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.


8 thoughts on “Hell

  1. Rick Lannoye says:

    Actually, the only way you can make the blanket assertion that God is “just” is to reject what Jesus taught about God! He made it VERY CLEAR (Read Matthew Ch 5) that God is anything but “just,” but FORGIVING! So, not only can there be no “goulish” Hell, there can be no Hell period…unless of course you’re willing to reject what Jesus taught.

    I’ve actually written an entire book on this topic–Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There’s No Such Place As Hell, (for anyone interested, you can get a free ecopy of Did Jesus Believe in Hell?, one of the most compelling chapters in my book at http://www.thereisnohell.com), but if I may, let me share just one more of the many points I make in it to explain why.

    If one is willing to look, there’s substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: “You don’t know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!” Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn billions of people for an eternity!

    • Richard Cochrane says:

      Hey Rick,

      To be clear on our understanding of the topic, what are you saying happens to those people that continue to reject God outright till they die? Are you saying that everyone goes to Heaven regardless of what they believe or are you saying that only Christians go to Heaven and non-Christians just wink out of existence as part of God’s judgement?

      A side note even before you respond to the above – I agree that God is not “just” but forgiving and it’s a wonderful thing to behold. Nevertheless, those requiring forgiveness surely cannot be forgiven without asking for it. I will go so far as to say that many, many people openly defy God’s rule on their life – if you asked them, they would curse God shamelessly. What is, in your view, a fair and appropriate response to this classic case of unbeliever?

      Cheers, Rich

  2. screamer says:

    Good article. My thinking sometimes softens the harsh tone to people essentially saying “God, we don’t want you ruling our lives – butt out”, and God responding with hell, i.e. “Fine, you won’t hear from me again but when I go you lose everything I gave you to enjoy in life, e.g. love, hope, faith, etc.”. So people essentially have to have this existence in hell without any of the good things God gave us. Although God is omnipresent, it seems that the NT treats hell as absent from God (outer darkness, shut out from the feast), and if we remove whatever God brings to the table by virtue of his sustaining our lives, you don’t really have anything worth living for.

    However, I’m aware that my argument probably tones down hell “too” much – I guess we just don’t know the difference between the scenario above and God (or the general circumstances of hell) actively introducing more pain into the mix and making it worse than a life without God could be.

    I have a question on heaven though :-) If man was to rule and marry and reproduce (something dear to my heart right now) before the fall, then one would assume that these instructions would be there even when creation is recreated in it’s new glory. However, Jesus makes it clear that there will be no marrying in heaven, and therefore no sex as well, if it remains confined to the marriage bed. Do you know anything more of this? Is marriage for eternity part of your original discussion above? ;-)

  3. Hephaestion says:

    Anyway, the point is that justice is the key idea, not eternal torture, and that the punishment is to be avoided at all costs.

    Of course eternal punishment is to be avoided at all costs, were it to be true; but no sane, reasonable, moral person would ever sink to punishing someone for eternity, no matter what their crime. This is not justice. Take the most cruel human who ever lived – their crimes do not warrant damnation without end. And it is not just for actions that this wickedness can be exercised – a mere thought will suffice.

    The doctrine of eternal punishment is profoundly immoral. It’s curious that people who regard themselves as being guided by superior moral principles should find it so easy to either ignore or, incredibly, actually justify or excuse such a perversion of justice. How is this compatible with the concept of an all-knowing, all-loving celestial father figure?

    Robert Ingersoll, never one to hold his tongue, put is so: “It is a doctrine so abhorrent to every drop of my blood, so infinitely cruel, that it is impossible for me to respect either the head or heart of any human being who teaches or fears it. This doctrine necessarily subverts all ideas of justice. To inflict infinite punishment for finite crimes, or rather for crimes committed by finite beings, is a proposition so monstrous that I am astonished it ever found lodgment in the brain of man. Whoever says that we can be happy in heaven while those we loved on earth are suffering infinite torments in eternal fire, defames and calumniates the human heart.”

    The is a problem not just for institutional Christians (who, through ideology, are unwilling or unable to question doctrine) but for all Christians: their faith is built atop this despicable doctrine. Should the foundation crumble, all that it holds must fall.

    So we are left with a great monster in our midst, to be forever draped in all the finery of an angel.

    Ah, but, the wily theologian protests, punishment is not eternal, only the fire. The “unforgiven are punished and then extinguished,” as if this is any the more palatable! It is at once shocking and chilling how the devout, kindly and sincere as they might be, can so casually deem such awful things to be morally acceptable.

    In Ingersoll’s time there were estimated to be approximately 400 million Christians in the world; today there are 2.1 billion. It is difficult to maintain hope when the masses believe that the likes of Robert Ingersoll, Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan are consigned to burn in Hell, while the Ted Haggards and Pat Robertsons get to gloat from above. It is an unstoppable and cruel insanity.

  4. Mary says:

    Hi Hephaestion. :)

    How do you, as an atheist, make the call that Hell is “profoundly immoral”? It seems to me that you and Ingersoll call it immoral because it is “abhorrent” to you. So, in your view, morality is merely a matter of personal preference. Without God determining absolute right and wrong, we are left only with personal moral preferences – in which case I would suggest that your objection is without a solid moral basis.

    I also recommend the following OUTSTANDING article on the subject of Hell, from Christopher Townsend: http://www.jubilee-centre.org/document.php?id=25


    “This paper focuses on the doctrine of hell, examining the main features of the Bible’s teaching and considering a number of debated issues, notably the argument over annihilationism and eternal punishment. The chapter goes on to explore the apologetic challenges and opportunities which arise from the doctrine of hell, and reflects on the ‘strange silence’ of the modern church on this topic.”

    • Hephaestion says:

      1. My religious credentials were neither declared nor are they relevant.

      2. It was the doctrine of ETERNAL PUNISHMENT that was judged as immoral. If you consider Hell to be eternal punishment, then fine. Those who accept it as morally permissible have morals as arbitrary as those of the imam who would kill his own daughter (she of loose morals) in order to reclaim the family’s tarnished honor, or of the slave owner with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. One need go no further than call upon the Golden Rule to expose the impolitic wickedness of such moralities.

      3. Moral absolutism is a doctrine every bit as seductive, simple and yet false as Geocentrism.

      4. 400 years before Jesus was a twinkle in some Roman soldier’s roving eye, Plato posed the Euthyphro dilemma. It might be prudent to consider this dilemma (which has inspired a good deal of theological contortionism) as well as brushing up on your knowledge of the theory of evolution and game theory. Your question will be amply answered, though not in a simplistic, intuitive, 150-character kind of way.

  5. Mary from INdiana says:

    I have been a “Evangelical Christian” for over 30 years. Being taught about the doctrine of eternal punishment from early on I naturally believed it until later in life when I would find scriptures that seem to contradict eternal punishment. But what really began to change my mind was the more I sought out Jesus of the bible the more I saw how much God talked about forgiveness, love, loving the unlovely, mercy, and grace. Psalms (and many other places in the bible) 118:1-4 says 4x in a row…His mercy endures forever. How does God’s mercy endure forever if the God of sacrifice, love, and mercy throws people who may have lived 18, 30, or 60 years on this earth without serving Him, into eternal flames to be tortured forever and ever and ever????

  6. Jordan Pickering says:

    Dear Mary from Indiana,
    You are right that God’s generous qualities far outweigh His severe ones. That’s why in the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20) it says,
    “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
    In other words, God desires to show love exponentially more than He wishes to execute judgement.
    But remember that qualities such as love and forgiveness are not in contradiction to justice, such that God is unable to do both. Particularly for those who hate God and refuse His forgiveness, what should God then do?
    That is why when the OT picks up again on God’s love and punishment to the generations, it emphasises that although He shows such mercy, He ‘will by no means clear the guilty’ (e.g. Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18).
    I encourage you NOT to be the kind of Evangelical who perversely delights in the doctrine of hell, or thinks that it’s such an important distinctive that (s)he must rub it in people’s noses at every opportunity. The Bible certainly does neither.
    However, what is the most important thing about being a Christian is trust. There are all sorts of arenas in which we are given the choice to exercise dependence upon God, or to take the reins ourselves. Christianity is the first, and Adam’s original sin is the second. In this matter, I think it is a faithful response to assert that God is both loving and just, and that He will judge with perfect justice. Whatever hell is, we can leave it in God’s hands to do what is right (far better than we ever could).

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