Monday, March 18, 2013

Why the Hell? Part 1: Two main views of Hell

This is part one of a four-post series on Hell. Two Three Four

In the Christian conversation on Hell, I've noticed most people tend to fall more on one of two sides (these sides aren't binary opposites but form two ends of a spectrum). Specifically, people tend to think about Hell as more of a physical place, or as more of a spiritual state. Let me elaborate on both of these views:

Hell as a Place

The short version of this view is that it focuses on Hell as a physical place to which sinners (those who inevitably sinned and aren't covered by Christ's forgiveness) will physically go (or be cast into by a just, vengeful God) when they die to be punished for their sins. This view is the one held and caricatured by street preachers who wave around signs bearing lists of sins with the message that if you have done any of these, you're going to Hell and need to repent. This view is the one that I often seen doubted, critiqued, and attacked; how is it just, people ask? How is it loving? Isn't it cruel and capricious?

Some examples are in order. Many more theologically conservative churches preach a version of this view, one of the foremost being Mars Hill Church in Seattle. In his preaching on Hell, Mark Driscoll tries to emphasize that Hell is not arbitrary or capricious, it's God's just punishment for real choices that you have made (but can't not make). In a sermon on predestination he says, "Everyone chooses Satan, sin, death, and hell. And apart from a new heart, that’s all anyone would ever choose." Or elsewhere:
Friends, here’s the bottom line. There are only three options. Number one, Satan chooses who has sin forgiven and eternal life granted. That means that no one receives grace. Number two, sinners choose who is to be saved. The result is that we all have already chosen. We have chosen sin. We have chosen Satan. We have chosen rebellion. We have chosen death. We have chosen rejection of God. We have chosen to be objects of wrath. We have chosen hell.
Every single human being has chosen. By virtue of sinning, you have chosen. You have chosen Satan. You have chosen death. You have chosen wrath. You have chosen hell. And the third option is that God, too, would choose. And that God would choose to save some. That God would choose in undeserving, ill-deserving mercy and grace to save some.
The message is pretty clear: we have sinned, we have rebelled, we have chosen idols over God, we can't change this decision, so we need Christ to save us from the wrath and justice of God by which we are headed for hell. He doesn't elaborate on the specific nature of hell too much other than the standard (of this view) description of it as "eternal conscious torment"--with the implication that this torment has something to do with fire.

John Piper falls largely into the same neo-Reformed theological "camp" so I won't address his view in too much detail separately, but a recent post caught my eye: "Every sin against God is a capital offense." The implication is the same: God, being morally perfect, is justly displeased and angry with our sins, so if we don't believe in His son He throws us in Hell. This view is closely correlated with the penal substitution view of atonement: God's wrath against our sin burns unquenchably, and unless Christ's sacrificial death is applied to us it will fall on us. John Calvin's former profession as a lawyer led him to draw parallels between God's condemnation and a "guilty" verdict in a courtroom, an analogy which has been held by Reformed Christians ever since.
Hopefully this description makes the "Hell as a place" view make more sense even if you don't come from it. Back to the challenges to this view, that it portrays God as cruel, capricious, unloving, or even unjust. Holders of this view would counter that God is not unjust to punish people eternally, even for a finite number and scope of sins, because of the infinite greatness of the One they have sinned against. As an illustration, if you punch someone in a bar you might (might) get kicked out, if you punch a police officer you'll spend the night in jail; if you punch the President, you'll be wrestled to the ground by the Secret Service, be demonized on national media for days, and possibly go to Guantanamo or something. So, by analogy, by sinning against the One who is infinitely greater than the President, you deserve an infinite punishment.

As for the charge that this view depicts God as unloving, proponents (especially of the more Calvinistic variety) would probably answer that, because our condemnation is justly deserved, God is not unloving or cruel to sentence us; He is just being just in accordance with His perfect nature. What is incredible is that out of the mass of sinful humanity, God would--in love--choose to save some. Again, by analogy, if a judge pardons a prisoner on death row and leaves others to their fate, none of them have any right to call the judge unjust for not pardoning them as well! As Driscoll says above, we have chosen and deserve Hell, and anything we receive from God beyond that is simply mercy. Besides, God has given everyone this life in which to seek Him and find salvation, so He is loving in that.

The problem is, these counters still aren't convincing to me. I have trouble making myself believe that we really can deserve infinite punishment for one (just one, the street preachers will emphasize) finite sin. The courtroom analogies not only impose a Renaissance/modern-era conception of justice on God, but they seem to excuse Him from needing to be loving as He is being just. I have already pointed out that we expect God to be totally just to everyone; we should expect the same of His love. Does giving people a chance to respond to the gospel and blessing them temporally really come anywhere close to matching the "justice" of punishing them eternally?

Again, if we use this picture of Hell to motivate Christians to evangelize or non-Christians to convert, it seems more like we are trying to save people from God Himself than from themselves or their sin. The primary problem of nonbelievers, by implication, is not their sin itself, which seems not so bad by comparison (swearing, cheating on your taxes, ditching church) but what God is going to do to them for it. We are convicted to minister to people and tell them the gospel not so much because of the innate plight of their sin and separation from God as because of His terrifying wrath hanging ominously over their heads. And this is dangerous to believe for us and for them.

