Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Problem of Hell

One of the most common lines of attack against Christianity is that the Christian God is evil. It's not surprising this is the case, because to conclude someone is evil because they do evil things is a fairly unanswerable argument, and there are so many different ways of reaching this conclusion. You can reach it by thinking about Christian theology, especially the doctrine of hell. You can reach it by reading how the God of the Bible just hates some people before they are born. You can reach it by noticing that God cares primarily about people stroking his ego and comparatively little about people actually doing any of the kinds of things that we call good. You can reach it by reading the Bible, and seeing the genocide that God commanded, and the barbarisms that he takes care of himself. You can reach it by simply looking at how the world works, and at how much pain God could stop and chooses not to stop. And yet, somehow, Christians think they can portray their religion as nice and cuddly and loving, and largely seek to win converts in this way.

This is not merely incorrect. The inanity is so breathtaking that it's difficult to organize a coherent response. When a position has a flaw or two, it's not too hard to point it out. But here, the flaws are so severe, so unanswerable, and so pervasive that it's difficult to even convince myself that I'm not engaging minds irreversibly wrecked by religion. But if I let that stop me, I wouldn't have a blog on why I'm not a Christian. And if Christians were really so lost that reasoning can have no effect, I would not have made it out.

But before I lay bare the utter awfulness of Christianity, I wish to first explain what it is that I'm arguing. God is evil arguments are all but universally met with, “but what is your basis for the morality by which you judge Christianity to be evil?” This response usually has more to do with parroting apologists and just believing by faith that it actually engages the argument, than it does with actually thinking about what was said. With the arguments I make, responding like that will merely proclaim that you haven't taken the effort to understand or even read what I clearly state.

First of all, I am arguing that Christianity is evil as judged by Christians' morality. For instance, Christians say they value human life. The Bible and the Christian God do not. Therefore, Christians do not get their morality from the Bible. Christians say they value religious freedom. The Bible and the Christian God do not. Therefore, Christians do not get their morality from the Bible. Christians' theology completely and utterly fails to account for their ethics, therefore something is seriously wrong with either Christians' ethics or their theology.

The second thing I am arguing when I say Christianity is evil is that some parts of the Bible promote things that are evil as judged by the standards in other parts of the Bible. Therefore, one or both parts of the Bible are false, and not just about matters of history and science, but even about matters of morality. This is what happens when “God is evil here” is met with “but God is good here.” I absolutely agree that doing to your neighbor what you want done to you is good as judged by pretty much any standard of morality. But unless genocide and sadism are things you want done to you, seeking to answer the genocide and sadism in Christianity with nicer parts merely shows that the Bible contradicts itself. Nice and cuddly parts affect the degree to which Christianity is damaging, but it does nothing to answer the argument that Christianity is false.

The third thing I am doing is opposing the deceitful PR campaign more commonly known as “evangelism.” People are told that Jesus loves them. The truth is that Jesus loves people in much the same way that a stalker in a horror movie loves the woman he's harassing. When he's turned down, he'll turn nasty, hunt her down, and begin torturing her. But if only she hadn't rejected his love, she would have seen how loving he is! Nice and cuddly evangelism is claiming that God is good and loving in ways that are consistent with what people mean when they use the words good and loving to describe anything else. God is clearly not loving in the sense that evangelists are communicating. He is also not loving in a “not a tame lion” sense either. I am exposing the lie.

And fourth, when I point out that God is evil as judged by human moral intuitions, I am blocking the moral argument for the existence of God. The argument is premised on taking seriously our moral intuitions as a valid basis for learning about moral truth. One of many ways to parry this argument is to simply point out that our moral intuitions judge God to be evil. Therefore, either our moral intuitions are wrong, or God is evil. Either way, the moral argument fails. If you say that our moral intuitions are evidence for God, despite believing in a God that is the exact opposite of our moral intuitions, you are not merely being illogical. You are being dishonest. If this is your position, then you don't believe because of this moral evidence. You are believing in willful defiance of the very sort of evidence that you claim is the evidence for your beliefs.

God commanded genocide in the Bible. There are three possibilities: God didn't really do this, commanding genocide does not mean you are evil, or God is evil. The options are similar with the other barbarisms of evangelical Christianity. To believe the Bible, it's quite obvious that you must be an apologist for genocide, and trying to parry with “AH, AH, but what's your basis for morality!!” only serves as a proclamation of one's unwillingness to think about the four implications that I have listed.

