Does anyone deserve hell?

When Osama bin Laden was killed, a man whose wife died in the 9/11 attacks expressed gladness that the person responsible for her murder was now suffering in hell for eternity. At the time I was horrified by this sentiment; I couldn’t relate to it at all.

But many good and lovely people, Christians included, do derive comfort from the belief that evildoers and mass-murderers like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Harold Shipman and Fred West are suffering terribly in hell right now – and forever – for what they did while they were alive. I’ve always found the notion abhorrent, but I’m perhaps beginning to understand it just a little.

As a sheltered member of a nice safe modern civilised liberal society, I’m not accustomed to real-life brutality and bloodshed. Probably for the same reason I don’t like the idea of physical punishment, of beatings or the death penalty. And of course I don’t like the idea of a hell that involves punishment and pain.

However, just occasionally something awakens the wild and uncivilised part of me, stirring up a fierce rage and desire for bloody vengeance.

Rage beyond reason

One such stirring was occasioned by watching a BBC Panorama documentary called ‘Breaking into Britain’.  The programme followed the incredibly tough journeys of migrants seeking a better life in Europe and ultimately England. Many of the stories were deeply troubling, but by far the most horrific and heartbreaking was of Congalese mother Philomen, raped in the desert by a lorry driver as forced payment for a ride. Her rape was witnessed by her 4-year-old daughter, who the same man then also kissed and touched sexually.

Suddenly I was filled with deep, boiling anger and hate for this man, and a terrible desire for personal vengeance – to punish and even torture him as much as possible for the monstrous thing he had done to these people. Emotionally, hell’s worst torments felt like an appropriate and proportionate response to this act of casual, callous evil.

More recently, I heard a BBC radio programme about Irish soldiers who fought on the British side in World War II and were then treated as deserters by their own country. Their treatment at the hands of the Irish government was inhumanly cruel – harsh penal sentences, and a secret starvation order preventing them from getting work or their families getting enough to eat. Even worse was the treatment of their children, taken away into special schools run by (for example) ‘The Christian Brothers’, who systematically subjected them to physical and sexual abuse, all the while claiming to represent Christ. Again, fury rose up in me against these utter bastards (I’m restraining my language). I wanted them to be punished, to feel the pain of what they’d done to innocent others; to burn in hell, quite literally.

There are things against which the soul rightly rages. Deep in our beings, we sense that crimes like these cannot go unpunished, unavenged; that those who did such things should have to pay for them.

So I can begin to understand those who feel that some acts and deeds merit post-mortem punishment; it is the hope for ultimate justice in the next world that has too often been denied in this one. Indeed, I wonder if the whole doctrine of hell’s torments did not arise originally as a source of comfort to people suffering terrible persecution and abuse at the hands of unchallengeable tyrants. Though I’ve not experienced this myself, I can feel the force of the argument.

Yet as one who trusts in Christ’s perfect act of redemptive self-sacrifice, there is an alternative perspective I have to put forward.

Another side of the story

Even mass-murderers and rapists have their story to tell; their own dark and twisted reasons, their tortuous, tortured paths which have led them to the point where they can treat others as non-human. I’m not suggesting that this excuses their crimes. But perhaps if we really knew their stories, were able to walk in their shoes a while, we might feel less desire to hurt them and more just a terrible sadness at the kind of world that can produce such twistedness.

As I said about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, some perpetrators of horror are simply normal people caught up in evils greater than themselves. And of course, many who abuse others have themselves been victims of abuse. Many who commit hate crimes are striking out against injustices that have been done to them, but are striking the wrong person. Let’s make sure we don’t also strike the wrong people in our desire for vengeance against Evil. The evil we hate is greater than any person or their deeds; and it may even have a hiding-place in our own hearts.

I pray God I will never be in a position where I am even tempted to commit terrible crimes. Nonetheless, I know that deep in my own heart and mind are tendencies which could lead to all sorts of harmful behaviour given the conjunction of opportunity, provocation and weakness. Over the years I have done countless things of which I am deeply ashamed, and I’ve imagined many others which I’ve been too afraid of censure to carry out. If I require a punitive hell for those who commit dreadful crimes, I must at least be prepared to face the possibility of punishment myself.

Similarly, if I hope for redemption myself, I must at least hold out the possibility of redemption for these people. Whether or not punishment is needed first, there must be hope for ultimate redemption. Indeed, that is surely the best and fullest way in which good can finally defeat and overcome evil, showing itself to be truly better than evil as it does so.

The hope of redemption

I’ve said before that eternal and infinite punishment cannot be a proportionate response to finite crimes, even the most terrible ones. There must come a point when the fury is spent and the evil avenged.

