HELL : Rejecting Love (pp.87-95)

Does creative love theism assume the salvation of everyone? It certainly assumes that God wants that, seeing how he reconciled the whole world and included everyone in his salvation plan (2 Corinthians 5:18). Since Christ died for all the ungodly, God's acceptance of everybody might be thought to be assured: there are no sinners for whom Christ did not atone. The model of universal salvation is strengthened when the idea is added that God's judgment serves his love. How could there be a final judgment like hell which (presumably) could not serve the redemptive purpose?

Universalism is a theory that takes seriously God's salvific will and assumes that God can save everyone, if he wants to do so. He could achieve this either by means of sovereign power (overcoming their resistance) or by way of sheer persistence (wearing them down). One way or another, God could see to it that every soul finds its way home. It is suggested that a doctrine of hell is unnecessary in Christianity. [John A. T. Robinson defends universal salvation: In the End God: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things (London: James Clarke, 1950).

We agree that the salvation of everybody is something God wants, and something we want too. But there's a problem. Why are there so many warnings about hell in the Bible if it's not real? Why would Jesus warn against the dread possibility of final rejection (Matthew 13:41)? It does appear that some may finally reject God's love and be separated from him forever. The warnings about eternal destruction are clear enough to prevent us from entertaining the hope of universal salvation. Evidently God values human freedom so much that he allows people finally to reject him.

Hell and Human Freedom

The big question surrounding hell, then, is not whether it exists but what its nature is? What kind of hell would cohere with creative love thinking? The nature of hell must not contradict what we know about God's love or require a nonsensical element in our thinking about God. We have to ponder what hell is, if it exists.

Augustine conceived of hell as a literal lake of fire where the damned are embodied in order to burn everlastingly in the flames. This cannot be true, because it contradicts our moral sense and God's moral nature. The idea that a fully conscious creature would undergo physical and mental torture through endless time is plainly sadistic and therefore incompatible with a God who loves humanity. We need an alternative model of hell that could be based on the Bible but not involve such horror. [A primer on hell and views of its nature is William Crockett, ed., Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992).]

First, hell cannot be viewed as a vindictive, retributive punishment. Since Jesus bore the sins of the world, we know that God is not in the business of punishing people. Jesus died so that he would not have to do that. Therefore, hell has to be more a matter of self-destruction, the logical result of final rejection of God. God does not choose hell for people - they choose it. God loves the ungodly, even those who finally reject him. He does not choose to break relations with them, though they may have broken relations with him. Hell is a possibility that arises from the human side, out of rebellion and obduracy. It exists for sinners who, though forgiven, steadfastly reject their acceptance by God. God invited them to his supper, but they declined the invitation.

There comes a point when God, who has done everything to bring sinners back into fellowship, gives up trying. God accepts defeat at this point and says, in effect, "Their disposition and direction appear to be fixed. They are a lost cause." To repeat, people are in hell because they choose it -none are sent there against their will. Hell is not retributive punishment.

Hell exists only because humans are free to spurn God's love and can choose to be separate. Freedom entails the possibility of rejection. If love is an offer, it can be accepted or rejected, because it cannot be forced. Hell exists because love can be refused. People can decide to live without God both in this life and forever. We might say it is their entitlement. If in the end they say no to God, then even God cannot save them. If they do not say "Your will be done" to God, they will hear God say "Your will be done" to them. Universal salvation is implausible chiefly because God can take no for an answer. [C. S. Lewis takes this line in The Problem of Pain (London: Collins, 1957), pp,. 106-16.]

Not that we should suppose God accepts refusal easily. He does not want us to refuse him and will do a great deal to prevent our doing so. When we consider Christ on the cross, we begin to understand how deep is God's desire not to accept rejection from any person. So it is our decision, not God's, that keeps hell open, because "The Lord is ...not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

We are not suggesting that it is easy for a person to go to hell - only that it can be done. God's love is offered to all, and hell is not a contradiction of that. Hell exists because love can be rejected. God would like to prevent it but cannot. Yes, there are things God cannot do, and this is one of them.

