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Jumping to Conclusions

 

“It [the doctrine of eternal torture in Hell] is a doctrine which the natural heart revolts from and struggles against, and to which it submits only under stress of authority. The church believes the doctrine because it must believe it, or renounce faith in the Bible, and give up all the hopes founded upon its promises.”  [Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York, 1871), 3:870.]

Author Hodge was incorrect. Most churches throughout the past 2000 years have not believed and taught this doctrine because the Bible teaches it, but because they have committed a number of logical fallacies in their reasoning from the scriptures about the topic. For an introduction to the problems in logic that surround this doctrine, see the article Establishing Doctrine. See the article The Logical Fallacies for an overview of that topic. The purpose of this current article is to point out the effect in particular of two of the types of logical fallacies as they apply to the study of the doctrine of Hell in the Bible.

 

Hasty Generalization  

An individual commits the fallacy of Hasty Generalization when he fails to consider an adequate amount of evidence before coming to a firm conclusion on a topic. To generalize about something means to assume that your experience with a small sample can be confidently applied to circumstances outside the sample. Example:

Justin has stopped for a meal at an Eataburger restaurant in three different towns in the past year. Each time, he has been very disappointed in the service he received from a waitress. He might well be tempted to thus make the generalization that "the waitresses at all Eataburger restaurants across the country are incompetent." But if he did, he'd be guilty of committing the fallacy known technically as Hasty Generalization. The common term for this kind of poor logic is "jumping to conclusions."

There are all sorts of explanations that could account for his experiences. Maybe he tends to go to these restaurants at the same time of day, right at the end of a long, exhausting shift for the waitresses. Maybe he's been extra grumpy himself when going there, and gave the waitresses a hard time. And maybe, given the small sample, it was just time and chance. What if the first waitress just had a death in her family and was distracted by grief; the second was suffering from a migraine headache; and the third had a sick baby at home and got no sleep the night before? These situations wouldn't reflect at all on the chain of restaurants and most of its employees, or even on those three waitresses under most circumstances.

What does this have to do with Bible Study on the topic of Hell? People from most Protestant and Roman Catholic churches come to the Bible with the accumulated experience of a lifetime of exposure to the ever-burning Hell doctrine. They are already convinced that the doctrine is true, so even when they approach the Bible to find proof-texts to support their belief, they are likely to jump to conclusions after checking only a very few related scriptures. Most seldom go back to "square one" to carefully sift through all of the scriptures on the topic, and attempt to harmonize all of the relevant passages. Nor do they ever think to examine the history of the development of the doctrine, and add that evidence to their reasoning.

One of the primary purposes of this Is It True What they Say About Hell? website is to present readers with a challenge to set aside the preconceived ideas they may have about the doctrine, to set aside the hasty generalizations they may have made based on just a few proof-texts. (See the article Establishing Doctrine for more information on the hazards of proof-texting.) Only after doing this is it possible to objectively examine the "whole counsel of Scripture" on this topic.

 

Straw Man

An individual commits the Straw Man Fallacy when he refuses to actually address the logical arguments offered by someone with whom he disagrees. Instead, he invents a "straw man" based on factors that weren't part of the original argument at all. When he verbally pummels this straw man and succeeds in tearing it apart, it can give the illusion that he has "won the argument." An onlooker who is not paying careful attention may not realize that the builder of the straw man hasn't even touched the real argument that has been offered against his position.

This type of fallacy is often used in discussions about the nature of Hell. A very poignant example of this is found in Four Views on Hell, a 1996 book from Zondervan Publishing. In this book, four different writers offered their varying perspectives on the nature of Hell. Each wrote a chapter of his own, carefully explaining and supporting his point of view. After each such chapter, the other three authors took turns critiquing the content of the chapter.

Theologian Clark H. Pinnock presented a carefully-reasoned biblical explanation of his conviction that the Bible does not teach that humans have an inherent "immortal soul" that can never be destroyed. God alone has immortality, and can choose to grant it to humans ... or withhold it if He so chooses. (This position is technically termed "Conditional Immortality" in theological circles.) Pinnock further explained and supported his belief that the Bible does not teach the notion that the unsaved will be endlessly tortured in an ever-burning Hell for eternity. Instead, at the end of human history, those who never repent of rebellion against God will be annihilated. Pinnock offered many of the same points of reasoning and scriptural analysis as those in the articles on this website. He carefully investigated the origins of the common conception of Hell, and compared it carefully to the scriptural evidence.

