I posted the above video four years ago today, as it happens. I have just now written up an essay based closely on the contents of the Presentation file I used to make this video. So it’s not a transcript of the video, but it covers much of the same material in the same order.
Are you afraid you’re going to Hell? Do you believe loved ones are going to Hell? Do other people believe you’re going to Hell? Even if you don’t personally know anyone who thinks you are going to Hell, there are people who do. There are various Christians and Muslims who believe that everyone not in their sect is going to Hell. If you’re a Christian, there are Muslims who think you’re going to Hell. If you’re a Muslim, there are Christians who think you’re going to Hell. And if you’re neither a Christian nor a Muslim, there are both Christians and Muslims who think you’re going to Hell. So, whoever you are, someone thinks you’re going to Hell.
The idea of eternal damnation in Hell can be found in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Here are some Bible verses supporting it:
The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:49-50, ESV)
In hell worms that eat the body never die, and the fire is never put out. (Mark 9:48, GW)
Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:41-46, ESV)
And here are some verses from the Qur’an supporting eternal damnation in Hell:
And those who disbelieve will be gathered to Hell. (8:36)
Surely, those who disbelieve in Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are roasted We shall exchange them for fresh skins, that they may taste the torment. Surely, Allah is ever Mighty, Wise. (4:56)
But, they who deny Our revelations and scorn them; such are rightful owners of the Fire; they shall dwell therein forever. (7:36)
As for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them, while boiling water will be poured down on their heads. Whatever is in their bodies and skins are melted by it. And for them are goads of iron. Whenever they desire to go forth from Hell in distress, they are returned to it. And it will be said: "Taste the torment of burning." (22:19-22)
So what do I mean by Hell here? I understand Hell to be a place of eternal punishment, in which immortal souls are tormented forever without any possibility of pardon, escape, or annihilation. I will be arguing against this conception of Hell, not against Purgatory or other less severe concepts of Hell. To argue against the idea of eternal damnation in Hell, I will employ a constructive dilemma. Here is my argument in brief.
- Either God exists, or God doesn’t exist.
- If God exists, then there is no Hell.
- If God doesn’t exist, then there is no Hell.
- Therefore, there is no Hell.
This is a logically valid argument, and two of the premises should be too obvious to need any argument. The first premise is an application of the law of excluded middle. It is tautologically true. The third premise makes sense, given that there would be no one to enforce eternal damnation without an immortal, all-powerful deity behind it. The only controversial premise here is the second one. As I’ve pointed out, there are many Christians and Muslims who deny it. I will now turn to arguing why this premise is true.
Since the second premise is a conditional statement, I will argue for it with a conditional proof. A conditional proof works by assuming the antecedent and then deriving the consequent. Here the antecedent is God exists, and the consequent is there is no Hell. So I will assume here that God exists. You should understand that I am not saying here that God actually does exist. Making an assumption in an argument does not entail that you actually believe it. Making an assumption is more like pretending that something is true, not in the sense of lying, but merely in the sense of finding out what else would be true if it is true.
So what qualities does God have? God has traditionally been understood to be all-good (omnibenevolent), all-powerful (omnipotent), and all-knowing (omniscient). To enforce eternal damnation, God would surely have to be omnipotent and omniscient. Without omnipotence, he might not be able to keep someone in Hell, and without omniscience, he might fail to realize that someone has escaped Hell. So these two qualities seem essential to any being capable of enforcing eternal damnation in Hell.
The Bible gives support to the idea that God is all-good:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48, English Standard Version)
Here the Bible is prescribing love of your enemies as moral behavior. When it calls on people to be perfect, it means morally perfect. So, when it calls the heavenly Father perfect, it means it in the same sense of moral perfection. It is calling God morally perfect, and it is saying that a morally perfect person will love his enemies. The implication is that God loves his enemies.
So what does it mean to love your enemies? Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 13 for a description of love:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13, ESV)
This is a very famous and beloved passage from the Bible. Notably, it says that love is patient. If God loves his enemies, which may include anyone who sins against him, we should expect him to be patient with their sinful ways. When it says that love hopes all things, we may expect that God would hope for his enemies to abandon sin and repent. To eternally damn someone is to lose all hope that this person will ever repent and turn his life around. When it says that love does not insist on its own way, we may understand this to imply that God would not insist on torturing anyone he loves. So, if God loves us all, even those who oppose him or sin against him, we should expect that even if God disciplines us for sin, he would never consign anyone to eternal punishment without any hope of it ever ending.
Furthermore, Hell is about punishment, and 1 John 4:18 explains that punishment is about fear, not about love. It says,
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
Fear is associated with punishment in two ways. First, there is fear of punishment. Second, we punish people out of fear that they will do something wrong or harmful. God’s perfect love has cast out any fear. He does not fear punishment from anyone, and he does not fear the sinfulness of anyone he loves.
Some Christians adhere to what they call Universalism. This is the idea that we are all eternal souls, and no one shall experience eternal torment, everyone of us eventually going to Heaven. This idea was explicit in the name of the Universalist denomination, and it was also part of the Unitarian denomination, which eventually joined together into the Unitarian Universalist denomination. This has become an inclusive denomination that accepts people of varying religious beliefs, but I’m specifically focused here on the theological sense of Universalism.
An objection may be made to Universalism that it is not just. We may ask, Is it just that everyone goes to Heaven? Doesn’t God’s perfect justice require that some people go to Hell? How can God be just and not punish sin? How about people like Hitler? Is it just for an evil person who has caused the suffering of numerous people to go to Heaven?
George MacDonald, a Christian author who influenced C. S. Lewis, wrote in his unspoken sermon Justice,
Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement. … This is why justice requires that the wicked shall not go unpunished – that they, through the eye-opening power of pain, may come to see and do justice, may be brought to desire and make all possible amends, and so become just.
So MacDonald would maintain that someone like Hitler, especially if he died unrepentant, would receive punishment for his evil. But MacDonald also points out that suffering doesn’t satisfy justice. He writes,
Take any of those wicked people in Dante’s hell, and ask wherein is justice served by their punishment. Mind, I am not saying it is not right to punish them; I am saying that justice is not, never can be, satisfied by suffering–nay, cannot have any satisfaction in or from suffering. Human resentment, human revenge, human hate may. Such justice as Dante’s keeps wickedness alive in its most terrible forms.
In fact, MacDonald considers the idea of Purgatory more just than the idea of eternal damnation in Hell. He writes,
Better the reformers had kept their belief in a purgatory, and parted with what is called vicarious sacrifice!
The idea is expressed in the Bible that God wants sinners to repent, and he will go to great lengths to bring this about.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:1-7, ESV)
MacDonald understands salvation to be about saving us from sin, not from the consequences of sin. He writes,
The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins, is a false, mean, low notion. The salvation of Christ is salvation from the smallest tendency or leaning to sin. It is a deliverance into the pure air of God’s ways of thinking and feeling. It is a salvation that makes the heart pure, with the will and choice of the heart to be pure. To such a heart, sin is disgusting. It sees a thing as it is, – that is, as God sees it, for God sees everything as it is. The soul thus saved would rather sink into the flames of hell than steal into heaven and skulk there under the shadow of an imputed righteousness. No soul is saved that would not prefer hell to sin. Jesus did not die to save us from punishment; he was called Jesus because he should save his people from their sins.
The Bible tells us that deeds matter more than beliefs. It says,
Merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight. Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. (Romans 2:13-15, New Living Translation)
Concerning the idea that Hell would be just as vengeance upon a sinner, MacDonald says,
The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner. This means repentance of sin. Imagine if Return of the Jedi had ended with Luke Skywalker killing Darth Vader. He would have had vengeance on Darth Vader for killing his aunt and uncle, for blowing up Alderaan, and other crimes against the galaxy, but it may have been as hollow a vengeance as it was when Anakin Skywalker killed Count Dooku. Instead of feeling that justice had been served, Anakin turned to the dark side of the force and became Darth Vader. Goodness triumphed in that movie, because Darth Vader repented of his evil, and Luke was able to forgive his father. With respect to God and sinners, goodness would triumph when sinners repent of evil and turn away from it, not with God inflicting eternal suffering on them for their sins.
MacDonald even goes so far as to describe the idea of eternal damnation as a loathsome lie. He says,
The notion that a creature born imperfect, nay, born with impulses to evil not of his own generating, and which he could not help having, a creature to whom the true face of God was never presented, and by whom it never could have been seen, should be thus condemned [to eternal suffering], is as loathsome a lie against God as could find place in [a] heart too undeveloped to understand what justice is.
Bear in mind here that I am just arguing against the idea of eternal damnation in Hell. This does not entail that there would be no punishment for sin in the afterlife. C. S. Lewis wrote a novel about Heaven and Hell called The Great Divorce. In this novel, people go to Hell because of something that they value more than Heaven, and the punishment they experience is self-imposed, caused by their continuing to sin, rather than due to God or demons inflicting punishment on them. This is much more along the lines of Buddhism, whereby our suffering is caused by our own attachments. Sinfulness is portrayed here as attachment that gets in the way of enjoying heavenly bliss. Buddhism teaches that the way to end suffering is to end the attachments that cause it. In the same way, an end to punishment in Hell is available to the residents of Hell in C. S. Lewis’s novel if they will let go of their sinfulness and accept God. Towards this end, people from Heaven try to reach the people in Hell.
It is not out of the question that if we are immortal souls, and a just and loving God does exist, that our own sinfulness could betray us in the afterlife and lead to our continued suffering there. The idea is not that God will just open the doors of Heaven for everyone, and everyone will have a good time in the afterlife no matter what they have done. The idea is that if we are immortal souls, and God does exist, there is hope for everyone, that each person, no matter how beset by sinfulness, can eventually turn away from it to find the peace and bliss of Heaven.
MacDonald maintains that justice wants the defeat of sin, not the defeat of the sinner. He writes,
Justice then requires that sin should be put an end to; and not that only, but that it should be atoned for; and where punishment can do anything to this end, where it can help the sinner to know what he has been guilty of, where it can soften his heart to see his pride and wrong and cruelty, justice requires that punishment shall not be spared. And the more we believe in God, the surer we shall be that he will spare nothing that suffering can do to deliver his child from death. If suffering cannot serve this end, we need look for no more hell, but for the destruction of sin by the destruction of the sinner. That, however, would, it appears to me, be for God to suffer defeat, blameless indeed, but defeat.
Eternal damnation in Hell is the defeat of the sinner, not the defeat of sin. And in defeating the sinner rather than sin itself, God would suffer defeat too. But if God is all-powerful, God should be unbeatable. If God is all-powerful and all-good, we should expect God to triumph over all sin, which means eradicating the sin, not eternally punishing the sinners. So, if God exists, there is always hope for sinners, even in the face of punishment for sin, and no one is damned to eternal punishment in Hell. Therefore, if God exists, there is no eternal damnation in Hell. This completes my defense of the second premise in my argument. Since the first and third were uncontroversial, and the argument is valid, it follows that there is no eternal damnation in Hell.