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12.9.05

Contradictory Hell

There seems to be a contradiction between two key doctrines of traditional Christianity: desert and depravity. The doctrine of desert states that, judged on their own actions, all sinners deserve to go to hell. Any sin, no matter how small, is appropriately punished by an eternity of suffering. The rationale for this rests on free will -- we make a choice to sin or not sin, and therefore deserve the consequences of each. On the other hand, the doctrine of depravity states that everyone is a sinner. It's in human nature to be unable to avoid sin. While we may be free at the scale of an individual decision, in the larger picture -- which is the basis on which we're judged -- we'll inevitably sin at least some of the time.

Taken together, these two doctrines run afoul of one of the most widely accepted principles in ethical philosophy: ought implies can. That is, we can't be obligated to do anything that is impossible for us to do. (Many people -- notably critics of utilitarianism -- interpret this principle even more liberally, holding that we can't be obligated to do anything that is really hard for us to do either.)

Pop Christianity resolves the problem in the post-Crucifixion world. According to pop Christianity, Jesus' death essentially revised the entry requirements for heaven. Rather than demanding total purity, God gives us a much more manageable task -- just believe in Jesus. However, I think most theologians would dispute pop Christianity's interpretation. According to a more intellectual Christianity, the pre-Jesus doctrine of desert still holds. Believing in Jesus is not an alternative path to earning salvation, but rather a method for begging God for mercy, to spare you from the punishment that you continue (in violation of "ought implies can") to deserve. While we can trust God to save everyone who believes, he's under no obligation to, and we'd have no right to complain if he decided to send us all to hell for our sins after all.

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