Monday, May 30, 2005

Scared of Hell? Part Two

Part One dealt with a brief look at some atheist comments regarding Hell. This second part will deal with some general relevant comments concerning Hell.

(1) Whether or not Hell offends or delights, this has nothing to do in any logical sense with whether historic Christianity is actually true.

(a) Historic Christianity already has more than enough doctrines to offend the modern freethinker or skeptic, such as original sin, the distinction between men and women, the sexual mores, supernaturalism, etc. Adding one more doctrine such as Hell to the mix isn't going to "de-convert" a Christian, and, on the other hand, subtracting this doctrine isn't going to remove the offense that Christianity causes.

(b) As a de facto objection, pointing out that Hell causes one all sorts of problems [see Smith's emotive comments below] fails. As a de jure objection, Hell has the possibility of being a promising tool to undercut the claim that historic Christianity is rational, but, I'll try to give some talking points below as to why, even though Hell has the potential to be a winning de jure argument, it runs ashore.

(2) Let's deal with the fear aspect first.

Am I somehow disreputable or cognitively deficient because part of the impetus for my coming to faith was based on a fear of Hell? The answer is in the negative.

(a) If Hell is final separation from God, regardless of the other frightening imageries that are [metaphorically?] employed to describe it, then why would anybody not have trepidation at being severed in an immutable sense from God? It seems eminently rational to want to avoid this.

Growing up, I remember various rock and country songs where the Devil or Hell were described in positive terms. The renegade man looks forward to Hell; he can congregate with other sinners and continue what he likes, etc etc etc. [Insert your own "cool" image here.] However, this strikes me as the height of irrationality, to want Hell. First off, there is no justification for viewing Hell in that light --- it suspiciously corresponds with the songwriter's view about what Hell is. [Yet atheists are the ones accusing Christians of promulgating a mental projection!!] Secondly, it doesn't take into account God's immutability and characteristics. If God is perfectly just and perfectly good, then God is limited by His own nature. God and evil cannot commune. While Hell isn't necessarily the only solution to God's justice and God's goodness, it is a solution to the problem of how to rectify these attributes of God with each other. The point of this long paragraph is that the romantic renegade view of Hell is nothing but a wish-fulfillment complex put into action by the atheist.

(b) It seems axiomatic that Heaven is preferable to Hell. Why settle for the worse of two states, especially when God does the heavy lifting to make the preferable state available to us? In general, given two decisions, a certain fear of making the wrong decision seems completely natural, and to attack a decision or course of action on the basis that a fear of making the poorer decision is silly doesn't seem justified.

(c) For the Christian, communion with God in this lifetime takes the form of worship, prayer, meditation, the pondering of scripture, etc. Yet all of these things are shadows of the concrete reality that is to come. The small tastes that arise of communion with God in this life are to whet our appetities and make us desire all the more the real deal in the life to come. And the God of the Bible who did what He did for our salvation is worthy of this sort of desire. Losing communion with this Being is certainly something worth fearing, and Hell, if anything, is the final and irrevocable loss of any possibility of communion with this Being.

(3) Is Hell inconsistent with the Christian belief system?

Obviously one could write a book on this entire topic and go into the various apologetics. The most promising sort of argument for Hell's consistenty [but not its necessity] relative to Christianity seems like it could be fleshed out along these lines.

(a) God is perfectly good.

(b) God is perfectly just.

(c) God is merciful.

(d) God's attributes are immutable.

Assertions (a)-(d) are nothing but summaries of the Biblical data concerning God. Now God is subject to His own nature --- He can't violate it, for no being can violate its own nature. In particular, (a) means that God cannot tolerate aberrations to what is good, and sin is certainly not a good thing. Part (b) would seem to imply that God, being perfectly just and and executor of justice, would have to do something about transgressions of His nature.

Now with (a) and (b) alone, the situation looks bleak, for Hell seems to satisfy these two requirements. But, of course, there is the pleasant fact of (c), where God doesn't want men to face the working out of (b). Yet according to revelation, no man, no matter how good, can avoid (b) due to original sin. So, God finds a way [somehow] around this with the substitutionary atonement, whereby people are righteous by virtue of Christ's righteousness [somehow]. So one door at least is open to escape Hell [though Christians will say one and only one if they're faithful to scripture!]. Due to (d), none of this is going to change, for to do so would impinge on the attributes of God.

Now people might have a quite different reaction, but Hell seems like a logical outworking of (a)-(d). After all, God has done something whereby we can avoid Hell at great cost to Himself, and we're all adults here and responsible for our actions. At the same time, none of God's clear attributes are vitiated by the reality. I'm not saying that Hell is the only solution, but that it seems to work.

