It is widely believed among atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers of various stripes (and among some Christians as well) that the belief in hell constitutes, if not a sufficient reason for not accepting Christianity, at least a very serious problem for Christianity.  But while this belief is widespread, it is seldom articulated with much clarity or vigour.  The purpose of this essay is to argue that there is indeed a problem here, which I shall call the problem of hell, and to explicate its nature.

            The problem of hell is a logical problem.  It is a problem in the ‘broadly logical sense’ that Alvin Plantinga is fond of talking about.  As a first approximation, we can state the nature of the problem this way.  The traditional Christian view about hell is that it is the “eternal conscious punishment of the wicked”.[1]  It has at least a prima facie biblical foundation in such passages as Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 16:19-31, and Revelation 20:11-15, and it is endorsed by such theological giants as Anselm and Aquinas.  Moreover, one gets the distinct impression from some biblical passages as well as generations of fire-and-brimstone preachers that many, perhaps the vast majority, of human beings are either in or going to end up in hell.[2]  Traditional Christianity also holds that God is just, that is, God is wholly or perfectly just.  The problem of hell is that there is a logical incompatibility between these beliefs such that it is not logically possible to consistently hold both of them.[3]  One might inconsistently believe both but that has the unfortunate consequence of leaving one vulnerable to the charge of irrationality.

I. The Problem Developed and Defended

            Now, of course, the contradiction is not immediately obvious in the way it is with someone asserting (at the same time), p and not-p.  Unearthing this particular beast requires some digging.  To begin with, properly speaking, a logical contradiction does not arise between beliefs, but only between propositions, i.e. the propositional content of beliefs.  The following propositions are affirmed in traditional Christianity.

(1)  Hell is just punishment for sin.

(2)  God is just.

My main purpose in this section will be to argue that (1) is false and to explicate some of the consequences of this.

(1) involves the concept of just punishment.  One of the principles of just punishment is, roughly, that the punishment should fit the crime.  The term ‘fit’ here means that the punishment should be proportional to the crime.  But proportional in what way(s)?  One answer immediately suggests itself: the severity of the punishment should be proportional to the severity of the crime.  We have thus another proposition: (3) The severity of punishment should be proportional to the severity of the crime (or sin).  Let us call this the proportionality principle.  Two essential components of the severity of punishment also immediately suggest themselves: intensity and duration. (There may be other components but for the present purpose they may be ignored.)  Thus, the crime of stealing a loaf of bread is less severe than the crime of murder, and the criminal justice system metes out, and on this principle ought to mete out, less severe punishments for the former than for the latter.

Before I proceed with the main argument, a few explanations and caveats.  I do not have a systematic defense of the proportionality principle.  The reader may abandon this principle and thereby try to free herself from my ultimate conclusion.  However, I think many people in fact accept this principle and do not want to abandon it.  The proportionality principle, or something very similar to it, is one of the axioms of our justice system.  I would also claim that it is one of the cornerstones of humane persons’ sense of natural justice.  Moreover, this principle seems essentially involved in any explanation of why we make the judgments about what punishments people deserve that we do.

Also, I do not have a well-developed analysis of what constitutes the severity of a crime and only the beginnings of one about the severity of punishments.  We do, intuitively, make judgments about the relative severity of criminal acts, and much (though certainly not all) of the time we seem to have no problem in doing so.  Murder is worse than kidnapping, which is worse than stealing a car, etc.  I suspect the consequences of criminal acts figure prominently in our judgments of their severity.  But the important point for my purpose is not to try to figure out how such judgments are and ought to be made, but rather that we do make such judgments and we do accept the principle of proportionality.

The important question is, is the concept of hell as just punishment consistent with the principle of proportionality?  The answer is clearly, “Hell no!”  Hell, conceived as eternal, unrelenting, excruciating pain is not something that could be deserved by any human being.  Human actions occur in space and time and have finite significance.  No finite act or sum of finite acts (which is itself finite) could possibly be of sufficient severity to merit infinite punishment.[4]  The problem is exacerbated when we consider that hell is often described as being not only infinite in duration, but also infinite, or at least extremely great, in duration.  The pain experienced there, be it physical, mental, or both, is terrible enough to cause weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Sometimes Christians claim that although the number of sins a person has committed is necessarily finite, sin is by nature of infinite significance.  Thus John Walvoord: “The problem here is the obvious lack of understanding of the infinite nature of sin as contrasted to the infinite righteousness of God.  If the slightest sin is infinite in its significance, then it also demands infinite punishment as a divine judgment.”[5]  The grievous difficulty with this claim is that the antecedent of the conditional expressed – that the slightest sin is infinite in its significance – seems “obviously” false rather than obviously true.  How can a human action have infinite significance? 

