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Problem of Hell

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The Problem of Hell is a logical problem related to religion. Hell's general portrayal in Christianity is sometimes perceived as inconsistent with the concepts of an omnibenevolent, just, and moral God. [1] The problem of Hell revolves around four key points: it exists in the first place, some people go there, there is no escape, and it is punishment for actions or inactions done on Earth.[2]

The concept that non-believers face damnation is called special salvation. The concept that all are saved regardless of belief is referred to as universal reconciliation. The minority Christian doctrine that sinners are destroyed rather than punished eternally is referred to as annihilationism. The problem arises insofar as the existence of hell is accepted by faith and may be resolved by rejecting such belief.

The problem

There are several major issues to the problem of hell. The first is whether the existence of hell is compatible with justice. The second is whether it is compatible with God's mercy, especially as articulated in Christianity. A third issue, particular to Christianity, is whether hell is actually populated, or if God will ultimately "restore all things" (apocatastasis) at the end of the world. Criticisms of the doctrine of hell can focus on the intensity or eternity of its torments, and arguments surrounding all these issues can invoke appeals to the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence of God.

In the Abrahamic religions, except for Judaism which does not have the concept, Hell has traditionally been regarded as a punishment for wrong-doing or sin in this life, as a manifestation of divine justice. Nonetheless, the extreme severity or infinite duration of the punishment might be seen as incompatible with justice. However, Hell is not seen as strictly a matter of retributive justice even by the more traditionalist churches. For example, the Eastern Orthodox see it as a condition brought about by, and the natural consequence of, free rejection of God's love.[3] The Roman Catholic Church teaches that hell is a place of punishment[4] brought about by a person's self-exclusion from communion with God.[5]

In some ancient Eastern Orthodox traditions, Hell and Heaven are distinguished not spatially, but by the relation of a person to God's love.

I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love?...It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of torments sinners...Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. —St. Isaac of Syria, Ascetical Homilies 28, Page 141

Issue of justice

Some opponents of the doctrine of hell claim that the punishment is disproportionate to any crimes that could be committed, an overkill. Because human beings have a finite lifespan, they can commit only a finite number of sins, yet hell is an infinite punishment. In this vein, Jorge Luis Borges suggests in his essay La duración del Infierno that no transgression can warrant an infinite punishment on the grounds that there is no such thing as an "infinite transgression".

Against the injustice of Hell, some theists, particularly in the Thomistic tradition, have argued that God's infinite dignity requires that any transgression against him warrants an infinite punishment. On this view, the correct punishment for a crime is proportional to the status of the wronged individual. Opponents of this view object citing that the severity of a crime is determined by the amount of harm done to the victim, not by his lifespan or scope of being. An omnipotent being, by definition, cannot be harmed. Therefore, by condemning souls to an eternal damnation, God would be punishing souls for actions that had no effect on him. Others reply that the correct punishment is also proportional to the intentions and understanding of the wrongdoer.

Another justice problem involves denominations of Christianity that believe only by accepting Jesus can one be saved from Hell. The problem comes about when you realize that this means that people who never heard of Jesus automatically go to Hell. There is a clear injustice against being punished for something you didn't even know was wrong.

The eternity of Hell has also been justified in the Scholastic tradition by appeal to the irrevocability of the reprobate's decision to oppose God after death. Eternity is perceived not as an infinite stretch of time, but as an unchanging present. This argument however, could be challenged by the view that if wrongdoers are punished in hell, they must suffer, for which it is required that the wrongdoers must retain their sentience, in order to experience it. If this sentience is retained it follows that the wrongdoers would be aware of their transgressions and capable of repenting them.

Another argument against the justice of Hell is that humans are not culpable for their sins, since sinning is unavoidable to them. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; (Epistle to the Romans, 3:23) Also, if God is omniscient/prescient, He would know the person's 'eternal resting place' long before they enter into either heaven or hell, which would mean that God is ultimately the one culpable for a person's eternal fate. Most Christians attribute this inclination to sin to some variant of the doctrine of original sin, rather than to God directly. This aspect of the problem of hell reduces in part to the theistic problem of free will. The monotheistic religions, even those that lack a doctrine of original sin, agree that sin is to be imputed to the sinner and not to God.

Some theological schools, most notably the Scotists and Calvinists, have taken the position that divine justice is entirely a matter of God's positive law, not deducible by natural reason. Thus, whatever God does is just by definition, and if this contradicts our human intuitions of justice, then our intuitions are mistaken. This view is opposed by Thomists and others who espouse a natural law view of morality, or consider that divine goodness ought to be congruent with human virtue and rationality.

Modern scholars find the concept of Hell to be compatible with society's concept of Justice during the time of Jesus Christ. Romans and Egyptians and many others cultures during that time included torture as part of their justice system. Romans had crucifixion and Egyptians had desert sun death. All these acts of torture were considered necessary (as to deter others) or good (as to punish the immoral).

Issue of divine mercy

Another issue is the problem of harmonizing the existence of Hell with God's infinite mercy or omnibenevolence.

As in the problem of evil, some apologists argue that the torments of Hell are attributable not to a defect in God's benevolence, but in human free will. Although a benevolent God would prefer to see everyone saved, he would also allow humans to control their own destinies. This view opens the possibility of seeing Hell not as retributive punishment, but rather as an option that God allows, so that people who do not wish to be with God are not forced to be. C. S. Lewis most famously proposed this view in his book The Great Divorce, saying: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'"

A problem remains regarding Christian theologies' teaching about grace, which grant that God could indeed convert the heart of every sinner and yet leave the freedom of the will in its integrity.[7] In the Thomistic tradition, God grants sufficient grace for salvation to all men, yet it only affects salvations for some. The early modern controversies on grace among the Jansenists, Jesuits and Dominicans focused in part on the question of sufficient and efficient grace, and whether these differed in kind.

Some modern critics of the doctrine of Hell (such as Marilyn McCord Adams) claim that, even if Hell is seen as a choice rather than as punishment, it would be unreasonable for God to give such flawed and ignorant creatures as ourselves the awesome responsibility of our eternal destinies.[8] Jonathan Kvanvig, in his book, The Problem of Hell, agrees that God would not allow one to be eternally damned by a decision made under the wrong circumstances.[9] One should not always honor the choices of human beings, even when they are full adults, if, for instance, the choice is made while depressed or careless. On Kvanvig's view, God will abandon no person until they have made a settled, final decision, under favorable circumstances, to reject God, but God will respect a choice made under the right circumstances. Once a person finally and competently chooses to reject God, out of respect for the person's autonomy, God allows them to be annihilated. The fact that one must believe in God or be subject to eternal damnation or annihilation, even if the choice is completely made by a person, is often perceived as a scare tactic that inevitably forces or scares one into having to believe in God, and God would seem corrupt and evil in saying, "You can believe in me or not, but if you do not, you will either suffer for all eternity in Hell (i.e., eternal damnation) or else be destroyed or obliterated out-of-existence (i.e., annihilation)".


Certain early Greek Christian fathers, especially Origen, interpreted the New Testament's references to a "restoration of all things", or apocatastasis, as meaning that sinners might be restored to God and released from Hell, returning the universe to a state identical to its pure beginnings. This theory of apocatastasis could be easily interpreted to imply that even devils would be saved, as was the case during the later Origenist controversies.

In the twentieth century, a belief in Christian universalism reappeared among many Protestant thinkers, and the notion that Hell might be empty was even espoused by the noted Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar was careful to describe his opinion that Hell might be empty as merely a hope, but even this claim was rejected by most conservative Catholics, including Cardinal Avery Dulles.

Proposed answers

Universal Reconciliation

Universal reconciliation is the doctrine or belief of some Christians that all will receive salvation, regardless of belief, because of the love and mercy of God.

Universalism was a fairly commonly held view among theologians in early Christianity: In the first five or six centuries of Christianity, there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Cesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality, and one (Carthage or Rome) taught the endless punishment of the lost.[10] Christian Universalists argue that Jesus taught Universalist principles including universal reconciliation and the divine origin and destiny of all people, and that these teachings were further developed by Saint Paul, Saint Peter, and Saint John the Apostle. They also argue that some Universalist principles were taught or foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Critics of universalism maintain that the Bible does not teach universal salvation.[11]

Hell is not eternal

A minority of Christians believe that hell is not eternal. Annihilationism is the doctrine that sinners are destroyed rather than tormented forever in "hell" or the lake of fire. It is directly related to the doctrine of conditional immortality, the idea that a human soul is not immortal unless it is given eternal life. Annihilationism asserts that God will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked (even if the souls of the wicked would be immortal otherwise), leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality. Conditional immortality asserts that souls are naturally mortal and those who reject Christ are separated from the sustaining power of God, thus dying off on their own.

Annihilationist proponents include the Seventh-day Adventists, Bible Students, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians and some Protestant Christians.

Result of free will

Some apologists argue that Hell exists because of free will, and that hell is a choice rather than an imposed punishment. Jonathan L. Kvanvig writes[12]:

[C.S.] Lewis believes that the doors of hell are locked from the inside rather than from the outside. Thus, according to Lewis, if escape from hell never happens, it is not because God is not willing that it should happen. Instead, residence in hell is eternal because that is just what persons in hell have chosen for themselves.

Similarly, Dave Hunt writes:

We may rest assured that no one will suffer in hell who could by any means have been won to Christ in this life. God leaves no stone unturned to rescue all who would respond to the convicting and wooing of the Holy Spirit.[13]


  1. Kvanvig, Jonathan L. (1994). The Problem of Hell. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 24. ISBN 019508487X. 
  2. Kvanvig, Jonathan L. (1994). The Problem of Hell. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 25. ISBN 019508487X. 
  3. What do Orthodox Christians teach about death and when we die?
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, ISBN 0-89243-565-8,1994 - the revised version issued 1997 has no changes in this section
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, ISBN 0-89243-565-8,1994
  6. [1] [2]
  7. "Hell", Catholic Dictionary, Addis & Arnold (rev. P.E Hallet), Virtue, 1953.
  8. Richard Beck. "Christ and Horrors, Part 3: Horror Defeat, Universalism, and God's Reputation". Experimental Theology. March 19, 2007.
  9. Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195084870, 1993
  10. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1953, vol. 12, p. 96; retrieved 30/04/09
  11. Universal salvation?: the current debate By Robin A. Parry page 55
  12. Kvanvig, Jonathan L. (1994). The Problem of Hell. Oxford University Press, USA. pp. 120. ISBN 019508487X. 
  13. Dave Hunt In Defense of Faith Harvest House Publishers, 1996

See also


  • Marilyn McCord Adams: "The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians," in William Rowe (ed.): God and the Problem of Evil, ISBN 0-631-22220-0
  • Jonathan L. Kvanvig: The Problem of Hell, ISBN 0-19-508487-X
  • Charles Seymour: A Theodicy of Hell, ISBN 0-7923-6364-7
  • Jerry Walls: Hell: The Logic of Damnation, ISBN 0-268-01095-1
  • C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain, ISBN 0-06-065296-9
  • Ted Sider. Hell and Vagueness, Faith and Philosophy 19 (2002): 58-68.
  • Jonathan Edwards,The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners Diggory Press, ISBN 978-1846856723

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