The Evolution of Hell in The Reason for God

The Evolution of Hell in The Reason for God May 14, 2021

dungeonGrowing 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.

godshapedhole3

I say “at least for now” because the needs of the human heart are not consistent enough to produce the same deity in every generation. Christianity itself has evolved considerably, spawning dozens of gods over the centuries to fit the moods of the times. 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 (unless you’re a Republican)—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. He seems capable only of reacting to what humans do.

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.

Read: “Hell 2.0: Same Eternal Punishment, Now With Fewer Flames!

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, it 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 it. 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 source documents of this faith. This one is more of a psychological punishment—it lacks the licking flames and the worms and the maggots that never die. This new Hell sounds more like a perpetual solitary confinement, or like someone once said, it’s like being put into time out…forever.

I’ve already explained why Hell 2.0 isn’t a very convincing one, and I’ve also explained 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.

Read: “Absolving God From Hell

At one point, Keller asserts that those who lack a belief in Hell 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)

On the contrary, 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 has to wake them up and tell them they’d better turn or burn, right? As students of Christian history should know well, it was that very reasoning that was first suggested by Augustine and later taken up by Bernard of Clairvaux that justified both the Crusades and the Inquisition. What’s a little brutality and torture now compared to an eternity of everlasting sorrow and flame?

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 ultimately is 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 that Keller attempted to address in chapter two (you can read my response to that here).

I doubt many skeptics would be swayed by the 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. There are no rules for special pleading—that’s kind of the point.

But that’s not very satisfying, since an all-knowing, all-powerful deity would create each individual soul knowing in advance which ones would wind up living eternally without him. What kind of monster would bring into the world billions of people whom he knows will be miserable for eternity just so that he can have a few million who figured out the right combination of beliefs?

Our inability to reconcile a loving God with eternal punishment is only one of a whole host of problems I’ll enumerate below. I’m sure there are more, so feel free to list in the comments which ones clinched it for you.

Seven Reasons to Reject Hell

Any one of these would be enough reason to dismiss the notion of posthumous punishment, but all of them together make the idea fit for ridicule. The only reason it’s not more obvious is because they got to us when we were still little, terrifying us so badly with horrific stories of weeping and gnashing of teeth that it gave us nightmares. It can take years for the feelings to finally fade away.

1. I see no good reasons to believe people come back from the dead at all. We don’t care if you can do the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile Hell with a loving God. We care whether or not you have any credible evidence that afterlives exist. Keller should have started there, but you and I both know why he didn’t, don’t we? Humans have always yearned for immortality, but wishing something doesn’t make it so. The brevity of life is what makes it all the more precious, after all.

2. Purveyors of Hell can’t make up their minds if it’s physical or not. Would you suffer physically in this scenario? Do you even have a body to feel pain at all? Physical bodies deteriorate—they don’t last forever. Doing so would require a miraculous intervention, which puts the responsibility right back onto God for making this happen, and that’s something most non-Calvinists aren’t willing to do.

3. Punishment with no redemptive or rehabilitative purpose is useless and cruel. I suppose it could make the offended party feel better, but it 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. Why withhold clear evidence of this until the moment after it becomes too late? Keller equivocates on this matter a great deal. First, he leans heavily on C.S. Lewis’s imagery of Hell being “locked from the inside” as if those punished are free to leave but choose not to. But he also wants to holds onto his Reformed view of eternal punishment, which clearly denies that any such freedom exists. 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 thought crimes, 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. So Jesus can pay for the sins of billions of people in a single afternoon, but for the rest of us it would take a billion years just to pay for our own?  And yes, Keller holds to the substitutionary atonement theory, so for the purposes of this review, let’s not move the goalposts, please. People today still fight over why Jesus had to be killed, but Keller’s franchise considers this a hill to die on.

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. If that’s the case, one wonders why God would use such vivid imagery that his intended audience would completely misunderstand what he was trying to say for thousands of years. Why use forms of communication that you know will fail to connect with them?

For these reasons and more, I’m sure, people like me simply cannot accept the idea of posthumous punishment. We don’t see any credible evidence that people come back from the dead. And no, it doesn’t cut it for us to hear stories about little boys visiting heaven during surgery (even though he never actually flatlined) and coming back to tell of rainbow colored ponies and meeting Jesus with his beautiful blue eyes. Outside the walls of the church, anecdotal evidence doesn’t carry nearly as much weight, nor does it help to cite ancient religious texts. We’re going to 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.

[Image Source: Unsplash]

* The notion of privation goes back to Augustinian times, but it remained a minority view since at the time they were far less concerned about making God seem nicer.

(Other Posts in this Series)

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.

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