Dan Barker on Christianity in a Nutshell
In a YouTube video, atheist Dan Barker offers an illustration of “Christianity in a Nutshell” using an allegory or analogy designed to make Christianity seem ridiculous. Barker asks us to imagine that we are walking by his house when he calls out to us. He wants us to come live in his house—up in his attic—and give him the honor he feels he is due. He has equipped his basement as a dungeon, a torture chamber in which he will torture us endlessly if we fail to sing his praises, which we have all failed to do. But he has also sent his son into the basement to suffer torture for us, and if we accept his son’s torture in our place then we can come live in his attic. Barker suggests that sane people would walk right on by and ignore the crazy guy with the basement.
First of all, there are some major problems with Barker’s allegory or analogy.
(1) In Barker’s analogy, the man with the basement and attic in his house has no claim on the lives of people who happen to be passing by his house. They have every right to walk on by, and they can easily do so. However, if Christianity is true, then we are all already living in God’s house. We have been living in the house he built, eating the food he has provided, reading by the lights he installed that work by the energy he produced. Everything we have we owe to him. Even our very existence we owe to him, because he created our race for the purpose of living in this house he made. One should also take note of the fact that we are not the same kind of being as God. In Barker’s analogy, a man threatens other people like him with unending torture in his basement if they don’t treat him nicely. In Christianity, God is the infinite, transcendent, Creator of all things, not that guy down the block with the scary basement.
(2) In Barker’s analogy, the people passing by his house are not guilty of any offense against him except, according to Barker, that they aren’t giving him the honor he wants (with the implication being that the demand is narcissistic). However, if Christianity is true, then the situation is very different. God made us to live in his house and gave us everything, and we are, frankly, trashing the place. We are causing all sorts of mayhem in the house, hurting one another, damaging the property, and so on. And this all started when we began insisting that the house really belonged to us, that we didn’t need to pay any attention to its Maker, that the house might even not have been made by anyone at all (!), and that we could play in the house by our own rules or by no rules at all. God demands the honor due him, not because he is a narcissist, but because our society breaks down when it rebels against the one who made us and our world.
(3) In Barker’s analogy, the basement is a torture chamber that the owner has deliberately outfitted to inflict pointless pain on innocent people who fail to give him the honor he demands. However, few if any Christians think of Hell in an analogous way, and the Bible doesn’t support such a caricature. The Bible uses various metaphors and images for Hell (outer darkness, fires of Gehenna, a prison, etc.) to evoke feelings of dread, not to provide a literal description of Hell. Christians view Hell as the condition of unrepentant wicked angels and humans left to themselves and separated from God’s presence and goodness. The punishment fits the crime because the punishment is in effect produced by the crime. Hell will be a bad place because it will be populated by bad people with nothing to restrain their badness. Their punishment is that God will say to them, in effect, “Thy will be done” or “Have thine own way.”
(4) In Barker’s analogy, the house owner sent his son into the basement to suffer sadistic torture there so that the passersby could come live in the house without being sent to the basement. However, if Christianity is true, this analogy is hopelessly inadequate to describe what Christ did. Christianity does not teach that Jesus Christ went to Hell. (The word “hell” in some versions of the creeds refers to the intermediate abode of the dead, not to the final destination of the unrepentant wicked.) A better analogy would be that the owner sent his son into the part of the house where we were wreaking havoc, knowing that some of us would sadistically torture and kill his son, in order that at least some of us would be reconciled to the owner. The son, by the way, volunteered for the job, out of love both for his father and for us. Through allowing his son to be killed, and then by raising him from the dead, the owner made a way for us not only to come back into compliance with the terms of our occupancy of his house but even for us to become his adopted children!
In at least the above four ways, then, Barker’s analogy is completely unhelpful in characterizing what Christianity teaches, though it may work rhetorically as humorous lampooning to assure atheists they are safe in rejecting Christianity.
The other problem with Barker’s analogy is that it is irrelevant to the question of whether Christianity is true. That is, the analogy has no value for determining if Christianity has any truth to it. To do that, we need to investigate whether the world was created by a transcendent Creator, whether Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical figure who claimed to speak for that Creator, whether he was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate just outside Jerusalem, and whether he rose from the grave. If these things are factual, then Christianity, in some form, is true, and Barker’s analogy is irrelevant because it does not address any of the factual evidence. If these things did not happen, then Christianity is false, and allegories caricaturing Christianity add nothing to the case against it. Either way, then, Barker’s allegory has no relevance to whether Christianity is true.
Atheists and other skeptics love to attack the Christian doctrine of Hell, because it is really a lot easier as a polemical strategy than dealing with the historical evidence for the Resurrection or the evidence for fulfilled prophecies in the Bible or even the scientific evidence for the origin and design of the universe and biological life. Hell is the polemical trump card, which atheists typically play as often as they think they can get away with it, regardless of the real issue. But this is methodologically the wrong way to go about assessing the truth claims of the Christian religion. No one comes to believe in Hell and on that basis accepts the existence of God and the truth of the gospel. Hell is not one of the evidences to consider in assessing the truth claims of Christianity. It is a doctrine that is part of the revelation in Scripture (including the teaching of Jesus) that must either be accepted because one already acknowledges that revelation comes from God or rejected because one has already concluded that Scripture is not divine revelation at all. One can reasonably assess this claim to divine revelation by examining the testable claims made in the Bible, not by speculating about the untestable claims it makes or the untestable doctrines it presents. Have trouble understanding the Trinity? I sympathize, but you cannot decide that the Bible is hokum on the grounds that you can’t figure out the Trinity. Don’t like Hell? Again, I sympathize—in fact I don’t “like” it either—but if the Son of God taught it then it must be true. The only sensible approach is to examine the testable claims that the Bible makes about Jesus to see if it is reasonable to accept those claims. Carping at doctrines merely because you don’t like or understand them assumes you know enough and are wise enough to pit your moral sensibilities and metaphysical assumptions against the word of the Creator. I say this as someone who had to struggle with all of these issues at one point or another in my intellectual and spiritual journey. I believe what Jesus says about the things I cannot verify because I have found him believable about the things I can verify (see John 3:12).
Thus, even a fairly reasonable critique of Hell from an unbelieving perspective, though it would be worthy of consideration in its own context, would not be a cogent critique of Christianity. It only makes the attempt all the more irrelevant when the critique is an unreasonable attack based on caricaturing the Christian message, as is the case with Barker’s man-with-the-basement analogy.
I have had skeptics admit to me that Barker’s analogy does not disprove Christianity, but they also insist it nicely illustrates how ridiculous Christianity is. However, Christianity cannot be ridiculous unless it is also false. How absurd (!) it would be to claim, “I have now shown you that Christianity is absurd and ridiculous. Of course, it still might be true”! Thus, since Barker’s analogy does not show that Christianity is false, it accomplishes nothing of value except, no doubt, as a comforting or amusing story for atheists, or as a useful polemical or propaganda tool against Christians unequipped to explain the problems with the analogy. As a critique of the doctrine of Hell, let alone of “Christianity in a nutshell,” his analogy falls flat.