There is, perhaps, no more contentious part of Christian theology than Hell. Other parts of the theology1 occasionally cause controversy (particularly in our increasingly immoral and decadent society in the West), but little can compare with the assertion that all who do not believe will be judged, condemned by their lack of belief, and damned to an eternity of suffering. Nevertheless, Hell remains a centrally important part of Christian theology and warrants substantial consideration.
When discussing Hell, a number of approaches can be taken; this article primarily approaches the discussion of Hell as a logic problem2. I believe this approach to be useful both when discussing with fellow Christians and when discussing with those of other faiths or no faith. While the number of issues to be analyzed is considerable, there are three main issues and all else falls clearly under these main issues:
- whether human souls are conditionally or unconditionally immortal;
- whether deliverance for the damned is available or unavailable; and
- whether Hell is conditionally or unconditionally eternal.
Immortality of the Human Soul:
The human soul is or is not immortal. As Christian theology3 proclaims the soul to be immortal, this article does not address the mostly theoretical possibility that the soul is not immortal4. That being said, the soul can be either conditionally or unconditionally immortal. This is a vital distinction.
Conditionally or Unconditionally Immortal
Perhaps the most immediately obvious impact of the answer to this question5 is the effect on those in Hell. If Hell is eternal and deliverance6 is not available, then having an unconditionally immortal soul is decidedly not advantageous for the damned. On the other hand, having a conditionally immortal soul would mean the damned could eventually ‘escape’ (via annihilation) an eternal Hell where deliverance is not possible.
For human souls to be unconditionally immortal, there is only one possible state of affairs: that God decreed/created the human soul unconditionally immortal. For the human soul to be conditionally immortal, there are two possible states of affairs: 1) that God decreed/created the human soul conditionally immortal or 2) that the human soul, being dependent on God for its existence, must necessarily whither and decay in the absence of God’s presence. As they are straightforward, the two possibilities involving a decree from God do not really warrant further discussion; the third possibility, however, warrants further exploration.
Each human soul contains a spark of the Divine, this is part of what it means to be made in the image of God7. If the spark is absolutely immortal or otherwise self-sustaining, then a connection to God is not necessary for the immortality of the human soul and it is, consequently, unconditionally immortal. If, however, such spark of the Divine is maintained through man’s connection to God, then a true separation from God would cause the spark to fade and, eventually, to die. Thus, separated from God, the human soul will decay and eventually disappear (i.e., the human soul is conditionally immortal, contingent upon a connection to God). A conditionally immortal soul contingent upon a connection to God would meet annihilation as his fate if damned to a Hell where total separation from God prevails.
Deliverance for the Damned: Unavailable or Available
Deliverance either is or is not available to the damned. How we, as Christians, answer this question is vitally important. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with my arguments and my assessments, one should be able to defend the positions that one takes. We perform a great disservice for the unbelievers when we are unable to articulate, or to defend, the foundations and tenets of our faith.
Unavailable or Available
Leaving aside, for the sake of this article, Scriptural arguments about whether or not the damned may be delivered, the logic of whether or not the damned may be delivered rests largely upon how one interprets Hell. If Hell is an actual place where damned souls are sent, then God may or may not be present8. If, however, ‘Hell’ is merely an allegory for the state of the soul when it is totally separated from God, then God, clearly, is not present in ‘Hell’.
In the two cases where God is not present, one could yet argue that Christ (or the Holy Spirit) could be present and provide a chance at deliverance9. If Christ (or the Holy Spirit) is present even where God is not, then the damned may yet be delivered; if Christ (or the Holy Spirit) is not present, then the damned are beyond redemption. As for the third option (i.e., where Hell is a place and God is present), it seems clear that deliverance could be available.
Unfortunately, on their faces, none of these options is necessarily more compelling than the others. Concluding one is more likely than the others is largely a matter of personal belief. However, I would personally argue that an Omnibenevolent, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipotent God spending eternity ‘present’ in Hell approaches (at best) incoherence. Consequently, I would throw out all possibilities where Hell is eternal, more infra, and God is present and deliverance is not possible. While this still leaves quite a few possibilities, it does eliminate the least likely. As to which option I, personally, believe to be the most likely, see “Discussion”, infra.
Eternalness of Hell: Conditional or Unconditional
Hell is either conditionally or unconditionally eternal. Under only one set of conditions10 does Hell being unconditionally eternal make any sense: where souls11 are unconditionally eternal and deliverance is not available to the damned. Under all other conditions, Hell makes logical sense only where it is conditionally eternal.
