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Sunday, March 11, 2012

What the Hell?

Author’s Note:  All puns are intended

So here I am yet again with some uncomfortable questions for those of you who believe in hell.  But first I need to take a moment to mention what I have come to call “dodges.”  A dodge is where someone is asked a thorny question, one that appears to expose some real problems in their worldview, and they don’t answer.  Sometimes this is done by simply ignoring the question, but often times it’s done by giving a non-answer.  Many times people will respond, but the response will change the topic, focus on some non-critical detail, or otherwise failing to actually address the criticism.

I plan on devoting a post, quite possibly my next post, to the topic of dodges, but for now I’ll just cite the most important point.  When you don’t present an answer to critical questions, it makes it look like you don’t have an answer, and that makes your position look preposterous.  And even worse, when your response is simply an attempt at diverting attention, it makes it look like you are covering up that fact.  So if you have not answered the last set of questions, please go back and give it a go.

Keep in mind that the more you try to avoid these questions, the more untenable your position looks.
With that out of the way, let’s move on to the topic of hell, and more thorny issues.  First of all, let me make myself clear about the theological views I am criticizing here.  For the most part, I am focusing on a God that has particular capabilities and is claimed to be of a reasonable moral integrity.  However, absolutely none of my points here directly rely on considerations of omnipotence or omnibenevolence.  This is unlike most formulations of the “Problem of Evil.” 

Most responses I’ve found to the Problem of Evil involve a (usually) implicit denial of God’s omnipotence.  This is characteristic of the very common tactic of asserting that evils like murder or tornadoes exist to produce an even greater good like free will or compassion.  But this relies on the implicit assumption that God is incapable of bringing those goods into being without the evils.  In other words, an implicit assumption that God faces some clear limitation, and is therefore no longer omnipotent.

Now there are plenty of ways to deal with these responses to the Problem of Evil.  I am going to take a rather unconventional approach and focus on an argument which works for even highly constrained and/or evil deities.  In fact, the dilemma I present works only on the heaven/hell system itself, and has no dependence on the deity at all.  So even if you’re an atheist who still believes in some sort of infinite post-mortem punishment/reward system, this dilemma will apply to you.

So let’s talk about hell.  My first question is, what is the purpose of hell?  The idea that hell is a punishment is particularly thorny when you consider the implications of using an eternal punishment as a response to some earthly but finite crimes.  These problems are only exacerbated when one believes that people are born with sin, or that anyone who hasn’t embraced Jesus at death goes to hell.  In the worst case scenario, you ultimately end up worshiping a being who tortures infants simply because their parents didn’t baptize them.

Now this proposition is so incredibly unpalatable that many moderate Christians have come to the reasonable conclusion that no benevolent god would send infants to hell simply for being unlucky enough to have been born to the wrong parents and to have died young (which, depending on your theology, could actually be God’s fault).  In order to salvage this travesty, many moderate Christians are keen to give children a free pass.  According to their beliefs, if you don’t accept Jesus because you were too young to even know what that meant when you died, then you still get to go to heaven.

Now I’m going to propose an additional dilemma that this salvage attempt faces.  However, the dilemma is slightly more general than that.  To be perfectly clear, here are the criteria for application of my dilemma.

-You believe that after death, people will either go to heaven (which needs only be an eternal life which is better than earthly life) or to hell (which needs only be worse than heaven).

-Because of the ridiculousness of a system that punishes children for their parents’ mistakes, you believe that someone who dies when they’re too young to be held accountable gets sent to heaven, and not to hell.

-You believe that the truth of your religious beliefs is a good thing

Now, the dilemma here is that we have a system in which there is some critical age X such that everyone who dies before age X goes to heaven, while not everyone who dies after age X goes to heaven.  Now it seems to me that the only reasonable response to such a system is to kill everyone before the age of X.

