March 25, 2005

Case for Faith: Random Notes

from - smijer

I used MT long ago to begin an anynomous blog for my freethought posts. I have long ago abandoned it, and begun posting freethought along with everything else here. Since then, blog-spam has taken over the old project. As I prepare to take down the old project, I'm going to repost one of the posts here for posterity, and as ideal contributions to the Carnival of the Godless. Here is the first, Random Notes on Lee Strobel's a Case for Faith:

I've been paging through the rest of Strobel's Case for Faith. I'm not ready to do a detailed critique on the book. For one thing, I haven't read the whole thing yet. For another, I am supposed to be critiquing The Case for Christ - not the case for faith. But I wanted to make a couple of observations while they are fresh on their mind.

Chapter 3
Objection 3: Evolution explains life, so God isn't needed
I don't intend to critique this chapter in detail. It presents a loose apology for "Scientific Creationism" (leaning toward the "Intelligent Design" variety). It also attempts to make the case that an abiogenetic origin of life is not naturally possible, leaving Divine Intervention as "the most likely explanation" for the evidence. Needless to say, this is pure malarkey. Every claim made by Strobel and his interviewees is throroughly debunked somewhere at the Talk Origins Archive.

My one note that I would like to record while it is fresh on my mind is as follows. In the chapter on Hell, Strobel interviews a Christian philosopher. In the Case for Christ, Strobel interviews various Christian scholars and Christian archaeologists. For this chapter, one could expect Strobel to interview a Christian Biologist. Someone versed in the science of evolution and it's theological implications. Several come to mind. Two of the more prominent representatives would have been:
Kenneth Miller
Francis Collins
Instead, Strobel "settled" for a creationist in the field of mechanical engineering:
Walter Bradley.

So Strobel has gone out of his way to avoid good scholarship on this issue. The fact that he has to rely on pseudoscience to advance his viewpoints is telling, and speaks against the cause he is trying to advance through such underhanded tactics.

Next, in Chapter 4:
Objection #4: God and the Killing of the Innocents

I notice that Norman Geisler uses similar language defending genocide against the Amalekites that Hitler used to justify genocide against the Jews. Note how the Amalekites are portrayed as an incurable "disease" against which a "final solution" (amputation) had to be employed in order to keep the disease from spreading. Geisler:

But, Lee, you need to undestand the situation among the Amalekites. In that thoroughly evil and violent and depraved culture, there was no hope for those children. This nation was so polluted that it was like gangrene that was taking over a person's leg, and God had to amputate the leg or the gangrene would spread and there wouldn't be anything left..."

This reads like an essay from a neo-nazi publication. It is a denial of the individuality of persons as independent moral agents. It is a promulgation of the idea that racial or national identity is the defining trait: the idea upon which the holocaust was based. What Geisler is "defending", however, is the fact that God ordered the children of the Amakelites killed. The passage in question is 1 Samuel 15:2-3 :

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember [that] which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid [wait] for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

Incredibly, Geisler's defense is that it was an act of mercy to have the children killed. Geisler:

Now, if they had continued to live in that horrible society, past the age of accountability, they undoubtedly would have become corrupted and thereby lost forever.

Did Geisler forget the first half of the verse? Every man and woman was to be slain.. the "culture" that was to be such an horrific impact on these infants was to be the victim of genocide already. At the very least, God could have asked the Jews to take on responsibility for the infant children of those whom they were asked to slay, and raise them up in their own culture. One has to wonder though, whether the Jews' culture of the time (one that had developed their ideas about God around ideas like genocide) would have been any less depraved than the Amakelites own culture..

(this concludes the original post. Below the fold, I am including The Coherence of JP Moreland's Hell, also a critique of a portion of Case for Faith)


The Coherence of JP Moreland's Hell

As this will be a rebuttal, more than a critique, I would like to address the chapter point by point, and will quote liberally from the book in order to set up my objections.

Hell Is a Torture Chamber

After using an example of a good judge who reduced charges to avoid mandatory sentencing to remind us that he does have a functioning sense of justice, Lee Strobel moves on to introduce the problem of Hell. He has chosen J.P. Moreland as his expert witness to defuse that problem.

Moreland has a curious habit of arguing by assertion (ipse dixit - "because I say"). Nearly everyone is guilty of the occasional ipse dixit, on ideas that do not seem controversial to them, or out of carelessness, or in an attempt to be concise. But, this mode of argument seems to be Moreland's primary approach. We shall begin with the first instance of that fallacy, which also illuminates a hint of circularity:

"And it's important to understand that if the God of Christianity is real, he hates hell and he hates people going there," he added. "The Bible is very clear: God says he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked."

It is true that the Bible (in Ezekial 33:11) states that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. There is gaping hole of missing logic between this simple Old Testament statement and Moreland's claim that God hates Hell. If God is all-powerful, He would have open the option of making Hell unnecessary and eliminating it's existence from His divine plan - this follows directly from the definition of "all-powerful". If God truly "hated" Hell, then there would be no hell, and this chapter would be missing. On the other hand, Moreland makes no real effort to support his claim with reason - leaving us only the choice to believe it because he says so, if we are to believe it at all. One would hope he would give us more reason than that. After all, the problems with Hell are often presented as objections to Christianity. Since Moreland's interview with Strobel is ostensibly meant to answer "the toughest objections to Christianity", I would expect to find in it something more substantial than the unsupported declaration, that "if Christianity is true, then your objection is invalid because God hates hell." The objection is that Christianity may not be true because Hell is unjust, so it is somewhat circular to start with the assumption that Christianity is true in order to reach a conclusion. Unfortunately, as we read through the chapter, we find precious little added substance.

