THE JUSTICE OF HELL?
THE JUSTICE OF HELL?
Can one really write devotionally about Hell? Yes, because all topics of theology reflect the glory and the goodness of God. Even this one. Especially this one? Let’s see.
Many atheists (and some Christians) object to the doctrine of Hell on the grounds that it is inherently unjust. How, they ask, can it be right for a good and just God to impose an eternal punishment for temporal sins? How, in other words, can it be just for Him to impose an infinite punishment for finite sins? For it is hard to see how human beings, being temporal and finite creatures, could commit any other kind. But unending conscious punishment is . . . unending. The atheist who pursues this line of reasoning finds support for his suspicion that the Christian concept of a good God is simply incoherent; the Christian seeks to revise or soften or eliminate altogether the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment. And one must admit that the argument has a certain surface plausibility. People thus persuaded might well question whether traditional Christian belief really takes the goodness and justice of God with sufficient seriousness.
But what if it is actually the Questioners who do not really understand or take seriously the goodness of God?
The goodness of God!
How could that be?
Well, what if a maximally and eternally good, wise, powerful, and holy Being who was the Creator and Sustainer of the world actually existed? He would, in other words, be more good than Frodo, wiser than Gandalf, stronger than Treebeard, more faithful than Sam, more committed to all that is right and good than Faramir. He would in fact be the inexhaustible Well from which characters like those, to the extent that they exist in the real world, draw their goodness, wisdom, power, and righteousness. He would possess such attributes infinitely, i.e., inexhaustibly, by virtue of being their eternal and uncreated Source, the One who in the beginning first said, “Let there be light.”
Would such a Being then not be infinitely worthy of all our worship, all our obedience, all our devotion, and all our adoration? Would such a Being then not infinitely deserve all our worship, obedience, devotion, and adoration? I mean infinitely deserve these responses from us, not just be in a position to demand and coerce them. That is, just by His being who and what He is, those responses would be not just nice or even desirable on our art but inherently appropriate, indeed, inherently owed to Him. To fail to see or accept this obligation would be to be complicit in a truly pernicious lie about the real nature of things; to refuse it would be morally culpable. And I mean by infinitely that there would be no conceivable limit to that worthiness and that desert on His part, and hence to that obligation and culpability on ours. He would be eternal and uncreated, hence unbounded by space or time; so there would be no limits to His possession of the attributes that justify such responses from us. All this seems to follow inexorably.
Alright, here’s the next step: If all of that is true, then would stubbornly and persistently withholding those responses, indeed, stubbornly and persistently yielding them to something—to anything—else, not then make us in a sense infinitely guilty of rebellion? And would that rebellion not be infinitely ungrateful and inexcusable? For there could be no limit to how wrong it was. By what possible moral calculus could we then judge Hell to be unjust? From this perspective, God’s goodness is not in conflict with the justice of eternal punishment; it is the very consideration that makes its justice and rightness inescapable!
There are further questions that have to be considered. If such a Being existed and we were His creatures, absolutely dependent on Him for our existence, would worship, obedience, devotion, and adoration of Him not then be the ultimate fulfillment of our existence? Would refusing them, or giving them to anything else, not be the ultimate frustration of our nature? Would that frustration not be itself the very definition of Hell—even if no retributive justice as such were involved? For, having rejected the Source of all that is good, what could our existence then be? It would be an existence cut off from the Well from which flows the water of life: goodness, knowledge, wisdom, strength, justice, and love. It would therefore be by its very nature an existence devoid of those things and full of evil, folly, impotence, futility, and every kind of wickedness. What could such an existence be but Hell? And if retributive justice were involved (it cannot be excluded as part of the picture if we are to be faithful to Scripture), who would be in a position to complain that it was unjust or undeserved? For by refusing worship, obedience, devotion and adoration to God, by giving them anything else, we would have received precisely what we had chosen: a life in which our aspiration for anything that is good and noble is fully and finally frustrated.
One might well object that hypothetical questions like these do not prove the existence of such a God. No. They do not. But they do clarify what the Christian claim about God is, and hence show that the traditional Christian claims about the afterlife are not inconsistent with it—indeed, are wonderfully coherent. And they can also lead to further questions: If this Being does not exist, how does it come about that anything exists? If naturalism and materialism are true, where did concepts like goodness and justice (and evil and injustice) come from? For in a naturalistic world there is no evil and no injustice—merely certain situations we do not happen to like. If naturalism is true, where did the concept of truth come from? If naturalism is true, how could naturalism (or anything else) be true? If naturalism is true, how could naturalism (or anything else) be true? For in such a world all ideas (and their antitheses) would equally be nothing more than chemical reactions in the brains of organisms which evolved to have them by chance.
Such questions might well lead to the realization that the existence of God is, at minimum, a not unreasonable hypothesis in trying to account for the fullness of the reality we experience by living in this wondrous world. For it is a world that does contain goodness, justice, and truth, along with evil, injustice, and lies, whether a secular philosophy has room for them or can give meaning to them or not. If God makes sense, then Heaven and Hell make sense: If the world contains real and not just imagined goodness and evil, then it makes sense that there should somewhere be ultimate fulfillments of both—that is, Heaven and Hell. Then the realization that God’s existence actually makes sense of the world (and is the only thing that does) might put us in a position to receive the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in history as a solid basis for faith in the God who, the disciples were convinced, was revealed to them there in His Son.
Well, one might also object, I cannot imagine such a God. No. You cannot. Not fully, if anything I have said about Him here is true. In fact, we are warned that it can be dangerous to try. We can only safely conceive of God by sticking to the pictures of Him we are given in Scripture, culminating in the only perfect Image, His Son Jesus Christ. If we tried to imagine Him outside of that framework we would only create false and corrupted images of Him and worship them. They are technically known as idols. Because of the rebellion of our first ancestors we have become constitutional rebels and constitutional manufacturers and worshipers of idols. They do not have to be made of literal wood or stone to be horribly real and destructive—and to render us horribly guilty.
Now, what if this good God loved us so much that He was not content to leave us in such a state of idolatry and rebellion and futility but had offered us a way back to Him? What if He had provided it by the sacrificial and atoning death of His Son, who had offered to absorb all the consequences due to our guilt in our place? You could never find God; as a constitutional rebel, you don’t even want to. But if He cut through all of your resistance and revealed Himself to you in such a way that He opened the eyes of your heart, so that you could get even the vaguest apprehension of what He really is as described above, would you not then want to give Him all your worship, obedience, devotion, and adoration? Such at least is the testimony of many who have had such an experience. And you will find yourself beginning, stumblingly and fitfully at first, to do so too if you are ever granted to see even the faintest glimpse the Image He gave us: of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
In other words, the justice of Hell is not really our intellectual problem. The very goodness of the God we despise, disobey, ignore, and hate ironically demands it. His goodness—the fact that He is the Wellspring and Source of all that is good and thus infinitely deserves the worship, obedience, devotion, and adoration we have withheld from Him and given to another—demands some such fate for the reprobate every bit as much as His justice does. So the justice of Hell is not the problem. The real mystery, the thing that we can accept but never finally explain, is the grace of Heaven. Some of us constitutional rebels, the ones who are enabled to accept it, will be forgiven and changed and granted to see Him face to face. I want to be one of those! Don’t you?
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College. He is the author of eight books, including Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012). To order ($15.00 + shipping), go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/
Posted on March 17, 2013, in Christianity, Donald Williams, Meditations, Theology and tagged adoration, devotion, God, goodness, Hell, Justice, obedience, worship. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.