Overview:

William Lane Craig dances around the question; “Can a loving god send people to hell?” It’s an embarrassing question for Christians; and Craig's analysis doesn’t help.

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Can a loving god send people to hell? Almost thirty years ago, Christian apologist William Lane Craig debated atheist professor Ray Bradley on this topic.

That’s a good question. Let’s critique Craig’s answer.

Craig’s odd conclusion

William Lane Craig (WLC) acknowledged that this topic is potentially embarrassing for Christians, and he began by outlining the problem.

On the one hand, the Bible teaches that God is love, and yet, on the other hand, it warns that those who reject God face everlasting punishment, and it contains frequent warnings about the danger of going to hell. But aren’t these two somehow inconsistent with each other?

So we have “God is all loving” vs. “Some people go to hell.” That sounds bad, but WLC wonders if there is necessarily a problem. These two aren’t literally contradictory in the way that X and not-X are.

WLC says that the skeptic is making two assumptions (I’ve paraphrased them to make them more general):

  1. If God is all powerful, then God could create a world in which everyone freely lives their life in such a way that they merit getting into heaven.
  2. If God is all loving, then he would want such a world.

Given these, WLC concludes,

Now notice that both of these assumptions have to be necessarily true, in order to prove that God and hell are logically inconsistent with each other. So as long as there’s even a possibility that one of these assumptions is false, it’s possible that God is all-loving and yet some people go to hell.

Yeah, that’s a compelling message: “It’s possible that God is all-loving and yet some people go to hell.” Alternatively: it looks like God is a moral monster, but you can’t actually prove it.

Why is that not a popular sermon? I’d come to hear it.

A Christian response to Craig

Let me try to work within the Christian paradigm to see where that leads us. Let’s assume Christianity and also assume that free will is required for a fulfilled human life. This is supported by many Christian apologists who use the free will argument against the Problem of Evil. (I discuss this in more detail here and here.)

People in our world have free will, and yet most don’t meet the requirements for heaven. We know this because Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13–14). Few go to heaven, so the remainder must be destined for hell.

One way to salvage God is to argue that this world must be the best of all possible worlds. That is, God wants the best for us, but, imperfect as this world is, any alternative world would be worse. If God could’ve create a more-perfect world, he would have. This was the argument of Gottfried Leibnitz.

Conclusion: if God could’ve created a world populated by humans with free will such that everyone was good enough to deserve heaven, he would have. Since he didn’t, such a world couldn’t exist.

But hang on—don’t we already know of such a world? It’s heaven!

Heaven must have free will, since apologists tell us that God doesn’t want mindless robots programmed to love God. But heaven must be a fundamentally different place than earth. You might be able to put up with your nosey neighbor or your buffoon of a boss or your annoying in-laws for a limited time here on earth, but what if you were stuck with them (plus millions more just as imperfect), unchanged, for a trillion years? A heaven that put you in frequent contact with these bumpkins would soon become hellish.

Since we’re taking free will as a given, the answer is clear. That free will must come with the wisdom to use it properly.

Here on earth, we have the animal wisdom to know that deliberately hitting your hand with a hammer would be stupid, so we don’t do it. The profoundly wise beings in heaven would go beyond that. They’d have the free will to do bad things, but their wisdom would never go there. In heaven, your perfectly wise neighbors would have the free will to steal your wallet, but why would they? That would be just one of a vast number of stupid things, like hitting one’s hand with a hammer, that they would never bother pursuing.

This creates a contradiction. The existence of a heaven with free will says that, no, life on our earth isn’t the best of all possible worlds. Give us the wisdom to properly use free will (think of that wisdom as free will’s instruction manual), and we will freely choose to be moral and so merit heaven. And yet, using the best-of-all-possible-worlds hypothesis, we concluded above that earth was as good as it gets.

It looks like God is a moral monster, but you can’t actually prove it. Why is that not a popular sermon?

Response to Craig

Now return to WLC’s conclusion: “both of these assumptions have to be necessarily true, in order to prove that God and hell are logically inconsistent with each other.” Let’s review those assumptions.

Assumption 1 is, “If God is all powerful, then God could create a world in which everyone freely lives his life in such a way that they merit getting into heaven.” Agreed: heaven, with free will plus the wisdom to use it properly, is that world.

Assumption 2 is, “If God is all loving, then he would want such a world.” This also seems true. I can’t imagine any argument that concludes it’s a good thing to deliberately create imperfect people, knowing that they will wind up in eternal torment.

This has admittedly been an informal response to WLC’s answer to the debate question, “Can a loving god send people to hell?” Nevertheless, I find this a satisfactory answer to his challenge.

No, Dr. Craig, a loving God and torment in hell are inconsistent. It’s surprising that the atheist needs to teach the Christian about morality.

If you could reason with religious people,
there would be no religious people.
— Dr. House

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...