The Problem of Hell

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.

CS Lewis – The Great Divorce.

Hell, a very awkward Christian doctrine as far as reconciling a good God with an act of God goes—a place where people are either poked with pitchforks or boiled in some sort of an everlasting fire for all eternity makes God seem outright malevolent, and those who believe he does so, sadistic. As a result of the awkwardness of this doctrine it has become popular to modify it. Oftentimes, the attitude Christians show toward hell says less about the God we trust and more about our fallen love for revenge and settling scores. Sometimes Christians smirk as they say, “He has got his comeuppance!” How we see hell not only shows how we see people, but also how we understand God to see them as well. No wonder many have taken to modify this doctrine; according to annihilationists they are strengthening their defence of a gospel that already has enough offence to it, and are protecting the nature of the God they love. We already come across as believing in a misogynistic, homophobic, sexually repressive and vengeful God, so why put more vegetables on our plates and preach an everlasting torment for those who do not follow God’s rules here on earth? Not that annihilationists believe their beliefs on the matter change the reality. They have sincerely taken to reexamining a long held idea of hell in light of both moral reasoning and the Bible. How should hell be viewed from a biblical standpoint?

What Is Annihilationism?

According to Norman Geisler, in The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics:

Annihilationism is the doctrine that the souls of the wicked will be snuffed out of existence rather than be sent to an everlasting, conscious hell. The existence of the unrepentant will be extinguished, while the righteous will enter into everlasting bliss.

This definition which Geisler proffers seems to be somewhat of a caricature. It should not be understood as a snuffing out. According to Randal Rauser it is that at the resurrection, in John 5, those who are not saved will receive a resurrection of death, as opposed to one of life.

Randal Rauser, in “What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven?” asks how one can be in heaven and remain in eternal bliss knowing there are souls, not just of total strangers, but also those who were our family and friends, writhing in eternal agony. Or better yet, how do we as Christians today continue procreating, given the background knowledge of hell (in the fire and brimstone sense), knowing there is a chance our children could be eternally damned, while working hard to protect them from temporary dangers on earth? Would we not be better off refraining from having children and evangelizing to those unfortunate enough to be born into this world?

Rauser frames the problem, thus:

In heaven the redeemed will be both maximally happy and loving, yet maximally aware of the conscious torment in hell.

There seems to be a tension between maximal happiness and love in heaven, while being aware of the eternal torment going on down the road in hell, all while worshipping the God who sends people there. Are we psychopaths? Is our redeemer a psychopath?

Rauser notes several verses in both Old and New Testaments (Revelation in particular) which conjure up imagery of both the saints and God in some sort of heavenly Guantanamo Bay spectacle, taking delight in the eternal suffering of both the lost sheep and the demons. This raises the question, “does God hate even the devil?” William Lane Craig suggests, in a question he was asked regarding this question, that Satan is evil by nature—-in that he is engaged in active rebellion against God, but not that he is metaphysically evil. He responds to he questioner, thus:

…I feel no awkwardness whatever in affirming that God most certainly does love Satan. Indeed, what I should find awkward would be affirming that He does not! God is a perfectly loving being, whose love is not based on a person’s performance. Satan is a person, indeed, on the traditional conception an angelic person of unparalleled beauty and perfection among creatures. How could God not love him? The fact that that person is now fallen and unspeakably evil does not imply that God ceases to love him, any more than He ceased to love us when we fell and became enemies of God (Romans 5.10).

Rauser notes a concept known in German as Schadenfreude, which is: what we all enjoy when a tormentor gets their comeuppance. This is why we look forward to Negan getting his just deserts in the Walking Dead. He notes there are ethicists who have deemed it to be utterly immoral that we should delight in this sort of retribution. Does not Proverbs 24:17 tell us not to gloat when our enemies fall?

RESPONSE

That we should not delight when the worst of people go to hell does not preclude God from sending them there. While we should not be smug and happy when we see a motorist pulled over getting a ticket, because just as our attention drifts away from our driving we may, ourselves, find ourselves in a similar situation also getting pulled over. But we do, undeniably, live in a cause and effect world, with effects which are logical consequences of actions and many are corrective of our behaviour, so for that we should be grateful. While it would make little sense to gloat over someone about to be executed by the state for murder, especially given that they are paying the ultimate price for their crime, one should be soberly reminded how close we have all come to being in a similar situation.

For us to be happy about those suffering in hell would be a failure to recognize how we too could have been hell bound, or on the other end of justice ourselves. Colossians 1:21 says we too were once alienated from God. Perhaps God, the perfect measure of justice, could be just in deriving some sort of holy pleasure from justice being enacted in hell, we as potential recipients of hell should not be.

Rauser describes himself as a hopeful universalist, which is that we should all at least hope all will be saved even if not all will be saved. I would tend to agree with him on this view. However, is even hoping universalism to be true Biblically? Should a Christian hope in their heart that there will be no justice brought about and that God will arbitrarily right all wrongs? Would then the heaven we all inherit be a counterfeit heaven, one in which there is no ultimate justice or reward for those who followed Jesus? I would adopt the view of hopeful universalism that says one should hope all become saved, even though not all will. One might call the Apostle Paul a hopeful universalist when he says in Romans 9:3,

For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

One might say God is a hopeful universalist, as it was Him who provided the means for a universal salvation, in that whosoever believes in Him would be saved, although not all will. John 3:16.

