Jonny Scaramanga has written a fantastic post describing a discussion between a fundamentalist Christian and a secularist about hell.
I must say that I really admire Jonny. He went through horrific experiences as a fundamentalist child which led him to reject Christianity altogether.
Yet, unlike the New Atheists (also called antitheists) who engage in vicious attacks against all believers, Jonny is an extremely loving and respectful person, even towards fundies.
I think that all people cherishing an open society (where freedom and tolerance are fostered) should join their forces against those threatening its very foundation.
This is what Jonny wrote:
Fundamentalists: you have not been trying very hard to save me. Either you do not really believe I am going to hell, or you do not care. Which is it?
I wasn’t going to post this until next week, but I needed to get it online while the relevant Big Questions episode is still on BBC iPlayer so you can see what I’m talking about.
Liz Weston is a member of Christ Church Southampton. She was on The Big Questions this week to defend fundamental Christianity against the charge that it is harmful to children.
Let me say this first: I like her. She got a lot of bile from Twitter atheists when the episode aired, but I chatted to her after the show and she was genuinely nice. I got the feeling that we could have spoken for a long time and found many areas of common ground. Liz was shocked by my experiences of fundamentalism and expressed genuine regret. She was also far more tolerant than I was in my fundamentalist days. I got the feeling that where we disagreed, we could have done so without it being a source of animosity.
So yes, I think Liz Weston is a good person, and that’s important to remember in light of what I’m about to say.
The crucial exchange came about 44 minutes into the programme.
“Nicky Campbell: So who’s going there [hell]?
Liz Weston: Anybody who hasn’t put their faith in Jesus and trusted in Him as their saviour, his death on the cross to pay for their sins… But you can go to heaven, and it’s your choice if you decide to reject Jesus.
Amanda Robinson: But I have, so I’m going to hell.
Liz: That’s fine! You’ve chosen to reject Jesus. That unfortunately is your choice and I’d love to convince you otherwise but, yeah…
Then she shrugged, and laughed.
She looked a person full in the face, told her she was going to hell…
And she laughed.
Let’s imagine an alternative scenario: instead of Liz Weston, God-botherer, and Amanda Robinson, criminologist, this was a confrontation between a qualified therapist and a person with a life-threatening addiction.
Let’s say Liz is the therapist, and Amanda Robinson is a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or has a chronic eating disorder. Liz has the only solution, and it will definitely solve Amanda’s problem. Without it, Amanda is inevitably going to destroy herself in the slowest, most agonising way. How would we expect Liz to act?
Liz would be distraught. She would implore Amanda, through tears and agonising pain, to accept her help before it’s too late. She would be doing everything in her power to get through to her. Nothing else would matter. Every other point of discussion would be put on hold. Amanda cannot see her own need for help, but Liz can save her. The frustration of the situation would put Liz on bended knee, begging Amanda to let her in. If this failed, Liz would be broken, defeated, shattered by her own impotence and inability to help.
She probably wouldn’t laugh.
The situation Liz claims to believe is much worse. In our hypothetical scenario, there would at least be an end to it: Amanda would eventually die, and the suffering would end. In the case of hell, Liz believes the suffering is eternal, without a moment’s respite. Yet Liz was able to look at Amanda and laugh when she told her about it.
Either Liz does not really believe this, or she does not care.
This is repugnant. It shows how the fundamentalist doctrine of hell can corrupt the moral compass of an otherwise good person.
If Liz does not care, then the Christian claim to moral superiority is in tatters. The claim that only Christians are capable of expressing true love, because of the Spirit of God within them becomes absurd. Her religion is evil, and her claim to morality is bankrupt.
If Liz does not really believe it, she shouldn’t say it.
So which is it?”
Afterword: For the record, I believe that the most charitable interpretation of these events is also the correct one. I think Liz laughed because she was embarrassed. She knew how awful it was to tell Amanda she was going to hell. Now I’m sure this is the source of considerable cognitive dissonance for Liz. I am not saying she is lying when she says she believes in hell, but I think this demonstrates she doesn’t actually believe it as wholeheartedly as she says.
