The Problem With Hell

Hell is potentially a hot topic, and I approach it with some fear & trepidation. Yet it is an incredibly important topic, as, in it’s typically accepted form, Christians anticipate that many (possibly the majority) of people who have ever lived will spend eternity suffering there. Surely the expected permanent destination for so many people is worthy of careful consideration.

Most Christians seem to believe in a ‘typical’ concept of hell, although they often haven’t thought through the details or faced some of the difficulties with their view. Hell is part of the ‘package’ of Christianity that they have accepted, but it remains on the periphery & the details haven’t been clarified in their minds. Typically, they are happy they have been ‘saved’ and hence have escaped from the clutches of hell, and they would like to help others escape from it also.

The typical or traditional Christian view of hell is that it is a place of permanent conscious punishment for those who haven’t been saved while alive on earth. It typically relies on four theses:
Punishment – the purpose of hell is to punish those whose earthly lives warrant it
No Escape – those people consigned to hell cannot escape from it
Anti-Universalism – not all people will be saved – some (or many) people will be consigned to hell
Eternal Existence – hell is a place of unending conscious existence

This typical concept of hell, or minor modifications of it, are the primary doctrine of hell found throughout the history of Christianity. It has been, and remains, a prominent aspect of the gospel that is presented by Christianity – the ‘good news’ is often presented as the good news of how all people face an eternity of suffering in hell, but, by the grace of God, have the opportunity to be ‘saved’ from hell and spend eternity with God in heaven.

However, there are problems with this traditional doctrine of hell (permanent, inescapable, conscious punishment) that need to be faced, and questions that deserve to be answered.

1. Is Hell Compatible with the Nature of God? – Permanent, conscious, inescapable suffering in hell seems incompatible with those aspects of God that we value – particularly that he is all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful & full of grace.

2. God Desires to Save Everyone – It is apparent in the Bible that God’s desire (or hope or purpose) is to save everyone (2 Pet 3:9), or at least as many as possible. However, we should ask the question “According to an evangelical (or other) understanding of salvation, what proportion of all the people that have ever lived in the world (currently estimated at 106 billion) have been ‘saved’ and do we expect will be in heaven?” Estimates of this might vary, but I anticipate that they will typically be somewhere between 5% & 20% ‘saved’. Hence, with the traditional view of hell, we should expect 80-95% of people (about 80-95 billion) to be suffering permanently in hell. With this perspective, it could be argued that God, who desires to save as many as possible, doesn’t appear to have been very successful. Even if everyone alive today gets ‘saved’, the overall proportions in heaven & hell won’t change much. (Yes – the myth that “there more people alive today than have ever lived” is wrong)

3. Having a Party While Our Loved One’s Suffer – Author Brian McLaren paints a picture of the traditional afterlife view – where christians will be having a party with Jesus upstairs (heaven), while in the basement (hell) the un-saved (including many of our loved ones) will be suffering horribly with no hope of escape. This makes it hard for those upstairs to enjoy the party (knowing their loved ones are suffering). This version of the “Good News” actually looks quite bad. Also I hope the Jesus we follow would go downstairs to do something to help those he loves but are suffering … I might even go with him if I could give any assistance.

4. Will They Know? Will those in heaven know of those suffering in hell? If so, then this seems to reduces the blessedness of heaven – how can we enjoy heaven knowing that those we loved (& would have given our lives for while on earth) are continually suffering? If those in heaven don’t know of the suffering, how will this occur? Will it be through faded or lost memories of our loved ones? This seems to be a sad alternative – that we might live our lives sacrificially for loved ones while on earth, and then forget them when we are in heaven.

5. Hell is Inconsistent with God’s Salvation Efforts to Date – God showed total love for all individuals by sending Jesus to live & die for them. As evangelists say “Even if you were the only person in the world, Jesus loves you so much he would have died for you”. Yet with this view, when we die the salvation efforts of God suddenly change from total effort, to no effort (& no chance of rescue). It seems inconsistent that God’s love and salvation efforts apparently change so much so quickly.

6. The Scriptures Aren’t Clear – There is scriptural ambiguity regarding the afterlife – the case for the traditional view of hell is not so clear. Supporters of divergent & contradictory views all find scriptural support for their alternative beliefs.

7. What is the Purpose of Hell? – There are three common views of the purpose God has for hell – remedial, retributive punishment and issuant.
The remedial view, where God uses hell to remedy and restore individuals, doesn’t fit with the traditional view of hell, as presumably for a remedy to be effective there must be some end or escape.
The traditional views of hell are unclear or inconsistent regarding which of the alternative views they are supporting – retributive punishment or issuant.
The retributive view holds that the primary purpose of hell is to serve as a place of punishment for the unrepentant – the punishment in hell is in proportion to the scale of the crime – sin against God is sin against the most holy being and hence deserves the utmost punishment, eternal punishment. However, this raises the question of the morality of eternal punishment for sin that occurred in a temporal period – is it just to punish individuals eternally for sin that they committed in only a few short years of life?
The issuant view is that hell ‘issues’ from God’s love for His creatures – God has provided hell as a place for those persons who do not wish to be in communion with Him. God does not want to coerce individuals, and so offers them an alternative, the provision made being another manifestation of the good of exercising free will in response to God’s loving initiatives in the world.
For one to hold to a traditional view of hell, it seems necessary to understand clearly what the purpose of hell is – yet this clarity is elusive.

8. Does God’s Love Change So Quickly? – The traditional view of hell sets death as the cut-off time. Thomas Allin, author of Christ Triumphant (1890), recounts a true story ‘In a certain quarter of London, one of the many evangelists had gone forth to preach to the people. When he had concluded an eloquent address, he was thus accosted by one of his hearers: “Sir,” said the man, “may I ask you one or two questions?” “Surely,” said the preacher. “You have told us that God’s love for us is very great and very strong.” “Yes.” “And that He sent His Son to save us, and I may be saved this moment, if I will.” “Yes.” “But, if I go away without an immediate acceptance of this offer, and if, a few minutes after I were to be killed on my way home, I should find myself in hell for ever and ever.” “Yes.” “Then,” said the man, “if so, I don’t want to have anything to do with a being whose love for me can change so completely in five minutes.’ (from Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin)

9. The Problem of Religious Luck – there is a philosophical problem with ‘religious luck’ ie the extent to which an individual is a fit candidate for either damnation or salvation goes beyond the individual’s control. Whether one responds appropriately to grace will depend upon the shape of one’s character and the shape of one’s character will depend upon circumstances that are outside of one’s control. This creates a ‘problem’ as it is inherently unfair.

10. Divine Conservation is the view that individuals only remain alive through God actively sustaining their existence. Hence, without God’s activity or support, people would perish or cease to exist. If this is true, it raises moral issues about eternal punishment in hell – what sort of god would actively keep people alive so he can punish them for eternity with no hope of redemption? This god seems quite different from the benevolent loving christian god.

11. Unbalanced Contrast. We traditionally associate heaven with grace, mercy & love, and hell with justice & punishment. However, these aren’t accurate opposites – they are an unbalanced contrast.
It seems more appropriate to contrast justice with punishment (ie heaven = justice, hell = punishment), yet we believe that none will enter heaven because they justly deserve it on their own merit. Hence heaven does not equate to justice, as we don’t deserve it.
Another apparently appropriate contrast is grace, mercy & love contrasted with absence of these attributes. Yet this is also problematic, as hell does not easily equate to an absence of grace, mercy & love – how can God cease to be grace-giving, merciful & loving?

12. A Less-Than-Human Standard of Love. The traditional view of hell makes God’s love less than the expected standard for humans on earth. Great love is laying down your life for a friend (Jn 15:13). Parents are expected to lay down their lives for their children. Parents are expected to forgive, and keep forgiving & being reconciled to their children. When does it stop? The best form of parental love is expected to endure while there is life – we hope for & expect parents, at the end of their lives, still being reconciled to their children. Yet the traditional view of hell implies that god’s love & the potential reconciliation for individuals ends – that there comes a time (death) where god effectively says “That’s it – you no longer have any chance of being forgiven”. This seems less than the best human standard of love.

13. The Good News Doesn’t Look So Good – Overall, when these issues are considered, the traditional view of hell paints a picture of God, salvation & punishment that doesn’t seem like ‘good news’. Belief in eternal punishment seems a serious detriment to the entire message of salvation – it turns the “Good News” into bad news. Even when people turn to Jesus, it may not be as much to embrace His loving gift as to avoid what they believe is the only other alternative. This significantly affects the way many view the Almighty God and causes countless others to doubt the reliability of the Gospel.

Faced with these problems and questions, some other questions arise –
– Has eternal suffering in hell been the only view in historical Christianity? Or have there been strands of other views that have run through history, but have been obscured by the dominant view?
– How much has the traditional view been influenced by pagan traditions[1], teutonic mythology (In Norse mythology, Hel is the name of the Norse underworld & its ruler[2]), Tertullian (200AD), Dante (a 13th Century Italian poet)
– Are their any scripturally-valid alternatives? If so, what are they? What problems do they solve? What new problems do they raise?
– How do we resolve these questions and issues? Do we need to re-read the scriptures with fresh eyes – with as few presuppositions as possible? If there is apparent conflict between our understanding of the nature & character of God and our interpretation of some scriptures, do we resolve it, or do we leave it unanswered or in tension? Do we adjust our view of God to conform to our interpretation of some scriptures? Or do we seek to interpret those scriptures in the light of our understanding of God?
– Do we dare consider & talk about these issues? If so, how do we do so wisely and safely?

As the dominant view of hell has been dominant in Christian tradition for many hundreds of years, and has been advocated by many of our traditional theological heroes, if one is to review this doctrine, it seems wise to do so carefully and prayerfully. However, in my view, the traditional doctrine of hell raises so many questions and problems, it is essential that it be reconsidered.