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Can the Traditional View of Hell Be Defended? An Evaluation of Some Arguments for Eternal Punishment
WILKO VAN HOLTEN*
Though the doctrine of hell is one of the tenets of traditional Christian belief, at present it does not seem to enjoy much popular- ity among believers. One rarely hears the doctrine explicitly ad- dressed in a Christian church these days, and if hell is spoken about at all, it is commonly referred to in rather vague and tentative ways. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to claim that the average Chris- tian believer finds it difficult to explain what function (if any) the doc- trine of hell plays in his or her own faith. Even academic theologians find it difficult to account for hell in their talk about God and their ex- position of the Christian faith. Thus Hendrikus Berkhof says con- cerning the dominant ecclesiastical idea of hell as eternal punishment that “there has always been a reluctance to engage in a deeper prob- ing of this frightening conviction.”1 Given the medieval imagery with which this concept of hell is still loaded, and the vengeful concept of God that it often presupposes, this reluctance is more than under- standable.
Although in recent years there has been a turn in this neglect of the doctrine in systematic-theological and philosophical reflection, most of this reflection occurs against the backdrop of the supposed untenability—moral or otherwise—of the traditional view. Moreover, the traditional view is held no longer to accord with contemporary cultural norms and values and hence is said to be “culturally unavail- able.”2 In view of this, many theologians have felt the need to adjust their views on the matter, and to construct the doctrine in alternative ways. Thus, some hold the doctrine of conditional immortality; others postulate some doctrine of purgatory; still others teach universal sal- vation, either as hope or as dogma.
Though I agree with the need for an alternative understanding of the doctrine of hell, two things merit consideration at this point. First of all, theologians should be wary of conforming too readily to con- temporary culture in their exposition of the Christian faith. Dean William Inge once admonished theologians for doing so, with the wise comment that “if you marry the spirit of your own generation you will be a widow in the next.”3 Coherence with tradition is a virtue in theol- ogy, and rejection of traditional sources of authority threatens to re- duce theology to subjective speculation, to abandon religiously fruitful insights, and to leave Christianity with no clear identity and content.4 That is not to say that appeal to biblical and ecclesiastical tradition is al- ways decisive. Nor is it to say that revision is never appropriate—quite the contrary, as I will argue in the present paper. What it does entail, however, is the methodological point that doctrinal deviation from tra- dition should not originate from some unanalyzed conviction about what “modern people” can or can no longer believe in. Rather, such de- viation should be preceded by an exposition of the untenability of tra- ditional claims, and be based on good rational argument.
Here my second point applies: in much recent literature on the subject, alternative doctrines of hell are developed, whereas the clas- sical view is rejected summarily. The doctrinal report The Mystery of Salvation by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England is no exception in this respect: after the brief observation that in the churches in the Western world there is “a growing sense that the pic- ture of a God who consigns millions to eternal torment is far removed from the revelation of God s love in Christ,” it goes on to affirm the doctrine of annihilationism instead.5 Apart from the fact that such al- ternatives are often liable to what Jonathan Kvanvig has called “the problem of arbitrariness,”6 one should at least spell out the reasons for looking for an alternative in the first place.
This is precisely what I intend to do in the present paper: I will inquire into some of the main arguments that traditionally have played a role in defending the classical concept of hell. My approach will be philosophical rather than historical: in my analysis I will focus for the greater part on the conceptual strength of the arguments that can be and have been adduced in favor of the classical concept of hell. Do these arguments succeed in supporting the traditional view? My overall argument will be that they don’t—a claim for which I argue on a casebycase basis. More specifically, I will argue for the claim that, as far as the arguments under discussion are concerned, hell is not a justified punishment for human sin, since this idea is incompatible with the perfect goodness of God. Now this conclusion may not come as a surprise to many readers, since the decline of belief in hell in re- cent times can largely be seen as resulting from this (intuitively felt) conviction. Yet again, there is a vast difference between intuitively feeling that a classical doctrine is untenable and knowing why this is so. Thus, in the present paper I try to provide some argumentative support for the view held by many believers today—and articulated in The Mystery of Salvation—that the doctrine of eternal punishment should no longer be affirmed.
Because of the specific problem I deal with presently, I cannot go into the question of what, to my mind, an alternative view of hell ought to look like. Since I have stated my positive views on hell else- where,7 I need not repeat them here. As a result of this, the conclu- sion of the present article will remain largely negative. This is a bit unsatisfactory, but one has to do one thing at a time. Before I turn now to an assessment of the arguments concerned, we need to be clear about what we are talking about when we speak of “the tradi- tional view of hell.”
So first the question as to what exactly is constitutive for the “tra- ditional” concept of hell. This question is perhaps less easily answered with hell than with other dogmas in Christian theology. For what are we to take as a criterion of orthodoxy in this case? Popular imagina- tion (going back to the Middle Ages?) has contributed considerably to what many people today still believe—if anything—about hell. Pre- cisely for this reason, I suppose, the affirmation of the doctrine of an- nihilationism by the Church of England evoked so much reaction in the newspapers, both in England and abroad. Indeed, it may be ar- gued that the elaborate afterlife scenarios developed by medieval the- ologians and preachers have left a profound impression on the Chris- tian imagination of the West, even though we might not be explicitly aware of it. In view of this, one may be tempted to take well-known imagery for what people have “always and everywhere” believed about hell. However, this is not necessarily the view of the Christian church throughout the ages.