Also, I don’t mean this to be a witch-hunt against Liz Weston specifically. As I said, I liked her. This is a specific example of a wider phenomenon I’ve observed – evangelical Christians acting like they don’t care (much) as they tell someone they are bound for hell. It’s just that this one, usefully, happened to be televised.
Interestingly enough, I pointed out similar things in my post entitled “On Hell and Cognitive Dissonance“.
Conservative Evangelicals are unable to live consistently with their belief that every person dying as a non-Christian will be eternally tormented owing to sins she could NOT have avoided, due to God having cursed her with a sinful nature she never asked for.
Deep inside, most of them realize that this doctrine (combined with the claim that God is perfectly loving and just) is an affront against reason and morality.
While I believe that the Bible often has contradictory voices about quite a few topics, I fail to see any verse teaching eternal torment.
When properly interpreted, I think that the authors believed in conditional immortality, meaning that those rejecting God won’t inherit eternal life and perish.
But what does “rejecting God” means?
I think that progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser gave us a nice example illustrating what it does NOT mean.
To quote myself :
I am an inclusivist but not an universalist because I consider it very likely that at least some people will reject God beyond the grave.
Conservative Evangelicals typically defend Exclusivism (only those dying as Christians will inherit eternal life) using the following reasoning:
1) The Bible is the full and unique revelation of God (which is the central pillar of Evangelicalism)
2) There is no Biblical evidence that people will have a chance to choose God after having passed away
3) Therefore only Christians will get to heaven
Yet as Randal Rauser pointed out, this is an extraordinarily offensive assertion.
“They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil!’”
Now against this backdrop turn to the encounter between a cacique (or tribal leader) and his Franciscan captors. In this encounter Hatuey, the cacique, has been told he will be executed (for no greater crime, it would seem, than not being Spanish), but that he can still save his soul before his body is slain:
“When tied to the stake, the cacique Hatuey was told by a Franciscan friar who was present, an artless rascal, something about the God of the Christians and of the articles of Faith. And he was told what he could do in the brief time that remained to him, in order to be saved and go to heaven. The cacique, who had never heard any of this before, and was told he would go to Inferno where, if he did not adopt the Christian Faith, he would suffer eternal torment, asked the Franciscan friar if Christians all went to Heaven. When told that they did he said he would prefer to go to Hell.”
It is extremely blasphemous to state that Hatuey won’t have any chance to reach heaven.
So I think that the above reasoning can be turned on its head:
1) As perfectly loving God must give a post-mortem chance to many of those who have died without Christ
2) There is no Biblical evidence that people will have a chance to choose God after having passed away
3) Therefore the Bible cannot be the full and unique revelation of God
4) Therefore Evangelicalism is wrong
(Of course many people would contest 2), thereby invalidating the conclusion).
Finally Greg pointed out that the parable of the foolish and wise virgins has to be taken at face value, thereby showing that people not having chosen Christ during this life won’t be given a second chance.
A huge problem is that as a conservative Protestant, there are quite a few things in the Bible that Greg cannot interpret literally.
The parable of the sheep and the goats illustrates that very well.
“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Taking this parable at face value would lead one to believe that works play an important role in salvation, a doctrine Evangelicals passionately detest.
More importantly perhaps, this parable teaches that people having never heard of Christ were serving Him while doing good deeds and will usher into His holy presence.”
So I am confident that many people having died as atheists will inherit eternal life because the god they rejected was nothing more than a hideous idol they were taught to worship.
It is worth noting that Jesus never threatened prostitutes, tax collectors and homosexuals with a destroying fire but only self-righteous bigots.
I consider it very likely that while many loving atheists will joyfully accept God/Christ/forgiveness on the other side of the grave, Fred Phelps (the God hates fags pastor) will be judged and lose his life forever.
I fail to see why this is immoral, and many secular Continental Europeans I know agree that (if there is a God) such a fate would be a just reward for the life he spent spreading hatred, thereby developing a heinous personality making him unworthy of everlasting bliss.