Double-talk in Defense of the Dubious: God’s “Respect” and “Forgiveness”

By Philip Kuchar

ere are two questionable propositions the theologian repeatedly offers. (1) God respects our free will so much that he allows non-believers to do their own thing for eternity in hell. (2) God loved us so much that he forgave our sins by punishing Jesus instead of sinners.

Both propositions have the same problem: the language used refutes itself. If the unbeliever’s imprisonment in hell will be unimaginably painful, as the New Testament says it will be, it could not be “respectful” of God to permit unbelievers to continue to live in hell. On the contrary, this would be a sign of wrath and a flat acknowledgment of the unbeliever’s low value. It matters not at all if hell is a positive punishment inflicted by God on sinners, or a matter of sinners inflicting themselves with guilt and other torments. God would have the power to obliterate the condemned souls, preventing them from feeling any pain, but theologians typically assert that unbelievers will exist in hell forever. Knowing that hell will be horrible for unbelievers, God nevertheless chooses to permit them to enter that state of never-ending agony–out of “respect,” the theologian assures us.

This is a highly misleading use of words on the theologian’s part. “Respect” involves honour, esteem, and consideration.  Allowing the people God allegedly respects to suffer without abatement for eternity is contradictory. What aspect of the nonbelievers could God hold in high regard?  What consideration could God show the condemned in hell?  Will he provide the condemned an intermission from the heartache and misery?

What could God value about the condemned sinners?  Their freewill?  But in the sinners’ case their freewill lands them the worst thing in existence, eternal absence from God. How could someone respect a criminal who has earned the worst fate of all?  It should be impossible to hold such a person in high regard, but if God were to value infinitely condemnable sinners, surely he would take pity on them and obliterate them rather than permitting them to suffer in hell. If God were to value freewill, surely he would allow nonbelievers to use it again rather than forcing or permitting the nonbelievers to wallow in the consequences of their final, erroneous choice to reject him. If hell is as bad as the New Testament describes, it is doubtful that any but the most perverted nonbelievers would freely choose hell over either heaven or obliteration.

Take this analogy. A child, Billy, chooses to abuse drugs, and the father, Frank, knows that Billy’s choice will ruin him (Billy). Frank decides not to intervene out of respect, he says, for his son’s freewill, and Billy proceeds to ruin his life. Why is it mistaken to suggest that there could even be a shred of respect on Frank’s part for his child?  Because in appreciating Billy’s freewill the father must also acknowledge that the son will be responsible for his choice and will deserve whatever suffering he brings upon himself.  And furthermore, in knowing that Billy’s choice will ruin his life, Frank must believe that Billy is defective or weak in some way for nevertheless choosing to abuse drugs.

Billy isn’t respected personally or as an equal, and neither is he valued highly.  What is respected, instead, is the moral law, which states that crime should be punished. In this case, the appreciation of Billy’s freewill amounts to the judgment that he is fit to receive punishment or reward depending on his choice, and Frank’s knowledge as to the criminality of Billy’s choice leads to Frank’s smug decision not to interfere by correcting or preventing the suffering brought about by Billy’s drug-use, but to let justice take its course and ruin Billy’s life. In short, the father shows no respect for his son, but only love for retributive justice, which in this case is expressed by his wrathful inaction.

The situation is similar but more extreme in the case of God’s “respect” for unbelievers in hell. The differences are these: (1) The heavenly Father is omniscient and can have no doubt as to the terrible consequences of his children’s disobedience; (2) in appreciating his children’s freewill, the Father adheres not simply to a relative moral principle but to the absolute moral law that he himself institutes; (3) the suffering brought about by sin is everlasting and unimaginably painful in hell.

Given these three differences, the conclusion is that far from there being any trace of respect on God’s part in permitting sinners to torture themselves in hell, this allowance is wrathful in the extreme. God values the freewill of sinners, and thus must hold them responsible for their choices. Unbelievers prove their inferiority, immorality, blindness and stubbornness in failing to accept Christianity. And instead of demonstrating concern for the unbelievers themselves by saving them from hell, if only by obliterating them, God shows his abstract esteem for the moral law and the role the unbelievers play in their free choice to break it by rejecting God and his offer of atonement through Jesus’ death. In other words, God’s “respect” for freewill, as opposed to the people themselves, amounts to joy when the people choose well (because the moral law is appreciated), and to wrath when they choose poorly and violate the law.

The theologian’s presentation of this benevolent purpose of hell is contradictory.  Genuine respect is close to admiration, but there would be nothing admirable about sinners wallowing in their deserved hell. If there were something admirable about them, they wouldn’t deserve the worst possible fate (assuming hell is worse than obliteration). They would deserve some sort of mercy. Genuine respect involves esteem for the person, but there could be no high value of sinners in hell. If there were, God wouldn’t permit the sinners to be so far away from him or in such agony; God would do something to lessen their plight. But instead the theologian reports that God will allow the terrible consequences of the nonbelievers’ rejection to be carried out in full. The theologian’s double-talk aside, God shows pure wrath towards sinners, in the form of an abstract regard for strict justice rather than the condemned, not respect or mercy of any kind.

