The Good Christian God and Eternal Damnation; A Scattered Response.

by Wes; April 2004

My last lengthy entry on the subject was entitled "Why I am not a Christian. (in part)". In the piece, I referred largely to Bertrand Russell's lecture of the same name, minus the "(in part)" part, and that was the source of the title of my own post. And I agree with much of what Russell wrote (but not all of it). But I suppose the simplest reason that I am not a Christian would be that I don't believe in Jesus Christ. I don't believe that the Christian deity exists, and if it does, I doubt that the Bible is its complete word. That's the short of it.

Granted, there may have been a man named Jesus who lived just over 2000 years ago, and he may have been crucified by the Roman empire. I'm not entirely certain of even that, but I suppose it's very likely. But I have more than a little doubt that the New Testament is an accurate depiction of his life. It has been argued, for example, that Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or that he really was God incarnate, and that there are no other options. I submit that there is; that he might have been fiction, or if he lived, that what we read in the New Testament is largely fabrication. And to be sure, there is much in the New Testament -- and throughout the Bible -- that seems curiously similar to earlier legends, writings, teachings, and laws. The Bible may be a very lengthy chronicle, but it does not strike me as entirely original.

In any case, even if it were an original work, I think that it is largely a fiction. To be sure, much of the Bible is fantastic, and while I read a lot of fairy tales and fantasy and find them enjoyable, I rarely believe the stories -- at least in a literal sense. Of course, there is metaphoric and figurative significance to be gleaned from almost everything, but I think that the Bible -- as the supposed Word of God -- loses a great deal of import if it is lacking in literal significance, and if the stories told within are not the literal truth.

In reading over Robert G. Ingersoll's "What Would You Substitute for the Bible as a Moral Guide?", for example, there appears the following quotation:

In Exodus we have an account of the manner in which Jehovah delivered the Jews from Egyptian bondage. ... We now know that the Jews were never enslaved by the Egyptians; that the entire story is a fiction. We know this, because there is not found in Hebrew a word of Egyptian origin, and there is not found in the language of the Egyptians a word of Hebrew origin. This being so, we know that the Hebrews and Egyptians could not have lived together for hundreds of years.

Now, I'd always thought that much of Exodus was myth, but I'd always assumed that it was largely based on historical events -- that the Jews really had been slaves in Egypt at one point, and that perhaps there was a slave revolt and they escaped captivity one night. After all, the story of Exodus is so important to both Judaism and Christianity that, if it were not at least a somewhat accurate depiction of the truth, the emphasis on it seems largely unfounded. And at the very least, if what Ingersoll wrote about the languages is true, you'd think we'd have heard more of an uproar about it.

So I ran a couple of searches. First, I stumbled across an article in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia about Hebrew language and literature, whence comes the following quote: "Thus, notwithstanding the long sojourn in Egypt, the number of Egyptian words that have found a place in the Hebrew vocabulary is exceedingly small. The attempt on the part of some scholars to prove the existence of several Hebrew dialects has not produced any definite results." I skimmed over the arguments that followed, which argue that the "uniform stability" of the Hebrew language could account for the lack of Egyptian words, and found them unconvincing -- no matter how "stable" a language is, hundreds of years in close proximity with another language would almost certainly influence it in pronounced ways. And then I googled "exodus truth" -- without the quotes; just the two words -- and came across this piece, "Scholars doubt truth of Exodus". I'll not continue on about the subject here, but read it over, if you're interested. And if you know more about this particular issue than I do, feel free to comment or e-mail me about it. I find this very curious indeed.

But there are other problems that I have with the Bible, and the depiction of the God within. For example, in my studies of religion, I've found that what Xenophanes wrote long ago rings largely true:

But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form. (Fragment 14)

Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds. (Fr. 15)

The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair. (Fr. 16)

That is, people tend to make gods in their own image (or, by contrast, say that they are made in the image of the gods). But I don't think this is restricted to physical depictions -- I think that people also have a tendency to project their attitudes, wants, and desires into the characters of the gods they serve as well. The Christian God, for example, though supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent (at least, that is how He has traditionally been described), is oftentimes depicted as insanely violent and jealous and amazingly wrathful. These, contrary to His supposed perfection, are flaws, and it is no surprise that we find them all in humankind, and as people often find themselves unable to restrain themselves, I have no doubt that the image of a perfect God who likewise possesses these traits would bring them some consolation. People respond to fear, and the most successful (if not respected) leaders have used terror and brute force to subjugate their enemies; rather than rising above these brutal acts -- which are largely motivated by fear themselves -- we find that the Christian deity likewise employs such dreadful tactics to crush His opposition. We find that one of the most important things to people is gaining attention and praise from others -- whether it is deserved or not -- and we see them doing all sorts of things, savory and unsavory, in order to secure the affection of their peers. The God of Christianity does not seem much different, with His insistence on being worshipped. It's worth noting that the most important commandment is not the proscription against thievery, against adultery, against murder; on the contrary, it is having any other gods before Him.

