How Can God Allow Eternal Punishment?
Hell is a difficult topic: for many, the most difficult in Christian Theology. Indeed, the doctrine of hell is one of the main reasons many reject Christianity. It is therefore the point at which it is most clear we must speak with utmost sensitivity, but also with loving honesty. As part of my medical training, I’ve come face to face with those who know that they are in the last few months of their lives, and who are faced with this stark reality. Similarly, I’ve met those who would be in that situation if they didn’t start taking some course of action, whether that’s a drug, a lifestyle change, or surgery of some sort. Now, in order to properly love them and do what’s best for them, I have to be plainly honest about their condition and about what will probably happen to them. Some diagnoses are crippling: no one wants to hear that they have a terminal illness, or that they don’t have very long left. And, of course, there are right and wrong ways to be honest: honesty does not necessarily imply insensitivity or tactlessness. But nevertheless, I would be doing people a disservice if I wasn’t honest with them about their condition or their fate. Love requires honesty, and especially so when honesty has the potential for healing.
But when it comes to hell, we seem to have adopted an attitude where it has become, in some sense, socially unacceptable to say that people are ‘going to hell’, even more so to say it about someone in particular. It is not often clear what the objection is, exactly, but it seems to suggest that saying people are going to hell violates some sort of social law, that it is ‘bad etiquette’, that it is offensive. Of course, there are right and wrong ways to advocate a position on hell (e.g. someone going to hell is never something to take pleasure in, nor is it something to say out of spite, or as an insult in an argument), but it is important that we are allowed to speak honestly, whether that is politically correct or not – there is no reason why we should not adopt similar principles to when talking to someone who is severely ill. None of this is to say that I think we CAN speak definitively about the fate of other individuals – as it happens, I don’t think we have good reason or authority to do that. But what is most important is that we object to this for the right reasons – because it is rationally, philosophically and theologically unconvincing and unwarranted, not just because it’s politically incorrect to do so.
And so we must make every effort to have a rational discussion about hell – there is inevitably an emotional element, and we should not let reason disguise that, but in order that we might have appropriate emotions about hell, it is important to UNDERSTAND it. This includes understanding our own view of it (whether or not we think it exists) and understanding other views of it. Caricatures of other people’s views based on emotional dissonance, anger, or plain ignorance are particularly easy to come by when discussing hell, and that’s why it is so important to recognise them for what they are – caricatures.
And so in this article, I am going to do something slightly unusual. I do not personally believe in the traditional understanding of hell (I will soon offer an introduction to the different views of hell) – nor do I disbelieve it. Those who have been in dialogue with me will know that I haven’t come to a conclusion about what I believe hell is, and that I often sway towards and away from particular positions at different times. But I’m here going to defend the traditional understanding (that hell is eternal punishment), or at least offer some considerations which might make it more palatable. These would not take away from the horror and tragedy of the traditional (or any) understanding of hell, but I think they go some way in explaining how such a doctrine might be compatible with a loving God. They are considerations which make me think that the traditional understanding is at least compatible with the God of the Bible (and a loving God, if you think that the God of the Bible isn’t), and which allow me to see it as, at least, a possibility.
1) One of the problems is a confusion between the type of hell one believes in and what one believes about who goes there – if I said, for example, that I believe in eternal torture, most people would assume that I would therefore be taking a conservative approach on all issues and so would believe that only consciously-affirming Christians avoid hell. But this does not logically follow – nor is it what I personally believe, even if I accept traditionalist hell. No matter whether hell is temporary or eternal, I don’t think we have good reason to believe that only Christians will avoid it, or that the amount of people there is particularly large.
2) There is nothing to suggest that those who are in hell are pity-evoking humans in any recognisable sense; that is, they may have diminished their humanity so much that they cease to be human at all, and so to have pity or empathy for them would not be apropos – it would be as nonsensical as feeling pity for a stone being crushed, or for some snow being melted. This is not to say that, if some humans were horrible enough, then it would be wrong to feel pity for them. The point is that these creatures have themselves rejected their humanity entirely, and so cannot even be considered as similar to the most cruel humans we now know. It must be emphasised, of course, that this would not be the case for anyone we know on earth now, since there is no reason to think that anyone has fully and irreversibly chosen not to be human in their current life.
