On Sam Harris’ Understanding of Condemnation to Hell
Assertion: In the introduction to his Letter To A Christian Nation, Harris is quick to differentiate between harmless, liberal/moderate Christians and “the religious right.” Harris scolds the former if they should cover for the latter because, by doing so, liberal/moderates “give shelter to extremists of all faiths.” That’s the setup and it is important to remember in this discussion.
Remember that Harris was compelled to pen The End of Faith on September 12, 2001 and wrote his Letter a few years later. He is one of a growing number who equate the travesties perpetrated by Muslim terrorists with anyone who claims what he calls a “rigid” religious view. Keep that idea in mind as you listen to the beginning of Harris’ argument against the Christianity he despises …
First, he points out that he agrees with the hard-core “Christian right” and acknowledges several of the points on which he does so. In summary, Harris agrees that (p. 3-4) …
- If one of us is right, the other is wrong.
- The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t.
- Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation, or he does not.
- True Christians believe that all other faiths are mistaken and profoundly so.
- If Christianity is correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer the torments of hell.
Response: Last point first. Harris incorrectly implies that we Christians look down on him and condemn him because he refuses to join the right club — the Christian club that one must bear allegiance to in order to be saved. This is not the way I look at it. No one is relegated to “suffer the torments of hell” because he/she is not a Christian. They are so relegated because they have sinned against a perfectly holy and moral God. If such a person as God exists (and I believe there is ample reason to believe this to be true though I won’t discuss that now), that person must be a perfect, sinless being. That is the definition of what we understand God to be.
If you commit even the smallest immoral act against such a perfectly good being, you are guilty of sin — and you have, by your own actions, created an infinitely wide rift between yourself and that being — an infinite separation that cannot be repaired by a finite being such as yourself. The standard against which you are judged is the perfect standard of a perfectly holy God. It is the standard against which we are all judged and have all been found sadly deficient. And that is why we all should be condemned to be eternally separated (the definition of hell) from that perfect being we call God.
Now, Sam Harris or any of the rest of us are free to dispute this idea and claim we do not deserve to be condemned to such an eternal state. We are free to argue our case on our own. The only difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is that the Christian admits this to be a futile endeavor. Instead, the Christian accepts the gift that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection have promised to provide free of charge — the promise of redemption for our collective guilt. That’s it.
Yes there are arrogant, holier-than-thou Christians running around. This is unfortunate. But Christianity is not some exclusive club filled with people who look down their noses at all the lousy “sinners” out there and believe it is their God-ordained right to impose their religion on all those who may choose not to accept it. Quite the opposite. Christians actually believe they are lost without the undeserved grace of a loving, incarnate God.
Maybe I have been long-winded but I my point is that I think Sam Harris, by the way he words his critique, misunderstands the basic tenet of Christianity. Mr. Harris won’t be “condemned to hell” because he’s not in our club — because he persists in his non-acceptance of the Christian religion. Mr. Harris, if he is condemned to hell, will be because he, like all the rest of us, has violated the moral perfection due a perfect God.
That said, let it be known that I agree with Sam Harris about the other point he makes. More on that next time …