Hellfire: A Loving God, Infinite Suffering, and the Reliability of the Bible
By ERIN McDONNELL
ABSTRACT: One of the most imposing problems facing the modern theist philosopher is the ‘problem of Hell,’ or the problem of how to make the Bible’s depiction of Hell as a place of eternal punishment logically consistent with the generally held theist idea that God is perfectly loving. This issue has been dealt with by a number of philosophers; some have attempted to re-imagine Hell into something less severe than eternal punishment, and some have attempted to give justifications for the traditional version of Hell. An overview of these various views and attempts will conclude that universalism—the idea that all souls must eventually be saved—is the view most compatible with a loving God. However, this paper will go on to argue that universalism’s inconsistency with the Biblical portrayal of Hell still creates a problem for the theist philosopher; as the Bible is the primary authority for the idea of Hell, any inconsistency between the Bible and our logical conclusions must make us doubt the Bible’s authority on the matter of Hell. And, as doubting the Bible in one aspect frees us to question its veracity in others, it will be argued that the problem of Hell ultimately allows us to wholly reject the Bible’s authority.
Even for those who whole-heartedly accept the idea of a loving and perfect Christian God, the thought of that God sending sinners and unbelievers to burn forever in Hell can be highly unnerving. Many believers find that the concept of Hell puts them in a bit of a bind; on the one hand, Hell is clearly a well-established idea within Christianity, and on the other, it seems almost unthinkable that a truly loving God could ever allow his creations to suffer infinitely for sins committed in a finite life. Some philosophers, such as Lewis, have used this apparent contradiction as grounds to reject Christianity and support atheism. Theist philosophers have responded by putting forward several possible solutions to the problem. For example, some attack the idea of ‘eternal’ punishment, and argue that all souls will eventually be saved (or annihilated) so that Hell will one day stand empty. Others allow for eternal punishment, but suggest that Hell is not literally a fiery lake of torture. Still others accept the fiery lake but argue that some people freely choose Hell, or that infinite punishment is somehow justified. Out of these various solutions, the idea that all souls will eventually be saved seems to follow most logically from the concept of a perfectly loving deity. Many philosophers who agree with this position, universalism, drop the issue here. However, it is highly arbitrary to pluck the idea of Hell from the Christian Bible and then fail to accept all the characteristics that the Bible attributes to Hell; the Bible is, as it turns out, alarmingly consistent in its portrayal of Hell as a place of eternal, consciously endured pain. This being the case, I must conclude that there is a contradiction between the Biblical idea of Hell and the Christian idea that God is perfectly loving; as both cannot be true, I believe it is the Biblical idea of Hell that must be rejected, and that such a rejection strongly supports a total rejection of Biblical authority.
For the purpose of later comparison, we can begin with a brief overview of the Biblical concepts of ‘Hell’ and ‘God’, the Bible being used here exclusively because it is the source that has most informed our modern understanding of both God and Hell. The Biblical facts about Hell, as Christians themselves are often quick to point out, are that everyone “will exist eternally either in heaven or hell,” (that is, heaven and hell are the only two options), that Hell is “conscious torment,” and that Hell is “eternal and irreversible” (Litke). As Lewis reminds us, such a view of Hell is actually somewhat necessary in Christianity because the whole point is that “Jesus was born to save us from something. The condition from which we have been redeemed must be truly horrible. What can be horrible enough except for eternal punishment?” (Lewis, p. 476).
Standing in contrast to this terrible, eternal Hell is the Biblical concept of God. Christians believe in a God that is omnipresent (for example, see Psalm 139:7-12), omnipotent (Genesis 18:14), unchanging (Psalm 102:25-27), omniscient (Psalm 139:2-6), and eternal (Jeremiah 10:10). God is thus incredibly powerful, but God is also merciful (see Daniel 9:9) and perfectly just (Deuteronomy 32:4); by ‘just,’ it seems to be meant that God will neither allow righteous and/or innocent people to suffer nor evildoers to have any sort of impunity. (This does seem to leave open the possibility for mercy, for it can be assumed that someone who asks God’s forgiveness is experiencing spiritual pain which may count as sufficient punishment for sins.) Perhaps the most significant Christian concept of God, though, is the idea that God is perfectly loving because God is love itself. This is made plain in 1 John 4:8, which says that anyone “who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” With this idea of God at its core, Christianity apparently sets itself up as a love-centered religion, and most believers firmly hold that their god is a god of perfect justice and perfect love.
The philosopher’s concept of God is very similar to the believer’s (or at least to the believer’s as just given), and the theist philosopher in particular usually assumes with the believer that God is morally perfect, perfectly just, and perfectly loving. We can thus turn to the various ways in which theist philosophers have tried to reconcile this idea of a perfect God with the idea of Hell. In all of the following attempts, Hell is assumed to be a reality in at least some form or other; this is maintained partly because Hell comes up so frequently as a concept in scripture, but also because several philosophers believe that God’s ‘perfect justice’ does indeed demand some sort of painful punishment for evildoers that goes beyond making them feel sorrow for what they have done. The two ‘facts’ of a perfect God and an existent Hell being assumed, the nature of Hell is then decided in each argument by what the philosopher deems logically compatible with God’s perfection. It should be noted that some philosophers’ definitions of Hell will be seen to differ drastically from the Bible’s, but this can usually be attributed to the treatment of belief in a perfect God as more basic than the belief in a strictly doctrinal Hell; as we will find, most theist philosophers who find the idea of a perfect God and the Biblical Hell incompatible choose to alter their idea of Hell rather than give up their idea of a perfect God. Again, then, the philosopher’s goal in each case is simply to find the most reasonable resolution of the main issue: under what circumstances could God allow Hell?
Addressing first the most radical alteration of ideas about Hell, we start with the theory of universalism, supported by philosophers such as Thomas Talbott and Kerry Walters. Universalism holds that a loving God must eventually save everyone, and that while there is something we could call ‘Hell,’ it is by no means a place of eternal torment. Rather, ‘Hell’ in the universalist definition is essentially purgatory, endured only for so long as people choose to be there. In other words, people may be punished in ‘Hell,’ but it is punishment inflicted with the aim of reforming sinners, and this reformation eventually comes about for everyone. As Talbott says, anything less would imply that either the sinner somehow deserved eternal punishment (which universalists reject as even possible for humans who live finite lives), or that sinners are allowed to keep sinning and thus to keep choosing separation from God in Hell (which also strikes the universalist as rather absurd). The theories that punishment is deserved and that sin does continue in Hell will be addressed shortly, but the universalist’s main objection to a traditional Hell seems to be that it would constitute a logically impossible victory of the human sinner over almighty God; in Talbott’s words, “Why should creating beings with free will (of the standard libertarian kind) include even the possibility of God’s justice (or his love) suffering an eternal defeat?” (Talbott, “Freedom,” p. 432). Or, to put it another way, a God who creates human beings and who, being omniscient, supposedly knows each individual completely should be able to ‘outsmart’ even the most freely resistant souls and bring them into a position to be saved. God should, according to the universalist, be seen as a “grand master in chess who permits a novice to move freely…and still manages to checkmate the novice in the end” (Talbott, “Freedom,” pp. 432-33).
The primary objections to universalism are that it limits free will and/or undermines justice, but both of these objections fail to really harm the argument. As for free will, the idea is supposed to be that if we know that we will all eventually succumb to God, it is no longer really a choice—but this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Firstly, Walters correctly points out that even though “it is logically possible for an individual to refuse grace, it is not necessary that she do so” (Walters, p. 178). True free will must therefore include the possibility that all individuals will freely choose salvation, and, to bring us to the second point, why should they not? If the choice we face has only two options, that of either God (love and salvation) or Hell (the torment of separation from that love and salvation), “it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that it is not the external coercion of God which ultimately wears away our original (and freely chosen) attitudinal obstinancy. It is rather the pain and misery…which we’ve brought on ourselves that erodes our resistance” (Walters, p. 181). Or, in the words of Talbott, “how could anyone, rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent, choose an eternity of horror over an eternity of bliss…?” (Talbott, “Freedom,” p. 429).
The other objection to universalism—that God’s perfect justice will be unsatisfied if the ‘bad’ people are initially punished but are ultimately taken to Heaven and treated just like the ‘good’—holds no more weight than the free will argument. There is, for example, an obvious difficulty in saying that a finite human being could have done something so terrible that it justly deserves infinite punishment (again, the defense of this idea will be given further on). Another problem with this objection is that it can be reasonably met by the universalist’s contention that there will be “a proportionality between the degree of obstinate wickedness and the degree of purgative suffering necessary to enable the sinner to freely choose an attitudinal change”—that is to say, the natural rewards of evil will punish the evildoers until such time as they are persuaded to repent (Walters, p. 183). A further way to meet the objection lies in Talbot’s assertion that God’s justice is not at all opposed to His mercy, for God’s “mercy demands everything his justice demands, and his justice permits everything his mercy permits…‘mercy’ and ‘justice’ are but two different names for God’s one and only moral attribute, namely his love” (Talbott, “Punishment,” p. 153). This seems like a plausible idea, and it is made especially attractive by the unity it attributes to God’s character; rather than being driven sometimes by the need to bring souls to happiness in Heaven and sometimes by the need to punish evildoers so as to afford justice to the victims of evil, God is driven only by love for all souls. As it stands, then, it would seem that despite contradicting the Biblical version of Hell, universalism presents a reasonable picture about what could be expected of a loving God.
Other ideas about re-imagining Hell into something less dire don’t strike me as equally plausible. For instance, an alternative theory dealing with the problem of ‘eternal’ punishment is annihilationism, the view that God will simply erase intractable wrongdoers from existence. This theory looks at Hell as “a metaphorical description of non-being”; it is meant to assure us that God doesn’t punish sinners any longer than justice demands, and perhaps doesn’t punish them at all before annihilating them (Kvanvig, p. 60). However, this still seems nonsensical. In the case that sinners are punished first, we have what is arguably the moral repugnance of punishment that is non-reformative; there may be some who are in favor of this, but it seems to me utterly unnecessary, cruel, and inconsistent with God’s supposedly loving nature. (This is by no means a conclusive objection, but I cannot presently take on a fuller exploration of ideas about justice.) In the case that sinners are not punished but are simply annihilated, we are left with the question of why God would have created such people in the first place; if we answer, say, that they were instrumental in bringing others to God, this still fails to seem satisfactory. Could God’s resourcefulness not have found other ways to bring certain people to belief? Does he not care for the souls used as conversion tools? In any case, can we really just discard entirely the idea that Hell is put to use, seeing as it is such a persistently present concept in Christianity? There may be some way to smooth over all these difficulties, but I do not know it, and on the whole universalism still seems more compatible with the Christian idea of God as a being of perfect love.
The third and final alternative to universalism is the idea that Hell is painful separation from God, but is not really ‘torture’ (or is at the very least bearable), and is thus a rational choice that someone could make. As Yandell argues, it may be possible that a Hell that is “a punishment, known to be a punishment, involves no fellowship with God, is bleak on any sensible standards…might still be the longish end of a life that one could rationally prefer to not existing at all” (Yandell, p. 90). There might simply be some people who are so determined not to come to God that they prefer to spend eternity apart, not facing the horror of oblivion but neither accepting the supposed horror of subordination to a will other than their own. The immediate problem here is an issue that Talbott raised earlier; how could an agent rational enough to be called ‘free’ ever prefer their own misery to the joy of being with a perfectly loving deity? In the short term it is perhaps understandable, and even over years, but across infinity? A loving God would not keep someone in Hell if they freely turned to Him (and would not punish them unless such a turn was still possible), so any change of heart must bring them to God. Wouldn’t this change be bound to happen eventually, as in universalism?
Of the ‘softer’ versions of Hell, universalism thus remains the most likely—but what of the justifications for traditional models of Hell? What of, for instance, the idea that eternal torment in Hell is justified by libertarian free will? In the words of Van Holten, “I am not sure whether God’s love entails that he may not create persons with libertarian free will, all the while knowing they will not be saved. If his infallible foreknowledge is compatible with the creature’s freely choosing damnation, then presumably, God is not to blame for it,” just as God is not to blame for any evil actions a person may have chosen to take during their lifetime (Van Holten, p. 51). As I see it, part of the problem with this criticism (aside from questions about the intelligibility of libertarian free will) is the idea that anyone forced to a decision between God and Hell could ‘freely choose damnation’; if we continue to assume that God is perfectly loving and that Hell is a place of torment, such a choice is in no way rational, and it seems highly doubtful that it could ever be made in full consciousness by a rational agent. And if it is not a rational choice, then is a person’s mere uncertainty about God during their finite lifetime really to be punished with infinite pain? Furthermore, it seems incorrect to compare evil action, allowed on Earth so as to bring about other goods, with the choice not to believe in God, which simply leads to an eternity in Hell. Perpetual, punishment, if it really does go on for infinity, can’t bring about any positive results; it’s whipping a dead horse, so to speak, to know that the person in Hell will never get better but to continue to torture them anyway. It quickly begins to seem cruel and unfair to punish the sins and bad choices of a finite life with the infinite suffering of non-reformative punishment, and again, such cruelty would seem incompatible with a loving God.
What if, though, we move to the second argument contradicting universalism, and expand the libertarian free will argument to say that the sin continues once in Hell; that is, we could say that a sinner retains their free will, continues to choose Hell over God, and thus solve the difficulty of eternal punishment for finite sins. As Seymour puts it, “Any individual human sin, it is true, is finite in seriousness; but an everlasting series of sins is infinite in seriousness and so deserves infinite punishment. By preserving freedom in the afterlife we can suppose it possible that the damned commit such a series of sins” (Seymour, p. 83). However, we again run into problems; for example, we are once more confronted with the absurdity that any could, in full freedom, choose Hell. The universalist Talbott objects that “only someone mired in illusion or deception of some kind would be free, given the standard libertarian analysis, to choose evil…the way in which clarity of vision and knowing the truth compels obedience is very different from the way in which the medieval practice of pressing might compel a plea of guilty or not guilty” (Talbott, “Freedom,” p. 428). I agree that it seems unbelievable that anyone should, for eternity, keep choosing to suffer Hell if they knew the true nature of Hell and God, and likewise incredible that a loving God would leave someone in the dark for eternity so that they could never make the rational choice of happiness with God.
Nevertheless, there persists the idea that some sinners must be in Hell for eternity, and one argument claims that this is because there simply is no possible world in which we are all saved. Craig argues that “it is possible that some persons out of self-will or perversity would freely reject God no matter what the circumstances He placed them in,” and that the complexity inherent in a world actually makes it unsurprising “that there should be no feasible worlds available to God in which all persons are freely saved (unless, perhaps, those worlds are radically deficient in other respects, say, by having only a handful of people in them)” (Craig, p. 308, p. 300). In other words, Craig argues that the world is such a complicated mechanism that the billions of little pieces (that is, souls) can never work together in complete harmony; there will always be some pieces that fall off or become damaged, and likewise there will always be some souls who face damnation. Craig further argues that since the blessed in Heaven will suffer if they know of the suffering in Hell, God will simply shield the blessed from this knowledge; the “tragic fact that every world feasible for God is one involving persons who are lost would not force Him to refrain from creation or to annul creaturely freedom lest the blessedness of the saved be undermined, for it is possible that the reality of lost persons is a fact the pain of which He alone shall endure for eternity” (Craig, p. 308).
This argument for the inevitability of Hell would be fine if we imagined God as a mere supernatural ‘organizer,’ a being who is given billions of fixed personalities and must sort them into certain circumstances so that the greatest number of souls end up in Heaven. However, I find this argument far less reasonable when God is also considered as our creator. After all, God not only makes the conditions, he makes the people, and that means heavily influencing the genetic and psychological factors that will guide each person’s choices. This being the case, I find it difficult to imagine that there is no possible world at all in which all individuals choose God. Craig argues that universalism does not prove the logical necessity of universal salvation, but it is precisely here that he seems to miss the point; after all, universalism just says that there is at least one possible world in which everyone is saved and that this is the world God would have chosen to create. It is, in fact, Craig who fails to prove logical necessity, for he gives no reason to believe that damnation is a logically necessary consequence of free will. And I have further problems with this argument; in what way, for instance, is a world with fewer people ‘deficient,’ if all of these people eventually get the ultimate joy of eternity with God? And how could God be justified in deceiving the blessed about the condition of the damned?
