Saturday, July 21, 2007


"Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven."

SatanApologetics is one of those terms that philosophers and theologians use that few others do. It is easily misunderstood, even by those who claim to be engaging in it, and the mere spelling of the word looks misleading. Apologetics is not apologizing, it is not saying you're sorry for something or expressing regrets. The word comes from a Greek term meaning "defend," and more properly, apologetics is the science of defending the truth, of arguing in a manner that is convincing and winsome to the end of persuading people away from misconceptions and confusion toward truth.

For many, this means "winning the argument" or "proving I'm right" when neither of those have the slightest thing to do with true Apologetics. A real apology in this sense has absolutely nothing to do with the person making the case, it is about the truth exclusively. You don't need to win an argument to make a successful apology for a truth - you merely have to properly and accurately argue your case. The listeners are able to respond to this however they wish, and almost never will that response be one of agreement and acquiescence, at least not right away. Perhaps years later they'll realize what you said was true, or forget you entirely and come to the conclusion based on vague memories of things in the past without remembering who said them or when.

Apologetics cover difficult subjects, topics that are controversial or at least opposed by some. Any topic generally agreed upon or about something which people do not particularly care is not one that apologetics applies to. Topics which are opinion based or subjective similarly are not fit for apologetic exercise: how much I like pizza simply doesn't fall into that category.
“If there is no hell, a good many preachers are obtaining money under false pretenses.”
-Billy Sunday
Take the subject of hell. Hell, the Christian doctrine at least, is fairly controversial - so much so that many pastors and even entire denominations have decided that they do not care to talk about it or preach on the subject. Few books are written on the subject, and even old time hellfire and damnation sermons tended not to be about hell so much as guilty and condemnation.

For orthodox Christianity, the doctrine of hell is this: God has set aside a place in which souls after death or Christ's return are eternally punished for their sins. It is a place of unimaginable woe, the absence of all good and decency. Hell lacks love, comfort, and virtue, and is a perfect and constant exercise of eternal misery and vice without reward or pleasure. Some say hell is the absence of God, but that's not technically true: the Bible teaches that God is there; but only his wrath and justice. All who are not saved by the blood of Jesus Christ applied through the work of the Holy Spirit are doomed to this eternal perdition, according to Christian doctrine.

Hell is described in many unpleasant ways in the Bible, particularly the images of eternal fire and burning, darkness, weeping, and devouring by worms. The imagery, like a lot of the imagery in Revelation and Daniel, is intended not to give an accurate depiction so much as an attempt to express concepts and ideas human minds cannot contain. The idea is unattainable by humans because it's something we've not encountered and have no experience to compare to. So bizarre, colorful, and fantastical imagery is used to express what Hell is like - burning is agony, think of that forever. It's not that hell is literally on fire, as far as we know, but rather this is the best way to get humans to understand the horror of the place.

This is a doctrine so unnerving in modern culture that many Christians don't care to even think about it, that theologians such as Bishop John Shelby Spong have decided that there really isn't a hell, that people who are not saved simply cease to be when they die. Some modify hell into a sort of purgatory, where sinners suffer until they've paid for their sins sufficiently and then are translated to paradise. Most just ignore the topic.

The problem with this approach is that the Bible is full of hell. Christians claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, and the one person in scripture that teaches most about hell is the Lord Jesus Himself. In fact, if you count up topics that Jesus Christ discusses in sermons and various talks recorded in the gospels, Hell is one of the top 3 (along with money and the kingdom of God). Simply brushing aside this doctrine might be soothing to modern sensibilities, but it is inconsistent - to say the least - for Christians to do.
"Hell is paved with priests' skulls."
Unpleasant ChristianToday, insisting that nonbelievers will burn in hell forever is considered at the very least rude, and often arrogant. "How dare you presume that just because someone disagrees with you they will suffer eternal damnation?" It just seems absurd to others, the idea of some dungeon where people spend forever in misery while others spend forever strumming harps and floating on clouds. Someday perhaps I'll write on heaven but suffice it to say that most peoples' idea of heaven is boring and miserable and I'd rather not go there - nor is it what the Bible teaches.

