingersoll, Carrier, Harris, etc.). If an individual comes out of that exercise still holding to a fundamental interpretation of the scriptures, then they deserve more empathy than their God can give them. Free your mind ffauth, let Satan lay some knowledge on you…

  • ffauth

    Hi Lee. Good to meet you.

    //ffauth, trust me when I say I mean no disrespect in this statement, but you do realize how insane this sounds right?//

    I do, at least to a degree. I think it sounds insane to people who don’t accept a lot of other precepts. Neil has laid out his objections to many of the precepts in other articles.

    I need to have a little profile on here so people can read where I’m coming from. I actually read here because I am “testing” the teachings/faith upon which I’ve been brought up and which I am teaching my children. I write responses to Neil’s (amazing) work primarily to see how Neil and other people respond. I try to disregard most of the emotional trappings, because in general my faith is a “thinky” one – and I want intellectual rebuttals that I can take back to my church.

    I will be the first to admit that if, in the long run, I come to a determination that all that I’ve been taught is really hooey, I’ll do my best to give it up. But I wouldn’t walk away from it easily or after reading a few posts. Faith in Christ has “worked” in my life, despite sometimes difficult circumstances, and has motivated me to do positive things I don’t think I would have otherwise done. Maybe it is the ultimate placebo, or maybe what I have faith in is true. Right now, I’m not 100% sure. I am pretty studied within the biblical worldview for a non-academic. I’ve heard a lot of the objections, but not all of them. So I read here because I think Neil is one of the most articulate writers I’ve found and someone who shares a somewhat similar background. I’ve noticed many of the commenters here are also deconverts.

    If you’re wondering, I’m in a search for truth, really. That’s why I read here. I’m really not here to convince anyone of my position. I’m here to see if the other side is convincing. While I’m not personal friends with anyone I would consider to be more of an evangelistic atheist, I am friends with many folks who are agnostic. I am very interested in the more “evangelistic” atheism (pardon the word choice if it is offensive or slightly inaccurate, that’s not my intent). Unfortunately (or fortunately – depending on your perspective), none of my close, personal friends from childhood, many of which share my faith, are deconverts. So I’m sort of forced to make some new “friends” out here so I have some folks to chat with.

  • //I will be the first to admit that if, in the long run, I come to a determination that all that I’ve been taught is really hooey, I’ll do my best to give it up.//

    Most of my cohorts feel the same way, as do I. My personal opinion is that Calvinism does a better job than any other system at capturing the tenor and theological assumptions of the Bible (diverse as it is…I’m convinced it doesn’t speak with anything close to “one voice”). But after holding to that view for many years, I now feel that being faithful to the Bible only sounds like a good idea. In reality it’s a matter of spending a lifetime climbing a ladder that you find in the end was leaned against the wrong wall.

    //So I read here because I think Neil is…articulate //

    Kind words; thank you. Personally I would much prefer talking with someone who does a good job of expressing a view with which I disagree than someone who does a crappy job of representing something I already think. Only one of those options provides an opportunity to learn something.

  • Lee

    Fair enough ffauth, consider me a friend! I can personally relate to your position and can sense your pursuit of the truth. That is why I may have come across a little “militant” in my response, I apologize if it came across that way…I do get passionate about it. I am actually agnostic, but not towards any defined theism we currently have as there is no evidence for any of it. I’m open to the possibility of “something more”, but only when evidence supports it. I think you’ll find most atheists worth listening to are actually agnostic to a point. Please do heed the suggestion of reading works outside of your normal circle of influence in addition to engaging “helpful” atheists such as Neil. It’s the only way you’ll ever “test” your faith sufficiently. I firmly believe that the search for truth in a worldview is a personal journey and as such must be genuinely sought after by the pursuer to work. Don’t rely on others to shape your view, do your research, read works suggested by those you trust, interpret as objectively as possible, hold any conclusions, and gauge your progress through discussion with both sides. Neil’s reference to the ladder leaned against the wrong wall is an excellent analogy. To take it a little further, there seems two ways to get to another wall. You can push off as hard as you can from the wall you’re on and “have faith” the ladder swings over to the “right” wall (follow others), or climb down the ladder you’re on, position it against the wall you think may lead to truth and start climbing (personal search for truth). It took me a good ten years to fully let go of my faith once I let myself entertain the doubts I had growing up (raised devout southern baptist), but man oh man was it worth it. To be free to encourage critical thinking, skepticism, science, and inspiration from the NATURAL world to my kids is the biggest “blessing” of all. It was the catalyst that started and the fuel that sustained my personal journey to the end and I am very thankful to them for it. I wish you a clear and open mind as you progress and look forward to reading more of your comments! Feel free to ask me anything or nothing, :)

  • ffauth

    //In reality it’s a matter of spending a lifetime climbing a ladder that you find in the end was leaned against the wrong wall.//

    Sometime, whenever it fits into a post topic, I would be interested in your struggles (if any) with your deconversion and current atheist/skeptic position. For example, do you ever wake up feeling lack of purpose/meaning/direction? Do you ever worry as a deconvert that you might be wrong or deceived, or that you just didn’t look hard enough into your faith?

