Saturday, May 29, 2010


I've recently discovered the 'Unbelievable' podcast from Premier Christian Radio. Its quite good, if a bit biased, and cheesy. The basic format is to have a Christian guest and a non-Christian guest on each week to debate the issue of the week. Occasionally they break from this format to have, for example, a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim on the show to debate some topic. On other occasions they have Christians with different viewpoints debating the issue.
I've just listened to the podcast on 'Hell' (from August last year). On the show they had three Christians representing two different viewpoints: James White was defending the "eternal conscious torment" position while Roger & Faith Forster were defending the "conditional immortality" position, that is, that at some point the people in hell will be utterly destroyed and will not live forever.

I found the whole debate to be a bit pointless, quite annoying and, to be honest, the in-built beliefs of both sides were pretty distasteful at points.

Its amazing what you can end up believing if you build your world view and your belief of God on certain selective verses.

The most distasteful (in my opinion) belief that the "conditional immortality" camp put forward was this: that the sinner cast into hell would experience suffering and torment for a period of time, more or less proportional to the amount of sin, after which they would be annihilated and would cease to exist. In other words, they believe in a God who tortures people before killing them. There is no love in that picture. Sorry, but I can't reconcile that with an awful lot of statements about God which are in the bible.

However, I have to say that on the whole, if I had to ally myself to one side or the other in this debate, theirs was the more agreeable position. I found much more to disagree with in the other opinion.

The other opinion seemed to rest on this assumption - that any sin committed against an infinite God requires infinite punishment. Sorry, what? How do you come to that conclusion? The bible never paints God as being infinite for a start (infinity is a mathematical concept that cannot be applied to real things; if God were infinite, there would be no room in the multiverse for anything else except God, so if its true, then we're all God, and so is the devil, and so is the internet, etc. - this is clearly not the case), but beyond that, the bible is quite clear that the punishment should always fit the crime. There is no logic in this deduction, a finite crime should always have finite consequences.

Where the debate really broke down, for me, was when they came to the subject of the Cross. Somehow - in the mind of James White at least, and in the others to a lesser extent - Jesus was able to pay for all the sin of all those who believe in his name in a period of suffering and death that lasted about a day, followed by up to three days in hell (according to some). Meanwhile, it is not possible for one sinner to atone for his own sins in an infinite eternity of suffering in hell. Sorry, I just can't go along with that view of the atonement.

If sin can be atoned for by suffering & death, then finite sin can be atoned for by finite suffering and death. Therefore hell should not be eternal.

If sin cannot be atoned for by suffering and death, then an eternity of suffering counts for nothing, and a loving God would not impose this on anyone. Therefore there should be no hell.

Am I missing something here? Or over-simplifying it?

Personally I hold to the opinion that 'hell' is the destroying fire where the rubbish is thrown. The fire may be eternal, but the rubbish is consumed and destroyed. It is not a place of consciousness, but of annihilation. Anyone cast into hell will cease to be. But this is not a belief that is foundational to my belief system, and I admit that I may be wrong on this. Its just what I currently believe. Listening to this debate has not provided me with any compelling evidence or reasoning to change my stance on this belief.


Anonymous said...

Just reading your blog a little bit, we've had similar experiences coming from positions of faith and then realizing that the bible isn't consistent.

To take that a little further, on the question of hell: when something makes absolutely no sense and isn't really explicitly taught in the bible (things such as immortality of the soul and everlasting torture of the dead), chances are it wasn't the belief of the authors. And there is a better chance that none of it is true at all.


Jonathan said...

Take it further again:

An example favored by Carl Sagan. I believe that there is a fire breathing dragon living in my garage. Based on you reasoning, your disbelief in my claim is no more unreasonable than my belief.

Claims that Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin,immortality of the soul and everlasting torture of the dead) You profess to believe Jesus died, started to rot and came back to life a couple of days later. You don't believe (quite reasonably, I might add) that there is a fire breathing dragon living in my garage. If you had not been indoctrinated with Christianity since birth, you would find all of these claims equally preposterous.

Ricky Carvel said...


To the best of my knowledge, there aren't four well documented (if slightly disagreeing) historical accounts of there being a dragon in your garage. There also hasn't been a generation of believers in that dragon who were prepared to go to their deaths proclaiming the existance of that dragon.

The evidence is in no way equivalent. OK, so the evidence for Christianity may not appear to be totally compelling, but at least there is some evidence there. As for your dragon, I don't even have any evidence that you have a garage!

Jonathan said...

Well Documented ?
How many totem pole gods would you like me to list
"There also hasn't been a generation of believers in that dragon who were prepared to go to their deaths proclaiming the existence of that dragon" Odin or start with thousands names of Hindu gods "that generation of believers in that dragon (concept of God) who were prepared to go to their deaths proclaiming the existence of that dragon"(concept of God) Jupiter Mars Bacchus Mayan gods the one thing they all have in common is a willingness to die, Onward christian or whatever soldiers.
As for my garage, surely if you believe in heaven you can believe I have a garage. show me a photo of yours and I will show you a photo of my garage ? Look forward to your evidence. All the usual host of logical fallacies such as the false dichotomy, the negative proof fallacy (i.e. because a premise cannot be proven false, the premise must be true) and the inevitable arguments from ignorance; Repeat save a life & do not eat meat for a week.That is real.

Ricky Carvel said...


Yes, I agree that many deluded people over the centuries have acted on beliefs, some of which must have been false. But to conclude from that that all such beliefs are false is not logical.