But is there such a view, and if there is one where are we to look for it? Are we to base such a view on the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament—standard for life and doctrine within the Christian community—alone? This inevitably raises the problem of how to rec- oncile the different conceptions of the afterlife between the Old and New Testament. It is generally acknowledged among biblical scholars that there is considerable discontinuity between the two testaments on this point.8 Or are we to base our view on the New Testament alone—perhaps merely on the recorded teachings of Jesus within the New Testament? It is very doubtful whether such a view can be de- veloped, since the biblical imagery pulls in different directions per- taining to the condition of the damned. Should we follow texts like Matt. 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30 and consequently conceive of hell as a place of outer darkness? Or should we follow other texts (for exam- ple, Matt. 5:22, Jude 7, Rev. 14:10, 14:11, and 20:10) and conceive of hell in opposite terms, such as eternal fire, smoke, and brimstone?9 Is it perhaps more biblical to interpret hell as the ultimate destruc- tion of the wicked (see, for example, Matt. 3:10, 3:12, 26:24, Phil. 1:28, 1 Thess. 1:9)?10 Still other texts (for example, Acts 3:21, Rom. 11:2532, 2 Cor. 15:2428, Eph. 1:10, Phil. 2:10, 1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9) may be appealed to in order to defend universal salvation.11 De- spite the seriousness of the individual authors who defend any of these positions, reviewing the literature as a whole, one is easily struck by some measure of arbitrariness in the use of Scripture and exegesis of particular texts displayed in purportedly “biblical” ac- counts of hell. In fact, I think that debates among evangelicals over the doctrine of hell over the last ten to fifteen years or so12 have made it abundantly clear that an appeal to Scripture alone cannot settle the issue. In light of this, an additional, partly philosophical evaluation of the issue becomes all the more appropriate.
If we turn to the history of Christian theology, things do not get much better. A variety of views about hell have been defended by theologians throughout the centuries. Already in the early third century Origen (185-254) put forward a scheme for the ultimate salvation of everyone (apokatastasis panton, SL term from Acts 3:21).13 The idea that not everyone, Satan included, will ultimately reach salvation, but will remain in hell forever, Origen judged to be incompatible with the goodness of God. Although this view was officially condemned at the Council of Constantinople (543)—and was probably confirmed at the fifth ecumenical council (553)—Origen s views indicate that peo- ple have felt problems with the doctrine of an eternal hell from the very beginning of Christian theology. Thus John Walvoord claims that “it is possible to provide almost endless quotations from the early Fathers up to modern theologians who believe in eternal punishment and who do not. A study of these opinions proves that there has been diversity in opinion from the beginning.”14
Jerry Walls s work is illustrative of the difficulty in pinning down the “traditional” view of hell. He distinguishes between six different views of hell that have been defended throughout Christian history, four of which are labeled “orthodox” or “traditional.”15 Defenders of these views not only differ in the way they conceive of the actual na- ture of hell, but also, and more importantly, in the way they incorpo- rate the doctrine of hell into the whole of their theology—especially in the way they see it related to the concept of God. Given the fact that the way one conceives of hell ultimately depends on the way one sees the doctrine cohere with other doctrines of the Christian faith that one regards as non-negotiable, it is easy to understand that dis- putes among theologians as to which of the many alternative concep- tions of hell is to be preferred are not amenable to quick resolution.
Yet if we leave aside questions as to which of the many alterna- tive views found in Scripture and church history can be properly labeled “traditional,” there nonetheless seems to be a common denom- inator with respect to the doctrine of hell prevalent throughout the history of Christian thought. According to this view, hell is a place where some people are punished everlastingly with no hope of es- cape. Jonathan Kvanvig sees the core of this view constituted by four components: (1) some people are in fact consigned to hell; (2) hell is a place where people really exist, if they are consigned there (hell is “inhabited”); (3) there is no possibility of getting out of hell; and (4) hell is retributive in nature; that is, its purpose is to mete out punish- ment to those whose earthly lives and behavior warrant it.16 This is grosso modo the conception held by main figures in Christian history such as Augustine, Anselm, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. Without begging any further questions, I will take this conception of hell as the traditional Christian view. Having settled this question, I will in the remainder of this article assess the success of the principles and arguments traditionally appealed to for its justification. The ref- erence to traditional theologians that I make in this investigation is meant to be illustrative, and does not pretend to be a discussion of their positions per se. I submit that the question of whether the ar- guments for the traditional Christian view are successful is more eas- ily dealt with if we inquire into why exactly it is held to be untenable by so many today.
