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Planes fly into towers, gunman empty magazines into classrooms, tsunamis wipe out cities, cancers steal our loved ones away, and people hurt us every day. Pain and suffering is everywhere in this world. It strikes without warning, at any time, at anyone, without prejudice. Such is the nature of evil. And yet, some believe that this world is governed by a God that is pure love, all knowing and all powerful. But how can this be? If this God were real why doesn’t He do something? Why does He allow evil to destroy our lives and ravage our hopes? The extent of our personal suffering is enough to lead one to believe God is not who He claims to be. Or worse, God does not exist.

This is particularly the claim atheologians make. The presence of evil in this world has long since been used to show the undeniable lack of God’s existence for centuries. And as far as they’re concerned, the theist is irrational to believe in both a good God and evil. As mathematician and science writer Martin Gardner once summed up, evil “… is probably why most atheists are atheist,” (Gardner 214). In this paper I will present the atheist’s argument of the problem of evil and then thoroughly explore the many responses theists propose to reconcile the problem of evil with God. One noteworthy response is the freewill argument. Other responses seek to clarify exactly who God is to reconcile His existence with evil. And some address evil with a theodicy, which is a proclamation of what God’s reasons are for evil in an effort to argue He is just in permitting evils. In due course, my goal is to show that the theist does have rational grounds for believing in an all-loving and all-powerful God that exists within a world of evil. That is, that the problem of evil is of no problem at all for the theist.

Clarifying Points

Before beginning, I believe there are three important points that should be clarified. First, many of the arguments made here are for the purpose of defending a theistic worldview, not for solving personal conflicts people may have with instances of evil in their lives. As Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the inaugural holder of the Jellema Chair in Philosophy at Calvin College, writes, “Neither a defense or a theodicy, of course, gives any hint to what God’s reason is for some specific evil- the death or suffering of someone close to you, for example- might be… neither is to be thought of first of all as pastoral counseling. Probably neither will enable someone to find peace with himself and with God in the face of the evil the world contains. But then, of course, neither is intended for that purpose,” (Plantiga, The Freewill Defense, 338).

The second point to make is that there is no guarantee that the arguments made here address and justify all accounts of suffering. Laura Waddell Eckstrom, a professor of philosophy at the College of William and Mary, believes, “A fully justificatory account of suffering may be unattainable for us,” (Eckstrom, 399). So if you find yourself unsatisfied with the answers found here it does not mean that there is no satisfactory justification for evil. Instead, it just means that this essay was not sufficient in doing so. The purpose of this essay is to provide rational reasoning to defend the notion that a loving and all powerful God and a world of evil can together exist.

The another point to make is clarification of which God exactly will be under the microscope. Many people have different ideas of who God is and what evil is. For the sake of the arguments relevant to this topic, the God in question is the classical God of western theism. That is, the God of the Holy Bible. This is the idea of God that is most thoroughly defended and attacked in western philosophy and most relevant to people in western culture. Therefore, all arguments explored here will be to that end. Other personal conceptions of who God is may be irrelevant.

The last point to settle is the use of the term “evil.” I’ve encountered many people that do not approve of the use of “evil” in this topic of debate because, to them, it assumes that evil exists as a supernatural entity. To clarify, my use of the word evil here is merely to remain consistent with historic usage of the word from both theologians and atheologians alike. Despite not believing in supernatural evils, atheologians often utilize the word in these discussions since the nature of the argument is whether evils are consistent with a loving God. To debate such a topic one must assume the hypothetical situation evils exist first. Lastly, my use of the word evil is used in a fashion that is interchangeable with “pain and suffering,” and ultimately that is the intent of this paper: To explore the arguments for and against the existence of the a loving and omnipotent God in contrast with a world full of pain and suffering.

So… What is the Problem?

There are two problems with the presence of evil. There is the logical form of the problem which postulates that the presence of evil is inconsistent with the existence of a theistic God. The acknowledgment of this contradiction is one that predates Christianity. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC) pondered, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both not able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (as quoted from Pojman& Rea, 276).

In more modern times we see this same skepticism. Oxford University philosopher John L. Mackie (1917-1981) writes, “In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent, God is wholly good, and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three positions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian it seems, at once must adhere and cannot consistently adhere to all three,” (Mackie, 299). According to Mackie, if you give up one of the three, the problem of evil is solved. Since evil is an obvious truth one must choose between compromising on God’s goodness or ability to prevent evil (Mackie, 300). The other form of the problem of evil is the evidential problem which argues that the randomness and profusion of evil in the world is better supported by the atheist worldview than the theist’s.

Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), known for his skepticism of the Judeo-Christian worldview, writes, “… you can never possibly prove, that animal or, at least, human happiness in their life exceeds its misery, you have yet done nothing; for this is not, by any means, what we expect from infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite goodness. Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty,” (Hume, 283).

Whether it is the logical or evidential problem, the atheologian charge is that a God with the attributes that the Judeo-Christian tradition requires could and should prevent the evil we experience in this world. And yet, evil is everywhere, so something is off, which is a fair charge to make. Since we experience so much evil in this world one might be inclined to wonder if God isn’t capable of defeating the evil, doesn’t care, or simply put, doesn’t exist. Obviously, this is no small issue, and no small task to solve.

So the ball is in the theologian’s court to defend their beliefs. Plantinga writes,“… the claim is that the facts of evil constitute a defeater for theistic belief for those who are fully aware of them- and if for the theistic belief, then also for Christian belief… understanding of evil and its place in God’s world is an important goal for Christians, one where philosophers can perhaps be of some help.” (Plantinga, Supralapsarianism, 355).

The Logical Argument

First we should tackle the logical problem of evil. The logical argument is as follows:

1) God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.

2) Evil exists

The logical argument finds these two statements in contradiction with each other. If two statements are logically inconsistent it is impossible for both of them to be true. What needs to be proven, however, is that the two are inconsistent. So additional statements are needed to be added to the first two premises to make them true, and conversely for the atheist, additional statements are required to display the fallacy. For example:

1) God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.

2) Evil exists

3) An omniscient and good being will always prevent evil.

Now we have an additional statement to show the fallacy between 1 and 2. But this argument is only successful if premise 3 can be shown to be true. This is where theists object for there are arguably situations where evil occurrences lead to greater goods. For example; a few soldiers may die in battle in order to protect a town full of innocent civilian families. So it would be a fallacy to assert that God would always prevent evil, since some evils may lead to greater goods.

The atheologian can counter argue that an omnipotent God could achieve a good outcome without the need for any evils. But this counter argument depends on definitions of omnipotence and evidential greater goods, topics worthy of examination later. If we revised the argument to instead read:

1) God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.

2) Evil exists

And

4) A good and omnipotent being prevents evil when there is no evidential occurrence of good that outweighs it.

But alas, this new premise is also flawed because it relies on evidential observations of good outcomes, which is needless to say, impossible. Much more will be covered on this impossibility later, but clearly the logical argument cannot stand on its own. It requires additional premises to prove that evil and God are inconsistent with each other, and these additional premises can each be counter argued, as will be discussed shortly. William L. Rowe, professor emeritus of Philosophy at Purdue University, affirms the weakness of the logical argument, “… it is reasonable to conclude that the logical form of the problem of evil is not much of a problem for theism,” (Rowe, Philosophy of Religion, 117).

The Freewill Defense

The evil of this world is often broken down into two categories: Moral evil; the evil of man, and Natural evil; the plight of disease, natural disasters, etc. To address moral evil, theologians adhere to the Freewill Defense which postulates that the evils committed by man are because of man’s freewill, and God does not override this free will because doing so would override the freedom, thus ending freewill. That is to say, God values a world containing free creatures more so than a world with no free creatures.

Plantinga illustrates why the freewill defense is necessary with an illustration of “other worlds.” God may be omnipotent to create other possible worlds, but in order for such other worlds to be actualized, God would need to suppress people’s freewill in order to provide all possible variability that are opposed to what people freely choose. Since God cannot (or chooses not to) suppress people’s freewill, such possible world’s cannot be actualized. And therefore, God could not create just any world He pleased without suppressing freewill, but since He would not suppress freewill there is only one possible outcome for an actual world: the one in which we have free will to make morally bad decisions. Therefore the existence of evil is an unavoidable inevitability. Plantinga calls this effect Transworld Depravity, (Plantinga, The Free Will Defense, 347). Since everyone is morally free, at some point, in all possible worlds, someone will freely choose to commit a moral evil. Thus there can be no possible world in which there is freewill and no moral evil.

Now, if God created a world in which people only do right, then people are no longer free. Instead suppose God creates a world with free humans, capable of good and evil. In this scenario, any evil the humans act freely on cannot be faulted of God. In other words, there are only two scenarios: No evil or no freewill. So the arguments may be summarized as God, though omnipotent, is incapable of creating a world in which there is no evil and free humans.
Thus the original logical problem can be refuted by adding two additional statements that show that God’s omnipotence and evil are not inconsistent.

1) God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and good.

2) God cannot create a world in which humans are free and there is no evil.

3) A world with evil and freedom is better than a world with no freedom and no evil.

4) Evil exists

Bible scholar J.B. Phillips (1906-1982) wrote on this defense, “Evil is inherent in the risky gift of freewill… It is worth noting that the whole point of real Christianity lies not in interference with the human power to choose, but in producing a willing consent to choose good rather than evil,” (Phillips, 88-89).

The Value of Freewill

One strong counter argument to the freewill defense is that of freewill’s value. Atheologans are quick to point out that a world in which there is no freewill and no evil is much greater than a world with both. Freewill causes pain and suffering and lack of freewill does not cause pain and suffering. So a truly loving God would have definitely sacrificed freewill to spare us pain and suffering.

Such an argument is strongly opposed by theologians. Early Christian theologian St. Augustine (354-430) writes of free will’s inherent value, “Such is the generosity of God’s goodness that He has not refrained from creating even that creature which He foreknew would not only sin, but remain in the will to sin. As a runaway horse is better than a stone which does not run away because it lacks self-movement and sense perception, so the creature is more excellent which sins by free will than that which does not sin only because it has no free will,” (St. Augustine, 14-15).

This notion is shared by German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) as well, “… in accordance with order and the general good that God allowed to certain creatures the opportunity of exercising their liberty, even when he foresaw that they would turn to evil, but which he could so well rectify, because it was not fitting that, in order to hinder sin, God should always act in an extraordinary manner. To overthrow this objection, therefore, it is sufficient to show that a world with evil might be better than a world without evil…” (Leibniz, 285).

Now one might object that these statements from Augustine and Leibniz are merely opinions. Thus the theist needs a way to show that freewill with evil is better than no freewill and no evil. There are two arguments used to defend the value of freewill. The first is proposed by Plantinga who contends that there is a way to argue that a world with evil is of a higher value than one without. He uses the doctrine of Supralapsarianism, which is the doctrine that God decreed to permit humanity to fall into sin and to save some of the fallen. From a Christian perspective we have a world with good and evil. But this world also has a God of abundant love, grace and mercy, and an incarnate Son who provides atonement for our transgressions and wrongs. In such a world, what amount of evil could even stand to match such a God, and such a redemptive path of salvation?

Such a world is better than a world where everyone is always good and righteous. Plantinga argues that any world with the incarnation and atonement is of greater value than any world with no incarnation and atonement (Plantinga, Supralapsarianism, 359). Thus if God were to create a very good world, one which exceeds the goodness of all others, He would have created a world with atonement and incarnation. And incarnation and atonement is only relevant in the presence of evil.

He writes, “… this gives us a very straight forward and simple response to the question ‘why is there evil in the world?’ The response is that God wanted to create a highly eligible world, wanted to actualize one of the best of all the possible worlds; all those worlds contain atonement, hence they all contain sin and evil,” (Platinga, Supralapsarianism, 359).

The other way to defend freewill’s value is more along the lines of St. Augustine’s opinion; arguing conversely that there is no value in a creation that has no free choice. Such a world may be free of pain and suffering, but it would likewise be devoid of all valuable emotions, and more importantly, choice.

The late and great Christian apologist Paul E. Little explains this view, “But many ask, ‘Why didn’t God make us so we couldn’t sin?’ To be sure, he could have, but let’s remember that if he had done so we would no longer be human beings, we would be machines, mere puppets on a string. How would you like to be married to a mechanical doll? Every morning and every night you could pull the string and get the beautiful words, ‘I love you.’ But who would want that? There would never be any love, either. Love is voluntary. Our choices voluntary… God apparently thought it worth the risk of creating us as we are, and this is the reality we face,” (Little, 133). Little brings up a critical point: If God is loving, and love requires choice, then humans require the ability to choose love in order to engage in loving God. Without freewill humans could not engage in loving God.

