A loving God doesn’t torture people in Hell by Lee Strobel
The passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “The case for Faith,” which was published in 2000 by Zondervan.
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character and that is that he believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.
Bertrand Russell, atheist1
Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.
G. K. Chesterton, Christian2
Judge Cortland A. Mathers was in a quandary. Standing before him was a defendant who was guilty of playing a minor role in a drug case. She was a thirty-one year-old impoverished mother with a young family. She was remorseful over her crime. In the judge’s opinion, she deserved a second chance. Justice would be served by giving her probation.
But there was a problem: if Mathers found her guilty of the charge against her, he would have no choice under Massachusetts law but to sentence her to six years in the penitentiary. He knew that prison would scar her forever. More than likely it would destroy her fragile family and leave her embittered, angry, unemployed, and destined for more trouble.
This is a system called “mandatory sentencing,” which removes the discretion of judges in disposing of certain kinds of cases. The positive side is that judges are prevented from being too lenient. But the negative consequence is that in some instances the automatic sentence can be too harsh–—like in this case, where the defendant stood to serve more time behind bars than most armed robbers.
Mathers was never known to shrink back from sentencing criminals to long prison terms if the circumstances warranted it. But in this case, he considered the mandatory sentence–—with no possibility of early release–—to be an “absolute miscarriage of justice.”
And so Mathers made his choice “Disobey the law in order to be just.” He declared her guilty of a lesser offense that did not carry a pre-set prison term and sentenced her to five years of probation with required counseling.
“If a judge is not capable of doing that, then he shouldn’t be on the bench,” Mathers told the Boston Globe in its investigation of mandatory sentencing. “A judge either is an automaton, rubberstamping these sentences, or is driven by a sense of justice.”3
I was thinking about that case as my plane was descending toward Los Angeles International Airport on a sultry September morning. How ironic, I mused, that a law designed to enforce justice threatened to thwart it instead. I could understand the sense of fairness that prompted Mathers to sidestep one-size-fits-all sentencing and instead to impose a punishment that would more appropriately fit the crime.
For a long time as a spiritual seeker I found my sense of justice outraged by the Christian teaching about hell, which I considered far more unjust than a mandatory prison term would have been in the case before Mathers. The doctrine seemed like cosmic overkill to me, an automatic and unappealable sentence to an eternity of torture and torment. It’s mandatory sentencing taken to the extreme: everyone gets the same consequences, regardless of their circumstances. Step out of line with God–—even a little bit, even inadvertently–—and you’re slapped with an endless prison sentence in a place that makes Leavenworth look like Disneyland.
Where’s the justice in that? Where’s the proportionality between crime and punishment? What kind of a God enjoys seeing his creatures writhe forever–—without hope, beyond redemption–—in a torture chamber every bit as ghastly and barbaric as a Nazi concentration camp? Wasn’t atheist B. C. Johnson right when he charged that “the idea of hell is morally absurd?”4
Those are tough and emotionally charged questions. I needed answers from a tough-minded authority, someone who wouldn’t flinch from honest challenges. I glanced out of the plane’s window as suburban Los Angeles passed beneath, shimmering in the bright sunlight. I was anxious for my one-on-one encounter with a well-respected philosopher who has wrestled extensively with this troubling doctrine of eternal damnation.
THE SIXTH INTERVIEW: J. P. MORELAND, PH.D.
It didn’t take long to get my rental car and drive to J. P. Moreland’s house, which is located not far from the Talbot School of Theology, where he is a professor in the master’s program in philosophy and ethics.
Moreland’s book, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality, showed that he had done a lot of thorough thinking and personal soul-searching about the doctrine of hell. He and coauthor Gary Hahennas also delved into the nature of the soul, near-death experiences, reincarnation, and the theology of heaven.
I also selected Moreland because of his broad background. He is educated in science (with a chemistry degree from the University of Missouri), possesses a thorough knowledge of theology (he has a master’s degree from Dallas Theological Seminary), and he’s a highly regarded philosopher (having earned his doctorate at the University of Southern California).
He has produced more than a dozen books, including Scaling the Secular City; Christianity and the Nature of Science; Does God Exist? (a debate with Kai Nielsen); The Creation Hypothesis; Body and Soul; Love Your God with All Your Mind; and the award-winning Jesus Under Fire. All of that and he’s just fifty-one.
Moreland, dressed casually in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts, and deck shoes without socks, greeted me in the driveway of his ranch-style house. I shook his hand and offered my condolences. I knew he had traveled to San Diego the previous night and watched as his beloved Kansas City Chiefs were humiliated by the lowly Chargers. He was still wearing a baseball-style hat with his team’s name emblazoned on the front.
Inside, after exchanging a few pleasantries, I slumped down on his living room couch and sighed. The subject of hell was big, heavy, controversial, a flashpoint for spiritual skeptics. I searched my mind for a starting point.
I finally decided just to be honest. “I’m not sure where to begin,” I confessed. “How should we even approach the topic of hell?”
Moreland thought for a moment, then leaned back in his green padded chair. “Maybe,” he offered, “we should distinguish between liking or disliking something and judging whether it’s right to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Many times something we like isn’t the right thing to do,” he explained. “Some people say adultery is pleasurable, but most people would agree it’s wrong. And often doing the right thing isn’t pleasurable. Telling someone a hard truth that they need to hear, or firing someone who isn’t doing a good job, can be very unpleasant.”
“And,” I interjected, “hell evokes a visceral response. People react strongly against the mere idea of it”
“That’s right. They tend to evaluate whether it’s appropriate based on their feelings or emotional offense to it.”
“How do we get beyond that?”
“I think people should try to set aside their feelings,” he said. The basis of their evaluation should be whether hell is a morally just or morally right state of affairs, not whether they like or dislike the concept.”
