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.

Christian Belief, Arrogance, and Religious Diversity

I am absolutely against any religion that says that one faith is superior to another. I don’t see how that is anything different than spiritual racism. It’s a way of saying that we are closer to God than you, and that’s what leads to hatred. – Rabbi Schmuley Boteach1

The plurality of world regions, their many devout adherents and the divergence of their teachings can pose challenges to Christian belief. Accusations like this are common:

You Christians are arrogant for thinking you’re right and the millions of people in other religions are wrong.

I’m going to argue that this statement is incorrect, and that there is nothing arrogant about believing Christianity. Consider the law of non-contradiction (LNC):

Some proposition P cannot be both P and non – P at the same time and in the same way.

LNC states that assenting to the truth of a proposition entails rejecting the opposite. If I believe the proposition “Pluto is a planet” that necessarily implies that (if I’m being logical) I must reject the claim “Pluto is not a planet”. Hence, every time someone assents to the truth claims of Christianity, they are logically obligated to reject contrary beliefs.2 So rejecting the opposing claims of other religions is the logically consistent thing for Christians to do.

It’s worth noting that Christians are under no obligation to think other religions are false categorically. Religions are (at least) collections of truth claims, each of which has to be evaluated individually. For instance, Christians agree with Muslims that giving to the poor is an important moral principle, and that God revealed himself to Abraham, but also strongly disagree about the deity of Christ. Logic only compels disagreement when the beliefs of other religions contradict (have the opposite truth value of) one’s own.

Perhaps the arrogance charge is along these lines:

It’s arrogant to believe something that is a minority opinion and for which you don’t have arguments that would convince people who disagree.

It’s true that most Christians don’t have arguments that could persuade people in other religions. However, does believing in spite of that make them arrogant? Alvin Plantinga argues that the answer is no, and has a helpful historical example:

The eighteenth-century Quakers believed slavery was wrong. They realized, of course, that most of their contemporaries did not share that belief, and they also realized that they had no arguments that would convince their contemporaries. Given that they were thus out of step with the majority, they no doubt reflected carefully on this belief. If, on reflection, slavery still seemed to them wrong, seriously wrong, could they really be doing something immoral [or arrogant] in continuing to believe that slavery was wrong? I don’t think so.3

Most people would probably agree that the Quakers displayed no arrogance by believing ideas that their contemporaries didn’t share, and for which they had no convincing arguments.

Let’s take a more common example of the same phenomenon: political views. In his essay Non Est Hick, Peter van Inwagen analogizes religious and political beliefs to argue that if you believe religious views are arrogant, you have the same problem with political views. When it comes to believing minority ideas for which for which we lack arguments that would convince those who disagree, don’t we all do that with politics?

If you believe that the government should implement universal healthcare, or looser gun laws, or tax cuts, or tariffs, the nature of belief and basic logic imply that you think everyone who disagrees is wrong. No matter what your political views, there are multitudes of people who disagree, and most of the time, your attempts to persuade them are probably unsuccessful. Is everyone with political views arrogant just for being politically opinionated? That seems false.

Obviously, there are differences between political philosophies and religions, but is there some feature of religious belief that makes a Christian arrogant, that doesn’t apply to a Reagan conservative, a Rothbardian libertarian, or a Rawlsian liberal? I doubt it. As van Inwagen says, both religious and political views are, “Making claims to how the real world really is.”4

The critic could concede that Christian belief isn’t arrogant in itself, but that it leads to arrogance by virtue of beliefs about salvation: “We Christians are going to heaven and you non-Christians are not.” However, this attitude is patently unchristian, as van Inwagen says in his essay:

The members of the Church can… take no pride in her unique relation to God, for that relation is His doing and not theirs.5

His point brings to mind Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Salvation is a gift from God and Christians have no ground for pride.

If the critic is unconvinced by my points thus far, let’s assume for the sake of argument that I’m wrong: there is something arrogant about being a Christian. There is something to the critic’s accusation: “You’re arrogant for thinking your religious beliefs are right, and those who disagree are wrong!”

Is the critic arrogant here? For surely, he thinks he’s right about Christian arrogance, and believes those who disagree are wrong. If the critic is arrogant by his own standard, his accusation looses its punch.  

