Can a religion which preaches hell be reasonable?

I was in a discussion with some Christians recently who assured me that their beliefs were based on reason.  A few centuries ago, such an admission would have likely earned you 10 lashes or worse by the disciples of some of Christianity’s preeminent theologians, but that was before the Enlightenment and all the goodies it produced.  Today, reason is seen a Good Thing™, and many religious strive to show how it’s in fact on their side.

I’ve previously argued in Reasonable or foolishness?, when it comes to Christianity at least, the theology denigrates reason (e.g., “man’s wisdom”), extolling faith instead, which proved itself extremely useful for defending any belief, no matter how crazy or unsubstantiated.  Here I want to broaden my argument to explain why religions that preach retribution for non-belief cannot in fact lay claim to being reasonable.

To see why, consider the following thought experiment.  Suppose I come up to you and claimed evolution is true.  Perhaps you believe me right away, or perhaps you want to make up your own mind; after all, lots of people tell you things that don’t turn out to be true.  Go ahead and do that, I tell you, but if you arrive at any other conclusion besides mine, I’m going to throw you in jail, where you’ll rot for the rest of your life.

Most people would immediately see the problem here.  Have I in fact allowed you the luxury of reason to investigate and believe my claim?  No, I haven’t, because I’ve really only one given you one choice, and that’s to simply accept the claim that evolution is true.  Even providing you with what I consider rock-solid proof of evolution doesn’t alter the calculus in any way.  When I threaten you, I automatically remove reason as an allowable means to accepting my claim.  I’ve in effect determined your choice.  If you were truly free to exercise reason, I would have to accept its outcome no matter what, even if I considered you gravely mistaken.  Punishment for arriving at a wrong conclusion turns reason into a thought-crime.

So when believers like Christians or Muslims contend their faiths are based on reason, one may simply object that this can’t be so because their god in fact doesn’t allow it.  Using reason to arrive at any other belief than the correct one will earn you an eternity in hell.  Thus, reason is in reality an evil to be avoided, as Martin Luther concluded a long time ago.  Blind, unquestioning, and unexamined belief is what the theist’s retributive god truly desires, not a belief grounded in reason.  Some theologians have essentially acknowledged this, asserting that certain theological beliefs must simply be taken for granted, or presupposed.

In my next post, I’ll show why reason is explicitly excluded in religions like Christianity.

6 thoughts on “Can a religion which preaches hell be reasonable?

  1. Excellent. I have thought for a long time that teaching about hell to kids essentially forces them to make an emotional decision rather than an informed one. Of course it does the same thing to adults. I hadn’t thought though about the direct connection between preaching against the use of reason (aka Luther) and a doctrine of punishment for reaching wrong conclusions. Good point that they go together that way.

    Reason ultimately has to be used. There are obviously claims concerning dangers that need to be trusted and acted on, with a measure of “faith” involved. That’s OK, as long as it doesn’t subvert the primacy of reason in making a decision.

  2. Hello,

    Just discovered your blog and am definitely liking it.

    I’m in the process of rethinking the faith that I’ve held onto for 23 years. I’m troubled by the fact that a good God would send people to hell. In the past, I would have convinced myself that it’s really people’s decisions, God works in mysterious ways, it is the way that it is so we’d better get to saving people… but now, I’m looking at it with fresh eyes thinking “what kind of a god- or even a fairly kind person- would ever send billions of people to an eternity of suffering simply because they were born and never became Christians?” Really, that’s all you need to go to hell, according to Christianity- being born. Hell is every person’s default eternal destination… You have to be told, believe, and pray the prayer (some would say be baptized)- all these hoops before you get to spend eternity in heaven. Why would it be that easy to go to a place of endless suffering? What kind of god would do that? Then there’s the logical no-no’s you discuss in this post. Very true.

    I’m finding holes in my old religion, obviously. Still haven’t decided on where I’m at. I have a lot more research and processing to do first. I’ll keep up with what you’re writing as a part of the decision making (no pressure!)

    Tricia

    1. Hi Tricia,

      I see that you’re troubled by a good God sending people to hell, especially billions of people who have never heard of Christ. I’ve sometimes wondered at this too, but I think if we examine this issue more we will find a reasonable answer.

      You say that, according to Christianity, all one needs to do to go to hell is to be born. We do have fallen natures since birth since we are descended from Adam. But simply being born won’t send a person to hell – the Bible never mentions that babies go to hell and actually seems to offer an age of accountability, before which children do not know good from evil, and thus we may infer that God saves those children who die before they reach the age when they can decide between good and evil.

      God doesn’t simply send people to hell because they “never were Christians” – otherwise Abraham and Moses in the Bible would be lost, since they never knew Christ but only believed God’s promises that they received in their age. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross covered them because they believed what God told them in their age.

      People really go to hell because they do wrong actions and do not believe in God. Everyone can see in the world certain attributes of God – like His power in creation and His moral law in our conscience. Even those who never heard of Christ can see these things, and since they know there is good and wrong, they can decide which to do. Since each one of us has done something wrong, something that transgresses our conscience and goodness, we have committed evil that needs to be answered for.

