Objection #6: A Loving God Would Never Torture People In Hell (2001)
(Interview w/ J.P. Moreland, PH.D.)
Tackling Templeton’s Challenge
Moreland insists hell is not a torture chamber. He says hell is really a separation from God. He stresses that God is loving, but also just (172-4).
Right away, Moreland wants to reword the objection. He realizes that there’s no way to justify torture, so he alters the conception of hell. But I’m not sure this is valid. He details his hell concept in the next few sections, and I will deal with it further there. In describing God’s virtues, he says, "People today care only for the softer virtues like love and tenderness, while they’ve forgotten the hard virtues of holiness, righteousness, and justice" (174). Or maybe people are finally starting to learn from centuries of religious tyranny that holiness, righteousness and (divine) justice are not virtues at all – but serious vices.
God’s Fall-Back Position
Moreland describes hell as a "separation from God" that is the natural consequence of an unholy existence. He contends that hell was not created along with the rest of the universe, but only when sin created the need for it. He says hell is a place, yet it’s not. Moreland makes clear that "hell is not torture." He declares it, "…a separation from the most beautiful being in the world – God himself" (174). Well, that certainly takes the sting out of it. I mean, that doesn’t sound half bad – especially to an atheist. But is Moreland justified in this interpretation? I don’t think it is shared by the majority (or many at all) Christians – including ministers. And I don’t really think it’s scriptural either (to be discussed in greater detail in the next section). This is akin to pronouncing as doctrine that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers. You can believe that if you want, but I don’t think you can speak for the Christian world at large.
Moreland informs us that, "hell was not part of the original creation…hell is something God was forced to make because people chose to rebel against him…" (175). Once again, I can’t help but shake my head at the stunning lack of foresight displayed by an omniscient God. Shouldn’t he have known of the coming rebellion that would necessitate a hell? When asked whether hell is a physical place, Moreland answers, "Yes and no…hell is not a location, but it’s a real part of the universe. It’s like you go through a door into another kind of existence" (175). Anytime someone starts in on this kind of metaphysical babble, you should reread their sentences and realize that despite correct grammar, they are talking pure nonsense.
Flames, Worms, And Gnashing Teeth
Moreland claims that a biblically accurate version of hell understands all the imagery of torture, burning, flames, etc., to be figurative. He claims that the people in hell are those who wouldn’t want to go to heaven. Moreland responds to a list of Strobel’s 9 personal objections to hell (176-91).
According to Moreland, "the flames (of hell) are a figure of speech" (176). Is this really how the Bible authors understood hell though? It’s certainly not how the majority of churches throughout 2000 years of Christianity have understood hell. And even if all the flames, gnashing teeth, worms, etc. are mere imagery, what do they stand for? They signify great pain and suffering. And not just sorrow and loss from lacking God’s presence, but real, visceral anguish. I just don’t believe Moreland’s watered-down hell is what the scriptures intended, and that is why mainstream Christianity buys into the traditional fire and brimstone approach.
Moreland desperately tries to make a case for his hell when he says, "…hell is described as a place of utter darkness and yet there are flames. How can that be?" (176). But if we accept that we are speaking figuratively, might it not be the darkness which is figurative? And besides, couldn’t an omnipotent God produce non-light bearing flames? Searing heat can exist in total darkness, while if light does not exist in Hell (or eyes to see it), then darkness can easily coexist with flame. His case is further weakened by his next assertion, which is that, "…hell is primarily a place for people who would not want to go to heaven" (178). But now, the scriptural hell makes even less sense when compared with Moreland’s interpretation. Moreland wants us to believe that all the torture imagery is meant convey longing for opportunities lost, but if those in hell aren’t being literally tortured and don’t want heaven, what are they longing for?
Now, Strobel jumps into his personal list of objections to hell. Here we go:
(1.) How Can God Send Children to Hell?
More or less, Moreland says children won’t go to hell. I don’t think there is much of a Biblical stance on the issue, but perhaps that is because children were considered so innocent that they got a free pass to heaven. "…there will be no one in hell who, if they had a chance to grow up to be adults, would have chosen heaven. No one will go to hell simply because they needed a little more time and died prematurely" (179). Note that quote for future reference as Moreland contradicts himself a bit later.
