I had recently made a tweet about how great it is that major religions like Christianity and Islam are false:
Honestly, it's one of the best facts about life that major religions like Christianity and Islam are false. There is no hell, no billions of people suffering eternal conscious torture. Simple non-existence after death is literally infinitely better.— Counter Apologist (@CounterApologis) August 2, 2018
This prompted a tweet and blog reply by Christian theologian and apologist Randal Rauser.
For reference, every time I mention the word hell here, I’m talking about the traditional Christian view of hell as eternal conscious torture.
Randal’s first point is to avoid the idea that Christianity entails a belief in hell:
“Christianity per se does not include the belief that ‘billions of people suffer eternal conscious torture.’”
In support of his point Randal quotes the end of the Apostles Creed, noting that it “is fully consistent with various theories of posthumous punishment (e.g. divinely inflicted torment; self-inflicted torment; destruction/annihilation).” He goes further to note that since there is no mention of the ratio of saved to lost, the Creed is compatible with versions of universalism.
The first reply is that the traditional Christian view of hell has been the eternal conscious torture kind, not either the annihilationist or universalist sort that Randal endorses/hopes for (respectively).
Where things get a bit odd is that Randal elaborates on the positive aspects of the Christian afterlife by going on to quote the bible:
“What the Creed does outline is the fact that the creation will ultimately be set to rights, that God’s perfect justice will be done (Matthew 6:10), that all will be well (Isaiah 3:10), that every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4), that God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).”
The issue I have here is that Randal appeals to the parts of the bible that paint a rosy picture for the saved Christians, but reads in a heavy skepticism to equally clear parts of the book that describe hell as eternal conscious torture:
- “Everlasting Fire" (Matthew 25:41)
- “Unquenchable Fire" (Matthew 3:12)
- A place where "the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44-49)
- A place of "torments" and "flame" (Luke 16:23,24)
- “Everlasting destruction" (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
- A place of torment with "fire and brimstone" where "the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever" (Revelation 14:10,11)
- A "lake of fire and brimstone" where the wicked are "tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10)
- Jesus himself indicates that the punishment in hell itself is everlasting - not merely the smoke and flames (Matthew 25:46)
Now Randal is no stranger to non-standard readings of problematic areas of the bible. For instance, he believes the passages that describe Yahweh commanding genocide in the Old Testament should not be taken literally but rather a kind of divine irony or satire in the vein of “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift. As someone who used to be a believer, I just can’t wrap my head around these interpretations. I’m not alone, these are minority views among Christians.
This does seem as if Randal is picking a hermenutic specifically in a way to avoid the exact argument that atheists are making: the bible very straightforwardly presents hell as eternal conscious torture, and that is incompatible with perfect goodness - therefore Christianity is false. Furthermore, between Christianity with a hell and atheism with non-existence after death, atheism is preferable.
In fact, Randal’s reply seems to grant the very point of my argument. Randal doesn’t try to argue that a world with hell + heaven is preferable to the atheist world where our consciousness simply ceases to exist after death. He argues along the lines that: Some versions of Christianity don’t have a hell, and shouldn’t we hope that’s true instead?
Here Randal appeals to Martin Luther King Jr. with the quote of “while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice”. In fact he goes a bit further:
“With the exception of those persons who are themselves interminably wicked and opposed to justice, the rest of us surely ought to hope that this vision of reality is actualized, that God’s perfect justice will be done, that all will be well, that every tear will be wiped away, and that God — the absolute and transcendent source of all goodness — will be all in all.” (emphasis mine)
That’s quite an appeal Randal is making, and he even seeds it a bit by implying that if you don’t agree with him then you are “interminably wicked and opposed to justice”. Randal here is also appealing to the Christian definition of god as “the absolute transcendent source of all goodness”
Well I don’t think I’m interminably wicked or opposed to justice, but I’m mostly going to disagree with him. Of course much like most disagreements between Christians and atheists, most of the disagreement here is about what the term “justice” and even “goodness” means.
After all, as Randal points out while Christianity is compatible with annihilationism or universalism he admits it is also compatible with eternal conscious torture. The problem is that so is Randal’s last statement about justice. If we accept the Christian definition of a god as “the source of all goodness” and that “justice” will be done, and the version of Christianity where there is a hell is true - then supposedly we are to think that hell is just and that the transcendent source of goodness (if that’s even intelligible) and justice itself is compatible with the existence of a hell.
But that is exactly what I deny as being possible! There is a contradiction there between what we inherently understand as good and the concept of hell. Randal seems to grant this by appealing to versions of Christianity where there is no eternal hell.
So sure, I could say one might hope that some special version of universalist <insert religion here> is true. After all, it doesn’t matter if the true religion is Islam or Christianity or Hinduism if eventually all souls end up in heaven - what matters is the order of preference:
Getting into heaven >> Ceasing to exist >> Going to hell
The problem is that I don’t see there being plausible universalist interpretations of any of the major religions on offer, especially not Christianity. Even Randal himself says he is “hopeful” that universalism is true, because presumably he can’t be sure if the bible can be interpreted that way.
I think I can stand by my original statement. It’s a wonderful thing that atheism is true compared to Christianity and Islam because non-existence is infinitely preferable to hell.
Sure I can of course grant that if you think there is a universalist version of any religion that’s preferable to atheism/non-existence, but I don’t think there is a plausible version of a universalist religion.