Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dark planet

Schellenberg is a leading atheist philosopher, famous for his overrated argument from divine hiddenness. Here he gives an autobiographical backgrounder: 

I grew up in a deeply religious household on the prairie of Manitoba, Canada's "keystone" province (so we self-importantly told each other in school), with a father who, when I was a child, sang me to sleep with songs about Jesus he himself had written. We lived far from any town and were very poor; my dad, though in some ways a startlingly creative individual, suffered from a variety of complexly interwoven physical and mental troubles that undermined his every worldly endeavor. It was left to my mother, a salt of the earth type and my father's opposite, to help us hold body and soul together–and also to my siblings, much older than I, who one by one left home and through ingenuity and grit made a better way in the world, and then supported Mom and Dad and me with the fruits of their labors.

Alone on the prairie with my parents, feeling a loyalty to them and to their God, stirred by what I took to be God's presence in the whirling wind and sky and my inmost thoughts, atheism was unthinkable (I don't believe I even knew the word). I wrote my own songs about Jesus. In three years of Bible and musical training after high school I also sang them (I come from a family of singers). During one year as associate pastor of a Mennonite Church in Alberta I preached the Word as diligently and fervently as anyone. It was only after all this–after I too left home, both literally and metaphorically, discovering all the books about the deeper things of life from which I had been cuff off, that religious questions began to arise in me.

They arose quite quickly, as I recall, and although there was considerable pain in letting go of childhood beliefs and experiences at odds with the new insights generated by biblical criticism and philosophical argumentation, and although my loyalties did not shift swiftly, there was also a sheer exhilaration at the ideas I found. It was as though they had always been waiting for me, or I for them. And even after the shift occurred, there was still a felt continuity with my previous self, who so earnestly and naively proclaimed to others the "truth" about God. For although I had lost a passel of beliefs, I was still committed to the truth in my newfound vocation as a philosopher. Indeed, an unrelenting and scrupulous pursuit of truth and understanding–a fierce and unwavering desire to know the truth, whatever it might be–was something I now set before myself as worthy of cultivation much more consciously and earnestly than I had ever done before.

One of the ideas that intrigued me in my early days as a nonbeliever (I was not yet a disbeliever), even as it deepened my doubt and thus simultaneously troubled me, was the germ of the hiddenness reasoning I mentioned in the previous chapter in connection with the notion of religious ambiguity. 

Considering the arguments for an against God's existence and evaluating the intellectual worth of my religious experiences, I at first found myself with just the sense conveyed in the writings of Hick and Penelhum: that the world was somehow religiously ambiguous, equally open to theistic and non-theistic interpretations. 

Let me say a bit more about the "naturalness" of nonbelief in many parts of our culture, which is of central importance here. For people who spend all their time in the bosom of a deeply religious community, say, your typical small town with ten churches in the American Midwest or the Manitoba prairie, religious nonbelief may seem to be deeply unnatural. They and almost everyone they talk to–in the hall, on the street, in the post office, in restaurants–takes the existence of God for granted much as people take for granted that the grass is green and that the sun rises in the east. Their life, in this respect, is similar to that of people in Europe 800 years ago, who lived in a time when pretty much every department of living was saturated with the assumption of God's existence. And yet even their lives are profoundly different from the lives of the medievals in ways that have the fingerprints of secularity all over them. J. L. Schellenberg The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy's New Challenge to Belief in God (Oxford 2015), 35-37, 83.

The bones of Jesus

1. Christians are sometimes asked if they'd cease to be Christian in case the bones of Jesus were excavated in a Jerusalem cemetery. Of course, that's not a realistic prospect. For one thing, we don't have an independent DNA sample of Jesus to ID the bones. But the hypothetical isn't meant to be realistic.

2. There are different ways to answer the question, depending on what the question is after. One function of the question is to test whether Christian faith is based on historical facts. Does the Christian faith require that certain things happened in real space and time? Or is it theological fiction–like Perelandra?

