One 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.