We are told that Hell is a place of punishment for those who do not serve God. Yet we’re also told that we are God’s children, and he wants us all to be saved. After I had spent some time as a father, I began to realize that there are some deep logical problems with the concept of Hell. First of all, punishment is a necessity when raising children. They need to learn that certain behaviors are just unacceptable. And punishment is also necessary in a society to encourage people to obey the laws of the land.
But punishment only has value when the punished has an opportunity to correct their behavior. If someone is punished continually with no opportunity to demonstrate better behavior, then it’s not really punishment; it’s torture. According to most Christians, no one today is going to get the benefit that Paul had when Christ appeared to him personally (Acts 9). In other words, God is not going to intervene in our lives to tell us if we’re doing this all wrong. Instead, we’ll go through life and only find out at the end if we managed to get it right. At that point, it’s too late to correct anything if we messed up – we’re simply left with an eternity of torture to look forward to.
If I know that parking lots are dangerous for my kids, I don’t just let them figure that out on their own. I don’t expect them to simply read a sign that warns of the danger. Instead, I talk directly to my children about those dangers, over and over again. But even then, I don’t just let go and hope they’ll remember the lessons; I hold their hands. I show them examples of how fast cars sometimes drive, or how people can’t easily see small children. I use every trip to the grocery store as an opportunity to reaffirm those teachings so that they don’t fall prey to the dangers of parking lots. And it’s only when they’ve reached a more mature age and understand many of the things I’ve told them that I let them walk across the parking lot without holding my hand. But even then, I’m still close by to grab them if something goes wrong. It takes a long time before I can let them handle that responsibility on their own.
I know that’s a very simplistic example, but I hope my point is coming through. If Hell is really waiting for the vast majority of humanity, then I don’t know why the message saving us from it is hidden amongst many other religious texts with no modern day signs to verify it. In all honesty, I don’t know why it’s not just beamed into everyone’s head so that there’s no excuse about what to do. People could still choose to do it or not – that’s up to them – but at least they would know what’s expected. It’s unthinkable to me that God’s system is set up so that many people are able to go through life convinced that the Bible is either invalid, or convinced that they’re already doing it right when they’re really not. I used to think that God’s Word would only be evident to those who are really searching for it. But that doesn’t really fly if God cares about us like a father would. My children may have no interest in parking lots, but I’m still going to make sure they are aware of the dangers.
The other aspect of Hell that I find so troubling is that I can’t really think of anyone who would deserve to go there. Even the people in our societies who tend to commit the worst offenses typically have some severe problems of their own. I don’t view that as an excuse, but it’s not like these are normal, rational people. Even considering a mass murderer, there is only so much evil he could do in a finite lifetime. Is it really justice for him to be tortured forever?
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Hell was only reserved for the worst people (rapists, murderers, etc). That doesn’t bother our conscience too much because we all agree those people deserve punishment. But what if one of those horrible people was your child? Would you still think they should be tormented forever? Is that really the punishment that would be appropriate for them? Or would you opt for a more humane form of punishment – perhaps even one that would allow your child to rehabilitate?
We are all God’s children. He created us all. So why would he be okay with sending any of us to a place of eternal torment? If he’s okay with it, can he really be called “all-good” or “all-loving”? And if he would prefer to do something different but can’t, how can he be “all-powerful”?
But our biggest problem is that the Bible teaches that many more than just the vilest of people will go to Hell. Hell will be filled with people who gave their lives for others, people who raised loving families, people who pulled others out of burning buildings, and people who earnestly believed they were serving God. That nice cashier at the grocery store is probably going to Hell. The grade school teacher that really made an impact on you as you were growing up is probably going to Hell. Many of the children in your town will probably go to Hell. Many of the firefighters that died on 9/11 probably went to Hell. Many (maybe even most) of the people that you encounter in your life – down to the guy sitting next to you in traffic – are going to Hell.
I first started to think about this issue because of the news reports I heard about soldiers who were dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their family members and friends would talk about them – many of these soldiers had young spouses or children they had left behind. And I kept thinking about what a tragedy it was that their lives were cut so short. And the worst part was the realization that most of those soldiers were bound for Hell, if my beliefs were correct (I was a member of a very conservative group, the Church of Christ). That realization made everything seem so pointless!
I was also disheartened by the tsunami in Myanmar and the earthquake in Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people died in those disasters. And these events happened in parts of the world that were not predominantly Christian. The people in those places lived in sickness, hunger, and poverty. To top it all off, they were killed in a horribly frightening manner, and then sent to Hell (according to my previous beliefs). Why?
Some people would say that we simply don’t understand God’s glory and the nature of sin. Sin is simply so disgusting to God that he can’t have any part of it. I’m willing to admit that we may not understand either of those things to their fullest potential. But at the same time, God must expect us to have some understanding of it; otherwise, why would he require us to search for his truth and follow it? If it’s impossible (or at least very difficult) for us to see just how bad sin really is, then why are we held accountable to it? It seems to me that it would be like building a school in the middle of a minefield, and then being angry at the kids who blew themselves up. We created the environment, and we know that it’s in children’s nature to explore, so wouldn’t we be ultimately responsible for what happens to them? And if God can’t be in the presence of sin, how was he able to save the non-Israelites before Christianity was established (Acts 17:30)? And if he was able to save them that way, why not apply that method to everyone, so more people could be saved?
If God wants everyone to be in Heaven with him, then why did he create the Earth? Why not just create us in Heaven? And why does our eternal destiny rely on what we do here, when we don’t fully understand God’s glory or the nature of sin? When my wife was pregnant with our first child, we had an ultrasound done very early on – within the first three months or so. Our daughter was very tiny, and when we watched her, she had plenty of room to kick and flip and spin around, and my wife and I laughed while we watched it. Now, I could have decided that since she behaved that way en utero, then she should become a gymnast. But that’s a little ridiculous. My daughter had no concept of what life was like outside of the womb. She couldn’t even imagine it. So choosing her life’s profession off of what she did in the womb would be crazy. It seems to me that we’re not much different, spiritually. None of us really knows what awaits us in the next life. And just like my daughter only spent 9 months in the womb and could spend 90 years in this life, so our eternal life (if it exists) would be much more important than the one we have now. So why should an infinite life be based on the decisions made in a brief, finite life? And why should our eternal destiny be decided by us, when we’ve got no idea what we’re dealing with? We can’t make a clear decision.
And that is evident when Christians say that people have chosen to go to Hell, rather than God choosing to send them there. This whole arrangement was supposedly God’s idea – and the rewards that await us in the end are completely by his design. Knowing what we do about Heaven and Hell, who would honestly choose the latter? No one who really knew what they were choosing. Some Christians will talk about those who “trample the Son of God underfoot” (Heb 10:26-31), but many of those heading to Hell honestly think they’re serving God. They’re merely playing the game by the wrong rules, and for the most part it’s because they can’t see what the “true” rules really are.
Some people would say that all people deserve punishment – it’s only God’s grace that allows even a few of us to avoid it. I disagree. As a whole, I think people are pretty good and try to do pretty good things. Are we perfect? Of course not. But that doesn’t make us evil or undeserving of good things. After all, even God said it was “good” when he made man, according to Genesis. I want my children to know that they have some innate self worth. It’s okay with me if no one ever goes to Hell. To some degree, we are all broken. Wouldn’t it be nice to be taken care of at the end, and not punished for our insufficiencies? Should you go to Hell for your short temper, or your “unbridled tongue,” or because you aren’t hospitable enough? Does a poor, old, illiterate man deserve to go to Hell because he can’t read the Bible for himself to see what’s required?
And if Hell is real, how can the Book of Revelation say that the end of time will be a great victory for Christ and God? The vast majority of people throughout time will go to Hell, and only a tiny fraction of them will be saved. How does that count as a victory? In fact, why did God allow Satan to have so much power over his creation if this is the end result? And how can the gospel be the “good news” if the reality is that most people remain lost?
And if Hell does exist, what are we to make of Heaven? If you go to Heaven, but your children go to Hell, how could you be happy? One of the theories is that you’ll have no memory of those who are in Hell. But is that comforting? When people have severe Alzheimer’s and can’t remember anyone, but still remain in a happy mood most of the time, are we happy for them? Do we view that as an optimal way to live? Of course not – they’ve ceased to be who they were. When we lose our memories, we are no longer the same individuals. We have become different people. So if Heaven just lets you forget all the people who went to Hell, that’s not really eternal life. You would no longer be the same person – your identity would be gone. Therefore, I’m inclined to think that if Hell exists, Heaven does not.
And if you do make it to Heaven, the Bible seems to teach that you’ll be there forever. Does that mean that you lose your free will? After all, Satan and his angels apparently had the ability to sin in Heaven. Wouldn’t we have that same ability? If we had the capacity to sin in Heaven, then surely God wouldn’t allow us to stay there; but that would violate the concept of being there forever. And if he takes away our free will, then we’re no better than robots. Does God just want robots? If he’s okay with that, why do we have free will now?
These are emotional arguments; I know that. If Hell is real, and if it operates the way we understand it to, then that’s just the way things are whether we like it or not. But bear with me as I offer this point again. The whole question up for debate is whether or not the men who wrote the Bible were inspired. If they weren’t, then we’re just reading the thoughts of a bunch of different people that lived two thousand or more years ago. Teachings like the doctrine of Hell can help us make a decision about the truth of the overall message. That’s why it’s important to look at this with some skepticism. As a side note, these reasons are why atheists and agnostics are not moved when people try to reach them using the threat of Hell. We simply don’t believe in it – it would be like warning someone about the boogeyman.
When we really face it, it is apparent that the concept of Hell has some major logical problems if God really is merciful, loving, and just. And while the New Testament definitely teaches about Heaven and Hell, it is very striking that the Old Testament is essentially silent about it (see previous post). So is Hell really part of God’s plan, or is it just part of man’s imagination?