Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Problem of Hell

The Problem of Hell
Will G

Summary. This is intended to be a shorter article explaining my views on hell, offering a coherent solution to many of its problems. Basically, I argue that hell is based on a choice, the choice to accept or reject Jesus. But this choice must follow an important principle: it has to be made knowing the consequences. And no atheist finds it plausible that a person could knowingly choose to go to hell. My solution is to redefine heaven and hell so that heaven involves joining part of ourselves to God in order to do perfect good over an eternity, and hell involves either just exclusion from God or a finite amount of pain (finite despite it lasting forever.) I also argue that people's choice to go to such a heaven or hell defines whether or not they are a Christian in this life.

A good view of how this theology fits in with a greater picture is provided here.

Edited 12/17/07


The problem of hell is regarded by those skeptical of Christianity as a very significant difficulty in Christian views on salvation. Rather than go on about the difficulties in Christian views on salvation, I will simply state a revised philosophical perspective on the issue that I think is conceptually clarifying and makes a great deal of sense.

Why Hell is a Choice

Christian views on salvation have always maintained that hell is a result of judgement. That is true. However since everyone allegedly has the ability to accept Jesus Christ and from then on face no judgement whatsoever, it is not just about judgement. It is about judgement, but there is something more to it than that. It is a specific judgement, relating not just to someone's sins, but to someone's refusal to do anything about those sins. In other words, it is not just about sin, it is also about accepting Jesus Christ. It is also about choice.

Two Key Principles of Choice

Since we are about to discuss choice, it is important to discuss two principles of choice that are involved in the choice to go to hell. The first principle is the principle that if you choose something, you are responsible for that choice. This principle supports the idea that people can be condemned for rejecting Jesus Christ. The second principle is that for a choice to be a real choice, it has to be made knowing the consequences. This is the area which atheists object makes the idea of choice regarding hell nonsensical.

The first principle of choice is that if you genuinely choose something, then the results of that choice cannot, really, be laid on someone else. If I choose to shoot myself, then who has the blame? Unless I was forced into it, I do, because I chose to do it. Similarly, if I go and join the army, and I get sent into a combat zone because there is a war on, then whose fault is it that I am in danger? It is mine, because I knew when I joined the army that I could be sent into danger. So if I go to hell, then whose fault is it, if I freely and fully chose to go there? Granted, hell is terrible. But the principle of choice has overriding power. Even though hell is really, really bad, if I freely choose to go there, it is all my fault, not God's. Hence if hell cannot be freely chosen, then hell can never be justified. But if hell can be freely chosen, then hell can be completely justified. That is how powerful the principle of choice is; properly employed it can justify hell. So if people freely choose to reject Jesus, then they deserve to be punished and to go to hell. If that choice is freely and fully made, then, logically, there is no problem with hell.

Now it is important to note the second principle that needs to be followed for a choice to be genuinely made. This principle needs to be followed for the above principle to work, and is the principle atheists say has been violated in the choice to go to hell (and that, hence, hell is unjustified). This principle is, that if I freely choose to do something, then it can only be genuinely be called a choice if I know what the consequences of my choice are. For example, suppose I give a tropical islander who has never seen a gun before a firearm. Suppose they then point it at another islander and pull the trigger, killing them. Did that person freely choose to shoot his fellow islander? Obviously not, because he did not know if he pulled the trigger, the person would die. So, the doctrine of hell makes no sense if people who go to hell do not choose to go there, and they can only freely choose to go there if they choose to go to hell knowing the consequences. So our doctrine of hell must show how people who go to hell freely choose to go there knowing the consequences of their choice.

Because atheists don't believe they reject Jesus because they want to go to hell, rather, they choose to reject Jesus because they see no evidence of Christianity, no atheist would agree that the concept of choice makes sense when applied to hell. To be sure, the concept of choice COULD theoretically justify hell, but it doesn't, as non-Christians would say, because non-Christians don't knowingly choose to go to hell.

How Hell Can Be a Choice

So does the Christian view of hell make sense given the atheist's objection? Christians have always maintained that when a person goes to hell, it is of their own free choice. But why would anyone choose to go to hell, really? Would a perfectly sane and healthy man, suffering no depression at all, leave his loving wife and kids and choose to jump off a cliff for no reason? It doesn't make sense. And, sad to say, many an atheist would say that the standard doctrine of hell makes about as much sense as that. Atheists may dislike God, or hate God, but why on earth would they choose to go to hell if they will get tortured there forever?

My modification to this position is to modify what heaven and hell actually are, from a Christian perspective, so that it is possible for some people to knowingly choose to go to hell.

On hell, it is true that hell will consist of suffering, but that suffering has been considerably over-emphasised. It is not necessary for an idea of an eternity of pain for that pain to be infinite. Let's say one day I break my leg. Let's say that every second I suffer 10 units of pain, hence over a minute I suffer 600 units of pain. That is why I do not wish to break my leg. But let's say time was stopped the moment my leg was broken. If so, then I would suffer 10 units of pain forever. That kind of thing is what hell could be. Or perhaps, as some argue (see here) it consists of no suffering at all, just the pain and shame from exclusion from God. This means if heaven involved a sufficient cost, some people could freely choose to go to hell.

And I argue that heaven also involves a large cost, one big enough to make an eternity of limbo a reasonable option for some people. While our souls and bodies will remain separate, our spirit will become one with God's Holy Spirit, as part of the perfection process where we will do good over an eternity. This means that we partly become part of God, and lose some of our 'self'. Of course, one may object this is not such a large cost. But what this choice is, what it really involves, is something we cannot really imagine. This may involve a considerable loss of self, to become partly part of God and/or lose a significant amount of autonomy and individuality. I find it difficult to conceptualise this, but I think that the extent to which we lose autonomy and individuality is the extent to which we would have to in order to have a lot of people choose willingly to go to hell/limbo. So some people will freely choose to go to hell.

Why do I think you have to join with God to go to heaven? In another area of my theology I have outlined (see here) I believe the only way to be completely morally perfect, or perfect in any respect, is to be God, because only God can, by definition, by perfect. Everything that is perfect is God, everything that is not God is not perfect, although it may be incredibly good. Total perfection is something only God can have. To be sure, God can create things outside of himself that are very good, extremely good, but not 100% perfect. So when God creates beings outside of himself, in order to create and love something apart from himself, the creatures he creates are extremely good, but not completely perfect. This is why the Fall occurred, because any being outside of God cannot do perfect good over an eternity, only God has that power. This explains why God did not create everyone perfect, and how everyone will be perfect in heaven. The way God will make everyone perfect in heaven is by joining our spirits with His Holy Spirit, so we will be able to do only perfect good over an eternity, using God's Holy Spirit to do so (I feel this is a good position to adopt because it also explains why there must be moral evil in the universe.) God has to do this otherwise we get eternally cut off from him due to our (necessary) imperfection.

How this Choice Can Show the World we See

Alright, so some people can freely choose to go to heaven, and some people can freely choose to go to hell. But that doesn't explain the world we see. It still doesn't defeat the problem that atheists don't knowingly choose to go to hell. Because even if it is a choice that can be rationally made in favour of hell, atheists and those who reject Christianity don't get to make it in this life, because no atheists and non-Christians know about the Christian hell in this life.

But as I argue, God is omniscient, and since he knows everything, he doesn't have to offer us this choice in this life. Instead, God knows which among us will choose to go to heaven, and who will choose to go to hell, if faced with that choice. So God doesn't have to offer us this choice right now in order to determine who will reject Jesus Christ. He knows who will reject Jesus already. So God is free to work as though atheists have already made a knowing choice to go to hell, even though they haven't. Because presumably God knows what they would choose if they were offered such a choice. And I believe we all get to face such a choice in the afterlife, but it won't contradict what God knew we would choose.

But that still doesn't explain why every Christian is a person who will choose to go to heaven and why every rejecting non-Christian will choose to go to hell if faced with the choice. After all, there are many kinds of Christians, and many kinds of non-Christians.