But perhaps I am guilty of this too. I find that I don't much care for the praise of my peers, let alone their adoration. I suppose writing is a creative act -- hardly on par with the creating of the universe, but it will serve as a comparison -- and with respect to my writing, I do appreciate it when people tell me that a story of mine was well-written and enjoyable. But I'm much more interested in knowing what they got out of the story, suggestions for improving it, what other works it reminded them of, etc., and if they never stopped saying, "Wow, Wes, that was a really great story! I love you!" I would grow very annoyed. Consider also that the "writing" of God would be so far beyond our comprehension that it would be impossible for us to understand it. I know that if I wrote a story and gave it to someone to read -- say, someone who could barely read English, so it was patently clear to me that that person hardly understood a word of it -- excessive praise of my writing would be almost insulting. It would mark the person as either a moron, a liar, or a toady, and possibly two or all of those things. I don't suppose an omniscient God would be insulted -- I think such a being might be inclined to sigh, shrug, and say, "Kids will be kids," but neither do I think that He/She/It would be violently angry with its readers if they didn't react in that fashion.

The relationship between God and humans is often described as a parent-child relationship. But if I had a child, I think that that kind of affection from the child would bother me considerably. If the child went around saying, "Wes, you're so great; thank you, Wes!" all the time, I'd say, "Bloody hell, why don't you go outside and play with your friends sometime?" And if the child told his/her friends ad infinitum, "Wes is so great; I sure love Wes!" I'm sure they'd get tired of him/her quickly, and I wouldn't blame them. And even if I give the child plenty of gifts to show my love -- for a trite example, say I've just given the child an ice cream cone -- I'd rather the child eat the ice cream and focus on enjoying the ice cream instead of concentrating on praising me for giving it to him/her. If in between licks, the child looked up at me and cried out, "Thanks, Wes!" with sticky lips, I'd probably smile and respond, "Hurry up and eat your ice cream before it melts."

Suffice it to say that I think that an infinite being would be far above our mortal wants and weaknesses. As I've written previously, I do believe in something -- something transcendent -- but I also believe that the nature of such a thing precludes me from saying much about it. Oh, I indulge in speculation from time to time. I've been known to argue passionately for the possibility of its existence -- as opposed to its existence itself; that, I could never prove -- and I've argued against certain conceptions of it, but to say what something is not is quite different from saying what something is. Like Plato wrote, I don't think we can say with certainty anything about the true nature of such things. At best, we can only hope to say a little about what they are like.

Now, on to the more proper reply, which follows in part from three posts by Mac -- "A Defense", "'I have done no wickedness'", and "Saved by Fear" -- that followed my recent post concerning these matters. So we'll begin with some charges of moral relativism leveled against Russell and Robert Green Ingersoll and see where that takes us.

In a comment on Mac's blog, Dawn wrote, "This is one of the many reasons why I think Mac wrote an excellent piece: because he threw a spotlight on the moral relativism that drenches the works of Russell, Ingersoll, et al."

I responded,

...I haven't agreed with everything they've written (and I certainly do not think that their arguments are without flaw), but I think it's quite the mistake to call them moral relativists. Throughout their writings, they clearly speak of right and wrong -- for instance, they happen to think that damning people to eternal hellfire (in a literal sense, at least) is wrong, for no crime merits so severe a punishment -- but the moral relativist does not speak of right and wrong. In the snippet Dawn notes, the word "ideal" is used -- but the moral relativist does not recognize ideals.

So clearly I think that it's unfair to accuse Russell and Ingersoll of being moral relativists, let alone to assert that moral relativism drenches their writing. But what I find interesting, however, is that while certain individuals are quick to condemn others as being moral relativists, we often find that they themselves become moral relativists wherever God is concerned.

