On hell and a psychopatic mindset

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randaul Rauser wrote a new amazing post about the problem of hell (understood as a never-ending torture).

BildI agree with anti-theist Richard Dawkins that terrorizing small kids with this is a form of child abuse and that this damnable doctrine ought to be jettisoned.


Randal wrote


In my recent interview with Robin Parry on universalism, Robin observed that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, he put the point rather provocatively when he declared, “You’d have to be a psychopath not to want [universalism] to be true.”

Psychopath?! Them’s fightin’ words!

That might seem like a daring statement, but as Parry notes, even conservative Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm agrees that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, J.I. Packer makes a similar point when he observes: ”If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!” (Revelations of the Cross (Hendrickson, 1998), 163).

So we are left with a situation in which proper Christian character requires that we hope universalism is true even as we are to believe it isn’t.

Next, Robin addresses the underlying tension between the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and Christian “moral character formation”. He explains:

“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, I believe that hell is tormenting people forever. I don’t have a problem with that. And I think, when you first come across this view, if you’re an ordinary human being, you would have a problem with that unless there’s something really wrong with you, something seriously in terms of your moral compass. So then you have a theological system where you have to try and desensitize yourself to this. And there is a real problem of a theological system that actually, rather than cultivating virtue in your attitudes and so on, cultivates attitudes that are actually vicious.”

As Parry points out here, eternal conscious torment presents a serious problem, for the Christian determined to move beyond the pained contortions of cognitive dissonance and to a real embrace of the doctrine is required to adopt attitudes toward some of God’s creatures that are, as Parry says, “actually vicious”. To be sure, the individual may not know who the reprobate are, but they do know that a subset of God’s creatures will be subject to eternal torments even as the elect experience maximal joy in a restored creation. Consequently, they should seek to inculcate in themselves attitudes that are in conformity with God’s, including a satisfaction in the horrifying future of the reprobate. It does indeed seem that the only alternatives at this point are extreme cognitive dissonance or vicious attitudes that are indeed inimical to the cultivation of true Christian character.

Parry is not suggesting that advocates of eternal conscious torment are vicious. But he is claiming that consistently embracing eternal conscious torment as the fate for the reprobate requires the cultivation of attitudes that are vicious. Think, by analogy, of the meat eater overcome with compassion when witnessing the horrors of the slaughterhouse. But rather than resolve not to eat meat, he resolves to harden his emotions against the terrible fate of industrial livestock. Likewise, the Christian overcome with compassion or immobilized in anguish for the eternally damned either lives in cognitive dissonance or seeks to inculcate vicious attitudes whilst cauterizing his compassion and embracing the divine plan of never-ending torment for the reprobate.

Is there a way to proceed in the interpretation of scripture and theological reflection which can help us avoid this impossible choice between cognitive dissonance and moral disassembly? Shouldn’t right doctrine seamlessly interweave with right character formation?

Eric Seibert believes so and he offers a way forward with a hermeneutical principle to guide theological reflection. (For more on Seibert see my audio podcast interview here and my print blog interview here). Seibert’s proposal has a decent lineage: St. Augustine. He begins by quoting the great Church Father:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

Seibert then fills out Augustine’s principle:

“Whenever we read and interpret the Bible, we should always be asking whether our interpretation increases our love for God and others.” (The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012), 66-67).

The position offers at least the beginning of a resolution to the problem. Whenever we encounter a doctrine or a reading of a biblical passage, we must ask of it, does that doctrine or reading increase our love for God and neighbor? If one concludes that it does neither, and indeed does the opposite, we have a reason to reject it. Consequently, the extent to which one believes eternal conscious torment leaves one in the hinterland between cognitive dissonance and the inculcation of vicious attitudes, to that extent one has reasonable grounds to reject the doctrine.


Here was my response.


Hello Randal, thanks for this new amazing post of yours.

I find it amazing that even hardcore Calvinists such as Paul Helm grant the point that nobody should WANT eternal conscious torment to be true.
This logically entails that they are themselves morally superior to the god they profess to worship.


That said, I think that Robin Parry confronts us with a false dichotomy .

Either we believe that people are going to be tortured forever for sins they could not have avoided (having been cursed with a sinful nature).
Or we believe that all of them will inherit eternal bliss.

But there is another alternative, namely that:

1) God did NOT curse us with a sinful nature (the authors of Genesis agree with me on that one).

2) God will grant eternal life to everyone truly desiring Him and there will be lots of conversions beyond the grave (inclusivism).

3) Those not desiring God won’t suffer forever but they will be no more.

Given that, I don’t even feel a need to hope that universalism is true.
I don’t feel a need to hope that Hitler, Fred Phelps or Bin Laden won’t return to dust.

Interestingly enough, many secular European folks told me that if there were a good God, they would not be shocked at all if He were to act in the way I have just outlined.


17 thoughts on “On hell and a psychopatic mindset

  1. I agree with anti-theist Richard Dawkins that stressing this to small kids is a form of child abuse and that this damnable doctrine ought to be jettisoned.

    Then the same question Richard Dawkins gets asked gets asked of you – where is your evidence that this constitutes child abuse? We’ve done, at the very least, psychological studies of children who have been exposed to sexual abuse, and we see the psychological harm it causes – as well as, of course, recognizing that the very act is ‘harm’ in and of itself.

    Also, the crucifixion is an absolutely bloody affair. We’re talking about a man being put up on a piece of wood with nails driven into his wrists and his side speared. Is teaching children about the crucifixion also a form of child abuse that should be jettisoned? After all, the bible’s not inerrant. Maybe the crucifixion was made up and Christ died happily at age 80 of natural causes after a long and fulfilling life. The resurrection wouldn’t be any less amazing if it happened then, right? Clearly the whole crucifixion thing was mere allegory.

    • Hello Crude, I replaced the verb “stress” by “terrorize” to make clearer what I truly meant.
      It seems rather obvious that teaching to a small child that all non-Christians (including her if she doesn’t convert) will suffer eternally and atrociously often leaves profound (and frequently irreversible) wounds.
      Now the tone employed for delivering this message is certainly going to play a major role too.

      I wished there were studies to either confirm or disprove this.

      Personal testimonies are not hard to find, though.


      • It seems rather obvious that teaching to a small child that all non-Christians (including her if she doesn’t convert) will suffer eternally and atrociously often leaves profound (and frequently irreversible) wounds.

        Lotharson, I’m just not sure this is true. Why, precisely, does this seem “rather obvious” to you?

      • It seems rather obvious that teaching to a small child that all non-Christians (including her if she doesn’t convert) will suffer eternally and atrociously often leaves profound (and frequently irreversible) wounds.

        If I tell my children that all people who live in a third world country are going to be suffering far, far more than we (probably, hopefully) ever will, does this leave “profound and irreversible” wounds?

        Isn’t the main issue here whether or not it’s TRUE?

        And really, Marc – What’s your evidence of this?. This isn’t just any old point, it’s a really bold claim that’s central to your argument. Anecdotal evidence simply isn’t good enough.

        In fact, I would argue that telling people the truth about Hell ultimately SAVES people suffering. And now it’s child abuse if I teach my children this?

        Your position is absurd.

    • Unlike the resurrection and the death of Christ, I think that an excellent case can be made that the overwhelming majority of the Bible teaches conditional immortality and NOT eternal pain.

  2. Hello, I came here via Peter Enns blog and am glad to see what you are writing. I was raised in an evangelical home and have only in the last 3 years come to realise how illogical so much of what I was taught is. I believe hardly anything of what I used to, especially as relates to the sacredness or truth of the bible, and it is a relief to discover that there are christians who have more logical views. I wonder if you have written about your own spiritual journey, and what causes you to still believe in Jesus as a savior. That is the last bit I am reluctant to give up, but at this point I think it is more for sentimental than rational reasons.

    • Hello, thanks for your comment!
      I will perhaps say more about my story in the future but I am not sure it is that interesting 🙂

      I view faith as meaning hope in the face of insufficient evidence

      I think that if there is a good God, I find it the most plausible He revealed Himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the atrocities in the OT notwithstanding.

      But I recognize that other people starting from other presuppositions won’t come to the same conclusion, especially of they have been traumatized by fundamentalism.

