- The Good Place and Why Does Hell Exist?
- Tim Keller Answers the Question ‘Is Hell Fire Literal?’
- C.S. Lewis – Hell Exists Because We Choose Hell
- Rob Bell asks the question – Perhaps Everyone Will Go To Heaven Eventually?
- John Macarthur – Hell Exists Because It’s The Just Punishment for Evil
- Why Does Hell Exist – A Summary
- Prompts for Thought
The Good Place and Why Does Hell Exist?
Have you watched the American Comedy The Good Place?
If you have, then the question (‘Why Does Hell Exist’) this post tries to answer will probably have occurred to you.
If there’s one thing that comes through in the series’ deconstruction of the concepts of Heaven and Hell, it’s that the whole idea of punishing bad people eternally is … well, just a bit cruel.
So unjustly cruel, in fact, that the main character – Eleanor Shellstrop – decides that some reforming is in order. Along with the friends she made in the afterlife, she goes about the rather weighty task of ‘reforming’ the cosmic justice system to bring about a better, kinder and more humane solution to the problem of human evil.
As you watch, it’s hard not to find yourself feeling some sympathy for her cause.
The ingenuity of the torture methods the demons are said to inflict on humans in ‘the bad place’ provides the series with a source of dark humour which causes the whole concept to seem downright outrageous.
How could anyone deserve this kind of treatment … unendingly? How could such a system be remotely ethical?
The fact that we get to know and come to sympathise with the four main characters – who it turns out didn’t actually make it to the good place – further compounds this feeling. We come to see that none of these people are perfect. They’re messy and flawed and each have their own moral failings. You wouldn’t describe any of them as all bad though. They each have redeeming qualities about them and their imperfections, if anything, only make them more relatable, more likeable and … more human.
But does human imperfection warrant eternal torture?
Let’s take a look at what some Christian thinkers (with quite varied views) have to say about why a good God could possibly allow such an apparently unkind system. How a good God could allow Hell to exist.
Tim Keller Answers the Question ‘Is Hell Fire Literal?’
In this article he wrote for his website, Tim Keller tackles head on the torturous images of Hell in the Bible.
He makes the important point that the portrayals of fiery torment and darkness which those in Hell experience are metaphorical:
They are vivid ways to describe what happens when we lose the presence of God. Darkness refers to the isolation, and fire to the disintegration of being separated from God. Away from the favor and face of God, we literally, horrifically, and endlessly fall apart.
That doesn’t mean that our view of Hell should soften under the realisation that the imagery isn’t literal, Keller argues.
Hell truly is a horrific place.
Not because demonic beings are sadistically coming up with ‘penis-flattening’ machines or any of the other ingeniously cruel punishments presented in The Good Place.
It’s because Hell is where we lose the presence of God. Given that God designed humans to worship and enjoy His presence, the consequence of losing it completely is, as Keller described it, ‘isolation’ and ‘disintegration’.
C.S. Lewis – Hell Exists Because We Choose Hell
In C.S. Lewis’s discussion of Heaven and Hell through his fictional work The Great Divorce, he makes another important contribution to this discussion of whether a good God could possibly allow Hell to exist.
How do we end up being cut off from God’s presence? How do we end up in this torturous situation best described using the language of fire and darkness?
The simple answer is: we find ourselves in this situation if we choose it.
Near the beginning of The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis imagines Napoleon in the afterlife in order to illustrate how people essentially ‘choose’ disconnection from God. How people choose misery instead of bliss.
He shows Napoleon in an enormous house of his own designing. He has the choice to pursue whatever his heart desires. Yet instead of seeking God’s presence, his heart and mind are tormented with memories of his fall from glory on earth. Pacing up and down in one room of his mansion he endlessly revisits his defeat while muttering:
It was Soult’s fault. It was Ney’s fault. It was Josephine’s fault. It was the fault of the Russians. It was the fault of the English.
It’s a tragic image. Napoleon remains fixated on the idol of military glory, even in the afterlife, and this idol prevents him from seeking communion with God. This being so, his torment is utterly self-inflicted. If he only looked out of his mansion’s window. If he only set his sights on the higher purposes he was designed for instead of military achievement … he wouldn’t be torturing himself like this.
He wouldn’t be in Hell.
Rob Bell asks the question – Perhaps Everyone Will Go To Heaven Eventually?
Of course, this rather raises the question: could Napoleon ever look out the window? Is it possible for a person in Hell to change their mind? Could they begin pursuing God instead of the idols which keep them in torment?
