Hell and the Hot Stove, Part I
Is God really responsible for our sin?
“The doctrine of eternal punishment is probably the most unpopular, hated and feared teaching in the entire Bible. The thought of people burning in hell for eternity is most repugnant to the human mind. ‘It is a doctrine which the natural heart revolts from and struggles against, and to which it submits only under stress of authority. The church believes the doctrine because it must believe it, or renounce faith in the Bible, and give up all the hopes founded upon its promises.’”
--Brian Schwertley, “The Biblical Doctrine of Hell Examined”
Hell turns out to be quite a problem for Christians and non-Christians alike. I am convinced that the largest problem for non-Christians is that they simply don’t like the concept. It is a stumbling block for them because they don’t see how a God who is supposed to be a loving God could send people to eternal punishment. Emery Lee, in his on-line, extremely negative essay about hell (what would one expect from an website entitled “losingmyreligion.com”) entitled “The injustice of Hell” has this to say about hell:
“Most of us are familiar with Hell. It is a part of our pervasive Judeo-Christian heritage, and has become such an accepted part of our understanding of God and justice, that few stop to examine what a horrifying idea it really is. Like growing up next to a slaughterhouse, the smells and sights and sounds that revolt others are hardly noticed by we who have lived there all our lives. Instead we look in disgust at the practices of primitive pagan cultures, Satan worshippers and communists, while ignoring the far greater moral outrage of our own religion's Hell. Even the most bloodthirsty and ruthless among us could not aspire to that which the Christian God has in store for his children.”
Wow! Is he right? Is hell an indefensible notion in our modern society? I don’t think so. I have often defended Christianity from unwarranted charges against it, and Mr. Lee’s article is simply a summary of arguments that I have seen many times before. While they appear sound on first glance, a better understanding of the Biblical teaching together with a little exploration of the objections shows that the arguments are flawed. In this short essay, I want to examine just one aspect of Mr. Lee’s argument: the idea that hell is unjust because God created the entire system.
In his section entitled “An unfair punishment, anyway you cut it”, Mr. Lee differentiates between active and passive punishment.
“Active punishment is a punishment inflicted by the parent, such as a spanking. Passive punishment, on the other hand, has more to do with consequence, such as getting your hand burned by a hot stove after you've been told not to touch it. Here, punishment occurs, but the parent does not actively cause it.”
After rejecting as overkill the active punishment argument, he launches an attack on the passive punishment argument (which is more what I believe to be true) as follows:
“The crux of the passive punishment idea is that hell is a natural consequence of sin, and not a punishment inflicted on us by God. That supposedly removes any moral responsibility on God's part for the suffering we endure. After all, He warned us about it, didn't He? Such an argument might work, except for one thing: God created everything, including Hell, and the scenario under which most of humanity must go there. What Christians leave out of the hot stove analogy is, who turned on the stove in the first place. So a more accurate analogy goes like this:
I am the owner of a daycare, full of preschoolers. In the playroom, I put many toys in the center, and surround them with hot stoves. With strict instructions not to touch the stoves, I let the kids loose in the playroom. You can guess what happens next. So who's fault is it that many of the kids suffer burns? Using the Christian argument for Hell, the fault would lie with the children, because they were told of the consequences of touching the stoves, yet did so anyway. You think the police would buy that argument? Of course not. Not only would my daycare be immediately shut down, I would be arrested. Why? Because I created the dangerous condition in the daycare, and as a result, put the kids in harm's way. Even though I may have warned them, children are not capable of avoiding such dangers, and the responsibility for their injury is still mine. And putting hot stoves in a room full of little kids is in itself insane, regardless of the consequences.
Similarly, if God created everything, then He also created Hell. He is solely responsible for its attributes, and what it does to people. He also created a system of salvation from Hell that is unattainable by most. Like the children in the daycare, we are not responsible for this horrible object that was placed so close to us. Nor are we equipped to avoid its danger. The Christian argument that Hell is a natural consequence of disobedience forgets the fact that God is the one who created this consequence and put it there, and this by itself is already an immoral act. Those who create torture chambers have already committed an ethical violation, regardless of what rules they later implement to determine who goes there.”
(I think it worthy to note that Mr. Lee mixes up the roles between God and man. In the first paragraph he states that the passive argument is an attempt to absolve God of the “moral responsibility” for the punishment suffered in hell. To my knowledge, no one is attempting to absolve God of moral responsibility. In fact, the issue of moral responsibility is at the very heart of the concept of hell—it is the place where we are held “morally responsible” for our sins.)
With all due respect to Mr. Lee, this analogy fails miserably. The biggest problem with the analogy is that it assumes that we have no part in our own punishment. Mr. Lee’s argument assumes that because God created us, we are little more than automatons who act according to a predetermined course without any ability to change our own course. Thus I will spend this essay discussing the fact that we are responsible for our own sin, and not spend any more time in this Part of the essay talking about hell.
I have discussed this same argument previously. In an essay entitled “Who's Responsible for Sin?”, I discussed the fact that many skeptics have taken up a new tactic: they argue that we cannot responsible for sin because God made us in such a way that we are destined to sin and therefore God is ultimately responsible for our failures. The analogy I used at that time was that the skeptics view people as if they are no more than a rock which God set on a hill which will ultimately be pulled down by physical forces. How can you blame the rock for doing what it does as the result of the natural forces acting on it when it was placed on the hill by God? It is God's fault for placing the rock on the hillside in such a way that it is bound to fall down. Mr. Lee’s argument is similar. He is arguing that because God set up a system that includes hell, he is the one responsible for the fact that many people will end up there.