The second proposition, given above, is at least as incoherent as the first. The theologian says that God’s decision to have Jesus rather than us executed for our sins was an example of perfect, ideal love, forgiveness, and mercy. But again the common definitions of the key words involved refute this notion. Genuine forgiveness involves giving up resentment against or the desire to punish, or a pardon, which is the releasing from further punishment. Forgiveness, then, is very far from taking the punishment out on someone else in full. If God really forgave us our sins he would have abandoned the desire to punish us.  But instead the theologian teaches that Jesus paid the entire price of sin, an infinitely terrible punishment involving the death of a divine person. God says he forgives sinners, but then he proceeds to vent his wrath on someone else.

This is just as strange as the following scenario: John punches Fred in the face, Fred says “John, I forgive you,” but then Fred promptly finds an appropriate substitute, like John’s wife, and strikes her in the face. There is no mercy, love, or forgiveness involved here.  Only a mean switching of victims, or in Christian terms the “transference of sin-debt.”

Jesus was supposed to be the second representative of humanity, and so the fact that God chose him as our sacrifice should be at least as insulting to every one us, as the represented group, as an American would be justifiably insulted were the American President singled out as the sacrifice for the sins of Americans, all done out of forgiveness of Americans’ sins. With regard to the analogy of Fred and John, the parallel is with the fact that it is John’s wife, someone closely connected with John and someone whom John loves, that receives the substitutive punishment. True, we never knew God had a Son until Christians preached that Jesus was the one, but God the Father, the one inflicting or permitting the punishment, would have known that Jesus, the Word or Logos, was all-important to Creation and thus to us.

It doesn’t matter who was punished in our place, the result is the same: at best God would have showed insincere forgiveness of sinners. If God had vented his wrath on a mountain by blasting it to dust, his mercy, love, and forgiveness would still have been negated. Wrath and mercy are simply incompatible motivations. The first seeks compensation, the latter seeks to do away with payment.

The apologist teaches that the plan of Jesus’ death was beautiful and perfect, since it allowed God to demonstrate both his mercy towards sinners and his wrath towards sin. But sin itself apart from the sinner simply can’t be punished. How else could an act of murder be punished except by punishing the murderer? Further, there would be no point in punishing sin itself even if this were possible. Sins are just choices or events. They aren’t morally responsible for their effects. It should give a judge precisely zero satisfaction to seek the punishment of a sin in itself or to watch the sin be punished (again even if this were possible). It would make no sense at all for God to be wrathful toward sins themselves but not toward sinners, or to have sought the destruction of sins but not those who having committed them are morally responsible for them.

Furthermore, God’s public punishment of Jesus in effect did punish sinners themselves, because the latter had their noses rubbed in God’s fully wrathful reaction to their sin. By showing us just what we deserve for our sins, and just what someone actually underwent for our sake, God makes sinners feel guilty and penitent, which are psychological punishments of devastating force. This is why the teacher will tell a student who just received corporal punishment for some offense to go stand in the corner so he or she can feel guilty and ashamed. Standing in the corner amounts to a continuation of the punishment, or perhaps even its culmination.

God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness of sinners was like a slap in the face. Return to the analogy of John being “forgiven” by Fred for punching him in the face. Imagine now that Fred says “John, I forgive you,” but then proceeds to lay an enormous guilt trip on John for having punched him. Again, what would we think of Fred’s “forgiveness”?  We would think that Fred never in fact forgave John, but instead harboured feelings of ill-will like resentment or wrath. We would certainly not believe that Fred gave up resentment or the desire to punish, which is precisely what “forgiveness” means.

These two propositions, that God shows “respect” for sinners by giving them hell, and that God showed us “love” and “forgiveness” by punishing someone else for our sins, are stunning examples of double-talk. What exactly is “double-talk”?  It is a technique of obfuscation that attempts to defend and justify with mellifluous but empty expressions, faulty analogies, and other misuses of language a reversal of the truth, producing an incoherent mess. In these two cases at least (and there are many more), the rhetoric is meant to justify what are in fact unseemly acts the theologian attributes to God. The existence of both hell and God’s love and mercy cannot easily be justified, and neither can the appropriateness of substitutive sacrifice. In wanting to hide or soften the repugnant ideas of hell and human sacrifice, the theologian resorts to contradictory language.

Double-talk is a species of self-contradiction. Respect can play no part at all in sending someone to hell or even in permitting someone to punish herself in hell. And there can be no forgiveness in the switching of victims so that a full payment of pain can yet be made. This is true because of the meaning of the words “respect” and “forgiveness.”  These terms jar against the context in which the theologian puts them. “Respect” and causing or permitting eternal, infinite pain? “Forgiveness” and a switching of victims?

The Church has throughout its long history committed innumerable blatant atrocities, which the theologian now regards, of course, as the actions of false Christians who abused the bible and overturned God’s message of love and forgiveness. The modern apologist’s rhetorical tactics of obfuscation and double-talk represent only a scaling down of the more barbaric misdeeds committed by the Church. They are united, however, in being part of a desperate cover-up effort to hide not just the falsity but the sheer ugliness of Christianity’s more peculiar truth claims.

[ Philip Kuchar received his B.A. in Philosophy from York University, Toronto.]

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