William Lane Craig and the incoherence of (and prevalence of belief in) Hell

April 22, 2012 • 10:31 am

The Achilles heel of all theistic religion is the existence of evil. The ludicrous ways that theologians bob and weave in their theodicean attempts to explain it convince nobody but the already deluded—and gives the rest of us a good laugh

But Islam and conservative Christianity have a second Achilles heel: the existence of Hell.  Can any thinking person really believe that a beneficent God would send people to eternal torment for sins like masturbation or adultery? Think of what it’s like to burn your hand badly on a stove; now imagine that torment, all over your body, for eternity.  (And let’s not mention purgatory, which Catholics are jettisoning as fast as they can.)  Such a notion is wicked and insupportable, and only someone who’s delusional, or who believes that God is a fiend, could accept something like that. The notion of hell, though, is not as damaging to religion as is evil, for it’s easy for believers and theologians to see hell as metaphorical.  Evil, however, is real.

Well, theologian William Lane Craig does see hell as real—as an eternal torture chamber for sinners.

The anonymous writer of the website Evangelical Realism has been taking on, in successive posts, the chapters of William Lane Craig’s 2010 book, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision.  A week ago he dissected Craig’s Chapter 10: “Is Jesus the only way to God?”, in a post called “The Hell with Christianity.” It’s about Craig’s ridiculous (and literal) notion of hell, and the blog writer has a unique style that is at once sarcastic, funny, mildly obscene, and absolutely on the mark.  Since it behooves all of us to consider the possibility that we’ll be boiled in molten sulphur for eternity, I’ve put two excerpts below.

In this section I’ve renumbered Craig’s “inconsistencies” because there are others preceding this discussion. Craig’s words are in quotes and italics.

Craig has a real problem here, and that is that he himself cannot stomach what the Bible really says about Hell. Read Matthew 25. Read Jesus’ description of God’s attitude towards the unsaved. It’s not, “Oh dear, you’re going to Hell, if only there were something I could do to save you.” God’s attitude can be summed up by two words: “Fuck you.” You pissed Me off, and I am throwing your ass in Hell, and you can stay there. No apologies, no regrets. The God of the Bible absolutely does throw people in Hell, and doesn’t ask for Craig’s approval or consent. Call that Inconsistency #3: Craig has to reinvent damnation before he can defend it.

“Our eternal destiny thus lies in our own hands. It’s a matter of our free choice where we shall spend eternity. Those who are lost, therefore, are self-condemned; they separate themselves from God despite God’s will and every effort to save them, and God grieves over their loss.”

Let’s count the inconsistencies in these three brief sentences. Inconsistency [#1]: a misinformed choice is not really free. God does not show up in real life, which limits us to the kind of choices where you either gullibly embrace whatever men tell you about God (and let’s face it, that could be almost anything) or else you stick to the facts, which ends up making you an atheist. If God is real and is hiding from us, His absence is denying us the opportunity to know what our real choices are, and thereby denying us the opportunity to make a truly free choice.

Inconsistency [#2]: separation. We have not separated ourselves from God. We’re here; God isn’t. It wasn’t skeptics who ascended into Heaven and left Jesus all alone here on the earth. We have no control over God’s willingness and ability to show up in real life. The gap created by His absence is not one we can bridge (not even by credulity and superstition). If God wants to eliminate the separation, it’s up to Him to show up.

Inconsistency [#3]: every effort to save us? Get real. The most fundamental, trivial, and obvious “effort” would be to show up in real life, tell us that He loves us, and offer us a relationship with Himself. Notice I say “in real life” and “tell us,” not “show up in an ancient legend” and “tell a few guys who died 2,000 years ago.” Does He want to save us, or did He stop caring once the apostles were gone? Show me a tangible effort happening in the real world (as opposed to happening in the superstitious worldview of a self-convincing Christian), and then we’ll talk.

Inconsistency [#4] God grieves? Not in the Bible. It makes believers sad because it’s so obviously inconsistent with the idea of God as a genuinely loving Father who really cares whether or not the vast majority of His children suffer for all eternity. But time and again, in the parables of Jesus, the “guilty” are dispatched to their eternal judgment with nary a particle of remorse or regret on the Lord’s part.

Here’s a piece explaining exactly how Craig rationalizes God’s imposition of infinite punishment for finite sins (again, Craig’s words are in italics):

“We could agree that every individual sin that a person commits deserves only a finite punishment. But it doesn’t follow from this that all of a person’s sins taken together as a whole deserve only a finite punishment. If a person commits an infinite number of sins, then the sum total of all such sins deserves infinite punishment.

Now, of course, nobody commits an infinite number of sins in the earthly life. But what about in the afterlife? Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.”

Assuming God is merciless, of course. Otherwise, since He’s the ultimate arbiter of how much punishment each sin deserves, He could, for example, arrange for the punishment earned to be slightly less than the punishment received, and thus allow His beloved children to eventually escape from the torments of Hell. Or He could simply pardon them—it’s not like He’s going to be impeached for showing too much mercy as Judge. Or, to take it in a different direction, He could simply make them unconscious, or even non-existent. They might not be saved, but at least they’re not being tortured for all eternity, or racking up more punishment. Or again, He could not send them to Hell in the first place. The Bible does say that the wages of sin is death, and the people at the Last Judgment are pretty much all dead, so they’ve paid the penalty already.

Now, lest you think that only a small number of Americans accept the idea of a literal hell where sinners are actually tormented, have a look at this Pew report, “Religion among the millennials” (download pdf at link; “millennials” are those born around 1980 who came of age at the turn of the millennium). The data below are based on a huge survey—over 35,000 Americans 18 years of age or older—conducted in 2007.

On page 19 of the report we find a list of questions asked, and the answers given by the respondents:

Question wording:

  • Do you believe in life after death?
  • Do you think there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded?
  • Do you think there is a hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished?
  • Here are a few statements. For each one, please tell me if you completely agree with it, mostly agree with it, mostly disagree with it, or completely disagree with it. The first/next one is [miracles still occur today as in ancient times/angels and demons are active in the world].

