Tag: Hell

John Dickson & Simon Smart discuss hell

Below is my transcript of the second half of the Life & Faith hell series.


Simon: Hi, it’s great to have your company. You’re listening to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. My name’s Simon Smart. In recent weeks we’ve been talking about a rather unpopular subject—I have to say—the judgment of God and particularly the notion of hell. We discussed a documentary out of North America called Hellbound?, which has been getting a lot of attention. The film picks up this question of hell and discusses the fact that this is not only a topic that people avoid thinking about and talking about these days but there’s a growth within the Christian Church of a view that would question the traditional view of hell as eternal punishment.

Now the documentary Hellbound? really comes down at the end on this idea of the victory of God’s love that will overcome whatever sin and hardness of heart that exists towards God and that because this, eventually, all people will find their way towards a loving relationship with God in eternity. This is a very big, a very serious, and it seems to us, an important question. So we want to spend some more time thinking about that and to do that we’re joined by my colleague—who hasn’t been in the Life & Faith chair for a while—Dr. John Dickson, biblical historian, ancient historian. Good to have you in, John.

John: Thanks but I’m not sure this is the best topic to get me in on but thanks for the favor.

Simon: It’s a hospital pass possibly. Now let’s get straight into it John. Do you believe there is a hell and if so why?

John: Well, yes and no. I don’t believe in the hell most people think of when they use the word “hell” but I do believe in the hell that I’m pretty sure Jesus himself believed in and taught about. So it’s a mixed situation and part of the problem is that people have picked up their ideas of hell, not from Jesus and that tradition but from pop culture—from Simpsons cartoons where the Simpsons go to hell—and criticisms. You know critics caricature the idea of hell and we go, “Oh man, I’m not sure I believe in this anymore”, and we sort of diminish the whole word.

Simon: Yeah, there’s been a tradition of this from Dante’s Inferno, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment—a big painting in Rome—and these are the sorts of images you’re talking about in a sense—that have educated the culture in their ideas of hell?

Last Judgement (Michelangelo).jpg

John: Yeah, the difference is when Dante wrote about hell and the classical painters depicted it, they were actually trying to make serious points in metaphorical language and in the imagery of painting but they were trying to convince us how serious it was. The difference now is hell is mocked and joked about so that, you know, the Simpsons can find the devil in hell and all this. And there can be skits about it and and it’s laughable. So both images are helpful actually but now we face the problem that hell is a thing to be mocked, not a thing to be terrified of.

Simon: The concept of God’s judgment and hell are increasingly unpopular these days it would seem. Do you think this is true among Christians, as well as those outside of the Church?

John: I think so, and for similar reasons. When people criticize the judging God, I think Christians feel really bad and so question whether they believe in the judging God. So they’re definitely Christians who are upset about this or nervous about the notion of God’s judgment but the problem is, if you keep reading your Bible, Old or New Testament, you’re confronted with the God of judgment. There’s no getting around it. And the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.

Simon: Let’s hear what people on the street are talking about when they’re asked about the notion of hell.

Vox pop: I agree, I think, with the highest post of England of the church that recognizes that hell exists within you—throughout your life—and that’s something you struggle with.

Vox pop: I think hell is a man-made concept so I think it plays on the fears that everyone has—it’s part of being human really. And certain religious groups like to play on the fact too because it suits their purposes—they get more followers, it gets them more money, gets them more power.

Vox pop: I think we create that because we need it for our own self belief. Both heaven and hell, to be honest, I think is what we aspire to. I do think there is a higher being out there that looks after us and created us but I reckon once were gone were gone. If we come back maybe our souls come back and are sort of around—one likes to believe that.

Vox pop: I think it’s the man-made thing to create a supernatural kind of police force to bring people in line. I mean it has its place in society. I do believe that’s the social benefit. Whether or not it exists, I can’t prove either way.

Simon: We’re talking today about judgment and the notion of hell on the back of this documentary we’ve been talking about called Hellbound?. John we often hear that the Christian gospel is about good news. What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?

