|By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2001|
|Actually, a denial of hell is an indication of human depravity Edwards draws attention to our inconsistency. We are all aware of the heinous nature of wars and acts against humanity.|
(from Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Book House, 1999)
Objections about Hell
Unbelievers have offered many objections to the doctrine of hell (see Lewis, Problem of Pain, chap. 8).
Hell Is Annihilation. The Bible dearly affirms that there is conscious suffering in hell, such as will cause “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12). Annihilated persons are not conscious of any suffering. The beast and false prophet in hell will be conscious after a thousand years of suffering (Rev. 19:20; 20:10).
Annihilation would not be a punishment but a release from all punishment. Job appeared to prefer annihilation to suffering (Job 3), but God did not grant his desire. Jesus speaks of degrees of punishment (Matt. 5:22), but there can be no degrees of nonexistence.
Annihilation of the wicked is contrary to both the nature of God and the nature of humans made in his image. It is not consistent with an all-loving God to snuff out those who do not do his wishes. Were God to annihilate human beings he would be attacking himself, for we are made in his image (Gen. 1:27), and God is immortal. The fact that these persons are suffering no more justifies annihilating them than it does for a parent to kill a child who is suffering. Even some atheists have insisted that annihilation is not to be preferred to conscious freedom.
Hell Is Temporal, Not Eternal. Hell could not be just a long imprisonment. Hell must exist as long as a righteous God does against whom all hell is opposed.
While the word forever can mean a long time in some contexts, in this context it is used of heaven as well as hell (cf. Matthew 25). Sometimes the emphatic form of “forever and forever” is used. This phrase is used to describe heaven and God himself (Rev. 14:11; 20:10). And God cannot be temporal; he is eternal (Edwards, 2.85-86).
The suggestion that temporal suffering will lead to ultimate repentance is unrealistic. People in hell are gnashing their teeth which does not indicate a more godly and reformed disposition but a more rigid and stubborn rebellion. Hence, after the people have been in hell for some time there is more justification for God’s punishment of them, not less. If hell had a reformational effect on people, then Jesus would not have pronounced woe on those who reject him and are headed for hell (Matt. 11:21-24). No sin would be unforgivable if people in hell were reformable (Matt. 12:31-32). Likewise, Jesus would never have said of Judas that it would have been better if he had never been born.
How can a place devoid of God’s restraining grace accomplish what no efforts of his grace could accomplish on earth, namely, a change of the heart? If hell could reform wicked sinners, then they would be saved without Christ, who is the sole means of salvation (Edwards, 2.520). Suffering has no tendency to soften a hard heart; it hardens it more. The recidivism and hardened criminality in modern prisons confirms Edwards’ point.
God’s justice demands eternal punishment. “The heinousness of any crime must be gauged according to the worth or dignity of the person it is committed against” (Davidson, 50). Thus, a murder of a president or pope is deemed more heinous than that of a terrorist or Mafia boss. Sin against an infinite God is an infinite sin worthy of infinite punishment (Edwards, 2.83).
Why Not Reform People? Why eternal punishment? Why doesn’t God try to reform sinners? The answer is that God does try to reform people; the time of reformation is called life. Peter declared that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9; cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). However, after the time of reformation comes the time of reckoning (Heb. 9:27). Hell is only for the unreformable and unrepentant, the reprobate (cf. 2 Peter 2:16). It is not for anyone who is reformable. If they were reformable, they would still be alive. For God in his wisdom and goodness would not allow anyone to go to hell whom he knew would go to heaven if he gave them more opportunity. As C. S. Lewis observed, the soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will never miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened (Lewis, Great Divorce, 69).
God cannot force free creatures to be reformed. Forced reformation is worse than punishment; it is cruel and inhumane. At least punishment respects the freedom and dignity of the person. As Lewis insightfully notes, “To be ‘cured’ against one’s will… is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals” (Lewis, God in the Dock, 226). Humans are not objects to be manipulated; they are subjects to be respected because they are made in God’s image. Human beings should be punished when they do evil because they were free and knew better. They are persons to be punished, not patients to be cured.
Is Damnation for Temporal Sins Overkill? To punish a person eternally for what he did for a short time on earth seems at first like a gigantic case of overkill. However, on closer examination it turns out to be not only just but necessary. For one thing, only eternal punishment will suffice for sins against the eternal God. The sins may have been committed in time, but they were against the Eternal One. Furthermore, no sin can be tolerated as long as God exists, and he is eternal. Hence, punishment for sin must also be eternal.
What is more, the only alternative to eternal punishment is worse, namely, to rob human beings of freedom and dignity by forcing them into heaven against their free choice. That would be “hell” since they do not fit in a place where everyone is loving and praising the Person they want most to avoid. Or, God’s other choice is to annihilate his own image within his creatures. But this would be an attack of God on himself.
