Growing up in an evangelical church I was taught that no matter what it is you want or need, God himself is the answer. You need comfort or security? God is where you get it. You want guidance or companionship? God is there for you. You need discipline? Affection? Wisdom? God, God, God. It reminds me of an old church joke:
A pastor was giving the children’s message during church…saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.
“This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)…” No hands went up. “And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)…” The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. “And it jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause)…”
Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. “Well…,” said the boy, “I know the answer must be Jesus…but is sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”
Of course, Jesus is always the answer. Former evangelicals will surely understand.
There is a good reason why the God I grew up with so perfectly fits the psychological needs of the human heart. As a Christian I was taught to believe that there’s “a god-shaped hole” in each of us, a longing that only a Supreme Being can fulfill. But I would suggest that in reality it’s the other way around. It’s not so much that we’ve got a god-shaped hole. It’s more that we’ve got a hole-shaped god. We have crafted him over time to fit the needs and desires of the human heart so carefully that they perfectly fit, at least for now.
I say “at least for now” because the truth is that “the needs of the human heart” are not so universally consistent that they produce the same deity in every generation. On the contrary, I would argue there have been dozens of gods created by Christianity over the centuries. God has evolved a great deal. In days past, God was a much more brutal, callous being who could wipe out whole villages or city-states without batting an eye. That particular God belonged to a more brutal, callous culture. Go figure.
Today’s God is a lot more sensitive, more gentrified. He’s caring, he’s affectionate, he’s enlightened, he’s nonviolent…in fact, he sounds an awful lot like the ideals and values of the generation currently professing faith in him. This God doesn’t make bad things happen, he only responds to them after the fact, doing his best to make something good come out of whatever bad thing the mean old world throws his way.
Most importantly of all, the modern God never sends anyone to Hell—people today send themselves there. As former American Family Association spokesperson Bryan Fischer likes to say, God is “too much of a gentleman” to make people do things they don’t want to do. This is the new and improved God, so only a new and improved Hell will suit him. Just like God, Hell has had to evolve to fit the changing times.
This Ain’t Your Grandmother’s Hell
I call this “passive-aggressive Hell” because it is constructed in such a way that God seems to have nothing to do with it. His hands are clean of the entire affair (as are the hands of anyone who threatens you with it, which is the best part). And it’s nothing like what Hell used to be.
Back in the old days, God threw people into Hell, kicking and screaming. And Hell was a lake of fire, where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth. That’s how the Bible describes it. In fact, that’s mostly Jesus talking. Everlasting punishment in fiery flame wasn’t invented by St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, John Milton, or Jonathan Edwards. Those guys were just expanding upon what they got from reading the Bible itself, more often than not from Jesus himself (and if he meant it only as a metaphor, that sure went over most everyone’s heads).
But that’s not what Hell has become today. Modern sensibilities won’t countenance a God so mean as to actively send people to such a place for any reason whatsoever, much less create such a plane of existence in the first place. No, modern Hell has been reimagined as a privation only, a lack of the presence of a God whose presence we are told ironically extends to everywhere, even if we were to make our bed in the grave (Psalm 139:8). Hell today is a place you create for yourself.
In Chapter Five of Tim Keller‘s The Reason for God, he puts it this way:
We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question” “What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?”
Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever. (p.79)
As Dorothy Parker used to say, “What fresh hell is this?” It’s certainly not the one found in the documents from which the church originally inherited the concept. This one is more of a psychological punishment. It lacks the licking flames and the worms and the maggots that never go away. This new Hell sounds more like a perpetual solitary confinement, or like my partner Amy says, “It’s like being put into Time Out..except forever.”
I’ve already explained why Hell 2.0 isn’t a very convincing one (see my link above, or read it here), and I’ve also taken great pains to explain why you cannot both posit the existence of anything like Hell (either version) while simultaneously absolving God from all responsibility for its existence or for anyone eventually ending up there. If you’ve never read that post, I’d encourage you to read it at some point because it’s one of the most popular things I’ve written, I suspect because it puts forth one of the best analogies you’ll see explaining what’s wrong with the way this topic gets discussed.
[Read “Absolving God From Hell“]
Keller argues that one of the main reasons people reject Christian theism is because they cannot reconcile everlasting punishment with the image of a God who loves all whom he creates. I agree that this presents a dilemma similar to the problem of evil—in fact it is really the same problem. The apparent contradiction of a loving God sending his own creatures to everlasting torment is in fact an extension of the theodicy problem which Keller attempted to address in Chapter Two (you can read my response to that here).
It is true that most of us reject the kinds of rationalizations he presents for how God can allow not just temporal but eternal suffering. In his theological system, there is no contradiction at all. Or rather, the contradictions are resolved because ultimately God can do whatever he wants and there’s not much anyone can say about it. That’s not very satisfying, as Steve Shives explains quite well (from the video linked below at about 38:30):
Keller says we suffer so greatly in Hell because we were made to exist in the presence of God. Which means that God, who is omniscient as well as omnipotent, created us knowingly to need his presence, knowing that before very long we would be separated from him by our sin and that the vast majority of us would wind up suffering forever without him.
Now whether you believe in literal hellfire, or just the burning torments of endless hopelessness and isolation, either way God is responsible for the suffering of the people there in Hell because he created the people, and he knowingly created the circumstances that all but guaranteed that almost all of them would suffer greatly and endlessly.
But that’s not the biggest problem. Our inability to reconcile a loving God with eternal punishment is only one of a whole host of problems which, once again, I’ve already addressed before.