But I argue this objection is actually putting the cart before the horse, or rather, looking at a puddle and then remarking how lucky it is that the puddle is shaped around the hole (as Douglas Adams said in another context). God has omniscient knowledge, so he knows who would choose to go to hell or heaven if given a knowledgeable choice in the afterlife. Even though everyone who goes to hell currently lacks knowledge that hell exists, God knows what they would choose if they did make that choice freely, and thus ensures that they go to a place that honours that choice if they did make it (as they someday will.) And based on this knowledge, God makes people Christian or does not make someone Christian. So it is not surprising that all people God has made Christians go to heaven, and all those who would rather not make the choice for heaven go to hell: God has selected us, we haven't selected to accept or reject Christianity ourselves.

Of course, one objection following from this, is that there are many non-Christians who think they would actually make the choice to join with God, but don't presently have a Christian belief. But I would say this is a deep, internal choice, that we can only really fully make when faced with it in the afterlife, being shown the complete consequences of joining with God with His help. And it may not relate obviously to what we consciously think we would choose. We may think that we would choose to go to join with God, but we don't really know, for it is only with God's help that we can consciously and fully choose such a thing. I can't really explain what it would be like to consciously make such a choice, neither can any human. What would it be like to have one's spirit completely joined with and made subservient to God's Spirit, possessing some individuality but not all of that which you had before? I don't know, but I can guess it involves a cost to some people more than others.

Finally I will touch on one last objection, which is that it seems somewhat incongruous that there are clumps of Christians and atheists in the world, and the children of Christians tend to be Christian, but not the children of atheists. Another mechanism I think needs to be brought in to explain the distribution of Christians and non-Christians. That is that God actually allocates souls into this world, and that in some way souls must 'pre-exist', with God knowing their choices. So, hence, the makeup of Christians/non-Christians is the way it is to in some way to serve his mysterious will. On this point, I personally would like to think those who die before the age of accountability go to heaven, because they would have made the choice to go to heaven if they had gotten older, and those who never hear of Christianity do have some chance of being saved.


To summarize: hell can theoretically be justified if it can be explained how everyone who goes to hell chooses to go there fully knowing the consequences of their choice. But since no sane person would choose to do this, atheists argue, hell makes no sense. However, as I reply, some people could choose to freely go to hell if heaven involves a cost to one's self, and hell involves no pain or finite pain over an eternity. But why would people's choices in this matter be divided along Christian/rejected Christianity lines? Because God has made only those people Christian who would make the choice to become part of Him, and has caused those who reject Christianity to reject Christianity who would not make this choice to join with him in the afterlife. And God knows that we all would make that choice in a certain way because he is omniscient and can foretell what we would choose if we made that choice in the afterlife (which we do get to make in the afterlife, probably, but it's redundant.)

The discussion is continued here.

Will G
First written: 2/10/07

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's impossible for people to stay in hell if they have a free choice to leave. If hell is painful they would want to leave. If it's not painful then there is no punishment in hell. You cannot have it both ways. Link

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marilyn Adams argues that damnation in hell is so inconceivable of a horror that human beings cannot fully understand the consequences of choosing for or against God. She claims people do not have a free will with respect to this matter "with fully open eyes," and as such argues they should not be held fully responsible for such a choice. In her view, for God to give humans this choice is like an adult giving a child a loaded handgun. Hell, as the final consequence for sin is so disproportionate to the sinful acts themselves that a person's eternal destiny cannot hinge on whether or not they behave correctly. If God does this, then he places unreasonable expectations on human beings who cannot fathom the consequences of their choices.

Marilyn McCord Adams, "The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians," in Reasoned Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology in Honor of Norman Kretzmann, ed. Eleonore Stump (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993), pp. 308-311.

Blogger Will G said...

I think it's possible there's no pain or suffering in hell but no joy either, it's just nothing, like being in limbo. The 'punishment' is being in limbo away from God.

Blogger Will G said...

Also I should note that your point depends on how great the suffering in hell is versus any disadvantages in heaven, like for example, having to become part of God to some extent, as I argue.

As I noted in my article, the idea that hell consistents of successive moments of suffering is erroneous. If it's timeless it can be very finite, indeed, it would have to be. Because you don't get successive moments without time proceeding in a continual manner. Timelessness is just stopped time, forever.

So if hell is timelessly finite and only consists in a fair punishment, then it's possible hell could consist of a fair amount of suffering, but people would still choose it in favour of joining with God, presuming that this was how they felt about that choice. Because it's finite.

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