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. Matthew 25:46 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. Hebrews 6:2, 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 Hebrews 9:12 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 Matthew 25:46 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). []
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  • HaakAway

    Thanks especially for that last caution for our own thinking/arguments. Even after 30 years of full-time ministry I have found I need to pause more often, let the person know I am considering their point and then respond. Otherwise I will just try to “win” and not be an example of what I really want most … to help them think more accurately. And I wonder if there is much real progress in teaching except by Example. Jesus did not write a new book, He lived a new life in front of people. I wish I was closer and could attend but I hope your conference is a time of Great Example.

  • Tim Lewis

    But what if Hell is eternal torment? How do you know the ashes in Malachi 4:3 can’t feel pain? (snigger)

  • Robroy MacGregor

    One of the reasons I became a Conditionalist is that when I viewed the arguments between the two sides I noticed a lot of red herrings and straw men being thrown out by traditionalists to the point where it became their MO. And I mean even the “highly respected” traditionalists. It happened on rare occasion with Conditionalists, but it was rare. Their MO was and is to get to the true meaning of the words of the bible as well as interpret within context of the words being interpreted.

    And their arguments were beyond compelling.

  • Robroy MacGregor

    I’m shocked that so many people believed the whole 23 minutes in Hell thing. But then, The visions of heaven bother me too – as though God can make a mistake and let someone get “too far” out of their body and accidentally see too much.

    My brother gave me a CD set for Christmas a few decades ago that was the “sound” heard in space by one of our satellites as it left our solar system. I would lay down in bed, close my eyes, and with full knowledge of where the space ship was when it recorded the sounds, become so enveloped in the experience that it was as if I was floating through the void of deep space – LITERALLY. And this was without drugs.

    But the mind is a very interesting thing that we haven’t even scratched the surface on, regarding our knowledge of how it works.

    So I depend on this: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. i.e. If you tell me you went to the Mall this morning, I’ll believe you. If you tell me you were abducted by space aliens and given a tour of our solar system, I’m going to need a bit more proof. Maybe some nice selfies from Pluto.

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