The Purpose of Eternal Hell

We’ve had a couple of interesting posts on the concept of hell recently, so why stop…?

Why do so many people believe in eternal punishment and damnation?  Some religions seem to have an eternal hell near their core, but why?  Christians generally believe that non-believers will find themselves one day in the fiery lake of hell.  Heck, some Christians even believe other Christians will end up there.  Muslims believe similarly in an everlasting punishment for non-believers.  Where does this come from?  And does it even make any sense?

One of the biggest indicators of falsehood in any religion for me has always been the religion’s thoughts on hell, the non-believer, etc.  The reason why this has always jumped out at me is that religion can so easily be used as a means to control people. Well, there are few better ways to control people than through fear, and, of course, an emphasis on hell produces precisely that.  I think, for instance, of the medieval church teaching its illiterate congregations about why they needed to do as they were told through the use of dramatic images of fiery punishments at the horns of some anthropomorphized devil.  The poor, uneducated souls of the time were undoubtedly frightened (to some extent at least) of what might await them if they did not practice what their church preached.  It makes perfect sense for a religious institution eagerly seeking adherents to use such tactics.  Politicians use fear too.  It is an excellent motivator.  One purpose for a doctrine of hell and eternal damnation is clearly the control of people.

But, this has nothing to do with God.  God does not need to scare us into beliefs or behaviors.  No, that is an all too human need.  Human parents may use fear to help guide their children, but a creator-God has no need for such earthly antics.  Furthermore, God would not use fear tactic such as eternal damnation to “win” our devotion.  One reason why is free will.  God does not need our love, attention, devotion, etc.  God exists without humans, indeed, without the whole of creation.  If we all strike out against God that’s fine, God will still exist.  Now, God would likely prefer that we did not behave in such a way, but the fact that God does need our love is key.  Because the love, affection and attention of humans to God is unnecessary to God, it does not make sense for God to cheapen that love, affection and attention when it does come.  And using fear as a motivating force to drive that devotion would certainly cheapen it.  If God used fear in this way it would be as if God made us like dogs that cower to their masters for food and seek affection despite the ever-present punishment dolled out with the newspaper.  But, because God does not need our devotion but rather desires it, this is not how things are.  No, God made us with free will, and it is that free will that makes any devotion that we give God that much more satisfying to God.  Imposing a dramatic element of fear of eternal damnation and unspeakable punishment would limit our free will to a certain extent and cheapen any devotion we were to give to God.  This idea has its mirror image in eternal reward.  A God that uses the bait of eternal bliss in a cloudy heaven cheapens our devotion just as much as the God uses fear.

Another purpose of hell is to satisfy our need for justice.  It just doesn’t seem right that everyone should get the same reward in the afterlife even if they were evil or didn’t conform to a particular religious scheme, etc.  How could anyone say that Mother Theresa and Pol Pot have received the same experience after their lives on Earth?  Well, this need for justice is certainly good, and I agree with it.  I also think it is something that is important to God as well.  But the way the idea of eternal hell has been developed in the minds and doctrines of billions of religious adherents around the world has actually begun to spin away from true justice and in a way begun to confuse humans with God.

This is actually very simple.  God is infinite and eternal.  Humans are finite and ephemeral.  But the development of ideas of eternal damnation into doctrine may have inadvertently blurred those distinctions, by implying that some humans are infinite (or at least capable of achieving some sort of infinity).   Either that or they don’t believe in justice they way they think they do.  Justice is about the equity of things.  Simply put, in a just world, the punishment fits the crime.  So, to suggest that some sins demand eternal, infinite punishment is to imply that the sins themselves were eternal and infinite.  That would in turn logically imply that those who committed the sins were themselves somehow eternal and infinite.  Indeed, who but an eternal and infinite being can affect something that is eternal or infinite?  So, with a doctrine of eternal damnation, one must either assume that some people are capable of committing eternal and infinite acts, or that the punishment is unjust because it does not fit the crime.  Logic would tell me that no person is eternal or infinite, and therefore human sins aren’t eternal or infinite.  And the God I know is just.  So, doctrine of eternal punishment and damnation is fully illogical.

So, with justice in mind, some sort of atoning period in an afterlife seems to make sense and have its source in God.  But, an eternal state of damnation and punishment seems to have its source in humans, because it is either illogical, unjust or both, and it serves the very human need of control over other individuals.

Some will point to their scriptures and demonstrate that an eternal lake of fire for the non-believers must be true because it’s written down in their books.  And that’s fine.  But that means that their god is either illogical, unjust or both.  That is something with which they must come to terms.  Of course, I am not surprised that many religions do have teachings that are illogical and unjust.  That is precisely the sort of thing that man creates, and no more can be expected of those who would deify a man.  But, such an illogical, unjust god is not sufficient for many believers, and even less so for many would-be believers.  At some point people will need to reexamine that which they call “scripture.”  Much of it may be in need of reclassification.  Any scripture that speaks unequivocally of eternal damnation is either illogical, unjust or both.  For me, God is neither illogical nor unjust.  As a result, it is impossible for me to see such scripture as having a divine source.

As a final thought, the use of fear to control people has a strange cousin when it comes to a doctrine of eternal hell.  It seems that those who are most hot – so to speak – on the subject may be those who are most afraid.  And so they channel that fear into zealotry.  They become completely convinced that the “others” are going so fast and so deep to hell.  And because they are so convinced, they become equally convinced of their own righteousness.  We can use our own fear to assuage our own doubts by screaming our fear onto others.  So, not only does the element of fear allow for the control of certain people, it allows for a level of certitude to be gained through zealous stigmatization of the “other.” 

A doctrine of eternal hell, damnation, and punishment may serve a number of purposes.  But none of those purposes seem to have anything to do with God.




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20 responses to “The Purpose of Eternal Hell

  1. Holly

    I’m an orthodox, Catholic Christian who has struggled with these issues of a loving God and an eternal hell…. In fact, I have put myself through a temporal hell for literally years of my life trying to make sense of it all, and I agree with you — it doesn’t make much sense. It deeply bothers me in a way that very few people will ever know.

    At the same time, I continue to believe in the Judeo-Christian LORD and in eternal punishment for those who reject Him. There are good reasons for believing in both of these verities (I can supply lots of evidence if you’d like), even if our human minds can’t grasp the logic.

