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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label eternity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label eternity. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Why Eternal Punishment is not Nonsensical

Many people wrestle with the question of how an all-good and loving God could ever send someone to Hell. Some have claimed the two concepts don't make sense together; if God is good and loving, why of course he wouldn't send people to Hell for eternity. However, I have written before that to be separated from God means to be separated from his goodness and all that entails. Thus, the only thing left for a person where God's good gifts of peace, contentment, and rest are missing is torment.

For others, they may accept that God's justice would warrant him to allow a certain amount of suffering for those who rejected him. (For example, if one asks about what the fate for a cruel dictator or one who sells children into sexual slavery should be, most would understand simple annihilation as unfair. These people caused an undue amount of suffering and they shouldn't get off so easily by simply ceasing to be!) But why must such suffering be eternal? Isn't God unfair if the crime is finite but the punishment is infinite? Does the idea of an all-loving God and eternal punishment even make sense?

What Kind of Beings are Humans, Anyway?

To better understand God and his relationship with humanity, I think it's important to look at human beings the way God created them. In Genesis 1:27, the Bible states "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (ESV). The repetitive emphasis of being created in God's image (it is mentioned three times in verses 26 and 27) is meant to emphasize just how important this image bearing is.

As image-bearers, humans are endowed with the ability to weigh moral values and duties against our own actions. We are rational beings, capable of making meaningful choices. We can relate to the person of God, even though he is immaterial. These are all aspects that separate man from the other creatures of creation. If God were to change a person into someone who no longer was able to make meaningful choices, we would see that as demeaning the humanity of that individual. We lament those who fall victim to head injuries and are no longer able to function autonomously. We take pity on them because they cannot exercise their full humanity.

Secondly, God created humans to be immortal beings. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 draws attention to the fact that when God breathed his spirit into Adam (Gen. 2:7), that Adam became a living being. God's desire for humanity was and still is for us to fellowship with him for all eternity. Thus, another aspect of being human is that humans will endure eternally. And because we were made as embodied souls, our eternal state will also be as embodied souls. That's why there is a resurrection of the dead for both believers and unbelievers at the final judgment.

God Won't Make Humans into Non-Humans

In understanding that human beings are a very unique creation of God endowed with particular attributes, two of which are the ability to make meaningful choices and an ongoing immortality in some kind of state. That's how God created Adam and Eve. Sin introduced a corruption to humanity, but I argue that it didn't make humans into non-humans. It may have distorted the image of God in human beings, but it never cancelled it.

One point I must make is on the concept of death itself. Death in the Bible is used to talk about separation, not annihilation. Physical death is the separation of the soul from the body (Gen. 35:18, Ecc. 12:7) and spiritual death is the separation of our spirit from God's spirit. That's why God told Adam that the very day he sinned he would die (Gen. 2:17). It is our separation from God that is labeled death. Paul consistently uses this kind of terminology, stating the Ephesians were dead in their trespasses and sins but still walking according to the world's standards.

So, humans by definition bear the imago Dei, the image of God. That is the differentiation between them and every other creature we see. Humans are therefore morally aware beings that can recognize sin and can make meaningful choices. Give this, how would an all-good God still be all good if he takes away the immortality aspect of the imago Dei? Does it make sense to say God is all good if he changes those who choose to reject him into something less than human? Or how could God remove the ability to make real choices from those who reject him? Does that sound like mercy or a replay of the lobotomy scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Humans are created to be immortal, thus their choices will have a very real effect on their immortal existence. Humans are beings that hold the ability to make meaningful choices. That means even after physical death, they can choose to continue in a state of sin and rebellion against God. Thus ongoing torment is a reflection of ongoing sin in the hearts of the rebellious. To me, this doesn't seem cruel or nonsensical at all, but the tragic result of free creatures who have been given the ability to make decisions for themselves.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Man's Habit of Avoiding Despair with Distraction

Blasé Pascal, in his Pensees, reflected on how hopeless life is without God. He believes that all men can recognize their state if they are honest with themselves, but most men try to lie to themselves and seek to escape this conclusion through distraction instead of looking for God. However, looking for God isn't enough. Pascal is keenly aware of the competing claims different faiths have about who God is and what man's end will be. However, it isn't the threat of damnation that is the convincing proof of Christianity's truth. It is the prophecies of the coming Christ that demonstrate the divine origin of the scriptures. Here's the passage:
When I see man's blindness and wretchedness, when I consider the whole silent universe and man left to himself without light, as though lost in this corner of the universe, not knowing who put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, incapable of any understanding, I become frightened, like someone brought in his sleep to a frightening desert island who wakes up with no knowledge or means of escape. And then I marvel that we do not fall into despair in so wretched a state. I see other people around me of a similar nature. I ask them whether they are better informed than I am. They tell me they are not. Then these wretched lost souls look around and see some pleasant objects to which they give themselves and become attached. As for me, I have not been able to become attached, and, considering how much more likely it is that there is something other than what I see, I have sought out whether this God has not left some sign of himself.

