Orthodox Christianity holds that those who don’t “make the cut” end up suffering for all of eternity, and this has of course been the cause of much criticism of the religion. Something that is rarely considered, however, is what this doctrine says about Christians themselves. For the Christian must of course view the eternal suffering of sinners as justified. And yet, by the moral standards most of us accept, eternal punishment is never justified – much less for individuals who aren’t really evil. Perhaps some would consider that kind of suffering as appropriate punishment for Hitler or Ted Bundy. But what about all the average non-Christians who end up in hell – people like your neighborhood atheist or Hindu? An orthodox Christian must be in favor of eternal suffering for such individuals as well. If he were to witness their being thrown into hell fire on Judgement Day, he would have to find that perfectly proper and right. Does this mean orthodox Christians are evil?
There is of course some debate regarding what the orthodox view is. Many apologists these days claim that all that talk of hell fire is metaphorical, and that eternal punishment is merely separation from God. But that doesn’t really help much. For even if the language is metaphorical, it must represent something really bad – why else use such terrible imagery? And in fact those who say that hell is merely separation from God then turn around and point out just how truly horrible that separation is. But if it is so terrible, then the problem remains: how can it be right?
One thing we might say in defense of the average Christian is that most may only be paying lip service to the doctrine of eternal punishment. They may say that they believe in the Bible, but they don’t really think about what it actually states. The doctrines of their religion are far removed from their everyday concerns. I think this is the case with most of my neighbors, for example. There are many others, however, who take their faith more seriously, who really think about it, read scripture, and seem to literally believe what it says. And it is these people that present a problem here. Do we really want to say they are evil? That would mean, for me, having to call my own grandmother (among many others) evil – and probably similarly for most of you. And what about atheists who used to believe? Did they use to be terrible people who are now redeemed?
None of that sounds even close to being right. And yet I’m not sure what the solution is. How can someone’s approval of eternal suffering be excused?
The best suggestion I have is to point out how people tend to compartmentalize their beliefs. A few weeks ago, I wrote in a comment that “If I told my neighbors I was going to sacrifice my son tomorrow in the backyard because God told me to do it, they'd call the police. Yet they regard Abraham's obedience to God as a virtue.” How can one explain this inconsistency? I think it’s because their religious beliefs are kept separate form their everyday beliefs. They apply different standards to them. If the reality of divine “justice” was right in front of them, if it was every bit as real as their everyday experiences, they would find it horrible. It is only because they keep such ideas in a separate compartment at the back of their minds that they can claim to endorse them. Thus, in a sense, they don’t really believe it.
I’d love to hear what others think about this.