Reading on, we discover that Moreland has taken a very unorthodox view of what Hell is. On this point, it is hard not to at least respect his sense of justice. He sees the difficulty with the Biblical Hell, and finds that it cannot be accounted for. This speaks of a certain moral awareness often missing in other conservative Christian apologists, philosophers, and clergy. Moreland claims that hell is not a torture chamber. He claims that the suffering in Hell is only shame, regret, and the suffering of eternal separation from God. Even by this liberal definition, Moreland is unable to paint a coherent view of Hell while answering other objections. His answers to other objections will not make sense in light of this view of Hell.

Again, this is a morally superior view to the orthodox Christian one, but Moreland has two thousand years of church history, and some very clear language from the Bible against him. Since most Christians believe that the historical church view is dependent upon the Biblical view, I will let go the two thousand years of church history, and focus on the Biblical notions of Hell. Before I go on to the actual scripture, however, I want to quote somewhat more of Moreland's ipse dixit case against the Biblical hell as it comes out in his conversation with Strobel:

"When I was about ten years old, I was taken to Sunday school, where the teacher lit a candle and said, 'Do you know how much it hurts to burn your finger? Well, imagine your whole body being in fire forever and ever. That's what hell it.'" [...] "You have to admit that when it comes to talking about hell, the Bible does have a tendency to refer to flames." "That's true," Moreland replied, "but the flames are a figure of speech." I put up my hand. "Okay, wait a minute," I protested. "I thought you were a conservative scholar. Are you going to try to soften the idea of hell to make it more palatable?" "Absolutely not," came his reply. "I just want to be biblically accurate. We know that the reference to flames is figurative because if you try to take it literally, it makes no sense. For example, hell is described as a place of utter darkness and yet there are flames, too. How can that be? Flames would light things up." [...]

Moreland goes on to mention a few cases in the Bible where flames are mentioned in the context of a vision, or in clearly metaphorical terms, but never gives any detailed justification for taking each Biblical reference to "flames" figuratively. I do believe one could make a valid case that there is at least one instance where God is described metaphorically as a "consuming fire", but one could make that particular case on the merits of the language and context of that passage. On the contrary, it is not justified by the language and context to dismiss New Testament descriptions of Hell as figurative, and (I will show) such a view is contradicted by a specific examination of the passages dealing with hell.

Before moving on to the scripture, I want to quickly deal with the other argument Moreland cites for treating hell as a "figure of speech". He says that would be absurd because hell is sometimes described as being a place of darkness - and therefore the language must be figurative. I think this represents an apologetic failure. Anyone can easily reconcile the flames with the darkness. The flames might be hot without providing light (their purpose is only to torment, not to give the benefit of light). The flames may be real, but the sufferers may be in darkness because their eyes are burned. The flames may be so intense as to only create ultraviolet light - which isn't visible to the eye. None of these harmonizations occurred to Moreland or Strobel - a Christian philosopher and a Christian apologist - during their interview?

I will avoid Old Testament references to Sheol, which translates to "the grave" and which, I believe, represents distinctly Jewish ideas about death and the possibility of an after-life. Christians often read New Testament notions of hell into Old Testament discussions of Sheol. The resulting doctrinal controversies and difficulties are beyond the scope of this rebuttal. The New Testament literature is very clear in its own right, is not contradicted by the Old Testament, and should therefore be sufficient to discover what Christians consider to be the "Biblical" idea of hell.

Let us begin with Revelation 20:10 and 13-15.

10: And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet [are], and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
13: And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
14: And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
15: And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

Here, we learn that the ultimate destiny of the hellbound is the same as that of the devil and his angels, and that it is a lake of fire and brimstone (a kind of incense which is thought to have a purifying effect when burned). We also learn that Hell isn't chosen freely by the unbeliever - but that she is to be cast into the fire from above. Revelation 21:8 reiterates:

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

Please make a note that the scripture does not claim that these unrighteous will have their part in separation from God, which will be as unpleasant as a lake of fire. Jesus, as quoted in gMatthew (shorthand for 'Gospel of Matthew'. I will also refer where needed to the conventional shorthand aMatthew to mean 'author of Matthew'), confirms this idea and adds that the condemnation is a punishment and that it is eternal Matthew 25:41 & 46:

41: Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 46: And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

The importance of these passages are that they describe the afterlife of the condemned, without language signifying a figurative use of the word "fire", and without reference to "separation from God". Our next passage is from gLuke. It demonstrates that the references to fire are to be taken literally, and also that Hell is a torture chamber. Luke 16:23-25:

And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

If the flames were only figurative, it doesn't seem likely that the Rich Man would be asking for water with which to cool his tongue. Furthermore, Jesus, as quoted by aLuke, wants to make triply sure we understand that hell is torture: he repeats the word "torment" three times in this passage. Again, the flames are not spoken of as a figure of speech for his suffering and regret, but instead are given as the cause of his torment.

