The reasonableness of hell

(As a prefatory note, I want to make clear I’m not attempting to bring up the discussion of the truth of the traditional doctrine of hell, though I do believe it and I think an exegetical case can be made for it.)

One of the biggest complaints made by outsiders (and some insiders!) to Christian doctrine is against the doctrine of hell. I would even go out on a limb here and say it is perhaps the most offensive doctrine to many of our contemporaries .

But I think if it is properly understood, there is less to be offended at than is usually thought.

Firstly, in Romans 1, Paul describes the origin of sin and its concomitant condemnation in the human race: people are not grateful to God for his goodness, and so he hands them over to sin, and then ultimately judges them. Thus, the root cause of the condemnation of any person is their own ingratitude to God, and not any other particular sin. The ramifications of this point for the doctrine of hell is this: people don’t go to hell just because they steal, or fornicate, or commit homosexual acts, or even because they do things that even unbelievers would call evil. They ultimately go to hell because they don’t want to be with God.

Secondly, in John 3, Christ makes clear that God desires the salvation of the world, and holds out eternal salvation as an option for all people. Correlatively, Christ says that people are condemned precisely because they reject the Son, and eternal life in him. This means that for people who have heard the gospel, the root cause of their going to hell is their rejection of the Son, and the Father in him. Once again, the reason they go to hell is because they don’t want to be with God.

Thirdly, the image of fire in Scripture is exactly that, an image. It is almost universally an image of judgment. I don’t think a strong case can be made that we have to take such images literally, and so I don’t think such a thing has to be a part of our image of hell (except as a metaphor, the way scripture uses it). I think, instead, hell will probably be a lot more like what C.S. Lewis depicted in The Great Divorce than, even, what Dante depicted in the Inferno. It makes a lot more sense of the fact, at least, that the condemned are given resurrection bodies, and that people are said to have fitting deserts for their deeds (if everyone was literally in the same lake of fire, presumably everyone’s punishment would be the same; but if we have reason to think they their punishment will not, then we have reason to question the literalness of that image). Ultimately, I think hell is much more like God giving us what we want, when what we want is intrinsically unsatisfying, than anything else. Certainly, given that we know God is good and does not “afflict people from the heart” (Lamentations 3:33), we have every reason to reject crass torture-chamber images of hell.

If we allow that people would want to live in such a place (and they already implicitly do, according to Romans 1 and John 3, when they reject the Father and the Son), then I think there is not much left to take offense at in the doctrine of hell, unless one is offended at the concept of recompense in general. One could still question its truthfulness, of course, but probably not on the basis of its intuitive/emotional repulsiveness.