Granted, it is a problem understanding why anyone would be so foolish as to refuse God's love. What rationale could there possibly be for such a choice? Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he spoke of the mystery of iniquity (2 Thessalonians 2:7). Why would a person finally reject the love of God? We can see reasons in this life, based upon not knowing how foolish such rejection is. But why would anyone reject God in the end? There can be no act of greater folly. Perhaps Milton was right when he said that Satan prefers to reign in hell than serve in heaven. It seems that there are some who are determined not to love God, though it seems incomprehensible to us.

Jesus tells us that the criterion of judgment is not verbal profession alone. On the one hand, he says, "Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). On the other hand, he says God welcomes those who did not know they had responded but had in fact done so in acts of love toward the needy (Matthew 25:31-46). The criterion is words spoken together with lives lived. The question is whether we have shown mercy to the poor out of an appreciation of God's love. The criterion is not so much orthodox belief as a trust in God's grace which takes the form of love in the service of others.

What is Hell Like?

Creative love theism does have a doctrine of hell, but hell cannot be an everlasting vindictive torment. God is not vindictive and does not practice sadism. The lurid portrayals of hellfire in the Christian tradition contradict God's identity, according to the gospel. God is not a pitiless, vengeful judge but One who loves his enemies and the Son of God died for them.

The view of hell as everlasting torment in body and soul has been a dark aspect of traditional theology for a long time. The problem has often been compounded by other beliefs such as double predestination - the idea that the damned were not elected to salvation and so had no opportunity to escape their fate. Not many Christians find this view tolerable, because there is so little love or justice in it. It makes the defense of our faith practically impossible. [So Anthony Flew, God and Philosophy (London: Hutchison, 1966), pp. 56-57.]

How then might we construe the nature of hell in a way that might be viable? One way would be to interpret the traditional view of hell metaphorically, not literally. This is what C. S. Lewis attempted. [C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946), and The Problem of Pain (London: Fontana, 1957), chap. 8]. In that book hell is interpreted as the state of being separated from God. It is bound up with the decision to reject trinitarian fellowship with God. Hell thus fulfills the earthly decision to live apart from God and in disregard of others, the decision to reject the call of God and to live for oneself. Under this scenario, hell gives people the opportunity to live boring, self-centered lives forever, if they want to. Hell is not everlasting punishment so much as the appropriate end to a direction chosen. Hell is the proper way to end a life of resistance to God's love. It symbolizes the fact that the goal of life can be missed, that human choices matter and that repentance is required for salvation. A life of self-glory and lovelessness leads to hell and is fulfilled there.

This view is plausible and intellectually appealing. It has the advantage of not having to confront the tradition about hell more directly, though it bends it in a metaphorical direction. Hell is reinterpreted as a place where self-centered lives go on forever. The fire is an image and the pain is mental; as a result, it does not have the same feeling of sadism to it, though its unendingness is frightening. Hell is a version of everlasting Chinese water torture - drip, drip, drip forever.

One problem with this view is that it sounds like an evasion of the biblical witness. How could one say that God destroys body and soul under this scenario? Metaphorical hell is not pleasant, but is it really hell? The picture of hell in Lewis may be drab and dull, but it is no lake of fire. Does it do justice to the terrible imagery in Scripture? And does it avoid the impression that hell involves endless vindictive punishment with no point to it?

There is a second view that we prefer. Though no one can be absolutely certain about the nature of hell, this model seems more credible for several reasons. It is called conditional immortality or annihilationism, and it is gaining ground. [John Stott defends this view in a dialogue with David Edwards: Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988; published in the U.S. as Evangelical Essentials [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988]), pp. 312-20. Daniel P. Fuller rejects it in The Unity of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 196-203.] The view takes Paul literally when he says the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The idea is that humans were made mortal, with everlasting life being a gift, not a natural capacity. This means that the biblical images of destruction and ruin can be taken to mean the termination of existence - there can be a final and irreversible death. The fires of hell, then, do not torture but rather consume the wicked. [The best presentation is by Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes (Houston: Providential Press, 1982).]