The responses?

Now perhaps not all of the 60-odd percent of American who believe in Hell see it as a place where you’re licked by flames ad infinitum—some see the torment of Hell as “separation from god”—but I’m willing to bet that a substantial proportion of these envision fire, brimstone, and pitchforks (after all, around 70% of Americans believe in demons, and 60% in Satan).  Once again we find that Americans’ religious beliefs are far stranger than most of us think.

136 thoughts on “William Lane Craig and the incoherence of (and prevalence of belief in) Hell

  1. “Once again we find that Americans’ religious beliefs are far stranger than most of us think.”

    Years ago, I frequently visited the Christian chatroom on AOL. I was an atheist back then, as I am now, and I tried hard to talk sense into them. I’m very aware of how crazy many American’s religious beliefs are. The chatroom experience is something I’ll not soon forget. Its a strange thing to confront hardcore irrationality.

  2. The way to show Craig (and others) how ridiculous the whole “it’s your choice if you spend eternity in hell” is to ask them the following:

    Suppose Islam turns out to be true (Craig at least admits the possibility of such a thing in debates). Now, if you end up in Islamic hell are you really going to say, “Aw, shucks. Well, I did choose to be here after all. I’m getting what I deserve.”

  3. I can’t help thinking that taking on issues like these is playing right into the hands of the obfuscators. The ridiculousness of Hell may seem clear cut, but that is ultimately subjective and the accommodationists and apologists will charge that the issues have been oversimplified. Sometimes I think that the only way to approach religion is with a steadfast refusal to engage in the particulars until the existence of the subject is shown to be even remotely likely and thereby deny Craig et al the opportunity to play the ‘sophisticated’ bafflegabber.

    Then again those with nagging doubts may be forced to confront the silliness of their beliefs. It looks depressingly like a no win situation. But I’m a confirmed pessimist, so just ignore me.

    1. From a tactical perspective the problem here is that for many theists, their beliefs are shored up by several different pillars, (church doctrine, apologetics, emotional appeals, social pressure, cultural ubiquity, etc) When you present them with a steadfast refusal to engage, you leave that whole construct intact in their minds, which prevents them from going further to see its empty.

      1. Yes. But as I remember it that only works on those who, for whatever reason, already doubts.

        For the wholesale crackpots any response will strengthen their belief, and what is mentioned as a problem will be remembered as support. For example, mentioning that “biologists reject creationism” will be remembered as “biologists [support] creationism” and so on.

        So I tend to agree with TFJ, skeptics shouldn’t wade into these waters. Ridicule has worked through the ages, it is healthy for the users and it is what all crackpot ideas deserves. Crackpot Hell™.

      2. Fear is a pretty big factor in direct proportion to how much they believe in Hell. The fear itself can make it hard for them to think, so it is probably useful to think for them and lay it out. Diffusing their fear is a big part of the recovery process for many.

  4. Even if you don’t believe in Hell, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims will make you wish there was just so you can get a break from them. I figure Christian Inquisitors and Muslim males are some of the closest things to demons and devils to ever walk the Earth.

    Come back soon, kitteh.

  5. Believing may be no more than opinion, knowing has the certainty of experience.
    Musings on knowledge, a duality – sense-perceived and extra-sensory perceived. For myticists sense-perceived reality is all there is. If you can’t see it, hear it, touch it, explain it by science, it ain’t so, thus no ultimate reality.
    Mysticism is the name for extra-sensory perceived knowledge, known only by mental experience – a direct and unmediated contact with a perceived ultimate reality. Such an experience described by mathematician Rudy Rucker: “The central teaching of mysticism is this: Reality is One. The practice of mysticism consists in finding ways to experience this unity directly [what Jesus taught]. The One has variously been called the Good, God, the Cosmos, the Mind, the Void, or (perhaps most neutral} the Absolute. No door in the labyrinthine castle of science opens directly onto the Absolute. But if one can understand the maze well enough, it is possible to jump out of the system [bound by sense-perception] and experience the Absolute for oneself.” “Now every inquirer can know that today extra-sensory perception is rapidly becoming experimentally established, not merely as a specific phenomenon nor even as something at which a couple of experimentalists may produce a series of striking “hits” but as a mental factuality which can be tested under laboratory conditions.” (Gerald Heard)
    Some of the world’s finest thinkers including some notable scientist have espoused mysticism. This includes the world’s greatest physicists, the founders and grand theorists of modern (quantum and relativity) physics: Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington, Pauli, de Brogue, Jeans, and Plank.

    1. A fine example of speaking in tongues.

      By the way, Einstein was quite the philanderer, do you use this fact to justify cheating on your wife ?

        1. If some small fraction of the amount of time and energy that godbotherers invest into trying to inject jebus into every conversation was diverted to an honest attempt to understand reality it would not be necessary to constantly refute their circuitous, meandering and just plain dishonest attempts to hijack the discourse of a secular, pluralist and democratic society.

          Look at the sheer unmitigated duplicity of this Ed Jones person trying to shoehorn his invisible friend into the picture under the guise of open mindedness and an appeal to authority of scientists like Einstein who were the antithesis of revelation and authority based dogma.

      1. Nice of you & Tulse to offer those bits of comparison ~~~ my interpretation of Ed’s main premis was not an ‘if__,then__,=all’. So I personally didn’t perceive the whole of Einstein or Newton’s lives important to the comparison.

        Aside from all that – I must say that out of several chat sites I’ve read or participating in, the people, rather, you people who contribute on this page never cease to amaze me – in a good way. It helps me stay sane to read some of the comments here, and I appreciate that.

        In reference to the chart in the article, the numbers do speak volumes. As it was with the feminist movement from mid 1800’s till 1920’s, they knew they had a solid cause, a good fight, because there was a hellofa backlash. I’m feeling that backlash and watching the catholic church squrm.

    2. Seriously, Ed? Are you really quoting Gerald Heard as evidence that extra-sensory perception is being confirmed by science? The guy was into all sorts of nonsense, he wasn’t an experimentalist but a historian, he didn’t understand scientific rigour, and he died in 1971 for crying out loud! All recent, unbiased replications of alleged support for ESP have failed spectacularly. Grow up, Ed! Join us in the real world. Your fantasies are pathetic!

