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The philosophical problem of eternal hell

JamesKnight300Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight writes about the God who created us knowing our eternal destination.


In contemplating the philosophical problem of eternal hell, I would like to make one thing quite clear – what you are about to read is not an impassioned defense of universalism, it is simply a case presented for you to ponder.  In the judicial system arguments may be put forward in defense irrespective of whether the lawyer believes his client is telling the truth.  This is because he, like everyone else, deserves a fair trial by having his case argued by the best of his representative’s ability.  That’s what I’m trying to do with the argument against eternal hell.  In my next message I will concentrate more on the Bible verse and what they may mean in the wider context.  Here is what I have to say on the philosophical issue.



I remember the impact that Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit had on me when I was about 12 or 13 - even then I knew that something was remiss about the whole eternal hellfire, not because I was well read in scripture then (I wasn't) but because those who preached it seemed so cognitively dissonant, and whatever they felt sure about, it seemed certain that they weren't comfortable in their own skin.


For me the issue of hell and universalism is where the irresistible force of philosophy meets the immovable object of theology - so something has to give, and I will try to explain what I think this is.  Embedded in the conscience is an inherent notion of abhorrence at suffering, and even more so, torture.  In short, it disgusts us, because through being made in God’s image, and through socialisation, we have built into us the recognition of goodness and kindness and love and grace (although for sure we mess up and let ourselves down in failing to employ these qualities in the quantities we should).  This is one of the underpinning factors in my assessment of hell.  It doesn't make any sense to me as the extremists tell me it should. 


You see, one wouldn't even need to be omni-benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient to see how outrageous the extremists' claims really are.  Let’s say I am faced with a proposition - I can create another universe - let's call it a sub-universe of which I am put in sole charge.  I can choose to create life, which will eventuate in humans, and I can take my place in the sub-universe and die for all of its inhabitants - knowing many of which will acknowledge me and be able to know what paradise with me will be like.  But knowing that many of my creation will also reject me or refuse to acknowledge my personal sacrifice for them, I then must decide beforehand what is best and most moral. 


Is the benefit of seeing some transported into heavenly paradise a worthwhile emotional pay off to know that there are many who are going to spend eternity in the tortuous realm of hell (including loved ones of those who made it to heaven)?  It makes no sense to say 'yes' - even for a mind that isn't omni-benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient - the most overriding impelling emotion is to say 'No of course not, given the choices, I won't create at all’.  No amount of heavenly pleasure for some can make right the fact that some have eternal hell, particularly given the fact that I had the option to not create them in full knowledge that I would see them in hell. 


rollercoasterThis is bad enough when one thinks of creation statistically as a collection of people.   But for Omniscience He presumably has the most intimate relationship with every single one of us - an intimacy that surpasses even that of our parents.   Imagine a parent is given the option of a gift of life from God - a baby who the parents can carry, give birth to, love, hold close, nurture, and help grow up into a successful adult.   The only proviso is that after the comparably short life on earth their precious child will be consigned to misery and rejection for eternity.  I think that before birth any normal loving couple would possess enough of the potential love for that child in their hearts to say no to that deal - let's save the little fellow and ask that this benevolent prenatal benefactor stops this right away. 


Ostensibly, God has gone through this with every one of His children.  For every person  He has created in full knowledge that they will have to suffer in the end - He has been the equivalent of a parent who carries, gives birth to, loves, holds close, nurtures, and help grows up into a successful adult, only then to tell them at the end - sorry, you didn't make it.   Even though I created you into a world in which you are bound to sin, and had no possible escape from the essence of a being a human with drives that would get you into trouble and obscure your view of my Son - I still have to let you be cast off forever into eternal torment.  It just doesn't work - not for me.  If it were true it would be the most irrational, illogical and immoral attempt at explaining perfection that I have ever heard.  I just don't buy it.  If God is going to create, then the only justification I can find is if all the precious children He loves and sustains have a share in the eternal glory.


Having seen all that – we do have to admit that there is talk of a hell (even by Jesus Himself), that God has gone ahead and created mankind despite knowing that some will end up there.  So this is where the interpretations need more consideration.  Before one even delves deeply into scriptural interpretation, we know that the prima facie philosophical contention for Christians is this:


1) We have an omni-benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient God who knew, even before anything was created, what the eternal destination of every single creature would be.


a) It is said in the God-inspired scriptures that there is a state or place called ‘hell’ in which some will find themselves separated in pain and torment for an n amount of time, where n is a finite amount of time.


b) It is said in the God-inspired scriptures that there is a state or place called ‘hell’ in which some will find themselves separated in pain and torment for an n amount of time, where n is an everlasting amount of time.


