Why not start with a biggie!

The more I think about the idea of Hell, the more silly it sounds. Most definitions of Hell involve the idea of eternal punishment for sins, or a place of eternal suffering. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that if a definition of Hell doesn't include the idea of eternal suffering, then it's not a definition of Hell, but of something else. Whether this suffering is direct or indirect, physical, psychological or spiritual is not the issue here. Suffering is suffering, whatever form it takes.

Humans are finite creatures, who live for a finite period of time. Within this period of time, they can carry out a finite number of actions, each of which with finite consequences. Consequently, a single person can commit only a finite amount of sin.

If justice entails meting an amount of sin with an appropriate amount of punishment (notice the "if" - we can quibble about this idea of justice later), and if God is perfectly just, then punishment in Hell has to equate to punishment for an infinite amount of sin.

If no man can commit an infinite amount of sin, and some humans end up in Hell, then we have a contradiction. One of our premises above is wrong. Either a) God is not perfectly just; or b) Hell does not involve eternal suffering; or c) a single, finite, human being can in fact commit an infinite amount of sin; or d) no human will ever end up in Hell.

Which is it to be?


  1. If hell is being cut off from God, what would hell...

    by ANONYMOUS on 29 OCTOBER 2007 at 7:20PM
    If hell is being cut off from God, what would hell be for a satanist?
  2. Tom, you're misinterpreting what I'm saying. I'm ...

    by STU SHERWIN on 25 FEBRUARY 2006 at 1:42PM
    Tom, you're misinterpreting what I'm saying. I'm arguing against a concept of Hell that involves eternal suffering. If you or anyone else want to say that Hell doesn't involve eternal suffering, then we're arguing for the same thing. Whether or not this is bourne out in the original meanings of certain scriptures is beside the point. The fact is that many if not most Christians have believed this view for the past two thousand years, and many still do today.

    It's hardly a "straw man" argument if the view I'm arguing against has been widely accepted for the majority of Church history.
  3. Stu,<br><br>So, watch out for the straw man there ...

    by ANONYMOUS on 13 FEBRUARY 2006 at 8:02PM

    So, watch out for the straw man there then. Just because a Christian says that x is part of the doctrine of hell, doesn't mean that it is there in the source data. You need to go back to the theology, into the greek and hebrew and look at the words and context of the descriptions.

    Have you ever read the chapter on hell in 'The Case for Faith' - there is an interview with JP Moreland I think. He's an exceptionally useful Christian thinker. You might find that chapter really insightful.

  4. Tom, <br><br>Yes I have heard of annihilationism. ...

    by STU SHERWIN on 13 FEBRUARY 2006 at 2:52PM

    Yes I have heard of annihilationism. That is a valid way out of the problem, as I said in my post ('b - Hell does not involve eternal suffering').

    I'm not putting the characteristic of infinite on the definition of Hell. Other people have already done that, and I'm arguing against them.
  5. Stu,<br><br>Not, really convinced by this argument...

    by ANONYMOUS on 12 FEBRUARY 2006 at 11:20PM

    Not, really convinced by this argument either, because you are pushing the characteristic of 'infinite' onto the def. of hell.

    Have you heard of the POV called annhiliationism?

  6. Blog 1 – Hell<br><br>To start with we must underst...

    by TIM on 22 NOVEMBER 2005 at 1:23PM
    Blog 1 – Hell

    To start with we must understand that Hell is beyond this life as indeed Heaven is also. They are not expressions of how we feel now but real places.

    God is truly transcendent and we are reliant on what He says in His Word because no one else knows about them, nor can men attain this knowledge by their logic.

    Incidentally, man is not a finite being but an infinite one, as once conceived he lives for ever. Sins are committed on earth – in a finite amount of time. (A technicality, granted.)

    We must also appreciate what sin is to an absolutely holy God. On what basis could God ever allow sin in His presence? He cannot tolerate sin and would surely cease to be holy.

    You know that when Adam was created he was given the parameters to move in and that when he sinned he was not provisionally expelled from the garden but permanently.

    Sin is inextricably part of our current life and whether we like it or not it has not finite, but infinite consequences. God’s holiness demands this for He cannot be tainted with our sin or be seen to be acting in an unrighteous manner.

    We have no way of eradicating sin from our beings, we cannot even clearly identify it (Jer 17v9) – but God knows. So to pass out of time into eternity in such a state, we must be banished for ever. This is not God’s decision it is ours! God sets the rules and we ignore what He says at our peril. If you are thinking what opportunity do some have of hearing this, well that is another question altogether!

    But God in His love has worked out the great plan of salvation that satisfies His holy demands. If men go along with this, no one will find themselves in hell. Whatever it would have meant to be in hell for eternity (I do not have the capacity to calculate this), has been compressed into three hours on the cross and dealt with fully and finally by the Lord Jesus. What a tremendous task He undertook and completed!

    God in His mercy has created a place called hell as a final repository for sin and all that is sinful. This means that sin can finally be eradicated from our lives and indeed the new heaven and earth can exist without it. What a prospect of being delivered from the power and effects of sin permanently. All sin will be put away for ever. Sadly though, anyone with their sins not forgiven and put away will also have to be there as there is no where else for them to go. This however is not God’s desire or intention but men by their actions leave God no alternative.

    So, you see, hell must be a real and eternal place otherwise sin will always be around.

    I hope this helps. No doubt it will raise a host of other questions but please raise them with me so that I can tell you what I understand.
  7. There&#39;s lots of things i&#39;d like to say her...

    by CHLOE on 01 AUGUST 2005 at 5:53PM
    There's lots of things i'd like to say here but i'll just pop one thing into the melting pot for now...I believe that Hell is a place of torment where people who originally chose a life without God become more and more sinful as their hatred of God increases day by day - warranting an infinite & eternal punishment. About this i am obviously deeply grieved, yet have to trust it to Him.
  8. There are two questions here. The first concerns w...

    by WILL on 04 JULY 2005 at 11:30PM
    There are two questions here. The first concerns whether a person's evil actions deserves evil consequences. The second is whether any evil human action can deserve infinite evil consequence.

    The first question then: does evil deserve evil. This is certainly the near-universal belief of humanity. On an everyday level, everyone believes that those who hurt others deserve to suffer hurt themselves. Take an extreme example. If a person rapes, tortures and kills a child for his own amusement and he then suffers a calamity which first causes him great pain before killing him, everyone would say that he had got what he deserved (indeed surely less). Now suppose this natural consequence did not follow him killing the child, which it probably woudn't since there is no direct natural connection between killing a child and suffering calamity. This is where the execution of justice comes in. Justice (with respect to punishment) is the artificial connecting of evil consequences to evil actions, where nature is defiicient in doing so itself.

    Nature is deficient in justice because it is fallen. If every evil action had its just evil consequence then this would already be hell. As it is, God has mercifully permitted it to continue to exist in a state of deficient justice precisely so that people have an opportunity to be saved from the fullness of justice which will eventually come upon it. In the age to come, there will be a place of perfect justice (hell) and perfect mercy (heaven). In the present age there is a complex mixture, and a choice to be made.

    State justice replaces personal retribution, not because the retribution is wrong in itself (to quote God:"you are to take eye for eye, life for life"), but for the sake of good order, to ensure the facts are clear and the punishment is proportional to the crime (cf. Rm 13, take no vengeance, but leave it to God, of which the statesman is God's administrator).

    Saying hell is separation from God is true and Biblical. However, that fact doesn't change two other true things: 1) it is a state of suffering, (neither pleasant nor annihilation), 2) it is what we deserve. To be separated from God is the deserved suffering we receive for our sin. We can view this either as the natural consequences or the artificial sentence, either image will do, but in both cases the result is the same: it is suffering, and it is deserved.

    The second question: can a man deserve infinite punishment. The "crime" is the rejection of God and the infinite goodness he offers us. Moreover, we have at least some complicity in causing others to reject this eternal salvation too - precisely who is responsible for others rejecting God is always difficult to ascertain, though we all share some culpability. If anything deserves inifinite punishment this surely does.

    Admittedly it's a nasty doctrine. But evil is nasty, and let's not pretend otherwise. Evil is that part of us that will gladly allow or even cause others suffer to satisfy our own desires, whether because of pride, anger, lust, envy or greed. It is a deep, serious and pervasive problem, and if we will not recognise that, repent and receive God's gracious (and paradoxical) salvation then we deserve everything we get.
  9. I think this depends on whether you think Hell is ...

    by ANONYMOUS on 29 JUNE 2005 at 3:55PM
    I think this depends on whether you think Hell is a punishment by God. I mean, considering all things, being excluded from something appears to be a punishment, because people inherently associate the very essence of goodness with God, ergo, they see going to Hell as a rejection by God, when really it's not about God choosing; I don't think He chooses. Choice is a human thing. God's not human, so I don't think it is sensible to have human emotions applied to Him. He may be merciful, but merciful in the eyes of people; whether he is merciful or not is another question.

    And all there are are consequences in the this Hell-Heaven system. You can go to Hell, because your actions dictate that that's where you think you'll end up, not that you'll ever know...or you may do.
  10. hey guys,<br>here are some late night thoughts...<...

    by ADAIR on 28 JUNE 2005 at 1:06AM
    hey guys,
    here are some late night thoughts...

    Some old dead guy something to the effect of the following on his tombstone, If I was God, I could never consign anyone to hell, and God by definition is more merciful than me, and so I am now in heaven!

    Despite this being a little facetious, this is actually a powerful arguement. How can an infinitely merciful God inflict eternal suffering? I think there are a couple of possibilities. One is a rather universalist viepoint that I would like to be true, rather than actually think is true. And this is that after one dies we make it up to the day of judgement and everything is revealed and all Christian-type stuff turns out to be true. And then with this absolute proof staring one in the face, God turns to you and gives you one more chance to believe and so, you obviously do. Now this is what I'd like to be true as this way everyone goes to heaven. However, I don't really think it is true.

    The underlying problem I see here is the difficulty in imagining an existence without the constraints of time. We cannot do this and so are destined not to make huge progress with this issue. Eternal suffering does not eqauate with lots and lots of time suffering because time does not exist. Justice and all that does demand an eye for an eye etc, and how that sits alongside infinite mercy I'm not so sure. Hmmmm...
  11. Good stuff there, Dan. Just to clarify, I'm still ...

    by JON on 27 JUNE 2005 at 9:48AM
    Good stuff there, Dan. Just to clarify, I'm still clear in my mind that Hell is not a repayment for sins. It seems to me that there can be only one repayment for sins, nothing we can ever do or experience makes any difference to a "balance of good and bad", not even an eternal something. Hell is not about God gaining anything - in fact His greatest desire is that noone should experience it. Hell is not about anyone at all gaining, it's about people losing. Again, no one benifits, least of all Good, by anyone going to Hell.

    We think of atonement in terms of "paying a blood price", but I'm not sure that it's helpful. Perhaps we would do better to view the death of Jesus as a key than a coin. Let me explain: what Jesus did in His death and resurrection was to "open a way into the Most Holy Place", like in the OT. Rather than seeing it as paying for the "ferry-man of the dead" to give one billion and four free rides to the good side of the river, it opened a door in an impossibly big wall. Only one key will fit the lock, so we can bring all the other keys we like, they won't open the door. You can't bribe a lock, you can't climb the wall or break down the door. You can't work up to getting in by being outside for a long time or just by wondering what's inside. Being stuck outside is a matter of pride and choice, since that key is on offer to everyone.

    I think that whether we look at sin as infinite or binary, it comes to the same thing: if you can't earn your way in in the first place, you can't complain that you've ever paid off your debt however long Hell lasts.
  12. When I read this, I am left wondering whether huma...

    by DAN on 26 JUNE 2005 at 7:03PM
    When I read this, I am left wondering whether humans are actually finite or whether this is a false premise.

    There are different kinds of actions - while it is true that humans live for a finite number of years, I don't think that they really commit themselves to a finite number of actions.

    What I am trying to get at I think comes across well in Ulysses by James Joyce - consciousness and decision is like a stream that flows unendingly down a slope - it is not a series of discrete packets of water flowing one after another down a slope. It is like the difference between the integers and the real numbers. While there are a finite number of integers between 0 and 60, there are an infinite number of real numbers between 0 and 60. I think decision is far more like the real numbers. So I have no problem with saying that in my life I take an infinite number of decisions, an infinite number of which will we sinful.

    I think this is actually fairly similar to Jon's view that the decision between life and death in the Christian sense is discrete. I may not make individual discrete decisions - but the whole course of these decisions is leading somewhere. It is either leading to life or death.

    I could highly recommend reading 'The Great Divorce' by C. S. Lewis, because I think it is a Christian book that deals with heaven and hell in a convincing way for the philosopher. Heaven is presented as this incredibly real world - so real that you feel like a ghost there - and there are distant beautiful mountains that you must walk towards - and in the course of this learn to live in heaven. But for many people, there is something that prevents them from deciding to take this step of faith and walking off into heaven. The decision is theirs, but they still prefer to remain behind, because maybe they feel hurt by someone, maybe they want to stay around for a society, maybe they can't give up their lust or maybe because they can't stop grumbling. This means that they remain a shadow of what they could be - and end up in hell - which is a tiny, ghost like place, full of people who are no longer grumblers, but just a grumble, for example. The decision about whether they choose to live in heaven is entirely theirs and is essentially the result of a whole set of decisions played out during life.

    While this would appear to be weak on the idea of judgment, I don't really think it is - let me explain. The person seems to decide whether he/she goes to hell/heaven. But actually this is the result of God's grace - he allows his children to make their own decisions about whether to do what he says or not to a certain extent. A Father who did not do this would be seen as a control freak - God is not like this. The thing is that because God is gracious and not a control freak, humans sin, completely and irreversibly - infinitely, because they totally reject God with their whole being - the continuum of decisions they make through their life. So in this they are cut off from relationship with God. So the judgment of God is actually complete and final. The vision of hell in the Great Divorce may not seem to be terrifying - but actually it is the complete destruction of the human soul apart from God. The only reason we do not think it is terrifying is because we are all still sinning and enjoy sin.

    Because sin is an infinite thing, it needs an infinite solution - one final solution. If sin was discrete, the Old Testament sacrifices would have been enough to atone for the sinful decisions of the people of God. But because sin is so deeply engrained and finds itself deeply within the continuum of decisions we make as humans, we need a final solution - and God provided this with the death of Jesus - the final and complete atonement.

    Jon wrote that he cannot see hell in terms of repayment - but actually in a certain sense repayment is crucial. The severance of the relationship with God, although our own choice, is its own repayment. In this, human legal punishment is merely a poor reflection of the punishment God brings, just by letting the sin be its own punishment. Jesus, on the cross, reached a state of severance from God similar to that we reach as sinners - and defeated it - bringing those who trust in him back into relation to God. While the sins we commit are their own repayment, when we trust in the promise of Jesus, we are brought back into relationship and are given the repayment that Jesus deserves - relationship with God - because we have seen that this is better, more real and we have chosen to trust in him.

    Now I appreciate that the gospel of Jesus Christ must always remain foolishness to the philosopher of this age as Paul says, but sin is an infinite problem, and Jesus is the only infinite solution.

    Hope I haven't said too much,

  13. You’ve caused me too to question is “what is sin?”...

    by JON on 26 JUNE 2005 at 5:59PM
    You’ve caused me too to question is “what is sin?” Is it an action not approved of by God, or rather a life choice of rejecting God? That would make, rather than a finite cumulative scale of transgressions, a binary state – you’re either “in sin” or “in Christ”. It sounds biblical to me. Why define sinning as a discreet list of acts, requiring a set of appropriate punishments when in the bible it’s always compared to an “in or out” choice – choose life and live, or don’t bother and choose to suffer. Christian salvation should never be thought of as an account of actions and results, balancing each other out.

    So rather than
    hell > sum(bad actions) 0--death,
    we have
    if (salvation == 1) { goto heaven }
    else {goto hell} //since sin == 1

    If we agree that Hell implies suffering, which I will, we must look at Heaven as a place of refreshment, comfort and peace, as Jesus did. (Jesus always talked about hell in a context of the Kingdom, or heaven.) Take the example of the rich man and Lazarus. Did Lazarus in his meagre existence earn the good things he got in “Abraham’s bosom”? No, no more than the rich man stored up pain for himself. While the story sounds quite karmic, the key to their “after-life” was their “earthly-life” – not a series of actions, but the kind of life they lived.

    We’ll come back to types of lives and the choices involved, but this has made me ask whether Hell is really a punishment and what kind of punishment it could be if it is.

    In a criminal context, Punishment as seen in a "just society" such as we (westerners) would like to create, is about a couple of things: the reform of the criminal so (s)he can be rehabilitated into society; the restraint of the criminal so (s)he can no longer damage society.

    However, in our heads, it is often seen as the repayment of a debt to society, which can be clearly shown to be a fallacious idea. Why would society pay money to support a system where hundreds or thousands of people are isolated and given menial (if any) tasks, unrelated to their skills? What kind of repayment does the society receive, if not the perverse pleasure that people they dislike are caused some kind of pain?

    The idea of repayment is closely linked to the idea of retribution or revenge, dangerous words to bring up in a discussion of justice. If we see punishment in a social context as a kind of payback for criminal acts we skate dangerously close to anarchy - we can never be compensated for the wrongs done to society, not even if rapists are tortured to death - and what kind of "justice" is served?

    [You can ask quite validly why some crimes are deemed more serious and deserving of longer sentences if not to cause longer discomfort to the "worse" criminals. The obvious answer is that they are a greater threat to society and must be restrained for longer. It can (or should) be seen that those with the greatest potential to damage society in future (those with the most damaging record and the highest likelihood to re-offend) are given the highest security and longest sentences. Those unlikely to re-offend are rehabilitated gradually, with supervision. Those who are likely to re-offend but not seriously are monitored and released.]

    Even OT justice, as seen in the Mosaic Law, was society based – the punishment for a crime either benefited society to re-balance (the repayment of a theft, for example) or removed the criminal from the society (stoning to death for a murderer), and initially, revenge was to be stopped, although later permitted ( in a similar way to divorce, I think)

    So if Hell is a punishment, it must be of the vindictive and retributional type – and we can see that at best that is a dangerous type of justice and for me, not one I can ascribe to God.

    I would rather say that hell as place of separation from God; ultimately it is “the second death” rather than “torture in a can”. It is the removal of damaging characters from the perfection of heaven.

    The rich man made a choice in life to ignore anyone but himself. Lazarus was even kind to scavenging mongrels, he didn’t even chase them when they hurt him or took food he would’ve loved. In a very simplified way, that is the choice we make – am I the only important one around, or is everyone else more important, and God more than all?

    Heaven is something that you cannot earn, it is a gift. It is accessible to all, especially all of us who have heard of Jesus and his saving power. I would suggest that rather than a punishment for a list of misdemeanours, Hell is about being excluded from the Kingdom, just as you chose in your life. It is the continuance of a choice, and whether there is an opportunity to change that choice after death, I don’t know (see “the Great Divorce”, CS Lewis). I would suggest to you that rather than worrying about individual acts, you look at the direction of your life and see that Hell is more an unpleasant terminal as a conclusion to a bad choice, not payback for upsetting Big Brother once too often.

    Sorry about the essay!
  14. Hi Tom!!<br><br>That's exactly my point, how can i...

    by STU SHERWIN on 26 JUNE 2005 at 4:00PM
    Hi Tom!!

    That's exactly my point, how can it?
  15. What if a finite amount of sin is worthy of an inf...

    by ANONYMOUS on 26 JUNE 2005 at 3:21PM
    What if a finite amount of sin is worthy of an infinite punishment? Then all sin would universially and justly incur infinite suffering as a fair judgement

    The question, I guess, then shifts to what is sin and how could something finite merit infinite punishment.

    (I haven't figured out how this site works yet and I'm on metered time here in Oxford. PS Hi Stu!)

  16. Pseudo - Universalism, the great scandal.

    by PAUL on 17 JUNE 2013 at 10:18AM
    The idea of extracting the theology of hell from the framework of the rest of the bible is a little bizarre? There are several interesting points already made, but if you look at what the early church (and probably New Testament writers) thought about hell they seemed to have seen it within Gods retributive judgement. Often when you read "eternity" in NIV it actually is better translated "for the age". I agree with theologians that assert that the bible indicates the idea of three ages. The basic argument (already hinted at by other comments) is that there will be a time of judgement, and remedial justice will be delivered. In this paradigm believers are rewarded for their faith and " one day every tongue will confess" makes a little more sense. It also makes sense of the idea of reward given to believers. "Store up for yourself heavenly treasures". As there will be a hierarchy in the new age based on faith and works. A distinction must be drawn between this and salvation based on works.
  17. remedy

    by PAUL on 18 JUNE 2013 at 12:28PM
    To clarify the point. Hell is not eternal and therefore is remedial.

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