    3. Been down this road so many times. At one stage I was seriously considering initiation into Sant Mat, which If you are unfamiliar is one of those ‘spiritual paths’ with a Master type dude who guides the initiates in meditation to connect them with the Shabd, or Audible life Stream. It’s sold with the usual ‘experience the evidence for yourself’ line. Over my decades long path to atheism I gradually realised that very few satsangis(disciple types) actually claimed to have experienced anything out of the ordinary in meditation; it was always some other third party who had and their experiences were always highly subjective. If you spend your life trying to empty your mind while hoping for some kind of contact with the Master ‘inside’ it’s not surprising if some flashed glimpses happen. If you want an example of the unreliability of subjective experience try convincing a schizophrenic that the pink elephants aren’t there – he can actually see them.

      I know lots of satsangis and they tend to be woo-addled types who have spend their lives trying to reinforce their worldview and any bit of evidence is grasped at without further investigation. Contradictions mean nothing to them.

      I had an incredibly intelligent friend who was fully into the ‘Institute of Noetic Sciences’ Doc Emoto’s water bullshit, The Secret, psychics and all manner of Edgar Cayce type Atlantis malarkey. I could point out to him where the story of Atlantis came from and how all of the BS artists incorporating it into their spiritual guff were feeding off the same sources. His defence was that there was confirmation of Atlantis from so many sources and there’s no smoke without fire. He died from malignant melanoma because he saw it as his ticket out of this worldly plain. He suspected cancer years before he sought treatment, at which time it was too late. Of course that was conventional medicine’s fault. When the true nastiness of the cancer became apparent he tried alternative remedies- he told me he knew for certain that if he really wanted to he could cure himself.

      The point of all of this is that I have spent a good part of my around people who steadfastly believe in this ESP and spiritual BS and have never seen or heard of a shred of verifiable proof.

      1. Oops. Too egotistical not to point out that I know that ‘worldly plain’ should read ‘worldly plane’. Couldn’t be bothered with the other errors.

      2. Dan Brown almost got me into that Noetic Sciences BS with the last book of his I read. I went to their website and they had a flash game that was supposed to test my distance healing abilities (I’m an IT specialist and was rational enough to see that I couldn’t expand my will into a USB port and manipulate the elements of a SWF file.) You could say that (and the Ghost Hunters) were the precipice from which my fall (or flight?) from mysticism (or cerebral flatulence, however you’d like to word that) and into naturalistic materialism (is that redundant?) began.

    4. Preach it, brother. Heck, you can even build on that list with tons more smart people who’ve believed all sorts of things. But I have one minor question: why is that anyone still remembers their names? Is it because of the scientific achievements they foisted onto the world, or is it because of their beliefs in whatever pet cause one cares to cite?

      We admire and venerate great minds of the past even when they’re wrong about quite a lot. That isn’t to say we still insist that their wrong views are right and we should just believe them too. No. We recognize the hard work they put into *trying* explain the universe, and we take what works and perpetuate that while letting their bad ideas shrivel and die to the mists of history. (and the churches).

      tl;dr: in the march of time, we learn more and more and this helps us to establish minimum standards in order to accept a claim as true. In the last couple of centuries we’ve dramatically upped our standards.

      Now up yours.

    5. Expertise in Physics (or any other field) does NOT mean, expertise in anything else. For example i don’t expect Dentistry from a car mechanic or philosophy from a mathematician. That’s not to say some car mechanics couldn’t pull a tooth, but i would not use them as examples of excellence in anything other than their chosen field. ps, I hope that was sufficiently *Gobbledygookey for ya?

  6. “Since it behooves all of us to consider the possibility that we’ll be boiled in molten sulphur for eternity…”

    How does it behoove us to consider this possibility? The only reason I’d consider it is as a research exercise for arguing against the ridiculous claims made in religious dogma. I’d certainly *never* consider it as even being potentially based in reality. Were you speaking tongue in cheek?

        1. Shame on Eamon for extending you the benefit of the doubt and not assuming you’re as dull as you sound.

    1. I wish I remember where I originally this.

      The temperature of hell is bounded by boiling sulphur. The temperature of heaven, due to its proximity to the sun is much, much hotter.

    2. “Since it behooves all of us to consider the possibility that we’ll be boiled in molten sulphur for eternity…”

      That would, in fact, be entirely physically possible to bring about. Google ‘Frasch process’ for hints on how to arrange this.

      Of course, why anyone would want to is quite another matter. And the ‘eternity’ bit may be more difficult to do. Of course, after the first few minutes one would be dead anyway. And if the process commenced after one is dead then – who cares?

      Maybe I take things too literally….

      1. The notion of torturing an immaterial soul in a boiling physical substance does seem like a profound category error.

  7. Actually the existence of evil is only an Achilles heel for monotheistic religious. Poses no problem for polytheistic ones.

    1. Actually the existence of evil is only an Achilles heel for monotheistic religious.

      And only for those that postulate an omnipotent and omnibenevolent god. Various monotheistic sects avoid the problem of evil by dumping one or both of these qualities.

      1. Isn’t the h*ddle one of those who dumped the omnibenevolent part (or claimed it never was part of their god concept) and worships the Stalinesque god of reformed theology?

        1. Yep. heddle’s the first to admit his god’s a complete asshole, and that he has no problem with worshipping such a vile monster.

            1. Oh, I know. But most of them try to hide the asshole god bit; heddle saves his tapdancing for the other aspects of his belief system.

    2. Depends on your idea of “theo-“. Post-semitic religions as those mentioned are certainly polytheistic in the sense of having a plurality of gods. See Coynes figure showing 70 % believing in “angels and demons”, 60 % in a “devil” and of course the core religion has an aggregate of 2-3 gods (“fathers, sons, spirits”).

  8. Craig:

    Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating.

    Clearly, god is Big Brother and Craig is O’Brien.