So there are essentially two views for arguing the valuable nature of freewill and evil versus no freewill and no evil. One can either argue that the incarnation of God and subsequent atonement are such profound goods that they override all evils, and such an incarnation and atonement are only possible in a world of evil. Or you may argue the value of freewill by identifying the lack of value in not having freewill along with the inconsistency between love and no freewill. Since these positive and negative views do not contradict each other, they can both be maintained simultaneously, surely establishing the value of freewill.

Clarifying Omnipotence

In analyzing the freewill defense a contradiction always seems to appear: The contradiction between God’s omnipotence and inability to control freewill. Omnipotence is casually defined as the ability to do anything and everything. Naturally the, the skeptic begins to wonder why a being with omnipotent capabilities, such as that of the theistic God, does not find ways to solve the problem of evil by controlling freewill. As mentioned earlier, God may allow certain evils to prevail in order to facilitate future greater goods or prevent future greater evils. And surely God values freewill. Yet, to the atheist this seems rather crude or primitive for a being capable of doing anything.
Mackie believes it would be fallacious to say that God requires evil for good, because that would compromise God’s omnipotence by suggesting that he is subject to casual laws in which there are only certain terms by which you can reach certain ends. That is, means which can only be evil. He writes, “Unless a favorable answer can be given to this question, the suggestion that evil is necessary as a means to good solves the problem of evil only by denying one of its constituent propositions, either that God is omnipotent or that ‘omnipotent’ means what it says,” (Mackie, 302).

Mackie asks why God, as an omnipotent being couldn’t have just made humans as creatures that always freely choose good. To which he says, “Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good,” (Mackie, 304). He further argues that freewill choices are made from character. So why wouldn’t God instill in us character that chooses right always? So in order for God to escape responsibility for evil, choices must not be based on character but instead on randomness, and if freedom is just randomness, how can we say it is good, or better (Mackie, 305). “… there is a fundamental difficulty with the notion of an omnipotent God creating men with freewill, for if men’s wills are really free this must mean that even God cannot control them, that is, that God is no longer omnipotent,” (Mackie 305).

This is commonly referred to as Mackie’s Paradox of Omnipotence. That is, can an omnipotent being create other beings that he cannot control? If you say “Yes,” then God can make beings He cannot control and he is therefore not omnipotent. If you say “No,” then there is something God cannot do, so he is therefore not omnipotent. But as solid as this paradox seems as an argument against God’s omnipotence, it is very similar to the classical paradox of the stone: Can God create a stone so heavy he cannot lift it? And just as the classical stone paradox has been thoroughly refuted, so is Mackie’s paradox refuted.

The route around Mackie’s Paradox involves a correct definition of omnipotence. Plantinga clarifies, “Most theologians and theistic philosophers who hold that God is omnipotent, do not hold that he can create roundsquares or bring it about He both exists and does not exist. These theologians and philosophers may hold that there are no non-logical limits to what an omnipotent being can do, but they concede that not even an omnipotent being can bring about logically impossible state of affairs or cause necessarily false propositions to be true.” And later, “What the theist typically means when he says that God is omnipotent is not that there are no limits to God’s power, but at most that there are no non-logical limits to what He can do…” (Plantinga, Freewill, 332). Rowe agrees, “So there are many things that God, despite being omnipotent, cannot do. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from this that God’s power is somehow limited, that there are things he cannot do which, if only his power were greater, he could do,” (Rowe, Philosophy, 7).

Now for many theists this might be a hard concept to swallow, because it is accepting that God is limited in some way. It might seem blasphemous to say God is limited in power and ability. But if you really think about it, this is what we read of God in the Bible. We read that God cannot change or deny himself (James 1:17, 2 Tim 2:13). Aren’t those limitations? What about committing to evil or killing Himself? Aren’t these things that God cannot do because they are contradictory to his nature? Technically speaking, committing evil or killing Himself is contradictory if God is good and eternal. So it is appropriate to say God has limitations in that He can only do what is not a contradiction in terms, or a contradiction of His character.

Granted, not everyone agrees in God having limitations despite scripture, and in this case, if God can do anything, even the logically impossible, then there is no problem of evil because it can simply be explained away as God doing something that is impossible, existing as a loving God amidst a world of evil. So whether you believe in a God with logical omnipotence or illogical omnipotence, one can argue away the problem of evil coexisting with God.
Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, seems to pull form this notion of God being limitless, writing, “If an omnipotent being can do what is logically impossible then He can not only create situations which He cannot handle but also, since He is not bound by the limits of consistency, He can handle situations which He cannot handle,” (Frankfurt, 92). So if one presupposes a limitless God not bound by consistency, then really no contradictions can be charged against God.

If one counter argues with a claim that God is capable of controlling our freewill, but refrains from doing so, Mackie counters that God should only then control evil wills and refrain from controlling good wills. The only reason for God not to control evil is if he places more value in freedom then what is right and wrong, which would contradict the doctrine of sin, (Mackie, 305). But if we expand on Mackie’s notion that God should have created humans with the freewill that always choose right, then we find ourselves right back at square one, with humans not having freewill. Never opting to choose differently than what is right because God created you to always choose right is not freewill. It would very well contradict freewill. The will is not free unless we are capable of choosing and acting on any choice. Additionally, Mackie’s claim that God placing more emphasis on freedom then right and wrong doesn’t contradict the doctrine of sin. That is merely an opinion. The fore-planned incarnation and atonement of sin through Jesus Christ shows that God values freewill to a very high degree in that He prepared atonement for the very creations He knew would ultimately choose wrong. If God valued right and wrong over freewill He would not have created human beings destined to choose wrong. So whether you believe God created human beings with freewill He cannot control, or created human beings with freewill that He can control, but chooses not to, God creating humans with freewill does not undermine His omnipotence.

The Evidential Problem

With the logical problem satisfied, and the free will defense addressing moral evils, it is necessary to look at natural evils as well, which is highlighted in the evidential problem of evil. The evidential problem does not necessarily argue that evil and God are inconsistent, but instead argues that the randomness and profusion of evil fits the atheist’s world view better than it does the theist’s.

Let us start with the claim that the evil in the world is excessive. Many argue that because there is more evil than good in the world that there must likewise be more evil than good in God, or no God at all as Hume seems to suggest in his works. Philosophers tend to differ in their responses to this issue. Leibniz argues first that the overwhelming goodness in all other animals may compensate for man’s moral evils, and then second that goodness has an immensely greater value than evil so that the goodness of even a few saints can compensate for a vast population of evil. Plantinga argues that Christ’s incarnation and atonement warrants some significant level of evil in the world, as such a ministry and subsequent sacrifice would be over excessive in a world where evil is no more than a person here of there committing a very minor sin. Then again, God’s love is so great, maybe He would endure just suffering for such few and minor mistakes, (Platinga, Supralapsarianism, 364). Additionally, the level of evil may in fact be the counter factual to freedom in a world as good as ours. Who could know? But lastly, and most importantly, how do we gauge the level of evil in this world? By watching TV, and tallying good things and bad things on a table? At what point is evil acceptable and not acceptable and excessive? To suggest we have too much evil in the world is an arbitrary assertion for anyone to make. So it becomes quite the illogical claim to say there is too much evil in this world, more so than to say evil is incompatible with a loving God.

The randomness of evil, on the other hand, seems to be a much greater concern. Under situations where a greater good may be experienced through evil of, let’s say, pain and suffering, there is no issue with theism. Rowe writes, “For as we’ve seen, there are times when experiencing intense suffering is very helpful in that it may cause us to act quickly to remove ourselves from extremely harmful situations. So the capacity to experience intense suffering is helpful to us,” (Rowe, Philosophy, 119-120). But the evidential problem seeks to reference evils in which a greater good is not apparent, thereby excluding itself from evils in which a greater good are achieved.

Since the freewill defense only applies to humans, the freewill defense doesn’t apply to animals since they have no concept of good and evil. Yet animals suffer and experience pain. So it initially seems that animals suffer from pointless evil. An evil that, if God exists, God could have prevented without thereby losing an outweighing good or having to permit an evil equally bad or worse.

Let’s say a rabbit suffers a severe injury from a landslide, the injury kills the animal after a slow and painful few days. It would seem that such an evil is pointless, with the only God-based alternative being an evil God, or a God that doesn’t care, or no God. Yet the theistic notion is that God is omnipotent and good. So why do we see pointless suffering?

The argument then follows:

1 There are pointless evils

2 If God exists there can be no pointless evils.

3 Therefore, God must not exist.

This argument, however, requires two assumptions:
A Humans are capable of determining pointless evils.
B An omnipotent and good God would stop pointless evils.

So a thorough investigation of these assumptions is required in order to determine if the argument for the evidential problem of evil is sufficient.

Skeptical Theism

The position of the skeptical theist is that the first assumption of the evidential argument, that there are pointless evils, has not been proven. Rowe explains using the analogy of a fawn burned in a forest fire that dies after succumbing to days of intense pain and suffering, “… to the skeptical theist, we have no adequate reason to think it is even likely that there is no good that would justify God in permitting either the fawn’s terrible suffering or any other case of suffering of which we are aware… because we cannot think of or even imagine a good that would both outweigh the fawn’s suffering and be such that an all-powerful, all knowing being could not find some way of bringing about that good, or some equal or better good, without having to permit the fawn’s terrible suffering,” (Rowe, Philosophy, 121).

Situations of horrible pain and suffering may seem pointless to us, and at times make no sense, but we’re still limited by what we as humans are capable of observing and knowing. An all-knowing omniscient God, on the other hand, is not limited in such ways. So our inability to grasp any particular good that may emerge from a situation does not mean that there is no good that may emerge from the situation. This leaves us in no position to judge God, or question His existence, in the presence of seemingly pointless evils.

Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, Stephen Wykstra, illustrates this concept as an empty garage. If you looked into a garage and saw no dog you could conclude there is no dog in the garage. But if we were to look into the garage and see no fleas, it would be incorrect to conclude that there are no fleas in the garage, (Rowe, Philosophy, 122). So just as seeing no fleas in the garage does not mean there are no fleas in the garage, not comprehending any good that can come out of an evil situation does not mean there isn’t any good that can or will come out of an evil situation.

Another valid analogy is the good parent analogy. A good parent disciplines their child, sends them to the dentist, makes them get painful vaccination shots, etc. All these things to the child seem to be evil situations full of pain because the child does not have the knowledge of the parent who knows that discipline will teach their child right from wrong, the dentist will remove harmful cavities, and the vaccination will prevent a crippling infections later in life. These pointless evils to the child are acts of responsibility and love to the parent. Though it can be argued that this analogy cannot apply to evil overall, it is very applicable to many instances of evil, and it serves to prove that just because we are unaware of greater goods achieved or greater evils avoided doesn’t mean that they are not so.

However, just as mentioned prior, this philosophy of greater good and greater evils is not knowingly applicable to all circumstances. So its applicability is slightly limited. Rowe sees this philosophy as limited as well, “It seems quite unlikely that all the instances of intense suffering occurring daily in our world are intimately related to occurrences of greater goods or the prevention of evils at least as bad; and even more unlikely, should they also somehow all be so related, that an omnipotent, omniscient being could not have achieved at least some of those goods (or prevented some of those evils) without permitting the instances of intense suffering that are supposedly related to them,” (Rowe, Inductive, 310).

Additionally, the same logic of our limited awareness goes both ways. Just as the atheist cannot prove that there are pointless evils, the theist can likewise, not prove that all evils lead to greater goods or the prevention of greater evils, since both would require omniscience on behalf of the theist or atheist. Though the notion that there are instances of evil that God could have prevented losing a greater good or permitting a greater evil can never be proven as truth, it can be justified as a rational belief.

God the Pleasure-Maximizer

One of the most critical concepts in need of clarification in the debate over evil and God is God’s character. Just as God’s omnipotence needed clarification, God’s role in providing for humanity should also be explained. Contrary to common opinion, whether by theists, atheists or agnostics, God is not a pleasure-maximizer. God is not a genie whose purpose is to serve us in order to create a paradise-like life for us. Yet, this twisted idea of God is very popular in western culture, and if it were true, of course there would be a huge dilemma between God and evil.

