I am, of course, talking about hell.
Let me first make it clear that plenty of Christians already understand that the idea of eternal suffering is not compatible with an all-loving God. See for example:
Unfortunately, many Christians readily embrace the concept of hell. Hell has two great appeals for religious leaders. Firstly, it means that those who scorn Christianity will suffer eternal torturing. What could be more satisfying to a God-fearing Christian than to know that his enemies will literally burn in hell! Oh, wait, if they are true Christians then they should love their enemies, and the thought of them going to hell would fill them with horror and dread.
Well, there is still one reason to embrace the ideal of hell, if you are a true Christian, which is that hell is a wonderful way to keep your flock in order. In fact hell and heaven are the ultimate stick and carrot. Do as we tell you and you get everlasting happiness. Disobey, and suffer for ever.
Actually, now I think about it, those are two very bad reasons for a Christian to think the idea of hell is good.
Some TheologyThe problem with hell is that it is God making people suffer. Most right-thinking people today consider causing needless suffering to be morally wrong. There may be times when it is required, say to punish a child (though personally I am against physical punishment) or in a medical procedure, but in these cases we would say it is "the lesser of two evils". We recognise that causing the suffering is evil, but it is better than the alternative.
How can God, a supposedly perfectly good being, do the lesser of two evils? Well, perhaps it is just a saying.
Needless SufferingHere is the argument laid out formally. P indicates a proposition, something I have assumed to be true. C indicates a conclusion, something that must necessarily be true, given the previous propositions and conclusions.
P1: God causes people to go to hell
P2: People in hell suffer
C1: God causes people to suffer
P3: That suffering, or at least some portion of it, is needless
C2: God causes people needless suffering
P4: Causing needless suffering is necessaily evil
C3: God does evil
Let us go through this step by step.
P1: God causes people to go to hell: This is the claim of those Christians who believe in hell. They may say that going to hell is automatic, it is the default, unless God choses to save you, and so excuse God in that way, but this fails to convince because God is the creator of everything; he chose to create hell, he chose to create us such that going to hell is the default; therefore, God causes people to go to hell. Others say that we go to hell because of our own actions (or inactions), but again this ignores the party God plays in the process. It is clear that God has instigated a system in which people go to hell.
P2: People in hell suffer: This seems a given.
C1: God causes people to suffer: This follows inevitable from P1 and P2.
P3: That suffering, or at least some portion of it, is needless: This is the big issue in my thesis; is it necessary that bad people suffer infinite torment? Before you say yes too quickly, think carefully about who goes to hell. Christian has a lot of opinions on this topic, but many Christians believe all non-Christians will go to hell. Gandhi, the great spiritual leader who won indepedance for India by non-violent protest, was a Hindu, so hell for an eterntity of suffering for him. Do non-christians really need eternal suffering? What exactly is its purpose? More on this later.
C2: God causes people needless suffering: This follows from C1 and P3.
P4: Causing needless suffering is necessaily evil: This is self-evidently true.
C3: God does evil: This follows from C2 and P4.
Rationalising It AwayChristians have invented all sorts of rationalisations to attempt to justify hell, many touch on P3 above. Here are a selection I have come across.
Rationalisation 1: God’s goodness demands it.The logic here seems to be that it is a fact that God is perfectly good and it is a fact that God makes people suffer for all eternity, therefore it must be the way it is.
On what basis can I so strongly and confidently assert the necessity and existence of eternal, conscious torment in hell, even if my heart naturally cries out in rebellion against the thought? Only because God’s Word is clear on the matter.http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v7/n3/eternal-torment
I guess that is satisfactory for those who accept the claims as fundamental truths, but to those who are unconvinced on the existence of God, the logical is wholely lacking.
Rationalisation 2: Who am I to question God?This is a popular one, but is really just a dodge. Again, it makes the assumption that God exists and is perfectly good. If you make that assumption, then you may find this persuasive, but how can you be sure God is perfectly morally good if you believe you cannot make any moral judgement of him?
