Hell Part 3 – Defending the Doctrine of Hell

Can we prove that hell exists?  While arguments from human authority are the weakest of all arguments, arguments from divine authority, which can neither deceive or be deceived, are the strongest. The Bible assures us that there is a hell. If the Bible is God’s Word, then to disbelieve in hell is to disbelieve in God. To call the message a lie is to call the author a liar. The usual way out of this argument is to interpret the Bible, or rather, those parts of it that you do not want to believe – nonliterally.

Defending the Doctrine of Hell- Thirteen Objections Answered

In this blog I will post 7 of these 13 objections. I will post the remaining 6 in my next blog.

Objection 1:
Most obviously, hell seems contrary to the love of God. How could a God of total love make or even tolerate such a torture chamber? The stark contrast between the character of God taught and exemplified by Jesus (love, kindness,mercy and forgiveness) and the character of a God who presides over a creation that includes a hell is too obvious for argument. Only by not thinking these two ideas at the same time could anyone believe both of them.

Reply A: Of course hell is contrary to the love of God. That is its very essence. But hell’s existence does not refute God’s existence. For love wants the beloved to be free, like Itself. Love created freedom, love appeals to freedom, love respects freedom. It is this very freedom that chooses hell.

Reply B: True, God is perfect mercy and forgiveness.  But lets be clear about what that means. Forgiveness appeals to freedom; it must be freely given and freely accepted, like any gift. If we do not repent and ask for God’s forgiveness, we do not receive it, not because God holds it back but because we ourselves freely hold it back.

Reply C: God’s love is also truthful. Love is not blind; love is accurate. God is love, and love is not blind but accurate. God’s love is not a subjective feeling but utterly realistic.  In fact, it is reality itself. In a sense there is nothing else. The room you are sitting in right now is God’s love in the form and limits of a room, and you are God’s love in the form of a created image of God. Thus, all who refuse that love refuse reality itself, and there is no alternative to reality except “outer darkness”.

Reply D: The souls in hell hate this love, and it in someway tortures them, but it is unavoidable. God cannot stop loving anymore than the suns light can stop shinning or water can cease to be wet. It’s His nature. Imagine a person who commits suicide seeking death, not life, being horrified when he finds that, after he has died, his soul is immortal and he can never die; he can never escape himself. God and himself are the only two realities he can never escape. This state is hated by him, and become misery to him rather than loved and become joy, then he finds himself in a state of inescapable misery. Let me state for the record that I don’t believe all suicides are damned. (I believe many suicides are not wholly sane or fully responsible people and therefore not all souls who commit suicide are damned. Only God can see and grant whatever deep desire lies in their hearts, hidden from us but not from God.)

Objection 2:
Hell seems contrary to justice as well as love. Many say the punishment does not fit the crime here, either in quantity or quality. What is the relation or proportion between hell’s unthinkable, infinite, eternal misery and earths thinkable,finite, temporal sins? The same sort of relationship as fifty years of torture to a three year old theft of a cookie. How can finite sin justly merit infinite punishment? How can temporal sin merit eternal punishment?

Reply: There are three charges here: (a) temporal crimes do not merit eternal punishments, (b) finite crimes do not merit infinite punishments, and (c) mild crimes do not merit such intense punishments.

a. Eternity is not quantitative. It is not more time, or even endless time. It is another dimension than time, just as time is another dimension than space.  Whatever we make of ourselves in time is destined to be “fleshed out” into the dimension of eternity. To use a crude image, if we make squares of ourselves in time, we are cubes in eternity; temporally blueprinted triangles go to the sculpture to become eternal pyramids. The relation between earthly choices and eternal rewards or punishments is not like the relationship between crimes and prison sentences but like the relationship between a foundation and a building. It is not external but internal. In a sense, heaven or hell is the same thing as earth; the same life, the same person, only with another dimension, somewhat as life after birth is the same life, the same person, but with more dimensions. Souls in the dimension of time are like boats on a river, all destined for the ocean of eternity. It is a structural internal necessity, not an imposed reward or punishment. A totally free choice.

b. Hell’s punishments are eternal but not infinite. Only God is infinite. Souls, sin and punishment are all finite. Just as one saint is more saintly, more great hearted, more loving and therefore more able to contain God’s joy in heaven than another, and in this sense is naturally “higher” in heaven than another, so one sinner is “lower” in hell than another (more deep-set in despair and pride and hate). There are limits.

c. The intense images of physical torture are meant to suggest something beyond themselves: the privation of God, source of all joy and meaning. The unimaginable thing suggested by the imaginative images of fire is more awful, not less, than the literal misinterpretation of the images. Physical pain comes in degrees of intensity; the privation of God is total. Hell’s punishment fits sin’s crime because sin is divorce from God. The punishment fits the crime because the punishment is the crime. Saying no to God means no God. The point and concept is really simple. Those who object to hell’s over-severity do not see or truly understand what sin really is. They look at sin externally, sociologically, legalistically, as “behaving badly”. They fail to see the real horror of sin and the real greatness and goodness and joy of the God who is refused in every sin. We fail to appreciate or understand this because we fail to totally understand the Holiness of God. Who among us fully appreciates or even understands the beauty and Holiness of God? The corollary immediately follows: Who among us fully appreciates sin’s ugly horror?

