Hell No: The Doctrine of Final Punishment and Recent Attempts at Evangelical Revisions

The idea that people will go to the final punishment because they want to, and so God is just giving them what they want, (C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard) is a strange one indeed. Hell does not seem to be the Heaven for people with poor taste. Hell, is bad. And unpleasant. It seems from the biblical presentations that everyone that goes there will want to be somewhere else.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a lover of Lewis and his peculiar genius as well as a fan of the brilliant Dallas Willard. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with him personally about these matters on more than one occasion, and was struck by the profundity of his intellect as well as his profound Christian character. Still, when someone argues against two thousand years of Christian theology and biblical interpretation the standards for persuasion should be extraordinarily high.

A friend wrote to ask about the idea that Hell is really the absence of God. It’s an interesting idea. It has certainly become common enough in Evangelical circles.

“Heaven and Hell are God’s provisions for who we choose to be. It is a natural extension of the way we live. I tell people that what they get out of this life—after this life—is the person that they become now…. You can get in a lot of arguments about the details, but the basic fact is that there are some people who just can’t stand God. That’s the way they are in this life, so he doesn’t force his presence on them in the next.”1

Willard also argues that being a Christian, a conscious believer in Jesus Christ, having a personal faith in Him, is not necessary to salvation, but that many Buddhists, for example, will be in Heaven for their final reward, on the basis of their good intentions and good works.

“It is absolutely crucial that we understand the statement correctly, for it has become the central bone of contention with reference to Christian pluralism or exclusivism. Clearly, according to it, Christ is exclusive. But is Christianity?

If you take the statement to be saying that no one can “come to the Father” (be accepted by God) without specific knowledge of the historical personage Jesus—as many people do take it—then of course billions of people, before, during, and after his time on earth are eliminated from all possibility of “coming to the Father” simply by accidents of time and place and over which they have no control… This is surely impossible in a world of which John 3:16 is true.”2

This becomes particularly important when we examine this issue of choice (I’m not going as far as thinking about choice in the context of the “free will” debate here, but just choice in general). Is a Buddhist that does not believe in God or in the goodness or deity of Christ, even in the most superficial sense, choosing God? Or heaven? Or anything similar? For the most part it seems that the sincere Buddhist is choosing nothingness, nonthought, and the absence of God in their lives and not choosing God in any sense reconcilable with common reasoning on the subject. In any case it would be hard to take the claim that their choices made them worthy of Heaven seriously, since it doesn’t even work that way for Christians.

The issue of choice and God’s supposed respect for it can become quite slippery, especially when we take into account that all through the Bible God seems all to clear on demanding that people do certain kinds of things and condemns them for making any kind of decision otherwise. The issue of choice seems to confuse the fact of the ability to make a choice with God’s so called respect for the choices in general. God creates sentient beings with moral agency and the ability to make decisions but could this really be interpreted as an endorsement of their power of judgment in such a way that it would lead us to believe that He will provide for every choice, even those that reject Him as Lord of Heaven and Earth? It doesn’t seem likely. This would seem to be taking the idea far beyond what the Scriptures tell us about these complicated issues.

Now we might take it as true that in making a law against “Murder” the legislature is giving everyone the choice of whether or not to murder, but that use of the words doesn’t seem to make much sense. That is not the intent of the making of the law; to give people the choice to murder or not to murder.

Even the idea that He is giving them a choice and that that is what all this is about is remarkably counter intuitive. God seems to give everyone under our current conditions one choice, and that involves repentance and faith. If we refuse we reap the necessary and inevitable consequence of that rebellion against one that has the authority, right, and duty to call us to account for out actions.

Can God have a duty to judge the world? He has a duty to Himself to be a good God, and that is what a good God does. It might be much more reasonable to see what God is doing here in the way that the Christian churches have viewed it for thousands of years, not as presenting a choice that He will respect so much as a command that people have the ability to disobey. The issue that we have here doesn’t seem to be any positive consideration of peoples capacity for self-governance on the part of God, but an affirmative action on the part of God in reaction to a choice already made.

What I mean by this is that God is does not seem to be reoffering a choice to be guilty or not to a people balanced in some neutral decision making capacity while measuring alternatives; He is acting as a sovereign over all things to make right something that was lost and corrupted long ago and demanding action on the part of those in a subordinate position. As parents have the natural right to demand that their children obey; as kings have the right to the obedience of their armies; as the shepherd has the right to the obedience of his flock; God is not asking nicely for that of which we already have an affirmative duty.

1From “Rethinking Evangelism,” Dallas Willard.
2From “Knowing Christ Today,” Dallas Willard.

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