3) Nor is the Christian scripturally compelled to believe that those who are in hell have realised their folly or evil, or that they recognise their punishment as punishment. In particular, if one takes a view of hell that has historical elements, e.g. that people are in some sense ‘in hell’ now, in that they are separated from God and living in a self-destructive way already (cf. Matt 23:15; Jas 3:6), then this is made particularly important. For if people are currently living separate from God, and living in ways which are destructive to others and to themselves and enjoy it, and we do not have any reason to believe that this will change qualitatively, then the ‘punishment’ of hell will only come as the fulfilment of this way of living, and will allow their wallowing in and love for their own destruction to flourish. It’s not a case of them suddenly changing their mind about how rewarding living selfishly is – to the contrary, it would be a natural progression, confirmation and intensification of the pleasure they get from selfishness. It is, of course, a complete perversion of pleasure and joy, and a terrible one at that, but that mustn’t force us to conclude that it will be perceived as terrible for them.
4) Nor must we assume that the people in hell have the potential for good in them in the same way that anyone on earth does: these people may have shaped their characters to such an extent that they absolutely hate love and hate all that is good, and instead delight in selfishness, abuse, mistreatment, hatred, and so on. They may enjoy (in a perverse and caricaturistic way) their isolation and hatred, and the abuse of others. Again, our appropriate pity and hope for redemption of those on earth must not fool us into thinking that those who are no longer living are necessarily redeemable or with a tiny bit of good in them. For all we know, they may be incorrigibly, passionately evil and inhumane.
5) Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we do not need to believe that the ‘punishment’ of hell is administered by God in any direct, vengeant sense. Indeed, we have no good reason to believe that the punishment of hell is significantly different from that which is the self-destructive nature of sin as we know it. Sin is already self-destructive and self-punishing; it is just usually not recognised as such. But there seems a fairly good Biblical attestation to the idea that punishment or ‘wrath’ is received welcomingly on earth (cf. Romans 1 where God’s wrath is the “giving over to their own desires“, and results in things which presumably are perceived as pleasurable or rewarding). If this is the case, then it may just be that hell is continuous self-punishment (in that rejecting God is a punishment in itself), manifest in things which many today consider pleasurable.
And so even a traditionalist view of hell (that of eternal punishment) can make these allowances: I am not saying that these possibilities are necessarily true, but that they are perfectly consistent with an evangelical Christian framework. It may be that hell is a ‘place’ for those who have irreversibly, explicitly and knowingly rejected God, who no longer evoke pity because they have given up their humanity, who to continue to love hatred and selfishness, and who enjoy their punishment. A bolder apologist might even argue that this idea of hell is in some way more palatable than the state of the world today: at least those in hell have knowingly decided not to be proper objects of pity – contrast this with some humans today, who have the potential for redemption and for whom we do appropriately pity for their selfishness and self-destruction, and yet who still decide to delight in hatred.
Of course, this cannot be interpreted as an attempt to make hell seem less terrible – hell is the most terrible possible fate for a human being, and only the most crude of emotionalists would think that eternity without God is any ‘better’ than the hell in medieval art. The issue is not about whether hell is a terrible fate or not – it categorically is. The issue is about whether the existence of a traditional understanding of hell is compatible with the God of the Bible, and with a loving God. And the reason I think that these clarifications are helpful is this: I do not think that the moral objection behind most of our opposition to hell is to do with the principle of eternal separation from God – that is the only possible consequence unless God compels people to love him and come into relationship with him. Rather, I think the problem we have is with seeing the ‘punishment’ of hell as something that God inflicts directly in petty revenge, and in which he takes pleasure. Separation from God is understandable, we think, even if not desirable. But the idea that God goes beyond that to happily torturing the damned in revenge is where we rightly take issue. Once we see then, that this latter picture of hell is in no way warranted scripturally, then I think that we can at least understand how a loving God might allow some sort of ‘eternal punishment’, as Christians have traditionally (though not universally or consensually) believed.
Though I am not personally convinced that the traditional understanding of hell is correct, I hope to have made some defence of it here so that it is not mischaracterised in future. I do not think that Christians are compelled to believe in this understanding, let alone any of the features we find particularly insulting (e.g. that God directly punishes), but nevertheless I felt that this might be useful material for those who do want to defend traditionalism, as well as offering some clarifications for a more fruitful discussion of hell in future.