  • Fred

    //To be free to encourage critical thinking, skepticism, science, and inspiration from the NATURAL world to my kids is the biggest “blessing” of all.//

    I would say that my primary motivation in all of this searching is my kids. I have a deep concern to teach them truth.

    Also, admin note: I finally fixed my WP profile. My name is actually “Fred” and it should stick that way on future comments now.

  • Lee

    //I would say that my primary motivation in all of this searching is my kids. I have a deep concern to teach them truth.//

    I think that deep concern will serve you very well in your pursuit of the truth, as I’m sure you find it does in other aspects of your life.

    A word of caution, since I wish I had someone tell me this before I started my search. We atheists are the most hated sect on the face of this planet. I have yet to fully come out to certain family (parents foremost) and friends and may never feel comfortable doing so for fear of the repercussions. If you’re comments above are sincere which I believe they are, your search MAY lead to incredible disdain from some of the people you hold most dear. My only advice SHOULD your search lead to further doubt…keep that concern for passing a thirst for truth on to your kids paramount, it may be the only thing that will carry you through.

  • Piobaireachd

    Perhaps you’ve already seen this…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoIR-S5YCGo

    I found it quite interesting and was pleasantly surprised to see myself agreeing with the Bishop of Edinburgh.

  • Lee

    Superstition run a muck fueled by ignorance, greed, and power…

  • Beautifully said. As a Christian, one of the hardest things to reconcile was how my belief in eternal torture squared with a loving god. The idea that he “let” us run to such harm just didn’t make sense. My pastors told me that in Heaven, I wouldn’t mind knowing my loved ones were being tortured, but that made even less sense. I couldn’t imagine losing so much of my essential humanity that I stopped caring that people I knew and cherished were screaming in pain and torture while I got to party down and eat at a wedding feast right down the hall. That is such a barbaric and sickening idea to me now. Since leaving, I’ve run across Christians who were downright thrilled-sounding to think about dissenters being tortured forever–like we’ll get what’s coming to us for not doing what they said.

    I think there’s a strong bias in humans to put stock in unfounded threats and fearmongering. Look at the anti-vaccine movement–just the hint of links with autism were enough to fuel the movement. Even now parents who have seen article after article demolishing that link still fear vaccines. In much the same way, nobody can show evidence for a Hell or even an afterlife of any sort, yet just the hint of it holds so many people in thrall. It’s so sad to see an ex-Christian still wrestling with that terror. I bet that same fear holds a lot of butts in pews that would have otherwise left long ago.

  • bonnie

    “Since leaving, I’ve run across Christians who were downright thrilled-sounding to think about dissenters being tortured forever–like we’ll get what’s coming to us for not doing what they said.”

    This is so true! I was thinking about Hell and humanity the other day. I believe humans love hell because we love justice (even as small children). If there is no hell there may be no justice and sometimes that’s hard to grapple with. Bad guys will get away with bad things and they’ll never have to pay for it.

  • Even though I believe hell is a horrible belief, sometimes I have a hard time realizing that really bad people (like Hitler, or people who torture and kill children) probably won’t ever have to pay for their crimes. However, most of the Christians I know are always talking about normal people going to hell. Actually good people, like Ellen, who are going to hell just because of who they love. Or people who just don’t agree with them. I am sure they would all relish the idea of me burning in hell, if they knew I was an atheist. I never understood that, I always struggled knowing that good and kind people would burn for eternity just because they didn’t believe in Jesus, or believe in Jesus the right way, or worst of all, that only certain people were chosen and god created the rest to just burn. What is really funny (or not) is in my view, if there was a hell, the god of the bible would belong there along with all of the other horrible figures in history. Hitler ain’t got nothing on god!

  • I suppose I’m a little late to the party, but it’s interesting, heartening and disheartening to see that quite a lot of former Christians left the faith specifically because of this issue of hell and punishment. That God’s rule seems to tally so closely to the harsh and cruel way we rule ourselves sometimes certainly makes one stop and think. I’ve tried to make sense of the love and good in all this (http://letterstomydistantfather.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/on-the-justice-of-my-father/), and quite frankly I haven’t been able to make much headway. The fact that so many have struggled with this and decided to leave all together certainly doesn’t give me much hope that I’ll stick around for too long.