I am thus unimpressed by all the arguments that Hell must be (or even logically could be) a place of infinite suffering, and I maintain the position that universalism is the best available philosophical option. Universalism seems to be not only the idea of Hell most compatible with a loving God, but also seems to make the most intuitive sense. It is also worth pointing out that the vast majority of objections to universalism are grounded in the fact that it disagrees with the Bible; in other words, the objections are not philosophical or rational in nature, but are rather based on scripture. And must a philosopher really take scripture into account?
Well, yes, for in this case it would seem shortsighted to do otherwise. As demonstrated earlier, the philosophical concept of God is at the very least heavily inspired by the Bible, and ultimately rests on Biblical authority for justification. The concept of Hell likewise relies on Biblical authority, but if this is the case, then it seems completely illogical to ask what kind of Hell we could rationally expect from God without checking our conclusion against the Bible itself. And, as also demonstrated earlier, what the Bible says is clear, consistent, and decidedly opposed to the views of the anti-Hell philosopher. As Litke points out, it is flatly contradictory with scripture to accept the “second chance view” (the view that one can escape or be redeemed from Hell), “Universalism,” or “Annihilationism.” What, then, are we to do with the philosophical conclusion of universalism, the Bible’s depiction of Hell, and the idea of a loving God that is held by theist philosophers and by Christians in general?
Faced with the contradiction between the Biblical assertion of an eternal Hell and the logically superior universalist view, our options can be summarized as follows:
1. Finite sin can deserve infinite, non-corrective punishment.
2. God is not perfect, or has standards of morality that differ from ours: the Bible is wrong in saying that God is morally perfect, or we are wrong in thinking that our ideas of morality accord with God’s.
3. Hell does not exist (or is never used), and the Bible is misleading about Hell.
4. Hell does not exist (or is never used), and the Bible itself is simply wrong and unreliable.
The first option has no arguments in its favor that I find convincing, and is irreconcilable with any God deserving of worship and love. The second option simply states that God isn’t deserving of worship and love, so Hell could exist as a place of torment, but then any individual worshipper would be morally culpable in praising a God capable of such “divine evil” (Lewis, p. 480). This does not seem to solve anything, for it is completely incompatible with everything the Christian asserts about a perfect God and especially contradicts the common theist belief that God is morally perfect. The third option could be a way out for the Christian, but it also seems ridiculously arbitrary; why trust the Bible about so many aspects of faith, but not Hell? One could claim that Hell-talk is some sort of metaphor, but aside from the fact that Hell is talked about in a consistent and blisteringly straightforward manner, it is also insisted on repeatedly by Christ himself (as in Mark 9:47-48). What reason could there be, then, to reject traditional notions of Hell without also rejecting the authority of Christ? It would thus seem that we are left with nothing but the fourth option; as the existence of both a loving, perfect God and a Hell of eternal punishment are incompatible, the Bible that says that both of these things exist should be concluded to be wrong. Of course, both God and Hell being such vital components of Christianity, and the Bible being its primary voice of authority, the foundations of the religion itself become very dubious at this point.
Again, I am inclined to accept universalism as the only outcome that a perfect, just, and loving God would find acceptable. However, I also agree with Lewis when he says that universalism is essentially “a fantasy”; it is divorced from all characteristics of Hell as given in the Bible, and without taking scripture at its word, what is the basis for any talk about Hell at all (Lewis, p. 481)? And for that matter, if there is no way to logically salvage an important Christian tenet like Hell without ignoring everything that Christians appear obliged to believe about Hell, then doesn’t the depth of the contradiction make rejection of the Christian Bible seem a more rational route? What’s more, as Lewis points out, theists may even be guilty of wrongdoing if they do not make such a rejection; modern Christians often “dodge the consequence [of Hell] by keeping it all in soft focus,” but if one worships and loves a God who creates the Biblical Hell, a place with “billions of damned souls writhing in eternal agony,” what does that say about one’s morality (Lewis, p. 480)? For Christians who wish to be rational in their theism, it would thus seem that the problem of Hell calls for a hard second look at belief.
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Erin McDonnell (’13) is a Philosophy and Studio-Art Double-Major at Cornell University