Atheists in particular tend to think God’s aim was to make the world a hedonistic paradise, and since God failed to do this He must not be omnipotent, or again, maybe just doesn’t exist. However, if this is not God’s aim then the contradiction is null and void to a certain degree. Philosopher and theologian John Hick (1922-2012) wrote, “They (atheologians) think of God’s relation to the earth on the model of a human building a cage for a pet animal to dwell in. If he is humane he will naturally make his pet’s quarters as pleasant and healthful as he can,” (Hick, Evil and Soul-Making, 351). Any failure to provide such a cage must be the result of the shortcomings of the owner. Hume makes a similar argument using the analogy of an architect. But if life’s purpose is not to be pampered, we would not expect such a hedonistic paradise of a world.

Hick continues, “… if our general conception of God’s purpose is current, the world is not intended to be a paradise, but rather the scene of a history in which human personality may be formed towards the pattern of Christ. Men are not to be thought of on the analogy animal pets, whose life is to be made as agreeable as possible, but rather on the analogy of human children, who are to grow up to adulthood in an environment whose primary and overriding purposes not immediate pleasure but the realizing of the most valuable potentialities of human personalities,” (Hick, Evil and Soul-Making, 351).

Just as in the Christian worldview we call God our father, as we are His children, a good parent does not provide unrestrained pleasure to his children at the cost of growth. Thus the world should not be judged by the amount of good and evil in it at any particular time, but instead judged by its primary purpose of soul-making. Hick writes, “The good that outshines all ill is not a paradise long since lost but a kingdom which is yet to come in its full glory and permanence,” (Hick, Evil and Soul-Making, 353). Marilyn McCord Adams, a research professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, agrees, “It does the atheologan no good to argue for the falsity of Christianity on the grounds that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, pleasure-maximizer is incompatible with a world such as ours, because Christians never believed God was a pleasure-maximizer anyway,” (Adams, 384). So if we make the move away from the idea of a loving God that wants to make our lives pleasing and easy, and instead envision a loving God that wants us to grow and mature, which can often occur at the price of pain and suffering, many of the problems of evil are no longer problems at all.

The Cruelty of Non-Action

Another characteristic of God in need of clarification is that of the consequences of non-action. Some have argued that since a man capable of preventing a crime, who chooses non-action, is therefore an accessory to the crime, then likewise, God not preventing evil is an accessory to evil, or does not exist. This claim is one supported by Mackie, that one eliminates evil as far as they can. Since evil exists, God must not be good, or does not exist.

Granted, instances where greater goods are secured and greater evils eliminated are solutions to this issue, it has already been shown that these circumstances cannot apply to all situations. Plantinga argues another solution. He provides an example in which a friend is stranded on a deserted road freezing to death while you are at home with a car and could very easily go retrieve your friend and save his life. But you don’t know he is stranded, so you don’t go out and save him. Does this mean you’re a bad person? Of course not, because you were unaware. So Mackie’s argument can’t be considered necessarily true, since there may be situations in which no action is taken, and yet, no goodness is lost on the being that took no action.

Now one might revise Mackie’s statement to say that; every good thing always eliminates evil that it knows it can eliminate. But this isn’t necessarily so either, because I could have two friends stranded in opposite directions of each other with only enough time to reach one of them. Despite knowing of the evil, it is logically impossible for me to rescue both simultaneously. So an evil may persist, despite my knowledge of it, and yet my goodness does not come into question.

Likewise it may be logically impossible to eliminate an evil without causing a greater evil, so the original lesser evil is permitted. Either way, Mackie’s premise can’t be necessarily true because there could be logical impossibilities preventing even an omnipotent being from eliminating particular evils. This takes us back to the skeptical theist argument. It would be fallacious to fault God for non-action if we’re not omniscient in knowing all available constraints and possibilities related to a particular instance of evil.

Soul-Making Theodicies

A number of theodicies are also utilized to further address the problems of evil. In particular, Hick presents a theodicy of soul-making. Unlike skeptical theism which questions our ability to comprehend the results of evil scenarios, Hicks instead emphasizes the good that comes out of evil scenarios.

Hick argues that an environment devoid of evil would likewise be devoid of spiritual growth. This is something I believe most of us can all agree on. That is, many trials and tribulations in our past have made us into better individuals today. Hick takes this notion to argue that the absence of evil would leave humans spiritually and morally undeveloped. Little agrees, “Sometimes, in his infinite wisdom, God knows that there are things to be accomplished in our character that can be brought only through human suffering. To shield us from suffering would be to rob us of a greater good,” (Little 135). This is confirmed in scripture in Romans 5:1-4.

A counter argument to Hick’s theodicy is that evil tends to occur randomly and meaninglessly, without even a hint of constructive purpose observable. Hick proposes an insightful response to this argument in that the random and seemingly pointless nature of evil occurrences is in fact what makes it effective as a constructive soul-making experience. If evil followed a just and non-haphazard pattern, people would avoid wrongdoing out of fear rather than duty, and if it were noticeable that good always came out of suffering then misery would no longer evoke a heartfelt sympathy or sacrificial aid from others. Hick writes, “This picture we are working with is thus developed and teleological. Man is in process of becoming the perfected being whom God is seeking to create. However this is not taking place- it is important to add- by a natural and inevitable evolution, but through a hazardous adventure in individual freedom,” (Hicks, Evil and Soul-Making, 350).

Hick concludes: “It seems then, that in a world that is to be the scene of compassionate love and self-giving for others, suffering must fall upon mankind with something of the haphazardness and inequity that we now experience. It must be apparently unmerited, pointless, and incapable of being morally rationalized. For it is precisely this feature of our common human lot that creates sympathy between man and man and evokes the unselfishness, kindness and goodwill which are among the highest values of personal life,” (Hick, Philosophy, 60).

But this soul making theodicy cannot account for all evils like an animal dying slowly from sustained injuries or a child brutally tortured and murdered by a psychopath. A good and omnipotent God capable of preventing such an event should prevent such death. Though one may resort to one of the other defenses, such as that of free will or skeptical theism to solve these issues, the soul making theodicy cannot stand alone. As Rowe concludes, “…it’s reasonably clear that suffering often occurs in a degree far beyond what is required for character development,” (Rowe, Inductive, 311). So although the soul-making theodicy does not apply to all circumstances of evil, it does indeed apply to many instances of evil in one’s life.

Divine Intimacy Theodicies

Another theodicy that looks to address instances of evil in someone’s personal life is the Divine Intimacy Theodicy. This theodicy comes about from philosophers who doubt classical approaches to the problem of evil. Adams, for example, prefers an approach where evils are defeated on a personal level, and each life God grants He grants for a good life in which evils do not happen for no reason. She writes, “… I suggest, to exhibit the logical compossibility of both dimensions of divine goodness with horrendous suffering, it is not necessary to find logically possible reasons why God might permit them,” (Adams, 387).

Adams believes this can be done by understanding the context of the individual’s life, and giving that individual a life that is, overall good. From a Christian point of view, God is an unconceivable greater good of which intimacy with leaves no doubt as to whether any person afflicted by evil believes their life is worth living. The book of Job in the Bible parallels this line of thought. Job is a good servant of God, and yet after losing his family, possessions, and his health you begin to wonder why God would do all these things to Job. Yet, at the end you see that Job enters into a very intimate and profound relationship with God that overshadows all his misfortunes.
Eckstrom similarly believes that through suffering we achieve a more intimate experience of God that we never could have before (Eckstrom, 392). She writes, “Why would the divine agent permit instances of evil? Perhaps a reply applicable to some instances of personal suffering is this: in order to provide occasions in which we can perceive God, understand him to some degree, know him, even meet him directly,” (Eckstrom, 393). Plantinga likewise writes, “An absolutely central part of Christ’s mission is his suffering; it is through this suffering that he atones for human sin and enables human being to achieve union with God. But then if it is a good thing that creatures resemble Christ, it is a good thing that they resemble him in this respect as well,” (Plantiga, Supralapsarianism, 363). In scripture we see similar parallels; Acts 5:41, Philippians 3:10-11, James 5:10-11, and 1 Peter 4:12-14.

Suffering can at times parallel the sufferings of Christ in a way that it becomes a privilege to share in some of His experiences. They can provide a oneness with God. It can also lead to sympathies, as Eckstrom writes, “Shared experiences facilitate dialogue in providing something in common about which to converse, and they make possible understanding that is beyond words, communicated perhaps with understanding looks and gestures… Victims of a similar sort of oppression or injustice understand each other in a way that outsiders to their experience cannot,” (Eckstrom, 395). And later, “Consider how this might work, in particular, for a Christian theist. One in the midst of dealing with deep betrayal of loyalty, for instance, might call to mind the thought, ‘As I have been rejected, Christ was rejected even by his close friend, Peter,’ and take comfort in this sympathetic identification,” (Eckstrom 400).

Does this mean we should welcome suffering to a degree where we would seek out suffering as a means to know God further? Of course not. Such a theodicy is not supporting an agenda of self-endorsed suffering. Though many Christians in the past and in the present will often inflict harm to themselves in order to achieve this. Ultimately, the intimacy with God would needs God’s orchestration as the result of sufferings incurred under His will. One shouldn’t expect such intimacy as the result of self-affliction. On the other hand, it seems to be a common theme, among mature Christians, like the apostle Paul, to welcome the opportunity of suffering. Granted, suffering may not always lead to intimacy with God, but it does often do, and thereby, meaning can often be found in suffering via this theodicy.

Muchausen Syndrome

Muchausen Syndrome is a disorder in which someone seeks medical aid in an effort to seek attention, or the abuse of another in effort to seek attention. Like a father that throws his children into a river so that he may heroically save them. Some atheologians level this charge against God in that He is using people like means and not ends? Such actions are unfair because God uses our suffering to achieve His own ends, ignoring our autonomy. Why would a God of perfect love have me suffer to actualize a good world or a good for anyone other than myself?

Plantinga offers a variety of answers: Perhaps God would ask us if we, on our own freewill choose to suffer for the sake of someone else. And God, with knowledge of how we would respond only subjects us to suffering for others that we would have in retrospect agreed to be subjected to (Plantiga, Supralapsarianism, 366). That if one knew what God knew, and had His foresight, they would willingly choose to suffer. Just as a parent knows best for their child, God knows best for us.

Plantinga writes, “Suppose he (God) therefore actualizes a highly eligible world that includes incarnation and atonement, and in which human beings fall into sin, evil, and consequent suffering. Suppose also that the final condition of human beings, in this world, is better than it is in the worlds in which there is no fall into sin but also no incarnation and redemption; they receive God’s thanks, enjoy greater intimacy with him, are invited to join that charmed circle. Then God’s actualizing the world in question involves suffering for many human beings; his reason for permitting that suffering is not that thereby the suffering individuals will be benefitted (his reason is that he wishes to actualize a highly eligible world, one with great goods of incarnation, atonement, and redemptions). Nevertheless his perfect love perhaps mandates that he actualize a world in which those who suffer are benefitted in such a way that their condition is better than it is in those worlds in which they do not suffer,” (Plantiga, Supralapsarianism, 367).

Then the question naturally follows: Why does a loving God create such a tragic and painful way to get to know Him? Doesn’t the permission of suffering as a way of fostering intimacy suggest a cruel God? We can then go back to the Divine Intimacy Theodicy, which adopts the classical notion that God only allows evil and suffering when it is necessary to bring about a greater good or lesser evil. The theory also does not claim to apply to all instances of suffering. Eckstrom defends the theodicy, “… perhaps, some occasions of suffering are necessary for certain individual’s coming to love of and intimacy with God. The objector may counter that some persons experience God in moments of great joy and beauty. Yet this may be true while it is also true that other persons’ paths to God are paths through suffering,” (Eckstrom, 399). So suffering may not be the only way to achieve intimacy with God. As Eckstrom points out, intimacy may be achieved through joy and beauty. And since pain and suffering is not the only means to reach intimacy with God, and as Plantinga believes, the benefit is to create the most eligibly good world with incarnation and atonement, then the Muchausen Syndrome charge made against God can be dropped.

Natural Evils

As can be seen by these theodicies, the theologian places value in suffering. This value even extends to natural evils in which disasters, famines, and accidents cause pain and suffering but can’t be considered the result of human freewill. Yet, some have suggested that these values could not be secured from moral evils alone. So why are there natural evils if theodicies can’t address them all? So even though God may have a cause for moral evil due to man’s freewill, we still don’t have an all-encompassing answer to why natural evils occur at all.

