Racism: A Definitional Issue

It’s a common idea that racism = racial prejudice + power (here’s an example). I find this definition deeply flawed for two reasons.

1. The definition implies an absurd conclusion. If racism = racial prejudice + power, then if a group or individual doesn’t have power, they can’t be racist. However, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out, to say racism requires power implies that the Nazis weren’t racist in the early 1920s when they were a small political party with no power. It’s intuitively obvious that any definition of racism whereby the Nazis weren’t racist is absurd.

2. The definition leads to using different terms for two practically identical actions. Let me use a thought experiment: Imagine a black man and a white man who each go out and beat up an innocent person. The black man beats up a white person, and the white man beats up a black person. Each of them does so because they have severe racial prejudice against the other race.

Now, because both of these individuals committed the same type of action based on the same motivation, it seems like the same word should describe both. However, people who use the prejudice + power definition of racism, are typically committed to the idea that black people can’t be racist. According to them, in the above scenario the white man would be racist, while the black man would be merely acting out of racial prejudice. The black man wouldn’t be racist, because he wouldn’t have the institutional power to sanction his actions. This view seems semantically unhelpful at best because it uses different terms for the same type of action flowing from the same motivation.

Let me address an objection:

“You are a white man, who hasn’t experienced racism. Therefore you should leave the definition of racism up to the people of color who have actually experienced it.”

This is a classic example of the red herring fallacy: “This fallacy consists in diverting attention from the real issue by focusing instead on an issue having only a surface relevance to the first.”

This objection is a red herring because none of my points depend on personal experience. They are based on reasoning ideas to their logical conclusions and evaluating the consequences. If this exact post was written by someone of a different race, it would be neither more nor less true. Logic is colorblind.

For a humorous exploration of these ideas, watch FreedomToons’ video Racism Explained.

Philosophical Survey of Hell #2: William Lane Craig

If you’re new to this series, I recommend reading part one, because it provides background information.  

For my second entry in this series, I chose to research Dr. William Lane Craig’s perspective on hell. He is a prominent Christian philosopher, theologian and author of over 40 books. This post is a selective summary of Craig’s published material on hell.

Definition of Hell

Craig bases his understanding of hell on 2nd Thessalonians 1:9: “These people [those who reject God] will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power…” Craig argues this verse implies hell is separation from God: “I think…. the anguish of hell is separation from God, from all that is good and beautiful and lovely and to be left with one’s own crabbed and selfish heart forever.”

He differentiates this idea of hell from the torture chamber depicted in medieval paintings. According to Craig, the Bible never says hell is a torture chamber. It’s true that the Bible uses images of fire to describe hell, but Craig thinks these are metaphors: “It’s not clear, I would say, that [hell] involves… flames of fire that burn a person up. I think that is meant to express in a pictorial way the horror and the anguish of the essence of hell, which is separation from God.”

Craig also claims that the existence of hell is contrary to God’s will. God desires that everyone be saved, and implores people to repent and turn to him. Craig cites several passages:

  • 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is… not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
  • 1 Timothy 2:4: “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” ­­
  • Ezekiel 18:23, 32, 33:11: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?… For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn and live!… Say to them, as I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die?”

In this context Craig says, “It’s quite a misnomer to say that God sends people to hell. People send themselves.” He elaborates, “The only reason that anyone goes to hell is that they reject God and his purposes for their life, and thus thrusts God from themselves.” The responsibility for going to hell is placed at the feet of those who freely reject God:

“Our eternal destiny thus lies in our own hands. It’s a matter of our free choice where we shall spend eternity. Those who are lost, therefore, are self-condemned; they separate themselves from God despite God’s will and every effort to save them, and God grieves over their loss.”

While God doesn’t want anyone to be in hell, his justice demands punishment for unrepentant sinners. Craig says, “If God simply blinked at sin, then he wouldn’t be perfectly just… hell is a manifestation of the perfect justice of God.”

Answering an Objection

Now, a critic might agree that God must punish wrongdoing, but do finite sins deserve eternal punishment? Craig gives two answers to this question:

First, if the damned in hell continue to reject God through eternity, then this makes eternal punishment more reasonable than if it was just for sins committed during our time on earth,

Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.

Second, while Craig agrees that finite sins probably do merit only finite punishment, in an ultimate sense it isn’t finite sins, but the rejection of God that damns unrepentant sinners. Craig expounds,

[Finite sins] aren’t what separates someone from God. For Christ has died for those sins; the penalty for those sins has been paid. One only has to accept Christ as Savior to be completely free and cleansed of those sins.

… the refusal to accept Christ and His sacrifice seems to be a sin of a different order altogether. For this sin repudiates God’s provision for sin and so decisively separates someone from God and His salvation. To reject Christ is to reject God Himself. And in light of who God is, this is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore plausibly deserves infinite punishment.

We should not, therefore, think of hell primarily as punishment for the array of sins of finite consequence that we’ve committed, but as the just penalty for a sin of infinite consequence that we’ve committed, namely the rejection of God Himself.

Conclusion

Craig’s conception of hell is grounded in the God’s justice, his love, and mankind’s freewill. God is always trying to reconcile people to himself. However, when people reject God’s offer of forgiveness of sins and thrust him away, they send themselves to hell.

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