If God delivers oppressed people from bondage, God is righteous; God is good.

If God cures the sick and makes the blind see, God is righteous; God is good.

But if God sends a plague that kills seventy thousand people (2 Samuel 24:14-15), God is righteous; God is good.

If God makes a promise to a people and then violates it (though this part is open to debate), declaring that their carcasses shall waste away in the wilderness (Numbers 14:32-34), God is righteous; God is good.

If God passes through a country under cover of night and murders the firstborn child of every household, save those with animal blood smeared on the doorway (Exodus 11:4-6, 12:29-30), simply to punish a hard-hearted ruler, God is righteous; God is good.

And if it can be shown that this ruler's heart was hardened by God Himself so that he would not let the people go (Exodus 10:1, 10:27, 11:10), in order that God could "[show] these signs before him" -- signs that included plagues and the deaths of many firstborn children, such that "there was not a house where there was not one dead" (Exodus 12:30) -- still God is righteous; God is good.

When the God Hates Fags crowd paces the streets, shouting, "You filthy fags!" at passersby, "decent" Christians balk at this "unfitting" and detestable behavior. But though Jesus said, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" (Matthew 23:33) -- which despite being a question strikes me as having a similar tone, given the diction -- they yet uphold him as sinless, the most righteous man who ever lived and ever could live. After all, Jesus was God, and God is righteous; God is good.

Of the seventy thousand deaths, Mac writes, "Now unless someone can demonstrate that God "sent a pestilence" to a city inhabited by pink bunnies and cute Volkswagon Beetles for no other reason than because he felt like it, arguing malevolence is a matter of human opinion." But neither does the Bible say that these people were evil and deserved to die of plague; on the contrary, the Book -- and David himself -- clearly note that David was the guilty party here (2 Samuel 24:17). If the CEO of a major corporation had a grudge against you, made a few calls, and had seventy thousand of your friends and acquaintances (or at least everyone you know) murdered, you would call that person an evil, vindictive bastard. But God is righteous; God is good.

Of the passage where God hardens Pharoah's heart, Mac writes, "Without Pharoah's hardening of heart, none of the miracles that resulted in Israel's deliverance, proving God's sovereignty, would have ever occurred." I submit that perhaps not all of these "miracles" -- that is, violent plagues and murder by the numbers -- would have been necessary for Israel's deliverance if Pharoah's heart had not been hardened by God to begin with. But if that CEO was fingering his cell phone, mulling over whether or not he should make that call to have your acquaintances murdered, and someone with mind-control abilities hardened his heart so that he dialed the numbers and summoned his assassins, you would hold the telepath largely responsible for the resultant carnage. But in God's case, God is righteous; God is good.

The ten commandments say, "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13). But God kills -- apparently by the thousands and millions. God kills children, simply because they had the misfortune of being the firstborn sons to families who had the misfortune of being born into the land of a hard-hearted ruler (whose heart was in fact made hard by God Himself!). Yet when a leader gives a command and then proceeds to violate it, effectively saying, "Do as I say, not as I do," we generally call that person a hypocrite. But not God! God is righteous; God is good.

So it apparently makes no difference what God does -- God could drown every person on the planet save a handful (Genesis 7:21-23), and still God is righteous; God is good. But if there is no difference between right and wrong for God Himself, not only is it "no longer a significant statement to say that God is good," as Russel writes in "Why I Am Not A Christian", but there is ultimately no difference between right and wrong. After all, as Dawn writes in a comment on Mac's blog, "God is the ideal." But this ultimate elimination of right and wrong as opposing values has more in common with moral relativism than anything in the writings of Ingersoll or Russell.

If a sniper trained his rifle on the homes of the nation, closing in on every house where the front door was not marked with blood, and shot dead the firstborn children of America, and also the firstborns of animals, you would call that assassin a terrorist -- and an especially deranged one at that.

In the comments section of an earlier entry, Mac wrote, "If God went out and slew 70,000 terrorists in the Middle East, would you still cry uncle?" I responded that I would still have a problem with that. It may be necessary for us to go to war with terrorists in order to protect the innocent, but we are not omnipotent. And even if we must kill them in an effort to bring about peace, their deaths are no cause for rejoicing. When Buffy said, "If I have to kill demons because it makes the world a better place, then I kill demons. But it's not a gift to anybody" (BtVS 5:18), I nodded in agreement. I mourn the passing of terrorists. But I would never worship one.