So, we have a choice - we can rule out Moreland's apologetic, and deal with the moral status of an eternal torture chamber as described in the Bible, or we can use his tactic and re-write the Bible when it crosses the line of moral decency. But then the question becomes this: if we can dismiss one troublesome passage from the Bible arbitrarily, why should we accept any of it? Why should we treat the virgin birth as anything other than a "figure of speech"? - or the crucifixion? - or the resurrection? - the Holy Spirit, and its gifts?

The choice for the conservative - Bible-believing - Christian is clear: she must keep the literal interpretation of Hell that the Bible requires. That means the moral objection to eternal torture in Hell retains its full weight and Strobel and Moreland have failed to answer it.

Nevertheless, Strobel and Moreland have contented themselves with their explanation, without attempting to cope with its consequences for how Christians understand the Bible, and have moved on to other objections having to do with Hell. I intend for this rebuttal to be nearly comprehensive so I will follow their train of thought. I will accept, for the sake of argument, their vision of hell as a "separation from God" that is "chosen" by the unsaved, and will answer their objections accordingly, though I may throw in a comment about how the objection would pertain to the Biblical hell where I see it warranted.

Objection 1: How Can God Send Children to Hell?
Moreland argues (ipse dixit) that people in Hell will be there in their adult form, even if they died as children, so children will not be suffering there. He also argues (ispe dixit) that no child will die and go to hell who would have been saved had she lived long enough. I do not know for sure what he means by this. I do not know if he means that some children will be spared hell even though they were unsaved when they died, or whether he means that all children who die unsaved will be in hell because they never would have accepted salvation if they had lived longer.

If he means the former, then this creates a theological problem. Most variations of Christianity believe that a child can be saved as early as seven or eight years old, and many believe they can be saved even earlier. Only a very few believe that salvation must await adulthood with an adult's understanding of the New Covenant. To claim that children who were old enough to have reached this "age of accountability" can die, yet escape hell, does not conform to Christian doctrine.

If he means the latter, then this is also troubling. It tells the mothers and fathers of so many millions of unsaved young ones, that their children went to hell. What comfort is it, then, to know that J.P. Moreland believes that they were zapped into an adult form to endure their eternity of suffering? What comfort to think that God only cast them into Hell because He was sure that they never would have believed the Christian religion even if they had lived longer?

In reality, most children cannot fully comprehend the consequences of their choices until they are grown into adults. This is recognized even by our flawed justice system, which (usually) treats juvenile defendants differently than adult ones. If it is not also recognized by the God of the Bible, then this is a strong objection to the doctrines of the Bible. Before I move on, I just want to note to you again that Moreland believes that children will be given an adult form in Hell - as this may well prove relevant during the discussion of one of his other arguments.

Objection 2: Why Does Everyone Suffer The Same in Hell?
Moreland contends that everyone does not suffer the same in hell, and supports himself with the scripture wherein Jesus prophecies the doom of Capernaum. This seems to me a tenuous interpretation of that scripture, but I believe Moreland deserves the benefit of doubt here.

Further along, Moreland will dismiss the notion of reincarnation because he views it as "incoherent". He claims that coherence is important to him. I would suggest that there is a degree of incoherence in his own view of Hell. If hell is "separation from God" (and if, as Luke 16:26 suggests, that separation is unbridgeable), then there seems to be a discrepancy between these two views. As Kyle Gerkin points out in his rebuttal to this chapter of Strobel's book, "The only reason proximity matters is as a factor of how long it takes to make contact with an object." In other words, degrees of separation would not logically have any impact on the degree of suffering that came as a result.

Moreland seems also to believe that the suffering in hell comes partly from regret for sins and regret at having made the choice to reject God and live in eternity without Him. This regret certainly could (and should) exist in degrees, so this may help his view of Hell - if the idea of regret in Hell was consistent with Moreland's other ideas about Hell. I would argue that Moreland's other contentions rule out the notion of regret in Hell. He contends elsewhere that no one who changed their mind about their choices on Earth would ever do so in Hell. Since changing their mind about the choice to sin and reject God would be necessary before they could regret that choice, I would say that the existence of regret in Hell is not a coherent part of Moreland's idea of hell, and that therefore his argument in support of degrees of suffering in hell falls apart.

I would not, however, present the objection that all suffer the same in my own debates. In a Biblical hell, there is no reason to believe that all will suffer equally. The original objection that Strobel brings up seems only to apply to a minority of Christian denominations which may preach that Hell is a place of uniform suffering. I'm not certain why he thought it important enough to mention in his book.

Objection 3: Why Are People Punished Infinitely For Finite Crimes?
Moreland correctly reminds us that the severity of punishment warranted by a crime does not correspond to the length of time required for its commission. A robbery may take longer than a murder, but a murder is more heinous. Moreland seeks to convince us that rejection of God and salvation is the "ultimate" crime - the crime greater than which there is no other crime. This may well be true under Christian doctrine, but he also asks us to deduce that it must therefore warrant the "ultimate" punishment - the punishment greater than which there is no other punishment, e.g. eternal suffering away from God. On this point, his logic fails.

Justice is not so simplistic a value that one can merely substitute the description of the crime for the description of the punishment in order to decide what is warranted. If we thought so, we would punish a lying child by lying to her, punish an adulterous spouse through unfaithfulness, and punish a thief by stealing from her.