The traditional answer is that all of creation is fallen because of moral evil as found in Romans 5:12-13, and 8:21-22 . Thus, the natural evil is the result of man’s free decision to choose evil, sin, which brought death into the world. Some theologians and philosophers take this a step further and trace it back to Satan’s doing, since he was Eve’s tempter, and therefore the ultimate source for the evils that would plague humanity from thus forth. Plantinga admits that the answer is not widely popular with scholars, though there doesn’t seem to be evidence argued against the idea. After all, if we are assuming a classical theistic worldview to see if a defense or theodicy can solve the problem of evil, why would we overlook the role of Satan, a major player in the theistic worldview?

Does this mean that an earthquake or thunderstorm is due directly to satanic action? Does that mean these disasters are God’s doing?  What we can deduce from scripture is that originally man was created to have union with God in a state of righteousness which was devoid of pain and suffering. However, when man sinned in his free will, this union was severed, and therefore, man became exposed to a world in which pain and suffering becomes “possible.” It then becomes possible for natural disasters to occur, which man has subsequently dealt with since. This reasoning would conclude that God isn’t the origin of natural disasters, but separation from God leaves us in a world where such disasters are possible.

Another view regarding this issue recognizes the natural component of natural disasters. Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods are a natural occurrence in a world of ever changing weather patterns. To state such weather anomalies didn’t exist prior to man’s first sin requires God to micromanage the weather to prevent extreme anomalies from occurring in the first place. Or that these weather patterns were happening, but the garden of Eden was somehow isolated from such possible occurrences, perhaps because of its “ideal” location. Though the latter notion seems troubling since God’s intent was for man to multiply and flourish, which would inevitably require living beyond the garden of Eden. Either way, removal of God’s “secure” relationship with man then left man exposed to the elements.  With this considered, one should not look for absolute purpose in natural disasters if they’re just a product of living in a world where we’re separated from God because of our sin.

Expanding on this notion of the natural component of natural evils, it is possible to explain why natural evils occur based off a simple acceptance of the laws of physics required for life. That the very laws of physics that make life possible in our universe make natural evils inevitable. As Gardner writes, “If someone loses balance at the edge of a cliff  and topples over, you can’t expect God to suspend gravity in the region and allow the person to float gently down. If a piece of heavy masonry dislodges from the top of a tall building, and is on its way toward the head of someone on the sidewalk, you can’t expect God to divert its path or turn it into feathers,” (Gardner 215).  This view stands apart from the traditional view of God in which He alters the laws of physics and performs miracles to intervene, as is performed in the Bible fairly often. Instead, it is argued that such manipulation of the laws of physics would create catastrophic results elsewhere whether locally or across the universe. Thus, God may be capable of breaking the laws of physics, but does not for these reasons. Or God is not capable of breaking the laws of physics He originally set in place because it would be a contradiction, similar to creating a three sided square. In the later case, God’s omnipotence is not jeopardized since omnipotence is only doing what is logically possible, and breaking the laws of physics is viewed as a contradiction.

Gardner goes on to say that, “Such tragedies are the terrible price we pay for a universe with unalterable laws of velocity and momentum. If God were obliged to prevent all accidents that kill or injure, he would have to be constantly poking his fingers into millions of events around the globe. History would turn into a chaos of endless miracles,” (Gardner 215). Gardner brings up a great point that not only summarizes his position, but also provides an argument that can be applied to the concept of the traditional God that can break the laws of physics. And that is one of endless arbitrary interventions of “endless miracles.”

Consider all the people in the world and all the times we experience the wrong end of the laws of physics, whether as benign as stubbing a toe or as extreme as burning alive in a forest fire. Should we expect God to prevent all of these mishaps? Even stubbing your toe? If not, which situations of natural evils should He permit and which should He prevent? How can we decide where the seemingly arbitrary line is drawn?  Especially when so many of these situations have potential greater goods. Stubbing your toe on the curb conditions you to be more aware of your surroundings that help you avoid more serious injuries in the future, and deaths in wildfires lead to the design and development of protective materials and strategies that have saved the countless other lives of firefighters working to put out wildfires. Thus one might argue:

  1. Natural evils are inevitable given the laws of physics
  2. Certainly not all natural evils would be prevented based off their potential for greater goods and soul making.
  3. Arguments from skeptical theism suggest that we are in no position to determine which natural evils should be and should not be prevented as we do not have omniscience ourselves.
  4. Therefore, one cannot conclude that the existence of natural evils disproves the presence of the traditional concept of God.

So whether one maintains the traditional concept of a God capable of breaking the laws of physics in true miracle form, or a God that cannot break the laws of physics because it would be contradictory, a theist has grounds for maintaining that God is not made inadequate by the presence of natural evils. Especially once the inevitability of natural evils in this world is acknowledged.

 

Unjustified Evils

Now of course our minds may wander to imagine incredibly heinous crimes and horrendous evils. Such crimes and evils seem unjustifiable. Even under the theodicies past mentioned, it appears that not all suffering can be justified?
Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsk (1821-1881) voiced his doubts in the story Rebellion in which the character Ivan Karamazov struggles with the thought of the torture of children, “All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I cannot answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I’ve only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear.” (Dostoevsk, 296). And later, “Imagine you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that little child beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?” (Dostevsk, 297).

Adams notes that most solutions to the problem of evil are generic and global (Adams, 385). Generic in that the reasons are general and sought to cover a large variety of evil. Global in that they apply to some underlying feature of the world. She writes, “… God cannot be said to be good or loving to any created persons the positive meaning of whose lives He allows to be engulfed in and/or defeated by evils- that is, individuals within whose lives horrendous evils remains undefeated,” (Adams, 385-386). Adams believes that evils not justified on an individual level cannot be justified by global defenses. For example, does knowledge of God’s creation of freewill allowing evil in anyway ease the pain of the parent whose child was brutally tortured and murdered. If anything such events would only cause the parent to doubt further. Though Plantinga would argue, as I have previously mentioned, that the role of defenses and theodicies is not to ease the personal pain of those who have suffered, but instead to justify the theist worldview as a rational worldview, as I likewise argue.

Adams continues, “Would the fact that God permitted horrors because they were constitutive means to His end of global perfections, or that He tolerated them because He could obtain that global end anyway, make the participant’s life more tolerable, more worth living for him/her?” (Adams, 386). So Adams believes there are no neutral grounds for reconciling horrendous evils and God. The only legitimate solution is found in the Christian worldview of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection, (Adams, 389). As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us,” -Romans 8:18 (NIV). Which has value coming from a man that was stoned and thought dead, imprisoned, beaten multiple times and shipwrecked out at sea and eventually executed.

Adams believes, like Plantinga, that the only solid answer to this dilemma of horrendous evils and heinous crimes can only be resolved upon reflection of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. As Little once wrote, “The ultimate answer to the problem of evil, at the personal level, is found in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ,” (Little, 134).

A God Who Suffers

Acknowledgement of the incarnation and atonement of Christ is too many, unsatisfactory. These reasons may be motivated in doubt of Christ’s existence or exact history. Another is a misconception over a key characteristic of God: Suffering. Many theistic scholars believe God suffers over our suffering. This seems to oppose the classical notion that God does not suffer: The doctrine of impassibility. Again, we find ourselves at a crossroads, much like that of the issue over what God’s omnipotence really means. This time the question is whether or not God suffers.

The Bible seems to support the notion that our God is one who suffers: Gen 6:6, Exodus 32:9-10, Psalms 78, 68:19. But does this actually count as proof God suffering? John Calvin believed that God did not suffer, but that in order for Biblical authors to communicate God’s intent and will, such anthropomorphism was allowed. “Since we cannot comprehend [God] as he is, it is necessary that, for our sake, he sould, in a certain sense, transform himself… Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose; yet because it would otherwise be known how great God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the spirit accommodates himself to our capacity… God was so offended by the atrocious wickedness of men, [he speaks] as if they had wounded his heart with mortal grief,” (As quoted in Owen, 249). However, such an opinion of God’s impassability requires a series of reinterpretations of an otherwise straightforward reading of scripture.

There are, on the other hand, philosophical arguments outside of interpretations of scripture to support the doctrine of a suffering God. One argument is the philosophical notion of love towards a beloved, in which when someone truly loves another, the concerns of the loved one become the other’s concern as well. If your beloved is troubled, you’re likewise troubled. This notion is extended to God. For if He truly loves us so much, then our troubles and concerns are likewise bestowed and shared by God. Though it can be conversely argued that this behavior only applies to human love, not Godly love.

Yet, it does logically make sense. For if one says they love their spouse, yet have no grief, sorrow, or passion at the knowledge of their spouse’s suffering then their claim of love for their spouse comes into question. If God truly loves us then we would expect such passion under circumstances of misery. (Eckstrom, 396).

Some argue that a God who suffers with us is not a God of worship, but a God of pity. Some argue that God may act out love and justice without suffering. Ekstrom argues otherwise, “Noble sorrow at witnessing a tragic occurrence is a good. Hence it would seem that God’s goodness and love include sorrow, as well as joy, over the world. This sorrow is arguably not a defect, but a strength or an asset, a part of being supremely good,” (Eckstrom, 397).

Plantinga agrees with the doctrine of a suffering God, “Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours.” (As quoted in Eckstrom, 395). Little likewise agrees, “No pain or suffering has ever come to us that has not first come through the heart and hand of God. However greatly we may suffer, it is well to remember that God is the great sufferer,” (Little, 139). As it is written in Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin,” (NIV).

Additionally, the doctrine of a suffering God seems to correlate with the divine intimacy theodicy. For if our God is a God that suffers, suffering would thereby be a means to better know God and experience intimacy with Him. This idea would indeed bolster the plausibility of the Divine Intimacy Theodicy.

The Arbitrary End of Evil

A common layman’s critique of God juxtapose to pain and suffering in the world is the frequent questioning of “why didn’t God stop that from happening?” and “why did he allow that to happen?” God’s seemingly lack of action to stop evil is viewed as a failure on God’s part or evidence of non-existence. However, the theological answer to this issue lies in the arbitrary nature of solving these problems of evil. After all, what evils do we expect God to stop and God to allow? We tend to project our own personal standard for what God should have prevented. But this of course varies from person to person. Thus for God to stop particular evils and not others, God would never satisfy everyone’s arbitrary opinion. The only real solution would require God to end all evil. But for God to end all evil comes with quite unfavorable consequence for humans. Ending all evil would literally end “all” evil, which includes all sinning humans. As in, you and I. Naturally we don’t wish for God to end our lives, but instead all the “evils” we personally don’t agree with. But such is not compatible with the Bible’s description of a God of pure justice and righteousness.

The Bible provides two excellent examples of this: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-40, and 2 Peter 3:4-9. Through these verses it is communicated that God’s final judgement extends to all people, both good and bad. But God, in His love, does not wish for anyone to die without being reconciled back to Him. And if God has foreknowledge of who will eventually choose, in their own freewill, to be reconciled back to Him, then God will, out of love, delay this overall ending of life. That is, at least until all who will choose Him, do choose Him. Until this final day occurs, we must instead live in a world where pain and suffering exists. From this perspective, our continued existence in this hard world of suffering is contrasted by the great hope God has placed in us to be reconciled back to Him.

Shifting Perspectives

The last and final way to address the problem of evil is a very clever method known as the G.E. Moore Shift. This argument is named after the former professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, George Edward Moore (1873-1958), who proposed an interesting way to negotiate particular arguments. In his argument you begin with the possibility that God exists, and if so, there would be no pointless evils (Rowe, Philosophy, 129). The argument reads as follows:

1 ) God probably exists.

2 ) If God exists there are no pointless evils.

3 ) Thus, probably there are no pointless evils.

This argument may seem too simple, but take a moment to think about it. All that the theist needs is rational grounds to believe God exists for premise 1. If the theist has rational grounds for premise 1, then 3 follows from 1 and 2. And of course, there are indeed many various arguments that lead one to believe God does indeed exist; Cosmological, Design, Origin of Life, Religious Experiences, etc. Any one, or all, of these gives the theist rational grounds for maintaining God exists. And with that, the conclusion that there probably are no pointless evils provides rational grounds for refutation of the evidential problem of evil. Though one could always invert this argument to align with an atheologian’s agenda by restating premise 1 as God probably doesn’t exist. And if this is done the conclusion could conversely read, Thus, probably there are pointless evils. Since the atheologian has rational grounds for believing God does not exist, it can suit their needs as well.

So the shift doesn’t solve the problem of evil completely, but it provides rational grounds to defend the theist’s belief in God amidst the presence of evil. It is thus successful, because the atheist charge is that a loving all powerful God amidst evil is an irrational and contradictory belief, or one better supported by the atheist worldview. But with the G.E. Mooreshift, theists have rational grounds for maintaining God exists, and therefore rational grounds that there are no pointless evils. Ultimately, rational grounds is all that is needed to refute atheist claims that evil is a problem for God.

