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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.

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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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