To be true, indeed, to be anything in particular, Christianity must stand for some things. It can't be consistent with everything. If Christianity is true, that entails the falsity of claims to the contrary. 

And this isn't just about ideas. We have a stake in whether it's true. There's an enormous lot riding on Christianity. 

3. However, the question can have a more sinister motivation, to find or create a crack in a Christian's faith, then widen the crack. But we have to be careful about how seriously we take some hypothetical or counterfactual scenarios. The way they generally work is to change one key variable but leave everything else in place. Yet that's artificial.

If we're going to toy with hypothetical defeaters for Christianity, we could turn that around. A 2000-year-old tomb containing the bones of Jesus represents an alternate history scenario. But if we're talking about alternate history, then in that same alternate history, maybe Paul wrote something different in 1 Corinthians 15. In that alternate history, perhaps the physical resurrection of Jesus is inessential to the Christian faith. Perhaps the immortality of the soul will suffice.

The point, then, is that if an atheist uses this tactic to find or create a crack in a Christian's faith, two can play that game. A Christian doesn't have to submit to a hypothetical scenario that changes one key variable but leaves everything else intact. If it's counterfactual in one respect, why not another? If the hypothetical, as posed by the atheist, is inconsistent with Christianity, a Christian can adjust the hypothetical to make it consistent by changing another key variable. 

My point is that Christians shouldn't allow themselves to be intimidated or cornered by arbitrary hypothetical challenges. Don't mix two divergent timelines–where Paul says in one timeline our faith is in vain unless Jesus was raised, but in an alternate timeline his bones are still in the tomb, then combine them. That's cheating. 

Why I didn't become Orthodox

https://arturovasquez.wordpress.com/2020/01/18/why-i-didnt-become-orthodox/

My gang is Jesus

https://harpers.org/archive/2020/02/my-gang-is-jesus-brazilian-evangelicals/

Did Jesus speak Greek?

https://www.wesleyhuff.com/blog/2019/12/16/did-jesus-speak-greek

Chasing a mirage

The word [hebel] normally refers to warm air, briefly visible as water molecules contained in it condense when it cools. A larger body of warm air, such as mist, can remain visible for a longer time. It is a visual metaphor. Mist appears to be more substantial than it is (ephemerality), soon disappears (transience) and hides objects behind it, obscuring reality from view (illusoriness). All of these aspects of mist are especially prominent in the metaphorical use of the word hebel: its usage to describe the optical phenomenon of "mirages". The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines mirages as "an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions through the refraction of light in hot air", giving the following example: "the false appearance of a distant sheet of water in a desert". Figuratively, the word "mirage" can also mean "an illusion, a fantasy". The majority of the occurrences of the word hebel in the OT carry the meaning of "mirage", referring either to an optical illusion or to an illusion in general. In Ecclesiastes, all occurrences of the word hebel refer to an illusion. Knut Martin Heim, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (IVP 2019), Introduction, §5. 

As a native of the Middle East, the narrator and his audience would be familiar with mirages. This doesn't mean the narrator regards the world as illusory, like Eastern philosophy. But a mirage has a twofold effect; on the one hand an observer can't see the reality beyond the mirage. He can't see around or through the mirage. Although there's an objective reality on the other side of the mirage, the optics block the view so that an observer can't see what lies behind it. On the other hand, what the observer does see is unreal. The mirage is an optical illusion. So what can be seen is unreal while what is real can't be seen. That's the paradox. 

Assuming the narrator is exploiting the full connotations of the metaphor, our experience of the world is illusory in some degree. Things are not always as they seem. Appearances are deceptive. What we perceive is superficial and sometimes misleading. But it remains enigmatic because we're in no position to compare it to the underlying reality. An attentive observer like the narrator will discern that something is off, something doesn't make sense, but he lacks the God's-eye viewpoint to discern the correct explanation. There's a larger reality over and above sublunary events, but providence can be baffling. Everything happens according to a master plan, but it remains largely hidden from human view. Only divine revelation can dispel the mirage. Enough of the plan surfaces from time to time to disclose a plan, but too much stays out of sight to figure out the whole or the goal.  

