Sunday, August 03, 2008

Why the threat of hell?

     I often see christians claim that their god wants voluntary love and worship. They correctly assert that forced love is not real. But then, why the threat of hell. If you worship this being because of a threat of eternal torment if you don't, it is forced worship and so, not real. In an apparent attempt to get around this difficulty, christians will point out that human societies have and enforce laws. This, of course, destroys the initial claim. In order to keep society running smoothly, I desire that people not steal. It makes little difference to me whether they refrain from theft because theft is wrong or because they want to stay out of prison. The important thing is that they refrain from theft.
     There is something intrinsicly not right about the christian concept of god. If he simply has this great desire that we fawn all over him, he should just show up -- and in a manner that is unmistakeable. That shouldn't be too hard for a supposedly omnipotent being, should it? The claim that he "showed up as Jesus" does not fit the criterion. Jesus (even assuming the stories are true) looked very much like a normal human -- i.e. not a god. Showing up in disguise so that people will think it's a fake doesn't count. On the other hand, if this god wants voluntary worship, he should remove the threat of hell. All it is is an ultimatum; and ultimata are not conducive to voluntary worship.
     There are a few possibilities I see regarding the state of affairs of christian worship. First, it could be a complete fiction. There might not be any god corresponding to the bible. Second, there could be a god that actively desires to send people to hell but has to convince some superior being that he gave people a chance. This would account for the fact that he seems to go to great lengths to make the message look false. Perhaps he wants people to reject it. Lastly, the god in question may be limited. Perhaps he simply has no power over those who do not give their lives to him. In such a case, hell is an empty threat, as he has no such power. He could be using a fear tactic to prevent people from thinking clearly and to ensare them.

12 comments:

JRK83 said...

Hey Pvblivs,

Your criticism would hit harder if it were more faithful to the biblical teaching. I agree that a "god" who threatens believers to either worship him/her/shim(?) or suffer forever is not much more than a monster. However, this is not a good characterization of the God of the Bible.

The God of the Bible is described as Triune and perfect. He is a holy community in unity. In order to have fellowship with this God, you must also be perfect because His holiness, or "set-apartness" allows for no fellowship with darkness or impurity. So, Heaven is a place where God's presence dwells and anyone else who dwells there must also be perfect. Quite simply, God would allow any perfect person who does not wish to love or serve Him into heaven along with those whose sins are forgiven. The problem is, that based on the Bible's criteria for perfection, no one measures up (actually, no one even comes close).

Therefore, since Heaven is a place for perfect people your criticism fails to address the reality of the Christian God. In fact, the God of the Bible doesn't threaten anyone with Hell, but instead warns us that it is real and that anyone who breaks the divine law will go there if they desire to pay their own penalty. You wouldn't accuse me of threatening you if I knew you had poison in a glass, and I told you, "Hey Pvblivs! Don't drink that poison ... you'll die!" Would you say, "What kind of friend are you?!? You threaten me with death if I drink this ... I don't want to be your friend anymore! *gulp* Ack!" Clearly a warning is different than a threat.

So God has made the laws known to everyone (through their conscience and the written revelation of Scripture), has told us the consequences of breaking any of these laws, and has provided payment sufficient for anyone who will receive it to pay their own fine so they don't have to. Quite frankly, I don't worship God because I'm afraid of Hell ... I worship God because I deserved Hell but He loved me so much that He became a man, lived the life I should have lived, and died my death so that I could live. That's what Jesus did, and if you think that a God who can send people to Hell and who is above our ability to injure or harm Him in anyway, but who willfully put on human flesh and suffered the cruelest torture ever created up until that time for my benefit and for yours doesn't love you, then I don't know what else to tell you. I worship God because He loved me when I was unlovable, not because He threatens me if I don't.

One last thing, I never actually feared Hell because when I was an unbeliever I didn't believe it existed, and now that I'm saved by the blood of the Lamb who was worthy to be slain on behalf of the whole world, I know that Hell has no power over me. Your assertion that, "If you worship this being because of a threat of eternal torment if you don't, it is forced worship and so, not real" doesn't touch me or any other Christian who was converted because of the encounter with the living God who was manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. We love Him and serve Him because He first loved us, and gave Himself up for us ... that's also why we spend so much time telling others about Him so that they can know Him to.