    I think frequently of the problem where one has to connect nine dots (arranged three by three) using only four connecting lines. This puzzle can only be solved by moving outside the “box” created by the dots.

    With the good God/bad hell problem, we humans cannot go outside the box. That doesn’t mean that God can’t, however.

    On another note, I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that religion is man-made; perhaps it betrays an evangelical Christian bias. (Even though modern-day evangelical culture is little if not man-made.) You suggest that the Church was trying to control people, but did it occur to you that many of the priests believed the things they preached? If they were teaching people that they must love God and their neighbors or else risk the fires of hell, what’s so wrong with that? And how is that different from the sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards, which ignited our country’s First Great Awakening?

    I don’t take my salvation for granted and neither did the medieval Christians. That means that yes, I’m saved by grace, but it also means I must cooperate with that grace. If I believe all the right stuff to get to heaven but lie and cheat and steal (unrepentantly or as a blatant affront to God), then yes, I think I would be in danger of going to hell.

    However, what I’m certainly not is *scared* into doing good by this doctrine (though it sure helps me avoid temptation from time to time…); I do good because I love God. “He who loves me will keep my commandments.” Read the Gospel of John if you still accept it as scripture.

    P.S. — Based on your Pol Pot comment, you seem to imply that Mother Theresa is in hell, or at least a non-eternal form of it. I’m interested in knowing your rationale for thinking that.

    P.P.S. — Be careful what you say when there’s a medieval historian who frequently comments on these blog postings; my husband may be tempted to weigh in on your impressions of the medieval church.

  2. czfinke

    Any discussion of hell always brings me back to that wonderful nonbeliever, Stephen Dedalus, and the sermon on Hell in ch. 3 of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If you’ve never read it, it’s fantastic. You can read it online (\.
    Stephen’s response matches mine pretty well. “So he had sunk to a state of a beast that licks his chaps after meat. This was the end; and a faint glimmer of fear began to pierce the fog of his mind. He pressed his face against the pane of the window and gazed out into the darkening street. Forms passed this way and that through the dull light. And that was life.”

    Of course, there is also Thomas Merton, who responded to Joyce’s hell sermon exactly in the opposite manner of Dedalus, in Seven Story Mountain. “I reread Portrait of the Artist and was fascinated precisely…by the priest’s sermon on hell. What impressed me was not the fear of hell, but the expertness of the sermon. Now, instead of being repelled by the thought of such preaching–which was perhaps the author’s intention–I was stimulated and edified by it.”

    I must attest that I have never solved the problem of evil (surprise!), and if there is a hell, God made it, and if God made Hell, I want no part of his heaven.

    p.s. I know that the Discursionists was not created for czf to have a forum to hash out his slowly growing atheism, but I want to thank the bloggers here for giving me this space to do so. hopefully it hasn’t gotten too old for you all, because it has been very beneficial for me.

  3. Holly

    “… if there is a hell, God made it, and if God made Hell, I want no part of his heaven.”

    I can understand your thoughts/feelings here. However, it’s very possible (and likely) that God doesn’t want there to be a hell. Hell may actually be a necessary consequence of people choosing sin and rejecting God that He can’t do anything about. That’s not to say He’s not omnipotent; it just means that He can’t contradict His nature, which is holy and perfect. (God can’t make square circles either, but that doesn’t mean that He’s not omnipotent; omnipotence only means that He can do anything that is logically possible and He can’t do anything that’s logically impossible. God can’t sin, for example.)

    After all, God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4) But because He gives us free will, it’s possible that we will reject that truth. Some people are just hellbent on hell. As the Catholic catechism puts it, at some point, if someone doesn’t say to God, “Your will be done,” He will say to them, “Okay, *your* will be done.” Because their wills were set on sin and the wages of sin is death, they miss out on eternal life. God doesn’t like it, of course, but the higher good is for Him to give people their free will. We are not robots, but rather have the freedom to love God back. That’s the only way He can have a meaningful relationship with us.

    Hell is separation from God, and some people don’t want to be with God.

    That said, I really like the Eastern Orthodox understanding of hell — it’s very comforting to me and I hope it’s true, even though I don’t actually believe it. In the Orthodox perspective, heaven and hell are actually the same place — being in the presence of God, who is a consuming fire of love. Because the Christians are atoned by Christ’s blood, they experience the bliss of love and enjoy God forever, but the non-believers — who are covered with sin — experience the same presence as fire, pain, and punishment. The more sin, the worse the punishment; I don’t think that anyone actually believes that a despotic dictator who tortured and killed people and a commonplace non-believer receive the same experience of punishment in hell.

    Another comfort: God is a righteous, impartial Judge; He knows how much light someone received in this life, and He will make sure their eternity is just.

  4. A couple of thoughts:

    Whether or not something makes sense (or appears to make sense) does not necessarily mean something is true or false.

    Could it be that religious belief of Hell is not designed to control, but to encourage particular thought and behavior?

    Could it be that religious belief of Hell has nothing to do with control, but everything to do with simply belief itself?

    Why put God in a “box?” What if He really does use fear to motivate us to think and behave a particular way?

    What if God doesn’t use Hell as a motivator, but as a means for justice? Maybe it has nothing to do with our desire for justice, but His?

    What if people are not capable of committing eternal or infinite acts, but commit grievances that are worthy of eternal or infinite punishment according to God?

    Do we define what is just and unjust, or does God?

    I’m now thinking of a few pieces of Scripture:

    Isaiah 40:12-14: “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, measured heaven with a span and calculated the dust of the earth in a measure? Weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, or as His counselor has taught Him? With whom did He take counsel, and who instructed Him, and taught Him in the path of justice? Who taught Him knowledge, and showed Him the way of understanding?”

    Romans 11:33-36: “Oh, the depth of riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! ‘For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor? Or, who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?’ For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”

    1 Corinthians 2:13-16: “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For ‘who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”

  5. Joseph

    For clarity, I believe GCC was implying that there would be injustice in Mother Theresa and Pol Pot facing the same punishment. Perhaps he was making a boolean leap – if Pol Pot doesn’t go to hell, he goes to heaven with Mother Theresa. This would indeed appear to be unjust. Or if Mother Theresa secretly did it all for selfish recognition and despised God (unlikely, but don’t Christians believe that only God knows a man’s heart?), should she be banished to hell with a Cambodian dictator, despite all that she accomplished to alleviate suffering? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that this is specifically the “unfairness” in the doctrine that GCC was pointing out.

  6. GCC

    I’ve been out of town. Lots to comment back on. For now though, Joseph is right. I suggested that the same treatment for Pol Pot and Mother Theresa would be unjust. And right after mentioning those two characters, I mentioned that I think justice is important and that I think God thinks it’s important. Not sure where that confusion came from but, now I think it should be clear.

    More later…

  7. GCC


    Thanks for reading and all your thoughtful comments. I really think this is an interesting topic for discursion (obviously) and appreciate you all continuing it with me. So, I’ve written responses to the above comments and will post them separately for readability. Here goes…

    Oh, and that link didn’t work for me, CZF.

  8. GCC

    To Holly:

    First things first…whatever evidence you’re talking about for whatever it is that is to be proved is most welcome. Please send it my way!

    Related to one of Terrence’s thoughts, I think it’s important to be clear that I’m not merely saying that an eternal hell doesn’t make sense. I am saying it is illogical. The latter is much more specific and rules out God’s involvement unless one believes that God is illogical. Furthermore, I think human minds can grasp the logic of what it is God would have us believe. God provided us with the means to do so precisely because these things are so important. What kind of god would set up a system (in which we must place all of our faith or else we’re damned) that requires us to believe things that run contrary to our system of understanding which that god also created? To believe such a thing, one must believe that that god did not want us to be able to understand the most important thing in our lives. Beyond that, God is not so much interested in our belief or our faith. No, God expects us to know. Deuteronomy 4:32-40 is all about this. (See also: Exodus 5:2, 6:7, 7:5, 7:17, 8:10, 8:22, 9:14, 9:29, 10:2, 14:4, 14:18, 16:6, 16:8, 16:12, 18:11, 29:46, 31:13, Deut. 4:39, 7:9, Isaiah 45:6. And in reverse: Deut. 13:2, 13:6, 13:13. And a few regarding physical evidence: Deut. 32:29, 2 Sam. 7:22, 1 Chron. 17:20, Isaiah 46:9.) Not even the NIV translation of the Bible squirms the words “belief” or “faith” into this key passage. It’s about knowledge. And if we are expected to know then we must have the ability to comprehend these things within our human framework. That would include the ability to grasp the logic.

    It’s not that all religion is man-made. But some religions definitely are. And, I think that any religion that preaches an eternal hell is probably one of those religions. Now, that doesn’t mean that the religion (or a version more true to its core) is inherently bad. Indeed, it could still serve a divine purpose. I don’t have much personal experience with modern-day evangelical (which seems redundant to me…they’re an obvious result of the Enlightenment) culture, but I’d probably agree with you that it’s man-made. Regarding control, I don’t think I’d limit it to the past. I think some of the Church is trying to control people today (probably including a number of those Evangelicals). But, I would never assume that it’s everyone in (or even every division of) the Church. (Please note, when I say “the Church” I’m not referring to any particular denomination, sect, or anything else, but rather to Christianity as a whole.) Obviously, one can be a Christian without trying to control people. But the fact is that Christian scripture sets in place the tools for doing so. And because I don’t believe God sets up such institutions, it’s impossible to believe that that scripture is from God.

    Of course, teaching from scripture that is not from God does not make a person evil if that person believes the scripture to be from God. But what a person believes (or says) has no bearing on the truth of the belief (or statement). This is one of the reasons why Jesus’ words that have been interpreted by some as claims to divinity are of virtually no significance when determining the truth or untruth of Christianity. Now, if those people abuse their false scripture and begin to cause people harm, or commit other evil in the name of their scripture (or god) then there may very well be something wrong with it. Believing something to be true is not a cop out for wrongdoing. The Jonathan Edwards sermon I think you’re talking about (thank God for Wikipedia!) is a fabulous example of this. He probably believed it to be true. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But he’s just as wrong as the people before him who believed variations of that sort of thing to be true. And, to the extent that such preaching led to evil (violence – a doctor was killed in his church yesterday, hatred, bigotry, etc.), it’s not only factually wrong, but also morally wrong. And, because it makes absolutely no sense for God who wants us to foster morality to set up a system with scripture that indicates eternal damnation for some (the “other”) and can be treated in such a way as to produce moral wrongs, it seems impossible for such a system and scripture to be from God.

    It’s good that you’re not scared into moral behavior. The fact that doctrine of an eternal hell can be used to control people through fear doesn’t mean it will always be used that way, and even less so that it would always be effective. But one could ask whether you do good because of Christianity or in spite of Christianity. (If asked, I think this would have to be rhetorical, because it would require so many definitions to answer.) Indeed what is the good that you do? What, after all, are the “commandments” in Christianity? The only one I’ve been able to find is that one is commanded to believe that God is illogical and contradictory, a bit sadistic, and will provide no evidence of that which one is to believe even though our belief is apparently the sole determinant of our “salvation.” Now, this commandment has nothing to do with doing good. But still, if one has faith in those things then one is saved through one’s faith. If not…damned…eternally…

    P.S. I think the Pol Pot thing has been cleared up. But just in case, I think it would be absurd to think the MT and PP have received the same deal since leaving this world.

    P.P.S John is one of my favorite participants here! Like you he has great insights and things to say. I always welcome his knowledge on stuff. And, as I chose to use the word “medieval” I actually thought of him. That’s why I made an attempt at qualification above regarding the extent to which medieval churchgoers were scared. And, I have a parenthetical note in my response to Terrence below asking John to check me on something.

    Thanks for adding the stuff about the Eastern Orthodox views on hell too. I’d never heard that before. It’s certainly interesting. I’m not sure that it’s completely right, but it’s a lot like one understanding of hell (or, more accurately, the afterlife) that I think works pretty well. And I agree with your comment about God being a righteous judge, etc. I think you’re right. But, because no one can receive eternal light (or darkness), this idea seems to contradict a doctrine of eternal hell.

    Thanks for discursing. I look forward to more of your thoughts.

