The problem of hell concerns whether or not traditional Christian notions of hell are compatible with traditional Christian notions of God. I wanted to provide some comments on how I presently see this problem. A word of warning: while I have read broadly in Christian theology and analytic philosophy of religion, I’m not an expert on the problem of hell and have not read a tremendous amount specifically on it. Unlike other posts I’ve recently written, there will be no extensive bibliography. This post should be seen more as a number of personal musings but will hopefully raise a number of insights the reader will find interesting and a challenge to the Christian apologist they might keep in mind when witnessing to non-believers.
I begin with how I presently understand Hell’s place in Christian theology.
Hell has been conceived of differently throughout the history of theology: from hell as a place of fire, pain, and gnashing of teeth to Hell as eternal separation from God. Regardless of how Hell is conceived, Christian theologians claim that contrasted with God’s overwhelming and infinitely good and just nature, all of us deserve Hell and no one deserves heaven. In God’s infinite justice, we are all consigned to hell.
But God is not only infinitely just; God is infinitely merciful. To be merciful means to provide people more than what they deserve. In God’s infinite mercy, God has provided us with an infinite sacrifice, in the form of the death of his Son on the Cross, which atones for all of our wrongdoings. While no human is capable of doing enough good to make up for their wrongdoings and so deserve heaven, Christ’s sacrifice is the infinite sacrifice of a god. So if we accept a relationship with Christ by welcoming Him into our hearts, we are throwing ourselves upon God’s mercy.
Groups vary as to whether it is metaphysically possible to lose one’s salvation after its been granted. Traditionally, protestants have accepted faith in Christ to be sufficient to enter heaven (sole fide) while Roman Catholics have thought we require additional steps to maintain salvation after conversion. Some Christians maintain that accepting Christ involves a re-birth and spiritual cleansing in the Holy Spirit they call being Born Again; whether or not it is metaphysically possible to be born again, but later lose one’s faith entirely, has been up for debate as well (though I know many people who were as devout Christians as one could possibly be and who later became atheists).
For completeness, I briefly note some Christians — i.e. universalists — have maintained a very different understanding of hell. Historically, they have been in the minority and I don’t believe their theology to be susceptible to the kinds of difficulties I will raise here.
Now I move on to why I currently find this doctrine implausible.
Most ethicists agree that ought implies can; that is, if I have a moral obligation to x, then it is possible for me to x. Moreover, if it is impossible for me to x, then I have no obligation to x. For example, it may be a deeply good thing for me to solve world hunger. But since I am incapable of solving world hunger (at least by myself), I have no obligation to resolve world hunger. Moreover, if I see a child drowning in a pond, part of the reason that I have an obligation to save the child is because I am capable of doing so. If I were assaulted, had my legs broken, and then laid helplessly on the sidewalk when I saw a child drowning in a nearby pond, I would have had no obligation to help. We’d see me as a tragic victim of circumstance. I may feel guilt for the rest of my life, and wonder to myself if I could have saved the child, but I would have committed no wrongdoing.
A deep intuition, closely related to ought implies can, is that we should be judged on the basis of the goods and evils of which we are actually capable. Christians have traditionally understood God to be perfectly good, but also perfectly wise. God, as the infinitely wise creator of human beings, would know what kinds of goods are achievable for Her Creation. I think part of the problem with the view of hell I described above is that God judges us on an impossible scale none of us are capable of living up to. If we had been capable of living up to that scale, then it would be false that none of us are worthy of entering heaven; some of us would be worthy. A properly calibrated scale would take into account the relative goods and evils of which we are actually capable.
The Christian may object that this inappropriately limits God’s infinite justice. Perhaps they have in mind that only from the perspective of finite justice could the finite goods we are capable of ever measure up. Contra the Christian, I don’t think infinite justice entails the use of an infinite scale. To judge humans, who are capable only of finite goods, on an infinite scale would involve an inappropriate contrast between God and humans. Again, God, in God’s wisdom, would know that creatures capable only of finite goods must be judged on the basis of an appropriately calibrated scale; moreover, in God’s perfect justice, God would judge us on an appropriately calibrated scale. To judge us on an infinite scale involves expecting us to act as gods act. But the Bible is clear (and correct) that expecting humans to act as gods is inappropriate.
There are additional problems having to do the coherency of both the trinity and of the atonement, but I’ll put those aside, as they are not specifically related to Hell.
Sometimes Christians argue as follows. God allows those who accept Her into Her Kingdom, but those who turn away have made a choice not to enter God’s Kingdom; it is logically impossible for God to allow humans the free-choice to accept Her spiritual gifts while forcing them to believe. So God doesn’t turn away anyone. Instead, people turn away from God and so do not end up eternally with God in heaven.
I find this to be implausible for a number of reasons.
First. Everything in my experience speaks against there being any sort of free-choice to believe God exists. On the one hand, there are arguments against God’s existence I find compelling. On the other, I find none of the arguments for God’s existence to be plausible. Moreover, I don’t understand how to choose as substantive a belief as theism without a bit more evidence or argumentation. I can’t decide to believe I presently reside on Mars; likewise, I cannot decide to believe theism is true. I know that many Christians will claim that I am putting my own experience ahead of God’s sovereignty, but, again, that seems wildly implausible; I don’t even know of God’s sovereignty, so it’s difficult to understand how I could be placing anything ahead of God’s sovereignty. (Note: I find doxastic involuntarism compelling, so I am likely going to find any account that depends on doxastic voluntarism — like the objection I am currently considering — implausible.)
Second. Suppose that, contrary to my experience, I really did choose to disbelieve in God’s existence. I haven’t also decided that I want to spend eternity in Hell. The decision that I be placed in Hell would still be God’s decision; God could have placed me in heaven even though I rejected a relationship with God. While it may be logically impossible for God to allow me free-choice in my beliefs, while forcing me into a relationship with Her, it is presumptuous — and question begging — for the Christian to say that God only allows us into heaven when we have a pre-established relationship with Her.
Third. There are many people for whom a relationship with the Christian God is not possible. For example, there are those who lived before Christianity existed or in areas to which the gospel message has not yet reached. Some theologians — such as Karl Rahner — suggest that God forms relationships with those individuals, although under a different name, and that they are judged (at least partly) based on their response to God’s revelation in the natural world (there is some biblical basis for this view in e.g. Romans). Yet there are those who seem constitutionally incapable of forming a relationship with God; there may be psychological explanations for at least some amount of disbelief. For example, autism is weakly anti-correlated with theistic belief, suggesting autism renders atheism slightly more likely. Some conservative Christians have likewise defended the notion that atheism is some sort of psychological impairment, perhaps, in a curious inversion of Freud, resulting from a neglectful father. While I ordinarily find the notion that atheism is a psychological impairment deeply offensive, both as a disbeliever and as someone concerned about the stigma associated with mental illness, if they are right, it is difficult to see how this functions as a Christian apologetic; if disbelief can be the result of psychological impairment or of autism, then disbelief is not always culpable. Again, sending those who disbelieve inculpably to hell would be a deep injustice.