This Problematic Doctrine of Hell

The Place that Simply Cannot Exist, Except for People who Really Deserve It

If there’s anything that makes Christian beliefs look antiquated and barbaric to the modern observer, it is the doctrine of hell. The idea of God, or even moral absolutes, doesn’t offend our sensibilities (and indeed, our intuition) nearly as much as the idea of a perpetually burning lake of fire, where people roast eternally for a smattering of petty moral offenses they committed during their lifetime. It doesn’t sound very believable, and it doesn’t sound very nice.

There are two areas of interest here: the way Christians deal with the concept of hell, and the plausibility of its existence.

There seems to be a misconception that Christians believe in hell because they want other people to go there. This is not the case. There are vindictive people, of course—along with not-so-vindictive people who have vindictive moments—but in my experience, most Christians believe in hell simply because it is a natural consequence of the other things they believe. Having accepted it, they proceed to do one of two things: pay as little attention to it as possible, or pay so much attention to it that they become stressed-out evangelists with sandwich boards.

I have noticed that most Christians err on the side of ignoring the issue, which doesn’t seem very holistic of them. All things considered, I think the soapbox evangelists are behaving quite rationally. If you really believe that the majority of your fellow human beings are going to fry in hell—and that you can change this—you really should be out there with a sandwich board. Admittedly, it isn’t likely to work, since nobody listens to frenetic preachers on street corners, but you should be so concerned that you rashly resort to highly ineffective methods like these.

Why do I not behave this way? It is partially because I do not quite see it that way, partially because of a separation between my beliefs and my everyday experience, partially because of John Calvin, and partially because it just doesn’t sit well with me. If God created all this exclusively so that we could rush around like maniacs in paralyzing fear for our neighbour’s salvation, you’d figure he would’ve embedded that intent more clearly in our experience of the natural world—or perhaps in the Bible.

On the subject of fear, people often say that the fear of hell is a needless, regrettable consequence of religious superstition. This is ridiculous. One of the most definitive features of hell is that it’s a place where only other people are going.

* * *

The real question, however, is whether hell exists at all. Moreover, it is a question of whether God exists, since he is linked with this outrageous idea. However, I don’t think that people reject the idea of hell because they find it irrational per se, or because they have already decided that there is no God. I’ve noticed that many people—whether or not they are theists—treat hell as a separate, independent idea, which they reject because they find it wanton and malevolent. [1]

The classical idea of hell makes me profoundly uneasy. It is a completely different issue from the existence of suffering (which I can accept much more easily). I, like other Christians, am convinced that the beliefs I hold are useful, and that they contain, in some fashion, the truth. Yet it is horrifying to imagine that one could be eternally punished for living a life that, to all appearances, is thoroughly harmless. Furthermore, can we possibly conceive of a purpose for it? We punish criminals for deterrence and correction, but never for punishment’s sake. Finally, how could God have created people with the intention of damning them?

The idea of hell can be reconciled, or it can be rejected. In either case, it should be understood.

Consider the nature of hell in the Christian tradition. Although the Old Testament is chock full of violence and wrath, it contains no concept of hell. It was believed that souls went to an ambiguous place called Sheol, and at one point in Ecclesiastes, the writer openly expresses doubt about whether anything happens after death. By the time of the New Testament, however, the idea of hell has emerged—Jesus called it Gehenna, which referred to a valley outside Jerusalem where garbage was dumped and burned. In parables, however, hell is described as a place of darkness, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Is hell dark, or is it alight with flames? The only thing these two analogies have in common is that they describe an unpleasant place. Additionally, there is no clear account of what happens after death. Only Revelation has specific-sounding details, and nobody in their right mind should get overly specific about stuff that’s written the book of Revelation.

The New Testament writings do not explain what, exactly, is necessary for a person to go to hell. They do not explain what happens to all the people who have never heard about Jesus, or what happens to everyone who lived and died before he was born. In fact, nothing is clearly explained, except that Jesus is the only sure way salvation.

According to Christian beliefs, then, hell is an undesirable place where God consigns people because of sin. I do not believe that there is a large, fiery mosh pit in the afterlife where people will feel hot temperatures for all eternity. I do not believe that Satan is flipping humans on a spatula somewhere. [2] I believe, however, that people can be held morally responsible by God, and that whatever this may entail, it cannot be seen as unjust. Any concept of eternal punishment is inherently limited by our present conception of time, and the precise nature of such punishment cannot be known. [3] If God exists, how could we expect that those who deny him—some in more dramatic ways than others—would come to be with him? Some form of separation would follow, and it would naturally be unpleasant. One may ask why God would create people despite knowing that they will go to hell, but this is a misleading question. It presumes that people are created individually, as if some people could be created instead of others. But there is no wholly independent creation of individuals; as we can see, there has only ever been one creation, and our existence is contingent upon it all. We are all in this together.

These answers may still be unsatisfying. Why did God create the lot of us, if even one of us is destined for hell? The common response is that perhaps there is no way to create people who do accept him, except alongside people who don’t. Perhaps God considers the whole thing worth it, though it pains him. I do not have a problem with this explanation—but I do not feel responsible for providing answers like this in the first place.

In order to assert that a good God would not send people to hell, I would need to know many things. I would need to know why we live and die, what his true purpose is in creating all this, what happens to the people who go to hell, why he chose to do it this way instead of some other way, whether any other way is possible, and innumerable secrets of the universe. I know none of these things.

Thus, I cannot say that a good God would not send people to hell. It follows that I cannot factor this in when deciding whether or not I believe in God. It would be silly to deny him on the premise that he might treat people who deny him unjustly. If he exists, he knows what he’s doing.

In summary, the idea of hell squares with my intuition in areas of familiarity—the moral law, moral responsibility, justice, the difficult choice being the right one, and a belief in God. It does not square with my intuition in areas of unfamiliarity—a divine concept of fairness, eternity, and what happens after I die. This does bother me, but when I consider how ignorant I am of the greater truth, it’s not so different from the existential dread that I inevitably feel when I cross into this realm of thought.

I will not reject what is evident to me in protest of what is not.


[1] I recognize that it may also be seen as irrational precisely because it is wanton and malevolent, but I’ve addressed this throughout.

[2] I once saw this on a T-Shirt in the States. It said “No parties in hell, just one big BBQ.” Actually, here it is.

[3] Years ago, I had an argument with a friend. She held an annihilationist position, believing that God would, at some point, snuff people out of existence, rather than leave them in hell forever. She said that the alternative was unthinkable. At that time, I accused her of believing this merely because she wanted to. But there is an intimate link between what we find unthinkable, and what we find nonsensical—I can scarcely recall the state of mind that I must have been in, to have insisted so strongly on something so uncertain.


One Response to “This Problematic Doctrine of Hell”

  1. I liked this entry, Steve. It wasn’t over my head, and I think you came to some fair conclusions and covered your bases. 🙂

    Yay for heavy topics that Christine “gets”.

    Something I agree with strongly:
    “Why did God create the lot of us, if even one of us is destined for hell? The common response is that perhaps there is no way to create people who do accept him, except alongside people who don’t. Perhaps God considers the whole thing worth it, though it pains him.”

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