Recently I was listening to philosophical theologians give bad answers on hell. I’ve probably discussed most of this before at one time or another, but it may be useful to summarize them in one place. By way of preliminary comment, the primary reason Christians believe in hell is because they believe what the Bible says about hell. It isn’t necessary to provide an independent, philosophical defense of hell. It’s useful in apologetics and evangelism to be able to do that, but the warrant for believing in hell doesn’t rely on that.
1. Infinite God
i) A typical objection goes like this: how can a just God mete out infinite punishment for finite sin? How can the sins of a lifetime merit infinite punishment? The typical reply is that a sin against an infinite God is infinitely culpable, and merits infinite punishment.
That’s a popular answer because it’s compact and uses the same principle as the critic, only turning that principle against the objection. But as it stands, it’s a bad argument:
ii) It equivocates over the nature of infinitude. The objection is to a quantitative infinite punishment. A temporal infinite. Everlasting punishment. For finite, discrete sins.
However, to say a sin may be infinitely culpable swaps in a qualitative concept. An infinite degree of badness. I’m not sure if that’s even meaningful.
In addition, what does it mean in this context to say that God is “infinite.” In what morally relevant sense is God infinite in this argument? Perhaps what is meant is that God is infinitely good, so that a sin against an infinitely good God is infinitely bad, meriting infinite punishment. “Infinite” in the sense that God is as good as anything can be. Indeed, better than anything else. The uppermost maxima of goodness or exemplar of goodness. Something like that.
When you try to unpack the argument, it gets messy. I don’t think this is a good argument as it stands. It does, however, contain a grain of truth, so I think it can be rehabilitated in some respect:
iii) There is a moral principle where the same action may be worse depending on who you do it to. It’s worse to betray a friend than a stranger. It’s worse to mistreat your elderly mother than to mistreat the telemarketer. So there can be degrees of culpability, not due to the action itself, but who it’s directed to. Taken to a logical extreme, the argument is that we owe the most to God, we have the greatest obligation to God, so sinning against God is the worst kind of sin.
iv) There is, though, another complication to this argument. In what sense can we sin against God? We can’t harm God.
It is, however, possible, to wrong someone without harming them. A thankless, malicious son can dishonor his father’s memory. Suppose his dad was a conscientious father, but the son spreads scurrilous rumors about his late father that destroy his father’s reputation. In one sense it’s too late to harm is father. But there’s still something terribly wrong about the action.
2. Eternal existence
i) A basic reason hell is forever is because human beings are forever. If human beings have an immortal soul (not to mention the resurrection of the body), then whatever happens to human beings will last forever. They have an unending destiny because they have an unending existence. So whatever happens to them will go on forever. It continues because they continue. Annihilationists duck that by denying that human beings are naturally immortal.
ii) Now this is more of a necessary rather than sufficient condition for eternal punishment. In principle, it could be a argued that while whatever happens to them is never-ending, it needn’t be the same thing forever. It can change. That’s the contention of the universalist, as well as exponents of postmortem salvation. That requires a separate response.
It is, however, important to make the initial point that one reason damnation is inescapable is because existence is inescapable. Damnation never ceases because the damned never cease to exist.
3. Apropos (2), a supporting argument is that damnation is forever because the damned continue to sin. An objection to this argument is that people have a capacity for change.
That can be true, but what causes them to change? In Christian theology, God’s grace is transformative. If, however, God withholds his grace from the damned, then they don’t get better. If anything, they get worse. More hardened.
4. Apropos (3), why doesn’t God enable the damned to change? Why doesn’t God grant them the ability to repent?
This goes to another principle in Christian theology: in terms of eschatological judgment, some sinners get what they deserve while others get better than they deserve (no one gets worse than they deserve).
The reason the damned never leave hell is because they don’t deserve to leave hell. They don’t deserve a better life. That’s their just desert, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, there’s something right with God.
In Christian theology, God doesn’t treat all equally-undeserving sinners alike. He draws a distinction. You shouldn’t expect to get better than you deserve. To get just what you deserve is the essence of justice. They don’t get out of hell because they deserve nothing better. They are in their natural element.
There’s something nihilistic, something morally subversive–even diabolical–about the idea that no matter what anyone ever does, it makes no ultimate different to what happens to them. To treat good and evil alike.
5. Suppose (ex hypothesi) that human agents start out as a clean slate. By that I mean, suppose that initially they have no rap sheep. Their moral record is spotless.
The first time I do something evil, that puts me behind. Because I can’t change my past, if I do something evil, I can’t get back to where I was before I did evil. I can’t get out from under that. If I did something evil, then it will always be the case that I did something evil. That’s indelible. It doesn’t fade with the passage of time. I don’t become less guilty. Once I do something evil, there’s no way to put that behind me. It’s permanent. Evil has a timeless moral quality. There’s no decay rate. The past is irrevocable.
And the more evil things I do, the further behind I fall. A lifetime of cumulative wrongdoing.
This is why vicarious atonement and penal substitution are fixtures of Christian redemption. Without a Redeemer who atones for your sin, on your behalf and in your stead, your culpability because increasingly hopeless.
6. Counterfactual guilt
Another factor I’ve discussed, although it has yet to catch on, is that it’s very nearsighted to limit culpability to the sins of a lifetime. The sins we commit are related to our circumstances. Change the circumstances and we’d commit a different set of sins. It’s not so much about committing a particular sin, but the character of the sinner. Put him in a different situation and he will commit different sins. It’s arbitrary to exclude from consideration all the wrongdoing he’d commit if the opportunity presented itself, and he could get away with it, as if guilt and innocence in God’s eyes is a matter of lucking or unlucky timing or setting. Wrong place. Wrong time. Just missed it. Had you been there an hour sooner or later.
7. Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, critics of hell approach this issue from the wrong end. In Christian theology, the default assumption is that sinners are already lost. They didn’t start out in the right direction, then take a wrong turn. Rather, sinners are in a lost condition from the outset. They don’t have to do anything extra to go to hell. They didn’t lose their way at some point along the journey. There was no fork in the road where they made a fatal moral choice. To be saved requires divine intervention.
It’s like a movie villain. He’s already a villain when the movie begins. There’s no backstory about how or when he became a villain. Does it have something to do with his childhood? Did he gradually turn to evil? Was there a crossroads where he made a decisive choice for evil?
That’s not where the story begins. As far as the plot goes, there was never a time when he wasn’t on the wrong path.