God does nothing to explain his Plan and Christians don’t understand it, but that won’t stop them from defending it. Perhaps nothing is harder for them to justify than hell.
God can’t defend or even explain his policies, but he has self-appointed people eager to put words in his mouth.
Christian apologist Greg Koukl was given the opportunity to stand up for God since God never bothers, and Koukl didn’t disappoint. He was asked this question:
If you [a Christian] found yourself on Judgement Day standing next to an unbeliever you cared for and liked, and Jesus offered to either annihilate you both or send you to heaven and your friend to hell for eternity, which would you choose and why? (audio @21:05)
God knows best, I guess
Koukl unsurprisingly chose option two. His justification: “because that’s God’s system” and God knows best.
So we’re supposed to accept an insane interpretation of justice—infinite punishment in hell for finite crimes here on earth—and just assume that God must have good reasons? This does nothing to justify the Christian position and would be satisfying only to Christians (and maybe only some of those).
This question is like God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac—it looked like an obedience test, but it was actually a morality test. The correct response for Abraham was: “No, of course I won’t sacrifice Isaac.” And this wasn’t presumptuous of Abraham. Since Man was supposedly created in God’s image (or the gods’ image), Man’s understanding of morality should be in sync with God’s, and the natural instinct of revulsion against killing one’s own son should be reliable.
Now apply that attitude to this question of annihilation vs. heaven for you and hell for your atheist friend. Any mentally healthy person would be horrified at the idea of anyone, let alone a friend, being tormented forever and would immediately choose the alternative. How could you enjoy heaven if you knew that, because of you, he was burning in hell? Besides, this hypothetical situation assumes that “God’s system” has suddenly become flexible, so that your choosing is allowed, and your God-given sense of morality would be an appropriate response.
Koukl has unwarranted confidence in his interpretation of God’s wishes. Christians can’t explain the logic behind the Trinity, they’re divided over hell (eternal torment vs. “the gates are locked from the inside”), they can’t agree on whether Christianity is at odds with science or not, and so on. Christians have found loads of contradictory interpretations of the Bible to justify various attitudes toward slavery, civil rights, same-sex marriage, abortion, health care, and so on. That Koukl is comfortable with his particular set of responses to the dozens of questions that divide Christians says a lot about him but little about what the Bible says.
(Aside: this clumsy justification reminds me of Koukl’s dancing around the issue of whether women getting abortions should be punished.)
Consequences in heaven
Koukl moves on to the question of how this will affect heaven. Will knowing about a friend (or billions of people) writhing in agony “tarnish our enjoyment of heaven”?
Yeah, that’d be a shame if someone else’s anguish rained on his enjoyment of heaven. He explained that when we get heavenly enlightenment, we will understand that “God’s judgments are just.”
Yet again, I’m not sure how humans can be so radically out of sync with God’s “morality” when we were supposedly created in his image. You’re an enlightened being in heaven (presumably greatly elevated from your flawed, limited human shell on earth), and you know about the billions in torment, and you’ll be okay with that?!
“We [in heaven] will rejoice in the good,” Koukl tells us, but what kind of Bizarro World are we talking about, when Christian belief obliges them to label as “good” a punishment system that makes the 11 million deaths in the Holocaust look like a church picnic? It’s pretty much the most inhumane situation conceivable, and it’s held up as a divine good.
And Christians wonder why atheists are occasionally peeved at Christian dogma.
Koukl isn’t alone in his evaluation. Plenty of other apologists have no reluctance in celebrating God’s perfect inhumane plan. Here is thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas doubling down:
That the saints [in heaven] may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly and give more abundant thanks to God for it, a perfect sight of punishment of the damned is granted them.
(More on the history of Christians not tap dancing way from but celebrating the idea of hell here.)
If you’re in hell, it’s your own fault
As usual, we can’t demand that God answer for his barbaric justice. God is a fragile baby, and it would be too harsh to treat him like an adult. Luckily, we have Christian apologists happy to pull the strings on the God marionette and speak for him. Koukl defends God’s system:
On this system, forgiveness is available and [the damned] did not avail themselves of it, and they are justly punished for what they did and I am unjustly … forgiven.
See, I told you! If you’re roasting on a spit in hell, that’s too bad, because it’s your own fault.
Let’s reconsider this claim that forgiveness is available, because it’s not available to me. Who can believe the unbelievable? I need evidence, and Christianity has pretty much none. The Christian can demonstrate to us how this is supposed to work by believing in leprechauns. When they show me that believing in the unbelievable is possible, then we can move on to the question of whether it’s a smart thing to do.
And let’s just set aside the claim that Jesus taking on our sin with substitutionary atonement makes any sense (it doesn’t).
Is Koukl being selfish?
Koukl anticipates the charge that he’s being selfish, that he’ll make the other person go to hell just so he gets heaven.
It is the consequence of the plan that God has put in place, and it’s an expression of two appropriate things, justice being done to somebody who deserves it and grace being extended based on God’s plan and purpose, both good things.
“Justice”? Ask anyone if hell is the justice they’d impose if they were the boss. Koukl here is judging God’s plan as reasonable and good when it obviously isn’t according to any human interpretation. Hell would make a sadist recoil. If he means that hell only sounds brutally unjust, but we must trust God, then he should (1) admit that it sounds crazy and that he doesn’t understand and (2) explain why that trust in God’s plan would be justified. When the divine plan unravels like this, go back and question your assumptions. Maybe God isn’t good. Maybe he doesn’t exist.
And let’s return to the original scenario, annihilation vs. heaven for Koukl and hell for the atheist. If neither of them deserves heaven, why does Koukl get forgiven and the atheist get “justice”? Wouldn’t the other way around make as much sense? And suppose they did switch places. Could Koukl have any grounds for protesting that this was unfair? After all, he does insist that he deserves hell, and he’s taking as a given that God’s plan is perfect. Would he celebrate the fact that eternity in hell would support God’s plan?
Or consider another scenario: now it’s Koukl and a Muslim friend standing in judgment, and Allah gives the friend the choice. Greg Koukl, you decide: should the friend choose annihilation or paradise for the friend and hell for Koukl?
Koukl has done nothing to help his Christian audience defend hell. God’s Marvelous Plan® still sounds like Bronze Age insanity.
God never fails, because he never tries.
He’s not even a loser.
He doesn’t show up to the game.
— commenter Jack Baynes, Sandwichmaker