First off, it is not inherently arrogant to assume that you're right and others are wrong - we all do that, or everyone would at least be apathetic toward each others ideas, if not outright agree. The fact that someone declares the doctrine of hell arrogant to begin with presumes that they disagree with a Christian, thinking him wrong. This disagreement thus violates the tenet that they allegedly hold to: that it is arrogant to hold to an absolute position. Mind you Christians can be arrogant in asserting their position on a topic, some are quite obnoxious about it - being smug about their skipping hell and condescending about others going there. "I of course do not deserve this, but you do, you dirty sinner!"

For Christians, the approach should always be one of humility and genuine concern, not arrogance and condescension. Christian Apologetics are done out of a love of the truth and real care for the other person, not out of some need to dominate, defeat, or prove your superiority. Again: apologetics is not about you, not ever. At least in some instance, however, it is the case in which some sense arrogance where there is none. Whether this is due to a personal sense of guilt, or a past where others were arrogant every time they brought up the subject, or just discomfort with religion and the topic, at least once in a blue moon when a Christian brings up a topic, they aren't being arrogant when they are accused of it.

So let's look at hell and try to approach this with humility and love, as well as an open mind and a willingness to consider.
Heaven has a road, but no one travels it; Hell has no gate but men will dig to get there.
-Chinese Proverb
The question addressed here is this:
“How can a loving, good God send people to torment in hell for eternity?”
This is a good question for many reasons. It demonstrates at least an acceptance that the idea of good and evil is possible, that the existence of God is possible. It also encapsulates the primary concern about the topic: hell seems awfully mean and extreme.

Now, most everyone on earth understands the concept of hell in some sense, whether it be returning in a more simple, meaner form in reincarnation or a lake of fire that burns forever, encircled by imps with pitchforks. Most people at least joke about how someone should be or is in hell – usually someone particularly loathsome to that person, such as Josef Mengele or Ted Bundy.

Few people have a problem with the idea of really horrible, clearly evil people going to hell, particularly if they've been wronged by this person. Idi Amin's many victims would be comforted with the thought that he's spending eternity not wiped from existence or resting in peace, but suffering eternal horrors to pay for his evils on earth. It is a sense of justice and completion that this satisfies - they may have gotten away with, even prospered from their evil on earth, but they will some day pay for all of it, and then some!
"Hell is truth seen too late."
-by Henry Gardiner
For hell to make any sense at all, one first must accept the idea of an objective ethical code. What I mean is this: hell only makes sense if there is some code by which we ought to live by, and violation of which results in punishment. If we simply have our varied opinions about good and evil - each as valid as the other - then the discussion gets no further than the old Miller Lite© ads: “Tastes great! Less filling!” The fact that nearly everyone accepts the concept that evil exists, defined at least in some definition, is showed by the insistence that some things aren't fair or right, appealing to a shared concept of justice. As stated above, most people agree that some particularly loathsome individual deserve and likely are in hell, even if they are joking about the last part.

If you trust polls, you can note that most people who are asked, according to various polling agencies, believe in hell, while fewer believe in heaven. This suggests a transcendent standard of ethical behavior at least at some level: violate it and you'll find yourself in perdition. I suspect most haven't thought through the concept much beyond a simple will for justice and misery to meet those who are particularly evil in this life.

However, once you agree that there is at least the possibility of an absolute standard of ethical behavior, you can consider the consequences of such a position. You need not accept that the standard exists, only that such a standard could exist or might be there. If there is an absolute standard of right and wrong, then violating that standard then has some penalty.

CreationAs I've gone over before, it is only reasonable, even scientific, to believe in the existence of a theistic creator. You might not believe this or accept it, but at the very least, any honest, rational person should accept that it might be true - agnostics are far more reasonable on this topic than atheists, who a priori reject the possibility of God's existence. The characteristics of this God can be debated, but the existence is at least a possibility, and that's sufficient for our discussion, and here's why:

If there is a transcendent, absolute moral authority - a way each of us ought to behave and not behave - and there is a theistic creator, then the two inevitably go together. Because if the beginning of the line, the start of all existence comes from one immensely powerful, intelligent, and wise source... that means that standard of moral authority does as well. Because if the standard existed and this creator is bound by it... where did it come from? All you've done by asserting this is move the step one turtle back: that source is then the creator and source of authority.

Simply stating that this creator must adhere to a standard of justice presumes that such a standard exists, and violating it is wrong. Which means that you're not really helping your case by claiming someone is unjust for punishing those who violate this standard.

So we have a basic concept, at least in theory, of a creator who is the source and arbiter of right and wrong. Violate this standard, and you face some sort of sanction. Whether or not you admit these things are true, the possibility of them opens us up to some consequences.

If this creator God exists, who is all powerful and wise, is the standard of all right and wrong, and is the source of all existence other than Himself, then those who He created are in no position to shake their fist in indignation at His justice. Think about it: condemning people for being unjust or unfair presumes that over them is a standard of justice and fairness that they ought to adhere to. You cannot appeal to a higher principle that binds the source of that principle; they created it. If that source commands that all must comb their hair or face a spanking, then you cannot appeal to a higher authority and insist that the spanking is unfair. There is no higher authority. There is no standard of justice that overreaches this source.

At best, all you can do is claim it is arbitrary or confusing, not that it is unjust. Even rationality comes from this source, and thus it cannot be declared irrational. To claim that this source of justice is being unjust presumes that we are the authority over this, highest, authority. Which is rather like your doodle telling you that you should have given it bigger eyes.

The principle then is this:

The highest authority makes the rules

With this basic principle in place we can begin to consider objections to hell. The first objection we've already addressed. You cannot claim that it is unfair, unjust, or excessively cruel for God to send someone to eternal punishment. This claim presumes the existence of God and of an absolute standard of justice and ethical behavior - which then forces you to presume that God is the arbiter of that standard, and thus cannot be held to a higher standard. At best, all you can do is assert that it is inconsistent of God to punish people forever, a presumption assuming that you have all the facts and understand better than God (the source of right and wrong) how to apply justice. We already mentioned arrogance above.
"The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions."
-A. W. Tozer
Another objection that is brought up is that God is loving, and that this seems to contradict the idea of sadistically punishing helpless souls forever in inexpressible torment. This is the primary objection I mentioned above - the objection being either God isn't loving or that hell as Christians teach it doesn't exist.

One of the primary mistakes made by many Christians as well as non-Christians is the assumption that Love somehow negates every other attribute of God. That once a being is loving, it cannot then be just, vengeful, or angry. Further, the assumption is that Justice is a malleable, flexible concept, while Love is absolute and must be applied in all situations equally.

Love, like mercy, by definition cannot be compulsory, or it ceases to be love and is at best compulsion or a simple repetition of behavior to all involved. Justice by definition can not be flexible, or it ceases to be just. If two persons (who are in all other respects equal) are treated differently by the law, this is not just. Further, it is unloving to allow someone who is wicked to go unpunished, as any parent knows. Love by definition must include some actions and behavior that might be unpleasant or unwelcome to the loved person at times.

Consider how and why you punish your children or demand punishment for those who have wronged you. Is it out of sadistic glee? Is it because you seek misery for someone else? Does this show your complete lack of love and compassion? Or is the very concept of justice inexorably woven together with love - that without love, there cannot and would not be justice, and without justice you cannot be loving? For if you do not treat people justly, how much can you possibly love them?

The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy in which you do not care about them in the slightest. Justice is opposed to apathy as well - it demands action taken, based on that person's behavior.

Thus, an underlying assumption of the question is put to the task – that a loving God cannot possibly punish someone eternally, that this violates love. A loving and just God must punish someone to the full penalty of what their wickedness deserves, or he ceases to be both. It would be inconsistent for God to fail to punish evil, not for him to punish it.

If you want to know how on earth this works out with God's mercy and why some go to heaven at all instead of hell, you're beginning to ask the right question. Someday I might write about Justification by Faith, which deals with this very dilemma.

