Sunday, February 21, 2010

An Atheist on Hell

"Our ideas about God affect the way we treat other people." - David Dark from The Sacredness of Questioning Everything.

I don't believe in an eternal Hell as described by the majority of modern Christians. I think there are just too many holes in the concept; whether you look at it from a scriptural point of view or simply by reasoning out it's necessity.

Most Christians, after a conversation about it, will admit that the idea holds no merit and will state that they don't like it but (as one Christian responded to me) "Many simply don't want to believe God would throw people in such a hell for eternity. Problem is we cannot hold God to our limited human standards of what is right and wrong behavior or worthy or cruel punishment. He's the creator of us. Not to accept that is just to hold on too tightly comfortable human notions."

This is where most of my conversations with Christians on this topic ends... God is beyond our understanding, so just accept it.

The God who, as Lewis argues, puts immense value on right and wrong behavior... suddenly can't be trusted to behave by the ethics he lays down? Suddenly black is white, up is down, and when it comes to God everything can go willy-nilly on a whim?

No. In the end, Hell is a religions trump card used as threat to get compliance for the absurd. It is a control mechanism of the insecure.

The author of this video presents a superb argument against Hell. We may disagree on theism, but we do agree that Hell is a notion that does little to persuade a non-believer and that it poisons the soul of anyone choosing to believe it.


OneSmallStep said...

**This is where most of my conversations with Christians on this topic ends... God is beyond our understanding, so just accept it.**

If God's that far beyond understanding, how do they know that they're understanding the concept of hell correctly? How do they know that their understanding of "God is good" is correct?

Mystical Seeker said...

I think that the video is a pretty good one and raises all the right objections to the existence of hell.

Mystical Seeker said...

If God's that far beyond understanding, how do they know that they're understanding the concept of hell correctly?

Often those who proclaim that "God is a mystery" do so to justify fixed opinions that they have about God but which they can't explain. So when they say that "God is a mystery", they don't really mean that at all, since they are making dogmatic pronouncements about God's nature or actions which, if God were really so mysterious, they could not be making with such confidence in the first place. So "God is a mystery" is usually both a cop out and self-contradictory.

I think another big example of this is in the doctrine of the Trinity. No one understands the doctrine, it is explained away as a "mystery", but of course if God were so mysterious, how does anyone know that the Trinity itself is true in the first place?

Anonymous said...

There are so many false (IMO) assumptions that the maker of this video starts with that I don't know where to begin. There is a reference to a 'Lewis', I assume this is supposed to be C.S. Lewis? If there is one person who made the concept of hell understandable, it is him. Hell exists, in theory, because there are some people who ultimately choose to reject God's presence. As Lewis explains in A Pilgrim's Regress (a book probably few Christians - or otherwise, have read), it is God's mercy that actually creates Hell - by arresting a person's self-destructive behavior and therefore preventing their total annihilation. Or read Dante - the people who wind up in his Inferno are ultimately there because they ultimately refused to repent and accept responsibility for their actions - not simply because they were unable to maintain some flimsy intellectual faith that perhaps some people confuse with salvation.

Redlefty said...

I've read just about all of Lewis' work and in my opinion his theories on heaven just thinly cover over the issues by making it seem a little more merciful. But it's still an awfully pessimistic view of eschatology, and I find it hard to see the victory/Gospel in it.

Andrew, I'm currently reading the book you cited at the start of the post. Good stuff!

Don said...

Anon.- Your assumptions are based on a atonement/repentance, Christianity based view of the situation. Step outside that view, if you can, to see things from another POV. It will be difficult, but not impossible.

Logan said...

Thanks for posting Andy-good stuff.

Jon said...

That's excellent, very thought-provoking. The medieval church turned the depiction of hell into an art-form with the explicit aim of scaring people into heaven. There's a harrowing version of this in James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". Possibly back in the middle ages it may have worked because it was inconceivable to most people that there was no God, and there was little knowledge of non-Christian religions in Europe. This meant that the choice was about obeying God, or deliberately disobeying, and the scare tactic may have worked. In our time, on the other hand, there are lots of other choices, like atheism, or various religions with different cosmologies. Hell is no longer as scary - for James in the early 20th century it just drove him to a despairing agnosticism, others just shrug their shoulders.

Anonymous said...

Without hell most Baptist churches would be empty. A hell to shun and a heaven to gain, people are told.

The doctrines of hell ,eternal punishment are filled with contradictions. What do we do with the people who never hear the gospel? Are the Calvinists right that God predestines certain people to hell? What does that say about God?

I am not convinced Christians really believe in hell. I wrote about that awhile back.

Andrew, I know presently you are a universalist? How does a universalist address the passages that speak about hell?

