Problem of Hell
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The "problem of Hell" is an ethical problem related to religions in which portrayals of Hell are ostensibly cruel, and are thus inconsistent with the concepts of a just, moral and omnibenevolent God. The problem of Hell revolves around four key points: Hell exists in the first place, some people go there, there is no escape, and it is punishment for actions or inactions done on Earth.
The concept that non-believers of a particular religion face damnation is called special salvation. The concept that all are saved regardless of belief is referred to as universal reconciliation. The minority Christian doctrine that sinners are destroyed rather than punished eternally is referred to as annihilationism or conditional immortality.
There are several major issues to the problem of Hell. The first is whether the existence of Hell is compatible with justice. The second is whether it is compatible with God's mercy, especially as articulated in Christianity. A third issue, particular to Christianity, is whether Hell is actually populated, or if God will ultimately restore all immortal souls (universal reconciliation) in the World to Come. Criticisms of the doctrines of Hell can focus on the intensity or eternity of its torments, and arguments surrounding all these issues can invoke appeals to the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence of God. In some aspects, the problem of Hell is similar to the problem of evil, assuming the suffering of Hell is something God could have prevented; The discussion regarding the problem of evil may thus also be of interest for the problem of Hell.
Almost all forms of Judaism do not share the traditional majority Christian belief in the immortality of the soul, therefore Sheol (Hades in the Septuagint, "the grave" in many instances in the King James Bible) is simply the destination for all the dead, and no "problem of Sheol" exists. Gehenna, found in the Mishnah, is the destination of the living and raised wicked at judgement day, and the place of either of destruction, in the Mishnah, or in some rabbinical texts eternal torment, which would potentially create a "problem of Gehenna."
In Christianity, Hell has traditionally been regarded as a punishment for wrongdoing or sin in this life, as a manifestation of divine justice. Nonetheless, the extreme severity or infinite duration of the punishment might be seen as incompatible with justice. However, Hell is not seen as strictly a matter of retributive justice even by the more traditionalist churches. For example, the Eastern Orthodox see it as a condition brought about by, and the natural consequence of, free rejection of God's love.
I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love?...It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God...it torments sinners...Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. —St. Isaac of Syria, Ascetical Homilies 28, Page 141
Some opponents of the doctrine of Hell claim that the punishment is disproportionate to any crimes that could be committed, an overkill. Because human beings have a finite lifespan, they can commit only a finite number of sins, yet Hell is an infinite punishment. In this vein, Jorge Luis Borges suggests in his essay La duración del Infierno that no transgression can warrant an infinite punishment on the grounds that there is no such thing as an "infinite transgression". Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in 1793 in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason that since morality lies ultimately in a person's disposition, and as disposition is concerned with the adoption of universal principles, or as he called them: "maxims", every human being is guilty of, in one sense, an infinite amount of violations of the law, and so consequently an infinite punishment is not unjustified.
Against the injustice of Hell, some theists, particularly in the Thomistic tradition, have argued that God's infinite dignity requires that any transgression against him warrants an infinite punishment. On this view, the correct punishment for a crime is proportional to the status of the wronged individual. Opponents of this view object citing that the severity of a crime is determined by the amount of harm done to the victim, not by their lifespan or scope of being. An omnipotent being, by definition, cannot be harmed. Therefore, by condemning souls to an eternal damnation, God would be punishing souls for actions that had no effect on him. Others reply that the correct punishment is also proportional to the intentions and understanding of the wrongdoer.
Another justice problem involves some denominations[who?] of Christianity which believe that only by accepting Jesus can one be saved from Hell. There is an apparent injustice in being punished for something one does not know exists. However a few branches of Christianity teach that one cannot sin unless one performs an action knowing it is wrong, or performs an action knowing it could result in harm. Catholics say that as far as strict necessity is concerned, faith in Christ may suffice in implicit form, though explicitly is better; and implicit faith in Christ may even be compatible with misled rejection of appearing Christendom.[clarification needed]
The eternity of Hell has also been justified in the Scholastic tradition by appeal to the irrevocability of the reprobate's decision to oppose God after death. Eternity is perceived not as an infinite stretch of time, but as an unchanging present. This argument however, could be challenged by the view that if wrongdoers are punished in Hell, they must suffer, for which it is required that the wrongdoers must retain their sentience, in order to experience it. If this sentience is retained it follows that the wrongdoers would be aware of their transgressions and capable of repenting them.
