|By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2001|
|Hell has been called cruel, inhuman, and barbarous. Bertrand Russell said anyone who threatens people with eternal punishment, as Jesus did, is inhumane. Unbe¬lievers in general have questioned both the exis¬tence and justice of hell. In this article, Dr. Norman Geisler explains why Orthodox Christians have de¬fended both the reality and equity of hell.|
Hell has been called cruel, inhuman, and barbarous. Bertrand Russell said anyone who threatens people with eternal punishment, as Jesus did, is inhumane.1Unbelievers in general have questioned both the existence and justice of hell. Orthodox Christians, however, both Catholic and Protestant, have defended both the reality and equity of hell.
The existence of hell has been defended by arguments both from Scripture and from human reason.
Scripture emphatically affirms the doctrine of hell. Some of the strongest assertions that there is a hell come from Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. He had more to say about hell than concerning Heaven. Jesus warned, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). He added of those who reject him, “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age” (Matt. 13:40).
In the Olivet Discourse our Lord said that at the final judgment God will say “to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”’ (Matt. 25:41b). Of the seriousness of the danger of hell, Jesus warned, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43). The reality of hell is obvious from a vivid story told by Jesus in Luke 16. This story is unlike a parable, since in it Jesus uses the actual name of a person (Lazarus). The story concerned the fate after death of a rich man and a beggar, Lazarus:
Other inspired writings of the New Testament affirm the existence of hell. Perhaps the most graphic is found in the Revelation of John:
The apostle Paul spoke of everlasting separation from God, saying: “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thess. 1:7b-9). The writer of Hebrews adds a note of finality: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
In addition to direct affirmations, Scripture offers reasons for the existence of hell. One is that justice demands the existence of hell, and God is just (Romans 2). He is so pure and untainted that he cannot even look upon sin (Hab. 1:13). God is no respecter of persons, “For God does not show favoritism” (Rom. 2:11). As Abraham declared, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Psalm 73 is representative of passages teaching that not all justice is accomplished in this life. The wicked seem to prosper (Ps. 73:3). Thus, the existence of a place of punishment for the wicked after this life is necessary to maintain the justice of God. Surely, there would be no real justice were there no place of punishment for the demented souls of Stalin and Hitler, who initiated the merciless slaughter of multimillions.
God’s justice demands that there is a hell.
Jonathan Edwards argued that even one sin deserves hell, since the eternal, holy God cannot tolerate any sin. Each person commits a multitude of sins in thought, word, and deed. This is all compounded by the fact that we reject God’s immense mercy. And add to this man’s readiness to find fault with God’s justice and mercy, and we have abundant evidence of the need for hell. If we had a true spiritual awareness, we would not be amazed at hell’s severity but at our own depravity.
The Bible asserts that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). But love cannot act coercively, only persuasively. A God of love cannot force people to love him. Paul spoke of things being done freely and not of compulsion (2 Cor. 9:7). Forced loved is not love; it is rape. A loving being always gives “space” to others. He does not force himself upon them against their will. As C. S. Lewis observed, “the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use. Merely to override a human will... would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo.” Hence, those who do not choose to love God must be allowed not to love him. Those who do not wish to be with him must be allowed to be separated from him. Hell allows separation from God.
Since God cannot force people into heaven against their free will, human free choice demands a hell. Jesus cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together; as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). As Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.”
Unless there is a hell there is no final victory over evil. For what frustrates good is evil. The wheat and tares cannot grow together forever. There must be an ultimate separation, or else good will not triumph over evil. As in society, punishment for evil is necessary that good might prevail. Even so, in eternity good must triumph over evil. If it does not, then God is not in ultimate control. God’s sovereignty demands a hell, otherwise he would not be the ultimate victor over evil that the Bible declares him to be (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-28; Rev. 20-22).
At the center of Christianity is the cross (1 Cor. 1:17-18; 15:3). Without it there is no salvation (Rom. 4:25; Heb. 10:10-14). It is the very purpose for which Christ came into the world (Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10). Without the cross there is no salvation (John 10:1, 9-10; Acts 4:12). Only through the cross can we be delivered from our sins (Rom. 3:21-26). Jesus suffered great agony and even separation from God on the cross (Heb. 2:10-18; 5:7-9). Anticipating the cross, Jesus “sweat as it were great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). But why the cross and all this suffering unless there is a hell? Christ’s death is robbed of its eternal significance unless there is an eternal separation from God from which people need to be delivered.
