There’s a conference going on in my area this weekend. It’s called “Rethinking Hell,” and as you’d likely guess from the title, the point of the conference is to call into question the “traditional” view of hell as eternal conscious torment. The view which this conference suggests instead is often called annihilationism—the view that hell consists of being annihilated. On this view, the wicked, on the day of judgment (or perhaps some finite time after), simply cease to exist. Of course, there are a lot of things wrong with this view, but I want to focus in on what is perhaps the most central problem: the character of God.
Shockingly, advocates of annihilationism claim that consistency with the nature and character of God is a driving motivation behind their view. I say that this is shocking because the nature and character of God is the fundamental reason that I reject annihilationism. Annihilationists typically claim that the idea of God pouring out wrath upon conscious sinners for all of eternity is inconsistent with the character of God. I claim that God’s character necessitates that He pour out His wrath on conscious sinners for all of eternity; that He would be less glorious if He didn’t. The goal of this article is to defend that claim.
By way of doing so, I would like to present an argument for the traditional view of hell from the character of God below. This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive argument—let alone, a comprehensive treatment of this debate. It is intended to point out that there are certain very serious implications about the character of God when it comes to our thinking about hell—implications which most people have not fully considered.
Do Both Sides Believe in “Eternal Punishment”?
First, we need to address the idea of punishment, though. The duration of the punishment of hell is going to be an important part of my argument below, and annihilationists claim to believe in eternal punishment—which seems to indicate that they could agree with my argument.
“The punishment, which is death, is eternal,” they’d say. But does the eternality of death really fit with what we mean by eternal punishment? There’s good reason to think that it doesn’t, but there’s also evidence that annihilationsist, themselves, don’t believe that it does; i.e., that annihilationists don’t really think of death as eternal punishment.
Consider one of the main arguments against the traditional view: The Proportionality Argument. This argument claims that the punishment of eternal conscious torment is disproportionate to the crime. “How can it be just for temporal sins to deserve eternal punishment?” the argument asks. In other words, annihilationists claim that eternal punishment would be disproportionate to the crime of sin and thus reject the traditional view of eternal conscious torment. They think that simply being annihilated is a punishment more suitable to the crime. But this reveals that they themselves do not count the punishment of annihilation as an eternal punishment. If they did, they would have the same objections concerning proportionality to the “eternal punishment” of mere death as they do to the eternal punishment of the traditional view.1 So, in spite of their claims to the contrary, annihilationists agree that only the traditional view actually believes in eternal punishment. Thus, when I speak of “eternal punishment” below, the only consistent acceptable meaning—by the standards of both sides—is eternal conscious punishment.
Hell, Sin, & The Glory of God
We’re now ready to advance to my positive argument for the traditional view based on the character of God which is summarized by the following claim: A God who does not inflict eternal punishment upon His enemies is a God who is not worthy of worship.
To begin unpacking the reasons for that claim, ask yourself the following question: why does God inflict punishment for sin at all? What is His aim in punishing sin? The Biblical answer is: to avenge His glory. Sin, at root, is an offense against God. This is why David, after raping Bathsheba and killing her husband, can say to God, “against you and you only have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). And this is why failure to obey one part of the law makes one guilty regarding the whole law—because every part of the law was given by one and the same God (James 2:10-11). Thus, any offense against the law is an offense against He who issued the law. And if sin is ultimately an offense against the worth of God, then punishment of sin is ultimately God’s defense of His great worth.
There is, therefore, an inextricable link between the following three factors: (1) the degree of punishment, (2) the degree of the offense of the sin being punished, and (3) the degree of God’s assessment of His own worth. The more highly God esteems His own worth, the more serious an offense any act of sin becomes against Him, and thus the more severe a punishment is required. Conversely, the less highly God esteems His own worth, the less serious an offense sin becomes, and thus the less severe the punishment required. And now we can see why our view of hell (i.e. punishment) has unavoidable implications for our view of God’s character.
If the traditional view is right, that the punishment consists of eternal conscious torment, then God seems to think maximally high of Himself. Conversely, if the annihilationist view is right, that the punishment consists of annihilation (perhaps after a finite amount of time of conscious punishment), then God seems to think that much less of Himself. The essential question, then, becomes: How ought God to think of Himself in regard to His own value? Should God think maximally high of Himself, in line with the traditionalist view? Or should He think (relatively) lower of Himself, in line with the annihilationist view?
Edwards On Divine Egoism
Jonathan Edwards has argued—and I most strongly agree—that God not only happens to think maximally highly of Himself, but more: that His moral rectitude depends on His thinking maximally highly of Himself. Here is what Edwards has to say on this:
“All things else, with regard to worthiness, importance, and excellence, are perfectly as nothing in comparison of him [God, that is]. And therefore, if God has respect to things according to their nature and proportions, he must necessarily have the greatest respect to himself. It would be against the perfection of his nature, his wisdom, holiness, and perfect rectitude, whereby he is disposed to do everything that is fit to be done, to suppose otherwise.”2
To summarize, Edwards’ argument goes like this:
(1) Moral rectitude requires assigning value to things based on, and in proportion to, their respective worth. It would be immoral, for example, for me to value a rock over a person, or a one-night stand over my marriage—in part, because a rock is not more valuable than a person, and a one-night stand is not more valuable than my marriage. So, Edwards is arguing, one necessary requirement for morality is assigning value things according to their actual worthiness of value.
(2) God is infinitely worthy of value. Nothing God has created, or could create, is more valuable than God, Himself. He, alone, is infinitely worthy of value—and infinitely more worthy of value than all other things. This is Edwards’ second premise.
(3) Moral rectitude, therefore, requires that God assign infinite value to Himself. And here is the conclusion. If morality requires assigning proper value to things, and if God is infinitely valuable, then morality demands that God assign infinite value to Himself. Thus, God’s moral rectitude requires that He value Himself infinitely (or maximally).
Hell & God’s Worthiness of Worship
We’re now ready to pull the above points together to see why I claim that a God who does not inflict eternal conscious torment on His enemies3 is a God who is not worthy of worship. My argument is as follows:
- If God does not inflict eternal conscious torment on His enemies, then it is either because (a) He is not infinitely valuable, or (b) He is infinitely valuable but does not see Himself as infinitely valuable.
- If God is not infinitely valuable, then He is not worthy of worship.
- If God is infinitely valuable, but does not see Himself as infinitely valuable, then He is immoral (and likely also irrational), and thereby is not worthy of worship.
(1) follows from the fact that God’s punishment of sin is directly linked to His perception of His own worth, as argued above. The degree of the punishment is a reflection of the degree of His worth (or, His own perception of His own worth). A relatively light punishment would be a reflection of a relatively light self-evaluation of His own worth. An infinite punishment would be a reflection of an infinitely great self-evaluation of His own worth. Eternal conscious torment is the infinite punishment.4 So, any punishment less severe than eternal conscious torment would indicate a lower self-evaluation of His own worth. The (a) and the (b) spell out the two possible causes for such a (relatively) low self-evaluation: (a) perhaps God really is not all that great, or (b) perhaps He is that great, but doesn’t see Himself as being that great.
(2) takes (a) as being the case: perhaps God really is not infinitely valuable. If that’s the case, it seems fairly intuitive that He is not worthy of worship. However, I don’t think I need to work too hard to defend this claim, since I assume that very few Christians would be willing to affirm the proposition that God is not infinitely valuable. So, the other option is:
(3), which takes (b) as being the case: perhaps God really is infinitely valuable, but He does not see Himself as infinitely valuable. Per Edwards’ argument above, this would imply a moral flaw in God because it would be an instance of Him failing to assign value where value is rightly due. Arguably, it would also be a rational flaw, since it would be a failure of God to fully recognize a fact of reality—namely, that He is infinitely valuable. But a God who has moral, and rational flaws, is surely not worthy of worship.
So, either way, if God does not inflict eternal conscious torment on His enemies, then He is not worthy of worship. Of course, there are many—particularly those who reject the traditional view of hell—who would say just the opposite: that a God who does inflict eternal conscious torment on His enemies is unworthy of worship. And this is likely because the same people would say that a God who values Himself above all things (i.e. an egoist God) is not worthy of worship. Egoism, even (and perhaps, especially) for God, is counted as the ultimate moral flaw. I mention this to point out that this debate about the nature of hell reveals a much more fundamental debate that has been brewing under the surface of evangelicalism, and needs to be brought out into the light. And that is the debate over the character—especially the moral character—and nature of God. Make no mistake. There are two very opposite visions of the character and nature of God on display here, and both of them cannot be true. It’s time for Christians—and especially Christian intellectuals—to face this issue head-on, and to bring this underlying debate to the surface. And while I regret that so many are “rethinking hell,” I am at least hopeful that this might lead to a surfacing of those deeper issues about the character and nature of God which need to be explored.
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- The annihilationist, here, is relying on an equivocation between the eternal consequences of the punishment of death (which are never consciously experienced), and eternal conscious punishment. The proportionality argument reveals that they, themselves, don’t count unconscious consequences as part of the punishment, though.
- Edwards, Jonathan. The End For Which God Created the World in God’s Passion for His Glory by John Piper. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998. P.140.
- It should go without saying that I am speaking of God’s final enemies—or those upon whom He inflicts final judgment or punishment.
- It may be helpful to note here that such an infinite punishment could never be exhausted for a finite being (whereas it could, for instance, on Christ as an infinite being). This allows for various degrees of the severity of the suffering, but not for a reduction in the duration of the suffering.
Bachelor of Theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. M.A. in Philosophy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX.