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Suppose on the one hand that we have a mad serial killer who wishes to strap me down and slowly pull out all of my fingernails with a pair of pliers; not because it pleases him per se, but because he feels that I deserve it and that, given my beliefs and lifestyle, this is the best and fairest thing that can possibly happen.

Suppose on the other hand that we have a Bible-believing Christian, who subscribes to the fairly orthodox beliefs that there is a God; that this God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, and created the Universe; that there is a Hell of unending torment; and that people who do not believe in this God will go to this Hell.

It follows, therefore, that said Christian—and while many, many Christians are not like that, we can surely agree that those beliefs are not mere hypotheticals—is rather like the serial killer in that he feels that the best and fairest thing that can possibly happen to me, qua that which will in fact happen in a world created and governed by a just, loving, and omnipotent God, is that I will suffer torment.

The two are alike—the mad serial killer and the Bible-believing Christian—in that both believe that, given my beliefs and lifestyle, it is good and just that I should suffer torment. The serial killer, though, only thinks that I deserve the torment of having my fingernails pulled out with pliers. The Christian is not so easily satisfied: To him, the just and good torment is infinite both in magnitude and duration.

Now, the above all sounds rather slanderous, but I hasten to point out that I said in the title that this is the one way in which such Christians are logically worse than serial killers. Apart from a few rare hate-mongers like the Phelpses (and similarly a few truly vile mullahs on the Islamic side of the fence, I suppose), I expect that even Christians who subscribe to all the qualifying beliefs above don’t actually wish an infinitude of torment on me. Even apart from the obvious evasion of the issue (I want you to believe!), I think that the great majority of Christians, if they really sat down and envisioned an unbeliever like yours truly (or if you like, someone like Richard Dawkins, Jodie Foster, Bertrand Russell, Sir David Attenborough, or Isaac Asimov, to draw on a few walks of life) writhing in horrific agony for unending eons, they would feel uncomfortable with the idea. I am not claiming that Christians are in the main full of such profound malice. All I claim is that if you accept as premises that

  1. there exists a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, and absolutely fair, who created and ordered the Universe;
  2. there exists a Hell where torment is infinite and unending¹;
  3. the Universe is so ordered that if you do not believe in aforementioned God, you will forever suffer in aforementioned Hell²;

then you logically arrive at the conclusion that

  • ∴ In a Universe designed, created, and ordered in the fairest and most loving way possible, the consequence for unbelief is infinite suffering.
  • ∴ Infinite suffering is a just consequence for unbelief.

Ergo, either there’s a flaw in my reasoning (please point it out); or a Christian who is also a good person must reject at least one of the premises; or they must refuse or fail to follow those premises to their conclusion. Personally, I think that the latter is most likely—as you may know, I believe that the device that allows people to hold religious beliefs is compartmentalised thinking, where these beliefs are not held to the same standards of scrutiny, reason, coherence, and evidence as are beliefs in other walks of life. That doesn’t speak too highly of the matter, though, and doesn’t resolve the dilemma of what such a believer should make of it if confronted.

Another common resolution is of course to simply reject the premise that unbelief merits Hell, or to reject the Hell doctrine altogether. That’s a better moral solution, though I’m not sure how it helps intellectually. In rejecting some of the doctrines of the Bible, after all, you thereby reject the Bible itself as an authorative document, meaning that its teachings are subject to external reason and evidence to ascertain what’s true and what’s not; whereby you’re left rejecting the reliability of the only source for the whole God-and-Jesus bit. But more on that at some other time.


¹ Mark 9:46: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

² John 3:18: He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. For some reason, liberal Christians aren’t nearly as fond of citing this as the earlier 3:16 bit about how God so loved the world.

Date: 2012-01-30 02:17 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] vaptor.myopenid.com
I happened upon your blog after doing a web search for "vacuous argument." I enjoyed reading Asimov's essay. For kicks, I took a look at some of your other entries, and came across this one. This topic fascinates me—everyone has an opinion, and nobody knows for sure; it's the ultimate exercise of human cognition.

