Holding on to Hell is Hard

"It is impossible that any one, with a human heart in him, can fully believe this doctrine [of hell and eternal punishment], with all the horrors it involves, with all the accusations it brings against the divine wisdom and goodness, and not feel that it is a terrible weight on his soul, and one from which he would gladly be relieved. There are many shallow minds, many flippant talkers, who find no difficulty whatever in believing, who are prompt to denounce the slightest doubt on the subject as impiety or infidelity. There are many small ministers, who are ready at a moment's notice to clear up all the difficulties of the moral and scriptural arguments; who are never embarrassed, never troubled at all in regard to the matter. But I know that the best and strongest among its believers never treat the subject in this way. Those who have looked into it most deeply and patiently, who are distinguished equally for their learning and piety, confess that, seen from any side you will, it is a fearful thing, and leads to anguish of mind, and distress of heart, and to painful questionings which cannot be answered. Can any one suppose for a moment that a doctrine, producing such mental terror and distress as this, can come from Him who said, so kindly and compassionately, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."? ...Besides, He expressly says that He was sent "to preach good tidings, to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty them that are bruised.”
Thomas B. Thayer, The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment (1855)

Thanks to Caleb Miller for sending me this quotation. 


Steve Walton said…
Indeed. John Stott wisely observed in a sermon on hell at All Souls, Langham Place, that our first response to hell must be tears. It's well worth listening to.
Robin Parry said…

Indeed. And some folk with very trad views on eternal conscious torment (not annihilationists like Stott) have said the same to me. I rather liked Francis Chan's openness about the existential difficulty with the doctrine in his little book defending it. The people I have a problem with are those who have no struggle with it—nay, who appear to be pleased by it. To me that feels like some kind of psychopathic response.

James McGrath said…
Is "Origen" a fantastic pun or merely a typo?
Robin Parry said…

Doh! What a dork! Thanks—my brain went into blurry-mode.
John Thomas said…
I just found from Randal Rauser's blog that a new book on Christian Universalism (titled 'Heaven's Doors: Wider Than You Ever Believed!')from an Evangelical Christian theologian George W Sarris has hit the bookstores last month. Just wanted to inform you as I am not sure whether you are aware of that.

Link for the book: www.amazon.com/Heavens-Doors-Wider-Than-Believed/dp/0980085322/

Link for Randal Rauser's review of the book from his blog: randalrauser.com/2017/04/universalism-evangelicals-review-heavens-doors/
Robin Parry said…
Thanks John,

That is helpful. George is a good bloke and well worth reading.

Kind regards

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Anonymous said…
Robin. I wanted to reach out to you and share something. I am often so terribly troubled by the idea of hell. Lately I have been having bouts where I imagine my dearest loved ones there, either screaming in agony or being overwhelmingly sad and wishing they could cease to exist with every fiber of their being but being unable to. And from reading Aquinas and Edwards I have, even more horribly, found myself picturing that God has somehow made me such that I could delight in or accept such things as they happen to my loved ones.

I sometimes wake up and the first thing that comes into my mind is that my wife could be damned forever and that I could become a person who is ok with that. Or sometimes I imagine myself in hell, consciously aware that I will never go out of existence and continue to suffer for all eternity. This can be overwhelmingly depressing and horrifying and nauseating. I am a healthcare professional who sometimes works 12 hours a day, without breaks, and there are times I need to focus for several hours in a row. But the other day I had such a mood come over me and it was nearly all I could do not to burst out in tears at my job. I am very shaken at times, nearly to the point of paralysis, by the idea of hell and what kind of God it implies. If such a being does rule the universe, there is no hope, for he is so different from what my heart yearns for that he may, for all I know, delight in torturing those who try their best to love their neighbors.

I am not necessarily asking for answers. I just wanted to share and was wondering if you had ever had such thoughts. The solidarity may be more comforting than anything.

Also please pray for me - as I will for you.
Robin Parry said…
Dear anonymous,

Thanks you for sharing. I think that your revulsion at the thought of a deity who would do such things to people is absolutely right. My heart goes out to you.

Perhaps I can offer some help. The God that you fear is not the God of Scripture, but a warped misunderstanding of him. The doctrine of never-ending torment is also in error. My view is that in the end God will redeem all people. This is an ancient Christian view and one that I believe is well founded on the Bible. When we appreciate that God is love we start to see that everything God does must be an expression of love. Everlasting hell is not an act of love.

If you wish to see my arguments for God's all-saving love then there are several sources.

