Saturday, June 23, 2007

A helluva time

This is carried over from the previous discussion:

A number of commenters have made a number of excellent points in response to Steve Jones. And I’d recommend that you read their replies.


“If I did caricature the faith, the caricature isn't very far from the reality. We still have one of the two first parents deceived (I maintain that "tricked" is OK).”

Irrelevant, since Eve is not responsible for the fall of man—Adam is.

“You still have people who can't repent being told to repent and being punished for not repenting.”

There are different senses in which people “can’t” do something. Not all forms of inability are exculpatory.

“You still have people suffering for all eternity, a suffering that's compared to being burned in fire. (Am I wrong on this?)”

Comparable in what sense? That’s the issue.

“And every indication from the New Testament is that God (or even Christ himself) is inflicting the pain: ‘in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those that know not God ...’ Hell is never portrayed as a kind of Devil's Island where incorrigible criminals are dumped to wreak mayhem on one another. The bottom line is this: If God creates a Lake of Fire and hurls people into it, how can anyone deny that God is the one inflicting the suffering?? The very fact that you guys resort to such word games and hair's breadth word-distinctions is indicative of a weak position.”

i) You are conflating two different issues:

a) Is the fiery imagery literal?

b) Is God responsible for the existence and administration of hell.

An affirmative answer to (b) does not imply an affirmative answer to (a).

ii) What the Bible literally teaches about hell is fairly limited:

a) Damnation is irreversible and everlasting.

b) Damnation often involves a reversal of fortunes.

c) Damnation is punitive

d) The damned are devoid of common grace or special grace.

e) The damned are miserable.

f) The final state of the damned is corporeal.

iii) Beyond that, we are left with speculation. We can speculate on the basis of two factors:

a) What the Bible actually teaches, in combination with:

b) Extrapolations from life in a fallen world.

Some of these inferences may be reasonable or even correct. But we need to distinguish between the actual teaching of Scripture and possible inferences or a synthetic construct from Scripture and experience.

iv) Just as I construe the hellish imagery of Scripture figuratively, I also construe the heavenly imagery of Scripture figuratively. So I’m quite consistent on this point.

I don’t assume that heaven is literally a cubical city. I don’t assume that heaven is literally a woman. And I don’t assume that heaven is literally a cubical woman—the foursquare bride of Christ.

Any halfway intelligent interpreter is going to ask himself what these picturesque metaphors literally denote. You must unpack the metaphor.

“You're right that we can't deny something just because it's harsh. I believe in cancer and war, even though these things are highly unpleasant. But the doctrine of a loving God can't be sustained in the face of eternal misery.”

i) God is not reducible to a single attribute. Love is not God’s only attribute. And love is not God’s most important attribute. One divine attribute does not rank above another. They are equally important. Love without justice would be immoral.

ii) Even if, for the sake of argument, love were God’s only or primary attribute, it isn’t possible to be equally loving to everyone.

To use your own examples, it isn’t possible to be equally loving to Charles Manson and his victims, or Nero and his victims, or Jack the Ripper and his victims, or Hitler and his victims.

iii) It’s pretty obvious that even in this life, God is not as loving to every individual as he could be.

“In our own world, the more loving and compassionate the person, the less likely he or she would ever torture anyone (let alone forever). Are you saying that when we raise love and compassion to an infinite level, that the torture of rational beings becomes inevitable?”

You keep rigging the debate by trying to fasten the word “torture” on to our position, and then, in turn, assign that to God.

But, once again, we need to distinguish between what the Bible actually teaches and our conjectures about hell:

i) Exegetically speaking, Scripture doesn’t literally teach that God tortures anyone.

ii) Hypothetically speaking, it is possible that some of the damned torment one another. I don’t have any qualms about (ii). What one hellion inflicts on another is poetic justice. If Charles Manson and Jack the Ripper spend eternity at each other’s throats, that’s fine with me.

iii) There is often a moral difference between what I do, and what I allow someone else to do.

Suppose Jack the Ripper captures Charles Manson, or vice person. Suppose one of them proceeds to torture the other. Suppose I’m in a position to intervene and prevent it.

Am I under some obligation to keep one psychopath from tormenting another psychopath? No, I’m not.