    1. Also quite convenient. I wonder what Craig would say if our penal system worked that way: just keep the inmates incarcerated under such conditions that they can only survive if they commit other crimes in prison. And for any further crime they of course get additional jail time. That way you can imprison anyone for life no matter what his original crime was (e.g. theft of a Snickers bar).

    2. Actually, if Craig believes in free will, he can’t say that the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God. What if someone in hell reacts by recognizing their error and changing their ways? Do they get out then?

      1. What if someone in hell reacts by recognizing their error and changing their ways? Do they get out then?

        Nope, you only get one shot of at most a few decades to avoid eternal torture. So even if you were a five-year-old when you died, if you were naughty you get to endure infinite agony forever — no take-backs.

        It does seem absurd that the moment that it becomes incontrovertibly obvious that God exists is the moment that you are well and truly screwed for all eternity. Seem kinda…unfair…

          1. That’s true. WebMD reports on a study that shows, “College graduates are less likely to die before age 65 than their peers without high school diplomas. And that gap is widening.” The main factors seem to be, more money, of course, and less likely to smoke. Whether that’s a big enough factor to affect the religious survey, I have no idea.

  9. I tell Christians that I like the idea of going to hell, because my eternal punishment will show me that my earthly life had meaning & purpose after all.

  10. “The Achilles heel of all theistic religion is the existence of evil”.

    can evil be defined outside of a theistic framework ?

  11. Was that kitteh picture chosen intentionally for its inclusion of a handbasket? As in, ‘going to Hell in a handbasket’?
    I also wonder how Christians, who believe they will be going to Heaven & that close relatives or partners will be going to Hell for their disbelief, think Heaven will be like. Are they expecting pure bliss? And can they really experience that with the knowledge that their loved ones are burning for eternity?

  12. The Mormons have a somewhat different belief in hell. (Please don’t tell me that their belief is just as stupid as others; I know this.) In their version of hell people pretty much mull around doing whatever eternal thing they do. (There’s not a lot of explanation on this.) The “fire and brimstone” stuff is self-recrimination and being separated from the presence of god. Apparently people from the higher-up realms (there are two others) can come down and visit you. This sounds amazingly like my current existence as I am severely depressed (to the point that I’m on disability) and I spend most of my time at home trying to avoid stress to keep me from going totally bonkers. This makes me pretty much say that hell is on Earth and that god doesn’t need to make a special place for me to torment me.

    1. Apparently people from the higher-up realms (there are two others) can come down and visit you.

      IIRC, there are three LDS levels above Hell. The terrestrial, telestial, and celestial kingdoms. Only LDS men with a polygamous bunch of wives can get to the highest one and become gods.

      The real Hell is the Outer Darkness and few end up there.

      1. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary does not include “telestial” only telestic:

        telestic /tE”lEstIk/ a. rare.L17. [Gk telestikos, f. telestes hierophant in the mysteries, f. telos end: see -IC.] Antiq. Of or pertaining to religious mysteries; mystical.

        Joe Smith couldn’t spell “woe” either.

    2. I thought hell was everyone standing around, up to their necks in sewage, drinking tea and talking.

      Oh wait, that’s just the tea break. Then everyone has to go back to standing on their heads.

  13. I’ve long felt that if there is an afterlife, instead of giving people what they hoped they earned it should give people what they fear they deserve.

    1. Reminds me of the story of the Devil showing people around hell. Hell is a paradise full of pastures and beautiful landscapes. then they come across a fence with a hole in it and as they look though it, they see fire, brimstone and torture and they ask, what is that? The Devil says that’s for the Christians as they kind of like it.

  14. “The anonymous writer of the website Evangelical Realism ” = Deacon Duncan, unless that’s a nom de plume.

    1. “Deacon” is his (former) title, not his first name. I don’t know his first name – don’t know if he has disclosed it publicly – but he has shared the story about being elected Deacon of his church, prior to his leaving church.

  15. I recommend the following text by David Lewis:

    * Lewis, David (& Philip Kitcher). “Divine Evil.” In Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony, 231-242. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007: http://www.jaredwoodard.com/wp-content/uploads/Lewis-Divine-Evil.pdf

    “The agonies to be endured by the damned intensify, in unimaginable ways, the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives. So, along both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants did. However clever they were at prolonging the agonies of their victims, their tortures killed fairly quickly. God is supposed to torture the damned forever, and to do so by vastly surpassing all the modes of torment about which we know. Although those who elaborate the orthodox account are sometimes concerned with the fit between crime and punishment, there is no possibility of a genuine balance. For the punishment of the damned is infinitely disproportionate to their crimes. Even the worst of this-worldly offenders is only capable of inflicting a finite amount of suffering. However many times that offender endures the exact agony he caused, there will still be an infinite number of repetitions to come. Moreover, in each of these repetitions, the torment will be intensified and extended across all possible modes.” (p. 232)

  16. One of the many strange things about Hell is how it evolves throughout the bible.

    It’s hardly found in the OT. In fact, many Jewish sects don’t even believe in an afterlife. The Sadduccees, the priests who controlled the Second Temple didn’t. IIRC, some current Jewish sects believe in reincarnation.

    Hell doesn’t really get going until the NT. I suspect the writers of the NT, which is written in Greek, stole it from the Greek Hades and up the threat level.

    It’s also not described very clearly. In various places, Hell is “permanent separation from the gods”, the Outer Darkness, and the Hot place.

    1. I learned in a debate with a theist that there are two words that are translated as “hell” in the New Testament. One is “Hades” and one is “Gehenna”. When you look at the Greek, you can see they are two different concepts. Hades is like the Greek Hades while Gehenna is like the Old Testament Sheol.

      As I recall, there is a different word in Revelation where Hades get thrown into hellfire.

    2. The Hot Place? You mean Oklahoma? [1]

      [1] In the movie The Last of the Mohicans, someone asks a Mohican leader why they are running from the U.S. Army. He says “If they catch us, they will send us to the hot place called Oklahoma.”

  17. Perhaps Lane Craig would try answering the questions about the Christian God that Shelley raised in his essay “The Necessity of Atheism” some 200 years ago:

    “If he is infinitely good, what reason should we have to fear him? If he is infinitely wise, why should we have doubts concerning our future? If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers? If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him? If he is just, why fear that he will punish the creatures that he has filled with weaknesses? If grace does everything for them, what reason would he have for recompensing them? If he is all-powerful, how offend him, how resist him? If he is reasonable, how can he be angry at the blind, to whom he has given the liberty of being unreasonable? If he is immovable, by what right do we pretend to make him change his decrees? If he is inconceivable, why occupy ourselves with him? IF HE HAS SPOKEN, WHY IS THE UNIVERSE NOT CONVINCED? If the knowledge of a God is the most necessary, why is it not the most evident and the clearest?”

    Shelley’s questions expose the inconsistency and irrationality at the heart of Christianity. No theologian has ever been able to answer them.

  18. BTW Jerry, there is this new report by the University of Chicago “Beliefs About God Across Time And Countries”(PDF). Here is also a PuffHo article on this report.

    I became aware of it while browsing the websites of several German newspapers and magazines. As you can guess, most of them are bemoaning the fact that Eastern Germany is by far the most godless region, even more so than those heathen Czech.

  19. What’s really funny is that God is throwing all those mohammedans into hell while Allah is throwing all those christians into hell. It’s god’s own version of “Itchy and Scratchy”.

  20. Maybe the kitteh is just going to Tucson. It was 101 here today. There is a saying here that when people die, they are buried with a blanket so they’ll be prepared if they go to the Bad Place and it isn’t warm enough.

  21. Perhaps the author of the Evangelical Realist blog wasn’t raised Christian because he/she, from these passages at least, has little understanding of the internal logic of believers.

    God does not show up in real life…If God is real and is hiding from us, His absence is denying us the opportunity to know what our real choices are, and thereby denying us the opportunity to make a truly free choice.

    For instance, The first, second and third inconsistencies are practically the same. Christians believe a lot of different things but I doubt many believe God is hiding or is somehow separated from us lounging around in heaven. That’s a strawman. God is omnipresent through time and space, he even acts through us, or so it goes. The fourth inconsistency is a matter of interpretation. Jesus was described as merciful toward sinners. Consider the apostle Matthew, the tax collector.

    1. He wasn’t talking about “the internal logic of believers”, he was talking about what we actually experience. Saying that God is omnipresent is pointless when that omnipresence is indistinguishable from nonexistence.

      My dad wasn’t omnipresent or all-powerful, but I knew he existed without needing convoluted and ultimately irrational arguments from apologists like Craig to convince me. He was just there. What’s stopping God from having that sort of personal, human relationship with us? Why aren’t we all touched by an angel?

      Jesus was described as merciful toward sinners.

      Sure, sometimes. Sometimes he isn’t (see Revelation). Inconsistent characterization of the protagonist is a common problem when you have multiple writers.

      1. He wasn’t talking about “the internal logic of believers”, he was talking about what we actually experience.

        The blogger is asserting against an assertion. And if he’s not talking about the internal logic of believers then he cannot say Craig’s arguments are inconsistent because Craig’s arguments are derived from this internal logic.

  22. The most disturbing part is that nearly as many people believe in hell as believe in heaven. I can see why someone would want to believe in heaven–they think they’re going there. But hell? Nobody, or at least nearly nobody, thinks they’re going there themselves. They think other people are going there.

    Thus, six out of ten Americans think that other people are deserving of eternal punishment. Either that, or they think that’s “god’s” system, so they’d better support it themselves to save their own skins. In either case, it’s not a flattering portrait of 60% of the country.

    1. I think a majority of American believe in Hell for the same reason that was pushed on me by my peers as a kid:


      Sheer fear. I was lucky enough not to encounter it until I was old enough to see that there was something fishy about it, but they had me worried until I got home and asked my parents. I guess when parents reinforce it, it gets embedded – impacted, you might say. Let that belief get you in its clutches, and it becomes too frightening to let it go.

    2. Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them.”
      Among those “damned” will almost certainly be friends, neigbours, parents, children, grandchildren… Those believers must have a weird idea of bliss and happiness!

      1. <blockquoteThose believers must have a weird idea of bliss and happiness!

        Indeed, the only question is will they react like this or rather like this?

        1. Isaac Watts, the 18th century prolific writer of saccharine hymns, put the sadistic vision of Aquinas into an exquisite piece of doggerel:

          “What bliss will fill the ransomed souls,

          When they in glory dwell,

          To see the sinner as he rolls,

          In quenchless flames of hell”.

          1. I’ve seen those verses before and it seems that according to these believers heaven is shaped like a Roman coliseum.

  23. Religion is a social system to whip population into something the elites wants them to be – without help of proper science as we know today -, so a system of punishment is a clear necessity.

    As is with ultimate good, there has to be ultimate bad, god and satan, heaven and hell.

    Dinner with the princes or rot in dungeon, dungeon of fire – probably from the experience of pain by burning, plus finding that there are fire (magmas) under the earth.

    With these understanding, the meaning of religions, heavens, hells, gods, virgins – blah blah etc etc, is clear.

    (the annoying thing is only the fact that those who believe in these idiocies – the religionistas – are trying to impose their idiocies on the rest of us — indeed it is)

  24. “If God wants to eliminate the separation, it’s up to Him to show up.”

    Our dual perception is what separates us from “God”. Sufism, buddhism, mystic christians, any one who has reached a constant non-dual state, are clear about this. The unconditioned and uncreated awareness that takes “your” place once you have erased your ego is “God”.
    To remain in a constant non-dual state also means that you are beyond the opposites by which the ego is fueled and grasps the world. Which also means that the concept of hell or paradise makes no sense. The divine good is a good-without-opposition, a concept that can’t be understood from a dual perspective.

  25. At least Hell includes the Pope Enclosure (aka the Pit of Popes) where every pope is kept permanently eight and a half months pregnant.

  26. “The Achilles heel of all theistic religion is the existence of evil.”

