The Argumentum ad Smarterum

28 Responses

  1. JAD says:

    I think the atheists who troll Christian and Christian friendly websites are people who have not fully come to terms with their own atheism. Atheism is not a belief; it’s unbelief. If it is unbelief, and therefore not a belief, why would anyone want to push it on anyone else? Why would you want to argue with anyone about their beliefs? Afterall, if, in the grand scheme of things, there is no ultimate meaning and purpose, what does it matter what anyone else believes?

    In other words, their is nothing in atheism for an honest atheist to be arrogant about.

  2. G. Rodrigues says:

    Personally, my favourite type of argument is the Argumentum ad baculum. With a salt-loaded shotgun.

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    To the commenter who referred to a “sense of humor,” I call you out as a liar, misrepresenting yourself completely. You seemed to have learned from the ways of your mentor.

    I also call you out for your argumentum ad middle-school-potty-humorism, which apparently you thought was worth drawing attention to. When I criticized the argumentum ad smarterum I intended to portray it as a low form of disputation. But there are still less intelligent ways than that.

    There was no need for anyone else to have to face the inanity you sent this way.

  4. Crude says:

    Tom,

    There’s a good chance your censored commenter is the latest name for TruthOverFaith. And if so, one probable reason for his latest name change is due to the attention he got over at Vox Day’s site. Have a look at Rope for the Troll there, which I think was one of the most effective responses to his antics.

  5. Sault says:

    If it is unbelief, and therefore not a belief, why would anyone want to push it on anyone else? Why would you want to argue with anyone about their beliefs?

    Because there is such a wide spread of individuals who ascribe to the general label “atheist” (just as there are many varied beliefs within the moniker “theist”), I can at least speak for myself when I say that I am interested in those that think. If I can improve myself and my reasoning abilities, and perhaps give others the chance to see their (and my) viewpoints in a different way, then it seems to me that we all win.

    Of course, that requires reason and a degree of polite discourse. And (ha ha ha) we all know that happens on a regular basis, right?

    I’ve found in recent years that I enjoy being wrong. It doesn’t bother me – it seems to be life-affirming rather than destructive. It’s a surprise to be wrong, and I think that surprise is a quality of life that can be undervalued.

    While I’d like to think that in general I am reasonably more intelligent than most people, that certainly is not always true… and it can be a rather ugly surprise when reality intrudes upon my fantasies. Gone are the times when I felt the casual arrogance of the “argumentum ad smarterum”. Adopting a humbler demeanor benefits us all, methinks….

    …but how bad is it that part of me would still love to taunt all of you with “Ha ha, yer wrong because yer dumb!” =)

  6. JAD says:

    Sault wrote:

    “If I can improve myself and my reasoning abilities, and perhaps give others the chance to see their (and my) viewpoints in a different way, then it seems to me that we all win.”

    It almost sounds like you are wagering. That’s an advantage that atheists have over Christians. They can wager on their world view; Christains have to actually believe theirs.

    Consider a form of Pascal’s wager: If the Christian God exists then he offers eternal life (John 3:16) to those who believe in him. If I could wager on the existence God it would better to wager that he exists rather than he doesn’t exist, because if he does exist I will be rewarded with eternal life. If, on the other hand, he doesn’t exist then I have lost nothing by wagering that he does exist, because when I die I will simply go out of existence facing neither reward or punishment. So, to hedge my bets, it is better to wager that God exists.

    Of course, the problem with Pascal’s wager, at least as I see it, is that God doesn’t accept wagers. In other words, a belief is not the same as a wager, and God’s offer of forgiveness of sin and eternal life is conditioned upon sincere belief not a wager. So, from a Christian perspective the wager argument doesn’t work.

    However, the wager could be applied to atheism, because atheism is nothing more than unbelief, no belief is required to be an atheist. In other words,they are free to wager about their non-belief. But why would I wager on atheism? What does non-belief in God, forgiveness of sin and eternal life really have to offer me?

  7. Sault says:

    I don’t know where the whole concept of a wager came from. My comment had more to do with how a frank and reasonable dialogue and exchange of thoughts and ideas can enrich all parties involved.

    Pascal’s Wager isn’t significant, to me. One on hand, the Christian God and heaven, on the other, a single lifetime on a speck of dust. Except that it’s not just a choice between the two (fallacy of false bifurcation), it’s a choice between many different faiths, beliefs, philosophies, ideologies, etc.

    It’s all a choice – what to believe, whether to gamble, even whether to have faith or not. It’s all a choice, the only difference is the scope.

    Should I choose between these disparate faiths based on (as Pascal’s Wager implies) the consequences of my belief/disbelief? Well, many other religions have far harsher penalties and far sweeter rewards. I’m somewhat partial to the Pastafarian beer volcano and stripper factory. But man, I better choose correctly out of the thousands of different religions and their denominations, because if I get the wrong one, I’ll suffer for it!

    The Wager now becomes a choice between dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of different faiths, with the one surety that if the wrong choice is made, that our eternal soul will be punished.

