Redated from 1/3/2010.
One of my all-time favorite atheism vs. theism debates is the one between Ray Bradley and William Lane Craig on the doctrine of hell. [mp3, transcript] (You’ll also be interested in my four-part series Escaping Hell.)
“If God really is all loving, then how can He send anybody to hell?” The question is almost an embarrassment for Christians today. On the one hand, the Bible teaches that God is love, and yet, on the other hand, it warns that those who reject God face everlasting punishment.
But there is no explicit contradiction between “God is all-powerful and all-loving” and “Some people go to hell.” Craig assumes the detractor of hell must make two additional assumptions to bring out the contradiction:
First of all, he assumes that if God is all powerful, then God can create a world in which everyone freely chooses to give his life to God and is saved. And second, he assumes that if God is all loving, then God prefers a world in which everyone freely chooses to give his life to God and be saved.
… [But] So as long as there’s even a possibility that one of these assumptions is false, it’s possible that God is all-loving and yet some people go to hell. Thus, the opponent of hell has to shoulder a very heavy burden of proof, indeed. He has to prove that both of these assumptions are necessarily true.
Craig presents a Christian explanation for how an all-loving God can allow some people to go to hell?
On the one hand are His justice and holiness, which demand punishment for sin, rightly deserved. On the other hand are God’s love and mercy, which demand reconciliation and forgiveness. Both are essential to His nature; neither can be compromised. What is God to do in this dilemma? The answer is Jesus Christ.
Jesus received God’s justice, his wrath, but also provided the forgiveness and reconciliation that humanity needed. So the problem is not God’s nature, for God has stayed true to both his justice and his mercy. Rather, the problem is with those who reject his mercy:
In order to receive forgiveness, we need to place our trust in Christ as our Savior and the Lord of our lives. But if we reject Christ, then we reject God’s mercy and fall back on His justice. And you know where you stand there. If we reject Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, then there is simply is no one else to pay the penalty for your sin – except yourself.
But if God is all-powerful, why couldn’t he just create a world in which everyone freely chose to be saved?
Suppose that God could create a world in which everyone is freely saved, but there is only one problem: all such worlds have only one person in them! Does God’s being all-loving compel Him to prefer one of these underpopulated worlds over a world in which multitudes are saved, even though some people freely go to hell? I don’t think so. God’s being all-loving implies that in any world He creates, He desires and strives for the salvation of every person in that world. But people who would freely reject God’s every effort to save them shouldn’t be allowed to have some sort of veto power over what worlds God is free to create. Why should the joy and the blessedness of those who would freely accept God’s salvation be precluded because of those who would stubbornly and freely reject it? It seems to me that God’s being all-loving would at the very most require Him to create a world having an optimal balance between saved and lost, a world where as many as possible freely accept salvation and as few as possible freely reject it.
But isn’t it still unjust for God to condemn people to hell forever?
Craig responds that perhaps those who go to hell continue sinning infinitely into the future while in hell, thus continually deserving continued punishment. He also says that perhaps to reject God himself is a sin of “infinite gravity.” Also, he says:
It’s possible that God would permit the damned to leave hell and go to heaven but that they freely refuse to do so. It is possible that persons in hell grow only more implacable in their hatred of God as time goes on. Rather than repent and ask God for forgiveness, they continue to curse Him and reject Him.
But what about those who have never heard of Jesus?
The Bible says that the unreached will be judged on a quite different basis than those who have heard the gospel. God will judge the unreached on the basis of their response to His self-revelation in nature and conscience.
…[This] means that the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice can be applied to them without their conscious knowledge of Christ. They would be like people in the Old Testament before Jesus came who had no conscious knowledge of Christ but who were saved on the basis of his sacrifice through their response to the information that God had revealed to them. And, thus, salvation is truly available to all persons at all times. It all depends upon our free response.
I truly wish with all my heart that universal salvation were true. But to pretend that people are not sinful and in need of salvation would be as cruel and deceptive as pretending that somebody was healthy even though you knew that he had a fatal disease for which you knew the cure.
How should we think of God’s sending people to hell? Not like Stalin sending people to exile in Siberia. It ought not even to be thought of as like Hitler sending people to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. For both of these are tame in comparison with the horror of being sent to hell. At least Auschwitz, Belsen, and the rest were death camps, finite in duration both for those who died and for those who survived. Hell, however, offers no such finality to those of us who are to fill its chambers. None will emerge from its torment, and its tortures will continue forever and ever.