Of course, it could be argued that some evils can never really be undone; that some deeds have unending consequences and therefore require unending vengeance. No amount of punishment or payment can ever truly make up for something like the rape of a mother and child, nor mend the damage done. But this surely is the point. No amount of vengeance can actually resolve, restore or redeem. The only thing that can truly make things better after such a terrible crime is the love and redeeming power of Christ; God’s amazing ability to bring good out of even the worst evil. Only the deepest love can truly conquer evil.

I have a very high view of Jesus’ sacrifice; I do not believe there are any limits to who or what can be covered by the atonement Jesus made for sin and evil, or the forgiveness he brings. If I can be forgiven and redeemed, so can anyone, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done.

If the dad of the little girl killed at Enniskillen can forgive her killers; if Jesus can say from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’, then there is a better way, a more heavenly solution than vengeance; than a punitive, retributive hell.

An unhealthy view 

So I understand the desire for some to be punished in hell, but I’m not sure that it’s a helpful one. I think that the more we see hell as vindictive vengeance on our enemies, the less healthy it is. Any sense of satisfaction in the thought of others suffering endless agonies is psychologically and spiritually damaging to ourselves. It can be excused to an extent when those others have done terrible things to our loved ones. It’s more repellent when it’s just those we dislike or disagree with who we imagine suffering in hell – a narcissistically self-righteous view.

I’d even argue that the desire for others to burn in hell is a manifestation of hell itself. Those who think this way already have a bit of hell within themselves, which needs to be dealt with before they can be fully healthy, human – and heavenly.

The neurotically self-blaming view isn’t healthy either – the paralysing fear of going to hell because of one’s deep unworthiness, or of sending others to hell through one’s failure to evangelise.

Does anyone not deserve hell?

We’ve been considering the worst crimes and criminals; those for whom hell’s torments might seem a fair response. But of course many believe that hell is also for all unbelievers; all who have not received Christ’s gospel or who belong to other faiths, however good, kind and loving they are. This strikes me as monstrously unjust.

Imagine a child born in sub-Saharan Africa into terrible poverty and conflict, subject to abuse and violence, and dying in early teenage of a common preventable disease. Now, according to evangelical doctrine, if she didn’t receive Jesus during her life, she passes from a life of misery into eternal torment. I can’t accept that; it’s not divine justice, nor does it bear any relation to the character of the God shown in Christ.

As always, Jesus offers a different perspective. He tells the story of the poor man Lazarus who has suffered all his life, who dies and is comforted in the afterlife. By contrast, the selfish rich man – who throughout his life ignored Lazarus – dies and is tormented. It’s the sheep and goats again; not what we say we believe but the kind of people we have made ourselves; the kind of hearts we have, shown in our treatment of others. Of course there’s more to heaven or hell than this; but surely not less.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Evil, Grace, Hell, Salvation, Universalism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Does anyone deserve hell?

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. As someone who’s been abused and struggles to achieve forgiving my abusers I can say that hating and wanting punishment and vengeance on people who commit evil deeds do more to destroy you spiritually, emotionally and physically than anything else, however understandable it is to want people to suffer in hell forever.

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    • Thank you so much for your response. I can only speak as a bystander and spectator, but you can speak as one who really knows. Thank you.

      Jürgen Moltmann, writing in Third Way recently, said something to the effect that the problem of evil/suffering is generally a bystander’s one not a participant’s one. As onlookers, we want to understand natural evils like tsunamis and human evils like holocausts. But for those who are participants in suffering, intellectual understanding is perhaps not the most important thing… ?

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  2. dsholland says:

    In Revelation 6:10 the souls of the slain for Christ call out for vengeance, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” While it could be argued this call for vengeance is not a cry to commit the wicked to hell, it still speaks to the need for justice. Just as you say, “There are things against which the soul rightly rages” we know without understanding that God MUST be just. If He is not just, then He is capricious and no God, how can it be otherwise?
    I am comforted by this, by both His mercy and His justice. But think with me, how do I rejoice in who He is (which has to include His justice) without taking “pleasure in the death of anyone”. Certainly not through “the wild and uncivilised part of me…”

    I think it begins with understanding that there is some consciousness, some personality that just cannot exist in Heaven if it will be Heaven. There is no place for the craven fear of God in His eternal presence. And God’s perfection ensures there are no errors, nobody ends up separated from Him for eternity by mistake which, if He is just, includes the “fluke” of birth. An “evangelical doctrine” that imagines otherwise by definition un-defines God.

