Reading Time: 10 minutes A secret garden. (Eva Rinaldi, CC-SA.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Welcome back from Christmas! Today we’re taking a quick break to look at one of the most popular Christian rationalizations out there. In the book Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side, author Natasha Crain regurgitates pretty much every single fundagelical talking point in the world in presenting arguments that parents are assured will ensure that children remain Christian–at least until they’re free from parental control. By far one of the most infuriating of her regurgitated talking points is this common one Christians offer for why there is so little credible support for Christians’ supernatural claims: Well gyarsh, Shaggy, the Christian god surely can’t provide anyone with 100% solid proof of his existence because then we wouldn’t be able to freely choose belief or non-belief. He’s so eager for us to love him for his own self that he can’t possibly take the chance of corrupting our natural inclinations. Obviously this whole line of reasoning is ridiculous, but today I’ll show you some of the reasons why–and how this argument completely backfires for Christians.

A secret garden. (Eva Rinaldi, CC-SA.)
A secret garden. (Eva Rinaldi, CC-SA.)

(And don’t call him Shirley.)

The Problem of Hell.

If there’s no danger of Hell, then why are [Christians] even doing all of this?

A Christian I once sparred with on YouTube

Sometime in the past 10 or 15 years, Christians have evolved what many of them think is the perfect way to explain one of the biggest moral quandaries in their entire religion: the Problem of Hell.

The Problem of Hell is, maybe even more than the Problem of Evil, one of the biggest and most serious ethical challenges to the entire religion of Christianity. Here are its basic propositions:

  1. Hell exists;
  2. Hell is a punishment for people who’ve violated the Christian god’s commands;
  3. Human beings go there (or are sent there, which really is the same difference); and
  4. There’s no escape at all from this place, nor any mercy, nor any reprieve.

These four points are considered gospel truth by the majority of Christians in America, according to the Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Study. These points also show up regularly in Christians’ marketing attempts, making it one of their biggest weapons in the war they imagine they’re fighting to win converts for their Mad Blood God of the Desert.

The further right along the spectrum of belief one travels, the more this belief in all four particulars turns up. And the more a Christian believes in these four points, the more scorn and contempt they seem to have in their hearts for those who don’t hold to one or more of those points.

The real surprise about that Pew study, however, was the shocking revelation that Hell wasn’t anything close to a unanimous belief for Christians. 

Indeed, a surprisingly large number of Christians, including even a striking percentage of Christians who think the Bible is meant to be taken literally, have resolved the Problem of Hell by simply rejecting the notion of Hell. Some of them have lost all belief in Hell itself as a place; others have resolved it by believing that very, very few people (if any at all) are in danger of going there; others still think that it’s only a temporary stopover for souls needing a little extra purification before their final heavenly destination–and that it’s probably not even a very unpleasant stopover at that.

It seems like there are as many ways to resolve the Problem of Hell as there are Christians, and that’s obviously a deeply distressing idea for any Christian leader who uses Hell as a selling point to win and keep their dwindling numbers of sheep.

LifeWay did their own survey on the topic in 2016 (one almost imagines that they did it because they were just so shocked by Pew’s numbers) and came out wringing their hands over how much Americans “are fuzzy on the details” of Hell. The executive director of LifeWay decided that the survey revealed that Americans “seem to be confused about some of the details of their faith,” since of course that’s the only explanation they can possibly think of for why so many Christians have rejected this terrible doctrine.

Rejecting Evil.

And let’s face facts: it makes sense for so many Christians to reject a doctrine that is, at its blackened heart, the antithesis of anything they might claim about their god’s lovingkindness or grace. There’s nothing moral whatsoever, nor loving, nor grace-filled, about the idea of eternal inescapable torture for a finite lifetime’s worth of thoughtcrime. The idea of torturing anybody is purest evil; the idea of a loving god allowing that to happen to anybody (in this life or the imagined next) is unconscionable. It’s grotesque and it’s utterly incompatible with any possible understanding of goodness.

Likely, the only reason that so many Christians accept the idea of Hell as being compatible with the notion of a loving god is that they’ve been trained since birth to think so. (Some of the nastier sorts of Christians might also appreciate the power of this ultimate threat as a tool for coercing compliance from others, as well. Certainly I’ve met a large number of ’em who appear to love using it that way, at least!) Moreover, they’re trained to believe that all other religions’ afterlives and various Hells aren’t worthy of their fear or belief or compliance, but Christianity’s Hell is the one everyone should fear and try to avoid.

But Hell works grandly as a marketing tool. Yes, it causes terror in people–especially children. Yes, it makes people take actions that are decidedly not in their best interest because they are responding to threats, not thinking stuff through.