Now, in line with the parent-child analogy, suppose that I have an infant son, and he's really a terror as far as babies go. His new teeth are coming in, and already he's biting everything in sight -- the cat is missing large chunks of fur, my other children (say that I have other children) are frightened of him, and my wife will not go near him without armor-plated gloves. So perhaps I would be justified in keeping the child from playing with his brothers and sisters. I'd certainly have a doctor or two check him out. And he'd definitely have a teething ring or two to chew on. And though I don't know how you could appropriately punish a baby -- after all, the baby really cannot understand the significance of his actions -- I suppose no one would call child services if I could devise a suitable punishment for the child that might teach him not to chew on the kitty. But if I doused his crib with gasoline and set him on fire, you'd call me a monster.

But really, the relationship between a child and parent isn't a proper analogue for our relationship with God -- God is so knowledgeable and powerful that perhaps the relationship between a hamster and its owner is a better comparison (and even that doesn't quite get it right). So say that I have a few hamsters and they're real bastards. I don't know what a hamster could do to be such assholes, but these hamsters pull it off swimmingly. And eventually I get sick of it, so I fill their terrarium with water and drown the lot of them. You'd call me cruel, to be sure. But say I didn't do that -- say I threw a lit match in there, setting the wood shavings ablaze and burning the poor hamsters to death. And say that I announced, "Those hamsters were small and inferior to me, but they offended me with their iniquity! They deserved to burn as they did!" Would you think me worthy of praise?

Do these seem like the actions of a righteous and good person who truly loved his child and hamsters? Of course not.

Yet "[t]he Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:41-42) A furnace of fire! For Hell is said to be a place of everlasting fire (Matthew 25:41, weeping and gnashing teeth (Matthew 25:30, etc. -- of torment day and night, forever and ever (Revelation 14:11).

But God is righteous; God is good. God is loving.

One of Mac's entries by way of response was entitled "I have done no wickedness". In an earlier comment, he writes, "Your premise is basically that God is evil because he DARES to punish people for their sins. We're not as lily white as you make us out to be. And that's where your fallacy lies: we're just too much of a goody two shoes race to be deserving of any recompence from a holy God."

On the contrary, I'll be the first to admit that none of us are perfect. Though my memory is quite foggy in that I barely remember doing even what I did last week (though I may know what I did, given the dates and timestamps on blog entries and the like) -- let alone throughout the years -- I know full well that I've committed wrongs in the past. I know that in elementary school I was decidedly unkind to some of my classmates. I recall that I once gave one of our heavier classmates an onion ring and then teased her mercilessly when she accepted it. After she'd eaten it, I told her that I'd dropped it on the floor. So there we have lying and meanness. I know that in middle school there was a female classmate whom I had a crush on, and I know that after some playful poking she turned to run away from me and I tripped her, causing her to fall hard on her face on the cold tile floor. I know this because she never forgave me, and continued to sneer at me throughout high school. I think she refused to sign my yearbook.

But my point is that I know that I've been nasty in the past, and I've made a considerable effort in past years to be kinder to others. I hope that I've been somewhat successful. And watching those talk show episodes in which childhood bullies are confronted by their victims in adulthood, I've always hoped that perhaps one of my victims would contact these shows and have me summoned -- not because I hope that I'd made such a terrible impression and impact upon them and their lives, but because I'd like to say to them, "I'm sorry." I don't remember doing most of these things -- the above examples were special cases, so they stuck -- but I know that I've done a number of cruel things throughout my life, and I'm really sorry for them.

Mac writes, "...Wes underappreciates the fear this could well inspire, that knowing the terror of the LORD, men would turn from their sins and repent, obtaining redemption."

First, given the context of capital punishment in which Mac makes this point, I should note that contrary to some arguments in favor of the practice, capital punishment has not worked as a deterrent where violent crime is concerned. And surely "scare tactics" would be beneath an omniscient and omnipotent God. But in any case, I need no fear of God or hellfire or promises of joy and puppies to move me to regret my past wrongs, and I happen to think that such repentance would be selfishly motivated. "I'm sorry; I'm sorry -- please don't burn me! I'm sorry; I'm sorry -- YAY! Salvation!" No, I "repent" because those things were wrong; that is enough. I understand the pain that my actions may have wrought in the lives of others -- I've since suffered these and worse -- and I make a sincere effort not to mistreat more people in the same fashion.

