We’re now on Chapter 12 of Before You Lose Your Faith. In this chapter, Joshua Ryan Butler tries—and utterly fails—to solve the eternal thorn in Hell-believing Christians’ side: The Problem of Hell. There’s a good reason why these thorns get capitalized names, of course. No Hell-believer has ever managed to square those circles. Really, they can’t. And this book certainly will not become their glorious combo breaker.
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The Problem of Hell faced by Before You Lose Your Faith
Long, long ago, the Problem of Hell became a known quantity. It’s a very simple problem, but one so thorny that no Hell-believing Christians have ever solved it. It has lasted so long as an impossible-to-solve problem that it eventually earned capital letters: the Problem of Hell.
Here it is:
The idea of an eternal, torture-filled, pain-filled afterlife is completely incompatible with Christians’ claims of worshiping an ultimately good, ultimately merciful, and ultimately just god. Hell, as they have developed the idea, is not good, merciful, or just. A god who would allow any humans to spend even a minute in such a nightmare realm cannot be good, merciful, or just.
But the Problem gets even worse:
The Christian god also cannot be omniscient and also good, merciful, or just. An omniscient god would, of necessity, know how each human being would respond to Christians’ recruitment attempts. And that would mean that this god has essentially determined, from the very beginning of time itself, who would go to Hell and who to Heaven. Therefore, he allows humans to be born who have no fate other than the most horrific one Christians have ever been able to imagine. This, too, is not good, merciful, or just.
This god is pure evil and thus not deserving of worship, or he’s finite in knowledge or power and thus not deserving of worship, or Hell cannot exist and Hell-believers are completely wrong in claiming that it does.
Seriously, this one’s a dealbreaker.
The easiest solutions for the Problem of Hell (is not found in Before You Lose Your Faith)
When Hell-believers think too much about the Problem of Hell, they often discover a fourth solution. And this one makes even more sense of the data we’ve managed to accumulate over the years:
Neither Hell nor the Christian god exist.
But often, the Hell-believer simply discards the belief itself. That person then becomes a Christian who simply doesn’t believe in Hell anymore as a valid threat, nor in Hell as a location that any humans need to fear experiencing after death. They become—gasp! horrors! clutch them pearls!—Universalists!
Evangelicals are utter authoritarians to their fingertips. They need to have an ultimate threat. They think threats are the best way to ensure compliance—in both themselves and others.
This is why authoritarian Christian culture warriors keep focusing on making unwanted pregnancies as risky, terrifying, and dangerous as possible. They seriously think that’ll stop people from having unapproved sex. Seriously, they refuse to support the many proven strategies that work to lower abortion rates, like easily-accessed and reliable contraception, because they think those strategies take away the risks of having unapproved sex.
That is why we find someone in Before You Lose Your Faith tackling the Problem of Hell. The people behind this book don’t want doubters fully deconverting, of course. But they really don’t seem to want doubting evangelicals deconstructing and staying Christian-but-not-evangelical-anymore (or exvangelical).
The problem they’re having, aside from the capital-P Problem itself of course, is that there exists no adequate answer or reconciliation that works to explain away that impossible dichotomy.
But that won’t stop Joshua Ryan Butler from trying, bless his cotton socks.
Everyone, meet Joshua Ryan Butler, the writer of Chapter 12 of Before You Lose Your Faith
According to his blurb in the book, Joshua Ryan Butler is the co-lead pastor of Redemption Church in Tempe, Arizona. He’s still there, too, and in that capacity. In addition, he’s written a book called The Skeletons in God’s Closet. Interestingly, the blurb (and his bio at his church’s site) leave out the subtitle, viewable at Amazon: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War. Oof.