The Moral Problem with the Traditional View
Defenders of the traditional view of hell have usually appealed to the justice of God and the seriousness of sin. They have argued, basi- cally, that some people are sufficiently sinful to deserve hell as a pun- ishment for it. At the same time, many theologians and philosophers have taken issue with this idea and argue that it is morally repugnant. Throughout Christian history, but especially in our own century, many have given voice to this intuition.17 Clark Pinnock, for example, expresses it with some emotional force:
Obviously, I am rejecting the traditional view of hell in part out of a sense of moral and theological revulsion to it. The idea that a conscious creature should have to undergo physical and mental torture through unending time is profoundly disturbing, and the thought that this is inflicted upon them by divine decree offends my conviction about God s love. This is probably the primary rea- son why people question the tradition so vehemently in the first place. They are . . . appalled by its awful moral implications.18
The question is now whether there is more to this objection than merely an intuition. Is it possible, in other words, also to show that the traditional Christian view of hell is morally wrong or incoherent? Again, intuitively feeling that a doctrine is problematic is different from knowing why this is so. After all, moral intuitions are not time- lessly immutable; they are to some extent society-dependent and change over time. In order to see whether we can substantiate this moral intuition more fully, let us begin with stating the objection with more precision. John Hick enumerates the problems with the traditional view of hell:
The objections to the doctrine of eternal torment which once seemed so weak and now seem so strong are well known: for a conscious creature to undergo physical and mental torture through unending time (if this is indeed conceivable) is horrible and disturbing beyond words; and the thought of such torment being deliberately inflicted by divine decree is totally incompati- ble with the idea of God as infinite love; the absolute contrast of heaven and hell, entered immediately after death, does not corre- spond to the innumerable graduations of human good and evil; justice could never demand for finite human sins the infinite penalty of eternal pain; such unending torment could never serve any positive or reformative purpose precisely because it never ends; and it renders any coherent Christian theodicy impossible by giving the evils of sin and suffering an eternal lodgement within Gods creation.19
Among the problems Hick mentions, the claim most relevant for our present purpose is that “justice could never demand for finite human sins the infinite penalty of eternal pain.” This point is worth focusing on in particular for it represents, to my mind, the most important prob- lem with the traditional view. The argument here is that the infliction ofhellasapunishment issimplytooheavy—thatnosinwhatsoeveris or can be of such a nature that it deserves to be punished with con- signment to hell. If this is so, consigning someone to hell is always unjust, because undeserved. Now for one thing, it is always very risky to introduce concepts like desert and punishment into one s theology, for if one can deserve hell can one also obtain heaven? Yet there is also a deeper problem at stake here related to the fact that part of saying that God is perfectly good in the Christian tradition means saying that God always does what is morally right. But if God were to send to hell even one individual—let alone the vast majority ofhumankind, as some con- tend will happen21—he would be doing something unjust and that seems to contradict his being perfectly good. In other words, to ascribe to God the consignment of (some) people to a place of eternal punish- ment is to portray him as an unjust, cruel king (if not a monster) who punishes his subjects in a way that is far out of proportion to the of- fenses they have actually committed. In short, the moral objection against the traditional view ofhell is that hell is never ajust punishment and that it is therefore incompatible with the goodness of God.
Or is it? Is there really no sin so disgraceful, no offense so ap- palling that eternal punishment in hell would be appropriate and just? Since in the traditional Christian view hell is spoken of in terms of judgment and punishment as acts of God on the sinner, the pri- mary source of analogies is the law court and the legal system. We might well wonder, then, on what principles of justice and punish- ment defenders of this view (“traditionalists,” as we may call them) operate, and how they consequently think hell is compatible with di- vine justice. How can God ever be morally justified in subjecting some people to everlasting punishment in hell?
The Traditional View Defended
Reconstructing the positions of traditional theologians, it might be argued that they defended eternal punishment mainly on the basis of two principles or theories of justice: the principle of rétribution and the status principle. According to the first principle, the punishment one deserves is solely and exclusively related to the crime(s) commit- ted, in such a way that whatever wrongs are done to others, the same wrongs are imposed on the sinner as a punishment in return. Thus, if I slap you in the face, you may slap me in my face in return; ifyou steal my bike, I am entitled to steal your bike in return; if you kill a member of my family, I have the right to kill a member of your family, and so forth. Justice requires that the wrongdoer be repaid in kind: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (see, for example, Exod. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, Deut. 19:21). Acting thus, defenders of this theory maintain that the “scales of justice are brought back in balance.” The sole purpose of punishment, then, is to satisfy the demands ofjustice; that is to say, to extract from the guilty a compensating loss.
Although this principle of justice seems harsh, as indeed it is, it has nevertheless some advantages over other theories of punish- ment.22 For in determining the punishment nothing else apart from the committed wrongs is taken into account. Thus, considerations re- lated to deterring crime, or rehabilitating the criminal, or protecting society against criminal behavior, play no role whatsoever in settling the penalty. This is an advantage of the retributivist theory over other theories, because those theories might well lead to inflicting punish- ment on some other grounds than the actually committed offense. For example, a judge may on certain occasions be justified in punish- ing an innocent person, or subject someone to excessive punishment, if by that the deterrence of crime can be accomplished or society can be protected from criminal behavior. By contrast, the retributive the- ory places strict limits on the allowable punishment. The only rele- vant factor, according to this theory, is whether the punishment in- trinsically fits the crime—the punishment is proportioned to the seriousness of the offense, so that no one is punished less and no one more than he or she deserves.