Rationalisation 3: A sin again God is infinitely bad
Since the sinner and the results of the sin continue forever, it makes sense that the sinner's punishment also continues forever.http://www.rationalchristianity.net/hell.html#just
God says you must not work from sunset on a Friday to sunset the following Saturday (later Christians decided to arbitarily call Sunday the Sabbath, but the Sabbath that Jesus respected was Saturday). If you work on a Saturday, you are disobeying God's command, and, as God is infinite, that means (according to this claim) that your sin is infinite.
Similarly, if you set up a program to conquer Europe, and destroy all the entire Jewish race, this too is an infinite sin.
In both cases, the boy on his paper round and Adolf Hitler, the sinner deserves eternal punishment.
In modern judicial systems the punishment is proportional to the severity of the crime, and not the importance of the victim of the crime (at least in theory; in practice I accept this happens, but we most people consider that to be corrupt). God's system, which Christians wil tell you is infinitely just, the nature of the crime is irrelevant, all that is significant is the importance of the victim. God is infinite, so the punishment is infinite.
Rationalisation 4: Either heaven or hellAnother approach is to suggest God has exactly two choices for a soul: Heaven or hell. If he is just, then some people have to go to hell, right?
The only problem is, nobody measures up! So, if we rely on the justice of God, we're sunk! There is nobody here who deserves to go to heaven. Nobody is good enough! So if we depend on God's justice, we've had it. It's all over.http://www.reasonablefaith.org/can-a-loving-god-send-people-to-hell-the-craig-bradley-debate#ixzz295Z6ctpU
To object to hell is to object to justice. It is to say we want a world with no justice, where evil reigns without punishment. It is to say we want evil to run wild without any checks. This is foolishness. No one could live in such a world.http://www.free-bible-study-lessons.com/hell.html
Well, no, this is a false dichotomy because there are other options, and being all-knowing, God must know that! The catholic church devised purgatory, for example, and reincarnation and soul-death are two more.
Rationalisation 5: It is what they wantAll the people who end up in hell do so because they prefer it to being in God's presence.
All the people who end up going to hell will have done so because they actually prefer hell to being forced into the presence of God for all eternity.http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/hell.html
But He is also merciful, and those who are not prepared to stand directly in His presence, those who do not have on the wedding garments, those who do not love and desire Him, will be cast into the outer darkness (Matt. 8:12). And they will need no urging to go!http://justthinkingpages.tripod.com/hell.html
This is not a common one, I suspect because it allows non-Christians easy access to heaven. Most Christians insist that heaven is a closed club - you have to be a Christian (and often the right sort of Christian) to get inside. According to this idea, the Muslim and Buddist who prefer to be in the presence of an all-loving God to eternal suffering will be allowed into heaven.
To be honest, this is fair enough. If people can decide if they go to heaven or hell, then that absolves God of the responsibility - assuming they understand the implications and get to choose freely.
Rationalisation 6: Adam sinned so we all should go to hell by defaultThis is the claim that because Adam sinned it is only right and proper that every single one of us suffer for all eternity, and God's love is evident in that he saves a few of us.
When Adam, as our representative, joined Satan's side in the rebellion against God, it became our punishment as well.http://www.free-bible-study-lessons.com/hell.html
This is another time when God's idea of justice is seriously at odds with our own. Oh, and his too. Modern judicial systems punish the perpetrator of a crime, never his descendants, and the Bible even agrees (Ezekiel 18:20 "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son").
Furthermore, this is really just a dodge. The question is why would an all-good God have people suffer. The fact that this supposed all-good God set up the system so that everyone suffers only makes it worse. Especialy as all that suffering is due to one sin.
Think about it. Hitler is in hell not because of the atrocities the Nazis commited, but because Adam disobeyed God.
There is a perfectly just God for you...
Rationalisation 7: This is just an argument from moral outrageThis is seen often when debating the Bible on an internet forum, and is an attempt to discredit the argument saying it is based on engendering outrage in the reader, rather than logic. It ignores that at heart the argument is actually based on logic.
Who Goes To Hell?The standard position is that anyone who does not believe in Jesus goes to hell.