Further, without eternal separation, there could be no heaven. Evil is contagious (1 Cor. 5:6) and must be quarantined. Like a deadly plague, if it is not contained it will continue to contaminate and corrupt. If God did not eventually separate the tares from the wheat, the tares would choke out the wheat. The only way to preserve an eternal place of good is to eternally separate all evil from it. The only way to have an eternal heaven is to have an eternal hell.
Finally, if Christ’s temporal punishment is sufficient for our sins eternally, then there is no reason why eternal suffering cannot be appropriate for our temporal sins. It is not the duration of the action but the object that is important. Christ satisfied the eternal God by his temporal suffering, and unbelievers have offended the eternal God by their temporal sins. Hence, Christ’s temporal suffering for sins satisfies God eternally (1 John 2:1), and our temporal sins offend God eternally.
Hell Has No Redeeming Value. To the objection that there is no redemptive value in the damning of souls to hell, it can be pointed out that hell satisfies God’s justice and glorifies it by showing how great and fearful a standard it is. “The vindictive justice of God will appear strict, exact, awful, and terrible, and therefore glorious” (Edwards, 2.87). The more horrible and fearful the judgment, the brighter the sheen on the sword of God’s justice. Awful punishment fits the nature of an awe-inspiring God. By a majestic display of wrath, God gets back the majesty he has been refused. Those who give God no glory by choice during this life will be forced to give him glory in the afterlife.
All people, thus, are either actively or passively useful to God. In heaven believers will actively praise his mercy. In hell unbelievers will be passively useful in bringing majesty to his justice. Just as a barren tree is useful only for firewood, so the disobedient are only fuel for an eternal fire (ibid., 2.126). Since unbelievers prefer to keep at a distance from God in time, why should we not expect this to be their chosen state in eternity?
Hell Is Only a Threat, Not a Reality. Some critics believe hell is only a threat that God will not carry out. But it is blasphemy to hold that a God of truth uses deliberate lies to govern human beings. Further, it implies that “those who think hell is a deception have outwitted God Himself by uncovering it” (Davidson, 53). As Edwards stated it, “They suppose that they have been so cunning as to find out that it is not certain; and so that God had not laid His design so deep, but that such cunning men as they can discern the cheat and defeat the design” (Edwards, 2.516).
Can Saints Be Happy if a Loved One Is in Hell? The presupposition of this question is that we are more merciful than is God. God is perfectly happy in heaven, and he knows that not everyone will be there. Yet he is infinitely more merciful than are we. What is more, if we could not be happy in heaven knowing anyone was in hell, then our happiness is not in our hands but someone else’s. But hell cannot veto heaven. We can be happy in heaven the same way we can be happy eating knowing others are starving, if we have tried to feed them but they have refused the food. Just as we can have healing of bad memories here on earth, even so God will “wipe away all tears” in heaven (Rev. 21:4).
Edwards noted that to suppose God’s mercy does not permit suffering in hell is contrary to fact. God allows plenty of suffering in this world. It is an empirical fact that God and creature-pain are not incompatible (Gerstner, 80). If God’s mercy cannot bear eternal misery, then neither can it bear lesser amounts (Edwards, 2.84). God’s mercy is not a passion or emotion that over-comes his justice. Mercy so construed is a defect in God. It would make him weak and inconsistent with himself, not fit to be a Judge.
The attitudes and feelings of the saints in heaven will be transformed and correspond more to God’s. Hence, we will love only what God loves and hate what he hates. Since God is not miserable at the thought or sight of hell, neither will we—even if it holds people we loved in this life. Edwards devoted a sermon to this: “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous.” In Gerstner’s digest of it, “it will seem in no way cruel in God to inflict such extreme suffering on such extremely wicked creatures” (Gerstner, 90).
Why Did God Create People Bound for Hell? Some critics of hell argue that if God knew that his creatures would reject him and eventuate in such a horrible place as hell, then why did he create them in the first place? Wouldn’t it have been better to have never existed than to exist and go to hell?
It is important to note that nonexistence cannot be said to be a better condition than any kind of existence, since nonexistence is nothing. And to affirm that nothing can be better than something is a gigantic category mistake. In order to compare two things, they must have something in common. But there is nothing in common between being and nonbeing. They are diametrically opposed.
Some one may feel like being put out of a life of misery, but such a one cannot even consistently think of nonbeing as a better state of being. True, Jesus said it would have been better if Judas had never been born (Mark 14:21). But this is simply a strong expression indicating the severity of his sin, not a statement about the superiority of non-being over being. In a parallel condemnation on the Pharisees, Jesus said Sodom and Gomorrah would have repented had they seen his miracles (Matt. 11:20-24). This does not mean that they actually would have repented (or God would surely have shown them these miracles—2 Peter 3:9). It is simply a powerful figure of speech indicating that their sin was so great that “it would be more tolerable” (vs. 24) in the day of judgment for Sodom than for them.
