The Absurdity of an Eternal Hell

Jason Micheli —  June 15, 2016 — 18 Comments

quote-that-thing-of-hell-and-eternal-punishment-is-the-most-absurd-as-well-as-the-most-disagreeable-george-berkeley-16387-4I’m no aficionado of the Oxford Comma, as my friend Tony Jones knows,  so I can appreciate, I suppose, the way a sober dose of grammatical clarification can provoke patronizing tones. Last week my post on how Paul, once he’s properly translated, believes it’s the faithfulness of Christ- not our faith in Christ- that justifies us before God, inspired many a breathless rebuttal. According to the many rejoinders I received, to place “too much stress” upon God-in-Christ as the acting subject of salvation leads to an “abyss of false teaching” where it becomes necessary to affirm that which the New Testament already (inconveniently) does; namely, that the God who created all that is ex nihilo as sheer good gratuity, the God who is all and in all, is the God who desires the salvation of all.

“This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2.3-4

Apparently, if my critics, clergy and lay, are to be heeded to assert that God desires the salvation of all constitutes a “treacherous absurdity.” It’s a betrayal of the Gospel, I’ve been told in the not so hushed tones of all caps messages, to suppose that the triune God who announced his creative aim in Genesis 1 (“Let us make humankind in our image…”) will not forsake his endeavor until it has reached final consummation, that in the fullness of time humanity will finally bear the full glory of God’s image. Evidently, I take it from these Calvinists in threadbare sheep’s clothing, it’s better to confess that God-with-us may be our Alpha but he is not our End. At least, not for all of us.

Their sanctimonious caveats took me aback, warning me that my logic- which is but the logic of the New Testament’s witness- “could lead down a slippery slope” to (gasp) “universalism.” It’s amazing to me that those most vested- presumably- in protecting the gravity of sin, the majesty of salvation, and the authority of scripture ignore what scripture itself testifies about it and the nature of the God revealed therein. Spurred by my teacher, David Bentley Hart, I actually counted them up. The New Testament contains no less than 47 verses which affirm the ‘all-ness’ of God’s salvation compared to the 3 oft-cited but decidedly cryptic verses which may (or as easily may not) suggest eternal torments for the wicked.

47 vs. 3

What was obvious to the ancient Church Fathers, the totality of God’s salvific aim, has become so hidden it now sufficiently smacks of heresy to exile Rob Bell from the pulpit to the Oprah Channel.

A hero of mine, Karl Barth, famously said that as Christians scripture does not permit us to conclude that all will be saved but that as Christians we should hope and pray that all will be saved. Barth’s is a more generous sentiment than I hear from many Christians today, but despite his reticence I daresay logic permits us to say more.

If God desires the salvation of all it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.

The belief in an eternal hell where some are forever excluded from the ‘all-ness’ of salvation echoed by scripture- that is the absurdity which begets still other absurdities like the Calvinist notion that God predestined some to salvation and others to perdition.

Just as God cannot act contrary to his good nature, so too God cannot fail to realize the good he desires. To say, as scripture does, that God desires the salvation of all is to say simultaneously and necessarily, as scripture implies, that all will be saved, that all things will indeed be made new.

Consider the counter:

If not, if we in our sin (or, worse, in our “freedom”) thwart God’s will and desire, casting ourselves into a fiery torment despite God’s sovereign intention, God would not be God. Or, to put it simpler if more baldly, we would be God. Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.

Evil would God.

Thus the belief in an eternal hell betrays the fact that it’s possible for perfect faith to be indistinguishable from perfect nihilism.

Just days after the slaughter in Orlando, it’s clear how offensive the ‘all-ness’ of God’s sovereign saving love can strike the moral ear. For that ‘all-ness’ must include the shooter too.

To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5.18-19

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. – Romans 11.32

Jason Micheli

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18 responses to The Absurdity of an Eternal Hell

  1. Brilliantly stated for all to understand the truth of the gift we all received! Thank you!

  2. I hope you’re right.

  3. Jason,
    I have been digesting “The Absurdity of an Eternal Hell” and would disagree agreeably with your analysis and conclusions. You wrote that “To suggest instead that even if Christ came for all and died for all only some will be saved better conforms to our calculus of justice, but it is a moral calculus that is not without remainder, for it makes of evil an idol and of (the once transcendent) God a liar.”

    Reading this statement it appears that you give no weight or importance to the atonement. IF, all human beings are to be saved, then the entire Christ drama is an Absurdity. Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection are all meaningless, and the gospel of salvation is a lie. I can look forward to sharing eternity with the vilest of humanity (Nero, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, ad infinitum) for they too will be saved. You cannot escape the logic that we worship a Divine being without moral character if all are to be saved. If there is no just consequence for horrendous evil deeds, then I believe you make God the author and patron of evil.

    Christ did indeed come for all, and die for all. However, not all will respond to His sacrifice. The great absurdity is not belief in an eternal Hell. The great absurdity is to proclaim that all will be saved from their evil deeds without genuine repentance, sorrow for the evil done, and faith in Christ’s atonement.

    Pastor Mike Hopper
    Faith United Methodist church

    • Jason Micheli June 15, 2016 at 1:13 PM

      I’m downplaying the important of the atonement but arguing that they are the means by which all will be saved. Nor do I think the all-ness of salvation is independent of repentance.

    • This assumes that the point of the atonement was Christ specifically resolving all sin, rather than announcing the new Kingdom and being killed by the powers of this world for it, and then rising to show them completely powerless against Him. Which speaks to a very different order, and a different Gospel, than PSA attends to.

