Posted: Oct 16, 2013 8:47 pm
by Byron
A good forceful reply, Will! I've enjoyed the challenge of wrestling it down. :D

My introduction rebuts Will's use of evangelism to defend hell, and notes his concession of this section. I then revisit Gehenna to argue that it was central to Jesus' message, and criticize eternal separation as a wrongheaded compromise. The concept of grace is held up as a microcosm of Christian irrationality. Following brief stopovers in universalism and historical accuracy, the conclusion ties the threads together, and argues that Christian soteriology is, like its wider theology, irredeemable.


Evangelism is central to Will's defense of Christian salvation.

This works on a pragmatic level only. Carrot and stick encourage compliance; those mechanics are not a justification. They do nothing to explain why people need to convert before their death, instead of going to heaven by default. Or why, if God wants to maximize belief, he created this imperfect world at all. If heaven, or the Kingdom on earth, is God's desired endzone, why not begin there? Conversion is only necessary because God has kept us ignorant with a flawed creation and partial revelation. As highlighted previously, in the Christian framework, we don't live on earth to learn, because God knows all, and will reveal all to us after we die. If Christianity's claims are true, there's no reason for God to have created the world as it is. Evangelism should be redundant. Like Christianity in general, all that evangelism is a powerful testament to is its own irrationality.

This, however, is not what torpedoes Will's argument.

It sinks because Will fails to justify eternal torture. Actually, it's more scuttled than torpedoed. Far from defending hell, Will has actively refuted the orthodox Christian view!
I have, I think sufficiently, argued that the Catholics view on hell is far from the truth of the matter and is definitely irrational.
Really, we could leave it here. Will has not only conceded this section of the debate: he has, literally, made my case for me. The Christian doctrine of salvation is so repulsive that even the person tasked with defending it balks, and attacks his own position!

Instead of leaving it there, I'll look at the case Will has made. Unlike the threats of Christian orthodoxy, it's nuanced and smart, but serves only to reinforce why traditional Christianity is irrational, beyond hope of salvation.

Gehenna Redux: Jesus Preached A Helluva Time

Will draws a false distinction between repentance and hellfire in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Gehenna and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Jesus' teaching is saturated with this duality.

Matthew c.10 has Jesus telling his disciples that towns that reject them will suffer a fate worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Chapter 25 of the same gospel has the "Son of Man" separate the nations of earth as a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats; the damned will go to "eternal fire" while the righteous go to "eternal life." This comes after a parable of a master sending bad slaves into the "outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (The origin of a fine anecdote about Ian Paisley: after the king of dour protestants quoted this parable in the pulpit, a member of the congregation shouts, "But I ain't got no teeth!" Paisley snaps back, "Teeth will be provided!") Luke c.16 features the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, which ends in the rich man being tortured in Hades, and Abraham denying him water.

Will misses the point when he says that Jesus didn't teach "eternal suffering in accordance to conservative theology," but "destruction" of the "wicked." Whether Jesus did or did not preach everlasting suffering -- theologians' lives are squandered in argument over whether the Greek means "eternal" or "very long time" -- the gospels record Jesus preaching that Adonai would inflict his opponents with a deeply-unpleasant fate post-mortem. It's an illustration of just how brutal Christian soteriology is that annihilation in fire is viewed as a better option. When eternal torture is your baseline, anything's an improvement.

Yes, Gehenna was a real place, and was used by Jesus as a metaphor. As Will's go-to theologian, N.T. "Tom" Wright, likes to say, a metaphor, fine: a metaphor for what? If the metaphor that Jesus chose was burning in conscious torment for (at best) a good long while, we can, it's safe to say, interpret Jesus' threatened destination as, well, hellish.

What gets you sent to Gehenna? Jesus' criterion for salvation, so far as we can tell from the gospel accounts, was righteousness, being "perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect," a righteousness displayed by following Jesus, the "Son of Man," whom Adonai had appointed as his herald of judgment. This is irrational for the same reasons that hell is irrational -- reasons already given, and reasons that will be returned to.

