Problem of Hell

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Like the problem of evil, the Problem of Hell points out the incompatibility between a just god and the concept of an eternal hell (punishment in the form of torment or complete extermination).

  1. The Christian god is a loving, just creator.
  2. Refusing to accept Jesus' gift of salvation renders an eternity of unpleasantness.

This central Christian doctrine leaves skeptics with a slew of objections. Why does God judge belief? Beliefs are largely irrelevant compared to physical actions based upon them. We even realize this in our courts. A just being would punish wrongdoings and let the criminal go after accounting for their actions. Why would God trust finite beings with their infinite future? We would not allow a child to sign a legal document or make investments bound to affect the rest of their life, but God allows his creation complete control of their eternal soul.

Christianity claims that God is just. Setting universalism (i.e. the theory that all are ultimately saved, that none go to hell) and annihilationism (i.e. the theory that those who do not go to heaven do not go to hell either, but rather are annihilated) aside, Christianity also claims that at the end of one’s life one either enjoys an eternity in heaven or suffers an eternity in hell. These claims, it is often argued, conflict. How can a just God treat human beings in this way? The argument is most naturally cast as a problem relating to the proportionality of justice. Just rewards and just punishments are proportional to whatever it is that is being rewarded or punished. The just punishment for murder is greater than the just punishment for slander because murder is a greater crime that slander.

Whatever it is that determines whether one is rewarded in heaven or punished in hell—be it faith, works, or a combination of the two—is something that comes in degrees. One can have more faith or less faith, more good works or less good works.

In order for the rewards and punishments for faith or works to just, then, these rewards and punishments must admit of degrees. One with greater faith or greater works deserves better than one with lesser faith or lesser works, and a just system must recognise this; people must be rewarded or punished to greater and lesser degrees.

Heaven and hell, though, are both all or nothing affairs; they do not admit of degrees: if one is admitted to heaven, then one receives an infinitely great reward; if one is condemned to hell then one receives an infinitely great punishment. On the Christian system, then, there is nothing between an infinitely great reward and an infinitely great punishment. There is no sensitivity to degrees of virtue or of sin.

God’s policy of sending some to heaven and some to hell, then, seems to be inconsistent with his treating us justly. If the Christian view of the afterlife is correct, then God cannot be just.



Infinite God, infinite sins

Some theologians have argued that since crime committed against a finite being leads to a finite punishment, sin against an infinite god has infinite consequences. The problem is that we judge the severity of a crime based on the harm inflicted on the victim, not its lifespan. If God is omnipotent, by definition he can't be harmed. He is therefore punishing his creation based on deeds that had absolutely no effect on himself.

By ignoring God, humans choose hell

Theists have suggested that by ignoring God or rejecting the atonement, humans also reject all prospects of a pleasant afterlife: God would not want to be with humans who denied him, and he wouldn't force them to be with him. On an infinite time scale, this is also morally unsound because the judging god is still giving thoughts and beliefs priority over physical actions. Given a choice between heaven or hell, most skeptics will prefer a continued existence with a god not believed in to eternal torment or eternal death.

Moral actions require belief

Other Christians believe that God judges humans by their glorification of him and his will, based on their adherence to his message as described in the Gospels. They believe that the only way to have the moral resume required to get into heaven is by believing in and accepting God. Like the other counter-arguments, this response forgets about the infinite time scale attached to it. It also implies belief in God to be the single most important moral action. The biblical God's omnibenevolence can still be questioned on the grounds that he prefers belief-inspired actions to regular good actions with infinite consequences.

Hell Is Not Eternal

Some who claim to be Muslims also believe that hell is not eternal (but this opinion contradicts the consensus of traditional Islamic scholars). It is said that those who are guilty of sins other than the most terrible ones, such as blasphemy or willful murder, are cleansed after spending a finite amount of time in hell and eventually pass on to heaven. It's said that souls who enter hell are impure and therefore unable to enter heaven, so hell is viewed as something of an "entrance exam" so that the pure souls can enter heaven. It is also believed that Allah asks for what you can give, and as a result, if you are unable to prevent yourself from sin (by either being forced naturally or unnaturally, or by not having knowledge of the act being a sin), there is no punishment for the said sin (this to some extent solves the problem of justice as well). This however does not solve the problem of the few sins that mean an eternal stay in Hell. While murder is the one used to show that these "greatest sins" indeed deserve an eternal stay in hell, it's sometimes overlooked that these sins include the "not so severe" sins like telling lies and talking behind someone's back.

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