The NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently interviewed Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, in an op-ed entitled “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?” The responses, like the one referenced in his op-ed’s title, can only be described as bizarre to hear coming from someone claiming to be a Christian. But this is what is being held up as Christianity to a watching world in the pages of a major media outlet, so it warrants a response. I encourage you to click the link above to read the whole article for yourself. Then let’s work through some of the more glaring issues and see how this stacks up against actual Christianity.
You’ve seen the ads. You know when a realtor says a house needs a little “Tender Loving Care”, or that it’s a “good fit for the motivated Do-It-Yourselfer”, that it’s pretty bad. My wife’s comment is sometimes “That’s not a fixer-upper, that’s a tearer-downer!” Sometimes home sellers are a bit overly-optimistic.
There is a similar optimism when it comes to the condition of the human soul. People like to think that they are “pretty good”, all things considered. They may have made some mistakes over the years, but overall, the good outweighs the bad. If they even need religion at all, it’s just to give them some structure, some goals, maybe some accountability to finally break some bad habits. Just some minor repairs – you know, a little paint, maybe some new roof shingles, update the light fixtures, nothing serious – and we’ll be ready for whatever lies beyond the grave. But until we understand the extent of our need, we’ll never appreciate the value of the gift extended to us. That’s why learning of God’s amazing love is only half the story. If we think we’re pretty good already, or that God grades on a curve – we’ll be OK as long we’re better than so-and-so – then we might mistakenly think “Why wouldn’t God love me? I’m a pretty nice guy!”
Understand this, we are not a house in need of a little DIY – a little TLC, a little fixing-up. We are dead in our sins, completely helpless [Eph 2:1]. Like a house situated over a growing sinkhole, being devoured by termites, with a Category 5 hurricane approaching, we are doomed. No amount of cosmetic enhancement is going to save that house, and in fact, the house’s appearance may only mask the real dangers. Being “more good than bad” won’t help. It’s like going to paint a room white and finding that some black paint has been spilt in the bucket of white paint. It’s many times more white than black, but it doesn’t matter; it’s tainted and isn’t getting used if you want pure white walls. And absolute, pure perfection is the only measure acceptable before God, our perfect judge who does not grade on a curve. Every human on Earth is in that condition and will die like that unless God draws them to Himself and awakens them to new life [Jn 6:44, Eph 2:4-5]. But it gets worse. Just like a judge would be unjust to let criminals go unpunished, there is a punishment awaiting every person who fails that standard of perfection. That punishment is eternal separation from God, from whom all good things derive [Jam 1:17]. People have sometimes been offended by the idea of God condemning people to “eternal conscious torment” in Hell, but what else could separation from God be? Christians do not carry on about the dangers of Hell to scare people into becoming Christians, but rather as loving friends concerned for the tragic end we see our unbelieving friends heading for. Could we call ourselves real friends if we didn’t try to warn others of impending disaster?
The prognosis seems very grim indeed. And yet, while God is perfectly just to not let any imperfect human into His presence, and to allow each and every person to suffer the torment that separation from Him would necessarily be, He does not desire that any should perish [Ezk 33:11]. But our best efforts are helpless to prevent the inevitable end that must result given an imperfect person standing before a perfect judge. That is the very, very bad news. But God, in a one-sided display of love and mercy, brought us very, very good news, in the form of a substitute who would take our place and bear the wrath of punishment rightly due each of us. But how? Wouldn’t any substitute be tainted like we are, doomed to score sub-perfect? Such is God’s love for us, that He sent His Son, the 2nd person of the Trinity, to be miraculously conceived and born in human flesh, truly God and truly man, to live a perfect life and offer Himself as the only possible acceptable sacrifice that could satisfy the perfect justice of God the Father, conquering death and proving the Father’s acceptance of His sacrifice by rising from the dead, allowing those who accept Him, who were once enemies of God, to be reconciled to God, adopted, transformed, and given a sure hope of eternal life.
It seems to be good to be true (when we understand the natural state of our decrepitude and hopelessness) that God would step in to effect such a miraculous rescue. Sadly, not all will accept rescue. But that’s our only chance, for we aren’t just a simple “fixer-upper”.
Is the concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment incompatible with the concept of a loving God? I’m reading a couple of books right now written by atheists who both view hell not only as a moral outrage, but as contrary to the nature of God as loving. Are they right? Let’s dig in to that tonight.
Atheist David Madison wrote in 2016, “Hell and eternal punishment fall into the category of the cruel and unusual. Pain and torture that go on forever can’t be part of sound theology. ”  Eight years prior, Dan Barker wrote, “Love is not hatred or wrath, assigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your fragile ego or disobeyed your rules….”  Of course, Richard Dawkins gave his own sensational statement on hell back in 2006: “I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.”  But this opposition to hell is hardly limited to the so-called “new atheists.” Bertrand Russell, back in 1927, stated that “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” 
With that brief survey of some of the objections to hell, lets consider a couple of responses.
