Does Hell exist?
It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them. Saint Isaac of Nineveh, circa 650 CE
Would God, who knows the fate of everyone ever born, or who will be born, consign some of his creatures to eternal torment in Hell? This is the question raised by those who believe in Hell. Can you really imagine a loving God who would do this? David Bentley Hart can’t, and I follow his argument in That All Shall Be Saved.
But doesn’t the New Testament tell us that bad people will go to Hell?
If you read the Bible closely, you will see that it says nothing about eternal Hell. Paul believed that all are bound in disobedience to God. But only so that God might show mercy to us all (Romans 11:32). Not one word in Paul, or the Gospel of John, refers to an everlasting Hell. First Timothy says simply that God “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth.” (2:4) This is called the doctrine of universal salvation or universal reconciliation. People may go to Hell, but they will be redeemed like all the others when Christ returns.
Matthew has the strongest statement on eternal damnation, or so it first appears. The bad “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (25:46) But as usual, so much depends on translation. The word Matthew uses for eternal is αἰώνιον, whose root transliterates as aion, or eon. An eon is not eternity, but a long time. It’s the same word Jesus uses when he says “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus is referring to the Second Coming (also called the Second Advent or Parousia).
The lack of clarity in even this most definitive statement about Hell is made worse by the term Matthew uses for punishment, κόλασις (kolasis). It is the weaker of two possible words. Kolasis implies corrective punishment, whereas τιμωρία, timōria, the stronger term “most properly refers to retributive justice.” (Hart, p 116)
Jesus and Hell
Nowhere in the New Testament is there any description of a Hell presided over by Satan. Nowhere. To be sure, Jesus seems to refer to Hell when he refers to his return, consigning to everlasting fire those who failed to aid the least of his brothers (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus makes several statements like this, and the question is how to take them. For Jesus also says to pluck out your eye if it causes you to stumble (sin). “For it is better that part of your body perish than for your whole body to be cast into Hell.” (Matthew 5:29; Mark 9:47) Here Christ uses the term Gehenna (Γέεννα) for Hell. Gehenna was a garbage dump for Jerusalem.
The simplest thing to say is the correct one. Jesus taught using metaphor, simile, parable, and short story. He frequently exaggerated in order to make a point. Jesus does not have a doctrine or teaching about Hell. He has a doctrine or teaching about reversal. Under God’s reign the poor and abandoned will be raised up, and their oppressors cast down. There is no more reason to take Jesus literally when he talked about Hell than when he talked about the ten virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13).
If you believe in Hell, you can interpret a number of statements in the New Testament to support your view. In the end it comes down to what you believe about God. And man. About God, I think the statement of Saint Isaac makes the most sense. Do you want to worship a God who would create men and women in his image, knowing that some of them will suffer torment for eternity?
A common response, probably the most common, is that God gave men and women free will, and the cost of free will is that some will freely choose to sin and sin again, and they will suffer eternal punishment for their choices. Hart’s argument, with which I agree, is that there is really no such thing as free choice (pp 144-146). People choices are constrained by genetics, bad parenting, a social environment that teaches that bad is good, and lack of opportunity.
The other side of the coin is equally important. We are so enmeshed in the lives of others, including others we do not know, that none of us are innocent of others’ bad choices. I live near Baltimore, Maryland, sometimes called Murdermore. People shoot and kill each other there with alarming frequency. Most who do live in the only real Hell. Hell on earth. Is not my middle-class lifestyle purchased partly at the expense of those who are raised by sixteen-year-old mothers addicted to drugs, drug dealers who seem to live like kings, and schools that fail to educate?
I can speak from experience. For a research project I worked in a state prison near Baltimore with a group of murderers.* I spoke to them weekly for over a year, and I read their case files. Not one had a decent home life or a decent education. Of course, most others raised in similar circumstances do not murder, but I cannot believe that the men and women I spoke with in prison freely chose to do evil, if freely chose means that they had an array of options from which to choose. If I put it to you that you can go to school, marry, have children, and a good job, or you can spend an eternity being tortured in Hell, would you choose an eternity in Hell? Who would?
Just a brief word about education in Baltimore. My son taught there for over ten years. It took over a year to get the window air-conditioner in his class room fixed, and he was given old textbooks and a couple of broken-down computers for his class. Local property taxes support local education, and poor areas don’t have enough middle-class properties to tax. Do you think any of my son’s students chose to have a poor education? If it’s no accident that students in upper-middle-class and wealthy areas have better schools, then isn’t it also true that they have good schools at the expense of those who have bad ones?
In the end the question comes down to what you believe about the God you choose to love and worship. If God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and always loving, would this same God create men and women whose destiny is to be tortured in Hell for eternity? Why would he do this?
A common reply is that humans cannot know the answer to questions like this. But if you believe that God is good, then accepting that you cannot know why he would create men and women doomed to suffer for eternity abandons your moral responsibility. It is not our job to judge God, but it is our job to see that what we believe about God accords with our deepest beliefs about good and bad.
* For my book, What Evil Means to Us, I compared what a group of murderers said about evil with what a group of so-called average citizens said. There was not much difference. In order to interview the murderers, I had to become a staff member of the state prison where they were held.
C. Fred Alford, What Evil Means to Us. Cornell University Press, 1997.
David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved. Yale University Press, 2019.
St. Isaac of Nineveh, Ascetical Homilies. Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2nd edition, 2011. [St. Isaac is also called St. Isaac the Syrian]