Two answers, both inadequate, come to mind.  First, perhaps Walvoord accepts something like St. Anselm’s Satisfaction theory of the Atonement, in which “an offender [sinner] is required to make recompense, or satisfaction, to the person offended according to that person’s status.”[6]  Since God is infinite in his honor and righteousness, a sinner must then deserve eternal, infinite punishment.  The problem, of course, is that to modern minds, Anselm’s medieval, feudal conception of justice is quite unacceptable.  It clashes quite starkly, for example, with Article 7 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.”[7]

A second response might be along these lines: sin results from character that is potentially infinite in its sinful products, and thus it deserves infinite punishment.[8]  I don’t see this as making matters any clearer or easier for the proponent of proposition (1).  Even if the sinner’s character is potentially infinite in its sinful products, it is hard to see why this would deserve actual infinite punishment.  A lot of work would need to be done to spell out in what sense a sinner’s character is potentially infinite in its sinful products, if this is true at all.  In some possible world in which the sinner lived forever and had ample resources and sufficient motivation, he or she would commit an infinite number of sins?  How is this relevant to how a real-world sinner should be punished?  This whole line of thought strikes me as a dead end.

David G. Moore, who recently wrote a spirited and refreshingly forthright defense of the traditional view of hell, holds the view that the sinner in hell is not merely potentially but actually infinite in his sinful products.  After a brief consultation of some Biblical passages, he concludes: “The lesson from Dives and Esau is this: those in hell never truly repent of their sin.  They forever remain in a state of rebellion toward God because their fallen nature does not carry the ability to recognize its depravity and need for God.”[9]  Charles Seymour defends a similar conception of hell.  He writes, “If…we reject the notion that hell is a punishment only for the sins of the past, and allow that the damned can continue to sin, then we can believe that there is no injustice in the damned suffering unending punishment.”[10]

To show how this view is mistaken, I shall have to inquire briefly into some of the reasons for and motivations of unbelief in God.  Moore, at least, assumes that the only reason one might not believe in God and repent is because of rebellion, which is caused by pride.  Sinners are supposedly self-centered, whereas God is at the center of the Christian’s being.[11]  What Moore and many Christians fail to appreciate is this.  It is possible to non-culpably fail to believe in God.  The earthly realm can be a confusing place and it is not easy to know what is true and what is false.  It is plausible that even if hell does really exist, many people do not have any good reason to believe this (at least until they allegedly get there).  The same can be said for the existence of God.  The evidence for the existence of God is far from compelling, and there are secular and religious competitors with Christianity – e.g. Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, atheism, secular humanism, Marxism - that have prima facie equally justified positions.[12]  To use Terence Penelhum’s phrase, the world exhibits multiple religious and ideological ambiguity, and “the same rationality that they [Christians] rightly claim for themselves is all around them as well.”[13]  Moreover, it is just simply not true that each of us “knows in our hearts” that God exists and is merely refusing to accept it.[14]  Some people, including myself, reject God and Christianity not out of pride but simply because our intellectual integrity will not allow us to believe where the evidence is insufficient (and perhaps actually against Christianity).

So much for the claim that all unbelievers in hell remain eternally in a state of sin.  What about the claim that they are incapable of repentance?  It is possible to non-culpably not believe in God, which is to say that unbelief does not necessarily stem from sin.  Thus, it certainly seems likely that some sinners, at least, would repent if given the chance, since the alleged obstacles to their repentance - their rebelliousness, their pride, their sin – are absent or at least less prominent than Moore and Seymour suppose.  Moreover, their evidence for the incorrigible nature of the damned is, to my mind, decidedly insufficient: simply an interpretation of certain Biblical passages.  Certainly no independent evidence is given to justify their pessimistic view of humanity.  The option remains to say that only a small fraction of humanity will go to hell, and they will be the kind of people who are incorrigible (after all, it’s possible that some people would never repent, isn’t it?)  But this is in effect to abandon the traditional conception of hell.

