Escaping Hell (Part 1)

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 1, 2009 in Christian Theology

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The skeptic has a hard time swallowing Christian theism even if he can’t refute all the complex arguments that are offered for God’s existence. One reason for this is that even “Mere Christianity” leads to a seemingly endless list of indefensible absurdities, for example:

  • Why would an all-knowing, all-powerful superbeing create our vast cosmos and then zoom in on one particular speck of dust and rejoice in the smell of burning goat flesh coming from it?
  • Why would God wait billions of years for millions of species to live brutish, pointless lives and then finally intervene just a few thousand years ago, and then very quickly change his mind and say, “Nevermind, I’m changing the whole game!”
  • Why would a loving God condemn all those who don’t believe in him, and then populate the world with thousands of contradictory religions, not to mention thousands of contradictory sects within even the “correct” religion? To confuse us?
  • Why would a concerned God only reveal himself to people in a way that is indistinguishable from the mystic visions of thousands of false religions, or the hallucinations of schizophrenics?
  • Why would a loving God give infinite punishment for finite failures, especially to a species he designed to fail?

Often, philosophers take one of these absurdities – which occur even to the minds of children if they have not been brainwashed – and form it into an actual argument against God’s existence or against a central Christian doctrine.

Some of these arguments are so successful that even the majority of Christian philosophers accept them, though of course the common people continue to believe the ancient doctrines of folk religion.

I’ll give two examples. Most Christians seem to think that morality comes from God’s commands – that something is good or bad depending on whether God requires or forbids it. But philosophical attacks on this theory have been so successful that most1 Christian philosophers today instead defend the view that morality comes from God’s essential nature. But of course the average Christians maintains the ancient doctrine.

Another example. Most Christians think of hell as a punishment for evil actions or non-belief, but philosophical attacks on this view are so powerful that most Christian philosophers today instead defend the view that hell does not exist (universalism or annihilationism) or else they defend an “issuant” view of hell, which says that God provides hell out of love. (He provides a place for those who choose not to be with him, so that they are not forced to be in the presence of someone they don’t like.)

I recently explained what philosophy of religion is, and I made a list of 100+ living philosophers of religion and their best work. As a further introduction to philosophy of religion, I’d like to summarize a recent debate in the field over one of these absurdities that plague Christian theism: “Why would an all-loving God lock people in hell forever, instead of reconciling with them when they decide they want to?”

In 2005, Andrei Buckareff and Allen Plug published Escaping hell: divine motivation and the problem of hell, which argued that…

…it is most rational for God, given God’s character and policies, to adopt an open-door policy towards those in hell – making it possible for those in hell to escape. We argue that such a policy towards the residents of hell should issue from God’s character and motivational states. In particular, God’s parental love ought to motivate God to extend the provision for reconciliation with Him for an infinite amount of time.

In 2007, Russell Jones published a critique called Escapism and luck.  In 2009, Kyle Swan published another critique called Hell and divine reasons for action. Recently, Buckareff and Plug responded to these critiques in their article Escapism, religious luck, and divine reasons for action, and will extend their argument in a forthcoming book chapter called Value, finality, and frustration: problems for escapism?

Let me start with a quick sketch of the original argument given by Buckareff and Plug.

Escapism Defended

A just and loving God would not lock people in hell forever just for barely missing the cut-off line of whatever criteria determine one’s eternal destiny. No, a just and loving God would allow for conversion in the afterlife. In fact, a just and loving God would want his beloved “children” to convert in the afterlife, so they might join him in the joys of heaven after all, and be reconciled with their divine creator. Some might choose to stubbornly choose to deny God even while suffering in hell, but God would at least allow people to convert during the afterlife.

This view is called escapism, and Buckareff and Plug defend it thusly:

(1) All of God’s actions are just and loving.
(2) If all of God’s actions are just and loving, then no action of God’s is motivated by an unjust or unloving attitude.
(3) If no action of God’s is motivated by an unjust or unloving attitude, then God’s saving activity is motivated by His just and loving attitudes.
(4) If God’s saving activity is motivated by His just and loving attitudes, then God’s provision for separation from Him is motivated by God’s desire for the most just and loving state of affairs to be realized in the afterlife.
(5) If God’s provision for separation from Him is motivated by God’s desire for the most just and loving state of affairs to be realized in the afterlife, then God will provide opportunities for people in hell to receive the gift of salvation and such persons can decide to receive the gift.
(6) Therefore, God will provide opportunities for people in hell to receive the gift of salvation and such persons can decide to receive the gift.