      We’ve cheated, lied, hurt others, done things out of selfishness, etc., and if God ignored these things, He would be an evil god. If He didn’t hold us accountable for our selfish and hurtful actions (which we all do, from the most educated to the most savage), then He would be a corrupt judge who didn’t care about justice or the plight of victims. Billions of hurtful actions have been done by billions of people, and God can’t just forget that.

      Maybe you think that we are not so bad – that yes, maybe we do some bad things, but that we are mostly good. I think that our belief in our own inherent goodness is the greatest stumbling block to believing in God – because He sees reality and says that we are not good:

      “There is no one who does good, not even one.” – Psalm 14:3

      But we don’t need God to tell us how bad we are – just look around. Newspapers and television show our evil all the time. Yet perhaps a very insightful glance into our depravity are dictators and others who have gained much power. We might recoil that we can be compared to dictators, but just think – they have gained almost unlimited power, so they can do whatever their heart desires. Thus, it would make sense that the true nature of their heart will shine through.

      However, we do not have all power to do whatever we like. We are told not to lie, otherwise we will be disapproved by society. We refrain from acting out our rage in physical ways since we would go to jail. If we did many of the evil things we sometimes entertain in our imagination, we would be imprisoned and looked at as pretty bad people. The short story is, we often look good because we have to act good in order to live in the world and gain a good reputation. This is not always our motivation, but it certainly is one of our motivations.

      Now just look at dictators, at French aristocrats before the French Revolution, and at other people who have gained much power. They no longer have the good constraints of society around them – so they can do what they really want in their hearts. And what do we see these people doing? We see massive oppression, rampant lusting, and the worst behavior known to mankind. I was just reading about the French Revolution in the events that led to it, and the evils of the aristocracy were appalling. These aristocrats had for centuries the power of life or death over the peasants, and they treated them badly, making them to the basest things and taking their women.

      Then when the peasants revolted and gained all-power, things got even worse: People were guillotining even innocent poor people. The power to do anything your heart desires really shows what truly is in your heart – and it is not pretty. We truly do not know the extent of evil that is in our hearts.

      An example from modern day Africa is very telling and sobering. Right now we see a couple African peoples trying to exterminate other African peoples. This genocide is hard for us to understand, because we are thinking how can normal people want to go out and kill off other people? We think the genocidal killers must be crazy and subhuman – in short, someone not like us at all.

      But listen to some people who had formerly did genocide. These Africans said that they had been neighbors and even good friends with Africans of the other tribe – until this wave of resentment among tribes brought about genocidal mania among them and they started killing the very people who were their neighbors and friends. Afterwards, these Africans were very surprised that they could have done such a thing.

      These incidents show some of the magnitude of evil that lies within our hearts, even if we appear and feel good. Doing evil is like an addiction in all of us – we do it all the time but we deny that it has any power over us. We think we are not addicted, but we are dangerously addicted, and just changing our environment – like with those “good neighbor” Africans, can bring that evil out in terrible ways. We can be good in good times, and then evil can come out when disaster hits and we become selfish.

      Basically, we are the guilty party and it is hard for us to examine objectively that we deserve justice for what we have done. We blame the Judge and acquit ourselves, just as most all defendants do. Sometimes I wonder if we can really be that bad, but then I remember that we certainly don’t have an objective viewpoint when it is our own badness/goodness we are talking about. We will try defending ourselves and put the blame elsewhere, just as humans are prone to do. Yet God sees all and must judge what is evil; otherwise He would not be good to ignore evil.

      You wonder about the millions who have never heard of Christ, and sometimes I’ve wondered the same. I think it is important to know that we don’t deserve to be saved, just like a thief doesn’t deserve to escape from his sentence. If he is given mercy, that is a wonderful thing – but the Judge doesn’t owe it to him.

      But it is interesting that many peoples who have never heard of Christ have actually had the preparations for the Gospel within their own cultures. Eternity in Their Hearts is an excellent book that points to many incidents in which native peoples, before missionaries arrived, already knew in their cultures about the one true God, and sometimes they even know that this God will send them messengers with his truth. And even though these native peoples know about the one true God, they often still worship demons or the sun, even when their own traditions speak of this God who is not of the demons or of the sun.

      Thus, even peoples who have never heard of Christ have still heard of God, and many of them still reject this God. Yet the ones who believe in these promises of God, if these promises are truly from God, then I believe that they are God’s children and will be saved. God does save many from all places on earth, and no one will go to the the wrong place in eternity – God will make sure of it.

      If you’re wondering if there is any reason to believe in God or Christianity, here are some great sites: http://carm.org/evidence-and-answers and http://www.4truth.net/

  3. Hi Tricia, welcome and thank you for the warm comments. I’m gratified my thoughts are contributing to your intellectual journey, wherever it may lead. I don’t often blog, as you probably already found out, but when I do, I try to come up with some unique arguments you may not have encountered elsewhere.

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