And then popular evangelical theologian and author John F. Walvoord offered a chapter of "Response" to Pinnock's material. It is almost embarrassing to read through Walvoord's comments. He managed to address virtually none of what Pinnock actually wrote! Instead, he seemed to invent a totally unrelated position, and attack it rather than engage Pinnock's points. Pinnock's primary focus was that the commonly accepted view of Hell is a result of a MIS-interpretation of a few scriptures, mixed with the idea of the immortality of the soul inherited from paganism. He made absolutely no attempt to reason from a position that the Bible is unreliable. He asserted throughout that it is the fallible interpretation of men that has been unreliable. So that there would be no mistaking his position, he noted:

Evangelical theology starts with the Bible and asks what the Scriptures have to say about the nature of hell. The Bible enjoys primacy relative to other sources for theology, being our canon and teacher. Whatever it teaches about Hell, we are obliged to accept.

And yet almost immediately in his response, Walvoord offered his first point of rebuttal to Pinnock:

Conditional Immortality Challenges the Doctrine of Scriptural Inerrancy. This presentation of conditional immortality raises the question of whether the Bible was actually inspired by the Holy Spirit and is verbally inerrant, that is, whether it never expresses as true something that is false. As in the metaphorical view [offered in another chapter in the book], the common assumption that the Bible bends to the wrong conceptions of punishment that existed in the first century implies that the Holy Spirit was not sovereign in guiding the Scripture and that the writers were not kept from error. The teaching of Christ on the subject of hell is also labeled as a misrepresentation. The great majority of those who hold to conditional immortality of the wicked do not subscribe to the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy.

These comments had nothing to do with what had been in the chapter by Pinnock! And the three other points in Walvoord's response also had little to do with the actual content of Pinnock's writing. Walvoord created a Straw Man in his response chapter, and ripped it to shreds ... while leaving the scriptural points of reasoning that had been offered by Pinnock untouched. It isn't clear whether Walvoord was being deliberately intellectually dishonest, or was just a victim of his own poor ability to use sound reasoning. But in either case, he utterly failed to address the issues raised by Pinnock, and undermined his credibility with anyone able to see through his use of logical fallacies.

The common conception of the nature of Hell is so pivotal to the understanding of the nature of God that it is vitally important to avoid logical fallacies when discussing it. Pinnock was correct. Whatever the Bible teaches about this topic, Christians are obliged to accept. Pinnock wrote elsewhere:

How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself. ( C.H. Pinnock, The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent, Criswell Theological Review 4 (1990-Spring), Pages 246-47.)

If the Bible truly teaches the doctrine embraced by John F. Walvoord, then Charles Hodge, quoted at the beginning of this article, is right. All Christians must believe it or deny the very basis of their faith, the Bible itself. But if the Bible does not teach this doctrine, then those who promote it are denying a significant factor of the nature of God and, as Pinnock implied above, are in danger remaking Him in the image of Satan.

The reality is that the doctrine of an ever-burning Hell, where the unsaved are perpetually tortured with unimaginable suffering throughout eternity, is not just a fringe doctrine that can be swept under the rug, or put on a shelf, or otherwise hidden from sight and ignored. It is, in one way, the centerpiece of a debate to define the very nature of God.

It is a primary goal of this website to bring
the full horror of this doctrine into sharp focus.
Only when Christians can examine this doctrine
in the clear light of day, with sound reasoning,
and consider BOTH sides of the debate,
will they be able to form a truly informed opinion
on what the Bible actually says on the subject.

 


This site contains a collection of articles, on the topic of Hell and the Afterlife, that may each be used independently for research purposes. But it also is designed as a systematic, sequential overview of the whole topic, which can be read like a book.

For those who would like to take advantage of this perspective of the content, the articles are arranged in the Reading Guide as they would appear as chapters in a book, along with a few reference chapters at the end such as would appear in a book Appendix. 

Use the links below to go to the next article, previous article, or first article
in the Reading Guide sequence.

      

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PLEASE NOTE:
No single short article can comprehensively cover any aspect of the topic of Hell. If you have questions or concerns regarding the material in this article, be sure to first read through the site FAQ before writing to the author. It may already specifically address the very points you are wondering about.

Unless otherwise noted, all biblical references in this and other articles on the
Is It True What They Say About Hell? website are from the New International Version (NIV).

 

All of the articles on this Is it true what they say about Hell? website were written by Pam Dewey, with the support and sponsorship of Common Ground Christian Ministries. For more of Pam's inspirational and educational writings, visit her Oasis website.

All website content © 2007, Pam Dewey and Common Ground Christian Ministries

All rights reserved. Material may be copied for personal use of the site visitor. For permission to copy for any other purposes, please contact the author at

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