In this chapter, Loftus criticizes four positions on hell. Only one of these comes close to our own, which we reprint here:
In several articles we have noted that there is a vast difference in attitude between modern Western society -- a "guilt culture" -- and the ancient Biblical world, which was an honor and shame culture. This popular summary will fill in the details for those new to the matter, but for the present we will stress the most relevant point, that in this world, honor was as important as paying the bills is to us; that which was honorable was, to the ancients, of primary importance. Honor was placed above one's personal safety and was the key element in deciding courses of action....
The application of honor and shame...leads to another area of great sensitivity, for which we also find some new answers: Is it really fair for one who does not accept Jesus to suffer in Hell forever?
Several authors, some used by Glenn Miller in his series here, have set the pace for a new look at this question by dismantling the old-fashioned conception of Hell as a place of flesh being seared on sizzling grids, of torture devices and of extreme physical pain. In contrast Miller argues -- even apparently without recognition of the Biblical world as an honor and shame society -- that the components of eternal punishment in the Bible are shame and disgrace.
Let's now look at some of his primary points and relate them to our own arguments:
This is suited as well to what we have said of honor debts and shame as a response. You dishonor God; you receive dishonor in return. Appropriately your required response is to acknowledge your own need -- in effect, giving up your "honor" -- by admitting that you need God's help to pay the debt.
C. S. Lewis wrote a book titled The Great Divorce in which Hell is depicted as a microscopic world that is smaller than a piece of dirt in heaven (though inhabitants do not realize this except by a special "bus trip" to heaven). Within that microscopic world, people constantly get tired of the company of others and move themselves farther and farther out into the "boondocks" away from others. Napoleon is presented as having done this, and two modern travellers who go to his house arrive to find him pacing back and forth muttering over his failures, for which he blames everyone else.
Lewis, we think, was on to something here, even though he did not mention an honor-shame dialectic. The person who is ashamed cannot come into the presence of God, but would indeed be driven away from it by the very nature of the dialectic, seeking to get as far away from the presence of the greatest glory and honor as possible. Literally speaking, "Hell" would be a life on the lam -- always trying to get yourself further and further from God's holiness, but because God is omnipresent, and because in Him all things move and have their being, never being able to succeed.
An analogy I once used for Kyle Gerkin may help: God is like a magnet, and the "polarity" of sinners is all wrong.
In this sense, someone with greater sins has more to "be ashamed of" than someone with lesser sins. Thus the lesser sinner may perhaps be able to withstand God's omnipresence to a greater degree than a greater sinner; to put it another way, the person who has greater sins finds themselves to run harder, more often, and farther than the person with lesser sins.
Miller says of the passage in Luke, of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man: [The rich man's] "quality of life" is equated to the quality of life that the beggar Lazarus had during his lifetime (e.g. lack of getting all of his basic needs met in community). Note that a beggar was a person of the lowest social status, and therefore one of the most "shamed" individuals.
We may relate this point to that of the doctrine of theosis. Those who belong to God will grow in His grace; but those who reject him will never grow. Like Lewis' Napoleon, this will no doubt be a frustrating and shameful experience; especially if you can look through the window, so to speak, and see others growing. But it will not involve physical pain.
So in conclusion on this tangent: The data would indicate that the primary focus of eternal punishment is the denial of the honor accorded to those who reject God's offer of salvation, and who bear themselves the shame and disgrace Jesus took in their stead. Therefore there is no inequality in the "suffering" -- these persons have denied God His ascribed honor; they are denied in turn the honor that is given to human beings, who are created with the intent that they live forever in God's service, reigning with Christ and serving him.
They choose rather the shame and disgrace of serving their own interests; they are also shamed in accordance with their deeds (i.e., Hitler obviously has more to be "ashamed of" than, say, a robber baron). By denying their ascribed place in the collective identity of humanity, they are placed outside the boundaries, excatly as they desire to be and to the extent that their deeds demanded.
This view comes closest to the first of the four views Loftus addresses, "Metaphorical not Literal." We will address ourselves to these comments and decline comment on the other three views (annihilationism, traditional view, Hell doesn't exist). We will also decline comment on aspects we do not hold to, such as that "the damned prefer the anguish of hell" .
Loftus begins not by criticizing this view of hell, but by offering a dose of emotional rhetoric. First he objects that he finds it unreasonable that God punishes him for not believing He exists when there is not enough evidence. That issue we will address with respect to his own Chapter 5 on the subject. He adds that it is also unfair because "we usually adopt the religion we were born into."  That, quite frankly, is our problem as humans; and Loftus himself should be willing to admit this, since he believes we should change our minds in the face of evidence. God demands no more or less than that, so what makes Loftus unique in being able to wish for such changes of mind without consequences?
Next Loftus objects that he finds it absurd that "God is so upset that we don't acknowledge him in this life that he will punish us forever for it, as if it hurts him that much for us not to acknowledge him." As noted above, however, the "punishment" is not the result of God's direct action, but rather, our own. Therefore this objection is misguided.
Finally, Loftus requests that God should "empathize" with us because "We all do the best we can do..." Actually, no, we don't. Loftus could be out right now helping starving children instead of writing books. He could have refused to commit adultery. He could have refrained from insulting a person with a disability on TheologyWeb. And so on. His demand for "empathy" is little better than a distraction from the simple fact that he has earned no such thing -- and that he is, indeed, refusing the option offered to forgive his sins that he claims it is unfair that God does not provide.
Loftus next addresses the point that there are gradations of experience in hell (and heaven) in accord with one's deeds, but rejects this because, "Either Jesus washed away their sins or he didn't." Loftus fails to understand the view being offered: The gradations in heaven are based on a judgment of works -- things done for the service of the Kingdom -- not sins.
The bulk of the rest of Loftus' commentary assumes the view that the damned prefer hell to heaven, which we do not hold to. I do not believe that the doors of hell are "locked from the inside" -- save in the sense that we all choose our own fate. At the same time, I also maintain that the damned would no more be able to tolerate "heaven" -- for in their unredeemed state, the presence of God is a torment to them.
Indeed, this lies at the very core of our presentation of the metaphorical view: As with our magent analogy, the damned are driven by the very presence of God to seek to get further and further away from Him. In the final analysis, Loftus' criticisms are of no effect on the view held here.
Return to the main menu for this response to John Loftus' book Why I Became an Atheist.