You can also use that preview at Amazon to search for some of the things he writes about Hell in the book. In the Amazon book he wrote, he covers Christians’ overall beliefs about Hell pretty well, I think:
I used to hate the doctrine of hell. [. . .] Sorrowfully repentant, the [newly-dead] people cried out to God in agony: “We’re sorry! We love you! We’ll change our ways, do whatever you want us to do!” But God laughed a loud, bellowing laugh, like a dark, sinister Santa Claus, and responded mercilessly, “Too bad! You had your chance! Now it’s too late, and I get to punish you forever!”
Hell looked like an underground torture chamber.
What’s hilarious is that he calls it “an obvious caricature.” No, I’d say he got it almost perfect. Almost. The quote contains only one inaccuracy. It is not Yahweh/Jesus bellowing in laughter and gloating about eternal punishment, but rather his Hell-believing followers. Heck, about 10 years ago it was fashionable for those followers to describe demonic rape as a threat to women who rejected their demands for conversion and obedience. (I got that one many times around 2014, always from swivel-eyed culture warriors enraged that I wasn’t obediently reconverting.)
The chapter in Before You Lose Your Faith tones down that lurid imagery quite a bit. There, Butler contents himself with normies thinking his god is a “a cruel, vindictive tyrant.”
And he’s got the magic solution to fix all those apparent misconceptions!
Reframing Hell, again, in Before You Lose Your Faith
Goodness, we’ve seen a whole lot of evangelicals over the years trying to wriggle free of the Problem of Hell. Always, always their grand solution is to find some way to describe Hell that they think excuses their god from sending (or allowing-to-be-sent, which is the same thing when that god’s supposed to be omnimax) humans there forever.
When I was Pentecostal, the way my leaders described it made it sounds almost charming. And you must imagine me chirping this out like an addlepated baby bird:
Oh because you see, Heaven was like Jesus’ eternal party! And obviously, any party host wants to make sure that the only people there are people who’d act right and not cause problems! And obviously, if someone was Hellbound then they wouldn’t be good party guests at all! So obviously, Jesus wasn’t sending anyone to Hell, but the people going there were basically saying they didn’t want to be at Jesus’ big eternal party! Really, he was just honoring their wishes! They could go to the party, but it’d require being accountable to Jesus and they don’t wanna do that! So they’re just getting what they have implicitly declared that they want!
And that worked until I realized that nobody in evangelicalism was really someone I’d want at any eternal parties of my own. Evangelicals are about as far from the ideal party guests as it is possible to get.
Also, until I realized that at the end, you still have an omnimax, good, merciful, and just god who was refusing to give people adequate evidence to support his followers’ claims. Thus, he still condemns countless people who would potentially obey if only they had that evidence.
Nothing has changed in evangelicals’ response to the Problem of Hell. It was like this for centuries beforehand, and will be like that forever more. Or at least as long as their major leaders push belief in Hell at all.
That’s the strategy. Find a way to rephrase the threat to make it sound like Yahweh’s untold billions of victims are really the bad guys here, and that he just has no choice but to let them go where they apparently wish to go. Indeed, that’s exactly what we find here, in Before You Lose Your Faith.
How Joshua Ryan Butler reframes Hell in Before You Lose Your Faith
A steelman is the opposite of a strawman. It’s a purely good-faith attempt to understand someone’s position. Heading back to Before You Lose Your Faith, here is my best steelman summary of Butler’s argument:
Jesus’ death was supposed to reconcile Heaven and Earth. So instead of viewing Heaven and Hell as opposites, everyone needs to view Heaven and Earth as opposites. He offers no Bible verses in support of this claim, only an observation that “Heaven and Earth” appears as a phrase many times, but “Heaven and Hell” never. It’s like he doesn’t realize that Hell wasn’t actually a big threat when the Bible’s books and earliest writings got made. At any rate, this claim functions as his starting premise.