    I beg to differ. The one thing that doesn’t pose any problem at all for the abrahamic religions is evil. Something like the Holocaust is exactly what I for one would expect if the infinitely evil God of the Bible existed. If anything, we should be talking about the problem of good.

  27. W.L. Craig: Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.”

    So you didn’t believe in the stories of a God, and you are surprised to find yourself existing after your death, being tortured horrendously for not loving a God you never thought existed. And the fact that being tortured beyond imagination may make it a tad difficult to like the Being doing this to you is reason further for His being able to torture you more!

    Like a father to his child, as the father roasts him over a fire: “So…don’t love me yet? Well, then, MORE FIRE FOR YOU!”

    You think hell is diabolical to begin with, and then even modern Christians come up with excuses for hell that if anything make God even more idiotic, irrational and maniacally sinister. Somehow after all these years, it remains a fresh shock to see what otherwise intelligent people can convince themselves of.

    When Hitchens spoke of religion poisoning everything, this is the type of stuff he was on about. Many religious folk just didn’t understand his point: “You can’t say religion poisons everything! Look at all the good things we can see Christian people doing, so clearly our religion hasn’t poisoned our morality.” But the point is that even otherwise “good” Christians have somewhere had to swallow some terribly immoral tenets and premises as part of their Christianity – poisoning that moral reasoning at it’s source. By analogy, it’s like saying “You can act in a non-racist way to black people, as long as you accept the concept that black people deserve to hang or be tortured. But don’t worry, you aren’t the one who has to do the hanging, rest assured a Super Powerful Being will be doing that. You get to keep your hands clean and treat them nice until then.”

    Christians don’t realize that’s the type of message that comes across when they embrace a religious moral system in which un-believers or non-Christians end up in hell. Once a Christian has accepted this as justified (and they must, if they hold God is Good), the fact the Christian himself is not doing the torturing is hardly the point.


    1. I have many very religious friends. Nice people for the most part. Often exceptionally nice people. So it is indeed shocking when you encounter this horrible moral corruption hiding just below the surface.

      Recently, I was nearby when one was talking about her uncle, an unbeliever, who had stomach cancer. He’s been in and out of the hospital for a number of years, many surgeries and treatments, each time declining a little overall. They were going to visit him on what she thought must surely be one of his last hospital stays. This smiling pleasant woman was saying something to the effect, “I hope he comes to Know the Lord this time, before it’s too late. God’s been trying to get his attention, he’s almost died of this cancer several times, but I think he’s about to run out of second chances.” She sees the cancer as merciful, as giving him a chance to come to fear God and save his soul. And in her world view, she is right. Five years of cancer is *merciful*, when you’re facing an eternal roasting, if it might terrorize you into belief. Most of the time this woman is one of the nicest people I know. She has watched my kids. But it was really creepy to see her happy smiling vissage talking so matter-of-factly about her uncle’s infinite torture.

      It is kind of curious that the church has abandoned torture as “moral purification”. The logic is so sound. Whatever we do to you in this finite realm is of no consequence if it leads you to Heaven instead of Hell.

      While Catholics preach original sin of a form that puts even babies and small children at jeopardy, many Evangelical churches teach an idea of an age of accountability, that at some point you become aware and capable of sinning. Before that time, you are deemed to be innocent. The sect I grew up in had this view, so that if a toddler were killed somehow, she would go straight to Heaven. I always wondered, if that is so, why don’t we kill all of the children? After all, if we allow them to grow up there is a chance that they won’t become Christians and won’t be saved. Obviously, we should kill them now, for their own good. The logic is as solid as it is repugnant. I actually asked a few friends this question. Why don’t we kill them? The first answer is that we’d go to Hell ourselves for their murder. OK, but aren’t we called to be selfless? What could be more selfless than going to Hell to save a bunch of innocent children from Hell? I’ve expressed a lot of elements of my disbelief to these friends, but I think few things were as disturbing to them (and rightly so), as pointing out this horrible implication of one of their core beliefs.

      It is striking that Christians in the modern era have managed to override the compelling logic of belief in Hell to live as somewhat decent people instead of the monsters of the Inquisition that such belief would imply.

      1. “I always wondered, if that is so, why don’t we kill all of the children? After all, if we allow them to grow up there is a chance that they won’t become Christians and won’t be saved.”

        Horrific, but I’ve been around this mindset. I remember telling my parents once that if I died (hopefully died soon I would think back them, mirroring Paul in Philippians), not to cry for me because its just god’s way of finally taking me home. If anything they should be rejoicing.

        Now 30 years later (and my loss of faith), my brother dies in a car wreck, my whole family is torn up yet I have to listen to them go on for weeks about whether my brother is in heaven (the fear of his eternal torture is worse than his death to them). Finally some family member has a dream that he’s in heaven and bam its solved thank jebus he’s in heaven now the family can properly morn. Its really repugnant.

        1. And bad for their mental health. There is a lot of chronic anxiety among religious parents about the eternal fate of their children. If you believe in Hell as they do, that anxiety is completely justified. That is part of the horror they feel at evolution in schools, at gay marriage, at abortion, and so on. All of those things are like a gaping pit into which their children might fall into eternal torture. If they seem panicked and overreacting to, say, what gay people do in their own homes, this is frequently part of the reason why. Not just danger, but Eternal Danger, is around every corner for the most seriously religious.

  28. Yep. heddle’s the first to admit his god’s a complete asshole, and that he has no problem with worshipping such a vile monster.

    Well, to his credit he isn’t an asshole like those who cackle with glee and perform a Walter-Huston dance whenever they imagine those not believing like them are burning in hell.
    I googled a bit and I found this post he made a while ago on Ed Brayton’s blog.
    It seems he is a bit uneasy about these aspects of his god. It’s just that for some reason, he concluded that a Ming the Merciless type of god is part of reality and the best he can hope for is that he doesn’t make it on his shit-list (being a Calvinist he probably believes he is on the elect list).