Now I know that sounds like a terrible thing to do, but think it through.  Intuitively, killing a five-year-old feels like depriving them of decades of life.  But in this kind of system, killing a five-year-old actually results in replacing decades of earthly life with decades of life in heaven.  And if heaven is better than earth, as so many Christians are keen on convincing me, then you are actually doing the kid a favor!  And that’s before you even consider the implications of being able to guarantee that the kid goes to heaven and not to hell.

There are several responses I can anticipate, so I will address them.  The first way one may be tempted to avoid this dilemma is to claim that if you kill a child with the intention of securing that child’s position in heaven, then the “no children in hell” clause gets suspended.  This response fails, because it brings us right back to a system that punishes children for someone else’s mistake, and that’s exactly what the “no children in hell” clause was supposed to avoid.  And even if you can finagle a way of making sure that this travesty of a system isn’t your deity’s fault (which will necessitate some strict limitations on that deity’s capabilities), you still have the problem that “guess what, innocent kids are going to be tortured for all eternity” is decidedly not a good thing.

The second response I can anticipate is to say “Yeah Zaq, I guess that’s one way to do things. But wouldn’t it be better to raise these kids as good Christians?”  To this I must respond no, not at all.  Again, you need to think it through.  While it feels like killing an innocent kid is a terrible thing, you aren’t actually reducing the duration of time that kid gets to experience.  What you are doing in this theological scenario is replacing years of the kid’s life on earth with years spent living in a better place (which is often described as a freaking utopia).

In this system, you can’t think about the kid’s death as “ohmygodscaryandterrible,” because the effect of the kid’s “death” is to simply move the kid to a better place.  And keep in mind that we have the technology to kill people with virtually zero pain involved, not to mention that some finite pain of death is nothing compared to the eternal reward of heaven.  Furthermore, you’re suggesting a method which has some non-zero chance of failure.  Because of this, a Pascal’s Wager type scenario applies.  Any plan with a finite chance of the kid eventually ending up in hell instead of heaven is infinitely worse than any plan with no such chance, because eternity in hell instead of heaven is infinitely bad.  This means that in your theological situation, it is not only good to go around murdering kids, it’s infinitely good.

The third and final (that I can think of right now) potential response is to point out going around and murdering innocent kids would probably land you in hell.  This objection fails in two critical ways.  First, we’ve already seen why the plan of action I’ve presented is infinitely better than the alternatives.  If someone who follows this plan is punished by being sent to hell, then we have people who have managed to commit these emotionally difficult but infinitely good actions but are getting punished for it.

When you really consider it, you’ll realize that in this theological view, such “murderers” are actually attempting a feat even more benevolent than anything Jesus ever accomplished.  While Jesus managed to give people a chance at salvation, killing children gives them a guarantee.  So now you’ve replaced the abhorrent system in which innocent children are tortured with the abhorrent system in which people who do more good than Jesus are tortured.  Maybe that’s a slight improvement, but it’s still not worthy of the label “good news.”

The second problem with this response is that it only offers a self-benefitting justification for not doing the right thing.  Maybe “I would get sent to hell” is a valid excuse for not killing children, but that doesn’t change the fact that in such a theological system, killing children is an incredibly selfless and benevolent act.  If someone could pull ten souls out of hell by throwing themselves in it, we might understand if they declined.  But wouldn’t we admire them if they did it?  Doesn’t that mean that in the “no children in hell” system, we should admire those who kill infants?

These three objections all fail to change the simple fact that in a theological system in which children are guaranteed a spot in heaven but adults are not, killing children is one of the most beneficial and moral acts available.  Now before I close out, I want to stress one thing.  I am NOT advocating the murder of children.  What I am doing is pointing out that in a worldview I don’t hold, murdering children is a great idea.  In my worldview, this dilemma does not come up.  In my worldview, murdering children really is a terrible thing, because it genuinely deprives them of years of potential life without offering them any replacement.  That’s why I condemn the murder of children.  But why do you condemn such acts?  If you are one of those moderate theists who believe that all children go to heaven but some adults go to hell, then why aren’t you murdering kids yet?  If you can answer that question, then you will come one step closer to rejecting the ridiculousness and unsalvageable mess that is the Christian theology.