Indeed, it’s hard to see who isn’t arrogant. Imagine the most inclusive universalist possible, let’s call him Joe. He thinks all religions are human attempts to respond to ultimate reality, and the doctrinal differences are just surface level or illusory. Joe (naturally) thinks that everyone who disagrees with him (like Christians) is wrong. Is Joe arrogant? Under the, it’s-arrogant-to-think-your-religious-beliefs-are right-and-those-who-disagree-are-wrong criteria, he is, and if he is, who isn’t?

I’ve argued that there is nothing arrogant about believing Christianity and rejecting all opposing claims. Once it is accepted, the nature of belief and basic logic imply this conclusion.6


Endnotes:

[1] Quoted in The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, p. 203.

[2] Here a critic could object:

“What you’ve said only follows if Christianity claims to be objective truth. I believe in Christianity in a subjective sense – an edifying philosophy that teaches love and self – sacrifice.”

I do accept Christianity as a set of objective truth claims – meaning it’s true regardless of whether any human thinks it’s true. Frankly, I can’t understand Scripture and the Christian tradition as anything other than claims to objective truth. The apostle Paul spoke for me when he said, “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless…” (1 Cor. 15:17).

[3] Knowledge and Christian Belief, p. 110.

See also Plantinga’s essays Pluralism: A Defense of Exclusivism and Ad Hick.

For a quick introduction to his thought on the issue of religious pluralism and arrogance, watch this interview: Can Many Religions All be True?

[4] Video: Peter van Inwagen – Do Diverse Religions Give Complementary Insights?

[5] Non Est Hick, p. 214.

See also van Inwagen’s essay A Reply to Professor Hick.

[6] Notice, I haven’t argued Christianity is true, or that Christian belief is rationally justified. I’ve focused solely on the narrow point that there is nothing arrogant about believing it’s true.

Sexual Ethics: An Exegetical Argument

As far as I can tell, the traditional view of the church on homosexuality goes something like this:

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures… Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 625, section 2358. (emphasis mine)

I’m not going to argue that this view of homosexuality is true; rather, I’m going to argue that one argument against it is a failure.

The argument runs like this:

  1. If specific practices were unknown to the writers of the Bible, the text can’t be properly understood as prohibiting them.
  2. Monogamous homosexual relationships were unknown to the writers of the Bible.
  3. Therefore, the Bible can’t be properly understood as prohibiting monogamous homosexual relationships.

At first glance, premise 1 seems fairly plausible. After all, the Bible, like any book, was written at a particular time, in a particular culture, by an author with particular ends in mind. The authors of the Bible were no different, and so stretching the meaning of particular verses beyond their historical context is a faulty hermeneutic.

However, if the Bible is divinely inspired, premise 1 loses much of its initial plausibility. By inspiration I mean God is the primary author of scripture – he guided the human authors of the Bible to write what he wanted them to write, but in their own languages, styles and cultural contexts. So, if the Bible is divinely inspired, it’s very plausible that God would have worded the commands so as to apply to situations and actions unknown to the human authors and recipients of the Bible. After all, God in his omniscience would know the possibility of new ethical dilemmas arising, or new sexual lifestyles becoming prevalent.

Even if the Bible is not inspired, but is just a collection of ordinary human texts, premise 1 is still not necessarily true. For instance, it is possible that the writers of the Bible had a very specific vision for virtuous sexuality, and viewed anything outside that vision as immoral. In other words, suppose the biblical writers believed sexual relationships were only legitimate in X context, and therefore sexual relationships in Y and Z contexts would be considered immoral under the ethics of the biblical writers, even if they were unknown to the authors at the time of their writing the Bible. So, if it’s possible that the Bible can be legitimately interpreted as prohibiting sexual relationships in some contexts unknown to the original authors of the text, then premise 1 isn’t necessarily true.

What about premise 2: “Monogamous homosexual relationships were unknown to the writers of the Bible.”?

This statement is not self-evident. It’s an assertion about the past whose truth or falsity is an open question. Therefore, whoever makes this argument should produce some reason to think it’s true. In the original discussion that was the catalyst for my writing this post, premise 2 was simply asserted, not argued. There may be reasons to believe it is true, but I’m not aware of them.

Strictly speaking, premise 2 is almost impossible to verify, because we can’t get inside the minds of the biblical authors other than through their writings. What we can do, however, is look at other ancient sources to see what they say about monogamous homosexual relationships. If other ancient authors wrote about them, that should severely undermine confidence in premise 2. I will quote several such sources.

The first source is Plato’s Symposium, written in the intertestamental period, c. 385 – 370 BC. The dialogue is primarily a discourse on love, particularly male to male eros.

