Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Argument from Hell

I think deism is respectable. A bit unnecessary, perhaps - rather like believing in a Platonic world of forms - but well within the realm of reasonable belief. But theism strikes me as just plain silly. Even supposing that we need to posit a 'Creator' of the universe, why think that a particular ancient religious text has anything accurate to say about Its nature? Why think the Creator would be so petty as to punish those who don't realize that It is real? This is something I touched on in my discussion of why Pascal's Wager is the worst philosophical argument ever. Indeed, I think it provides us with a devastating argument against (most forms of) Christianity:

1) Christianity says that God is benevolent.
2) Christianity says that God would punish an honest disbeliever with eternal damnation.
3) The honest disbeliever is not grievously blameworthy.
4) A benevolent being would not punish someone with eternal damnation if they were not grievously blameworthy.
5) Therefore, Christianity is false.

What say you?


  1. Or more charitably;
    Christianity's belief in benevolence is false, or;
    Christianity's God cannot punish an honest disbeliever with eternal damnation.

    To say that the whole set (of beliefs) is false seems a bit strong considering we can merely deny one of them. Although we can say that Christianity is inconsistent if it claims its current set, but such a claim does not seem to bother most religious folk. And they would most likely reject God's benevolence instead of God's spite (maybe an unfair characterisation).

    3) and 4) are true though.

    1. (And the official Catholic stance, dating back several centuries at least (it came to its official position in the 1500's) is that God will not punish the "honest disbeliever" for his lack of faith)

  2. There are a lot of people who would deny that there is any such thing as an honest disbeliever, and so would deny (2). And it is fairly common to deny that hell is an active punishment by God; rather, it is just God's finally letting the damned have what they want: themselves rather than God. That would also problematize (2), since it would seem to introduce an equivocation into the argument. But, in any case, Christian doctrine is not that people are punished for their disbelief but for their sins. The primary problem of disbelief is just that it interferes with complete recognition of one's sins.

  3. The most intelligent versions of christianity are nothing like the poor thing you suggest.

    For example, you seem to have little concept of the utter goodness that is ( supposed) to be god, and that it is not 'benevolence ' as in a kindly uncle but a fire of demanding love that desires to give the best ... which is knowledge and experience and eternal (!) relationship to ( somewhat astonishingly) the surpassing god himself.
    The approach to hell here, is NOT that the 'disbeliever is 'judged' and condemmed to hell, rather that he doesn't want, cannot accept this surpassing god, ( upon seeing what is fully real and his own nature) and turns anywhere,to escape, runs into himself, into his own self made world, and thus finds only 'hell'.
    Thats the theory. Whatever i think of christianity, the best versions are the most amazing, almost poetic,creations (?) and sometimes tantalizingly, close to making sense of ALL the facets of this existence.
    More, i might say, than general philosophers !!

  4. An entirely irrelevant comment - cruise over to if you would like the low-down on this afternoon's philosophy radio webcast, in which I will be presenting.


  5. Hi Richard,
    I'm a Christian. I'm don't know if my belief is rational, but I definitely think that some people are rational in believing Christianity.
    Anyway, many Christians accept Universalism. Not 'Universalism' in the sense of unrestricted composition (though many Christians accept that too!), but rather as the view that everyone gets to go to Heaven. That is, many Christians (myself included) will reject premise two of your argument.
    Keith DeRose has a paper on this that can be found on his website:
    - Shieva

  6. Shieva, take my mention of "most forms of" Christianity as excluding Universalism. I'm happy to grant Universalism as a reasonable response (indeed I think it's the only reasonable response a Christian can make), but it's a long way from your usual Sunday-morning sermon.

    Brandon and anonymous(2), it's just ludicrous to deny that there can be "honest disbelievers". I don't reject (or "not want") God any more than I reject Santa Claus. I simply don't think either exists. It's nothing personal - in fact it might be kinda nice if they did exist (well, a truly benevolent God anyway. The spiteful gay-hating one which some fundamentalists worship is downright despicable. As is any God which would send non-Christians to Hell. I hope nothing so powerfully evil exists. Hitler's crimes pale in comparison.)