Another argument against the justice of Hell is that humans are not culpable for their sins, since sinning is unavoidable to them. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; (Epistle to the Romans, 3:23) However, just because "all have sinned" does not mean it was unavoidable ([Hebrews 4:15]) Also, if God is omniscient/prescient, He knows the final state long before they enter into either heaven or Hell. From the reasoning that God created them in the first place, some go so far as to ascribe to Him the culpability for a person's eternal fate. The question is all the more burning if one states exactly this (positive reprobation, Calvinism). However, the (theoretically distinct) doctrine of negative reprobation without consideration of future demerits (Domingo Báñez) — God elects some, the others fall into sin on their own, but of necessity, and are then judged for their sins—will be felt not so much distinct "in practice". If the angels and the blessed without inconvenience to their free-will partake of an irresistible grace (which is thus shown possible), even who holds an at least conditional election of every human being (Molinism and, despite notable academic success of Thomist grace theology within the Catholic pale, in practice the stand of Catholics) needs to say that God could have rescued some and did not.
Another issue is the problem of harmonizing the existence of Hell with God's infinite mercy or omnibenevolence.
As in the problem of evil, some apologists[who?] argue that the torments of Hell are attributable not to a defect in God's benevolence, but in human free will. Although a benevolent God would prefer to see everyone saved, he would also allow humans to control their own destinies. This view opens the possibility of seeing Hell not as retributive punishment, but rather as an option that God allows, so that people who do not wish to be with God are not forced to be. C. S. Lewis most famously proposed this view in his book The Great Divorce, saying: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'"
Two problems remain regarding Christian theologies' teaching about grace, the first which grants that God could indeed convert the heart of every sinner and yet leave the freedom of the will in its integrity. In the Thomistic tradition, God grants sufficient grace for salvation to all people, yet it only effects salvations for some. The early modern controversies on grace among the Jansenists, Jesuits and Dominicans focused in part on the question of sufficient and efficient grace, and whether these differed in kind. Secondly, an Omniscient God would be aware of the future choice of the individual human's free will, to accept or reject God, prior to the creation of the individual human. This Omniscient God would then exercise his/her own free will in choosing to create a human that he/she knows, a priori, would be condemned to eternal torture. God could, in this circumstance, simply choose not to create the human. Such a choice would be incompatible with God's infinite mercy or omnibenevolence.
Some modern critics of the doctrine of Hell (such as Marilyn McCord Adams) claim that, even if Hell is seen as a choice rather than as punishment, it would be unreasonable for God to give such flawed and ignorant creatures as ourselves the responsibility of our eternal destinies. Jonathan Kvanvig, in The Problem of Hell (1993), agrees that God would not allow one to be eternally damned by a decision made under the wrong circumstances. One should not always honor the choices of human beings, even when they are full adults, if, for instance, the choice is made while depressed or careless. On Kvanvig's view, God will abandon no person until they have made a settled, final decision, under favorable circumstances, to reject God, but God will respect a choice made under the right circumstances. Once a person finally and competently chooses to reject God, out of respect for the person's autonomy, God allows them to be annihilated. The fact that one must believe in God or be subject to eternal damnation or annihilation, even if the choice is completely made by a person, is often perceived as a scare tactic that inevitably forces or scares one into having to believe in God, and God would seem corrupt and evil in saying, "You can believe in me or not, but if you do not, you will either suffer for all eternity in Hell (i.e., eternal damnation) or else be destroyed or obliterated out-of-existence (i.e., annihilation)". The argument runs flaw in that as a matter of fact, God does not say "you can believe in me or not".
Discussion of a problem of Hell is not common in Islam. However, Edip Yüksel recognises the contradiction between Allah the merciful and eternal torture. He argues that evildoers will be punished in Hell for an appropriate period then cease to exist, so their suffering (which is graphically described in the Quran and therefore must happen) will not be eternal, but only a just amount.
As with other Jewish writings of the Second Temple period, the New Testament distinguishes two words for "Hell": Hades, the grave, and Gehenna where God "can destroy both body and soul". A minority of Christians read this to mean that neither Hades nor Gehenna are eternal. Annihilationism is the doctrine that sinners are destroyed rather than tormented forever in "Hell" or the lake of fire. It is directly related to the doctrine of conditional immortality, the idea that a human soul is not immortal unless it is given eternal life. Annihilationism asserts that God will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked (even if the souls of the wicked would be immortal otherwise), leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality. Conditional immortality asserts that souls are naturally mortal and those who reject Christ are separated from the sustaining power of God, thus dying off on their own.