Final Thoughts on the Problem of Evil

So ultimately theists have a variety of different avenues to utilize in combating skeptical claims against the existence of God in the presence of evil. It can be shown that there is no satisfactory argument for maintaining that there is a contradiction between a loving God in a world full of evil, as is shown by the failure of the logical argument of evil and the omnipotence paradox, and conversely, the applicability of complimentary theodicies such as soul-making and divine intimacy.

As for the evidential argument of evil; the free will argument, soul-making theodicy, divine intimacy theodicy and traditional Christian theology of resonating evils originating from Satan’s fall, all provide a satisfactory explanation for instances of moral and natural evil. But as the evidential argument of evil asks; which worldview better supports the existence of evil in the world? It is now clear that both the atheist and theist worldviews can give an account for evil, but deciding on which one is the most suitable is quite a difficult argument to make. Mostly because such a question will always receive an answer that is most aligned with a person’s strongest presuppositions. The theist with faith in God will always understand evil as better explained within the confines of their worldview. While the atheist who believes in no God and a world of random haphazard pointless events, will conversely adhere to the notion that evil is best explained within their worldview. Just as the G.E. Mooreshift relies on an initial presupposition on whether God exists or not, likewise, the problem of evil will always be addressed by each individual depending on their presupposed worldview on whether or not God exists. The true test of whose worldview is most likely to be true must then extend outward into proofs and arguments for God’s existence, or lack thereof.

In the meantime, evils are sure to continue in this world as horrendous and heinous as the ones prior. Amidst these evils the faith of theists maybe shaken, while the faith of atheists is further entrenched, hopefully it has been successfully argued here that the classical theistic notion of an all-loving and all-powerful God is reconcilable with the evil of this world. It is my hope that after reading this essay the theist’s faith is not plagued with doubt, and the atheist not felt vindicated, the next time tragedy rears its ugly head.

“My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” -Psalm 119:50 (NIV)

References:

Adams, M.M., “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Dostoevsky, F., “Rebellion,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Eckstrom, L.W., “Suffering as Religious Experience,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Frankfurt, H.G., “The Logic of Omnipotence,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Gardner, M., (2009) When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish, and Other Speculations About This and That, (New York, NY: Hill & Wang)

Hick, J., “Evil and Soul-Making,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Hick, J., (1994) God and the Universe of Faiths, 2nd Edition, (London: Oneworld)

Hume, D., “The Argument from Evil,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Leibniz, G., “Theodicy: A Defense of Theism,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Little, P.E., (2000) Know Why You Believe, 4th Edition, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press)

Mackie, J.L., “Evil and Omnipotence,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Owen, J. (ed.), (1979) Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House)

Phillips, J.B., (1960) God Our Contemporary, (New York, NY: Macmillan)

Plantinga, A., “The Freewill Defense,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Plantinga, A., “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa,’” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Pojman, L., & Rea, M., (2012) Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth).

Rowe, W.L., “The Inductive Argument from Evil Against the Existence of God,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Rowe, W.L., (2007) Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction, 4th Edition, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth)

St. Augustine, The Problem of Free Choice, Volume 22 of Ancient Christian Writers, (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1955)

Gods Big Rock

Can God create a rock so heavy, that He cannot lift it?

It’s a question often asked by skeptics as a way challenge the Christian view of an omnipotent God. It is essentially a trick question, because if you answer yes, you’re admitting God cannot lift the rock and therefore God is not omnipotent because He can’t do something. If you answer no, then you’re admitting God has limitations as to what He can create, and is therefore not omnipotent. No matter how you answer, with a yes or no, God comes out failing the omnipotence test.

Maybe you’ve heard this question a thousand times. Maybe this is your first. One thing you can be certain of is that this is not some newly conceived challenge to the omnipotence of God. This question is actually a very old challenge going back hundreds of years and has been answered thoroughly by many great philosophical minds during the time that has elapsed. Yet it seems to be a standard issue challenge still utilized by young atheists.

So how do you answer this trick question in which any answer seems to come out bad for God?

Possible vs. Impossible

According to 13th century theologian and philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, the answer lies in acknowledging what omnipotence actually is. Whereas many Christians might hold onto a notion that God is capable of doing anything and everything to describe his omnipotence, Aquinas disagrees. He proposes that God can only do what is possible, by breaking down possibility into two types: Relative and Absolute (Rowe, 6). Relative possibility is something possible for certain beings. For example, a fish can breath underwater, which is impossible for a bird. Absolute possibility is something possible if not a contradiction in terms. A contradiction in terms could be a married bachelor, or a shape that is both round and square, or defeating your opponent in chess after you’ve been checkmated. These things are not possible because they are a contradiction in terms. The only way out of the contradiction is to redefine the terms.

Aquinas declares that God’s omnipotence must be within the context of absolute possibility, not relative possibility. For if it was only relative then God’s omnipotence would be no greater than a bird’s omnipotence to do only what is possible for a bird to do, like fly. Therefore, God’s omnipotence must transcend to all things possible that are not contradictory. Aquinas writes, “Whatever implies contradiction does not come with the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is more appropriate to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them,” (Rowe, 7).

Now for many Christians this might be hard to swallow, because it is accepting that God is limited in some way. It might seem blasphemous to say God is limited in power and ability. But if you really think about it, this is what we read of God in the Bible. We read that God cannot sin (1 John 3:9). Isn’t that a limitation? What about committing to evil or killing Himself? Aren’t these things that God cannot do because they are contradictory to his nature? Technically speaking, committing evil or killing Himself is contradictory if God is good and eternal. So it is not inappropriate to say God has limitations in that He can only do what is not a contradiction in terms.

Professor emeritus of philosophy at Purdue University William L. Rowe explains why this approach to omnipotence does not infringe on God’s sovereignty, “So there are many things that God, despite being omnipotent, cannot do. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from this that God’s power is somehow limited, that there are things he cannot do which, if only his power were greater, he could do,” and later, “ …God can do anything that is an absolute possibility and not inconsistent with being perfectly good, and since being perfectly good is a basis attribute of God, the fact that God cannot do evil will not conflict with the fact that he is omnipotent, ” (Rowe, 7-8).

Professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Michigan, George Mavrodes, agrees that these limitations do not undermine God’s omnipotence, “My failure to draw a circle on the exam may indicate my lack of geometrical skill, but my failure to draw a square circle does not indicate any such lack,” (Mavrodes, 89-90).

Starting Assumptions

Another way to approach the rock paradox is by examining your starting assumption. If you start with the assumption that God is not omnipotent then the problem will bring you right back to your original assumption, that God is not omnipotent. On the other hand, if you approach the paradox with the assumption God is omnipotent, then the problem becomes self-contradictory because it would mean that a stone is too large to be lifted by a being that can lift anything. Since such a scenario is impossible, under the given assumption, so it does not undermine the doctrine of omnipotence.

Mavrodes argues that one can be asked the question of the stone, answer yes, and be correct, given that someone argues that such a circumstance is not contradictory (Mavrodes, 90). For example, an Atheist can deny the contradictory nature of the problem, but if he or she does, all that one must do is answer, “yes, God CAN create such a stone.” Thus the atheist has to accept that omnipotence since they denied the contradiction. The only other route for the atheist is to accept the contradiction, which is excluded from omnipotence.

“Such pseudo-tasks, not falling within the realm of possibility, are not objects of power at all. Hence the fact that they cannot be performed implies no limit on the power of God, and hence no defect in the doctrine of omnipotence,” writes Mavrodes (Mavrodes, 91).

A Limitless God

Rene Descartes, a 17th century mathematician and philosopher, however, believed it blasphemous to limit God to only do what is logically possible, “In general we can be quite certain that God can do whatever we are able to understand. For it would be presumptuous to think that our imagination extends as far as His power,” (Frankfurt, 93). In other words, something may seem a contradiction due to our cognitive limitations, but to an omnipotent being with superior understanding, there is no such contradiction, and the realm of possibility extends far greater than what we as humans can conceive as being possible.

Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, seems to pull form this notion and find a way to solve the rock paradox without a supposed blasphemous limit on God’s omnipotence. He points out, “…if God is supposed to be capable of performing one task whose description is self-contradictory- that of creating the problematic stone in the first place- why should He not be supposed capable of performing another- that of lifting the stone? After all, is there any greater trick in performing two logically impossible tasks than there is in performing one?” (Frankfurt, 92).

Frankfurt continues, “If an omnipotent being can do what is logically impossible then He can not only create situations which He cannot handle but also, since He is not bound by the limits of consistency, He can handle situations which He cannot handle,” (Frankfurt, 92). In other words, if God can do the impossible by creating a stone too heavy to lift, then He could likewise do the impossible and lift the stone.

Whether you choose the absolute possibility approach, the starting assumption approach, or the limitless approach, there are multiple ways to handle the stone that is too heavy to be lifted. I believe the greater and more difficult question to ask, is why skeptics still resort to a question that has been thoroughly answered in not one, but three ways.

References:

Frankfurt, H.G., “The Logic of Omnipotence,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion; An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth), 2012.

Mavrodes, G., “Some Puzzles Concerning Omnipotence,” as written in Louis Pojman and Michael Rea’s, Philosophy of Religion; An Anthology, 6th Edition, (Boston, MA: Wadsworth), 2012.

Rowe, W.L., (2007) Philosophy of Religion; An Introduction, 4th Edition, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth).

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While watching a public debate between some theists and atheists, one of the atheists turned to the crowd and said, “Raise your hand if you’re an atheist.” After some hands went up he responded with, “Well, all your hands should be up because we’re all atheists. We don’t believe in any of the Greek mythology gods and demigods right? So we’re all atheists.” Wow, this whole time I was an atheist and I didn’t even know it!

Well, not exactly. The argument he makes is hardly airtight, considering it is guilty of two logical fallacies. The first fallacy is that of equivocation. The fallacy of equivocation is when the arguer uses a term in two or more different senses, which logically must be the same every time for an argument to work. The word in question is atheist. Atheism is defined as a rejection, denial or disbelief in deities, that there are no supreme beings. When the atheist first asks the crowd to raise their hands if they’re an atheist, the crowd responds based off the true definition of atheism. We have to assume this is expected by the atheist to prove his point. He then redefines atheism to mean rejection of any deities. Changing the definition from an absolute rejection of all, to a partial rejection of any, to prove we’re all atheists. His argument uses atheism in two different senses, hence the fallacy of equivocation. Ultimately, his later definition of atheism is incorrect. As said before, atheism is a denial of all supernatural beings. You can’t believe in one god, rejecting any other gods, and be considered an atheist. To believe in one deity at all renders you a deist, or non-atheist. The argument the atheist is making is really one between polytheism and monotheism, not deism and atheism.

The second fallacy raised here is one that always follows atheist’s attempts to compare Greek mythology to Christianity. That fallacy is weak analogy or false analogy; comparing two things that are not comparable. A typical argument made is that the Greek gods are obviously myth, so why do we believe in Christianity? How is Christianity any different? The fallacy is that the only thing Christianity and Greek mythology have in common is the supernatural, whereas every other detail is completely different. In other words, one cannot compare a polytheistic religion in which events and characters can’t be confirmed as historical that no longer has a following, to a monotheistic religion in which events and characters can be historically confirmed and has the largest following in the world. And that of course is a very broad description of both. The more one goes into detail regarding the two religions the more separate they become. At the end of the day, it is perfectly rational to analyze the two and determine that one is rational and the other not, and therefore, believe in one and not the other. Such, does not make one an atheist.

Eli Sagan Chesen, M.D., author and psychiatrist once wrote, “The concept of hell is also useless and harmful. I suspect that those evangelists who continue to peddle this asinine idea are beyond redemption. Inculcation with such a negative entity as hell makes for intriguing books and horror movies, but does little to promote a healthy attitude towards religion.”[1]

Christianity brings good news in that allegiance to Christ brings eternal life in heaven, but bad news in that rejection of Christ brings forth eternal suffering in hell. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that hell is a hard pill to swallow. That place of fire, horror, heat, screaming, pain, weeping, torture, misery, and desolation. Is it a real place we should be actively trying to avoid, or is it just a myth? If it is in truth, a real place, then its implications should be of incredible concern for all. If just a myth… well, then who cares?