John: Well it’s two parts of good news. One part is that God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry, for someone to make things right. And he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on. So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania, that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news. The other part of the equation is…

Simon: You know, when we’re included in that judgment, that’s when we have a slightly different interpretation, right?

John: It is but you’ve gotta start where the Bible starts with this and rather than avoid it because you don’t want to be included in those who are judged. You better just start with what the Bible literally says, that God is coming to overthrow the evildoer, those who trod down others and so on. And go, “Yeah that’s right!” and then start to feel the creeping awkwardness that maybe I’m included. But I was going to say is, the good news of the gospel message is not just that judgment is coming because that’s righting the wrongs of the world but that there is amnesty. God has declared an amnesty so that all who turn to him for forgiveness, will—because of Jesus death—be forgiven. So not only is judgment good news, the good news is that we can be forgiven.

Simon: Now this film doco, Hellbound?, comes down pretty clearly—especially the latter half of it—with this sense that, you know, the God of the Bible is not a God who requires sacrifice but was a God of love and mercy but those two things aren’t necessarily antithetical are they?

John: That’s precisely the problem with this way of thinking. It sets two ideas against each other and just counts on us going, “Oh wow, so it’s either love or judgment. Yeah, I’m going with love!”—who wouldn’t! The problem is the Bible never plays that kind of game. Like I was saying before, it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time. Buying just one and not the other, is a terrible mistake.

Simon: So John, where does the concept of hell come from?

John: Well, it comes from the Bible, and in particular Jeremiah. There are two long passages in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 19 stands a good example, where there is this valley called the Valley of Hinnom, where some terrible things were done by Israel—burning their sons and daughters to false gods as sacrifices—and Jeremiah says, “In this valley—the Valley of Hinnom—God will bring his own fiery judgment to match the evil that Israel has done.” And the word for the Valley of Hinnom is Gehenna. This is the word for hell and by a couple of centuries before Jesus, we have Jewish literature that’s using this Gehenna word as the stock phrase, expression, for the judgment of God coming on the world. And some of those passages are extraordinary in the gruesome detail that they give. Jesus uses this word Gehenna, wherever you see the word hell it’s actually the word Gehenna, a reference to this park (well it’s a park now) in south Jerusalem (we’ve been there). But it was this metaphor for final judgment.

Now Jesus doesn’t go into gruesome details like some of the literature before him but he does use it as a place of serious judgment. It is metaphorical because on the one hand he talks about it being a fire, on the other he talks about it being outer darkness, and you can’t have fire and darkness unless it’s a metaphor. But it’s a metaphor for something real. God’s judgment is coming on the world and it will match the evil that the world has done.

Vox pox: Yeah, I don’t believe in hell either and I think maybe in the past, you know, priests of religion used it as a way to control people but at the moment, I don’t think it has… I don’t think it’s true.

Vox pox: Yeah, I think there has to be something, you know, better then the conditions we have now and I am religious so, you know, there are passages in the Bible that talk about an afterlife, not necessarily heaven but like a new earth and a new kingdom and therefore things would be better than what they are now.

Vox pox: Is there a sense of an afterlife? Look, there is a sense of one but once again I have to take it with a grain of salt. Is that real or not? I don’t know. I want to be willing and open to the fact that they could be, yes.

Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?

John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds. The thing that troubles me is people who say, “Actually, people are annihilated in hell—that is they don’t actually have any consciousness going on—if that’s true, that means that God’s judgment is not proportional because it means the semi good atheist—who finds himself under the judgment of God—is getting exactly the same judgment as the Hitler figure who never repented. That cannot be true. That defies what the Bible teaches about God’s proportional judgment.

Simon: So the nature of hell and judgment seems to be hard to define but from the Bible’s perspective it’s real and it’s very serious. What then, John, is the message of Jesus in the face of this?