Hell was one of the issues that moved me away from Christianity. I could not reconcile hell with the love of God. I still can't.

Anonymous said...

Don - assumptions? I wasn't aware that I was stating any of MY assumptions. I'm just offering everyone what others have written before - to me, those are ideas that are not often mentioned or heard. I watched the video - and I listened to the other view - and I think it is weak. No thanks. Funny how you want to tell me to respect or sympathize with other people's views, but quickly brushed off what I had to say.

Don said...

Anon.- I don't care what you believe. It is your journey, not mine. If I mischaracterized your comment, I apologize. Perhaps you could explain your own beliefs about hell and salvation so that I will not misunderstand your position.

The Metzes said...

Andrew, thanks for posting - I always appreciate the things you share . . . I often steal them and post them myself :-)

This post brings up another sacred cow for churches. To even bridge the topic brings about such an emotional response it is difficult to address the matter at hand at all.

I'll mention two things. Firstly, our more dualistic/Hellenistic (no pun intended) concept of hell today bears no resemblance to anything in the Old Testament. Perhaps more of our studies should take seriously the concept from the Old Testament.

Secondly, to illustrate how seldom we think into these "primary" concepts of theology, it was in seminary when I had a New Testament professor suggest that Satan could have been a reality borrowed from the cultural milieu of New Testament times that I really started to think about this matter critically. The video brings up many good points that are worth discussion.

I couldn't help but think the video was completely consistent with David Dark's concept of the Uncle Ben god so many Christians follow. That is a great illustration that I find myself confronting in folks at my church all the time.

Andrew said...

OSS - Yep, that line of reasoning just makes any kind of conclusion utterly pointless.

Mystical - Good to see ya! I want to blog on the Trinity soon. I think that is another area where the church has jumped the rails, and it has become heresy to even broach the subject.

Anon - It seems you are saying that Hell would be merely a temporary situation so as to prevent a person from being completely destroyed, or declared beyond redemption. Is that where you are coming from?

Red - Yeah, I think Lewis tried to make Hell more palatable, but never quite made it. I wonder if he actually lent more toward universalism, but saw through McDonald that the church just wasn't ready for it. Also am in the process of Dark's book.

Logan - Thanks bud!

Jon - Can't remember if I saw you previously here or at another blog, but in any case, welcome! I think a lot of our hell talk is leftover medievalism that needs to be uprooted if we are ever going to move on into more productive theology. I think your thoughts on it are dead-on.

Don- I agree that Hell is tied into a whole penal-substitutionary framework. I think most people will not be able to see beyond Hell if they cannot concieve of another atonement theory.

Bruce - I am a fairly new Universalist, and other than bloggers, I am the only one I know. So I am a bit of a newbie. Logan could probably give a better answer, but I will talk about how I think about it.

I agree with some thoughts of Walter Bruggerman on this - that some scriptural texts are better than others. He is a progressive theologin who believes God "grows" and therefore we move from eye for an eye to loving our enemies. In his view, we should go with the "better" texts.

Since I don't believe in innerancy, I have no trouble believing that myths of the time worked into our scriptures. Hell is a polythesistic concept. Therefore, I can take the sheep and the goats story and see the benefit of it in terms of articulating what behaviors are important and worthy... without thinking that anyone will be tortured forever. I am comfortable saying with Bart Campolo "I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests" that God does not make all things good in the end.

That answer probably has many elements of copping out, I know it is not air tight, but it is where I am right now.

Adam - Yeah, it is always interesting that there is NO correlation between the OT and NT in terms of Hell and Satan. I really do suspect it is just cultural influences..... which is not necessarily bad if we can gleen helpful things from it. More and more I find myself more concerned with what behavior and attitude a theology produces, rather than whether or not its orthodox. Like David said... how we think about God affects how we treat people.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, hell is more of a state of mind than a physical punishment inflicted by God. It is mental torment. It is the guilt and regret we feel when we make a terrible mistake. God has given us plenty of opportunities to repent and we have chosen not to. We consciously made the choice not to return to His presence and the beauty, peace and love that awaits us there. Unclean things cannot dwell in the presence of God. God is extremely forgiving. Hell is for those who KNOW they are doing wrong and just don't care. They condemn themselves to eternal unhappiness. It's when they run out of chances that they finally realize what they gave up and it tears them apart inside (hell). But it's too late. They made that choice for themselves. God warned them and offered them the very best. He wanted so much for them to return, but they chose not to. I don't think it would make sense for God to give us unlimited chances, do you? That's just not very motivating, in my opinion. I think as long as we love Him and are sincerely trying, we will never be condemned to "hell". But there are a few who will never deserve to be in His presence, and that, in itself, would be hell.

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