Tue | Aug 22, 2017

One hell of a problem

Published:Sunday | October 4, 2015 | 10:00 AMIan Boyne, Contributor

Michael Abrahams, Patrick White, Ethon Lowe, and other Jamaican non-theists are not touching some of the biggest philosophical and theological problems for Christians.

Abrahams has exercised himself a lot about the alleged atrocities attributed to God in the Old Testament and the moral dilemmas that many Old Testament passages pose to notions of mercy or even justice. Recently, he created quite a stir with a series of articles questioning God's mercy, morality and sense of justice. But that's all small stuff compared to some more troubling matters that the Church has taught in the name of God.

For example, the doctrine of an everlasting, never-quenching hell. Have you ever really thought about how obnoxious and abominable that doctrine really is? That a God of love, mercy or even justice could consign people to burn forever in conscious torment?

If you read sermons of such prominent early preachers like Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards and see how explicitly and shamelessly they describe hell and the torment of its fire, you would shudder.

Calvinists, particularly, have no qualms about teaching the doctrine of an ever-burning hell. In fact, they would be quite offended at my temerity in questioning this "clear biblical truth".

For the past week, I have been here in Ocho Rios celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, which, in my theological tradition, symbolically foreshadows a time when all nations will finally come to know God and not be confused about what is truth. According to my Armstrongite religious tradition, it is God's responsibility to open people's minds to the truth. People can't find God. God has to find them.

Evangelical Christianity teaches that this is the only period for salvation. If you don't get on to the Christian bandwagon now, you are lost forever. You will burn in hell. Is it fair that billions of people who have never heard about Christ and the Christian Gospel will burn in hell through no fault of their own? How can the churches teach that Jesus is the only way to God; that only through the Christian religion can people be saved? Yet there are billions of people living right now who have never heard about Jesus or ever read a Bible and will die without ever hearing about the "only name under heaven whereby men must be saved".

 

God's mercy

Michael Abrahams does not even have to raise the question of God's mercy. He can rightly and justly raise the question of God's justice or fairness. It cannot be fair for God to condemn people for what they did not know. Evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists can't eat their cake and have it. They can't teach that general revelation is not enough, that natural theology is insufficient to impart salvific truth and then say somehow people will be judged by how well they lived up to natural revelation.

They can't insist that non-Christian religions are not salvific, that people are only saved through Christ and the acceptance of the Christian Gospel and that it is not your works or your sincerity that saves you, and then they say God can "wink at" you and save you when you die without knowing His son Jesus. Make up your minds!

They must make up their minds. Either God will save people according to the knowledge they have, irrespective of the religion they practise, or that He only saves through Christ and, therefore, Christ must give everyone an opportunity to know him. This is known in philosophy as the hiddenness problem and it poses a major problem to orthodox Christianity and Evangelical theology. (Two brilliant atheists, John Schellenberg and Theodore Drange, have written profound books on this problem).

Why do so many not know about the Christian God if He wants to have a relationship with everyone and He does so exclusively through the Christian religion?

And think of this: There are multiple millions who have died without hearing about Jesus. And are they burning in hell, suffering everlasting torment and torture for what they did not know? How can that be just, let alone loving? Remember, according to orthodox Christian theology, people are born with a sinful nature. They are sinful and rebellious by nature. They can't help themselves, according to Calvinist theology. So we are born in sin and shaped in iniquity for something our parents did thousands of years ago and we are going to be punished for all eternity for this nature which we did not choose?

Christians invoke the matter of free will. They say, as C.S. Lewis said famously, that hell is locked from the inside. But how can that be? If there is the "bondage of the will", as Luther taught, and if sinful man cannot have free will and some are destined to be saved and others destined to be lost (as Calvin taught), how is that so? Calvinism is particularly odious (Baptists are largely Calvinists.) I find Calvinism so intellectually revolting and repulsive.

According to one version of Calvinism, God actually planned the fall of man - even before man's creation. God willed that some would fall and some saved to demonstrate His sovereignty and graciousness. This is an odious view of God. Is this a God worthy of worship? A God who planned the Fall then sends humans to hell to suffer for all eternity because of that fall?

Abrahams and Patrick White are playing in the little league by raising issues of the Bible's authenticity. More troubling are the things 21st century Christians are still saying about God, not what "Bronze Age people" wrote in the Old Testament, to quote White and Hilaire Sobers.

Some Christians like to shoot back by saying how dare us puny, finite, sinful man haul God before the bar of our feeble reason! How arrogant and bare-faced of us! But it is these same Christians who proclaim that God is love and God is just. If we can't judge anything about God and can't say anything about His justice or morality, how can we pronounce on His goodness and love?

 

Burning forever in hell

Michael Abrahams and other non-theists obsess about the justice or mercy of God killing Canaanites and other nations and about God's killing children for they laughed at one of his servants, but that pales into insignificance compared to their going on to burn forever in hell.

If God destroyed those persons to bring them back to life again and give them their first opportunity to salvation; if there is an opportunity for post-mortem salvation, then that temporary loss of life and suffering could be justified. If those millions killed in the Old Testament are brought back to life and offered eternal life, then that would certainly compensate for any suffering endured in this brief life. That would be eschatological justification for God's action. Our veil of tears would be worth it.

Think of the millions of sincere, devout Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Bahais, Muslims, Sufis, and African traditional worshippers. Read about their extraordinary commitment and dedication to the gods they know. They did not knowingly choose darkness. There were just "born in the wrong place". The true God would then consign them to an ever-burning hell just because they did not know Himand the Bible itself says that man can't by searching find God? This concept of an everlasting hell brings into sharp question the justice of God.

Don't tell me that because the sin is against an infinite God that is why it deserves infinite punishment. Christ has already satisfied that demand by dying for all mankind. That's what penal substitution is about.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.