What the Hell?

gunI usually don’t post about the concept of Hell because I’d much rather post about ideas that I have a higher chance of changing my mind on.  But it’s a concept that should be talked about because many people still believe in the idea and many are haunted by it (most of them believers – at least the ones that are humble enough to realize that they could be wrong about their worldview, or humble enough to realize that because they are human it’s possible that their sincerity of belief may not be pure enough to surpass the level they imagine required).

There are a growing number of believers who have more nuanced versions of Hell which aren’t really all that bad.  Some say that Hell is just a description of what life on earth could be like when we don’t act in kind and loving ways.  The Universalists say that Hell is a place that will be empty because all roads, no matter what, lead to a God who loves and cares for all of his created beings.  A growing number of intelligent, well-studied believers who hold strongly to a high view of scripture have found that annihilationism is strongly supported after a proper in-depth study of the original language and context of the bible (my own view related to the bible is shown in the comments that Travis and I wrote on this post.)  And some believe that everyone will always be able to choose love/heaven, even after death, and that the only people who will be left in Hell are the ones who eternally want to remain completely hateful and don’t want anything to do with love.

But there are still some who believe in the idea of eternal torment for all who don’t choose a certain belief before death.  The concept of Hell comes in different forms – real fire, some kind of physical pain, or just the complete lack of love – all things which are horrific ideas.  I can’t make any sense of an all-powerful being who creates creatures and loves all of them yet will allow any of them to be in a place like that (and who even knew that would happen before creating them).  There is another idea that I can’t make sense of – the idea that even though this type of Hell is real, we shouldn’t think about it, and we should only concentrate on the fact that a God exists who loves us and wants us to be with him.

Imagine if I had proposed to my wife like this:

Me: Honey I love and care about you so much and I want for the two of us to be together forever.  Will you marry me?

Potential wife: Um, why is there a man pointing a gun at me?

Me: Oh honey, why are you concentrating on insignificant side issues like that?  All you need to do is concentrate on how much I love and care about you.  The choice is completely yours – will you marry me?

Potential wife: No seriously, what’s the guy with the gun for?

Me: It’s totally not important, but if you really want to know – he will kill you if you say no.  But again it’s so insignificant when you realize how incredibly strong my love is for you and how much I care about you and wish the best for you.  Will you marry me?

Potential wife: Um, uh… oh, I just realized I forgot something really important in the car outside – I’ll be right back to answer your question after I get it.

I think the story speaks for itself.

I feared the idea of eternal sadness for many years:  when I was first introduced to it by my friend in high school, while I was a Christian with doubts, and many years afterward.  If you still fear this idea I recommend this post, as well as Charles’ post.  The first link is a more general post related to angst about ultimate questions, but Charles’ post goes into specifics of the Hell concept.  His post and all of the comments there are very instructional and helpful, and you can learn more about my own thoughts on the concept of Hell by reading my own comments there.

(image credit: fineartamerica.com)



Could I Ever Return To Christianity?

I’m sure I’d get a very warm welcome back into the fold if I returned, and I don’t mind answering the question of the subject line.

Well, I’m certainly no fortune-teller and given my past performance at predictions I’d say I’m not so good at predicting my future beliefs, but I can at least give some more detail to my answer, as well as some background.

At 18 years of age I told my friend there was no way I’d ever become a Christian.  A year or so later and that was corrected.

Then at 20 years of age, when my father asked me if I could ever leave the Christian fold, I told him that there was absolutely no way that could happen.  I was so sure of myself (even more sure I had thought than when I was 18.)  I had dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s when doing my research.  I had researched Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9 to the point that I knew for sure that it proved there was a God and that Jesus was that God.  That prediction took almost 5 years to be corrected.

Ah, but I was so young then, right?  The age where we are all so cocksure of our beliefs.  I’m 43 and more mature now, right?  Well age hasn’t given me more confidence in the answers to ultimate questions – quite the opposite has happened.  The last thing I want is to feel like I’ve “arrived” or reached a place of firm conclusions. I value greatly the humility of accepting that I’m human and capable of mistakes – in fact this lack of humility was a big problem I had with the evangelical groups that I hung with.  Being open to change is important to me because I believe that being open to possibilities is an important part of forward progress.  I consider all worldviews as possibilities if at some point they could be shown to be true.  So the answer to the subject line really is a yes, but it is a yes for all worldviews and not all yeses carry the same weight. And while I leave the doors cracked open to all ideas, they are not open in a way that means they all haunt me and can suck me in without reason and evidence.