Pausanias, one of Plato’s characters, gives the following speech:

“But the Eros of the Heavenly Aphrodite, first, does not partake of female but only of male – it is the eros for boys – and next is elder, and without share of outrage or wantonness. This is why those inspired by this Eros turn to the male, delighting in what is by nature stronger and possessed of more intelligence. One might recognize those moved purely by this Eros even in the love of boys itself: for they do not love boys except when they begin to get intelligence, that is, when they are on the verge of getting a beard.

Those who begin to love them at this point, I think, are prepared to be with them through the whole of life and pass their lives in common, rather than deceiving them by catching them in the thoughtlessness of youth and then contemptuously abandoning them and running off to someone else.” (122, emphasis mine)

As you can see, Pausanias is clearly discussing monogamous homosexual relationships. He cites the lifelong duration of these relationships – “the whole of life” – as well as their exclusivity, contrasting them with relationships in which one lover “abandon[s]” the other and “run[s] off to someone else.”

Later in the dialogue, another participant, Aristophanes, narrates a Greek creation myth. In this story, humans were originally genderless, but Zeus split them into men, women and an androgynous gender in order to keep them distracted and less able to rebel against the gods. Aristophanes says:

Each of us then is but the token of a human being, sliced like a flatfish, two from one; each then ever seeks his matching token. Men sectioned from the common sex, then called androgynous, are woman-lovers; the majority of adulterers are from this sex, while on the other hand women from this sex are man-lovers and adulteresses. Women sectioned from a woman pay scant heed to men, but are turned rather toward women, and lesbians come from this sex.

Those sectioned from a male pursue the masculine; because they are slices of the male, they like men while still boys, delighting to lie with men and be embraced by them… When they reach manhood they love boys and by nature pay no heed to marriage and the getting of children; it suffices them to live out their lives unmarried, with one another. So this sort becomes wholly a lover of boys or a boy who loves having lovers, ever cleaving to what is akin.

When the lover of boys and any every other lover meets his own particular half, they are then marvelously struck by friendship and kinship and Eros, and scarcely willing to be separated from each other even for a little time. These are the people who pass their whole lives with each other, but who can’t even say what they wish for themselves by being with each other. No one can think it is for the sake of sexual intercourse that the one so eagerly delights in being with the other. Instead, the soul of each clearly wishes for something else it can’t put into words; it divines what it wishes and obscurely hints at it.  (133, emphasis mine)

In the same vein as Pausanias, Aristophanes describes the lifelong nature of these relationships, referring to “people who pass their whole lives with each other.” Additionally, these unions are not simply carnal, but deeply meaningful, with each lover’s soul “clearly wish[ing] for something else it can’t put into words.”

The second source is a journal article that quotes many primary sources: “A History of Same-Sex Marriage” by William N. Eskridge of Georgetown University Law Center. 

A key document Eskridge cites is Sifra, “an exegetic midrash interpreting the book of Leviticus.” Finding estimates on the time of Sifra’s composition is difficult; however, one Jewish educational institution dates the text to c. AD 250 – 350. This puts it significantly after the composition of the canon of Scripture. However, given that Sifra cites events occurring many hundreds of years earlier in Israel’s history, it is plausible that the ideas contained in this passage go back much further than when they were written down. It would be odd if the writer of this midrash simply invented the idea of homosexual marriages in the land of Canaan hundreds of years after Israel’s interactions with the inhabitants of the land.

The midrash takes the form of question and answer:

If “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt… or of the land of Canaan,”

Might one think that they are not to build their buildings or plant vineyards as they did?

Scripture says, “nor shall you follow their laws”:

I have referred only to the rules that were made for them and for their fathers and their fathers’ fathers.”

And what would they do?

A man would marry a man, and a woman would marry a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, a woman would be married to two men.

That is why it is said, “nor shall you follow their laws.” (1438, emphasis mine)          

The wording here is unambiguous: men married men, and women married women.

Later in his article Eskridge argues that:

The evidence of marital practices – whether for different – or same sex unions – is particularly sparse for Egypt; few records illuminate the intimate practices of the region, and no authoritative legal texts survive. Yet some artifacts have depicted same-sex couples in familiar poses, perhaps providing evidence that Egyptian society at some points in its history was accepting of same-sex relationships.