But nonetheless, I, and the rest of us, fall short of perfection. We may even be deserving of punishment. And if we live forever -- that is, after death and eternally -- and are always in the wrong (Mac says that we are "perpetually evil"), we may even be deserving of eternal punishment. And given that we're not perfect, perhaps we are unworthy of dwelling in close quarters with an infinitely perfect deity. But are we deserving of smoldering in flames for all of eternity? What horrific crimes could merit that kind of payment?

But I will say that one of the problems that arises with these kinds of disputes is that we attribute the words of one Christian, sect, etc., to another. For example, I recall that at one point Dawn wrote of God's "unconditional love." Yet it has always seemed to me -- as Mac highlights -- that God's love and promises are conditional. If you accept Jesus as your lord and savior, the kingdom of Heaven is yours; if not, you will roast in searing flames for all of eternity. And note well the tone that accompanies the passages relating to damnation and hellfire. Though some passages like Ezekiel 18:32 seem to note that God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone (and I will assume that this holds true for damnation), there does seem to be a sort of vindictive anger that seems incompatible with a loving sentiment -- and even figurative talk of eternal fire and the like smacks of hatred, at least to my mind. It's also worth noting here that God is supposed to be immutable and unchanging, so it makes sense to say that if God will hate you in eternity, God not only hates you now, but God always has hated you. Before you ever sinned, God knew in advance that you would, and God despised you for your future transgression.

But God is righteous; God is good. At least Mac admits that perhaps God is not so loving where non-Christians (and perhaps non-Jews) are concerned.

At the very least, Christians should be clear about God's love -- contrary to assertions that the God of the Bible loves all, God arguably does not, and I applaud Mac for highlighting the conditional nature of the Christian God's gifts. Except it doesn't make sense to speak of conditionals with God, since God already knows what's going to happen.

During my sophomore year at Yale, I participated in a weekly spirituality group run by one of the campus ministers, David (unfortunately, I can't remember his last name; it began with an "M"...), and during one conversation with him several of the above concerns came up. I don't recall my exact words to him, but I do recall his reply -- something along the lines of, "Rather than the God we want, we should concern ourselves with serving the God we have." Interesting words, to be sure, but let's apply them to another scenario.

Say that we are all peasants in a land ruled by a cruel tyrant -- or at least it seems that way to many of us -- and, to resolve one difficulty, let's say that we are all quite certain of his existence. Now, while this ruler may do some good things now and again for a select few, on several known occasions he has swept down from his castle on high and has slaughtered thousands to punish the transgressions of a single individual. Moreover, this ruler is something of a sorcerer -- it would not be a stretch to call him omnipotent -- and he promises to repay those who do not kneel before him with endless torment in a pit of fire that burns and burns but never consumes. To be sure, this fate strikes most of us as overly harsh and undeserved, and even some of those who serve the tyrant king seem to admit that there is something "cruel and unusual" about such a punishment. But since they trust his judgment and good nature -- it would not be a stretch to call this king omniscient and omnibenevolent, though perhaps on these point not all of us are certain -- they merely shrug their shoulders and say, "His ways are above ours." And suppose that we are all quite convinced that there is no possible way for us to overthrow this king. We are completely at his mercy. And we have two choices: either serve this king, despite these horrendous cruelties that we have witnessed firsthand, or twitch in the agony of his flamepit for all of eternity.

To be sure, many of those who abhored his methods would serve him nonetheless. Perhaps you would; perhaps I would. It would, after all, keep us safe. But do you really think it would be good to serve him?

I hope that I would have the courage to speak out against this wicked king. And though I would not wish the sentence of the pit upon anyone, I would hope that I could inspire others to stand up to this king's tyranny as well. This is a king who rules out of fear; who plays to human weakness, greed, and selfishness; who further inculcates and nurtures these vices in minds and hearts of the populace. This is not a king who should be served, no matter the consequence. I hope that I would dedicate many years to speaking out against the tyrant, and I hope that by opposing the cruelties of this monster and by seeking not to emulate and accept them in our daily lives -- rather than on the one hand opposing such crimes whenever a fellow peasant commits them, but upholding them whenever the tyrant himself is the guilty party -- some things in our province might improve. Perhaps people would be made better and perform good works for the sake of performing good works, and not because the tyrant king threatened them with eternal flames. Perhaps they would be driven to uphold positive things that are not included -- or are expressly forbidden on pain of death -- in the tyrant's laws. Perhaps even those who served the tyrant could learn and benefit from the example of the rebels.