We’d go insane if we didn’t make our best guess at what worldviews are more worth our effort in pursuing.  My priorities in my own pursuit is in worldviews which are similar to naturalism (although I certainly have not settled on naturalism) because right now I believe those are more worth my time and effort.  This post is not intended to explain why as the rest of my blog has made some attempt at that.  As far as effort goes I’d also rank eastern religions higher in my scale of interest than Christianity.

I no longer see mainline Judaism, Christianity and Islam as worth the concerted effort. But this doesn’t mean I’ve got my hands over my ears.  I’m more than willing to listen to any suggestions that believers in these camps have and I will still listen, read and consider material pointed to by them. I truly believe I can learn from people of all different worldviews. Just because I disagree with them on their overall conclusions doesn’t mean that some of the details wouldn’t be beneficial for me.

So while the answer is a possible yes, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting.

Judgment Day Concept is Bizarre

judgmentdayA lot of evangelical Christians believe in some version of Judgment day and to me it is a very bizarre concept.  Granted, some versions are more bizarre than others, but let me explain further:

I mean here we are on earth with so many varying religious beliefs, and where even some people who claim to be Christian admit that God’s existence is not very obvious.  Prayer feels like a one way conversation, scientific studies trying to detect effects from gods or a God fall short of detecting anything.  We are unable to experience this God with any of our senses.

Even those that are Christian seem to be so divided in beliefs.  Sure there is some commonality but some of the differences are actually pretty important, like what requirements there are for salvation.

The most common responses from Christians to explain this hidden God are that God must allow us free will, or that God has reasons which we wouldn’t understand for being so hidden.  There are others but they all just seem like ways to explain away what may be the most likely explanation – that gods either do not exist or are not interested in communicating with us.

And then comes the belief in Judgment day.  We are told that after we die we will stand before God and at that point it will all be very clear that he exists and at that point it will be too late.  So much for free will at that point, because it will be very clear that he exists then.  And even though there was much reason to doubt here on earth, we aren’t given any chances when it’s clear he exists.  It’s like God pops out and says “surprise, here I am; see you should have trusted that one sect (which one is anyone’s guess) that had the truth, and now it’s on to eternal punishment for you.”

But anything is possible, so I don’t mind entertaining the question of “what would you say if you die and end up standing before the almighty God?”.  At least it’s a good thought experiment.  This is my guess on how it would go down:

First, I’d crap in my pants (which I suppose is ok if I died of old age since I’d likely have a pair of Depends on).  Then I’d throw up all over the clouds.  At that point my heart would be racing so fast and I’d probably have a heart attack.  Interestingly enough, that may very well be the “second death” that the bible speaks about, so perhaps annihilationism is correct.

Anyways, if I was able to make it through all that and finally pull myself together I’d likely say “I really wasn’t expecting this, but at this point I don’t think I’ve got anything to say.”  He’d be reading my mind anyways, so he would know all the expletives going off in my mind (like “WTF, this is some insanely crazy sh-t”).

I mean seriously though, I’d be so scared out of my wits that I’m not sure that I’d even know what to say.  If I’m allowed I’d ask which sect was the one that got it right.

But the same book that people get this idea from they also get the idea that God loves his creation.  This whole judgment day scenario doesn’t match up with a God that cares about his creation.  A lot of other questionable stories come from this book, so this is why I can take this thing with a bit of a sense of humor – it just doesn’t seem real to me.

Taking Easter Seriously Infographic

Matt Brisancian is a master at making info-graphics over at his blog.

He outdid even himself this time with an awesome graphic showing the issues involved with the Easter story.  It is well worth a look and you can see it at this post.  Matt is very well read on this subject and I’m sure he would love to engage a discussion on it.

Most of my readers have probably already seen it but I wanted to take some effort to get it out to all my readers.  He lists “5 ways of looking at it” at the bottom of the graphic and my own view is pretty much #4.

Here’s a copy of the infographic:


Philosophical Arguments for God

Continuing in my current series trying to explain why I doubt the existence of gods, I’d like to start talking about the philosophical arguments for gods (the popular ones are formed as trying to prove a traditional monotheistic God, so I’ll stick to those.)

