The Moral Problem
“If you are excited to read this book, you have issues” (Francis Chan, Erasing Hell Introduction)
The above sentence is the very first line of the Introduction for Erasing Hell, a book that sought to defend the traditional doctrine of hell. It is quite a telling statement. Why do I say this?
Well, the saying “you have issues” is pretty much synonymous with the following sayings:
“You’re sick in the head!” or
“There’s something wrong with you!” or
In other words, Chan is saying that there is something morally wrong with you if you are excited to read his book about hell. The reason why this is curious is that he is defending the doctrine of hell, saying that it is biblical, and that God will indeed punish people eternally. He is saying that hell is part of God’s design. At the same time, he is saying that you should not be excited about this aspect of God’s plan, indeed that you have a serious moral defect if you are.
He is saying that hell is morally wrong, but that God will do it!
It is possible that some would try to argue otherwise, but if you did not feel that the concept of hell was morally abhorrent, why would someone “have issues” for being excited about it? It is God’s plan after all, and His ways are perfect (Psalm 18:30), are they not?
What is going on here?
It seems that Chan, as well as other hell advocates believe that hell is a sort of necessary evil. They don’t see that the biblical basis for the doctrine is extremely weak (although it is), so they think that it must be defended even though it feels morally wrong.
This is problematic on multiple levels. But first, let’s consider why most people have a moral aversion to hell.
I believe the reason for this aversion is obvious. The notion of eternal torment for unbelievers sounds like the polar opposite of justice. If any legal system proposed a punishment of lifelong torture for any and all crimes, we would all say that this system is unfair and unjust. We would fight against it on moral grounds as an inhumane, cruel system.
Now remember, the traditional doctrine of hell assigns all unbelievers to a fate of eternal torment, even your very nice neighbor who happens to be Buddhist, or Hindu, or agnostic or whatever, even though they might be much nicer than you are. It also says that anyone who doesn’t hear the gospel and respond to it with repentance in this life will be tormented endlessly. Even if there was no possible way for them to hear. In some traditions, even un-baptized infants would be said to go to some version of hell.
Now the problem is that the purposeless, vindictive torturing of people is viewed as morally wrong by pretty much everybody in the world. Those who derive pleasure from the pain of others are known as sadists, psychopaths, and sociopaths. But the doctrine of hell says that God himself will torment people endlessly, with no redemptive purpose whatsoever.
To drive this point home, consider the Holocaust. I hope we can all agree that the torturing of the Jewish people in concentration camps was evil. Now consider that the doctrine of hell says that all of those unbelieving Jews will go from being tormented by the Nazis to being tormented forever by God. God will double down on Hitler’s agenda, since Hitler could only torment people temporarily, but God can now do this eternally.
Doesn’t that scenario make you recoil in disgust? That is because you have a conscience. The Bible encourages us to listen to it.
1 Timothy 1:18-19
This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith …
One of the great philosophical reasons for believing in God is the moral law. We have a sense, as humans, that certain things are morally right and other things are morally wrong. It is argued by many that this sense of objective morality suggests the existence of God. Otherwise, where does the idea of right and wrong come from and why are we deeply convinced that there is a moral right and wrong?
Some like to argue that morality is purely relative, but this ignores the fact that certain things are viewed as morally right or wrong by virtually every culture. It also ignores the fact that we are convinced that morality is actually real, and not just a cultural construct.
For example, if I ask you if it is morally OK to torture and abuse children for fun, what would you say? Would you say that it depends on your cultural context? Or would you feel that it is actually morally wrong objectively? I think almost everyone agrees that this is actually wrong, independent of cultural context.
In the same way, we feel that the idea of eternal torment of people in hell is actually morally wrong, hence Francis Chan’s statement that “you have issues” if you are excited to read about it.
Now some people will say that hell feels wrong but that God has the right and the power to do as he pleases. While true, this in no way solves the moral problem. Instead it says that God is allowed to do something immoral simply because He has the power to do so. A brutal dictator has the power to kill and torture at will as well, but this doesn’t make these actions morally acceptable.
Also, it ignores the clear statements in Scripture that tell us what God’s will actually is. For example, the Bible clearly says that our God and Savior “ wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy 2:4-6).
God doesn’t want to torment people, but rather wants salvation for all. Now if He really has the right and power to do as he pleases, won’t he actually do as he pleases?
Consider Ezekiel 33:11:
As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!
He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked because He wants repentance and life. The doctrine of hell, far from supporting God’s sovereignty, says that God is unable to do what He actually wants to do. It says that he “wants all people to be saved” but that people prevent Him from accomplishing His purpose.
In our consideration of the validity of the doctrine of hell, isn’t it at least pertinent to consider what God says about Himself? Isn’t it also worthwhile to ask why the doctrine violates our God-given consciences? If eternal torment for the vast majority of people on earth grates on your moral sense, shouldn’t you at least consider the possibility that it does so for a reason?
Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit in you, whispering truth to your conscience. Don’t ignore Him.
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