Responding to ISIS with a Christian doctrine of hell

Someone asked me to comment on this article, and I thought I would share my response here, in case anyone else would benefit.

Thanks for sending this to me. Notice that the article doesn’t make a case for what the author thinks the Bible teaches about hell or present an argument for why the traditional doctrine of hell is unjust. Rather, it appeals to our moral intuitions. The problem with this is the subjectivity of our personal intuitions. Speaking for myself, when I hear about ISIS beheading people and burning them alive, my intuition is to thank God that a place like hell exists for such evil.

For example, the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, who witnessed the Serbian violence in the early 90’s after the breakup of Yugoslavia, comments that to people living in a war zone, whose villages have been plundered and burned, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, and whose fathers and brothers have been murdered, it doesn’t work to tell them that they shouldn’t respond with violence because God doesn’t respond with violence either. He writes, “Soon you will discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariable die.” The only hope for a forgiving response today is the conviction that God will bring justice in the end.

Indeed, when God calls his people not to take revenge, he doesn’t tell them that vengeance is wrong but that “vengeance is Mine” (Deut. 32:35). And so Paul tells them to “leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19). That is why the early church, facing the terror of Roman persecution, rejoiced in God’s judgment on “Babylon,” singing, “The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever” (Rev. 19:3). Apparently, to God’s people, the burning of their wicked torturers was received as good news. God avenges the blood of his servants (Rev. 19:2).

The author comments “Is it possible that God is actually Jesus on the cross dying for his enemies and not an ISIS terrorist torturing his enemies?” Of course, that’s a false dichotomy, since no orthodox Christian thinks that God is “an ISIS terrorist torturing his enemies.” He’s letting his caricature do the heavy lifting for him. But he fails to mention that some of those most striking statements about hell were said by Jesus himself. Jesus is the one who talks about hell being a place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). God is not only Jesus dying on the cross for his enemies; God is also Jesus returning on a white horse with a sharp sword protruding from his mouth to strike down the nations, treading the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God (Rev. 19:15). If your theology makes room for the Jesus of the cross but not the Jesus of judgment, your theology is not actually Christian.

Now, I’m not inclined to think that people literally burn alive in hell. When you consider the Biblical descriptions of hell, there seems to be a number of figurative expressions employed (an unceasing fire, complete darkness, their worm does not die, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc.). If you took all of these literalistically you’d have contradictory pictures (e.g., a place of both fire and darkness?). So I think they are metaphorical, but the metaphors do mean something, and they are clearly indicating that hell is a terrible place.

As I look at the rest of Scripture and the way that God’s judgment is meted out, I’ve concluded that much of the terror of hell is that it will be a society of depraved people without God’s restraining hand of common grace. In Romans 1, God’s judgment comes in the form of “giving them over” to their passions. Imagine a world of people totally absent of grace, totally given over to their godlessness, never having their desires fulfilled, and turning on one another in the process. That’s not injustice; that’s poetic justice!

He talks about about both Hitler and the indigenous tribesman who never heard the gospel receiving the same fate. Well, first, the Bible doesn’t teach that people are condemned because they’ve never heard and responded to the gospel; they are condemned because they have sinned, and the gospel is the only hope of rescue. But again, we need to distinguish our assumptions about hell from what the Bible actually teaches. Scripture does not say that the experience of judgment will be exactly the same for every individual regardless of what they did in this life. It indicates precisely the opposite (Matt. 10:15; 11:24; Rom. 2:6). When people say there is a “special place in hell” reserved for individuals like Hitler and Pol Pot and child predators, they’re actually stating a Scriptural value judgment.

I agree that we experience moral revulsion at the actions of ISIS, and rightly so. But the author then takes this moral revulsion at evil and transfers it to God’s righteous condemnation of evil. This is morally upside down. My question is, what’s his alternative? Annihilationism? But you could present exactly the same response to that position as he does to the doctrine of hell as unending, conscious torment. I’m outraged that ISIS is beheading people, taking innocent lives, robbing them in a moment of the gift God has given. Should I say that this moral intuition means it would be wicked for God to remove people from existence in judgment? If I had the time to waste, I could re-write his entire post, just replacing the terms to make it an argument against Conditionalism/Annihilationism. That’s the problem with these kinds of arguments based in “intuition” alone.