  9. GCC

    To CZF:

    If there’s a hell, God definitely created it. But whether or not the existence of hell is reason to write of God is dependent on what that hell is, who goes there, etc. If that hell is eternal, and the only reason God needs to send you there is that you’re not willing to suspend the faculties God created you with to believe that the same God is illogical, contradictory, sadistic, and condones human sacrifice, then I’m with you; I want no part of God’s heaven. But if hell is something else then it might be a different story. It may be (or…it is) that the reality of hell is not something that we would even call hell. I don’t see any reason to believe in a dualistic afterlife with one side made up of eternal punishment. But, I can see reason to expect that God has some sort of “realignment” program for people entering the world to come. God can do justice without eternal punishment. Indeed, I think the only way for God to do justice is without eternal punishment. That’s largely the theme of this post. What exactly that “realignment” program might be remains to be seen. There are some ancient ideas of it, but they’re probably all insufficient. But still, I think we can be confident that the one, true God will remain just and won’t be illogical, so eternal damnation is pretty well out of the question.

    I, for one, am happy to have you work out your growing atheism here. I can’t speak for the others, but I think it’s important and valuable. Plus it’s interesting. And atheists are generally smart. And, because they’re smart they tend to grasp the “eternity” of the issue and as a result have very well thought out positions, etc. So, I think we can all learn a lot from atheists. Now, if you’re growing atheism becomes full-fledged atheism, I’d like to see an essay on it. That’d be fun.

    I hate to say this (because I don’t want to sound like I’m discouraging you from exploring your growing atheism), but I hope that while you hash things out you’re careful to remember that God is not always tied to all the things with which we commonly associate God. For instance, one need not have a baseless belief in strange miracles to know God. Furthermore, one must not abandon logic to know God. Probably most importantly (for this string at least), one must not believe a non-believer is going to hell to know God. The reason I feel compelled to remind you of this is not to convince you out of atheism. Rather, because I wish I had learned (for real) much earleir in my life that the god I always heard about and God are not the same thing, I’d hate for someone else to have the same problem. And that is about as much of an “evangelist” as I’ll probably ever be.

  10. GCC


    Your thought about hell being a means for justice not a motivator is an interesting one. I think I missed the point the first time I read it, but now I think what your saying is something like: hell as a motivator for us to do good now to serve justice now. (Is that what you’re saying?) Hmm… Very interesting. It reminds me to the sheep and goats from a couple posts ago.

    When it comes to the truth (or lack thereof) of things that do (or do not) make sense, I think we need to be aware that in the strictest sense your statement is true. But, this idea provides no reasonable basis for belief in anything. Alternatively, it provides basis for belief in everything. This opens the doors wide for absolute relativism. Furthermore, there’s a language issue here, so one must be clear about what it means to “make sense.” This is why I try to use the term “illogical” rather than “make sense.” With “make sense,” one can equivocate. Something that is illogical contradicts logic. Something that doesn’t make sense may contradict logic, but it may only transcend logic. (Incidentally, in the case of eternal hell, it seems clear to me that we have a case of the illogical and not transcendence of logic.) So, sticking with “illogical,” I think it is safe to say that something that is illogical is very unlikely to be true. Sure, it’s possible that it’s true. (Absolute relativism.) But, when placed alongside something that is logical, I think the reasonable person can make an easy choice as to which is (or is more likely to be) true and which is not (or less likely to be), unless of course one follows Tertullian’s line of thinking to credo quia absurdum, that we should believe things precisely because they don’t “make sense.” (John…do I have this right, here?)

    Similarly, the question about putting God in a “box” is a form of relativism. Sure, God might use fear to motivate us to think and behave a particular way. God also might not exist. And one can ask about putting God in a “box” on nearly any subject. (I think immediately of two really big issues.) Tertullian speaks interestingly about this too: “Certainly nothing is difficult for God: but if in our assumptions we so rashly make use of this judgment, we shall be able to invent any manner of thing concerning God, as that he has done it, on the ground that he was able to do it.” – Adversus Praxean, Ch. 10, 8.

    When it comes to the source of definitions of justice, I think you and I probably agree: God created and defined justice. But, I would add that God created us with the ability to understand it and recognize it, or rather recognize when it is not present. God also created us with the ability to do justice. To move too far down the road of our inability to understand is, again, to open the door for belief in anything.

    When you ask if the belief in hell might not be designed to control, but rather to encourage particular thought and behavior, I think you’ve created a distinction without a difference. Unless I’m misunderstanding and this relates to the “means to justice” thing.

    I’m not sure what an example would be of a non-eternal, finite act that would be worthy of eternal or infinite punishment. Again, God could decide to do whatever God wants, but that goes back to all the other relativistic stuff. And in any case, my point in this post is that such a thing is unjust. I also think that one’s understanding of sin is important generally on the subject of hell. I, for instance, understand sin as an event. That obviously contributes to my views on this. If one understands sin to be a state of being, then an argument for eternal hell becomes easier to make (although, it still bumps up against that pesky logic given that any human state is still finite and ephemeral).

    I also think it’s worth stating clearly that I do believe in some sort of hell-like thing that serves as an atonemen, repentance, or something like that. In my comment above I think I called it a “realignment process.” One might call this sort of thing hell. I don’t think I would, but the nomenclature isn’t all that important to me. What I do believe to be false, however, is an eternal hell. It remains for me unjust and illogical.

    And finally, I love quotes from Mr. Of Tarsus. The one you pulled from 1 Corinthians 2 is interesting. When read in context I don’t see that it speaks of the mystery and majesty of God. Rather, it speaks of the “mystery” of personal revelation. No one can ever know what God said to someone privately. Paul is saying here that no one can know God except for Paul, and possibly his followers, because God revealed it to him through “the spirit.” Furthermore, Paul’s mention here of God’s secrecy reminds me of cults. And it’s not just feeling. Paul’s ideas about “God’s secret…that has been hidden” (NIV) is actually a pretty clear contradiction of God’s own words. Further still, this appears to be yet another piece of Christian literature that contradicts the doctrine of the Trinity. And this is why scripture is so cool (and occasionally annoying for a tangential person like me). I’ve now changed the subject entirely!!!

    Thanks, T. Good discursions around. I’ll be headed back over to the “interpretation” post soon too.

