Thinking About Hell

It is not just believers who ponder things like heaven and hell – academics can and do as well. Consider one American academic who has just released a fascinating study on this topic. It reveals some real interesting results which are very telling indeed. One write-up begins this way:

“Religions are thought to serve as bulwarks against unethical behaviors. However, when it comes to predicting criminal behavior, the specific religious beliefs one holds is the determining factor, says a University of Oregon psychologist.

“The study, appearing in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, found that criminal activity is higher in societies where people’s religious beliefs contain a strong punitive component than in places where religious beliefs are more benevolent. A country where many more people believe in heaven than in hell, for example, is likely to have a much higher crime rate than one where these beliefs are about equal. The finding surfaced from a comprehensive analysis of 26 years of data involving 143,197 people in 67 countries.

“The key finding is that, controlling for each other, a nation’s rate of belief in hell predicts lower crime rates, but the nation’s rate of belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates, and these are strong effects,” said Azim F. Shariff, professor of psychology and director of the Culture and Morality Lab at the UO. “I think it’s an important clue about the differential effects of supernatural punishment and supernatural benevolence. The finding is consistent with controlled research we’ve done in the lab, but here shows a powerful ‘real world’ effect on something that really affects people—crime.”

Interesting indeed. I guess a few thoughts arise from all this. If a person is an atheist or a secularist who denies any afterlife and a final reckoning, then he can certainly be tempted to think in terms of what can be gotten away with in this life. Sure, plenty of non-believers may well try to live a decent and moral life, but one has to ask why.

Given the premises of materialism, evolution, and atheism, there is no compelling reason to seek to be moral or good. Indeed, the very terms themselves do not readily fit into such a worldview. But don’t take my word for it, consider what the atheists themselves have said:

“But nature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering nor for it. Nature is not interested one way or the other in suffering, unless it affects the survival of DNA.” -Richard Dawkins

“Moral properties … constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.” – J.L. Mackie

“Morality is no more … than an adaptation, and as such has the same status as such things as teeth and eyes and noses. . . . [M]orality is a creation of the genes” -Michael Ruse

For secularists, “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not cruelty?’” – Richard Rorty

“The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.” -Thomas Huxley

“It is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones.” -Richard Dawkins

Quite so. A full-blown working morality, and a coherent moral system make plenty of sense and fit in perfectly with the theistic worldview. But when it comes to reductionistic materialism and evolutionary theory, it is very hard to account for them at all. As Edgar Andrews rightly remarked:

“If our world is the product of amoral forces, and if man is simply cosmic flotsam scattered on the shores of time, then morality (including Dawkins’ longed-for generosity and altruism) simply does not exist. . . . To their credit, older atheists like Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre and Camus recognized this and saw that it led logically to nihilism or, at best, to absurdity. The ‘new atheists’ (who want us to call them ‘brights’) seem oblivious to the obvious.”

Or as Peter Williams put it, “Evolution might account for our having certain moral feelings about actions, but it can’t objectively prescribe that we objectively ought to pay attention to those feelings because they correspond to an objective moral ideal (where, in a naturalistic metaphysics, can one fit such a thing as an objective moral ideal?). Nor can it obligate us to pay attention to them, because only persons can prescribe or obligate behaviour, whilst a wholly naturalistic evolutionary history is impersonal. As agnostic philosopher Anthony O’Hear says of Dawkins, ‘this particular Darwinian is quite unable to explain why we have an obligation to act against our “selfish” genes’.”

But of course it is not just the secularists who can be mentioned here. Increasingly, and tragically, there are more and more folks who call themselves Christians who are effectively coming around to the secularist worldview, at least in this area. Many are questioning – if not abandoning altogether – the biblical teachings on final judgment, hell and eternal punishment.

Of course that is not really unexpected. The Bible itself warns about apostasy, doctrines of demons, false prophets, and scurrilous teaching. And the fact that so many of these folks are simply soaking up the surrounding culture’s emphasis on relativism, PC trendiness, and unbiblical notions of tolerance means that they are quite willing to walk away from Biblical truth.