(2.) Why Does Everyone Suffer the Same In Hell?
Moreland pulls out Matthew 11:20-24 to support his contention that people do not suffer the same hell. "There will be degrees of separation…in hell" (180). I can understand degrees of suffering in a torment-style hell, but does this really makes sense in Moreland’s absence-of-God hell? Either you are separated from God or you are with him. The only reason proximity matters is as a factor of how long it takes to make contact with an object. But since judgment in hell is final and eternal, one is never going to be with God. It is as if you are out of oxygen under water: does it really matter whether you are one foot below the surface or two hundred? Yet another reason for concluding Moreland has the Biblical account of hell all wrong.
(3.) Why Are People Punished Infinitely for Finite Crimes?
Moreland really avoids answering this objection. He tries to build an argument by analogy that "…the degree of someone’s just punishment is not a function of how long it took to commit the deed; rather, it’s a function of how severe the deed itself was" (181). This is no answer at all, especially since I’m fairly sure the word "finite" in this objection was referring not to time, but to severity. So the problem stands. How can even the most heinous deeds (which according to Moreland are acts of unbelief) warrant an eternity as punishment?
But there are more serious concerns at hand. Let us ponder why we punish people. When you punish your children, is it because they are wicked beings and deserve to suffer? I certainly hope not. The reason most parents punish is to teach the children a lesson. To reform them to the correct path. The same is true of a prison and justice system (even if it rarely works). The bottom line is that all wise punishment is directed towards the purpose of reforming an individual. But hell fails miserably in this regard. Because it is eternal, there is no chance for progress or reform. It is punishment for its own sake, which is nothing more than sadism.
(4.) Couldn’t God Force Everyone to Go to Heaven?
Strobel knows full well that Moreland will simply invoke the free will defense against this objection, and undoubtedly Strobel already feels that to be valid. So this isn’t really one of Strobel’s objections at all, but just a set-up for Moreland. If Strobel is being dishonest here, one wonders about his whole list (or his whole book for that matter). I’m not going to even bother getting into it because it breaks down like this: (1) If you are a determinist, there is no good answer, since God is ultimately forcing you to go wherever you end up; (2) If you believe in free will, then there is an easy and obvious out. But since God can easily turn people to the right path by providing more evidence, the free will defense fails outright. It is not my free choice that I have so little proof that Christianity is true. I did not choose the evidence that would exist. Nor can providing that evidence violate anyone’s free will. For if it did, the entire purpose of Strobel’s book, indeed of the whole concept of Christian apologetics and witnessing, is criminal, violating the free will of everyone who is exposed to it.
(5.) Why Doesn’t God Just Snuff People Out?
Sometimes apologists do an unbelievable job of twisting and squirming in order to be consistent with their beliefs. Moreland is a perfect example here. When speaking of annihilation he says, "The only way that’s a good thing would be the end result, which would be to keep people from experiencing the conscious separation from God forever. Well, then you are treating people as a means to an end" (183). Give me a break. By his reasoning, if I see a starving child on the street, I should not feed him because the only good thing would be the end result, which would be to alleviate his hunger. Well, then I’d be treating the child as a means to an end. Can Moreland possibly believe this? No, of course not. No sane person could. But, when faced with such an irreconcilable challenge to his faith, the apologist will grasp madly for any straws available, no matter how frail. Indeed, doesn’t the very virtue of mercy compel one to annihilate those who are otherwise doomed to suffer eternally? Isn’t God merciful? He cannot be if Moreland is right about Hell, so why should we praise and worship a merciless deity? Moreland also goes on to refute the claim that the Bible supports this idea of annihilation. I agree with Moreland that the Bible supports no such thing.
(6.) How Can Hell Exist Alongside Heaven?
I see no reason why it could not. I think this is another of Strobel’s paper objections that he likes to toss in for pure volume. It looks more impressive if Moreland knocks down 9 objections, than, say, 5. A better objection would be: if heaven is better than earth, why bother with earth in the first place?
(7.) Why Didn’t God Create Only Those He Knew Would Follow Him?