This is a big topic and one that Rob Bell discusses in his book Love Wins. In his chapter ‘Does God Get What God Wants?’, he states that:
At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, Hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.
Whilst he certainly presents it in glowing terms, Rob Bell never actually affirms this view as the ‘correct’ interpretation of scripture. He never states outright that the relentless pursuit of God’s love will definitely mean everyone will end up in Heaven eventually.
In doing so, he leaves much open to speculation.
Will Napoleon look out the window?
Will he, and those like him, ever awaken to the presence of the good God outside the Hell their wayward hearts have brought them to?
Rob Bell’s answer to both of the questions above is a rather hopeful sounding – maybe?
What he does positively affirm, however, is that regardless of whether God restores everyone to His presence in Heaven or only some, everyone will get what they want.
If their thoughts are ‘heaven-bent’ – seeking goodness, love and all of God’s other attributes – then they will be in Heaven.
If their thoughts remain ‘hell-bent’ and they prize other things over God’s presence, then they will be in Hell.
In this sense, he argues, ‘love wins’ because God gives us what we want. He doesn’t force us into pursuing a relationship with Him we don’t want.
The Good Place and Universal Redemption
The possibility of universal redemption is something which the main characters of The Good Place also fight for.
How do Eleanor and her friends try to improve the afterlife? By turning the bad place into a correction facility. Here people will have an endless number of opportunities to pass a life simulation test to get into the good place.
Rob Bell would find much that’s familiar in The Good Place’s reimagining of Heaven and Hell. For Bell also, Hell serves a corrective function – as he explains in the following passage.
When people pursue a destructive course of action and they can’t be convinced to change course, we say they’re “hell-bent”on it. Fixed, obsessed, unshakable in their pursuit, unwavering in their commitment to a destructive direction. The stunning twist in all of this is that when God lets the Israelites go the way they’re insisting on heading and when Paul “turns people over,” it’s all for good. The point of this turning loose, this letting go, this punishment, is to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention. As God says time and time again in the Prophets, “I’ve tried everything else, and they won’t listen.” The result, Paul is convinced, is that wrongdoers will become right doers.
Letting people experience the full consequences of their actions by sending them to Hell is actually a form of kindness, or so Rob Bell argues. It’s a way of attracting their attention and getting them back on the right track.
John Macarthur – Hell Exists Because It’s The Just Punishment for Evil
There are, however, many Christians who would be horrified by this ‘deconstructed’ version of the afterlife. A prominent and widely respected Christian theologian who would be amongst those horrified is John Macarthur.
For John Macarthur, such an imagining of the afterlife ultimately fails to deliver justice.
In this sermon of his, he explains his take on why so many Americans find the concept of Hell difficult. He argues that it’s because (American) society is no longer shocked by many sins which were greatly stigmatised in the past. In fact, he goes so far as to say that the only sin which society continues to judge seriously is the sin of paedophilia (a claim I personally disagree with … as you can see here):
And the truth of the matter is, then, if the culture imposes no consequences, and the family imposes no consequences, the society places no stigma on people for the kind of behaviors that are sinful behaviors, people get so used to sinning without consequences that when you introduce the idea that they will pay in full forever for every sin, that is just alien to their thinking. People sin without immediate consequences, and to try to convince them that there are somehow, down the road, decades from now, if they live, deferred consequences is a hard sell.
Given Macarthur’s view that ‘eternal conscious punishment’ is the just reward for humans who die unrepentant for their sins, it’s no stretch to imagine that he wouldn’t be remotely impressed by the ‘reforms’ Eleanor Shellstrop brings about in The Good Place.
Why Does Hell Exist – A Summary
- Timothy Keller – Hell exists because that’s where we lose the presence of God. Given that God made us to enjoy His presence, the inevitable consequence of this loss is torment.
- C.S. Lewis – Hell exists because we choose it over seeking the presence of God.
- Rob Bell – Hell exists (in forms both on this earth and in the next) because it serves a corrective function. It’s where God allows us to experience the full consequence of our evil. In doing so, God demonstrates the need for us to change our actions and heart priorities.
- John Macarthur – Hell exists because it’s the just punishment of sin.
Prompts for Thought
What do you think of Eleanor Shellstrop’s ‘reforms’ in The Good Place?
Which perspectives on Heaven and Hell discussed in this article resonate most with you?
I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments!