Apostate atheist-cum-philosophy prof Keith Parsons attempted to respond to an Amazon reviewer:
As it turns out, the reviewer copy/pasted some criticisms that I raised in chap. 10 of:
As a result, Parsons is actually responding to me. Not that his replies are very responsive.
In chapter ten, Parsons assails the traditional doctrine of hell. One basic problem is that he quotes a few passages of Scripture, which he doesn’t bother to exegete. He simply takes his interpretation for granted, then builds on that presumptive interpretation. His entire objection to hell is predicated on the torture chamber model of hell. Without that presupposition, his case collapses. Yet he fails to defend his key interpretation.I address my critique to the concept of hell as it was defended by some of the most influential and orthodox of Christian theologians and church “fathers,” such as Tertullian, Aquinas, Jerome, Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Jonathan Edwards. The “torture chamber” model of hell, as featured prominently in Dante’s Inferno and innumerable depictions of the last judgment by Christian artists, was, and remains, a prominent element of Christian eschatology.
The problem is if he equates attacking their concept of hell with the Biblical concept of hell.
What about my interpretation of scripture? I cannot be guilty of giving an erroneous interpretation since I give none at all. I quote some of the more lurid NT passages about postmortem punishment (Mark 9: 47-48; Rev. 20:10; Rev. 20:15; and Luke 16: 22-24) and note that, though the images of an eternal punitive hell might look like “sick men’s dreams,” as Hume put it, these doctrines were “…thought out with careful deliberation and based upon scriptural authority. (p. 237)”
Either the "lurid" passages are literal or figurative. If figurative, the next question is what the imagery stands for.
In other words, the theorists of hell could and did appeal to scriptural authority in support of their claims. Therefore, it is their interpretations of those scriptures that I took for granted, not my own (which, again, I never offered).
Which is the problem. Parsons fails to distinguish the history of reception from what the text meant. Imagine if I critique Hume's argument against miracles based on Doug Geivett's interpretation of Hume. Suppose it's a solid critique given that interpretation. But unless my critique is based on an accurate interpretation of Hume, I have failed to critique Hume's position. Why is it so hard for a philosopher prof. like Parsons to grasp that elementary distinction?
Sure, Parsons can "take their interpretation for granted," but then, if you disagree with their interpretation, his case against hell collapses since he never bothered to show that their interpretation matches the meaning of Scripture. Was it his intention to let Scripture off the hook? His real target was subsequent theological developments and ecclesiastical traditions?
BTW, I've discussed the Biblical imagery of hell in more detail here:
For that matter, consider all the things we would have done wrong if we thought we could get away with it. That’s culpable, too…So, you are subject to punishment not just for the sins you actually do commit but for the ones you would have committed had you been given the opportunity. In other words, you are punished for the sins you commit not just in the actual world but in other possible worlds as well. So, if there is a possible world in which you fornicate with [insert favorite sex symbol here] then that is punishable too. Wow. It seems a bit unfair though that you have to suffer the punishment without getting the fun.
His response is to ridicule the notion of counterfactual punishment rather than refute the notion of counterfactual punishment. So his response is intellectually frivolous. What makes him think that's a ridiculous notion?
Suppose a dyslexic suicide bomber intends to murder as many Jewish kids as he can at the local yeshiva grade school. Only he mentally reverses the numbers on the address and ends up walking into a police station instead. He's shot dead before he can denote his Shaheed jacket. Although he failed to achieve his mission, is he not culpable for planning and attempting to implement his plot to murder Jewish kids? Isn't criminal intent culpable in itself? Isn't conspiracy to commit murder blameworthy? The fact that he accidentally bungled his homicidal mission isn't exculpatory, is it? Is Parsons so ethically and intellectually shallow that he doesn't think there's a serious issue at stake?
Take another example: there are people who never commit atrocities, but if they happened to be alive at a time and place where they could get away with it, they'd commit atrocities. There are many historical examples in which the breakdown in civil order gives some people license or cover to commit heinous acts they would not commit if that was punishable. The only thing that deters them is fear of reprisal. They are psychos just spoiling for an opportunity. Shouldn't divine justice take that into account?