Moreland would have us believe that "…once God starts to create more people, it becomes more difficult to just create the people who would choose him and not create the people who wouldn’t" (186). He also asserts that, "…the only way God could make me is if my entire ancestral lineage had preceded me" (187). Uh, Mr. Moreland, need I remind you that your God is omnipotent? The words "difficult" and "only way" don’t apply to him and therefore all of Moreland’s arguments are moot. Or does Moreland believe in a deity that is less than all powerful? If so, he should be honest and say so.
(8.) Why Doesn’t God Give People a Second Chance?
Right off the bat, Moreland says, "God does everything he can to give to give people a chance…there will be nobody who needed just a little more time or who died prematurely who would’ve responded to another chance to receive Christ" (188). Remember Strobel’s hell objection #1 now? There Moreland said, "there will be no one in hell who, if they had a chance to grow up to be adults, would have chosen heaven." But this implies that people do die prematurely. Which is it? If God does give everyone the chance they need, are we to suppose that every baby who has died of SIDS would’ve not chosen Christ? And if some of those babies would’ve chosen Christ, then God doesn’t give everyone a chance.
Upon dying and discovering one is in hell, might that not be motivation for repentance? Yes, but Moreland makes an interesting point when he says, "Any apology would not be a real apology…they’d be making a prudent ‘choice’ to avoid judgment only" (189). But isn’t that just as true in life? After all, isn’t the whole point, as Moreland said, to avoid Hell because it is so bad? How is the decision to follow Christ now any less ‘prudent’ than later?
In contrast, if I died and found out that the conservative Christians were right about God, I would not be sorry for how I have lived my life. I believe I made good moral decisions, and the moral man does not change his convictions in the face of threats from a tyrant.
(9.) Isn’t Reincarnation More Rational Than Hell?
Another straw objection. Reincarnation might be preferable to hell, but it’s not any more rational. There is basically the same amount of evidence in favor of either position – that is: zero. This objection should’ve been stated: "Isn’t Death Without an Afterlife More Rational than Hell?" Most people are greatly disturbed by this suggestion, but as Moreland himself says, "Remember, we don’t decide what’s true based on what we like or don’t like" (190).
The Truth About Hell
Moreland admits that he is still uncomfortable with hell sometimes. He insists on keeping perspective (191-2).
Moreland’s perspective is that via the doctrine of hell, God says two important things. First, "I value my image-bearers so much that I will not annihilate them" (192) — the missing end of this sentence is: "…but instead, I will allow them to suffer eternally." Thanks God, you’re a pal. I wish all my friends valued me like you do. Second, "I respect freedom of choice enough to where I won’t coerce people" (192). Yet God does coerce people. Consider that God was the Creator of everything and had a perfect foreknowledge of how everything would turn out. Free will becomes meaningless. What are people basing their "free" choices on? If they are basing them on anything which exists (genetic makeup, circumstances, essential self, etc.) then God is responsible, for he started the whole universe knowing exactly how everything would end up. If they are basing those decisions on nothing (say, they are randomly generated out of thin air), then I suppose they are free of God’s province, but can people be held morally accountable for the purely arbitrary? Besides, no Christian (or human for that matter) really believes this.
"What Is God To Do?"
Strobel listens to a taped interview, where Christian apologist D.A. Carson makes some germane comments (193).
Speaking of people in hell, Carson says, "They’re consigned there…because they defy their maker and want to be at the center of the universe" (193). I presume this is directed mostly towards atheists. But, do atheists really set themselves at the center of the universe? Many atheists suppose that in the grand scheme of things, they are simply one of billions of humans, among millions of species, that will live out an existence in less than a blink of time’s eye, on a tiny speck of dust, revolving around one of billions of stars, billions of which then comprise billions of galaxies in a universe billions of years old. This does not sound like the dream of an egoist.
In contrast, Christians suppose that an all-powerful entity who can have anything his heart desires, actually cares for our brief and petty lives to the point of listening to our personal pleas for help and guidance, often acting to aid these pleas. They suppose that he would sacrifice his own son for their sake, on their planet (the most important salvific act in all time and space), and thus accord special importance to the last few thousand years of human beings on Earth. Now that’s the definition of egocentric if I’ve ever heard it. No wonder for centuries Christians placed the Earth not only as the point around which the sun and other planets revolved, but at the center of the entire universe. Only under the inescapable weight of scientific progress and discovery did they grudgingly give up this notion–though, not without persecuting many early astronomers first.