Contemplating the reality of hell leads to troubling questions: What about virtuous non-believers? Is Gandhi in Hell? What about a beloved deceased family member that did not believe? Are they in hell forever? How could a good and just God send people to an eternity of misery? Why does hell even exist? The concept of hell brings up a multitude of questions, and if church leaders, parents, teachers, philosophers, and theologians can’t provide adequate answers then the belief itself is abandoned or modified.

In the pursuit to answer my own questions about hell, I was shocked to find out that belief in hell is actually on the increase. Between 1997 and 2004, belief in hell in America has increased from 56% to 71%.[2] Yet, I would have guessed it would be the opposite. Under closer examination the issue isn’t so much whether or not people believe in hell, but instead what they believe hell to be. Alternatives and compromises regarding the concept of hell are being adopted more and more. Hell is getting a makeover, and it is looking a lot tamer then before. This makes hell more palatable to the believer and non-believer alike, which has no doubt helped in its growing acceptance. Jonathan Kvanvig, Professor of Philosophy, Texas A&M University writes, “Even those whose theological outlooks require the doctrine [of hell] find it disquieting, and alternative outlooks not requiring the doctrine find ready acceptance among a population whose conceptions of God leaves little room for the language of fire and brimstone.”[3]

Though one (Christian) might initially celebrate the growing acceptance of hell theology, it is not praiseworthy if it comes at the cost of compromise. So I found it necessary to examine not only my own problems with hell, but the problems others have as well. In general, publicly exploring the problems of hell is only a recent endeavor that started during the enlightenment. Prior to this time, anyone who had strong opinions fixated on the inadequacies of hell kept those opinions to themselves for fear of persecution. The attitude of French author Dom Sinsart in Defense du Dogne Catholique Sur l’Eternite’des Peines (1748) clarifies why, “I do not hesitate to say that the system which limits the punishments of the afterlife has been conceived only by the vicious and corrupt hearts. Indeed what motive would a good Christian have in distorting Scripture so as to divert it from the meaning it naturally presents? …A good conscience has no motive for inventing quibbles about a matter which does not concern it.”[4] In other words, only a corrupt hearted person would question the logistics of hell since any decent person won’t be going there and therefore not bother with its details. So if you tried to question the logistics of hell, you were indirectly admitting you were a sinner, not a good Christian, atheist, ect. Of course this was more of a problem in the 18th and 19th centuries than it is today where there is a more free exchange of ideas.

Though I somewhat agree with Sinsart’s logic here, I also see the need to enter into conversation regarding the issues associated with hell for various reasons: First, to be a successful evangelical Christian, one must familiarize themselves with the beliefs of the unbeliever in order to counter argue those beliefs for persuasion. Additionally, such questioning of hell can lead to a better understanding of hell, working on the notion that if hell really exists such exploration will only further reveal its truth. Furthermore, failure to truly analyze the problems with hell has lead to very liberal theology in the church today. Lastly, if another Christian has doubts about their faith stemming from supposed inadequacies with Christian doctrine, it is necessary to address these issues to recover their faith again. With all these issues considered, it is therefore in my opinion, absolutely critical to explore the problems with the doctrine of hell and rectify them within the confines of scripture.

First, I will cover what is considered the traditional view of hell. Based off that traditional view, I will break down its inadequacies and reveal the philosophical and moral problems many find with it. To solve these problems many Christians have through out the ages developed potential solutions which I will cover one by one to see if any are successful. Based off those findings I have proposed what I believe is the most sound doctrine of hell, followed by an in depth look at the finer details of what constitutes hell exactly. Throughout this process I would encourage the reader to think critically without bias and to do research themselves. My conclusions were reached with scripture heavily considered, but I will not be so bold as to claim that my conclusions are absolute truth. This article discusses the nature of God which is incredibly difficult to do considering how limited we are in contrast to Him, so I may have missed the mark completely. As Isaiah 55:8 says, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” With that, here is my analysis on the concept of hell.

The Traditional Hell

The traditional view of hell, also known as the “Strong View,” comprises of the following components:

-Anti-Universalism: Some people are sent to hell.

-Existence: Hell is a place where people exist if sent there.

-No Escape: There is no chance of leaving hell. Once you are there, there is nothing you can do to get out.

-Retribution: The justification and purpose of hell is one of retribution; punishment for those whose lives warrant it.

More detailed accounts of the traditional hell are of a place that is underground. It is always on fire and very hot. There Satan is king, and he takes his pleasure in torturing people endlessly for all of eternity. Many also believe that there are different levels of hell, where people are punished according to the severity of their sin. Additionally, there are supplements to hell, like limbo, purgatory, ect. Overall, it is a nasty place where God sends all the wicked to their eternal demise.

Philosophical and Moral Problems with the Traditional Hell

The problems many philosophers, theologians, and skeptics have with hell can all, for the most part, be traced to one big overlying problem: Hell leads to nowhere. There is no product. Hell brings about an evil that in no way brings about any good. If hell doesn’t refine someone then it is a truly pointless gratuitous evil. From this point one transitions into questioning the very nature of God. A God that creates such a pointless gratuitous evil is surely not a good God. Not even a just God, because many evils brought about by God or otherwise can be justified in the good it eventually produces. So if no good comes about from hell, how can it be justified?

God’s character is further degraded because of the severity of hell. If hell is so bad, any authority that sends people there must be evil. Why would we trust such an authority regarding our well being? This argument is summed up as the McTaggart Dilemma.

McTaggart’s Dilemma:

-Either there is or is not good reason for belief in hell.

-If there is no good reason, you should not believe in it.

-The only evidence of hell comes from the authority that sends you there.

-The authority that would do such a thing to you cannot be trusted.

-If the only evidence of hell comes from a source that cannot be trusted, then there is no reason to believe in hell.[5]

Not only is the basic principal of hell troubling, but its details equally so. Does everyone receive equal punishment in hell? Equal punishment is considered by some to be unfair and unjust. Unfair in that not everyone is equally guilty. Unjust in that not all sin deserves infinite punishment.

Some counter argue this unfairness with the following: Since God is the author of morality we cannot question God on why it is necessary to send people to hell. But this argument does not stand. If God commanded us to kill and torture infants we wouldn’t all agree that that command is moral regardless. For a perfectly good God to command such a thing is inconceivable. Therefore, it is a poor argument to say that God makes the rules and thus we cannot question them. To do so would be to say the God is not moral, but instead above morality, like being above the law.

What about equal punishment? How can punishment be equal in hell if people have done varying amounts of evil? To analyze such an issue, status must be classified.

Status principal: Punishment is determined by two factors; 1) Status of the person affected. (Yet, how is this status measured?) 2) Amount of actual or intended harm. Only harm done to God, an infinite being, could really warrant eternal punishment. And only one sin against God would have to be enough to warrant infinite hell since any other number would be arbitrary. Additionally, all sin would have to be equal, and all sin would have to be against God. Lastly, if God is the sustainer and creator of everything in existence, then sin is against the created order and God. As Kvanvig writes, “Robbing a store run by a man that beats his wife is just as wrong as robbing a store of a virtuous saint, and torturing a pauper is just as wrong as torturing a prince.”[6]

If a bad man slaps a good man and a good man slaps a bad man, one cannot rank which is worse based on the man being bad or good. However, one must also consider the intention of the man doing the slapping. If the bad man is being slapped for being bad and the good man is being slapped for doing good, now we have a rational for ranking. It is worse to slap a man for being good than to slap a man for being bad. But the problem with these rankings are that man is not equal when considered. Thus, status and ranking introduces problems for the concept of equal punishment.

Status and ranking between man may be faulty, but if God is of a higher and supreme kind, then the ranking principal can stand, right? Christian Philosopher William J. Wainwright explores this issue further, “The principal in question is not clearly false if it is restricted to differences in ontological kinds and not applied to more or less valuable members of the same ontological kind. For consider the following series of actions- destroying a flower, destroying a dog, destroying a human being, and destroying an archangel. Each action in this series appears to be intrinsically worse than its predecessor (presumably because human beings, for example, are a more valuable thing than dogs). But a restricted principal is all we need since God is a unique kind of being, and the value of relevant kind (‘divinity’) infinitely surpasses the value of other kinds.”[7]

Wainwright asserts that value of the divine is more valuable than that of the non-divine, thus the status and ranking problems found with man do not apply. However, one may disagree in that Wainwright’s argument begs the question. It only works if one is already convinced that all sin is against God, even the slightest, and thus we are all subject to equal punishment. All forms of physical measurement to determine and distinguish kinds with more or less moral value is arbitrary. God is obviously more important and is supreme over us. But this does not justify why sin against Him is worse than sin against another person because one cannot use an arbitrary ranking system. His perfection cannot explain this either because that would make killing a saint worse than killing a non-saint.

So the problem remains. Though it may be helpful to breakdown the varying types of wrong actions one can commit.

Types of wrong actions:

1)  Wrong action involving no consideration of God, intent to actualize some good-making characteristic of a wrong action.

2) Wrong action involving no consideration of God, but involving intent to actualize a wrong action in its wrongness.

3) A wrong action involving a clouded awareness of God and intent to actualize some good-making characteristic of a wrong action.

4) A wrong action involving a clouded awareness of God involving intent to actualize a wrong action in its wrongness and in opposition to the desires of God.

5) A wrong action involving a perspicuous awareness of God and intent to actualize some good-making characteristic of a wrong action.

6) A wrong action involving a perspicuous awareness of God and intent to actualize a wrong action in its wrongness and in opposition to the moral demands arising out of God’s desires.[8]

Surely 6 is worse than 1. And though we can identify the objective notion of what was done to who, identifying the subjective notion of intention clouds everything up. Will those unaware of their sinning against God receive less sever punishment? Will those aware get a more severe punishment? To assert these statements as true is to suggest that people should receive a life sentence in prison for the death of someone regardless of intention. Whether a life sentence at a minimum security prison or a torture chamber, it is still a life sentence. Intention is critical to determine punishment. If we assume God is omniscient entity, then He knows intention and judges accordingly. Yet we still run into the problem of equal punishment despite those with varying intentions.

One argument people make to defend equal punishment for various crimes pertains to our judicial system. Our judicial system punishes murder the same regardless of how many people you murder. Likewise, God punishes sin the same no matter how much you sinned. A counter argument is that our judicial system is not purely a retributive system (as hell is considered traditionally) because it incorporates reform and deterrence (which hell does not). Additionally, humans would have to enforce the punishment which enters a problem of possible sin incurred while administering the punishment. Only the sadistic and callous could torture people for a living. Since God is Holy, He never needs to balance the demands of justice and the cost to His character.

As you can see there are many problems to the concept of Hell. Distinguishing the type of sin warranting of punishment, the victim, the motivation of the sin, the punishment due for that sin. Is it all equal? If so, is that fair? An eternity of horrific punishment for a wide variety of crimes? Arguments go back and forth and the outcomes are troubling. All paint the picture of a cruel God that is more motivated by vindication than love. So what is the solution(s) to the problems of hell? A wide variety of creative doctrines have emerged over the centuries determined to erase these problems, yet the problems they solve are merely substituted by new problems.

Potential Solutions to Hell

After exploring the wide variety of alternatives to Hell, it becomes clear that no alternatives really satisfy the problems associated with the traditional doctrine of hell. They either solve one problem only to incur another or they solve the problem at the cost of compromising other important tenants of Christian doctrine. Some even adopt theology from other religions to cure the problems of the Christian hell. Alternatives are abundant, which is clear testimony to the problems people have had with the concept of hell over time. But as you will see for yourself, none suffice.

The Arbitrariness Problem: Who is to say there are not alternatives to hell? The inadequate traditional theology of hell has lead to many alternatives hell doctrines. Such alternatives, however, all seem to be arbitrary when thoroughly analyzed.

Annihilation Theory:

The annihilist point of view maintains that; some people end up in hell, no one can leave once there, and that hell’s purpose is to serve punishment. BUT “Hell” is considered non-existence. God literally annihilates your soul. Your soul is naturally immortal, but those who do not choose Christ are simply annihilated, while those redeemed by Christ are allowed to experience the natural immortality of their soul.