As an atheist, I obviously reject all these premises. But the argument is aimed at Christians, who are likely to grant premises (1)-(3) as essential Christian doctrine. Premises (4)-(6), then, are supported by arguing that…

…if God longs for reunion with us this side of the [afterlife], then it would be arbitrary and out of character for God to cut off any opportunity for reconciliation and forgiveness at the time of death… God never gives up on the unsaved after death.

Objections Answered

Buckareff and Plug then respond to 3 anticipated objections to their doctrine of “escapism.”

1. “God is beyond reproach. No matter how bad his actions may seem to us, mortal minds are not in a position to judge God.”

To this first objection, Buckareff and Plug respond:

Given that we do not have any other standards of moral goodness apart from those we apply in human situations, we should apply those standards to God… Why should anyone desire to worship or… respect the concept of a being who appears not to be obligated to act as morally as some humans? And if we believe that a parent is morally obligated always to be willing to receive her estranged child, and forgive him if he asks for forgiveness, then why shouldn’t we expect the same from God?

2. “You have not changed the concept of hell. Instead, you are defending purgatory, and have eliminated hell altogether.”

Buckareff and Plug point out that purgatory has two essential features: (1)  it is a place of moral preparation for those already destined for heaven, and (2) it provides some pain as punishment for sins. But escapism rejects the idea that hell is for those already destined for heaven, and also the idea that hell is a punishment (Buckareff and Plug defend an “issuant” view of hell; see above). So escapism’s hell is no purgatory.

3. “You’re just defending universalism; the view that everyone is (eventually) saved.”

But escapism is compatible with several outcomes: that nobody will escape hell, that everyone will, or that some will. Escapism is merely the doctrine that God makes escape possible. Some people might not choose to reconcile with God even after going to hell because they dislike God or his intentions.

Escapism vs. Other Hells

There are many attacks on the general doctrine of hell. Buckareff and Plug think that an escapist hell survives some of them better than traditional views of hell.

One such attack was found in Ted Sider’s Hell and Vagueness. Sider notes that whatever criteria God uses to decide who gets in to heaven and who does not, there must be a cut-off line somewhere. The result of this is that people just barely on either side of the cut-off line will be sent to radically different futures. People who just barely fall short of the line are sent to eternal torture, while others who just barely passed get eternal bliss. How could a just God allow this?

Buckareff and Plug think that…

Escapism is immune from this objection. It is not the case that two very similar persons will be treated very differently. According to escapism, persons remain in hell only if they do not desire to be with God. So, if two individuals are not both in heaven nor both consigned to hell, this is because one desires to be with God and the other does not so desire. Surely, this is sufficient grounds for treating two individuals differently.

Another attack on the general theory of hell can be found in Marilyn McCord Adams’ The problem of hell: a problem of evil for Christians, published in Reasoned Faith:

(i) God exists, and is essentially omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
(ii) Some created persons will be consigned to hell forever.
(iii) If God is omnipotent, He is able to avoid (ii).
(iv) If God is omniscient, He knows how to avoid (ii).
(v) If God is perfectly good, He wants to avoid (ii).
(vi) Therefore, if (i), then not (ii).

Basically, Adams argues that the traditional notion of hell is incompatible with an all-good, all-powerful god for the same reason that atheists have always argued that pointless suffering is incompatible with an all-good, all-powerful god. Obviously, escapism dodges Adams’ argument because it denies (ii). According to escapism, nobody is forced to be in hell forever; they can leave whenever they choose. So escapism avoids this problem of hell, too.

Conclusion

Buckareff and Plug conclude:

We have argued that the traditional doctrine of hell is inconsistent with what the scriptures, tradition, and reason seem to teach us about God’s character and [attitudes]. In light of this, we ought to rethink our understanding of hell… Escapism avoids the arguments against the traditional doctrine that we have offered… Finally, escapism is not as radical a departure from the traditional doctrine as are universalism and annihilationism. Unlike either the universalist or the annihilationist, the escapist can claim that there is a hell and that it might be populated for eternity.

In my next few posts, I’ll give a summary of two critiques of Escaping hell, and also Buckareff’s and Plug’s published response to them.

  1. I don’t think anyone has taken a poll, so when I refer to “most” Christian philosophers in this paragraph I can only mean “most living Christian philosophers that I know of.” []

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Justin May 1, 2009 at 8:52 pm

This kind of convolution irritates me when talking to theists. They are essentially making this up. If hell is an opt out situation it’s not much of a punishment. This also takes away any meaning to the “separated from god” interpretation of hell. This seems like emotional lubricant to those who think hell sounds like a horrible place for god to put people.

Ask a hell believing christian if they think you deserve to go to hell and be tortured forever for the sole reason that you are not convinced god exists. They will squirm and shift the focus away, “you choose not to believe”, “god made the rules not me”, things of that sort. They acknowledge it sounds horrible and don’t want to take responsibility.

That is what I think this kind of doctrine is about, a response to social pressures surrounding the immorality of the belief.

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Teleprompter May 1, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Thanks for writing this series, Luke. I think I will enjoy it.

I liked your points at the beginning. Many of those thoughts occurred to me around the time that I was going through my own deconversion.

I also appreciate the C.S. Lewis reference. When I was younger, I devoured “Mere Christianity”, and speaking of hell, “The Screwtape Letters”.  I am mad because some moron is blowing an airhorn in the street outside my window right now, but I liked this post a lot.

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dgsinclair May 1, 2009 at 10:06 pm

Very nicely done.  I am too tired to write a response, and have not thought this all through yet.

The idea of eternal hell is what initially led me away from Xianity, but I have returned, and let me tell you how I have tentatively dealt with it:

1. There are enough reasons to believe that I let such doubts exist without rejecting faith – that is, I doubt my doubts in light of the sufficient evidence that I have to believe, and trust that I may understand better someday.

2. While reason is one of the faculties we use to determine what is true, it is not the only one.  With regard to this, sometimes the better question to ask is not just “is it reasonable to me,” but rather, “is it true?”

If your epistemology ONLY includes what you today find reasonable, and does not include our other epistemological faculties, no matter how subject you find them (i.e. intuition), then these two questions are indistinguishable.

Comment?

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dgsinclair May 1, 2009 at 10:07 pm

‘subjective’ not ‘subject’

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Chuck May 1, 2009 at 10:58 pm

dgsinclair,

I’m just curious, what are your reasons to believe? I can count mine on one hand. 1. Approval from family. 2. Approval from society. 3. I don’t want to die. 4. Sense of meaning and purpose in life.

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Taranu May 1, 2009 at 11:06 pm

This is amazing. I can barely wait to see your next posts regarding this issue.  I have been pondering for quite a while now about the concept of Hell.

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Dan Nelson May 1, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Speaking of C.S. Lewis and escapism, his novel The Great Divorce is based on that very premise. The non believers are in hell, but hell is just a universe totally separate from God (basically, a universe in which God leaves them alone). The citizens of hell can take tours of the outskirts of heaven, and can still be redeemed if they choose it by their own free will.
Also, towards the end of the book the narrator meets George MacDonald, whom Lewis regarded as his ‘master’ in real life, and who was basically a theoretical escapist and a practical universalist. While he granted that people had the free will to reject God for eternity and continually choose to stay in hell, he (MacDonald) didn’t think it was likely that people would actually do this.

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lukeprog May 2, 2009 at 3:00 am

dgsinclair: If your epistemology ONLY includes what you today find reasonable, and does not include our other epistemological faculties, no matter how subject you find them (i.e. intuition), then these two questions are indistinguishable.

We can only ever decide on the best of our knowledge and reasoning available today. By your logic, we could assume the truth of any theory because we “feel” it to be true by intuition, and then “hope” the reasons for its truth will come in later. But astrology does not fit the best of our knowledge and reasoning today, and neither does Christianity. Especially one with a hell.

