The Damnable Thing about Damnation

Do you ever read the reviews on Amazon Books? Many are a waste of time, but some are interesting. I noticed one that reviewed The End of Christianity, Prometheus Books, 2011, ed. John Loftus. The review was written by one “Alex C.” I assume that this is not Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex. Maybe he is a relative of Ray Comfort, the Christian apologist. At any rate, I was interested to see that he had some comments on my essay in that volume, “Hell: Christianity’s most Damnable Doctrine (pp. 233-254).” Below, in bold, are some of his comments, as copied from the Amazon site, and my responses.

In chapter ten, Parsons assails the traditional doctrine of hell. One basic problem is that he quotes a few passages of Scripture, which he doesn’t bother to exegete. He simply takes his interpretation for granted, then builds on that presumptive interpretation. His entire objection to hell is predicated on the torture chamber model of hell. Without that presupposition, his case collapses. Yet he fails to defend his key interpretation.

 I address my critique to the concept of hell as it was defended by some of the most influential and orthodox of Christian theologians and church “fathers,” such as Tertullian, Aquinas, Jerome, Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Jonathan Edwards. The “torture chamber” model of hell, as featured prominently in Dante’s Inferno and innumerable depictions of the last judgment by Christian artists, was, and remains, a prominent element of Christian eschatology. I also, by the way, criticized the less harsh views of C.S. Lewis and Jerry Walls, Walls being the leading contemporary evangelical theoretician of the afterlife. Alex C. neglects to mention this fact. Must have slipped his mind.

What about my interpretation of scripture? I cannot be guilty of giving an erroneous interpretation since I give none at all. I quote some of the more lurid NT passages about postmortem punishment (Mark 9: 47-48; Rev. 20:10; Rev. 20:15; and Luke 16: 22-24) and note that, though the images of an eternal punitive hell might look like “sick men’s dreams,” as Hume put it, these doctrines were “…thought out with careful deliberation and based upon scriptural authority. (p. 237)” In other words, the theorists of hell could and did appeal to scriptural authority in support of their claims. Therefore, it is their interpretations of those scriptures that I took for granted, not my own (which, again, I never offered).

 He objects to the duration of hell for “finite” sins. But it’s not as if sinners are merely punished for discrete sins. A sinner does what a sinner is. Sins are just the expression of the sinner’s underlying character.

Passage of time doesn’t make the guilty guiltless. Once you do something wrong, it will always be the case that you did something wrong. Your culpability doesn’t have an automatic expiration date. You’re just as guilty a year later as you were a moment later. Only redemption can atone for sin.

Sinners don’t cease to be sinners when they go to hell. To the contrary, they become even more sinful in hell, since they lose all self-restraint in hell.

For that matter, consider all the things we would have done wrong if we thought we could get away with it. That’s culpable, too…

 So, you are subject to punishment not just for the sins you actually do commit but for the ones you would have committed had you been given the opportunity. In other words, you are punished for the sins you commit not just in the actual world but in other possible worlds as well. So, if there is a possible world in which you fornicate with [insert favorite sex symbol here] then that is punishable too. Wow. It seems a bit unfair though that you have to suffer the punishment without getting the fun. At any rate, if it is fair to punish you for your character, then your character must have been freely chosen, right? I mean, if your character is determined by events beyond your control, such as genes and environment, then punishing you for your character would be like punishing you for having gallstones. But if we choose our characters, are we not back with being punished for our “discrete sins,” choosing our bad characters in this case? If it takes bad character to choose to have a bad character, then we seem to be headed for an infinite regress. Or is it enough if there is some possible world where we do have the freedom to choose our characters, and in that world we choose bad ones?

As does William Lane Craig, Alex C. affirms that sinners continue to sin after being condemned to hell. This supposedly justifies the continuing punishment of the damned. But do the damned have free will? Alex C. seems to indicate that they do not since he says that they lose all self-restraint. If the damned have no free will, then in what sense can they sin? If they are being punished for the bad characters they developed in life, then we are right back with the question of the fairness of continuing punishment for past sins, not current ones. Or maybe the damned are being punished for the sins they would commit if, countrfactually, they had free will. On the other hand, if the damned do have freedom of will, cannot they exercise that freedom to curtail or greatly reduce their sinfulness, and so no longer deserve the punishments of hell? Alas, Alex C. gives us no grounds for deciding these questions.

Parsons objects to credal requirement. However, no one goes to hell for disbelieving in Jesus. Disbelief is an aggravating factor. But the hellbound are already lost. Refusing the gospel isn’t what renders them damnable.

In Christian theology, nobody can be saved unless he knows and accepts the gospel. This doesn’t mean nobody can be damned unless he knows and rejects the gospel. Rather, to be lost is the default condition of sinners. To be lost is not a result of spurning the gospel. To the contrary, it’s because sinners are lost in the first place that they desperately need to be saved.

If a drowning swimmer refuses the lifeline, that’s not why he drowns. He’s already drowning. The lifeline was his opportunity to avoid drowning.

Alex C. says that “Refusing the Gospel is not what renders them [the hellbound] damnable.” This seems to say that refusing the Gospel is not sufficient for damnation. But further down he says, “In Christian theology, nobody can be saved unless he knows and accepts the gospel.” The way to symbolize “Nobody can be saved unless he knows and accepts the Gospel” would be ~(∃x) [◊Sx & ~(Kxg & Axg)] which is equivalent to (x) [~(Kxg & Axg] → ~◊Sx]. But salvation and damnation are the only two possibilities, so ~◊Sx → Dx, where Dx is “x is damned.” So, (x) [~(Kxg & Axg) → Dx] by hypothetical syllogism, so not knowing and accepting the gospel is sufficient for being damned. Hence, Alex C. seems to contradict himself.

Perhaps, though, he would admit that nonbelief is sufficient for damnation, but his point is that other things are also sufficient, and that, in fact, sinners are already damned by those other things before they decide not to accept the Gospel. But I never denied that other things might be sufficient for damnation. My complaint rather was that belief is necessary for salvation. Salvation is denied those who do not accept certain propositions. For this condition to be fair and reasonable it must be the case that those required propositions are so obviously and undeniably true that no rational person can fail to believe them when they are given a fair and unbiased hearing. It must be the case, as Jerry Walls says, that to willfully deny the “truth about Christ” is inevitably due to “concupiscence and hardness of heart.” Otherwise, if there are individuals who cannot bring themselves to believe the so-called truth about Christ, and are morally and rationally blameless in doing so, then how can it be fair to deny those persons the offer of salvation? To this last question Alex C. provides no answer whatsoever.