But this view does not solve the problems of the traditional view of hell. It is an attempt to present God as kind and merciful, but annihilation is severe and not a compassionate alternative. The moral and arbitrariness problems still prevails. The problems of hell are not found in the specifics of torture, fire, and brimstone that the annihilation theory looks to solve. The problems are morality and arbitrariness. As Kvanvig writes, “Once we distinguish clearly between the philosophical core of the strong [traditional] view [of hell] and figural accretions to it, we can easily see that the annihilation view is completely impotent in solving the problems facing the strong [traditional] view of hell and, in particular, in no sense involves mitigation of the strong [traditional] view.”[9]

Professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University, Elenore Stump agrees, “To annihilate them is to eradicate their being… which an essentially good God could not do unless there were an overriding good which justified it… such an overriding good would have to produce or promote being in someway, but it is hard to see how the wholesale annihilation of persons  could produce or promote being… the annihilation of the damned is not morally justified and thus not an option for a good God.”[10]

Additionally, scripture does not support annihilation with descriptions of hell involving pain and sorrow. One could not experience such if they were annihilated. The story of Lazarus and the rich man involves the rich man present and aware while in hell, testifying to the anti-universalist and existences thesis. He also cannot escape hell, which is the no escape thesis. Such descriptions are pointless and deceptive if one’s soul is annihilated. Christian apologist Greg Koukl writes, “We read in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” Note that the word destruction doesn’t mean, and can’t mean, annihilation because it wouldn’t make any sense to say they are annihilated from the presence of the Lord eternally. If a thing is annihilated, it doesn’t exist at all.”[11]

Conditional Immortality:

This view is like the annihilation view, but instead proposes that God intervenes to grant the redeemed immortal life. The soul will naturally be annihilated after death unless God intervenes, and thus God has no role in one’s demise for sinning against Him.

The problem with this view is that God sustains all living life (divine conservation). Meaning that if God doesn’t act to sustain the soul of a human He is still committing to non-action. Whether God acts or does not act to save a soul does not mean He is free of causing annihilation. Choosing non-action when confronted with an opportunity to save someone’s life does not free any other person from responsibility towards another’s death, why would it be any different with God? To suggest so, is to suggest God’s role is limited, that God is limited. Never the less, if such where the rules, God no doubt set the rules in place. So no matter how one approaches conditional immortality, God is still responsible for the annihilation of our souls. And if God is responsible for the annihilation of our souls then we run into the moral problems mentioned by Stump.

Limbo:

Limbo is considered the final resting place for virtuous pagans and unbaptized infants. However, this concept is unbiblical on all fronts. First off, baptism is not a requirement for heaven. If it were, then the man crucified next to Jesus would not have been able to gain access to heaven. But as Luke 23:43 reads, Jesus said the man would be in paradise with Him that day. This statement alone renders baptism unnecessary for salvation. Additionally, one could argue that infants aren’t capable of rebellion against God, even though born into sin as scripture declares, an infant makes no conscious choice to reject God. Therefore, there is no reason to suggest unbaptized infants would go to hell. Regarding virtuous pagans, it would depend on context. Virtuous pagans that reject the gospel of Christ would not be admitted to heaven as outlined in John 14:6. One could also argue that one who rejects Christ couldn’t be considered virtuous. For virtuous pagans that never hear the gospel of Christ, then they will be judged by a truly just God when they die, for which if they were genuinely virtuous by God’s standards, then He will grant them access to heaven. Furthermore, if limbo is true, then heaven and hell are not the exclusive and ultimate afterlife possibilities (also outlined in scripture), and is thus subject to the arbitrariness problem.

According to Kvanvig, “The temptation towards such a doctrine [limbo] arises from a very severe conception of hell combined with a very restrictive conception of how it is possible to achieve heaven. Once these conceptions are in place, discomfiture is bound to arise from considering the plight of certain individuals implied by these accounts. The proper lesson to learn here however, is not that of an afterlife possibility in addition to heaven and hell, but rather a disjunctive one. Either one’s conception of heaven and hell is inadequate, or the discomfiture one experiences is misleading about the moral acceptability of certain individuals ending up in hell.”[12]

The doctrine of limbo was established because of the discomfort people experienced at the thought of virtuous pagans and unbaptized infants going to hell. Limbo is thus constructed to remedy this discomfort, instead of scrutinizing and developing a more water tight understanding of heaven and hell. Constructing an adequate concept of heaven and hell is ultimately what undoes the need for Limbo.

Purgatory:

The doctrine of Purgatory was developed by the Catholic church based off a verse from 2 Maccabeus from the Apocrypha. The doctrine is that a level of purity is required to enter heaven. After someone dies they may not be pure enough to enter heaven, yet are not damned to hell. Thus, souls are temporarily held in purgatory to be perfected to the level of purity required to enter heaven.[13] But since no one goes from purgatory to hell, it should instead be considered a part of heaven, not hell. It is also temporary. So if it is temporary than it is not an exclusive and eternal destination as heaven and hell are. It should also not be overlooked that the books of the Apocrypha are widely discredited as inspired texts, hence why they’re omitted from so many published Bibles.

The bigger issue with purgatory is that it compromises many Biblical principals. Jesus Christ died for the atonement of all our sins. To suggest that we would need further refinement after death to get into heaven leads to two conclusions: 1) Those who end up in purgatory that accepted Christ as savior need further refinement, and thus Christ’s salvation is not sufficient. 2) Those who end up in purgatory that did not accept Christ, and thus there is opportunity to enter heaven without Christ, rendering Christ’s sacrifice pointless. Yet in Hebrews 7:27, Ephesians 2:2-9, and 1 John 2:2 state that Jesus’ sacrifice was an absolute and all encompassing atonement. This alone undoes the need for purgatory.

Reincarnation:

Some people construct hybrid models of the afterlife, mixing Christian doctrine and Hindu doctrines of reincarnation. But reincarnation and continued existence on earth cannot mesh with the Christian doctrine of hell because reincarnation is a doctrine of countless second chances for redemption. Kvanvig writes, “Second chance doctrines then quickly become infinite chance doctrines, and infinitely delayed consequences for sin are no consequences at all.”[14] This is in great contradiction to the critical tenants of Christianity which speaks of eventual and absolute final judgment, not repetitive refining postponed judgment. Additionally, the Bible speaks of man living and dying only once (Hebrews 9:27).

Furthermore, if reincarnation were true, it would have to last forever in which case there is no afterlife and hell is obsolete. Physical science does not allow for a physical eternity due to entropy and the impending heat death of the physical universe. Thus there can be no physical immortality of second chances. So at some point it would have to end, at which point an afterlife comes into play. What if by that point a person still hasn’t been redeemed by God? Clearly a doctrine of reincarnation does not solve the problem of hell, nor does it mesh with Christian scripture.

Retribution Thesis:

After death, people have a second chance to redeem themselves with God. Judgment is not limited to our earthly existence alone.

Counter Argument: This does not solve the problem of hell, but instead merely postpones the problem. People may still reject redemption. If a punishment, like hell, is considered too harsh, it is no less harsh, no matter how many opportunities one has to avoid it. If an infinite number of chances to avoid hell are given, then hell becomes redundant and the doctrine of consequences discarded.

Second Chance View:

This view maintains that one can escape hell after being sent there. Naturally there are numerous problems with this view. First, this view conflicts with scripture (Luke 16). Second, it ignores the final judgment and final consummation that is an important tenant of Christianity. Third, it doesn’t make hell any more moral than the traditional view of hell. Duration is not the solution to the morality problem. Conditional and duration punishment is a solution in a retributive situation. However, the eternal aspect of hell makes it a non-retributive assignment. As with other alternatives, if people can get into heaven through hell without Christ, what is the point of Christ?

Universalism:

This view maintains that all persons are reconciled with God in the end, and is considered to be the most attractive view of hell. This position is more or less the basis for Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins.[15]  There are two types of Universalism; contingent and necessary.

Contingent Universalism:

This viewpoint suggests it is possible for people to go to hell, but contingent fact allows that no one will. God’s saving grace and power will in the end win out over the forces of evil. John Macquarrie, Scottish theologian and philosopher shares his universalist opinion, “Needless to say, we utterly reject the idea of a hell where God everlastingly punishes the wicked, without hope for deliverance. Even earthly pendogists are more enlightened nowadays.”[16] The objective is to obviously solve the moral dilemma of God condemning people to eternal misery. Naturally, this viewpoint has become increasingly popular.

Clark Pinnock, theologian, apologist and former professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College explains why this is, “If the doctrine of hell is taken to mean (as it so often is) that God raises up the wicked to everlasting existence for the express purpose of inflicting upon them endless pain and torment, universalism will become practically irresistible in its appeal to sensitive Christians… If the only options are torment and universalism, then I would expect large numbers of sensitive Christians to choose universalism.”[17]

Here is the basic argument for contingent universalism: With hell there is a moral problem. The character of God is challenged. If no one goes to hell, this is no longer a problem. But this doesn’t solve the moral problem of hell. It just tries to side step it and sweep it under the rug. God is all just and good in this world and the next. His goodness is not contingent but always is a fundamental part of His character. Universalism does not change the concept of hell and does not defend God’s goodness by arguing that hell is simply a possibility, but don’t worry, you won’t go there. Technically it is not a possibility at all if there is a guarantee no one will go there. Stating that no one goes there doesn’t change the fact God created the horrible place either. More disturbing, is the notion that God would create hell with Jesus and His disciples preaching of it being a very real place where people will end up, and then at final judgment… not send anyone there? That would make many statements from Jesus and the disciples to be outright lies. Additionally, what is the point of Jesus’ sacrifice for the sin of mankind if all will be saved regardless of their commitment to Jesus? Contingent universalism theology severely undermines the contents of scripture and the character of God. In the end, it does nothing more than mask the moral dilemma of hell at the cost of sabotaging the fundamentals of scripture.

Necessary Universalism:

The argument for necessary universalism is one that responds to the flaws of contingent universalism. Necessary universalism counters that God cannot fail. Since God sent His Son to redeem mankind, and God cannot fail, Jesus WILL therefore redeem all mankind and no one will go to hell.

The counter argument to that rests on the foundation of freewill. God cannot guarantee that all will be in heaven without corrupting the freewill of man. The moral perfection required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be imposed on us, but must be personally chosen. It becomes “possible” for someone to be uncooperative in their freewill and end up in hell. Whether all go to heaven or not, the fact that going to hell is even possible renders necessary universalism false.

From here we enter a variety of counter arguments from universalists:

Counter Argument 1 (CA1)- The choice to reject God is only possible in our earthly existence dependant on worldly motivations, but once one has passed through death into the afterlife free of motives they have an opportunity for redemption prior to judgment in which they could not possibly choose to reject God. This is the popular stance (among others) of universalist Thomas Talbott, professor of philosophy at WillametteUniversity.[18]

Counter Argument 2 (CA2)- Freewill is limited when it comes to moral goods and avoiding moral evils. Just as we may interfere with another’s freewill to prevent them from committing suicide, God likewise does the same for us, which is justified because it is in our best interests.[19]

Counter Argument 3 (CA3)- God could not create free beings capable of rejecting Him. Any free beings He creates will ultimately choose Him. Since God knows the future, He would know if a being would reject Him, and out of love, not create that being.

Response to CA1: CA1 not only renders Jesus useless (again), but assumes that external experiences can always determine and influence someone’s view, ignoring the fact that it is always possible to ignore experiences and deny reality to ensure world views are maintained.[20] People do it everyday regardless of motive. Freedom to choose does not require the absence of motives. One can be motivated to do evil and yet the actions that result from these motives can be truly free. If one did have habits of wickedness, God could remove the habits, but at a cost of corrupting freewill. Self-determination is the only way as Kvanvig explains, “The only way to remove the fundamental depravity without overriding the will is for a person to give up his or her claims on self-determination and ask for divine intervention- in a word, to undergo complete conversion… Remove all the interfering factors, and some persons might still desire anything over union with God and thus choose damnation because anything is preferable, in their minds, to the abandonment of self that union with God implies… hence this attempt to rescue necessary universalism from the free will argument fails,”[21] and additionally, “… freedom is an essential constituent of rationality, one could not aim at the well being of humans without honoring their freedom.”[22]

Response to CA2: The analogy to suicide is not a fair comparison because our motivation to prevent suicide is based in an assumption for something better in the future, which for humans is unknowable. We interfere with suicide under the assumption that it is what is best for the individual without actually knowing with certainty if it actually is. God, by comparison, does not have this problem since He is capable of knowing our intents and futures. This is the precise reason why He has prolonged the impending end judgment as mentioned in 2 Peter 3:9, for the sake of those that might still be saved. To suggest that people’s freewill will be overridden for their own good after death makes the decision to hold off on the final judgment pointless. Why would a teacher give students additional time to study for a test (for the purpose that they don’t fail) if he planned on giving the class all A’s regardless of how well they do. Likewise, again, we find the life of Jesus pointless under this theology. To believe God would permanently override the freedom of the rebellious to secure them a place in heaven contradicts the need for Jesus and the nature of God as written in the Bible.

