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The Justice of Hell

by John Sabatino


Skeptics often assert that it is unjust, unloving, and immoral to send someone to hell for eternity, as punishment for sins committed during a finite life. Is it possible that it IS perfectly just, loving, and moral to send people to hell for eternity? The following arguments will seek to demonstrate that it is, and this is all that is necessary to invalidate any claim that God's justice is incompatible with Him sending people to hell for eternity.

I. Eternal Punishment for an Eternity of Sin

Let's suppose that a  finite amount of sin deserves a finite amount of punishment. But it is possible that continuous sin IN hell, committed by a being who has grown so far from the good for so long that it is impossible to be good (and hence, to be in God's presence), incurs infinite sentencing time. He is in hell because he belongs there, and perhaps he stays there because he does not, and cannot, change. The Christian doctrine has always been that all are sinners anyway, and without acceptance of Christ we cannot be washed of that sin, so why would it be any different in hell? Most likely, those "down there" will be blaspheming God at an exponentially greater rate. Infinite sin, infinite punishment.

II. Sin Against/Rejection of an Infinite Being has Infinite Consequences

It is also possible that all sin is ultimately sin against God, an infinite being, and is immediately a departure from that inherent moral and spiritual part of ourselves that is infinite, made in the image of God, and therefore sin itself has infinite weight. It could also be that the gravity of the sin increases with the type of being we sin against: tree, frog, person, God, etc. Rejection of Christ, which is ultimately a rejection of God's plan to reconcile man with Himself, through the sacrifice of His own Son who is a part of His very being, is a sin of a completely different order - a sin of infinite gravity.

III. Soul-Making

Michael J. Murray offers another model which touches upon something mentioned in I. :

"It is clear from the Genesis account of creation that one of the central aims God had in creating human beings was to make creature in the 'divine image.' While the passage does not tell us all that this entails, it demonstrates that God was about the business of creating beings that were as much like God as they, finite and created as they were, could be. Many features of the divine nature could be replicated in creatures in characteristically finite ways: the ability to reason, to govern behavior on the basis of moral considerations, and to act freely, for example. This last feature is especially important since, because of it, humans are able to enter in to a genuinely loving relationship with God. Without it, those who professed love for God (as the first great command dictates--Matt. 22:37) and who strove to be imitators of him (Eph. 5:1), would simply be robots or parrots, spitting back words of praise and behaving in ways that are simply a matter of preprogramming. Of course, such praise and behavior are not genuine expressions of love. In addition, having the ability to behave freely in these ways allows creatures to come close to exhibiting another divine attribute: self-existence. It is traditionally held that God has the attribute of self-existence (sometimes referred to as 'a-seity' by philosophers and theologians [from the Latin phrase 'a se' meaning 'from oneself']). Of course, no created thing can be self-existent (by definition!). But God might be able to make creatures who are self-existent at least in certain respects, and maybe in the most interesting and valuable respects, the respects which define what sort of person one is, and in particular, with respect to whether or not one will be a God-lover or not. God, wanting us to be creatures made in his image, wants us to be God-lovers. But recognizing that robots or preprogrammed parrots cannot be genuine God-lovers (although they can be preprogrammed to exhibit God-loving behaviors), God also gives us freedom, freedom to be self-made in a certain (very important) respect.

"As a result, God situates us, for a time, in this earthly life. And this earthly life is to act as a time of sanctification or, as some have called it, soul-making: a time when we have powers to make free choices to be a person of one sort or another. God's aim, of course, is that all will see that being a God-lover is something to value over all else. But free creatures can, in virtue of their free powers, choose to reject this sort of life. They can instead become lovers of self and haters of God.