    As for whether Hell is positively bad, or merely the absence of Heaven, I don't see that this makes much difference. Again, a benevolent God wouldn't prevent an honest and well-meaning freethinker access to heaven simply because he, you know, thought for himself and ended up concluding - based on the evidence available to him - that the claims made by traditional religion probably aren't true. How is such a judgment even remotely blameworthy - or morally relevant in any sense? Why would it render one any less deserving of a happy afterlife?

  7. 1) Christianity says that God is benevolent.

    I think this argument is a total non starter. the universe is a reflection of god (assuming omnioptence and omniscience) and thus either we think the earth is perfect now (and thus redefine the mening if "bene") or we dont see him as perfectly benevolent.

    3) The honest disbeliever is not grievously blameworthy.

    The question is what goal does the law have? It is surprising to see you only use the punative one. "is the goal of hell to punish or to encourage certain action or some other purpose? In addition god has mroe foresight than a government so... From his point of view creating the law already had everyone sorted into catagories (saved and unsaved) a god could argue that that just hapened to be the perfect sorting.

    4) A benevolent being would not punish someone with eternal damnation if they were not grievously blameworthy.

    I see no reason why blame need to be the motivating factor - it is jsut one of many approaches.

    5) Therefore, Christianity is false.

    > The spiteful gay-hating one which some fundamentalists worship is downright despicable.

    well you know god could be sitting htere thinking - "hey I made some rules because I did al the testing and I know they work. I know gayness hurts society and so does cheating on your wife with your neighbours ass (the donkey/horse cross, although probably the other ass also). Rather like the government knows that NO or heroine is bad for you and may arrest you if it catches you using them."
    the only problem I see with that, to be fair, is that according to the usual definitions - hell is a TOTALLY disproportionate punishment an heaven is a ridiculously disproportionate reward.


  8. As traditionally understood, getting into Heaven would be the best thing that could possibly happen to someone. So it is a great harm to deprive a person of this infinite benefit. Thus, by denying a person entrance to Heaven, God does them a great harm.

    Could this harm be justified? I don't see how. It seems the only relevant excuse in the present case would be if the person deserved this divine punishment. But as I've pointed out, having an honest belief one way or another, does not seem to be a morally relevant characteristic of a person.

    So there is no sense in which being an atheist makes one deserving of such a harm. But for God to impose such a significant harm on an undeserving person is a horrendous evil.

    Shame on (mainstream) Christians for worshipping such a monster!

  9. With regard to honest disbelievers: for someone to be an 'honest disbeliever' in the relevant sense the disbeliever would have to either (A) be invincibly ignorant or

    (B1) be sincere in the consideration of the topic;

    (B2) have devoted the time and resources proportional to the importance of the topic;

    and(B3) drawn conclusions not primarily on the basis of prejudice (whether temperamental or cultural) but on honest and rational assessment of the actual claims and evidence.

    This is a tall order. While I don't have any problem with postulating the existence of honest disbelievers, I think it is very hard to show that there are any in sense (B). Naturally, disbelievers would tend to think of themselves as honest; but whether they actually are honest can only be determined by an accurate assessment of their mental states and evidential resources. I don't see how one can do this without already presupposing the truth or falsehood of Christianity.

    I don't understand your argument about the harm of not letting someone into heaven. In what way is it a harm not to be given something one doesn't deserve? Unless you are going to go around saying that honest disbelievers deserve infinite benefit; in which case you need an argument to back it up.

    And, as I said before, the traditional doctrine is not that people are punished for disbelief but that they are punished for sins. You keep considering the issue of disbelief in isolation from the person's whole life. The traditional view is that disbelievers are not undeserving of hell. Neither, for that matter, are believers. Belief or disbelief is not at issue.

  10. how can someone "deserve" hell?
    Are you going to catch a person who leaves gum on the side walk and then skin him hang him upside down and beat him for the rest of his (possibly quite short) life?
    In theory that is nowhere near as disproportionate as the hell punishment even for a murderer.