  11. blraatikka

    GCC– I think your distinction between something not making sense and something being illogical is probably an important one for you. Something might not make sense (e.g. “what is she doing with him?”), but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s violating the rules of logic.

    However, is that what really is going on here? You say the punishment doesn’t fit the crime– it is illogical to posit an eternal hell for finite beings. While I agree that idea could be compelling, I feel like it is a bit arbitrary– says who? Why not? It seems like you are really objecting because it doesn’t seem or feel right for hell to be eternal. Yet, I think that as Judge, God is in a better position to weigh the logic of such things than any of us. In fact, He dictates the nature of logic. While the God you wish to find wouldn’t do that, and I understand where you’re coming from, I don’t feel like it’s truly illogical if He does, because what He says goes. Get me?

    But, let’s aside that thought for a minute. I think we may be getting tripped up with the word “eternal.” “Everlasting” might be the more natural translation for that fancy Greek word Terrence brought up in his last hell post, and the distinction is important here– everlasting has a beginning but no end. Indeed, the Bible is full of references that say hell was created, i.e., had a beginning. Man also is created, but Christians (and Jews I think) believe the soul is everlasting. Thus, you could argue that hell is an everlasting punishment for an everlasting being (who acts with everlasting consequences), which contains the symmetry you find lacking in the way you’ve framed it above.

    Additionally, you say you have a problem with God requiring us to suspend our rational faculties. At that point, it becomes less about what is truly logical, but rather what appears to be logical to our human brains. (It seems like you are more having a problem with something that doesn’t make sense rather than something that is purely illogical.) I get this– why would God torture us by bringing into tension what we think is rational with what God says is/tells us to do? But your and my very tradition contains a lot of examples of this very thing. Take the episode of Abraham and Isaac, described by Kierkegaard, and alluded to by Tom in the “Interpret Jesus” comments. Here, God tells Abraham to murder his own son, the very gift from God and sign of His promise. Do you think Abraham thought that was illogical? Not only did it not make sense to him that he should kill something God promised to make a mighty nation out of, he probably thought it was illogical because of God’s prior condemnation of killing.

    Also consider Job. Why did God allow him to suffer? Wasn’t it logical that bad things should happen only to bad people, especially when God has the power to bind Satan? Did God give Job an explanation at the end of the book? No, He told him to shut the hell (pun intended) up. Then He blessed him, and told him to pray for his friends– the voices of “reason” throughout the whole book, by the way. Consider also Sodom and Gomorrah. Was it out of whack for God to destroy the cities over some sexual deviancy that doesn’t seem like deviancy this day in age?

    Is this God of the Old Testament illogical or unjust? I hope you wouldn’t say that, but struggle to reconcile your (human) view of God to these very concrete examples. The Christian has to do pretty much the same thing. In the end, I think we know what we know because God tells us and also allows the light of our limited reason to shine on some things, but ultimately, don’t we trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding?

  12. GCC

    You just had to bring up the Binding of Isaac didn’t you? And during the Twins game. I missed the good parts because of you, my friend!

    Regarding the first part of your comment, it’s possible that somewhere in the pages of text I’ve typed here that I confused the two elements of (in)justice and logic, but what I’ve meant to say throughout is that the punishment not fitting the crime is unjust, not illogical. Indeed, the matching of crimes and punishments doesn’t always seem logical, but if they don’t seem logical they may not necessarily be illogical, but rather just transcend logic. The component of logic does come in if one tries to argue that an eternal punishment is just because it does fit the crime. But because ephemeral beings can’t logically commit eternal crimes, one must be illogical to reach this conclusion. Also, I don’t see logic as arbitrary at all. To answer your question, “who says?” I would say, “God does.” As you point out, God dictated logic. And as I’ve mentioned above, it is clear to me that God created us with the ability to grasp this logic.

    With justice in mind, the more important part of this, I think, is how we define “the crime” – or really how we view sin. In a just system, an infinite sin would logically deserve an infinite punishment. As I mentioned somewhere above, sin is an event. So, because an event is quite finite, an infinite punishment doesn’t fit. If, on the (or an) other hand, one views sin as a state of being or something similar, it may be more reasonable to assume an infinite punishment fits. (The interesting – and sometimes annoying – thing about all this religious/theological stuff is that it’s virtually impossible to isolate one element. In fact, I think we’ve even put the cart before the horse in this case. We’re discussing punishment before crimes.)

    I think the adjustment to “everlasting” from “eternal” is excellent. I’ve been searching for that but hadn’t found it yet. Distinguishing between “eternal” and “everlasting” helps to underscore the importance of our understanding of sin and what God does or does not punish. If one thinks God punishes sin, and that sin is an event and thus not everlasting, then everlasting punishment would still be unjust. But if one thinks God does not punish sins, but rather souls (or “beings” as it seems you may be implying above), then an everlasting punishment could be seen as just. Now, if God is in the business of punishing souls for being, or however we could put it, then a creator-God becomes unjust for an entirely different reason, so this change doesn’t do much in the justice category. (Remember, not being able to isolate things? Well, now I’ve just brought up the doctrine of Original Sin too!)

    When it comes to God requiring us to suspend our rational faculties, it’s not so much that I have a problem with God requiring us to do that. It’s that (I believe/know) God does not require us to do such a thing. This is where it’s important to understand that God has provided us with the ability to understand the logic of things – even religious things. I think the constant shift back to the idea that “we just can’t know/understand things and God gets to decide everything” is nothing more than a weak rationalization of things that we might understand to be wrong (and thus we shouldn’t believe them) for the sake of our desire to continue believing them. There are a number of reasons why people might do this, and the power of cognitive dissonance should not be underestimated.

    When you raise the (I think rhetorical) question about why God would bring into tension what we think is rational with what God says is/tells us to do, I have to respond that I am not convinced that God does such a thing. Indeed, I’m more convinced that God does not do such a thing. Now, let me go through the examples you cite as you seek to demonstrate that this might be the case.