I could (if I could be bothered) introduce you to hundreds, if not thousands (with a bit more effort) of people who claim direct experience of something inexplicable. I have a friend whose short leg grew 2cm or so in the space of half an hour as some guy prayed for her. I have another friend who had cataracts on both eyes which both vanished during prayer one Sunday morning, and so on. I know lots of folk with equivalent, small but inexplicable stories. One on its own means nothing much - just a weird event, which may be misunderstood. But when you add up the sum total of the "we prayed to Jesus, something inexplicable happened" type stories, then there is clearly evidence that something weird is going on. And having said that, I can't deny that there are countless more times when the name of Jesus was invoked and nothing happened at all. But that doesn't change the fact that some of the time something weird did happen.

Its easy to tie yourself up in logical fallacies, but I'm just trying to make sense of the world as I've seen it. More often than not I end up rejecting some details of the written word, but still believe that (for the most part) it was written by folk who genuinely had weird experiences and wrote it trying to explain what they saw.

For this, the God hypothesis is better than the no-God hypothesis.

Now the question is who is this God, and what is he/she/them/it like? I'm still trying to figure that one out.

But nonsense examples of entirely ficticious dragons don't really compare to real life examples of small, but inexplicable, occasionally impossible events.

Anonymous said...


I've heard many stories about prayer miracles in my decades going to evangelical churches, but I must admit to being skeptical because to me they are just that: stories.

If god answers prayers so directly, why is it so infrequent? Every church has a litany of people in need of prayer, the list never really changes. Christians get sick and die at the same rate as everyone else. They have the same relational and financial problems as everyone else.

So how can it that prayer changes things? If it were so, wouldn't christians actually be heathier and happier than the public at large. Why would miracles be rare? If god really made someone's leg grow in a half-hour, why doesn't something similar happen every time we pray?

The bible says God answers prayers, it doesn't qualify it with "one in a million prayers."


Ricky Carvel said...


I have all the same questions. And sadly, no decent answers. I remain skeptical of many, if not most of the stories I've heard. And I've never been healed of anything despite having gone for prayer on a number of occasions when my recurrent migraine problems were at their peak and when I injured my knee last year.

But. I know people who have compelling stories. And I saw the girl's leg before and after. And there's a visible change. Dig back through my blog (about a year ago) and you'll find my skeptical post on this and then my change of opinion a week later.

Why is the healing so rare? Why not every time? I have no good answer. I usually land on the side of questioning the asserted omnipotence / omniscience / omnibenevolence and omnipresence of God. If he is all four of them, then there is no reason why he wouldn't always heal everyone who asked. As this is clearly not the case, I must question the limits of God. The website asks a valid question - why has this never been claimed? Maybe he can't?

Or maybe there's a bigger picture I can't see.

I'm still looking for the answer.


Jonathan said...

"Or maybe there's a bigger picture I can't see."
You Can See It, you would rather lie & keep your friends and superior baggage, blame your parents.
My last post.

Anonymous said...

On topic:

I find the whole argument to be far too concerned with the Atonement.

Far too concerned with punishing wrong behaviour. Like righteousness could be measured in like-for-like suffering.

This idea stems from a misunderstanding of the old "eye for an eye" thing.

Eye for an eye, does not try to say that like-for-like restores fairness, no. What it does is draw a line in the sand. No more suffering. No blood-debts, no feuding. No grudges.

My opinion: If anyone ever "owed" anything to God, it was settled. The same debt cannot be paid twice. Hell (or purgatory) cannot exist to provide remedy to God.

If there is such a place (as the medieval Church thought) then it could only be to remedy sins against each other. Finite issues.

But if you ask me, the whole question is backwards. Christianity shouldn't be worrying about hell, it should be worship of the God who (probably) isn't going to send me there.

Josh W said...

Mathematical conceptions of sin are tricky, my understanding of hell works like this:

The lake of fire's not death, because death is chucked into it. The lake of fire is something that can take both what are to us abstract concepts, like death, and human souls.

My natural bias leads me to expect that hell is some form of reductio absurdum of the human being, under the action of their own nature, being some kind of self-contained disposal and isolation.

It's basically not a good thing to happen to someone, but is an ultimate expression of God's ironic approach to justice; it is their own nature that causes their punishment, wrapped into a loop of self destruction, with their actions in life that they've just been reminded of as the spark to start it off.

I'm pretty sure this view is wrong in some important respect, but it gives me enough of a picture to fit everything I understand at the moment about perishing without Jesus.

How is the cross a solution to this conception of hell? Because Jesus in his suffering and apparent rejection remained open to God, committing his spirit to him, which forms an example to us. And also by whatever strange mechanics allow transfer of properties in a sacrifice, he transferred his divine nature to us, if we except it, a nature that is eternal and doesn't suffer the same contradictions and instabilities.

But to be honest, the cross is still a mystery to me despite it's effectiveness.

Josh W said...

It annoys me a bit that I'm able to most lucid on hell, as it's not something I spend much of my time thinking about but whatever:

You can find my understanding of hell in three verses, the one where Jesus contrasts eternal punishment with eternal life, the one in Thessalonians that talks about it being eternal destruction, and the one in Isaiah somewhere about people being the fuel for their own fire.

Basically, it's not external to the person, it's internally generated punishment, if it is simultaniously to be eternal punishment and destruction, then
they have to be being broken down somehow or it's not destruction, so immortality of the soul in the sense of invincibility must be wrong, (but you can get that from when Jesus says God can destroy the soul in hell) but is it a continuous eternal process of destruction, similar to a 1/x function tending to 0, or is it a one time event that lasts for ever?

Obviously it's massively more horrible than this technicalish treatment, so I'll leave it there.