The Problem of Hell

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Universalists, in particular, try to evade the problem by claiming that a doctrine of hell is not in fact taught in the scriptures at least in its traditional form , and that Christians are therefore able to affirm that all human beings will be saved in the end. The paper begins with an explanation of the doctrine of hell and an identification of the main problems and criticisms against it. This will assist us in understanding the increasing popularity of universalism and moreover, on what grounds it is challenged. Volume 7 , Issue The full text of this article hosted at iucr.

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Read the full text. Tools Request permission Export citation Add to favorites Track citation. However, many believe that when one person is sufficiently precious to, and dependent upon, another, a wrong committed against the first person automatically wrongs the second. But if all things depend on God for their continued existence, and all people are precious to God, then by the same principle it would seem that God is wronged by all sin, even if the sinner does not intend to wrong God.

Premise 4 , which claims that seriousness of a crime is a function not only of the nature of the crime itself and the harm it causes, but also of the status of the victim s wronged by the crime, seems to fit with some widely shared moral intuitions. However, when the harm against a victim is indirect e. On the other hand, this may not be a genuine counterexample to the first premise, because saints and criminals are both of the same natural kind humanity ; perhaps all the infinite seriousness argument needs is a principle according to which harms against beings of more ontologically perfect kinds are more serious than harms against beings of less perfect kinds.

For example, premeditated murder is normally considered more serious than murder committed in a fit of passion. Therefore, it seems that not all sin deserves the same degree of punishment, even if all sin is against God. Insofar as damnation would inflict the same punishment eternal separation from God for all sin, it would be fundamentally unjust. This objection would seem to vitiate even annihilationist conceptions of hell, if they see annihilation as punishment. In response, it could be suggested that although all the damned are given an infinitely lengthy punishment, more serious criminals are placed in more harsh conditions.

Or perhaps it could be claimed that although not all sins deserve infinite punishment, everyone commits at least one infinitely serious sin at some point in life, and so would deserve infinite punishment. Even if the infinite seriousness argument is sound, the idea of divine mercy creates difficulties for a defense of the traditional view of damnation, as follows.

Suppose that every person deserves damnation.

Theistic religions teach that God is willing to forgive the sins of the faithful, so that they will not receive their just punishment. But if God is able and willing to forgo the punishment in one case, why not in all cases? There are two main seemingly incompatible responses to this question. Therefore, because God seeks to reveal all the divine attributes, God cannot will the salvation of all. Because the traditional view of hell understands the purpose of damnation to be retribution for sin, it would seem to stand or fall with the infinite seriousness argument.

As discussed at the end of section one, however, those who see hell as an expression of divine love have proposed an entirely different morally sufficient reason for God to allow damnation: respect for freedom. In the free will view, damnation is the only possible way for God to honor the freedom of the damned.


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To force the sinners into heaven against their wills would not, in this view, be an act of Divine love. Instead, God respects human autonomy by allowing us to shape our character through our own free choices, and by refusing to unilaterally change the character we have chosen; if in this life, we freely develop into morally vicious and miserable people, then that is how God will allow us to remain for eternity. But if the only possible eternity open to the damned is one of fundamental ruin and despair, why would God give them a never-ending afterlife? Would it not be more loving of God to let the damned cease to exist at death or, if justice demands it, after a temporary postmortem period of punishment?

The two main versions of the free will view require different lines of response to this question. Those who deny post-mortem freedom might insist that only the guaranteed existence of an eternal afterlife good or bad can render our ante-mortem choices truly momentous. Therefore, to guarantee the importance of our earthly freedom, God must give an afterlife to everyone. The subsequent discussion will focus on versions of the free will view that posit post-mortem choice. The free will view assumes an incompatibilist account of free will, according to which a person is genuinely free with respect to her choices only if she or an event involving her is the ultimate causal determinant of those choices.

Therefore, if God causally determined denizens of hell to repent, then God—rather than the humans—would be the ultimate determining cause of the repentence, and the humans would not be the agent of their own repentance. Those that hold the compatibilists view concerning free will and determinism claim that free actions can be causally predetermined, as long as the chain of causes runs through the will and intellect of the free agent in an appropriate way.

If compatibilism is correct, then God could determine everyone to enter heaven freely, by first causing them to desire heaven enough to repent. Therefore, in claiming that God cannot both 1 give creatures genuine freedom and 2 guarantee that all will be saved , the free will view relies on incompatibilism, which is a very controversial view.