- Is damnation an act of ego-driven hatred masquerading as love, as Barker alleges? Actually, this has nothing to do with ego or hatred, for it is justice, not love, that condemns people to hell. Too many people construct a very one-dimensional image of God they can feel justified in rejecting, and this is just such a case. Yes, God is loving; but He is also holy, righteous, just. One might be tempted to say that the love of God should override this harsh justice, yet people don’t seem to approve if a human judge lets an unrepentant criminal go unpunished. But in God’s solution at the cross, love actually satisfied the need for justice rather than ignoring it. While God’s justice condemns us to an eternal punishment we all deserve, His sacrificial love offers us freedom if we’ll accept it.
- Is the duration of the punishment unloving or inhumane? These skeptics, and many others, specifically object to the “everlasting” part of hell. There are two responses here. First, this objection stems from a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of sin – any sin – from the view of a perfect judge. We tend to excuse “little sins” and “white lies” and such, but anything less than perfection is a failing grade before a perfect God. True justice, when perfection is the standard, requires any infraction, no matter how minor in the defendant’s eyes, to be a guilty sentence. Another response to this objection is that the sin and lack of repentance of those condemned to hell don’t seem to stop once they get there. I don’t want to read too much into a story, but it is worth noting that in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar [Lk 16:19-31], the rich man, while being tormented in hell, continued acting selfishly toward Lazarus, even as he asked favors of Lazarus. If one never repents of sin (i.e. turns from it), then one continues in sin, and therefore in condemnation. Thus, the eternal nature of the punishment may very well be due to the eternal continuation of the sin.
Does the existence of hell rule out the love of God? Not when understood in it’s context. As Douglas Groothuis points out, “The doctrine of hell does not stand alone as a kind of ancient Christian chamber of horrors. Rather, hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths: human sin, God’s holiness, and the cross of Christ…. Only by understanding hell can we grasp the immensity of God’s love…. This is a costly love, a bloody love that has no parallel in any of the world’s religions.” The tragic fate awaiting so many is not something Christians relish. On the contrary, it is concern and love for our fellow humans that drives us to warn them of the disastrous path they are on. It is a love motivated by that costly love with which God first loved us. If you are one who has rejected God because of the offensiveness of hell, I ask – no, I plead – that you reconsider, and accept God’s free gift of salvation. For in the end, if you will not have His love, sadly, you will have His justice. Choose wisely, friend.
 David Madison, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p. 277. Kindle Edition.
 Dan Barker, godless (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p.89.
 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 358.
 Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”, a lecture given March 6, 1927, to the National Secular Society at Battersea Town Hall, England.
 Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), Appendix 1: “Hell on Trial”, p. 658,660.
I met up with an old friend for dinner the other day, and we started talking about objections we’ve heard to God’s existence, or to Christianity specifically. He brought up one he’d been presented with: “If God would send my best friend (or parent/sibling/etc) to Hell, then I don’t want anything to do with that God. I’d rather go to Hell to be with my friend/family.” An implicit assumption there is that where your friends or loved ones are, friendship and love will continue to exist. However, there’s really no reason to think that would be the case. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s not going to be any parties in Hell, regardless of whatever songs, jokes, or movies you’ve heard or seen. Nevertheless, let’s examine the logic of this loyal, but misguided idea, with 2 analogies related to loved ones still living and those already deceased.
Consider this: if your house is burning down, staying in to try to save your friend is commendable. But the idea is for you both to get out of the danger. Would you run through the burning home, find your friend, and then sit down next to him, a few feet away from an exit door, and wait for the burning roof to collapse on you both? No! If you love your friend, you’ll try to get him to come out of the inferno with you. Or if there is somehow only opportunity for one of you to get out, you might push him out ahead of you in heroic self-sacrifice. Indeed, Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” But to join him in his eventual demise doesn’t help anyone. Instead, seek escape from the impending disaster together. In this case, go on a truth quest together. Or, if your friend refuses to investigate about God, then seek Him out on your own if you have to; save yourself, and then go back in like a firefighter, protected from the blaze and equipped to rescue your friend, if he’ll let you. He may not. After all, God gives us free will to accept or reject the offer of salvation.
But what if that friend or family member has already died in his or her sin, cut off from God? There is no trying to save them in that case; it’s too late for them. While that is truly heartbreaking, should the one who still has a chance to live forfeit it, and choose eternity in Hell with their friend over life with God? This is even more short-sighted than dying with your friend in the burning house, for this is like standing at the doorway, able to step through to safety, but seeing your friend’s charred corpse in the corner, and choosing to stay and burn as well. It only doubles the tragedy.
“But how could God be so cruel as to send my friend, who was a great upstanding guy, to a place of eternal torment?” That’s a fair question, but whether we agree with God’s motivations is really beside the point. It comes back to objective truth. If God exists, and if a realm called Hell exists, and God has provided a means to rescue us from it, then the choice is clear, whether we like it or not. For example, I was practically born with a lead foot, and I find speed limits very annoying. However, the limits still exist, and are still enforced with very real fines. So whether I agree with speed limits or not, obeying them is the only guaranteed way to not get a speeding ticket. Likewise, whether I agree with God’s plan or think He’s cruel, or anything else, obedience to His plan is the only alternative to Hell.
