Objections To Hell, And Why They Fail

Dante looks upon the fallen one

“Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric moved:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
~ Inferno, Canto III.

So, as Dan has informed us, Rob Bell is releasing a new book which may or may not argue for some form of universalism. The book is titled Love Wins. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the title is expressing support for universalism: i.e., if love wins, ultimately no one will be excluded from God’s loving presence, since that would entail love failing to achieve its goals. (It is possible Bell’s book isn’t defending universalism, since universalists are not the only kind of Christians who would want to affirm that slogan, with different meaning. But let’s just assume it for the sake of argument.)

If that’s the basic argument being given, it’s not difficult to see how a theodicean objection is lurking in the background to the traditional doctrine of hell. That is, hell is being used as an evil which an all loving, all powerful God could not possibly permit to exist. Does this work, as an argument?

Let’s take a step back and consider some of the popular theodicean avenues available today:

(1) Open theism: God doesn’t know the future free actions of human beings, and so is not responsible for preventing them. He recognizes the possibility of evil occurring, but considers the existence of free will a greater good worth permitting the evil for.
(2) Non-open-free-will-theism: I’ll just lump in Molinism and Simple-Foreknowledge views here. The difference between (1) and (2) for the purposes of theodicean questions is that (2) believes God does know the future free actions of human beings, but thinks there is a way to explain how that can be so that God still remains not responsible for what human beings choose to do. Nevertheless, the reason God permits evil remains the same: free-will is a greater good which justifies God not stopping many of the various evils in the world.
(3) Soul-building theodicy: this avenue can be used by many versions of Christianity, but basically the idea is that building some virtue in creation/creatures necessitates permitting that it endure some sort of evil.
(4) Universalism: this idea is consistent with both open and non-open views of the future, and with both free-will and non-free-will conceptions of the relation between God and creation. The idea is simple enough: everyone ultimately is “saved” in the end. This concept can be used toward theodicean ends along the following lines: no matter what evil occurs in the present, God will provide an eternity of happiness to everyone which will outweigh it. Obviously, this can fit snugly with something like a soul-building theodicy.

Now, universalists will want to argue that hell is a special kind of evil which cannot be justified on any grounds, and thus cannot possibly co-exist with God. But I want to suggest that, actually, none of these avenues on their own are sufficient to deal with even the evils we encounter in this world.

Consider something incredibly heinous which is not hypothetical, but is happening right now: repeated rape of children held against their will in the sex trade. Let’s run through our theodicean answers now, and consider whether we think a human being would be “just” if he acted like we say God does in our theodicies:

(1) Non-open-free-will: do we really believe it would be just for a human being to sit by and do absolutely nothing to stop a child to be repeatedly raped for no other reason than to respect the free will of a rapist?
(2) Open-free-will: At first glance, it might seem that open theism has an advantage here, but in fact our example means that it does not, for open theism affirms that God had perfect awareness of all present actions, and accurate probable knowledge of the future. But that means God has such knowledge of the real children being raped repeatedly right now, and is not stopping it. So the problem with (1) re-appears: if a human being had present knowledge of such activity, and the power to stop it, but didn’t, on the grounds that he or she was honoring the free will of the rapist, would we consider such a person “just”?
(3) Soul-building theodicy: would we consider our hypothetical observer just if he permitted the rape because it could help the child to grow through having to deal with suffering?
(4) Universalism: would we consider that observer just if he permitted it because he knew her life would turn out pleasurable later?

I think it would be hard to avoid the answer to all these questions is obviously “no”. And what this suggests is that none of the classic theodicean response are adequate to give a comprehensive explanation of even the evil we know is happening on earth today.

Now, most atheist philosophers of religion have conceded that the strongest version of the problem of evil, which states that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with God, does not work. The work of Alvin Plantinga has been decisive in this regard: his defense of “Defenses” rather than “Theodicies”, have shown that it is possible to construct hypotheticals which can justify God’s permission of evil in the abstract. A more basic way of putting it is: if all the greatest possible worlds include some evil, then the co-existence of God and evil cannot be logically impossible.

But atheists have shifted their arguments to a weaker claim in response: it’s not logically impossible, but empirically improbable, that there is an explanation that could justify God’s permission of all the evil that exists in this world. This requires the defender of God to explain not just the existence of any evil, but the existence of the actual evil in this world.

Now, I’ve shown above, I think, that none of the standard shopworn theodicies are sufficient to answer this challenge. But there is one theodicy that has been persuasive for many people, and it is with this response that the debate has functionally ended in the contemporary literature. The theodicy in question is the “skeptical theism” response. (See here for Jeremy Pierce’s excellent explanation of this response, and for links to his overview of the subject in general.)

The basic thrust of this response is to question the question. “Skeptical theism” argues that it is not provable (and, it is sometimes argued, not even probable) that human beings could know all the reasons that God could have for allowing all the evil in the world. We are simply not in the epistemic situation to be able to judge God for God’s providential activity in the world.

Perceptive readers will note that this is the theodicy of the book of Job: there is no explanation given to Job, only a demonstration of God’s transcendence as a good reason for Job to stop requiring that explanation. And it is good reason: as long as we acknowledge we do not know everything about God, we cannot claim that his existence is incompatible with the evils that exist in the real world. Further, the evidence we have that God is to some degree incomprehensible makes it very likely that we will never understand everything about God. Further still, if the Bible is considered to be revelation from God, we have divine testimony that his incomprehensibility means we will never be in a position to judge him for his ways among men, except insofar as we repeat his own self-justification, since only God is in a position to judge himself and he must always be in the right (by nature and therefore in his self-testimony). Evidence of God’s goodness in the world, together with our recognition of our lack of complete understanding of God, is sufficient reason to believe he is good even when we cannot always understand why.

But if we accept the skeptical theist response (and I will lay my cards on the table here: I cannot see how someone can be an intellectually or morally honest theist, period, without affirming this response), we have an interesting side-effect relevant to the doctrine of hell. Remember, the universalist expression of “love wins” contains a hidden “problem of evil” argument directed against the traditional doctrine of hell. Yet, if the skeptical theist response works, it works for any actually existing apparent evil. This means, if we have sufficient reason to believe in both the existence of God and the existence of hell, there is no reason to pit the two against each other. The skeptical theist response is sufficient to answer all evils, and if hell is an evil, then it is also answered. And, further, it is sufficient to give a theodicean answer for the co-existence of hell with any other (supposed) fact, including Calvinistic conceptions of predestination.

What this means for debates about hell and universalism is that “problem of evil” arguments should not be considered a determinative argument for any position. The debate should be shifted to its other ground: exegesis of texts which seem to teach the existence of hell. Anything else is a waste of time.