    The Binding of Isaac:
    One cannot take the story of the binding of Isaac out of its historical context. From what it appears to me is Kierkegaard’s view on it, I don’t think he has it right. It’s not, as Tom says Kierkegaard says, a story in which God temporarily suspends morality. (Although if that were the case this story would not work well as an explanation for why God might do confusing things relative to everlasting punishment precisely because that story would be about temporary injustice/illogic and not everlasting injustice/illogic, leaving us with a false analogy.) Rather, it is a story of God not only testing Abraham and his commitment to God, but also a story of God reminding Abraham of God’s sovereignty. And not once is morality really suspended. But to understand this, one must remember the historical context. The command to sacrifice Isaac is not nearly the first thing that God ever says to Abraham. No, Abraham has about 100 years of direct, personal experience with God, speaking about a number of things and receiving a number of unbelievable blessings from God. God does so much for Abraham over the years. It’s not at all that Abraham believes in God. No, Abraham knows God. God does, however, decide to test Abraham’s commitment to and trust of God. But God had already give Abraham so much and made Godself known to him for so long and in so many ways, that God needed to create an exceedingly dramatic test. And, God found just such a test in the Binding of Isaac. This command seems so beyond anything that one would consider reasonable that it could have even given a man with the experience of Abraham pause (although that does not appear to have been the case). And to make things worse, if carried out completely, this command would be contradictory to God’s earlier commands. Of course, God does not contradict Godself, because God does not have Abraham kill a human. Furthermore, the actions of Abraham are not unreasonable because of his prior experience with God. Further still, morality is not suspended, because (assuming one believes in God) of who ultimately has the power of life and death: God. If God decides to take a person from this world who are we (and how much less so Abraham who knew God personally?) to say no. Sure, we can fight it, complain, etc., but ultimately, the power of life and death lies with God and God alone. (Maybe a death penalty post is in order.) So, if God tells Abraham that the life of an individual is to end, and Abraham knows that it is God who is telling him this, and Abraham has proof and personal experience that this God is a God who can be trusted, then Abraham is not in a position to disobey God, and Abraham’s obedience makes him neither crazy nor immoral. (Nor, because God has the absolute right and ability to take anyone at any time by any means from this world, does such a commandment make God immoral.) In fact, the story of the Binding of Isaac is a perfect example of the expectation to know God and not believe in God. This isn’t an example of the sort of thing that God does and may seem just crazy to us, but we believe in this God anyway. No, this is an example of how God makes sure that we know and understand God, and how God is sovereign of the world whether we like it or not. As I mentioned before, the command to sacrifice Isaac is one of the last things God ever says to Abraham, not the first. If it were the first, then the Kierkegaardian view that God can suspend morality and that we must have blind faith would be correct. But in reality, Abraham’s behavior is an example of a reasonable faith in a (ultimately) consistent, logical, and just God.

    Job’s suffering was not everlasting, so it is not comparable here. Furthermore, while the suffering of the righteous may transcend logic, it does not necessarily contradict it. Further still, even after causing someone (who at the time was blameless) to suffer, God can make things right in justice. In the case of Job we have no reason to assume that God did not later reward Job for the role he played in setting an example for future generations.

    The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
    God never destroyed any city over sexual deviancy, so I’m not sure what you mean. But even if God had, the vast cultural difference between that time and our own time (as you point out by recognizing that what was supposedly deviant then is apparently not now) would make it essentially impossible for us to determine whether God for that time and place was unjust or illogical.

    So, to answer your question about God being illogical and/or unjust, I simply say no. God is neither illogical nor unjust in Scripture (nor did God become illogical or unjust with the writing and canonization of the New Testament). I don’t think any of the above examples are indicative of that nor are the stories difficult to reconcile; one must suspend neither logic, nor even really one’s rational faculties to do so. The fact that this then stands in stark contrast to the injustice and possible illogical nature of teachings of everlasting punishment is what convinces me that such a teaching is not from God. The feeling that it is wrong is only a small component. The logic and inconsistency with the God that is revealed in Scripture is the issue, it explains why the feeling was there in the first place.

    Finally, you ask about trusting the Lord versus relying on our own understanding, so I want to address that as well. Do we trust the Lord? Yes. Do we not lean on our own understanding? No. We DO lean on our own understanding (at least relative to the things we can understand, i.e. logic). God wants us to understand and know. Thus, God created us with the ability to understand and know. (God did not speak in secret or in darkplaces!) To fall back to the position that we just can’t understand is an indication that we are trying to believe something that is not from God. But we must remember that abandoning doctrine is not abandoning God. Neither is abandoning certain beliefs. Beliefs are cheap. God wants knowledge. The story of Abraham and Isaac is the perfect example of this. Abraham trusted the Almighty. And God provided Abraham with the ability to lean on his own understanding. This is why Abraham arose early on the fateful day he was to sacrifice his beloved son and was gleeful in his opportunity to carry out God’s commandment. If Abraham had fallen back on a position of “well, I really don’t understand this…but God says I should…and…well…I…er, I want to believe in God…it’s been going well so far…and I’ve believed so long it would be weird to stop now…etc.…so I guueeessss I’ll do it,” he would have slept in and moped his way up to Mount Moriah. (Either that or he would have been a nut!) But no! Abraham trusted God and understood. He could gleefully fulfill God’s commandment, trusting God all along. And God came through. God showed Abraham that God can be and is to be trusted. God flexed God’s muscle and found the man who would father God’s people. It really is an amazing story. It is full of meaning and an excellent example of a man using his reason, intellect and experience in relation to God, while it is never lacking in justice or morality, nor does it contradict logic – just like God.

    B, thanks for helping me to clear up the confusion about the logic vs. injustice thing on this post. The injustice is the main component, the logic just an extension of that. Sorry to take up so much space and time with Abe and Isaac. But it really is such a cool and important story! I don’t feel like I explain the whole thing all that well; I really haven’t studied it all that much. (It is one of those classics for the skeptic though!) I’m curious what your thoughts are.

  13. GCC


    >I think, for instance, of the medieval church teaching its illiterate congregations about why they needed to do as they were told through the use of dramatic images of fiery punishments at the horns of some anthropomorphized devil. The poor, uneducated souls of the time were undoubtedly frightened (to some extent at least) of what might await them if they did not practice what their church preached.<

    Ack! Petrarch has raised his ugly head again. I don't want to hijack your thread, Grant, but I need to point out a few misconceptions about the Middle Ages:

    First, the congregations, though illiterate, could understand the Mass, prayers, devotions, and songs. They were not taught by pictures in stained glass (despite what Gregory the Great claimed) but rather through language. Homilies and confessions were in the vernacular, and the Bible was translated into vernacular languages long before Luther (google "Old English Bible" for just one regional example). Peasants didn’t listen in ignorance without ever asking questions and their priests were bilingual and translated orally for their flock. When priestly language abilities were lacking, leaders sought to improve education for the betterment of believers. Alfred the Great and Charlemagne are two of the more famous examples in this regard.

