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.
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.
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.