It is true that Christians who fully bite the bullet and embrace the utter awfulness of their religion are immune to many of these arguments, and all of these arguments if they can explain how the nice parts of the Bible wouldn't really be nice if we understood them correctly and disowned the heretical moral argument for God. Fred Phelps nearly qualifies. Maybe God hates America. To say it would suck if true is not an argument that it is false. I fully recognize that I haven't debunked his religion with this post. But if you say or even think things like “Jesus loves you”, “God is love”, or something else emotionally equivalent, then this post does contradict your version of Christianity.

Another response that says absolutely nothing is that good is simply defined as what God's character is, therefore God being evil is logically impossible. The obvious problem here is that this is not all Christians and the Bible say about goodness. Being good and loving also means having specific loving intentions and performing certain loving actions, as described in the list in I Corinthians 13. Surely Christians would also claim that being a genocidal sadist is not good, and this implies that Christians are claiming that God is not a genocidal sadist. So when I argue that Christian beliefs mean that God is a genocidal sadist, this is a perfectly valid argument that Christian beliefs are false, regardless of how you twist the definition of good. Similarly, if you define “fuzzy” as “what alligators are like”, all that can be said against this position is that it's an abuse of language that facilitates misunderstanding. It's not false yet, because for a claim to be false, it must first be a claim. If you go further and claim that not only is the nature of alligators the definition of fuzziness, but fuzziness also means having lots of hair, this is a position that can easily be disproven by simply looking at an alligator. It's rather disingenuous to counter
this argument by inquiring about the basis for my concept of fuzziness. (The analogy is due to Phil Stilwell.)

While it's not always easy the cut through the rhetorical wordplay of theologians to see precisely where the flaw is, it should be obvious that the “but what basis do you have morality” response is not even a response. It is a question completely unrelated the argument that God is evil, for in all four of the ways I've listed, I clearly state what standard of goodness I'm talking about and what the implications are if God is not good according to that standard. All I'm really saying is that when someone is called a genocidal sadist, any defense of their complete and perfect goodness will have to involve saying they are not a genocidal sadist. I've belabored this point for so long because Christians consistently try so hard to not understand it. Although, this is to be expected. Once it is granted that “human” reasoning about morality should be allowed to influence beliefs about God, Christianity is doomed.

The clearest way to see that the Christian God is evil is to look at the doctrine of hell. I have one suggestion I'd like to give God: make hell only last 100 years, after which the souls of the damned are snuffed out of existence. Or the time can very from an instant up to 100 years depending on how evil someone was. I'm certainly not saying this plan would make God good either, but I don't need to imagine what moral perfection would look like to see that God is less than perfect. If a single improvement exists, then God is not perfectly good. And if an infinitely massive improvement exists, then God is not even moderately good.

Imagine this: the world ended 100 years ago, and God is trying to decide what to do with all the souls. One of his options is for one billion people to continue enjoying eternal bliss, while 9 billion continue to experience eternal torture. Another option is for only the one billion to continue enjoying eternal bliss and for the others to no longer suffer. Christians believe that God will choose the first, and will continue to make this choice for every moment for all eternity.

Whenever someone makes a choice, it tells you something about what they want and what they value. God's choice tells us he wants some people to suffer. Or more precisely, what evangelicals believe God's choice will be tells us something about what they believe God wants and values. In other circumstances, such as not stopping suffering on earth, or commanding genocide, it could mean that God wants some beneficial result that comes from suffering more than he wants to stop the suffering. Not a great position, but at least there is some minor suffering that can be explained this way. But not with hell. The end is already known. The damned will not eventually become better people who no longer need the punishment, and there is no one watching them to receive moral instruction from seeing the consequences. In fact, many evangelicals believe in the mind-wipe theory of heaven, where God deletes all knowledge of the damned from the minds of people in heaven, so there is not even any room for making up ways that hell produces even marginal benefits for the people in heaven. The damned continue to suffer simply because God wants them to. It makes him happier than he would be if they were not suffering. It is difficult to image how a being could be more perfectly described as an infinitely cruel sadist.

(The mind-wipe theory comes from the verse that says there will be no tears in heaven. For people in heaven to be happy despite knowing about hell would require them to be utterly unfeeling and heartless. Evangelicals usually find it unimaginable that they could be so unfeeling and heartless in heaven, and instead imagine the goodness of a God who is equally unfeeling and heartless.)