    Second, the "control" ascribed to the medieval church has always been an overreach. Church authority was regional and limited by practicalities. When popes threatened hellfire—most famously Gregory VII’s Dictatus Papae (1175) and Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctum (1302)—scandal resulted and the threats were ignored. Other examples: the Second Lateran Council (1139) denied Christian burial to anyone participating in jousts or tournaments and put anathema on soldiers using bows or crossbows against fellow Christians—these canons were ignored; the Third Lateran Council (1179) prohibited, on pain of anathema, the hiring of mercenaries—also ignored and notoriously flouted; the Venetians on the Fourth Crusade ignored Innocent III’s excommunication bull in 1203; Emperor Frederick II (d. 1250) was excommunicated five separate times by two different popes and dubbed the antichrist—he ignored all prohibitions and negotiated an illegal reception of the crown of Jerusalem from al-Kamil, sultan of Egypt. And so on and so forth; giving all the pertinent examples would require a monograph.

    Third, the devil was not always anthropomorphic in the Middle Ages: worms, bats, etc. There's a sizable literature on the subject of animal representation of demonic forces in the period.

    Fourth, the preaching of hellfire in the period was far less significant than that of Protestant preachers during the Reformation. Purgatory was a much more common topic. For example, the penitential materials from the crusades feature comparatively little emphasis on hell but center squarely on Purgatorial traditions. However, Hell did tend to dominate the conversation if the audience was deemed heretical (Jews and Muslims included).

    Essentially, the “nasty, brutish, and short” view of the period—first fashioned by Francesco Petrarch in order to celebrate his poetry, and later affirmed by ignorant Renaissance historians—is false. Medieval folk were not ignorant folk scared witless by strange Latin commands. They thought, talked, asked questions, learned lessons, and very, very often criticized the ideas and behaviors of the priests and religious that taught them. Much like people today!

  14. GCC

    Thanks for the outstanding comment, John. I appreciate the “enlightenment” it provides. I’m going to have to read some of Petrarch’s poetry now. I also might trough some “conventional wisdom” about the middle ages out in each post now, just so we can all learn more.

    For my purposes, the success of an attempt at control is not what’s important. Rather, it’s the attempt itself. Also, I would never limit the preaching on hellfire, etc. to the Middle Ages. I would not be surprised if it has been worse since the reformation. As Holly pointed out, the First Great Awakening came with a hefty dosE of hellfire. It actually makes a lot of sense to me that the talk in the Middle Ages focused on purgatory. (Afterall, I think purgatory makes much more sense than everlasting hell.) And the fact that the hellfire stuff came up in the context of the non-believer as you point out, is the key of what I was trying to say with that component.

    Thanks again!

  15. Brandon

    Grant– let me rest my brain for at least 24 hours, but I’ll have lots to say when I return. But in the meantime, thanks for the very thoughtful response.

  16. Holly

    Grant, if you had not changed “illogical” to “unjust,” I was going to ask you to let us know what your assumptions were for your logical formula:

    If A then B
    If B then C
    If A then C.

    I think that we would have found that your formula was sound, but that one or more of your assumptions (A-C) were open for debate.

    Because my comments on certain subjects would take too much room here, I am requesting to be a guest writer on two future topics:

    1) Ways of knowing and proofs for God and hell

    2) Sex and violence, our human fascination with them, and what this says about our relation to eternity (heaven and hell)

    Both of these will be rather long posts.

    Going back to Grant’s assumptions, I think the one that needs to be challenged is that God is nonviolent. Yes, He calls us to be peacemakers and commands us to not kill, but He Himself (because He is God) is not similarly bound by this command. He alone created, and He alone has the right to destroy. If He wishes to “eternally destroy” (which is a concept beyond the grasp of human knowledge) parts of His creation, how is it possible for us to deny Him this right? Who says that God’s destroying is immoral? (When *humans* destroy *His* creation, it’s another story, of course.)

    Jesus (God) came as an example for us, and some would argue that He preached nonviolence and did not Himself cause violence. I would agree, and in that respect, he *is* an example for us. However, Jesus also said that He didn’t come to judge, but He also said that He would come back a second time, in which He *would* act as judge.

    If it’s illogical (unjust) for God to be violent with His creation, then how does one explain His command to the Israelites to wipe out several of their pagan neighbors?

    Grant, I think that you are entirely correct in your reading of Abraham and Isaac; God could command the sacrifice justly because He has the power to say who lives and who does not, and He could have chosen to use Abraham as an instrument of this.

    I say all this being fairly confident that I know the exact tension that Grant feels between a good God and an eternal hell. It’s something that I struggle with from time to time as well, and it’s not an easy struggle to overcome. However, part of the problem, I think, is that we’re expecting God to be and act like us, when in this case He doesn’t have to. “It is *He* who made us; not we ourselves.” (paraphrase of Psalm 100) Because God made the creation, He can do whatever He wishes with it.

    The tension also arises partly because one has a faulty impression that God will punish innocent people eternally: people who have not have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel; people who just followed the crowd, or did their own thing, and ended up in hell; people for whom this world is confusing, and they feel they are forced to make an arbitrary decision between belief in God and non-belief. But God knows each person’s situation and will judge him or her accordingly. Plus, it’s helpful to remember that God actually wants everyone with Him in heaven.

    My college theology textbook offered an explanation for the eternal consequences of sin. I don’t think that the explanation is entirely satisfactory, but it may help some people:

    The reason why hell is eternal is because a sin against God — no matter how small — has been made against an eternal Being and thus deserves an eternal punishment. If you threaten your neighbor with an, “I’m going to kill you,” you would face one set of penalties, but if you threatened the President with the same exact statement, you would face much more serious repercussions. The higher the personage trespassed against, the more severe the punishment.

