In a recent exchange regarding my last post, a friend of mine asked for me to answer the following question, “in a nutshell.” My nutshells always turn out to belong to nuts the size of a watermelon, and my effort in attempting to answer the question proved to be really clarifying for my own position. Rather than confine the answer to a Facebook comment, I decided to post it here and allow the discussion to continue.[1]

Since the conversation is in “the open” of Facebook, I feel free to mention the person asking by name. The question was posed by Jonathan Demers, a fellow graduate of Cedarville University, who now serves the city of Detroit as a lawyer and social advocate. I’ve learned a lot from him and his commitment to doing tangible acts of justice. He has a brilliant and quick mind and so, to engage with him on something like the justice (or lack thereof) of hell is both a privilege and fairly intimidating! Yet one must try…

His question is as follows:

In a nutshell, … to prevent the guilty from going unpunished, why is God’s character of justice and wrath satisfied only by the eternal conscious torment of his human creations?

I need to do two things to answer this question. First, is answering the actual question as asked. As someone sympathetic to Calvinism, the answers to this are probably familiar and so the question shows they are unsatisfying. Even so, I will provide them and then attempt to justify them as valid, even if unsatisfactory to many.

The second part will be to reflect on a misconception I see in most people’s understanding of what is meant by God’s “eternal conscious torment of his human creations.” This second part is the one I am more interested in as, for me, it helps soften to the gut punch I myself have felt over the reality of hell—namely, the questions of the justice of hell and God’s role in the evil attributed to torment, punishment or no. But first, part one.

Part One: Answering the Question

I can approach the answer in two ways:

  1. The first, and primary reason most careful theologians who argue for a literal hell (and by argue for, I do not mean delight in) is that we are told by God[2] that there is a hell and that all who reject God in life will reside there for eternity. The mere fact that Scripture tells us this repeatedly without flinching from it is ground enough to believe this is the way God’s world works.
  2. Second, in a reasoned attempt to rationalize why something we as humans find so horrible should exist, some will say something to the effect that rejection of an infinitely good, loving, and holy God deserves and equal punishment for justice to be served. In other words, a crime against an infinite being requires an infinite punishment. Piper takes this position, as do many others: “Since God is of infinite worth and beauty and greatness and honor … the failure to love and treasure and enjoy him above all things is an infinite outrage, worthy of infinite punishment.”

The first answer requires a particular orientation towards Scripture, which is why it is the hot battleground in these debates. The second assumes that sin (defined as either willful or ignorant rebellion against God [because ignorantia juris non excusat]) is the source of evil in the world. If a bite of illegitimate fruit was enough to cause the downfall of God’s good world, simply because God says “Thou shall not eat”, how much more the innumerable sins committed since then? With such a definition, the depravity of man is only a short step away (hence my tying them together in my original post).

Many will reject the first on grounds not necessarily related to the problem of hell. That is a topic too big to cover in many books, much less here. I therefore will simply assign it a place of honor among my epistemic presuppositions for this discussion.[3]

Most reject the second argument because it feels inadequate. How does ontological goodness or worthiness—infinite or no—map to a quantitative result? What kind of metaphysical calculus is required to make this work? Is it possible for finite beings to commit an infinite crime? Answering those questions will require another post because to answer it, we must discuss the nature of divine justice, retribution, and the necessity of a penal-substitutionary atonement (among other understandings of the atonement). I will revisit this soon… However, as to the feeling of inadequacy, I think a discussion of the nature of evil and hell itself is in order.

Part Two: My Understanding of the Nature of Hell

Thus, we turn to my second “answer” to Jonathan’s question, which is more of a clarification of how I understand hell—or as Jonathan says, God’s, “eternal conscious torment of his human creations.” I, for one, do not conceive of hell as an “existential,” or perhaps I could say a created, reality in the way most do. And before you say, “But I thought you were arguing for the existence of hell?” let’s think briefly about the nature of evil itself.

