The Problem of Hell - Part 2

The Problem of Hell – Part 2

by Glen Torhjelm


In the first installment of this series, I looked briefly at the biblical doctrine of hell. Specifically, I concluded that hell is (i) real, (ii) eternal, and (iii) marked by actual suffering. How could such a place exist? That it does now—or will at the end of time—seems contrary to our modern-day notion of a loving God, not to mention its offensiveness to a secular world. Discussing the topic understandably leads to hesitation on the part of believers.[1] However, to not speak of the fullness of hell may lead to our complicity in someone’s unfortunate fate.[2] 

Some have addressed this issue by equivocating or softening the terms. Prime examples of this are the notions of universalism and annihilationism. While these approaches are soothing for some, they fail to address the key underlying question: is it possible to reconcile an all-powerful, all-loving God with the existence of hell as described in the Bible and in historic Christianity?[3] In this instalment, I will briefly address these two approaches, which I believe are both in error and ill-advised.    

As Paul warned his protégé Timothy, we are always prone to seek out those who will tickle our ears at the expense of sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:3). This certainly applies to the attempts by many to address the doctrine of hell by defining away the problem. Universalism and annihilationism are good examples. The reality that we can avoid seemingly any problems and potential conflicts by simply modifying our definitions ought to give us pause whenever such an approach is attempted.[4]


Universalism has a free will problem

In its most basic form, universalism avoids the problematic aspect of hell by claiming that no one will go there.[5] While some might hold that notorious doers of evil (e.g., Hitler) will end up in hell, the basic strategy is to whitewash the horrors of hell from meaningful discussion.[6]

Universalism suffers from a free-will problem.[7] Some degree of libertarian free will seems to be essential to this view: everyone avoids hell regardless of the choices they make; without this, the view itself is nonsense. If man has free will, there is no way to guarantee that he will make the choice (faith in Christ) necessary to avoid damnation.[8] As Lewis noted, hell is populated by those who would not yield to God’s will, to which God ultimately says, “Thy will be done.”[9]

Even if God were to counter such free choices against Him, that may be no better solution than hell. As Geisler, among others, puts it, “[h]eaven’s presence of the divine would be torture to one who has irretrievably rejected him.”[10] God cannot force someone to freely choose Him, and to force this choice against one’s will would do nothing to address the torture—for that person—of heaven. It may in fact be irrational for someone—even with full awareness—to choose against God, but this choice must be possible.[11] Simply put, it appears that universalism has an insurmountable free-will problem.[12]


Universalism contradicts Scripture

In addition, universalism seems to contradict Scripture. “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessolonians 1:9). “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:41). To put it mildly, these and other verses do not seem open to a universalist view.


Annihilationism also contradicts Scripture

Many would like to believe that some will go to hell, but that this will not entail active torment, but simply cessation of being. So believe those who espouse hell as annihilation. Such a view allows for the reality of eternal separation from God, but without the active agony, as no annihilated creature could be conscious of suffering in any sense.[13]

While this approach might seem to temper the harshness of hell, others are quick to disagree. Geisler argues that to destroy (annihilate) one of His creatures for disobedience would violate that loving aspect of God’s nature.[14] Indeed, even atheists have argued that “annihilation is not to be preferred to conscious freedom”; even the famous atheist Friedrich Nietzsche shared this view.[15] The case cannot well be made that annihilation mitigates the horrors of hell.[16]

As discussed above, the doctrine of hell includes, in some manner, active torment. While we need not determine whether this is the mere consequence of free choice(s), and/or intentional retribution and wrath of God, we must not lose the common element of ongoing agony.[17] Contrary to ongoing agony, annihilation is the release from all punishment.[18] Second and third century church father Tertullian was an early opponent of annihilationism for just this reason:

If, therefore, any one shall violently suppose that the destruction of the soul and the flesh in hell amounts to a final annihilation of the two substances, and not to their penal treatment…let him recollect that the fire of hell is eternal—expressly announced as an everlasting penalty.[19]

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a strong biblical passage against the notion of annihilation. As Feinberg asks, if the condemned simply cease to exist, how does the rich man ask Abraham to send Lazarus to bring relief (Luke 16:19-31)?[20]

It can, at some level, be said that the logical problem of reconciling hell with a loving God can be solved by either universalism or annihilation; however, this is accomplished only by modifying the traditional understanding of hell. In so doing, these failed justifications not only violate biblical and historical Christian understanding, but much worse, they also suggest that no reconciliation to the problem can be found without doing so.[21]


Can the biblical doctrine of hell, in all its horror, be reconciled with God? We may never be able to make the doctrine appealing, but I do believe we can show it to have logical compatibility. How we can do just that will be the focus of the next—and final—instalment of this series.

[1] Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), 183.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 121.

[4] See Ibid.

[5] Feinberg, 407.

[6] Ibid. Feinberg also notes that under the approach of John Hick, some might spend some time in hell, but there would be none facing the eternal torment as traditionally understood.

[7] See 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), 238.

[8] Feinberg, 411. Personally, I hold to a compatibilist view wherein freedom is a function of the will, which God can and does influence, leaving the human to do that which he wills most to do. Even with this limitation on true, libertarian free will, universalism has a similar problem.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 69, quoted in Geisler, 223.

[10] Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics: An A to Z Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 223.

[11] Feinberg, 417.

[12] Addressing the problems of universalism under differing views of human freedom (e.g., determinism, compatibilism) is beyond the scope of this essay, as each introduces additional theological issues.

[13] Geisler, 224.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.; Van A. Harvey, “Nietzsche and the Problem of Suffering,” Philosophy Now no. 119 (April/May 2017). Accessed May 12, 2017.

[16] Feinberg, 426.

[17] Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), Kindle edition, location 290 of 406. Here, Kreeft and Tecelli make the point that while people may have willed hell, they will never enjoy it.

[18] Geisler, 224.

[19] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 3:570, quoted in Peterson, 99. Emphasis added.

[20] Feinberg, 425.

[21] See Feinberg, 408.