I believe that justice is a basic shared human value, and that most anyone would agree (according to their own sense of justice) that a certain punishment is warranted if (and only if):
1) The offense was intentional, or if enough care wasn't taken to avoid it
2) The punishment is not "cruel and unusual": meaning, essentially, that torture is forbidden, and the punishment cannot be orders of magnitude more severe than the criminal act itself.
3) One or more of the following are true:
a) The punishment provides compensation to the victim.
b) The punishment rehabilitates the criminal
c) There is a valid expectation that the punishment will deter others from the same crime.

I consciously left out the criterion of "revenge". It may be that satisfying the victims' sense of revenge may provide a degree of compensation to the victim, and that revenge can therefore play a role in justice. To the extent this is true, it is covered above under the item 2a. We often use the term "revenge", however, to refer to retribution that falls outside what is tolerated by justice. The Bible says that "vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord". It isn't essential that we discover how this is best interpreted. Suffice it to say that there is nothing in that passage that requires God to be seeking the sort of "revenge" that is unjust.

On the other hand, the Biblical Hell does not qualify as just punishment, since it does employ torture. The Biblical Hell is, in fact, infinite torture - because it is eternal. Infinite torture is infinite injustice, and it is infinite injustice that the Biblical teachings of Hell ascribe to God.

Similarly, J.P. Moreland's Hell consists of eternal suffering. Suffering, as punishment, may be just. But can eternal suffering be a just punishment?

It cannot provide compensation to the victims of the crime. For a particular sinner, (we shall name her "Sue"), we can think of three sets of victims. She may have sinned against herself - but she cannot provide compensation to herself through her own suffering. She may have sinned against God, but God is perfect and therefore cannot suffer harm, so her suffering cannot provide compensation to Him. She may have sinned against other people, but they are either in Hell with her and sharing her fate, or in the Utopia of heaven where all of their suffering has been already erased. So we find that compensation cannot make Hell a just punishment, even under Moreland's view of it.

Rehabilitation is also out of the question. In both Moreland's and the Bible's view of Hell, it is eternal and continues either without successfully rehabilitating the criminal or without abating once the rehabilitation is done. So, rehabilitation does not justify Hell, whether we are talking about the Hell of the Bible, or Moreland's own conception.

Eternal suffering (under Moreland's view - and even more so under the Biblical view of eternal torture) would, in fact, provide a deterrent for those considering rejecting God. But Moreland believes that deterrence is not a valid use for Hell. In fact, he claims that being deterred would invalidate salvation. From his answer to the objection #8:

The next thing you have to keep in mind is if people saw the judgment seat of God after death, it would be so coercive that they would no longer have the power of free choice. Any 'decision' they made would not be a real genuine free choice; it would be totally coerced. It would be like me holding a paddle over my daughter and saying, 'You will say you're sorry to your sister for wearing her dress without asking.' Any apology would not be a real apology, it would just be avoidance. And people who would 'choose' in a second chance would not really be choosing God, his kingdom, or his ways - nor would they be suited for life in his kingdom. They'd be making a prudent 'choice' to avoid judgment only.

So Hell as a deterrent doesn't fit coherently with Moreland's view. Furthermore, the Biblical Hell goes far beyond what would be needed as a deterrent. Anyone who could be deterred by threat of torture would surely be as well deterred by the threat of several lifetimes of it as by the threat of an eternity. A human would have difficulty imagining the difference in the first place. However, just the threat of an ordinary punishment without torture may make a better deterrent if it could be witnessed by those for whom deterrence was meant. If deterrence was the goal, it would be far more effective if the earthbound could go to the edge of the pit and witness the agony of Hell's current denizens. We can deduce from the fact that God has not provided us a viewing window, that deterrence is not His aim with the creation of Hell. If it were truly His aim, He could be doing a much better job of employing Hell for the purpose of deterrence.

So we see that the punishment of Hell is unjust whether we are discussing Moreland's invention or the fiery abyss promised by the Bible. Moreland's suggestion that punishment should be infinite because it is retribution for disrespecting an infinitely Holy God appears to be without support. There seems to be no logical connection between the severity of the punishment and the degree of Holiness and Justice of the offended party. As mentioned before, an all-powerful God is not subject to involuntary harm. There is nothing a mortal can do to cause an infinite God to suffer. Only God could cause Himself to suffer. If He should do so on account of a mortals' actions then it is He, not they, who has done the harm, and should suffer the consequences. Furthermore, there is no way that the suffering of a mortal could provide reparations to God even if we considered His voluntary suffering as being the fault of the mortal.

Objection 4: Couldn't God Force Everyone to Go to Heaven?

This isn't much of an objection to begin with. Heaven is construed as a reward, so it would be absurd to expect that everyone will be equally rewarded.

On the other hand, if God is to keep His hands clean of torture by making sure Hell remains unoccupied, then He has at His disposal infinite power and creativity with which to find a means for doing so. He need not regard the rewards of heaven as the only alternative to the torture of Hell.

I find myself puzzled again about why Strobel even brought up this objection. It adds nothing to the discussion. But it did incidentally elicit this remark from Moreland:

When God allows people to say 'no' to Him, He actually respects and dignifies them.

I would agree with the sentiment behind this statement. I'm not sure that it would apply to a God whose idea of "allowing" people to say 'no' to Him was to provide for their eternal punishment. On the other hand, if we allow ourselves to imagine a God that is unlike the one portrayed in the Bible or in Moreland's own imagination, then it isn't hard to find ourselves drawn to a conception of God that is more like a loving parent, and less like a jealous lover. One could imagine that such a God would provide for the free-will choices of His children even in the here-after, allowing people to love Him (or not) freely, without hint of coercion. Such a God would correct His children, but would never create eternal punishments for them. As long as Moreland believes we can discard the Biblical view of Hell at the first mention of flames and darkness together, he might as well create a coherent notion of the after-life that gives God more credit for justice and goodness. Instead, he paints a picture of God that is neither Biblical nor Just, and falls far short of being coherent.

Objection 5: Why Doesn't God Just Snuff People Out?

The option of annihilation would present an omnipotent God the opportunity to have Justice, mercy, and goodness without creating an unjust Hell of eternal punishment. I believe that Strobel has weakened this objection by giving it in the specific rather than in the general. It should be discussed as an example of the larger objection: Why doesn't God use His infinite knowledge, creativity, and power to eliminate the possibility of eternal suffering from the Universe? Asked this way, it would be very difficult for Moreland even to give the appearance of answering the objection. This is the slam dunk. If God is infinitely Good, then He would naturally hate the existence of eternal suffering, and if He is infinitely powerful, then He could make certain that it did not exist. Therefore, the doctrine of eternal suffering requires that God be less than infinitely Good, or less than infinitely Powerful. It is a logical impossibility for a God to be omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and for Hell to exist: even J.P. Moreland's watered-down version of it.

However, Strobel withheld this question. Moreland did not have a chance to answer it. So we will have to deal with the question Strobel did ask. Once again, Moreland's answers are wholly inadequate. First, he says that rescuing people from eternal suffering this way is "treating them as a means to an end". This seems patently absurd, when the end in question is to eliminate the suffering of the very people in question. I will quote again from Gerkin:

Sometimes apologists do an unbelievable job of twisting and squirming in order to be consistent with their beliefs. Moreland is a perfect example here. When speaking of annihilation he says, "The only way that's a good thing would be the end result, which would be to keep people from experiencing the conscious separation from God forever. Well, then you are treating people as a means to an end" (183). Give me a break. By his reasoning, if I see a starving child on the street, I should not feed him because the only good thing would be the end result, which would be to alleviate his hunger. Well, then I'd be treating the child as a means to an end. Can Moreland possibly believe this? No, of course not. No sane person could.

That sums it up for the "means to an end" argument.

However, Moreland does follow up by taking another tack.

It appears that he is assuming that annihilation would be involuntary. He states that God is honoring the individual's freedom of choice by not annihilating her, but allowing her instead to suffer eternally in Hell. This makes sense if, and only if, no one in Hell would choose annihilation over eternal suffering. If they would so choose, then God would better honor their choice by annihilating them. If they would not so choose, then one can hardly argue that Hell is a horrible place where one does not want to spend an eternity. So much for "honoring their freedom of choice".

Lastly, Moreland suggests that as "image-bearers" human individuals have "intrinsic value" that God would not destroy. Perhaps God really does prefer keeping his image-bearers in a place of eternal suffering over allowing them a painless end. If so, it cannot be rightly said of God what Moreland said at the start of the chapter: "And it's important to understand that if the God of Christianity is real, he hates hell and he hates people going there."

It is worth taking some time to think what Moreland may mean about people being "image-bearers" of God. Clearly, he is referring to Genesis 1:26 and other scripture that indicates humans were made in the image of God, but what does this mean? Theologians differ, but most argue that this means that humans are independent moral agents: that they have freedom of choice, and a consciousness of right and wrong. Very few believe that it means humans share God's anatomy, as this would lead to very interesting questions about what God does with lungs (not needing air) or with a body at all - considering He is a spiritual being. If the image of God is "free moral choice", then we are left again with a dilemma: God could honor the choice of his image-bearers, giving meaning to that status, and allow annihilation. If they did not choose annihilation over Hell, then Hell can hardly be a negative experience, all things considered; that is the second horn of the dilemma.

In fact, the very idea that God must "sustain" his image-bearer's life, yet needs to have it quarantined from Himself in a place of eternal suffering, may well be self-contradictory. It is difficult to conceive of a situation where one simultaneously needs to be sure a thing continues to exist, and also needs to be sure that the thing never gets near enough to affect or be affected by ones' own self.

It is becoming clear that Moreland is compromising his career as a philosopher in order to protect Hell from criticism.

I will not take up the discussion about whether the Old Testament teaches annihilationism. Many Jews, and some Christians believe that it does. Strobel - as per his usual habit - only presents one side of that debate. If he were really interested in investigating the toughest objections to Christianity, and really interested in investigating the toughest objections to his own views, he would not limit himself to interviews with those who agreed with him. Be that as it may, it is beyond the scope of this rebuttal to take sides in the debate of Scriptural authority for annihilationism. If the subject interests you, I strongly suggest you seek out representatives who favor the pro- view in order to balance the arguments you are hearing from Moreland.

Objection 6: How Can Hell Exist Alongside of Heaven?

This objection is simply too easy. I would point out that most of Moreland's answers come ipse dixit: because he says so. Even here, he must argue by assertion, rather than by logic. However, I will not take up any contrary positions on this point, because it is far too easy to explain how Hell and Heaven can logically coexist, even if Hell were the unjust infinite torture that the Bible says it to be. God could quite easily erase all knowledge of Hell from the minds of those in Heaven, and their joy would be complete. There's no more Biblical reason to believe this will be the case than there is to believe Moreland's explanation, but either would suffice and so this objection cannot stand. It is a shame that Strobel didn't give time to more serious objections.

Objection 7: Why Didn't God Create Only Those He Knew Would Follow Him?

In a fit of hubris, Moreland declares God incapable of creating only those people that would, according to His foreknowledge, follow Him and avoid Hell. However, the reasoning that leads him to this conclusion seems terribly unclear. He seems to be claiming that God wants us to be able to influence one another's hope of salvation. He describes a scenario where his parents' choice of city brings him into contact with different people, and the results are that he is saved while others are not in one case and others are saved while he is not in another case. In other words, Moreland is saying that God cannot have foreknowledge of who will be saved among the group until the parents have made up their mind whether to live in the first location or the second.

I cannot count the difficulties with this scenario. On the one hand, when answering the first objection, Moreland claims that God can have foreknowledge to ensure that no one who "dies prematurely" would have accepted God if given longer. Now, it appears, he is denying that same foreknowledge to God on the basis that God doesn't know where his parents will choose to live, which influence he will come in contact with, and therefore what his eventual choice will be.

It was quite acceptable that Moreland claimed God had foreknowledge of who would be saved when he was answering the first objection. It makes sense that an all-knowing entity would have foreknowledge of this kind. Now that Moreland wants to deprive God of this foreknowledge, I must call fowl. Omniscience, if the word is to have any meaning, requires ultimate foreknowledge. This would, in turn, easily enable God to choose only to create those who would follow Him.

This is not the only tack that Moreland takes in his effort to rob God of His omnipotence, and God's role in creation. He introduces us to the view of traducianism. He doesn't go into much depth explaining it, but we seems to accept a view that the human soul is created by the union of human gametes (sperm and egg). We all know that this is how a new human being comes to be: that the result of a sexual coupling often brings the human gametes together where they begin the process of dividing and specializing that produces a human being. Christian doctrine ordinarily assumes this to be accomplished by God's will, and assumes the creation of the soul to be a direct act of God accompanying the creation of a physical human by natural means. Moreland argues that without the union of that particular egg and that particular sperm, Moreland could never have been - and therefore God could not create only those who would follow Him, since He would have to create their grandparents as well. Moreland offers us no support for this view, and offers no explanation for his apparent view that God is restricted to traducianism as a means of creating new souls. Moreland seems to be implying that God lost his knack for creating by fiat after Adam and Eve.

Clearly Moreland's view is not consistent with the view in the Bible that God is all-powerful and capable of anything He chooses.

Furthermore, if you remember, Moreland believes God is capable of bringing about a mature state without the normal course of development. He believes (from objection #1), that children who die will be represented in their adult form in Hell. That means, God is capable of arriving at the end result without employing the process. He is capable of making an adult personality out of a child's without the process of maturation, and should also be capable of making those who will follow him without the process of historical genealogy.

Objection 8: Why Doesn't God Give People a Second Chance

Here again, philosopher Moreland cannot seem to keep his answers straight from one objection to the next. In defense of the previous objection, Moreland suggests that God could not have foreknowledge of the status of anyone's' salvation because people affect each other (in ways unpredictable to God - if his suggestion is to be meaningful). This is a laughable position to take, and it is no surprise, then that he turns around and presents its diametric opposite in answering this objection. Now, according to Moreland, God gives as many second chances as a person might possibly take advantage of while they remain on earth. He has the foreknowledge to know that no one who dies unsaved would have been saved had He given them a little while longer and another second chance. Be this as it may, it seems to miss the question. Even Strobel, seemingly willing to let any answer stand so long as it appears to defend his religion against a challenging objection, finds he must press the issue somewhat. I quote Strobel:

That only dealt with part of the question, however. "Wait a minute," I said. "Wouldn't death and the awareness of the presence or absence of God after you die be a very motivating thing for people?"

Wouldn't it, indeed? If the choice is between following God and desiring separation from God, as Moreland would have it, then wouldn't the best time for such a decision be when you are most fully aware of the options? It would appear that Strobel has a very good point.

Moreland's answer isn't quite as propitious. He compares sinfulness to a "bad habit" that becomes progressively hard to break as one continues in it, explaining again that a person who rejects God throughout life would never change her mind for a second chance afterward. This probabalistic thinking is inadequate in itself (I believe Moreland recognizes that), and is contradicted by the uptick in frequency of conversion experiences that accompanies old age and thoughts of death. Moreland may not recognize these "deathbed conversions" as being sincere and effective, however. He goes on to discuss the coercive effect that experiential knowledge of the absence (or presence) of God might have on human psychology.

