I’m a long time fan of Gary Larson’s comic strip The Far Side and this cartoon is one of my favorites. Not only does it capture the bizarre, off-beat humor for which The Far Side is justly famous, but it also succinctly summarizes a problem with the conception of God punishing people eternally in hell.
Well, let’s start with the cartoon. There are only two reasons that the fellow in the panel would ask for a right arm wrestling match. Either (1) he is unaware of his would-be opponent’s giant arm or (2) he is aware of that giant arm and nonetheless has a fundamentally irrational conception of his own abilities.
In either case, it would seem to be inappropriate for “Mr. Armstrong” to accept the invitation to arm wrestle.
Let’s start with the first scenario. The intuition here is that when person 1 is grossly outmatched in abilities relative to person 2, person 2 ought not accept a challenge from person 1 until person 1 appreciates the grossly disproportionate nature of the match-up. (Incidentally, there are conceivable instances where this intuition would not apply but they do not apply to the extrapolation to hell and so I will not discuss them here.) If this intuition is correct then Mr. Armstrong has an obligation to make his opponent aware of his giant arm before he consents to enter into the match.
As applied to hell, the reasoning would be that for the individual to be held accountable for the eternal penalty of hell, that individual must first be made aware of the gross mismatch between their own creaturely finitude and the infinite majesty and power of the God against whom they are rebelling. Barring that information, it would not be appropriate to damn that individual just as it would not be appropriate for Mr. Armstrong to agree to arm wrestle his challenger.
But what if the challenger is aware of Mr. Armstrong’s enormous appendage and still wants to arm wrestle him? Here one might reasonably conclude the following: if this man’s insistence that he can beat Mr. Armstrong is borne of a fundamental disconnection from reality — an inability to think rationally about the bleak prospects of winning any such match-up — then Mr. Armstrong would still be under an obligation not to consent to the match. This conclusion is based on the intuition that it is wrong to consent to the challenges issued by people who are behaving in a fundamentally irrational manner.
Imagine, for example, that an angry 95 pound weakling with a bad temper challenges the heavy weight boxing champion of the world to a fight. The champ could certainly knock that weakling into next Tuesday, but if he is a man of good nature and self-control who can assess the fundamental self-destructive irrationality of his challenger, then he would refrain from accepting the challenge.
If that Far Side panel depicts a gross mismatch, it pales in comparison with the infinite chasm between God and any finite creature. Consequently the intuition would suggest that where individuals seek to challenge God, God would recognize the fundamental irrationality of his challenger and would refrain from acting as surely as the principled world-class boxer.