The Bible describes the reality of hell in forceful figures of speech. It is said to be a place of darkness (Matt. 8:12; 22:13), which is “outside” [the gate of the heavenly city] (Rev. 22:14-15). Hell is away from the “presence of the Lord” (Matt. 25:41; 2 Thess. 1:7-9). Of course, these are relational, not necessarily spatial, terms. God is “up” and hell is “down.” God is “inside” and hell is “outside.” Hell is the other direction from God.
The nature of hell is a horrifying reality. It is like being left outside in the dark forever (Matt. 8:12). It is like a wandering star (Jude 13), a waterless cloud (Jude 12), a perpetually burning dump (Mark 9:43-48), a bottomless pit (Rev. 20:1, 3), a prison (1 Peter 3:19), and a place of anguish and regret (Luke 16:28).
To borrow the title of the book by Lewis, hell is the “great divorce”—an eternal separation from God (2 Thess. 1:7-9). There is, in biblical language, a great gulf fixed” between hell and heaven (Luke 16:26) so that no one can pass from one side to the other.
Nowhere does the Bible describe it as a “torture chamber” where people are forced against their will to be tortured. This is a caricature created by unbelievers to justify their reaction that the God who sends people to hell is cruel. This does not mean that hell is not a place of torment. Jesus said it was (Luke 16:24). But unlike torture which is inflicted from without against one’s will, torment is self-inflicted.
Even atheists have suggested that the door of hell is locked from the inside. We are condemned to our own freedom from God. Heaven’s presence of the divine would be the torture to one who has irretrievably rejected him. Torment is living with the consequences of our own bad choices. It is the weeping and gnashing of teeth that results from the realization that we blew it and deserve the consequences. Just as a football player may pound on the ground in agony after missing a play that loses the Super Bowl, so those in hell know that the pain they suffer is self-induced.
Hell is also depicted as a place of eternal fire. This fire is real but not necessarily physical (as we know it), because people will have imperishable physical bodies (John 5:28-29; Rev. 20:13-15), so normal fire would not affect them. Further, the figures of speech that describe hell are contradictory if taken in a physical sense. It has flames, yet is outer darkness. It is a dump (with a bottom), yet a bottomless pit. While everything in the Bible is literally true, not everything is true literally.
Many unbelievers would be willing to accept a temporary hell, but the Bible speaks of it as everlasting.
The Bible declares that God will endure forever (Ps. 90:1-2). Indeed, he had no beginning and has no end (Rev. 1:8). He created all things (John 1:3; Col. 1:15-16), and he will abide after this world is destroyed (2 Pet. 3:10-12). But God, by his very nature, cannot tolerate evil (Isa. 6; Hab. 1:13). Hence, evil persons must be separated from God forever. As long as God is God and evil is evil, the latter must be separated from the former.
Heaven is described as “everlasting” in the Bible. But the same Greek word (aionion), used in the same context, also affirmed that hell is “everlasting” (Matt. 25:41; cf. vs. 46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 20:10). So, if heaven is forever, so is hell. There is absolutely no ground in Scripture for supposing that hell is temporal and heaven is eternal.
Nor is there a possibility of getting out of hell. A great gulf is fixed so no one can leave (Luke 16:26). Judgment begins immediately after death (John 8:21; Heb. 9:27). This is not unlike the fact that some decisions in life are irreversible. Suicide is a one-way street.
People are conscious after they die, whether they are in heaven (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil 1:23; Rev. 6:9) or in hell (Luke 16:23). The Beast was still conscious after a thousand years in hell (Rev. 19:20; 20:10). It makes no sense to resurrect unbelievers to everlasting judgment (Dan. 12:2; John 5:28-29) before the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-15) unless they are conscious.
Unbelievers have offered many objections to the doctrine of hell.
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 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.
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. 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.” 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.
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 Pet. 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 Pet. 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.
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.”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.
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.
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.” 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. 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?
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.” 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.”
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. If God’s mercy cannot bear eternal misery, then neither can it bear lesser amounts. 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.”
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.
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 Pet. 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 Pet. 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).
While many believe hell is unreasonable, following Jonathan Edwards, a good argument can be made for its rationality:
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. 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?”
(From Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Book House, 1999. Used by permission.)