Moreland paused before continuing. “And it’s important to understand that if the God of Christianity is real, he hates hell and he hates people going there,” he added. “The Bible is very clear: God says he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.”5
Maybe so, but they still end up spending their eternity in a place of absolute horror and abject despair. I thought back to my interview with Charles Templeton, the evangelist-turned-skeptic. Admittedly, he has strong emotions concerning hell, but they seemed to be legitimately fueled by righteous indignation and moral outrage.
Frankly, I was a bit wary of completely divorcing the discussion of hell from our emotional response to it—after all, they seemed hopelessly intertwined.
TACKLING TEMPLETON’S CHALLENGE
Although I understood Moreland’s point that the morality or immorality of hell is independent of our feelings toward the issue, I decided my best tactic would be to confront Moreland head-on with Templeton’s objections—emotion and all.
I cleared my throat and sat upright turning to face Moreland more squarely. “Look, Dr. Moreland,” I began, my voice notching up in intensity; “I interviewed Charles Templeton about this matter and he was very adamant. He told me: ‘I couldn’t hold someone’s hand to a fire for a moment. Not an instant! How could a loving God, just because you don’t obey him and do what he wants, torture you forever–—not allowing you to die, but to continue in that pain for eternity?’”
Then I spit out Templeton’s last words with the same tone of disgust he had used in talking to me “‘There is no criminalwho would do this!’”
The challenge almost seemed to reverberate in his living room. Tension quickly mounted. Then, sounding more accusatory than inquisitive, I capped the question by demanding, “Dr. Moreland, what in the world do you say to that?”
So much for his idea of getting beyond feelings.
Now, you have to understand something about J. P. Moreland: he’s a philosopher. He’s a thinker. He’s coolly rational. Nothing seems to rattle his cage. And despite my charged tone, which almost seemed to imply he was personally responsible for the creation of hell, Moreland took no offense. Instead, his mind quickly cut to the core of the issue.
The key to answering Templeton is in his wording.” Moreland began. “He has loaded his question to the point where it’s like asking, “When did you stop beating your wife?’ No matter how you reply; you’re doomed from the outset if you accept his wording.”
“So his premise is wrong,” I said. “How so?”
“Well, for one thing, hell is not a torture chamber.”
My eyebrows shot up. Certainly that would be news to many generations of Sunday school children who have been frightened into nightmares by gruesome descriptions of the everlasting infliction of fiery agony in Hades.
“It’s not?” I asked.
Moreland shook his head. “God doesn’t torture people in hell, so he’s flat wrong about that,” he continued. “Templeton also makes it sound like God is a spoiled child who says to people, ‘Look, if you’re not willing to obey my arbitrary rules, then I’m going to sentence you for it. You need to know that my rules are my rules, and if I don’t get my way, then I’m going to make you pay.’ Well, of course, if God is just a child with arbitrary rules, then it would be capricious for him to sentence people. But that’s not at all what is going on here.
“God is the most generous, loving, wonderful, attractive being in the cosmos. He has made us with free will and he has made us for a purpose: to relate lovingly to him and to others. We are not accidents, we’re not modified monkeys, we’re not random mistakes. And if we fail over and over again to live for the purpose for which we were made–—a purpose, by the way, which would allow us to flourish more than living any other way–—then God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives, which is separation from him.”
“And that is hell. . .”
“Yes, that’s hell. One more point: it’s wrong to think God is simply a loving being, especially if you mean ‘loving’ in the sense that most Americans use that word today. Yes, God is a compassionate being, but he’s also a just, moral, and pure being. So God’s decisions are not based on modern American sentimentalism. This is one of the reasons why people have never had a difficult time with the idea of hell until modern times. People today tend to care only for the softer virtues like love and tenderness, while they’ve forgotten the hard virtues of holiness, righteousness, and justice.
“So in the wording of his question, Templeton has given us a spiteful being who has imposed these unfair, arbitrary rules and who ultimately stomps his foot and says, ‘If I don’t get my way, I’m going to torture you forever’”
Moreland’s intense blue-gray eyes locked with mine. “Nothing,” he stressed, “could be further from the truth.”
GOD’S FALL-BACK POSITION
“Okay, then,” I said as I settled deeper into the couch, “here’s your chance to set the record straight. Let’s lay some groundwork by getting our definitions in order. You said hell is not a torture chamber. Then what is it?”
“The essence of hell is relational,” he replied. “Christianity says people are the most valuable things in the entire creation. If people matter, then personal relationships matter, and hell is largely relational.
“In the Bible, hell is separation or banishment from the most beautiful being in the world–—God himself. It is exclusion from anything that matters, from all value, not only from God but also from those who have come to know and love him.”
I was confused about something. “Is hell a punishment for having broken God’s standards?” I asked. “Or is it the natural consequence of people living a life where they say, ‘I don’t care if I’m separate from God, I want to do things my way,’ and then they are given their desire for all eternity by being separated from God forever?”
“It’s both,” he said. “Make no mistake: hell is punishment–—but it’s not a punishing. It’s not torture. The punishment of hell is separation from God, bringing shame, anguish, and regret. And because we will have both body and soul in the resurrected state, the misery experienced can be both mental and physical. But the pain that’s suffered will be due to the sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment from God, his kingdom, and the life for which we were created in the first place. People in hell will deeply grieve over all they’ve lost.
“Hell is the final sentence that says you refused regularly to live for the purpose for which you were made, and the only alternative is to sentence you away for all eternity. So it is punishment. But it’s also the natural consequence of a life that has been lived in a certain direction.”
“According to Genesis, when God created everything, he declared it was ‘good,’” I pointed out. “Obviously, God created hell. But how could he possibly think that hell is good? Doesn’t that call his character into question?”
