There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian
For Bertrand Russell, hell is an odious doctrine of Christian theology. He isn’t alone: many people, Christian and non-Christian alike find the idea of hell repulsive. They ask, how can a loving God damn people for all eternity?
Because hell is so controversial and difficult, I’m writing a series of posts summarizing what Christian philosophers have written about it. I don’t necessarily agree with what is said in these posts; I’m summarizing, not critiquing.
The first philosopher whose views I’ve explored is Dr. Peter Kreeft. He is a prominent Catholic apologist and author of over 80 books. Freshman year of college, I read his Handbook of Christian Apologetics and found the chapter on hell insightful. What follows is a selective summary of that chapter.
Kreeft opens by acknowledging the emotional and intellectual difficulties of hell: “[Hell is] the most difficult [doctrine] to defend, the most burdensome to believe and the first to be abandoned.” However, he says we still need to defend it. Why? Because hell is clearly taught by Christ, Scripture, and the Church. If they are wrong, the foundations of Christianity crumble.
Kreeft articulates the concept of hell by examining several things hell is not. I’ve chosen three:
One possibility is that hell exists, but only in this life. However this seems contradicted by Jesus in Mark 9:44-48. Perhaps it could be said that hell starts in this life, in the sense that our choices plant seeds that lead to eternal consequences. That seems plausible, but it’s very different from saying hell exists only in this life.
Another misconception is the idea that hell exists but is empty. Kreeft finds this implausible because of Jesus’ warnings about those who are saved as few and his condemnation of Judas: “It would be better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matthew 26:24-25).
The third false idea is that the damned are thrown into hell against their will. Kreeft denies this:
Some have taught or implied that hell is forced on the damned, that they are thrown into hell against their will. This would go contrary to the fundamental reason for hell’s existence: our free choice and God respecting it.
The damned in hell do not enjoy hell, but they do will it, by willing egotism instead of love, self instead of God, sin instead of repentance. There can be no heaven without self-giving love. The thing the damned wish for – happiness on their own selfish terms – is impossible even for God to give. It does not exist, it cannot exist.
If hell is chosen freely, the problem then becomes not one of reconciling hell with God’s love, but reconciling hell with human sanity. Who would freely prefer hell to heaven unless they were insane?
The answer is that all of us do at one time or another. Every sin reflects that preference. The skeptic objects that if we freely choose hell over heaven, we must be insane; the Christian replies that that is precisely what sin is: insanity, the deliberate refusal of joy and of truth. Perhaps the most shocking teaching in all of Christianity is this: not so much the doctrine of hell as the doctrine of sin. It means the human race is spiritually insane.
Having discussed what hell is not, Kreeft examines three things hell is:
First and fundamentally, hell is the privation of God. Because he is the creator of everything, God is “the only game in town.” Thus everyone who rejects God seals themselves off from him and his effects. This privation of God is the cause of the other two realities of hell.
Second, hell is punishment. However, it is a punishment that is necessary, like a natural law. Hell is not like your mother slapping your hand when you grab a cookie, but rather it’s like spoiling your appetite by eating cookies before dinner. It’s a necessary feature of reality rather than a purely volitional act. Kreeft explains: “The punishment of hell is inevitable, by natural law. Any human soul that freely refuses the one Source of all life and joy must find death and misery as its inevitable punishment.” If you reject the source of all goodness, you also reject all of the effects.
Third, hell is joyless and painful. Since the damned refuse the only source of joy, this must necessarily be the case:
Since the God to whom we choose to open and love and obey is the sole source of all the joy in reality, our refusal of this God must necessarily be joyless and painful. Thus hell must have the aspect of pain as well as punishment. If God is joy, hell must be pain.
According to Kreeft, this extreme painfulness of hell makes the whole question of whether the fires are physical a moot point. Internal/spiritual sufferings worse than physical sufferings, so if we abandon the crude concept of hell as a physical torture chamber, it might be a worse place.
So if hell is such a terrible place, how can those in heaven be happy if loved ones are in hell? Kreeft answers by asking the question: can souls in hell impede God’s joy? Clearly not, so damned souls don’t necessarily stifle the joy of heaven. If God’s joy isn’t sullied by a populated hell, and we will be more like him and partake in his joy, then it seems like a populated hell won’t rob us of our joy either. How is this done exactly? We don’t know, but we can be assured that it will be done (Revelation 21:4).
Later in the chapter, Kreeft lays out several arguments for hell’s existence. The one that most intrigues me is the argument from free will. If God respects our freedom, then there must be a way to reject him and that’s what hell is. There is no way around this. God is a gentleman, not a rapist. He won’t force us to spend eternity with him.
In fact, Kreeft argues that if there is no hell and salvation is automatic, then there is no free will. If we aren’t free to reject God and choose to spend eternity separated from him, then we aren’t really free. Kreeft expounds, “Free will and hell go together; scratch the idea of free will and you will find underneath it the necessity of hell.”
He then turns to the objection that the punishment of hell doesn’t fit the crime: how can temporal sins merit eternal torment? The answer is that hell is not so much a punishment added to sin as it is sin grown to its mature, rancid fruit:
If sin exists, hell can exist; for hell is only sin eternalized. Hell is not so much an external punishment added to sin, as it is sin come to full fruition…
Hell’s punishment fits sin’s crime because sin is a divorce from God. The punishment fits the crime because the punishment is the crime. Saying no to God means no God. The point is really very simple. Those who object to hell’s overseverity do not see what sin really is. They probably outlook at sin externally, sociologically, legalistically, as “behaving badly.” They fail to see the real horror of sin and the real greatness and goodness and joy of the God who is refused in every sin. We all fail to appreciate this. Who of us fully appreciates God’s beauty? The corollary immediately follows: who of us fully appreciates sin’s ugly horror?
In summation: Kreeft argues that hell is privation of God, punishment, and pain freely chosen by the damned. God’s love and forgiveness of sins is freely offered, and must be freely accepted. Unrepentant sinners don’t want God, and God gives them their choice for eternity.
This post is a selective summary of chapter 12 of Kreeft’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics. If you’re interested in more depth on this topic, I recommend reading the whole chapter for yourself. He also has an FAQ on eternity that addresses some of these ideas.