Some apologists argue that Hell exists because of free will, and that Hell is a choice rather than an imposed punishment. Jonathan L. Kvanvig writes:
[C.S.] Lewis believes that the doors of hell are locked from the inside rather than from the outside. Thus, according to Lewis, if escape from hell never happens, it is not because God is not willing that it should happen. Instead, residence in hell is eternal because that is just what persons in hell have chosen for themselves.
Similarly, Dave Hunt (1996) writes:
We may rest assured that no one will suffer in hell who could by any means have been won to Christ in this life. God leaves no stone unturned to rescue all who would respond to the convicting and wooing of the Holy Spirit.
An example from popular culture can be found in the graphic novel series The Sandman. In it, souls go to Hell because they believe they deserve to, rather than being condemned to it by God or Satan.
Universal reconciliation is the doctrine or belief of some Christians that all will receive salvation because of the love and mercy of God. Universal reconciliation does not commit one to the position that one can be saved apart from Christ. It only commits one to the position that all will eventually be saved through Christ. Neither does universal reconciliation commit one to the position that there is no Hell or damnation – Hell can well be the consuming fire through which Christ refines those who turn from him. Universal reconciliation only claims that one day Death and Hades themselves will be destroyed and all immortal souls will be reconciled to Him.
It was traditionally claimed by some western scholars such as the Universalist historian George T. Knight (1911) and Pierre Batiffol (English translation 1914) that a form of universal salvation could be found among some theologians in early Christianity. Origen interpreted the New Testament's reference (Acts 3:21) to a "restoration of all things", (Greek: apocatastasis of all things), as meaning that sinners might be restored to God and released from Hell, returning the universe to a state identical to its pure beginnings. This theory of apocatastasis could be easily interpreted[who?] to imply that even devils would be saved, as was the case during the later Origenist controversies. Greek orthodox scholars do not count Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 331-395) as a believer in Universal Salvation.
In the 17th century, a belief in Christian universalism appeared in England and the USA. Christian Universalists such as Hosea Ballou argued that Jesus taught Universalist principles including universal reconciliation and the divine origin and destiny of all souls, and that these teachings were further developed by Saint Paul, Saint Peter, and Saint John the Apostle. Ballou also argued that some Universalist principles were taught or foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Critics of universalism maintain that the Bible does not teach universal salvation, while proponents insist that it does.
LDS Response to the Problem of Hell
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) teaches that Hell is a temporary state between physical death and the resurrection/judgement, in which those who didn't repent while on earth must pay the price for their sins (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16 ). However, because God is perfectly just he only requires that they suffer for the sins they committed, for a finite amount of time, as Christ referenced in Matt 5:26: "Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.".
Mormons believe that the doctrine of eternal torment didn't become a fixture of the Christian church until centuries after the death of the apostles, and was a result of speculation and scriptural misinterpretation by theologians who continued to develop doctrine despite not being called to receive revelation for that purpose. Mormons believe that the correct concept of Hell was restored by revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith, which clarified that Biblical references to an eternal Hell simply embodied the fact that it was God's punishment, and God is endless (Doctrine and Covenants 19:4-7 ). However, this did not signify that the recipients of said punishment would remain in that state for all eternity. As David declared, "thou wilt not leave my soul in hell." (Psalms 16:10, see also Psalms 86:13, Rev 1:18).
Mormons also believe that the dead who didn't receive the opportunity to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ while on earth have the opportunity to learn about it and accept it in the Spirit World, thanks to a missionary program that Christ himself established when he visited the Spirit World during the three days between his death and resurrection (1 Pet 3:19; 4:6, Doctrine and Covenants 138). This doctrine provides the impetus for the vicarious ordinances performed on behalf of the dead in LDS temples.
Mormons teach that when the time comes, "death and hell will deliver up the dead which are in them; and they will be judged every man according to his works" (Rev 20:12-13 ). This final judgement will determine the degree of glory to which each person will resurrect, which Peter compared to the glory of the sun, moon, and stars (1 Cor 15:40-42 ). The only individuals who won't attain any degree of glory are the sons of perdition, because they committed the unpardonable sin (Matt 12:31 ). Such will share the same fate as the Devil and his angels (Doctrine and Covenants 76:31-39 ).