PrisonNow, since a loving God must punish evil, and since this loving God is the source of all justice, one must ask how should God behave toward evil and sin? The primary objection to hell usually is centered on its duration. Most people would agree that at least some people deserve punishment they may not get in its fullness here in this world. But few would readily agree that all people deserve richly an eternity of unending torment without pause – never, ever, ever ending. It is this eternal nature of Hell that troubles even many Christians, leading to Bishop Spong's concept of annihilation in which the lost simply cease to be at death.

Consider this: in even our flawed legal system, and that of every culture and society in history, the worth and stature of a crime’s target determines the resulting punishment. Few would consider someone murdering Hitler an especially heinous crime, but most would be aghast if someone killed Gandhi. This is based on a variety of reasons, but the fact remains, the worth of the target affects the punishment of the crime. Further, the outrage of the average person is much greater over a crime against someone held in high esteem rather than someone held in contempt or hatred.

This concept is that a crime against someone worthless or repugnant, even evil, is much what they deserve, while a crime against someone considered great and benevolent is not what they deserve and is improper behavior. The better and more unworthy of maltreatment someone is, the more dire the punishment of the one who wronged them. This is simply justice.

If God is the Supreme Being, infinitely good, infinitely pure, infinitely righteous, infinitely just, and infinitely worthy, ultimately good, ultimately significant, this would suggest the punishment for crimes against this God would be as infinite, even by our standards of justice. Living a life of continous and repeated sin violates this principle constantly - and Christian doctrine teaches that each of us in thought, word, and deed sin every single day at every opportunity. This means a life spent in continuous, deliberate rebellion against this perfect and all powerful arbiter of right and wrong, against an infinite good.

It is this sense of justice that is perversely the most appealing part of the doctrine of hell. As I mentioned above, someone horribly misused or abused by an evil man can look to a day when at least this person will suffer for their sins, will face justice. All too often evil reaps earthly reward, not punishment. Too often being unjust and wicked means comfort, ease, and wealth in this life. Far, far too often the unjust and the evil escape justice entirely, despite our best efforts. Not in hell, they don't. Hell provides a sense of grim satisfaction, not sadistic glee, but a calming sense of justice, of wrong finally being made right.
"Thirty hours of pain! All at once, all for you!"
-The Crow
Christ on the CrossThere is a final aspect to all of this that Christianity teaches about hell: let’s assume Hell does exist, that Christianity is right in all its aspects and God does send people, - a lot of people - to Hell.

One of those people who endured hell was God’s very own son. Jesus Christ, the most innocent and blameless, the most pure and righteous man to ever live, the one man least worthy by any standard of Hell endured the full extent of punishment, an eternity of Hell on the cross for each and every single sin – thought, word, deed, and omission – of each of his chosen ones. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ was God himself, incarnate on earth as a man. God himself suffered hell in at least some sense, an eternity of unspeakable punishment and misery compressed into short hours thus incomprehensibly compacting and increasing its intensity.

Jesus Christ suffered hell its self out of Love for a people who deserved this punishment and hated Him who did not. He suffered the full punishment of the curse, paying the full price. And that is something that throws an entirely different light on the whole affair.
“Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do”
-Gian Carlo Menotti
Hell is an unpleasant topic, it fills even Christians with at least some sense of dread and discomfort. That is no reason to avoid the topic or try to dismiss it. Hell is real, and it is a real concern.
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S. Weasel said...

I inadvertantly got into a nasty argument at Free Republic once by mentioning hell. I wasn't picking a fight -- honest. But someone responded, "we don't emphasize hell these days." And that didn't totally compute. I mean, you don't spin religion, if you really believe it. If it's there, it's there. And he came back with, "oh, there isn't much about hell in the Bible." So I had to go look it up in an online Bible, and (of course) it turns out there's a very great deal about hell in the Bible.

People who claim to be people of faith really puzzle me sometimes. You know, you buy the whole package. If you approach a religion a la carte, picking and choosing the bits you want to believe, you don't really believe any of it...

Christopher Taylor said...

Dr R. C. Sproul suggests that if you read the Bible and find a part you disagree with, cringe about, or find particularly troublesome, that's the very part you ought to study most closely and carefully.

I tend to agree with him on that.

Muslihoon said...

Nice to read this post, and Mr. Weasel's comment.

Thank you.

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