And this hell is no fuzzy “eternal separation from God.” Not according to Jesus, anyway:
On a quick count I found 20 or so passages in the gospel of Matthew alone in which Jesus threatens unbelievers… with eternal punishment, in an eternal fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And contrary to Craig, the Bible does say that those who have never heard the gospel will be sent to eternal torture:
Saint Paul tells us that only those who have been sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved. He was, of course, only echoing Jesus himself, who repeatedly tells us that only those who believe in him will go the heaven… The exclusion of most human beings on the grounds that they don’t believe in Jesus is a simple consequence of the fact that most of them haven’t even heard of him.
So the central problem is this:
If it would be inconsistent to suppose that Hitler was acting lovingly while sending the majority of German Jews to the gas chambers for lacking the right parentage, wouldn’t it be equally inconsistent to claim that God is acting lovingly while sending the majority of the human race to roast in hell for lacking the right belief?
Craig’s way out is to say that God could not have created a world of free beings in which they all freely receive Christ.
But wait a minute, Bradley says. Isn’t that exactly what heaven is supposed to be? Craig believes in heaven, and he believes heaven is a possible world of free beings, all of which freely accept Christ. So Craig’s defense fails.
And there is another problem. The problem is with the fact that
God’s foreknowledge of what the unsaved would do, together with the His perverse determination to create them nevertheless, makes Him what lawyers call an “accessory before the fact,” and therefore responsible at least in part for the outcome. After all, it is up to God whether to create free creatures or not. Just as we must bear responsibility for the consequences our freely chosen actions, so must He.
Bradley concludes with some plausible propositions that are incompatible with the notion that God sends people to hell:
P1. A perfectly good being would not torture anyone for any period whatever, however brief.P2. A just being wouldn’t punish someone eternally for the sins committed during a brief lifetime but would proportion the punishment to the offense.
P3. A righteous being would not punish someone eternally for unavoidable lack of belief.
P4. A merciful being would not be eternally unforgiving to those who have offended it.
P5. A loving being would not bring about and perpetuate the suffering of those that it loves.
Where things really heat up
The next section is cross examination, during which Bradley and Craig ask questions directly of each other. Craig begins:
Isn’t it the case that the Scripture also uses metaphors such as outer darkness, separation from God, that this notion of fire is just one metaphorical image of hell among many others that are found in the New Testament?
[But it is] this fiery metaphor which most people have seized upon and which most people have believed… [And] why should I admit it is a metaphor any more than any other doctrine in the New Testament? For example, the doctrine of Christ’s second coming. Is that a metaphor? Is the doctrine of his salvation a metaphor?
Craig tries to take the upper hand:
Isn’t the case that the majority of Christian New Testament scholars interpret these passages as metaphorical for the suffering and the anguish of those who are separated from God, but not necessarily to be taken as literal flames, such as we experience here in this world?
But Bradley slams him:
It is true that the majority of Christian scholars of the New Testament do take a charitable interpretation of it. But just let me remind you that as soon they start taking charitable interpretations of that metaphor, they start looking at the question of whether or not other claims, other doctrines, are purely metaphorical, too. And you get to the position where so many New Testament scholars today, other than those who are evangelicals, claim that the whole of the biblical story needs to be demythologized.
So Craig moves on:
You characterized my position as the condemnation of most people as a result of their not having heard. After listening to my first speech, wouldn’t you like to retract that statement as inaccurate?
…[I said] their condemnation is due to the fact that they have not lived up to the light of nature and conscience which is available to all persons.
But, you say [in a Faith and Philosophy article], “On the basis of Scripture” – and I agree with you totally – “we must say that such anonymous Christians are relatively rare.”
So Craig moves on to the point about heaven being a possible world in which all free persons freely choose Christ:
Heaven may not be a possible world when you take it in isolation by itself. It may be that the only way in which God could actualize a heaven of free creatures all worshiping Him and not falling into sin would be by having, so to speak, this run-up to it, this advance life during which there is a veil of decision-making in which some people choose for God and some people against God. Otherwise you don’t know that heaven is an actualizable world. You have no way of knowing that possibility.
Talk about far-fetched! Craig has been reading too much Plantinga.
Bradley was, unlike nearly all of Craig’s opponents, prepared. He had read Craig’s work on the topic. He responded directly to Craig’s points and offered specific rebuttals and counterarguments. All this is nearly unheard of among atheist debaters of Craig. Moreover, Bradley was rhetorically effective and nearly as concise as Craig. Ray Bradley is perhaps the best atheist debater I’ve seen, and it’s a shame he hasn’t done more debates!
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