Not all Christians accept that hell is eternal punishment for sin.  In reference to John Walvoord’s claim (in the quotation above) that sin is infinite in its significance, Clark Pinnock says: “What kind of rationale is this?  What kind of God is this?  Is He an unjust judge?  Is it not plain that sins committed in time and space cannot deserve limitless retribution?”[15]

Another move can be made by the advocate of the traditional view.  He can deny our human capacity to discover truths about the nature of justice.  I call this the depravity of human reason maneuver.  Thus Moore:

“Pinnock’s objection that hell ‘offends our sense of

 natural justice’ is quite alarming…It must be stated

 quite emphatically that our sense of justice is perverted,

 twisted, and distorted.  What we humans deem as fair

 can many times be far removed from what God says.

…Man’s sense of justice fails miserably.”[16]

Moore cites several scripture verses as justification for this claim.  In general, I suppose he accepts that since the Fall, human reason has been corrupted and cannot be trusted, perhaps especially on moral and spiritual issues.

            I will confine myself to three points that are sufficient to dispose of this line of reasoning.  First, any general deprecation of human reason will tend to undercut applications of that reason, including using reason to determine when something is or is not a revelation and what the proper interpretation of revelation is.  So, if human reason is unable to discern moral and spiritual truths on its own, why should we think that it is capable of knowing that the Bible is divinely inspired, or what the proper interpretation of Scripture is? 

Second, it simply is not true that human reason is corrupt or impotent.  While it is certainly fallible and sometimes applied to bad ends, human reason has, through science, made great discoveries about the physical universe, greatly improved the length and quality of life for at least some of humanity, and furthermore, important insights have been gained into ethical issues by purely secular moral philosophers.  Last but not least, what alternative do we have to using our reason the best we can to discern truths about justice?  Should reform our justice systems so that they reflect the standards of justice allegedly accepted by God?  In that case, what the world clearly needs is more cruel, harsh and severe justice.  The worst punishments we can imagine are simply not bad enough; given time, this idea could turn the whole world into something of which Vlad the Impaler and the Marquis de Sade might have been proud.[17]

            At this point, the defender of the traditional concept of hell might invoke the divine command theory of morality to defend the justice of the traditional concept of hell.  Briefly, this meta-ethical theory says that moral values, or moral truths, depend entirely upon God’s will, or ‘commands’.  What God says is right is right, what he says is wrong is wrong, and things are only right or wrong because God says so.  On this view, hell would be just punishment for sin simply because God says so.[18]

            This is a problematic move because the central and fatal problem with the divine command theory was formulated long ago and can be expressed succinctly as follows:

                        Any attempt to identify moral principles with divine commands

must run up against a dilemma first formulated in Plato’s

Euthyphro.  Is the good good because God commands it, or does

God command it because it is good?  If the former, then morality

is the product of arbitrary will, and obediance to morality is mere

obediance to authority.  If the latter, then morality is independent

of God’s will, and knowledge of the divine will is at best redundant.[19]

Any attempt to identify the nature of justice with divine commands will face the same kind of problem that appears to defeat the divine command theory generally.

I can see only one objection left to my claim that hell is not just punishment because it violates the proportionality principle.  Perhaps someone will say, “What about the true monsters of humanity?  What about Hitler?  Doesn’t Hitler deserve eternal, awful punishment?”  Let me say first that nothing I have said lessens the enormosity of Hitler’s evil.  But does even Hitler deserve endless awful punishment?  He may deserve a million years, perhaps ten, of pain that is as great as any he brought upon his many victims.  But at some point the desire that any human being, no matter how evil, should suffer becomes no longer the desire for justice but rather the desire for revenge, perhaps even a delight in cruelty.  What does anyone gain from Hitler’s eternal suffering?  According to the traditional view of hell, there is no escape, no chance for forgiveness, and no possibility of redemption.  So Hitler does not gain from the experience; if anything he becomes thoroughly bitter and sinful because of it.  Does anyone else?  It strains credulity to suggest God gains from Hitler suffering eternally, as opposed to a finite but very long time.  And what about his victims?  After ten million years, if they still cry for revenge, if they still long to see their tormentor suffer, I’m inclined to think they have not gained much from being in the presence of God.[20]  These considerations point towards the conclusion that hell could only be just punishment if it included the possibility of redemption.

