A Philosophical Case for the Existence of Hell

by Max Andrews

Questions about hell have permeated cultural discussions recently, primarily at the rise of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins.  I’m not going to look at Scriptural evidences or passages for hell; rather, I’m going to take concepts and allow them to develop on their own (I would argue that this is consistent with Scripture).  For more on the Scriptural case for hell I would recommend Four Views on Hell.  I’ll be working with an idea argued by William Lane Craig (here, here, and here).

Let’s start with God being a maximally perfect being, that which nothing greater can be conceived.  He is perfect in every way and his perfections do not and cannot contradict.  Humans freely do morally wrong actions.  This would include not doing what we ought to do and doing what we ought not to do. These sins are wrongs against an ontologically perfect being.  If God is just and justice is a moral principle to attain (such that being fair is a virtue), then God must compensate for the wrong.  There must be atonement.  There are consequences for every action, good and bad.  Good actions are rewarded and bad actions are punished (what these rewards and punishments are don’t necessarily have to be defined, it’s just that there are consequences).  Let’s modestly assume that sins require finite punishments.  I will deny Thomas Aquinas’ position that one finite sin requires an infinite punishment because it was done against an infinite God.  I’ll take a more modest approach (I’m not necessarily saying that Thomas is wrong either).

Based on experience, I believe there is sufficient warrant to believe that some people who have not had their sins atoned for by Jesus Christ die without atoning for their sins in this lifetime.  In the afterlife, this person must atone for his own wrongs in order for God to be perfectly just.  Each sin warrants a finite punishment; however, this person will not cease to sin in the afterlife since he has not had his sins atoned for by Christ.  He will not be ushered into a state of beatitude (which can be warranted based on rewards and the concept of justice and the moral beatification of atonement).  Because this person continues to sin he will always receive respective punishment for each sin and if there are a[n] [potential] infinite set of sins then the duration with last without end as well.  Punishment without beatification (because this person chose to atone for his own sin) will be eternal by the successive addition of sins.  Sins imply punishment, so an infinite duration of punishment is warranted as well.

I don’t believe this contradicts God’s love for this person either.  I’m assuming that God genuinely desired this person to be atoned for by Christ but this person freely rejected the propitiatory substitutional atonement.  By rejecting that loving offer, the only alternative, by the necessity of justice, is to atone for his own sins.  Yes, love wins and Christ’s atonement is that love, but let’s not forget that justice win’s as well since God’s attributes are equally perfect.


9 Responses to “A Philosophical Case for the Existence of Hell”

  1. So then, are you an advocate of a temporary hell, or are you just merely philosophying about the consequences of what a temporary hell would indicate. also, if you are a temporary hell advocate, then i’m sure tha tyou are aware that you are in the small minority among Christianity.

    I myself am an advocate of an eternal hell by moral necessity, but i am curious as to what you are, as i’m confused as to what the nature of your post here is.

  2. Hi Max – I found your blog from clicking over from the Reasonable Faith forum and read this post. I noticed you are advocating The Four Views of Hell (great book). On page 147 Clark Pinnock gives what I think is the best argument for conditionalism – the presupposition that souls are immortal. I cannot find anywhere in Scripture that would say we have immortality by birth; on the contrary it would seem we only have “eternal life” in Christ. If we presuppose immortality, then we have no choice but to redefine words like death, destroy, perish, etc to mean basically the opposite of what they say.

    I am curious as to where you think the concept of an immortal soul came from. From my research – it is Plato.

    If hell is truly eternal – the balance of your argument holds.

  3. This is an interesting proposition to set forward Max, but I do have some reservations about how much seems to be being taken for granted here- particularly some of the theology that’s driving this-

    For instance, the sort karma-flavoured universe- that wrongs are punished and rights are rewarded, that action causes reaction, like for like, that doesn’t seem to chime particularly well with Job, or ecclesiastes, or a host of the Psalms, or the New Testament assertion that humiliation, persecution and even death are some of the rewards of faith or Jesus teaching that ‘it rains upon the righteous and the unrighteous’.

    Alright you might say, but this is where heaven and hell redresses the imbalances of the world, but again I’m not sure this particular model covers everything it could.

    My thinking on this turns to the scope of atonement- you say “however, this person will not cease to sin in the afterlife since he has not had his sins atoned for by Christ” My immediate question I suppose would be- haven’t they?
    I thought this was the point, that Christ’s death was sufficient to excuse anyone of their sin? What does it mean for God to so love the world that he gives his only Son? The fact is that in this ‘objective’ view of atonement, we don’t have to do anything, God does it for us. Doesn’t God wish the salvation of all?
    There is also within this a secondary observation that actually, those who have committed themselves to Christ, as it were, do not stop sinning, but even though they still sin, it doesn’t cost them their salvation.

    The two points can both be found in 1 John 2:1 “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

    So in this model of hell, there is a theoretical possibilty of arriving at a state of sinlessness, because the sin has been ‘burnt off’ if you like. Why is it that they will inevitably sin again whilst going through this process? What makes it inevitable if atonement is really on behalf of all? Why is it that as they realize the theirs sin they can’t choose goodness or Christ, when it seems they can make decisions that entail consequences in the afterlife.

    Can we make moral choices after death? Why is that possible? Does the same apply to Heaven as it does to hell?

    Given that when we turn to God we are rife with sin, and that it keeps cropping up after that happy hour, it would appear that sin in itself is not a total obstruction to grace, so insofar as a choice can be made in this afterlife model why can’t it be for life and mercy?

  4. Max and rest of commentators: Would you all then say that being a Christian entails trying to avoid ending up in hell? Or is it more about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves? Which one would be the primary reason to be a follower of Jesus?

    • Being a Christian entails that you will not end up in hell. It has nothing with any of our attempts to avoid it. So, as far as the first disjunct is concerned, I’d merely suggest that it’s misplaced because being a not ending in hell is implicit to being a Christian. As for the second, it’s primarily about loving God and then loving others as ourselves :-)

  5. Based on experience, I believe there is sufficient warrant to believe that some people who have not had their sins atoned for by Jesus Christ die without atoning for their sins in this lifetime.

    There is plenty of warrant to believe this, but it matters not to the problem of Hell.

    Each sin warrants a finite punishment; however, this person will not cease to sin in the afterlife since he has not had his sins atoned for by Christ.

    Can the person ask for forgiveness during this period? You say the person will continue to sin, but that is not what is important. If a person were to pray in contrition to God, would he (eventually) be saved after temporal punishment? If not, I fail to see how your answer is any better than the one offered by St. Thomas Aquinas. They almost seem tautological.

    Also, I have some metaphysical qualms with your perspective of Hell. You simply refer to it as “the afterlife.” What is it like? Who is there? Is it like life on Earth? Could you elaborate?

    By rejecting that loving offer, the only alternative, by the necessity of justice, is to atone for his own sins.

    One cannot self-atone for sins. It must be done through Christ. If this can’t be done in the afterlife you speak of, what’s the point of this post?

    Yes, love wins and Christ’s atonement is that love, but let’s not forget that justice win’s as well since God’s attributes are equally perfect.

    Does the loving attribute of God desire everyone to be in Heaven with him? Does the just side require atonement and issue punishment? Following, does God use both of these attributes on everyone (both believers and non-believers)?

    Temporal wrongdoings do not warrant an eternity of punishment, and if they do, I think you have a skewed notion of justice. If persons cannot atone in the afterlife you write of, then your answer is the same as Aquinas’s.

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