Hell

It is often suggested that the Christian doctrine of Hell is morally unconscionable. Understanding this doctrine to be that the nonbeliever is sent to a physical location where for his non-belief he is burned for all eternity, the skeptic makes the point that this is incompatible with the moral perfection of God. The claim that God is all loving and the claim that God punishes his creatures eternally for finite offences seem at odds. In what follows it will be my concern to show that this objection is based on a crude caricature of Hell that is quite different from what the church actually teaches. And we shall see that when that doctrine is properly understood there are no indefeasible moral objections against it.

The Problem

How will a morally perfect and all powerful being deal with those who by the end of their life have become incorrigibly bad? Let us first understand “incorrigibly bad” to describe a person who has exercised his free will to do evil to such a degree that he has finally developed an evil character. His natural desire is to perform bad actions and in particular to hurt and dominate others. God has good reason to allow moral evil while people form their moral character in this world. But there is no good reason for God to allow people to continue hurting others forever. I will now briefly discuss two alternative views about the fate of the incorrigibly bad before defending, but carefully qualifying, the traditional teaching of the church. My conclusion will be that while we may reasonably hope that Hell is empty its possible existence must be affirmed in view of human freedom.

Universalism

Why does God not simply force upon such people a good moral character? Some hold that God does just this—including Origen, an influential Church Father, and several contemporary theologians. [1] This view, because it entails that all people go to Heaven, is called Universalism. But forcing a good moral character upon an evil person is forcing upon them a character which they have persistently and knowingly chosen not to have. And if God is to respect the free will of persons in choosing their own moral character he must finally respect the moral character they have chosen. To do otherwise would be to rescind the free will he had originally given: God would then be a sort of moral totalitarian who ensures that, in the end, whatever choices people make, they become the sort of people God wants them to be with no ultimate freedom to determine the sort of person they want to be.

I have argued elsewhere that incorrigibly bad people are a possible outcome of any world in which all people enjoy significant moral self-determination; and that naturally good people will be naturally happy in loving communion with a morally perfect being. By contrast: Allowing oneself to become a collection of evil desires whose fulfilment is eternally frustrated by an all powerful being would be a deeply unhappy state. The question arises: If God will not force a good moral character upon such people, what is he likely to do with them?

Annihilationism

Christian theology holds that all things are sustained in existence by God from one moment to the next. Each one of us therefore stands in the same relation to God as the piano sonata to the pianist: The moment God ceases to consciously and deliberately sustain us in existence is the moment we cease to exist. This doctrine helps to introduce a second view on the fate of the incorrigibly bad: Annihilationism. Annihilationism holds that at the end of the world God simply ceases to sustain the incorrigibly bad in existence; and the incorrigibly bad, as a result, simply cease to exist.

Proponents of this view suggest that Bible verses which speak of evildoers being thrown into a lake of fire in fact symbolise their annihilation. “If talk of fire is to be taken literally or even as an analogy for the destiny of the wicked,” writes Oxford Professor of Philosophy Richard Swinburne, “the consequence of putting the wicked in such a fire would be their speedy elimination.” We have just noted that having all one’s desires frustrated by an all powerful being would be an inherently miserable state. And so perhaps God would eliminate evil people—particularly if that is what they wanted. It is this fate, annihilationists insist, that Jesus warned us to avoid in many places in the New Testament, such as Matthew 10:28,

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

However, others have objected to Annihilationism on the grounds that, much like Universalism, it puts God in the role of a moral totalitarian. God does not force a good moral character upon those who have freely chosen evil; rather, he refuses to allow them to exist at all. And so, in the end, whatever choices people make, they either become the sort of people God wants them to be or God destroys them.

Hell

Let us consider finally the traditional teaching of the church that the incorrigibly bad are in danger of Hell. How can we understand this idea in light of the moral perfection of God? We can begin to do so by first recognising that Hell is not a physical location to which people are sent and actively tormented by God. It is, rather, an existential state that results from freely rejecting the divine love. Indeed, Augustine believed the suffering of Hell is compounded because God continues to love the sinner who is not able to return the love. “The massive beauty of an opera,” writes Peter Kreeft, illustrating the same point, “may be torture to someone blindly jealous of its composer. So the fires of hell may be made of the very love of God; or rather, by the hatred of that love among the damned.” Whatever the torments in Hell, the church emphatically teaches that, “they are not imposed by a vindictive judge.” [2].

Recall our three operating assumptions. One: In Heaven naturally good people freely submit themselves to the will of God; two: God, being all loving, wishes for all people to be happy in so doing (happy in reverencing what is holy, loving those who were formerly enemies, selflessly cooperating with others and so forth); and three: All people are given radical freedom in determining their own moral character. It follows from all this that at least some people may eternally resist the invitation to participate in the divine love, preferring instead to hate their enemies and the God who enjoins them to let go of that hatred. As Dallas Willard expresses it, for some people, “the fires of Heaven, we might suspect, are hotter than the fires of Hell.” C. S. Lewis before him made a similar point. “The gates of Hell,” he wrote, “are locked on the inside.”