    Yeah, I’m not a gambling man. No thanks!

    The nail in the coffin for me is that if what you believe is “the truth”, then that means that billions of people have lived their whole lives never having heard of it. Is that fair?

    I’m a big believer (so to speak, ha ha) in an informed decision. We cannot make good decisions in the absence of knowledge – and that is exactly what has happened to every human being who lived before the Hebrews, or in different countries or different continents. What of the billions who never had a chance to hear “the truth”?

    But I do digress a bit. I want to make that informed decision… but I can only do so with information and the skills to process it.

    And this brings me back to the point of the comment. I’m here to learn. I sometimes even meet people who feel the same way. I do this through dialogue and meaningful conversation and an exchange of information….

    …NOT by engaging in wagers and gambles!

  8. JAD says:

    As I see it whether you like it or not you are wagering. In my opinion, without faith that is all an honest atheist can do.

    I said above that belief in the Christian faith is not something that one can wager on, because God doesn’t accept wagers. However, atheism is something one could wager on.

    Apparently you missed my point: I asked above, “But why would I wager on atheism? What does non-belief in God, forgiveness of sin and eternal life really have to offer me?” In other words, I am the one who wants to consider the wager. I am asking you to help me think through it.

    Am I seriously considering abandoning my belief in a Christian God? Not really. This is just something that I am curious about. Like you I am here to learn.

  9. Sault says:

    What does non-belief in God, forgiveness of sin and eternal life really have to offer me?

    This statement deserves a detailed response, although I will attempt to be brief – it is a topic upon which I could easily wax philosophical.

    I’ll stick to one topic – the burden of sin and the unreasonable prospect of eternal reward or punishment based on our mortal actions.

    Is it reasonable to condemn the innocent?

    Since the time of Augustine, the Christian belief of Original sin meant that children are born in a state of sin and therefore cannot go to heaven. By Augustine’s view this means that unbaptized children go to hell.

    Is it reasonable to condemn those who even think about immoral acts, even if they never act upon them?

    Jesus thought so. I mean… really? Can you imagine the outrage if such a system was implemented here on earth?

    Is it reasonable to condemn those who do not accept, or refuse to accept, Jesus as their Lord and Savior?

    Well, Jesus did say that the only way to heaven was through him. So even if a person is moral and good and reasonable and kind and virtuous, but doesn’t think it important to commit their life to Jesus, then they go to hell.

    Is it reasonable to not provide a crystal-clear reference on how to avoid condemnation?

    Scripture itself is not 100% clear on the topic of how to go get to heaven, ie avoid condemnation. It’s the faith vs works debate, and there is no clear answer, for equally devout Christians believe differently.

    Is it reasonable to condemn those who act in His name, perform miracles in His name, etc?

    Mark 7:20 vs Mark 7:22 … by their fruit you’ll know them vs even those who perform miracles may still be condemned. Perhaps this isn’t as big a deal to you as it is to me… but how am I, as an unbeliever, supposed to differentiate between a Christian who doesn’t do miracles and a Christian who does, and judge which one is a true follower of Jesus?

    Is it reasonable to condemn someone to eternal punishment for their earthly acts?

    I have a three-year old daughter. I discipline her, but I know that there is such a thing as excessive punishment – disciplinary actions are consequences, but they exist to illustrate the consequences of one’s actions. I use them judiciously to discourage bad behavior, and use positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior. What usefulness is eternal punishment from this perspective?

    Is it reasonable to use condemnation and the threat of eternal punishment as a deterrent?

    Deterrents aren’t all that effective for most crimes… and really, that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

    With disbelief, you must focus on the earthly consequences of your actions, and are removed from the burden of attempting to avoid an unreasonable condemnation and the resulting eternal punishment.

    It doesn’t mean that we are absolved of all responsibility – there are consequences for all actions, and it is our responsibility to hold ourselves and each other accountable for them.

    The unreasonable condemnation of hell is a wager against Christianity and for disbelief.

    Hopefully this can provide a basis from which you can understand why I don’t choose Christianity… why I “wager” as you seem to put it.

  10. JAD says:

    Sault wrote:

    Is it reasonable to condemn the innocent?

    Since the time of Augustine, the Christian belief of Original sin meant that children are born in a state of sin and therefore cannot go to heaven. By Augustine’s view this means that unbaptized children go to hell.

    REPLY: If that is Augustine’s view of Original sin, I don’t agree with it . Can you give me a Biblical passage that says that unbaptized children go to hell? I don’t know of any.

    Is it reasonable to condemn those who even think about immoral acts, even if they never act upon them?

    Jesus thought so. I mean… really? Can you imagine the outrage if such a system was implemented here on earth?

    REPLY: Immoral behavior begins with our intentions. Even our laws recognize this distinction. For example, if you kill someone accidently it’s a tragedy; but if you kill someone intentionally it’s murder. I think that one of the things Jesus was trying to teach us in those passages.