This is the cult position. It is saying that if you are in our cult, you are okay, but outsiders will suffer; what better way to keep people locked into your cult? But is it just?
Absolutely not! It is the epitome of religious intolerence for one thing, making people suffer because of their religious belief.
Consider Gandhi, a great statesman who led India to independance by non-violent protest, and Hitler, a fascist dictator who initiated a plan to exterminate the Jews and to rule Europe by force. Neither were Christians, so both will be tortured by God for eternity. Does this stike you as just and merciful?
Many Christians will claim that in hell the suffering is graduated to what you did on Earth, but there is no scriptural support for that position that I am aware of. Plenty of verses indicate all sinners are treated the same:
Psalms 104:35, "Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more."
Malachi 4:1, "For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch."
Matthew 13:40, "As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world."
John 15:6, "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned."
Isaiah 66:24, "And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh."
Matthew 25:46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
Daniel 12:2 Many of those who sleep in the dusty ground will awake – some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting abhorrence. 3 But the wise will shine like the brightness of the heavenly expanse. And those bringing many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.
Revelation 20:15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.
There may be graduations in hell, as Matthew indicates clear, but the degree of suffering God inflicts is related to your rejection of Jesus, not to your crimes against humanity.
Matthew 11:21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. 23 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.
Is Hell Needed?I said earlier I would discuss whether the suffering in hell for needed or not. I have touched on that above, but let is look in more depth.
Deterrent: The fear of hell converting people to Christianity
One argument against hell is this: No person in his right mind would choose eternal punishment in hell over heaven. Therefore everyone would repent when sent to hell. If God lets the repentant leave, hell will be empty (and therefore can be disregarded). If God doesn't let the repentant leave, God is unjust for continuing to punish them after they've repented.http://www.rationalchristianity.net/hell.html#just
The trouble with this line of reasoning is that repentance is not simply a matter of one saying, "Okay, I'll say whatever you want me to, just get me out of here!" Repentance involves acknowledging one's guilt, feeling remorse and the desire to change one's behavior, accepting Christ's sacrifice as substitutionary punishment for one's wrongs and agreeing to love and obey God (including Christ as God the Son). This includes by definition acceptance of eternal punishment in hell as just punishment for one's sins; while the skeptic may still object that continued punishment of the repentant is unjust, the repentant will respond that their continued punishment is deserved and could only end through God's mercy.
And the trouble with this line of reasoning is that it removes from Hell most of its justification. The best argument for hell is that it offers people a motivation for finding God. This author is saying that if you find God just to avoid hell, then that is not sincere. I agree; if heaven is for believers and hell for unbelievers, then naturally the religion will attract people desiring heaven and fearing hell, rather than those with a sincere faith.
So exactly why was Jesus using heaven as an enticement (eg John 3:3 - "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."), and hell as a deterrent? This is from Matthew:
Matthew 13:41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; 42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Here is a great example of a web site using the fear of hell to get people to become Christians.
So does God want these insincere Christians or not?
It is interesting to consider the morality here too. Is it morally right to say: Worship me or suffer infinite pain
I am sure most of us would say that such threats were morally wrong, evil even. Curiously, some Christians only think it is morally wrong when humans do it. Might is right, and all that, I suppose. God is all powerful, therefore he can threaten, torture and kill, and it is still morally right (I mean, he commits genocide in the Bible, but still these people think he is perfectly good).
Of course, such a person will refute my argument by says, "It's God, therefore it is morally right." Let us assume such a facile argument is not going to work...
If Hell Is Not A DeterrentFrom Wikipedia:
Fundamental justifications for punishment include: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitations...If hell is not a deterrent, and it cannot be for rehabilitation as it is for ever, that leaves retribution and incapacitation. The latter does not require any suffering (or continued existence even), so the only reason left is revenge. God gets his own back on those who dare to disobey him. God then becomes spiteful and full of hate, the antithesis of how Christians like to portray him.
And indeed that is what the Bible says:
John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
People go to hell because God, the petty-minded tyrant, is angry at them for not worshipping him.