We are now in a position to formulate the problem of hell clearly.  It remains to point out explicitly that if hell conceived as just punishment is not consistent with the principle of proportionality, and one is convinced of the truth of that principle, then one is forced to deny that hell is just punishment.  Consequently, one is also forced to deny that God is wholly just, since any God who could inflict such disproportionately severe punishment cannot be wholly just.  In fact, it would seem that such a God would be positively unjust.

To review, the propositions we have enumerated thus far are: (1) Hell is just punishment for sin; (2) God is just; and (3) The proportionality principle.  Informally stated, the argument goes thus:

1. If (3) then not (1).

2. (3)

3. If (2) then (1).

Conclusion: Not (2).


5. Not (1). 1, 2 Modus Ponens

6. Not (2)  5, 3 Modus Tolens

The argument is almost embarrassing simple, yet powerful, since it is deductively correct (valid) and sound.  Before I discuss its consequences, I will reply to some possible objections.

            It might be objected that even if it is true that hell is not just punishment for sin, that does not necessarily imply that God is not wholly just.  It is often said that God does not want us to go to hell but that we send ourselves there by our own choice to reject Him.  Hell is not punishment, it is merely the logical consequence of our actions, of our freedom to choose.[21]

            Thus is it pretended God has no culpability in this matter.  But this is merely a subtle sophism.  Who set up the rules of the game, so to speak, such that the consequence of rejecting God is eternal fiery punishment?  Certainly not I.  Moreover, as I argued earlier, very plausibly some sinners would repent if given the chance.  Why would God not be willing to give them a second chance?  To reiterate another previous point, the earthly realm can be a confusing place and it is difficult to know the truth.  Could not God have provided us with less ambiguous evidence about the rules of the game?[22]  God is culpable, therefore, in at least two respects: for setting up the game the way in which He did, and for not making it clear to the players what the rules of the game are and what the penalties are for violating the rules.  This objection, therefore, is weak and it follows that if hell is conceived as eternal just punishment then God is not wholly just.

            The weakest point of my argument is (3), which could be rejected as a principle of just punishment.  But as indicated earlier, the implications of rejecting (3) are enormous, and for most people, undesirable.  So even the argument’s weakest point is relatively strong.

            On the other hand, the argument can be reformulated using not the principle of proportionality, but instead the Old Testament standard of justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:24).  Pinnock notes:

Did the sinner visit upon God everlasting torment?  Did he cause

God or his neighbor’s everlasting pain and loss?  Of course not;

no human has the power to do such harm.  Under the Old Testament

standard, no finite set of deeds that individual sinners have done

could justify the infinite sentence.[23]

We have, then, one more proposition that can be used instead of the principle of proportionality in the above argument.  Proposition (7), the Old Testament standard of strict equivalence, can be substituted for (3) in every instance in which it occurs, and the validity of the argument is preserved.  Therefore, my argument holds whether one accepts (3), a proposition with much intuitive appeal, or (7), the Old Testament standard of justice.

II. Implications of the Problem

            What are the implications of my argument?  The argument establishes that hell cannot fruitfully be conceived as eternal punishment.  To avoid the conclusion that God is not wholly just, Christians will have to find some other conception of hell, perhaps along Universalist or Annihilationist lines.  Or, they can simply ignore my argument and embrace the inconsistency of (1) and (2).  But that is surely irrational.

            For non-Christians, the problem of hell constitutes strong support for not believing in those forms of Christianity that hold both (1) and (2).  Since virtually every theology clings tenaciously to (2), the main difference among theologies in this respect will be whether they accept (1).  Thus, as a general rule, the problem of hell constitutes a formidable objection to all those theologies that accept (1).

            The problem of hell raises profound issues regarding the character of Christ.  Over 70 years ago, in his classic lecture “Why I Am Not A Christian”, Bertrand Russell noted, “There is one very serious defect in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell.  I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.”[24]  If Jesus Christ really did believe in hell as everlasting punishment, then there was a serious defect in his character, and Christians have nothing less than a crisis on their hands.

