An alert reader emailed me a link to a recording of pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul explaining some of his thoughts on hell and the nature of God’s judgment. She told me that a Christian friend of hers, who is studying to be a minister, sent her this link as a response to her contention that “the idea of a benevolent god is incompatible with eternal punishment.” I absolutely agreed with her assessment that it’s an interesting piece both because of how revealing it is about Christian theology as well as how frightening it is to realize that people actually think this way. I also found it particularly relevant for this blog because I often have to make assertions about what “some religious people” think — but here we have:
- a True Christian™ — someone serious enough about theology to plan a career around it, even — citing this source as a good answer to an atheist’s argument, and
- a widely-respected, oft-quoted theologian explaining the argument at length in a way intended to convince people to agree with him.
One would hope that, in a case such as this, you’d get the really good apologetics. Joe Schmoe on the street can’t be expected to provide sophisticated theological arguments, but these people should be some of the best equipped to give solid, well-thought-out answers. Of course, with 38,000 denominations of Christianity there will invariably be some True Christians™ out there who disagree, but this is undeniably representative of a significant school of Christian thought.
Sproul’s lesson is presented as a study of Romans 2, but very little of the recording is actually focused on the text of that chapter. It’s more of a springboard for discussion, using a few of the phrases in the opening few verses to craft an answer to this objection about hell. Sproul does seem to be familiar with the objection overall:
Before I exegete or give further exposition of this text, let me remind you of another common reaction that we hear to the idea of hell itself. People will say that the idea of hell that has been taught historically in orthodox Christianity really demeans the very character of God. That somehow the doctrine of hell casts a shadow over God’s goodness. And people will say to me, “My God is a God of love, and my God is a good God. And if God is really loving, and if God is really good, he would never ever send anyone to hell.” Now I hear this constantly, and I wonder about the logic of it.
Naturally, Sproul cannot respond by arguing that the Christian God is not loving or good. He has to find a way to reconcile an eternity of torment with our understanding of love and goodness. Surprisingly, he decided to go all-out and argue not just that eternal torment can coexist with love, but that it’s actually a demonstration of God’s love. He argues that the existence of hell exemplifies God’s goodness.
The only way he can do this, it seems, is to ignore the meat of the objection. When atheists say that it’s hard to imagine a loving God who also condemns people to hell, we’re not arguing that to be loving one must never punish anyone who did anything bad. We’re familiar with the concept of “tough love,” and we understand that punishment can have valuable deterrent and rehabilitative effects. I was disappointed to hear Sproul adopt this old, familiar strawman of the atheist point and trot out these tired attempts at analogies in order to make his case.
First — a loving parent would obviously be willing to punish their child! So it must be loving for God to punish his children, us!
If God were really loving, there would be no hell. Now let’s take an analogy to that and say, if a parent were really loving, he would never chasten or punish his child. And you say, well, wait a minute R.C., the punishment that a loving parent gives to the child is corrective. It is a chastisement that is designed to help the child avoid further difficulties later in life. And certainly the New Testament teaches that God chastens those whom he loves, but that his chastisement is for a moment, and it is given for our welfare and for our well-being. But when we’re talking about hell, we’re not talking about God’s manifestation of what we call in theology his corrective wrath, but we are talking about God’s manifesting his punitive wrath, that is, the wrath that is not designed simply for moral improvement of those who receive it, but as an expression of God’s justice.
At least with this analogy, he offers it and then immediately shows why it’s disanalogous. Weird that he brought it up in the first place, but okay. God’s promise of hell might have some deterrent effect on people still alive and not in hell, but he could achieve much greater deterrence by promising a much smaller (than infinite) punishment along with incontrovertible proof of his existence. Then, people would know for certain that that punishment would really happen. The fact is, nothing about hell matches up with the temporary, proportional, corrective punishments doled out by a loving parent. All it is, as Sproul himself says, is “wrath.”
Second — a good and responsible judge should obviously follow through on sending criminals to jail! So a good, just God must follow through and send people to hell!
Well, let me ask you this. Does a good judge, a just judge, leave evil unpunished? Would we say of the courts in this world that if they refuse to bring judgment upon those that were known to be guilty of gross and heinous crimes, would we say that that was a good verdict, that that was justice? Of course not.
I agree that it would be bizarre if God laid out all these particular sins and the threat of hell as punishment for sinning, and then never actually sent anyone there. But it is overly simplistic to say that a good judge is one who “brings judgment” on criminals. We have sentencing guidelines that ensure the punishment assigned is fair and proportional to the crime committed. A judge who sentenced every single criminal to death by slow, gruesome torture would not be a good judge. And even that would be better than the eternal punishment of hell!
Where does love even come into this, from Sproul’s perspective? As far as I can tell, he concludes that God is good and loving because God says he is, and God must be right about which sorts of things are good. This was a particularly telling bit:
But besides God’s loving us as sinful creatures in a benevolent way, there is a greater love that God has and that is the love he has for righteousness and the love that he has for his own character. God is not going to negotiate his holiness or his righteousness in order to accommodate us.
In other words, if we don’t see God’s behavior as good, that’s our problem for having the wrong definition of “good.” I suppose in a technical sense it is accurate to say that God is “loving” if he loves “his own character” and he loves having people tell him he’s the best — but that’s not what anyone is thinking of when they use the word “loving.” After all this, Sproul has basically demonstrated that God is an egomaniacal, wrathful torture fanatic. Saying that this entity is good and loving is a laughable distortion of the English language.
Before I wrap this up, I think I ought to lay out what the atheist complaints about hell are. R.C. Sproul has chosen to ignore this part of the argument, but that doesn’t mean you have to.
One important issue is that any punishment doled out by God to people seems rather strange. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, then he knew full well how each of us would “sin” and when. He made us the people we are, with the personalities we have, to make the choices he knew we’d make. He could easily have prevented us from doing so by making us differently. Since everything that ever happens is part of God’s grand design — so the story goes — all of our bad behaviors must ultimately be God’s fault. It cannot be just, then, to send us to hell to burn in a lake of fire. It seems hardly “loving” or “good” to punish people for things they had no control over.
The other major problem with hell is that it’s grossly disproportionate. Even if you set aside for a moment this first objection about responsibility for our actions, and grant that people deserve to be held personally accountable for what they do, it is virtually impossible to conceive of a way in which one human being, in a finite lifetime, could have committed enough sin to deserve an eternity in hell. Whether you believe that hell involves actual fire, or simply loneliness and separation from God, it’s a distinctly unpleasant condition to be in and it lasts for an infinite amount of time — so the magnitude of the punishment is infinite. I could imagine a just God acting like a judge and doling out punishments proportional to our crimes committed during life, some of which might last a very, very long time. But I do not understand how it could be just for the punishment to be infinite. No person has committed infinite sin.
Of course, at the end of the day, you should believe or not believe in gods based on whether you have evidence that those gods exist. Complicated theological debates and convoluted scriptural interpretations are still pointless, given that we have no reason to believe the primary claims or accept the authority of scripture in the first place. However, as long as Christians are going around trying to convert people by telling them that “God is love,” and as long as this statement does actually convince people from time to time, I think it’s worth noting that these Christians are using the term “love” in a very … well, unconventional way.