The key distinction is guilt vs. innocence. That’s the morally relevant question, and that’s what distinguishes God’s actions from the comparison. But the author has cut off that response, calling “BS” on anyone who would draw attention to the fittingness of God judging sin. My guess is that he doesn’t really see sin as terrible, wicked, deserving of judgment. Which means he is approaching the Bible with his own (culturally-blinded) assumptions, bending it into submission to his subjective opinions. At the end of the day, I don’t want to know what Benjamin Corey thinks about these things; I want to know what God thinks. And he has spoken clearly.

Doubt your skepticism

People act like unbelief is the default option—that if they discover perceived problems in Christianity or find arguments for God’s existence to be unpersuasive that they can become a “skeptic” and have no burden of proof. But there is no worldview neutrality. Atheism is typically shorthand for metaphysical naturalism. That needs to be argued for (not simply assumed), and it needs to be defended against all the objections that are raised against it. You may discover that you have jumped out of the boat of Christianity onto what you think is dry land only to realize you’ve landed in a sinking ship.

Is this life a living hell?

Hell is alive and well. It is inside of every human person. All the depravity that will be present in hell is present in principle now, although it is mercifully restrained by God.

But this world is not hell in the very significant sense that it is presently marked by common grace. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. There is genuine goodness that we experience in this life. The beauty of the oceans, the birth of babies, the love shared among friends and husband and wife.

And yet all of these things are marked by the curse. There are tsunamis in the waters, pain in childbirth, brokenness and hardness of heart that touches relationships. We experience true goodness with a mingled sorrow that intrudes upon everything. Everything groans for redemption.

But hell is the fallen condition with all common grace removed. It is the curse without any redemptive influence. It is not only sinners in the hands of an angry God, but sinners in the hands of angry sinners.

Hell will reveal that there is not a problem of evil, but a problem of goodness. When the evil of humanity is displayed and its consequences are felt in full force, it will not be the suffering of life but its joys that will have been a mystery. This is why Jesus tells us that our response to the tragedies of life is always to be repentance (Luke 13:1-5).

Scientism is naïve

Dr. Peabody,

Thank you for replying to my letter about the relationship between science and Christianity. I appreciate that you are willing to dialogue about these things. However, I’m somewhat confused by a few of your statements. You said, “The problem with Christianity, along with all religion, is precisely this: it presents claims that are not scientifically verifiable and pretends to know things without empirical support. But today we are right to recognize that anything outside of investigation by the scientific method is simply fairytale.” That is certainly strongly stated! However, I’m glad that you’ve clarified your perspective, because this allows us to interact about our basic assumptions.

The viewpoint you seem to espouse is epistemological naturalism—or, as it’s popularly labeled, “scientism.” That is, that science is the proper source of knowledge for modern humanity, and anything that is not derived from the scientific enterprise does not constitute true knowledge. I trust that you understand how radical this claim is, if held consistently, for it would mean that there are no such things as historical truths, literary truths, mathematical truths, ethical truths, and so on—since none of these disciplines are scientific. The scientific method simply does not address whether or not the Mona Lisa is aesthetically pleasing, or if Voldemort should be considered the protagonist of Harry Potter, or whether Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis is the sixteenth president of the United States, or even whether the external world exists (since this is a metaphysical rather than scientific claim). On scientism, these matters are likewise fairytales.

Perhaps you are willing to discard all such non-scientific knowledge. But have you considered the implications of this for science itself? Science presupposes certain metaphysical principles that cannot be derived from the scientific method. For example, it assumes that nature is uniform, that objective truth exists and is knowable, that our sense perception and cognitive faculties are reliable means of investigation. There are assumptions concerning mathematical principles and their relationship to the physical realm. There are ethical values about the purity of unbiased examination and honesty in reporting. Indeed, the entire scientific enterprise is based upon a value judgment that empirical research and experimentation toward developing tested hypotheses is the best way to gain knowledge of the natural world. But what kind of science experiment could possibly demonstrate that?

Scientism, then, is not friendly to science. Nevertheless, this is not the primary concern with epistemological naturalism. The main problem is that it is self-refuting. “We should only believe what can be scientifically proven.” The position sounds reasonable enough, until one realizes that, if it is true, it is false—for what scientific proof is available for this contention? It is not a scientific claim but an epistemological one. That is to say, it is the espousal of a philosophical opinion, which is a non-starter on scientism. Moreover, there is no good reason to believe that this is true.  The claim itself is unprovable, but even granting it (on faith?), it creates an incoherent position. One must reject scientism in order to espouse scientism.

I hope that it is clear that I am not in any way questioning the importance of science. However, I do want to help you to see its limits. To say that science is able to render knowledge does not mean that it provides the only kind of knowledge available. There are certain worldview presuppositions that must be in place in order for science to operate; and, I would argue, only the Christian worldview is able to provide this foundation.