            There is one more possible implication of my argument.  For those theologies that accept (1) and also accept this further claim, (8) God is perfectly good, omnipotent, and omniscient, it will follow that God (defined in this way) does not exist.  We need only make explicit the highly plausible inference that if God is not wholly just, He is also not wholly or perfectly good.  This conclusion can be avoided, of course, but only by sacrificing either (1) or (8).  And, rather than having proved that God does not exist, I would say that the problem of hell provides a clear impetus for Christians to develop more rational theologies.




[1] A phrase Wayne Grudem uses in his Foreword to David G. Moore, The Battle for Hell: A Survey and Evaluation of Evangelicals’ Growing Attraction to the Doctrine of Annihilationism (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1995).

[2] E.g. Matthew 7:13-14: Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”(RSV)

[3] I owe much to the locus classicus of a devastating critique of the traditional view of hell: Marilyn McCord Adams’ article, “Hell and the God of Justice”, Religious Studies 11 (1975), pp. 433 - 447.  Adams argues that there are no sound principles of justice that “entail that men who are sufficiently sinful ought to be made to suffer everlasting torment incompatible with any happiness.”(433)  I approach the problem from a different angle.  I argue that there are sound principles of justice that entail that hell is unjust.

[4] For a fuller presentation of this argument, see Adams, op cite.

[5] John F. Walvoord, “The Literal View” in Four Views on Hell (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 27.

[6] Encyclopaedia Britannica, URL = http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/5/0,5716,7815+4+7720,00.html.

[7] United Nations website, URL = http://www.unhchr.ch/udhr/lang/eng.htm.

[8] This possible response was suggested to me by Dr. Bruce Hunter of the University of Alberta.

[9] Moore, op. cite, p. 48.

[10] Charles Seymour, “Hell, Justice and Freedom”, International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 43: pp. 69 – 86, 1998.

[11] Ibid, p. 50.

[12] I am not claiming that the secular and religious competitors of Christianity are, all things considered, compared to each other and to Christianity, evidentially on a par.  I am only claiming that each has its own evidence that it regards as sufficient and each has its preferred ways of explaining away the other positions’ evidence.

[13] Terence Penelhum, Reason and Religious Faith (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995), p. 130.

[14] Ibid, p.105.

[15] “Response to John F. Walvoord” in Four Views on Hell, op. cite, p. 39.

[16] Moore, op. cite, p. 29.

[17] It might be objected that while it may be just for God to inflict punishment that seems to us to be unduly harsh, it is not just for human beings to do so given that we are fallible and liable to make mistakes, such as punishing the wrong person.  I readily grant human fallibility.  However, this objection misses the point.  The reason we should not inflict incredibly cruel and severe punishments is that doing so would be to act unjustly, not because we are fallible.

[18] For a clear statement of the Divine Command Theory, see William Lane Craig, “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations of Morality,” Foundations 5 (1997), pp. 9 – 12.  Available online at Leadership U, URL = http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/meta-eth.html.

[19] Richard Norman, entry on “moral philosophy, history of” in  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 587 – 588.

[20] Moore provides an instructive piece of fallacious reasoning when he argues that Annihilationism - the view that no sinners suffer eternally in hell, some, the incorrigible, are simply destroyed - is actually more incompatible with God’s justice than the traditional view is alleged by Annihilationists to be.  The reason?  “How would Jews who suffered in Nazi concentration camps feel about Himmler being annihilated?  Would their sense of ‘natural justice’ find annihilation or eternal suffering for Himmler as more appropriate?”(op cite, p. 29)  As tempting as this inference may be, from the feelings of victims alone nothing validly follows about the demands of justice.

[21] Thinkers such as Jonathon Kvanvig, Jerry Walls, C.S. Lewis and Richard Swinburne have defended this type of position, although I doubt they would agree that hell is unjust.

[22] Cf. J. L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddeness and Human Reason (Cornell University Press, 1993).

[23] “Response to John F. Walvoord” in Four Views on Hell, p. 152.  See also Adams, op cite, for an extended discussion of how the “eye for an eye” principle fails to establish the traditional view of hell.

[24] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p.17.