Hell, or a loving God?

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.

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  1. Your post is interesting in that, being a Christian i can see where Sproul is going and agree with him, and yet can see – based on your comments – why you don’t agree with him.
    I was very interested to read your post that you suggested on your upbringing in the Unitarian church and i can’t help but wonder if this hasn’t shaped some of your thinking on the issue of hell or that God might actually send anyone there. Still, i think your problem may lie in the way people are describing God to begin with. In studying the atributes of God, it is critical to understand that God is ALL of His atributes all at once; He doesn’t “take off” one and then put on another like hats or something. So yes, God is loving but He is also just is also holy is also immutable or unchanging, etc. and is all of these things at once simultaneously. So to sepak about God as being “love” or a “God of love” may be true to some extent but is only a small piece of the picture. In fact the very title of this post suggests the same issue and then paints a flase dichotomy based on this understanding as though one has only those two choices viz. “God is either love [only] or is a vindictive, tortue-freak[only]: which one do you think he is?” You get a much more acurate picture, especially when dealing with a subject like hell, when you consider other atributed of God along with His love like His justice and holiness.
    So, as to your two atheist arguments:
    1: More than anything else God is about His own glory and so mankind is also created for this purpose: to give glory to God. All of mankind has turned away from the one who made them and gave them everything they have, and, like in any nation in the world, treason (especially on this cosmic level) is worthy of death. God is glorified for His grace and mercy when He choses to save those whom He predestines to salvation, and God is glorified for His justice by punnishing those who remain in rebellion outside of the salvation offered through Jesus and sending them (along with Satan and demons) to hell. This justice is never revelled in like God is up in heaven “rubbing His hands together and licking His lips as He tosses people in hell, but it is celebrated as one of His atributes along with His love and mercy and grace. Sproul’s point is simply that we would not call a God/judge loving who did not punish sin/a crime. You seem to be caught at:
    a) are we guilty to begin with?
    and b) is the crime worthy of the punnishment?
    My answer to those, as well as the bible’s answer is ‘yes’ on both counts.

    2: Consider firstly that what you understand of justice is skewed and that even the most just judge on earth is skewed as well. OUr justice and the whole concept will always be flawed b/c we can’t see the whole story – EVER! We can have the facts and the pictures and the evidence but we can never see people’s hearts and thoughts. In other words out justice is based almost entirely on externals. Now move to God who has all perspectives and can see both what happens AND why it happens. CSI people and detectives try to find “motive” based on this or that – God actually KNOWS what that motive is and can fairly and justly judge based on that knowledge in a way we can’t even fathom. So then, what we think of as a “fair” punnishment for rejecting God and spitting in His face; for saying ‘i want your stuff but I don’t want You, will always be limited. God also says that His rewards for those who follow Him and accept His free gift of salvation are eternal: i don’t hear you bemoaning the injustice of how some of the same rebellious, undeserving sinners on whom God places His grace get to enjoy eternal comfort and joy in His presence. And the simple message of the Bible is simply that: if we want “fair” we all get hell b/c God would be just in condemning us all, but for no other reason than His grace and mercy, He gives to some what theydon not deserve and could never earn: adoption as sons and eternal life with Him.
    So in the end, hell is much more a demonstration of God’s perfect justice than His love though the two are surely involved at the same time. It is the fallacy of looking at only one atribute at a time and trying to make it congruous with a certain action that causes the problems sometimes. Then, you have to get your understanding of sin and the total deprevity of mankind in place to really understand anything of why hell is a just action, and even then, that understading has a ‘ceiling’ on it as a finite being.

  2. sorry for not closing my tags – didn’t mean to bold quite that much 😉

  3. I fixed the tags, Wesley — what’s happening is that in your closing tags, you’re swapping the the “/” and the “b” or “i”. The slash has to come first; it won’t work the other way around. 🙂 You can check the live preview below the comment entry box, too.

    No time to reply right now, but thanks for your comment — I’ll be able to write more this evening.

  4. Wesley — you bring up a lot of issues, and I’m going to try to address each one in turn.

    I believe the things I believe because I have what I consider enough reason/evidence to consider them likely to be true. That’s the only reason “why” I believe anything. (Sure, I’m not perfect at this, but if I find something I believe for no logical reason, I try to stop believing it.) It is inaccurate to say that I don’t believe in hell because I was raised UU … except maybe in a vaguer sense in which being raised UU gave me the permission as a child to have independent thoughts and draw my own conclusions about reality, free from fear-instilling teachings and threats of eternal punishment for doubting. Then, when applying that independent thought, I found no reason to believe in hell.

    I understand that God is supposed to be all of his attributes at once. Surely, God can simultaneously be wise and powerful and loving all at once. He doesn’t have to stop being wise so he can start being loving, or something. My problem is when two of God’s attributes are mutually exclusive. At that point, it becomes logically impossible for God to exist. Think of it this way — if I was really mean to you sometimes in some contexts, and really nice to you other times in other contexts, you wouldn’t say I was both really nice and really mean. Clearly, neither of those extremes is really true. You might say I was sort of annoying, that you weren’t sure how to think of me, or perhaps that I was emotionally abusive. Similarly, if God blesses people and shows them love in some circumstances, and is “a vindictive torture-freak” in other circumstances, I think it would be silly to celebrate that God as obviously perfectly loving (unless you have a very twisted and unusual definition of what being “loving” means). He sounds like the stereotypical abusive significant-other, honestly.

