Does Hell Need To Be Forever?

By L. Alfred James

“I could never believe in a God who sends people to hell forever!” I’ve heard this statement so many times, I’ve lost count. People who make this statement usually don’t realize it, but they are implicitly making some other (very serious) claims. To be sure, they are implicit claims, and they are almost never made explicit, but they are part and parcel of this statement. What are these claims?

Nothing Is Important Enough To Justify Hell (Or God Is Not Just)

justiceA person who says that a good God could never send anyone to hell is implicitly claiming one of two things: Either God does not care about justice, or (if he does care about justice) there is nothing in this world important enough to justify such a punishment. Again, they might not intend to say this. But that doesn’t matter. It is logically entailed by their statement. They are implying that nothing in this life is all that meaningful. Why? Because nothing in this life is all that important. This might be a little hard to grasp, so let me illustrate.

Imagine a judge who is perfectly just. He is the paragon of justice, absolutely perfect in his judgments. Further, imagine that this judge is preparing to sentence a rapist who has been found guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. It has been decisively proven that he violently raped thirty separate women. In fact, he openly admits his guilt. So, this man is very guilty of very criminal behavior. In the minds of all sane people, a good judge would give this man a severe sentence. Why? Because sane people have an intuitive sense that a woman’s dignity is a very important thing (and thus, violating a woman’s dignity is a very bad thing).

Now, imagine that something disturbing happens. Imagine that this perfectly just judge sentences the man to only pay a fifty-cent fine, and then lets him go free.

If we observed this sentencing, what impression would that leave on us?

Since we know the judge is perfectly just, we would be left to wonder if a woman’s dignity is all that important. “Doesn’t a woman’s dignity matter? Is it only worth fifty cents?” Our intuitions would feel violated. We would experience cognitive dissonance, feeling torn between our belief that a woman’s dignity is of great worth, and our belief that the judge is perfectly just. If we clung to our belief in the judge being perfectly just, we would think something like this: “Maybe it isn’t very terrible to violate women?” If so, and this is my point, a woman’s dignity would not seem very important. If it were very important, then the rapist would have been given a really severe penalty (such as life in prison or the death penalty), right? Yes, as long as the judge is perfectly just.

Conversely, if the judge would have given this man an extremely severe sentence, then that would be a strong confirmation that this man had violated something very important and meaningful.

If—in our imaginary world—a just judge’s severe sentence indicates that a woman’s dignity is very important, what does God’s sentencing people to eternal damnation in the real world indicate? It indicates that there is something very important in this life. To be more precise, hell indicates that there is something incredibly meaningful and important in this life (namely, God himself). If we neglect God, and treat him like he does not matter, we are very guilty, and we will justly suffer.

justiceAs long as we assume that God is perfectly just, there is no escape from this conclusion. To my mind, there are no viable alternatives to this logic. Thus, hell is evidence that life is deeply meaningful (because we can know, love, and honor God).

Therefore, the person who insists that God would never send anyone to hell is also insisting that life is simply not all that meaningful. At the very least, it isn’t meaningful enough to justly require the existence of hell. Or, maybe they are insisting that God is not perfectly just. To me, either option is intellectual and theological suicide.

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