Thus plenty of gullible Christians are now jettisoning the clear teachings of Scripture here. Just the other day I had a very agitated young woman assure me that the Bible does not teach about hell and that it is just an invention of the fifth century! She of course did not have a clue what she was talking about, and her dogged insistence was only matched by her woeful ignorance.

This is not the place to go into all the biblical teaching on final judgment and hell – that awaits another article or two. But it must be pointed out to these “Christians” who apparently have never actually read their Bibles that this is a very consistent teaching found in the whole of Scripture.

Not only that, but Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the New Testament. There are over 160 references to it in the Christian Scriptures and over 70 of these references are attributed to Jesus. As Spurgeon put it, “It is a very remarkable fact that no inspired preacher of whom we have any record ever uttered such terrible words concerning the destiny of the lost as our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As J.C. Ryle correctly noted, “Disbelieve hell, and you unscrew, unsettle, and unpin everything in Scripture.” Absolutely, and that certainly includes the doctrine of free will. If we take away hell we effectively take away human moral autonomy as well.

C.S. Lewis was spot on to write: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.”

Or as G K Chesterton commented, “Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.” Thus Lewis states elsewhere, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

As to the particular study with which this article began, I know little about the psychologist who did it, or how reliable his findings are. But however dependable this study is, it seems to be simply a matter of common sense that if we deny the afterlife and final judgment completely, or just water down or reject hell and highlight only heaven, that may well have ramifications for how we behave in this life.

The results of the study certainly seem to bear this out – and it fits with what we know of reality. Ideas have consequences, and when we reject God’s ideas and truth for man-made moral relativism and epistemological mush, then we will see the bitter fruit coming forth.

How many will seek to please men while snubbing God by rejecting the clear teachings of his word? Indeed, as Thomas Watson asks, “How many souls have been blown into hell with the wind of popular applause?”

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5 Replies to “Thinking About Hell”

  1. Part of the hurdle in believing in an afterlife is accepting that we are infinite creatures. But how do we prove such?

    Consider a proven capacity of every human being that is broadly accepted amongst philosophers (John Searle and Jerry Fodor are two examples); our capacity to form an infinite amount of concepts/linguistic products from a finite source in the external world.

    How do we explain this if we are only finite creatures and death is the final end of our existence? It may indicate instead that this life is just a test for where we go in infinity.

    Damien Spillane

  2. When people try to tell me there is no hell, I ask them why it is then that Jesus died on a cross. There would be no need for forgiveness of sin if we were all going to end up in heaven anyway. As it is, I am forever grateful that Jesus made himself a sacrifice for me and for those who repent of sin.
    Joan Davidson

  3. The fact that Jesus spoke more about hell than heaven shows that Jesus was very mindful of the fact that disobedience had consequences. I am grateful for the Pastor some nearly 30 years ago when he preached about hell, that was the catalyst for my salvation. I am also grateful for my mother for sending me there in the first place.
    Ian Nairn

  4. Love the C S Lewis quote. While there’s plenty of scriptures to describe hell, I thought this one is very succinct:
    Jesus said about Judas: “It would have been better for him to have never been born” Matt 26:24
    This makes nonsense of all other possibilities: Annihilation, purgatory or heaven-for-everyone.
    However, to my shame, I would say I do not really live like I really believe there were people I walked past today that could be on their way there. Nor have I met many Christians act like they treat hell as a real danger. Help us Lord.
    Tim Lovett


    just this weekend i met two young guys sent over by a ministry from NZ, and they were saying how great it is they see so many people preaching on the streets in melbourne, he said there were a few in paticular he’d seen in the city, but they weren’t preaching the right message though, he went on to say, they kept talking about hell…. i asked what he should have been preaching instead… about God’s love….

    i got to have a really good talk to them about what does the bible say is the right message to preach, what did Jesus preach? John the Batist, the disciples??? what does the Holy Ghost preach to the hearts of men today?? Sin, righteousness and the judgement to come! What an honor to contend for the FAITH!!!

    I also used alot of arguments from these articles, about the fullness of the Word, and how to take only the love part and leave out the rest, isnt a full gospel… thanks so much for euipping the saints to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only!!

    Elisha Mckenzie

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