While that may be preachier than you would have liked and does not address several of your later points, the reason is that your points follow only based on your misunderstanding of God and Hell as revealed in the Bible. Hell's not a threat but a reality based on the just nature of God. If you have some reason to object to the justice or necessity of such a place, we can discuss that, but if Hell exists and God tells us about it, that is not a threat but a warning. Signs that tell you the bridge is out up ahead are for your benefit, not to scare you into to taking an alternate route.

Take care.

Pvblivs said...

Jrk83:

     Your analogy fails. According to christian doctrine, the biblical god is the one who casts people into hell. So, it's more like, "if you drink that, I have to shoot you."
     "God would allow any perfect person who does not wish to love or serve Him into heaven along with those whose sins are forgiven."
     Nope, one of the criteria is loving and serving him.
     The key difference between a warning and a threat is that if I warn you of something, I have no involvement in the adverse effect. If I am threatening you, I control the adverse event. The biblical god does not warn, he threatens.

JRK83 said...

Pvblivs,

A still better analogy would be that of a judge and a courtroom. This analogy is used often, but a judge warns that certain actions will result in a person being held in contempt. When that person does such things, the judge holds them in contempt. We've been warned ahead of time what the penalty is and yet we break the laws anyway. You say that God casts us into Hell, but we have just as much participation in the event by breaking the law (just like the lawyer who won't shut his mouth when he's been warned). The judge's role puts him in the place that action is necessary, just like for God, but without infraction the judge would hold no one in contempt and God would cast no one into Hell. Threatening and warning have overlapping meanings, but your assertion that a threat involves the person who carries out the action is not accurate. Someone could threaten you saying that if you don't stop being mean that their big brother will come beat you up. If the big brother comes along and silently does some roughing up, he only carried out the threat that someone else made. My point in saying that it's a warning and not a threat is that threats are usually used to coerce (as you are suggesting) but warnings are issued for the persons best interest. If God wants what is best for you Pvblivs, and He does, then He is not telling you about Hell so you'll stop sinning. He could force you to stop very easily (read Acts 5:1-11 for example).

Loving God is not one of the criteria, but it is the best way to uphold all the criteria. The ten commandments do not say you must love God, but they do say that we are to worship no other gods and are not to make graven images. The Lord declares that He is faithful to generations on behalf of those who love Him (and keep His commands), but loving God is not a commandment. You're confusing the summation of the law to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength ... but this as a commandment encompasses the rest because when you love someone truly and deeply you won't do things that are against what they want. A man that loves his wife will all his heart and soul will not be unfaithful to her. It is the same way with God.

I think you also misunderstand what serving God entails. He's not some sky-dwelling slave driver that forces us to act arbitrarily. If God exists as the Christian believes, then He created us and knows what is best for us. Imagine the inventor of the blender telling it what it was made for and how to perform, but the blender looks at its maker and says, "I'd rather heat food than blend it!" That's not what it's made for and not what is best for it with the design that it has. Serving God entails the best life/existence possible since He knows what we were made for. We don't, and to not serve Him is to waste the gift He has given because we will squander our time and God-given talents and abilities on things that we were never intended to do with them.

Pvblivs said...

Jrk83:

     I suppose it could be compared to a judge in a kangaroo court who says "if you try to defend your client, I will hold you in contempt." We do not have participation by "breaking the law." If it were possible to uphold the law, we see significant numbers of people doing so. There should certainly not be a claim of "there is none righteous; no, not one."

JRK83 said...

Pvblivs,

What you are doing is imposing human standards upon God. You may think you and I are pretty good people because we don't murder, rape, or plunder. However, God's standard is not just "pretty good" or even "better than average." It's perfection. Surely you don't think that you or anyone else is perfect do you?

Matt 5:48 says, "So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Significant numbers of people uphold portions of the law. But we don't get a cookie when we go into a bank and don't rob it. We are punished when we break the law (and get caught and there is sufficient evidence to prove we did it beyond a reasonable doubt), but we don't get rewarded for doing things that we are supposed to do. You seem to expect God to reward people for doing what they are supposed to do.

Pvblivs said...

Jrk83:

     Incorrect. Please note that I nothing about admission into heaven. While being a member of society is a default position, heaven may be regarded as some special reward. I spoke only about casting into hell, and specifically the active torment so associated. If he doesn't want to invite me to his party, I can accept that. If he wants to cast me into fire for all time, that is immoral.

JRK83 said...