It would take far more than a blog to fully flesh out these ideas in complete rigor, and, once again, I remind the reader that I'm merely trying to flesh out an argument structure that seems promising.

(4) What about my situation with respect to fearing Hell? Here is a situation on which I can speak definitively.

(a) Yes, I think about Hell. But these thoughts take one of two general paths:

(i) Hell is a state to be avoided. In fact, I agree with my dogmatics that the nature of Hell [what it is like "inside"] really is of minor significance relative to the goal of merely avoiding it! I've had my share of nightmares about Hell and such, both as a child, as an atheist, and still as a believer. I don't put any stock in these, but, if my own meager imaginations of Hell can trouble me, it would not be surprising to see that the reality is far far worse, and hence is worth avoiding!

(ii) So Hell is terrible [to say the least], but, if I take scripture seriously [and I do], I'm thankfully avoiding that due to God's mercy on sinners. In this sense, Hell reinforces my idea that God is merciful. This doesn't mean that I like Hell or am glad that it exists --- nobody I know is glad about Hell --- but a side benefit to this most unpleasant reality is that it highlights God's grace which did not come cheaply.

(b) As an atheist I used to wonder why God just couldn't "wave away" my sins or those of men. After all, God can do anything can't he?

It took an embarrassingly long time to realize that the statement God can do anything really isn't accurate. More accurate is that God can do anything that is logically possible. Sentences of the form God can [insert nonsensical thing here] are still nonsense, and, as Lewis states, appending the words God can at the beginning don't make the sentence sensical.

So why couldn't God just wave away my sins right before I die and thus save me from Hell?

(i) For God to merely wave away my sins would seem to be in violation of His justice and immutability. If my sins were able to be merely dismissed by fiat, then this would seem to impugn the idea of Goodness or of God's character.

(ii) My own conscience accused me of taking this option in a sense of wish-fulfillment. It is too good to be true. If I levelled this claim at Christians during my atheist days, then I certainly wasn't immune to it myself, and still am not.

(iii) If God had to become incarnate and suffer a grisly death on a cross [no docetism here!] to somehow take up the collective sin of the world, then sin appears to be pretty serious business. It seems more natural to be informed by actual historical data than to let my speculations about what God can and can't do rule the day. If God had to do this as a response to sin, or if this was one of several options that God chose, it seems plausible at the very least to say that the option of merely waving off sin [Think of a Brooklyn-styled God saying "Fuhgeddabout it!"] may very well not be within the realm of logical possibility. The point of all this is that my atheist expectation of God really wasn't founded on anything objective --- I was merely projecting on to God ideas as to what He should do and be like in the absence of careful thought and the evidence of what He already has done.

This entire post has been rather stream-of-consciousness and doubtless could be immensely improved. However, I just wanted to post some thoughts about Hell. I'd be surprised if anything above is profound or not completely derivative.

[Yet to edit]

7 Comments:

Blogger centuri0n said...

Funny how talking about the reality of hell gets no comments, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005 5:22:00 AM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

Hello Frank:

I don't like thinking about it myself. Even during the atheist days I never understood the "cool" versions of Hell put forth by certain elements of pop culture.

Perhaps I don't have any comments here because the thread was hurriedly dashed off and could use a lot of work and improvement.

PP

Wednesday, June 01, 2005 3:05:00 PM  
Blogger centuri0n said...

Someone who is tracking the clues should note that whoever PP is, he has either followed my work in tormenting Tim Enloe or he knows me from another place -- because he knws my real name.

BTW, PP, one of the way to get more people to read your blog is to set up a counter and generate controversy. I think the wholoe "who is 'PP' really" thing is going to spin in your favor. People read by blog becuase they enjoy when I say something stupid. You might get a few more readers if you played up the "I buried Paul" (those of you born after 1980: I can't possibly explain that to you) thing.

Thursday, June 02, 2005 5:13:00 AM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

How do I know about you, Frank?
The PP moves around, Frank...the PP moves around. I may have been that guy ahead of you in the supermarket express lane.

Oh dear, speaking about one's self in the third person is rather addicting. The PP must stop this silly self-indulgence!

It took nearly thirty years for Deep Throat to be revealed. A reasonable over-under for when this nobody is discovered or outed is one month.

Thursday, June 02, 2005 1:39:00 PM  
Blogger centuri0n said...

Exactly, padwan.

Thursday, June 02, 2005 1:43:00 PM  
Blogger Pedantic Protestant said...

Exactly what?

PP

Thursday, June 02, 2005 2:14:00 PM  
Blogger centuri0n said...

Jedi someday you will be.

Friday, June 03, 2005 5:13:00 AM  

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