People who don’t know much about the Bible usually think that Jesus was a great example and teacher of morality. It surprises them when they learn that Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible.

One of the books I’m reading now is The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel [1]. I highly recommend the book. It’s not light reading, but it is easy to follow the arguments of both sides.

Strobel, who used to be an atheist, raises eight of the toughest (read: most emotive) objections to Christianity. He interviews one person with expertise on each particular topic. Strobel doesn’t pull his punches but deal fairly with the issues, as you’d expect from a person trained in law and investigative journalism [2].

One of the chapters that weighted on me was the topic of hell. (The topic of suffering is another chapter.) For this topic, Strobel interviewed J.P. Moreland. The following article isn’t a full treatment of the topic, nor even a synopsis of the interview, but briefly lists points that stood out to me. Moreland’s points are numbered: my thoughts are in the paragraphs immediately underneath.

1. Hell is an upsetting topic. But we should evaluate the truth of something on the evidence and the merits of the argument, not on what we like or think is civilised.

My natural reaction to the idea of hell is emotional nausea and cognitive . If I could choose what happened to people after death, then most people would go to heaven; if you were basically a person who tried their best and weren’t a bad sort. People who would go to Hell would be the worst of the worst. Others who were deplorably bad but not as extreme would likewise experience some time in hell. When everyone agreed that they’d suffered enough, all people in hell would either be let into heaven (if they were sorry enough) or annihilated (the worst of the worst, or those who were unrepentant).

That’s my intuitive response. What standard would you choose for who goes to heaven? Where is the pass/fail mark? Would you pass or fail? How consistently could your standard be applied? Would it apply only to actions or to intentions? What the actions we should have done but didn’t? Consider that our words and actions affect other people, and their actions affect other people, and those other people’s actions affect still others, and so on…. If a bad act had a sum effect that was mostly good, how would that affect how a person was judged?

2. Children do not go to hell. Children are pictured as the typical denizens of heaven. Hell is pictured from the perspective of an adult’s choice.

Jesus said to enter heaven you have to become like a child: to have a child’s simple (which doesn’t mean simplistic) trust. Chapter 11 in Isaiah pictures children playing safely with wild animals.

3. To know the truth about a topic, we should consult a person with authority on that subject. Even people with a cursory knowledge of the Bible acknowledge Jesus as a good moral teacher. Surely a person of sterling moral character and wisdom should have the clearest idea of whether or not hell is just or not. Moreover, if Jesus was, as he claimed, God incarnate, he should know. Jesus didn’t appear to see anything morally wrong with the existence of hell.

That doesn’t mean that Jesus was indifferent to it. He warned people to do whatever we have to to avoid it. He used gruesome metaphors (cutting off your hand; gouging out your eye) to imply the extreme measures we should take, and how seriously we should consider it. We can’t say he didn’t warn us.

Besides, God Himself gave up everything to keep us out of hell. Jesus said that his purpose was to “lay down his life as a ransom for many” – so we wouldn’t have to be separated from God.

4. Hell is not a place where God torments people. Moreland stated that hell is punishment but not punishing: torment but not torture.

As I understand the difference between punishment and punishing, it’s the difference between passive and active. For example, being separated from society in prison is punishment. This separation is part of the torment of prison. But prisoners are not tortured: this would be punishing.

The punishment is the realisation that you have rejected the God who practised what He preached; who loved people who hated Him, to the extent that He became human, lived a fully human life – not using His power to make that life easier – and chose to be separated from heaven, in order to rescue us from the punishment we brought on ourselves. The immortal God chose to experience death rather than live without humans.

5. Hell is not literally a place of flames and worms. This description is a metaphor, whose literal source was Jerusalem’s garbage dump, in the Hinnom Valley, south of the city. It’s a graphic image of a horrible place.

The objects thrown onto a garbage dump still exist – they are not annihilated – but they are ruined; unable to fulfil their intended purpose.

6. People who reject God’s right to rule them would not want to be in heaven. God is the centre, the glory and the delight of heaven. Everyone will want to be around Him, to please and thank and praise Him. People who aren’t like that won’t like heaven.

God wants us to love Him. Love must be given freely, otherwise it isn’t love. God could make us obedient to Him, but that would make us, in a sense, robots. God won’t force us to change: that would be the antithesis of love.

But personally, I think I would rather that than risk going to hell.

7. Hell is not a place God originally intended for people.

Matthew 25:41 states it was made for the devil and his angels.

8. What about those who haven’t heard of Jesus? They will be judged just like the rest of us: with God’s perfect justice. All people have the witness of creation and of conscience.

I’ve heard that Immanuel Kant said that when he considered the ‘starry heavens above and the moral law within’, he could not help but believe there is a God.

9. Hell being eternal – that is, wouldn’t annihilation be morally superior? Moreland noted that time has little to do with crime and punishment. It can take a couple of seconds to kill someone: would it be just for the punishment to be the same length of time? Of course not. Justice must take into account the type of crime, and more particularly, the worth of the victim. So what about the Person who is of infinite worth?

I wouldn’t want to speak for Peter Singer, Hindus or Buddhists, but most people I know think a human’s life is more valuable than an ant’s; so killing a person would be more reprehensible than killing an ant, and thus deserves a stronger reprisal.

And if we’re going to consider worth, what about the God who became human and allowed His creatures to kill Him? Who broke a perfect relationship and Himself was cut off from heaven to save rebels from a punishment they deserved? After all this, what can you say to a person who says, “I’m good enough to get to heaven”?

10. Moreland stated that God has given humans intrinsic value because we’re made in His image. This means that humans are valuable just because they exist, not because of what they can do or give, what purpose they might serve, or what job they do. Intrinsic value is opposed to instrumental value, where the only value a person has is the purpose they serve. This is dehumanising. It treats a person like an object.

Moreland stated that the only purpose annihilation would serve would be to stop the experience of hell. In this context, annihilation implies that human life only has an instrumental value: that ending the suffering of hell is the end, and if that means that extinction of human life is the means to that end, it’s justified.

I struggle with this. Certainly I agree that humans have intrinsic value, and I see the point Moreland makes (though vaguely at present, I confess). Human life itself is valuable, but surely the preservation of human life at any cost is instrumental too; unless preservation is a necessary corollary of existence?

And what is intrinsically valuable about human life: its mere existence? If so, this would mean that what we experience – joy, misery, pleasure, pain – is irrelevant to our worth, as irrelevant as what we do. (This doesn’t mean what we do or experience is worthless; it means what we do does not determine what we are worth.) Such experiences are part of this present life, and only mean that quality of life shouldn’t determine whether life should continue or end. Again, I struggle with this, having known people who suffer with chronic and intense pain; whose quality of life is negligible. How can such a life be worth preserving at all costs; in this world or the next? However, it would seem that if human life is intrinsically valuable, it must be.

I see the logic of it; but I don’t like the implications of it, not at all. However, I think that the dictum applying to ancient texts can be extrapolated to this topic: when we meet an apparent error in the work of a reliable author, we should presume ourselves ignorant of his understanding until we are certain we understand his ignorance.

11. Hell is a dimension where God is not.

To understate the matter, hell is unpleasant. It isn’t a place where you go if you like sex and drugs and rock-n-roll, while people who like austerity and flowing white robes go to heaven. Jesus described heaven as the ultimate party; specifically, a wedding feast. God is the creator of everything good, such as friends and food and fun and family; beauty and sport and truth and laughter and music and dancing. (And hey, while we’re on the subject, God invented sex.) Nothing that makes life good or pleasant will be in hell.

12. God is the loving and just creator and ruler of everything. He is not arbitrary or capricious. If people end up in hell, separated from God, it’s because they’ve chosen to live independently of Him. Hell is the inevitable destination for that way of life.

People have one of two final destinations. If we seek a life lived in proper relationship to God, our destination is heaven. If we live a life where we are the final arbiter of right and wrong, then our destination is hell. You might have heard statements about diseases or natural disasters being God’s punishment. The worst God could do to us is written about in Romans 1:24-28. Three times it’s said that “God gave them over”. In other words, God let them go their own way. He didn’t stop them from doing what they wanted.

You might disagree that this necessarily means that people turn out bad. True. It means people will continue to live their lives without God. If people choose to determine for themselves what is right and wrong (which is what “the knowledge of good and evil” means in Genesis 3), God will respect their decision and not force them to believe or submit to Him. Hell is the inevitable result: the ultimate life without God.

There’s a lot more that could be said on this topic but, as I said at the start, this is just a quick look at this particular topic in Strobel’s book. Whether you agree or not with any or all of the topics, I think it’s definitely worth reading.

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Endnotes

[1] What is left unsaid is “[faith] in Christ”. Faith is nothing in itself. It means how we relate to another: with trust or, in the case of unbelief, distrust.

[2] Other legal minds who have investigated and vindicated the circumstances around Jesus’ life, death and resurrection include Frank Morison and Simon Greenleaf.

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