  4. One would think that the Holy Spirit would correct these believers… 🙂

  5. I suppose you could also tackle this by talking about grace and what grace really means. Church teaching seems to be bi-polar. On one hand we talk about about an all-loving, all-powerful, all-wonderful God, and then on the other hand we talk about a God who is confined by constraints that we define. We want a certain definition of Yahweh, who is love and mystery and awe, and so we create God in our image because that is all our mind can comprehend. And at the root of this is how we use the bible, not realizing that every time we do so we are actually interpreting something written in a different time and different languages to conform to the God that we create.

  6. Jason, I have absolutely loved your last several columns. You will get blowback on this one also. Your logic is near impeccable but most people don’t think, they just react emotionally. God bless your ministry, your writings, and you and your family.

  7. I appreciate this post but I lean towards Barth’s hopeful yet more circumspect view. Since you often write about metaphysics, “evil” as a non-“thing”, and the problems of nominalism and voluntarism, let me suggest that I think the following statement is very problematic: “If God desires the salvation of all it is a logical absurdity to assert that the transcendent God will ultimately fail in accomplishing his eschatological will.” This seems to prioritize God’s “will” to the absolute — that is, it is voluntarism. The argument has to prioritize God’s _being_, not isolate His “will.”

    Later you say: “Or, still more pernicious, evil, as that which has successfully resisted God’s creative aim though it is no-thing, would be God.” Here, despite your classical commitment to the non-being of evil, you seem to be ascribing being to evil. I get the reason for this move: it sets up the impossibility that “evil” will prevail against God. But if “evil” is indeed not a “thing,” then even if “evil” continues in the eschaton it is not the case that “evil” has prevailed against God, any more than it is the case in the present age that “evil” has ever prevailed or could prevail against God. Evil is inexplicable now. A free created agent’s final choice for evil in the eschaton would be equally inexplicable. But as we know, inexplicable doesn’t mean impossible.

    Maybe part of the problem is the tendency to ascribe an affirmative ontological status to “Hell” and its possible occupants. Indeed, if “Hell” is a “place” like any other place this seems to create enormous problems for the Biblical eschatological hope that God will be “all in all.” Some Eastern Orthodox thinkers have addressed this by suggesting that “Hell” is simply the experience of God’s love by people who refuse love. I tend to think of it analogous to a black hole. A black hole isn’t a “place,” and matter that falls into a black hole enters a state that science cannot presently explain. I’m not suggesting “Hell” is literally a black hole, but if a kind of state of non-being can exist in nature without violating the laws of the conservation of energy and matter, I presume a kind of state of non-being can exist in the eschaton without violating God’s all-in-all-ness. Perhaps the annihilationists are right here, or perhaps (I think) our metaphysical categories simply can’t grasp the “impossible possibility” of a free being finally rejecting God’s love.

  8. BTW there is at least one strong scriptural warrant for the possibility that God’s saving will can be rejected by free creatures: Matthew 23:37, where Jesus laments — “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Admittedly there are any number of exegetical and interpretive issues we could raise about this — how does Jesus’ statement here related to the will of the Father and the relations of the Godhead, how does this statement relate to distinct the eschatological themes in Matthew’s Gospel, etc. But I think this text is a strong indication that who God as revealed in Christ is, what God as revealed in Christ “desires,” and how God as revealed in Christ relates to free human agents, is complex.

  9. In my better moments when under the influence of my better angels, I try to refrain from telling God what God can and cannot do: God can “save” everyone, God can allow some individuals to go to hell. Basically, the question—as I understand it—in this post is unanswerable and, hence, uninteresting. I prefer to focus on my own “salvation” and doing what I can to bring “salvation” to everyone (e.g., by financially supporting the Reconciling Ministry and UMCOR). Whether “hell” exists also is fundamentally uninteresting to my kernel of faith because whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s; no circumstances—in life, in death, in the life or death after this life—can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. We have more than adequate reason to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to try to obey his “11th” Commandment without invoking the idea of hell as punishment for our failures or heaven as a reward for trying to live Christ-like lives. Invoking either hell or heaven is tantamount to bargaining with God, e.g., I’ll live a Christ-like life so I can go to heaven and won’t go to hell. Keep the focus on the here and now without worrying/speculating who will/won’t go to heaven or hell.

  10. There is an assumption being made here that its all about getting to heaven. There is that thing of Jesus saying the kingdom of God is at hand.

  11. In your quest to rebut the Calvinists, you may have fallen into their error of attempting to solve the paradoxes of Scripture and to possess the wisdom of God. We have what He revealed to us in Scripture regarding salvation, and no more.

    You’ve also oversimplified the issue creating a polarity between universalism and ECT. You have failed to consider annihilation and the central tenant of justification, which is that it is received by faith.

    • Well, we have the logic with which God has imbued the material world do we not? And I wouldn’t concede that scripture, taken in full in the plot which it quite obviously intends, is all that paradoxical. Episodic yes. I have ECT the target though I don’t think A really solves the moral problem of Hell. Justification is received by faith (for how else do you receive a gift?) but its wrought not by our faith but Christ’s.

      My you expect a lot of qualifications in an 750 word blog post!

  12. “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,” Romans 3:21-22 NET

    His faithfulness and our belief.

    But perhaps Paul wasted a lot of good ink on letters, such as Galatians.

    I understand the challenge of writing something meaningful, and at the same time orthodox, in a short blog. But, responsibility to your readership should be a paramount concern as a shepherd with the privileges of this platform.

  13. no Hell = no free will.
    If the aim is our communion with God, this can only happen if we perceive the free will to choose God or NOT God (which happens to be NOT life- whether illustrated as outer darkness or eternal flame). But if we say free will is an illusion, we are imposing our human reason on the superior divine – we cannot know this. So there must be a Hell, not because God wants it (or actively “sends” us – this is our forebear’s interpretation), but because WE NEED it.

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