What the hell, Jeff Pearlman? (Pun intended)


I’ve been trying to stay away from the Rob Bell controversy up until now. I don’t think anyone really enjoys talking about hell, other than maybe a few fiery Puritans. It has been said that when Jonathan Edwards went about delivering his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” during the so-called First Great Awakening, some of his listeners thought they were literally falling into hell as Edwards preached. But I digress.

Getting to my point. Jeff Pearlman is a good baseball writer.  I don’t always agree with everything that he says, but I’m guessing he’s a good guy. But I’d like to take the opportunity to answer his assertion that Hell doesn’t exist. Says Pearlman:

I’ve always thought Hell was one of the dumbest things about organized religion. It’s just so friggin’ transparent—if you accept the teachings of [FILL IN THE BLANK RELIGION/RELIGIOUS LEADERS], you are destined for an eternity of bliss and joy, where nobody spills coffee and nobody farts. However, if you do not embrace [FILL IN THE BLANK] in your heart … YOU ARE DOOMED TO AN ETERNITY OF FIRE AND PAIN AND TORTURE!!!!!!!!!!

Gimme a break.

This is—and always has been—an obvious play for control. Listen to the church and pay your weekly dues, you’re good. Stay home on Sundays watching The Miz on WWE, you’re screwed. And why? Because God can see your thoughts and read your heart. Literally, this is the reason—the Holy One can somehow sort through the brains and bodies of the world’s X billion people to decide who accepts Him and who doesn’t. Oh, and you can’t sorta accept Him, because God picks these things up. You’ve gotta really, really, really accept Him. Because He knows. He definitely knows.

Ludicrous.

No, ludicrous times 8 gazillion.

For one thing, was the early church – you know, those crazy people who said they saw Jesus come back from the dead – going around trying to control people, take their money, tell people what to do and live an easy life? Because if that is the case, they failed miserably. Instead they got chased from town to town, beaten, kicked, spit on, stoned, crucified, burned alive and fed to lions. Would you like to know one of the reasons why that is? Because they believed they saw and spoke with Jesus after he had risen, and this Jesus character preached a few weird things while he was alive – like there is such a place as hell, and that he was the exclusive person that could keep people from going there.

The Book of Acts, which records the teachings of the early church and is dated to around 60-70 AD, has the apostle Peter (you know, the guy who gave up on Jesus being the Messiah after he allowed himself to be handed over to the Romans but later was restored) making this controversial statement:

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.

Historians tell us – including some very liberal ones – that this is what the early church taught and believed, even in the face of great persecution. And trust me, Christian particularism wasn’t any more popular back then as it is now.

Alright, so about hell. It seems clear from scripture that God doesn’t want anyone to go there. The Bible says God wants everyone to be saved. But everyone is not saved, otherwise there would be no hell. So does that make God a failure? The implicit objection Pearlman seems to be raising in his post is that a loving God wouldn’t send anyone to hell. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, it seems highly implausible in spite of the fact that our sins our finite and not deserving of infinite punishment, yadda yadda. OK, so maybe he’s not saying that; I’m really just guessing, but a lot of people say something like that.  So what’s the answer?

Well, for one thing, if God did indeed make his existence evident enough, and we ignore that and decide to pursue our own thing and thus reject a relationship with a self-giving God, then hell is merely the logical outcome of a mindset to live apart from God. If you don’t want God, you don’t get God. Heaven itself may be hell for the person who doesn’t want God. It’s not so much a particular count of naughty things a person has done, but an all out rejection of God that makes it an infinitely punishable crime.

Moreover, while a world where all people may accept God is theoretically possible, it’s not feasible. Whatever possible world with people whom have free will that God could make, it may be that none of those worlds are free from sin. God isn’t a “spiritual rapist”. He doesn’t force love on anyone. Love by definition is not coerced.  Should those who choose to damn themselves hold some sort of veto power over those whom God will create and choose Him? Maybe God surveyed all possible worlds He could created, and decided upon the world with the optimal balance of those who would freely choose Him and the fewest possible who do not. As long as that’s logically possible, the objection against the person who says particular faith is the only way falls to the ground.

More Pearlman:

Personally speaking, I’m pretty sure God doesn’t exist (certainly not the Judeo-Christian God we talk and read about). But, if he does exist, he sure as heck isn’t what most Christians are taught to believe. From what I’ve gathered over the years, churches tend to treat faith like a game show. Play well, do right—heaven. Spin the wheel wrongly, land on the black square—hell. That’s it. Don’t think. Don’t question. Certainly don’t debate. Just do. Just go along. Just follow, preferably mindlessly. The church says jump, you jump. The church says hell is eternal damnation, hell is eternal damnation.

Again, it reduces life to a game show; as if we’re only here for a test to determine our worthiness to enjoy eternal salvation. God has arranged everything—mountains, Pee-Wee Herman, telephones, Burger King, global warming, teeth, pooping, braces, disease, death, love, hate—merely to gauge our devotion.

That is, to be blunt, inane.

I don’t know why we can’t discuss these things without resorting to straw men and ad hominem, but that’s cool. Maybe there are some Christians who blindly believe in hell and would run away from an argument, but that doesn’t invalidate the truth of their beliefs. But Pearlman makes a point about God’s providence, but I think his providence has the opposite effect of life being some cosmic game show. Because it is possible that God so ordered a world in which He places people He knows will receive His message if they hear it, there likely are no geographical accidents, anyone who wants to be saved will be saved. But it doesn’t follow that a world in which God may in some sense order and yet still allow for free will is a puppet show world.

Jeff’s last words:

Let me end the suspense. Act as if there is no hell and there is no heaven. Live righteously because it’s righteous. Help the old lady cross the road because she needs help. When you have pre-marital sex, use a condom to be safe. Don’t throw your cigarettes on the ground. Say “Thank you” and “excuse me.” Spend less time playing golf and more time with your kids. Help the earth.

When you die—and you will die—you’ll likely just turn into dust.

It’s OK.

Sure, we all would agree that we should be nice people.  But on atheism, what is morally good – in an objective and binding sense – about helping old ladies across the street, or spending more time with our kids, or being polite? I mean, if we’re all just the by-products of a completely natural, blind, purposeless forces, what makes people so special? Michael Ruse, a philosopher at Florida State (and an atheist) says:

“The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory”

Given atheism, morality is just subjective and non-binding. In fact, if we started the whole evolutionary process all over again, maybe creatures with very different morals would evolve. Perhaps there would be creatures who think something awful like rape is praiseworthy. If atheism is true, the sociopath isn’t really doing anything other than acting unsociable. But clearly this seems to fly in the face of our moral experience. Somethings are just wrong, things like rape or torturing innocent children for fun, for example. I think our experience tells us there is such a thing as objective moral values and duties, but how do we ground that in the absence of God?

Finally, if atheism is true, then good/bad actions by human beings aren’t something we really decide, per se’. Rather, everything is determined by our 5 physical senses and our genetic make up. You really have no free will to choose to be nice or be nasty. You’re just essentially a brain in a body responding to external stimuli. There is no enduring “I” if naturalism is true. Most theists hold to an idea that there is a soul, or that mind and body are distinct. Thus, there’s an afterlife – one with God and one without God, both of which we can freely choose. On theism, free will is not an illusion, but part of what it means to be made in God’s image. If atheism is true, then I’m determined to think there is a heaven and a hell and Jeff is determined to think it’s all really a farce. What makes it so morally or intellectually special to hold to an accidental true belief?

Anyway, that’s  just some food for thought. I think I’m going to go back to thanking God for Pee Wee Herman and Burger King now.

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