In his speech “Why I am not a Christian”, Russell has quite a bit to praise about Christ’s teachings. However, he asserts that belief in Hell cannot possibly be held by a great moral teacher:
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.
This is a classic, and unfortunate, misunderstanding of Christ. There are, of course, many interpretations of Hell, but any traditional teaching points out (among other things) that it is a natural consequence of separation from he who is the source of all love, life, and goodness.
In attempting to interpret the Bible for us, Russell (and, indeed, the New Atheists) seems to imagine a place in which God directly and vindictively tortures people for all eternity. I agree that this paints God in a terrible light; I merely wonder what this has to do with Christianity as it is actually understood by theologians.
If one understands the severity of the self-inflicted damage caused by separating from the source of all love, it is easy to see why “leaving God” and “hell” are two terms for the same unthinkably awful experience.
One can choose not to believe in Christianity, of course, but to say that it is morally wrong for Christ (or anyone else) to believe that it would be bad for people to reject God is not cogent. It is to say that Christ should not make judgements if they are apt to strike others as negative.
But this seems very strange. This very speech by Russell has told me that the masses aren’t capable of much in the way of rational thought, that it may well be a comfort to think that humanity will be annihilated, that even the most brilliant people are hopelessly indoctrinated, that there has been a severe degeneration in our ability to form rational beliefs, that the horrors of pain and death are natural and irrevocable, that the injustice of this world will never be corrected, and, in some strange inversion of logic, that those who disagree with these claims (i.e. theists) have far too judgmental a view of life and humanity.
Rather than follow a series of cynical statements with the accusation that one’s opponent has been too judgmental, Russell (and the New Atheists) should see what the doctrine of Hell actually teaches: that this path of judgmentalism, of demanding that everyone who disagrees with one’s position is wicked and delusional, will lead one into absolute torment if it isn’t stopped.
That is no easy task, I’ll grant. I speak from experience when I say that it is far easier to judge (and grow bitter in that judgment) than to accept the idea that someone (even God) may be a better judge than one’s self. That this is so natural for us, in fact, is exactly why Christ was morally obliged to warn us. To say that he should have let us suffer without warning is the attitude I find morally unconscionable.
March 3rd, 2013 at 7:08 pm
Please tell me what is your understanding of hell. John Calvin believed in a place of eternal torment if this idea of hell has changed it is because of human reason not a revelation from any god. It is wrong therefore to create a straw men of new Atheists.
One can’t chose to believe or not belief contrary to their reason. It is absurd to say one chooses to believe or not. What options does a person born in the heartland of Saudi Arabia have regarding belief? If christianity or any religion were true, this should have been self evident but it ain’t. To hold the position that some people should be eternally separated from god or punished for choices they have no choice over, to me, I think borders on malice.
I don’t think the different christian sects agree on what happens in hell.
March 3rd, 2013 at 9:10 pm
I’ll try my best to get to your comments quickly, but appreciate the thoughts regardless.
Let’s see how that goes:
My understanding of hell, as it stands, is the idea that separation from God is an inherently self-destructive act. I would compare it to alcoholism, myself. If there is such a being that is the source of all goodness, then this seems a reasonable thing. I hope that is a sufficient answer, but let me know if you’d like more clarification.
And, yes, this is because of human reason. I’m not sure what should be the problem with that. Are you suggesting that using reason in exegesis is prohibited by the Bible? I’m not sure I understand that.
But I will say that John Calvin is not to be taken as an unquestioned authority on all things Biblical. His views are worth noting, but no more than any other expert.
As to the matter of choice of belief. I really hadn’t meant to weigh in on that discussion; this was more a passing comment. If psychology is to be believed, there are many complex factors that contribute to belief formation. I’ll only say that I know of no convincing argument establishing that Christianity would be obvious to all if it were true.
I agree with you, however, that there is no consensus on hell within Christianity. In fact, I make passing reference to that in my post. I’ll not try to resolve all of those arguments (obviously, that would require, at best, a lengthy book). My point was simply that those who wish to argue against Christianity via the doctrine of hell must establish that all valid interpretations are susceptible to their critiques.
Okay, there’s one response. On to the next…
March 4th, 2013 at 3:01 am
Thank you very much for your responses. I see you have responded to all the queries and points of disagreement. I will not respond to them all now but I will just make a general comment that I think you see runs across all of my questions. My general contention is with you taking one paper and then using it to berate Atheists. I make no distinction between Atheist, they all lack a belief in gods. So unless you can support an assertion about us, you simply will be creating a straw man to attack and you know once you do that, you always will win.
If you don’t take John Calvin as an authority, then why not extend the same to Atheists. You are using the writings of Dawkins to argue against all Atheists. I think you would better show why a particular argument by a particular person is fallacious than just to use sweeping statements like Atheists this or that!
I will however respond to all the responses to my questions or my contentions in due course.
March 4th, 2013 at 8:00 am
I’ll be happy to read comments as you have time to put them up.
Until then, I’ll note that you don’t make distinctions between atheists, but ask that it be noted that I do. I don’t feel that all atheists, for instance, are responsible for the actions of Joseph Stalin.
It is the refusal to distinguish that makes one use “the writings of Dawkins to argue against all Atheists”. So long as one realizes that I’m only referring to Dawkins and his fans, it is clear that I am not doing this. In fact, I’ve run across many atheists who strongly dislike Dawkins’ position, and insist that I distinguish between them.
As to your comment about John Calvin, I take him as an authority, but not as the final word on Christianity. I’ve been treating Bertrand Russell in the same way. I’ve commented on his ideas as similar to a particular group of atheists, but have been quick to point out differences.
As such, I’m not assuming that Russell’s comment speaks for all atheists precisely because I distinguish between atheists. If I did not, I would (unfairly) assume that Richard Dawkins speaks for all atheists.
This is why I’ve been careful to refer to the New Atheists in my posts, not simply atheists in general.