Therefore, he claims, if Heaven and Earth are the main topic of the Bible, then Hell becomes a subtopic. Again, he doesn’t engage at all with the earliest history of Hell. Nor does he seem to understand that Heaven, in the Bible, evokes the sky overhead. So for a lot of the Bible, Heaven and Earth is more like saying “earth and sky.” When Yahweh opened up the heavens to bless his followers, it rained. The rain didn’t come from some supernatural Heaven! But forget it. Butler thinks that “Heaven” means exactly what today’s evangelicals think it means. Therefore, so does Hell.
Now, Butler tells us that his claim about Jesus’ death reconciling Heaven and Earth comes primarily from Revelation 21-22. In Revelation 21, Jesus creates his new city, a golden Borg cube. It does not require any external light sources like the Sun or Moon, because it’s got Jesus’ radiance. Revelation 22 simply continues the theme, mentioning Jesus’ replacement of heavenly bodies. At no point are Heaven and Earth actually merged. The sky beyond the Earth just stops existing. So does the Earth. All that’s left is this brand-new golden Borg cube.
(By the way, it would not be Heaven to me if I couldn’t see the stars and the Moon. But whatever.)
Getting to the point about Hell in Before You Lose Your Faith
Butler, aware that his audience might just be wondering what this blahblah has to do with Hell, ponies up (p. 103):
Here the logic to hell starts to make sense.  To long for the dawning of the light is, by its nature, to long for casting out darkness. To hope for the healing of the body is implicitly to hope for excising the disease. [. . .]
Heaven breaking into earth means pushing hell out. There is a symmetry between hope for the coming of God’s kingdom and hope for Christ’s judgment on unrepentant sin that unleashes havoc in our world. Deliverance from the destructive power of sin, death, and hell makes it possible to finally reconcile heaven and earth.
Because God is good, he is on a mission to reconcile heaven and earth. Or we can say the same thing from another angle: God is on a mission to get the hell out of earth.
It’s just wildest coincidence that doing that requires a whole lot of purifying fire. And we humans, thanks to our thoughtcrimes against poor, easily-flustered Jesus, would be caught in the crossfire of that fire. We must be purified with the rest of hell, of course. I mean, we can’t possibly be allowed into poor, hothouse-flower-fragile Jesus’ little golden Borg city in a state of sin. That’d just be unthinkable! Jesus needs to protect his Borg cube from ickie hell. I mean, he’s going to all that trouble to make the dimensional merge happen in the first place!
Fire insurance in Before You Lose Your Faith
Luckily for us, Jesus provided a way to escape the coming purification-by-fire and subsequent dimensional merge.
We just have to swear obedience to him—and hope that he predestined us to go to Heaven. Yes, because our friend Joshua Ryan Butler is a Calvinist. Of course. Head to that link and look up “Election.” He thinks he’s tamed the evil of that vicious doctrine by saying that a “great multitude” of people are thus safe from ending up “outside the city.’ But it remains pure evil. No matter how obedient some people are, there’s no way to know who’s predestined and who isn’t until Judgment Day. In Matthew 7:21-23, even Jesus himself told his followers that they had no way of knowing who was safe:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’
Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness!’
Nor did Jesus ever tell his followers what the unforgivable sin even is. In fact, in Luke 8:10 he told those followers that he used parables in the first place so that the people he didn’t like would go to Hell through not understanding him enough to want to follow him. To them, his followers, he spoke way more plainly because he wanted them to understand—and go to Heaven!
So any fervent, true-blue Christian could be completely, inescapably hellbound and not even know it until after death.
But things are about to get even worse for this reframing attempt.
The Big Problem, as seen in Before You Lose Your Faith
But forget that. The Big Problem, as Joshua Ryan Butler sees it, is not that “God is cold-hearted, but that we are hard-hearted.”
Let’s also forget that in the Bible, it is Yahweh/Jesus who hardens hearts deliberately and specifically so that his human ant farm will act the way he needs them to act so he can respond in the ways he wants. He deliberately hardened Pharaoh’s heart (as told to us in Exodus 4:21, Exodus 7:3, Exodus 7:13, Exodus 9:12, Exodus 10:1, Exodus 10:20, Exodus 10:27, and Exodus 11:10) so he could unleash his Ten Plagues upon Egypt and bring about the Passover and Exodus.