The outlook of Ecclesiastes reflects the narrator's historical position in progressive revelation. I still think Solomon is the best candidate for authorship (a position recently defended by John Currid in his commentary). Christians know more about God's plan than OT sages like Solomon. But it's a matter of degree. Even for Christians, the way we experience the world is still filtered through a mirage. We can't remove the screen. We must use the map of Scripture rather than our own eyesight and insight to find our way through the desert to the eternal oasis. Unbelievers chase the illusory oasis until they die of thirst, lost in the labyrinth of the sand dunes. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Living in the Bible

When we read the Bible, should we be able to find ourselves in the Bible? To use literary categories, there can be archetypal characters, archetypal plots, and and archetypical places. 

1. Characters

There are figures whose experience may parallel your own in certain respects. For instance, the hope, longing, elation, aggravation, depression, and despair of the Psalmists and Prophets. 

2. Plot

Likewise, there's the plot. The lifecycle is the elemental perennial human plot. Birth, childhood, coming of age, adulthood, parenthood (repeating the lifecycle), aging, death. 

Scripture picks up on this but deepens and extends it. We are born in this world, but on a journey through this world on the way out of this world. Although we live and die in this world, death is not the end. And ultimately, the saints will return to this world, a renewed world. 

3. Setting

This in turn shades into the setting or landscape of Scripture. Although biblical events happen in real time and space, there's an emblematic quality to certain localities in Scripture which readers have always sensed. In that respect, the landscape of Scripture can move on an allegorical plane for some readers. Where the lifecycle and the individual Christian pilgrimage is is overlaid on the symbolic setting of Bible history. 

We're born in exile. Some of us are on a quest to return to our ancestral home (Eden, heaven). With various obstacles in the way. But others are on a journey to hell. 

Consider some archetypal places in Scripture:

Garden/river 

Banishment/exile (e.g. expulsion from Eden; expulsion from Promised Land/Babylonian Exile)

Captivity (Egypt; Babylon)

Nomadism (Patriarchal narratives)

Urbanism (Sodom, Jerusalem)

Desert (Sinai)

Promised Land 

Lost

These have different symbolic connotations. And they can have parallels with our own lives at different times.

We aren't born in Eden, but some people have a fairly Edenic childhood. Yet they may suffer a dramatic downturn in their fortunes. 

The nomadism of the Patriarchs isn't the same thing as exile. It's a rootless existence, but it has freedom. And since they take their family with them, it's not lonely. There's an insecurity and lack of direction to it, but it's not inherently unpleasant.

Also, it can be cyclical, where wayfarers move back and forth within a certain range. Often seasonal. So it's not wide open. It has boundaries. 

The alternative to banishment is escape. The Israelites were delivered from bondage. The Babylonian exiles were released and repatriated, although some chose to stay behind. They had become assimilated. 

This stands in contrast to settling down. Having a particular place to call home. But cities have complex connotations. The new Jerusalem is utopian while Sodom, Gomorrah, and Babylon are dystopian. 

Cities can be psychologically claustrophobic. And ironically, many people feel lonely and alienated in cities, due to the anonymity and indifference to individuals. 

In the case of exile, you're not where you want to be. You feel shut out and cut off. It never feels like home. There's always the sense of being out of place. Not belonging. 

If the promised land is a homeland, the desert is a no man's land. Hellish. 

Our lives can parallel different kinds of archetypal space at different times of life, depending on our circumstances, where we live, and our psychological situation. 

This also plays on the sense of being lost (and alone) in the world. Lost in the crowd. So many who came before us. So many who come after us. Groping for meaning or going with the flow. 

Can we find our way out of the woods? Is the way forward or back? Do we know what we're looking for? Where is home? What is home? 

