Logical Fallacies – Part 3: The Red Herring

The Red Herring

A simple, classic example of a logical fallacy is the red herring. As traditionalist Matt Slick (of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) defines it, it is “introducing a topic not related to the subject at hand.”1 This fallacy is closely related to the non-sequitur, as discussed in Part 1. What distinguishes the red herring from the non-sequitur is that the red herring has an element of distraction. Rather than simply not addressing the issue, a red herring gives an answer that distracts from the actual issue at hand but poses as a legitimate response.

This fallacy pops up often in politics, especially in campaigns. For the purposes of illustration, think about the exaggerated moments in sitcoms and satires. Think of something like this:
Candidate 1: If you cut the top marginal income tax rate to 5%, how do you plan on expanding government services, as you have promised?
Candidate 2: Uh…Well, uh….Freedom! Patriotism! Jobs! God! Equality! America!
Crowd: Candidate 2! Candidate 2!
The above is an extreme example, but you get the point.
The argument doesn’t even address the point. Candidate 2’s shouting out buzzwords doesn’t answer the question about his tax plan, let alone answer it well. And yet, Candidate 2 basically evades the question by giving an answer that in this case doesn’t even make sense, but successfully diverts attention from the topic at hand. A red herring is a logical fallacy because ultimately, there isn’t even an argument made, at least not in a meaningful sense. The logic fails.

Application to Hell

Any time an argument doesn’t logically connect to the idea it is trying to prove in regards to hell, but instead just distracts from the actual issue, it serves as a red herring. Consider the following hypothetical conversation, inspired by many years of spending time on message boards:

  • Traditionalist: “Hell is a place of eternal torment. says that there is eternal punishment.”
  • Conditionalist: “It does say that, but what does ‘eternal punishment’ mean? Does it require the continual act of punishing? Not at all. , for example, speaks of ‘eternal judgment,’ yet certainly God isn’t continually in the act of judging people for eternity. Rather, he judges, and the result, the ‘judgment,’ is eternal. The act is not eternal, but the result is. Several other examples of this exist in the Bible, such as where Jesus earns us ‘eternal redemption.’ Similarly, God punishes the wicked by destroying them. Their punishment is that they are destroyed and gone, and this lasts for eternity since they never rise again. Annihilation is a form of ‘eternal punishment,’ so does not disprove conditionalism.”
  • Traditionalist: For humans, it can be hard to understand how a loving and merciful God could send people to hell. But that is because we don’t understand how serious sin is. If we did, we’d see why eternal torment is not unfair or unjust. We should accept the Bible’s teaching, which is eternal punishment, not annihilationism.
  • Conditionalist: (Extreme face palm).

If you think I am exaggerating and making up a bad traditionalist response to make traditionalists as a whole look bad, which would be a form of a related logical fallacy called the strawman fallacy, then just look at my review of Bill Weise’s 23 minutes in Hell and the response to it…
The hypothetical traditionalist’s response above is a red herring. The conditionalist had put forth an argument about the Bible’s use of “eternal” in phrases like “eternal judgment” and how it is consistent with an annihilationist interpretation of “eternal punishment.” The traditionalist doesn’t address any of it, and instead starts talking about the justice of God and how eternal torment is just. Of course, the conditionalist didn’t make any argument that eternal torment would be unjust; the argument was about something else entirely, which was not addressed. And yet, this is presented as though it is in response to what the conditionalist said!
Of course, conditionalists sometimes do this too; if this were not-rethinking-hell.com, I’d be looking at those more. No matter who does it, it is logically fallacious and doesn’t actually make a point. But it can sound good. Many wise and spiritual sounding things can be said that distract from the point, such as the wise and spiritual idea that humans don’t understand the seriousness of sin. Throw in a statement about how we should believe God’s word even when the other person is arguing strictly from the Bible, and you can really be cooking those red herrings with gasoline! Sometimes it may be intentional (and thus willful deception), and other times, it is just poor reasoning. Either way, it is something to look out for, both in other people’s arguments, and our own.

  1. Matt Slick, “Logical Fallacies or Fallacies in Argumentation,” Christian Apolegetics and Research Ministry, n.d., http://carm.org/logical-fallacies-or-fallacies-argumentation (Accessed on April 21, 2014). []

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.

46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”