1. My book, written under a false name.
Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Cascade Books)

2. My chapter in Four Views on Hell, edited by Preston Sprinkle (Zondervan)

3. Or the following videos:
a) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnuLnBakS6w
b) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6CpN4oAu9M
c) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sooAFh_b_Ac&t=1014s

I hope that you can find great comfort in the knowledge that God will not allow death and hell to win the day—that his love will triumph. God is not who you fear he is.
Malcolm said…
Robin. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this issue.

Do you have any thoughts on the impassibility of God? Or kenotic models of the Incarnation?

It seems one of the cards in the Classical Theologian's deck is this claim that God cannot suffer. God in himself is triune love, and since there is no "friction" amongst the three divine persons there is no metaphysical "space" as it were for suffering (where would it come from?) To suppose God suffers would be to suppose that somehow evil and privation has reverberated back into his being. But to be God just is to be the highest good, in fact pure Good without any admixture of evil. Therefore, necessarily, God cannot contain or participate in evil and so cannot suffer. (This is an argument from Thomas Weinandy.)

But if God cannot suffer, then the cross doesn't really tell us anything about the self-sacrificial nature of God: for the divine nature cannot sacrifice itself. Or, even if it could, it could not experience pain or suffering when it did, because God just is Triune and and cannot cease to be and this guarantees the fact that nothing bad can impact him.

I have not seen this idea linked up specifically with the doctrine of Hell, but it does seem to potentially encourage it, insofar as God could be the type of being who is indifferent to the world or unable to be negatively affected by it. You get into this question a little at the end of that last video, but was wondering if you have any more thoughts on the topic.

The problem seems to center around the idea of God's being necessary and also the fact that he creates contingently. God must necessarily be whatever he is necessarily. Say for instance a perfect instance of love among the Trinity. But God does not it seems have to create or be related to the world. Thus if he does, he must somehow still be all that he was (ontologically) before: he cannot "gain" some goodness or perfection in virtue of his creative act. His freedom then is more akin or a kind of specification that need not be what it is but that still retains the fullness of itself even if it could be something different. (There is a deep puzzle here that Classical theology has often overlooked: God's single act of being as being both necessary and contingent, which seem to be contradictory predicates.)

But there also seems to be a problem if we say God cannot suffer, since many modalities of goodness in our lives seem inextricably linked to some form of pain or suffering or metaphysical "privation". Things like self-sacrifice, courage, patience, vulnerability, spontaneity, surprise. But if these are truly good things and emotions, how could a God who is All Good - indeed the very source of good itself - lack them? How could he create them?

I am drawn to Balthasar's idea of Essential Kenosis (an idea which MacDonald explores a bit by the way) but wonder if it has problems for traditional Chalcedonian Two-Natures Christology.
Robin Parry said…

Blooming heck! That is a big question. Well, I am strongly inclined towards what some people call classical theism. So I love folk like Weinandy. (I also love Balthasar.) I do not have a fixed view on impassibility other than that if it is affirmed it must be done VERY carefully. I rather enjoyed Paul Gavrilyuk's attempt to do this in The Suffering of the Impassible God. I am well aware of all the problems of impassibility and my only published statements on the issue (in my Lamentations book) seem to go in the opposite direction, affirming passibility (in a qualified way). But I want to find a way of holding the insights of both together. Have not devoted time to doing so yet, so I cannot comment.

Personally, I think classical theism is incompatible with everlasting hell, in spite of the fact that folk like Thomas Aquinas tried to hold both together. (He felt bound to do so because the church required it.) It seems to me that classical theism leads to universalism.

The problem for me at this moment is that your reflections are excellent and very thought provoking and helpful but would require a lot of time to ponder and respond to adequately and I currently do not have such time. I can only waffle. E.g., I have a tendency to consider kenotic Christologies as problematic, but as a whole bunch of different Christologies fit under that category, some more problematic than others, I am reluctant to dismiss them. I have always been a Chalcedonian guy. I guess I tend to have a default high regard for church tradition. (Strange as that may sound.)
Malcolm said…
Robin. I too think Classical Theism is the most coherent (only?) theism. I also think it logically implies - or at least points to very strongly - Universalism. However, you don't see many taking up such a philosophical or metaphysical argument for it.

I have written an argument proper on this topic. It is called "Apokatastasis: The Only Eschatology Compatible with Classical Theism." I would be honored if you took a look at it when you had the chance. And I would like it to get out in the open for people to discuss. (Also, you may just actually *like* it if you're a Classical Theist!)


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