Suppose you're hopelessly lost, so you must rescued. That's the lost and found motif. You were found. 

Kinda like if you were abducted in your sleep. You wake up in the middle of nowhere. How do you get back? How do you retrace your steps?

Or take a war-torn area. A soldier leaves home to fight. When he returns, the village is burned to the ground. There is no home to go back to. That's gone. He can't go back to the life he had. 

Symbolic space and symbolic time pan into each other because both may symbolize a journey. Travel through time and space.  

A river is dynamic. That's emblematic of a journey downstream, to empty into the ocean (perhaps).

But even a dry canyon can symbolize a journey. Although it's static space, it has a trail in two directions. 

Our lives have a plot that in some respects will parallel the overarching plot of Scripture or the subplots of individual characters. Likewise, we live in places that may parallel emblematic places in Scripture. These all resonate at an allegorical or analogical level. Sometimes your life may feel rootless, sometimes exilic. Sometimes you may feel trapped. Sometimes you may feel lost. You can locate yourself in Scripture using the the landscape of Scripture as a symbolic map of the soul. 

Controversies in Jesus studies

https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Controversies-in-Jesus-studies-John-Dickson-Lydia-McGrew-and-Jonathan-McLatchie

Oral and memorial tradition

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read (Lk 4:16).

After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it” (Acts 13:15).

For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21).

And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea (Col 4:16).

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near (Rev 1:3).

1. A stock objection to sola scriptura is that most early Christians didn't have the NT. It supposedly took centuries for the NT to be canonized. Even then, literacy and distribution were limited. So Christianity can't be a bookish religion. It had to rely on oral tradition. 

2. One problem with that objection is that it either proves too much or to little. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are bookish religions. They have a textual orientation in the church fathers, as well as creeds and canons of ecumenical councils (not to mention papal encyclicals). Knowledge of Catholic and Orthodox theology has a textual basis. 

3. There's a difference between the formal canonization of the NT and how it circulated. We know from early NT MSS that NT books circulated in collections, like the Gospels or Pauline epistles. Scribes copied subsets of the NT. So the NT books were already grouped and distributed prior to formal canonization. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition.

4. There's a fundamental distinction between information that has its origin in an oral source and the oral transmission of information. Suppose I'm a 1C Jew living in Jerusalem. My teenage son tags along the crowds that follow Jesus as he travels the countryside. My son witnesses Jesus multiply fish and bread. He tells me what he saw. That's word-of-mouth from the get-go. 

5. Compare that to my hearing the OT read aloud in synagogue every week. That involves oral transmission of a written text. The source of information isn't oral but written. As a regular attendant at synagogue, my knowledge of the OT isn't based on oral tradition but memorial tradition. My recollection of the lector reading the text. Due to repetition, I remember the gist of the OT. 

The public reading of the Scripture, a Jewish tradition that carried over into the church, gave Christians who might be illiterate or lack private copies of the Bible, regular exposure to the text of Scripture. That's not oral tradition but memorial tradition. Not something that originates in word-of-mouth transmission but hearing and remembering a text. 

6. And the text is fixed in a way that word-of-mouth is not. Everyone hears the same text. A common frame of reference. Not a paraphrase of what someone recalls. Now, when we remember a text, we may paraphrase it in our mind, but the text itself is not a paraphrase of what someone remembered (or misremembered). 

7. Some Catholic apologists defend oral tradition on the grounds that it was good enough for the Patriarchs. But that's a very careless comparison. The terms of the Abraham covenant are terse. That's easy to remember and pass on by word-of-mouth. If hardly follows that if the Abrahamic covenant can be transmitted by oral tradition, then the content of Matthew's Gospel or Luke's Gospel or Romans can be transmitted by oral tradition. 

It's possible to memorize the Gospels, but you have to have the script to memorize. You commit the text to memory. 