“Actually,” replied Moreland, “hell was not part of the original creation. Hell is God’s fall-back position. Hell is something God was forced to make because people chose to rebel against him and turn against what was best for them and the purpose for which they were created.
“You know, when people founded the United States, they didn’t start out by creating jails. They would have much rather had a society without jails. But they were forced to create them because people would not cooperate. The same is true for hell.”
“Is hell a physical place?”
“Yes and no. When people die, their soul leaves their body and they’re no longer physical. The Bible says when people who are ultimately headed for hell die before Christ’s return, they’re separated from the presence of God but they’re not in a physical place because they’re not physical. In that sense, hell is probably not a location, but it’s a real part of the universe. It’s like you go through a door into another kind of existence.”
“Sounds like a near-death experience,” I chuckled.
“Well, I think near-death experiences have demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that when people die they’re still able to be conscious,” Moreland replied.
Then he continued: “At the final judgment, our body will be raised and our soul will be reunited with it. At that point, I do think there will be a part of the universe where people will be cut off from the primary place where the activity of God and his people will be manifested. So at that point it does make sense to talk about hell being a place–—but it will not be a torture chamber or anything like that.”
FLAMES, WORMS, AND GNASHING TEETH
There was that “torture chamber” imagery again. “No wonder that’s a popular vision of hell,” I said. “When I was about ten years old, I was taken to Sunday school, where the teacher lit a candle and said, ‘Do you know how much it hurts to burn your finger? Well, imagine your whole body being in fire forever and ever. That’s what hell is.’”
Moreland nodded as if he had heard that kind of story before.
“Now, some kids got scared,” I added. “I just got resentful that this guy was trying to manipulate me. I think lots of people have had this sort of experience. You have to admit that when it comes to talking about hell, the Bible certainly does have a tendency to refer to flames.”
“That’s true,” Moreland replied, “but the flames are a figure of speech.”
I put up my hand. “Okay, wait a minute,” I protested. “I thought you were a conservative scholar. Are you going to try to soften the idea of hell to make it more palatable?”
“Absolutely not,” came his reply. “I just want to be biblically accurate. We know that the reference to flames is figurative because if you try to take it literally, it makes no sense. For example, hell is described as a place of utter darkness and yet there are flames, too. How can that be? Flames would light things up.
“In addition, we’re told Christ is going to return surrounded by flames and that he’s going to have a big sword coming out of his mouth. But nobody thinks Christ won’t be able to say anything because he’ll be choking on a sword. The figure of the sword stands for the word of God in judgment. The flames stand for Christ coming in judgment. In Hebrews 12:29, God is called a consuming fire. Yet nobody thinks God is a cosmic Bunsen burner. Using the flame imagery is a way of saying he’s a God of judgment”
“What about hell being a place where worms constantly eat people’s flesh,” I asked.
“In Jesus’ day thousands of animals were sacrificed every week in the Temple, and there was a sewage system for the blood and fat to flow outside, where it gathered in a pool. There were worms constantly ingesting that. It was a very ugly place,” Moreland said. “When Jesus was teaching, he used this metaphor as a way of saying hell is worse than that disgusting place outside the city.”
“There’s also the phrase ‘gnashing of teeth’ to describe those in hell,” I said. “Doesn’t that refer people reacting to the pain of torture?”
“More precisely, this is meant to describe a state of anger or realization of great loss,” Moreland said. “It’s an expression of rage at realizing that one has made a huge mistake. If you’ve ever been around people who are self-absorbed, sell-centered, and highly narcissistic, they get angry when they don’t get their way. I believe the gnashing of teeth is an expression of the type of personality of people who will belong in hell.”
“No flames, no worms, no gnashing of teeth from torture–—maybe hell isn’t as bad as we thought,” I said in an effort to inject a little levity;
Moreland responded quickly. “It would be a mistake to think that way,” he said firmly. “Any figure of speech has a literal point. What is figurative is the burning flame; what is literal is that this is a place of utter heartbreak. It is a loss of everything, and it’s meant to stand for the fact that hell is the worst possible situation that could ever happen to a person.”
“You mentioned people in hell who are self-absorbed and narcissistic, who’ve rejected God all their life,” I said. “Is it possible that for these kind of people, heaven would be hell?”
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “Have you ever been around somebody who was unbelievably good looking, extremely attractive, and a lot smarter than you are? When you’re in a social situation, people want to listen to him, not you. Suppose you don’t care for that person, but you’re kept in a room with him twenty-four hours a day for thirty years. That would be an unbelievably difficult experience.
“Now, multiply those qualities ten thousand times, and that’s a little bit of what God is like. He is real, real smart. He’s very attractive. He’s a lot more morally pure than we are. And if people do not fall passionately in love with him, then to force them to have to be around him forever—doing the kinds of things that people who love him would want to do—would be utterly uncomfortable.
“You have to understand that people’s character is not formed by decisions all at once, but by thousands of little choices they make every day without even knowing about it. Each day we’re preparing ourselves for either being with God and his people and valuing the things he values, or choosing not to engage with those things. So, yes, hell is primarily a place for people who would not want to go to heaven.”
“You’re saying people consciously choose hell?”
“No, I don’t mean they consciously reject heaven and choose to go to hell instead. But they do choose not to care about the kinds of values that will be present in heaven every day.”
I said, “So, in effect, by the way we live our lives we’re either preparing ourselves for being in God’s presence and enjoying him for eternity; or we’re preparing ourselves for an existence where we try to make ourselves the center of the universe and we have no interest in being with God or the people who love him.”
Moreland nodded. “That’s absolutely right. So hell is not simply a sentence. It is that, but it’s also the end of a path that is chosen, to some degree, in this life right here and now, day by day.”
Even so, there are aspects of hell that seem to violate our sense of justice. At least, I’ve felt that in the past. I took advantage of a pause in our conversation to reach into my briefcase and retrieve a list of them that I had written on the airplane.