John: Well, he did ask us to be hopeful that God would right the wrongs of the world, which is what the main idea of hell is but then he said that he had come in order to bear the judgment human beings deserve. He announced the great amnesty and—at the end of Luke’s Gospel—he said the thing that was to be announced in his name to all nations, was the forgiveness of sins. So his death on the cross actually takes into himself the hell that I deserve. John Dickson’s deeds have been borne by Him. John Dickson’s judgment borne by Jesus so that forgiveness can be freely offered to others—that is the heart of the Gospel.


Update: I engage with the above in Engaging Dickson & Smart: Loving Judgment, Shalom, & Eternal Proportionality?

Engaging with CPX’s discussion of hell—part 1

Before I post the second part of Life & Faith‘s series on hell, I’d like to engage with some of the points they raised in the first part.

Justine: But let’s be honest, like, no one likes the idea of judgment.

Currently in Australia we’re having a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It gives us mixed feelings. On the one hand, we lament the many awful things that are being exposed. On the other hand we rejoice because:

  • Victims are beginning to receive some justice, closure, and healing.
  • Perpetrators are, ideally, genuinely comprehending the damage they’ve done, sincerely apologising, turning their lives around and seeking to make amends (see ideal justice flowchart).
  • As a result of the commission, changes are being made to our institutions to make it much harder for abuse to occur in the future.

In many ways, Judgment Day is like a Royal Commision or War Crimes tribunal, but on a far greater scale, covering every injustice ever committed throughout all time and space—something only possible because the Justice Commissioner is God Himself. In Jesus, God is the only Justice Commissioner who has personally undergone execution as a result of gross injustices. Again, it will be a time of lamenting and rejoicing:

  • Our own sins will be exposed. The hurt we caused others will be revisited—possibly revealed to us for the first time—and that will be very unpleasant, to say the least. Then, I believe each and every sin will need to be corrected. Again, that will be painful, but the sooner that “cancer” within me is purged, the better!
  • In the same fashion, the sins of each and every other person will the exposed and corrected. That will be unpleasant for them and for those watching on. It’s heartbreaking to see others in pain, even when you know it’s for their own good.

Like the Royal Commision, the good that Judgment Day brings—not least the cessation of evil—outweighs the period of lament, pain, suffering, and correction, and therefore, overall. I appreciate how John Dickson unpacks it below:

Simon: What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?

John: … God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry for someone to make things right, and he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on.

So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news.

Simon:  … ultimately, I guess, there’s a choice of whether we want to accept that relationship [with God] or reject it—and there’s a sense of respecting those wishes.

The idea that God will allow some people to eternally reject Him was popularised by C. S. Lewis, but interestingly Lewis’ own conversation gives us good reason to believe God will eventually win over even the most ardent atheists (Talbott explains in Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist).

Justine: You gotta say though, like, you can see the attraction of that universalist idea [that Jesus’ death and resurrection—His victory over sin and death—will mean that eventually all people will be saved]. Everyone wants to talk about God as a God of love—and He is that, right? So what’s wrong with that?

Simon: I just think the amount of the material in the Bible that takes you in another direction is overwhelming. J.I. Packer, my old lecturer, used to say this is avalanche dodging when it comes to the material in the Bible. And so, while the makers of this film seem to want us to leech-out aspects of God that are right through the Bible: that He is holy, that He requires holiness on his people’s part, to some degree, that we’re incapable of that and we need help in it, are part of the same thing. So there’s judgment, there’s mercy. I’d agree with the makers of the film who say that God’s primary characteristic that you see in the Bible is one of grace and great love and mercy—I really believe that. But I think that you have to hold that in tension, to some degree, with his holiness. And judgment is part of that.

Although some people do “want us to leech-out aspects of God”, in my experience, most Christian Universalists do not. For example, Robin Parry, doesn’t dodge God’s holiness and judgment, and our sinfulness, but spends a significant amount of his book (The Evangelical Universalist) engaging with these aspects.