Pvblivs,

Heaven is a kingdom, and Hell is anything outside of that kingdom. To not be "invited to his party" is to be left outside in the dark. What is the third option that you are looking for?

Pvblivs said...

Jrk83:

     If everything outside his "party" is flames, and he made it so, he is wicked. And if you remove the active torments, I have no objection to being outside.

JRK83 said...

Pvblivs,

I'm afraid that you believe that "[you] have no objection to being outside" is based on a poor understanding of what Hell really is. The flames to which you refer, in my opinion, are clearly symbolic. Before you object saying that I make things I don't like symbolic and translate other things I like literally, let me explain the textual reasons I believe the reference to flames are metaphorical.

Matthew 13:50 and 22:13 use the same description of Hell (weeping and gnashing of teeth) once with the fiery furnace and once with darkness. However, literal fire brings light ... not darkness. Everyone knows this. 2 Peter 2:4 says something similar about the angels in hell, that they are in gloomy dungeons. Gloomy would not be a description used for a place burning with fire. Also, the rich man from Luke 16 requests that Lazarus dip his finger in water to cool his tongue ... not his skin on his body. You may say I'm adding my own interpretation, but I can't believe that if I were being burned in fire my first thought would be to cool my tongue. Jude 6 refers to the angels in Hell as being "in darkness" and verse 13 describes Hell as a place of "blackest darkness." This is not in keeping with literal fire, but is in keeping with a figurative use of fire if it is being used intensively. For these reasons I believe I am being consistent (and interpreting as the original authors intended) that the "fiery" descriptions of Hell are figurative.

The use of fire as a figurative description is not foreign to the biblical text in other contexts either. Hebrews 12:29 describes God as a consuming fire, yet He is not actually a fire (He's spirit). James 3:6 describes the tongue as a fire, but that's clearly not literal. James 5:3 says that a rich persons wealth will consume their flesh like fire, but clearly silver and gold do not really produce fire. Revelation describes eyes like a flame of fire (Rev 1:14; 2:18), breastplates the color of fire (9:17), an angel with feet like pillars of fire (10:1), etc. I do not think I am being unreasonable when I take these descriptions as figurative based on the textual evidence provided.

So, what is the fire then? I think a fair reading of the biblical text that is consistent with other texts, would say that the fire describes the intensity of Hell. Hell is a place of torment that burns as if on fire, but is dark and full of people "weeping" and "gnashing their teeth" (a Jewish phrase for great mental anguish). So why is Hell like this?

Of course, you don't think highly of the God of the Bible. However, if we take the Bible at its word regarding this Deity, then He is the most Awesome Being in existence and He is worthy of all honor and praise. You and others deny that this Being exists in this life ... but imagine for a second that He does and this fact is crystal clear the moment you die and you are standing before Him as He judges your life (words, deeds and actions). When He condemns you to Hell and casts you out into the outer darkness away from Him forever, you will have an eternity to contemplate the terrible mistakes you made in your life and being full of sorrow and mental anguish that God was real, people told you about Him, yet you denied the evidence to continue life as usual. This is the picture that the Bible presents for those who are left outside, so your claim that you would have no problem being left outside if there was no "active torments" is based on your misunderstanding of the nature of God and Hell. There are no active torments ... only the passive torments in your own mind and soul for rejecting all that is holy and righteous and pure and good (God Himself).

Pvblivs said...

Jrk83:

     The varied expressions are diffect, and may well have been symbolic. However, they all describe active torments. So I think it reasonable to infer that the bible is saying there are active torments.
     I do consider the possibility that this being exists. However, my conclusion is that, if that the being is as the bible describes, he is powerful yet wicked. It is also a possibility that this is actually a relatively impotent being who has power only over those who did serve him. Don't think I haven't contemplated the possibilities.

JRK83 said...

Pvblivs,

Please describe for me what you mean by "active torments" since we seem to have different ideas of what this means, and provide a verse that backs up your definition.

Also, I never meant to infer that you haven't considered these things. I did mean to infer that perhaps you have not considered them with an accurate view of the God of the Bible. I think you'd agree that coming to conclusions based on poor evidence or mischaracterizations of the data is asking for trouble in any situation.

Take care.

Pvblivs said...

Jrk83:

     An active torment would be any that was imposed from without. And your own verses will serve to support the idea. A dungeon may be symbolic (or perhaps literal) but it is definitely something imposed externally.