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.