Tag Archives: Hell

Russell XXI: Mercy Without Justice?

33-justice-for-allThere is quite a bit of talk of Hell in Russell’s speech. By my estimation, he includes nearly as much as is in the entirety of the Bible. It is a bit odd, then, that he criticizes the Bible for going on too much about Hell.

Then [Jesus Christ] says again, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty.

I’ve already discussed the idea that Hell is a natural consequence of abandoning the source of all goodness. Still, I think something should be said for punishment.

As much as I commend Russell’s commitment to compassion, the scorn he casts on the idea of Hell seems to cross the line into a disrespect for justice. The New Atheist writers tend to do the same (with far more ease). And it strikes me that most people in history have had a very high view of justice. Though we from the modern west have lived more comfortable lives than the overwhelming majority of people in history, I think we can empathize with the idea that the unfairness of this world should be set right.

That is why I find it more than a little distasteful that a privileged white male from a rich nation would scorn the idea that oppressive people should be punished.

Those people groups who are complicit in oppression are always less likely to value justice than those who live under the boot of it. And, much to my dismay, I’ve run across many that confidently declare that it is simply a lack of education that keeps the poor from embracing moral relativism–apparently oblivious to their own cultural lenses.

To the end that one hears cries for justice with sympathy, I think, one begins to see the genius of the Bible. It acknowledges the world’s desperate need for justice, while simultaneously pointing out the need for mercy–that none of us could endure true judgement. If God doesn’t care about justice, what hope is there for correcting the oppression in the world? But, if God does seek justice, what hope is there for us?

A philosophy that can endure across time and cultures must, of necessity, be one that can offer powerful resources to cope with suffering, unfairness, and loss as well as success, power, and comfort. This is one of the great strengths of Christianity and, I think, one of the great weaknesses of the worldview put forward by the New Atheist writers.

Where the Christian Gospel builds up the weak with the idea that one is a forgiven child of God, New Atheism tends to embitter the strong with the idea that one is an innocent victim of fools in an unjust world.

Russell XVIII: The Human Self-Destruct Button

Self-Destruct-ButtonIn 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.