He claims that full experiential knowledge of Heaven (fellowship with God) and Hell (separation from God) would have a coercive effect upon people and would invalidate their choice. They would no longer be choosing God, but would be choosing to avoid Hell. It seems a rather ridiculous explanation. After all, if direct knowledge of the consequences of one's choices is truly coercive, then the choice wasn't really free to begin with. The question would only be how well a person understood those consequences prior to making the choice. If God wanted us to choose Him without choosing to avoid the alternative to Him, then Jesus would never have mentioned that Hell was a place of torment. Is the faith of those who chose salvation because they believed the Bible's description of hell therefore invalidated because it was done "under threat" ? If not, then surely the real experience of Hell would also not invalidate salvation - merely because people were more acutely aware of what the threat consisted. And, if so, why does Jesus risk invalidating the salvation of people by making them indirectly aware of the experience of Hell?

Moreland continuously asks us to believe that God is honoring our free choices. Now he is asking us to believe that God wants us to make our choices with less experiential knowledge of their consequences than we could have. In effect, Moreland is suggesting that God doesn't want us to have a fully informed choice.

In fact, he goes even further:

I'll suggest one more thing. God maintains a delicate balance between keeping his existence sufficiently evident so people will know he's there and yet hiding his presence enough so that people who want to choose to ignore him can do it. This way, their choice of destiny is really free."

What he is doing here is answering an objection that wasn't asked, has little to do with Hell, and which must burn in the backs of the minds of believers everywhere. And, as usual, he is failing to properly answer it. The question is, why would God not make His existence (and presence) clear and undeniable? Why not make it impossible to rationally disbelieve in God?

There are only two clear answers to this question that stand up to all objections. Mine is this: if God exists, it is not very important to Him that people believe in His existence - at least not all of us, and at least not while we are on Earth. If it were important to him that all people on Earth believed in his existence, then He could easily accomplish that. It would then bring the great moral questions into sharp relief, by eliminating the difficult questions about facts. No one would waste much time questioning the basic facts of God's existence, His Love for us and His plan for salvation. The factual side would be exceedingly clear and it would be contingent upon us humans only to decide whether we wished to follow God, return his Love, and accept His plan for salvation.

The other answer to this question: one that can withstand most objections, but which may not stand up well to actual experience is that God is already doing for His own existence what J.P. Moreland says He mustn't do. Many Christians believe that God makes Himself undeniably manifest to each individual at some point in their life, and they then have the freedom to choose God or reject Him. The most difficult objection to this view is that so many people die atheist (or as members of some other religion that does not recognize the existence of Yahweh God). It is unthinkable to myself that so many people, having seen the undeniable proof that God would give (under this theory) and yet fail to believe. One would think that these atheists - if unwilling to accept salvation - would at least give up their atheism and declare themselves "non-Christians" who have seen and rejected God.

No matter which of these two answers you choose, neither of them allows us to answer the original objection about Hell. I can find no reason that it is not a valid one: a second chance after death would only enhance a person's ability to choose correctly, and could only decrease the chances that a person would choose wrongly because of insufficient information.

Objection 9: Isn't Reincarnation More Rational Than Hell?

Obviously, I don't think Reincarnation is one whit more rational than hell. There exists no evidence for it, and even though Moreland doesn't seem to understand the real reason, reincarnation is no more coherent than the Christian notion of the afterlife. I don't wish to take up the argument in favor of reincarnation, but I do want to look closely at Moreland's objection to reincarnation and his defense of hell. I believe that doing so will show a double standard on his part.

"I think the evidence for reincarnation is weak for several reasons," he said. "For example, it's incoherent. [...] Now, it's not essential to me that I weigh one hundred and sixty-five pounds. But it is essential to me that I'm a human. "If you were to say, 'J.P. Moreland is in the other room and he has lost five pounds,' most people would say, 'Good for him.' What if you said, 'J.P. Moreland is in the other room and guess what? He's an ice cube.' Most people would say, 'That can't be J.P. Moreland, because if there's one thing I know about him, it's that he's human. He's not an ice cube.' "Well, reincarnation says that I could come back as a dog, as an amoeba - heck, I don't know why I couldn't come back as an ice cube. If that's true, what's the difference between being J.P. Moreland and anything else? There's nothing essential to me. [bold added, italics are original]
First, a note about coherence. A system of ideas is coherent if it is consistent; that is, if it does not contradict itself. For instance, Euclid's laws of geometry are coherent because its axioms do not contradict one another, and they are consistent no matter what problem you apply them to. If parallel lines do not intersect for one set of proofs, then you can be sure there is not another set of proofs under the same system that relies on them intersecting.

When Moreland claims Hindu reincarnation is an incoherent idea, he is claiming that the Hindu's belief that a person may be re-incarnated as something other than a human being breaks the rules about what a person fundamentally is. According to Hindus, the essence of a person is an immaterial soul that survives death, not a physical body that is limited to the form of a human being. In denying the coherence of this view, Moreland (at least on the surface) appears to be denying the coherence of the view that a person's essence is an immaterial soul.

It is beyond the scope of this rebuttal to join the debate over whether the existence of an immaterial soul is a coherent view, but if we grant that the Hindus believe it, then there is nothing internally inconsistent in their beliefs. If one does not rule out the immaterial soul, then it makes perfect sense that this, rather than the physical form, is what returns when a person is re-incarnated. So, in order to sustain Moreland's objection to re-incarnation, he must rule out, a priori, the idea that the immaterial soul which survives death is what is truly essential to a person.