Most theologians (and many philosophers) throughout history have held to a “privative” notion of evil in which evil is the absence of the good. It does not have a positive existence, and therefore God need not have created it when he created the world.[4] David Bentley Hart, a Universalist philosopher whom Jonathan and I reference several times in our Facebook discussion, holds this view as do Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Leibniz, most of the Reformers, Barth, Henri Blocher, and many others.[5]

This concept of “privation” is important because, extended to hell, we can say hell is the complete absence of good. In the total absence of God who is the absolute source of good (however that is possible), you are left with nothing, with not-good, irrationality: “torment” in a sense I probably cannot describe adequately. It is not annihilation, because it is a conscious awareness of nothing good or good’s absence. In this sense, God is not actively tormenting evildoers. He is simply totally absent from them and all they are left with is what we experience every day in the small missing pieces of goodness in a fallen world: stubbed toes, headaches, anxiety, depression, decaying houses, family strife, racism, the death of loved ones, the destruction wrought by tsunamis, hurricanes and nuclear disasters—in short, all that sin brought on the world with none of the good still present from God’s good creation. These greater and lesser “holes” in the fabric of God’s good creation become all-consuming in hell. Hell is entropy completed, a de-creation from order into chaos.

Therefore, I think we can reasonably say that we need not say God is somehow actively torturing or tormenting people in order to give them justice. He doesn’t even need to be said to effectively “create” hell or actively send people to it. He simply needs to cease being present with them, thus giving them what they were trying to have all along: a world without him who is the supreme good of the universe. They reject God as good and the source of good and so God “gives them up” (Rom 1:24, 28) to have what they want: evil itself. This is the supreme irrationality that sits behind sin.

Such a privative notion of hell allows us to avoid the need to justify it, even when arguing for its “existence.” Evil was not “intended” in creation: God did not create it, nor does God engage in causing it to “come to be” because it is not a created thing. We can therefore claim that hell exists, continue to call it the purest form of evil, and still not tarnish the goodness and love of God. God may use evil’s anti-presence for good while never justifying evil as good or somehow changing evil into good. Use of a thing does not imply a justification for its presence.[6] As an example, I might use the death of a family pet to teach my daughters about loss, grief, and how to process trauma in order to give them psychological resilience in the face of much greater suffering. Doing so does not require me to view the death of our family pet as a good, as cause for rejoicing, or to suggest that evil has somehow become good. Likewise, use does not imply a change in ontology. The fact that a broken piece of metal may be used to hammer nails into wood does not make it a hammer. But the fact that evil is present (and we all must agree that evil “exists” in our world) means that it may be of some use to God for our good while still recognizing it as abhorrent.

And the greatest use to which evil was ever put, ironically, was the suffering and death of the Son of God himself. In the incarnation, God himself entered a world filled with non-good. He participated in suffering under it. He suffered the final penalty for sin without ever committing sin himself. This is arguably the greatest injustice of all: the suffering of those who in no way deserve it. And somehow, by entering into that suffering, God undoes evil itself. Much more could be said here, but I can agree with Barth and Moltmann at least this far: the cross is absolutely central to making any sense of evil and suffering.

This point about the use to which God puts evil is important because we still come back to the question of why evil or hell at all. To that I would say that the infliction of judgment for the sake of the restoration of the good is a good itself. Again, as noted above, this does not imply that suffering is itself good. Some may think hell has no restorative purpose if we hold to the eternality of it, but that fails to see hell as a means of removing actual, unyielding, unrepentant, perhaps permanent evil from the lives of others. Hell sequesters evil beyond the reaches of those whom God saves so that it will never again affect his people. On this, I find Henri Blocher absolutely convincing,

