Whenever we think of Hell, we get images of torture, burning of bodies, darkness, and ugly demons with pitchforks in our minds. But why can’t Hell be a nice and fun place, like a five-star resort, even if we need to keep the evil people there? You and I would probably agree that we ought to put people in prison only as a last resort in an effort to restrain them from harming others when all else has failed. But it is more preferable to rehabilitate a criminal and help them start a new and productive life. It would seem right to me that God’s first priority should be to rehabilitate me, a morally imperfect person, somehow during the course of my mortal life. But what if a person wants nothing to do with God, preferring rather to do what comes naturally, with its moral imperfections? Then by the same line of reasoning, there would need to be a final containment place for evil after death so that the evil harm done does not continue to spread for all of future eternity. Let’s call that final resting place of evil, Hell. Everything I have ever heard about Hell, whether it is in a movie, a fictional novel, in the Bible, or just in general on the street, is that it is the worst place ever, which raises a question. . . Why does Hell have to be so awful? During my teen years, my father would hire prisoners from the local jail where they could get day passes to work on our cattle and grain farm. I worked alongside them and found out that they had a higher standard of living than we enjoyed, including better meals and a wide variety of recreation options that we could not afford. One fellow, who seemed to enjoy working for my father, told us that he was coming up for parole, but was going to refuse it. My father was incredulous and asked him why? His response was that he lived much better in jail than he would have if he were released. Here’s my point . . . the local jail did its job by restraining its customers from harming others, but at the same time, it was a very nice place to live. Why can’t Hell be like that?
The Flawlessly Pure God Premise
Let’s start with the premise that God is perfectly good. What does that mean? Philosopher Alvin Plantinga describes the idea of “perfectly good” as something he calls “maximally excellent.” Maximal excellence is that degree of excellence beyond which it is not logically possible to be more excellent. One of the outcomes of being maximally excellent is that God is not only flawlessly good, he is the origin and sustainer of everything that is good, beautiful and just, such as music, genuine love, and so forth. So when we talk about a perfectly good God, we are talking about a being who is the origin and sustainer of everything that is good and pure . . . but that might have massive implications for us if we decide we are not interested in God.
Implications for human beings
Let’s imagine a fruit tree. If a branch is severed from the trunk, it eventually runs out of water and nutrients, making it incapable of producing fruit. It is the trunk of the tree that supplies life to the branch, giving it the ability to produce fruit. Here’s the point: if God is the origin and sustainer of everything that is good, then everything that is good within you is a gift from God and must be sustained by God. The very first time we commit an immoral act, no matter how small, we effectively sever ourselves from a flawlessly pure God. For the remainder of our lives we still enjoy the fading remnants of goodness, beauty, and every perfect gift, but eventually the life within us fades to the point of death. The part of you that is eternal and survives the loss of your body, reaches a point where the last of any goodness within you finally vanishes.
Some questions to consider
First, what is the soul of a human being like when there no longer remains anything good within you? For example, in this life you may be incredibly talented musically. God is the origin and sustainer of pure music. So what happens when the music within you starts to become corrupted? What would it be like to have the last remnant of music finally die in what remains of you after death? The analogy God uses likens you and I to a branch and God is the tree. The branch’s ability to produce fruit depends upon it being attached to the tree. If a branch is severed from the tree, it still has life and nutrients for a period of time, but they are slowly exhausted, and the branch eventually withers and dies. This is not a pleasant rational conclusion, but it logically follows if we begin with the premise that God is maximally excellent and, therefore, the sustainer of everything that is good.
So let’s think about this further. We have a situation in this life where every one of us is cut off, or severed, from the trunk of the tree, due to our own morally wrong thoughts and decisions. By our own standards we might be really nice people, but the goodness within us is dying, along with our mortal bodies. Question: What would you propose as a solution? To put the question another way, what would a perfectly good God’s plan to deal with evil be if the two options are either rehabilitation or containment of evil? Looking at this problem rationally, if the problem of human evil, both large and small, which you see every day within human relationships and in the news, is a result of us severing ourselves from the trunk then, upon reflection, it would seem that the solution is to be reattached to the trunk. So, if being cut off from the trunk can be described as a severing of our relationship with the being who is the origin and sustainer of every good thing, then we might expect God’s rehabilitation plan to include re-establishing that relationship if we are willing to accept his gift of life. This is exactly what Jesus proposed to each individual when he said,
“I am the vine, you are the branches. The person who lives in me and I in them, produces much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Is Hell God’s revenge?
