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The problem of Hell
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The problem of Hell

The problem of Hell is a variant of the problem of evil, aimed specifically at religions which hold both that:

  1. An omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent (all-loving) God exists.
  2. Some people will be consigned to Hell forever, and will be eternally tortured.

Table of contents
1 The debate
2 Denying the assumptions
3 See also
4 Bibliography
5 External links

The debate

While Hell has traditionally been regarded as a punishment for wrong-doing or sin in life, the problem arises primarily from the severity of the punishment, if Hell is indeed seen as eternal torture. However, the view of hell as "punishment" is not universal. For example, the Eastern Orthodox see it as a condition brought about by and the natural consequence of free rejection of God's love.

The debate mostly focuses on whether God would want to allow a situation where some people are consigned to Hell forever.

Issues of justice

Opponents of the doctrine of Hell claim that the punishment is disproportionate to any crimes that could be committed.

Against the alleged injustice of Hell, some theists have maintained that God is so infinitely great that any transgression against him warrants an infinite punishment. On this view, the correct punishment for a crime is proportional to the status of the wronged individual. Opponents of this view reply that the correct punishment is also proportional to the intentions and understanding of the wrongdoer.

Another argument is that, although no crime warrants eternal punishment, sinful behaviour can continue in Hell, thus warranting an "extension of the sentence" that an individual must serve - and such extensions can continue on forever with each new sin.

Hell as a choice

Mirroring similar discussions in the problem of evil, another argument goes that human beings have free will, and although a benevolent God would prefer to see everyone saved, he would also allow humans to control their own destinies. This view opens the possibility of seeing Hell not as retributive punishment, but rather as an option that God allows, so that people who do not wish to be with God are not forced to be.

Opponents of this view (such as Marilyn McCord Adams) claim that, whether Hell is seen as punishment or a choice, it would be unreasonable for God to give such flawed and ignorant creatures as ourselves the awesome responsibility of our eternal destinies.

Another question some have asked is whether humans truly "choose" Hell - if an atheist believed there was no God, would this count as a choice, or merely an honest mistake? Both positions have been argued for. While some claim that the existence of God is by no means obvious, others maintain the contrary. The Bible itself says:

The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." (Psalms 14.1)

The verse seems to imply a degree of culpability in such a belief. However, since Hell is so bad, it seems implausible that any person would deliberately choose it. It remains debated whether humans are "informed enough" to make such decisions.

Separate from the suggestion that one chooses one's eternal fate in life, many fathers of the church believed that upon death a soul will fully understand the good and evil of all its acts during life, and (if sinful) will in fact go to Hell voluntarily because it will deem itself unworthy for Heaven.

Denying the assumptions

For those who believe the traditional doctrine of Hell is unconvincing, and believe that claims 1 and 2 are incompatible, the only course of action is to deny one or both of them.

The first claim can be denied by rejecting the existence of God (atheism), or of a God sufficiently powerful or loving to prevent people from being consigned to Hell.

The second claim can also be denied. Three possible ways to do this (while maintaining a belief in God) are the doctrines of Annihilationism, where Hell is seen only as oblivion without consciousness, Universalism, where everyone is saved, without exception, and the Second chance doctrine (or Escapism), where even after one has been sent to Hell, one can still accept God and be saved.

See also


External links