It should also be kept in mind here that any person who finds themselves in Hell was not thrust there suddenly upon death; Hell, rather, is the ultimate logical consequence of the pattern of choices an evil person made throughout his earthly life. God provides each of us with a conscience and countless opportunities to exercise our free will for good or evil. An incorrigibly bad person therefore owes his character to his prolonged and decisive refusal to heed the deliverances of the conscience which God gave him in preference for evil. Lewis understood this too. “There are only two kinds of people in the end,” he said. “Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’” and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”

Conclusion

Understood in this way, Hell has a surprising, ironic but entirely logical entailment: It pays deep respect to persons. Faced with the incorrigibly bad, God does not force upon them a good moral character and he does not destroy them. God accepts the person they have chosen to be and provides a place in his created order for them to live out the reality of being that person. Only in Hell can the free will and so the personhood of the incorrigibly bad be preserved. “Hell,” as Willard puts it, “is God’s best for some people.” And it was the unhappy possibility of finding ourselves forever in this state that Jesus is warning us of when he speaks of the eternal torments of Hell.

In discussing the possibility of Hell it is important to remember that it is no part of Christian doctrine that any particular person, or that any person at all, is actually in Hell. Not many people, I would think, allow themselves to become incorrigibly bad and only God can know what transpires in a human heart in the final moments of life and in the first moments of the afterlife. A private moment of redemption in extremis or even in articulo mortis is always possible and no one knows what opportunities are available beyond that.

Reflections similar to these led the twentieth century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar to say, “We may reasonably hope that all people will be saved.” Balthasar’s position thus draws right back from the deep pessimism of Aquinas and Augustine, who both held that the mass of humanity will be lost, without quite affirming the Universalism of Origen and others. Balthasar instead suggested that we entertain Universalism with a cautious optimism. Why?

The optimism was justified, Balthasar said, in view of the radical expression of divine love manifest in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—that God should send his Son all the way to the limits of God-forsakenness in order to bring back into the divine life all those who had wandered far from it. But the caution was necessary in view of the radical freedom God entrusted us with—a freedom which, if it is to be honoured and upheld by God at all, must include at least the possibility of eternally rejecting God. The Catholic author and theologian Bishop Robert Barron agrees. A Christian, he says, must accept the existence of Hell as a possibility because of human freedom. “But” he adds, “we may pray, and may even reasonably hope, that all people will be saved.”

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[1] See Love Wins by Rob Bell for a contemporary defence of Universalism. Origen, for the record, taught that even Satan and the demons would be reconciled to God—a view known as apocatastasis.

[2] See The Creed: The Apostolic Faith in Contemporary Theology by B. L. Marthaler.

5 replies
  1. Gayle McIntosh
    Gayle McIntosh says:

    Enjoyed your informative article up to the conclusion where you said no one is in Hell. Luke 16 23-26 tells a true story with names of people mentioned and says…and in Hell he lifted up his eyes being in torment. You seem to have another category of people called incorrigibly bad but we are all that when we are born in sin and we all need to be saved by Jesus’ death on the cross. Only when a person repents and receives Jesus into his life are we made fit for Heaven.

  2. Kahimilo Junior
    Kahimilo Junior says:

    Thank you for the article, I would like to share regarding the point about our ” free will” I think the Bible clearly stated that naturally we don’t choose to follow God – Romans 3: 11-12, we’re ALL sinners Romans 3:23 and if the Bible is the Word of God then Jesus said in John 8:34 that were All “SLAVE” to SIN. So are we Free or Slave? Galatians 5:1 says it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. So in summary, we’re not free in our first birth (flesh), but born again in the Spirit. If we think that apart from Christ we can choose God then Christ should not come to set us free as the Bible potrays so we made God out to be a liar 1John 1:10

  3. Kahimilo Junior
    Kahimilo Junior says:

    Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Bible is spiritual teaching regarding the Word of God who is His Son- Jesus Christ. Only the Spirit can explain or interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual, the person without the Spirit cannot understand this teaching because they are ONLY discerned through the SPIRIT…1Corin 2:13-15
    Therefore let ourselves be humble before Almighty God and plead for the Spirit to teach us so we can escape the trap set by the devil to do his will 2Tim2:26

  4. Chris O'Brien
    Chris O'Brien says:

    A couple of point: You say ” Hell is not a physical location to which people are sent and actively tormented by God. It is, rather, an existential state that results from freely rejecting the divine love.” If that is the case you would also have to argue that Heaven is not a physical location but rather an existential state and I do not go along with that. One argument for that is in Heaven we are clearly embodied beings not simply spirits.
    I also think the points made by earlier commenters to this article make some good points. You seem to be arguing that someone has to be incorrigibly bad to end up in Hell. Such a viewpoint almost seems to suggest works over faith. As Gayle McIntosh argues above none of us are good and it is only our acceptance of what Christ has done for us on the cross and our repentence and receiving him as Lord that qualifies us for heaven.

  5. Mane David
    Mane David says:

    “For God so loved the world that he created hell”.
    Bless, what a loving deity this particular one is. By the way, how many gods has man created? 7000-8000? (Maybe more). Let’s say 8000, we can agree that 7999 of these man-made constructions are obviously myths. Sadly, ditching the last one is too hard for some. As Freud said whenever there is a fear of death there will always be a need for a deity.

    Fear ye, not people. There is little to worry about regarding hell. It, like the Big rock candy mountain heaven illusion, is not real.

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