A friend that I met when working on university campus has recently contacted me with some questions, and since I’ve been doing that instead of updating Longwind, I thought I’d just share a bit of that over here. The most recent question concerned hell, which I’ve been thinking of discussing in any case. He wrote:
Is god obliged to burn people in hell? E.g. is god obliged to stoop to Hitler’s level and torture Hitler himself even for a day? Even if he did indeed deserve it, it would take someone as dispicable as Hitler to burn him in hell. God can just wipe him off existance and forget about him. Why doesnt he just do that?
My response was as follows, but I’d love to hear your opinions of any of the issues that strike your fancy. In our more liberal, non-violent times in the West, hell is a doctrine that we need to think about carefully, both because it is dangerous to make too light of judgment, and because (more so than ever) over-doing our hell-fire rhetoric is likely to implicate God in injustice and to turn people off. We surely only want to turn people off to the degree that the gospel offends, and not a foot further. Anyway, this is what I said:
God is not obliged to burn people in hell, but he is obliged to do justice, which is (in one way of looking at it) a great comfort. The Hitlers of the world and the people who rape innocent little girls to death etc. do not get away with it. God allows people the space to do these things, because it is the same space that allows some of us to be found by him, but our actions done outside of his forgiveness will not go unpunished. That is a bit comforting.
However the flipside of that comfort is something at which your question hints. If Hitler deserves justice of whatever kind, and if the child rapist deserves justice — if some people fall foul of God’s judgment — then where is the line drawn and on what grounds? Inevitably, nearly every individual draws the line of judgment just below himself (i.e. I’m a good person despite my faults, but it’s the bad person just below me who deserves judgment). So it’s worth considering whether there is anybody who doesn’t deserve to face the consequences of a lifetime of even small cruelties. If one adds to our moral failures the idea that many have lived self-consciously with a fist raised at God, then there is further reason for God to call people to account.
So, if we leave aside for now what the punishment itself is, then it should be abundantly clear that someone of the most devastating hatred and cruelty as Hitler most certainly does deserve to face the repercussions of actively hunting down 6 million people, and of indirectly causing the deaths of millions more and the devastation of most of Europe. If no one deserves justice — if our actions have no moral content — then I don’t want to be alive anywhere. The world would no longer make any sense.
But if one deserves justice, then we probably all do, at least in some measure. We all excuse ourselves because nobody is perfect, or perhaps because we are law-abiding. But those are arbitrary standards of morality with which God is not bound to agree. The fact that none of us is perfect does not mean that we ought not to be perfect. God judges us for what we’ve done (and failed to do) and on that standard, we all fall.
The second thing to discuss is the punishment itself. Hell is often described as fire, but that is not the only language by which it is described. There is a lake of fire, and there is ‘gehenna’, which I understand is a rubbish dump outside the city gates — hence the continual burning and digging of worms. Hell is called ‘outer darkness’ (which is not really compatible with fire), ‘destruction’, and a place of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. There may be others that I’ve forgotten. So, while burning is the most common hell metaphor, it appears to be just that: a metaphor.
The most important thing to be derived from the metaphors used in connection with hell is that hell is very, very serious, and that it represents the opposite of the life for which God created us. Jesus’ one parable urges us rather to blind or maim ourselves in this life than to keep sinning with eye or hand but be cast into eternal fire. So God’s judgment should not be toyed with, and the life that God offers us is infinitely better than whatever it is were grasping at instead.
We need to hold in balance with our thoughts about hell the repeated Biblical assertion that God is primarily just. Part of our problem with hell is that we assume God is giving people eternal torture that far exceeds what they deserve. What is said about hell is unclear in its specifics, but the Bible is not unclear about God’s justice. Luke 12:48 says that the ignorant will be given little punishment, but those who sinned with eyes open will get greater punishment. Frequently we’re promised that we’re judged according to what we do. So whatever our concerns about hell, injustice should not be one of them. God is the only judge who is in a position to judge fairly, and this is precisely what he will do.
CS Lewis’ Problem of Pain is an excellent book about evil and suffering, and it also includes a section about hell that balances these things well. His view has hell as eternal punishment, yet without the unnecessary ghoulish torture-chamber imagery that was so prevalent in Medieval times. He even shows how a Biblical description of hell can be balanced with God’s primary characteristic as lover (i.e. hell is an act of love!). It’s interesting. You should read it.
The last thing I’d like to add is a brief word about hell as eternal. As I said, most people read the Bible as saying that punishment in hell is eternal, and CS Lewis has a very thought provoking position regarding hell that nevertheless balances its eternity, its justice and its love.
Having said that, many credible exegetes of scripture (John Stott is one famous example) have shown that there is some doubt that hell is actually to be understood as eternal, conscious torture of the individual. Everything that the Bible says about hell is that the fire is eternal, which is to say that we will not outlast or escape the punishment that we’re to face, but not necessarily that the individual will last for eternity as the fire does. The fact that the sinner is often promised destruction and that the Old Testament has almost no warning of eternal hell has led some to argue that the unforgiven are given due punishment, and then extinguished once justice has been done. [I’ll have to make that case properly at some point, but suffice it to say, the argument has some merit.]
Anyway, the point is that justice is the key idea, not eternal torture, and that the punishment is to be avoided at all costs.
In the face of this, we might object that a standard of perfection is too high, especially if the consequences are severe judgment. This would be so if God had not done something about it, which He has. Given that the ‘way out’ is a free gift of grace, plus enjoyment of the promise of life lived to the full with the Creator for whom we were intended, there is every reason to say that while God’s punishment will be precisely what people deserve, God freely offers us overwhelmingly more good than we deserve.