Saturday, November 22, 2008

Why should Christians believe in hell? (Part I of III)

...when it makes no sense at all when looked at from the Christian perspective.

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the concept of hell. It's been the topic of discussion in my Philosophy of Religion class, and in discussing the hell's many implications, it's become very clear to me that it makes no sense at all, especially when considered from a theologically philosophical standpoint.

Let me begin with some definitions. Hell, whether or not it's a lake of fire or "the outer darkness" as my professor puts it, is a place or state of being where the souls of the damned are sent after death. It is a state in which, according to most theology, the damned soul is cut off from God, and thereby separated from all that is good, there may or may not be extra suffering tacked on as well. The God I will be referring to is the deity in the typical Christian sense, all knowing, all powerful, all good, etc. As as side note: no discussion of "satan" or "the devil" will be taking place, seeing that the theologians have long ago dismissed the logical possibility of the existence of such an entity. That may be fodder for a future post. Hell was therefore necessarily created by, and also sustained by, God (also perhaps future-post-fodder).

I'll also note that I'm splitting this topic into three separate posts, each devoted to a different version of damnation, because depending on what particular version of (Christian, in this case) theology you choose to believe in, there are some really horrible inconsistencies with each doctrine. Here we go.

Part I of III - The classical doctrine of Hell

There are three viewpoints I will discuss, arranged from the most problematic to the most logical (or more correctly put, "least illogical"). The first is what is known as the Classical Doctrine of Hell (CDH). This is the view which is adopted by most lay Christians (i.e. those who aren't otherwise theologians). In this view, hell is a place of eternal suffering where the souls of the damned are sent to be punished for their various sins. It is an irrevocable state; once you're in, you can't ever get out. This doctrine is easily the most problematic of the three, and even though it is probably the most common conception of hell, it is also the one which is most incompatible with Christian dogma. To begin, there is the conception that this hell is eternal. This fact leads to the situation in which you are infinitely punished for a finite crime committed in life (for example, murder). In fact, I will argue that any crime committed by a human is necessarily finite, it would be absolutely impossible for a human mind to conceive of, much less perpetrate any infinite act. This includes even breaking one of the "big 10". Should you be punished in hell for all of eternity for coveting thy neighbor's wife? Really? Therefore, any infinite conception of hell is nothing more than cruel and unusual punishment. Would an omni-benevolent God allow this? The answer is clearly no. Even a god who is infinitely bound by justice would only allow punishments which are proportional to the crime commited.

The reasons commonly brought up to defend this version of Hell mostly align with the thoughts that God is bound to be infinitely just. He would love to save everybody (thereby fulfilling the omni-benevolence condition) but just isn't able to, but only because he is bound by justice. This sounds great, until you consider the act of the atonement. During any conversation with a Christian, you'll inevitably be bombarded with the argument of "Jesus died for our sins!" What does this even mean to someone who believes in an infinite hell? In most cases, the sacrificial act of Jesus was committed in order to fulfill the God's burden of justice, to wipe the slate clean, in order to assure that everyone can be saved. But wait, if the justice explanation is scrapped by the atonement, there is no reason why God couldn't just save everyone.

So then the Christian will retort, as they often do, with the argument, "Well, of course everyone can be saved, as long as they believe in Jesus!" Stop right there. First off, this kind of argument is completely awful, you just need to think about it for a bit. You're telling me, that I've got a soul, and the only thing I need to do is believe in a particular jewish evangelical magician? It's that arbitrary? On top of that, even the Christians can't agree on which Christians will be saved--Catholics will say that only those adherent to Catholicism will be saved, the Mormons claim that only Mormons will be saved, and so on. Should the devout Muslim, or the Buddhist monk, or the amazonian aborigine, be damned forever just because they weren't born in the correct geographic or cultural situation? No, and the Christian should be ashamed by their implicit condemnation of the vast majority of people in the world, just because they're not part of the club.

Next time you find yourself in a crowded space, look around at the people there, and imagine half of them burning forever in a lake of fire. Do this, and then reconsider the Classical Doctrine.

If you find yourself a bit hesitant about the CDH, don't feel bad, because there are alternatives, which brings me to my next post: the Progressive Doctrine of Hell.

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