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Walter May 2, 2009 at 3:20 am

Dan Nelson: Speaking of C.S. Lewis and escapism, his novel The Great Divorce is based on that very premise. The non believers are in hell, but hell is just a universe totally separate from God (basically, a universe in which God leaves them alone).

Kind of like this universe. Maybe this universe is already a ‘hell’ for souls from a previous life?  ;-)

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Karen May 2, 2009 at 5:12 am

This post takes me back to some of the talks my mother and I had years ago. I look forward to the others.

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Jeff H May 2, 2009 at 6:22 am

lukeprog: We can only ever decide on the best of our knowledge and reasoning available today. By your logic, we could assume the truth of any theory because we “feel” it to be true by intuition, and then “hope” the reasons for its truth will come in later. But astrology does not fit the best of our knowledge and reasoning today, and neither does Christianity. Especially one with a hell.

Just to add to this, sometimes we “feel” something to be true by intuition because we want it to be true. It’s a form of confirmation bias. When we want something to be true, it’s very difficult to set aside those feelings and look objectively at the evidence where it stands. Giving your feelings a fancy name such as “intuition” doesn’t make them any more valid as truth-seeking faculties.

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Damion May 2, 2009 at 6:52 am

This is a bit off-topic, but every one of those five questions in the OP could be readily answered by a god who is neither just nor loving, but rather downright capricious and sadistic.  Imagine that Dick Cheney runs the entire cosmos, and you’ll get the idea.

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Damion May 2, 2009 at 6:56 am

Dan Nelson: Speaking of C.S. Lewis and escapism, his novel The Great Divorce is based on that very premise. The non believers are in hell, but hell is just a universe totally separate from God (basically, a universe in which God leaves them alone). The citizens of hell can take tours of the outskirts of heaven, and can still be redeemed if they choose it by their own free will. 

I’ve always been surprised by Lewis’ ongoing popularity in the face of such heresies.  Seriously, though, I was a bit shocked when I first read this stuff as a young evangelical.  Nowadays, I tend to think that you can judge a man’s character by the nature of the god that he constructs.  Loving people make loving gods, vengeful people make vengeful gods, etc.

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Lorkas May 2, 2009 at 7:08 am

Damion: Nowadays, I tend to think that you can judge a man’s character by the nature of the god that he constructs. Loving people make loving gods, vengeful people make vengeful gods, etc.

Since I apostatized, I’ve felt this way about Bible interpretation. Since the Bible can be used to justify such a wide variety of positions on many questions, when a person says, “The Bible says X“, it tells you more about the person’s character than about what the Bible actually says.

X could be “slavery is okay” or “slavery is wrong,” for example.

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lukeprog May 2, 2009 at 7:28 am

Jeff H: Just to add to this, sometimes we “feel” something to be true by intuition because we want it to be true. It’s a form of confirmation bias.

Yes, this is yet another reason to reject our intuitions about moral values, too.

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Luke May 2, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Interesting, thought there seems to be no reason why one couldn’t go back and forth between heaven and hell as one wishes, which seems a bit contrary to their established purpose as ‘just desserts’. In fact, I can imagine field trips for families from heaven to hell to see loved ones, and vice versa – surely there would be times when you’d rather not be with God if it prevented you from seeing friends and family, and that’d be enough to put you there for a visit. This is all a bit strange.
There’s also something missing here: if God is omnipresent, and he’s not in hell, then someone’s being ‘in hell’ must be metaphorical instead of literal. It’d be nice to hear just what being in hell is then supposed to be. I suspect that the ‘separation’ in question won’t be much more than disbelief.

dgsinclair: the reason(!) why we ask whether something is reasonable is not because we are overlooking other epistemic faculties, but because reason is a reliable guide to truth. Intuition on the other hand is much less reliable, and so if we are interested in truth it should just about be our last resort in deciding our beliefs. 

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Matt May 2, 2009 at 7:45 pm

I’m not sure about the way you set up the problem here. You state:

Some of these arguments are so successful that even the majority of Christian philosophers accept them, though of course the common people continue to believe the ancient doctrines of folk religion.
I’ll give two examples. Most Christians seem to think that morality comes from God’s commands – that something is good or bad depending on whether God requires or forbids it. But philosophical attacks on this theory have been so successful that most1 Christian philosophers today instead defend the view that morality comes from God’s essential nature. But of course the average Christians maintains the ancient doctrine.

 
Who are “most Christians” and “the average Christians” here? The Christians you talk to? The respondents to a sidebar poll or something? The “average Christian” is a straw man, and setting up this straw man allows you to claim that Christian philosophers today have all of a sudden, thanks to sharp critiques from their atheist colleagues, “instead defend the view that morality comes from God’s essential nature.”
 
Of course, this view (that morality comes from God’s essential nature) is precisely the “ancient doctrine” itself–see 1 John, for instance, or Gregory of Nyssa. Christians for 2000 years have believed that God is the good, that God is love. So the “average Christian” allows you to create an argument against one particular (and abhorrent) strain of Christian belief, not Christianity itself. And it also allows you to claim credit for such critiques when the resources for these critiques are taken from within the Christian tradition itself (and the same goes for the hell arguments).

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Daniel May 3, 2009 at 1:42 am

Hey Luke,

Great article, with one caveat…

There is absolutely no scriptural support for a hell you can escape from.  I’ve read the entire bible cover to cover (and I”m not a traditional theist), and there are really only a couple options:

Either the unsaved are annihilated, or they are eternally tormented.  I actually believe if you take the New Testament as a whole, it points towards annihilation.  Paul’s Epistles and John’s Gospel never even mention hell, but instead talk of the unsaved’s “death” and “destruction.”  The places in the synoptica gospels and Revelation, where hell is described with eternal fire, are in either parables, metaphors, or allegories.

Some scriptures taken out of context could imply eternal torture, but I don’t think it’s the proper response when taking the New Testament as a whole.

As for escapism, however, there is absolutely no support for escapism.  I’m not sure if you were trying to make it sound plausibly compatible with Christianity or not, but it just simply isn’t there.  The talk of the afterlife is irreversible “once to die, then be judged.”

I love your site, thanks for keeping it updated.

–Dan

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lukeprog May 3, 2009 at 5:07 am

Dan,

The NT may support only a retributive hell or annihiliationism, but it also supports a puny, hierarchical cosmology and a great many other things we know to be false. For a book with so many contradictions, myths, and absurdities, it would be strange to think the Bible is more accurate than what science and pure logic can tell us. That may be why philosophers are more keen on figuring out what actually makes sense, rather than how the ancients understood God – the ancients didn’t have the tools of science or a well-developed logic, let alone basic knowledge about germs, cosmology, etc.

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Reginald Selkirk May 4, 2009 at 7:41 am

Why would a loving God give infinite punishment for finite failures,…

This is a bit off on a tangent, but –

I see this as a result of inflation or one-upmanship resulting from Pascal’s wager- like comparisons. Obviously each religion would want to offer the greatest reward for adherence, and the greatest penalty for lack of adherence. Jacking this up to infinity would seem to have saturated the market and broken the game, but –

believe in me and I’ll give you two infinite lives in paradise for the price of one.

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Reginald Selkirk May 4, 2009 at 7:51 am

dgsinclair: 2. While reason is one of the faculties we use to determine what is true, it is not the only one.  With regard to this, sometimes the better question to ask is not just “is it reasonable to me,” but rather, “is it true?”If your epistemology ONLY includes what you today find reasonable, and does not include our other epistemological faculties, no matter how subject you find them (i.e. intuition), then these two questions are indistinguishable. Comment?

1) No other means of determining truth are presented, and no other “epistemological faculties” are mentioned, which makes it difficult to evaluate the unmentioned.

2) Means of epistemology frequently employed by religions,  – e.g. divine revelation, holy texts, alleged miracles – are known to be unreliable. Even the religious do not consider these to be reliable – when they occur in other religions.

