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Naturalism Won’t Save You from Hell

In fact, hardcore naturalists might be in hell right now, while they're still alive.

Pat Flynn

I have had atheists admit to me that they reject Christianity because they prefer the idea of permanent extinction to the possibility of eternal hell. Personally, I like it when people are upfront about what is driving their decision-making, and I don’t think this admission means they are acting irrationally, either.

This preference for extinction is relevant to a popular apologetic issue—namely, that many people embrace Christianity because (only because) it is comforting. But can’t the notion of permanent extinction be comforting also? Especially given the difficulties of this life and the prospect of death’s “sweet relief”?

Besides, Christianity is not all rainbows and unicorns, is it? After all, it seems clear (as the Church says) that Scripture teaches the possibility of hell and that Christianity demands significant moral reform in our everyday lives—reforms that many in modern society take issue with, particularly along sexual lines. So, this whole “people just believe this or that because it is comforting” business seems, at best, a wash. I know people who choose atheism for comfort, perhaps for the moral laxity it provides in this life or the prospect of not having anything to account for in the next, or both. And I know people who choose Christianity for comfort, for the prospect of eternal bliss and reunion with loved ones lost. My advice? We should all drop this silly line of attack; not only can it be launched from either direction, but it fails to adjudicate the large issue. You know, the one about truth.

Why think naturalism entails permanent extinction, anyway? When I was a naturalist, that certainly seemed like the best, but certainly not the only possible or even most probable outcome, and I still think that assessment is right. What haunted me as a naturalist wasn’t so much going extinct, but the opposite.

With naturalism (the philosophical form of atheism, which is to say everything is just atoms and the laws we use to combine them, essentially), and especially if certain naturalistic accounts of the human person are correct (that we are nothing but a combination of physical bits), there is quite a range of possibilities, it seems to me, with virtually none of them hopeful or pleasant. Consider, for example, Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Return, where everything repeats itself in an infinite loop. For many, running this life over and over might not seem particularly appealing (even for those who had, overall, better experiences than others), but maybe “everything” doesn’t include just this life, but an incredibly large, if not infinite number, of lives. And perhaps a great many lives are extremely awful, physically or mentally or both—perhaps far more atrocious than the worst actualized life in this universe. Seems likely, assuming there are more ways for things to go wrong than right or well. Either way, there is no end or escaping this cycle. It just goes on and on . . . like Groundhog Day, only with no possibility of control. Everything is determined; there is no outcome we can ultimately influence.


Sounds like hell. Only, somehow, worse.

What’s more, there is little to no reason to think an outcome along the lines of Eternal Return is any less probable than permanent extinction—that is, if God does not exist. No plausible naturalistic theory should automatically cause us to think these options are unevenly likely. In fact, they seem perfectly equal possibilities, given the core naturalistic commitments—that there is no perfect being at the bottom of everything, there are only natural entities and natural causes, etc.

I think that if naturalism is true, it’s less likely that everything after death goes blank, and more likely that Nietzsche was right. After all, the idea of recurrence was countenanced by not just Nietzsche, but other thinkers, including many ancient ones. It seems, given a certain naturalistic starting point, to make a fair bit of sense.

From Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: “The doctrine of the ‘Eternal Recurrence’—that is to say, of the absolute and eternal repetition of all things in periodical cycles—this doctrine of Zarathustra’s might, it is true, have been taught before. In any case, the Stoics, who derived nearly all their fundamental ideas from Heraclitus, show traces of it.”

Alternatively, one could entertain what many naturalists currently find fashionable to entertain—that we are all entrapped in, or the product of, some massive simulation or “virtual world,” designed by who knows what and who knows why.

We don’t need to think too hard about this scenario—again, a scenario seen as not improbable by many naturalists (many argue it is probabilistically most likely, if not inevitable)—to begin conceiving of any number of quite dreadful outcomes. Perhaps this inevitably finite, morally fallible designer—or worse, a committee of designers—might, for the sake of entertainment or profit, be curious to see how entities like us begin to react in spontaneously enacted hellish scenarios. If this virtual world business is true in any sense, then we are already massively, systematically deceived—itself a sort of living hell. We might not have to wait until death to discover that naturalism includes its own rather haunting equivalent of Inferno. We may, plausibly, already be in it.

Of course, I don’t think any of these naturalistic scenarios are true because I don’t think naturalism, in any conceivable form, is true. The theist, with his wholly different worldview commitments, need not fret over these outlandish ideas. Nevertheless, I wish to impress the point that no naturalist should take comfort in the idea of permanent extinction upon death, relying upon any sort of “get out of hell free” card—just get through this life, and that’s the end of it. Godlessness does not let us off so easy.

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