Hell: Prison or Nothingness?

If God is absolute, infinite, and unconditional love, how can there be hell? Or as one student asked Jonathan Kvanvig after he had just explained that God wills the good of every person: “But why does God get so angry, then, when we just want to be alone?”

Good question. One traditional answer is that God retributively punishes all who have lived their earthly lives without love and in disobedience to the moral law. The damned get what’s coming to them. But over the past century or so Christian theologians and philosophers have subjected this model of eternal retribution to serious analysis and critique. How can it be moral and just to punish an individual everlastingly for finite crimes? “The fundamental problem for the traditional conception of hell,” Kvanvig explains, “is that people receive an infinite punishment for less than infinite sin.” But perhaps even more crucially, if retributive punishment is God’s principal motive for damnation, this would appear to elevate the attribute of justice above the attributes of love and mercy. Indeed, the divine love and mercy seem to disappear altogether. For the reprobate, there is only God’s wrath. A review of the many objections that have been advanced against the punishment model of perdition is beyond the scope of this blog series. I refer interested readers to Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell, and Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation.

As an alternative to the punishment model, theologians and philosophers have proposed what is popularly known as “the free-will” or “self-determination” model. More obscurely, Kvanvig has named it “the issuant conception of hell”: a proper understanding of damnation must issue or emerge from a unified understanding of the character of God, as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The position that God’s justice is more fundamental than his love seems in direct opposition to the heart of Christianity, because the biblical picture of God is that of one who continually postpones the visitation of justice in favor of demonstrations of love. If his justice were dominant, God could have no reason to postpone immediate recompense for wrongdoing, although he might in his love and mercy have some reason to apply the least severe punishment compatible with his just and holy nature. He also could have no reason, in the words of St. Paul (via the King James translators), to send his Son in the likeness of human flesh to reconcile the world unto himself. Having a reason for such an action requires that his love be the dominant motivational force in his interaction with human beings and that satisfying the demands of his just and holy nature be conformed to this dominant, fundamental characteristic. … An adequate conception of hell must be an issuant conception of it, one that portrays hell as flowing from the same divine character from which heaven flows. Any other view wreaks havoc on the integrity of God’s character (Kvanvig, pp. 118, 136)

While various forms of the issuant theory have been advanced, they all have one thing in common: the sinner freely chooses existence apart from communion with God. Instead of the joy and happiness of heaven, he chooses exile, and God has no choice but to respect this decision. C. S. Lewis explains the problem:

If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully “All will be saved.” But my reason retorts, “Without their will, or with it?” If I say “Without their will” I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say “With their will,” my reason replies “How if they will not give in?” (The Problem of Pain, pp. 118-119)

God respects the self-determinations of those he has made in his image. To compel anyone to participate in the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would constitute a gross violation of their personal integrity. Freedom grounds the communion of love. God, therefore, does not directly will hell. He does not consign persons to perdition in order to exact vengeance or punishment. Hell, rather, is what happens when human beings definitively and irrevocably reject the divine love and insist upon their autonomy. God accepts defeat, and the damned are abandoned to their own devices. The perfect goodness of God, in this sense, requires hell.

But why won’t God just leave them alone? the student asks. Ultimately, of course, he does. But the student no doubt is thinking that surely there must be a “place” where the reprobate can live happily ever after—or at least as happily as narcissists and psychopaths can. But there can be no authentic happiness for the damned, for God himself is humanity’s absolute good and fulfillment. To choose any alternative but eternal communion with the Creator is to choose nothingness:

Conceived in the starkest terms, the alternative to presence in heaven is nothingness. To choose to be dependent on God is to choose a path that results in presence in heaven, and to choose independence from God is, ultimately, to choose annihilation, for independence from God is not logically possible. … One might object that those who choose against heaven need not be wishing for ontological independence from God, but are rather choosing only against submission to the will of God. Such people may not care one whit whether they are ontologically dependent on God as long as they do not have to obey him. Generally people rebel only against submission to God and not to ontological dependence upon him. This attitude strikes me as a confusion, however, for any involvement by God in the life of a person involves more than mere sustenance of being. To presume that one can have sustenance of being with no further involvement by God is to presume falsely. Ultimately, the aim of a loving and holy God would be to develop all people to the point where they truly enjoy the company of heaven. If that is so, however, the aim of God must be to get them all to see that their ultimate choice is heaven or annihilation; there is no middle position in which God can reasonably be asked to sustain our being and yet ignore our predilection toward corruption. …

The teleological features of hell derive from the fundamental fact that there is nowhere God is not and nothing fundamentally independent of him. The choice of heaven and hell is not a choice of residence, as if one were picking between two new countries in which one might wish to reside. The choice of heaven or hell is rather a choice between ultimate union with God and ultimate independence from God. Choosing to aim against ultimate union with him is choosing ultimate independence from him, which is to choose nonexistence. One does not have available a “geographic” alternative to heaven; that is, one cannot pick some desert landscape alternative to the supposedly lusher, more luxuriant realm of heaven. There simply is no ultimate alternative to the two possibilities of dependence on God or independence from God. (Kvanvig, pp. 146-148)

