Logical Fallacies – Part 1: The Non Sequitur

The Importance of Logically Valid Arguments

In all sorts of debates, well beyond just those on the nature of hell, having good logic, having sound reasoning, is essential to being correct. Sometimes logic is panned as being too “Greek” or too “Western” to apply to the Bible. But we aren’t talking about specific forms of arguing or classical rhetorical methods or standards that do indeed vary from culture to culture and era to era. We are talking about simple objective truth. Whether we think in a linear or non linear manner, or whether we use three-part syllogisms or multiple, unlabeled ideas spread throughout a paragraph, there is a point where something is either true or it isn’t. God either exists or he doesn’t. Either A equals B or it doesn’t.
No matter how much or how little we formalize it, and no matter how many or how few technical terms we use, we use logic every day. The same was true of the Hebrews in the Old Testament, and of the apostles, and even of Jesus. Any time you make any type of persuasive argument, you employ logic.
And where there is logic, there can be bad logic.

Here, and, if all goes according to plan, in future posts, we will look at common logical fallacies and their specific application to arguments for the traditional view of hell. Even if you are not convinced by my refutations of traditionalist arguments here, we are all well-served by becoming more familiar with logical fallacies and how to spot them. After all, making good arguments and avoiding bad ones matters in all sorts of important issues, not just final punishment.

Things to Note

A few things to note here before we look at our first logical fallacy:

– Many fallacies are related and can occur together.

– Fallacies are not always totally clear-cut.

– Unless you are speaking to a crowd of philosophers, it’s important to explain what you mean when you refer to a certain argument as falling victim to one or more logical fallacies. Many people don’t know all of the nuances of certain fallacies (I myself have learned a great deal in preparing for this series). Furthermore, even if your audience does know what “non sequitur” or “equivocation” mean, they might not automatically see the connection to the matter at hand that you do. And finally, the terms for certain fallacies can be like the word “ironic” in that people are used to them being used incorrectly. Therefore, so it helps for your audience to know that you know what you are talking about.

The Non Sequitur

One of the most fundamental of logical fallacies is the non sequitur. Merriam-Webster cites its origins in the Latin for “it does not follow,” and defines a non sequitur as “an inference that does not follow from the premises.”1 Put another way, a non-sequitur is an argument where the conclusion a person is trying to prove simply is not demonstrated by the argument. Unlike some other fallacies, where there is an element that specifically shows why the argument is false, here the fallacy is as simple as saying that something is true for a reason that doesn’t really make the point that the speaker is attempting to make.
A clear example would be something like this: “It is important to bathe regularly because Donald Trump owns a black stapler.” What on earth does Donald Trump owning a black stapler have to do with why you should bathe regularly? Nothing (barring some bizarre real-life plot twist). That’s the point. That’s why it is a non sequitur. The thing argued for (that you should bathe regularly) and the given reason for it (Donald Trump owns a black stapler) are not connected. Donald Trump owning a black stapler in no way proves that you should bathe regularly. The conclusion does not follow from the premise.
One way to think about it is this: if you could replace the premise with something absurd, and it would make just as much sense, it’s probably a non sequitur. In the above, you could say “It is important to bathe regularly because the moon is square,” and it would make just as much sense.

Application to Hell

One example of a non sequitur that involved the nature and duration of final punishment occurred in John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad. Although the book isn’t primarily about eschatology, Dr. Piper does devote a lengthy chapter to the importance of  conscious faith in Jesus. The chapter begins with the question “Is Jesus Christ Man’s Only Hope for Salvation?”2 After reflecting on a few points, he goes on to set the stage for the rest of the chapter. In doing so, he commits the non sequitur fallacy:

When we ask, “Is Jesus Christ Man’s Only Hope for Salvation?” we are really asking three questions:

1. Will anyone experience eternal conscious torment under God’s wrath?

2. Is the work of Christ the necessary means provided by God for eternal salvation.

3. Is it necessary for people to hear of Christ in order to be eternally saved?3

The logical corallary of Piper’s claim would be that if any one thing mentioned was not true, then Jesus would not be the only hope of mankind.

That raises a question:4 why is it that if eternal torment is not true, then Jesus would not be our only hope? This question is never answered. It is just a statement that is made, one in which the claim (that Jesus would not be the only hope of mankind) does not follow from the premise (eternal conscious torment not being true). Why, if conditionalism were true, and the unsaved were to truly die forever, and only in Jesus could you be saved and have eternal life, would it be the case that men had another hope besides Jesus? There just isn’t an answer. Piper’s conclusion just does not follow.

It’s not even like Dr. Piper only has universalism and traditionalism on his mind here, as if the absence of eternal torment means that everyone has eternal life in the end, with or without Jesus.5 Piper addresses annihilationism in this chapter, and gives a brief and predictably unsatisfying rebuttal of it.6 His claim that if eternal torment is not true then Jesus would not be the only hope of mankind just doesn’t work. It’s not even that there is a definitive point that disproves it. That’s the thing about non sequiturs: the failure isn’t in that they are necessarily untrue, but simply that the argument that is supposed to prove the claim doesn’t. I could say, “If the bonsai tree in my office were to be overwatered, then Jesus would not be the only hope of man,” and it would make about as much sense as Piper’s argument, at least from a strictly logical standpoint.

In this case, we can refute Dr. Piper’s implied argument through counterexample. Is eternal life something to be hoped for? Of course. Under annihilationism, is there any way for men to have eternal life apart from Jesus. No.7 Therefore, the only hope anyone has is Jesus, whether hell is a place of annihilation or eternal torment. Perhaps one may argue that annihilation is not as bad an alternative to eternal life as eternal torment (I myself would agree), but it still is the case that according to both annihilationism and traditionalism, the only possible fates are either eternal life or some horrible alternative which is mutually exclusive to eternal life. Either way, Jesus is our only hope.

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  1. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Non Sequitur,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/non%20sequitur (Accessed on April 25, 2014). []
  2. John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad, (Baker Books, 1993), ###. []
  3. Piper, 119. []
  4. It’s common for people to say in situations like this that it “begs the question,” but that is actually the name of another logical fallacy, so it would not be correct to use that phrase here. []
  5. Some strains of universalism would still debunk Dr. Piper’s claim. Its adherents would say that it is only because of Jesus that men are saved, and God will ultimately bring all men to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior because there is no other way for people to have eternal life. Therefore, Jesus is still the only hope of mankind. []
  6. Piper, 120-128. []
  7. Perhaps some adherents of annihilation may think there are other ways, but the same could be true of someone who believes in eternal torment. The point is that in neither case does one’s view on hell affect whether or not Jesus is the only way. Whether or not there would be another way of salvation is a different topic, whichever view of hell you hold. []