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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.” [↩]