They deserve each other. Making them cellmates would be just punishment. They would punish themselves by punishing each other.

“You're saying that our understanding should be limited to just two perspectives: (1) God inflicts excruciating pain on sinners forever in hell, or (2) God doesn't recompense sin at all.”

And what’s your alternative? You’re reluctant to lay your own cards on the table. But what you’ve said thus far appears to be a softening up exercise for annihilationism. That, however, is subject to its own problems.

Annihilationism is a compromise position, and it suffers from the liabilities of an intellectual and moral compromise. It inherits the apparent or actual disadvantages of the opposing positions, without their apparent or actualadvantages.

On the face of it, annihilationism is more just, but less merciful than universalism, while being less just, but more merciful than eternal damnation.

But even its limited advantages are deceptive. It exacts a measure of retributive justice on the damned. But it arbitrarily commutes the sentence. For the damned never cease to be guilty. Yet their punishment comes to an end.

Moreover, it isn’t very nice to zap people out of existence.

“I'm not saying that evildoers should get away with their evil deeds. But I am saying that torturing a living being for trillions and trillions and trillions and trillions of eons without any hope of future mercies is utterly untenable.”

i) Once more, you try to rig the debate by imposing your tendentious description (“torture”) on the rest of us.

ii) To say it’s “utterly untenable” is not a reasoned argument. You merely beg the question.

“How can you live one happy moment knowing that multitudes are writhing and convulsing somewhere in hideous suffering that will never end?”

i) Because it’s just, and we should rejoice when the scales of justice are righted. In this life, Josef Mengele got off scott free. But consider what was waiting for him on the other side of the grave!

ii) I’m not responsible for what other people do with their lives. I’m not responsible for the consequences of their actions. It’s none of my business. I’m not a cosmic nanny.

iii) My emotions are irrelevant. Suppose Jack the Ripper were my son. How would I feel? Conflicted. Should my personal feelings dictate his punishment, or lack thereof?

“Regardless of the symbolic, eschatological interpretation of these texts, if you still have people living in misery forever and ever, you're holding a morally untenable doctrine.”

Notice the bait-and-switch. He alternates between “torture” and “misery,” as if these were interchangeable concepts. But “misery” is not synonymous with “torture.”

Many men are miserable in this life, absent torture. Self-indulgence and sheer boredom can make you miserable. Utterly miserable.

Suppose that Hell were Las Vegas Strip. For many men and women, that’s their idea of paradise.

And for the first few months or years, they might enjoy themselves. But an eternity of Las Vegas Strip would be an interminable bore. It would become insufferable.

Yet their misery would not involve any degree of torture. Extreme luxury can be unbearable.

“Concerning the culpability of damned sinners, no amount of explanation can make the Calvinist doctrine coherent and rational. A sinner can't believe the gospel any more than he can hold his breath for a week. But God tells the sinner he must. The sinner, of course, can't and doesn't. So he's punished for not doing the impossible. __Where's the justice in that? __It doesn't help to argue that the sinner ‘loves his sin.’ That's all he can do, by your own admission. Maybe God should punish lions for eating meat instead of tree leaves.”

i) To begin with, your objections to Calvinism are a red-herring, for you would be equally opposed to a libertarian version of eternal damnation.

ii) This involves the perennial debate between freedom and determinism. There’s an extensive philosophical literature on this subject. Both soft determinism and hard determinism have answers to the stock objections, as well as raising objections to the libertarian alternative.

iii) Likewise, annihilationism doesn’t select for libertarianism. These are logically distinct positions. There could equally be a deterministic version of annihilationism.

“Also, it's just a dodge to say that God is merely obliging sinners who really want hell instead of heaven. So are you affirming that after, say, 100 billion years of torment, the damned will be relieved (‘Whew!’) that they aren't in an uncomfortable place like heaven where they have to be around a holy God and all that singing? Is God really doing the damned a big favor by placing them in a lake of fire?”

Several issues:

i) The fact that sinners may dislike the consequences of sin doesn’t mean they dislike sin. Even in this life, many sinners engage in self-destructive behavior. They make lifestyle choices which leave them miserable. But as much as they hate the consequences of sin, they love to sin.

ii) Even if the damned end up loathing hell, this doesn’t mean they’d prefer heaven over hell. They continue to hate God. Indeed, their hatred of God and all things holy is hardened in hell.