Of the three issues, this one is the simplest (by far). If human souls are unconditionally immortal and deliverance is not available, then the damned must remain in Hell forever. Ergo, Hell (whether or a place or a state of existence) would necessarily be eternal. If either of these two prerequisites does not obtain, then Hell is merely conditionally eternal and will cease to exist12 once all souls are redeemed or annihilated.
Types of Souls
Both humans and angels have souls. Further, in Christian theology, Hell was created as a punishment for the fallen angels. This leaves a complicated possible state of affairs in which human souls are conditionally or unconditionally immortal, angelic souls are conditionally or unconditionally immortal, deliverance is available or unavailable for human souls, deliverance is available or unavailable for angelic souls, Hell is a place or a state of existence, and Hell is conditionally or unconditionally eternal.13 Needless to say, this creates a large set of possibilities, most of which this article has already discussed, supra. However, one intriguing option remains: Can souls in Hell resist the opportunity to be delivered?
In life, clearly, humans can refuse salvation; somewhat similarly, angels are clearly free to rebel and to ‘fall’. Once damned, however, would not every soul surely seek and, if available, accept deliverance? Perhaps not. If souls are unconditionally immortal and deliverance is available, I have no doubt that all human souls will eventually be redeemed. If deliverance is similarly available for angelic souls, I suspect virtually all will eventually join their human brethren and accept deliverance14, save one: Lucifer.
In his bitterness and pride, I can imagine that Lucifer, the leader of the rebellion against God, would refuse, into eternity, any proffered chance at deliverance. This is the one scenario I view as ‘likely’ where a Hell created only conditionally eternal would, nevertheless, be, in reality, actually eternal. However, I find the more likely scenario, discussed infra, to be that souls, both human and angelic, are merely conditionally immortal and meet their fate of annihilation via decay once damned to Hell and, thereby, separated from God.
I do not believe in the existence of Purgatory. I find it to be an unnecessary invention not based in the Scriptures. Further, my belief in clemency, discussed infra, addresses all of the actual issues15 that the idea of Purgatory attempts to address. The theological problems with the idea of Purgatory have been discussed exhaustively by a number of theologians over the centuries. This article will not seek to summarize, to rehash, to expand, or to criticize these other discussions. For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to reiterate that I categorically do not believe in the existence of Purgatory and believe such a doctrine violates the central tenet of Christianity (i.e., that Christ’s Blood is necessary and sufficient).
Hell as Punishment
I readily confess that I, personally, know of persons past and present for whom I would wish an eternity in Hell; I just as readily confess that I am aware of the fact that, as a Christian, I should probably wish such a fate on none16. Discussed at greater length, infra under “Discussion”, the human desire for vengeance and for retribution is strong, and it has its place (in this life, at least). Perhaps it is because Hell is so fundamentally different from even the most terrible punishments we could envision in this life (and even for the next) that we, as humans, have trouble understanding it sufficiently to realize that we likely would not wish it even on our worst enemies, or even on the worst men ever to live. It seems the problem of understanding this aspect of Hell is akin to our general inability to grasp the true nature of sin, how it is a betrayal of God that forever separates creation from Creator without intercession from Christ and the cleansing effect of His Blood.
We all, as sinners17, deserve Hell. We should not be too quick to wish it upon others, even upon the worst examples of our species. Even less so should we presume to know the outcome of God’s Judgement of any other soul18.
Clemency is, perhaps, the most ‘controversial’ aspect of/doctrine in my theology. Nevertheless, I believe it to be logically necessary to maintain the consistency and the coherency of Christian theology. Without clemency, we are left with a number of unanswerable, and troubling, questions.
In short, clemency is salvation from Judgement offered at the Judgement (cf., amnesty, which is deliverance from Judgement obtained/accepted during Life). I believe in the doctrine of clemency for a number of reasons. Chief among these reasons are the following:
- It more fully recognizes (than a theology without a doctrine of clemency) the power of the Blood; clemency recognizes that Christ’s Blood remains sufficient, neither death nor the grave deprive the Blood of its power to save nor Christ of His power to intervene.
- It is in keeping both with God’s perfect justice (in that Christ still intercedes as payment for sin) and with God’s perfect mercy. Absent the doctrine of clemency, the Judgement becomes a harsh and demanding, an exacting justice with mercy nowhere to be found.
- It allows for a logically coherent answer to the twin questions of what happens to young children who die before they can even understand salvation and what happens to those who never hear of Christ. Absent the doctrine of clemency, the damnation of both the aforementioned groups seems necessarily to flow from the rest of Christian theology; this cannot be in keeping with God’s perfect justice or with His perfect mercy. Further, other doctrines advanced to solve these two related problems seem to run afoul of the central tenet of Christian theology (in that such alternatives frequently seem to, implicitly at least, deny the necessity of Christ’s Blood19).
Functionally, I believe that souls are given one last ‘chance’ at the Judgement to accept Christ, to confess their sins, and to seek/accept His intercession. In keeping with the tenet of the sufficiency and the necessity of Christ’s Blood, such intercession would work deliverance of the sinners20 who seek/accept it from damnation and Hell. Clemency in essence, is God’s desperate final attempt to save the sinner from himself, to display His love for His creation and attempt to bring about His obvious desire that all should be reconciled to Him and saved. I confess that I cannot even begin to understand how clemency could operate, practically, at the Judgement without overriding the sinner’s Free Will, but I do not claim to fully understand God, His plans, or His wisdom. If clemency is available at the Judgement, God most certainly can resolve the Free Will ‘problem’.
Similar to the Free Will ‘problem’ with clemency, discussed supra, there is an argument to be made that the doctrine of clemency conflicts with the tenet of Sola Fide21. However, I believe such a belief (i.e., that there is a conflict) to be mistaken. Certainly, the Apostles needed less faith (having seen Christ resurrected in the flesh, and, in some cases, having seen the Ascension) than do modern Christians (having only the Gospel, history, and the Holy Spirit)22. Are they any less saved through faith by the Blood than modern Christians? No serious Christian would deny or disparage the faith of the Apostles. It seems clear that those who would benefit from clemency would be more akin to the Apostles than to modern Christians (in that those saved via clemency would have more “proof”).
However, it is not the size of one’s faith that saves23, it is the faith in Christ and in His death and resurrection, in the salvation offered by His Blood. I see no compelling reason to believe that clemency conflicts with Sola Fide, and, relatedly, no reason to condemn as faithless those who are saved via clemency at the Judgement. As with Free Will, if God wishes for clemency to operate coherently with the necessity of faith, He will make it so.
I long ago lost count of the number of hours I have spent arguing with fellow Christians (and, occasionally at least, others willing to play along) about the nature of Hell. Admittedly, I have frequently (perhaps, in fact, in a majority of such discussions) assumed the role of advocatus diaboli, advancing the argument that an eternal place of suffering (i.e., a Hell wherein deliverance is not possible and annihilation does not occur) is incompatible with an Omnibenevolent, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent God24. Many Christians do not have an answer to this attack or resort to the argument that we simply cannot understand God’s design (many resort to Isaiah 55:925). While I do not deny the accuracy (even if it is a bit of an understatement if taken literally) of the aforementioned verse, such an answer is truly unsatisfactory and we, as Christians, must be prepared to give a more meaningful defense (read: apologia) of our faith and its tenets, including Hell.
My confessed tendency to argue the supposed incompatibility of God and Hell (as traditionally understood, anyway) has not been entirely arguendo; I truly am inclined to believe that the traditional view of salvation and damnation is incompatible with a proper understanding of God. Nevertheless, I do believe that Hell is, effectively, ‘eternal’ and that deliverance is not available to the damned. However, my personal view adds nuance that is not traditionally present in most mainstream Christian theology.
As described in a previous article, I believe that human existence proceeds through six stages. Further, I believe that salvation26 is theoretically possible at three of the six stages, but actually available at only two. I delineate these as amnesty during Life, clemency at the Judgement, and deliverance in Eternity; I believe that only the first two are actually available (i.e., that the damned cannot be redeemed). Where this departs from (insofar as I am aware) most ‘mainstream’ Christianity is in the argued existence of clemency.
While some may rebel at the idea of clemency, I believe such rebellion is largely rooted in a sense that allowing those who rejected Christ in this life to accept Him in the next is not ‘fair’27. However, I would contend that such disagreement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Hell, of Christ’s atonement on the Cross, and of fairness. The human desire for vengeance, for retribution, and for punishment is strong (and, I would argue, frequently just), but what place can such desires possibly play in God’s perfect justice tempered by His perfect mercy? As Christ’s Blood is sufficient and God’s mercy is perfect, surely the unbelievers28 may yet receive clemency at the Judgement. In short, I believe that Christ’s Blood remains sufficient and available at the Judgement. I see no reason Christ could not intervene on behalf of those who were unbelievers, blind in life but now seeing, perhaps for the first time, with open eyes.
As mentioned, supra, I yet believe that the damned cannot be redeemed. This belief flows largely from my view of the nature of Hell. I fully believe that the descriptions of Hell in the Bible are metaphorical and allegorical (i.e., not literal) and that Hell is not actually a place. In my theology, Hell is merely the separation of the soul from God; it is God’s withdrawal of His presence from the souls of the damned. Condemned to Hell at the Judgement, the damned are never reembodied (unlike the saved) and, thus, they exist in the Void29, wholly separated from God and from all else. As I do not believe that a soul can be sustained apart from God (i.e., that human souls are contingently, conditionally immortal), it necessarily follows that the true and final end for the damned is annihilation. The Void, as total, absolute, categorical nothingness is atemporal, so I shall not even guess at how ‘long’ annihilation takes or at any specifics beyond proposing that it is a process of decay.
Lastly, the above leads to the conclusion that “Hell” is not a place but merely an allegory for the state of the soul (i.e., total separation from God) and that, as the human soul30 decays and eventually disappears in the absence of a connection to God, Hell is not eternal (i.e., it is conditionally ‘eternal’) as any withdrawal of God’s presence (i.e., the process that ‘creates’ Hell) would be temporary and last only so long as the damned souls continue to exist. I believe the saved regard this, as does God, as righteous and just (n.b., I do not believe that the saved merely ‘forget’ the damned or that the damned are ‘erased’); I do, however, confess that I do not fully understand how this would function (and actually believe full understanding of this point is beyond mortal comprehension). In summary: I believe that human souls who do not accept Christ in life may yet seek His intercession (i.e., clemency) at the Judgement; that the damned are condemned to ‘Hell’, which is a total separation of the soul from God; that, as the human soul is conditionally immortal (i.e., contingent upon a connection to God), the separation of Hell works decay and, eventually, annihilation; that the total separation of Hell means the damned cannot be delivered; and that the saved view the system as righteous and just.
I believe these positions to be supported by logic and not contradicted by the Scriptures.
e.g., the Christian stance on homosexuality. ↩
n.b., this is not to say that Hell is a “problem” or a contradiction in Christian theology, merely that it is a concept/tenet that warrants analysis. ↩
And my personal belief, which, admittedly, does not count as evidence. ↩
Anyway, absolutely everything immediately becomes moot if the soul is not immortal. ↩
i.e., “Is the human soul conditionally or unconditionally immortal?” ↩
As used in this article (and, at least hopefully, consistently across my theology/philosophy), “deliverance” means, specifically, salvation for the damned (i.e., those residing in Hell). ↩
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
— Genesis 1:27 (NIV) ↩
“Present” here merely means that God has not entirely withdrawn His presence. ↩
Personally, I find this argument extremely unconvincing. ↩
These are not complete, merely logically necessary. ↩
Whether human or angelic. ↩
Insofar as it actually ‘exists’. ↩
While not exhaustive, this list covers the truly salient possibilities (e.g., it does not really matter if human and angelic souls are or are not housed together in Hell [if Hell is a place]). ↩
Discussing whether or not Christ’s Blood covers angels is well beyond the scope of this article and, thus, the issue is intentionally ignored. ↩
Purgatory as penance is not addressed by clemency, but adding penance beyond confession of the Faith to the Christian scheme is theologically unsound (i.e., it violates the central tenet that Christ’s Blood is both necessary and *sufficient**). ↩
Except, maybe, Lucifer, but that is a complicated issue. ↩
“[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God[.]”
— Romans 3:23 (NIV) ↩
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.“
— Matthew 7:1-2 (NIV)
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.“
— Luke 6:37 (NIV) ↩
e.g., the argument that those who never hear of Christ are judged according to their adherence to what knowledge they did have, how they lived, et cetera, is a complete abandonment of the tenet of the necessity of Christ’s Blood; this is not merely incorrect, it is a denial of, a subversion of Christian theology.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”
— Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.“
— John 14:6 (NIV) ↩
Once unbelievers, now believers. ↩
“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.“
— John 20:29 (NIV) ↩
“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.“
— Luke 17:6 (NIV) ↩
Presume, unless otherwise specifically noted, that any time I use “God”, I mean God, Who possesses these very attributes. ↩
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
— Isaiah 55:9 (NIV) ↩
The umbrella term I use (interchangeably with “redemption”) to denote amnesty (Life), clemency (Judgement), and deliverance (Eternity). ↩
Some also like to cite Matthew 10:33 (NIV):
“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.“ ↩
They are, after all, not yet damned at the Judgement. ↩
n.b., “Void”, as used here and elsewhere in my theology, is a reference to true nothingness, not a poetic reference to the bits of space between the stars. ↩
I do not believe anything different is true of angelic souls, notably. ↩