And suppose that finally, after many years I was at last captured by the king's most feared general -- that black-clad rider known only as Death -- and brought before the ruler to be tried for my crimes. He would read off a list of my offenses, and insofar as I thought that they were correct -- and suppose that they were, and I remembered committing them all -- I would plead guilty to every one. And then this king would pass sentence: into the pit with me.

Now, suppose that I had been wrong about our king. In fact, he really was a good and just ruler, and despite the horrors we had seen committed by his hand and in his name, suppose that he truly did love all of his subjects -- and not just those who praised him, even when his actions terrified and confused them, out of fear, selfishness, greed, and so forth. Despite the vicious tone of his mandates, suppose that he really had a good and worthy reason for sending those who opposed him to burn forever in his flaming pit. And while I'll buy that for the moment, I cannot believe that a truly just and loving king would let me depart from his sight, confused and trembling in fear at these torments to come, without explaining to me exactly what was so horrific about my crimes and exactly why it was necessary and good that I suffer in this pit for all eternity. Certainly, this great and wise king owes no explanation to a lowly peasant such as myself. But at the same time, when a parent punishes a child for misbehavior and, upon being asked, "Why?" by the child, answers, "Because I said so," we do not think this a mark of good parenting, let alone an act of love. Even if the punishment must still be carried out, a good parent first tries to make the child aware of what he/she has done to warrant the punishment. So suppose that the king does this -- suppose he makes it quite clear to me that I am an "evil and detestable being" who is "perpetually evil" and who is not only deserving of eternal damnation, but of eternal damnation in this pit of fire. And suppose he lays out the reasons why it is necessary and just that I deserve this horrendous fate.

Upon hearing this and finally understanding, I would nod solemnly and say, "Thank you, my lord."

He might say, "Do you have any last words?"

And I would respond, "No, my lord; what can I say? I have been evil and detestable all my life, and to say, 'I'm sorry,' can never make right these crimes I have committed against others, and against you. But I am sorry. You really were a good and just king, and I have slandered your name for many years. I know now that I was wrong. I am sorry, and it is good that I shall be repaid for my iniquities." And then I would depart from this king and make my way towards the flaming pit. No escorts would be necessary to force me to the edge and throw me in; though trembling, I would walk there of my own free will.

And if the king called out to me and said, "My subject, where are you going? You have repented; there is a place for you here," I would respond, "No, my lord; I am an evil and detestable thing. I have spent my life in mischief and cruelty, and am therefore unworthy to even clean your toilet with my tongue. You have convinced me of this, my lord, and you have convinced me that it is good that I suffer forever in the pit for all eternity. Why should I wish to escape the fate that I deserve? Why should I leap at the opportunity to skirt this just punishment that awaits me? Then I should be no better than those hypocrites in your kingdom whom I criticized while I was there -- people who rightly served you, but for all of the wrong reasons. If I were to run from this punishment that I have earned through years of wickedness, I should be even more unfit to stand in your presence, if such a thing is possible. But forgive me; I have offended your sight with my uncleanliness long enough." And then I would depart into the everlasting fire.

I must admit that I find it rather hypocritical to believe that one is guilty of a crime, that one should be punished for it, and yet find delight in avoiding this just and deserved recompense.

I've said before that I don't believe in punishment for punishment's sake. If punishment's only aim were punishment, then its only intended consequence would be suffering, and nothing that only serves to increase the amount of suffering in the universe is a good thing. But Mac -- and many Christians (but not all) -- clearly do believe that crimes merit punishment, and that this punishment should be carried out apparently even where no positive gains stand to result from it. And they believe that they are worthy and deserving of the most heinous punishment of all. I submit that they even think it would be good and just that they receive their terrible fate. Then why do they fall on their knees and beg to avoid it? And why do they remain so certain that they will be saved? They do not say, "I have done many terrible things in the course of my life -- and yea, I am doing them at this very moment, for I am perpetually evil -- but I hope that I may be forgiven." No; they say, "I am an evil and detestable being, but I know that I will be forgiven my sins, because I accept Jesus as my savior." But if you truly believe that you are that evil and detestable, what makes you certain of any of it? You are filled with hatred and treachery and lies -- you say that you walk at the bottom of a quagmire of deception and sink deeper into the muck with every wicked step -- so what makes you think that you are truly sincere when you say, "I love God; I accept Jesus as my savior"? And even if there is a modicum of sincerity to your words -- though Mac doesn't seem to think so, since in response to my contention that we are not "perfectly evil," he responded, "This is simply not true..." -- what makes you think that your righteous God will accept whatever love lies in your heart? After all, "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9). For people who believe themselves to be such awful creatures under the rule of such a righteous and vengeful God, you'd think that they would be a lot less certain about their ultimate worth in God's eyes.