Empty Hell theory
Some Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner, Gisbert Greshake, and Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar have at length discussed the possibility that any man may be led by a final grace to freely willed repentance if necessary at least at some point in the process of dying. This possible process is described thus by the late Munich dogmatic Prof. Michael Schmaus: "If in terms of theology death is a meeting of a man with God in so far as God calls man and he answers obedience, readiness and love, it would be surprising if in the moment of dying the chances of taking position never were given, even contrary to the outward look. [...] One cannot apply to experience as counter-argument, because [...] what happens then in the interior and behind the physiological processes is only known by someone who experiences dying itself, and this unto its very end. We may assume that in the dissolving process of the earthly union of body and soul and with the progressing breakaway from earthly entanglements, a special awakeness accrues to man [...] in which he can say yea or nay to God.".
If this be true, there is room for speculation that confronted with God and given grace by him, the number of those breaking away from Him may be zero. This is not a contradiction of the fixed Church doctrine of an existing and eternal Hell, which remains a possibility. However, there is difficulty in interpreting the vast amount of Hell's Scriptural descriptions as only what-ifs. Balthasar was careful to describe his opinion that Hell might be empty as merely a hope, but even this claim was rejected by most conservative Catholics, including Cardinal Avery Dulles. The Syllabus says in no. 17 that we may not (even) hope for the salvation of all non-Catholics; this seems to mean conversely that there is at least one non-Catholic in all history who will not be saved. Matthew 7:21-23 seems to say that "many" will be reproved; of course many need not be many statistically because even one would be too much in a respect, however many seems to be at least some and not nobody.[original research?]
- Kvanvig, Jonathan L. (1994). The Problem of Hell. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 24. ISBN 0-19-508487-X.
- Kvanvig, Jonathan L. (1994). The Problem of Hell. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 25. ISBN 0-19-508487-X.
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- Mercer dictionary of the Bible p319 Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard - 1990 "In extracanonical Jewish literature and in the NT, Gehenna was used to designate the place/state of torment of the "
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- Borges, Jorge Luis (1999). Discusión. Madrid, España: Alianza Editorial, S.A. p. 230. ISBN 84-206-3331-3.
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- Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-508487-0, 1993
- "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life." (Dtn 30,19)
- Eternal Hell and a Merciful God Edip Yüksel, 2003
- Kvanvig, Jonathan L. (1994). The Problem of Hell. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 120. ISBN 0-19-508487-X.
- Dave Hunt In Defense of Faith Harvest House Publishers, 1996
- Gaiman, Neil "Season of Mists" DC Comics/Vertigo, 1990 p. 18
- Knight claims that in the first five or six centuries of Christianity, there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Cesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality, and one (Carthage or Rome) taught the endless punishment of the lost. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1953, vol. 12, p. 96; retrieved 30/04/09
- Westminster Origen Handbook
- "We know well that all evil that happens admits of being annihilated by its opposite (Against Eunomius, Book I). Then he affirms apocatastasis stating that "The Son has accomplished the Father’s will, and this, in the language of the Apostle, is 'that all men should be saved, '" (Against Eunomius, Book XII).
- Robin A. Parry Universal salvation?: the current debate p55
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- Michael Schmaus, Der Glaube der Kirche ("The Faith of the Church") VI/II p. 84
- David L. Schindler Hans Urs von Balthasar: his life and work "Until then he had not published very much about obedience and marriage in paradise. The controversy about Hell was left entirely to the final years of von Balthasar's life. At the time no one could have known how much these themes owed to the inspiration of Adrienne von Speyr".
- Marilyn McCord Adams: "The Problem of Hell: A Problem of Evil for Christians," in William Rowe (ed.): God and the Problem of Evil, ISBN 0-631-22220-0
- Jonathan L. Kvanvig: The Problem of Hell, ISBN 0-19-508487-X
- Charles Seymour: A Theodicy of Hell, ISBN 0-7923-6364-7
- Jerry Walls: Hell: The Logic of Damnation, ISBN 0-268-01095-1
- C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain, ISBN 0-06-065296-9
- Ted Sider. Hell and Vagueness, Faith and Philosophy 19 (2002): 58–68.
- Jonathan Edwards,The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners Diggory Press, ISBN 978-1-84685-672-3
- The Penalty of Death for Disobedience by Leroy Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers
- The Final End of the Wicked by Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes
- Jewish not Greek Shows how Biblical hermeneutics proves "annihilation" thus removing the problem of Hell.
- Immortality Or Resurrection? Chapter VI Hell: Eternal Torment or Annihilation? by Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
- The Wages of Sin by Charles Welch, The Berean Expositor Vol. 1 pp. 64–66 circa 1901-1915
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- The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent by Clark H. Pinnock of McMaster Divinity College.