Objection 3:
Hell seems to contradict not only God’s love and His justice but also His power. The God who created the whole universe out of nothing is omnipotent, all powerful. If His power has no limit, why does He not destroy hell or arrange for no one to go there? The argument can be put in the form of a dilemma. Does God will everyone to be saved or not? If not, He is not all loving. If so, and all are not saved, then His will is thwarted and He is not all-powerful. If God is all-good and all-powerful, He must have created the best of all possible worlds, for to prefer a worse world to a better one is not to be all-good. But a world in which no one goes to hell, or a world in which there is no hell, is a better world in which some go to hell. Therefore, if there is a hell, God deliberately created a bad world, and He is not all-good. Or else He tried to create a wholly good world, one without hell, but failed. In this case, He is not all-powerful. If God is both all good and all-powerful, there cannot be a hell. A world without a hell seems to be a conceivable and possible world, even granted free will. For all God would have to do is foresee the person about to be conceived was going to hell or to heaven, and if to hell, God would arrange, whether by natural providence or supernatural miracle, for that person not to be conceived. Omnipotence could surely do that.

Reply: To reconcile God’s omnipotence with hell, we must first be sure we have a true concept of omnipotence. Omnipotence is limited to nothing outside itself, but God’s power does not extend to contradicting His own essential nature. God is consistent. The logical laws of  consistency (identity and non contradiction) are reflections of the very nature of God. God cannot do meaningless and self-contradictory things. One such intrinsically impossible, self-contradictory and meaningless thing would be to have a world with free creatures and no possibility of hell.  There are three ways one might think God could do this: destroy hell, annihilate the souls in hell or arrange for no hell-bound persons to be conceived. To destroy hell means to destroy free choice by destroying one of its two options. If there is no hell, no separation from God, then all must choose God, and this eliminates free will and free choice. To annihilate the souls in hell would be to destroy something God created to be intrinsically and essentially immortal and indestructible, this would be a contradiction of God’s nature. To arrange for only heaven bound souls to be conceived would be in effect to destroy free will again: to destroy the free choice of evil before it happens rather than after.

The objection claims that a world with no hell is possible and asks why God did not create it. The answer is He did create a world without hell! God did not create separation from Him. God did not create hell. I repeat, God did not create hell. We did! God is not the author of nor did He create separation from himself. God created a perfect world, but in creating human beings (and angels) with free will, he left it up to us whether this actual world, the one without hell, would continue to be, or whether another possible world, one with hell, would begin to be.

Of course this is not “the best of all possible worlds” or even a world as good as it might be. But that is not God’s fault, it’s ours. What the real objection comes down to is resentment at God for creating free will at all.

So what is the answer to the dilemma about God’s will? Is it thwarted or not? It is. God clearly wills all to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). But this is not a contradiction to His omnipotence; it is the greatest mark of His omnipotence, that He can create free children, not mere robots or holograms.

It is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means defeat of omnipotence. So Satan would say. But in creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such so called defeat. What some call defeat, I call a miracle; for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by Its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all feats we can attribute to God.

If the objector replies that that is not what he means by omnipotence, I reply that that is what God means by omnipotence! The objector’s model of omnipotence is that of a divine puppeteer, a robot maker or tyrant rather than a Loving Divine Father.

Objection 4:
Hell also seems contrary to human freedom, for no one would freely choose hell over heaven if given a free and open choice. Thus, hell would have to be imposed on us, since no one loves punishment, pain or privation of joy, which is what hell is. Hell would render religious and moral choice unfree, just as the threat of torture renders a forced confession unfree. “Repent” believe and be good, or you’ll fry” means that your repentance, belief and goodness are forced, not free. Fry and free are opposites.

Reply: Distinguished, as Augustine does, the freedom of liberty from the freedom of choice (libertas versus liberum arbitrium). Hell is contrary to liberty but not to free choice. Free choice is a means to the end of higher freedom, liberty from sin. Those who fail to attain heaven’s liberty reached their eternal destination by the same means as those who attained that liberty: by their free will.

We do, and therefore can, freely choose hell over heaven. We do this in principle in every sin. We do not want to explicitly choose sin’s “wages”, sin’s inevitable punishment – banishment from paradise of God’s presence – but we do choose the sin and hope to somehow escape the punishment.

Does the fear of hell remove free choice? Does “fry” contradict “free”? No more than the fear of falling of a cliff removes the free choice to skate close to the edge or to avoid it. If the threat “repent your you’ll fry” removed free will, then all would repent. But this is not so; the threat is issued, but some respond and some do not. So in fact the threat does not remove free choice.

Objection 5:
Even if hell is not contrary to human freedom, it seems contrary to human sanity. For only someone insane would choose hell over heaven. But insanity is a good excuse. We do not punish criminals if we find them insane. Is God less just or merciful than we? What an incredible insult it is to humanity to imply that all who do not believe and are saved are insane!

Reply: I do not know how anyone could freely prefer hell to heaven, misery to joy, but it happens. It happens in ever sin. In a way, we are spiritually insane. That is what the doctrine of original sin implies.

We know this from our own experience. Think of all the times you turn to God in love and obedience, and find peace and joy. Then think of all the times you have turned away from God in sin, and find no peace and joy. Most of you have seen the bumper sticker “No Jesus No Peace, Know Jesus Know Peace”. We know by millions of repeated experiences and experiments, all yielding the same results: “the wages of sin is death”, the death of joy, and yet man continues to sin. We are insane. Only the insane prefer misery to joy.

If sin does indeed exist, then hell does indeed exist; for hell is sin eternalized. Hell is not so much an external punishment added to sin, it is sin come to full fruition. Similarly, heaven is not an external reward added to faith and love, it is the very state of the soul made perfect, the fullness of life itself.

Sin does not just mean disobeying a law. That is only its formula. Sin means separating yourself from God, knowing God’s will and yet “noing” it instead of yesing it. That is also the essence of hell.

But if we are insane isn’t that an excuse? If it comes to me against my will, yes; but if I freely choose it, no. In sinning, I choose to go insane, freely. If someone else force fed me drugs, I am not responsible for the crimes I commit under their influence; But if I freely choose to take them, I am fully responsible. Sin is the ultimate destructive drug.

Hell seems contrary to the morality of Jesus. The famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell argued, in “Why I Am Not a Christian”, that any teacher who believed and taught such a doctrine of hell could not be a truly moral and loving teacher. He though the God of Christianity to be a cosmic hypocrite, preaching forgiveness but practicing vengeance, preaching kindness and simultaneously practicing cruelty, preaching love but practicing torture. We can distinguish four elements of this criticism of hell as immoral: (a) vengeance, (b) cruelty, (c) mercilessness and (d) retributive punishment itself. Didn’t the ethic of Jesus substitute nonjudgemental forgiveness for retributive punishment? How can the morality we are supposed to practice be higher than its divine source?

Reply: What the critic means by “the morality of Jesus” is quite different from the actual morality of the real Jesus, the only Jesus we have any objective evidence for, that is, the Jesus of the New Testament. That Jesus taught both mercy and justice, heaven and hell.

To say that anyone who teaches and warns about hell is immoral is like saying any father who warns his children not to play with fire is immoral. It’s just plain silly.

The cause of hell is not divine vengeance or cruelty or mercilessness. The cause of hell is our free choice to refuse God’s forgiveness and kindness and mercy.

Jesus did not substitute mercy for justice. He told many parables about justice and judgement and mercy. We are told to “judge not”, not because God does not judge, but because He does. God alone is the only one who can judge hearts and our true intensions. We shouldn’t try because no matter how hard we try we can’t. We can judge only deeds and actions but we can never judge the person as to why they committed such deeds and actions.

In this objection the critic seems to be confusing forgiving with condoning. Condoning sin means pretending it isn’t a sin, pretending that “there’s nothing to forgive.” when there is. God is not ignorant or dishonest. Omniscience cannot hide its head in the sand like an ostrich; it must and does deal with sin, and deal justly. God’s mercy does not destroy His justice; both are elements of HIs goodness, and both are inescapable. But His mercy separates our sins from us and gives our sins their just punishment in Christ, not in us. God himself paid our debt. We go free, but the debt must be paid for God’s justice requires it. Justice cannot be ignored.

Objection 7:
The effect of believing in hell is the opposite of what the god of the Bible wants from us. God wants faith, hope and love. But if we believe in hell, we naturally feel fear, despair and hatred.

Reply: Sometimes belief in hell has produced these terrible effects, but that is due to bad teachings. The doctrine has been abused and manipulated at times for the sake of control. But the abuse does not annul the proper use.

When the doctrine of hell is abused, that abuse serves the very purposes of hell (fear, despair and hatred) instead of the purposes of heaven (faith, hope and love).

With that said, fear is sometimes good and necessary. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 1:7), though it is not the end. Love is. George MacDonald once said, “When there are wild beasts about, it is better to feel fear than secure.” Fear is reasonable and useful even in little things; what is more reasonably feared than hell, if it does indeed exist? The critic is presupposing that it doesn’t exist, not proving that it doesn’t. A person cannot say that the reason hell does not exist is that it is bad to fear it, and also the reason that it is bad to fear it is that it doesn’t exist. That way of thinking is begging the question and arguing in a circle.

Belief in hell does not, I repeat does not produce despair and hatred; hell itself produces despair and hate. If you believe that there are two roads ahead, one which leads home and one which leads over a cliff, you do not despair, especially if the two roads are clearly marked by signs, as are the roads to heaven and hell. Only after the wrong choice is made and you have fallen over the cliff does despair set in. In the poem Dante’s Inferno there is a sign over the gates of hell that reads “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”

Belief in hell should not produce hatred of God, for God is not the author of hell or sin. We are. But God is the author of love mercy and salvation.

Objection 8:
To be continued in my next blog.

God bless,
Gary Downey

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