    On the other hand, there is no sin that God is not willing to forgive. No one gets to heaven except by the grace of God.

    Is it reasonable to condemn those who do not accept, or refuse to accept, Jesus as their Lord and Savior?

    Well, Jesus did say that the only way to heaven was through him. So even if a person is moral and good and reasonable and kind and virtuous, but doesn’t think it important to commit their life to Jesus, then they go to hell.

    REPLY: First, of all, it is God who justifies (Romans 8:33). We cannot justify ourselves. Secondly, because God respects our free will he gives us a choice. I think C. S. Lewis stated it the best when he writes that “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”

    Is it reasonable to not provide a crystal-clear reference on how to avoid condemnation?

    Scripture itself is not 100% clear on the topic of how to go get to heaven, ie avoid condemnation. It’s the faith vs works debate, and there is no clear answer, for equally devout Christians believe differently.

    REPLY: I think it is clear: (Ephesians 2: 8-9, Titus 3:5).

    There is also the story of the pentitent thief that was crucifed along with Jesus.

    39 Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” 40 The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? 41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23: 39-43)

    The thief, who was condemned to die, didn’t have the opportunity to live a life of good works. He was left with just repentence and faith.

    Is it reasonable to condemn those who act in His name, perform miracles in His name, etc?

    Mark 7:20 vs Mark 7:22 … by their fruit you’ll know them vs even those who perform miracles may still be condemned. Perhaps this isn’t as big a deal to you as it is to me… but how am I, as an unbeliever, supposed to differentiate between a Christian who doesn’t do miracles and a Christian who does, and judge which one is a true follower of Jesus?

    REPLY: Jesus was not tolerant of religious hypocrisy.

    Is it reasonable to condemn someone to eternal punishment for their earthly acts?

    I have a three-year old daughter. I discipline her, but I know that there is such a thing as excessive punishment – disciplinary actions are consequences, but they exist to illustrate the consequences of one’s actions. I use them judiciously to discourage bad behavior, and use positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior. What usefulness is eternal punishment from this perspective?

    REPLY: When your daughter reaches adulthood are you going to continue to micro-mange her life? That is the idea that Jesus was trying to get across with “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”. The son had reached the age where the Father had to let him go out on his own. The son “set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.” Jesus made it clear that the Father never stopped loving his son but was also willing to let the son face the consequences of his free choices, even if that meant he would never see his son again. The pararable of course was meant by Jesus to symbolize the relationship between God and man.

    Is it reasonable to use condemnation and the threat of eternal punishment as a deterrent?

    Deterrents aren’t all that effective for most crimes… and really, that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

    REPLY: Do atheists believe in hell? How can it be a deterrent if you don’t believe in it? As a Christian I am quite mystified with the atheist obsession with hell. For my part I think the promise of eternal life is such a positive that I don’t need a deterrent. On the other hand, there are former atheists like Peter Hitchens who admits that the idea of a final judgement scared him into belief. His brother Christopher, on the other hand, has had no such experience.
    http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/0ce6e875-3a5e-4cf0-8bfd-1360d0030b06.mp3

  11. Sault says:

    The pararable of course was meant by Jesus to symbolize the relationship between God and man.

    There is no valid comparison between a child living in poverty in “a distant country” and that child being eternally punished. As an adult my daughter may commit crimes worthy of harsh punishments or even death, but NEVER eternal punishment.

    If that is Augustine’s view of Original sin, I don’t agree with it.

    Of course not. No reasonable human being should (so how could a reasonable man come to that conclusion?????). The point is that Augustine made this conclusion based on his interpretation of scripture – he didn’t dream it up out of nowhere. He was hugely influential on the topics ranging from the Eucharist to Mariology to Just War, so its not like he was some random crackpot (summary of his theology).

    Here is a summary of different scriptures used in the debate on whether unbaptized children go to hell or not. It can reasonably be interpreted both ways (again, Augustine’s conclusion shows this).

    Immoral behavior begins with our intentions.

    The point is that Jesus condemns those who even *think* about immorality. Is that reasonable, even if the act is never committed? Is resistance futile? (ha ha Star Trek references are funny)

    On the other hand, there is no sin that God is not willing to forgive.

    Of course there is – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Come on now, you should know that!

    Justification theology is a fascinating subject for me – the fact that there is so much contention over what exactly it takes to not go to hell is… well, it tickles my funny bone, but it indicates to me just how preoccupied the believer is about avoiding the Hot Spot.

    At one extreme – antinomianism. This is the belief that the faithful are not morally condemned by any action – that literally faith alone is the only requirement of salvation.

    On the other extreme, you have what is commonly referred to as legalism, where it is obedience to law that is the primary source of justification.

    Between the two is the wide spectrum of Christian belief.

    Let me give you an example. Here is someone who passionately promotes the essential nature of faith combined with certain acts, like baptism. But not everyone believes that baptism is essential.