    So since this god is very powerful (maybe even omnipotent but I don’t know if he also scrapped that omni) it doesn’t make sense to fight it so the best strategy is to just accept this state of affairs and hope that it all makes sense in the end (or that he was mistaken) and if not it’s still better than roasting in hell.

    In other words, this guy must be living in quite a scary world and I wouldn’t trade places with him for nothing in the world.

  29. It’s my understanding that the dogma of most mainstream churches is that A) you die; B) Jesus returns and resurrects everyone who ever died; C) THEN you’re judged. This is what the Nicene Creed is all about.

    So, Anne Frank will be resurrected whole and entire out of the dust at Bergen-Belsen only to be told that as a Jew, she gets eternal torment.

    Until all this happens, however, nobody is in either heaven nor hell. They’re just dead.

    One other important point. Heaven is not restricted to non-sinners. Heaven is restricted to believers in Jesus. If you’re a serial-killer cannibal (aka, Jeffrey Dahmer) and you die believing in Jesus, then you get to heaven. His victims (aka, lunch) are going to hell.

    The entire enterprise is completely incoherent. No wonder so many Americans believe in it.

    1. It varies. Some denominations believe otherwise, as there’s the line in one of the gospels from Jesus to the thief – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” or something like that.

  30. To hell with hell I say.

    I find it ironic but for millennia after the start of the christian movement hell was used as a way to both keep the flock in order and to inspire converts (Read Edwards infamous ‘Sinners at the Hand of an Angry God’). Yet now days its a problematic doctrine that the more liberal branches of christianity wish would just go away.

    I was raised Pentecostal and taught about hell almost every week until I stopped going to church. There were many other reasons but in the end the absurd notion of a loving god yet hell that lead me to finally lose my faith.

    One of the last sundays I went to church was after Rob Bells work questioning hell came out, I listened to a pastor refuting it, using Hitler as an example of someone who would escape punishment if there wasn’t a hell. This seemed to please the congregation, but I was in horror that this was so easily dismissed.

    I often use this example, but taking the example of Hitler, for sure Hitler was one of the most vile men to ever live, but even using him is it possible that a punishment becomes too excessive? I mean lets assume that you torture Hitler for 100 years for each death in WWII, now double the age of the universe and his punishment is just beginning in the scope of infinity, its not even the first day, surely even for hitler that’s excessive.

    Now take it to its logical conclusion, we’re not talking about hitler this time but someone like Gandhi, he wasn’t a christian so therefore he deserves the same excessive punishment as hitler? I guess in gods eyes he does. Furthermore according to some christians if someone as vile as perhaps serial killer can ask Jesus into his heart moments before his death, he’ll escape hell and all punishment, are you kidding me?

    There are many reasons why people should reject christianity / islam but Hell should be near the top of that list.

  31. It should top the list, but Hell skips right over our reason and appeals directly to our fear. It’s the perfect hook in the religion chain-letter.

    1. How would you propose a religion address injustice in this world? Would it be reasonable for a supposed just God to let Hitler’s crimes for example go unpunished (in the afterlife?)

      1. Please see my post #34 for my opinion on the matter (specifically Hitler). I don’t see how Gaundi rejecting Christ can be anything like Hiter’s actions and furthermore an eternity of torture is excessive even for someone as vile as Hitler.

      2. I would say that the ONLY purpose of punishment of any kind, in any context, is as a deterrent to bad action. “Justice” outside of this deterrence function is an incoherent concept.

        There is some evidence that humans have an innate sense of reciprocity, of tit-for-tat. This is part of what makes us work as social animals. As flexible individuals, we are able to choose whether to “cooperate” with the social order or “defect” and try to freeload in some way. Knowing that our fellow humans respond very negatively (from revenge to prison) to any of a variety of kinds of defections (theft, murder, rape, etc.) is a deterrent to that kind of freeloading/violation of our social order. It doesn’t always work, of course, but it is part of what makes human social existence function.

        We have a strong tendency to overgeneralize this sentiment, however. We assume, since we feel the need for reciprocity so innately, that this reciprocity is part of the fabric of the universe, that the reciprocity must always be satisfied, that there “must” somehow be justice. This is a human instinct overriding reason.

        I think every purpose of punishing Hitler would be served if every human simply believed he were being punished, even if he were actually whisked away to a tropical island to sip Mai Thai’s. No purpose is served by actually torturing him. Now, of course, we recoil at this, because our sense of reciprocity kicks in and says “He got away!” Few things bother humans more deeply than this idea, that a defector, an evil person, will get away. But our sense of reciprocity is fairly ignorant of it’s own purpose, which is to deter bad behavior. The bad behavior has already occurred, so the only purpose for punishment now is to deter others in the future of bad behavior. That is a very good purpose and why I’m for having prisons and so on. But if the universe ends and there is no more bad behavior to deter, the purpose of punishment evaporates.

        This seems quite obvious to me, but I don’t often find many takers.

      3. How would you propose a religion address injustice in this world?

        If religion can’t explain why there is injustice in this world, why should eternal torment somehow make that OK?

      4. To answer your question directly, yes. I think a truly just God would heal them both. He’d set Hitler up in a nice comfortable place and through Divine Therapy of some sort heal the blackness in his heart. He’d resurrect Anne Frank and sooth the horrible memories, erase the terror and fix her soul. In a few hundred, or thousand, years, he’d introduce them, and they’d remember that brief and distant period, so long ago now, when Hitler tormented her, but it’d be all right now because it was over, and so long ago, and they had been cured of the blackness of these evils. In the context of eternity, it’d be like meeting that bully from grade school who grew up to be a decent person. Surely the zeal of an almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God could fix both victim and perpetrator in the end? No? Well, I guess omnipotence never was all it was cracked up to be.

        1. “Would it be reasonable for a supposed just God to let Hitler’s crimes for example go unpunished (in the afterlife?)”