As an introduction to this topic I’d like to talk more generally about my own perspectives regarding arguments for and against the existence of God.  I’ve found some theists who have expressed my own ideas better than I can.  I’ve tried my best to not twist their quotes out of context but I’ll include links to all of their interviews from the Closer To Truth website so my readers can make their own judgments.  There are tons of related interviews on that website with both theists as well as atheists that I’ve spent way too many hours listening to, but I’ve found many of them helpful.

While many of my readers (perhaps all) don’t need to hear this, it is important for some believers to hear that philosophers agree that we cannot get complete certainty from philosophical arguments for/against the existence of God (actually uncertainty in philosophy extends way beyond this subject).  This seems to be the consensus even among conservative theistic scholars.  Some theists go further than only suggesting that you can’t get complete certainty and those are the perspectives I’d like to share here.

First a short clip from Peter van Inwagen:

This may have been one of those one off comments but it fits the context of what he was expressing in the interview.  Either way It matches my own view.  Take a look here at polls of philosophers on different topics.  What I see from that is that opinions are all over the map on many different topics.  Not only is there lack of complete certainty but there is much honest disagreement on deep philosophical questions.

Next a longer one from John Cottingham:

Cottingham doesn’t get into much detail here but his points are well taken – for many people these arguments likely won’t get them anywhere and they are even unhelpful.  I’m sure Cottingham would agree with me that there are exceptions to this, and frankly I want philosophical discussions to continue because the pursuit of truth needs to continue with all ideas on the table and discussed back and forth with rigor – but the point is that we need to have a practical as well as respectful view of the fact that these arguments at least at this point remain intellectually unconvincing to many who are both sincere and well informed.

People can provide their air-tight syllogisms and tout philosophical rigor above those they disagree with but they should be aware that many of those they disagree with are quite aware of the difference between logical validity and logical soundness. They are very aware that the premises of many of these arguments are questionable often in several different ways, and that it is mainly the discussion of the premises where the confusion and honest disagreement always lies.

Then there is more insight from William Dembsky:

Similar things here regarding this kind of perspective regarding arguments.  I totally agree with him regarding the ontological argument and many (not all) of the theists interviewed tend to express the same concession.  Like him, I also feel like the ontological argument is a word game where the existence of God somehow “pops out”.  Usually after reading these kind of ontological arguments I end up feeling similar to how I feel after I’ve been scammed by a sneaky telemarketer.  I don’t plan on discussing the ontological argument much, although I would say that I think that some laypeople (even theists) who speak against it don’t properly understand the argument.  Some feel that it just says “if you can think about something then it exists”.  This isn’t quite right, but either way many experts who are better informed (both theists as well as atheists) agree that the argument is fallacious.

Dembski precisely hits the nail on the head regarding the problem I’ve always felt plagues the Cosmological argument and frankly I don’t understand why people are so enamored with this one.  Since it is so popular later on I will likely post on some of the other issues with it.  Quoting Dembski on this: “…explanations always run out at some point.  There’s a natural resting place or final resting place of explanation, and it seems we can end it in nature or we can end it in God.  I’m not sure you can adjudicate that on any sort of logical grounds that stand outside and can say ok well it’s really God and not nature.”  If he was being more precise he would have exhausted all possibilities by saying “we can end it in something natural or we can end it in something not natural”, but this was an informal setting.

Dembski expressed that he is personally persuaded by the moral argument (Cottingham is also) as well as intelligent design (irreducible complexity) as you can see in the rest of the interview.  I’ve already discussed why the moral argument is not convincing to me.  While the moral argument is a popular one, Dembski seems to be in the minority among theist philosophers interviewed regarding intelligent design.  This is likely because the consensus among scientists in the field is against this view.  Francis Collins is one of many well informed theists who disagree with Dembski on this.  Which brings me to another very interesting point – there seems to be much disagreement among theists about which arguments are convincing and which are not, even among the experts.  Again, par for the course when it comes to philosophy.  I’m not all that negative on intelligent design, but I’ll need a separate post to fit all the ideas I have on that (sorry I keep doing that).

And last but not least a kind offer of respect from theist John Polkinghorne:

I just love Polkinghorne’s attitude here.  He mentions Steven Weinberg and I am similar to Steven in that I often talk about religion with my friends who have an interest in it.  Face to face these kinds of discussions can actually be enjoyable even with lack of agreement because a lot of my theistic friends can have a similar attitude as Polkinghorne.  Unfortunately, given the nature of the online medium it is much more difficult to have this kind of conversation (but not impossible) in the virtual world.

