Jesus, Hell, And The Argumentum Ad Baculum
Is Christianity a fallacious appeal to force?

I recently received a response to one of the CADRE posts which made a claim which I have seen on many occasions. The anonymous poster (*sigh*--always annonymous) said:

A classical argumentum ad baculum, my friend. But what else could one except, since Christianity as a whole is one big argumentum ad baculum?

For those of you who are a bit rusty on your logical fallacies, the “argumentum ad baculum” is the “appeal to force” or, more precisely, “the argument to the cudgel.” As described in Fact Index, a person engages in the agumentum ad baculum “when one points out the negative consequences of holding the contrary position.” In other words, if an employee says “I disagree with the war in Iraq,” and a second employee counters “if you hold that view you will be fired” as a means of changing the mind of the first employee, then the second employee has clearly used the argumentum ad baculum.

I really do sympathize with this position. Some Christians attempt to evangelize skeptics by saying such things says “if you don’t believe in Jesus, you are going to hell.” If I were a skeptic, I would certainly have my doubts about such an approach since the Christian appears to be saying “believe in Christianity or else!” The Christian is pointing out to the skeptic the “consequences of holding the contrary position,” i.e., if you don’t believe in Jesus you are going to end up in hell. What could be a clearer appeal to force? The Internet Infidels website certainly thinks the warning about hell is an appeal to force. Consider the following from that website:

An Appeal to Force happens when someone resorts to force (or the threat of force) to try and push others to accept a conclusion. This fallacy is often used by politicians, and can be summarized as "might makes right." The threat doesn't have to come directly from the person arguing. For example:

"... Thus there is ample proof of the truth of the Bible. All those who refuse to accept that truth will burn in Hell."
So, is it true that Christianity “as a whole is one big argumentum ad baculum”? No, actually it's not for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, the real problem with the argumentum ad baculum is that it uses possible ulterior reasons to indirectly change someone’s opinion, but does not directly address the arguments for changing the opinion. As noted by the Nizkor Project:

It is important to distinguish between a rational reason to believe (RRB) (evidence) and a prudential reason to believe (PRB) (motivation). A RRB is evidence that objectively and logically supports the claim. A PRB is a reason to accept the belief because of some external factor (such as fear, a threat, or a benefit or harm that may stem from the belief) that is relevant to what a person values but is not relevant to the truth or falsity of the claim. For example, it might be prudent to not fail the son of your department chairperson because you fear he will make life tough for you. However, this does not provide evidence for the claim that the son deserves to pass the class.

Contrary to the view held by some skeptics (and reinforced by some well-meaning but misguided Christians), Christianity does not primarily rely on the “believe in Jesus or go to hell” argument. Rather the historic approach to proselytizing has been to make arguments for Jesus’ divinity and the existence of God, i.e., it principally provides rational reasons to believe (RRB). It does so in a number of ways: the arguments from morality, teleology, cosmology, ontology and history, are just some of the RRB that are used by Christians to make their case for Christianity. Yes, I admit that there are questions that arise about each one of these arguments (hence, the existence of lively debates on these arguments), but the existence of these discussions demonstrate that the principle reason to believe in Christianity arises not from the threat of hell, but from well-articulated arguments and evidence.

But even those whose evangelism includes a warning that there are consequences for not believing—-specifically, going to hell—-are not necessarily engaging in the argumentum ad baculum. Not every appeal to consequence is an appeal to force. If I were to see Johnny standing in the middle of the highway and see a truck bearing down on him , I would yell to Johnny: “Get off the road or you are going to get hit by that truck.” I have just made an argumentum ad baculum according to the Fact Index since I have just articulated to Johnny the “consequences of holding the contary position.” But I haven’t engaged in an argumentum ad baculum because I am merely warning Johnny of the danger of standing in the roadway when a truck is coming.

Consider the following: in 1994, the Major League Baseball players were locked out by the owners in the longest work stoppage in major league history. The lockout continued into the Spring of 1995, at which time the owners decided to bring in other baseball players to play the games since the players union refused to negotiate an end to the lockout. At that time, Brett Butler was the player representative for the Los Angeles Dodgers. When he learned that non-union players and union players willing to cross the picket line would show up to play, he made a statement to the effect of (paraphrasing): “If these ‘scabs’ show up and play, they will be vilified by the baseball players who are standing with the union and refusing to play.” My friend, Kurt, contended that what Butler said was a horrible threat to the ‘scabs’, and therefore constituted an argumentum ad baculum. I countered that since the origin of labor unions, it is a fact that people who cross the picket lines are hated and vilified by the workers who didn’t cross on their return to work. Thus, Butler wasn’t making a threat, he was merely stating a fact. Does that constitute an argumentum ad baculum? Again, the answer should be no for the same reason that the previously-mentioned warning to Johnny doesn’t constitute a fallacy: merely stating the facts about what is going to happen to them for doing (or not doing) something is not an improper appeal to force. It is informing them of what the speaker believes to be fact.

From these two examples, we can see that there is a distinction between an improper appeal to consequences and an appropriate statement of consequences. If there is no warranted connection between the consequence warned of and the acceptance of the course of action or the acceptance of the claim, then there is an argumentum ad baculum. However, if the circumstances of a situation are such as to warrant the belief that the speaker is simply stating what he or she believes to be fact, or that he or she is stating a warning that he or she believes to be well founded, then the argument is not a fallacious appeal to force.

If a Christian says that a person who doesn’t believe in Jesus is going to hell, then that person is making a statement connecting non-belief with hell. Is such a statement warranted? I am sure that my skeptical friends are saying shouting that it isn’t, but there are two ways that such a statement can be made which overcomes the objection. First, it could be stated merely as fact, much like Butler did in the baseball example, above. If the Christian is merely stating what he or she believes to be true, and they are not saying it as a means of changing the mind of the listener, then there is no fallacious appeal to force. I know that I rarely speak of hell when speaking with skeptics, but if I am asked about it I acknowledge that it is true that one must receive forgiveness of Jesus Christ to be saved. Have I made an improper appeal to force by saying that? No, because the statement of a fact (especially in response to a specific question) is not an improper appeal to force. Otherwise, one could never state what the consequences of actions and thoughts may be without engaging in a fallacy. This is clearly not appropriate.

Second, the statement may be used as a warning similar to “Johnny, if you don’t get off the highway you will be hit by a car!” The appeal by some Christians to hell is like saying “Johnny, if you don’t change your ways, you will go to hell.” The statements are very similar. One could argue that the first is more believable because we all can agree on the danger of standing on the highway but we don’t all agree with the danger of being a non-Christian. I have two responses to that comment. First, the validity of the warning does not turn on how many people would agree that it is true. If I were the only one to see the truck driving right at little Johnny, it doesn’t make my warning to Johnny any less of a warning and not an improper argumentum ad baculum. If the car is going to hit Johnny and I am the only one who sees it, then I believe the warning to be well founded and it falls outside of the bounds of the fallacy. Likewise, even if I am the only one who sees the connection between non-belief in Jesus and hell, it is still not an argumentum ad baculum to warn someone that there is a hell awaiting them if they don’t receive forgiveness.

Second, it is reasonable for the Christian to believe that the unforgiven faces hell based on authority. The authority in this case is Jesus Christ who spent a great deal of time speaking of hell. Since there are reasons to believe that he is an authority on spiritual matters and the afterlife (and we can discuss those later), then if I were to warn someone that they are going to hell if they don’t receive forgiveness, I have a foundation for doing so. In other words, it becomes a warranted belief.

While some people do use the warning about hell as a means of arguing around the issues to have someone convert to Christianity, I don’t agree that Christianity is “a whole is one big argumentum ad baculum.” Christianity presents arguments for belief independent of the “believe or go to hell” argument. Moreover, not every mention or warning about hell constitutes an argument ad baculum for the reasons expressed above.


Anonymous said…
Wow, I'm impressed that my comment spawned a whole entry!

First things first: it's anonymous because I have no reason to sign up for a Blogger account--I don't have a blog, only a website. But my identity is no secret. I'm Heathen Dawn, a neopagan. I found this blog through a link on IIDB. My own website is here:

As for the response, my argument about the use of force by Christianity still stands, it is not dulled by writing off hell as a mere consequence, like failing to stop smoking. It stands because the Christian God set up this whole dippy system. Others have said that much better than me, for example in the following article:

In short, I don't fear roasting in Christian hell any more than you fear roasting in Islamic hell (which, according to Qur'an 3:85, all Christians are headed for). I believe in a good Creator who has other ways of treating sinners than eternally tormenting them.

Blessed be!

Enjoyed the read. Be interested to hear your position on hell as a literal 'roasting' as your first commentator described it.

The interview with JP Morleand in The Case For Faith really helped me to work through some of the confusing language surrounding hell.

Here is another interesting essay (mostly taken from Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics) called Hell, Every Which Way But Loose. Note in particular the section on "The Nature and Location of Hell"

Be interested in hearing your reflections.

Again, good post.

BK said…
Heathen Dawn,

Thanks for identifying yourself. It is good to put a name to a post so that I can direct my comments more specifically. I have read your link and will be preparing a lengthy response to it since I don't agree with it in the slightest. :) I will try to write it up by early next week. In the meantime, thanks for the input.
BK said…

Thanks for the compliment. I already have a good idea as to what is wrong with the link posted by Heathen Dawn, but I will look your link over before blogging my response. Keep up the great work on your own blog.

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