The invocation of nothingness and annihilation identifies an important disagreement among free-will theorists. If to reject God is to choose nothingness, does this mean that God will cause the damned to actually cease to exist? Eleonore Stump, following St Thomas Aquinas, thinks not. Given that the goodness of God is identical to his being, it would be contrary to his nature (i.e., evil) for him to undo or negate the gift of existence. All God can do, therefore, is to treat the damned “according to their second nature, the acquired nature they have chosen for themselves. He confines them within a place where they can do no more harm to the innocent. In this way he recognizes their evil nature and shows that he has a care for it, because by keeping the damned from doing further evil, he prevents their further disintegration, their further loss of goodness and of being” (“Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’s Moral Theory, and the Love of God,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 16 [June 1986]: 196-197). God cannot bestow happiness on the damned—they have made that impossible—but he does what he can for them. He keeps them out of harm’s way and inhibits their further ontological decay.

Kvanvig, on the other hand, believes that God will honor requests by the damned for annihilation. He does not claim that all, or even many, will actually petition God for obliteration; but he holds this up as a possibility. God will not annihilate anyone against their will, of course, for the same reason that he will not force anyone to personally submit to him; but if someone should reach a rationally considered and settled decision that (a) because the goods of life are no longer available to him and (b) because he finds the summons to conversion utterly repugnant and unacceptable, thereby making continued existence a burden too great to be borne, then God may possibly grant his petition. Ontological suicide is but the consummation of the rejection of eternal communion with God. As Kvanvig writes, “Hell is an afterlife journey toward annihilation” (p. 152).

Stump and Kvanvig leave us with two unsettling images: God as prison warden and God as euthanizer.

(Go to “Rational Freedom and the Incoherence of Satan”)

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14 Responses to Hell: Prison or Nothingness?

  1. tgbelt says:

    I really liked Walls’ book The Logic of Damnation. He makes some excellent points.


  2. brian says:

    Of course, neither of those options is really adequate.

    The metaphysics of freedom is open to various interpretations. People often simply assume it is a univocal concept when it isn’t. While considerations regarding creation and freedom are obviously germane, it seems to me that one should begin and really end with a consideration of the nature of God. Would a God free to create or not to create be truly Good if a creation was willed where eternally damned souls or annihilated souls were possible?

    There are fairly strong theodicies that allow for this, but I remain troubled by them. If God is as loving as the Christian tradition affirms (i.e., not a deist entity that constructs a machine and serenely sits back and watches the mechanism,) then any creature who is not raised to eternal glory and beatitude must be a loss for God. A universalist soteriology is first centered around what God must be like. Get that right, and all the conundrums about free will, hell, and annihilation will sort themselves out. Get it wrong and one is likely going to embrace a blasphemous image only Job’s counselors would approve.


  3. phillip says:

    Interesting post Fr Kimel. It seems that Kvanvig pits justice against mercy. What I have come to realize through working in a prison ministry is that Biblical justice is not “getting” justice but a “doing” of justice. In other words justice is an expression of mercy (Micah 6:8). Therefore all the above examples fall short of God’s true justice. Prison, as you mentioned, is simply bringing consequences to bear while isolating the perpetrator to protect others. The death penalty or annihilation by God would be “getting justice,” leaving a voluntary annihilation (ontological suicide) to be the death of any opportunity for true justice (an ‘eternal death’ of true justice).

    All views fail to represent God’s justice revealed in the Scriptures: that justice is a return to righteousness or literally “right-useness.” Therefore justice by nature must result in ultimate restoration. That is the goal of our prison ministry summed by Colson’s book title, “Justice that Restores.” We desire for the violator to return to his/her right-useness, their original purpose, not just “get their due.” As Brian said above, justice will mirror what God is like and He is not vindictive but restorative.

    While there is a sense in which our salvation came by annihilation (death and resurrection with Christ) annihilation in an eschatological sense appears to thwart true justice. In the words of George MacDonald: “Annihilation is no death to evil. Only good where evil was is evil dead. An evil thing must live with itself until it chooses to be good. That alone is the slaying of evil.”

    It seems that annihilation would be rather the death of good than the death of evil.

    The belief that all will be restored of course leaves the question of violating man’s free-will. It’s a moot point for me. I am content to believe that God has the ability to romance the hearts of this entire world to Himself in time.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Phillip, if I read him rightly, Kvanvig only pits everlasting retributive punishment against love. If justice is understood as restorative, then I can’t imagine him disagreeing with you at all. I’ll have to take another look at his book to confirm.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You make a good point about annihilation being the death of good rather than the death of evil. Talbott makes this point in his essay “Freedom.” In Kvanvig’s model the unjust are given the opportunity to escape from their situation, without ever having to grips with the terrible injuries they have done to others.