"Once the course of one's life is complete, and one has, through conscious decision and behavior, become one sort of person or another, what then? For those who have become lovers of God, the natural consequence would be for them to enter into the divine presence to love God and enjoy him forever. But what of the others? What of those who simply have no interest in doing that? Why not, one might wonder, just accept them into divine presence anyway? There are at least two reasons. The first is that doing this would amount to robbing the creature of the very self-determination that made their lives significant. The point of our earthly lives, on this account, is that we might be able to autonomously become creatures of one or another sort. But if we do not, after all, have that ability (because God will force the same 'end' upon all of us), then our dignity is stolen. The second reason is that if those who lived lives in which they rejected God were nonetheless forced into God's presence forever, such a life would be utterly odious to them. It would be like forcing one who hates opera to sit through Der Ring des Nibelungen for eternity. This wouldn't be eternal bliss for them. It would be an eternal nightmare. As a result, the natural consequence for cultivating such a life would be eternal separation from God. And this is what hell is."[1]

This model argues that humans are habit-forming beings...The free choices we make eventually lead to dispositions. These dispositions become firmly entrenched over time. Having to think through your choices anew every moment would not be advantageous: "We can get in and out of restaurants in less than a day because we take preferences, formed by past choices, with us to the menu, and these preferences make our decision procedure much quicker...[habits] make it possible for us to effectively navigate the world."[2] It is argued that as we cultivate these dispositions we become a certain sort of person. The range of choices become narrower and narrower (i.e., an atheist doesn't just wake up every morning and reconsider the case for God anew, nor does the Christian do the same with the "case" against God). We become set in our ways to a degree, and "We might then think of those in heaven and hell as those who are maximally set in their ways."[3]

IV.  Hell as Ultimate Deterrent from Complacency Regarding the Necessity of Salvation

1. It is just that there should be punishment for the sin we commit in our lives.

2. Concerning the duration of punishment, the difference between infinite and finite punishment is infinitely great. It is most likely solely this infinity of punishment that inspires the objections to hell on the part of the non-theist. In consideration of Christianity, it is what really shocks them, scares them, grabs their attention, etc.

3. It might be the case that promise of a finite punishment for sins would not effectively deter believers or non-believers from being complacent about the matter of having a relationship with God, through Christ. If hell were finite, we might wind up with a situation in which a person opts to pay the price of a long but finite punishment for an entire life of fun-loving debauchery - knowing he can still make it into God's presence at the end. We could ultimately enter God's presence without changing or growing towards God at all in our lives. It would just as well hinder the importunity and haste with which Christians preach the Gospel. For example, knowing how uncomfortable my brother and his fiancée are with the subject, and how hard it is to witness to them, I might simply give up and never initiate a conversation about Christ again, were it the case that hell was just a finite sentence and not an utterly final separation from God. Witnessing to the truth about God in the face of opposition, experiencing persecution, embarrassment, rejection, etc. is a good of a very high order on Christianity, as it is part of walking in the footsteps of Christ. And anything less than the knowledge that there is an infinite depth of misfortune that awaits those whom we are supposed to love might hinder that.

4. God abhors sin and he doesn't want us compromising with it or growing into the habit of it, but rather away from it. He expects us to recognize it as wrong, accept the sacrifice of His Son as atonement for our sin, and walk in newness of life, living towards Him (becoming God-lovers) so that we may be in His presence for eternity. When we sin, our latter state becomes worse than the former - we become servants of sin. We become a different sort of person through developing sinful habits (soul-making) and this ties directly into the habit response given in III., where it is proposed that we can grow away from God so much so that we will not be able to, nor desire to, be in His presence.

5. An all-wise God would want to prevent this as effectively as possible without compromising our freedom to choose.

6. An infinite duration of hell is possibly a very effective deterrent of complacency (on the part of both believers and non-believers) concerning the necessity of salvation in Christ (and, hence, growing towards the likeness of, rather than away from, God). [4]

V. Anguish of Hell as Mostly Self-inflicted

1. The 'fire and worms' descriptions of hell are most likely metaphorical descriptions of suffering.

2. Hell is really about seperation from God:

"Since God cannot force his love on people and coerce them to choose him, and since he cannot annihilate creatures with such high intrinsic value, then the only option available is quarantine. And that is what hell is."[5]

3. This is something atheists already experience so it is not a change in condition as regards their relationship with God, but a RECOGNITION of the true depravity of their condition, in light of the reality of God, that causes the anguish in hell.

