Christian Philosophers on Hell #3: J.P. Moreland

“[The doctrine of hell] is one of the chief grounds on which Christianity is attacked as barbarous, and the goodness of God impugned.” – C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

This is my third post summarizing what Christian philosophers think about hell. For this entry, I’ve chosen to write about Dr. J.P. Moreland’s philosophy. Moreland is a Professor at Biola University, and has written or co-written 30 books and many articles. My source is an interview with Moreland in Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Faith.

At the start of the interview, Moreland sets out a methodology:

I think people should try to set aside their feelings… The basis of their evaluation should be whether hell is a morally just or morally right state of affairs, not whether they like or dislike the concept.

I appreciate this perspective. Often people approach these discussions with strong emotions that keep them from rationally evaluating the arguments.

Early in the interview, Moreland notes that those who despise hell are in good company. God also hates it. Moreland cites Ezekiel 33:11:

I take no pleasure at all in the death of the wicked, but rather that he wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways!

In spite of this verse and others like it, many people think that God damns people arbitrarily with an obey-my-rules-or-else methodology. Moreland disagrees, he says, “The essence of hell is relational.” People don’t want relationship with God, and God grants their wish by separating them from himself. It’s incredibly tragic, but not arbitrary.  

Moreland elaborates:

God is the most generous, loving, wonderful, attractive being in the cosmos. He has made us with free will and he has made us for a purpose: to relate lovingly to him and to others… if we fail over and over again to live for the purpose for which we were made – a purpose, by the way, which would allow us to flourish more than living any other way – then God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve ask for all along in our lives, which is separation from him.

God offers his love to everyone, but some reject him and he gives them their wish.

Moreland then digs into the specifics of hell, noting that it’s not a torture chamber:  

Hell is punishment – but it’s not punishing. It’s not torture. The punishment of hell is separation from God, bringing shame, anguish and regret. And because we will have both body and soul in the resurrected state, the misery experienced can be both mental and physical. But the pain that’s suffered will be due to the sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment, from God, his kingdom, and the good life for which we were created in the first place.

So it is punishment. But it’s also the natural consequence of a life that has been lived in a certain direction.

At this point, Strobel pushes back – doesn’t the Bible’s frequent references to flames imply hell is a torture chamber?

Moreland reminds him that the Bible has several images for hell and if you take them literally, they contradict. For instance, hell is described as a place of utter darkness (Matt 8:12), and yet also as a furnace of fire (Matt 13:42). How can this be, since the flames would light things up? Moreland concludes the flames aren’t literal.

At this point, Moreland clarifies that he isn’t trying to water down the Biblical teaching to make it more plateable. On the contrary, the flame imagery has a literal point – the judgement of God. He cites Revelation 19:12 as an example of flames symbolizing judgement. Moreland also notes that God is described as a consuming fire in Hebrews 12:29, but “no one thinks God is a cosmic Bunsen burner.”

Strobel then presents Moreland with several objections to the doctrine of hell. One of the most challenging is:

Why are people punished eternally for finite sins?

Moreland points out that the time it takes to commit a sin isn’t the issue. Murdering someone can take 10 seconds, but stealing a few valuables can take all day if you have to break into the house. The moral severity of the deed (not duration) is the key for determining the length of punishment. Moreland argues that the worst thing we can do is to reject our creator:

The most heinous thing a person can do…  is to mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God himself.

You have to understand that God is infinitely greater in his goodness, holiness, kindness, and justice than anyone else. To think that a person could go through their whole life constantly ignoring him, constantly mocking him by the way they choose to live without him, saying, “I couldn’t care less about what you put me here to do. I couldn’t care less about your values or your Son’s death for me. I’m going to ignore all of that” -that’s the ultimate sin.

And the only punishment worthy of that is the ultimate punishment, which is everlasting separation from God.

Moreland’s point is simple: the worst sin deserves the worst punishment.

Why couldn’t God just force people to go to heaven? Wouldn’t that be better than hell?

Moreland responds:

If God has given people free will… then there’s no guarantee that everybody’s going to choose to cooperate with him. The option of forcing everyone to go to heaven is immoral, because it’s dehumanizing; it strips them of the dignity of making their own decision; it denies them their freedom of choice; and it treats them as a means to an end.

God can’t make people’s character for them, and people who do evil or cultivate false beliefs start a slide away from God that ultimately ends in hell. God respects human freedom. In fact, it would be unloving – a sort of divine rape – to force people to accept heaven and God if they didn’t really want them. When God allows people to say “no” to him, he actually respects and dignifies them.

If God forced the unwilling into heaven, he would have treated them like means to the end of increasing the population of heaven, not as intrinsically valuable beings who are ends in themselves. Moreland claimed that would be immoral.

Why did God create people he knew would reject him?

Couldn’t he have just not created those people and only created the ones he knew would choose him?

Moreland argues:

If God had chosen to create just a handful of four, six, or seven people, maybe he could have only created those people who would go to heaven. The problem is that once God starts to create more people, it becomes more difficult to just create the people who would choose him and not create the people who wouldn’t.

Because one of the reasons God put us here is to give us a chance to affect other people.

Do you recall the Back to the Future movies? Remember how they went back in time, changed one small detail, and then when they returned to the future the entire town was completely changed? I think there’s an element of truth to that.

The simple fact of the matter is that we are impacted by observing other people.

Moreland elaborates with possible scenarios of how his childhood and decision to follow Christ could have been different if certain people weren’t there to influence his actions through good and bad examples.

I think he’s using non-technical language to draw a distinction between possible worlds and feasible worlds. A possible world is a maximal state of affairs. For example, God could have created a world in which there was one less atom, and that would be a different possible world (probably not very different from our own). As far as I understand, any state of affairs is a possible world unless it involves a contradiction – for instance, there are no possible worlds with square circles or married bachelors.  

Feasible worlds are a subset of possible worlds that are dependent on the choices of free creatures. Logically prior to creation, God was limited by the choices that free creatures would make under any possible circumstance. These truths are called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs).

Certain possible worlds might not be feasible for God to create because of the truth values of CCFs. Thus, it might be the case that accomplishing certain ends required incorporating the decisions of free creatures. In other words, God had to play the cards he was dealt with the CCFs. This may have involved creating people he knew would reject him, because they would affect the choices of others.

Why doesn’t God give people a second chance after death?

The Bible says “It is destined for people to die once, and after this comes judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27) Strobel queries “If people tasted hell, wouldn’t that give them a strong motivation to change their minds?”

Moreland replies:

This question assumes God didn’t do everything he could do before people died, and I reject that. God does everything he can to give people a chance, and there will be not a single person who will be able to say to God, “If you had just not allowed me to die prematurely, if you’d have given me another twelve months, I know I would have made that decision.

The Bible tells us God is delaying the return of Christ to the earth to give everybody all the time he possibly can so they will come to him.

He cites 2 Peter 3:9:

The Lord…[is] not willing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance.

God’s will is that everyone should come to saving knowledge of him, and so Moreland says that God won’t allow time to be an obstacle between him and his children:

If all a person needed was a little bit more time to come to Christ, then God would extend their time on this earth to give them that chance. So there will be nobody who just needed a little more time or who died prematurely who would have responded to another chance to receive Christ.

God is fair. He isn’t trying to make it difficult for people. I believe it’s certainly possible that those who respond to the light from nature that they have received will either have the message of the gospel sent to them, or else it may be that God will judge them based on his knowledge of what they would have done had they had a chance to hear the gospel. The simple fact is God rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

Strobel ends the interview by asking Moreland if the doctrine of hell makes him feel uncomfortable. His answer is yes, but that’s not the end of the story:

…feeling uncomfortable about something is not the same thing as having a rational, considered judgment that it’s wrong. I believe that hell is morally justifiable, but I don’t feel comfortable about it because it’s sad.

Keep in mind that God doesn’t feel comfortable about it, either. He doesn’t like it. So what’s the proper response to feeling uncomfortable? It’s not to try to create a view of the afterlife that keeps me from feeling uncomfortable. That’s a terrible way to approach truth. The proper thing to do is to admit that hell is real and to allow our feelings of discomfort to motivate us to action.

For those who don’t know Christ, it should motivate them to redouble their efforts to seek him and to find him. For those of us who know him, it should cause us to redouble our efforts to extend his message of mercy and grace to those who need it.

And we need to keep the right perspective through it all. Remember that hell will forever be a monument to human dignity and the value of human choice. It is a quarantine where God says two important things: “I respect freedom of choice enough to where I won’t coerce people, and I value my image-bearers so much that I will not annihilate them.”

One of the last things that Moreland said struck me as very practical:

People’s character is not formed by decisions all at once, but by thousands of little choices they make every day without even knowing about it. Each day we’re preparing ourselves for either being with God and his people and valuing the things he values, or choosing not to engage with those things. Hell is primarily a place for people who would not want to be in heaven.

Let’s strive to become the people who are suited for union with God and the joys of heaven.

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