    In this case, I’ve been able to alleviate some of the tension by realizing that by choosing sin (no matter how small) and rejecting God is not something that can be paid for through a punitive process such as purgatory. Yes, some who have NOT rejected God may have their sins purged thusly (a Catholic belief), but for those who have rejected God (and essentially all goodness), it is NOT okay that they have done so. It would actually be unjust if they could just have their sins purged. They have chosen evil deliberately (or rather, because we are fallen, they have *rejected good deliberately*), and because of this, it would actually be wrong for them to somehow find restitution for their sins.

    All this said, in the section on hell, the Catholic catechism offers a small degree of hope that in the end, all people may be saved. It does not elaborate here (as doing so could easily be heretical), but it’s a nice way to illustrate three truisms:

    1) God loves everyone and genuinely wants everyone to be saved.

    2) Ultimately, we do not know who will and who will not be saved; only God knows this.

    3) Other than what Jesus said in the gospel of John regarding the necessity of belief in Him, we do not know the exact specifics of how God will judge. At first, I thought that this was unfair; however, given the human propensity to judge one another, I now think that it’s for the best.

  17. GCC

    Holly, thanks for continuing the discursion. I think you might be misunderstanding what I see as the issue here…

    A non-violent God is not one of my assumptions. Any violence in which God does or does not participate isn’t really relevant to the justice/logic of eternal hell. God can easily be violent without being illogical or unjust. Assuming that God is unjust or illogical, it is possible for God’s violence (or lack there of) to be illogical or unjust. But, if one believes in a just God who is not illogical, then such behavior from God is not possible. Given that eternal punishment for sins that are not eternal is unjust, one must believe in an unjust God in order to believe in eternal hell. So, if one believes in a just God and still considers eternal hell to be a component of that God, it might be worth reconsidering whether or not that god is indeed just.

    To be clear, I do not have an issue with eternal hell personally. The idea of eternal hell has no bearing on my thoughts, feelings, etc. about God, because the two things are entirely unrelated. Unless Scripture is not God’s word, I can be very confident that an eternal hell does not exist. I have no expectation for God to “act like us.” But, God has provided us with the ability to understand these things; logic and justice are not beyond our abilities of comprehension. Furthermore, it is clear that we are commanded to imitate God. So, given that we are commanded to set up societies of justice, it seems reasonable to deduce that God operates within a framework of justice.

    I would think this is obvious, but I also do not have the impression that God will punish innocent people eternally.

    The explanation of the eternal consequences of sin from your textbook is interesting. But it has a couple of problems. First, it assumes that the created can affect the Creator. That then makes the presidential threat comparison a false analogy. Scripture seems to contradict this too. Of course, Scripture contradicts the idea of eternal hell in its entirety, so I suppose it’s not a shock that it contradicts this too.
    More importantly, however, the textbook highlights the importance of our view of sin relative to our view of punishent for sin. As I’ve mentioned before, if one believes that sin is some sort of state of being, or is otherwise some sort of eternal, unescapable condition, then an eternal hell is not as big of a problem. In such a case it might even be just. So, it seems to me to make more sense to discuss sin before hell (crimes before punishment).

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “having sins purged,” but I think it must be something along the lines of God forgiving sins, so I’m going to go with that if that’s OK. You say then that it would be unjust for the sins of those who have rejected God to be forgiven. I’m just not convinced you’re right. This is one of those things that seems unjust, but may very well not be (like the Binding of Isaac). The forgiveness of the sins of those who reject God might seem impossible to us (maybe because we would not forgive such sins), but it is not impossible for God. It is also not illogical. It does, however, transcend our logic, experience, etc. (I don’t mean to be wishy-washy here. It is important to understand the distinction between something that extends beyond our idea justice and something that contradicts our idea of justice.) But, the Almighty knows that we have trouble grasping these things, so we’re reminded by the prophet Isaiah (55) that divine mercy and pardon will be upon even the man of iniquity. My own thinking is that none will ultimately reject God, but that’s a whole different issue.

    And finally, whether or not all people are “saved” is not an issue for me. God must not “save” (whatever that means) all people in order to be just and not illogical. The issue is that the idea of eternal hell is unjust (and potentially illogical). As a result, it is not the work of the one, true, just (and not illogical) God. Rather, it is likely a human invention based in misunderstanding, manipulation, misinterpretation, bad memory, ignorance, or any number (or combination) of other earthly things.

    I’m really looking forward to your full posts – especially the proofs and the stuff on sex and violence! It looks like you’ve already started…

  18. Pingback: Would You Bet On Pascal’s Wager? « The Discursionists

  19. Holly

    Grant, thanks for the interesting post. I think that our main point of contention is the idea that Scripture does/does not support the idea of an everlasting hell. The ONLY reason why I believe hell to be everlasting is because of the Scriptures. How else would I know? How else could anyone arrive at that conjecture? I’m not sure that everlasting hell is supported by the Old Testament (hell, maybe, but I’m not sure it talks about it’s everlasting nature). However, the concept is supported by the words of Jesus, whose language in Matt. 25:46 reads “aionion” (wish I could use Greek characters there, but it’s the word we get our English “eon” from), to describe both the “punishment” of the wicked and the “life” of the righteous. It is argued that if the righteous inherit eternal life, the wicked must go to eternal punishment, as the portions of this verse are parallel.

  20. GCC


    There are a couple of things that may be at issue. Here’s what I think: 1.) God is just. 2.) We and our sins are ephemeral. 3.) Eternal punishment for ephemeral sin is unjust. I’m not sure if we agree on all three of those things or not.

    I definitely don’t dispute that the New Testament teaches that there is some sort of “everlasting hell.” And I think its contrast against “everlasting life” in Matthew 25 is great to point out as evidence that everlasting hell “exists” for the New Testament. I also think there are probably plenty of other places in the New Testament that help support the idea too.

    So, I would clarify things between us on the issue of hell in scripture with a question and how I think we would each answer it.

    Q: Do you believe that a writing that is claimed is from God that teaches of an eternal hell really is from God?
    A: I think you would answer “yes” to this question. And I would answer “no.”

    There are a number of reasons for my answer, but the one that is directly related to this post is found in the three points above that I’m not sure we agree on.

    We’ve really gone all out on this post. Thanks a lot for discursing and helping to keep things interesting.

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