Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Puzzle of Hell Solved

One  problem for Christians is how to make belief in Hell, eternal torture for sinners, consistent with belief in a benevolent and all powerful God. A possible solution is to deny that Christian doctrine requires the existence of Hell. Observing an argument over that question, one  based on interpretations of the text of scripture, it occurred to me that there is a simple solution to the problem of making scriptural references to Hell consistent with a benevolent God, a solution that should be obvious to an economist if not to a theologian.


The belief in Hell is useful as an incentive not to sin. Once a sinner has died, torturing him serves no useful purpose, so there is no reason for a benevolent God to go through with it. If it is still possible for the sinner to reform and be saved he should be given another chance, as portrayed by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. If he is a hopeless case, he can be painlessly removed from existence.


The obvious explanation of the available evidence, the explanation consistent with both the text and divine benevolence, is that scriptural references to Hell are a strategic lie. I do not know if there is evidence in scripture that God sometimes lies, but I do not see how there could be evidence that he never does.


Tim of Angle said...

Hell is a subjective condition.

In Orthodox theology, the result of corporal 'death' is the union of the human soul with the Energies of God (apotheosis). The righteous who accept the mercy of God perceive these Energies as light; the unrighteous perceive them as fire, and suffer accordingly.

Each person will know what sort of judgment he deserves; and in effect judges himself - see John 12:47-48. Milton was (unknowingly) correct: The mind is its own place, and of itself/Can make a Hell of Heaven, a Heaven of Hell. This is why the church describes despair as the only unforgivable sin - those who despair of God's forgiveness punish themselves.

Andrew Clough said...

Back when I was still a Christian I thought that that was the solution. I did keep my mouth shut about it, though, for obvious reasons.

wtanksley said...

This is an interesting proposal because around 2012 I came to the conclusion that the Bible doesn't mention or imply eternal torment anywhere except one verse in Revelation (where it speaks only of 3 apocalyptic features). (As an aside, Bart Ehrman now thinks this is the case, and of course this was a feature within the Millerite movement in general, dating back to the London Baptist teacher Samuel Richardson in 1650, who wrote about hearing it from the Rachovian churches; writers in those traditions claim support from the pre-150AD church writings such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, [and a bit later] Arnobius and Aphrahat.)

But by very shortly after AD 150, the Greek-speaking Christian community included teachers explicitly affirming eternal torment as well as this "conditional immortality" view, and by AD 200 universalism joined the public chorus (so to speak, it might have been esoteric teaching before that). And of course we know the following history -- eternal torment completely displaced both alternate views, although at first only as a choice (only during the Reformation did anyone officially denounce either alternate view, beginning with the 4th Lateran Council).

Here's the interesting thing... This feels somewhat Darwinian. As you say, the teaching of eternal torment causes believers to hate sin even more (it has no effect on unbelievers, of course). It serves therefore to hold churches together more tightly than the alternatives. The fact that it doesn't appear in their scriptures hardly matters to the church, especially since what's publicly taught is more important to the definition of the church than what's privately read. It was, after all, only after the printing press that anyone even questioned the majority teaching.

John Schilling said...

In Christianity, Hell isn't a punishment for sinners. Canonically (literally canonically) everyone is a sinner. Hell is the punishment for not asking God to forgive you for your sins. Which people like to handwave as "if you sinned that much you can't really have meant it when you asked for forgiveness" and "you're a nice enough guy that God will surely let it slide that the local missionary was so unconvincing you spent your life as a Buddhist".

But the literal version is even harder to reconcile with anyone's ethical intuition than the infinite-punishment-for-finite-sins version. The "strategic lie" hypothesis still works to reconcile that, sort of, but now the strategy is ensuring maximal number of worshipers for the One True God. Er, Three True Gods. Why any of these gods want to be worshiped is still an open question.