No, You Can’t Choose (Eternal) Hell

Jason Micheli —  June 22, 2016 — 6 Comments

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4If it’s true, as the many earnest and somber admonishments I’ve received in response to my recent infernal posts testify, that God consigns or consents his creatures to an eternal hell then, begs the question, is God evil?

Simply because God (allegedly) does it, doesn’t make it good or just or, even more importantly, beautiful. So we should muster up the stones to ask the obvious question to such a grim assertion: is God evil?

Our concepts of goodness, truth, and the beautiful, after all, emanate from God, who is the perfection of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty; therefore, they participate in the Being of God and correspond to the character of God. Sin-impaired as we are, we can yet trust our God-given gut. Again then, the question- and forget that it’s God we’re talking about- is God evil?

If the calculus of God’s salvation balances out with a mighty, eternally-tormented, remainder, then is God the privation haunting the goodness of his own creation?

The panting sanctimony in my Inbox suggests that eternal hell is the cherished, sacrosanct doctrine of a good many Christian clergy, which, I confess, makes me suspect the decline of the Church is a moral accomplishment. I frankly can’t think of a better descriptor than evil (or maybe monstrous) for a being who creates ex nihilo, out of love gratuitously for love’s sake, only to predestine or permit the eternal torment of some or many of his creatures. Grace is more grim than amazing if its constitutive of a being who declares “Let us make humanity in our image…” only to impose upon them an inherited guilt which leads inexorably, except for the finite ministrations of altar calls and evangelism, to eternal hell.

The inescapable moral contradictions and logical deficiencies of belief in an eternal hell led to the rise of voluntarism, a theological strain that insists there is nothing more determinative than God’s absolute, spontaneous exercise of his will. God’s essence, his very nature, is secondary to his will. Something is good, then, not because it corresponds to the Goodness that is the nature of God, who can only do that which is Good because he is free and perfect to act unconstrained according to his nature. Rather, simply because God does it, it is good. In other words, it is good for God to consign scores to an eternal torment because God does it. Any sense of justice we have that would cause us to recoil is only a human category, voluntarists would speculate, and has no corollary in the character of God.

Which, of course, is utter bulls#$%.

A popular (and ostensibly more civilized) perspective on hell attempts to remove the nasty veneer by replacing God as the active agent of damnation.

Excusing God from culpability, which is but a tacit acknowledgement of hell’s Christian incoherence, many fire and brimstone apologists appeal to our human freedom and God’s respect for its dignity.

God does not consign creatures to Hell.

God, like the parentified child in an abusive family, merely consents to Hell.

God consents, so the argument goes, to the risk inherent in any loving relationship, which is the possibility that his creatures will reject his love and choose Hell over Him.

Despite its tempered, rational appearance, this is perhaps the worst argument of all in favor of an eternal hell. Rather than esteeming our creaturely freedom or God’s privileging of it, it sacralizes the very condition from which we’re redeemed by Christ: bondage.


Slavery to Sin and Death.

The fatal deficiency in the free will defense of the fire and brimstone folks is that it employs an understanding of “freedom” that is incoherent to a properly tuned Christian ear. The breadth of the Christian tradition would not recognize such a construal of the word freedom.

For the Church Fathers- indeed for St. Paul, our ability to choose something other than the Good that is God is NOT freedom but a lack of freedom.

It’s a symptom of our bondage to sin not our liberty from it.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

  • Galatians 5

For Christians, freedom is not the absence of any constraint upon our will. Freedom is not the ability to choose between several outcomes, indifferent to the moral good of those outcomes. In other words, freedom is not the ability to choose whatever you will; it is to choose well.

You are most free when your will more nearly corresponds to God’s will.

Because we are made with God’s creative declaration in mind (“Let us make humanity in our image…”) the freedom God gives us is not unrestrained freedom or morally indifferent freedom. It is not the freedom to choose between an Apple or a Samsung nor the freedom to choose between Hell or Heaven.

The freedom with which God imbues us is teleological freedom; that is, our freedom is directed towards our God-desired End in God. As creatures, oriented towards the Good, our freedom is purposive. Freedom is our cooperating with the grain of the universe.

We’re free when we become more who we’re created to be.