Men can hate one thing without loving its opposite. They could despise their hellish existence, but despise a holy God even more.

“Besides, you're painting the denizens of hell as all loathsome miscreants prone to hurt one another. (That makes it easier on you, doesn't it?) But what about the decent Tibetan villager who simply died practicing his native-born religion? Or the teen girl dying in childbirth? Or the sweet Jewish lady down the street? Will they all be dumped in with Charles Manson, Nero and Jack the Ripper? Is Hitler in hell with all his Jewish victims, punching it out? That's sick.”

i) Hell is devoid of common grace or special grace. So, yes, the damned are loathsome miscreants.

ii) A lot of Jewish victims would like nothing more than to wreak vengeance on Hitler. There are victims who would choose hell over heaven for vindictive reasons. They would rather be in hell with Hitler than be in heaven with Hitler. They would rather spend eternity hounding Hitler.

And if you think that’s too speculative, then your own objections are equally speculative, and less well founded.

“These texts certainly sound to me like God Himself is the agent of misery upon the unbelievers.”

Once again, notice the equivocation. “Misery” and “torture” are not the same thing.

Yes, God is the judge. So he is directly and ultimately responsible for the existence and administration of hell. That doesn’t mean he tortures anyone.

“And about LaHaye. To suggest that LaHaye's concept of hell is unique to him is nothing short of dishonest. Reformed luminaries like Spurgeon, Edwards, Warfield, Pink, etc., all held to the same crass, repulsive view of hell that LaHaye does ... actually their views were worse and spoken of more graphically.”

The point at issue is not, in the first place, with Tim LaHaye’s doctrine of hell (which may or may not be flawed), but with his hermeneutical approach.

“Gene, you're welcome to worship a God who keeps fallible people alive forever in pain over ONE SINGLE SIN, and calling that a ‘high view of sin’."

Notice that Jones is now excusing and thereby condoning sin. Sinners sin because they’re “fallible.” They don’t know any better. They sin through no fault of their own.

This isn’t even consistent with annihilationism.

“Suppose a legislature passed a law that every legal breach, no matter how slight, would be punished by having the perpetrator's eyes gouged out and his body eaten by wild dogs. Would you admire such a governing body for its high view of the law? I wouldn't.”

Once again, this trivializes the Biblical doctrine of sin.

“No, I'm not. That's why I can't believe that God would perform such a merciless act as to punish an ignorant Tibetan villager for all eternity.”

i) A universalist can’t believe in a God who would annihilate any of his children. An atheist can’t believe in a God who would allow all the evil and suffering we see on this side of the grave.

ii) Notice that Jones doesn’t distinguish between innocent ignorance and culpable ignorance. But the Tibetan villager is still a sinner.

“I have no problem with understanding many of these texts metaphorically. Several of your exegetical points make sense. I've heard good arguments linking the ‘eternal fire’ with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. So do sinners suffer for all eternity or not?”

This assumes that the temporal markers are metaphorical. In what sense are they metaphorical? Where is the figurative imagery in the word “eternal”?

“The biblical doctrine of final punishment is uneven at best. Some texts appear to teach traditional eternal torment, others annihilationism, still others universal redemption. In Luke 20:35, it sounds as if only "worthy" persons will be resurrected at all. __Of course, people will insist on the view they consider most orthodox within the tradition they inhabit.”

Yes, and Bible-believing Christians have taken the time to critique the prooftexts for universalism or annihilationism.

“Eternal misery would, I believe, be gratutious. Eighty or ninety years of sin punished by endless eons of torment? That doesn't seem just or proportionate.”

Guilt has no shelf-life. Once guilty, always guilty.

Guilt can be redeemed (by a suitable redeemer), but it cannot be erased.

And the damned never cease to be sinners. To the contrary, they become more sinful in hell.

For the rest, Jones simply repeats himself without advancing the argument, which is less of an argument than a string of question-begging assertions, tendentious adjectives, and emotive rhetoric.

1 comment:

  1. Here's an old article I wrote while I was a standard annihilationist. Have at it: