Hell and the Nature of God

Paul Helm
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
May/Jun 2002

t is easy to meet Christians today who reject the traditional doctrine of hell. Many of them think that, in the end, everyone will be saved.

Some Christians support this new position by arguing that we can know very little about hell with certainty, and that the Church's traditional doctrine was embraced by extrapolating from what are only hints in Scripture. Theologians then took up these hints, our friends believe, and embellished them in line with certain assumptions that they made about God's character. Yet, these revisionists claim, the Bible also contains other clues that support belief in universal salvation; and these clues, combined with different assumptions about God-and especially the assumption that God is love-yield a very different view of the last things.

It often follows, from these opinions, that any view of the last things-of heaven and hell and death and judgment-is as legitimate as any other. For in the absence of any clear biblical teaching, each view depends on one or another of the contradictory sets of hints allegedly found in Scripture. And in the absence of a clear biblical doctrine of God, any idea of God may be as legitimate as any other. For, it is assumed, there are also several competing and inconsistent ideas about God from which Christians are free to choose. So there are many competing Christian ideas about God, heaven, and hell. And we must decide, on extra-biblical grounds, which of them is credible.

The Episcopal philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams of Yale Divinity School is one of these revisionists. She has argued in a series of articles spanning almost thirty years, as well as in a new book, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God that the traditional doctrine of hell is indefensible, that it flouts fundamental tenets of justice, and that it ought to be replaced by a version of universal salvation. She thinks that beginning in this life, but continuing into the next, each of us is invited into a personal, loving relationship with God. And each of us will accept this invitation, either before our deaths or when the invitation is renewed afterwards, for God will hold out his invitation for as long as it takes for the last of us to accept it.

How the Traditional Doctrine of Hell Actually Developed

Examining Adams's arguments will allow us to see how revising the traditional Christian doctrine of hell strikes at other fundamental Christian doctrines. Her arguments against the traditional doctrine of hell involve errors about God's nature, the atonement, sin, and what sort of punishment is fitting for sinful human beings. But first we should note that the foregoing account about how the traditional doctrine has developed is a travesty of the truth. For in developing its doctrine of the last things, and particularly its doctrine of hell, the Church has not started with scriptural "hints" but with the unmistakably clear teaching of the Lord Jesus himself, supported by the teaching of the apostles. No doubt some of what Jesus taught about hell is figurative and nonliteral, and these teachings about heaven and hell carry various difficulties with them. But what theological doctrines do not? Nevertheless, the main outlines of what Christ and his apostles taught are clear and undeniable.

Faced with this biblical teaching, the Church has not cast around for sets of assumptions about God's nature and purposes from which predictions about the last things can be made. Rather, it has pursued the only responsible, consistently Christian approach. It has asked, What theological outlook-what ideas about the character and ways of God-best account for the biblical teaching on hell? And it has looked for answers to this question not by experimenting with various assumptions about God's character and purposes (as if one set of assumptions might be as valid as another), but by examining the biblical record of God's character and then attempting to tie together, in consistent fashion, the doctrine of God found there with the biblical doctrine of hell. Only by thinking in this way, the Church has maintained, can a faithful Christian doctrine of hell be identified and held as a matter of faith. No doubt other sets of assumptions about God than the biblical set will lead to different conclusions, but this is beside the point.

Errors about God's Nature and Christ's Work

Some of Adams's arguments for her revisionary doctrines involve errors about both God's nature and Christ's work. These include unorthodox views about what the traditional doctrine of God means and about the atonement.

Adams regards the traditional doctrine about God as an arbitrary assumption by perpetrators of the traditional view of hell. She discerns rightly that the traditional view of hell is retributive and depends upon a view of justice as giving someone what he or she deserves. Yet she thinks this doctrine was embraced because Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and the reformers identified God's "primary moral virtue" with "perfect retributive justice."

This is curious because actually this idea that God has a primary moral virtue and that this virtue is perfect retributive justice is not found in these theologians. And there is a ready and obvious answer why not. They all held to some version of the doctrine of divine simplicity. This doctrine maintains that God does not possess separate virtues or attributes; he is, instead, one glorious unity, and what we call his virtues or attributes do not correspond to real distinctions in God but are our finite ways of mentally ordering and articulating his glory. But if God does not have separate virtues or attributes, then he cannot have a primary moral virtue or attribute. So what we call God's justice is but one refraction of the divine glory, while his love is another refraction.

