II. Some Logical and Moral Considerations
It is my considered opinion that if the concept of hell must be retained as one component of an integral Christian tradition (which I am inclined to think it must), it should be presented in a more nuanced fashion so as to maximize its potential benefits while minimizing its potential harm . . .
(see Part I: Some Practical Concerns).
But before discussing the future of this teaching– the way forward, as it were, in the 21st century –a quick overview of the problems posed by the conventional understanding of hell is in order. Please give careful consideration to the logical and moral implications of the apparently contradictory teachings that we commonly hear in church:
- God is all powerful, but he is unable to create a free human being that is not free to rebel against his creator… (fair enough–the prodigal son leaves his father’s house, but he is always free to return to his father’s open arms, is he not?).
- God is all good and all powerful, but he is also just and his justice requires that those who rebel be punished… (well, maybe—but is not the prodigal son’s experience away from his father’s house sufficient punishment? And why punish people endlessly for sins committed during their relatively brief sojourn on planet earth—especially when we are said to be suffering throughout our lives from the effects of original sin inherited from our first parents!?).
- God is all knowing, all good, and all powerful, but he prefers a creation which entails the suffering of the damned to one that does not… (i.e. he prefers option two to option one in the analogy of “having children”, discussed here; and since he need not have created in the first place, he obviously prefers the second option to the option of “not having children” at all).
- God is all knowing, all good, and all powerful, but if something about this scheme of things seems grossly unjust, we would do well to ignore our misgivings… (lest we, too, incur the wrath of almighty God—to say nothing of the ire of those Christian apologists who we are attempting to engage).
In short, it is defies any ordinary sense of reason and justice to insist that it has pleased God– who is said to be all powerful, all knowing, and all loving –to create from the beginning in such a way that the eternal conscious suffering of a significant percentage of human and celestial creatures is unavoidable (insisting, simultaneously, that creation was optional–that he need not have created at all).
Appeals to human freedom fall flat at this point—especially when we consider the weight of original sin and the necessity of God’s grace for our salvation. Who brings us into existence in the first place? Who decides that we must unavoidably suffer from the sin of our first parents? And since our salvation depends upon the grace of God, who is it that decides who will receive sufficient grace to be saved and who will not? It is usually explained, on the basis of Romans 1:20, that all of us receive enough light to be justly condemned, but we seem to read in Romans 9 that not all receive enough grace to be saved. Does this scheme of things really seem plausible?
Make no mistake, I think the concepts of sin and separation in conjunction with those of Divine judgement and saving grace– rightly understood –express very profound truths about the human condition. But superficially understood– in light of a very literal reading of Genesis and Revelation, for example –such teachings are both logically contradictory and morally hazardous. For more in this vein, see: Is the Doctrine of Hell Defensible.