And in Deuteronomy 2:30, Yahweh similarly hardened the heart of Sihon, king of Heshbon. Because of Yahweh’s heart-hardening, Sihon refused to allow the Israelites, who were on the move again, to pass through his kingdom. Yahweh hardened Sihon’s heart before ordering the Israelites to make war on him, take his land, and kill him, his sons, and his entire army. In fact, the Israelites genocided the entire kingdom of Heshbon—everything but the livestock and plunder.
So who’s actually at fault when people are “hard-hearted?” Sounds like it’s not people’s fault at all if they don’t accept evangelicals’ fearmongering, terroristic threats.
Let’s blame the right
people magical invisible evil wizards here, shall we?
But all of that’s the Old Testament, right? The Jesus of the New Testament is all about reconciling Heaven and Earth, right? So let’s dive into one full discussion of hard-heartedness in Romans 9.
One of you will say to me, “Then why does God still find fault? For who can resist His will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why did You make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use?
What if God, intending to show His wrath and make His power known, bore with great patience the vessels of His wrath, prepared for destruction?
In verse 25, the writer quotes Hosea in quoting Yahweh:
“I will call them ‘My People’ who are not My people, and I will call her ‘My Beloved’ who is not My beloved.”
That fits in well with why Jesus used confusing parables to teach his ideas to the unwashed filth he didn’t want in his golden Borg cube! And all of these verses make clear that all hard hearts are 100% part of Yahweh/Jesus’ entire ineffable plan.
It sure doesn’t make this god sound good, merciful, or loving to think that he deliberately hardens the hearts of those who reject him. In this cosmology, he deliberately sets people up to fail, then punishes them for failing. The writer of Romans is quite right to complain in advance about exactly that accusation. After all, it’s as valid now as it was then. No doubt he’d already heard it a few times when trotting out this abysmally-bad hot take.
And all he had to fall back on, as Hell-believers do today, is a demand to questioners to shut the hell up because might makes right.
Their evil, genocidal god is the mightiest.
That clearly makes him the rightiest.
Name-dropping C.S. Lewis again in Before You Lose Your Faith
This wouldn’t be a chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith if someone didn’t name-drop C.S. Lewis. The only chapter so far that I haven’t seen that happen has been Karen Swallow Prior’s chapter, which we reviewed last time we met up. Everyone else keeps harping on and on about him.
Out of all the times I’ve seen someone slobber all over that horrible apologist’s work, this might be one of the more appropriate. And what’s hilarious is that Joshua Ryan Butler doesn’t even actually say the guy’s name. He just quotes him. But it’s such a famous quote that it’s instantly recognizable, and it comes right after the quote about the Big Problem Here being people’s hard-heartedness (p. 107):
Our problem isn’t that God is cold-hearted, but that we are hard-hearted.
This is what some have meant in saying, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.” It’s not to say that God is sitting by while we go our own way: he actively identifies, judges, and deals appropriately with our sin. It’s also not to say that we have a “second chance” on the other side of the grave: being hard-hearted means your answer would be the same.
Once again, . We’ll get to that in a second. For now, let’s explore the unattributed “saying.”
For the most part, this saying was something C.S. Lewis, the writer of The Great Divorce, talked about in that book and in his Hell chapter in The Problem of Pain. (That book tackled another capital-P Problem in Christianity: The Problem of Evil.) Basically, Yahweh tells rebellious and disobedient humans, “Thy will be done.” Then, he lets them go to Hell, where they prefer to be anyway.
It’s mind-blowing in its sheer evil and victim-blaming.
