The Problem of Hell – Part 1
by Glen Torhjelm
Is there a more serious, more sensitive, more uncomfortable subject in traditional Christian teaching than the doctrine of hell? In his first post for Faith Beyond Belief, new staff writer, Glen Torhjelm, tackles this controversial topic. This is the first post in a three-part series.
The very notion of hell has been called an “outrageous doctrine…that needs to be changed.”[i] The famous atheist Bertrand Russel wrote that the mere threatening of hell was inhumane.[ii] Geddes MacGregor, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, has called the concept “barbarous.”[iii] It surely is, as Kyle Blanchette and Jerry Walls put it, one of the “thorniest” issues for the theist.[iv]
Is it even possible for the modern Christian to defend the biblical doctrine of hell? What follows is a multi-part response to this question. In short, I believe the biblical doctrine of hell can be well defended. Attempts to discard the concept of hell, fail in their goal and are ill-advised. In this first installment, I will be begin briefly explaining the nature of hell.
According to the Bible, hell is a real place
From a biblical perspective, hell is real.[v] As a place, hell is marked by total separation from God; it is one side, figuratively, of the “great gulf fixed,” with heaven on the other side (Luke 16:26).[vi] However, as biblical and Systematic Theology Professor John Feinberg notes, it is not merely a figurative place of symbolic punishment. Rather, though we cannot point to it on a map, it is a real place of judgment.[vii] Given the dual uses of Hades and Gehenna to describe it, Feinberg relates New Testament teaching that at death, there is a separation of body and soul; the condemned souls enter Hades, enduring punishment (See, e.g., Luke 16:23-24) while waiting for the return and judgment of Christ. Once this judgment is delivered, the condemned, in resurrected form, will join Satan and the demons in the eternal lake of fire, Gehenna.[viii]
Hell is eternal
When the Bible speaks of hell, it clearly conveys its eternal nature. Just as heaven is described as eternal (aionion), so too is hell (See Matthew 25:41).[ix] As Feinberg notes, any traditional understanding of hell includes its “never ending” nature.[x] Doug Groothuis echoes this same understanding of Scripture, noting that—whether bound for heaven or hell—there is coming the “permanent resurrection” of the body.[xi] Even at a philosophical level, Norman Geisler points out that hell must be eternal. He reasons that since God in his holiness will not tolerate evil, his ultimate judgment of, and separation from it, must last as long as God exists; since God is eternal, hell must be eternal.
Hell is for all who reject God and his offer of salvation
Those who reject the salvation offered by God in Christ will face such an eternity in hell.[xiii] The apostles of Jesus preached clearly there was no salvation from hell apart from faith in Christ (Acts 4:12).[xiv] As Feinberg notes, Paul was clear in his letter to the church at Rome that everyone has sufficient revelation to know there is a God of certain qualities (Romans 1:19-20).[xv] Those, all of those, and none other than those, who reject this God and all of his revelations about himself and salvation, will be condemned.[xvi]
Hell is a place of active torment
Hell is also a place of active torment. This is described throughout the New Testament in various ways: unceasing fire (Mark 9:43-48), the wailing and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12), and others.[xvii] Some readers of Scripture find the pain and agony of hell to be wholly self-inflicted. C.S. Lewis, for example, notes that hell can be seen as either a sentence imposed, or as the sinner’s wish ultimately fulfilled.[xviii] Similarly, Geisler comments that the Bible does not refer to hell as a “torture chamber.” Torture, he writes, is “inflicted from without against one’s will,” whereas the torment of hell is “self-inflicted.”[xix] On the other hand, Feinberg finds the inclusion of divine retribution to be an essential aspect of hell.[xx] The holiness and justness of God, he claims, requires punishment.[xxi] Whether we view God as exacting vengeance for acting in opposition to His commands, or as merely allowing the condemned to reap the consequences of his or her actions, the clear fact remains: hell is a place of torment and agony.[xxii] We should also not forget the words of our Lord: “Then [the wicked] will go away to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46, emphasis mine).[xxiii]
The traditional concept of hell can be summarized at this point. Feinberg points out that the description must contain four elements: The Anti-Universalism Thesis, the Existence Thesis, the No Escape Thesis, and the Retribution Thesis.[xxiv] In other words, hell is a real place where real, resurrected people go; they will be there forever with no means of escape, rightly enduring God’s holy justice. Robert Peterson, in his book Hell on Trial, also provides a useful summary:
Hell entails eternal punishment, utter loss, rejection by God, terrible suffering, and unspeakable sorrow and pain. The duration of hell is endless…hell is terrible for all the damned. Its occupants are the Devil, evil angels and unsaved human beings.[xxv]
It is against this traditional, historical, and biblical understanding of hell that many people resist, and find problematic.
As this series continues, we will explore this problem of ‘hell.’ Before addressing attempts to confront the doctrine of hell in its fullest horror, we will first take a look at what I believe to be errant and ill-advised approaches that, unfortunately, enjoy significant popularity—even within the Christian community.
(Read Part 2 here.)
[i] Clark Pinnock, “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review 4 (1990): 246-47, quoted in John Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 396.
[ii] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 594-95, cited in Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 221.
[iii] Geddes MacGregor, Reincarnation as a Christian Hope (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Nobel, 1982), 146, quoted in Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences, revised and updated (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 251.
[iv] Kyle Blanchette and Jerry L. Walls, “God and Hell Reconciled,” in God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain, ed. Chad Meister and James K. Dew, Jr. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013), 243.
[v] Geisler, 222.
[vi] Ibid., 223.
[vii] Feinberg, 399.
[viii] Ibid., 400-1.
[ix] Geisler, 223.
[x] Feinberg, 403. Emphasis in original.
[xi] Doug Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 655.
[xii] Ibid., 223.
[xiii] Feinberg, 403.
[xiv] William Lane Craig, “Diversity, Evil and Hell: A Particularist Approach,” in Meister and Dew, 227.
[xv] Feinberg, 403.
[xvii] Ibid., 402.
[xviii] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 124-25.
[xix] Geisler, 223.
[xx] Feinberg, 404.
[xxi] Ibid. It should be noted that Geisler and others see the necessity of hell stemming from God’s holiness; the distinction seems to be one of motive. Does God simply set the rules and allow people to pick their course, or is there a quasi-vindictive component to the agony of hell?
[xxii] See Geisler, 223.
[xxiii] Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), 193.
[xxiv] Feinberg, 404.
[xxv] Peterson, 201.