Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

The Goodness of God, Human Freedom, and the Problem of Hell

God, humans, and the afterlife.
Gregg Henriques
This post is a response to Is It Okay if Kids Believe God Sends Nonbelievers to Hell? by Gregg Henriques

"There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.  But it (1) has the full support of Scripture, and, (2) especially, of our Lord's own words; (3) it has always been held by Christendom [thus three arguments from authority]; and (4) it has the support of reason."

These thoughts related to the doctrine of hell are part of the short but profound book by C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. I think Lewis echoes the sentiments of many Christians, who are of course deeply troubled by the thought of people spending eternity in hell. Such a notion can appear unjust, and irreconcilable with the claim that God is good and loving. I read with great interest the article by fellow PT blogger Gregg Enriques, entitled "Is it Okay if Kids Believe God Sends Nonbelievers to Hell?"  I have friends whose children have had similar experiences, and I have been both saddened and frustrated by this, for a variety of reasons. Here, I will focus on only one, namely, that a fairly common fundamentalist understanding of the nature of hell is perhaps theologically misguided.

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Contemporary philosopher Stephen Davis addresses some of the ethical issues surrounding how to reconcile the existence of a good, loving, and morally perfect God with the existence of hell.* First, many Christians simply reject the notion that there is a hell, and argue that ultimately all people will come to know God and be reconciled to him. This view, commonly known as universalism, is often grounded in the claim that the point of God's judgment of fallible human beings is the promotion of repentance, of moral and spiritual transformation. Given this, even if hell exists, universalists hold that it is temporary and that God will continue to work towards reconciliation for all. And in the end all will freely say yes to God.

Davis opts for separationism, which is the view that some people will be in hell for eternity, but not because God sends them to hell. Rather, they are there (and perhaps remain there) by choice. This sounds very odd, given the "fire and brimstone" pictures of hell present in the minds of many. Yet according to Davis, hell should be understood as separation from God. For Davis and others who hold this view, the images in the Bible concerning hell−unquenchable fire, darkness, bottomless pit, place of no rest−are not to be taken literally, as they are not intended by the authors of the Christian scriptures to be taken in this way. Doing so leads to potential contradictions. For example, how could there be a place where both unquenchable fire and darkness are simultaneously present?

The point of the metaphorical imagery for separationists is that hell is eternal; it is not some sort of medieval torture chamber. Rather, it is a place of separation from God who is thought to be the ultimate source of joy, love, peace, and light. A point from Lewis in The Problem of Pain is again instructive, when he says that those in hell have "tried to turn everything they meet into a province or appendage of the self. The taste for the other, which is the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in them. At death, the lost soul has his wish, to live wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell."

On this view, strictly speaking, God does not send people to hell. In fact, God's desire is that all people would say yes to him (see 2 Peter 3:9). However, God allows people to choose to reject him, even for eternity. In love, he gives them the freedom to choose. And some freely choose not to be in the presence of God. Perhaps those in hell are remorseful, but choose to remain there because they are unable to enjoy the pleasures of heaven.  They prefer to live apart from God's presence, rather than in it. They wouldn't want out of hell if the only other option was heaven. Again, as Lewis puts it, "The doors of hell are locked on the inside."

There are difficult theological, philosophical, and ethical issues concerning the nature of God and eternity that haven't been covered here. However, the upshot is that there are ways of understanding Christian teachings concerning hell that are perhaps consistent with the view that God is good and loving.

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* "Universalism, Hell, and the Fate of the Ignorant," Modern Theology 6 (1990): 173-186.


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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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