There are some beliefs that are so morally reprehensible that to dignify them with even a one-word response would only add to their offense, yet so common among otherwise decent people that one feels compelled spend a thousand words refuting them.
The list of such beliefs includes the conviction that African-Americans were better off enslaved in the South than left to their own devices in Africa; the assertion that poor people are just lazy; and the cultural attitudes behind the “honor killing” of rape victims.
Akin to these, but even higher on the list, is the belief advanced by no less a Christian luminary than C.S. Lewis, that “the gates of hell are locked on the inside” because the souls confined there for eternity are in rebellion against God and do not wish to be with him in heaven.
The rationale is that God is such a gentleman that he does not override man’s free will, and “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” (The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis, page 66, quoted here).
This is also the view of Paul Copan, whose book, Is God a Moral Monster?, has been the springboard for the last three months of posts. From Chapter 18:
Hell itself is the act of self-exclusion from God, the final act of self-assertion and control. If we want a divorce from God, he will grant it. Hell isn’t a torture chamber of everlasting fire. Hell is ultimately a realm of self-separation and quarantine from God’s presence (2 Thess. 1:9).
Aside from the moral problems that I’ll get to in a minute, this view does not even square with the Bible. The very verse that Dr. Copan cites, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, reads, “These [people who do not obey the gospel] will be punished with everlasting destruction…” The preceding verse says, “He [Jesus] will punish those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” What’s in view here is God/Jesus actively punishing people, not people “self-excluding” from God’s presence.
Christians agree that just as the “pearly gates” and a “great street paved with gold” are probably just metaphors for how wonderful heaven is, hell, too, can only be described in metaphor. However, the metaphor that the Bible chooses over and over again is everlasting fire. As one example, Jesus’ famous parable of the sheep and the goats ends with the king (standing for Jesus in the parable) saying, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41).
So how does Paul Copan think he can get away with saying, “Hell isn’t a torture chamber of everlasting fire”? Everlasting fire is exactly the way Jesus himself described it.
To be sure, there are Christians, called anihilationists, who believe that the so-called everlasting fire consumes unbelievers so they exist no more, but this has always been the minority view and is not Dr. Copan’s view, as far as I can tell.
Now for the moral problem.
Randal Rauser is an evangelical apologist that even an apostate such as I can respect. He says,
Even if [C.S.] Lewis were correct and the suffering were self-imposed, that wouldn’t remove the moral offense of hell.
Imagine a man so disordered that he continually inflicts suffering on himself. He cuts himself, bangs his head into the wall, hits his hand with a hammer, pulls out his own finger nails with pliers, and worse.
Would anybody say that the rest of us have no moral obligation to put a stop to this man’s self-imposed misery? Of course we would. We would restrain him to prevent him from inflicting further suffering on himself.
To borrow an idea from Jesus, “If you, being evil, would not allow someone to stay in hell even of his own volition, how much more should God be willing to intervene?”
Dr, Copan thinks such an intervention, being contrary to the will of the sufferer, would somehow be worse than consigning people to hell. For the sake of argument, let’s say he’s right and a good God may only attempt to persuade, not intervene.
Has God really done all he can to persuade unbelievers to believe of their own free will? Sure, there are stories from 2,000 years ago, but most people are not willing to sign their lives away based on tales from an age when people would believe almost anything. That is as it should be. Surely it is in God’s power to appear, personally and indisputably, to each person today and give him a choice to believe the gospel or not.
When I suggest this sort of thing to Christians, the response is that it would override the person’s free will.
Really? When a mother personally and indisputably appears to her little boy and tells him it’s bed-time, has she overridden his free will? Any parent who has tried to get a child to go to bed knows the answer to that question!
Some counter that God’s presence would be so overwhelming that the person’s free will would effectively be destroyed. But you can’t say that while simultaneously believing that the gates of hell are locked from the inside because its denizens want nothing to do with God, for if they encountered God in a significant enough way to be culpable for barring their gates against him, his presence was not overwhelming, was it?
The argument that an indisputable message from God would violate nobody’s free will is glaringly obvious, and I would even say sound, yet Dr. Copan does not consider it. He is only interested in blaming the victims: “Some may refuse to participate and continue the conflict, but that is not the fault of the Christian faith.”
How can such absurdity be so popular in the evangelical church?
Like all ideas, hell is a meme–not in the sense of cute cat pictures on the Internet, but in the sense of the term as coined by Richard Dawkins: an idea that vies for survival among competing ideas. It has been unusually successful because it has an important purpose in some strains of Christianity.
More on the purpose of hell next time.