    So what to do with the people who, even after the terrors of the Great Tribulation (Rev 9:20), will not repent and turn that they might be healed? They don’t want Heaven, where can they go? Is He unjust to give them what they ask for? And let’s be clear, they do not want to be unmade, they want consciousness (such as it is) on their own terms, apart from Him. A wriggling mass of seething selfishness that remains in a vast and desolate void no bigger than the point of a pin. There is no pleasure in this, but God is perfect and just so nobody, absolutely nobody finds such a place by mistake.

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    • Hi David,
      Don’t be too quick to dismiss the ‘wild and uncivilised’ elements in your/our nature! They’re not all bad, and sometimes these more instinctive or intuitive reactions can open our eyes to realities to which our veneer of civilisation has blinded us.

      Re: Revelation, I think you have to bear in mind the context in which it was written, which was a period of terrible persecution and martyrdom for Christians. That’s partly what I was referring to when I said ‘I wonder if the whole doctrine of hell’s torments did not arise originally as a source of comfort to people suffering terrible persecution and abuse at the hands of unchallengeable tyrants’. (And a similar period of oppression in the intertestamental period may well have given rise to the idea of hellfire in the first place.)

      You ask ‘how do I rejoice in who He is (which has to include His justice) without “taking pleasure in the death of anyone”‘. My answer is by rejoicing in the deeper divine justice which also encompasses mercy and the hope of redemption. This is the justice which finds its fulfilment in the cross and resurrection of Christ – the death and triumph of love incarnate.

      Bless you,
      Harvey

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  3. dsholland says:

    Agreed the wild and uncivilized are not all bad. There is glorious passion which the cool of reason does not enable. That said in my own experience my outrage is usually only half cocked.

    I think you may have misread me with respect to rejoicing in His justice. I did not mean to imply that we should take pleasure, but that we should not. I am confident we agree on this. So the question was how does this happen? Again I think we agree though with different perspectives. Yours is the view of glorious hope while mine is the sorrow of futile waste. You can see it all redeemed but I am not so sure. I do think in the end it will all be revealed as redeemed, but how that plays out with respect to souls may not mean all are redeemed.

    The revelation passage was something that came to mind because I had been reading it recently. What occurred to me as I remembered it in the context of your post was that these saints certainly seeing Him (and as such being like Him) still would cry out to be avenged. Rather than see this as a reflection of the frustration of the writer I wondered how it could be, assuming the account is true? My conclusion, this is an aspect of a truly just God.

    How can He execute wrath and the vengeance He claims as His with a jealous anger? OT, NT it must be the same God. When I am like that it is almost entirely about me so it is hard to imagine it otherwise. That passion is not the good kind, when I stand in the place of God and pretend.

    I guess one big difference is He isn’t pretending.

    Yours in Christ,
    David

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    • Hi David,
      Thanks for clarifying – I wasn’t really disagreeing about the justice point, just presenting an alternative perspective. I’m not completely sure that all will be redeemed in the end, but I think we can still hold out hope for that. It’s realy just the hope that what God wills, he will ultimately achieve, based on his sovereignty and on the completeness of Christ’s self-offering. But I do accept the possibility that not all will allow themselves to be redeemed, and that God will accept their choice.

      I’m agnostic on whether everything in Revelation can be said to be ‘true’ in any usual sense! And even if it is all true, much of the symbolism seems beyond our ability to interpret in any single clear or definite way – hence the raging debates over the centuries about preterism, pre-millenialism, the rapture and all the rest. But I take your point – your interpretation is certainly valid, if not the only one possible.

      On the point of how he can execute wrath and vengeance with a jealous anger, I don’t know the answer, but for me it has to centre round the cross and resurrection of Christ. Which brings me back to a view of divine justice and wrath that somehow encompasses love, mercy and hope.

      Most importantly I want to say how grateful I am for all your comments and contributions, even when we don’t fully agree – perhaps especially when we don’t agree! I’m not always as liberal as I sound, but in this blog I’m trying out ideas to see if they work – and sometimes they don’t!

      Thanks
      Harvey

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      • dsholland says:

        I always read, even if I don’t comment (I cried sad and joyful buckets over Millie).

        Yeah, I don’t understand how Love and Wrath work together either. I think its strange the one is so hard for us and the other so easy. Imagine, as N.T. Wright says, we will be judges…
        It boggles my mind.

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        • Thanks David – you’re lovely. 🙂

          I can just about see how Love and Wrath can be two sides of the same coin for God – the wrath being a result of his love, when those he loves are either harmed, harm themselves or harm others. And I think that in his wrath he can still love. Sadly our human anger is rarely so love-inspired or so pure!

          H

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  4. John Marsden MadMarsie50 says:

    Much thought provoking stuff [again] Harv…. thanks… Re. dsholland’s contributions [Hello- I’m a pal of Harv’s!] I’ ve just re- read Rev 9 vs 20/1 and thought again of Henri Nouwen’s quote:
    ‘Hell is our final ‘No’ to God’.