Further, simply because some will lose in the game of life does not mean it should not be played. Before the Super Bowl ever begins both teams know that one of them will lose. Yet they all will to play. Before every driver in America takes to the road each day we know that people will be killed. Yet we will to drive. Parents know that having children could end in great tragedy for their offspring as well as for themselves. Yet the foreknowledge of evil does not negate our will to permit the possibility of good. Why? Because we deem it better to have played with the opportunity to win than not to have played at all. It is better to lose in the Super Bowl than not to be able to play in it. From God’s standpoint, it is better to love the whole world (John 3:16) and lose some of its inhabitants than not to love them at all.
But People Can’t Help Being Sinners. The Bible says we are born sinners (Ps. 51:5) and are “by nature the children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). If sinners cannot avoid sinning, is it fair to send them to hell for it?
People go to hell because they are born with a bent to sin, and they choose to sin. They are born on a road that leads to hell, but they also fail to heed the warning signs along the way to turn from destruction (Luke 13:3; 2 Peter 3:9).
While human beings sin because they are sinners (by nature), their sin nature does not force them to sin. As Augustine correctly said, “We are born with the propensity to sin and the necessity to die.” Notice, he did not say we are born with the necessity to sin. While sin is inevitable, since we are born with a bent in that direction, sin is not unavoidable.
The ultimate place to which sinners are destined is also avoidable. All one needs to do is to repent (Luke 13:3; Acts 17:30; 2 Peter 3:9). All are held responsible for their decision to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. And responsibility always implies the ability to respond (if not on our own, then by God’s grace). All who go to hell could have avoided going there if they had chosen to. No pagan anywhere is without clear light from God so that he is “without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20; cf. 2:12-15.) As God sent a missionary to Cornelius (Acts 10:35), so he will provide the message of salvation for all who seek it. For “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
Reasonableness of Hell
While many believe hell is unreasonable, following Jonathan Edwards, a good argument can be made for its rationality:
It is a most unreasonable thing to suppose that there should be no future punishment, to suppose that God, who had made man a rational creature, able to know his duty, and sensible that he is deserving punishment when he does it not; should let man alone, and let him live as he will, and never punish him for his sins, and never make any difference between the good and the bad…. How unreasonable it is to suppose, that he who made the world, should leave things in such confusion, and never take any care of the governing of his creatures, and that he should never judge his reasonable creatures. [Edwards, 2.884]
Reasons Hell Is Rejected
As surveys show, people are far more willing to believe in heaven than in hell. No good person wants anyone to go to hell. But, as Sigmund Freud would say, it is an illusion to reject something simply because we wish not to believe in it. Indeed, as even some atheists have observed, the belief in hell eliminates the charge that it is merely an illusion. Whether there is a hell must be determined on the basis of evidence, not desire. The evidence for the existence of hell is strong.
If the evidence for hell is substantial, why then do so many people reject it? Edwards listed two main reasons for the unwillingness to accept hell: (1) It is contrary to our personal preference; (2) we have a deficient concept of evil and its deserved punishment.
Actually, a denial of hell is an indication of human depravity Edwards draws attention to our inconsistency. We are all aware of the heinous nature of wars and acts against humanity. Why are we not equally shocked at how we regularly show contempt for the majesty of God (Edwards, 2.83). Our rejection of hell and God’s mercy are an indication of our own depravity—and therefore we are deserving of hell. Edwards wrote, “Doth it seem to thee incredible, that God should be so utterly regardless of the sinner’s welfare, as to sink him into an infinite abyss or misery? Is this shocking to thee? And is it not at all shocking to thee that thou shouldst be so utterly regardless as thou hast been to the honour and glory of the infinite God?” (ibid., 2.82).
Augustine, City of God
W. Crockett, ed., Fours Views on Hell
B.W. Davidson, “Reasonable Damnation: How Jonathan Edwards Argued for the Rationality of Hell,” JETS 38.1 (March 1995)
J. Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards L. Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News
N. L. Geisler; “Man’s Destiny: Free or Forced,” CSR, 9.2 (1979)
J. Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell
C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock
_____, The Great Divorce
_____, The Problem of Pain, chapter 8
_____, The Screwtape Letters
D. Moore, The Battle for Hell
F. Nietzsche, Toward a Genealogy of Morals
R. A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment
B. Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian J. P. Sartre, No Exit
W. G. T. Shed, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment
J. L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation