The Eternal Reality of Hell

The Philosophy of Hell

Bertrand Russell objected to hell (and rejected Christ) on the basis that anyone who believes in an everlasting hell is inhumane:  “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.”16  His conclusion to reject Christ’s moral character based solely on the belief in an everlasting hell is based on faulty reasoning.  Surely one is not considered inhumane for believing in the holocaust, so likewise one should not be labeled inhumane for a believing in hell.  Both are a terrible result of human depravity, but the question is one of fact, not of humanity.17

Recently, even some evangelical theologians have begun to adhere to the belief that hell is annihilation.  But annihilation is philosophically inconsistent with eternal punishment, not to mention biblically unfounded.  Annihilation demeans the love of God and more directly, human dignity.  Geisler explains:

It would be as if God said to them, “I will allow you to be free only if you do what I say.  If you don’t, then I will snuff out your very freedom and existence!”  This would be like a father telling his son he wanted him to be a doctor, but when the son chose instead to be a park ranger the father shot him.  Eternal suffering is eternal testimony to the freedom and dignity of humans, even unrepentant humans.18

God created man in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:27), and the image of God is everlasting (Ps. 90:2).  This of course does not mean that human souls have always existed, but that from the time of their creation they will henceforth exist forever.  Free choice is certainly an important part of the image God instilled in man, and it would be a moral evil to take it away.19  For God to annihilate the existence of His image bearers “is to attack Himself in effigy…But God does not act against God.”20  In addition, the Scriptures, and even Jesus Himself, spoke of degrees of punishment in hell (Matt. 5:22; Rev. 20:12-14).  There are no degrees of annihilation, for all nonexistence is equal.  Finally, annihilation is not eternal punishment, but release from eternal punishment.

Some object to hell on the basis that it is contradictory to God’s mercy.  The common sinful problem behind this feeling is pride.  We believe that we are more merciful than God, since we seem to have pity on those in hell while He apparently sits back and enjoys heaven.  The Bible has a clear answer to those who question the mercy of God: the cross.  We cannot even begin to fathom the totality of the sacrifice Christ made for us to leave His intimate communion with His father and undergo the most horrible of possible human experiences, all of His own free choice.  In the Garden of Gethsemane we see in drops of sweated blood from His brow the difficulty and suffering sacrifice so difficult it still remains “a stone’s throw” beyond our understanding (Luke 22:41).  C.S. Lewis describes “a God so full of mercy that He becomes man and dies by torture to avert that final ruin.”21  This is the idea Paul is teaching in Ephesians 2:4-9, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ…” The mercy of God is displayed in the free offer of salvation, and again upon our conversion (1 Tim. 1:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3; Jude 1:21).  God has mercifully paid the price to remove any external obstacle keeping us out of heaven.  The only obstacle to remain is ourselves.  God mercifully delays judgment year after year to give man the opportunity to avoid hell.  “But You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth” (Ps. 86:15). Few, if any, of those who find themselves so much more merciful than God in their own eyes would die on a Roman cross for a man who murdered their son.

Another rejection of hell derives from the belief that a temporal sin is not worthy of eternal punishment.  In essence, hell is overkill.  However, since God can never tolerate sin, the punishment of separation must be eternal, for God is eternal.  Additionally, it is not the size nor duration of the sin, but the size and duration of the God who is offended.  Offense against the infinite God is deserving of infinite punishment.  The only alternatives are for God to either override man’s free will while still on earth, or else annihilate them, but both of these alternatives have previously been shown to be unreasonable.  Finally, Dr. Geisler comments:

If Christ’s temporal punishment is sufficient for our sins eternally, then there is no reason why eternal suffering cannot be appropriate for our temporal sins.  It is not the duration of the action but the object that is important.  Christ satisfied the eternal God by his temporal suffering, and unbelievers have offended the eternal God by their temporal sins.  Hence, Christ’s temporal suffering for sins satisfies God eternally (1 John 2:1), and our temporal sins offend God eternally.22

Treason offers a simple example of the importance the offended person in determining punishment.  When a little girl on a playground talks badly about her friend, her friend may not speak to her for a week.  Difficult circumstances in her mind, but overall quite insignificant when looking at her whole life.  Another example occurred in the 1919 World Series.  Members of the Chicago White Sox deliberately lost a game in order to be paid off by gamblers.  These men had betrayed their teammates and the institution of baseball, and thus were banned for life from ever playing the game again.  Finally, take the example of treason against the United States.  John Walker Lindh recently fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan against his own country.  He now faces the death penalty for his treasonous actions.  Though all three people offended an institution central to their lives, the gradation of punishment rose with the gradation of the one offended. Thus, we can see how it is morally consistent for an infinitely important and holy God to demand eternal retribution for treason against Him.

Finally, many object to hell on the basis that they couldn’t be happy knowing that a loved one is in hell.  This objection derives from a variety of emotional causes.  Usually a close friend or family member who was not a Christian has died, or the thought of them dying is unbearable.  However, this thought should be unbearable while we are still on earth!  It provides a strong impetus and motivation to pray for them and witness to them.  Several scriptures may provide some comfort to these emotions.  First, God does not desire for them to be apart from Him either, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).  Secondly, there will be no more sorrow, mourning or tears in heaven, “and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).  Finally, we are not expected to take pleasure in their destiny, for the neither does the Lord, “Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord God, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23). We see through a mirror darkly now and cannot emotionally fully understand and feel the justice of hell. We were not made to, at this point in time, so that we would be more greatly driven to witness. However, the Lord promises that we cannot even begin to imagine the glory to be revealed to us. God will make clear the justice and glory of His plan and in that day “He will wipe away every tear…”

16 Russell, Bertrand, Why I am not a Christian (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 17.
17 Geisler, Norman, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 679.
18 Ibid., 24.
19 Ibid., 24.
20 Ibid., 24.
21 Lewis, C.S., The Problem of Pain, 106.
22 Geisler, Norman, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 314.