          My comment above was in answer to this question. To reiterate: Yes, it would be reasonable. In an afterlife, there is no purpose in punishment. The only purpose there ever was is for punishment is as a deterrent to bad behavior. Once the universe passes away, all purpose for punishment evaporates. A just God, a nice or kind God, would heal both Hitler and his legions of victims. He would say and do just the right things to make them feel better about it all. He would restore people to their gassed and murdered families, to everyone they loved and lost. He would apply just the right divine medicine and care and “wipe away every tear.” He would do the same for the perpetrators, he would heal the blackness in their hearts, show them as only omnipotence and omniscience can, the warmth of love. A million years hence, Hitler and Anne Frank would be friends. A kind, omniscient, omnipotent, God would see to this.

          An Iron Age make-believe god whose “justice” is just a wild overgeneralization and projection of our innate sense of reciprocity would say, “F*** ’em, let them burn for ever.”

          1. A just God, a nice or kind God, would heal both Hitler and his legions of victims.
            Not sure how many religious adherents you’d acquire if your religion would not hold Hitler accountable for his actions(ie god would not be just.) I think most (religious or atheist) would agree that Hitler getting divine justice ‘in the end’ wouldn’t be a bad thing.

            1. I think most (religious or atheist) would agree that Hitler getting divine justice ‘in the end’ wouldn’t be a bad thing.

              In what sense is it “justice” to punish finite crimes, no matter how heinous, by subjecting the perpetrator to infinite torture for eternity?

  32. I have sometimes said to my religious friends something like this:

    What if the Bible is actually from God, but it’s like one of those psychology experiments where they tell you the purpose of the experiment is one thing (problem solving creativity, say), but the actual purpose is something else (eyewitness memory, maybe). What if the Bible is like that. What if the purpose of the Bible text is to test our moral compass, to see if you have the moral character to buck some of it’s obviously wicked doctrines (Hell, Old Testament genocide, etc.) or not. That is, it’s a test of whether or not you are really a good person, or merely a suck up who will say, do, and believe anything to appease the Big Man.

    This actually rings more true, I think, than the surface interpretation of the Bible. And this idea is disturbing to believers because they sense that this rings more true and it hooks into the fear of being on the wrong side of God that already motivates them.

  33. 27 and 26answer by Shuggy are on to something, (the nowaday or external approach);
    but there is also an internal/mindmodel:
    the reaction of (many OR all) traumatized survivors of violence and/or unpredictables/accidents.
    We (I was born and raised in a very CATLICK abuse family) have a craving to put sense to the random violence AND an even bigger necessity to construct some ability to do/have done somethings to avoid the unbearable feeling of helplessness.
    Therefore we are prone to guilt feelings and that idea, we could do anything in the present – to avoid or reach something in the future, unprovable ideas like hell work best – JUST TO ESCAPE the knowledge/emotional reality that the respective person could not have done anything in the past/the traumatic situation.

  34. AND, gluonspring: I HATE the Matrix or other films and books with the same idea.
    But for religiousprone individuals it could be “just one religion”, the naked idea of being not more than a guinea pig, with the outcome to prefer the “selfish genes” of evolution to such a cruel superbeing.
    Such things, just like the accomodationism debate, work on gut feelings, not on facts.

  35. The matrix idea is harsher than the idea of Islamic hell of the beginning of this thread, the effect has to do with the believer at the receiving end, they may work both.

  36. Funny how the author states that “Such a notion (of Hell) is wicked and insupportable..’ when his very first sentence denies the very existence of evil.

    wick·ed (wkd)
    adj. wick·ed·er, wick·ed·est
    1. Evil by nature and in practice

    After this, not much point in wasting my time responding to the author’s other mistakes….

    1. Umm, he said that the existence of evil was the weakness of all theistic religion, he didn’t deny the existence of evil. You must have been reading a different article.

      After this, not much point in wasting my time responding to anymore of your comments… <– (If you're going to end with a dramatic ellipses, know that it's three consecutive periods and not four)

      1. If you’re going to end with a dramatic ellipses…

        <– (If you're going to criticize someone's use of a dramatic ellipses [sic}, know that ellipses is the plural form of the word; the singular is ellipsis.

          1. On strict grammatical grounds, your error could have been either; your sentence would read correctly if you left out the indefinite article or if you had used the singular noun. However, since the logical antecedent in hz4dtg’s message is a single (albeit incorrect) ellipsis, your error is in using the plural noun. Of course you missed two errors in my reply to your reply – the first being that I incorrectly closed a square bracket ([) with a brace (}) and I failed to close the open parentheses that opened my comment*.

            My experience in teaching writing has shown me that most people don’t even know the word “ellipsis” or its plural** so you’re still ahead of the game.

            *Those were typographical in nature.

            **Probably about the same number of people who aren’t aware that the word “data” is plural (unless, of course, you’re referring to Star Trek: The Next Generation.

              1. I noticed, I just wasn’t interested in getting into a grammar war — especially since I started out at a disadvantage — and was more interested in preventing future mistakes. I’ve done a lot of programming and unclosed brackets sometimes keep me up at night.

                How could I forget Dr. Pulaski’s rant on datum versus data. I did learn everything I need to know from Star Trek after all.

  37. “The God of the Bible absolutely does throw people in Hell…”

    Not so fast. What part of the Bible are you talking about? Surely not the Old Testament, where Hell is NEVER mentioned. Indeed, Judaism has no concrete concept of a Hell. The closest they get to it is “sheol” or “gehenna”, a sort of underground waiting room for the dead where all is dark. Even that situation only lasts for less than a year for the newly dead.

    Now, you’d *think* that Yahweh would’ve bothered to mention the existence of Hell to his “chosen people”, but apparently not. The fact is that Hell isn’t mentioned in the Bible until the New Testament. Now, why would that be? It seems to me that the obvious reason is that Hell is a 1st century invention; the stick to go with “Heaven’s” carrot.

  38. Hell is God! That makes more sense than God is love- all the evils.
    ” Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate meaning to which neither God nor the future state can further validate.” Inquiring Lynn
    Lo, how WLC and others can whine for pages on how life is so unbareable without the Divine Godfather [ Being Itself, Sky Pappy]
    Lo, how such revel in being sinners! Timothy Keller takes sinners to find grace in Him : you get your self-worth by declaring you’re a worm! What twaddle!

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