Before sharing my views, let me first say that I do believe in God. My faith in God is important to me, but it is not a "safety-blanket," to which I cling out of fear. I don't consider logic or science threatening in any way, and I'm always willing to listen to other people's opinions on this subject—as long as they're thoughtful and sincere. I am also very passionate about logic. In my view, logic is both beautiful and powerful—art and science. It is mankind's greatest tool. Like all tools, however, it can be misused—and it frequently is. I'm increasingly intrigued in the merits of the Bible itself. I'm inclined to believe that it is the perfected Word of God, but I'm honestly not sure, and I'm certainly not an authority on it—having only just begun to read it for the first time ever, to study it and try to understand it.

As a believer in both God and logic, I find it both amusing and mildly-irritating that so many non-believers tend to frame these discussions as "faith vs. logic and reason." It's a deeply flawed framework, in my view. For starters, logic is both a participant (i.e. the counter-argument to "faith") and the judge (i.e. the very foundation of rhetorical debate). That sets the stage for a spurious debate—one in which the proponent of faith is implicitly required to construct a logical argument which triumphs over logic itself. Furthermore, it's sets up a false choice by presupposing a reality which omits the most probable outcome (in my view): logic and God. God and logic are not oppositional forces to many people—including, for example, Albert Einstein, who had one of the most brilliant, logical minds ever. As to your entry…


— Your Analogy —

The function of an analogy is to simplify an idea or concept to make it easier for the reader to weigh the merits of the argument being presented. Your analogy is very odd—and an odd analogy is a flawed analogy. (Hey, that's got a nice ring to it!) I'm not bothered by the shocking comparison, but I am terribly puzzled by it.

You describe a man who removes your fingernails out of a sense of duty; his actions are described as purposeful, and based explicitly on his sense of right and wrong rather than enjoyment or emotion. He's not mad (emotionally or logically) and he doesn't kill you. In what way is this person a "mad serial killer"? Leaving that question aside, for what reason does he feel that you deserve to have your fingernails removed, and for what reason does he feel duty-bound to be the one to do it? These questions aren't trivial in the context of an argument purporting to prove, logically, the inferiority of an entire group of people to the archetype that this man embodies.

I don't want to seem unkind, but your serial killer analogy is like a never-ending cavalcade of failures… 1. Its oddness increases the task of understanding your argument, 2. it is utterly-nonsensical, and 3. even if it made sense, it would nevertheless be a terrible choice to make the argument you're attempting to make. Serial killers are most commonly understood by three traits: a disinterest or failure to relate to "goodness," disinterest or failure to consider what their victims "deserve," and lack of satisfaction after inflicting their wrath (hence, "serial"). In your analogy, you reverse each of these traits without explanation, describing a "killer" who doesn't kill, who operates out of a rational sense of obligation to goodness and justice, and who is thereafter satisfied. None of it appears to make any sense! (Please forgive me if my critique is too harsh; I mean it in good humor.)

It did, however, entice me to read your entry—so I guess it wasn't all for naught.


— Christianity —

If a person does not believe in the things you stated (i.e. an omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent God; Hell, etc.,) then by what measure would he or could he be called a Christian, and upon what are you basing your assertion that "many, many Christians are not like that?" Read the Nicene Creed. It's short, it's accepted by all three major branches of Christendom, and it outlines the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. (Note: Hell isn't mentioned explicitly, but it's clearly implied.)

Your assertion that Christians perceive torment as a "good and just" fate for unbelievers is highly erroneous—both dogmatically and in reality. "Justice" and "goodness" are determined by God alone. I don't know any Christian—or non-Christian, for that matter—who wishes eternal torment on anyone or who proclaims any personal authority in matters of divine justice. The notion that unbelievers go to Hell comes from the Bible—which comes (ostensibly) from God. It's a disturbing notion—I agree—but it has absolutely nothing to do with the wishes, desires or approval of Christians.