But the truth of the matter is that they don't really believe this. If they did, they probably wouldn't seek the company of others at all -- for if they and others are so awful and wicked, it only stands to reason that even more depravity and iniquity would result from their pairings. They wouldn't seek after lovers, nor would they seek to marry, for the Bible clearly states that it is good not to marry (1 Corinthians 7:1; in the KJV this reads, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman.") and that the unmarried man should not seek after a wife (1 Corinthians 7:27). The Bible says marriage is not a sin (I suspect that if this had not been added, Christianity should never have caught on with the masses), but it does say that married people have other concerns that divert their attention from the worship of God (1 Corinthians 7:33-34). It says, those "[who are] married careth for the things of the world, how [they] may please [their spouses]." But recall that every one of us is an evil and detestable being -- so by seeking after a wife or husband these people seek after and desire to please an evil and detestable being. Clearly if they believed that, they would not seek after any lovers nor friends; they would shut their doors and spend their days in perpetual repentance, for they are, after all, perpetually evil. Arguably they would take their own lives. Supposedly suicide, too, is a sin, but arguably it is better for one to commit that final sin and stop polluting the world with one's filth than to go on sinning and being wicked throughout one's life, and spreading that wickedness to everyone whose life one touches.

And if they really believed in punishment for punishment's sake, and that they were truly deserving of hellfire, they would lower their heads and bear these torments and never cry out for mercy or release, because it would be an insult for them to do so after all of the horrors to their credit. But they say that because they fall to their knees and grovel and plead, God, in His great mercy, will spare them these torments -- though they well deserve them, and it would be good and fitting that they suffer -- and take them up with Him into Heaven! All praise our merciful God!

But the truly merciful show mercy to all -- not just those who fall at their knees and sob like spineless cowards.

And if we captured a pair of snipers with multiple deaths to their credit and, after convicting them in a court of law, released them after they simply said, "I'm sorry," you would not cry, "Hallelujah!" and praise the mercy of the judge; you would screech, "INJUSTICE!!!"

I recall watching television days after the Malvo sentence was returned (apparently this was only the recommended/preliminary sentence; the official sentencing hearing took place just last month) -- life without parole, instead of death -- and I remember seeing, just days before Christmas, people weeping because Malvo would not taste the death that he had helped bring to ten others. People cheered when Muhammad was sentenced to death for his primary role in the murders. According to the Bible, you are no less guilty than these murderers, as a single transgression means that one is guilty of committing all crimes (James 2:10). If you truly deserve hellfire, why do you rejoice when you are spared? For if your burning would be a just punishment, then to let you off the hook would constitute injustice. Why cheer injustice? Why champion it?

Because this time it serves you? Or because God gave it the O.K.?

A little of Column A; a little of Column B. Probably a whole heaping lot more of column A, given that we're perfectly evil and detestable and all.

But here, it's important to note that Mac's words are not necessarily the words of the Bible, nor are the words of the Bible necessarily the words of all Christians. In fact, even the words of the Bible may not be the words of the Bible, if we consider that perhaps the words used aren't meant to be taken literally. (Not to mention translation issues, and ignoring for the moment the possibility that even the words of the Bible are not really the words of God, etc.)

For example, Sunday School Teacher, a frequent visitor to Mac's page, commented,

People are never damned to hell, they reject Heaven, the Son of God, and dive right in to where they will be more at home. Sinners would hate heaven. Not enough strife, confusion, greed, fear, witchcraft, adultery, perversion, selfishness there for their tastes.

And elsewhere,

I understand why some people hate heaven... They enjoy vices, arrogance, strife, self-exaltation, complaining, sorcery, lying, deception, exploitation, etc. too much. They must think life is all about them, and their cravings, and their happiness.

If SST hadn't later indicated that he didn't believe in the literalist picture of Hell, however, I would've inferred it from the above comments. SST later quoted from Hugh Ross's Beyond the Cosmos, writing, "Heaven's price, worshiping God and God alone, this person will never willingly pay. This person does not want to be in God's presence and, thus, would find heaven repugnant." This, too, seems to suggest -- at least to my mind -- that the flames of Hell are not literal ones. I can see how Heaven (or at least the popular conceptions of it, which are all rather boring), might be repugnant to some -- though admittedly I don't think I enjoy vices such as the ones SST lists very much -- but I can't imagine that anyone would prefer to be literally set on fire. (Unless, of course, that is what justice required, and the person had a very high opinion of justice.)

Campus Minister David also had some rather interesting thoughts on the nature of Hell, which I'll presently paraphrase, with a bit of elaboration. He foremost pointed out that the Bible was written for Christians. Others may read it, many will be repulsed by it, but it is to Christians that the Bible truly speaks. And to them, the pain of separation from God would be agony -- pain so severe that burning in eternal fire is an adequate comparison. Yet David also believed that there are people who ultimately don't desire or even need God's presence in their lives. (He once remarked that without God and the Bible as his moral compass, he would be an awful and selfish person even by our standards -- though he would readily admit that there are a number of great and moral people who aren't Christians.) So these persons would be perfectly fine without God in their lives, and probably wouldn't suffer very much at all in Hell. In fact, the picture of Hell that David described was much like the world we live in now, and arguably much better, since in that Hell we wouldn't have disease or death, being already dead. It kinda sounded like a world I'd like to live in, which made me smile -- and when David debunked the literal conception of Hell by exclaiming, "How could it be filled with darnkess and fire? Clearly these are incompatible!" he got a chuckle out of me as well. I'm not certain the tone of the Biblical passages relating to Hell can be reconciled to this less threatening view -- though I'm not a Christian and perhaps never will be, so on David's view that could account for my reaction to them -- but it does seem like this would be more in line with the actions of a loving God. After all, if you had a child who grew distant and did not seem to need you anymore, you might be saddened, but hopefully you wouldn't be so enraged that you would wish terrible vengeance against the child. For my part, even if I disagreed with the child's choice and hoped that things could be different, I would send the child off with my best wishes, love, and support -- whether he/she desired these things or not. Insofar as I truly loved the child, I would find it impossible not to act in that way.

Whether you disagree with this picture or not, there's a great deal to be said for it. I've written in the past about a sort of selfishness that certain Christian beliefs seem to necessitate -- the selfishness that makes people delight in the belief that they will be going to Heaven while ignoring the damnation that will befall many others. Admittedly, this is a problem for any religion with a well-defined eschatology, because on some level it requires people to stop caring about others now, because what will ultimately happen to them has been predetermined. And any truly caring person would be horrified at the thought of anyone going to a place of eternal torment, let alone their friends and loved ones -- but since it can't be helped, many Christians just shrug and delight in thoughts of the future that they believe awaits them. After all, there's nothing they can do about it; why concern themselves?

Something about that strikes me as selfish, uncaring, even cruel. But for religions in which everyone eventually makes out alright in the end, even though there's a certain de-emphasis on the present and the troubles that befall others now, followers aren't required to essentially shrug and close their ears to the screams of torment that will someday echo throughout eternity. Insofar as you really care about others, the notion that everyone -- and not just you, or me, or a chosen few -- will be somehow "saved" in the end is the only eschatological picture that's really comforting. That's something worth looking forward to with a smile.

And here, Christians -- and perhaps all of us -- would do well to remember Matthew 5:23-24, which reads, "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." Admittedly, I am not sure about the intended interpretation of this verse -- perhaps it is meant to be taken literally, with respect to one's blood brothers, or perhaps Christians must only do this where other Christians are concerned. To me, however, it says, "Before you kneel at the alter of the Eternal, and give yourself over to worship and praise the divine forever and ever, first reconcile yourself to your brother -- first make peace with your brother."

But we are all brothers (sisters; siblings; whatever), so to speak. And as long as there are such great and divisive gulfs between us, such that we delight in the belief that we ourselves will be saved and think little of those others who will be cast into the flaming pit for eternity, such that we curse one another as vile creatures and cheer when our fellows are murdered -- for any reason -- we will never truly be reconciled to one another.

-- Wes --

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