Monday, March 24, 2008

Reply to Bill Snedden on teaching hell

VR: "And if someone believes in hell, it then gets problematic to argue that they ought not to teach the doctrine at all (keep it secret?). At most one is left with the constraints about age-appropriate teaching, which I was trying to cover in my post."
Bill S.: I don't find it problematic at all to argue that people who believe in morally repugnant notions ought not to teach them. If a concept is morally evil, then it shouldn't be taught as good, period. Whether a person believes that concept to be good is wholly beside the point.
Parents who are KKK members and believe that miscegenation is morally evil should not teach such rubbish to their children. That they disagree is beside the point.
Your point about different views of the doctrine of hell is well taken, I think. However, if we were to agree that a doctrine of eternal torment was morally repugnant, would we not also agree that it should not be taught to anyone (as true), much less children?
VR: I think some of the discussion has gotten a little off track here, and I think I ought to get it on track.
First, we might distinguish between ways in which we might assess different versions of the doctrine of hell.
1) Doctrines of hell which are morally coherent and at least plausible from within a Christian perspective.
2) Doctrines of hell that, in the final analysis, are morally incoherent, but which can be held in good conscience by at least some Christians.
3) Doctrines of hell which are morally incoherent, and where the moral incoherence should be evident to anyone who reflects on it.
I realize that there are arguments for the claim that no doctrine of everlasting punishment falls into category 1, and that this case is made not only by atheists but by universalist Christians like Tom Talbott. Another position might be that while the DEP may not be incoherent, many popular versions of the doctrine are morally incoherent. If the missionary's truck broke down on the way to the village before the dying man preached the gospel to him, and he ends up in an eternal torture chamber rather than in eternal bliss because of it, then I've got to be concerned about the concept of eternal punishment in use here.
Another example of a doctrine that I find morally incoherent is Calvinism. In spite of the biblical and moral arguments which I have heard over the years, this view just seems to be just completely incoherent morally. It's a view that leaves me just shaking my head at how anyone can actually believe that God can do that and be good. And yet, I know that there are Christians of good will and good conscience who believe it.
I'm not saying this to launch a debate on that topic. I'm saying I would oppose the claim that people who believe this should refrain from teaching it to their children. That's what they honestly think is true. If they don't teach it to their children, they would be liars. It now becomes a matter, and a matter only, of how they teach that doctrine.
Suppose, however, the doctrine could not be held by a reasonable person. That is what Bill is suggesting when he talks about the KKK and people who oppose miscegenation. The problem here seems to be that the doctrine shouldn't be believed by any reasonable person. But if, my some intellectual failure, it is believed by someone, I think I would still have to say that you can't argue that it is wrong to teach the honest truth to one's children. The error, the intellectual dishonesty if that is what is involved, occurred when the belief was formed. I don't see how you could give someone a reason not to teach some particular version of the doctrine of everlasting punishment to children (even a version of it that you or I might both find detestable) without at the same time giving the holder of the belief a reason to abandon the doctrine itself.
If I fire a gun at someone I think to be and armed robber, and I shoot an innocent 15-year-old boy instead and kill him; if we assume that I am within my rights morally to shoot an armed robber under these circumstances, then depending on how I formed my belief that the moving object over there really was an armed robber, I could be morally in the clear for firing the shot, even though an innocent 15-year-old died as a result.
You have to act on the beliefs you have, not the beliefs that someone else might wish that you had.


Bill Snedden said...

Many thanks for the lengthy reply!

I think I'm overall in agreement with you on most of this. I'm not sure, however, what you mean by "morally in/coherent" I would assume that a morally coherent system would admit of no contradictions, but then you use Calvinism as an example of a morally incoherent system and while I agree with you that it is morally repugnant, I don't see any contradictions inherent in Calvinist doctrine (in fact, I've seen what seem to me convincing arguments that it is the most *logically* coherent of all Christian epistemological/moral systems).

At any rate, the only issues here with which I might have some lingering questions are those surrounding the moral responsibility for holding certain beliefs. It seems we would agree that there can be moral culpability in the formation and maintenance of certain beliefs. Where we might part company is that it seems to me very likely that there is no possible intellectually honest manner in which one could become convinced of the truth of the doctrine of eternal punishment (or Calvinism for that matter). These beliefs are such that I have difficulty understanding how they could be held by any reasonable person and it seems to me self-evident that such beliefs belong in your category #3.

If we can agree that parents have a responsibility to teach their children what they know to be true and further that every individual has a responsibility to test his/her beliefs for error and only promulgate what stands up to honest intellectual inquiry, then DEP and Calvinism are right out as subjects which can morally be taught to children. That is, of course, if we can at first agree that these are not beliefs that can be derived and held in an intellectually honest manner. And therein, I imagine, may be the rub.

One Brow said...

... I don't see any contradictions inherent in Calvinist doctrine (in fact, I've seen what seem to me convincing arguments that it is the most *logically* coherent of all Christian epistemological/moral systems).

I think universalists and near-universalist annihilationists (such as the JWs) are also coherent.

Mike Darus said...

It seems this board needs an advocate for Hell. It is a thankless job, but I will try to do it. The first task is to accurately define the doctrine so as to avoid strawman representations that offend the senses with over-imaginative constructions. Dante's depiction is an extreme view that is unsupported by the Bible. I will not try to defend that. I will defend the following:
1) God holds humans responsible for their actions. Their behavior has consequences, real consequences that are often detremental to themselves and others.
2) Morality includes a sense of justice where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Some of the higher moral ideals allow for good to be done without seeking reward and where evil can be forgiven. However, there is a sense of injustice when individuals benefit from evil without consequence and where personal sacrifice is ignored.
3) One of the moral contributions of Hell is to diminish the need for personal vengence. Divine punishment mitigates the need for personal justice.
4) I offer these thoughts in the hope that more conceptions of Hell could be considered to be in category 1 and 2 than maybe was first assumed.

IlĂ­on said...

There is no justice if moral evil is not judged, is not truthfully recognized as being moral evil deserving of punishment, and then punished.

In fact, and I expect many to be shocked at this next and to deny it (but to merely and vigorously assert while never arguing), there is no mercy even if moral evil is not judged ... and punished. Both are necesary: to truly judge moral evil as being evil, yet then "forgive" it .. wink at it ... is to commit injustice, is to commit moral evil, it is to deny justice *and* mercy to the one who was wronged in the first place.

The "mercy" that so many, including most of these so-called atheists, try to demand of God is the negation of both mercy and justice; it is the rankest injustice being (falsely) called mercy and justice.

======= Understanding the relationship between Justice and Mercy

It would seem, at least from our perspective, that justice and mercy are at impossible odds.

Certainly, it is unjust of me, to a greater or lesser degree, to extend my "forgiveness" and "mercy" to the one who has wronged *you.* What presumptuous absurdity! to imagine that I have standing to forgive the one who has done me no harm, but has harmed you.

However, *you* can truly extend real mercy to the one who has wronged you. If you as the injured party extend mercy to the one who has been truly judged as meriting punishment, then the moral obligations to both justice and mercy can be met, even by finite and flawed human beings.

Of course, you (the injured party) cannot truly extend mercy to one who did not actually wrong you. Nor can you truly extend mercy to one who did wrong you but is not repentant of it.

So, how is it that God is able to extend mercy to human beings for the injustice we (all) do? It's because *he* is the injured party: it's not merely that morality is what God commands/expects of us, it's that God (specifically, the person of Christ) *is* morality. The injustices we commit upon one another have meaning only in respect to God, who is morality, and justice (and mercy).