All that aside, what of God’s motivations? Is His plan actually cruel? It’s easy to think that when we judge behavior by our standards. But “nobody’s perfect,” as the old saying goes, and yet perfection is God’s standard. Even “great, upstanding guys” will fail that standard every time. That’s why, as hurtful as it may be to our pride, we need God to provide the solution. And He did, in the form of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross. Moreover, if God did “bend the rules” and “let them slide”, He would not be just. Also, what is “hell” anyway? It is, ironically, what many who resent the idea of eternal punishment most desire: separation from God (the source of all goodness) for all eternity. But that desired separation will be the eternal torment they resent.
In closing, I can’t help but notice that we tend to like it when someone in authority lets us go without our due punishment, like a cop giving me a warning instead of a speeding ticket, but we are outraged when others are let off the hook, like a corrupt politician getting away with embezzling. You might say those examples are comparing apples and oranges. But that’s the thing: we don’t like the idea of hell because we have an overly optimistic view of the goodness of mankind, and an inadequate view of what sin is to a perfectly just, holy God. But any sin is rebellion against God. When we calibrate our standards to the one perfect standard of God’s, then we recognize the justice of Hell, but also the amazing grace and love demonstrated at the cross.
 John 15:13.
I watched a debate between Dan Barker, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Dr. Justin Bass recently. A closing statement is generally that last recap of your critical points that you want the audience to remember. Barker’s closing statement gives an interesting insight into the atheist mindset:
“This whole idea of “Lord”, … that we need a “Lord” somehow to worship, is an ancient idea … is kind of a psychological question, it’s not really a question of the fact. Even if Jesus did exist, even if I agreed with Dr. Bass 100% – yep, he rose from the dead, yep, there’s a God, yep, I don’t deny any of that – that does not mean that he is my Lord. If he did exist, if he created this hell that I’m going to have to go to, then let him prove to me what a huge macho man he is and send me to hell. I will go happily to hell. It would be worse of a hell for me to bow down before a Lord who would create a place like hell…. Regardless of the legend and historicity issue…Even if I agreed 100%, I would still reject that Being as a Lord of my life because I’m better than that…based on what I read in the Bible and what I see in church history, I cannot accept Jesus as Lord… To me, I think that’s more important than all this historicity stuff, which, you heard me admit, is a matter of probabilities; I might be wrong…That still doesn’t mean that Jesus is Lord. He is NOT the Lord of my life…”
I just want to make a couple of observations about his rationale here. What saddens me about this is the willful arrogance and disregard for the facts that he espouses. This is not being a “freethinker”. This is not being rational. This is the purely emotional response of a petulant child screaming “I don’t care what Daddy says is best for me, I want it my way!” To say that he would still reject Jesus as sovereign even if he agreed with all of the evidence pointing to Jesus’s rightful claim to that title, and to justify that with the notion that he is “better than that” strikes me as an odd combination of deliberate blindness and arrogance.
I also found it interesting that he doesn’t consider “all this historicity stuff” that important. Really? Christianity makes an extraordinary amount of claims that can be falsified. That should be a rational thinker’s dream. This isn’t some mystical religion of warm fuzzy feelings with no hard truth claims and no way to prove them right or wrong. And so far, the historical claims of Christianity have been consistently proven correct. Is that maybe why Mr. Barker doesn’t consider them all that important? Would he not consider historical confirmation important in other areas? I don’t know if he cares much about Julius Caesar or Galileo or any other classic historic figures, but I would think, as much as his organization likes misusing Thomas Jefferson’s “separation of church and state” comment, that questions of whether Jefferson existed and actually wrote that famous phrase would surely be important to him. But then if the historicity of someone like Thomas Jefferson is important, why not the historicity of someone far more important?
The western world literally dates history around the birth of Jesus. And if what Jesus said and did was accurately recorded, then that emphasis on His birth as the pivot point of all history is legitimate. Yes, we need to look at the evidence honestly, and openly, and be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if that’s to Someone more powerful, more knowledgeable, and in all other ways, better, than us. In that event, we have to be willing to lay down our pride and admit when we’ve met our match. And when it turns out that our adversary is actually the One who loves us more dearly than we can understand, then the only reasonable response is to quit rejecting Him and instead follow Him.
Maybe you agree with Mr. Barker that that would be hell for you. Well, God won’t force you into heaven. But that also means that the hell you may resent Him for establishing is also the place you are voluntarily choosing to go, and the place that God isn’t keeping you from entering against your will. Look at your objections honestly and see if they are legitimate intellectual questions seeking answers, or just stubborn pride. You may be surprised.
Below is the link to the full 3 hour debate/Q&A. Mr. Barker’s closing statement starts around 2:44.