For example, a tomb for two male courtiers of the Fifth Dynasty (circa 2600 B.C.) includes bas-reliefs of the “two men in intimate poses, holding hands, embracing, noses touching, poses that are strikingly more erotic than those depicting different-sex couples in Egyptian tombs. Social historian David Greenberg argues that the men were lovers whose same-sex relationship was apparently accepted by the state, because the Pharaoh provided their tomb. Indeed, the tomb of at least one Pharaoh, the renowned Ikhnaton, contains figures of the Pharaoh and his male consort posed even more intimately. (1437 -1438, emphasis mine)

If Greenberg is right, and these relationships were sanctioned by the state, they were likely of a long-term nature. After all, what interest would the state have in recognizing casual sex?

This is obviously a very limited historical survey. However, I believe the documents I’ve quoted cast significant doubt on premise 2. At minimum, they show that the idea of monogamous homosexual relationships is not a modern invention, but rather dates back to at least within several centuries of the composition of the Bible, and probably earlier.

In conclusion, because both of the premises are dubious at best, this argument against the church’s traditional understanding of homosexuality is a failure.

Christian Philosophers on Hell #2: William Lane Craig

If you’re new to this series, I recommend reading part one, because it provides background information.  

For my second entry in this series, I chose to research Dr. William Lane Craig’s perspective on hell. He is a prominent Christian philosopher, theologian and author of over 40 books. This post is a selective summary of Craig’s published material on hell.

Definition of Hell

Craig bases his understanding of hell on 2nd Thessalonians 1:9: “These people [those who reject God] will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power…” Craig argues this verse implies hell is separation from God: “I think…. the anguish of hell is separation from God, from all that is good and beautiful and lovely and to be left with one’s own crabbed and selfish heart forever.”

He differentiates this idea of hell from the torture chamber depicted in medieval paintings. According to Craig, the Bible never says hell is a torture chamber. It’s true that the Bible uses images of fire to describe hell, but Craig thinks these are metaphors: “It’s not clear, I would say, that [hell] involves… flames of fire that burn a person up. I think that is meant to express in a pictorial way the horror and the anguish of the essence of hell, which is separation from God.”

Craig also claims that the existence of hell is contrary to God’s will. God desires that everyone be saved, and implores people to repent and turn to him. Craig cites several passages:

  • 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is… not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
  • 1 Timothy 2:4: “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” ­­
  • Ezekiel 18:23, 32, 33:11: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?… For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn and live!… Say to them, as I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die?”

In this context Craig says, “It’s quite a misnomer to say that God sends people to hell. People send themselves.” He elaborates, “The only reason that anyone goes to hell is that they reject God and his purposes for their life, and thus thrusts God from themselves.” The responsibility for going to hell is placed at the feet of those who freely reject God:

“Our eternal destiny thus lies in our own hands. It’s a matter of our free choice where we shall spend eternity. Those who are lost, therefore, are self-condemned; they separate themselves from God despite God’s will and every effort to save them, and God grieves over their loss.”

While God doesn’t want anyone to be in hell, his justice demands punishment for unrepentant sinners. Craig says, “If God simply blinked at sin, then he wouldn’t be perfectly just… hell is a manifestation of the perfect justice of God.”

Answering an Objection

Now, a critic might agree that God must punish wrongdoing, but do finite sins deserve eternal punishment? Craig gives two answers to this question:

First, if the damned in hell continue to reject God through eternity, then this makes eternal punishment more reasonable than if it was just for sins committed during our time on earth,

Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.

Second, while Craig agrees that finite sins probably do merit only finite punishment, in an ultimate sense it isn’t finite sins, but the rejection of God that damns unrepentant sinners. Craig expounds,

[Finite sins] aren’t what separates someone from God. For Christ has died for those sins; the penalty for those sins has been paid. One only has to accept Christ as Savior to be completely free and cleansed of those sins.

… the refusal to accept Christ and His sacrifice seems to be a sin of a different order altogether. For this sin repudiates God’s provision for sin and so decisively separates someone from God and His salvation. To reject Christ is to reject God Himself. And in light of who God is, this is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore plausibly deserves infinite punishment.

We should not, therefore, think of hell primarily as punishment for the array of sins of finite consequence that we’ve committed, but as the just penalty for a sin of infinite consequence that we’ve committed, namely the rejection of God Himself.

Conclusion

Craig’s conception of hell is grounded in the God’s justice, his love, and mankind’s freewill. God is always trying to reconcile people to himself. However, when people reject God’s offer of forgiveness of sins and thrust him away, they send themselves to hell.

Sources:

Christian Philosophers on Hell #1: Peter Kreeft

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.