Jesus' hellfire preaching is not a coherent theological system: it's the jeremiad of a doomsday prophet, delivered with passion and fury beneath the blazing desert sun. More rational men than the Galilean have tried to make sense of it. Will's inability to defend salvation is but the latest example in an apostolic succession of failure.

Eternal Separation: Moderate Christianity's Cowardice

Orthodox Christianity teaches that the post-mortem fate of the damned is eternal conscious torment. Moderate Christianity seeks to ameliorate this barbarism, but, as with its incoherent "critical biblical authority," the result is a mess, neither orthodox nor rational.

Eternal separation from God, like annihilationism, is merely less repulsive than the hellfire baseline. It remains tortuous, and answers none of the questions posed by universalism: if God in Christ desires that all are saved, and is all-powerful, then what's stopping God from saving all?

You can't compromise your way out of an illogical proposition. It's a lesson that the moderates refuse to learn in their devotion to the golden mean fallacy.

Why doesn't moderate Christianity have the courage of its convictions, and state, plainly, that hell is an odious doctrine, and that God will save all? Is it for the pragmatic reason that Will offered, a motive to evangelize, and keep the church militant in congregants and funds? Perhaps that's part of it, but the numbers could be kept up in other ways.

No, I think the answer is more fundamental.

Moderate Christianity refuses to admit that the church was wrong about hell for the same reason that it refuses to admit that the Bible is wrong about miracles, women, and gay people: authority, and its power. If hell doesn't exist, then either Jesus was wrong about Gehenna, or the biblical record of his words is inaccurate. Neither possibility can be countenanced by the moderates, because then Christianity would have no revelation to fall back on, no bully-pulpit from which to preach. Christians would have to accept that their claims be judged as other claims are judged, by tests of evidence, experience, and reason. Christianity would have to make a case instead of assert a revelation.

Christianity would, in short, have to be rational.

There exists a test for Christians whose harshness is justified by its probative value: what happened to Anne Frank?* Did Anne awake in the afterlife following her death in Bergen-Belsen only to discover that she was going again to the ovens, ovens where she would be conscious as she burned, and where the flames would never die? Orthodox Christianity would pass the test, and torture Anne Frank with fire forever. Congratulations. Moderate Christianity would lock Anne in solitary confinement for eternity. How very merciful. Perhaps God might allow her paper and pen?

OK, maybe I was too harsh with the solitary quip. Maybe God only slings nonbelievers into gen. pop., where they might live forever separated from their born again loved ones, or, if they are lucky, have their unbelieving family around them in tolerable conditions, but be tortured for all time by the knowledge that they, through no fault of their own, have missed out on paradise.

Such is the mercy of the moderates. Liberal Christians, women, and gay people know it well, and give it the answer it deserves.


The concept of grace encapsulates all that's wrong with the Christian doctrine of salvation.

The Christian afterlife offers two extremes, bliss and torture. (Purgatory is merely a decontamination chamber outside the pearly gates.) Your entry pass? God's grace. Christianity claims that we all deserve hell, but God, in his mercy, allows some of us into heaven. Why only some? Because God says so, of course. If heaven is undeserved, there's no rational basis for denying it to some while gifting it to others. If some can be saved, all can be saved.

No wonder the question of who gets in is such a tangle!

In order to defend the indefensible, Will attempts to redefine Calvinism into its opposite:-
By living a life of sinfulness, in Christian theology, a person can quench the Spirit's influence on us making its influence small and worthless. As well as quenching the Spirit a person can deny the Spirit. It's not rejecting it, it is simply hardening oneself against it. Scripture calls the phrase a "hardening of the heart." These things hinder people from receiving the grace of God.

This isn't Calvinism at all, since Calvinism's foundation is that God chooses who to save, and who to damn, before anyone is born, and effects his decision with "irresistible grace," in other words, God compels a person to believe. Will claims that his model (which isn't orthodox Christianity, either) is "a logical methodology as to why salvation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not illogical." It isn't, since it does nothing to explain why, if "humans are depraved and need salvation," they must shoulder the blame for their condition. God made humans. There is no defense for an all-powerful god who blames his work for its design flaws. If people sin, their choice is made within a framework that God created. If "humans are depraved and need salvation" the blame lies with the manufacturer. People screw up because God has screwed up.