8. In addition, access to the text enables someone to refresh their recollection. If you don't read or hear the text on a regular basis, it's easier to misremember what it says and there's no way to correct your faulty memory. 

9. Critics of sola scriptura fail to appreciate the nature and necessity of a standard. Sola scripture doesn't mean it's necessary for every Christian to have regular access to the Bible. Up to a point, memory is adequate. But it is necessary that the source and standard be available to the church. 

I have a clock by my bed, with an illuminated readout. The only time I set my clock is after a power outage. It's possible that my clock runs a little fast or slow, yet it's adequate for my ordinary needs. But when the power goes out, I need to know what time it is. Indeed, I need the exact time to reset my clock. 

I don't need to check the official time every day or every week, but it is essential to have an official standard, and access to the source, to refer to on some occasions to check the accuracy of my clock. 

10. There are situations where we need to know what Jesus actually said and did. Not just my recollection. 

11. To take a comparison, some Christians have a scholarly knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew text of Scripture. Most Christians can get along with translations. But it's necessary that the original be available to back up the translations. The necessity of the standard doesn't demand universal access to the standard. But some Christians have to be in a position to go back and doublecheck a translation or interpretation against the source. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Seed dispersal

I'd like to make a brief observation about the "thousands" of Protestant denominations. According to Catholic apologists, that's a defeater for the Protestant faith.

As we know, Jesus often uses agriculture metaphors for the growth of God's kingdom. Consider different natural strategies for seed dispersal. Because plants are immobile, some of them reproduce through mobile seed. For instance, dandelion puffs and maple leaves (samaras) are designed to exploit wind dispersal. 

Now, which is better–one immobile tree or thousands of wind-blown seeds? A single tree is vulnerable in a way that thousands of seeds and saplings are not. A single tree can die from lightning, wildfire, drought, infestation, &c. But nature uses the principle of redundancy. 

Why not view the "thousands" of Protestant denominations as divine anemochory? God's samaras or dandelion puffs? These aren't schisms but saplings. God disseminates the church, not through a single denomination, but by anemochory. 

Retroengineering the development of doctrine

Catholic apologists like to retroengineer the development of doctrine. With the benefit of hindsight, they retrace later positions and policies back to seminal ideas in the church fathers. 

Sometimes that's legitimate, but it an easily be an illusion. That's because it's often possible for the same ideas to branch out in divergent directions. So it's unpredictable. In themselves, the same ideas may have no orientation to a particular line of evolution. 

To take a comparison, consider the character of Batman, Superman, or Dracula. In later creative hands, these are open to a wide range of alternative developments that could not be foreseen or intended by the creators of the character. 

If you know how an idea began, and you stand at a certain point down the line, it may seem more inevitable that it was going to unfold that way. But suppose you didn't know how the character of Batman or Superman or Dracula originated. If all you had to go by were their current permutations, how successful would you be at recovering the Ur-character, with his original history? 

The Madness of Crowds

https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Unbelievable-Douglas-Murray-and-Esther-O-Reilly-The-Madness-of-Crowds-and-Christian-atheism?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Throwing sixes

1. A stock argument for the composite authorship of the Pentateuch is doublets. Classified as alternate traditions or alternate legends. 

I guess the theory behind this is that because each tradition had sacred pedigree, the redactors incorporated conflicting traditions into the Pentateuch. But does that make much sense even on its own grounds?

To begin with, don't critical scholars posit divergent theological stands and agendas in the Pentateuch? Competing schools of thought? So what would inhibit a rival editor from expuging a tradition contrary to the official version of his own sect? Why treat the competition as sacrosanct? 

2. Also, even if we bracket the inspiration and historicity of the Pentateuch and treat it as just nationalistic patriotic literature, it's not like the exploits of Hercules, Perseus, or Theseus, where a bard collects all the legends of the hero, including alternate birth and death accounts. The OT isn't that individualistic. It's not centered on individuals. Although their lives are important in their own right, they are agents whom God uses to further his design for history. There's an overarching plot or unfolding promise and fulfillment scheme from one generation to the next. Prominent individuals play a role in making that happen, but the direction is linear rather than revolving around feats and foibles of an individual. 

