The Problem of Hell - Part 3

The Problem of Hell - Part 3

by Glen Torhjelm


In Part 1 of this series, we looked briefly at the concept of hell, noting that from a biblical perspective it is a real place of active, eternal punishment. In Part 2, we looked at two popular means of avoiding this unpleasant doctrine: universalism and annihilationism, and concluded that each of these approaches not only ignores a fundamental element of the biblical doctrine, but also—in so doing—gives the impression that God’s nature and the doctrine of hell cannot be reconciled.

Can an all-knowing, all-loving God have some reason for creating and sending people to a hell as “horrible as traditionally conceived”?[1] In this final instalment we will look at two approaches that differ on human freedom, but both attempt reconciliation of this challenging question. After this we will look at whether hell is a reasonable punishment for violating God’s moral commands.[2] What I hope to show is that God does have a morally justified basis for creating a world with hell as a component.


The Free Will Defense

Those who hold to libertarian free will consider the same to resolve the problem of hell. In creating free beings, God created a good world. However, this “good world” has a consequence: some will freely choose to reject God.[3] Norman Geisler is rather firm in his language when he asserts that “[f]orced love is not love; it is rape.”[4] As tough as this is, it seems undeniable. Not only does God offer the freedom to reject Him, he allows people to refrain from relationship with Him forever (i.e., hell).[5] Some will freely choose this path, regardless of how God reaches out to save them.[6]

Many people maintain that this view does nothing to address the issue of those who never actually reject God, because they have never heard the Gospel of salvation. To this, William Lane Craig points out that this apparent problem hinges on faulty assumptions, such as God’s ability to create a world, where everyone freely chooses Him. Further, it is quite possible (the actual case, per Craig’s approach) that none who do not hear the Gospel, would have reacted positively to it had it been presented.[7]

This “free will” approach to the problem of hell seems to accomplish its task. It can logically justify the existence of an all-knowing, all-loving God, with the horrors of hell as biblically and historically understood. It provides for a God so loving he allows his creatures to freely choose as they will; however, they must accept the consequences of defying a holy God if that is their choice. As Feinberg notes, the “possibility of going to hell is a high price for maintaining the integrity of human free will, but free will defenders believe that it is worth it.”[8]


The Feinberg Defense

John Feinberg’s theology is self-described as a “moderate form of Calvinism.”[9] He is a modified rationalist, meaning he believes God was obligated to create a “good” world.[10] He is also a compatibilist, which means he does not hold to full, libertarian free will.[11] This being the case, he cannot turn to free will as a defense of hell, and must develop a different justification.[12]

Feinberg’s justification for hell lies in the type of creature God intended in human beings. Such beings, he claims, are core constituents in the “good world” God chose to create.[13] The ontological characteristics he sees as essential to humanity in this creation, include the ability to reason, experience emotions, have desires and intentions, and physical mobility.[14]

Eschewing free will, Feinberg “goes behind” the activity of human will to the desires of the heart.[15] Human reason, emotion, and whatever extent of free will is granted, play a role in the ultimate fruition of evil, but the desire is the ultimate source.[16]

Feinberg argues that to eradicate the evil choices of man, God would have to so change His creation, or so intervene in human activities as to render obliterated the ontological character of His desired creation.[17] As he writes, “God cannot maintain the integrity of human nature as created and still remove all evil.[18] In the same way, God cannot guarantee—even in a compatibilist theology—that everyone will choose to have a relationship with Him without violating the integrity of His “good creation.”[19]

Feinberg’s view holds that God does interact with humanity to some extent to persuade their desires, but as noted, this must be limited. In the end, humanity is free to act on those desires. Even for the compatibilist, no choice is forced against the will of the chooser.[20] Hell is justified insofar as it grants the desire of the persons heart; it is what they want.[21] Like the free will defense, Feinberg’s approach suggests that, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “[t]he doors of hell are locked on the inside.”[22]


Sin and Punishment

Scripture teaches that God is just and that he cannot tolerate sin (Rom. 2, Hab. 1:13).[23] Correlated to this is that God must punish sin, but much of it goes unpunished in this life (see Ps. 73:3).[24] What would we think of a god who didn’t punish sin, a god who exacted nothing from such persons as Adolf Hitler? Our answer to this question often reveals that we expect—even demand—some degree of punishment.

That to many, the punishment of hell seems to go too far, indicates how drastically we have drifted from a proper understanding of sin. Our failings may seem trite to us, but they are nothing of the sort to a holy God “who has given us everything we have, and asks only that we obey his rules.”[25] As Dr. Clay Jones of Biola University points out, much of the distaste we have for God’s harsh treatment of sinners (e.g., the Canaanites) stems from our lack of appreciation of the gravity of their sin, which is generationally repeated as our sin.[26] This also applies to our distaste of hell. As Feinberg writes,

Those who think sin is bad but not so bad as to merit eternal punishment don’t demonstrate the injustice of hell or the insignificance of sin; rather they show their own perversity and comfort with sin.[27]

This is our all-too-common view; the reality is that “if we had a true spiritual awareness, we would not be amazed at hell’s severity but at our own depravity.”[28]



The Bible presents a horrific view of hell, a place of eternal anguish for those who reject God. In an attempt to make Christianity more palatable, both universalism and annihilationism fail to serve as a viable alternative to the problem and doctrine of hell.  Both not only fail to give an adequate justification for the doctrine, but imply that none is to be found.

On the other hand, both the free will defense, and the Modified Rationalist compatibilistic approach of John Feinberg address hell in its fullest sense. Without contradicting God’s power or love, they each place the ultimate burden of suffering in hell, on those who choose it. The former focuses on the execution of choice, the latter on inclinations of our desires, but in the end, both views find people in hell because they choose to be there. To deny the possibility of hell would require God to force compliance either against the will of His people, or so diminish their fundamental nature as to undermine His purpose in creating them.

The free will defense and the Modified Rationalist compatibilistic view both seem to solve the logical problem of hell; there is no inherent contradiction between an all-loving, all-powerful God and the reality of hell. The lingering distaste we have towards the notion of eternal torment is largely owing to our underestimation of the gravity of sin against a holy God. If we lose our selfish, human-centered viewpoint, and “catch a glimpse of the holiness of God, and consequently of the ugliness of sin in his sight, we will have less trouble with the Bible’s teachings on hell.”[29]


[1] John Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 408.

[2] Ibid., 428.

[3] Ibid., 429.

[4] Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 222.

[5] Ibid. This view seems more compatible with hell as a natural consequence of decisions, rather than a more retributive model of hell as God’s active wrath.

[6] William Lane Craig, “Diversity, Evil and Hell: A Particularist Approach,” 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), 241.

[7] Craig, 236-39.

[8] Feinberg, 429.

[9] Ibid., 166.

[10] Ibid., 67-8. This view is the middle ground between a theonomist approach that gives God full freedom to create any world he wishes, and the Leibnizian view that holds God must create the “best” world.

[11] Ibid., 166. Feinberg summarizes his theology thus: a “Modified Rationalist theology that holds a non-consequentialist account of ethics and a compatibilistic notion of freedom” (431).

[12] Feinberg repeatedly emphasizes the need to recognize that different theologies require different approaches. This is the case for those who critique justifications as well as those who hold to them. I am at once both frustrated by this reality and grateful for his insistence on it. I am frustrated insofar as I am forced now to recognize that some of my favored approaches to hell and the larger problem of evil might not fit my theological conscience; I am grateful for this reality forcing me to more closely examine those theological positions in light of Scripture.

[13] Ibid., 166, 431.

[14] Ibid., 167-8. Feinberg also includes in this list his compatibilistic notion of free will, though his argument does not hinge on this point.

[15] Ibid., 169.

[16] Ibid., 170.

[17] Ibid., 172-80.

[18] Ibid., 431.

[19] Ibid., 432.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 432-3.

[22] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), The Problem of Pain, 130.

[23] Geisler, 222.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Feinberg, 435.

[26] Clay Jones, “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites: An Addendum to ‘Divine Genocide’ Arguments,” Philosophia Christi, 11, no. 1 (Summer 2009), 68, 71.

[27] Feinberg, 434.

[28] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974), 1.109, quoted in Geisler, 222.

[29] Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), 208, 210.