I look forward to hearing back from you. I pray that God blesses your research!

What is prayer?

What is prayer? George Herbert helps to answer:

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth

Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

The Resurrection and Miracles

Christians contend that the Resurrection was not merely a symbolic representation of the significance of Jesus of Nazareth but a real historical event, occurring in space and in time. In fact, Paul argues that apart from the reality of the Resurrection, Christians are without hope and are ultimately wasting their time (1 Cor. 15:12-19). As such, apologists contend that there is verifiable historical evidence that supports the Resurrection of Jesus—that there are a number facts that nearly all historians recognize (the death of Jesus, the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus after his death, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, the rise of Christianity, etc.) which beg for explanation. While various alternative theories are proposed (hallucination, stolen body, swoon theory, and so on), these fail to account for all of the facts in a meaningful and non ad hoc way. The best explanation is the Resurrection: God raised Jesus from the dead.

Nevertheless, some respond that the Resurrection, while the best explanation of the available evidence, is not a live option. This is because, they argue, miracles are impossible. The objector assumes a standpoint of Metaphysical Naturalism (that supernatural events are impossible), or at least Methodological Naturalism (that, whether or not Naturalism is true, it supplies the appropriate methodological considerations for historiography). Methodological Naturalism seems like a reasonable standpoint, and relieves the interlocutor from having to argue against the possibility of miracles. But how effective is a methodology that artificially prevents someone from discovering the truth? Methodological Naturalism holds that, even if Jesus was supernaturally raised from the dead, history does not permit us to conclude this. This methodology is a prison and not a window.

The reality is, the contention that “miracles are impossible” is a metaphysical claim. It cannot be proven empirically (how could anyone show that a miracle has never happened anywhere in the universe?). Furthermore, there is no good reason to believe that Naturalism is true. Naturalism must be assumed in advance, which is circular (at least from the perspective of the Naturalist, who forbids such presuppositional commitments). As Craig notes, “In order to be a Naturalist, you have to deny the foundations of Naturalism—namely, that reason, science, and experience are the only sources of authority—because otherwise you cannot believe that the natural world is all that there is.”[1] Moreover, the person who claims that miracles are impossible must demonstrate that it is impossible for God to exist. If God exists, certainly miracles may exist—and if there is good reason for believing that God exists, then there is good reason for believing that miracles are possible.

Indeed, there is good reason to believe that miracles have actually happened, not only in the past but in our own time. Contrary to Naturalistic assumptions which rule out miracles a piori, the evidence points in the opposite direction. For example, Craig Keener has provided documentation for accounts of miracles occurring throughout history and in the modern day.[2] The Naturalist can interact with these veridical cases only by means of special pleading:

“We know that the Resurrection did not happen because miracles do not occur.”

“But miracles have indeed happened.”

“We know that those cases are false reports because miracles do not occur.”

Thus, the circle narrows.

David Hume has developed a softer claim that miracles, if not impossible, are extremely improbable. Accordingly, it is always more reasonable to appeal to a Naturalistic explanation than to believe the miracle claim.[3] Now, one of the reasons that Hume assumes that miracles are to be considered improbable is because they do not happen today, and therefore it is all the more unlikely that they did not occur in the past (i.e., the principle of uniformity). This, of course, ignores evidence to the contrary of modern miracles (such as those documented by Keener). But the more significant problem is Hume’s misapplication of probability theory, due to the fact that he was writing before the development of the probability calculus.[4] It is mathematically fallacious to compare the intrinsic probability of the miracle against the background information of the world without also taking into consideration the explanatory power of the Resurrection hypothesis in relation to the facts in evidence, compared to the explanatory power of competing theories. In other words, when considering the probability of an event that is an explanation of other events, the entire picture must be held in view.[5]

The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead is the appropriate conclusion to be drawn from the available evidence. Those who reject this conclusion because they are allergic to miracles are not following the evidence but pre-judging it on the basis of prior faith-based commitments.


[1] William Lane Craig, in debate with John Shook, “Does God Exist?” University of British Columbia (2008).

[2] Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

[3] David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10.1-10.2.

[4] John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[5] This is discussed in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth in Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 270-277.