That’s the whole point of Hell as a doctrine.

It’s supposed to terrorize people.

That’s why Christians talk it up in the first place. Hell is a marketing tool that has worked marvelously well for them for about 2000 years.

The Arithmetic of Morality.

But then a funny thing happens in the minds of Christians who believe in this horrific idea.

Over the years, critics of the religion have come up with a number of reasons why Hell is an absolute moral abomination to anybody with an ounce of compassion or fair-mindedness. Those criticisms have filtered down to Christians. And yeah, it’s really ghastly that this doctrine exists, and what this doctrine says about Christianity itself–and its imaginary friend–is itself ghastly.

So Christians need to come up with a way to make Hell a morally-acceptable doctrine to hold. They need to feel like good people following a good religion kick-started by a good god, while also believing that their friends, families, and loved ones going to Hell forever to face eternal torture for a few decades of dissent or misbehavior.

They need a way to blame the people going to Hell for sending themselves there, so that their imaginary friend is no longer the bad guy in this equation.

They need a way to make themselves feel like there’s a perfectly good reason why their imaginary friend couldn’t come up with any other way to make the universe work than what they see in reality.

They need a catchphrase that they can parrot to ease the guilt and shame that any properly-moral person would naturally feel after realizing exactly what Hell is to their religion and exactly what function it serves in their ambitious overreach.

And because they’re human beings, they came up with one!

The Free Will Defense.

Enter the “Free Will Defense” that Alvin Plantinga came up with in the 1970s.

Initially conceived as a way to fight the Problem of Evil, the Free Will Defense runs more or less like this in Christians’ minds: the Bible’s god needed to give human beings the ability to freely choose good or evil for themselves without forcing them into a mold where they can only choose good.

When someone’s forced to choose good, then it doesn’t really mean as much; that person didn’t have a choice in the matter. One might as well say that a stapler is exemplary for being able to drive staples through paper; a stapler really can’t do much of anything else anyway. It’d be far more surprising if a stapler managed to function as an aquarium filter, in that context. So because a stapler was designed to staple stuff, it doesn’t get bonus points for stapling stuff.

Now, Plantinga himself wasn’t actually arguing that free will was so damned important to the Bible’s god that he allowed evil to exist in our universe to preserve it. He was really just arguing that the Problem of Evil isn’t actually the dealbreaker end-all be-all logical refutation of the idea of an omnimax god (that means omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, just all the omni attributes that Christians think their god has).

But you can imagine that Christians heard that defense and just ran hog-wild with it.

Warp(ed) Speed.

I wasn’t hearing the Free Will Defense employed all that often when I was a Christian, but it’s gained quite a lot of currency since I deconverted. At some point Christians just totally latched onto this idea as an excuse for why their god was okay with Hell and why evil existed and maybe even other stuff besides. Free will became their get-out-of-uncomfortable-discussions-free card.

This belief isn’t actually even just a fundagelical thing. No, you’re as likely to hear this drivel from a Catholic or a Lutheran as from someone from a tiny little Pentecostal tongues-talking, snake-handling church.

Natasha Crain puts her own little spin on that rationalization in her book. Here’s the quote we’ll be working with today in all its full glory (as always, all emphases are on the wrong sylLAble from the original):

Many people believe human free will is necessary for us to genuinely love God; if God forced us to choose and love Him, that wouldn’t be a meaningful love at all. We would simply be robots. Similarly, free will intersects with the problem of God’s hiddenness: If God revealed Himself too much, He would take away our freedom to make morally significant decisions–decisions like choosing to love Him. For example, if He were to show up in every person’s living room and say, “Believe in me or you’ll suffer eternal damnation,” we would be coerced into belief. He would effectively be taking away our free will. By remaining somewhat hidden, He gives us space to either genuinely seek Him or avoid Him. And, very importantly, the Bible says that when we do diligently seek God, we will find Him (Deuteronomy 4:29).

Free Will, Demolished.

The first and foremost problem with her argument is that we’re no longer very sure that human beings have very much free will. In fact, it sort of looks like human beings don’t have much free will at all. From the genetics we’re born with to the earliest experiences that shape our psyches and health before we’re even able to accept or reject Christianity itself, it sure doesn’t seem like the notion of free will is much of anything but a modern conceit.

Plus, the Christian god never seemed all that excited about free will in the Bible. He hardened hearts several times to force people to do things and most Christians imagine that their god has a “plan” for their lives that was set into place before they were even born.

Consent Doesn’t Negate Free Will.