“How about if I ask for your reply to each of these issues,’ I said to Moreland. “My goal isn’t to get into argument with you. I just want you to spell out your perspective, and then at the end I’ll weigh whether I think you’re giving adequate responses and if, in total, the doctrine of hell stands up to scrutiny.”
“Sounds fair,” he replied.
I glanced at the list and decided to begin with one of the most emotion-charged objections of all.
Objection 1: How Can God Send Children to Hell
People recoil at the thought of children languishing in hell. In fact, some atheists like to taunt Christians by dredging up writings by nineteenth-century evangelists who used horrific language to describe the ghastly experiences of children in hell. For example, a British priest nicknamed “the children’s apostle” wrote these gruesome words:
A little child is in this red-hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out! See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire! It beats its bead against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell–—despair, desperate and horrible.6
“The idea of children in hell–—well, it’s too much,” I said to Moreland. “How can there be a loving God if children are subjected to hell?” I was interested in seeing whether Moreland’s response would be consistent with scholar Norman Geisler’s earlier assessment of this issue.
“Remember,” Moreland cautioned in light of the quote about the child in the oven, “the biblical language about fire and flames is figurative.”
“Yes, okay, but still–—will there be children in hell?”
Moreland, who is the father of two daughters, leaned forward as he spoke. “You must understand that in the afterlife, our personalities reflect an adult situation anyway, so we can say for sure that there will be no children in hell,” he began.
“And certainly there will be no one in hell who, if they had a chance to grow up to be adults, would have chosen to go to heaven. No one will go to hell simply because all they needed was a little more time and they died prematurely.”
Moreland reached over to a table and retrieved his leather-clad Bible. “Besides, in the Bible children are universally viewed as figures of speech for salvation. In all of the texts where children are used in regard to the afterlife, they’re used as pictures of being saved. There’s no case where children are ever used as figures of damnation.”
He flipped through the Old Testament until he settled on Second Samuel. “Here’s a good example,” he said. “The child that King David conceived in an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba died, and David says in Second Samuel 12:23: ‘I will go to him, but he will not return to me.’
“David was expressing the truth that his child will be in heaven and that he would join him someday. So that is another piece of evidence that children will not be in hell.”
Objection 2: Why Does Everyone Suffer the Same in Hell?
As I was formulating my next question, I rose from the couch and wandered toward the front window, pausing in a pool of sunlight that was dancing on the carpet. The Massachusetts case involving Judge Mathers was lurking in the back of my mind.
“Our sense of justice demands that evil people be held accountable for the way they’ve harmed others,” I said. “And in that sense, hell might be an appropriate sanction for some. However, it violates our sense of fairness that Adolf Hitler would bear the same eternal punishment as someone who lived a pretty good life by our standards, but who made the decision not to follow God.”
Moreland was listening intently. “It seems unjust that everyone is subjected to the same consequences,” he said. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes, that’s right. Doesn’t that bother you?”
Moreland turned in his Bible to the New Testament. “Actually,” he said, “everyone doesn’t experience hell in the same way. The Bible teaches that there are different degrees of suffering and punishment.”
He came to Matthew 11 and his index finger searches until it settled on verses 20-24, which he read aloud:
‘Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
Moreland closed the book. “Jesus is saying that people will be sentenced in accordance with their deeds,” he said.
“No one-size-fits-all?” I asked. “Justice will be adjusted according to each individual?”
“Exactly. There will be degrees of separation, isolation, and emptiness in hell. I think this is significant because it emphasizes that God’s justice is proportional. There is not exactly the same justice for everyone who refuses the mercy of God.
“Remember, if God really does let people shape their own character by the thousands of choices they make, he is also going to allow them to suffer the natural consequences of the character that they’ve chosen to have. And those who are in worse shape personally will experience a greater degree of isolation and emptiness.”
Objection 3: Why Are People Punished Infinitely for Finite Crimes?
How can any wrongs we’ve committed in this life merit eternal punishment? Isn’t it unfair to say that a finite life of sin warrants infinite punishment? Where’s the justice in that?
“Wouldn’t a loving God make the punishment fit the crime by not making hell last forever?” I asked as I sat back down on the edge of the couch. “How can we do anything in this life that would warrant eternal torture?”
“Remember, it’s not torture,” Moreland pointed out. “The wording is critical. It’s not eternal conscious torture; it’s eternal conscious suffering due to being sentenced away from God.”
“Okay,” I said, “but that doesn’t answer the question.”
“No, it doesn’t. But let me try. First, we all know that the degree to which a person warrants punishment is not a function of the length of time it took to commit a crime. For example, a murder can take ten seconds to commit; stealing somebody’s Encyclopedia Britannica could take half a day if it took a long time to break in the house. My point is that the degree of someone’s punishment is not a function of how long it took to commit the deed; rather, it’s a function of how severe the deed itself was.
“And that leads to the second point. What is the most heinous thing a person can do in this life? Most people, because they don’t think much about God, will say it’s harming animals or destroying the environment or hurting another person. And, no question, all of those are horrible. But they pale in light of the worst thing a person can do, which is to mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God himself.
You have to understand that God is infinitely greater in his goodness, holiness, kindness, and justice than any one else. To think that a person could go through their whole life constantly ignoring him, constantly mocking him by the way they choose to live without him, saying, ‘I couldn’t care less about what you put me here to do. I couldn’t care less about your values or your Son’s death for me. I’m going to ignore all of that’–—that’s the ultimate sin. And the only punishment worthy of that is the u1timate punishment, which is everlasting separation from God.
“As Alan Gomes has pointed out, the nature of the object against which the sin is committed, as well as the nature of the sin itself, must be taken into account when determining the degree of heinousness.”7
Moreland’s answer made me think of the incident where a lawyer asked Jesus what the greatest law is. Jesus told him: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and, love your neighbor as yourself.”8
In the United States, the most serious crime–—murder–is punishable by its most severe sanction, which is being separated from society for life in prison. And there did seem to be a certain logic in saying that defiantly violating God’s ultimate law should bring the ultimate sanction, which is being separated from God and his people for eternity.
Objection 4: Couldn’t God Force Everyone to Go to Heaven?
“Let me go back to a point you made at the outset,” I said to Moreland. “You said God is grieved by the necessity of hell.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Then why can’t he simply force everyone to go to heaven? That would seem to be a simple solution.”
“Because that,” replied Moreland, “would he immoral”
“Immoral?” I said in surprise. “More immoral than hell?”
“Yes, immoral. Follow me on this: there’s a difference between intrinsic value and instrumental value. Something has intrinsic value if it’s valuable and good in and of itself; something has instrumental value if it’s valuable as a means to an end. For example, saving lives is intrinsically good. Driving on the right side of the street is an instrumental value; it’s just good because it helps keep order. If society decided that everyone should drive on the left side, that would be okay. The goal is to preserve order and save lives.
“Now, when you treat people as instrumentally valuable, or only as a means to an end, you’re dehumanizing them, and that’s wrong. You’re treating people as things when you treat them merely as a means to an end. You only respect people when you treat them as having intrinsic value.”
“And how does this relate to forcing people to go to heaven?” I asked.
“If you were to force people to do something against their free choice, you would be dehumanizing them. You would be saying that the good of what you want to do is more valuable than respecting their choices, and so you’re treating people as a means to an end by requiring them to do something they don’t want. That’s what it would be like if God forced everyone to go to heaven.
“If God has given people free will, Lee, then there’s no guarantee that everybody’s going to choose to cooperate with him. The option of forcing everyone to go to heaven is immoral, because it’s dehumanizing; it strips them of the dignity of making their own decision; it denies them their freedom of choice; and it treats them as a means to an end.
“God can’t make people’s character for them, and people who do evil or cultivate false beliefs start a slide away from God that ultimately ends in hell. God respect human freedom. In fact, it would be unloving–—a sort of divine rape–—to force people to accept heaven and God if they didn’t really want them. When God allows people to say ‘no’ to him, he actually respects and dignifies them.”
Objection 5: Why Doesn’t God Just Snuff People 0ut.
Another aspect of hell that’s especially troubling to people is that its duration is eternal. But what if hell didn’t last forever? Instead, what if God annihilated people—that is, snuffed them out of existence—instead of forcing them to be consciously separated from him forever and ever?
“Surely,” I said to Moreland, “that would be more humane than an eternity of regret and remorse.”
“Believe it or not, everlasting separation from God is morally superior to annihilation,” he replied. “Why would God be morally justified in annihilating somebody? The only way that’s a good thing would be the end result, which would be to keep people from experiencing the conscious separation from God forever. Well, then you’re treating people as a means to an end.
“It’s like forcing people to go to heaven. What you’re saying is, ‘The thing that really matters is that people no longer suffer consciously, so I’m going to snuff this person out of existence in order to achieve that end.’ Do you see? That’s treating the person as a means to an end.
“What hell does is recognize that people have intrinsic value. If God loves intrinsic value, then he has got to be a sustainer of persons, because that means he is a sustainer of intrinsic value. He refuses to snuff out a creature that was made in his own image. So in the final analysis, hell is the only morally legitimate option.
“God doesn’t like it, but he quarantines them. This honors their freedom of choice. He just will not override that. In fact, God considers people so intrinsically valuable that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer and die so that they can, if they choose, spend eternity in heaven with him.”
But some theologians claim that annihilation is what’s taught by the Scriptures. They say the Bible teaches that while the punishment of hell is eternal, the punishing isn’t eternal.
Annihilationists like to cite Psalm 37, which says the wicked “will be no more,” “like smoke they [will] vanish away,” and “transgressors shall be altogether destroyed.” And they point to Psalm 145:20, where David said, “The Lord preserves all who love him; but all the wicked he will destroy.” And Isaiah 1:28 “Rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.” They also contend that the metaphors used by Jesus are evidence of annihilationism: the wicked are “bound in bundles to be burned,” the bad fish are thrown away and the harmful plants are rooted up.9
I asked Moreland: “Doesn’t this mean that annihilationism is consistent with Scripture and therefore a reasonable way to harmonize God’s fairness with the doctrine of hell?”
Moreland stood firm. “No, it’s not the biblical teaching,” he insisted. “Whenever you’re trying to understand what an author is teaching, you begin with clear passages that were intended by the author to speak on the question, and then move to unclear passages that may not be intended to teach on the subject.
“Let me illustrate this. There are passages in the Bible that say Jesus Christ died for everyone. There’s also Galatians 2:20, where the apostle Paul says, “Christ died for me.’ Now, am I to assume from that passage that Christ only died for Paul? No, but why not? Because there are clear passages that teach that Christ died for everybody, so when we come to Paul’s statement we say that it’s obvious he didn’t mean Jesus died only for Paul, because we interpret the unclear in light of the clear.
“Now, how about these passages concerning hell? The Old Testament has clear passages on hell being everlasting. Daniel 12:2 says at the end of the age, the just are raised to everlasting life, the unjust to everlasting punishment.10 The identical Hebrew word for everlasting is used in both instances. If we’re going to say that people are annihilated in hell, we should say they’re annihilated in heaven. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. And that passage is clearly meant to be teaching on this question.
“In the New Testament, in Matthew 25, Jesus offers a clear teaching where he’s intending to address the question of the eternal state of heaven and hell, and he uses the same word everlasting to refer to both.
“So we go from these clear passages to the ambiguous teaching about being ‘cut off.’ All that talk about being destroyed and being cut off in the Old Testament is usually meant to mean people being cut off from Israel and the land. Most of those passages have little or nothing to do with everlasting life; they have to do with being cut off in this life to the promises Abraham gave to the people in the land.”
But, I pointed out, the annihilationists also cite the biblical language of fire as ‘evidence that people are destroyed rather than languish forever in hell. As well-respected British pastor John R. W. Stott put it: “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable,’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed for ever, not tormented for ever.”11
Moreland, however, was adamant “The flame language is figurative,” he said. “In Revelation, we are told that hell and death are cast into the lake of fire. Now, hell is not something that can burn. It’s a realm. That’s like saying heaven could be burned. Heaven’s not the kind of thing that burns. And how can you burn death? Death isn’t something you can set a torch to and ignite it
“So it’s obvious that the lake of fire is meant to stand for judgment. When it says an end is placed to hell, the word ‘hell’ is meant to refer to the temporary state of those between their death and the final resurrection. At that point, they’re given their bodies again and they will be located away from God. Death is put to an end because there’s not going to be any more death. So the flame language of the lake of fire is clearly meant to be a figure of speech for judgment, not a literal burning.”
Objection 6: How Can Hell Exist Alongside of Heaven?
“If heaven is supposed to be a place without tears, then how can there be an eternal hell existing at the same time?” I asked. “Wouldn’t those in heaven mourn for those who are suffering forever in hell?”
“First of all, I think people in heaven will realize that hell is a way of honoring people as being intrinsically valuable creatures made in God’s image,” Moreland said.
“Second, many times a person’s ability to enjoy something comes from growing older and gaining a more mature perspective. When my children were young, one child was not able to enjoy a gift if the other child got a present that she thought was a little bit better. When they got older, they were able to enjoy their present, irrespective of the other person’s. In fact, if they were worrying about what the other person got, they would be allowing the other person to control them.
“C. S. Lewis said hell doesn’t have veto power over heaven. He meant that people in heaven will not be denied the privilege of enjoying their life just because they’re consciously aware of hell. If they couldn’t, then hell would have veto power over heaven.
“You have to remember that the soul is big enough to have an unperturbed sense of joy, well-being, love and happiness, while at the same time having a sense of grief and sadness for others. Those are not inconsistent states in a person’s life, and it is a mark of a person’s character and maturity that they’re able to have those states at the same time.”
Objection 7: Why Didn’t God Create Only Those He Knew Would Follow Him?
“If God knows the future, why did he create people whom he knew would never turn to him and who would therefore end up in hell?” I asked. “Couldn’t he have created only those whom he knew would follow him and simply not created those whom he knew would reject him? That option would seem to be much more humane than hell.”
“It depends on God’s goal,” said Moreland. “If God had chosen to create just a handful of four, six, or seven people, maybe he could have only created those people who would go to heaven. The problem is that once God starts to create more people, it becomes more difficult to just create the people who would choose him and not create the people who wouldn’t.”
“Why is that?”
“Because one of the reasons God put us here is to give us a chance to affect other people.”
Moreland thought for a moment before coming up with an analogy. “Do you recall the Back to the Future movies?” he asked. “Remember how they went back in time, changed one small detail, and then when they returned to the future the entire town was completely changed? I think there’s an element of truth to that.
“The simple fact of the matter is that we are impacted by observing other people. Suppose, for example, that when I was a little boy God gave my parents the choice to move to Illinois as opposed to staying in Missouri. Let’s say there was a Christian neighbor who was a hypocrite, and I observed this man and chose because of his life to say ‘no’ to the gospel the rest of my life. Now suppose that people at work looked at how obnoxious I was and five people become followers of Christ because of my bad example of what a non-Christian life looks like. Well, if we go to Illinois, we get one person lost–—me–—but five people are redeemed.
“On the other hand, suppose God chooses not to give the offer of a new job to my dad and we stay in Missouri, I might have a track coach who was a Christian and pours his life into me and I end up choosing to follow God because of that. But because my Christian life is not real1y what it ought to be, five people are influenced away from Christ.
“Do you see? it’s a Back to the Future scenario. When God chooses to create somebody, he or she has an impact on other people’s choices and it might be that they have an impact on their decisions to trust Christ or not.
“There is another part of this, which has to do with how the soul is created. There’s a view that the soul comes into existence at conception and is in some way passed on by the parents. In other words, soulish potentialities are contained in the parents’ egg and sperm. It’s called traducianism. This means my parents created my soul in the act of reproduction. Consequently, I could not have had different parents. That means, then, that the only way God could make me is if my entire ancestral lineage had preceded me, because different grandparents mean different parents and thus different materials for the soul.
“And here’s the implication of traducianism for our question: God has to weigh completely different ancestral chains in their entirety. He can’t just weigh individual people. So it may be that God allows some chains to come about, with some individuals in them who reject Christ–—say, my great, great-grandfather–—but which allow for others to be born who do trust Christ. In other words, God would be balancing alternative chains and not just alternative people.
“When God is making these judgments, his purpose is not to keep as many people out of hell as possible. His goal is to get as many people into heaven as possible.
“And it may be, sadly enough, that he’s going to have to allow some more people who will choose to go to hell to be created in order to get a larger number of people who choose to go to heaven.”
Objection 8: Why Doesn’t God Give People a Second Chance?
The Bible says explicitly that people are destined to die once and to then face judgment.12 Yet if God is really loving, why wouldn’t he give people a second chance after death to make the decision to follow him and go to heaven?
“If people tasted hell, wouldn’t that give them a strong motivation to change their minds?” I asked.
“This question assumes God didn’t do everything he could do before people died, and I reject that,” Moreland said. “God does everything he can to give people a chance, and there will be not a single person who will be able to say to God, ‘If you had just not allowed me to die prematurely, if you’d have given me another twelve months, I know I would have made that decision.’
“The Bible tells us God is delaying the return of Christ to the earth to give everybody all the time he possibly can so they will come to him.13 If all a person needed was a little bit more time to come to Christ, then God would extend their time on this earth to give them that chance. So there will be nobody who just needed a little more time or who died prematurely who would have responded to another chance to receive Christ.
“God is fair. He isn’t trying to make it difficult for people. I believe it’s certainly possible that those who respond to the light from nature that they have received will either have the message of the gospel sent to them or else it may be that God will judge them based on his knowledge of what they would have done had they had a chance to hear the gospel. The simple fact is God rewards those who seek him.”14
That only dealt with part of the question, however. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Wouldn’t death and the awareness of the presence or absence of God after you die be a very motivating thing for people?”
“Yes, it would, but in a negative way. First, you’ve, got to realize that the longer people live separated from God, the less likely they are able to exercise their free choice and trust him. This is why most people who come to Christ do so when they’re young. The longer you live with a bad habit, the harder it is to turn that habit around. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder. So what would make people think that, say, a ten-year incubation period of being separated from God would get their attention?
“Besides, that would make life before death utterly irrelevant. Then the question would be, why didn’t God create people from the beginning with the incubation period? Why did he create them on earth for seventy-five years and let them die and then put them in the incubation period if it was the incubation period that they really needed in the first place? Here’s the truth, Lee: this life is the incubation period!
“The next thing you have to keep in mind is if people saw the judgment seat of God after death, it would be so coercive that they would no longer have the power of free choice. Any ‘decision’ they made would not be a real genuine free choice; it would be totally coerced.
“It would be like me holding a paddle over my daughter and saying, ‘You will say you’re sorry to your sister for wearing her dress without asking.’ Any apology would not be a real apology, it would just be avoidance. And people who would ‘choose’ in a second chance would not really be choosing God, his kingdom, or his ways–—nor would they be suited for life in his kingdom. They’d be making a prudent ‘choice’ to avoid judgment only.
“I’ll suggest one more thing. God maintains a delicate balance between keeping his existence sufficiently evident so people will know he’s there and yet hiding his presence enough so that people who want to choose to ignore him can do it. This way, their choice of destiny is really free.”
Objection 9: Isn’t Reincarnation More Rational Than Hell?
Hindus reject the idea of hell. Instead, they believe in reincarnation, where people return to this world in another form after their death and are given another opportunity to work off the bad karma they generated in their past life and move toward enlightenment.
“Wouldn’t reincarnation be a rational way for a loving God to give people a fresh start so that they might repent the next time around and he wouldn’t have to send them to hell?” I asked. “Wouldn’t this be preferable to hell?”
“Remember, we don’t decide what’s true based what we like or don’t like. We have to consider the evidence. I don’t know any other way to decide whether something’s true except by looking at the evidence,” came Moreland’s reply.
“Yes,” I said, “but isn’t there evidence for reincarnation–—specifically, individuals who have memories of prior lives or even speak in languages that they wouldn’t otherwise know?”
“I think the evidence for reincarnation is weak for several reasons,” he said. “For example, it’s incoherent. Let me give you an illustration of why. The number two is essentially even. If you were to tell me you’re contemplating the number two but it’s an odd number, I would tell you, ‘You may be thinking about three or five, but you can’t be thinking of two, because I’ll tell you one thing that’s essential to it–—it’s got to be an even number.’
“Now, it’s not essential to me that I’m five-foot-eight. It’s not essential to me that I weigh one hundred and sixty five pounds. But it is essential to me that I’m a human.
“If you were to say, ‘J. P. Moreland is in the other room and he has lost five pounds,’ most people would say, ‘Good for him.’ What if you said, ‘J. P. Moreland is in the other room and guess what? He’s an ice cube.’ Most people would say, ‘That can’t be J. P. Moreland, because if there’s one thing I know about him, it’s that he’s human. He’s not an ice cube.’
“Well, reincarnation says that I could come back as a dog, as an amoeba–—heck, I don’t know why I couldn’t come back as an ice cube. If that’s true, what’s the difference between being J. P. Moreland and anything else? There’s nothing essential to me. And just like being even is essential to the number two, so being human is essential to me—–and reincarnation says that what is essential to me isn’t really essential after all.”
“Therefore,” I interjected, “it’s incoherent.”
“Exactly,” Moreland said. “Another reason I don’t believe in reincarnation is because most of these evidences you’ve suggested–—things like supposed memories of past lives–—can be explained better by other means.
“There can be psychological explanations–—people seem to remember certain details, but they’re vague or lucky guesses, or there could be demonic explanations for some of this activity. Actually, when you carefully examine the research, you find it fails to support reincarnation.15
“Finally, I don’t believe in reincarnation because there’s an expert on this question, and he’s Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the only person in history who died, rose from the dead, and spoke authoritatively on the question. And Jesus says reincarnation is false, and that there’s one death and after that comes the judgment. His apostles, whom he instructed carefully, reiterated his teachings on this.”
Instead, Jesus taught about the reality of hell. In fact, he discussed the subject more than anyone else in the Bible. “It’s ironic,” I pointed out, “that many atheists embrace Jesus as having been a great teacher, and yet he’s the one who had the most to say about hell.”
“Yes,” said Moreland, “and remember this: the evidence is that Jesus and his followers were virtuous people. If you want to know how to view the poor, you ask some one who’s like Mother Teresa. You don’t ask Hugh Hefner, because a person like Mother Teresa has got more character than he does. If you want to know whether hell is ultimately fair, you ask Jesus. And here’s the thing: he saw no problem with the doctrine.
“I think we’re on thin ice when we compare our moral sentiments and moral intuitions with Jesus’. We’re saying we have greater insight into what’s fair and what isn’t than he does. And I think that’s not the kind of arena we want to step into.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT HELL
I leaned back on the couch and thought for a moment. Moreland had adroitly responded to the toughest objections to the issue of hell. I had to admit that when I took all of his answers together, they did seem to provide a reasonable rationale for the doctrine.
Yet that didn’t remove my discomfort. And I was in good company. C. S. Lewis once said the doctrine of hell is “one of the chief grounds on which Christianity is attacked as barbarous and the goodness of God impugned”16
As for Moreland, he had spoken as a philosopher and theologian, but I was curious about his personal reaction to this issue. “What about you, J.P.?” I asked. “You’ve woven some convincing arguments in favor of the doctrine, but be honest–—don’t you have times when you feel terribly uncomfortable about the existence of hell?”
Moreland removed his silver-rimmed glasses and rubbed his eyes before speaking. “Absolutely,” he said. “No question. But, again, feeling uncomfortable about something is not the same thing as having a rational, considered judgment that it’s wrong. I believe that hell is morally justifiable, but I don’t feel comfortable about it because it’s sad.”
He paused, then continued. “Keep in mind that God doesn’t feel comfortable about it, either. He doesn’t like it. So what’s the proper response to feeling uncomfortable? It’s not to try to create a view of the afterlife that keeps me from feeling uncomfortable. That’s a terrible way to approach truth. The proper thing to do is to admit that hell is real and to allow our feelings of discomfort to motivate us to action.
“For those who don’t know Christ, it should motivate them to redouble their efforts to seek him and to find him. For those of us who know him, it should cause us to redouble our efforts to extend his message of mercy and grace to those who need it.
“And we need to keep the right perspective through it all. Remember that hell will forever be a monument to human dignity and the value of human choice. It is a quarantine where God says two important things: ‘I respect freedom of choice enough to where I won’t coerce people, and I value my image-bearers so much that I will not annihilate them.”
“Can you see how the doctrine of hell can be a stumbling block for spiritual seekers?”
“Yes, I do, and I’d like to say something about that. Whenever you’re trying to start a friendship with any person, you don’t understand everything about him and you don’t necessarily agree or feel good about every view he holds. But you have to ask, on balance, do you trust this person enough to want to enter a friendship with him?
“The same is true with Jesus. Every single issue isn’t going to be resolved before we enter into a relationship with him. But the question is, on balance, can you trust him?
“I’d encourage any seeker to read the gospel of John and then ask, ‘Can I trust Jesus?’ I think the answer is yes. And I believe that, over time, as we develop our relationship with him, we’ll even come to trust him in those areas where right now we lack complete understanding.”
“WHAT IS GOD TO DO?”
I let Moreland’s words take root for a moment before standing and thanking him for his time and expertise. “‘This was a tough topic,” I said. “I appreciate your willingness to talk about it.”
He nodded and smiled. “No problem,” he said. “I hope it was helpful.”
He walked me outside, where we shook hands and I climbed into the car to head back toward the airport. The heavy traffic didn’t bother me; I had plenty of time before my flight. In fact, I appreciated the leisurely drive because it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the interview.
Was hell the only option open to God? Is it just and moral? Is the doctrine logically consistent? Clearly, Jesus thought it was. And I believed that Moreland’s analysis overall, was sufficient to knock down hell as an obstacle.
That didn’t mean I was totally comfortable with ever single nuance of the points he had made. But it did mean his explanations, when taken as a whole, were strong enough so that I wasn’t going to let this issue derail my spiritual journey.
While entangled in the inevitable Los Angeles traffic jam, I reached into my briefcase and rummage around for the research materials I had compiled in preparation for my talk with Moreland. Finally, I managed to pull out the tape of a previous interview about hell that I had conducted with renowned theologian D. A. Canon.
Popping it into my tape player, I fast-forwarded to some remarks that seemed to be an apt conclusion for the afternoon:
Hell is not a place where people are consigned because they were pretty good blokes, but they just didn’t believe the right stuff. They’re consigned there, first and foremost, because they defy their maker and want to be at the center of the universe. Hell is not filled with people who have already repented, only God isn’t gentle enough or good enough to let them out. It’s filled with people who, for all eternity, still want to be the center of the universe and who persist in their God-defying rebellion.
What is God to do? If he says it doesn’t matter to him, then God is no longer a God to be admired. He’s either amoral or positively creepy. For him to act in any other way in the face of such blatant defiance would be to reduce God himself.17 (235-269)
1. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (New T Simon and Schuster, 1957), 17
2. Quoted in: Cliffe Knechtle, Give Me An Answer (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 42
3. This story, including the interview with Judge Cortland A. Mathers, originally was reported in an excellent investigation mandatory sentencing by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team. See: Gerard O’Neill, ed., Dick Lehr and Bruce Butterfield, “A Judgment on Sentences: Some Judges Balk at Preset Penalties,” The Boston Globe, September 27. 1995
4. B.C. Johnson, The Atheist Debater’s Handbook (Buffalo, N. Y. Prometheus, 1979), 237
5. Ezekiel 33:11: “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live….’”
6. George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 300
7. See: Alan Gomes, “Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part II,” Christian Research Journal 13 (Summer 1991), 8-13
8. Luke 10:27
9. See: Samuele Bacchiocchi, “Hell: Does it Have an End?” Signs of the Times August 1999, 8—10
10. Daniel 12:2: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
11. John Stott and David L. Edwards, Essentials: A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue (London: 1988), 316
12. See: Hebrews 9:27
13. See: 2 Peter 3:9
14. See: Hebrews 11:6
15. For further analysis of evidence concerning reincarnation, see: Gary H. Bahamas and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for immortality (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway 1998), 237-53 and Norman L Geisler and J. Yütaka Amano, The Reincarnation Sensation (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1986)
16. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Glasgow: William Collins Sons, 1983), 107
17. See: Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 164—66