Nevertheless, as the execution of the judgment of God, and as the restoration of justice, the infliction of punishments must be called good. It is something good as far as God is concerned, and so it is something good for the order of the world, for all its creatures, even for the one who undergoes it—the good of everyone as a created being is always to be in harmony with the Creator. Many will be shocked by such sentiments. It is because of our failure to be stirred, as were the prophets and the apostles, with zeal for the honour of God and of his holiness, that so many of our contemporaries are blind to the essential goodness of punishment. They see things only from the point of view of mankind, and this anthropomorphism distorts and truncates anthropology itself. Nothing is as foreign to the Bible, and as falsely philanthropic, as Moltmann’s thought: “For love there is only ‘innocent’ suffering”; punishment only adds one evil to the evil already committed. The punished sinner sanctifies and glorifies the Lord, thus achieving the essential end of every person (Lev 10:3; Ezk 38:16). He submits to God’s justice and renders it due homage. At the last day, every human being will confess the lordship of Jesus Christ, either with shame and remorse, or else with joy and love (Phil 2:1ff., referring back to Isa 45:23). That is why punishment does not exclude a universal “reconciliation”, but is on the contrary included in it (Col 1:20).[7]

Given that understanding of hell, it appears to me an entirely just punishment which does not implicate God as some sort of sadistic being who derives pleasure in the death of the wicked. Even so, I have left many questions unanswered, particularly whether or not even this second understanding of hell is necessary. Most importantly, I have not given extensive biblical support for this position. But that will be left for another day.

Coda: Unresolved Questions

Questions still remain even if we agree to such a view as the one I present. I will suggest two.

First, would not someone, on finding one’s self in such a situation, repent so as to exit such a place? If C. S. Lewis is right, there is no reason to think so, for, “The doors of hell are locked on the inside”[8]. Perhaps, in a rage at God for being consigned to such a place, those in hell would continue to hate him and so remain forever. Even that is entirely speculation and it is where some forms of Universalism want to argue redemption may yet be found. I find no warrant for such a hope, even if I want to hope such a possibility exists all the same (hence my first post).

Second, we might ask why an omniscient God would create people whose only end is to eventually reside in hell. For that question, I do not have a clear answer beyond returning to my first one: I believe God has told us his world works, that it is just for him to have done so, and as his creature—a being entirely derivative and dependent on him, regardless of whether I acknowledge him or not—God owes me no answers for this. That is, I think, the message of the book of Job. Being unsatisfied with the state of the world does not thereby render it incorrect or irrational. Again, if evil is itself irrational, we should not expect to be able—perhaps even to try—to rationalize it. It is “an enemy to be fought,”[9] not a thing to rationalize into meaning.

One of the greatest helps I have found on this topic is the book by Henri Blocher referenced above. I would highly recommend it to anyone wrestling with the various answers to the problem of evil. He does not address hell directly, but it can be extended to do so in the way I have attempted to do here.

(Cover photo "The Last Judgement" by Gustave Doré).

  1. The question comes with numerous sub-questions involving penal-substitutionary atonement and whether God’s justice as retributive. Those will be topics for other posts. ↩︎

  2. And for those who subscribe to a Barthian Christological approach, theologians are fond of reminding us that Jesus speaks more about hell than any other biblical figure. ↩︎

  3. Though I do not claim to do this blindly. The topic is simply too large to address adequately here. If desired, I can provide a bibliography of resources to act as a starting point. ↩︎

  4. Even so, how evil can come to “be” in the empty spaces of good still requires some work. I do not intend to address that here. ↩︎

  5. This view stands in contrast to the dualistic notion of evil which sees good and evil as equals and generally co-existing eternally. The gnostics are one of the largest representatives of this view which had significant sway in Christian history. For a broad historical overview, see chapter 2 of Richard Shenk’s book The Wonder of the Cross: The God Who Uses Evil and Suffering to Destroy Evil and Suffering (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2013). ↩︎

  6. That would be to accept utilitarian ethics, “the end justifies the means.” ↩︎

  7. Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross: An Analytical Look at the Problem of Pain (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 87–88. ↩︎

  8. C . S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain [New York: Macmillan, 1962], 127. ↩︎

  9. I am grateful to Richard Shenk for this phrase, even if he himself did not coin it (The Wonder of the Cross, cited above). ↩︎