Needless to say, such an a priori judgment would have a profound impact on any theory of the afterlife. It would make any such theory... incoherent. That would include the theory of hell that he has spent the rest of the chapter defending.

Moreland uses a rhetorical trick in an attempt to save coherence for his own theory of the after-life, naming the essence of a person "human being". This is merely special pleading, because a "human being" is either, essentially, an immaterial soul which might survive death, or it is not. If one allows that it is, then one can certainly not rule out the Hindu's version of that very same notion.

Having read this far in Moreland's interview about Hell, it may come as a surprise to you that he considers "coherence" important in the first place. After all, it seems that he isn't willing to be bound by the rules of consistency in giving his answers to the objections Strobel raises throughout.

Whether Moreland is sincere when he suggests "coherence" as an important consideration or not, it is, in fact, a necessary component in a rational world view. If our viewpoints are not to be unreasonable, then they must maintain a certain degree of coherence. We cannot hold as true several contradictory notions and be considered reasonable. Because of this, a reasonable person is left to conclude that Hell is unjust - whether it be the Hell described in the Bible, or whether it be Moreland's version of Hell that is adapted from the Bible and blended with his own curious attempts at saving it from it's own injustice.

We have left to us many other options to consider. I would like to direct our attention to just two of them. The first is the conservative Christian view of Hell. Some conservative apologists will attempt to defend the Biblical Hell from charges of injustice, but they normally do not get very far. It was not without reason that Moreland chose a watered-down concept to defend. His difficulties are small compared to those who are attempting to defend the Biblical view. However, after failing to defend the Biblical view, Christian apologists will often posit that Hell is Just in the eyes of God, and that humans may just lack the ability to comprehend God's full justice - so that it only appears to us to be unjust. Most skeptics would argue against that view, pointing out that it leads to a kind of moral nihilism wherein humans cannot trust their own conscience. True as this view may be, my own argument is that we should employ our conscience when we evaluate the moral claims made by other humans. We cannot extend to the human authors of the Bible and to the preachers in their pulpits the same transcendent understanding that may allow God to see justice where we see only injustice. If a person preaches injustice, one does not excuse him because he claims that his idea is Godly. Instead we reject the notion that this person's idea is Godly because we see that it is unjust.

The other remaining option is to take Moreland's approach and extend it. If we may discard the Biblical notion of Hell as a torture chamber, then we can just as easily discard the Biblical notions of the afterlife altogether. We may persist (if we choose) in our religious notions of heaven, or other after-life experiences if we wish. If the notion of an afterlife seems realistic or attractive to us, then we may certainly hold a hope for it that does not include the injustice of hell.

However, if the whole problem is just too much for us, we are perfectly safe in deferring the question until it becomes relevant: after our death. If God is Just, and worth our faith and trust, then we certainly not need fear hell, because we know a Just God would not allow it.

For my part, it seems to me that our experience is rooted in the organic function of our brains, and that we need not worry ourselves about experiences that will come after that organic function has ceased: according to that theory, we will have none. In other words, I would argue that the organic human being is the essence of a person and that it does not survive death. I believe that there is positive evidence that this is the case, and I don't think that this position in any way detracts from the value of our lives. This rebuttal is not about my view, though. It is about others' views: their views of Hell, of the Bible, of Moreland's logic, and of the afterlife. The pertinent objections to the Biblical Hell and to Moreland's own conceptions of Hell have been correctly raised. I have shown that Strobel and Moreland have utterly failed to answer those objections.

I would like to acknowledge the influence Kyle Gerkin had on this rebuttal. His original rebuttal at Objection Sustained, Chapter 6, no doubt affected my thinking in many ways. Also, Paul Doland has written an effective rebuttal here:
Critique of Lee Strobel's Case for Faith. While I have tried to attribute any ideas that I borrowed from either review directly in the text of this rebuttal, it is fair to think that they both indirectly influenced my own thinking and helped guide me toward the viewpoints I have expressed here in my own voice.

Posted by smijer at March 25, 2005 07:03 PM

"He also argues (ispe dixit) that no child will die and go to hell who would have been saved had she lived long enough. I do not know for sure what he means by this. I do not know if he means that some children will be spared hell even though they were unsaved when they died, or whether he means that all children who die unsaved will be in hell because they never would have accepted salvation if they had lived longer."

As I understand it (based on how you formulated his assertion, I do not have a copy of the book/chapter in question), Moreland is assuming predestination here. Predestination posits that those who will be saved have already been chosen (predestined) by god a long time ago, and so we all have our fates sealed by this god even before we were born. Let's say Ruth is predestined to be saved by the abundant grace of god, but before she could accept their lord Jesus as her savior, she gets mauled by a grizzly bear (it happens). What Moreland is saying is that Ruth will not go to hell, since god had already reserved her a seat in paradise, regardless of whether or not she had accepted Jesus.

The flipside of this assertion is just as you describe it. Those who aren't predestined to be saved will be transformed to adults and be cast off to a place of suffering, of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

univar.jpg Posted by Danny Boy on March 27, 2005 11:09 AM
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great article, as a Christian man I have never been able to accept hell as a concept and I just chalked it up to the fears and control of less modern men.

I believe a just God would not allow anyone to enter a place some Christians accept as real.

univar.jpg Posted by DC on April 1, 2005 03:24 PM
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