    I agree with your view on Calvinism. Quite frankly it seems to me to be the strongest and most logical reading of the evidence and words given in the Bible. There are days when I have wondered why all Christians are not Calvinists. Of course the implications of Calvinism on free will, another topic I am actively trying to dissect, are perhaps what keep many people from thinking too much about it.

  • Ray

    God is real and Hell isn’t. Those that say people send themselves to Hell say that the will of man is stronger than God’s will. They will actively deny it, but that is what they truly believe.

  • On what basis do you assert that one is real and the other isn’t? I don’t see why I should believe in either.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Is walking off the edge of a diving board a sin?

  • Diving boards are real; sin is made up.

    Could you rephrase the question to NOT depend on Christian categories?

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Is it wrong to walk off a diving board?

  • It’s a bad idea if you’re 11 months old.

    To the point of the article, what would be “wrong” in this analogy would be for the mother to stop short of physically ensuring her child didn’t fall (or walk) into certain death.

  • Ray

    Care to explain how we got here then. Why with the way we evolved only two people of the opposite sex can have kids and not the same sex. Why everything just fits together so perfectly?

  • Ray

    Oh really? So what’s his mean? That God so loved the WORLD not his children, not the elect, the WORLD. I’m not going to finish the verse unless you want to get Into a debate about what it says after, but I will leave you with another tidbit. His mercy endures FOREVER. Christ who will have ALL men be saved. Christ who saves all, ESPECIALLY, not EXCLUSIVELY those who believe.

  • “Care to explain how we got here then.”

    Well, when a mama and a daddy love each other very much…

  • Ray

    Not what I meant and you know it. Actually answer the question and refute everything I said.

  • Calvinists simply say that when it says “the world” it was meant to address the question: Does God only love the Jews? There was a belief at the time that God was only out to save the Jews, so that would have been a relevant question, I suppose.

    But I’ve got a question for you, Ray. When it says he saves all, especially those who believe, in what way do you feel he “saves” those who don’t believe?

  • Yes sir.

    You’ll have to forgive me. It’s just that I’ve heard this bad argument so many times I am losing patience with it. I’ll sum it this awful argument this way:

    “We don’t understand how X happens, therefore an invisible spirit did it. If you encounter anything you cannot explain, the only alternative explanation MUST be that an invisible spirit made it happen. And unless you can fully account for all natural phenomena, including how organic life arose from inorganic compounds, then you must agree with me that the Invisible Spirit hypothesis is the only alternative.”

    This is an ancient argument from ignorance and I cannot see how it is convincing any longer.

    My honest answer, Ray, is that I cannot explain how organic life arose (abiogenesis). It’s my understanding that scientists are inching very close to solving that riddle, but that’s really beside the point, isn’t it? Even if we were to never finally explain the natural mechanisms which enabled single-cell organisms to arise from non-organic matter, it still would not mean that we must conclude a Giant Invisible Man must have done it.

    And in case you weren’t aware, science has thoroughly explained how sexual reproduction arose through natural selection. But I’m guessing you don’t subscribe to that aspect of biology, amirite?

  • Ray

    I couldn’t reply to your comment directly, so I replied to my previous comment. Calvinists put themselves on a pedestal and believe the unsaved are their to serve them. What I believe will happen to the unbelievers is they will be taught all about Jesus. I hear their will be punishment of some kind, but it won’t be eternal and it won’t be anymore than the person deserves.

  • Ray

    No I don’t. I am really bad at science, so why don’t you enighten me on how everything came to be without a all powerful creator.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    You’re comparing the swimming pool to hell, correct? According to Christians, why do people go to hell?

  • That depends entirely on which brand of Christian you ask, and which aspect of their theology they’re defending at that particular moment. The answers morph according to the needs of the situation.

    Popular options include: 1) Because Adam sinned and you are his descendant. 2) Because you personally have sinned and God cannot allow anyone into heaven who is not perfect. 3) Because you know God is real and Jesus is his son but you choose to willfully suppress it. 4) Because the gospel has been preached to you and now you are without excuse. 5) Because God in his sovereignty chose you to be a vessel of his wrath. 6) Because you send yourself there by rejecting the truth. And on and on it goes.

    Which permutation do you subscribe to?

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Even the most hard-boiled Calvinist will tell you dead babies automatically go to heaven, so I doubt number one is a fair descriptor of any major denomination’s position on hell. I’m also not sure why you’re separating 2 from all of the options 3-6, since 2 + any of those is like PB & J pretty much regardless of what kind of Christian you talk to.

    I’m curious to know whether you regard your analogy as a fair representation of how the average human soul’s immortal fate plays out under the Christian worldview, or whether you have only a particular narrow sub-set of humanity in mind. For instance, are you specifically comparing the unwitting toddler to people who have never heard of Jesus or the gospel? Or is she also a stand-in for the person who commits wrongdoing, feels no chagrin over it, ignores those who tell him to consider Christianity, and dies unrepentant? Would it not be a better analogy to describe a man drowning himself, who refuses help and a rope even after somebody sacrificed his own life in an attempt to rescue the man?