    As a counsellor, Jung’s idea of the ‘shadow’ intrigues me. Basically, we often don’t like what we see in others but it is a ‘hidden’ part of ourselves that we project onto them. Hitler’s hatred of the Jews and Slavic races is a good example. Beaten by his father as a child and feeling great shame at this and the loss of WW I where he was a corporal in the Austrian army and the subsequent harsh treatment of Germany/Austria by the allies, this heady cocktail of feelings went into the horror that followed in the 1930’s/40’s with his own spin [spins?] on why it was rational and reasonable
    [a good dose of denial is the olive that tops off the cocktail …].

    So the outrage at whatever and whoever hits our ‘nerve’ comes up [often] unconsciously. Take the couple who were/are in court recently after their six children died in a fire. The knee jerk response from the ‘bystanding’ public [two of whom were ejected from court] before they’ve even been to trial or the investigation has finished is because of the emotive context – children dying… horribly. What is unacceptable – and what we want people to be ‘punished’ [most] for – has evolved across time and cultures. However, ANY harm to children is still the great heinous and unforgivable ‘sin’. So what to do ?

    I like the part in William P. Young’s ‘The Shack’ where the chief character, searing with anger, puts God ‘on trial’ for failing to act when his daughter goes missing. Surely an all powerful God should act justly? He is then told to ‘play God’ and choose to send some of his children to ‘hell’ and some to Heaven. What values/evidence will he use to base his decision on? Finally, after much ‘challenging’ by God, he shouts : Send me; don’t punish them, punish ME’ . God says
    that he has chosen wisely.. because that’s just when God did.

    It’s ultimately about choosing forgiveness not judgement.

    To quote St. Bono of Dublin: ‘I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me’ …

    MadMarsie50

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  5. Eric says:

    I think I tend to agree with Lewis that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside. Some people willfully become monsters. I think that the rejection of the doctrine of Hell frequently starts when people are presented with a doctrine of Hell in which the ignorant will suffer forever, not one in which the out-and-out wicked will.

    Now, I agree that rejoicing in vengeance is unhealthy, but I also don’t see room to remove Hell from the Bible, especially when one considers the second-Temple Jewish background of Jesus’ discussions of Gehenna.

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    • Hi Eric,
      Could you unpack a little more what you mean by ‘the second-Temple Jewish background of Jesus’ discussions of Gehenna’, and how this impacts your view of Hell?

      I agree with Lewis’s view to a fair extent – as I explore in my subsequent post and will finish exploring in my next and final post on hell! But I can’t quite go so far as to call anyone ‘the out-and-out wicked’. I’m not sure that in this life there is ever anyone who has quite reached that point of obliterating their own humanity. It may be that beyond death some will persist in that path to the uttermost end of self-destruction which in my view is hell (rather than hell being a separately imposed punishment for it). But… I still feel that have to hold out hope for the possibility of redemption. Not to do so is, in my personal view, neither fully human nor fully Christian. But, as always, I may well be wrong.

      Thanks
      Harvey

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      • Eric says:

        Well, within second-Temple Judaism there appear to be three ideas floating around which involve some sort of resurrection for the righteous. One of these is that the righteous are resurrected and the wicked stay dead. One is that everyone is resurrected, judged, and the wicked die a second time (Revelation’s “second death”?). The last is that everyone is resurrected and that the wicked are punished forever while the righteous live on in bliss. This last one is favored by the Book of Enoch which places the location of the eternal torment of the wicked in the “cursed valley”. The rabbis decide that this is probably the Valley of Hinnom, gai hinnom, shortened to gehenna. So when Jesus talks about Gehenna and fire and all that this isn’t new stuff. It’s linked to an existing idea of the punishment of the wicked.

        I’d also point out that although no one becomes completely monstrous in life neither does anyone become completely perfect. We expect their perfection to be brought to completion after death and I’m not sure that that mechanism won’t work the other way as well.

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        • Thanks Eric – that’s interesting; I’ll have to look up that Book of Enoch passage about the cursed valley. Different biblical passages do seem to line up with one or other of those three views, but it does seem that Jesus favoured the third one. I’m certainly not trying to say that he’s wrong(!!), but where he bases teaching on contemporary thought I’m not always sure we can take that as a full endorsement of the whole package. My interpretation is more that he’s using contemporary metaphor and ideas to make a particular point to his hearers.

          I take your point about perfection or imperfection reaching completion after death, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that people won’t get worse after death and even ultimately become monstrous. I’m just saying that if they haven’t yet reached utter degradation, there may still be hope for them after death.

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