    Similarly are you going to deny a starving man bread (when you have far more than enough) because he didnt wash his face this morning?

    If you would be forgiving every time in both those situations (as most of us probably would) then keep in mind that it seems god would only be forgiving in some small fraction of those cases.

    However there could be fundimental issues with merging non believers into believing heaven that might either justify or by definition imply hteir exclusion.
    You might thus have a believing heaven and a non believing and more divided hell that may be worse as a result of that division.

    There would have to be somthing like that to justify it.

  11. "In what way is it a harm not to be given something one doesn't deserve?"

    By definition, a harm is just something that makes one worse off. Depriving someone of a benefit is therefore a harm. Whether they deserve this harm is a separate question, but surely the default position is to assume not. All else equal, the moral thing to do is benefit others. If God could infinitely benefit someone, but chooses not to, he must have a damn good reason (or else he's an immoral monster).

    Analogy: Imagine all the Jews are in Nazi concentration camps (say they were just born there, or something). Hitler could let them out, but for some reason he doesn't want to. His supporters say, "Well, the Jews haven't done anything to deserve being let out of the camps, have they? So what's the harm?"

    How is God relevantly different from Hitler in this case? (Apart, of course, from the fact that the divine crime is infinitely greater!)

    "The traditional view is that disbelievers are not undeserving of hell. Neither, for that matter, are believers. Belief or disbelief is not at issue."

    Then why do only believers get the infinite benefit? That hardly seems fair. Besides, I don't see how one could reasonably hold that we all really deserve to go to Hell for our "sins". Like GeniusNZ keeps saying, it's an absurdly disproportionate punishment. Few people have done anything all that bad.

  12. You say Richard .. "Besides, I don't see how one could reasonably hold that we all really deserve to go to Hell for our "sins".
    quite .. That is the nub of your question. Why do you suppose I made my er .. 'irrelevant' first comment about "hell" being held, not a punishment, but a self imposed banishment? ( the choice was put .. "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven")
    I remember too, that the quite mainstream anglican xtianity ( and others) I knew were full of the notion that we are 'failed beings' by .. god's standards. It was all totally at odds with the common conception of us all being under most circumstances, 'reasonable decent humans' and thereby undeserving of a hell.
    The church people really believed that they were 'sinful' in nature, self serving when it came to the real crunch and pursuing all manner of desires contrary to a Gods will.
    Some said we essentially knew inside us that we were not what we should be .. did not even really want to be. Hence the emotional need, and according to them, the real need, for .. er "a saviour' etc.
    Look, I am sorry to go on about this stuff, but it is these conceptions of our nature (and gods) - and which I very much doubt are shared by the people who come to this site - which lie behind the religious hell approach which you criticize.

    From your point of view you are absolutely right and reasonable ( yes, as usual) in what you say.
    If on the other hand the religious people have a true conception or knowledge of a genuine god , then their reaction is correct ... and I for one am in trouble!

    So it simply logically depends on prior beliefs what we make of this subject. Which may be pretty self evident but is not being said here. gotta go.
    cheers anonymous(1)

  13. Again, Richard, I don't understand your argument. We do not generally define 'harm' as what makes you worse off than you would otherwise be, which seems to be what you are saying -- that trivializes the notion of 'harm' to inanity. On that definition, if I freely give you a thousand dollars you didn't have to earn when I could have given you two thousand you didn't earn, I would have harmed you, even though I have given you more than you earned. Likewise, by that definition, if I do not give you an award you have not earned, I have harmed you, even though I have done nothing to you. What sense does that make? None that I can see. Harm is what makes you worse off than you have a right to expect to be -- or something along those lines. In other words, we are not harmed by failing to receive something we don't deserve to receive.

    God is relevantly different from Hitler in your case because a concentration camp is not the non-reception of undeserved benefit; indeed, it is about as far from it as can be.

    As to the issue of fairness, I agree to the extent that the question of why anyone gets heaven is much more difficult for Christians to answer than the question of why anyone gets hell.