That said, C.S. Lewis was probably one of the most masterful reframers of the Problem of Hell. He had good skills with English phrasing. That is how he got a reputation as a kinder, gentler Hell-believer. He was nothing of the sort, however. He was 100% all about that eternal-pain-and-torture-for-finite-thoughtcrimes. Aside from the fancy language, his Yahweh is just as evil and cruel as that of any other Hell-believer. Dude just said his hateful, authoritarian twaddle more elegantly!
It’s funny to me that Before You Lose Your Faith contains so many chapters from Calvinists. And yet a major Calvinist site, Reformation21, slammed Lewis hard for saying that human will could ever overpower Yahweh’s desires. Guess he forgot about the heart-hardening
Before You Lose Your Faith seems curiously incurious about what happens after Yahweh hardens hearts
Now then. Let’s look at the quote’s assertion about not having a “second chance.”
In truth, our answers would likely not be the same, and I can show you that from the Bible itself.
If that were true, Yahweh wouldn’t have needed to repeatedly harden Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus. Once would have done the trick. But the implication from the story is that it happens after almost every fresh outbreak of the plagues. In fact, Yahweh had to make Pharaoh’s heart so hardened that Pharaoh would allow the Israelites to leave Egypt (in Exodus 12:31).
But here’s where it gets interesting.
Yahweh had to harden the Pharaoh’s heart yet again (in Exodus 14:4) to force the ruler to send an army after the fleeing slaves he’d just allowed to leave. It’s very clear that if Yahweh hadn’t done that, Pharaoh would, indeed, have “changed his answer.” Without further mind control, Pharaoh wouldn’t have done what Yahweh wanted. He’d have let the Israelites continue to leave. He wouldn’t have done Yahweh’s will.
Furthermore, to be human is to change our minds all the time about everything. If, after death, all those rejecting evangelicals still refuse to change our minds, even when confronted with completely irrefutable evidence that everything Christians were saying in life is actually true, then we’re simply no longer human. And at that point, what does it matter where we go after death? We’ll no longer be ourselves. Just mindless robots, programmed to do nothing but praise Jesus forever in the golden Borg cube. Sounds awful to me, and it did even when I was Pentecostal.
(That’s probably why so many Pentecostals had their own versions of Heaven. Biff tried to convince me that Heaven was like a giant library. To him, it would be an eternal hunting party and arcade. To others, it was the perfect family life that life itself had denied them.)
Reframing Hell to blame the victims of Yahweh
Many evangelicals believe that those who reject their recruitment pitches will always refuse to believe even the strongest evidence. Thus, those folks’ hearts are too hardened to believe no matter what evangelicals provide as support for their claims.
But it’s not true. The truth is much harder for evangelicals, steeped as they are in their indoctrination, to understand, much less bear: they don’t have any objective, credible support for any of their claims. If they had that kind of support, a lot of people would believe in their god’s existence. They still might not worship him, because—again—his own holy book makes clear that he is a monster of purest evil. It doesn’t take a hard heart to reject their demands. It just takes knowledge of critical thinking and the will to use it on all claims, including theirs. And, of course, the courage to defy those who’d use terror to control us. However, Butler ain’t done yet:
But it is to say that God’s judgment aligns—it fits—with our rebellion. God does not lock the bolt against our repentant will, but rather through our unrepentant will. When we reject God, preferring the darkness of our self-enclosed existence to the expansive and liberating light of his, we become the skeletons in God’s closet.
If his cosmology were actually true, then a good number of fervent evangelicals who think they’re completely safe aren’t safe at all. And I bet they’d be very surprised to hear that it was all their own fault. After all, they were “rebelling” and being “unrepentant.” No more complaints from any of them now, though! They earned Hell! It’s their own fault!
It’s definitely not the fault of the god who created Hell, set up a cosmology that blames humans for sinning before they even knew what sin was, made an escape card that lacks any supporting evidence whatsoever for its veracity, and then blames people for not believing that Hell is even real because of that lack of supporting evidence when belief is actually actively and deliberately prevented by that same very god.