It’s also more than a little disturbing that Christians are trying to stomp on consent by saying that full, informed information negates free will somehow. In a way it feels like they’re referring to that romance-novel trope about the rich billionaire who keeps his wealth secret from the heroine to make sure she really loves him for him and not his money.

But think about that for a second. Yes, even Christians want full informed consent before making decisions. It’s why we check CarFax before purchasing cars, why we hire multiple inspectors to make sure the houses and properties we purchase are safe, and why we do a quick social-media check of potential romantic partners (and employees, increasingly) before associating with them.

The information we gain doesn’t negate our free will. It enhances it.

Love Is a Choice, in Christian-Land.

Natasha Crain inhabits the fundagelical world. In that world, love is always a choice. People choose to love or not love the Christian god; they choose to love or not love their spouses, their church members, and their enemies. And if they can’t manage to conjure up loving feelings for all the people their religion commands them to love, then that is 100% their problem and nobody else’s.

Thinking of love as a choice fulfills a number of very important needs in Christian-Land. First and foremost, it allows Christians to rationalize away the pure evil that is Hell in their theology. If someone chooses to go to Hell, goes the logic, then obviously it’s not a moral problem for Christians at all. It’s totally not their fault if someone chooses to do something, even something they regret very much later.

Don’t expect them to be consistent and stop using the but but but they might regret what they’re doing one day excuse for overreach in their anti-abortion culture wars. It’s okay if sinners regret choosing not to love their god even if it means an eternity of horrific torture (the limits of which are reached only according to the imaginative power of the Christian using that as a threat in their sales pitch). It’s totally not okay if a woman gets an abortion that maybe, one day, with enough emotional manipulation from past masters of the art of emotionally manipulating people, she regrets; that particular use of someone’s personal autonomy cannot possibly be allowed.

At its heart, this notion that someone can choose to love is already morally abhorrent enough; but when one adds in the threat of Hell that always chases alongside Christian apologetics, that notion becomes monstrous in the extreme. We cannot love that which threatens or terrorizes us. It’s not possible, and it’s grotesque that so many Christians seem totally okay with that idea.

But it does go into the hat when people evaluate their religion–and from what I see, this notion alone seriously alienates potential customers!

The Trickster God Walks Among Us, Apparently.

If Christians actually had any good reason to believe any of their nonsense was true, then they wouldn’t need sketchy and irrational reasoning like what Natasha Crain parrots so obediently.

I don’t think Christians realize exactly how powerless and puny their god is when they talk about him being helpless to design a system that doesn’t involve innocent people being victimized repeatedly by predators (ahem), or helpless to find a way to communicate evidence for his existence without coercing people into obedience. I’m not even a god, and I can think of any number of ways that this system could be improved dramatically!

But they’d rather have a trickster god than none at all.

We are not obligated to accept the limited godling they propose with these rationalizations.

The Super-Obvious God of Natasha Crain.

Another central conceit of Natasha Crain’s parroted apologetics is that she’s totally convinced that her god actually has made his existence extremely obvious.

Here she parrots, again, all the apologetics arguments she’s mistakenly latched onto as proof of her god’s existence: Creationism, argument from beauty, “objective morality,” personal experience and anecdotes (which she considers testimonial evidence, which is to say that she thinks these subjective stories are compelling and authoritative to others–she’s not alone here, either; lots of Christians think this way), and the like. It is all not only weak sauce but weakest sauce. If you were expecting a Z-list apologist to come up with anything new or exciting in this department, well, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

So her  god is obvious, except when he isn’t, in which case that’s just human arrogance, desire to sin, and willful ignorance refusing to accept the obvious.

Salespeople Never Lie, Vol. 23490283592698346.

This idea simply doesn’t work at all the way that Christians think it does. As with a lot of apologetics, it’s entirely possible that Natasha Crain–along with all her pals in apologetics–simply absorbed this talking point from whoever sold it to her, took the salesperson’s word for its effectiveness, and began parroting it herself in her own sales attempts like a good little MLM drone.

But there’s no reason to think that the Bible–or Christians’ conceptualization of their god, really–is accurately portraying the supernatural. There’s no reason to think that the Christian god is really that wonderful, or that he’s really that concerned with people loving him. If he truly existed and he was concerned about being loved, then Christians would not have to rely upon such terrible arguments to try to make sales for him. It’s totally inconceivable that a real god would need to devise such tactics.

It’d be nice if Christians used a little more critical thinking regarding the claims their salespeople make to them. As it stands, their salesmanship strategies alone tell us that their claims aren’t true at all, and that this nonsense is the very best that they can come up with to make sales.

Be thinking about this tendency Christians have to create strategies that have nothing whatsoever to do with their real goals, because that’s where we’re heading next. See you soon!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...