Will doesn't answer the objection that the potter is responsible for the pot, here or elsewhere. He doesn't even address it. Why? Because, I suspect, there is no answer.

Will's scheme also falls into the trap that, as Calvinists rightly say, Arminians fall into: Christianity teaches that all salvation is undeserved, bought through the death of Jesus the Christ, yet if people get into heaven for belief, they're being rewarded for backing the right horse. They've earned their slot in paradise by accepting God into their lives. This isn't grace, it's a payout.

Calvinists, however, shouldn't rest on their laurels, as they miss the wider point. If none deserve salvation, why can't all receive it? If God is merciful, why isn't he merciful to all?

Neither they, nor Will, provide an answer.

All Shall Be Saved?

Will objects that Paul of Tarsus and Origen were not universalists.

Well, maybe they weren't. There's no way to prove it. It's a matter of interpretation. I think that Paul's references to God being merciful to all mean what they appear to mean: Paul believed that God would save everyone through Christ. Alternative interpretation is of course possible. Isn't it always?

If Will is right, it does nothing to help his case. If Paul and Origen backed eternal torture, it just shows that Christianity is less merciful, and more irrational, than even I claim it is.

Will is working to make his opponent's case across the board. What greater testament could there be to its merits?

Historical Accuracy

Will and myself agree that six men were executed for heresy during Thomas More's chancellorship: James Bainham, Richard Bayfield, Thomas Bilney, Thomas Dusgate, Thomas Hitton, and John Tewkesbery.

We disagree about how More's actions should be interpreted.


Will concludes his case for Christian soteriology thus:-
Orthodox Christianity does not hold in an irrational hell of sensationalist torture for eternity, but rather is a place of separation from God, where those who disobeyed God will be sent.

This fails on its own terms. Will claims that God in Christ, all-loving and all-merciful, will eternally shun people who honestly disbelieve in God's existence. They didn't intend to disobey him; they were unable to believe. (Fundamentalist Christians feel compelled to insist that no one is "really" an atheist because they're locked into this disobedience model.) No civilized justice system condemns those who lack a guilty mind. Who made nonbelievers like this? If Christianity is true, God. Blaming people for God's handiwork is as irrational as a programmer blaming their code for crashing.

Christianity goes to great lengths to argue that it is our fault, but the argument fails, and its failure is emphasized by Will not even attempting to argue that an omnipotent and omniscient god of love is cleared of responsibility for the flaws in his own creation. Will doesn't argue it because it can't be argued.

Instead, Will has argued, most effectively, that eternal torture is "definitely irrational." He has argued a great deal less effectively that eternal separation from God is a rational alternative, but in any case, eternal separation is not the teaching of Christianity. Not in Catholicism, not in Orthodoxy, not in protestantism. The teaching of orthodox Christianity is that God will torture the damned for eternity. The criteria for damnation vary, from unbelief, to being in a state of mortal sin, to falling off the ladder of theosis, but the torture at God's hand remains. At God's hand? Yes. Satan is but God's proxy. Christ Pantocrator, God all-power, could choose to end the suffering of the damned, could have chosen never to inflict it, but he does not. Hell is not harrowed. In traditional Christian theology, protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, those on whom God's favor does not rest are tortured forever, and feel it forever.

Defenses for hell such as inflicting the consequences of free will fail. If people freely choose to suffer the fire of hell when they could leave at any time, they must want it for some unfathomable reason, and in that case, it's not a punishment. If they would not choose hell, their choice was not made in full possession of the facts, and the blame for this rests squarely with God in Christ and his partial revelation.

There is just no way to make the building stand, to reconcile Christianity's irreconcilable claims. Christian soteriology, along with the rest of the faith, is rooted not in logic, but in the apocalyptic passion of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, and those other early Christians who preached an imminent judgment. The judgment didn't come, and in its place, the judgment of history has tested Christianity, and found it wanting.

Christians no longer have confidence in their own creeds. Not even the person playing devil's advocate in this debate is willing to defend them. Heaven and hell are irrational. Only the irrational still attempt to say otherwise.

* "Did Anne Frank go to hell?", Rachel Held Evans, November 2010