The second principle on the basis of which the traditional view of hell has been defended says that it is not so much “ordinary” offenses that make people liable to everlasting punishment, but more specifi- cally sin against God; it is the disobedience to God that counts as an offense worthy of eternal punishment. The idea behind this principle is that guilt is not merely relative to the offense, but also to the status of the offended party. Applied to the social status of people in a feu- dal society, for example, this principle entails that an offense com- mitted against a king deserves greater punishment than the same of- fense committed against a serf. Applied to God it means that disobeying God, whose greatness is infinite, deserves an infinite pun- ishment in return. A spokesperson for this line of argument within Christian theology is St. Anselm of Canterbury in his book Cur Deus Homo (book I, chapters 11-15). Marilyn McCord Adams summarizes the argument Anselm develops there as follows:
Anselm believes that guilt is proportional not merely to the of- fence, but to the offended party s worthiness of honour. God is in- finitely worthy of honour. And for men to show God honour is for them to be voluntarily subject to his will. Consequently, a man can incur infinite guilt by even the slightest act of disobedience. But “satisfaction should be proportionate to guilt.” Therefore, the slightest act contrary to the will of God renders us infinitely guilty and liable to the maximum punishment for us—total and everlast- ing unhappiness.24
How are we to evaluate this defense of the traditional view of hell? It would seem that if both principles (status principle and retribution principle) on which it relies are sound and plausible, there is reason to believe that an argument in favor of justified consignment to hell can be sustained. Clearly, whether this is in fact so depends on the validity ofthose principles, and therefore I will scrutinize them successively. In the next two sections I will argue that both principles ofjustice under- lying the traditionalists defense of hell face serious problems.
The Tenability of the Status Principle
Let us start with the status principle. The primary difficulty with this principle is to find a proper interpretation of it. How are we to measure the status of someone? There are a lot of interpretations that are obviously false. We could rank beings by their gender, color, reli- gion, weight, longevity, and so on, but, of course, none of these are relevant to the status of someone in such a way that a crime commit- ted against someone possessing one of these characteristics would be more serious than a crime against someone lacking them—even though in some societies the possession of these characteristics un- fortunately does play a role in determining the severity of a penalty. But more plausible interpretations, such as social status, are no less problematic. Would it be less serious to kill an ordinary citizen than to kill a prince? Would it be less serious to kill a student than a pro- fessor? Certainly not. As Adams notes: “it seems the height of im- morality to suppose that the amount of guilt incurred in killing an- other person depends on the dead man s social status.”25
As we have seen, Anselm interprets the status principle in terms of “worthiness of honor.” God, according to Anselm, is the highest being—a being beyond our conception—and in virtue of this sin against God makes people liable to eternal punishment. However, the mere fact that God is infinitely great (in moral character, wisdom, goodness, justice, glory) does not make it intelligible that sin against him deserves hell. Again, we normally do not measure guilt accord- ing to the status of the offended party, but merely to the actual and intended harm by the perpetrator. For this reason beating up a saintly person is, all things being equal, no worse than beating up a criminal as far as the guilt of the perpetrator is concerned.
Furthermore, there is an initial difficulty with the underlying Anselmian strategy of dividing beings into two ontologically different kinds: human and divine. Why classify beings thus? In classifying we normally take into account certain similarities and differences be- tween things.26 The way we put things into classes depends on which characteristics are of interest to us. Thus we always apply a certain cri- terion to things according to which they are viewed as belonging ei- ther to the same or to a different kind. Consequently, a given group of entities can be classified variously, depending on the criterion we employ. With regard to the status principle, it must not merely be shown which criterion is used to divide the parties, but it must also be shown what characteristics of the parties are morally relevant facts about them.27 However, it is not easy to see how Gods being the greatest conceivable being is a morally relevant characteristic, such that it entails that sinning against God makes humans liable to eter- nal punishment. In the words of Thomas Talbott: “Why should the greatness of the one against whom an offense occurs determine the degree of one s personal guilt?”28 It seems, then, that unless a better interpretation of the status principle can be found, the argument to show that consignment to hell is morally justifiable fails.
The Tenability of the Retribution Principle
The retribution principle is no less problematic. Given the prin- ciple of equal retaliation, the question immediately arises as to which crimes defenders of the traditional view think are intrinsically so evil that consignment to hell would be a just and deserved punishment. According to this theory, the penalty of everlasting suffering is only justified if someone had done the same to someone else. But is it pos- sible or even conceivable for human beings to inflict everlasting suf- fering on a fellow human being? The harm that humans can do to each other—however great this sometimes can be!—seems necessar- ily limited in time, given the finitude of human existence. Death ei- ther of the sufferer or of the perpetrator would seem to bring all earthly suffering to an end.29 How then can everlasting punishment ever be deserved? Thus Marilyn Adams, again, argues that “The ‘an eye for an eye’ principle might justify God in visiting some punish- ment on some people after death. But given the finite length of human life and the finite extent of human power to cause suffering, it could not by itself justify God in making someone totally unhappy forever/’30 Here we see perhaps most clearly the validity of the moral objection to the traditional view of hell: at the point at which it is sup- posed to be strongest, namely its appeal to divine justice, it turns out to fail; the infliction of everlasting punishment is unjust, and hence incompatible with Gods perfect goodness.