I’d also point out to Packer that there’s an “avalanche” of biblical material saying God’s primary characteristic is love and mercy, and that the tension Simon mentions, will be resolved through God’s restorative justice—everyone (indeed everything) will reconciled to God—the Shalom resulting from the crucifixion.

Justine: Do you think Hellbound? the film has kind of lost that tension that you’re speaking of?

Simon: Well in fairness, they do talk about judgment—like a post-death judgment, but then an opportunity to come back to God in that—a refining sort of aspect to this. So no, they don’t junk it completely. They keep it there. Now the nature of that judgment I think may not quite match with the sort of material that’s in the Bible, where Jesus talks about, you know, “I never knew you” and these sorts of pretty sobering comments that He makes. So yeah, it’s there but we need to look carefully whether this matches the biblical material.

Properly addressing the “nature of judgment” would require writing a whole book but I think it’s fair to say that refining is one metaphor repeatedly used in the bible (e.g. refining fire: Zec 13:9; Job 23:10; Ps 66:10; 1Cor 3:11-15; Mal 3:2-3; 1Pet 1:7). So the nature of judgement they describe is certainly biblical.

I agree that “I never knew you” is sobering. At the same time, I’d suggest it shouldn’t be interpreted as an absolute statement because:

  1. It’s impossible for an all-knowing God to not know someone.
  2. God created and sustains everything, which implies knowledge of everything.
  3. It’s a statement within a parable, a genre known for hyperbole.

Justine: So what then does it look like to hold the two and in tension, I guess, the aspects of God’s holiness but also His love? How do you juggle that?

Simon: I think there’s a way in which you have to realize that God’s not someone to be trifled with. There’s a necessary reverence for God if we’re seeing God for who He truly is and who we are before him. But the overwhelming picture, Justine, in the Bible is that God is a father figure who just loves us—is full of mercy and grace—I think that they get that part right in this film—and he is looking for a way to bring us back to him. We see that in the life of Jesus and so I think you’ve gotta remember both things. But the mercy and the grace—I think absolutely is the most outstanding characteristic of God. It’s one really worth responding to.

Amen, and I can’t imagine our Father failing to find a way to bring us back to Him. After all, when the disciples were worried about God’s ability to save anyone, Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” (Matt 19:26, NLT) Jesus says, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are all found in the end.

Life & Faith by the Centre for Public Christianity
Source: cpx.podbean.com

Review of Gooder’s “Heaven”

I enjoyed reading Heaven by Paula Gooder. It was obviously very well researched, yet still entirely accessible to an amateur theologian like me. In the introduction she notes that most people, even non-believers, have an opinion about heaven but unfortunately it is rarely discussed in depth—hence this book. The book taught me new things and helped bring together, and process, the scattered ideas and opinions that I’d picked up over the years, from Sunday School, artwork, pop culture, and general Bible reading.

[Heaven] lifts our vision from the mundane realities of our everyday lives and reminds us that beyond the daily grind of our existence there is another, unseen reality. … A reality that is as real – if not more so – than our everyday lives. Heaven suggests an answer to the familiar human feeling that there must be more than this, and prompts us to wonder whether there is indeed more in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in all our philosophies.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. x

The book lifted my spirits and made me appreciate how heaven is closer and more relevant to everyday life than I’d realised.

Believing in heaven should mean that we carry with us a vision of the world as God intended it to be and strive with everything that we have to bring about that kind of world in the place where we live and work.

As a result, rather than feeling esoteric and irrelevant, believing in heaven becomes a vital part of the way in which we live out our lives. It challenges us to see … heaven and earth exist side by side … God can and does intervene and … God’s justice and love finds its proper place in earth as in heaven.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 102-103

I love how Revelation 21 describes heaven and earth becoming one in the end—a process we anticipate and participate in now—”Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

[The] biblical language of heaven challenges us into an act of poetic imagination which takes seriously the reality of God … ruled by love, compassion, mercy, justice and righteousness.

A good theology of heaven challenges us to re-imagine who we are and what the world might be.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 106

Reflecting on Revelation 4-5, Gooder points out that when we worship God, we are united with the hosts of angels, and all those who have gone before us, worshipping God!

Worship, at least occasionally, should be one of those times when heaven opens and we see that our words are not ours alone, but are joined together with heaven’s eternal worship before God’s throne.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 67

Those are just a few of the gems in the book. It also covers Hebrew cosmology, the descriptions of God’s throne and court, cherubim, seraphim, angels, archangels, fallen angels, visions, revelation, ascent into heaven, life, death, intermediate states (Sheol, Paradise, etc.), and resurrection! However, for the sake of space, I won’t cover those topics but just the three pages that discuss hell.

A brief excursus on hell

This book is about heaven and not about hell, but so many people are interested in hell (in the idea, not going there, that is!) that it is worth a brief note here. By and large there is little evidence in the Bible for the full-blown doctrine of hell that we find in later texts. However, as with so much we have explored in this book, there are hints and seeds of ideas that make it easy to see how the fuller idea grew up.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 94

She notes five strands:

1. Sheol/Hades

Gooder explains that, in biblical times, Sheol was where everyone went when they died. Although it isn’t described as a place of punishment, she suggests that there is the idea of being “cut off from God’s presence”. I’d want to push back a bit with verses like:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

Psalm 139:8, ESV

2. Punishment by God for sins committed

Gooder rightly notes that throughout the Bible there are examples of people sinning and God responding with punishment. She goes as far as saying Daniel 12:1-3 introduces the concept of “eternal punishment”. I don’t think aionios (or olam) in Daniel 12:2 should be translated as “eternal” for the reasons I discussed in Is Aionios Eternal? Rather, I believe God’s correction of sinners—in the age to come—will only continue until they’re saved.

3. Gehenna

Gooder gives a good, albeit short, explanation of Gehenna (an actual, physical valley just outside Jerusalem) and it’s connection to shameful child sacrifices to Molech in the OT.

The question is whether or not the New Testament ever tips into understanding Gehenna as a place of eternal destruction. Wright argues clearly that Jesus’ warnings about what would happen in Gehenna were not, as a rule, about the next life but about this life [now] … Others would see Gehenna language as being very close to language about a future fate for the wicked. On balance I would take the second view, as texts like ‘do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]’ (Matt. 10.28) seem to have a ring of eternal punishment about them and to have transformed Gehenna from ‘just’ a physical place into the manifestation of a future potential fate after death.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95

I like how Gooder often gives an alternative view, such as Wright’s, before her own. In this case, I suspect Jesus was both warning of the consequences of sin on earth (e.g. destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD) and the consequences in the age to come.

The context of Matthew 10:28 is Jesus commissioning His disciples and letting them know they will face persecution. However, God will be with them (v20), will help them (v19), knows them intimately (v30), cares for them even more than sparrows (v31), and will save them in the end (v22). Therefore, they don’t need to be afraid of people (v26, 28) and instead acknowledge Jesus before all (v32). Interpreting v28 as threatening the disciples suddenly with eternal punishment is surely at odds with His love for them expressed in the surrounding verses-? Keeping in mind that:

There is no fear in love [dread does not exist], but full-grown (complete, perfect) love turns fear out of doors and expels every trace of terror! For fear brings with it the thought of punishment, and [so] he who is afraid has not reached the full maturity of love [is not yet grown into love’s complete perfection].

1John 4:18, AMPC

4. Lake of fire

Gooder gives a brief overview of the lake of fire image mentioned in Revelation and how it is linked to the idea of the second death.

5. Accounts of tours of hell

A final element, found more often outside the Bible, is the growth of accounts of tours of hell which can be found in Jewish and Christian texts from the second century onwards. Both Himmelfarb and Bauckham see these as growing naturally out of the heavenly ascent texts that we explored in the previous chapter, since a number (including 1 Enoch 22) seem to include the place where the souls of the wicked are held prior to resurrection.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 95-96

I haven’t considered these much before so I’d want to read examples before commenting.