This isn't something that should be “balanced out” with the nice things God does. With hell, we're talking about eternity for the majority of people. If one really must bend to the other, it's the nice things God does that should be balanced out with his eternal sadism.

Perhaps the most biblical answer is “Who are you, O man, who answers back at God?” Or to put it more practically, “Thou shalt not think about these things!” It's difficult to overstate the influence of this biblical defense of not allowing thinking to effect beliefs. I suspect this is the biggest reason for merely asking the questioner what their basis for morality is instead of thinking about the question. Rebuttals this poor usually originate not with apologists themselves, but with the Bible. To repeat: God is evil as judged by even what Christians will say they believe is good and evil, therefore Christians don't get their basis for morality from religion. The God of the Bible is evil as judged by other parts of the Bible, therefore one of both contradictory parts of the Bible is false. Evangelists' emotional arguments about how loving the Christian God is are based on lies. And the moral argument for God fails because it's premised on trusting the moral intuition that Christians cannot trust without judging God to be evil.

The standard Calvinistic “you're so evil that you deserve it” is no good here either. Look back at the argument: either God doesn't want people to suffer for eternity, and so they won't, or God wants them to suffer, and is a sadist by definition. Either explain how God isn't a sadist, or admit to worshiping a sadist. Just saying people deserve it is nothing more than an explanation of why sadism follows as a consequence of the Christian definition of goodness. And I certainly agree that it does.

A sickeningly weak way of defending the claim that people deserve hell is to hypothetically exaggerate how evil God is and say that it would still be “justice” if everyone went to hell. What's so amusing about this is that it sounds like a slippery slope argument that skeptics would come up with: “What's next? Soon you be saying that we would still owe worship to the justice of a God who does nothing but torture people.” But, no. This is an actual argument used by actual people who are trying to defend the justice of hell. This isn't one step further down the slippery slope. This is what Christians already believe.

I like to imagine what would happen if God threw everyone in hell, and then after a million years, God let Satan out and gave him the reins to the universe. Satan would be more frustrated than a monkey in a canned banana factory: What!? You're already torturing everyone? That was my idea! This really sucks, because there is no way for me to do anything evil, for the universe is already as bad as it could possibly be. Oh, I know what I can do! I can be rebellious, and defy the will of God! I'm going to just choose some people, not based on anything they have done, and create a heaven for them! That would be completely unjust, and that'll show God! Total depravity is not the inherent nature of man. It's choosing to worship the goodness of an all-sadistic God whose actions make him indistinguishable from Satan, and then pretending that evil means not joining in the worship of Satan.

The response of “I'm sorry it's like this, but it's still true” is worth something, but certainly not what apologists would like it to be worth. How could you be sorry that it's true? It's not an impersonal fact, like an atheist being sorry that a hurricane is about to hit. Hell is the way it is because a good God wants it to be like that. Even if, contra many Calvinists, God wants all people to be saved, hell is still eternal because God wants it to be eternal. If you believe that a good God chooses to make hell eternal, you must logically believe that in the balance of the good and bad results, it is good that hell is eternal. (Unless, of course, I'm building a straw man by using the words “logically” and “believe” in the same sentence.) When Christians are sorry it's true, this tells me that many Christians don't really believe their own theology, and are replacing it at select points with their compassion. So while being sorry hell is true does keep me from calling someone a sadist for believing in hell, it only dodges the criticism by backing down from Christian beliefs. You can only be sorry that hell is true to the extent that you don't really believe that a good God makes it or that you don't believe God has the power to make it work the way he wants.

Despite the way hell is clearly not consistent with the kinds of things Christians usually call good, still, Christians believe that “somehow” hell will still be good once we understand it better. It's a mystery, which is a euphemism for a belief that has been shown to be false. This reasoning about hell is why I can't believe Christians when they claim to be trusting that God has a plan with smaller things, like financial needs, or that Jesus really is coming quickly. You aren't trusting that God has a plan and will make things work out in the end. The reason I know this is that even when you know what the end is, you still try to apply the same reasoning and have faith that God will work things out, even when you already have an inflexible belief in precisely how it is that things will not be worked out. So I must conclude that you aren't really trusting God. You are living in rebellion against reality, and willfully refusing to allow facts, reason, or even a basic sense of decency to influence your beliefs.