In my next post I will dig deep into one of the more popular arguments.  Likely fine-tuning.

I Have an Even Harder Time Believing in The POG

I was listening to an interesting interview with Eric Steinhart and heard him use the term POG, which I thought was a great shorthand for the traditional monotheistic concept of God. POG = “Personal Omni-God”.

This traditional concept of God as I have always understood it has mainly the following properties (monotheists are not all in full agreement on this):

  1. It is personal.  In other words it is like a person in that It has emotions, intention, the ability to make decisions, and the ability to relate to humans in some way.
  2. It is omniscient: knows everything.
  3. It is omnipotent: all powerful.
  4. It is omni-benevolent: perfectly good, compassionate, loving, just, and maybe more.
  5. It is typically described as desiring “some kind of” relationship with all humans that it has created. But some (many?) theists would say that It only desires relationship with some humans (perhaps with the humans that It has chosen).  This however seems to run up against property #4.

Now my previous posts have basically described in more general terms why I doubt the existence of invisible, undetectable, bodiless entities that have attribute #1 above.  As I’ve mentioned I’m not totally sure on this, but if I was forced to bet I’d put my money on them not existing.  This includes gods, goblins, devils, etc.

But now when we throw in properties 2-5, then my doubts are even bigger.  The problem is that all of the issues I have described before about gods with attribute #1 become even more problematic when we add the other properties.  For me the main issue is the undetectability (what philosophers call divine hiddenness) of this God.  The evidential problem of evil is obviously an issue for many philosophers and I definitely agree that it is an issue as well (although for me it doesn’t come close to the issue of undetectability).  What many modern day philosophers on both the theist and atheist sides seem to agree on is that we don’t have complete certainty either way with this question, and I agree.  What we can do is see if the description above fits with what we all agree is the evidence of our collective experiences.  For me, I just have a very hard time seeing how there can be a God who: (1) knows exactly what every human being needs in order to have high certainty of Its existence, (2) is fully capable of causing those things to happen, and (3) desires relationship with all of these humans.  This simply does not line up for me with the fact that I and many others I know agree that the existence of God is nowhere near obvious.  For many of us it is quite the opposite.  And even further, there are a lot of theists that I know who concede that the existence of the God that they believe in is not very obvious.  I explain further the issues I have with the POG concept in my first very long comment of my previous post.  I’ve heard some philosophers state that traditional theists have basically boxed themselves in a difficult corner just for the sake of holding on to traditional ideas.  That really resonates quite a bit with me.

So if we start adjusting some of attributes 2-5 then the concept becomes a bit more plausible to me, but 2 paragraphs ago I stated where I lean on only attribute #1.

Now there are alternative concepts of “God” or “gods” that actually throw out attribute #1.  My personal opinion is that we should use a different word for this than “gods” because it seems to fall out of the standard definition then, but that really is just semantics so no need to argue that point.  What I would like to say though as I’ve stated before is that these alternative concepts of some non-personal force or “thing” start to put me more at the 50/50 point where I just have no clue where to lean.  There are some times where I may even start leaning the other way, but not enough to really claim belief.  I will go into this a little more once I am done with this series.  With my current 1 post per month that will probably be mid-year.

In Search of Gods

storyI’d like to continue the theme of explaining why I don’t believe in gods.  But at this point I’d like to simply relay parts of my own story of my search for gods.  As I’ve said several times anecdotal stories rank low for me when it comes to evidence, but we all share our stories because it is at least a small part of what makes us who we are.  This is my story which means that it’s not yours and so there is no pressure from me whatsoever to suggest that you should change your views based on my story.  You can take it or leave it as you like – perhaps you’ll relate, perhaps you won’t.  Also note that this is not a full story of my experiences with ultimate questions – there are other details sprinkled about my blog.  A full story would be too long.

The Jewish God of My Youth

When I was a young boy I strongly believed that the God of Judaism that my parents had described to me existed.  It’s been too long to remember, but this probably lasted until very early high school.  There was no interaction that I ever had with this being.  It was simply a belief I had because the existence of this God was taught to me and I thought I had good reasons to trust the people who described this to me – after all my parents were honest, loving and caring people and a lot of my rabbis displayed these same qualities.