I have often heard Hell described as God’s revenge for not believing in him. But let’s think about this. If the slow death of the good within us is a result of you severing yourself from God, then everything that is good within us is already starting to die. Eventually, we will become something that is utterly devoid of anything good. So, to look at this rationally, what would you think a flawlessly pure God is to do with beings that eventually become totally empty of all goodness and who reject the only source and sustainer of everything that is good and pure? If we use the concept of our justice systems in the West, evil must be confined in order to restrain the harm done to others. Extrapolating from this premise, it follows that a perfectly good God must confine eternal beings who become completely devoid of good. Just using reason, it seems that a flawlessly pure God must, on the basis of his own unimaginable purity and perfection, remove all that is not perfect, including the Tempter and the temptation. It is the eternal state of being severed from the one who is necessary to sustain good, and we are already on our way.
To give another analogy, say you are dying because of a severe loss of blood, but someone comes along and offers to donate enough of their blood to save your life. We could say, “If you don’t accept it you will die.” This would not be a threat, but a statement of fact. Dying if you refuse to accept the blood donation is not revenge for not accepting the gift of life; it is simply the inevitable consequence of rejecting the gift of life. It is exactly the same with God. His rehabilitation program is to offer us life and purification if we accept it from Jesus Christ and are, therefore, reconnected to the tree who is the origin and sustainer of every good and beautiful gift.
So why is Hell awful?
Among Christians, there are a range of views on Hell, but let’s just see where we go using rational analysis. If Hell was a place that is totally cut off from everything that is good, what would it be like? If it is nothing more than an eternal cemetery of dead souls, a containment place where not the faintest shred of good remains, then simple logic tells us that it would be awful.
What about the fire of Hell?
There is one last question that is interesting to look at. In different places in the Bible, Hell is a place associated with fire. What’s with that? If we think about it, we probably agree that we can’t even remotely imagine what eternity is like, whether it be something called “heaven” or “hell.” So words used to describe Hell probably don’t exist in our physical world. It follows from this that the concept of “fire” must refer to something, but not a normal campfire that can burn your physical body, but have no effect at all on the real, eternal part of you we might call the soul. So why did Jesus describe the final destination of those who have rejected the gift of life as a place of fire and of “weeping and gnashing of teeth?” The phrase, “gnashing of teeth” was a first-century term describing a state of out-of-control rage. So, the final state of a human being who is forever severed from God is one of a weeping, blinding rage that lasts forever. We can infer from that that this is what a person becomes when the last vestiges of good dies within them. But what did Jesus mean by associating Hell with fire? There’s something very interesting about the way God often describes himself that might shed some light on this. I’ve often seen God depicted in cartoons as an old man with a long beard, wearing a long, white robe. But if we think about it, it’s a mistake to think of God as a human being.
One of God’s own descriptions is that he is a “consuming fire.” The idea here is that when evil comes into contact with the being who is flawlessly pure, it is utterly and totally annihilated and consumed. He especially subjects those he loves to what he calls a “refiner’s fire” to slowly separate the evil from the good in a person once they have put their faith in God. Essentially, it is a purifying fire that annihilates evil. This also follows logically from the premise that God is maximally excellent. For such a being, only complete and total purity is allowed to survive. So if the final state of a person who has turned away from the One who the sustainer of everything that is good, is an uncontrollable rage for all eternity, then there must be a way to instantly, and perpetually annihilate that steady outpouring of evil . . . an eternal, purifying fire as it were. This is not revenge for not believing in God, but a place we are already on our way to; each one of us needs to be saved from that eternal destiny by accepting the gift of life and flawless purity for all eternity.