    Okay, but what about circumcision? That was a common debate in early Christian history. The first Christians were Jews… should Gentiles be held to the same requirement as Jews had been, and mutilate themselves, too? (I have a very dim view of circumcision – parents, leave your children intact!) Either way, it was an issue that divided early Christians.

    The point is that the relationship between faith and works is not a simple one, and not well specified in the Bible. Uncertainty remains even to this day.

    As a Christian I am quite mystified with the atheist obsession with hell.

    See those last few paragraphs? As a freethinking atheist, I am alarmed with the Christian obsession with hell… it verges upon the insane!

    It seems so much easier to simply avoid all of this mess and focus on simply promoting good ethical behavior and moral character in the here and now.

    That way, you wouldn’t have to worry if your loved ones are going to hell or not if they commit suicide – you can let go of them easier if you aren’t having visions of them being tortured in hellfire and brimstone! (a common evangelist example thereof here)

    Is it reasonable to use threats to “win souls” for God?

    If I put a gun to your head and tell you to donate to charity, are you being a moral person when you do? If I put a gun to your head and tell you to convert or die, do you really believe/have you truly committed yourself to God when you agree?

    If I say the words out of fear for my body and soul, but don’t believe them in my heart, doesn’t that make me a religious hypocrite, and damn me to hell anyways?

    Every step of this is predicated upon reason. Eternal punishment is not reasonable, and not providing crystal-clear guidelines to avoiding eternal punishment is not reasonable either.

    To return to the parlance of our discussion, eternal punishment is a “wager against” Christianity.

  12. tz says:

    Sault — thanks. That may be one of the most succinct and polite debunkings of the absurdity of right-wing forms of Christianity that I’ve ever seen.

  13. Tom Gilson says:

    That was a most interesting and thoughtful comment, Sault.

    You identified some genuinely difficult issues, while at the same time also introducing some distortions into the picture. The two sides—the provocatively thoughtful and the distorted—are mixed together in a way that reflects these controversies most faithfully (with emphasis on reflecting the controversies, not necessarily the facts that should inform the controversies). I think you’re trying to accomplish that with a respectful approach, as far as you find it possible to respect what you regard as absurd. I appreciate that.

    I’m going to keep your comment in mind for further discussion.

  14. Sault says:

    Thank you for your kind words. I wish that I could be at that level more often, instead of allowing my emotions to unduly influence my responses.

    These responses are not intended to have a great deal of snark in it (unlike some of my other responses). I can accept that if I am wrong that I could indeed be punished eternally for it. I had to accept that to leave Mormonism, and I have to leave that place of fear and condemnation before I can reason logically – fear must not in any way enter into a reasonable discussion, for fear is the mind-killer.

    It distresses me to know that my daughter will be subject to this same spiritual threat as she grows up – the carrot and stick routine of heaven and hell. I can only hope that she will be able to be strong enough to endure it and still be able to think logically about what she chooses to believe.

    I truly believe that teaching children that they will be eternally condemned if they don’t mind their p’s and q’s is tantamount to child abuse. (how’s that for a controversial opinion, hmm?) I can only wish that some day religion will abandon this unreasonable belief and instead focus solely on the benefits, both in this life and after, of a positive morality and personal and social responsibility.

  15. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Sault:

    I do not mean to imply that the question of Hell is not a difficult one, but as you relate it, it is a purely emotional hang-up and hardly a logical difficulty.

    Here is a (rough) account of Hell (and let us leave daughters and children behind because invoking them is just for rhetorical effect): (1) sin is the outward sign that one rejects God (2) Hell is the place where those who reject God go (3) God is the summum bonum and every good in existence, insofar as it is good, it is good by participation on the goodness of God (4) If Hell is the place of rejection of God, it follows that it is the place of rejection of the good (5) If suffering arises by being deprived of the good, it follows that Hell is a place of suffering (6) Insofar as the rejection of God is eternal, and made for eternity, it follows that Hell is a place of eternal suffering (7) Insofar as in our finite life, we either reject God or accept his love, we either choose to go to Hell or to go to Heaven.

    Some Christians will object to one or more of the above points — forget about all that. All I am trying to stress here, is that your problem is a purely *emotional* one; the above account of Hell is a purely rational one that follows inevitably from a few given premises, and without making appeal to the scriptures once, and you seem to be *completely* unaware of its existence. Is the above account a tough pill to swallow? Well Sault, in this life you must make a choice: you reject God and say *my* will be done? Well, that is exactly what God will do, he will respect your choice. You accept God’s love and say *Thy* will be done? Well, since you have said yes to His love, He will fill you to the brim and then more, with His love.

  16. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Sault:

    Just to drive the point home, here is another point you raise and a sure sign that what is holding you back are purely emotional hang-ups.

    Immoral behavior begins with our intentions.

    The point is that Jesus condemns those who even *think* about immorality. Is that reasonable, even if the act is never committed? Is resistance futile?

    You completely miss the point of Jesus’ injunction.

