Recently, I read a transcript of a debate on the resurrection in which the conservative Christian debater Michael Horner said the following: “God doesn’t send anyone to hell. . . . We each have the number one choice to make in our life, and that is, do we want to commence a relationship with the Creator and submit to Him as a creature to a Creator, or do we say, ‘No thanks. I don’t want that relationship.’ Now if we say, ‘No, thanks’ to God, what can God do? Apart from, if you’ll excuse the expression, spiritually raping us, he just has to give us our free choice to be apart, separate from Him.”
The rejoinder that God doesn’t send anyone to hell is frequently heard from conservative Christians concerned to parry the charge that hell’s extreme severity, eternal duration, and questionable conditions for sentencing compromise God’s omnibenevolence and, therefore, his existence. The idea is that if God doesn’t send anyone to hell, then these criticisms are blunted.
In this article I’ll argue that according to the conservative Christian doctrine of hell (CCDH), God does send even non-culpable people to hell, thereby causing them harm and resulting in his “fouling out,” as it were. I’ll also show that Horner errs in two of his other claims: “We each have a number one choice to make in our life . . . to commence a relationship with the Creator” or not, and “Apart from . . . spiritually raping us, he just has to give us our free choice to be apart, separate from Him.”
Hell Hath No Fury Like a Deity Scorned
Horner’s position (CCDH) is that hell is populated by people who, in effect, chose to be there. Not only is God not responsible for their being there, he offers all people an invitation to join him in a blissful relationship in heaven. Yet some turn it down. Consequently, God lets them have the fate they choose—that is, hell.
But hold on. There are at least two nettlesome problems here.
An Offer One Can’t Refuse
First, recall that Horner claimed that “Apart from . . . spiritually raping us, he just has to give us our free choice to be apart, separate from Him” (emphasis added). How free would a choice like that be? After all, in Horner’s worldview people encounter a totally powerful spiritual Being against whom (like the Borg) all resistance is futile. This Being demands that people either do what the Being wants or end up being tortured forever. Is that not a form of “spiritual rape”? It seems scarcely different from a situation of physical rape where one encounters a very powerful rapist who demands that his victim accede to a sexual relationship in return for substantial gifts or instead be tortured to death. There is simply too much “stick” in both situations for either to be considered an instance of free choice.
Original Sin to the Rescue
Second, it doesn’t follow that simply refusing to enter into a relationship with someone, even God, is tantamount to choosing to be tortured forever. This seems to be a false dilemma. One would think there might be other alternatives—especially to the “be tortured forever” part. What rescues CCDH from the false dilemma charge is the claim that all humans inherit the guilt of Adam and Eve’s original sin, for which the ultimate penalty is hell. Once that’s factored in, hell becomes the default postmortem fate for all humans, escapable only by accepting God’s invitation to be in a relationship with him. It’s God saying to those invitation-rejecters in hell: “Hey, don’t blame me. It’s all about your original sin.”
Don’t Blame Me Either. I Wasn’t Even There!
One unresolvable problem with this original sin ex machina tactic is the non-cogency of the doctrine of original sin itself. For instance, isn’t it obvious that it makes no sense to claim that people inherit guilt for a sin in which they had no involvement? Even in conservative Christianity, freighted with implausibilities, obscurities, and non sequiturs as it is, the doctrine of inherited guilt stands out for—well, what else can one say?— its sheer absurdity. (Oops! There goes my “friendly atheist” cred.) If rejecters of God’s invitation end up in hell solely because of their rejection, then, absent a defensible doctrine of original sin, it must be that God sent them there.
But Wait, There’s More!
According to CCDH, not only does the original-sin-fueled hell-as-default underwrite perdition for those who reject God’s relationship invitation, it also does the same for those who don’t accept his offer. The trouble here is that there are plenty of perfectly good, non-blameworthy reasons that people have not accepted the invitation, as the following examples illustrate.
Excuse Me, Mr. Beelzebub, but I Think There’s Been Some Mistake
- Some people didn’t accept the invitation because they died before it was ever sent out—that is, before Jesus inaugurated Christianity in the first century. No culpa here for Socrates et al.
- Others, such as the pre-borns, infants, and young children who died as such or those who lived with significant mental impairment, didn’t accept the invite either, because they never developed sufficient cognitive faculties to understand it. Unless Christianity discovers some long-lost doctrine of karma that shows that they deserved their bad fortunes, these folks too should skate away free from the charge of “invitation not accepted.”
- Still others didn’t accept God’s invitation because they lived in a part of the world where delivery of the invitations was spotty or nonexistent. For instance, there weren’t a whole lot of Christian messengers in seventh-century America or Australia. Here, as with number one, ignorance of the law is a defense.
By the way, notice that the people described in numbers one through three show that Horner erred when he claimed that “We each have a number one choice to make in our life … to commence a relationship with the Creator” or not to do so. The folks in those examples were never in a position to make such a choice.
- Some may have found their mailboxes stuffed with tempting postmortem-fate invitations from all sorts of religions, including multiple versions of Christianity. Many of these people didn’t accept God’s invitation because they couldn’t figure out which was junk mail and which was not. This sort of frustration may be at least partially responsible for fueling the growth in the number of people who describe themselves in terms such as “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” Nice try but no cigar. For conservative Christians the rules are clear: no shirt, no shoes, no accepted invitation—no hell-cancelling service. OK, maybe not the first two.
- Finally, after rational deliberation during their lifetimes, some individuals concluded that the invitation was bogus because there was insufficient evidence to show that any supernatural inviter exists or that there really had been any invitations extended. Even if these people were mistaken, that would at worst constitute only an error in reasoning, not an exercise in iniquity punishable by eternal torture.
In sum, under CCDH, people in scenarios one through five would end up in hell because they didn’t accept God’s invitation to annul the hell-causing legacy of original sin. As argued above, such a hell sentence would be manifestly unfair and immoral.
Nevertheless, for CCDH the Moral of the Story Is . . .
To avoid hell, the following are strongly recommended: if God asks you to hang with him, do it! He doesn’t handle rejection well. Choose the time and place of your handicap-less birth very carefully. (Hint: any times where next year’s date is smaller than this year’s or places where people ask “Who of Nazareth?” will not work.) And, most important, under no circumstances ever extract your head from the sand of faith.