One other thing: the horror and punishment of Hell are popularly depicted as being physical; your indestructible resurrection body experiencing "eternal conscious torment" in the fires of Hell--presumably wondering, "Why, God? What did I do to you to deserve this?". People think back to their most painful burn experience and extrapolate the implied horror from there. There are at least three problems with this conception of the horror of Hell as being primarily physical, with any more spiritual kind of torment thrown in more as an afterthought (besides the apparent cruelty):
  • It's based on an understanding of justice as being primarily retributive, whereas in western culture (particularly in Europe) we tend to see rehabilitation as the point of punishment. This view on justice is, I think, what prompts Christian universalists to believe that the imagery of Hell depicts a temporary destination after which everyone will, ultimately, be "rehabilitated" to believe in God and reach Heaven. This take on salvation is, of course, rejected by orthodox Christians, but it raises the question: is our view of justice as being rehabilitative, loving and advanced though it seems (look at the example we make of Norway), unbiblical or wrong? Or should our changed perspective on the nature and point of punishment lead us to a different take on Hell than the one held by first-century Christians? Does our perspective on justice need to go back before it can go forward?
  • The explanation for how finite sins can have an eternal punishment rests on the spiritual dimension of the sins, not their physical realities--you have offended an infinitely great God. Yet the perceived punishment itself--eternal conscious torment in fire--has little in the way of a spiritual dimension. It doesn't seem to fit the nature of the crime.
  • Hell is depicted pretty consistently in the New Testament as the counterpart to Heaven (such as in the point-counterpoint in Matthew 25:46), but Heaven is not thought of primarily (if at all) as a place of full-body massages, four meals of candy a day, and beautiful music for all eternity; in fact, we rightly consider this view of Heaven as a place where you simply get all the earthly pleasures you could ever want as wrong as it is childish. If the main "point" of Heaven is not the physical reality of it, why should we expect Hell to be different?

Hell as a State

Perhaps in response to the difficulties modern audiences have with this conception of Hell as "eternal conscious torture", but desiring to take the Bible's teaching on God's justice seriously, other Christian thinkers tend toward a view of Hell that emphasizes its spiritual, not physical reality. In this view, Hell is a place of sinfully-desired, self-imposed separation from God. God doesn't cruelly throw people into eternal punishment against their will but simply allows them to forever walk away from Him, to their own damnation.

The best-known proponent of this view is, of course, C.S. Lewis, who describes it with the most detail in his classic, The Great Divorce, which I summarize in one of my first few posts. In it he depicts Hell as an endlessly sprawling, decaying city absent any of the light of God we see in the real world, full of bitter people degenerating into mere oblivion. The inhabitants of this Hell are able to take a bus trip to Heaven, but even when seeing it they almost all despise and reject it, preferring their own autonomy sinful habits to the surrender and humility required to live in Heaven. In this view, God does not shut people out of His presence, but they shut Him out of theirs. He casts his former mentor George MacDonald as the plot-exposing guide to the narrator, who says this peoples' inability to turn to accept God:
Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.
And elsewhere:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No one who seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
The Tim Keller video posted in the comments to my prelude to this series gives another, more modern exposition of this view. Weaving together diverse sources from Kierkegaard to The Iron Giant and taking both C.S. Lewis' writing and Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) as jumping-off points, he describes Hell as the eternal continuation of the self-chosen trajectory of sin and addiction to things other than God that we begin in life. His definition of Hell is "just a freely chosen identity based on something else besides God, going on forever."

The modern Catholic stance on Hell, written in the catechism by John Paul II is surprisingly similar:
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." (John 3:14-15) Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren.  (Matthew 25:31-46) To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."
The Eastern Orthodox church has a very interesting take on this view: Hell is not eternal separation from God, but both sinners and the righteous spend eternity with Him, which is Heaven for some and Hell for others. Is the Hell-as-a-place view a uniquely Protestant phenomenon?

Obviously this position is much more intuitively appealing and seems much more sensible than the Hell-as-a-place view, and currently the one I hold is very much like it. By emphasizing the nature of Hell as something sinners choose rather than have forced on them by a vengeful God, it becomes clear that Jesus came to save people from their sins (Matthew 1:21) rather than God's wrath for their sins. The biggest problem of this position, at least to me, is that it seems to lack the kind of direct scriptural support enjoyed by Hell as a place. But is this because it is actually unsupported, or just because we're reading the scriptures incorrectly? That is the big question that prompted this series. Next time: a hopefully fascinating detour through some underworlds of mythology.


  1. The passing bus trip to heaven that you refer to in the "Great Divorce" doesn't make sense when contrasting to the fate of the rich man that Lazarus stayed near. When Abraham was talking to the rich man in Luke 16:25, he said, "a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us". It sounds like even if there was a chasm-hopping bus, it wouldn't even be an option.

  2. I don't think C.S. Lewis actually believed there was a metaphorical bus to heaven, it was just a literary device to show what he thinks would happen if souls in Hell were shown glimpses of Heaven and the conflicts that arise. They had to get there somehow.