3. Is there a realistic explanation for the doublets? Here's a proposal. When something happens once, we rarely give it a second thought. Even if it's striking or unusual, it doesn't make a deep impression. This can happen with apparent answers to prayer or special providence. We think maybe that's the hand of God, but we also make allowance for the possibility that it was something which was going to happen anyway.

But if it happens twice, an uncanny parallel, that that really makes us sit up and take notice. That's not coincidental–that's providential! An arresting repetition, where implausibly similar things happen to us, is like a divine sign that God is working behind-the scenes. We discern the orchestration of events. Arranging things to happen in ways that wouldn't happen on their own. 

Sometimes God gives his people loaded dice to play with. The results defy the odds. They keep throwing sixes. 

I wonder how many Christians experience "doublets" in their lives. Things that happen more than once in ways that indicate someone is looking out for them. 

Text and History: Reassessing the Relationship between the Bible and Archaeological Findings

https://denverseminary.edu/resources/news-and-articles/text-and-history-reassessing-the-relationship-between-the-bible-and-archaeological-findings-a-review-essay/

This is basically a critique of secular biblical archeology. The primary value lies in the correctives provided by Hess rather than the book under review.

Reasons for hell

Recently I was listening to philosophical theologians give bad answers on hell. I've probably discussed most of this before at one time or another, but it may be useful to summarize them in one place. By way of preliminary comment, the primary reason Christians believe in hell is because they believe what the Bible says about hell. It isn't necessary to provide an independent, philosophical defense of hell. It's useful in apologetics and evangelism to be able to do that, but the warrant for believing in hell doesn't rely on that.

1. Infinite God

i) A typical objection goes like this: how can a just God mete out infinite punishment for finite sin? How can the sins of a lifetime merit infinite punishment? The typical reply is that a sin against an infinite God is infinitely culpable, and merits infinite punishment. 

That's a popular answer because it's compact and uses the same principle as the critic, only turning that principle against the objection. But as it stands, it's a bad argument: 

ii) It equivocates over the nature of infinitude. The objection is to a quantitative infinite punishment. A temporal infinite. Everlasting punishment. For finite, discrete sins. 

However, to say a sin may be infinitely culpable swaps in a qualitative concept. An infinite degree of badness. I'm not sure if that's even meaningful. 

In addition, what does it mean in this context to say that God is "infinite." In what morally relevant sense is God infinite in this argument? Perhaps what is meant is that God is infinitely good, so that a sin against an infinitely good God is infinitely bad, meriting infinite punishment. "Infinite" in the sense that God is as good as anything can be. Indeed, better than anything else. The uppermost maxima of goodness or exemplar of goodness. Something like that. 

When you try to unpack the argument, it gets messy. I don't think this is a good argument as it stands. It does, however, contain a grain of truth, so I think it can be rehabilitated in some respect:

iii) There is a moral principle where the same action may be worse depending on who you do it to. It's worse to betray a friend than a stranger. It's worse to mistreat your elderly mother than to mistreat the telemarketer. So there can be degrees of culpability, not due to the action itself, but who it's directed to. Taken to a logical extreme, the argument is that we owe the most to God, we have the greatest obligation to God, so sinning against God is the worst kind of sin. 

iv) There is, though, another complication to this argument. In what sense can we sin against God? We can't harm God. 

It is, however, possible, to wrong someone without harming them. A thankless, malicious son can dishonor his father's memory. Suppose his dad was a conscientious father, but the son spreads scurrilous rumors about his late father that destroy his father's reputation. In one sense it's too late to harm is father. But there's still something terribly wrong about the action. 

