Folk who know me might remember that the reason I became a believer was, in the first case, a fear of hell. Well, a roundabout fear anyway: I had just seen the Exorcist and hell became a reality to my young brain. Some atheists like to say hell is an abusive scare tactic and that my initial belief is unsubstantiated but this is predicated on four arguments which I will respond to in under 700 words (perfect for a Philosophy Friday): (1) that there is, in fact, no hell; (2) that hell is merely a boogeyman to scare people into believing Christianity (3) that the teaching of hell is incompatible with the teaching of an all-loving God;(4) and that the way we come to believe something matters to its veracity.
Christians have embraced the same sort of rhetoric. Hell, like Heaven, is not somewhere out there: it’s right here; now (1). Hell is presented as something scary with red-tailed devils with pitchforks which are completely antithetical to the reality of the Gospel (2). Hell is not compatible with the revealed God by Christ (3). Since what we’ve learned in Sunday School is wrong, and that’s where we learned about hell, then what we know about Hel is wrong (4). Fellow PB’er Keith Keyser makes a point that this is just old teaching being brought up today and though I agree, I want to respond first on purely philosophical grounds.
These main arguments can be addressed in a few quick points:
Contra (4) the way we come to a belief doesn’t matter to its truth value. If I was colorblind and discovered that the grass was green by watching a cartoon, it doesn’t mean that the grass is in fact purple. Likewise, if I learned about hell in Sunday School or watching the Exorcist doesn’t make what I learned untrue—it might be true just because it’s true.
Contra (3) there are more options than the false dilemma of God is either loving or hell exists. It might be that God refuses to save people from hell because he loves them too much to force them to do otherwise. It might be that it would be worse for them not to be in hell. It might be that we don’t have all the information on how hell works. The point is that there are enough possibilities available that to settle on a false dichotomy is wrongheaded.
Contra (2) just because something is fear-inducing, doesn’t mean that it is in fact wrong. It might just mean that it needs to be dealt with. The sign saying the bridge is out up ahead might be scary but knowing the warning allows you to avoid catastrophe. That biohazard symbol warns about scary things but it also reminds one to be careful.
Contra (1) we have testimony that is being rejected. If hell is a place that was created by God we would expect that he would be the only one to really know about it and talk about it but other than that we’re left with quite a blank roster of witnesses. That’s not an argument for silence. It just means that if we learn about a hell it would have to be by someone who knows about it. Those who believe in Hell think God spoke about it so denying its existence is merely assuming that God didn’t speak it.
Even so, you have to wonder if believing the negative (There is No Hell) is the wise thing to do. I mean, the worst that can happen from affirming that there is a hell is to discover that there isn’t one and nothing—no harm beyond misrepresenting God. Now that’s pretty serious but at least there’s no hell. The worst that can happen from affirming there is no hell is that people die and get there by surprise.
Yeah (Calvinists) I know there’s a whole mess of theology being assumed there but let that lie for the sake of the argument. The point is that this would be a dangerous doctrine to deny if it turns out true.
Well, that’s just some introductory salvos before the deeper work coming next week.