Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Yes, even a "Redemptive Hell" is the work of a Tyrant

This is another post that is the outcome of a Twitter exchange, so I'm going to have to provide some background if anyone is reading this didn't follow said exchange.

After a Twitter discussion with Randal Rauser the other day, I had exclaimed that I would prefer it if my suffering happened for "no reason" rather than for a "redemptive reason".   My justification for this view is that I'd prefer it if my life were not the plaything of some divine tyrant.

This lead to a further exchange.  My justification for calling the Christian conception of god a divine tyrant is as follows:

1.) This god allows for suffering, and Christians believe he has morally justifiable reasons to allow this suffering.
2.) These Christians also believe that a hell of some sort exists.
3.) Therefore, these Christians believe that the suffering of those in hell has a morally justifiable reason for it being permitted.

Randal, being the progressive Christian that he is, rejects the idea of a purely retributive hell and so thinks that in doing so he avoids my objection that the Christian conception of god is a divine tyrant.

I replied that any kind of a hell, even a temporary or finite one, is going to be relevant for my objection that any conception of a god that includes a hell will be one where that god is a tyrant.  Randal in turn wanted to know what my objections were against a "redemptive hell", and so we get to this post.

What is a Tyrant?

For my purposes here, I shall use the simple definition of a tyrant provided by the closest thing we actually have to an omniscient entity: Google.

Tyrant - A cruel and oppressive ruler.

Redemptive Hell?

My first question is to try and get at what Randal means by a "redemptive hell".  Randal and I have had discussions on this topic before, so I have a bit of an idea of what I think he's getting at but there are some lingering questions.

An Eternity of Hell?

The first question is if anyone in the redemptive hell stays there for eternity.

If they do, then that hell isn't redemptive for them at all. They're stuck in perpetual torment for eternity, and I see no reason why they should be sustained in that state, especially if god knows they won't ever leave hell.

What's worse, what was the point of creating such people in the first place?  The only possible answer I'm aware of is that their creation was necessary to bring about some number of the elect - ie. those in heaven.  In which case their suffering was nothing more than a tool to bring about some end, they are a group that would be better off having never been created. Surely they'd wish they could simply cease to exist, especially once there in their eternal hell.   Any being that creates other beings to condemn them to such a fate only in order to achieve other goals gets to qualify as a tyrant in my book. 

So it seems we can eliminate an eternal hell with permanent inhabitants as "redemptive".  I don't think Randal holds to this kind of view, but it's good to clear it up.

A Finite Hell?

What then of a temporary hell, where the damned are allowed to simply cease to exist after a finite duration in the place where there will be "wailing and gnashing of teeth"?

There seems to be a similar problem here that we see in the previous case.  Why then create any such beings in the first place? If it is only so that other elect can get into heaven, then we have the same issue as before. These creatures are merely tools meant to suffer only so that god can have some kind of preferred outcome for others.  This again puts god squarely in the tyrant category, albeit a bit more of a merciful one than our previous case.

A Universal Redemption of Hell's Temporary Population?

What of the most generous interpretation of what Randal can mean of a "redemptive hell"? One where people go to hell, but eventually all of them are redeemed at some point in the afterlife - with everyone going to heaven in the end.

It seems to be an odd kind of universalism, but it's universalism none the less. I think it is still quite abominable, and this conception of god still fits the definition of tyrant.


Because such suffering isn't necessary.  God, as an omnipotent being who can do all things logically possible, could have just created all the beings in their redeemed state from the get go.

The only reason then for god to have put everyone through all the instances of suffering here on earth, not to mention whatever suffering goes on in hell, because god presumably prefers things that way.

Randal and I have tread this ground before on his blog.  His replies then were that somehow it is greater to achieve this idealized state of "redeemed perfection" through some process of growth and hardship, compared to just having such a state innately.

The analogy used to justify this is to compare two A+ students, one who just always was that smart and gets their grades with a minimal of effort, and another who started as a mediocre student, but must put in hours upon hours of work in order to achieve a final A+ grade in a course.

When asked which student we should consider to be "greater", we would (presumably, for Randal's case) pick the latter student who has to put in more work.

I'd not agree with that assement, but that's immaterial to this objection.  I think there are two problems with this view:

Assuming that god could create the perfectly redeemed from the get go, the only reason for us to have to go through the suffering is because that god simply wants it to be so. There's simply no other reason for this other than god's preference. To put it another way, we suffer only because god wants us to.

That to me seems to reduce us and our suffering to nothing more than playthings of a divine tyrant. Because I consider it extremely cruel to subject something to suffering when there is an alternative where the same outcome can be achieved without any suffering.

Consider two cures for a disease. The first involves a series of lengthy, painful injections, followed by the kind of trauma and side effects of modern chemotherapy. The other involves drinking a simple sweet tasting medicine which immediately removes the disease.  Wouldn't we consider it cruel for a parent to chose the first treatment for their diseased child rather than the second? Especially if the costs were equivalent (assuming we had an infinitely wealthy parent).

Another Objection

There is of course another objection to be had here, assuming a god prefers his subjects to be in a redeemed state as a result of some painful process of redemption rather than having them be good from the get go.

If there is to be of any value to be found in the former case, one who suffered to be redeemed vs. one who was just created in the redeemed state - then such a value would not be found in god.  This is because the god of classical theism did not go through some process of suffering to enter into a state of perfect goodness.

That seems to imply a defect in god, where he is by definition lacking some "good" or source of value that is found in the suffering-to-redeemed beings.  

Perhaps the way out of this dilemma is to say that whatever quality is found in the redeemed-to-good beings isn't a "good", given that it is not in gods nature, which is the ontological ground of "goodness" on the Christian view Randal endorses (as far as I understand Randal's views).

This then seems to leave god's preference for this quality over the other as completely arbitrary, which leaves us back on the original issue that our suffering is merely there because god wants us to suffer for some arbitrary reason.

The only way out of this that I can see is if Randal or another apologist could provide an proof that shows that it is logically impossible for god to create beings in a perfectly redeemed state from the get go.  But that is as tall an order as the requests from theists for atheists to prove that gods existence is logically impossible. No apologist has done this yet, and I don't think it can be done.


  1. Thanks for your article CA.

    A couple quick comments.

    First, you write that our Twitter exchange "prompted some outrage on Randal's part". What is your basis for saying I was "outraged"? Frankly, the only role I see this descriptor playing is a rhetorical attempt to slight me.

    Second, you claim that God is a "tyrant" even if universal restoration is true. Sadly, I'm afraid your rhetoric far outruns your argument. For example, in my 2011 article "Hell if universalism is true" I explain what universal restoration looks like in an analogy with a native healing circle. This is a restorative process that respects human free agency. I find nothing "tyrannical" about it. You can see the article here:

    1. First, my intent wasn't to convey a rhetorical slight against you, it was to convey that you were in fact upset by my terminology of a "divine tyrant". Intent isn't magic, so I'll amend the post shortly to reflect that.

      Second, your analogy with the healing circle seems to take a ridiculous stretch from the depictions and descriptions of hell we have in the bible where at it's mildest, it is described as a place of darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth, not to mention the burning man in Jesus's parable.

      To read your view of things into it is to do as much of a tortured reading to avoid an unwanted conclusion as your reading of the OT genocides as not actually commanded by Yahweh.

      There's a bit more that could be said, but I'd prefer to keep this exchange brief.

  2. I wasn't "upset". I was simply challenging what I took to be a tendentious statement. To opine on the emotional state of one's interlocutor is indeed a way of marginalizing the person rather than dealing with their arguments. I think you're better than that.

    As for the illustration in the article, you dismiss it as "ridiculous" in light of the biblical materials. But have you taken the time to study the multiplicity of biblical metaphors and what they actually mean?

    Take the image of fire which you reference. Fire is a metaphor that can reference two things: (1) destruction; (2) purification. If universalism is true (and I have a range of materials defending it as possibly true on my blog and in my book on heaven), then the image of fire in images like the fiery furnace and the lake of fire are metaphors of purification. And there are many other examples in the Bible where fire is a metaphor of purification (e.g. Zech. 13:9; 1 Pe. 1:7).

    Imagine all the evils that have been perpetrated on others, all the fractured relationships, hatred, injustice. If people are to admit their evils perpetrated against one another and seek reconciliation, then an apt metaphorical description would be the fires of purification that are commonly referenced in scripture.

    To say the least, the position isn't, as you uncharitably declared, "ridiculous".

    Suffice it to say, you haven't begun to show that God is a tyrant on a restorative conception of hell.

    1. I can remove the reference to it completely, but it certainly came off that way to me. That isn't to say I see it as something that should be held against you in some way.

      I do see it as immaterial to the debate at hand.

      Lets get to the meat of the actual argument:

      I have in fact studied the biblical materials, and the various Christian literature on hell, especially when I was still a believer trying to rescue my faith.

      Your allusion here to a purification meaning of fire, read in the context of a healing circle where grievances are aired certainly seems to be extraordinarily stretched. Especially in light of Jesus's parable describing hell and the divide between the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), it most assuredly describes an actual burning torment. This combined with the other descriptions seems to give us a very clear picture of what hell was conceived of by the biblical authors.

      I've no doubt that with an expertly crafted hermeneutic and the right metaphysical assumptions, you can make a story to interpret all this away, but it at the least this is certainly a minority interpretation in the current day, and is I think a minority view in church history.

      Of course one could certainly say, without contradiction, that universalism is true and that after a period of time in the fire, ala the parable in Luke 16, all eventually go to heaven.

      Further, this doesn't address the main part of my argument: We only suffer, not just in the proverbial hell, but here and now in this life, only because god prefers that we suffer rather than an available alternative - ie. being created redeemed in heaven from the start.

      That alone is enough to earn him the mantle of tyrant.

    2. CA,

      You keep referencing Luke 16 as a theological picture of hell. That is mistaken on two points.

      First, the Parable of Lazarus and the rich man is not set in a post-resurrection hell. Rather, it is set in the intermediate state (sheol; hades). You cannot extrapolate about the nature of the eternal state based on a parable that describes the intermediate state prior to the final resurrection to judgment.

      Second, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is, indeed, a parable, and it must be read with attention to this particular genre. In this parable Jesus is not providing a topography of the afterlife. He's providing a pithy, vivid story to convey the importance of treating the poor with mercy in light of the coming Kingdom of God. So not only can you not draw confident conclusions from this parable about the nature of hell. Neither does this parable warrant confident conclusions about the precise nature of the intermediate state of sheol prior to the general resurrection and final punishment.

      You may have, as you say, "studied the biblical materials", but based on the evidence here, you have not studied them well.

    3. Randal,

      My argument, especially in light of the Twitter conversation that spawned this post, doesn't require what is depicted in Luke 16 to be an eternal state to get off the ground. Even if it was an intermediate state, my argument about a god creating this state of affairs is a divine tyrant.

      To address your second point, that's an incredible cop-out. Yes Luke 16 is a parable, except the state of affairs it does describe is entirely consistent with the picture of burning, pain, anguish, and everlasting torment that we constantly see used when hell is brought up in the bible across a variety of authors in the NT.

      I find Luke 16 to be powerful precisely because it is a story from Jesus that absolutely re-enforces a straight forward reading of hell's description in the rest of the NT. Defenses such as yours that call it a "healing circle" are frankly unbelievable extrapolations given what we have to go on in the bible itself.

      What's worse is that I can entirely grant even your version of a healing circle and still have my argument of god being a divine tyrant go through - it's still a layer of suffering that is inflicted on those who are not saved that is entirely unnecessary given god's omnipotence.

  3. I agree Counter Apologist.

    Having contemplated eternal suffering I can not see any justification whatsoever for it. Ever. Putting together "suffering" and "eternity" and any morally sane mind should be sent reeling at the horror. Honesty, if even Hitler were suffering eternally right now I'd feel compelled to give up my existence (be snuffed out) to make it stop.

    It is certainly understandable why many modern Christians, holding God to be loving, want to white-wash hell. It's mind-bending some of the excuses they come up with, one of the worst being "God doesn't send you there, you choose to go there." Let alone William L. Craig's justification of eternal torment is horrendously bad, i.e. that rejection of Christ is an infinite sin worthy of infinite punishment (literally pulling a principle like this out of his buttocks to make things ok), or, wait, if you don't like that one he says perhaps the sinners in hell just continue to hate God (gee, I wonder why?) and they will continue sinning eternally, meriting their eternal punishment. See, in apologetics you get to pretend people are cartoon villains, so dastardly and implacable that their sinning character is fixed for all eternity. It's just one pulled-out-of-one's-butt move after another, and in the most despicable service of justifying eternal torment.

    I see R Rauser wishes to conceive hell as equivalent to a sweat lodge, but this is one heck of a stretch.

    It's just amazing that intelligent Christians cling to this ancient book..."it MUST be true, somehow!" when it so clearly represents the troubling mixed stew of dubious ethics of ancient people.

    How could a purportedly wise, loving God leave the question of the nature of our ETERNAL FATE (and what to do about it) so ambiguous as to admit of so many different attempts at interpretation? In the best of them we all get to go to a country club in the sky without trying much. But if another interpretation is right most of us are on the wrong track and destined for eternal torment!

    I guess at that point the country-club interpretation folks will give a re-assuring "Oops. Sorry 'bout that."

    The ambiguous method of communication God has used for the most important question we could ever need a clear answer literally insane (and diabolical).

  4. Counter Apologist:

    I think you've been an excellent voice from the atheist community. Especially your rebuttals to Craig. It would be nice to see more output from you, or even interaction with comments here. But I guess life must be busy.

    Will there be any more posts from you, or possible debates?


  5. I would be willing to bet that you reject any concept of God that does not name you as deity. It's a struggle of the will. You will lose. It doesn't matter if you agree we don't care. Truth is. get over i9t.

  6. God is neither good nor evil; he is beyond good and evil.
    There is neither any heaven nor any hell.
    Here is a link:

  7. wrong. God is the source of God, evil sux

  8. Comparing God to a tyrant is a categorical mistake. God is holy. Holiness when applied to God refers to everything that separates God from His creation. There are ways we are like God and ways we are not. For instance. God is infinite in wisdom and all knowing. He's holy. He alone is God. He's in a different moral category than humans. His justice is therefore infinite and holy. By calling God a tyrant you commit blasphemy against the holy.