    Genius, I didn't say anyone deserved hell; I said they were not undeserving of it. There is a reason for the circumlocution; hell as traditionally understand is non-reception of heavenly reward (traditionally it need not be only this, but is minimally this, and ex hypothesi we seem to be only considering the minimal case). One does not deserve it, except by figure of speech; rather, one fails to deserve the alternative.

  14. >that trivializes the notion of 'harm' to inanity.

    Morality and philosophy too is such a beast. Any pure position will contradict with your intuitive definition. for example if harm was only active then you could stand infront of a person denying then oxygen and claim that you were not causing harm you were just "not helping". Or a parent who "failed to feed" their baby could also claim that they did no harm.

    In fact I dispute that to a god there is any difference between action and inaction. the god being timeless makes a set of choices instantly and htese choices have a set of results - and he is fully aware of all of those results.

    Now besides those things that are beyond his power everything is a direct result of his action. He could no more say that he did not make people go to hell than you could say you did not make your fingers type out the last message.

    Most I expect get around this by implying various limitations to his knowledge, intelligence and power. Considering the way physics works (and thus the capacity for very subtle manipulation) these limitations need to be considerable indeed whether htey are self imposed or not.

    In fact one could argue it is irrelevant if they are self imposed or not (think quantum physics).

  15. Genius, I'm unconvinced by your counterexamples to my rough gesture at what an adequate definition of harm would be; the first example clearly violates the right to expect clause, and, while I originally put the formulation in second person, it is clear that the case of the baby would violate a third-person right to expect clause, too.

    I don't think I quite understand why it would make a difference whether we choose to sharply distinguish action and inaction in God's case or not. I agree that, whatever else is the case, there would be a quite reasonable sense in which God sends people to hell, namely, that he doesn't give them heaven. But this doesn't really get the argument from hell any closer to the goal; the argument still mischaracterizes heaven, infinite and eternal reward, as something honest disbelievers would merit. It can't even get off the ground if it can't give an argument in support of this claim. And it can't borrow such a principle from Christianity itself, because the traditional view is that properly speaking none of us merit heaven, whether we believe or not; no matter how good we postulate someone as being, they only merit a finite, temporal reward.

  16. How do you define what you have a right to expect?
    who defines it and is it not harm to define it at a low level?
    It is entirely arbitrary to say you have a right to expect money or food or oxygen. If I chose to not allow a person to have oxygen because they have sinned and dont deserve it then at some point I have chosen to use that criteria just like one would think god would have to have made a similar choice. BTW It is likely most murders in history fall under this catagory.

    > as something honest disbelievers would merit.

    It would seem our issue is clearly with the definition of merit you seem to have accepted it as pre-defined. I am arguing that it is simultaniously defined (from gods perspective) and defined BY GOD.

    an omniscient God makes the criteria fully aware of who will meet it and who won't and it has basically no meaning (in the big scheme of things) except in that the output is that those people go to heaven or don't.

  17. I think much of this debate depends on what particular "flavor" of Christianity you are talking about. For example, I was raised in a very "fundamentalist" denomination. To these particular Christians, there were three main attributes that defined God as God: omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence. Hell was most definitely a punishment, not a simple withholding of some great benefit. Finally, to be "saved" and brought to Heaven, it was necessary to accept their versions of God and Jesus--you had to be a believer, and if you had ever been presented with the opportunity to believe and rejected God anyway, you were destined to burn no matter how "good" a life you led otherwise. If Hell is not meant as punishment (but simply as the denial of Heaven), why must the residents of Hell burn? Why couldn't this omnibenevolent God, if he wished to exclude "sinners" from the reward of Heaven, simply end their existences instantaneously rather than roasting them? Hell is not simple banishment, it is an eternity of blinding pain. How is that NOT punishment? And how could any allegedly benevolent deity condemn anyone to that?

  18. "You dont want God? So you get exactly what you want."

    Who wouldn't want to go to Heaven? Christians who think atheists "don't want God" are just plain ignorant about what atheism is. To dislike God, one would first have to believe he exists. Atheists simply don't think God is real. We don't "hate" or "reject" God any more than we hate or reject Santa Clause. Hey, if God or Santa were real, I'd be happy to meet them! I just don't think they're real, that's all. There's nothing vindictive about it. Understand?

  19. This might be helpful in this discussion.

    "For the person who objects to the exclusivity of salvation through Christ is, in effect, posing what one might call the soteriological problem of evil, that is to say, he maintains that the proposition

    1. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent is inconsistent with

    2. Some persons do not receive Christ and are damned.

    Since (1) is essential to theism, we must therefore deny (2).

    The orthodox Christian will point out, however, that (1) and (2) are not explicitly contradictory, since one is not the negation of the other, nor are they logically contradictory, since a contradiction cannot be derived from them using first order logic. The objector, then, must mean that (1) and (2) are inconsistent in the broadly logical sense, that is, that there is no possible world in which both are true. Now in order to show this, the objector must supply some further premise(s) which meets the following conditions: (it) its conjunction with (1) and (2) formally entails a contradiction, (ii) it is either necessarily true, essential to theism, or a logical consequence of propositions that are, and (iii) its meeting conditions (i) and (ii) could not he rationally denied by a right-thinking person."

    You can find the full paper here:

    As for the atheist, you must admit that you have had some experiential revelation or rational revelation, no matter how small or seemingly minor, that COULD have formed a basis for belief in a god/creator. It seems to me that after receiving such revelation, you chose not to see or accept it as such, but rather a meaningless event. The ulimate conclusion of your choice is that there is no god/creator. But there has been a choice. Your choice does not require "hate" or "rejection" in an immature, emotional sense, or even in a rational, philosophical sense, but it is a "rejection" in that you chose not to accept a general revelation as a sign of a god/creator, but as something else.

  20. "You don't want God? So you get exactly what you want."

    This argument is pernicious and willfully ignorant. What is it that the atheist supposedly wants? The argument assumes that the atheist doesn't believe in God because he does not "want" God, but what exactly is the basis for this assumption? Are we obligated to believe in things if we want them to be so? Conversely, does not believing in something necessarily indicate that we do not want it to be so? I would like to believe that we'll never run out of fossil fuels to sustain our civilization, but I do not believe this is true.

    Perhaps what an atheist wants is simply to believe what is evidently so, insofar as it can be ascertained by human experience and nature's data. If one spiritual leader claims a revelation of God through Jesus Christ, and another claims a revelation of God through the enlightenment of Shakti, based on the evidence of individual testimony, who do we believe? If one religious leader claims a revelation of God through the "inerrant" Christian Bible, and another religious leader claims a revelation of Allah through the "innerant" Muslim Quran, who do we believe? If an atheist wishes to believe what is evidently so, all things being equal, he cannot pick one over the other, and so is left without a God belief. He is left without God, not because he doesn't want God, but merely as a necessary consequence of what he does want, which is to believe what is evidently so.

    How, then, is a desire to believe what is evidently so construed as a desire to exist eternally in a state of separation from God? There seems to me no connection between the two.

  21. I have a different version of the argument from hell. Let's start by considering the basic theistic account in which God creates the universe, God judges its inhabitants at the end of time (at least those inhabitants on whom He places moral obligations), and in which God ends with a situation where some are saved and allowed to be "with" Him in paradise for eternity while most are damned for eternity. If we add to this account basic, widely accepted (by believers, anyway) premises about God's nature, such as his benevolence, omnipotence and omniscience, we come across a more fundamental problem with hell than that posed by Richard, viz. how could anyone argue that the initial situation, before the creation (where a perfect God alone existed), is in any way preferable to the final situation, where the vast majority of morally obligated individual souls are to spend eternity in hell while the few who are saved are in paradise?
    The theist's first line of defense, the "free-will" argument, does no work here, nor does the "but-God-exists-outside-of-time" argument, since, being omniscient and omnipotent, in addition to being benevolent, God must be be aware of the fact that a state of being that includes only a perfect God would be superior (by definition even) to the state of being which includes all of the suffering that most theists believe God has planned from the beginning.


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