E. G. Selwyn comments: "There is little in the New Testament to suggest a state of everlasting punishment, but much to indicate an ultimate destruction or dissolution of those who cannot enter into life: conditional immortality seems to be the doctrine most consonant with the teaching of Scripture." [E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 358.

Of course the Bible is reserved in giving us information about the nature of life after death. Yet when it uses the language of death and destruction to refer to hell, it leaves the distinct impression that hell is closure. The Old Testament sets the stage for the New Testament position in speaking of the wicked fading like grass and being cut off forever (as in Psalm 37). It speaks of the wicked being burned up and being no more (Malachi 4:1-2). This language fits closely with Jesus' warning that God will destroy body and soul in hell. The apostles use the same imagery of destruction, as when Paul speaks of everlasting destruction falling on the impenitent (2 Thessalonians 1:9). He also says the wicked will reap corruption (Galatians 6:8) and God will ultimately destroy them (Philippians 1:28). He designates the wages of sin as death (Romans 3:23) and the destiny of the wicked as destruction (Philippians 3:19). A fair-minded person might just conclude from these texts that the Bible teaches the ultimate destruction of the impenitent.

The Old Testament does not have a doctrine of hell as such. It speaks of people going to Sheol when they die, but this is not hell. The term hell used in the Gospels is a Hebrew loanword, gehenna, which meant the Valley of Hinnom, an area below the east wall of Jerusalem where rubbish was thrown. It makes sense that the rubbish would be burning with cinders dumped from hearths and the fire smoking endlessly with foul fumes. A mass of rotting flesh and vegetables would be alive with maggots, which Mark captures in a quote from Isaiah: "Their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched" (Mark 9:48, see Isaiah 66:24). The horror of the scene is palpable.

Not only is our view of conditional immortality true to a literal reading of Scripture, but it is also consistent with the nature of God's wrath as discussed in chapter six. We argued that God's anger comes in order to heal sinners, not to visit endless torment on them. If wrath fails to heal them, then hell must be a termination. Otherwise the picture would be one of God endlessly tormenting people for no reason except retribution.

Immortality and Justice

Why has the annihilationist possibility not been noticed much before? Why would anybody have turned the notion of destruction into everlasting life in hell, creating this monstrous problem? We attribute it to the influence on theology of the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. With that view entering the picture, the shift is logical and inevitable. If souls are immortal and hell exists, it follows that the wicked will have to suffer consciously forever in it. If the soul is naturally immortal, it has to spend eternity somewhere. If there is a gehenna of fire, hell has to be a condition of torment. The conclusion flows inexorably from the Greek premise. Thus the word destruction gets turned into "everlasting torment."

But the belief in the immortality of the soul is not a biblical view. The Bible points to a resurrection of the whole person as a gift of God, not a natural possession. Humans were not created with a natural capacity for everlasting life - it was Jesus the Messiah who brought immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). The soul is not an immortal substance that has to exist eternally. Let us just accept exactly what Jesus says : God is able to destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). The idea of natural immortality seems to have skewed the Christian teaching about hell. It was a mistake and we should correct it.

Not only is conditional immortality more biblical than a view of hell as everlasting conscious punishment, but it has other advantages as well. First, it does not impute to God the sadistic behavior of torturing people endlessly. God as revealed in Christ is merciful and does not torture people. How could one respect, let alone worship, a torturing God? John Stott rightly admits: "I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain." [Stott in Essentials, p. 314.]

Our view of hell has to pass the moral test, and the view we are advancing here does so. It does not involve everlasting torture; it does not have anything to do with double predestination. God is justified in destroying the wicked because he respects human choices. Affirming hell means accepting human significance. Sinners are not compelled to love God. They have the moral right to closure. They can choose that, if they want to. In the end God allows us to do and be what we want.

Second, hell as destruction is more just. No set of human choices can deserve everlasting conscious torment. No crime could deserve such punishment. It goes far beyond the Old Testament standard of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the standard of strict equivalence. What, we ask, would a sinner have to do to earn everlasting punishment? Even Hitler could not impose everlasting punishment on his victims, horrible though their fate was. Therefore Hitler himself did not deserve everlasting conscious punishment on an eye-for-an-eye basis. This is apart from the fact that Jesus calls us to a higher standard than strict equivalence.

In terms of justice, the traditional view of hell is simply unacceptable. It is a punishment in excess of anything that sinners deserve. It creates a disproportion between sins committed in time and suffering experienced forever.

Besides, no purpose is served by the unending torture of the wicked except vengeance. From Scripture we know that God does not delight in punishment for its own sake. Even the plagues of Egypt were intended to be redemptive for those who would respond to the warning. Unending torment is pointless, wasted suffering that can never produce anything good. Conditional immortality makes better sense in terms of justice. If people refuse God's friendship, it would not be right to visit on them everlasting torment, but it would be right to let them go out of existence as the biblical language implies.

Third, conditional immortality paints a better picture metaphysically. The traditional view leaves things split and divided. It has heaven and hell existing alongside each other forever and history ending badly in a stark dualism. Instead of a victory, rebellion goes on forever in hell under conditions of torment. The new creation is flawed from day one, since evil, suffering and death continue to be real. In the new order, then, there would still be two kingdoms - one belonging to God and one to Satan. This cannot be. Surely in the end God will be completely victorious over sin and death, suffering and Satan. Only if sin and death, suffering and Satan, all go up in smoke does history end in the unqualified victory of God.

According to the traditional view, darkness will hang over the creation forever. It therefore makes better sense metaphysically to think of hell as final destruction and the dwindling out of existence of the impenitent. The alternative is to posit the eternal existence alongside God of a disloyal opposition in an unredeemed corner of the new creation. What sort of a new creation would that be?

The traditional view of the nature of hell (that the wicked suffer unending conscious torment) is therefore unbiblical. It was possibly fostered by a Hellenistic view of the soul, it casts a negative light on the character of God, and it is supported by bad arguments. A better case can be made for a view of hell in terms of conditional immortality.

The Destiny of the Unevangelized

Under either view, hell is a grim reality. Even if it is not a torture chamber, hell is serious business. To enter hell is to be rejected by God, to miss the purpose for which one was created and to pass into oblivion while others enter into bliss. Hell is a terrifying possibility : the possibility of using freedom to destroy ourselves.

What about those who die in ignorance of Christ? When do they decide for or against God? When is their destiny settled? The fact that God loves them rules out the possibility that they simply have no chance to be saved. Since Christ died for them, we cannot possibly say that it is just unfortunate that they never learned about it. Obviously God will not give up until those people make a decision about this gift which has their name on it.

There are two real possibilities now being debated among evangelicals. One is the view that the unevangelized can be saved exactly as Job was in the Old Testament. He believed in God on the basis of what had been shown to him and was saved by faith just as any Christian is. Faith pleases God when exercised by a pagan like Melchizedek, a Jew like David or a Christian like Peter (Hebrews 11:6). The level of theological understanding is not the decisive issue. [See John Sanders, No Other Name: AnInvestigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), chap. 7, and Clark H. Pinnock, A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), chap. 5.]

The other possibility is postmortem salvation. Just as babies dying in infancy are saved after death, so the unevangelized can be saved in the hereafter. There are texts in the New Testament that hint at such an outcome (1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6), and it was commonly believed among the early church fathers. [Stephen T. Evans, Risen Indeed: A Christian Philosophy of Resurrection (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 159-65.]

One can combine these two views and say that decisions in this life set the soul's direction in relation to God, and fuller revelation after death enables the person to pick up where things left off and decide once and for all whether to journey toward or away from God.

We have concluded that the basic hindrance that keeps people from salvation is a turning away from the love of God, not an infraction of the rules. Despite our acts of betrayal, God persists in coming graciously to us. Even his wrath is intended to bring out our conversion and reconciliation. If we refuse, if the final decision is against God's grace, even hell is not vengeful or retributive but a decision to terminate life since nothing positive remains for it.

Chapter 9 .....