Given divine unity and simplicity, God's justice must be consistent with his love, his mercy, his wisdom. His justice is a loving justice; his love a just love. This means that his love (unlike many expressions of human love) cannot be expressed as an indulgence of-or encouragement in-thoughts and behavior that are immoral. God's love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It also means that he lovingly receives penitents-those who acknowledge and repudiate their sin (as the Prodigal Son did)-without limit.

Where God's love and justice differ is not in their intrinsic natures but in their exercise. In particular, mainstream theologians such as Augustine, Anselm, and Calvin stressed that there is something in the exercise of justice that must distinguish it from the exercise of love and mercy. Justice has an inexorable character. The very idea of justice would be flouted if it were exercised in a selective or arbitrary way, if two people equally deserving of divine praise or divine punishment were (other things being equal) to be treated differently. Blameworthiness before God inexorably calls for justice, and (other things being equal) justice must and will be exercised, for that is what justice-and especially supreme, divine justice-is. If God did not exercise his justice in such circumstances, then he would be failing to act justly; and this would amount to God failing to be what God essentially is.

By contrast, divine love or mercy is exercised optionally, or at God's discretion. It is essential to the exercise of these divine virtues or attributes (though not of their possession, as we have seen) that they are discretionary or optional. God is not required to be loving, or to have mercy, or to exercise grace. Yet he is required to be just. Were God required to love, then such love would not be true love. Rather, God chooses to act graciously, lovingly, and with mercy; and in so choosing he reveals the true contours of what grace and love and mercy are.

The question of the ultimate distribution of God's love, grace, or mercy is irrelevant here, although it often clouds discussion. God may choose to bestow his love, grace, or mercy upon only some people or all of humankind. Some people may enjoy God's love and its effects more intensely than others. Scripture teaches that God's love, grace, and mercy are unequally distributed, and it discourages us from trying to pry into the reasons why this is. But even had this not been so, and God's love, grace, and mercy had been equally and universally distributed, the distinctive character of these virtues' expression would not have been affected. For each individual case of love, grace, and mercy would still be optional. Thus, the beneficiaries of such divine virtues are able to say, "God might not have loved me or given me his grace, even though he did. God might justly have not had mercy on me." This awareness involves a true understanding of the exercise of such virtues-and so evokes expressions of gratitude and love. But a guilty person who says, "Although I deserve divine punishment, God has justly waived it, and God loves me because he had to," misunderstands the nature of both justice and love. How we think about God's justice and love matters because it can lead to such misunderstandings as this. Justice is part of the divine nature, and it is by nature inexorable. But this does not make justice a "primary virtue" of the divine nature.

Because God's justice is intrinsic to his immaculate holiness and inseparable from it, we may be assured that no morally relevant character trait or circumstance will be overlooked in God's assessment of any human life. We often borrow our notions of justice from the imperfect justice of human courts, which is justice as administered by fallible and corrupted judicial systems. But God's justice will be administered according to truth. Justice will be accomplished.

The Atonement

As the Church has traditionally understood it, God in his mercy has visited his inexorable justice on Jesus Christ as his people's substitute. Jesus bore God's wrath, being made sin for us although he knew no sin, so that God might be just and at the same time the justifier of him who believes in Jesus (see 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:21-26). Divine justice is vindicated in Christ's death; and love is expressed first in the giving of the Son and then in the receiving of God's love by those who are "in Christ."

Adams has unusual ideas about Christ's atonement and particularly about its substitutionary character. In the first place, she thinks of the atonement as explaining how God circumvents the dilemma he faces of either consigning the sinful race to perdition or simply forgiving us our sins, "because this would be to treat us better than we deserve and hence to contravene the standards of retributive justice."