  1. I didn't have time read this whole thing, and I didn't want to forget to at least comment, so maybe by commenting now, I'll remember to come back when I have more time... But I would challenge you to read the book "Love Wins" by Rob Bell, a pastor at Mars Hill Church, who tackles this very question of 'How can a loving, benevolent, God send people to hell." It's a very interesting book and a good read.

    And I'll try and remember to come back and read this whole thing and respond...

  2. Can't believe I'm gonna say this but it kinda makes sense. If anything people should thank a mass murderer like that cause he has guaranteed them freaking infinite happiness. I guess the only counter someone could say is that since there are those blasted, 10 commandments and one of them is thou shall not kill, killing can't ever be considered a good deed.

    but wait what about in war times

    oh god the cycle continues WHAT IS GOOD AND WHAT IS EVIL

  3. You could send the murdered kids to Limbo or some lower level of heaven where they aren't tortured for all eternity but also don't receive their full share of fruits of heaven, or whatever it is people in heaven get, that they would have received if they had been left to live their full lives.

    While this gets rid of kids being tortured for eternity, it still leaves kids being denied some part of heaven because of someone else's actions.

  4. i agree with most of what you've said here, zaq. the Bible actually doesn't teach anywhere that kids go straight to heaven before a certain age; that's completely an invention of certain Christian denominations to grapple with the tough question of what *does* happen to a young child at death if he or she is too young to be cognizant of the implications of their choices (or even to be aware of what choices they are making)? the result is that people have added a lot of nonsense (as your essay clearly exposes) to try and make their faith more palatable to their intuitions. i don't think i've ever heard it expressed this way, but your point is well-taken.

    just to be clear, however, no one (of any age) *ever* gets sent to hell for having the wrong parents, not being baptized, not hearing of Jesus, etc. everyone who goes to hell/experiences God's judgment does so because of their own sins, not because of what happens to them and which is beyond their own control (check out ezekiel 18 if you don't believe me). if you're willing, i'd love to sit down with you sometime and discuss some of your issues with Christian theology. we could probably learn some things from each other. :-)

  5. @Joel: Haven't had a chance to read the book itself, but I did scan some reviews and it looks like he's advocating an unusual form of universalism in which everyone can eventually get into heaven even if they've been in hell for a while. My suspicion is that this will only shift the original problem (the one that "no children in hell" is supposed to avoid) from "OMG God punishes infants forever" to "OMG God punishes infants for some finite amount of time." It's no longer infinitely bad, but it's still not good news.

    @Lewis: Things get counterintuitive when you start looking at infinities. The problem with limbo is that if it's eternal, it's infinitely worse than heaven, even though it's also infinitely better than hell. There's a reason I said that "hell" need only be worse than heaven. In this case, "limbo" has become the new "hell." If people in limbo can move to heaven/hell, then you have to look at how likely a kid growing up on earth is to go to heaven vs hell, and how likely a kid growing up in limbo is to go to heaven vs hell. If the latter kids are more likely to go to heaven, then killing kids is still the best way to go. If the latter kids are more likely to go to hell, then one can argue that God is still punishing them for being murdered, because he's sending them to an environment from which they have a lower chance of getting into heaven. If the probabilities are identical in earth vs limbo, then look at quality of life. If limbo life is better than earth life, killing kids is good. If limbo life is worse than earth life, innocent kids are getting punished. If the lives are equally good, then killing kids just doesn't matter all that much (which is still much farther than most people would be comfortable with).

    Now that I think about it, I could make the argument more general. If an innocent person's post-mortem fate is worse than their life would have been, they are getting punished for something that isn't their fault. If the post-mortem fate is better than their life would have been, then we should kill everyone while they're still innocent. If the post-mortem fate is even with the earthly life, then slaughtering innocents just doesn't matter all that much.

    @Chris: How is it that kids don't go to heaven but also aren't punished for soemthing they aren't accountable for? In your theological view, what would happen to an infant if it was murdered? Also, I am out of town next week but we could do lunch or something next quarter.