      • Thanks for the response! I appreciated the post you linked to, that idea of faith is quite interesting and I will think about it.
        As for stories, I always find hearing people’s stories gives me new ideas and fresh hope for my own! Maybe you should consider it. 🙂

  3. For me, this is a subject which causes issues, but I don’t think it necessarily makes me become a universalist. On the one hand, the idea of eternal torment is horrible, but on the other I wonder about justice and judgement. I also think all that we have heard or see in the bible does not really give us any real detail of whatever it is that Heaven or Hell are or will be.

    If we take a “sort of” traditional protestant view that everyone who “believes” in Jesus goes to Heaven and everyone else goes to Hell. Then this seems to be a pretty poor way of sorting people out. We can imagine people like ourselves then going to eternal torment, for what seems to be the slightest of differences. This seems unjust. It also seems more of a way of fitting things to a particular doctrine than being based on an honest reading of scripture.

    However, in terms of justice, we wonder how some people, guilty of the most horrendous of acts of cruelty and evil, particularly when seemingly of free choice and without coercion, seem to “get away” with it. To this the Bible seems to say that God is just and does punish evil.

    Maybe the problem is that we are looking at the issue the wrong way round. Those who stress the “omni-benevolence” of God, feel that he can’t possibly intend to hurt or eternally punish anyone. What if we look at people instead, do some deserve punishment? does anyone deserve forgiveness? has everyone deserved punishment or forgiveness. Are there nice people at one end of a spectrum and evil ones at the other? We see bad things happening to seemingly okay people and some fairly horrible people getting away with the sickest and cruelest of things. This I would say means that no judgement is also unsatisfying and makes a case for an unjust God.

    I think, particularly in the modern era we have been too heavily influenced by an idea that people are innately good and all behaviour is due to conditioning and circumstances external operating on us. This does away with any idea of free will. I would to some extent recognise that we are heavily influenced by forces beyond our control, but not go so far as to say we have no control and therefore no guilt.

    Something needs to happen to iron out the real guilt of people who are truly wicked, those who have never struggled with trying to be better, particularly in contrast to those who have genuinely struggled to try and do good, but also forgiveness comes into play. I think this leads to a much more complex “need” for a complex interplay of judgement, reward, punishment and forgiveness. Scripture does not seem to give any simple answers for this, it just gives lots of differing and seemingly contradictory information.

    Maybe as Lotharson says, there are more chances/circumstances after death, or there may be a need for something along the lines of purgatory. However on the balance of what I see in scripture I think there are aspects of reward and punishment promised, along with forgiveness, so Universalism seems to me to be more of wishful thinking than a fully credible doctrine from what we know.

    Maybe the way of describing this eternal punishment and who is going to get it is the major flaw. Yet another “straw man” from Dawkins and his ilk and possibly some confusion on ours. I personally haven’t any real concrete idea on what it all means and come back to my usual refrain of “much is a mystery to us and we’ll not know before hand what is going to happen”. Maybe there is eternal punishment for some who truly deserve it, annihilation for others, purgatory for some, followed by entry to a lower Heaven, and maybe a blessed few get straight into the penthouse rooms in the New Jerusalem.

    But as I said, forgiveness is hoped for but justice also needs to be served, God is both just and forgiving, maybe he just gives us sufficient understanding on the matter and aint going to give us much more.

  4. Dear Lothar,

    What is actually ironic is that it is your view of annihilationism which is morally despicable and incompatible with the existence of an all-loving God. Why? Because if God–who sustains and upholds all that exists from moment to moment–were to annihilate a person permanently from existence, then such a God would literally be murdering that person. And how is that compatible with the existence of an all-loving God.

    Furthermore, let me ask you a question. What if a person wanted to live forever, and yet that same person wanted to live forever completely separated from God no matter what that entailed. Would it then be moral or loving for God to annihilate such a person? Would it be moral or loving for God to force such a person to be with Him in heaven against the person’s will? If you answer “No” to both these questions, and you should, then God must create something like hell.

    Take care,

    RD Miksa

  5. Given that, I don’t even feel a need to hope that universalism is true.
    I don’t feel a need to hope that Hitler, Fred Phelps or Bin Laden won’t return to dust.