The Move Toward Doubt

But again no interaction at all with this being, so in my high school years I grew to doubt the existence of God (at that point in my life I didn’t really consider that polytheism was actually a “live” option, so the question was more about God than gods).  I began to realize that the only reason why I had believed God existed was because I had trusted those who told me.  As I met other people with many different beliefs I realized that this was not a good enough reason to say I believed it.  After all, I was unable to sense the existence of this being and the world seemed to go on without any influence from Him (yeah, “Her” or “It” weren’t even possibilities I thought about back then).  This was too long ago for me to remember details, but I do know that if I had been asked if I believed God existed I would have said that I was doubtful of it.

Becoming a Born-again Christian

Late in High School I met a very charismatic born-again Christian who tried to convince me of the evangelical Christian worldview.  We were good friends, but whenever that subject came up I fought tooth and nail with him on it.  I told him to give up because I wasn’t about to become a Christian and even doubted the existence of God anyway.  I got a break from his stubborn evangelistic efforts my freshman year of college, but the summer after that he convinced me to begin reading passages in the Tanakh that he suggested.  I was very surprised to read Isaiah 53, and Daniel 9:24-27 became very convincing to me as a prophecy of Jesus.  Long story short, a week or so before my 2nd year of college I prayed and believed that I had become “born-again”.  I still had my doubts, and felt no interaction with God, but my belief had been pushed past the line where I felt it was honest to say I believed.

I began to study more apologetics (especially prophecy) in that first year I was a Christian, and also heard several testimonies that impressed me greatly.  At some point in this first year I felt I was certain of my belief.  I was afraid of being disowned by my parents, and I decided to write a very long letter to my parents explaining the reasons I believed, and also that I still felt Jewish because I thought Christianity “fulfilled” Judaism.  I know there are some who see this as “tricky” but it was what I believed.  My parents told me that they still accepted and loved me but wanted to discuss these things with me.  At one point when my father asked me “do you think you may ever change your mind again?” I said emphatically “absolutely not, I am sure of what I believe and will never change.”  At this point he expressed his concern that I was brainwashed.

Fervently Seeking God

man in praiseThroughout my time as a Christian I found several different groups to fellowship with and followed advice from many on how to grow closer to God.  I truly believed that some kind of “relationship” was possible with God, even though I knew it was different from relationships with people.  But the problem for me was that no matter what I tried or even didn’t try (as some suggested I was trying too hard) this relationship never materialized in any way.

My doubts began to grow again as time went on.  I prayed “Lord I believe, help me overcome my unbelief” countless times, but that help never seemed to come, and the questions I had when I had first become a Christian never got answered in a way that made sense to me even though I had thought they would be resolved in time and with study.

A Trip To the Land of Milk and Honey

WesternWallWhen I had become a Christian I had felt I had found something truly wonderful, and the connection with my Jewish roots made me want to share this with other Jewish people, and even wondered if God wanted me to move to Israel to share this message.  In my last year as a Christian I had finally saved enough money to take a trip to Israel to seek “God’s will” in this regard.  After there was not a feeling or sense or any inkling of any kind on this trip I returned home and only lasted a few more months continuing at the church I had gone to.  I had held on a little more than 5 years, and I felt it was only fair to inform my pastor since I had been teaching some Sunday School classes at the time.

The Search Continues

At this point I had felt that I had found the wrong religion, but still felt like there was “somethiing” out there, and so my search continued in full force for about a year or so.  I was now open to any and all possibilities and spent time with Bahai’s, Unitarian Universalists as well as Mormon missionaries (I sought them out so no need for them to get on their bikes 😉 ).  Throughout this time I prayed to “any God or gods or forces or agents which represent true goodness” to reveal themselves to me, and I think it is clear by now what the results of that were.  Since that time I’ve felt it wiser to focus more on objective and rational reasoning to try and make sense of reality.  I’ve also come to grips with the fact that at this time in history a lot of our ultimate questions are simply out of reach and elusive.

I was told many times back then, and some still tell me today that they have either “met” Jesus, or have a relationship with God, and I think that was one of several things that gave me hope and kept me believing the Christian message and seeking Jesus for more than 5 years (without it I likely would have left earlier).  But at some point living vicariously through other people’s experiences just isn’t enough of a reason to take on a worldview.  I am aware of many of the answers that believers give to people who have experienced similar stories to my own and all of them seem only like possibilities.  But if I believed in all possibilities I’d believe in many a strange things.  That gods do not exist is the more likely conclusion for me in the light of these experiences as well as some of the other things I’ve written and will continue to write.