Seven Good Reasons to Reject Keller’s Hell
Clearly I have felt the need to cover the subject of eternal punishment from several different angles. And I believe I have good reason to do so. Keller had the nerve to assert that it is those who lack a belief in Hell who must turn to violence to resolve the injustices of the world.
If I don’t believe that there is a God who will eventually put all things right, I will take up the sword and will be sucked into the endless vortex of retaliation. Only if I am sure that there’s a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts perfectly do I have the power to refrain. (p.77)
But I would argue that it’s just as likely that it is those who believe in Hell who can justify almost every form of brutality short of everlasting torment because, hey, maybe some brief suffering now can help persuade infidels to change their minds, right? Someone’s gotta wake them up and tell them they’d better turn or burn, right? In fact, as students of Christian history should know well, it was that very reasoning which was first suggested by Augustine and later taken up by Bernard of Clarivaux which justified both the Crusades and the Inquisition. What’s a little brutality and torture now compared to an eternity of everlasting sorrow and flame?
At any rate, in the link above I have already covered what I feel are at least seven good reasons why the idea of Hell makes no sense. You can feel free to add more in the comments if you like. What follows is a distillation of the explanation I gave in that previous post:
1. I see no good reasons to believe people come back from the dead at all. Most of us who don’t buy this Hell concept are less concerned with whether or not you can do the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile it with a loving God than we are with whether or not you have any credible evidence that such a thing exists. Keller should have started there. Except you and I both know why he didn’t.
2. The doctrine of Hell makes a category error by alternately claiming it’s physical and then not physical. Do you suffer physically? In fact do you have a body at all? Because physical bodies disintegrate. They never seem to be able to make up their minds about this one. Bodies don’t just live forever. If they somehow do, then it would require a miraculous intervention which puts the responsibility right back onto God for making this happen.
3. Punishment that has no redemptive or rehabilitative purpose is useless and cruel. I suppose it could make the offended party feel better, but it certainly serves no helpful function for the sufferer if it never ends and there is no way out. And what kind of sick person needs the other person to suffer forever?
4. It makes no sense to withhold clear evidence of this punishment until the moment it becomes too late. Keller equivocates on this matter a great deal, borrowing C.S. Lewis’s imagery of Hell being “locked from the inside” as if those punished are free to leave but choose not to, all while holding fast to the Calvinist view of eternal punishment which clearly denies that any such freedom exists. In fact, Calvinism teaches you never really had a “choice” in the Arminian sense of the word. He’s talking out of both sides of his mouth.
5. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Infinite punishment for finite crimes, most of which are only of the mind, makes no sense. It is excessively barbaric and inhumane to entertain the idea of torturing souls forever. Nobody does enough bad things to deserve that.
6. Jesus can pay for the sins of billions of people in a single afternoon but then it takes one person a billion years to pay for just his own? And yes, Keller holds to the substitutionary atonement theory, so let’s not move the goalposts for the purposes of this review, m’kay?
7. Jesus may not have believed in “Hell” himself. A growing number of Christians believe that the church has historically misinterpreted what Jesus was trying to say in the first place. Of course, if that’s the case, one wonders why God would use such vivid imagery that his intended audience completely misunderstood what he was trying to say for thousands of years. Why use forms of communication that you presciently know will fail to connect?
For these reasons, the first one in the list above all else, people like me simply cannot accept the idea of posthumous punishment. We just don’t see any credible evidence that people come back from the dead. And no, stories about little boys visiting heaven during surgery (even though they never even flatlined) and coming back to tell of rainbow colored ponies and meeting Jesus with his beautiful blue eyes just don’t cut it for us. Nor does reading that people in a book a long time ago said it’s a real thing. We’re gonna need more than that. Until then, this will have to be a thing that believers wrestle with and the rest of us ignore because the whole idea sounds crazy to us.
As with the rest of this review, I am including links to the videos of Steve Shives, who covered all of these chapters in pairs in his “An Atheist Reads” series. Be sure to check them out.
And if you’d like to read the rest of my responses to Keller’s chapters up until this point, you can find them listed here:
(Other Posts in this Series)
- Introduction: “I’m Reading Tim Keller’s The Reason for God So You Don’t Have To“
- Chapter One: “Selection Bias and the Christian View of History“
- Chapter Two: “Tim Keller and the Problem of Suffering and Evil“
- Chapter Three: “Straw Skepticism in Tim Keller’s ‘The Reason for God‘”
- Chapter Four: “Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Tim Keller’s Faulty Historical Vision“
- Chapter Five: “The Evolution of Hell (and Why We’re Still Not Buying It)“
- Chapter Six: “Believing in Evolution, But Not Too Much“
- Bonus: “What’s Wrong With Asking For a Miracle?“
- Chapter Seven: “For the Bible Tells Me? No.“
- Intermission: “Changing Gods In Midstream“
- Chapter Eight: “Four (Bad) Reasons for God“
- Bonus: “The Argument from Misunderstanding How Natural Selection Works“
- Chapter Nine: “Tim Keller and the Argument from Morality“
- Chapter Ten: “Everything You Do Is Wrong“
- Chapter Eleven: “Your Religion Is Special, Just Like All the Others“
- Chapter Twelve: “But Why Does There Have to Be Blood?”
- Chapter Thirteen: “Seven Bad Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus“
- Chapter Fourteen: “Four Ways Tim Keller’s Gospel Fails to Deliver“
- Epilogue: “Why the Gospel Doesn’t Work on Deconverts“
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