      • phillip says:

        Thanks for the link. Looks like a great article, looking forward to reading.

        I guess if Kvanvig wants to speculate in that direction he can. It doesn’t make sense to me nor does it settle the problem of unresolved evil kept alive in the memory of the living, not to mention God Himself. And since sin is primarily a relational issue against God and others then a legal settlement will never suffice. Only through reconciliation between victim and perpetrator will the matter be dealt with and healed. So I find it just as natural to imagine a model where eventually all the alternatives to God will have been exhausted and therefore extinguished forever. God will then clearly be seen as the only One worthy to capture our hearts. As one translation renders the “all in all” of 1 Cor 15:28 – “He will be everything to everyone.”


  4. AR says:

    One point: God’s respect for man’s freedom should not be treated as a maxim. We deduce it from the belief that God gifted man with his freedom. (Also, as a not-entirely-satisfactory explanation for his non-interference in the evil that plagues us here on Earth.) God’s respect, then, remains pointed at his own creative act, his own glory as shared with man’s nature. (“The glory of God is a man” says the scripture.)

    Now, self-determination cannot be true freedom. Whatever determines us makes us less free – even if that determination came from ourself. So perhaps God’s “respect” for human freedom does not fully extend to self-determinations or to their results.

    In that case, it may be that while God refuses to force anyone to love him (presumably because this is impossible, oxymoronic) at the same time he does not scruple to say “no” at some point to man’s choices and intentions. (To do so doesn’t render a man less free – just powerless.) A request to retract his gift of being would surely be one of those “no” moments – after all the whole argument for God’s “respect” of man’s freedom is necessarily also an argument for his “respect” of man’s being. We must remember that our understanding of God’s love is not grounded in his creator-ly love but in his trinitarian love. As Trinity, his first love is to the Persons of his own being, and he loves his creatures as the mutual creative act of love by those Persons.

    Assent to a request for annihilation would elevate “respect for freedom” over God’s other attributes, notably his love for the being of the creature.


  5. Michael Bauman says:

    And what are we to make of John 12:32 “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” ?

    That seems to indicate that our Lord’s Passion and the gift of salvation it brings is a constant drawing of the soul toward Him, a constant reforming of creation to restore it. That also fits with my experience (for what good that is).

    Is not sin both a veiling of the truth of our own soul from ourselves as well as a defilement of our communion with our creator? Is that not why Adam and Eve hid themselves?

    I cannot personally fathom the human will that could constantly and continuously hold out against the love of God drawing us to Himself.

    So we have a sort of a version of the Catholic purgatory, something that, as I understand it, was not off the table for the East so much as not discussed in the correct manner, if at all.

    Could not an Orthodox version of purgatory be possible (without the physical fire, the indulgences, etc)? It seems to me as if that is the direction we are being led because no one wants to accept complete and outright universalism (salvation without consequences) as that too would be unjust and obvious against the words of Jesus Himself. The 11th hour laborers receive the same compensation as those who labored from the first hour. Who is to say when the 11th hour is? The lake of fire is not prepared for us after all, but for satan and his minions.

    Even if we are personally unable to be volitional after our death, the prayers of the faithful (seen and unseen) might be sufficient?


  6. Michael Bauman says:

    As to the title: as I am suspicious of dichotomies of any kind I tend to answer—neither. Maybe it is a bit like the treatment of severe burn victims who have to repeatedly have the burned area of their skin stripped off to allow healing. Extremely painful.


  7. Michael Bauman says:

    Good titles sure, but it reminds me of the sales technique called the “Fatal Alternative”. Give anyone a choice between two possibilities and they are quite likely to take one of the two rather than come up with a third option that may be just as good or even better.

    Similarly, given three options, people are likely to choose the one that seems to be “in the middle” between two perceived extremes.

    I wonder how the conversation would be different if the title had been: Is Hell a prison, a hospital, or the door to nothingness?

    The Christian faith seems to be dominated by Jesus seeming penchant for combining and reconciling two things that appear to be in opposition and unmixable like Man and God (the list is almost endless). Could not such be at work with Heaven and Hell? Or at least freedom and obedience?

    Just asking.


    • brian says:

      Honestly, given those metaphors, I think Father is solidly in the “hospital” camp. The alternatives were meant to be provocative. My guess is you are supposed to reject them.

      The kind of paradoxical truth you allude to, Michael, is strongly advocated for in Pavel Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, btw.

      Not that you need me to speak for you, Fr Kimel . . .


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        There is of course a third alternative–neither! 🙂

        But you are right, I am probably best located in the hospital camp.


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