Jesus said, "There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God." (Luke 13.28ff)

In this passage the weeping of the damned occurs "when they see" their own exclusion. It is due to their separation, not vindictive demons poking them with pitchforks at God's command.

4. So most of the anguish will quite possibly be associated with a jealousy of those who were saved, a feeling of infinite loss, having rejected a relationship with God, a feeling of irrationality/stupidity looking back on their decision to ignore signs of God in their life/world, shame/disgrace, an anger/hatred towards God, etc. There might also be other aspects of their self-inflicted anguish such as a greed-aspect - not having been able to maintain their higher standard of living, etc. etc.

5. In this case hell would be mostly self-inflicted anguish that results from the removal/seperation and cannot be attributed to injustice on God's part AT ALL.

VI. Removal of the Wicked is Necessary

1. God is infinitely Holy and cannot be in the presence of wickedness

2. The wicked element also hinders the development and happiness of those redeemed by Christ

3. The wicked must then be removed eternally from both God and the redeemed, hence, Hell...

It might be objected that a just God would just exterminate the wicked, which leads to the next argument...

VII. Eternity of Low-quality Life is Better than Annihilation

Life has intrinsic value, and God is actually dignifying a person to allow them to live a low-quality life, rather than annihilating them.

Moreland and Habermas argue:

"But there is a more important, fundamental consideration than the ones just listed: For the sake of argument, if we compare extinction with life in hell, it is clearly more immoral to extinguish humans with intrinsic value than to allow them to continue living in a state with a low quality of life. In fact, we do not believe the second alternative is immoral at all, but the first alternative is immoral."[6]

"In our view, annihilationism versus the traditionalists regarding hell form a precise parallel to quality-of-life versus sanctity-of-life positions regarding infanticide and euthanasia. Remember, hell is not a torture chamber, and people in hell are not howling like dogs in mind-numbing pain. There are degrees of anguish in hell. But the endlessness of existence in hell at least dignifies the people there by continuing to respect their autonomy and their intrinsic value as persons."[7]


If ANY ONE of these arguments is even POSSIBLE, then the doctrine of hell is not inconsistent with the justice of God.


1. Michael J.Murray (ed.) Reason for the Hope Within   (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) p. 295-6

2. Ibid. 297

3. Ibid. 298

4. We can see a clear demonstration of this argument in the example of a friend of a friend of mine. In the following case, we have a person who teeters on the edge of unbelief, DESPITE *his* personal belief (which I do not share) that much of his Christian beliefs are irrational, and the doctrine of eternal punishment is the main thing that keeps him from atheism, and aided in conversion from atheism! See:

From the article: "When I was an atheist many years ago, I felt that it was inherently unjust to impose an infinite amount of punishment for a finite number of sins. It struck me as ludicrous that the "good news" was that all I had to do to escape eternal torment and receive eternal bliss was to believe that approximately 2000 years ago a man claiming to be the Son of God turned water into wine, walked on water, cast out demons, raised the dead, and somehow came back to life himself after he was killed. What sane individual wouldn't question any of this?! And yet I do believe all of it for reasons that never quite seem rational to me-- no matter how cleverly someone explains it. I wonder how zealous many Christians would be in their faith if weren't for The McNugget Factor. I wonder what I would believe if it didn't seem to come down to a choice between eternal happiness or eternal misery. It's quite possible that I would still be an atheist today."

In his case we have the doctrine of hell working towards SALVATION, rather than turning him away.

5. Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Nelson:1992) p. 164

6. Ibid. 173

7. Ibid. 174