Scripturally one can find some justification that 1 and a are compatible, and perhaps even 1 and b too (depending on study of the etymologies of various words).  But philosophically one can only find reasonable justification for 1 and a, and only then with certain and necessary provisos.  But there is a twist, because providing the provisos are put in place not only can I can reconcile 1 and a – I can actually conceive of why 1 and a are inextricably linked.  If we hold that Leibniz’s ‘Best Of All Possible Worlds’ is correct, then a is a necessary concomitant of 1.  I will explain why in a moment., but before I do - we are compelled to ask this; if a philosophical proposition implies one truth and scripture implies another contradictory or mutually exclusive truth then which are we to hold as primary?  To me that is rather like asking which of the two scissor blades is most necessary.  Theology only flows out of philosophy once we have established a system with which to start thinking theologically.  Just like the scissor blades we must put philosophy and theology together if we are to be ‘cutting edge’.


Philosophy broadens out as being the underpinning factor in every aspect of thinking. Given that our interpretative faculties must be used to discern meaning in scripture, if the philosophical proposition is watertight (which I believe it is), then the first step is to ensure we are interpreting the full picture of the Bible properly.  If we remain convinced that we are then it is possible that the philosophical proposition needs addressing.


We can only be sure that the particular theology and philosophy we subscribe to is 'true' if it is a faithful response to revelation, yet we are met with circularity because such a revelation derives all its validity from a whole host of philosophical preconditions which bootstrap our ability for interpretation.  Just like the natural observation regarding relativism and absolutism having necessary complementarity, we have an essential duality where theology and philosophy should flow out of revelation, yet also revelation is shaped by philosophy and Christian theology.  The truth is, we can only really make sense of hell through a Christocentric lens (that is, through a lens that puts Christ’s grace at the centre), so I cannot escape the notion that the philosophy is likely to be holding us in good stead here, because the philosophy gives us a closer connection with Christocentric grace.


I said I would explain why Divine love and temporary exile in hell are not just a consistent reality, but a necessary one too, and this is another sense in which Christianity is a tautology – because if the Divine aspiration is for grace to embody the success of His creation then hell is a necessary concomitant of that – we cannot have one without the other.  Hell and heaven aren't polar pairs existing in isolation from each other - we find that if there is to be a state or place called heaven where Divine love is fully realised, then there must be a state or place where the absence of this is realised.  You see, even in earthly terms I believe that life can be both heaven and hell, but the question of which belongs to us depends on the all important question of whether we accept grace or reject it.  All the time we reject it we find that even the very best things in life are still only a precursor to a final separation that will see us (temporarily at least) faced with loss and dejection at being apart from heaven.  Conversely, all the time we stay connected to Christ’s vine and live with the certainty of heaven through grace we will find that even the very worst things we’ve had to endure were still a part of Heaven’s destination all along. 


I think that in relation to the subject of loss, this can be considered rather like a marriage; at its best the qualities of a successful marriage amount to one of the highest aspects of humanity - and such heights when they go bad or are lost can only really be pain in isolation from the pleasure, but also existent 'because' of the pleasure.  If losing a loved one or being separated from a beloved only produced a feeling of apathy or indifference then that wouldn't be a natural state that does justice to the power of the qualities from which one is isolated.  I believe the same is true of hell, and in that sense it is necessary.  That is the first reason why I think Divine love and hell must co-exist.  But there is another reason as well; if God is going to bring an end to this business of uncertainty and finally have everyone before Him in recognition of Divine grace, then there will come a point in the overall narrative when recognition must be made to acknowledge those who have accepted Christ on the cross and the price He has paid for our salvation. 


I think that to recognise the full extent of Divine love and at the same time recognise one has been on the wrong side only through voluntary self-exile must be hell for anyone who realises it.  Not because either is intrinsically reprehensible in what it is, but because any detachment from the Divine love can only be hell once the blinds are torn down and the sunlight is revealed.  Let’s forget right away the silly idea that anyone is literally tortured in fiery flames - we all know that there has never been one instance in the cosmic narrative in which such a proposition has been worthwhile.  I think the real torment will be, not so much being on the wrong side of Divine love for a while (although I should imagine that will be the worst we have experienced), I think perhaps it will be felt most once one realises how easy and free the gift was, and how much it was hoped that it would have been recognised and accepted volitionally, without having to be shown..


"Be thou the first true merit to befriend;
His praise is lost, who stays till all commend.”

Alexander Pope


To know that all those reasons you made to criticise God's plans or doubt his existence were really only examples of blocking God's love and grace will be the real sense of waste and frustration. In finding out the His unmerited, unearned and undeserved favour toward you had all along put to rest all those doubts and insecurities and excuses for power and control that caused so many disagreements and conflicts - that will be the real shame, because it will be like seeing a frame by frame account of a world full of unnecessary pain and suffering and isolation. So you see - when this point comes, there will have to be a realisation of what the wrong path amounted to.  All cannot be simply transported into heavenly bliss - they need to come to terms with what grace is first. 