I see many contrary religions, and so all of them false but one. Each of them wants to be believed on its own authority and threatens un­believers. I do not therefore believe them on that account. Anyone can say this. Anyone can call himself a prophet. But I see Christianity, where I find prophecies, and this is not something anyone can do.
It has been nearly 400 years since Pascal wrote those words, yet we still see people seeking to distract themselves with "some pleasant object" (usually including a wifi connection). And still only Christ can truly answer the despair of men's souls.


1. Pascal, Blasé. Pensees. Edited and translated by Roger Ariew. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing CO., 2005) 57-58.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

How Can God be Without Beginning or End?

Yesterday, I featured an article by famous movie reviewer Roger Ebert where he tells of his growing disbelief in a personal God since his childhood. It began early in elementary school as the young Ebert had increasing difficulty wrapping his head around the concept of an eternal God:

I lay awake at night driving myself nuts by repeating over and over, But how could God have no beginning? And how could he have no end? And then I thought of all the stars in the sky: But how could there be a last one? Wouldn't there always have to be one more? Many years later I know the answer to the second question, but I still don't know the answer to the first one.
As kids are wont to do, Ebert first chose to ask a favorite nun about his conundrum, to which she answered, "That is just something you have to believe. Pray for faith." This was a terrible answer, and Ebert acknowledges that it was inherently unsatisfying, even to a second grader. "Then I lay awake wondering how I could pray for faith to a God I could not believe in without faith."

As I had written in my last post, the inability of a nun to answer his questions is what set Ebert on the road to disbelief. It should serve as a warning to parents, pastors, and Sunday School teachers that it's never too early to inject apologetics into childhood instruction.  There are good answers to questions such as these, and they can be couched in such a way that even young children can understand.

Let's take the idea of a God without beginning or without end. In his article, Ebert writes, "I'm still struggling with the question of how anything could have no beginning and no end." If I was instructing the young Roger Ebert I would have simply pointed to a drawing of a circle and I imagine a conversation going something like this:

Lenny: "Roger, can you point out the corner in this circle?"

Roger: "But there is no corner."

Lenny: "Why not? Why isn't there a corner."

Roger: "Because it's a circle. Circles don't have corners!"

Lenny: "You're right! As soon as you have any shape that has a corner, it is no longer a circle. A circle must by definition not have corners, right?"

Roger: "Yes."

Lenny: "OK then.  Can you also see since there is no corner to the circle that every point on the circle is exactly like every other point?

Roger: "Um. Yes, I guess that's true."

Lenny: "Good. So if every point is equal with every other point, then the circle really has no starting point.  Lines have starting and stopping points, but lines are also broken. They can be in many different shapes. Unlike a line, a circle must have all points equally connected to be a circle. That's what makes it a circle and not an arc. A circle is a shape without a beginning point or an end point, yet the shape still exists.

"God has properties which define him in the same way a circle has properties which define it. A circle cannot have corners and a circle cannot have a starting or stopping point and be a true circle. In the same way, God is defined as someone who can exist outside of time; He is someone who has no starting or stopping point because you must be limited by time in order to have that. But it no more illogical to believe in a God who has no beginning or end than to believe in a circle that has no beginning or end."

I would hope that this would be sufficient to show any youngster that while the concept of an eternal God may be difficult, it is not an illogical belief. There are other examples, such as abstract objects like numbers, which can exist outside of a temporal realm. For example, the concept of "three" wasn't invented but recognized, though the symbol that represents the concept was created. One can have a set of three of something, like laws or properties that exist eternally, before time begins.

In his first paragraph, Ebert says he has figured out the answer to his question of a last star, writing "I know there cannot be a Last Star, because we know the universe to be curved. At least, that's what mathematicians tell us. I can't form the concept of a curved universe in my mind, but I think I know what they're trying to say." If Ebert can recognize a curvature of space-time makes a last star implausible,[1] then why can't he by that same token acknowledge a First Cause that begins all events? This concept is not "something that falls outside all categories of thought and must be unknowable and irrelevant to knowledge" but can be known to have at least the following properties:
  1. It must be outside of space, for it is the reason space exists.
  2. It must be outside of time, for it is the reason time exists.
  3. It must be immaterial, since all matter is created by it.
  4. It must be self-existent.
  5. It must have a will in order to will the creation event to begin.

Those properties are specific and most of humanity across history would recognize that description as only fitting God.

I hope Roger Ebert keeps seeking. I would love to expose him to some of the incredible advancements in natural theology that have occurred in recent years, so that he can see the belief in God rests on strong intellectual grounds. But I hope more that other kids who have similar questions would not be shut down with a pat answer of "You just have to believe. Pray to have faith" for that is no answer at all.

[1] Actually, Ebert is premature here.  Olber's Paradox seems to imply that the universe is finite. But even if the universe is curved, it could still contain a finite amount of stars. Cosmologists and philosophers are divided on this issue, but most admit we don't have enough data yet to know what the definitive answer is.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Is It Fair That Hell Is Eternal? (video)

I recently received a letter from a person asking how a loving God could sentence people to Hell for all eternity. The writer said that it didn't seem fair that a finite amount of sins should be punished for an infinite amount of time. However, this misunderstands both the difference between sin and holiness as well as the status of a person who has an active will even after death.

Watch this short clip on my response to this particular question and see why an eternal separation from God is both fair and makes perfect sense.

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