Why is it that every time I write about Calvinists and their dumb predestination belief that I just end up despising Calvinists and predestination more? I thought I’d hit my legal maximum of hatred for Calvinism and predestination already. And yet here I am, finding yet more hatred within me for this evil doctrine. It’s actually kind of amazing.
Hate the Calvinism, not the Calvinist! For they know not what they do. Or summat.
The Problem of Hell is a problem for a reason
Hell-believing evangelicals can dance around the Problem of Hell all day every day. They can perform this pageant twice on Sundays, if they like. And it will remain a capital-P problem regardless. Reframing the problem just moves it over another step; it doesn’t remove the fundamental problem-ness of it at all.
(I have gone this entire 3600-word-plus post without using the word problematic. Yes, it’s on purpose.)
An infinitely good, merciful, and just god would never punish people for rejecting demands they think are based on false claims and issued by deceitful, hypocritical, control-lusting asshats with designs on our resources, children, and money. I’d expect a truly good god to judge the behavior of a person, which is what would matter most in an eternal city having an eternal party anyway.
If Yahweh would rather have a truly compassionate, charitable, fun-to-be-around atheist go to Hell, and a nasty, racist, sexist, bigoted, dishonest, thieving, violent, argumentative, paranoid, gullible fundie man go to his party forever because he believes the correct things, then it wouldn’t be Heaven at all for anyone around that guy.
I mean, it’d be that way unless Yahweh turns the spirits of dead people into robots, wiping away our past personalities. In that case, Heaven and Hell both become meaningless as posthumous destinations. If we retain our personalities after death, then that truly good person in Hell would be guaranteed to make it a better place by being there, just as such people have always done with terrible surroundings all through time.
Before You Lose Your Faith had to try, though, I guess
There is simply no way that modern evangelical Hell-believers can reconcile an eternity of torture for a finite lifetime’s thoughtcrimes with an omnimax god of goodness, mercy, and justice. Nothing about it is good, merciful, or just. It never was. All their doctrine of Hell ever was is a super-outsized threat meant to force obedience from the unwilling and terrified.
That’s why Hell has only gotten more detailed, painful-sounding, and lurid since the Bible was written. Over time, the frisson of terror its threat inspires must, of necessity, blunt and soften. Hell-believers must keep hearing new facets of the horrors that totally await them if they disobey, or they forget to be terrified out of their skins.
For similar reasons, new Hell-believers must be indoctrinated in this terror in early childhood. Adults hearing this childish threat for the first time instantly understand that it’s impossible and ridiculous. It takes a trusting child to believe such hogwash, much less to spend their adulthood rationalizing and reframing and devouring shitty apologetics full of even shittier parables to maintain this patently false belief against every contradictory observation that reality offers.
More and more often, evangelical Hell-believers are noticing the Hell-disbelieving Christians around themselves. They’re daring to imagine a world free of that reason-paralyzing threat. A god who loves them so much he couldn’t bear to see them in pain after death, much less in actual torture forever without any point at all except punishment and retaliation.
(And, I guess, the viewing pleasure of all the Hell-believing saints who’d make watching the damned suffer a daily pleasure excursion. Many of them have told me this over the years. Yep, according to them at least, they are greatly looking forward to seeing me and the other heathens howling in agonizing pain forever. But, they always piously inform me, I can short-circuit their future pleasure in Heaven by obeying their commands now! Their god loves me, right? Just not enough to give his followers any real evidence to support their claims. What’s love, even, if it’s not trampling informed consent and demanding mindless obedience be given to whoever can threaten us the most creepily and scarily?)
Or maybe those evangelical doubters are thinking about something even more daring: A world with no gods in it at all. Just people. People being people. Just people doing what they can to get by, and maybe making the world a better place if they can before they die and become one with the dirt again.
And just people, refusing to bend the knee to authoritarians who think they’ve found the best compliance-ensuring threat ever made, with the best rationalizing reframing of it ever devised.
Really, the truth is so beautiful.
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