    Take the example of paedophile (if you get to invoke children and daughters for the sake of rhetorical effect, I can also invoke paedophiles for rhetorical effect). Suppose the paedophile never, ever gets the chance to consummate his twisted, foul perversion, and must content himself with viewing children pornography. Are you *seriously* trying to tell me that just because the man has never laid a finger on a child, he is not morally guilty? On the contrary, insofar as he has not made a single effort to curb his sick, unnatural propensities, but instead has lavishly fuelled them, he is morally guilty. The *only* reason why he has not consummated the *specific* sin of fornication (and rape, because we are talking about children and etc. and etc.) is simply because he never got the opportunity for it. But he has committed other sins and has shaped his personality, his desires and motives, in a way that flagrantly reject God and His ways.

    To repeat myself: you do not have to accept my accounts of these two specific problems. But what I wished you to do was to recognize that there are perfectly reasonable and rational accounts of them, that you are ignorant of these explanations, and that what animates your rejection is not a considered, rational approach but a superficial, emotional one.

  17. Bill R. says:

    I truly believe that teaching children that they will be eternally condemned if they don’t mind their p’s and q’s is tantamount to child abuse.

    Sault, I am sympathetic to the point(s) you are trying to make. Heaven and hell are difficult concepts to understand, and a wrong understanding (especially of hell) can really mess someone up. However, I would think, given your familiarity with the Bible and Christianity, that you would realize that Christianity in no way teaches that people “will be eternally condemned if they don’t mind their p’s and q’s”.

    If anything, Christianity says “You already are eternally condemned, and no amount of minding your p’s and q’s will change that fact. The only person who can change your destiny is God, and He has offered to do so, with no qualifications or prerequisites. Accepting his offer will cost you everything you have and change you in deep, sometimes painful ways, but it will be worth it in the end.”

    I agree with Tom that your comment #12 was interesting and thoughtful. If I saw the Christian teaching about heaven and hell the way you do, then I would be an atheist too. But I also agree with Tom that there are some important (though probably unconscious) errors in your portrayals of heaven, hell, God, and man. Since you desire to improve yourself and your reasoning abilities, and since I’m hoping you desire to see others’ views in a new light, just as you seek to show others your views in a new light, I will try to fill in some of the gaps in your knowledge.

    Extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards and punishments. If I choose to marry a woman because I love her, and if I receive the joy of her love in return, then I have received an intrinsic reward, because being united to my wife in love is naturally connected to the choice I made to marry her. If, on the other hand, I marry her for her money, then I receive an extrinsic reward, because money is not naturally connected to love, but rather artificially connected. Suppose, further, that my mercenary marriage makes me miserable for the rest of my life (I really didn’t plan the alliteration, honest!). In that case, my misery is an intrinsic punishment, because it is a natural consequence of my choice to marry for money, not love.

    Christianity teaches that heaven and hell are intrinsic rewards and punishments, respectively, not extrinsic ones. The key feature of heaven is being united with God (in fact, the Bible uses the language of marriage to suggest that our union with God in heaven is like the union of husband and wife). Union with God is an intrinsic reward for accepting His offer of grace and choosing to give yourself to Him in love. Hell is the flip side of the coin: it is the intrinsic punishment (natural consequence) of choosing to live without God and center your life on some other thing, which will inevitably fail to satisfy you.

    It is, therefore, incorrect to describe hell using the analogy of a gun pointed to one’s head, or any other extrinsic threat. When you talk about God pointing a gun to someone’s head, it gives the impression that the person would have been just fine, doing whatever she was doing, if God hadn’t come along with His hell gun and needlessly ruined her life. But, in reality, that person is already headed for the worst possible fate; God is showing her the road she’s on, and giving her the opportunity to get off it.

    One might object that, “If hell is an intrinsic punishment, then why all the language of fire and brimstone and physical torment; that sure sounds like an extrinsic punishment to me!” Part of the problem lies with certain Christian preachers who have stretched the metaphor beyond its breaking point (although, I would point out that I have heard probably close to one thousand sermons in conservative evangelical churches, and not more than a dozen of them have focused on hell, so I am not convinced that Christians are really obsessed with it). But another piece of the puzzle is that extrinsic rewards/punishments are sometimes necessary when people are not in a position to understand or appreciate the intrinsic reward/punishment.

    A mother tells her child not to run with scissors because that action carries with it the (possible) intrinsic punishment of serious injury. However, the child may not understand it when Mommy says “if you run with scissors, you could hurt yourself”, so it is ok for Mommy to say “if you run with scissors, I will put you in time out”. Here, Mommy is doing a good thing by using an extrinsic punishment that the child understands to communicate the severity of an intrinsic punishment that he does not understand. God does the same thing with hell. The real danger of hell is rejecting God and therefore having no one to save you from being consumed by your anxiety, greed, frustration, lust, etc. (both in this life and in eternity). But just as the child doesn’t recognize the potential for serious injury when running with scissors, people don’t see sin as dangerous to themselves. Is it not reasonable, then, for God to use what we do understand (pain), to communicate to us the severity of what we don’t understand (sin)?

