On the fairness and fire-ness of hell

“What are you in for?”

The convicted serial burglar crossed his tattooed arms behind his head as he lay back on his bunk and examined his new roommate. He always thought it best to know just what kind of criminal he’s been locked up with.

“I didn’t take the pardon. That’s what.”

The burglar furrowed his brow in confusion at the new inmate’s response. “Pardon for what? What’s the crime for which you are doing the time, numbskull?”

“I told you. I refused the pardon and they sent me here. That’s my crime. Now shut up and leave me alone.”

As the new guy climbed onto the top bunk, mumbling about injustice and petty spitefulness, the other shook his head in disbelief. The idiot doesn’t even know why he’s here, he thought. No wonder he didn’t take the pardon. He’s a goddamn fool.

A common objection to Christianity charges God with petty injustice for sending otherwise decent people to hell merely for being unconvinced of his existence. But that’s a misperception, as the above scenario demonstrates. Sin…our personal, willful disobedience to God’s commands…is what merits us hell; belief and trust in God is what secures for us a pardon from that sentence. If we are capable of belief and choose unbelief instead, we are choosing to reject a pardon which we do not deserve, thereby consigning us to a punishment we do deserve.

So although it is technically accurate to say those in hell will be there because of their unbelief, it is only in the same sense that a person:

  • died because he didn’t take his prescribed medications (the illness is what killed him)
  • got wet because she didn’t have an umbrella (the rain is what made her wet)
  • was convicted and jailed because he didn’t take a plea deal (his guilt is what merited his punishment)

Now, regarding the question of whether a place of eternal torment is a just punishment for seemingly petty or harmless sins like lying, greed, and pride, I share the skeptic’s assessment that it appears to be a bit extreme. But here are some propositions that help me make sense of it.

  1. God is clearly revealed as just, and even merciful. It is not possible for a perfect, unchanging, wholly good, just God to oppose his own character and act unjustly. So even if with our limited knowledge and understanding hell seems undeserved and extreme, we can believe that those who end up there are receiving a just sentence.
  2. Biblical descriptions of hell as a “lake of fire” or “fiery furnace” are most reasonably understood as symbolic language meant to vividly depict a place no one wants to be. Fire consumes and then burns out, but the inhabitants of hell are not consumed. They are immortal, just as are those in heaven. In addition, hell is also described as utter darkness, but fire gives light. So it seems that the fire imagery is metaphorical.
  3. Hell will be hellish because God will not be there, and everything good comes from him. Some may think an eternal place away from the one who makes demands on them where they can sin all they want sounds more like heaven. But I think that’s why God describes hell as fiery torment. We have no idea how utterly awful an existence without him would be, and he wants us to know it so that we will choose him over our sin.
  4. Ultimately, hell is just God giving people what they want…a Godless existence. Because he respects our freedom of choice he will not force us to choose him. Though he wants all to be saved, in the end he will have to say to those who reject him, “Your will be done.”
  5. And finally, we all know there are genuinely evil people in this world…some even in our own circles. And we know how wrong it would be if they did not receive their just punishment. Imagine if all the 9/11 terrorists were really welcomed into the arms of dozens of beautiful virgins upon their deaths as they believed they would be instead of finding themselves standing before a just and holy, and very angry God. Without the punishment of hell there would be no ultimate justice.

Concluding that God does not exist because the concept of hell seems unjust is unreasonable and unwise. We must look at all the available evidence if we hope to arrive at the truth, and it’s squarely on the side of theism. It is also unwise for finite and fallible defendants to expect to fully know and understand their infinite, omnipotent, all-wise Judge. Better to acknowledge our limitations, confess our crimes, and throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.

And then gratefully take the pardon.