    Also, it seems to me that where I would say “God is an egomaniacal, wrathful torture fanatic,” you would say “God is just” or “God is holy.” The concept of “holiness” seems to be circular, so I don’t really have much to say about that. (If God exists and is what you say he is, he’s by definition holy. Holy doesn’t really have other meaning outside of that.) As far as justice, though, it’s hard to see how something that was truly just could also be described as “egomaniacal, wrathful torture.” I was surprised when you wrote

    In fact the very title of this post suggests the same issue and then paints a flase dichotomy based on this understanding as though one has only those two choices viz. “God is either love [only] or is a vindictive, tortue-freak[only]: which one do you think he is?”

    as though the real answer here is that God is love and a torture-freak at the same tame. Are you really okay with that?

    On 1: I suppose that if God actually exists as some supremely-powerful being, he may very well really want to be worshipped by people all the time. He might very well have created mankind solely “to give glory to God.” His version of justice might very well be to dole out beyond-extreme punishment to all those who “rebel” against him by not being convinced that he is real, or by otherwise acting according to their God-given (and God-foretold) natures and tendencies. This is all plausible and internally consistent as a way in which God might work, and just collapses back to the old question of whether we have any reason to believe that God exists in the first place. You are missing my actual problem, which is that none of this has anything to do with love, unless you really just mean God’s own love for himself and being told that he’s super awesome. And none of this actually seems just by any conventional understanding of what justice means.

    You seem to be caught at:
    a) are we guilty to begin with?
    and b) is the crime worthy of the punnishment?
    My answer to those, as well as the bible’s answer is ‘yes’ on both counts.

    Yes, this is exactly what I am caught at. It’s not enough just to tell me that you and the Bible both think the answer is “yes.” You have to tell me why. Why are we guilty to begin with, when God knew every decision we would make before we ever existed, and he still made us exactly the people we are with exactly the inclinations we have? Why don’t you think God is responsible? And why do you think the punishment fits the crime here? How could infinite punishment be a just response to necessarily finite crime? (I would have expected your answer to this question would go under #2, actually, but I don’t see it there.)

    On 2: Your entire point here seems to be that you have no idea how this could be right, but that you trust that God has some reason or other. After all, he’s God! I’m sorry, I just don’t find that compelling in the least. It’s not an answer, it’s a cop-out. You have to admit here that, as far as you actually understand, God is being hugely unfair, and you are actively suspending your faculties of reason and giving God the complete benefit of the doubt on this one. … I thought this was a weird angle for you to take:

    His free gift of salvation are eternal: i don’t hear you bemoaning the injustice of how some of the same rebellious, undeserving sinners on whom God places His grace get to enjoy eternal comfort and joy in His presence.

    You’re right, this is also technically “unfair,” to the extent that God’s justice is fair at all (see point 1), but when I think of a being who is supposedly loving, gracious, and merciful, it is easier for me to understand such a decision on his part. It is not contradictory to his alleged nature. (It is in fact merciful to give someone less punishment than they deserve, even if we assume it is what they deserve in the first place.)

    Bottom line — I’m sure that if the Christian God were real, then hell would be a manifestation of God’s justice. I’m just not at all sure it would make sense to say that that constituted “perfect” justice, or that such a god was “loving.”

  5. Thanks for your reply. Want to take some more time to look it over and respond which will probably mean after the weekend. Appreciate the time and effort from you’ve put in here. Talk soon.

  6. Daniel

     /  May 8, 2011 at 3:13 am

    Ok i understand your argument, and your obviously very strong on you beliefs so i’m going to leave you with this,

    Lets say Your right and i’m wrong, on the fact that hell doesn’t exist, then we will both go to Heaven or just turn to dust, or whatever. Now What if I’m right and your wrong? then i’ll go to heaven and you will, unfortunately, end up in eternal suffering.

  7. Daniel

     /  May 8, 2011 at 3:22 am

    o i should also add one thing, considering what had recently happened in the middle east.

    You, talking to people will find many people rejoicing over the fact the Osama Bin Laden was killed just a couple weeks ago. this will be true for many Christians alike. I don’t know what their problems is, BUT THIS IS INCREDIBLY SINFUL AND AGAINST THE BIBlE. Proverbs 24:17 says Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles. Think of it like this, as a Child being punished by his parent (as you stated in your blog) is the parent glad, rejoice-ful, happy, that he/she punished he own creation? NO! if they were, then this just shows that God is Just and fair, (when ever something bad happens remember what your parents probably said to you, “LIFE IS NOT FAIR) and humans are corrupt and sinful. This is why God sent his only son to earth, so that way he doesnt have to punish all of his creation on earth.

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