God and the Problem of Evil

“Don’t tell me about God; the reality of the Holocaust during WWII is enough to show me that he does not exist.”  This objection articulates one of the common challenges for faith: the Problem of Evil. Atrocities abound in the world around us, and too often they hit close to home. This kind of reaction arises not only in the philosophy classroom, but from the heart of those facing inexplicable pain. How could God allow this? What do these events mean for his existence, or at least for his goodness? More formally, it is contended that the reality of evil means that God cannot exist (that a good, omnipotent God who allows evil is logically incoherent), or at least that it renders his existence improbable. As David Hume has articulated it, “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”[1]

However, the alternative must be considered. If God does not exist, it cannot be reasonably demonstrated that evil as a value-category exists. In an atheistic, time-and-chance universe, the Holocaust is not objectively evil. To paraphrase John Lennon, “Above Auschwitz, only sky.”[2]  The universe ultimately does not care about human suffering, and it offers no explanation, no purpose, no reason, and no hope for the pain that we experience. Atheism as a worldview is unable to provide the necessary foundation for objective moral norms; it is unable, apart from committing the naturalistic fallacy, to move from the is of human suffering to the ought that this should not be. Indeed, many atheist philosophers and meta-ethicists recognize this to be the case, holding to a form of moral anti-realism or ethical relativism. If objective moral norms do not exist, then evil is not an intelligible category. The reality of evil, then, does not disprove God’s existence but necessarily presupposes it.

Since atheism is unable to provide the foundation for objective moral norms, the skeptic cannot critique Christianity on external grounds. However, sometimes an internal critique is advanced—attempting to show that, whether or not evil exists, the Christian worldview contends that it does, and this is logically incompatible with God’s existence. These arguments, nevertheless, are typically not genuine internal critiques; the objector smuggles in assumptions extrinsic to Christianity or fails to take all of the data of Christian theology into consideration. Accordingly, external and internal issues are straddled, without the objector stepping into the Christian worldview with both feet.

However, when one enters the Christian view of reality fully, it is clear that Christian theology has a doctrine of evil—both of its origins in the Fall and of its continuing presence due to sin. Christianity takes evil seriously, and reveals the character and goodness of God in contrast to the evil that grieves him. The Bible also teaches that God has morally sufficient reasons for evil’s present existence,[3] and that he will judge all evil and remove it in the end. Christians are not in a position of being able to claim that they know the purpose behind any and every particular instance of evil, or that the relationship between evil and God’s loving designs is entirely without mystery. Lest we become like Job’s “friends,” we must avoid simplistic explanations or quick justifications for someone’s suffering; rather, we direct them toward to the character of God, who can be trusted, and the truth that he has revealed.

Furthermore, Christianity has a solution where the Problem of Evil matters most—the category of personal evil. Evil is not simply something “out there”; it is inside of all of us. As psychological research such as Milgram’s Authority Study and the Stanford Prison Experiment have shown (and our own anecdotal evidence has confirmed), normal human beings are capable of acting with horrific inhumanity. If we were honest with our own hearts, we know that evil resides in us as well. It is said that G.K. Chesterton responded to the London Times’ question “What is wrong with the world?” by replying, “Dear sir, I am.” We are the problem of evil. The ultimate solution to the problem of evil inside of us is the Gospel. In the Person of Jesus Christ, God has entered our world of suffering and taken our evil upon himself. Jesus, the innocent one who did no wrong, received our wrongs. Ellie Wiesel is correct, although in a way that he did not intend. God is there, hanging on the gallows.[4] He knows our suffering, and he has suffered for our sin. Trust him, believe him, and receive the solution to our deepest problem.


[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Nelson Pike (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Publications, 1981), 88.

[2] Douglas Wilson, in debate with Christopher Hitchens, Collision film (LEVEL4: 2009).

[3] Differing Christian traditions offer various explanations, according to their theology—whether the free will defense or greater good defense, etc. The key contention, however, is that the Christian worldview presents God’s reasons as morally sufficient, even if they are not always clear.

[4] Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). Unfortunately, Moltmann’s doctrine of God is not sufficiently biblical.

Conversion ends the law-gospel antithesis

“Apart from the gospel and outside of Christ the law is my enemy and condemns me. Why? Because God is my enemy and condemns me. But with the gospel and in Christ, united to him by faith, the law is no longer my enemy but my friend. Why? Because now God is no longer my enemy but my friend, and the law, his will, the law in its moral core, as reflective of his character and of concerns eternally inherent in his own person and so of what pleases him, is now my friendly guide for life in fellowship with God.”

Richard Gaffin, “By Faith and Not By Sight”: Paul and the Order of Salvation, 103


Cormac McCarthy overwhelms the reader with lengthy sentences in this paragraph to communicate the devastation his characters are experiencing. The images are inescapably memorable:

They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he’d seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road, 180-181