The Case for Annihilationism

Now, what about those who do not believe? How does scripture respond to this?

Support from Scripture.

Annihilationists point to the Bible references to the fate of the wicked as “the second death” (Rev. 20:14) in support of their view. Since a person loses consciousness of this world at the first death (physical death), it is argued that the “second death” will involve unconsciousness in the world to come.

Jesus said of Judas that “It would be better for him if he had not been born” ( Mark 14:21 ). Before one is conceived they do not exist. Thus, for hell to be like the prebirth condition it must be a state of nonexistence.

Repeatedly, the Old Testament speaks of the wicked perishing. The psalmist wrote: “But the wicked will perish: The LORD ’s enemies will be like the beauty of the fields, they will vanish—vanish like smoke” ( Ps. 37:20 ; cf. 68:2 ; 112:10 ). But to perish implies a state of nothingness.

Scriptural Counter Arguments

Separation, Not Extinction. The first death is simply the separation of the soul from the body (James 2:26), not the annihilation of the soul. Scripture presents death as conscious separation. Adam and Eve died spiritually the moment they sinned, yet they still existed and could hear God’s voice (Gen. 3:10). Before one is saved, he is “dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), and yet he still carries God’s image (Gen. 1:27 ; cf. Gen. 9:6 ; James 3:9 ). Though unable to come to Christ without the intervention of God, the “spiritually dead” are sufficiently aware that Scripture holds them accountable to believe (Acts 16:31 ), and repent (Acts 17:30). Continued awareness, but with separation from God and the inability to save oneself—these constitute Scripture’s vision of the second death.

Not Nonexistence. “Everlasting” destruction would not be annihilation, (2 Thessalonians 1:9) which is instantaneous and over. Everlasting destruction requires an everlasting existence.

Is Hell Scriptural?

Hell would certainly be a problem for Christianity if it were a central, stand alone, feature of Christianity and theologians like Rauser do not deny the existence of hell, but offer disagreement with regards to its nature. But the Bible seems committed to the eternal and conscious torment of unbelievers in hell. What seems to illustrate this is the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31, that the rich man was fully aware of his suffering.

That hell is portrayed as an eternal fire only seems to illustrate the harsher reality of eternal separation from God. If one is to understand heaven as being the presence of God (2 Corinthians 5;8; Luke 23:43; Revelation 21:23), then the antithesis of heaven would be hell. Jesus says in Matthew 5:45 that God causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the wicked and the righteous alike, so we see here on earth we all experience both closeness to and distance from God in varying degrees, while in heaven or hell this closeness/distance will be fully realized.

Is Hell Logical?

Douglas Groothuis notes, in Christian Apologetics, that hell is inseparable from three other interrelated Biblical truths: human sin, God’s holiness, and the cross of Christ.

Speaking of the cross, hell would be an unjust punishment if God were actively damning humanity while providing no provision for escape.

Speaking of sin and the holiness of God, one must understand that God is a maximally great being and man owes God an infinite debt, thus the atonement. In hell, sin is quarantined from the presence of God as portrayed in Adam and Eve’s banishment from the garden. (Genesis 3:24) Sin alienates us from God. God, being obliged to His nature cannot give the nod to sin and it to stand eternally in His presence. God is bound to nothing outside of His own nature and to allow sin to go unpunished would be for God to set His nature aside and to cease being both maximally great and necessary.

In conclusion, hell is not a doctrine to be ignored or marginalized, nor is it to be so heavily emphasized that we miss out that God is seeking to reconcile us to Himself by means of the cross, hell being a logical consequence of separation from God. Rather than arbitrarily erasing those who reject Him out of existence, hell seems more of a place where God sustains the existence of those who willfully reject Him. Understanding the nature of hell shows us the nature of God and His attitude toward sin, to unnecessarily modify it has implications in how we understand these important matters.

While Rauser invites us to imagine our own sons and daughters potentially being in hell, undergoing eternal and unimaginable psychological torment, this seems to be an appeal to emotion rather than objective logic and is to place emphasis on only one attribute of God while ignoring others. Plus, our personal feelings on the matter do not change the state of affairs either way. One should not be so emphatic about the compassion of God that His other attributes, such as justice, are eclipsed. However, Rauser, and theologians like him, are correct that a compassionate view of God’s justice is needed in evangelism, we do, after all, believe in a God who desires none should perish, nor does he take pleasure in anyone’s destruction. (2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11)

I do not consider annihilationism to be unorthodox, insofar as it does not deny the exclusivity of the gospel claims, whereas any claim which affirms all road are the same would be more difficult to reconcile with the Bible and what Jesus says about Himself, being the truth and the light. I find difficulty with this notion, but after some study on the matter I cannot consider it to be as open and shut as I once did. Ideas like this require intellectual humility rather than dogmatism.

Links:

William Lane Craig question: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/does-god-love-the-devil

Randal Rauser’s blog post on hell: https://randalrauser.com/2018/03/depersonalizing-the-damned-hell-and-the-humanity-of-those-who-go-there/

Sources Used:

Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics: Geisler, Norman.

Christian Apologetics: Groothuis, Douglas.

Counterpoints, Four Views on Hell.

What on Earth do we Know About Heaven?: Rauser, Randal.

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