But there is a second problem with the retribution principle. This is connected with the idea that justice consists in inflicting a wrong upon the criminal similar to the wrong committed by the criminal. The misconception here is that by so doing, the demands ofjustice are sat- isfied. Now there might be some cases in which paying one back in his own coin is a completely justified and appropriate response, but it is doubtful whether this also works as a general principle. Consider the following example. Two little brothers, not differing much in age, both get an identical new toy from their parents. In a fight one of them de- stroys the toy of his brother. We would not be surprised, of course, if the victim tried to destroy his brother s toy in return out of revenge. Yet what is justice in this situation? What penalty would a parent inflict on her misbehaving child? Would she destroy his toy as well in order to “balance the scales ofjustice”? I submit that a wise mother would force her child to restore the damage he has caused (for example, by giving away his own toy to his brother, or in some other way). This is a very simple example, of course, but it makes clear, I believe, that justice consists not so much in extracting a compensating loss from the guilty, but in forcing the guilty to repair the damage if possible. Indeed, if I steal your bike, I should be giving back your bike; you should not be stealing mine in return! If you have beaten and crippled me, you should be forced to pay me somehow for that offense (damages); it would be too harsh a punishment for you to be made a cripple as well. Moreover, of what use would that be to me? In this sense Thomas Tal- bott states that “punishment alone does nothing to make up for, or can- cel out any crime. . . . If one could somehow make amends for the wrong action, that is, undo any harm done, repair any damage, in a way Adams, “Hell and the God of Justice,” that would make up for, or cancel out the bad consequences of the ac- tion . . . one would then satisfy justice to the full.”31 For these two reasons I believe that the retribution principle fails to undergird the defense of the traditional view of hell.
Against the backdrop of the inadequacy of this principle of jus- tice we can come to see the deficiency of the Anselmian argument for eternal punishment from yet a different perspective. Anselm argues that in disobeying God the sinner takes away something from God (his honor) that properly belongs to God (by right of creation). If one refuses to give to God what one owes God (that is, life in total obedi- ence to his will), God can take from the sinner what the sinner is due by taking away the honor of the sinner in return (that is, overruling his freedom to resist and subjecting him to everlasting punishment). In Cur Deus Homo Anselm makes the point in the following words:
It is impossible for God to lose His honor. Either the sinner freely repays what he owes or else God takes it from him against his will. For either a man willingly exhibits due subjection to God . . . or else God subjects him to Himself against his will by tormenting him and in this way demonstrates that He is his master. . . . [W]e must notice that a man by sinning seizes what is Gods, so God by punishing takes what is mans. . . . When because of his sin he [the sinner] is deprived of happiness and of every good, he is repaying from his own possession (although against his will) what he has seized. . . . [W]hat God takes away conduces to his honor simply by virtue of his taking it.32
Apart from the precise meaning of the concept of “honor” in Anselm s account, the flaw in his argument seems to be the idea that God can somehow get from people what they owe him by making them mis- érable. The question here, of course, is how God can restore his own honor by punishing the sinner. Is this idea intelligible or coherent? I must confess that I am not able to make sense of it. If this latter ar- gument against the validity of the retribution principle is sound, that principle fails to support the conclusion that God can restore his honor by sending sinners to hell, and hence the argument in favor of the traditional concept of hell fails on yet another ground.
There is yet another argument that is sometimes put forward by traditionalists in defense of their position. With this argument we leave the analogy with the legal system. It has sometimes been argued that condemnation to hell need not be justified by any actual sins a person commits, but can be justified solely by the doctrine of original sin. According to this doctrine, the fall of Adam and Eve, recounted in Genesis 3, had catastrophic consequences for the whole human race—their sin and their guilt are inherited by their descendents, who are born bearing this burden. What is more, as a result of Adam s original sin, human nature itself became corrupted—unable not to sin (non posse non peccare), in Augustines terminology. Although there is some scriptural warrant for this doctrine in the epistles of Paul, it was first clearly formulated by Augustine, and since then it has had an enormous influence on Western Christianity.
What is important for our purposes in this doctrine is the idea that this innate guilt in and of itself justifies eternal punishment in hell. Traditionalists believe that within the concept of the status prin- ciple, even the slightest offense against God makes humans fit for eternal punishment. Apart from any actual sins committed by an in- dividual, therefore, this innate guilt suffices to justify the penalty. Thus Augustine claims that “it is evident that the one sin which we bring with us by nature would, even if it stood alone, bring us under condemnation.”33 Later on in his Enchiridion Augustine states:
“Now, who but a fool would think that God was unrighteous, either in inflicting penal justice on those who had earned it, or in ex- tending mercy to the unworthy? For the whole human race was condemned in its rebellious head by a divine judgement so just, that if not a single member of the race had been redeemed, no one could justly have questioned the justice of God.”34
John Calvin brings out a similar point in his definition of original sin:
“Original sin seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which makes us liable to Gods wrath. . . . [W]e are so vitiated and perverted in every part of our nature that by this great corruption we stand justly condemned and convicted before God, to whom nothing is acceptable but righteousness, innocence, and purity. . . . [N]ot only has punishment fallen upon us from Adam, but a contagion imparted by him resides in us, which justly deserves punishment.35
In the same passage Calvin formulates the justification for damnation based solely on original sin even more pointedly as he writes about the fate of infants:
“Even infants themselves, while they carry their condemnation along with them from their mother s womb, are guilty not of another’s fault but of their own. For, even though the fruits of their iniquity have not yet come forth, they have the seed enclosed within them. Indeed, their whole nature is a seed of sin; hence it can be only hateful and abhorrent to God. From this it follows that it is rightly considered sin in God’s sight, for without guilt there would be no accusation.”36
In response to this argument, it should be pointed out first of all that the doctrine of original sin has many problems of its own. Questions have been raised pertaining to the scriptural basis for this doctrine— both related to the accuracy of the interpretation of Paul by Augus- tine and others, as well as to the accuracy of Paul’s interpretation of the Genesis story.37 Other problems concern the biology employed in some formulations of the doctrine.38 Its main difficulty, however, lies in the coherence of the concept of “inherited guilt.” How can we be punished for the sins of someone else, or for being what we are with- out having done any actual wrong (like infants)? Since in this paper I am not concerned with the doctrine of original sin, I will not go into that question here. Suffice it to say that I am in agreement here with those philosophical theologians who believe that no good sense can be made of this idea at all.39 Although the doctrine of original sin may be an accurate expression of the moral weakness of human nature (“inclined to all evil”), it certainly does not make people liable to eter- nal punishment.40 From the perspective of retributive justice, at any rate, it seems clear to me that an appeal to original sin merely aggra- vates the moral problems with the traditional concept of hell.
Diversity in Punishment
A final argument to escape from the moral problem with the tra- ditional concept of hell is sometimes adduced by traditionalists by supposing that there is diversity in punishment in hell. The moral problems are thought to arise only on the assumption that all people in hell are punished everlastingly with an equal punishment. This, it may be granted, is unfair and unjust, for not all of the wicked are equally bad. There is a reflection of this intuition in the quotation from John Hick above, when he claims that “the absolute contrast of heaven and hell, entered immediately after death, does not corre- spond to the innumerable graduations of good and evil.” In order to account for these graduations of evil, different types of infinite pun- ishment are suggested to exist in hell: some people may experience greater (mental and/or physical) pains than others; some places in hell may be “hotter” than others; perhaps hell may for some even be described as “bearable,” depending on die gravity of the wrongs done in their earthly lives.41
This view seems prima facie more just than the traditional view. After all, eternal residence in a minimum security prison is not nearly so bad as eternal consignment in a medieval torture chamber! How- ever, the moral problems mentioned above remain. First of all, this view on hell is also based on the status principle, in that it claims that even the slightest offense against God deserves eternal punishment; it only introduces distinctions regarding the nature of the penalty. Yet, we have already seen that this principle does not allow for a sat- isfactory interpretation so as to overcome the moral problem with eternal punishment in the first place. Secondly, there is a fatal error in this proposed process of assigning punishment. Mitigating circum- stances, such as whether an offense was intentional, premeditated, or done with full consciousness, should play a role before SL sentence—if any—is assigned, not after the assignment of the basic sentence (eter- nal punishment). From the perspective of determining punishment this procedure is totally unwarranted.42 Moreover, how are we to con- ceive of “a little eternal punishment”? Therefore, although this mod- ification (which it is) of the traditional view has some intuitive appeal, it is no more morally acceptable.
In this paper I have dealt with some of the main arguments and principles that traditionally have played a role in defense of the tradi- tional Christian conception of hell. This selection of arguments is by no means exhaustive; a number of other arguments could have been mentioned. It has been suggested, for example, that the misery of hell is justified because it provides a contrast which heightens the aware- ness of bliss of the blessed in heaven; or that eternal punishment is justified because it serves as a continual reminder of the wages of sin (which in turn restrains the blessed from making use of their free will to sin).43 Furthermore, everlasting punishment is sometimes de- fended on the assumption that the damned in hell continue to sin forever and hence ought to be punished everlastingly for these sins.44 However, the arguments and principles focused on here constitute, I believe, the major and in any case the philosophically most interest- ing ones.
My conclusion is that none of the arguments discussed suffices to sustain the claim that eternal punishment is a justified penalty for human sin. This entails, I believe, the more radical conclusion that hell can no longer be conceived of as a punishment for human sins by God. Although it may not sound too disturbing in itself, this conclu- sion has ramifications, not only for our thinking about hell, but for the way in which we construct our entire theology. It seems to me that if the argument in the present paper is sound, the locus that has tradi- tionally been assigned to the doctrine of hell within the Christian scheme of things, namely, God s justice, which requires that human sin is punished, is misguided; indeed, the doctrine will have to be in- corporated differently into our theology. How this ought to be done is another matter, which falls outside the scope of the inquiry under- taken in the present article. Let me close, finally, by saying that the considerations offered here are not meant as a mere mitigation of the doctrine of hell—as if I were to argue that hell is not as “hot” as it used to be! It is rather the case that belief in God s perfect goodness prohibits us to affirm that he will punish some people everlastingly for their sins in hell.
1 H. Berkhof, Chnstian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of Faith (rev. ed., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990), 535.
2 See Martin E. Marty, “Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed. A Civic Argument,” Harvard Theological Review 78 (1985): 382-398, esp. 391.
3 W. R. Inge, Diary of a Dean (London: Hutchinson, 1949), 12.
4 See Gijsbert van den Brink and Marcel Sarot, “Contemporary Philosophical Theology,” in G. van den Brink and M. Sarot (eds.), Understanding the Attributes of God (Frankfurt a/M: Peter Lang, 1999), 24-27; Vincent Brummer, The Model of Love: A Study in Philosophical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 22-24.
5 The Mystery of Salvation: The Story of God’s Gift: A Report by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England (London: Church House Publishing, 1996), 199.
6 See J. L. Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 5560. By this Kvanvig means the procedure of picking from a gallery of al- ternatives one conception of hell that is thought not to fall prey to the problems of the traditional view, and affirming that view instead.
7 See Wilko van Holten, “Hell and the Goodness of God,” Religious Studies 35 (1999): 3755 and Wilko van Holten, “Eschatology with a Vengeance: Hell as the Greatest Conceivable Evil,” in David Fergusson and Marcel Sarot (eds.), The Future as Gods Gift: Explorations in Christian Theology (Edinburgh: Τ & Τ Clark, 2000), 181188.
8 This discontinuity pertains especially to the moral evaluation of the concepts of the afterlife in the Old and New Testament. Most biblical scholars agree that the Old Testament portrays the underworld (sheol) as morally neutral, that is, as the fate of all regardless of their moral or religious standing in life, in contrast to later Jewish and Christian views of a much more differentiated post-mortem fate—one for the righteous and one the wicked. See, for example, Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and the Early Christian Worlds (Lon- don: UCL Press, 1993), 138-140; Nicholas J. Tromp, Primitive Conceptions of Death and the Nether World in the Old Testament (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1969). It should be noted that recent scholarship casts some doubt on this interpre- tation of sheol. See, for example, James Barr, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality (London: SCM Press, 1992), 28-33; Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Nottingham: IVP, 2002); Johnston, “Left in Hell? Psalm 16, Sheol,and the Holy One,” in P. E. Satterthwaite et al. (eds.), The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts (Carlisle: Pater- noster, 1995), 213-222.
9 See for example, John E Walvoord, “The Literal View,” in William V. Crockett (ed.), Four Views on Hell(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 1129; David G. Moore, The Battlefor Hell: A Survey and Evaluation of Evan- gelicals’ Growing Attraction to the Doctrine of Annihilationism (Lahan: University Press of America, 1995); Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Casefor Eternal Pun- ishment(Phillipsburg, Ν. J.: P&R Publishing, 1995).
1 0 See, for example, Clark Pinnock, “The Conditional View,” in Crockett (ed.), Four Views, 135167; John W. Wenham, “The Case for Conditional Immortality,” in Nigel S. de Cameron (ed.), Universalism and the Doctrineof Hell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 161190; Wenham, “Hell: Not Endless,” in Wenham, The Enigma of Evil (Guildford: Eagle Inter Publishing Service, 2nd ed., 1994), 6892.
1 1 See, for example, Thomas Talbott, “Three Pictures of God in Western Theol- ogy,” Faith and Philosophy 10 (1993): 7994; Talbott, “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment,” Faith and Philosophy 7 (1990): 1943.
1 2 For the most recent contribution to this debate, see the report by the Evangel- ical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE), enti- tled The Nature of Hell (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000).
13 Origen, De Prìncipiis. For a summary of Origen s views on apokatastasis see Henri Crouzel, Origen: The Life and Thought of the First Great Theologian (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 257-266; Frederick W. Norris, “Universal Salvation in Origen and Maximus,” in Cameron (ed.), Universalism, 35-72; George Hunsinger, “Hellfire and Damnation: Four Ancient and Modern Views,” Scottish Journal of The- ology 51 (1999), esp. 415-419.
14 J. F. Walvoord, “Literal View,” 14.
15 J. L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 12-14. See also David J. Powys, who distinguishes between twelve different positions and their history in his article “The Nineteenth- and Twen- tieth-Century Debates about Hell and Universalism,” in Cameron (ed.), Universal- ism,93-138.
16 Kvanvig, Problem of Hell, 19, 25.
17 For a good discussion of the historical controversies over the doctrine of hell, see D. P. Walker, The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964); Geoffrey Rowell, Hell and the Victorians: A Study of the Nineteenth-Century Theological Controversies Concern- ing Eternal Punishment and the Future Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974).
18 Pinnock, “Conditional View,” 164-165. J. Hick, Death and Eternal Life (London: Collins, 1976), 200-201.
20 See on this Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism, revised ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 184-216; Edward R. Wierenga, The Nature of God: An In- quiry into Divine Attributes (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press 1989), 202-212. God’s perfect goodness in philosophical reflection is generally thought to consist of two conceptually distinct elements: moral goodness (goodness in the narrow sense) and metaphysical goodness (goodness in a wider sense). In the narrow sense, Gods moral perfection includes the virtues of being loving, merciful, just, faithful, and doing no wrong (the doctrine of divine impeccability). In a wider sense, calling God good indicates the fullness and completeness of his being, his self-sufficiency, and freedom from want or deficiency of any kind. This latter goodness encompasses his goodness in the narrow sense insofar as love, mercy, justice, faithfulness, and other virtues are all part of the fullness of being which God, as the supreme being, enjoys. On the concept of divine goodness and the way the two mentioned elements are re- lated to each other, see Paul Helm, “Goodness,” in Philip L. Quinn and Charles Tal- iaferro (eds.), A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 243-249.
21 See, for example, William Lane Craig, “”No Other Name”: A Middle Knowl- edge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation through Christ,” Faith and Philoso- phy 6 (1989): 176: “If we take Scripture seriously, we must admit that the vast ma- jority of persons in the world are condemned and will be forever lost.”
22 For the next argument see Thomas Talbott, “Punishment, Forgiveness, and Di- vine Justice,” Religious Studies 29 (1993): 154.
23 On the historical interrelation between legal and theological ideas of retribution (and their mutual reinforcement) see Timothy Gorrmge, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
24 M. M. Adams, “Hell and the God of Justice,” Religious Studies 11 (1975): 442.
2 6 For this analysis of concepts of classification, see V. Brummer, Theology and Philosophical Inquiry: AnIntroduction (London: Macmillan, 1981), 5663.
2 7, 2 8, 2 9 For this argument, see Kvanvig, Problem of Hell, 48. Talbott, “Punishment, Forgiveness, and Divine Justice,” 158. In this connection, Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of ΕυΐΙ
31 Talbott, “Punishment, Forgiveness, and Divine Justice,” 160-162. Often, of course, restoring the damage will not be possible. A killer cannot bring his victim back to life again. In such cases some other appropriate punishment should be in- flicted. However, such cases do not undermine the point I make here, namely that the infliction of an equal wrong as a punishment is often less than fully just.
32 Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man, 1.14, ed. by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson (Toronto: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1976), 72 (italics added).
33 Augustine, Enchiridion, L, ed. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, trans. J. F. Shaw, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1980), 254 (italics added).
34 Enchindion, XCVIII, XCIX (Schaff, 268-269).
ohn Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.1.8, ed. J. T. McNeill, 2 Vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 251 (italics added).
36 37 38 Calvin, Institutes, 251. On this latter point see James Barr, Garden of Eden, chapter 1. This pertains especially to the Augustinian and Anselmian formulations, not to the reformed renderings of the doctrine. On the difference between both see
Richard A. Müller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms Drawn Princi- pally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1989), 221 and Philip L. Quinn, “Sin and Original Sin,” in Quinn and Taliaferro (eds.), Com- panion, 541-548.
39 Compare Quinn, “Sin and Original Sin,” 548: “In my opinion, the critics of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin are correct in thinking that we are not born bear- ing a burden of guilt for the first sins of the first humans which comes to us by way for causal transmission or by way of divine imputation. We are guilty only for our own morally evil actions, and so we acquire guilt only by committing personal sins.” This article provides a concise and useful discussion of modern philosophical critiques of the doctrine of original sin. For a similar conclusion (pertaining to Jonathan Edwards defense of original sin) see William J. Wainwright, “Original Sin,” in Thomas V. Mor- ris (ed.), Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 31-60.
40 John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (London: Macmillan, 1966), 207 draws a distinction in this connection between “inherited guilt” and “inherited sinfulness or tendency to sin”.
41 There is some scriptural warrant for this view in texts such as Luke 12:47-48; Matt. 11:24; Rev. 20:11-12.
42 See for this argument Kvanvig, Problem of Hell, 62-63. 43 Compare D. P. Walker, Decline of Hell, 29-31.
(Oxford 1998), 213214, 232 speaks of death as “God s safety barrier,” for death en- sures that there is necessarily a limit to the amount of suffering significantly free be- ings can inflict on one another.
44 For a recent defense of this argument see Charles Seymour, “Hell, Justice, and
Freedom,” International Journalfor the Philosophy of Religion 43 (1998): 69-86; re- stated in Seymour, A Theodicy of Hell (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000).