He objects to the duration of hell for “finite” sins. But it’s not as if sinners are merely punished for discrete sins. A sinner does what a sinner is. Sins are just the expression of the sinner’s underlying character.Passage of time doesn’t make the guilty guiltless. Once you do something wrong, it will always be the case that you did something wrong. Your culpability doesn’t have an automatic expiration date. You’re just as guilty a year later as you were a moment later. Only redemption can atone for sin.Sinners don’t cease to be sinners when they go to hell. To the contrary, they become even more sinful in hell, since they lose all self-restraint in hell.At any rate, if it is fair to punish you for your character, then your character must have been freely chosen, right? I mean, if your character is determined by events beyond your control, such as genes and environment, then punishing you for your character would be like punishing you for having gallstones. But if we choose our characters, are we not back with being punished for our “discrete sins,” choosing our bad characters in this case? If it takes bad character to choose to have a bad character, then we seem to be headed for an infinite regress. Or is it enough if there is some possible world where we do have the freedom to choose our characters, and in that world we choose bad ones?As does William Lane Craig, Alex C. affirms that sinners continue to sin after being condemned to hell. This supposedly justifies the continuing punishment of the damned. But do the damned have free will? Alex C. seems to indicate that they do not since he says that they lose all self-restraint. If the damned have no free will, then in what sense can they sin? If they are being punished for the bad characters they developed in life, then we are right back with the question of the fairness of continuing punishment for past sins, not current ones. Or maybe the damned are being punished for the sins they would commit if, counterfactually, they had free will. On the other hand, if the damned do have freedom of will, cannot they exercise that freedom to curtail or greatly reduce their sinfulness, and so no longer deserve the punishments of hell? Alas, Alex C. gives us no grounds for deciding these questions.
i) Notice, first of all, that Parsons fails to even address the fact that mere lapse of time is not exculpatory.
ii) Apparently, Parsons believes libertarian freedom is a necessary condition of moral responsibility. But, of course, that's hotly contested in philosophy, so why is the onus on me to disprove his operating assumption? Indeed, many of his fellow atheists subscribe to physical determinism.
iii) Moreover, counterfactual culpability would still be possible on freewill theism.
Parsons objects to credal requirement. However, no one goes to hell for disbelieving in Jesus. Disbelief is an aggravating factor. But the hellbound are already lost. Refusing the gospel isn’t what renders them damnable.In Christian theology, nobody can be saved unless he knows and accepts the gospel. This doesn’t mean nobody can be damned unless he knows and rejects the gospel. Rather, to be lost is the default condition of sinners. To be lost is not a result of spurning the gospel. To the contrary, it’s because sinners are lost in the first place that they desperately need to be saved.If a drowning swimmer refuses the lifeline, that’s not why he drowns. He’s already drowning. The lifeline was his opportunity to avoid drowning.Alex C. says that “Refusing the Gospel is not what renders them [the hellbound] damnable.” This seems to say that refusing the Gospel is not sufficient for damnation. But further down he says, “In Christian theology, nobody can be saved unless he knows and accepts the gospel.” The way to symbolize “Nobody can be saved unless he knows and accepts the Gospel” would be ~(∃x) [◊Sx & ~(Kxg & Axg)] which is equivalent to (x) [~(Kxg & Axg] → ~◊Sx]. But salvation and damnation are the only two possibilities, so ~◊Sx → Dx, where Dx is “x is damned.” So, (x) [~(Kxg & Axg) → Dx] by hypothetical syllogism, so not knowing and accepting the gospel is sufficient for being damned. Hence, Alex C. seems to contradict himself.
It's odd that Parsons is unable to draw a rudimentary distinction. To say no one can be saved apart from faith in Christ doesn't entail that someone is damned because they fail to believe in Christ. Those are not convertible propositions. That oversimplifies the comparison. Suppose a convicted murder is offered a stay of execution, but refuses the offer. Is he put to death because he refused the stay of execution? That's a misleading way of putting it. It's not as if refusing a stay of execution is, in itself, a capital offense. Rather, the capital offense was the underlying murder. He is punished for committing murder, not for refusing a stay of execution.
Perhaps, though, he would admit that nonbelief is sufficient for damnation, but his point is that other things are also sufficient, and that, in fact, sinners are already damned by those other things before they decide not to accept the Gospel. But I never denied that other things might be sufficient for damnation. My complaint rather was that belief is necessary for salvation.
But if they are already damnable for other things before they refuse the Gospel, then they are not entitled to forgiveness in the first place. It is hardly unjust if they suffer damnation for things they did apart from that additional consideration. Moreover, their very refusal is insolent.
Salvation is denied those who do not accept certain propositions. For this condition to be fair and reasonable it must be the case that those required propositions are so obviously and undeniably true that no rational person can fail to believe them when they are given a fair and unbiased hearing.
As an atheist, Parsons will naturally deny Christianity is "so obviously and undeniably true that no rational person can fail to believe them when they are given a fair and unbiased hearing." That just means he's judging Christianity from the viewpoint of an atheist. But that involves a much larger debate.