Gooder concludes the excursus with a helpful point to remember:

The New Testament seems to come from a time when ideas about a future punishment were shifting and changing rapidly; it certainly contains no fully formed, elaborate view of hell such as we find in later texts. But the Bible – and the New Testament in particular – does contain concepts which eventually grew into a more elaborate view.

Paula Gooder, Heaven, p. 96

I’m glad I had the opportunity to read Heaven and I suspect I’ll refer to it when the topic arises. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the Judeo-Christian view of heaven.

"Heaven" by Paula Gooder

Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 5

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Is God Violent In Hell?

What do you think of the doctrine of hell, which in many ways is how God treats those who reject Him and how do you think that influences the way we treat people now?

I really like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and I think that puts forward a speculative—but I think a very orthodox view—that Hell is self imposed and it’s not imposed by God. It’s a kind of self imposed separation from God… So the kind of gratuitous torturing God, I think that’s not the Christian God—just finding exquisite and inventive ways to torture people for all eternity. So this kind of self separation from God I think is the way to think about it and I think there’s a kind of general, broad agreement on that.

The question is whether anybody can resist God’s grace forever, whether anybody’s sin is strong enough to resist God’s grace forever and so I tend to think of these things in terms of… It’s not all necessarily over at death but, I guess this kind of points towards the Catholic idea of purgatory in some ways, that there is a continuing process after death of purgation.

Yes, I’d agree with that 1.

But I suppose you need to leave open… I mean Barth I think was wise on these questions to say at some point you have to just maintain a kind of holy silence. We don’t know and so there might be the possibility that some people are not saved and we can’t presume and be guilty of the sin of presumption.

In which case, I think Annihilationist ideas kind of make sense. Paul Griffiths recent book Decreation makes a pretty cogent argument for Annihilationism and that kind of fits into a whole Augustinian scheme of the farther away you get from God the less being that you have and so it might be possible that people that have kind of permanently excluded themselves from God’s communion might just cease to be in some sense. I think C. S. Lewis kind of points to that, in that eventually there might be nothing left but ashes.

Yes, I usually call that “Soft” Annihilationism, as it’s self inflicted, as opposed to “Hard” Annihilationism, where God is deliberately doing the annihilating.

Right, “Zap!”, yeah…

And you’re right, that particular view has gained a lot of popularity. As opposed to the view where, according to some people, God will be basically torturing people forever.

Does Our View of Hell Influence Our Judicial Systems?

Do you think our view of hell affects our view of Justice? Do you think our view of how God treats people in hell influences our judicial systems now? For example, our ideas of what prisons are about and what prisons are for? Whether they are simply, “Person makes a mistake, therefore they get locked away forever”. Or whether there’s a different kind of model, where we’re actually trying to bring about change. Prison, put loosely, is seen as a means to an end—as an opportunity to reform the person. 2

Whether or not Christian views of hell influence that… I think that they certainly could, and probably did, at least in the past. Certainly, yeah, but there’s a pretty clear divide between people who call it a penal system or people who talk about a Department of Corrections, as it’s called in the US. But so often there’s no longer any attempt at correction and I think that’s a huge scandal, especially the United States where we have an enormous number of people locked away.

And there seems to be money involved as well.

Right, a lot of for-profit prisons, which is astonishing isn’t it?!

Yeah, that seems absolutely… it’s just mindblowing. That is sooo just going to cause a problem!


1. Every time I hear someone advocate for C.S. Lewis’ view on Hell, I can’t help but think of Thomas Talbott’s insightful observations about C.S. Lewis’ own conversion: Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist.
2. Helpful further reading on the relationship between hell and our current justice systems A cheat sheet on hell (although re: Kevin’s last point, I think UR actually achieves more justice than the other views).