The existence of a place for those who are corrupt and sinful, a place so full of misery and pain, a home to agony for all eternity is frightful for anyone to imagine. It has many names and connections with religions – the most common name in Western Christian culture is Hell. For centuries, this abode of the damned has put fear into the hearts of Christians, keeping them aligned with the ethical and moral view of their faith. While Hell is a very real problem for many Christians, perhaps it is not what it seems to be.
It is an entirely different plane of existence from that which is most commonly thought of: the usual fire and brimstone, the crackle of eternal fires and demons that tirelessly torture souls for the rest of time. Richard Swinburne, Stephen T. Davis and Marilyn McCord Adams all have written articles interpreting who it is who is exiled to Hell, and what exactly Hell is.
I agree with them for the most part with who is sent there, but I think that Hell is something much different than the traditional view that Christians hold. In Stephen T.
Davis’ essay “Universalism, Hell and the Fate of the Ignorant”, he argues that while Universalism, the belief that all will be rescued, is a good idea it is not plausible. He is himself a Separationist; one who believes some will eternally be away from God. In his essay he takes the argument of the Universalist (the idea that through the atonement of Jesus, every person who has ever lived will ultimately be saved), identifying the good points of it, and then gives his critique.
Next he takes the point of the separatist stating his case for that belief.
He notes that God hates sin and sinners, and although this is plausible, it seems to be a contradiction of His eternal Love and Tolerance. It is also a common Christian belief that God hates the sin, but loves the sinner, and Davis seems to have missed this. But then Davis goes on to say the existence of Hell is a form of therapy to bring so called sinners closer to God through repentance and absolution. He thus says that the wrath of God is part of his overall strategy to bring the people back to Him. The Universalist believes that Hell is merely temporary, and will exist forever, for some have hardened their heart against God.
This point is valid: some have had an incident or a tragedy that has turned them away from their faith, their God. Although Davis says God has, according to the Universalist, unlimited time and resources to bring these people back to Him; God will not force anyone into His Kingdom. He wants them to choose freely, and this is something that may cause a problem for some Christians – their own free will. Davis makes a good argument for Universalism with the notion that true bliss in Heaven is difficult if a sanctified soul has a loved one in Hell.
In Davis’ critique of Universalism, he notes that Separationists can also believe that God will save everyone. He also believes that Universalists misinterpret the texts, and that their view of Hell and its attachment to God and sin would cause the traditional outlook of salvation Christians have. Davis also notes that the interpretations are not viewed in the entirety of the scriptures and thus seem inconsistent with the testimony. Davis admits that he really likes the idea of total salvation for all, but cannot see the logical reasoning the Universalists have.
Davis’ view on Hell is that it is a place where you are out of God’s light and love, separated from Him, but not totally, else it would not exist. Davis further explains that Hell is a place where the source of all joy, peace and love does not reach causing its inhabitants to be miserable and tormented. People are not sent to Hell, but rather, freely choose to live there out of God’s sight. God, in his infinite Love, allows Hell to exist for those who are ignorant of God so they will not be miserable in Heaven. Davis agrees that one can freely choose Hell over Heaven in they so wish.
Hell, Davis explains, is consistent with God’s power and love, for He created Hell as a home for those who choose to ignore Him, and that is a showing of Love. Top address the philosophical points, Davis says that while God has the power to impose His will on humanity, he does not because then we would clearly be robotic with no free will. Some Christians believe that salvation is a matter of grace, in that we are all sinful but still God forgives us out of His love for us; we should be condemned, but are saved by this loving and merciful God.
Davis makes a small mistake in his view of Separatism here, because this theory of Grace causes some inconsistencies in its line of belief. If an all-loving God cannot condemn us, then grace has no part of it either, and He is simply justly freeing us from an underserved punishment. He finally argues that while the Bible says that all go to God through Christ, it is not the final authority on all aspects of Christian belief and practice. It should be implied to take into account those born before Christ and those who have never encountered any form of Christianity.
Davis makes many good points in his essay. His idea of Universalism is a good idea and allows for the chance of salvation in the end. Another good point is that Hell is a separation from God, and he explains that it is a place that people are miserable by being out of the reach of God’s love and light. His view that humanity has the free will to choose or reject God agrees with Christian teaching, however he thinks that Hell is merely an extension of God’s love. This would seem like an oxymoronic statement. Hell is an existence without God, and therefore cannot relate to God’s love whatsoever.
Richard Swinburne’s text Theodicy of Heaven and Hell discusses things in the context of the “clearly good and the clearly bad” (37). He makes reference to Catholicism in this paper, and says that to be admitted to Heaven one must have faith formed from a love of God. He also makes an interesting case for the people who were either born before Christianity or for those who have yet to hear Christ’s message. His point is that God should allow those who follow his ways and who live good lives into heaven whether they know Christ’s message or not.
He further says that we do not choose our beliefs in the beginning, but outside influences force a change in them over time. This too may cause considerable stress on Christians who are looking, even if just for the sake of curiosity, at other religions and belief structures. He states that all those who seek truth be granted access to Heaven: whether they find truth or not is irrelevant. The attempt is all that is necessary. He poses the logical question of whether a loving and merciful God would share the bliss of Heaven with all, including the bad, or at least shape souls to become good and thereby gain admittance.
The reality, it would seem, would be that a loving God would allow all into Heaven, but He would not shape a soul to do what He desires of them. This would take away man’s free will, and a loving God would not do that. Swinburne tries to understand why a just God would seal a man’s fate at his death, and so he makes a point to say that God does not do that. It would seem that he believes all souls can get to Heaven because God will not judge us. This would seem to be a contradiction to his earlier statement that only those who seek truth will enter Heaven.
Christians may become confused by this and sense that they are going to Heaven no matter what, which is not what Swinburne is saying. He describes Heaven in placid terms – that supreme happiness in Heaven is to know God, to have Him as your friend. This implies that God isn’t your friend to begin with which seems absurd. He points out that Heaven is a home for good people, and not a reward for good actions. He also talks about man’s free will, and that if God were to take that away, it would be detrimental to man’s well-being and God cannot act in any contradictory way such as this.
He makes an interesting comment that if God subjected sinners to an infinite amount of pain, physical and emotional, it would be inconsistent with His infinitely good nature. He really makes no mention of Hell within his essay, but more a guide to Heaven and its benefits. Swinburne does make references to Hell, but not to the circumstances which condemn a soul to damnation, nor to what it is actually like. This seems odd since he incessantly discusses Heaven. This article, while encouraging many to become better people, it fails to show that there is still a problem of a place where fear rules and chaos is as common as dew in the morning.
In the article The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians, the author, Marilyn Adams presents her view that some people will be consigned forever to Hell, and that the Christians may be somewhat troubled by this theory. Nobody is safe, it would seem. Adams tackles the problem on two levels – at the theoretical level, and the pragmatic level. She first discusses the logical impossibility of God and evil existing at the same time, but tells the readers of her essay that she will attempt to clarify the issue.
According to many traditional theologians, she explains, Divine Sovereignty means that God has no bounds on whatever doctrine of salvation He has established. After all, He is Truth Himself! She further explains that God could negate our existence after death, that Hell is legislated as a temporary reform school for sinners to which they will afterwards be placed into an eternal Utopian environment (oxymoronic given that Utopia literally means “no place” in Latin). Adams explains that many Christians have a kind of free will defence.
While God ultimately desires that all His children be saved, he has given man the ability to work out his own destinies for himself – to be separate and yet one with God simultaneously. Damnation is not something God does to his creations, but rather something He allows to befall mankind for its actions. With regards to Divine Justice, she writes that God can, logically, never be unjust. Her reasoning follows from Anselm’s theory that God is not obligated to us in any way, since He is infinite in all aspects, and we are only finite.
We are thus insignificant with regards to God. This is uncomforting given the thought that we may not have any value to Him. An interesting point of Adams’ is that because we are finite, we could not comprehend some things in their entirety. If we were to experience the agonies of Hell or the glorious bliss of Heaven for a finite period, we still could not understand the full extent of either plane. Adams makes mention of Anselm’s view that the severity of the sin is not only based on the actions of the individual, but also on the relationship that he has with God.
Since God deserves nothing but worship, honour, respect and the like, any offence against Him is considered immeasurably indecent, and thus, infinitely offensive. Adams’ reply to this view is that fair to have consequences that greatly outweigh the offence of a created being. Human life all starts out helpless, weak and ignorant, and unable to make decisions. As a child grows, he constructs a view of the world and everything in it over time. His interaction with human nature and the environment forms as well. The habits we develop, she writes, become rooted in our personality like character traits or quirks, thus giving us individuality.
These habits are acted out in an individual’s life unintentionally, even though they could possibly cause suffering to themselves and to others before realizing it and attempting to make the arduous and emotionally painful change of spiritual reformation. Therefore, we are no more responsible at certain times in our lives (such as infancy) than children, and that God like a parent is the primary source of responsibility and He is culpable. This portrays God as an unfit parent – one who is never available. This is a frightening thought.
Another interpretation is that Hell is the consequence of human error. Adam’s makes a mention of Universalism. By removing the threat of Hell, people would lose their motivation to maintain their moral diligence. This is prevalent in modern society. The media and thus popular thought trivialize Hell and Satan, and sadly enough, God and Christ as well; the whole spiritual concept is foreign to a large portion of the population of the western world. These three authors seem to generally agree, and imply that while not everyone may go to Hell, still no one is truly good.
To illustrate this point, Paul stated in Romans 3:10 and 3:13: “And there is none righteous, no not one… For all have sinned, and fall short of the Glory of God. ” It seems as if man has no choice but to wait and see what awaits him in the end. Davis and Adams present a conception of Hell while Swinburne avoids this issue. While the orthodox view is one of fire and brimstone, the Devil upon his throne of sulphur and skulls, and demons tormenting souls for eternity, this may seem somewhat excessive and a very “Hollywood” fabricated idea.
It would seem more likely that Hell is simply living outside of the love of God, and that would be eternal sadness, and thus the fire and tormenting etc, may seem irrelevant. Anything we do here on earth affects our eternal standing with God, and those unjust and evil acts have adverse effects. Hell might be complete and utter darkness for all time with no feelings but those of agony, remorse, sadness and the likes. It is interesting to note that Dante, in his Divine Comedy presents Hell as icy cold: as far removed as possible from the source of all light and warmth.
This is contrary to the conventional view of Hell, but it makes perfect sense. Satan eternally beats his bat-like wings in an attempt to free himself from the icy prison in which he is frozen, but the constant beating of his wings keeps the inner circle of Hell frozen. The ideas presented are not meant to trivialize and dumb down the idea of Satan and the brutality of Hell. Given God’s eternal love however – to live without that love and joy would be punishment enough, and thus Hell.