Even if an incompatibilist notion of freedom is taken for granted, it is not clear that the desire to honor human free choices would provide God with a morally sufficient reason to allow damnation. To see why, consider an analogous human situation.

Problem of Hell - Wikipedia

But as the degree of self-harm increases, it becomes less and less clear that non-intervention is the loving parental policy. If the child were very young, or did not clearly understand the nature or consequences of her choice, then it would seem clearly wrong for the parent not to do everything in her power to stop the suicide. Those who see humans as more like infants in relation to God — because of the vast gap between divine and human power — will probably not be persuaded by the free will view. Another possible objection to the free will view concerns the relationship between freedom and rationality.

Free choices, if they are to have any real value, must be more than simply random or uncaused events—they must be explicable in terms of reasons. Free action must be a species of rational action. But there seems to be no reason to choose eternal suffering or non-existence over an eternity of bliss.

The choice to remain in hell would be utterly irrational, and so could not count as a genuinely free choice. Defenders of the free will view would likely counter this objection by distinguishing between objective and subjective reasons. If people amass enough false beliefs, then what is in fact bad or harmful can seem good or beneficial to them. Even if this line of defense is successful, it leaves open questions about the value of freedom in such cases: is it really a good thing for agents to have the power to act in ways that bring about their own objective ruin?

Although the freedom view does not rule out the traditional picture of hell as eternal existence apart from God, some would argue that it requires openness to other possibilities as well. What would happen, for example, if the damned hated God to such an extent that they would prefer non-existence to retaining even the slightest dependence on God? It would seem that God as depicted in the free will view would out of respect for the freedom of the damned give them what they wished for, unless there were a good reason not to.

Thus, in the freedom view it would seem possible that the damned may end in annihilation. Hell would then be disjunctive: it could involve eternal conscious suffering or annihilation. Here are four possible responses. First, some suggest that souls, once created, are intrinsically immortal, and cannot be destroyed even by God. Most theists would not find this suggestion plausible, however, because it seems to do away with divine omnipotence. Since annihilating a damned soul would decrease being without a compensating increase in being elsewhere in the universe, God is morally bound not to do it.

Third, God might refuse to annihilate the damned because it is better for them regardless of global considerations to go on existing, because existence itself is a significant good for those who enjoy it. Therefore, if the sufferings of hell are serious enough, they could make continued existence there even worse for the damned than non-existence.

Hell and Universalism

So whether we consider this third suggestion that eternal conscious separation from God is better for the damned than annihilation to be plausible will depend on how bad we consider non-existence to be, and how bad we consider the felt quality of hell to be. Fourth, God might refuse to annihilate the damned out of hope. This claim could be endorsed even by those who believe that an eternity of conscious separation from God would be worse than non-existence.

We would think it right to interfere in the attempted suicide of a young person with temporary depression, because of her hope for a brighter future. Similarly, it would seem right for God to keep the damned in existence even if this existence is temporarily worse than non-existence for them if there were some hope that they might repent. Out of respect for freedom, God would not unilaterally alter the character of the damned so as to cause their repentance, but out of love and hope God would refuse to allow the damned to extinguish the possibility of reconciliation.

The Problem of Hell

If God allows the damned to continue in their suffering only out of hope that they may repent, then no one not even God can be certain that the damned will go on suffering eternally. For if God knew through middle knowledge that the damned would never freely repent, then God would have no reason to prolong their suffering.

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For those who favor the fourth explanation over the first three, the freedom view faces a dilemma regarding the eternity of hell. On the one hand, if there is no hope that the damned will repent, God would seem to have no reason not to honor their possible choice for annihilation, thus rendering hell understood as a state of conscious suffering possibly temporary. On the other hand, if there is hope that a person in hell will repent, then while God would not honor a choice for annihilation, there is still the possibility for hell to be temporary, since a person who fully repented would eventually go to heaven.

On this latter, hopeful, scenario, hell becomes not a place of everlasting retributive punishment, but a place of indefinitely long therapeutic punishment, aimed at the ultimate reconciliation of sinners with God. While it remains possible that some people will in fact hold out against God forever, on the freedom view the functional role of hell is very similar to that of purgatory in Roman Catholic theology: a state of being aimed at leading a person to heaven, through the removal of character flaws that would prevent her from enjoying beatific intimacy with God.

The main difference is that the inhabitants of purgatory are certainly destined to join with God in heaven, while the inhabitants of hell face an uncertain future. Ragland Email: raglandc slu. Find out about Lean Library here. Skip to main content. Theological Studies.