3) Your comment in the middle , “is it reasonable to me” plays on a different usage of the word “reasonable” which is more akin to “intuition” or “common sense.” There are many examples in which such heuristic inexactitude has been proven to be unreliable in comparison to right reason, for example many tests of quantum mechanics. Many perceptual and cognitive biases have been catalogued and in some cases explained, for example optical illusions.

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Reginald Selkirk May 5, 2009 at 5:48 am

example of a perceptual illusion

Is it “reasonable” to believe that the pattern is actually moving even after you understand the limitiations of JPEG images, print the pattern out on paper, read a few things about perceptual illusions, etc.?

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lukeprog May 5, 2009 at 7:06 am

Reginald,

GREAT analogy. I will be using this in the future. God as a perceptual illusion, and the rationality of belief…

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Reginald Selkirk May 5, 2009 at 8:10 am

Here’s a good treatment of probability by the popular media. A crank claims that an unknown probability is 50%. The punchline to this comes at the end of the clip.
The Daily Show on the LHC.

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Anthony May 5, 2009 at 9:52 am

There is also the flip side of the coin: What about those who have gone to heaven and no longer want to be there? What if they would rather be in hell with their family and friends? Does god force them to remain with him (shouldn’t those in heaven have free will too)? Shouldn’t it go both ways? Alas, the gate between heaven and hell should become a revolving door. Just the  opinion from one who has deconverted from the faith.

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Lorkas May 5, 2009 at 10:14 am

That’s an interesting question, Anthony.

One has to wonder whether or not heaven could be heaven for a father who knew his son was in infinite, eternal agony. The father’s position sounds like it would be more akin to a hell.

Does that mean there will be Christian missionaries even in hell, trying to convince us to go to heaven?

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Anthony May 5, 2009 at 10:24 am

Hmm, Christian missionaries in hell, interesting thought. Actually I do not believe there is either a heaven or a hell. I did however find Luke’s postings interesting and the thought occured to me that the whole discussion is wrapped around getting everyone to heaven but no one brought up the issue of someone from heaven wanting to leave for hell.

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Reginald Selkirk May 5, 2009 at 2:46 pm

“On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” – W.C. Fields

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lukeprog May 5, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Anthony,

Buckareff and Plug mention that in one of their articles. If I recall, they agree with you that it would make sense for choice to go both ways.

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Lorkas May 5, 2009 at 7:45 pm

Anthony: Actually I do not believe there is either a heaven or a hell.

Me neither, of course. I just assumed that we were both talking about heaven and hell with the same tone in which we would discuss what the weather is like in Never Land.

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Anthony May 6, 2009 at 9:16 am

lukeprog: Anthony,Buckareff and Plug mention that in one of their articles. If I recall, they agree with you that it would make sense for choice to go both ways.

They are at least consistent. When I was still a Christian I had adopted an annihilationist view of hell on what I believed were biblical reasons versus emotional or philosophical. I was also a high Calvinist and refused to call what I believed “conditional immortality” I referred to it as “sovereignly conveyed immortality.” Is that not a riot?

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Lorkas May 6, 2009 at 10:28 am

Anthony: When I was still a Christian I had adopted an annihilationist view of hell on what I believed were biblical reasons versus emotional or philosophical.

I was a universalist. Partially because of the sheep and goats description of judgement, and partially because I wished it weren’t true that good people wouldn’t go to hell for not accepting Jesus in name.

Around this time I read Thus Spake Zarathustra, and was really shocked by the incident with the Rope Dancer. Most people are consoled by the belief that Christianity is true, and it was the first time I experienced someone being consoled by the belief that it is false.

For a while, I thought that the Christian universe was a really shitty place to live, but I believed it was true anyway (although with hedging like universalism to console me a bit).

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Steve W. May 3, 2011 at 9:46 am

All of this discussion of “hell” could be avoided by properly defining what is meant when someone refers to a place called hell. Hell is not a place underground with torture caves and pitchforks. In fact, it could be argued that Jesus already released everyone from “hell” at the resurrection. There are, however, passages that refer to a “lake of fire” in Matthew 25, but oddly enough, it states that the lake of fire was not designed for humans, but for “the devil and his angles”. I would also interpret that metaphorically as the total annihilation of evil.

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