But according to Scripture, to forgive the wicked their sins by divine fiat would not best be understood as a case of treating them better than they deserve but rather as condoning their wickedness. Adams thinks that Christ's substitutionary death is explained by "a theory of collective responsibility" being "temporarily invoked" so that any member of the human race may make satisfaction on behalf of the whole. But this view involves a fundamental misunderstanding. Christ's substitution is understood not by invoking a theory of collective responsibility, but by recognizing the centrality and uniqueness of the merits and righteousness of the God-man (surely not an average member of the human race!) being imputed not to a collective body but to individuals. Christ takes the place of individual sinners, and his righteousness is justly reckoned as theirs, for Christ has taken their place in obedience to the Father's loving will.

As traditionally understood, Christ's substitutionary death does not explain how God gets himself off the horns of a dilemma. Part of the atonement's mystery is that it does not allow a just God to love sinners, but that it is itself an expression of God's prior love for them. In the atonement, God's love and justice come together. The Son offers himself in response to the initiative of the Father's love for sinners, an initiative in which he wholly concurs.

Errors about the Nature of Sin and Its Just Punishment

Adams also falters concerning the nature of sin and the kind of punishment that is fitting for sinful human beings.

We approach the heart of things when we ask about the biblical basis for how finite rational creatures are, by their actions and omissions, liable to infinite punishment, and so in need of atonement by the God-man.

Adams makes unnecessarily heavy weather of this. In her writings, she emphasizes that the normal, everyday administration of punishment is often not strictly proportionate to the offense. The principle of "an eye for an eye" might sanction a man losing a tooth for knocking out someone's tooth, but it cannot sanction the loss of thirty of his teeth if he knocks out one tooth of thirty different people. If this is so with one person's relation to thirty others, then, says Adams, it is certainly so if the number of people affected is extremely great or infinite. How then can it be in accordance with justice that one offense against God should merit infinite punishment?

There are three elements which, it seems to me, ground the Church's traditional view of what the Bible teaches on hell and which answer effectively Adams's question.

First, theologians have grounded the doctrine of hell in the infinite perfection of God. Perhaps Anselm of Canterbury was the first theologian to defend this insight formally and at length, in his Why God Became Man. In spite of Adams's claim to the contrary, the status that Anselm ascribed to God has nothing crucially to do with feudal ideas of social status. Rather, it has everything to do with the ontological distinction-or, the difference in being-between the Creator and the creature. Because God's kind of being as the Creator and our kind of being as a creature are so utterly different, the moral status of the Creator cannot be measured against the moral status of the creature, however fine and exalted that creature may be. This is why an offense against an infinite God merits infinite (or unmeasurable) punishment.

Adams thinks that "the fact that liability to punishment is not proportional to the offended party's greatness, where finite degrees of greatness are concerned, casts doubt" on Anselm's suggestion. But why? Is it plausible to argue that because the notion of "proportionate return" breaks down in ordinary cases, it also breaks down in the extraordinary case of the relation between the Creator and his creatures? The very incommensurability of divine and human honor is crucial to Anselm's argument. Adams's counterarguments ridiculing the idea that punishment ought to be not strictly proportionate but related to the victim's social status cut no ice here.

In order to see this point, we must grasp the distinction between commensurability and proportionality in this discussion. Commensurability-the notion that two or more things can be measured against each other-has to do with the status of individuals. For example, Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith, because they are two human beings, are commensurable; their comparative status can be measured on a common scale. But Mr. Jones and God are not commensurable. The Creator's status is different in kind than a creature's status, and so between these two kinds of being there can be no common scale. Proportionality, in contrast, has to do with the relationship between an offense and a punishment. If the offense and the punishment have equal value, then the punishment is strictly proportionate to the offense. If they have unequal value, then they are not strictly proportionate. Adams is, in effect, arguing that justice does not-and cannot-require that punishment be strictly proportionate to an offense, even though sometimes it may be.

Adams shows how proportionality breaks down in certain cases of administering punishment where one person offends another, even though there is commensurability between the two persons' status. But Anselm shows that where there is incommensurability, as in the case of the relation between the Creator and his creatures, hell is the nearest proportionate punishment for an offense against God's infinite majesty.

In her later writings, Adams continues to appeal to incommensurability-and remains confused about its relation to the proportionality of punishment. She thinks that the traditional account of hell puts human beings in the position where the consequences of their acts are utterly disproportionate to the acts themselves. This, she claims, is manifestly unfair. It is as if "the powers that be threaten a nuclear holocaust if I do not always put my pencil down no more than one inch from the paper on which I am writing." But it is clear what Anselm's reply would be: Sin against God is not trivial. It is the very incommensurability between Creator and creature that makes sin against God the gravely serious concern that it is. And this makes the infinite punishment of hell not a case of strictly proportionate justice, but of as proportionate a measure of that enormous seriousness as can be.