Speaking as a Christian—I think the "best" thing that can happen to you is salvation—to learn and know God and to be rewarded with eternal life in heaven. As for the "fairest" thing—Christians do not concern themselves with matters of fairness ("judge not, lest ye be judged"). In fact, a rejection of fairness is fundamental to Christian belief; Jesus Christ (who lived without sin) paid the price for all our sins—even nonbelievers—when he was nailed to a piece of wood and suffered an agonizing and humiliating death. Even the lowliest of sinners may be redeemed through Christ's love and sacrifice. That doesn't sound fair to me—it sounds like a pretty lopsided deal (in our favor).


— Your Logical Argument —

With regard to the merits of your logic: Your first conclusion merely restates your third premise (that eternal suffering in hell is the consequence of unbelief). Your second conclusion also restates that premise, but with a minor distinction—the word, "just." However, since you have not provided any rationale to support the conclusion that suffering is "just," your argument is logically invalid. Please correct me if I'm mistaken, but I think this may be what you were trying to say:

Premises:
A. God is unerringly just; B. Hell is a place of eternal torment and suffering; C. All unbelievers go to Hell;

Conclusion(s):
(-D-) All unbelievers will experience eternal torment and suffering; and (-E-) their fate is just

Notation:
∵ C ∵ B ∴ D
∵ A ∵ D∴ E


— Concluding Thoughts —

You seem to be grappling with two questions: 1. Do Christians think that you're destined for Hell because you don't believe in God?" and 2. Do Christians view that as a just and good consequence for my unbelief?" I'll speak for myself, and as a Christian: I don't know you or your lifestyle—but I can assure you that I don't want you to suffer torment, and I don't pretend for a second that I'm in a position to determine what you do or don't "deserve." I've got plenty of my own sins to worry about before I can start worrying about yours. Frankly, I hope for complete unfairness—with everyone given a chance for salvation "after the closing bell," so-to-speak. Of all the troubling concepts in the Christian faith—this question troubles me the most, and it troubles me deeply. I believe that Hell exists, and I have many dear friends who are unbelievers. I hope to God that they don't go to Hell—and if they do go there, that wouldn't seem very "just" to me. However, my interpretation of "just," is irrelevant. God makes the rules, and God enforces the rules. I do my best to live within them, and fall short all the time.

Here's how I grapple with this issue logically: humility is the foundation of a faithful relationship with God; and with humility, I accept that there is a great deal about God which I do not know, understand or even have the ability to comprehend. Two things I do know and understand about God are His mercy and His love, which I have undeservedly experienced in many unexpected ways. Based on those experiences, I hold out hope that God has a plan for saving unbelievers before it's too late. I don't know His intentions, I just pray for a good outcome.

As an unbeliever, I'm impressed that you went to the trouble of writing what you did. Most unbelievers I know simply assume their rightness instead of opening their thought process up to review and critique. I'd encourage you to keep asking questions—I did (and do) the same thing. I believe that God prefers an active skeptic to a passive "believer," and that He never requires the suspension of logic or reason. To borrow a line from Asimov's essay—our theory need only be considered incomplete.

Finally, a quick word on the Bible. I can't honestly say if it's the Word of God or not. I'm tragically unaware of the vast majority of its contents. I will say this, however—the more I learn about it (and from it), the more I respect and admire it, and the more inclined I am to believe that it is, in fact, Divine. Certainly, it is a masterpiece, filled with history, wisdom, and lots of intriguing stuff. Its structural organization—which is beautifully-logical—is fascinating to me. (If you're curious, search for the Bible Wheel). Gematria seems to reveal some interesting things as well.

A lot of self-styled intellectuals attribute their rejection of God to logic and reason, when in fact, they've spent almost no time thinking about these issues themselves. A lot of "the faithful," go through the motions of religious practice, but make little effort to understand God personally. Intellectual laziness is not wisdom—and religion is not faith. Don't fall into either of those traps. Most importantly, understand that you can have a relationship with God any time you want—and you don't need a Bible, a church or a religion.

Cheers,

-Jason

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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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