Why the hell…?  – Do we need one?
July 21, 2010 § 3 Comments
The first question that comes to mind when thinking about hell is ‘why the hell’ it needs to exist. It hardly helps in convincing people of their sin; it seems not too helpful a tool to bring the ‘Good News’ to a postmodern world. An eternal conscious punishment seems rather harsh. Or better: unbearably and crushingly heavy. In this third installment of the three part series ‘Why the hell…?’ we will explore the reality of hell and the question of whether it should be seen as a place of eternal conscious punishment. This last matter is most crucial in apologetic debates.
There are basically two approaches to this issue, both of which warrant consideration. One, the more classical approach, is to say that the holiness of God is such that sin cannot exist in his presence. In fact sin is such an attack on, such a defamation of, God’s holiness that eternal punishment is the only just reward. The idea is that we have no inkling whatsoever what God’s holiness truly means. Once we would understand this holiness we would automatically agree wholeheartedly that eternal conscious punishment is the only just reward. I think there is much to say for a lack of understanding on our part of God’s holiness. God is the Other, Who is entirely different from us, even though we have been made in his likeness. There is not only an ontological difference but also a moral one. Yet at the same time, considering this approach, one could wonder whether this strong emphasis on God’s holiness doesn’t takes away from God’s love. I’m not entirely convinced it is, but one needs to be cautious here. This could be considered the exclusivist position.
The second approach is more inclusivist and directs our attention at hermeneutical issues. Jesus spoke more about hell than any other individual in Scripture. Yet, one needs to acknowledge that not all of these instances do in truth assert facts about hell. Jesus’ speech-act in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man for instance warns us for the consequences of neglecting the poor rather than that it informs us about the realities of hell. One wonders how many other passages about hell are more rhetorical (with the intent to motivate) than anything else. At the same time why would Jesus want to motivate people into godly action with what is essentially a hoax? The merit of this approach is that it draws attention to the fact that Scripture’s information on hell is not as hermeneutically straightforward.
A relatively new view of hell is called Conditional Immortality. It has a lot in common with Annihilationism. The latter sees hell as both the process by which the unrepentant are annihilated and as their final state of non-existence. Hell is not a place of eternal existence where one is conscious of being tortured, rather it is the result of not being allowed to participate in God’s life. Conditional Immortality backs this up by describing humans as possessing an immortality that is not ontologically part of the soul. It rejects the platonic notion, so pervasive in Christian thought, that the soul is a self-existant eternal entity. McGrath puts it well: “Immortality or ‘deathlessness’ is not inherent in the constitution of humanity as a corporeal-spiritual creature; though, formed in the image of God, the potential was there. That potential, which was forfeited through sin, has been restored and actualized through Christ” (McGrath, 569). While it is good to look critically at platonic influence as potentially unbiblical it need not necessarily be wrong. The concept of annihilation seems to contradict obvious passages, especially in the gospels, where hell is portrayed as eternal conscious punishment. It needs to be noted however that this conclusion is not necessarily binding. It depends on the hermeneutical choices one makes.
A few considerations on time need to be taken into account; consideration that will favor an understanding of hell along the lines of Conditional Immortality. When we are talking about eternal conscious punishment we are assuming an application of time as we understand it. Recent cosmological insights have shown us however that the notion of time is bound up with the time-space continuum of the universe in which we live. In other words, time did not exist before the universe – at least not as we know it. To speak therefore of hell as eternal conscious suffering is speaking analogically but not necessarily accurately. Notions about God being in time and being outside of time might be applied here as well. Hell might as well be outside of time and therefore escape our understanding of duration.
In addition we should consider the question of what happens after death. There are four states to consider: (a) the intermediate state, (b) resurrection unto eternal life, (c) resurrection unto the lake of fire, (d) our current state in space and time. Though it is quite clear that (b) is going to be some sort of existence in space-time continuum and that (a) isn’t, it is not entirely clear how to understand (c). Though the damned are resurrected as well, their destiny is the same as that of the devil who currently exists outside of our space-time continuum.
A third consideration is this. Eternal life is not so much being granted eternal existence as it is participation in the life of God. Hell then on the contrary will be characterized by not participating in God’s life. While we do not know for sure whether there is going to be existence in time for those perishing we know they will not have eternal life. Yes, they are resurrected, but only to be thrown into the lake of fire. Our information on that final state is not conclusive enough to decide whether that’s in or outside of time. Therefore on purely logical grounds it is not possible to say with certainty whether hell will be a state of eternal conscious suffering. The Bible therefore displays a degree of necessary ambiguity on this matter in correspondence to the fact that our understanding of time and eternity are limited.
Hall, Douglas John. God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986.
Hasker, William. The Triumph of God over Evil: Theodicy for a World of Suffering. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1995.
Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1977.