I find this argument less than convincing because I find no warrant for believing that because God set up the universe in which we live that we are not responsible for our own choices and actions in this universe. The crux of the argument is that God created hell and therefore is responsible for people ending up there. By that logic, I suppose that government is responsible for prisoners ending up in prison, too, since the government sets up the laws and the court system and the prisons. That is ridiculous.
You see, early in Genesis (Genesis 1, to be exact) God says “let us create man in our image.” What does this mean? According to the on-line Commentary for Genesis 1:27 by Robert Jamieson, it means at least this:
“And in what did this image of God consist? Not in the erect form or features of man, not in his intellect, for the devil and his angels are, in this respect, far superior; not in his immortality, for he has not, like God, a past as well as a future eternity of being; but in the moral dispositions of his soul, commonly called original righteousness (Ec 7:29). As the new creation is only a restoration of this image, the history of the one throws light on the other; and we are informed that it is renewed after the image of God in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness (Col 3:10; Eph 4:24).”
Consider also the Commentary by Matthew Henry to Genesis 1:27 (also online):
“God's image upon man consists in these three things:-- 1. In his nature and constitution, not those of his body (for God has not a body), but those of his soul. This honour indeed God has put upon the body of man, that the Word was made flesh, the Son of God was clothed with a body like ours and will shortly clothe ours with a glory like that of his. And this we may safely say, That he by whom God made the worlds, not only the great world, but man the little world, formed the human body, at the first, according to the platform he designed for himself in the fulness of time. But it is the soul, the great soul, of man, that does especially bear God's image. The soul is a spirit, an intelligent immortal spirit, an influencing active spirit, herein resembling God, the Father of Spirits, and the soul of the world. The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord. The soul of man, considered in its three noble faculties, understanding, will, and active power, is perhaps the brightest clearest looking-glass in nature, wherein to see God. 2. In his place and authority: Let us make man in our image, and let him have dominion. As he has the government of the inferior creatures, he is, as it were, God's representative, or viceroy, upon earth; they are not capable of fearing and serving God, therefore God has appointed them to fear and serve man. Yet his government of himself by the freedom of his will has in it more of God's image than his government of the creatures. 3. In his purity and rectitude. God's image upon man consists in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, Eph. iv. 24; Col. iii. 10. He was upright, Eccl. vii. 29. He had an habitual conformity of all his natural powers to the whole will of God. His understanding saw divine things clearly and truly, and there were no errors nor mistakes in his knowledge. His will complied readily and universally with the will of God, without reluctancy or resistance. His affections were all regular, and he had no inordinate appetites or passions. His thoughts were easily brought and fixed to the best subjects, and there was no vanity nor ungovernableness in them. All the inferior powers were subject to the dictates and directions of the superior, without any mutiny or rebellion. Thus holy, thus happy, were our first parents, in having the image of God upon them. And this honour, put upon man at first, is a good reason why we should not speak ill one of another (Jam. iii. 9), nor do ill one to another (Gen. ix. 6), and a good reason why we should not debase ourselves to the service of sin, and why we should devote ourselves to God's service.” (Emphasis added.)
What does this mean for purposes of sin? It means this: we were created in the image of God. As such, we have been given dominion and freedom to follow God or not follow God. We were given original righteousness, and we—not God—threw it away in favor of sin. We are the ones responsible for our own actions and our own faults. To put the blame on God for creating us as He has is akin to blaming your parents for your genes. In fact, we know that while there are certain aspects of genetics that we cannot help (eye color, height, etc.), we also acknowledge that we are responsible for our own actions in the world despite our genetics. Much of morality is overcoming our natural, genetically predetermined urges and desires. In the same way, simply because we have as part of the fall of man in the garden a predisposition to sin does not excuse us from sinning.
To blame God for the entire system is stepping one step further down the ladder. It seems to be an argument similar to this: we cannot excuse people who commit crimes simply because they may be genetically predispositioned to do so, so we are going to blame God for creating the genetic predisposition. By the same token, we recognize that people are going to sin and such sinning is part of their predisposition following the fall, so we are going to blame God for creating us in such a manner that we could fall. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work. We are sinners because we choose to sin and for no other reason. To blame God for giving us the freedom to choose to sin (and therefore abuse that right) would be like blaming the government for punishing me for my abuse of the freedom of speech because it granted me the freedom of speech. It just doesn’t work.
Make no mistake about it, when we sin it isn’t because we don’t understand the difference between right and wrong. The law of God is written on everyone’s heart (Rom. 2:15). I don’t just read that in the Bible, I believe that I have seen it acted out time and time again. People instinctively know that certain things are wrong and certain things are right. Moreover, I think God’s existence is self-evident. Just because we are able to twist it around and convince ourselves that it isn’t does not make it any less just for God to punish us for the daily violation of His law–especially the law that requires us to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. Because we are too weak to meet the requirement ourselves, we are deserving of punishment. And our weakness is not because we are inherently too weak—God created us with the power to be righteous. It is our own desire to sin that we don’t overcome. God created us with the ability to overcome, but he also created us with the freedom to do what we want when it comes to sin.
Next time, I will talk about how hell works into this picture. But before we can talk about hell, we need to understand that we are responsible for our own failures. We cannot blame God for our realizing sin simply because he created us with the capacity to sin. It is the realization of that sin—which is our choice—that ultimately leads one to hell.