Sunday, October 16, 2016

Towards a Defense of Hell

Towards a Defense of Hell[1]

On the Christian view, God is the source (or maybe the "ground"[2]) of all being as well as of beauty, goodness, joy, and love.

Among other things, this means that every existing thing owes its continuing existence to God. It’s not simply that God is responsible for getting existence “going” – as it were. It’s that God also sustains all of existence. He keeps it all going.

This means that it is – metaphysically speaking – impossible for any existing thing to be completely separated from God. The argument is straightforward. If God is the source of existence (or being) then no (contingently) existing thing can exist apart from God. God is the source of being (on the Christian view that we are considering). Therefore, no existing thing can exist apart from God.

What about people who don’t want to have anything to do with God?

People who reject God, insofar as they continue to exist, continue to be “related” (in a broad sense) to the source of existence. But since, as we have said, God is the source of existence, it follows that people who reject God continue to be “related” (in the same broad sense) to God.

What can God do with such people, in order to respect their rejection of Him?

God has two options.

Number one, God could simply stop sustaining such people in existence. However, if an existing thing is entirely cut off from the source and sustenance of existence, then that thing is cut off from existence. But if an existing thing is cut off from existence, then that thing ceases to exist. Since God is the source and sustaining "force" of existence, anything that is entirely cut off from God ceases to exist.

So suppose there were no hell. Suppose, instead, that people who reject God simply ceased to exist. On standard theistic assumptions about God’s power, God is surely able to cease and desist from sustaining in existence those who reject Him. However, would the Christopher Hitchenes of the world be satisfied with this alternative to hell? After all, what is a person saying when he or she declares that he or she wants nothing to do with a God who is the source of existence? Maybe such a person really is saying that he or she does not want to exist at all.

I cannot speak for them, of course. But it seems plausible to think that this would not be well-received. After all, on this alternative, Hitchens might have written instead: “God loves you so much that you’ll cease to exist unless you love him back.”

It seems reasonable to suspect, then, that this would not be looked upon favorably by those who, like Hitchens, purport to impugn God’s fairness, justice, or love by suggesting that there’s something untoward about hell.

But what other choice would God have? It is well to remember that God is (or would be) a necessary being, whereas humans (along with electrons, rocks, galaxies and what have you) are all contingent beings. We could have existed or not existed. No power in heaven or on earth can “promote” a contingent being to a necessary one.[3] No, besides withdrawing his sustaining activity, God has but one alternative.

Number two, God could continue sustaining in existence the person who rejects Him. This is the only other option because God sustains a person in existence and God does not sustain a person in existence are propositions that express logically complementary alternatives.[4]

But it is plausible to think that God’s sustaining activity can be “dialed up,” as it is in the case of heaven – where God’s presence is overwhelming and, so to speak, “in your face”; or God’s sustaining activity can be “dialed down,” as it is in the case of hell – so that God’s presence is as underwhelming and unassertive as metaphysically possible. To put it another way, it seems reasonable to think that God could sustain a person in existence with as minimal a manifestation of His presence as is possible to achieve the sustaining action.

To be somewhat artful, if someone tells God that he or she wants nothing to do with Him, then God seems able to grant that person a kind of bare-bones existence that is as far removed from God’s overwhelming presence as it is possible to get without that person ceasing to exist.

However, recall that, on the Christian view that we are considering, God is not simply the source of existence. He’s not only some kind of cosmic “power cell” apart from which our batteries die. He’s also the wellspring of beauty, goodness, joy, love, and so on.

This implies, though, that if a person is to be as separated from God as is metaphysically possible, then that person is also to be as separated from the source of beauty, goodness, joy and love as is metaphysically possible.

What do we call a “place” of bare-bones existence that is characterized by being as ugly (beauty-less), evil (goodness-less), joyless and loveless as it is metaphysically possible to get without slipping into outright non-existence? The Church calls such a “place” hell, and the Bible variously describes it as a place of anguish, darkness, pain and suffering.

Hell is of course an unfortunate thing. However, hell exists, as someone else once put it, as a complement to human free choice.[5]

For more information, see Michael J. Murray’s article “Heaven and Hell.”[6]

[1] There are doubtless several things that could be meant by the word “defense.” Here, availing myself of basic tenets of Christianity, I propose to sketch an account of what hell is so that the account may serve to show that the doctrine of hell is not indefensible. By the “doctrine of hell,” I mean the view that there exists a “place” of misery, something of an “opposite” to heaven, where go the souls of those who reject God.

[2] Of course, I do not mean to take on board all of the connotations and consequences that Paul Tillich baked into the phrase "ground of being." Here, I mean merely that God is the creator and sustainer of all contingent beings and, therefore, their the "source" of their being / existence.

[3] Think about it. A necessary being is a being for which its non-existence is impossible. A necessary being is a being that never began to exist. Contingent beings, on the other hand, did begin to exist. Some began to exist longer ago than others, and some persist for longer than others. But in any case, a contingent being is a being that, at some time, began to exist. If a contingent being could “become” a necessary being, then it would have to be the case that a being that began to exist in fact is somehow changed so that it never began to exist. But such a change is not only physically impossible (since it implies backward causation), but it is also metaphysically impossible (on standard assumptions about the nature of broadly logical necessity).

[4] To put it another way, the following disjunction exhausts the available alternatives: either an entity is sustained in existence or it isn’t.

[5] Evangelical writer Lee Strobel attributes the following quotation to the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton: “Hell is God’s great compliment [sic] to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice,” The Case for Christ, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2000, p. 235; citing Cliffe Knechtle, Give Me an Answer, Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity press, 1986, p. 42. However, in the online edition that I was able to inspect, Knechtle does not provide a source for this quotation. See <>. It seems to me that hell is not a “compliment” to human freedom – where “compliment” means “a polite expression of praise or admiration.” Rather, hell is better understood as a complement to human freedom – in the sense that is “completes” human freedom. God does not eradicate those who reject Him. He sustains them in existence and thereby “honors” their request to be apart from Him. It’s simply that being apart from God is not at all nice, objectively, since God is the source of all good things.

[6] In Michael J. Murray, ed., Reason for the Hope Within, Grand Rapids, Mich. and Cambridge (U.K.): William B. Eerdmans Publ., 1999, pp. 287-317, <>.

Image credit: "Atheist Uprising."