2. Eternal existence

i) A basic reason hell is forever is because human beings are forever. If human beings have an immortal soul (not to mention the resurrection of the body), then whatever happens to human beings will last forever. They have an unending destiny because they have an unending existence. So whatever happens to them will go on forever. It continues because they continue. Annihilationists duck that by denying that human beings are naturally immortal. 

ii) Now this is more of a necessary rather than sufficient condition for eternal punishment. In principle, it could be a argued that while whatever happens to them is never-ending, it needn't be the same thing forever. It can change. That's the contention of the universalist, as well as exponents of postmortem salvation. That requires a separate response. 

It is, however, important to make the initial point that one reason damnation is inescapable is because existence is inescapable. Damnation never ceases because the damned never cease to exist. 

3. Apropos (2), a supporting argument is that damnation is forever because the damned continue to sin. An objection to this argument is that people have a capacity for change. 

That can be true, but what causes them to change? In Christian theology, God's grace is transformative. If, however, God withholds his grace from the damned, then they don't get better. If anything, they get worse. More hardened. 

4. Apropos (3), why doesn't God enable the damned to change? Why doesn't God grant them the ability to repent? 

This goes to another principle in Christian theology: in terms of eschatological judgment, some sinners get what they deserve while others get better than they deserve (no one gets worse than they deserve).

The reason the damned never leave hell is because they don't deserve to leave hell. They don't deserve a better life. That's their just desert, and there's nothing wrong with that. Indeed, there's something right with God.

In Christian theology, God doesn't treat all equally-undeserving sinners alike. He draws a distinction. You shouldn't expect to get better than you deserve. To get just what you deserve is the essence of justice. They don't get out of hell because they deserve nothing better. They are in their natural element. 

There's something nihilistic, something morally subversive–even diabolical–about the idea that no matter what anyone ever does, it makes no ultimate different to what happens to them. To treat good and evil alike. 

5. Suppose (ex hypothesi) that human agents start out as a clean slate. By that I mean, suppose that initially they have no rap sheep. Their moral record is spotless. 

The first time I do something evil, that puts me behind. Because I can't change my past, if I do something evil, I can't get back to where I was before I did evil. I can't get out from under that. If I did something evil, then it will always be the case that I did something evil. That's indelible. It doesn't fade with the passage of time. I don't become less guilty. Once I do something evil, there's no way to put that behind me. It's permanent. Evil has a timeless moral quality. There's no decay rate. The past is irrevocable. 

And the more evil things I do, the further behind I fall. A lifetime of cumulative wrongdoing. 

This is why vicarious atonement and penal substitution are fixtures of Christian redemption. Without a Redeemer who atones for your sin, on your behalf and in your stead, your culpability because increasingly hopeless. 

6. Counterfactual guilt

Another factor I've discussed, although it has yet to catch on, is that it's very nearsighted to limit culpability to the sins of a lifetime. The sins we commit are related to our circumstances. Change the circumstances and we'd commit a different set of sins. It's not so much about committing a particular sin, but the character of the sinner. Put him in a different situation and he will commit different sins. It's arbitrary to exclude from consideration all the wrongdoing he'd commit if the opportunity presented itself, and he could get away with it, as if guilt and innocence in God's eyes is a matter of lucking or unlucky timing or setting. Wrong place. Wrong time. Just missed it. Had you been there an hour sooner or later. 

7. Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, critics of hell approach this issue from the wrong end. In Christian theology, the default assumption is that sinners are already lost. They didn't start out in the right direction, then take a wrong turn. Rather, sinners are in a lost condition from the outset. They don't have to do anything extra to go to hell. They didn't lose their way at some point along the journey. There was no fork in the road where they made a fatal moral choice. To be saved requires divine intervention. 

It's like a movie villain. He's already a villain when the movie begins. There's no backstory about how or when he became a villain. Does it have something to do with his childhood? Did he gradually turn to evil? Was there a crossroads where he made a decisive choice for evil?


That's not where the story begins. As far as the plot goes, there was never a time when he wasn't on the wrong path.