  • Esther O’Reilly

    To clarify your false theological dichotomies, it’s a little bit like saying “The main cause of the Civil War wasn’t slavery in the South, it was all about states’ rights!” The obvious answer is “Yes, it was about states’ rights… to own slaves!” Similarly, it’s confused to say “The fate of your soul has nothing to do with your sin, it’s about whether you accept Jesus or not!” The right follow-up question is “So, why does it matter whether you accept Jesus or not?” Most Christians realize that there IS a connection, even though they diverge on specific interpretations of it.

  • Even the most hard-boiled Calvinist will tell you dead babies automatically go to heaven

    You must not know enough Calvinists. Once you settle in your mind that God pre-ordains some for destruction, it matters little what age they are when they die. The concern over whether or not they were old enough to do anything pertinent to the Christian faith is foreign to Calvinism. You will find Calvinists who can’t live with the incongruity of a loving God predestining babies to Hell, but that’s only because those people let their own human instincts override their theology. Some seem to be able to shut off their feelings entirely and simply accept what their theological system tells them, which is that God can send to Hell whomever he pleases. Their age matters not.

    And to the point of your question, the focus of the analogy is to compare the inability of the toddler to grasp the import of the situation with the apparent inability of a person to believe that an imaginary torture awaits him if he does not capitulate to believing in invisible spirits and thought crimes. It simply won’t do to make up a place of eternal torture and tell me I should fear it. It makes no sense whatsoever. And it is useless to argue that I “really know it’s true in my heart” as many repeatedly do. They are mistaken. And when it finally sinks in that I do not believe them, they reason that I should have known better (even though clearly I do not) so it’s on me when I go to Hell. That is the comparison to the toddler I am trying to get across. The toddler is unaware of what awaits her, so it would make little sense for the mother to just wash her hands of the matter and say, “Oh, well. I warned her. She should have known better.”

  • I’m not sure I understand where I’ve issued a false dichotomy. Do you mean because I offered multiple angles/interpretations of your earlier question? I listed several, not because I consider each of them separate or mutually exclusive, but simply because I’m trying to point out why it’s difficult to even know how to answer a question that could be offered in any one of six or seven sets of meaning.

    Christianity is not a monolithic thing. It’s a system that has evolved many times and is evolving constantly under our noses. So one has to figure out each time which permutation he is encountering before he knows how to reply.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    [Hoping this comment doesn’t show up in the blog thread equivalent of outer Mongolia here…]

    I guess you do know some more hard-boiled Calvinists. Maybe I shouldn’t have assumed that R. C. Sproul speaks for Calvinists everywhere. Ultimately, while you can cherry-pick proof texts all day long, I don’t find Calvinism to be particularly convincing, scripturally or practically. The reality of free will is just too obviously evident for me (though if I say that to a Calvinist, he’ll have his little compatibilist story which boils down to “It’s not that I don’t believe in free will, I just don’t believe in FREE WILL”). And as for babies going to hell, I just don’t see a sound theological case for it, and I guess Sproul is with me on that at least.

    I apologize for misinterpreting your separated points as a mutually exclusive set. But regarding your larger point, the fact that a lot of people disagree about theology doesn’t particularly shock or shake me. Just because the truth is complex doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent.

    It still seems like there’s a fundamental disanalogy in your illustration. The child is completely incapable of communicating with or understanding the mother on a rational level. The child isn’t listening to arguments, weighing evidence, and making a choice, she’s mindlessly toddling towards the pretty blue wet stuff that makes a fun sound when you jump into it. You, on the other hand, have the capacity to read, listen, learn, and make a choice whether to believe it or not based on the best available arguments for and against. You have an entire lifetime in which to sift through the evidences for and against. You have a text whose reliability you are free to examine in progressively greater depth. You have broadly dropped leads and clues to follow in a myriad fields of thought (pick your favorite). You’ve even reasoned your way to the point where you say you’re open to a deistic brand of theism. So really, the divine foot is already in the door for you. The question, as the agnostic/atheist scientist David Berlinski puts it, is whether you’re ready to let the divine torso in as well. You’ve concluded that you’re not. But nobody could say you lack time and opportunity to think that choice over. Even now, you can still take an honest look at what holes may still remain in your knowledge, what half-truths and falsehoods you may have accepted without sufficient reason, and what evidence you may still be overlooking, knowingly or unknowingly. All precisely because you’re NOT a toddler, you’re a grown man in full possession of his reasoning faculties. So I still fail to see the relevance of the illustration.