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:
- 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].
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.