    (more to follow…)

  18. JAD says:

    Sault: “It seems so much easier to simply avoid all of this mess and focus on simply promoting good ethical behavior and moral character in the here and now.

    How do we determine what is “good ethical behavior and moral character”?

    C.S. Lewis wrote in his book, Mere Christianity, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

    What is your standard of goodness, virtue and justice, Sault? Yourself?

    Back to the wager. If God does not exist, and this life is all that there is, then there are no consequences for our moral choices. However, if God does exist we will all someday stand before God. Do you think your self justifications are good enough to persuade God?

  19. Bill R. says:

    (continued from #18)

    Being “good enough” for heaven. You raise the objection:

    So even if a person is moral and good and reasonable and kind and virtuous, but doesn’t think it important to commit their life to Jesus, then they go to hell.

    Why can’t God let into heaven someone who is “moral and good and reasonable and kind and virtuous, but doesn’t think it important to commit their life to Jesus”? Well, remember that heaven is not some spa/amusement park; it is defined as union with God. If a person doesn’t want to commit their life to Jesus, then they don’t want union with God (the Christian God), so that person wouldn’t even enjoy heaven. For him, it would not be a reward, but a punishment. But the only other choice besides union with God is not-union with God, which is the Christian definition of hell. Since no one can be truly happy without God (according to Christianity), and since that person doesn’t want to be with God, it is, therefore, literally impossible to make that person happy (unless their desires change). Not even Omnipotence can do the impossible. Thus, it is unreasonable to think of the Christian concept of heaven as a place where otherwise “good” people who don’t want to commit themselves to Christ can still go and be happy. There is no such place.

    The fact that heaven means “union with God” also explains why Jesus would say that thoughts can be just as sinful as actions. How can God, who is perfect Goodness, unite with anyone who isn’t perfectly good and still be perfect Goodness? Would it be “reasonable” for God to allow otherwise “good” people with sinful thoughts into heaven, if it meant destroying heaven by polluting God’s goodness?

    A natural outcome of the Christian definition of heaven is that only people who are perfect can go there. The obvious problem is that nobody is perfect (including Christians; perhaps especially Christians). God’s solution is to make people perfect by first coming down to meet us on our level, then giving us the desire to choose God (i.e. faith, new birth), and finally giving us the power to become like Him (through a process called “sanctification”). Of course, the role of faith and human effort in this process is a mystery that has captivated the church for 2000 years, but we all agree that God provides the power to accomplish it.

    Of course, you may disagree with this view of heaven, hell, and goodness. You’re free to do that; however, you have been asking of Christianity “Is it reasonable…?”, not “Is it true…?”.

  20. Bill R. says:

    I also agree with what G. Rodrigues and JAD wrote, and of course, they said it much more succinctly than I did 🙂

  21. Sault says:

    JAD – How do we determine what is “good ethical behavior and moral character”?

    There are a number of different ways to find ethics and morality without appealing to supernatural authority, especially a Christian one.


    “Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior.”
    — from “Morals Without God?” By FRANS DE WAAL


    JAD – “C.S. Lewis wrote in his book, Mere Christianity, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust…”

    My argument against God is not that the universe is cruel and unjust – my argument against the Christian God is in large the unreasonable condemnation of man to hell… especially if it’s by default!!! (I’ll get to that in a second)


    JAD – “What is your standard of goodness, virtue and justice, Sault? Yourself?

    Oh, no. I believe that I am a work in progress. But I can draw basic ethical conclusions, as we all do, to determine areas where I need improvement. A full answer would take some time, so I can say in short that I draw from a variety of sources, a variety of inspirations, and the best attempts at logic and reason that I can manage to determine what standards I should have, and when I don’t achieve them.


    JAD – “If God does not exist, and this life is all that there is, then there are no consequences for our moral choices.

    Oh, absolutely. Because if I kill someone, then there are absolutely no consequences. I won’t break people’s hearts, I won’t traumatize their loved ones, I won’t risk violent retribution, and of course our legal system wouldn’t care, either.


    However, if God does exist we will all someday stand before God. Do you think your self justifications are good enough to persuade God?”

    I don’t need to persuade God. What I do need to do is determine to the best of my ability how I can be the best person that I can be. If I am a child of God, then to achieve maturity I must stand ethically and intellectually on my own two feet. If He is a good father then He will understand how, in my limited knowledge, I believe and act the way that I do.

    I have had to accept the fact that if I am wrong, that I will be eternally punished. Acceptance removes fear – I must allow the fear to flow through me and leave me with the ability to once again think critically.

    Bill R – “You already are eternally condemned,”

    And to me this is even scarier and more abusive. Nothing becomes important except accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior, because without that single factor, you will burn (either metaphorically or literally) in hell eternally without it. No good thing you can do will save you from hell without accepting Jesus… so what motivation does the non-believer have to be good? It’s…. well, tragic is probably an understatement…

    This viewpoint, that of Original sin I mean, has a range of implications, but let me just focus on one aspect – the emotional burden on the believer.

    If you are a good person, and you believe that the people that you love will suffer terribly if they don’t do one simple thing, how far would you go to get them to do that one simple thing?

    The first of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robitcs is the following injunction :

    “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

    If I have a similar moral compulsion, then I have the terrible burden of weighing my actions regarding those that I love who aren’t believers. Should I preach to them? Invite them to “seeker-friendly” church events? Lie to them? Threaten them with the prospect of hell?

    Where should I, as the believer, draw the line at trying to save my loved ones from eternal punishment? Surely I can’t simply resign myself to knowing that many of the people that I love will suffer horribly!

    Bill R – “It is, therefore, incorrect to describe hell using the analogy of a gun pointed to one’s head, or any other extrinsic threat.”

    Let’s take an example… a Jack Chick tract on homosexuality. After talking about some Bad Stuff that’s going to happen,

    “But you can miss the coming years of horror and also miss going to hell… by doing this!”

    This is a threat, plain and simple – Do What I Say or I Will Punish You Terribly.

    I’m bouncing around a bit, but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover!

    GR – “Suppose the paedophile never, ever gets the chance to consummate his twisted, foul perversion, and must content himself with viewing children pornography. Are you *seriously* trying to tell me that just because the man has never laid a finger on a child, he is not morally guilty?”

    In this hypothetical case, the man would not be guilty of rape. If he never did it, how could he be guilty for it? He would be guilty of the child porn, though, and any other actions that he took to hurt others. If it stays in your own mind, and never manifests itself as an action in any way, shape, or form, then why is it reasonable to condemn someone for it?

    Bill R – “Here, Mommy is doing a good thing by using an extrinsic punishment that the child understands to communicate the severity of an intrinsic punishment that he does not understand. God does the same thing with hell.”

    And I’ve tried to make the point that Mommy’s punishments were all finite and serve the purpose of instructing future behavior… hell is infinite and therefore can’t instruct future behavior. It can function only as a deterrent, and deterrents are not effective.

    Bill R – “I am not convinced that Christians are really obsessed with it”

    Look up Christian hate mail some time, and see how many times the threat of hell is brought up. Hell remains one of the most potent and venomous spears that the believer can lob in their righteous anger.

    Google “Christian hate mail”. First result, fourth comment down – “Accept the true Jesus into your heart and you will be forgiven or wat you are doing will be punished severely in this life and the next.”

    The Christian preoccupation with hell isn’t always conscious, and that’s one of the reasons that its unreasonable nature is so pernicious and damaging. But man oh man, it’s brought out when the emotions ramp up, right? I actually mean that in all senses of the word. If you care about someone intensely, you don’t want them to go to hell, right? If you’re angry at someone, maybe for a split-second you want them to go to hell… and for some people, the threats of hell get hurled out quite easily over the internet at least…

    If God exists and wants me to be a better person, then that’s reasonable. A God who creates me to by default be punished for all time and eternity if I don’t do what He wants me to do? This is hardly reasonable.

    I would rather burn in hell than worship such a God, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart… I’m better than that. I bet that sounds prideful and arrogant to you – but it’s the truth. I can’t believe that babies are not innocent. I can’t believe that someone who is not able to make informed decisions (ie an adult) should be held as equally accountable as someone who can. I can’t believe that eternal punishment is ever warranted.

    As I might’ve said earlier – if I don’t do what God wants and He kills me for it, I can actually accept that. In some situations it is more important to obey than to question authority, and I get that (damn shame to waste so many good people, but whatever). But eternal punishment, to me, has no justification – there is no circumstance that can reasonably justify eternal punishment.

    Wow, what a long post. Well, I hope I covered everything…

  22. Bill R. says:

    If God exists and wants me to be a better person, then that’s reasonable. A God who creates me to by default be punished for all time and eternity if I don’t do what He wants me to do? This is hardly reasonable.

    Based on what you said here, I’m pretty sure you didn’t actually read my comment. How can we have a conversation if you don’t try to understand what I’m saying?

  23. Sault says:

    Bill R – “If a person doesn’t want to commit their life to Jesus, then they don’t want union with God (the Christian God), so that person wouldn’t even enjoy heaven.”

    Oh, I completely agree. But notice that I was talking about not going to hell, not about going to heaven.

    The modern mainstream Christian viewpoint of hell is that it is a place of punishment. Some liberal theologians back away from this viewpoint and put it in milder terms, or even throw the concept away completely, but you are not one of those people, and most other Christians aren’t, either.

    Let us compare two hypothetical neighbors. Their actions are almost identical – about as good, about as kind, reasonably ethical, they both donate to charity every now and then… maybe they slip up and cuss or whatever, but nothing especially heinous.

    Neighbor A believes in God, so he’ll go to heaven. Now, perhaps Neighbor B isn’t really interested in God – he’s spent his time doing other stuff, like tending his garden or watching reruns of “The Office”. He goes to hell. Both neighbors are reasonably moral, reasonably ethical, decent people. But on the basis of only one different action, Neighbor A enjoys glory and happiness eternal, and Neighbor B is roasted alive for ever and ever (or punished to some degree).

    That is not reasonable. Hell, that’s immoral!

    Cast out the good people who aren’t Christian. Send them away into the darkness. Not very moral of you either, but at least you’re not torturing them! Cast them away from God’s glory, but don’t condemn them to hell simply because they didn’t believe.

    Or kill them. Snuff them out entirely. Its immoral in its own way, too, but I think there’s actually better biblical support for this viewpoint, when you get into the original words used in the NT.

    It doesn’t have to be A or B… there is no reason why there can’t be an option C. Other than the emotional satisfaction of the evangelist and/or a vengeful and jealous God, I suppose. *shrug*

  24. Sault says:

    Based on what you said here, I’m pretty sure you didn’t actually read my comment. How can we have a conversation if you don’t try to understand what I’m saying?

    It is entirely possible that I misunderstand you. I will read again, more carefully, and think about it some more.

  25. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Sault:

    I cannot go through your post now; you are damaged and messed up, that getting through to you is a superhuman task (and in a sense, it is literally that).

    For now, I just want to focus on one small point:

    Look up Christian hate mail some time, and see how many times the threat of hell is brought up. Hell remains one of the most potent and venomous spears that the believer can lob in their righteous anger.

    Who are you arguing with, Sault? Has anyone here, in *any* way whatsoever, ever threatened you with the pains of hell? So why do you constantly bring this up? You are talking with us (me, Tom Gilson, JAD, Bill R. and all the others), not with some imaginary figure living in your head, foaming from the mouth and thundering threats of fire and brimstone, so why don’t you stop for a minute and actually address the points being made, instead of attacking straw-men that no one here ever defended?

  26. Bill R. says:

    Hi Sault,

    I appreciate you taking the time to respond to everyone’s posts. I see that most of my comments have not really sunk in to the point of challenging your preconceptions, e.g. about what hell is. I would love to pursue the conversation further, but I will be on a plane all day tomorrow, and then starting a medium-distance move (MA to MD), so I don’t know how much time I will have to respond in the near future. I will try my best to get to it eventually.

  27. Sault says:

    GR – I cannot go through your post now; you are damaged and messed up,

    In many ways I am. I am human, after all. I have incredibly strong feelings about hell because of growing up Mormon. Mormons don’t even have the “hellfire and brimstone” view that many Christians do (at least, the Evangelical variety, right?), but the idea that I could live the best life that I could yet be consigned to Outer Darkness simply because I disagreed was repugnant to me… under the Mormon conception of heaven (three levels of heaven), even thieves, mass-murderers, etc would go to the lowest level of heaven – only those that denied the gospel would be cast into hell. I could only truly leave (have my name removed from church records) when I could accept the fact that if I was wrong, that I would be damned for it.

    Yeah, there’s some emotional baggage involved – but can you think about hell without any form of emotional attachment? Can you think of the good people of the world being sent to hell without any emotional response?

    This quickly became a massive thread with a lot of information and a lot to reply to. I am perfectly okay with taking it in very small bite-sized pieces… or in delaying the conversation until that can be done.

    GR – Who are you arguing with, Sault? Has anyone here, in *any* way whatsoever, ever threatened you with the pains of hell?

    None of you, absolutely none of you, have given me the impression that you’ve been anything more than frustrated with me. I appreciate that, and apologize if I’ve given the impression of anything more. I’ve enjoyed the dialogue – it’s been challenging me to think, something that I try to do at least once a day.

    I meant in a general sense – when a believer becomes emotional, hell seems to be a closer spectre than at other times. When you care passionately about someone, you don’t want them to go to hell, and maybe when you (generic “you”, not you personally) become enraged, to some degree hell may sometimes be more likely to enter into your language and thought process. I used the example of hate mail because its the most obvious to me.

    I know that people are more likely to be nasty in the often anonymous hate mail that they send (on all sides, not just Christians)…

    Again, I was trying to point out that the *extremes of emotion* bring us closer to the extremes in our belief – and one of the extremes in Christian belief is hell, in whatever form it is believed.

    Bill R – I see that most of my comments have not really sunk in to the point of challenging your preconceptions, e.g. about what hell is.

    Honestly – nope, they haven’t. I have a lot of preconceptions based on previous experiences with Christians, and I haven’t given you the chance to present what you believe and deal with you solely in that regard. When I’ve been speaking with you I have been speaking to the beliefs of the general Christian population.

    Bill R – and then starting a medium-distance move (MA to MD),

    Ick! I moved 6 or so months ago and it was a hassle just moving 20 miles… please, take the time you need and don’t feel the pressure to reply immediately. I value your conversation and am trying to rise to the level of reasonable thought. Good luck with the move!

  1. November 21, 2011

    […] This was written by my friend Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian.net […]