God the teacher, substitutionary atonement, free will, and more: what sense does an all-loving God sending people into eternal torment make?
How can an omniscient god be so inept a teacher that most of his favorite creation winds up in perpetual torment? Let’s continue our critique of the Christian idea of hell (part 1 here).
4. Substitutionary atonement
Substitutionary atonement (the idea that Jesus’s punishment substitutes for the punishment we deserve) is another way in which God is out of step with a modern sense of justice.
Christianity tells us that we’re bad. In fact, we’re so bad that we can never deserve heaven, no matter what good we do in our miserable little lives. But lucky for us, Jesus took on our sins-to-be in a Bronze-Age-style human sacrifice, satisfying God’s justifiable rage. Now we’re washed clean and can deserve heaven, but more questions arise. Why was Jesus an afterthought in God’s perfect plan? Shouldn’t Jesus have been there from the beginning? How can an all-wise and all-loving god get angry at imperfect beings’ imperfections? How can an omniscient god be angry at something that he foresaw before he even started the project?
But those questions are tangents. Think of how wrong substitutionary atonement would be for Western justice. In cases where the justice system discovers that the wrong person was imprisoned for a crime, no one says, “Well, someone received punishment, and that’s all that matters.”
See also: Criticizing the Logic of the Atonement
5. Free will
Apologist Norm Geisler argued that atheists wouldn’t like a world with God as a cosmic nanny, always clearing any dangers from the path ahead. Atheists are outraged when God lets people die from injustice, he says, but what if God gave them their wish? The murderer’s bullet would turn to butter, the wall would turn into a bungee-cord net just before the car crashed into it, and so on. There would be no moral consequences and no chance for moral development in such a world where free will is constrained to permit only good actions.
But our free will is already constrained. I can’t read minds, I can’t fly, I can’t see x-rays, I don’t have telekinetic killing power, and I don’t have laser eyes. Nevertheless, I muddle along despite all these constraints on my free will. There’s no evidence that a loving god carefully tuned the traits of our reality to give us a just-right Goldilocks world where we have some character-building challenge but not too much. Instead, this is just one more Christian attempt to paper over the lack of evidence for God.
You’d think that Christians would find the opportunity to show evidence for God, but here as with similar issues, Christian apologists are only eager to rationalize away the lack of evidence.
“What about here?” we ask. “Shouldn’t we see evidence of God here?”
“No,” the Christian replies, “there again things look just like there’s no God at all.”
And let’s not imagine God as a champion of free will. When God doesn’t constrain the free will of the murderer or rapist, that imposes on the free will of the victims.
Tell the person who is locked in hell that God is the champion of free will. The Bible itself tells of God deliberately trampling people’s free will.
- He hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t yield to Moses (Exodus 9:12), and he hardened the hearts of the Jewish opponents of Jesus so that they wouldn’t believe (John 12:37–40).
- “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18).
- “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples” (Psalms 33:10).
- “For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:20).
6. What’s the point of life on earth?
As explored in part 1, we know that our world isn’t the greatest possible world. Heaven is far better, so why didn’t God skip a step and make us in heaven? Or if life on earth is like heaven except without the wisdom to use free will, God could just give us that wisdom.
Earth as a winnowing test is a ridiculous notion. God already knows who’s naughty and who’s nice, and he could avoid making bad people in the first place. Sure, one could handwave that the good people only get that way because of the existence of the bad ones, but (1) there’s no reason to imagine that (this is the Hypothetical God Fallacy), and (2) again, God could’ve just made us in heaven and avoided creating earth.
7. God is a poor teacher
Jesus told his followers to choose the narrow road, because most people would take the broad road to destruction (Matthew 7:13–14).
Is God so bad a teacher that most of his students fail? Many human teachers pass all their students. You’d think that an omniscient and omnipotent teacher would do a better job.
8. God’s responsibility
If everything happens according to God’s plan, then God makes most of humanity knowing that they’re destined for hell. This doctrine of predestination is made explicit in Calvinism. While the opposite view of Arminianism rejects predestination, it’s hard to imagine an omniscient God who is nevertheless surprised and saddened when anyone is sent to hell.
Concluded with one final argument on the illogic of hell in part 3.
Talking with theists about religion sometimes—
and by sometimes I mean almost always—
feels like “Groundhog Day,”
a painful and monotonous slog
that simply travels the same territory over and over and over.
— Godless Mama