    I do not understand why you say this, especially given:

    Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

    Couldn’t the world always do with another person who loves much?

  6. Good post.
    I particularly like Selbert’s litmus test for offensive passages of scripture.
    Love for God and neighbor is the heart of the Bible’s message.

  7. Whenever we encounter a doctrine or a reading of a biblical passage, we must ask of it, does that doctrine or reading increase our love for God and neighbor? If one concludes that it does neither, and indeed does the opposite, we have a reason to reject it.

    Jesus said that it would have been better for Judas not to have been born. Does this increase our love of God or neighbor?

    And if it does not, are we to reject it for that reason, without first trying to figure out if it’s what Jesus actually said?

    This basically means that you get to not believe ANY part of the Bible that makes you feel the slightest bit unhappy.

      • Luckily for me, I am not obligated to believe everything Saint Augustine has said.

        But anyway, I can’t find a quote where he said that. Here’s what I have:

        To love God and one’s neighbor is the essence of the Scriptures, and thus the task of interpreting them must be pursued in order that the love of God and others is realized.

        Augustine does NOT say we must reject parts of the Bible, but rather that we must read it with the goal of increasing our love of God and neighbor. Those are two very, very different things.

  8. A few more thoughts:

    The descriptions of Hell in the bible are mainly in the New Testament and there is little on the after-life in the Old Testament. Many people describe the doctrines of Heaven and Hell as developing over time. We could say this is part of the continuing revelation, where more information is given. If this is correct, then the NT descriptions are partial, possibly greatly influenced by surrounding cultures (E.g. Hades from the Greeks) and may be subject to a fair amount of hyperbole.

    It may well be a mistake to have a fixed view on what is being described, particularly as we in the West have many images from the medieval world which were further imaginative extrapolations. I would say we just don’t know what is being described, but we do get “gut feelings” and emotional responses to what we hear. Terror being a fairly major one. I’m not sure if the use of terror to manage people is really a Christian principal, plus coercion is generally not a good way of starting or maintaining a genuine “faith”.

    However I would not use this as a good reason for abandoning or denying parts of scripture or underlying doctrines. When it comes to educating our children I think we do need to take care and introduce ideas with great care and concern to their sensibilities and level of understanding. But there is no reason to give up on “warning” them about things and explaining that certain decisions may have painful or negative consequences.

    When I used to teach youngsters how to use machine tools, I had to point out that misuse could lead to death or serious injury. I did this in a matter of fact way, didn’t use terror, but didn’t avoid the issue. Other teachers used graphic images of people torn apart in real-life accidents. Generally my students took notice and we never had any accidents, though I had to repeat warnings.

    So as Malcolm says above, there is a good point to warn others and our children and scripture does have warnings. Some of the language used is fairly graphic, but that may well be in line to the nature of the World at that time, where children were probably not insulated from the cruel realities of life like they are today. I am skeptical to some degree as to what the realities of Heaven and Hell are, but to what extent are these part of the Gospel and the New Testament? Therefore, to what extent should we focus on these and how should we represent them.

    As I said in an earlier post, I think the anti-theist presentation of descriptions of Hell seem to be another straw man argument, often based on some real-life straw men who claim to be Christians.

    We probably need to challenge the ideas of both those who would deny “punishment” and those who terrorise by descriptions of punishment to coerce people to belief. For instance, when Jesus says “It is better for you to lose a part of your body than to have all of it thrown into hell.” Is he really suggesting people cut off their hands, or is he just using hyperbole as a rhetorical device? If the amputation bit is rhetorical, how much is his description of hell as “eternal fire” a rhetorical device.

    So, to sum up I would say there are consequences to how we live our life, there are warnings as to what may be our destination after death or Jesus’ return. I don’t think we have any major grounds on which to get rid of the warnings, but I would also say we may need to think very carefully and moderate our views on what “punishment” may mean and be.

    Finally, I have been wondering what Hell may be and think in some ways we are already there. If we think of those in war-torn parts or sinister despotic states, or even victims of horrible things in our “wealthy and peaceful” First-World nations, Hell is here already, some of us are just insulated in gilded cages. We don’t choose between Heaven or Hell, we can only choose to get out of Hell.

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