Perhaps God's wish in the covenant is to allow people their right to see for themselves the discontinuity between man's wisdom and God's love.  Thus, I think a state of hell is not predominantly about God wanting to punish us, it is about the realisation of how much we punish ourselves, and that must include the full makeover.  Consider this analogy.  Imagine an inveterate alcoholic whose life has consisted of a drink-dependency that caused him to hurt those who loved and stood by him.  Throughout his life he had selfishly indulged in all kinds of destructive behaviour - violence, affairs, and what have you - causing years of suffering and misery for those who loved him enough to take his abuse and stand by him.  Now imagine that finally this man is going to get himself rehabilitated - he is going to get a wake up call.  One couldn't expect to say that merely giving up the drinking would be the compete rehabilitation.  Unless he comes to realise the pain his drinking has caused others, and how that destructiveness was forever blocking all the powerful virtues that knit a family together, his rehabilitation will only amount to saving his own body from more damage.  Only if he realises that his life has been a mere shadow of the reality it could and should have been can he know what rehabilitation is.


I think that analogy provides a good indicator to why there is a hell at all, and why God doesn't just let us all off at the end and send us straight home to heaven - it just won't do. In many ways it would be a dry anti-climax.  Now, instead of imaging a man whose primary goal is the forgoing of alcohol, let us imagine that what is at stake is a full realisation of what Divine grace really is and what the Heavenly banquet is really celebrating.  One almost finds oneself wanting a place of temporary self-exile to exist, just so those who aren't quite ready for the banquet can get themselves calmed down and cleaned up first before they take up their invitation.


Imagine a man who has lived all his life in the most disreputable way. There are few depths to which he hasn't sunk in his life.  Such has been the nature of his badness and self-centredness that he has hurt and exploited anyone he could.  This man has murdered, raped, abused, stolen, cheated, lied and disrespected people, and never once faced up to what a wretch he is, or dealt with the hurt he's caused - always seeming to get away with his acts, and always mocking any who attempt to bring him to justice. And on top of that he has been sullied with the most awful conceit, with which he looks down on everyone else, and thinks too highly of himself, to the point that he has always averted responsibility and culpability, and never really bothered to consider what a dreadful human being he is.


Now consider when kingdom comes; God is about to start the party and everyone is going to share in love and grace together.  Every tear will be wiped away (eventually) the wolf will lay with lamb (eventually) - but not just yet.  For some, such a climax needs the prelude of repentance, if only to save themselves from the personal hell they had made for themselves on earth, and realise the pain that they had caused by being as they are - that would be a start.  Divine grace is the highest quality imaginable - but I don't expect that even Divine grace could wish for such a bad man to be allowed into the party before he has realised what the free gift of grace is, and how far he had lived his life away from it.


We know there are many people who demand that all this is unfair, and that in fact, God could still wipe everybody's slate clean at the end without recourse to temporary punishment.  It is fair that He could have created a situation where all of us naturally fall into grace without the need for any kind of cleaning up state or place at all.  But to this I can only remind you that He has done so already; the moment He carried His cross and died for us was the moment that all this happened. The second chance is here with us already – all who know about it have the opportunity to have a fresh start - a new beginning where Christ’s spirit comes to live inside them.  The cleaning up process that amounts to the hell of self-exile is only going to be a place or a state where are given time to come back to that which is most natural to us.  Once the full extent of Divine love has been revealed it may be for some as quick and easy as taking off those shoes that had been pinching and swelling out feet all our lives and slipping into a pair of golden shoes made perfectly for our feet.  For other it may be that because of their the pride, once the uncomfortable shoes have been thrown off, they may prefer to sit and stew in their bare feet, rather like a naughty child who sits sulking in his room just hoping that his father will pop his head around the door and say ‘it’s all right son, you’ve been forgiven, please come and join us for supper and a movie’. 


As for those who never quite got to grips with it all in their life on earth, St Paul says that we will only be judged on what we know, not that which is unknown to us. There are many people who will live on earth and never hear or read one word about Christ, and we are assured that He will judge fairly and accordingly.  But I suspect that any who have heard the name Christ, know that their sins are wiped out, and therefore know that a second chance is already in their grasp. I do not think God ‘sends’ anyone to the bad place - I believe those who are there will have freely chosen to be there (see 1 Corinthians 15:22 in Christ ALL will be made alive if they so wish – see also The Parable of the Wedding Banquet – all are invited but those that do not make it are the ones that choose to stay away).  And we may find, just like the naughty schoolboy that we had sat up in our room for hours because we were too proud to admit that we have done wrong, without realising that the party downstairs started hours ago, and had we just accepted that we owed someone an apology we could have been down in the banquet hours ago.



The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at james.knight@norfolk.gov.uk  

James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich.
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