As Irenaeus says, the glory of God is human being fully alive. Only a fully alive creature in God’s glory is truly free. Freedom, then, is not the ability to do what you want. Freedom is to want what God wants: communion with Father, Son, and Spirit. You are most free, Christians have ALWAYS argued, when your will becomes indistinct from God’s will.

“The will, of course, is ordered to that which is truly good. But if by reason of passion or some evil habit or disposition a man is turned away from that which is truly good, he acts slavishly, in that he is diverted by some extraneous thing, if we consider the natural orientation of the will.

  • Thomas Aquinas

Christian grammar insists that you are most free when you no longer have any choice because your desire is indistinct from God’s desire. You’re willing and the Good are without contradiction. Nothing, no sin or ignorance, is holding you back. You’re no longer in bondage. Janis Joplin was nearly correct. Freedom is nothing left to lose choose.

As my teacher David Bentley Hart writes:

“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

And just in case you can’t connect the dots to perdition, he continues:

“It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.”

The creature that chooses not to enter into God’s beatitude is by definition not a free creature but captive.

Captive still to sin.

If it’s true, as I’m told by clergy in all CAPS in my Inbox, that we can choose Hell rather than God, forever so, then for those who do Christ is not their Redeemer. And if not, then he was not. If not for them, then not for any of us and the god who purportedly took flesh inside him for the redemption of ALL captives is a liar and maybe a monster. In either case, he’s neither good nor the Good.

Jason Micheli


6 responses to No, You Can’t Choose (Eternal) Hell

  1. 1) You are correct, the unregenerate has no free will. His will is bound, at enmity with God.
    2) The unregenerate is a child of God’s wrath. He/She is conceived in sin and enters life condemned.
    3) Christ’s atonement for sin universally and objectively reconciled the whole world. However, sinners must be subjectively justified to be saved.
    4) Because the will is bound, subjective justification by faith is the work of the Holy Spirit brought by the proclamation of the Gospel.
    5) If you are going to teach universalism and/or no final judgment leading to eternal life or eternal death/damnation, then please be transparent with your readers that you are departing the biblical and apostolic faith as well as the better part of 2,000 years of orthodox Christianity. I’m not accusing you of this, because I’m honestly not sure what the point of the above article was, but, in any event be transparent.
    6) Please be transparent regarding your view of Scripture. It doesn’t feature very prominently in your recent articles, so you owe it to your readers to let them know whether you have abandoned it for some higher synthesis of love and/or reason.

      • Thanks Mike.

        The church fathers are highly respected and are often quite useful. However, they should never trump (excuse my use of such a recently distasteful word) Scripture. None of my points above rest solely on Augustine. However, if there is a particular point or points that you would like to dive deeper into, please tell me where you disagree and I may be able to provide you with the Scriptural foundations for what I’ve wrote. Please keep in mind that I don’t consider this my platform and comments will have to be brief. Thanks for the Hart argument.

        • I understand Jean.

          I’d think that at least some of your arguments (particularly when it comes to “original sin” vs “inherited guilt”) are addressed in the article itself. Of course you may disagree. But any assertion of “trumping” scripture (a straw man) is not really to engage with what’s being said there (or in the post), because it is a biblical argument. It’s not merely a piece about church fathers or Augustine or DB Hart, but a piece about biblical hermeneutics, theological assumptions & presuppositions, the complexities surrounding supposedly self-evident “plain readings”, and the ways in which one “plain reading” measures up against another “plain reading”.

          All the best.

          • Mike,

            I never used the terms “original sin” or “inherited guild.” But, I would start here:

            “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Rom 1:18)

            Paul then spends all the way to 3:20 showing that this is a universal condition. All men are ungodly and unrighteous, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

            Jesus says that everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. (John 8:34)

            Paul again:

            “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” (Col 1:21-23)

            Then there’s the constant theme of a ransom/redemption by Christ’s atonement appropriated by faith.

  2. Michael McKee [not the bishop] June 22, 2016 at 7:37 PM

    Yep. Any doctrine of eternal torment in “Hell” would seem to be theological hyperbole meant to speak to the gravity of our choices, but is a mistaken, overreaching reading of the biblical narrative.

    Wondering if this doctrine and the concern for it that is naturally generated also provides Christians a narcissistic distraction from the all too real forms of living-hell that so many people must perpetually endure in the here and now?

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.