Does Hell exist?

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).

Free will?

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?

Conclusion

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.

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* 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. 

References

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]

 

 

8 thoughts on “Does Hell exist?”

  1. This post is illuminating as to the origin of the ideas of Hell.
    The most severe teachings of the Catholic church, probably misinterpretions of what Jesus said, have had a very damaging effect
    on a large number of people.Some might say it was a deliberate
    method of control.I am not so sure
    I can say clearly that living with the fear of this punishment can make someone’s life a living Hell especially when Catholic children had to begin going to confess their sins at the age of 7 or 8.And most had no way of discussing these ideas without being labelled as sinful heretics… and being unable to receive Communion.No doubt others ignored the whole thing .It was like ” water of a duck’s back” but many suffered intensely
    A mature conscience would not judge so harshly and neither would God.I am sure about that
    I wish our politicians feared being judged as it might make them kinder but I don’t know whether the type of people in that trade
    nowadays could or would govern in a more thoughtful way,
    It might be only narcissistic, wildly ambitious people go into politics
    After WW2 we had a Labour Government and the NHS was started in about 1948.It meant we could all get healthcare free.I am sure that would make people treat each other better
    So why can’t we have a Government like that now?
    People create hell on earth for their fellow human beings either like Stalin killing so many to get the industrial revolution he wanted or
    at an everyday level of control in society by imparting fear of death and hell into children and the idea God was watching us all the time and even knew our sinful thoughts
    He’s welcome to mine!
    I think there is a different conscience which is based on our being sad when we do things that harm others and then we wish to try to make
    things better when we come to our senses.We are grateful if they accept our apology in whatever form we offer it

    .

  2. I find it curious that Buddhism, which one tends to think of as a ‘peaceful’ religion also has vivid images of hell in some temples. These images are surprisingly similar to many mediaeval wall paintings in old Christian churches. It seems clear that such images have been useful to authoritarian leaders, seeking to ensure that their subjects are suitably cowed.

    1. How strange.I didn’t know that.I wonder if they might depict states of mind? If we have a very cruel conscience this can evoke terror and frightful states of mind.I think Fred knows more than Mike or I do about psychoanalysis and the way Klein might interpret such things
      But I am surprised Buddhist temples have such pictures
      Experiencing mental suffering may be common to all humans.Alas not to Hitler and other brutal monsters who get power.I’ll have to look at these images online,Katherine

  3. When I was reading this again, the phrase
    ” that some will freely choose to sin and sin again”
    struck my mind
    We were taught that a sin must have ” full consent of the will”
    That is probably hard to define.But cruel actions can be very evil
    yet may not be sins.If the person is a pschopath maybe they wre not fully responsible for what they do.
    Then I think, suppose I were Hitler and suddenly realised I had been
    ordering mass murder etc, it might make me think that I am in so deep I can’t undo the past.And since i am already wicked I will just go on killing more Jews,gays,gypsies,civilians.
    I suspect we often hide from ourselves what kind of life we are leading.
    The idea of Purgatory was meant as a means of showing God will forgive if those souls repent and accept their punishment
    But trivial things like unbaptised babies going to Limbo begin to see ridiculous.

  4. Thanks for your comments Mike and Katheryn. One thought about Buddhism and Hell. Buddhism as it is actually practiced is remarkably different from the Buddhism we see here. In Korea, where I lived for a little while, the temple mostly served women who would come and make sacrifices so that their children would get into a good college. One Western Buddhist said “this isn’t Buddhism.” No, but it’s part of real life Buddhism. Fred

  5. My name is Alan Finch. I became a Christian in April of 1976. I would like to share my thoughts on the question that so many people ask in regards to “HOW COULD A LOVING GOD SENTENCE PEOPLE TO ETERNAL DAMNATION?”

    For some reason John 6:44 has been GREATLY overlooked by the Church today. In this verse, JESUS clearly states that nobody can come to Him unless God draws that person to JESUS. You and I only came to JESUS because the Spirit of God drew us to JESUS.

    There are billions of people who never had the Spirit of God draw them to JESUS. Since that is the case, why would a loving God sentence billions of people to eternal torment who never had the Spirit of God draw them to JESUS? The answer then becomes clear that the Scriptures are not being properly understood by the vast majority of people.

    In John 12:32 JESUS clearly states that He is going to “DRAW ALL PEOPLE” to Himself. What is there not to understand about that proclamation by JESUS? This will happen during the time period that God has already chosen to do so.

    God has His own plan for each individual that He has created. In the future, in His promise of RESTORATION, God’s Spirit is going to do such a GREAT and MIGHTY work in each individual that just as God has promised in Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10&11, that at the name of JESUS ALL will bow the knee and every tongue confess that JESUS CHRIST is LORD. There is no place in these verses that states that people are going to be forced to bow their knee before JESUS. Being forced to bow the knee before JESUS brings no Glory to God. The Scriptures are very clear that God only accepts a willing heart. So, ALL people are going to bow the knee before JESUS from a WILLING HEART, not from being forced.

    Isaiah 45:23 states that every tongue shall swear before JESUS. The word “SWEAR” in this Passage of Scripture means to take an oath that JESUS is their Lord. In greater detail, it means to “PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO.” People who know that eternal damnation awaits them are certainly not going to be pledging allegiance to JESUS. Rather, they would be cursing JESUS.

    JESUS often used metaphors in His teachings which has often been overlooked today by the Church. Once we begin to gain a better understanding of the metaphors used by JESUS then (PRAISE GOD) the Scriptures begin to come alive with clearer meaning. The problem that we have today in the Church is that much of the teaching is coming from a scholarly type of teaching, rather than from Holy Spirit revelation insight of the Scriptures. JESUS said that His Church is to be built upon Revelation.

    I spent several years in putting together a 32 page document “WHAT IS THE GOOD NEWS OF THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST?” I put forth a pain stacking effort in trying to leave no stone unturned in Biblically expounding upon the Biblical truths that I share in my document.

    If anyone would be interested in reading my document, email me at: ( candy33alan@aol.com ) and I will email you a copy.

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