Why Would a Loving God Condemn His Children To Eternal Suffering?
A core Christian belief is that God is all-loving, cares about each and every one of his “children” and wants only the best for us. At the same time, however, God has apparently set up a system wherein THE VAST MAJORITY of his children will spend all eternity being tortured since only a very small percentage of all of humanity belong to whatever religion is the "right" religion (or even have “accepted Jesus into their hearts” if you believe that all Christian religions are equally valid paths to get to Heaven). Apologists try to wriggle out of this problem in a number of ways, including the following:
- All humans are sinners by nature and the demands of justice require that all sinners suffer eternally for their sins. God, through his great mercy and love, found a way to satisfy the demands of justice by sending down his son (a.k.a. himself) to take upon him all our sins and die for our sakes. Therefore, all we need to do is accept of Jesus (and possibly obey all of God’s commands and belong to the right denomination, depending on who you ask). The problem with this, however, is that God himself set up the whole system in the first place, including what is “demanded” by justice and the fact that these demands “must” be satisfied. Surely an omnipotent God could have set up a system where all his children could live in heaven forever. Or a system where the punishment demanded by justice was, say, only 1000 years of penance instead of an eternity of torture. So either God fully intended (and knew in advance) that the majority of his children would end up suffering forever, he’s not a very loving and/or omnipotent God in the first place or he doesn’t actually exist.
- God doesn't "condemn" anybody to an eternity of torment and suffering - we choose to condemn ourselves to an eternity of torment and suffering by deciding not to accept Jesus into our hearts, follow his commandments, belong to the correct denomination, etc. Except that, first of all, the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived throughout history never even had the chance to hear about Jesus, let alone have the the choice to accept and follow him. And, second of all, even if our choices do lead us being punished, God is still the one who determines what that punishment should be. If a brutal dictator issues an edict restricting free speech, making it a capital offense to say anything bad about the government, and then somebody gets executed for posting a message on their Facebook page complaining about the government, do we just blame the victim and say he chose to be executed? Or do we blame the dictator for setting such a harsh punishment in the first place?
- God does love us all deeply, but he values our free will more than anything else. So much so, in fact, that he would rather us suffer in torment for all eternity than take away our free will and force us to be good. Again, however, it is God himself who set up the system wherein not being “good” leads to eternal damnation (are we detecting a theme here yet?). Also, none of us actually have absolute free will in the first place, since physical laws (created by God, of course) limit what we can do regardless of what we wish to do.
- The Bible doesn't actually say that sinners or those who do not accept Jesus will suffer eternal torment. Yeah, well, first of all, the Bible kinda sorta does actually say that. "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25: 41)." "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal (Matthew 25:46)." Second of all, this is the actual doctrine that has been taught for centuries (thousands of years, actually) within Christendom. It was acknowledged by the early church, it was endorsed by the "church fathers" and it was defended by the theologians of the Middle Ages and the Reformation period. Hundreds of millions (billions?) of people lived and died throughout history believing this was the true doctrine of Christianity, so you don't really get to show up 2000 years later and say what Christian doctrine "really" teaches without acknowledging that it was all made up by man in the first place, do you?
On a similar note, God supposedly loves us all absolutely and cares deeply about each and every part of his creation. And yet, we live in a world where all of creation must struggle to survive, where predators must hunt and feed on prey, where creatures of all types contract hideously painful diseases and where natural disasters cause all manner of pain and suffering. Christian apologists acknowledge this so-called “problem of evil”, but attempt to justify it in a number of ways:
- God values human free will above all else and therefore will not or cannot intervene to prevent one person harming another person. This argument is really just one big non-sequitur, since the inviolate free will that humans possess really has nothing to do with fact that animals eat other animals to survive, that we all suffer painful diseases, that natural disasters occur, etc.
- Our life here on Earth is but a moment compared to an eternity in heaven, so any suffering here is trivial. Good point! Except, of course, for the fact that only a very small percentage of humans will actually make it to heaven. And, unless you want to claim that every single bug, bird, squirrel, bat, etc. (and not just your beloved pet) is going to heaven as well, then they are all doomed to spend their one, short life primarily in a state of suffering and torment.
- The sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden caused the world to enter a “fallen” state and therefore it’s somehow our fault that everything in the universe suffers so much, not God’s fault. This justification is just specious, since (as mentioned earlier) God set up the whole system in the first place and it was his decision to make the consequences of Adam and Eve’s transgressions be what they are. God is supposedly omnipotent, so you just can’t say that the Earth “had to” enter a fallen state after Adam and Eve ate the apple. God surely could have found a way to punish Adam and Eve and their descendants without punishing the rest of creation. But that’s what he chose to do, so either he likes seeing so much suffering in the natural world, he isn’t really omnipotent after all or he doesn’t really exist. To once again go with the "brutal dictator" analogy I used before, what if the dictator decrees that, not only will anybody who speaks out against the government be executed, but so will all that person's family members, neighbors, friends and pets. Is it fair to then blame the one person who posted on Facebook for the deaths of everybody else? Or is it more proper to blame the dictator who issued the harsh decree in the first place?
Why don't we get what we faithfully pray for?
The Bible clearly and unequivocally states, over and over again, that God will grant whatever you pray for in faith. And this is taught in sermons to justify having faith in God -- we must have faith in God, faith like that of a mustard seed, because if we have faith in God he will give us whatever we ask for. Except that when we don’t get what we pray for, it’s suddenly, “Oh -- God promised to answer our prayers, but sometimes the answer is no.” Even though the Bible clearly says we will get what we ask for, not just get an answer. And when that doesn’t work, then suddenly it’s “God works in mysterious ways.” Pretty convenient the way that works, don’t you think? If we actually get what we pray for, God gets all the credit and it’s proof that God exists since he did, in fact, promise to give us what we prayed for. But if we don’t get what we pray for, it doesn’t mean that God is a liar or that he doesn’t exist, despite the fact that he broke his promise.
What does it mean if the Bible is the literal word of God?
To many Christians, the Bible is considered to be the literal word of God and, therefore, it is important to follow everything in the Bible in order to attain salvation. And yet, no two religious groups (or religious scholars, for that matter) can seem to agree on what everything in the Bible actually means. It’s easy to strip out a few key sentences and phrases and claim that those are the parts that really matter, but you can’t do that and also claim the entire thing is divinely inspired. When you start hearing people say things like, "Of course the entire Bible is the literal word of God, but the only part that really matters is the 'Two Great Commandments' mentioned in the New Testament," you have to wonder. You have to wonder, first, how can they say something like that with a straight face in the first place and, second, how do they actually know that that part of the entire vast Bible they have cherry picked is the part that "really" matters?
What does it mean if the Bible isn't the literal word of God?
Alternatively, some Christians acknowledge that the Bible isn’t the literal word of God and, while much of it is important and true, there’s also a lot of stuff that is purely allegorical and not meant to be taken literally. Unfortunately, all the “allegorical” stuff in the Old Testament (the creation of the Earth, the fall of Adam, the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, etc.) is also the stuff that justifies believing in the supposedly non-allegorical stuff (the teachings of Christ, his atonement and resurrection, etc.) It’s a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, since the only thing that makes the Bible something other than a collection of ancient writings that contain some nuggets of gold amid a huge load of camel excrement, is the supposed “fact” that it is the literal word of God in the first place.
The Bible is the source of "absolute morality"
Many Christians claim that “absolute morality” (i.e., the unchanging set of rules that distinguish between right and wrong in all cases) can only come from God and therefore atheists must rely on “relative morality” instead of “absolute morality.” Further, this “absolute morality” can only be found in the Bible, since it is the literal word of God and the reason why its principles supposedly form the basis of our entire judicial system (even though that is not actually the case.) However, the Bible is full of commandments from God to do things that most Christians would find deeply immoral today, ranging from general laws (it’s OK to beat your slaves as long as they you don’t kill them) to specific instances (kill all the inhabitants of a city, including their children). The Bible is also full of commandments that no Christians bother following today, such as the laws of kosher and the prohibition of wearing clothing that has two different types of thread in it. When asked why we don’t have to follow all those commandments today, the answer is invariably because they were given to a particular people at a particular time and do not apply to our situation today. Which is, of course, the very definition of moral relativism. Oh, except for the Ten Commandments, which still need to be followed. today And the parts talking about how bad Homosexuality is. And maybe the part about not suffering a witch to live. And any other part we personally agree with. But definitely not all those other laws and commandments which we can apparently decide for ourselves no longer apply…
Arguing the necessity of a Deist god to justify belief in a Theist god
I have read and heard numerous Christian apologists claim to be able to prove the existence (or, at least, the necessity) of the Christian God, as well as a few Muslim apologists who claim to do the same with regard to the God of Islam. These arguments typically involve a lot of special pleading (“Everything that has a beginning must have been created, but that doesn’t include God”) and a whole lot of tortured logic to explain why something must have created the universe as an act of will. Much of the proof, however, presupposes (or outright states) that the type of being required to create our universe is one who lives wholly outside of time and space, who is not composed of matter or energy and who cannot (and therefore does not) interact with the material world in any detectable way whatsoever aside from somehow being able to create it all in the first place. In other words, the classical god of “Deism”, which posits a creator who got the whole ball rolling in the first place and who has not been seen or heard from since. Even if all the arguments for such a being were valid, however, (which they aren’t) these apologists are left with no way to reconcile this notion of a deity with the sort of “hands-on” Theistic deity they are actually seeking to prove. At best, they are left with personal anecdotes of how they know in their hearts that their particular brand of God exists and loves them, which doesn’t really prove much of anything…
You need to have a "deep understanding" of the Bible in order to make sense of all these apparent contradictions.
This one is actually my favorite. There is a certain breed of Christians out there who style themselves as serious Biblical scholars, who claim to have learned various languages in order to read the original text of the Bible (as if such a thing even actually existed today). They claim to have studied history, sociology, psychology, archaeology, etc., to such a degree that they have a nearly perfect understanding about who wrote the Bible, when it was written, to whom it was written and, most importantly, what it originally said and originally meant in the context of the time it was written. These self-proclaimed experts will then state that it is impossible for anybody to "truly" understand the Bible unless that person has done all the research they themselves have done.
Assuming these people are not just making this all up from whole cloth, there is one glaring problem with the whole idea that you need to be an "expert scholar" in order to understand what the Bible is "really" talking about. And that is the fact that, for thousands of years, people have been told that the Bible is the literal word of God and that it is only through following the words in the Bible that we can know how to obtain salvation. If God really loved us and wanted as many of us to be saved as possible, would he really put the necessary instructions for salvation into a book that most people would not actually be able to fully understand? All these "you must be an expert to fully understand" arguments are plausible if you are talking about something like, say, the works of Shakespeare or the writings of Homer, but they fail completely when you're talking about a book supposedly provided by an omnipotent, all-loving, all knowing, and infallible God whose sole purpose in proving the book was to tell his children what they need to do in order to rejoin him in Heaven. If I don't grasp the subtleties of "Hamlet", no great loss. But if I don't understand exactly which parts of the Bible I need to follow and what those important parts actually mean? It's not just an English test I'll be flunking...