Secondly, there is the relationship of the human heart to God. Adams considers whether the principle "to will it is as bad as to do it" provides the moral basis for divine retributive justice. She argues that it does not. She writes that in a situation where an intense desire to harm someone else is thwarted, "No matter how intensely someone desires at a given time to make someone else totally unhappy forever, it is always possible that he will eventually relinquish that ambition." In such a situation, proportionality obviously does not call for the eternal punishment of the one who has such a desire because his desire may not last forever. So, she appears to be arguing, no desire, however evil and however enduring it may be, can merit eternal punishment.

But in the traditional Christian view, "desire" has to do with more than the intention that grounds an act, whether or not the act is thwarted. It concerns the relation of the "heart"-or a person's spiritual center-to God. This relation may justify the description of an act as "sinful," whatever other descriptions it may carry. An act of murder, grounded in an intention to harm another, is not sinful simply because it intentionally results in another person's death. And a murderous desire is not sinful simply because it is an intention to harm, even though that intention is thwarted. The desires and intentions that matter here are those which, at a deeper level, are expressions of defiance against the Lord, failures to act not only in accordance with his law, but also out of love for him and for his glory. It is this feature of human desires and intentions, rather than features such as their intensity or duration, that merits eternal punishment. Adams's argument, which rests on analogies drawn from human systems of culpability, fails, once again, to capture the uniqueness of the Creator-creature relationship.

Thirdly, this idea of intention links with another feature grounding the doctrine of eternal punishment. It is that the rationale for divine punishment, unlike the rationale for systems of human punishment, is not social control based upon limited information regarding socially harmful behavior. The rationale for divine punishment is that God must uphold his divine honor based upon his infallible knowledge of the human heart. For as a man thinks in his heart, so is he. What matters is a person's character, his matrix of intentions and their grounding in his "heart." And if someone's character is one of resolute and impenitent defiance against the Creator, then Scripture maintains that eternal punishment is fitting.

An Error about Heaven and the Need for Purgatory

In place of the traditional and, I have argued, biblically based account of the reality of hell, Marilyn McCord Adams, along with many others (including C. S. Lewis), argues for a gradual post-mortem development of personal relations with God. This, she believes, is the only view of human survival that is compatible with human freedom and divine love. Endorsing this prospect amounts to a defense of one version of the doctrine of purgatory, although Adams does not identify her proposal by this name. Since the Reformation, the doctrine of hell, as confessed by Protestants, has carried with it a denial of the doctrine of purgatory on the ground that Scripture does not support it. So in concluding this review of some current arguments against the traditional doctrine of hell, it is appropriate to say something about this view.

The traditional doctrine of heaven-and with it the denial of the doctrine of purgatory-carries with it, in Adams's words, the need for a "miraculous, instantaneous" transformation of the personality that involves the replacement of vices by their corresponding virtues. She questions whether such "externally imposed, instantaneous character transformation is compatible with human freedom." And she rejects the idea because, in her view, it isn't. But this verdict is based upon a somewhat startling misunderstanding. The issue is not whether the idea is compatible with indeterministic human freedom. It is whether this idea of heaven can reasonably constitute the divinely bestowed fulfillment of a certain kind of virtuous desire that Christians already possess. The point is not that, in this supposed transformation, vices will be unwillingly exchanged for virtues, but that virtues in their present incomplete form in the lives of God's people will be transformed into fully developed virtues. Paul's cry, "What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24), has, as its natural answer: The Lord will, when in response to that cry he instantaneously transforms Paul and his body, and the characters and bodies of all the saints, at the Last Day.

1 In writing this article, Paul Helm has quoted from the following pieces by Marilyn McCord Adams: "Hell and the God of Justice" (Religious Studies, 1975); "Divine Justice, Divine Love, and the Life to Come" (Crux, 1976-77); "The Problem of Hell: A Problem for Christians," in Eleonore Stump, ed., Reasoned Faith (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993); and Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).
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