Response to CA3- To suggest God cannot create any beings that would reject Him is to limit God, suggesting he doesn’t have the freewill to do so. But since God is not limited He can therefore create such beings. The difference of “would” God do that, or “could” God do that, becomes irrelevant because in order to defend this argument one would have to logically defend that God “could not” create these types of beings, not merely that he “would not.” The possibility alone that God could create such being renders this counter argument null and void. Besides, don’t we all recall what the very first created beings did? They rejected and rebelled against God. The whole notion of sin and Christ’s redemption from this sin originating from the very first created humans means that God created humans capable of rejecting Him, with full knowledge that they would.

Kvanvig concludes, “…necessary universalism does not offer a solution to the problem of hell. Necessary universalism may offer a comforting response to the question of why God would create anyone who chooses hell, but it is a comfort bought at the price of verisimilitude.”[23]

In the end, many of the alternatives presented like universalism are heavily defended based on the premise that since the traditional view of hell is barbaric and evil, that alternatives must be true! But this is a fallacy of dilemma. Your choices are not limited to merely a traditional view of hell or an outlandish alternative. There is another option. Perhaps our understanding of hell is slightly skewed and shallow. If we can revisit and reanalyze the concept of hell, I believe it is possible to achieve a morally and biblically sound concept of hell that has none of the flaws found in the traditional view nor any compromising alternatives.

Reconstructing a Biblical-based Hell

With all the traditional views of hell and subsequent compromising alternatives riddled with problems, a reconstruction of hell is sorely needed. With careful consideration of the Bible’s contents regarding God’s character, the purpose of Jesus, and the descriptions of hell, I believe it is possible to establish a concept of hell that meets all scriptural requirements and solves most, if not all, of the problems previously mentioned. However, the first step towards developing this concept has to involve the proper identification of hell as a spiritual existence, and not a geographic location.

The Geographic Problem: A common factor for disbelief in hell and heaven among contemporary people is due to Christianity’s preaching of it as a geographical location with people “sent” to hell. Instead we should understand heaven and hell in a metaphysical orientation. Per Kvanvig, “Without the metaphysical orientation, the fictionalizing of hell in the minds of non believers will be a continuing irritant to those who take the doctrine seriously.”[24] Just as the Kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual one, hell is likewise a spiritual state of existence. With this established, it is easier to negotiate the problems found with traditional and alternative views of hell, while establishing a more sound concept.

The next step in the process should be to understand the character of God. The Bible declares God is one of true love, but also true justice. The reoccurring issue however, is that when ever Christians speak of heaven we attribute it to God’s love. But whenever they speak of hell, we attribute it to God’s justice. Why do we move from love to justice when discussing God condemning people to hell? Does justice override His love? Shouldn’t we be able to swap characteristics and say that with heaven we see God’s justice and hell we see His love?

Kvanvig writes, “Traditional Christian accounts of hell begin by characterizing God’s fundamental desire in relation to humanity as a desire for union with human bengs, but in the discussion of hell, this portrayal is abandoned. No longer does love seem to be part of the picture at all, instead God’s dominant motive is portrayed in terms of justice (at best) or vindictiveness (at worst). Moreover, usually nothing is added to assuage the concern that this shifting of motivational bases for action is more befitting the mentally incompetent than the fully rational.”[25] Character that is primarily motivated out of love, then in another instance primarily motivated out of justice may work with fallible imperfect human beings. But God is perfect and infallible, so such characteristics are not possible for God.

This dilemma has lead to different understandings of God’s character. For example, St. Augustine once wrote, “How, who but a fool would think God unfair either when [H]e imposes penal judgment on the deserving or when [H]e shows mercy to the undeserving?… [T]he whole human race was condemned in its apostate head by a divine judgment so just that even if not a single member of the race were ever saved from it, no one could rail against God’s justice.”[26] Augustine believed that God ONLY loves those He grants eternal life to and hates those He sends to hell, thus potentially solving the dilemma.

British philosopher Peter Geach believes that God is so sovereign that all creation is mere dust to Him. He does not suffer at our loss.[27] This is a portrayal of a God that doesn’t care for us as much as we’d like to think. Thus it is no surprise that He can condemn people to hell.

The counter argument to Geach’s notion that God does not love us that much at all or St. Augustine’s notion that God only loves those He grants eternal life to is remedied by Talbott. Talbott argues that if God is capable of loving a few, He must love all.[28] This is something scripture correlates with (John 3:16 and 1 John 4:9). Thus St. Augustine and Geach’s theories of God’s character do not solve the dilemma.

Some theologians also utilize God’s sovereignty, as Geach did, to put forth the idea that God is above all morality. The moral issue of hell is solved on the simple grounds that God has to answer to no one regarding His morality. This is often supported by the book of Job, in which we read that God is not answerable to us. Though I agree that God is so sovereign that He does not have to answer to anyone, this does not solve the moral problem of hell. If God is above morality, than nothing He does can be considered good or right. We would additionally have no way to gauge morality at a human level. And since the Bible testifies that God is good, just and righteous all the time, then it would not be appropriate to say He is above morality, but instead that He fulfills and demands morality. If everything God does is good, than He is always moral because He is the root of morality, and thus His sovereignty is preserved. Consequently, humans are subject to this morality that God is the source for. In the book of Job we learn that God is good and moral in all that He does, solidifying why He is unanswerable to us. So, if Hell exists, then it has to be able to fit with the morally good and righteous character of the God who created it.

A very important characteristic of God’s love and goodness is that it has more weight than justice as His primary motivation. For example, all of creation was created out of God’s love and goodness. Creation couldn’t have originated from God’s justice, as justice is reactive, a response to particular situations. So God must be driven primarily by love, not solely justice. Why else would he postpone his judgment of earth in order to facilitate the salvation of more souls as mentioned in 2 Peter? Clearly it is because God is primarily motivated out of love.

With that, I believe it is possible to establish the following:

-God has a primary motivation of love.

-God is equally just as He is loving.

-But this justice can never act separate from the primary motivation of love.

-Therefore, hell cannot be explained by only God’s justice, but by His love as well.

Two great ideas that tackle the problem of hell while preserving God’s character of love are that of C.S. Lewis’ Incarnation Thesis and Eleonore Stump’s Quarantine Model.

Incarnation Thesis: Lewis explains his theory as follows, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end, that the doors of hell are locked from the inside. I do not mean the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment  through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”[29]

Religious author J. Stephen Lang agrees, “By our own choice we come running to God, sorry for our failures and wishing to be forgiven and accepted. Or we choose to live strictly for ourselves, ignoring God and neglecting our duties to other people. Hell is like locking ourselves up in a closet, shutting out God and other people.”[30]

One is not in hell because of God, but from ones own commitment to their rebellion against God. Just as it is more appropriate to state that a murderer is in prison because he murdered, rather than say he is in prison because of the judge that sentenced him to prison. One must recognize why they’re in hell rather than who issued the sentence. People are unwilling to abandon themselves and are thus hopeless, confining themselves to Hell.

Quarantine Model: Stump’s view is that hell is a quarantine to keep sinners from infecting the righteous in heaven.[31] Since the damned can never will freely as God’s will (the prerequisite for heaven) the damned are quarantined outside of heaven, which is morally justifiable for a loving God. People can escape, but no one ever does.[32] They are preserved, but can’t coexist with God in heaven.

Both mentioned models constitute an exile doctrine: The heavenly community lacking in hell is what makes it such a bad place. It is in contrast to the perfect bliss achieved when in union with God in heaven.

Now though I believe the quarantine model is the most appropriate to explain why God created hell, it is not without its problems. The problem being taken from an analogy regarding human incarceration vs. capital punishment (an analogy for exile doctrine vs. annihilation doctrine). Capital punishment may be considered the better of the two if life imprisonment is painful, torturous  or maddening. Therefore, life imprisonment may not be morally preferable to capital punishment. Based off of one’s view of the evil of death one could go either way, and therefore it is possible that annihilation is more moral than exile. Yet, the previous mentioned problems with the annihilation doctrine remain. And for that reason, I believe that an exile doctrine is more sound.

One could argue that the exile doctrine is supported by scripture in addition to rational. The story of Lazarus and the rich man depicts the no-escape thesis in which the rich man’s actions in life lead to his predicament in hell. Frederick Bruce,  the late biblical scholar and former head of the Department of Biblical History and Literature at the University of Sheffield, writes, “…the impassable gulf, in fact, was the rich man’s own creating.”[33]

So, after analyzing the fundamental moral problems with the traditional hell, I believe the following can be established:

-Anti-Universalism: Some people are sent to hell.

-Existence: Hell is a place where people exist if sent there.

-No Escape: There is no chance of leaving hell. Once you are there, there is nothing you can do to get out.

-Exile: People are not in hell for the reasons of punishment. People are in hell under their own free will, eternally separated from God because they cannot will freely as God’s will. This state of exile is however, one of eternal pain and sorrow.

This concept of hell is identical to the traditional concept of hell except for one facet; the primary motivation for hell is not retributive. If hell is instead a place of exile, then hell is no longer incompatible with God’s love.

Now some might argue that switching from retribution to exile is an attempt to weaken the severity of hell. But as Kvanvig writes, “…one need not impugn the goodness of God by making [H]im out to be a master torturer in order for hell to be as bad as anything.”[34] Indeed, an exile from the righteousness of God for all of eternity should not be considered an easy walk in the park. This eternal separation is instead one of never ending sorrow and pain which we shall explore next.

The Fine Details

With the general concept of hell rescued with the exile doctrine, there is still so much to question when we consider the finer details. Where is hell? What is it like? Here I will try my best to cover some of the most popular questions regarding the nature of hell and dispel many myths.

Is hell eternal? This question is the easiest to answer. Numerous verses all through out the Bible speak of the Hell being an eternal never ending final judgment. See, Matthew 18:8, Matthew 25:46, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Jude 7:12-13, and Revelation 14:11.

Is Hell underground below us? Naturally this makes sense with very shallow consideration since hell is a place of hot fire and the internal composition of earth is hot liquid magma. But this notion is illogical and unbiblical. Illogical in that hell is a supernatural experience of separation from God, not a physical geographical location. If it were a physical location then it could be somewhat possible for us to travel there, or for those committed there to escape. This notion is also unbiblical in that the Bible does not state that hell is below us.

Now some argue that Bible does say that hell is below us in Luke 10:15, Ephesians 4:9, 1 Samuel 28:13-15 and Revelation 20:3. However, when analyzed, Luke uses the language of traveling “down” to hell, nothing suggesting below ground. In proper context “down” pertains to action and status, that is, an action of condemnation to beneath the elevated holiness of heaven. Same goes for Ephesians 4:9 which says Jesus ascended to the lower earthly regions. Jesus being God, leaving heaven, a righteous holy place, to go to earth, a place “lower” in status than heaven. 1 Samuel is not a good example of hell being underground either for various reasons: First, it is a medium’s vision, not an account of something that actually happened. Second, the spirit mentioned coming out of the ground was Samuel. Are we suggesting Samuel the prophet of God is spending eternity in hell? Third, there is no escape from hell once sent there per Biblical doctrine. Samuel rising out of the ground from hell would violate this doctrine. In fact, the only description of Hell that I believe can warrant some sense of an underground location is Revelation 20:3 in which hell is described as the bottomless pit. But, a bottomless pit has no bottom, and thus could not be within earth. Clearly, the description of hell is supernatural, not a geographical place underground.

Is hell a place of eternal fire and brimstone? Well, we all know what fire is, but what the heck is brimstone? Brimstone is actually an old reference for sulfur,[35] which we all know is odorous and has common place near volcanic activity. Fire and brimstone is often used as another way of saying the fires of hell.

However, one should not believe hell has a monopoly on fire and flame. Fire and flame is used often in the Bible and does not always mean torture and pain. Elijah the prophet was taken to heaven on a chariot of fire. God is often described as shrouded and flame. The burning bush is considered the presence of God. So clearly we see that fire should not always be considered a symbol of hell, evil, torture and pain. At that, some people argue that God’s numerous depictions with flames and hell’s likewise depiction with flames means that God is present in hell to redeem lost souls to enter heaven. Such a theory is not warranted by scripture though as it violates the no escape thesis, contradicting God’s final judgment and Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.

So is there really fire in hell though? Many theologians believe that the description of fire and brimstone is more so a description of what hell is like than what it literally is. The Bible speaks of the valley of Gehenna (or Hinnom) a few times, which was a refuse heap where items were discarded and burned day and night. Though fire was apart of this valley, the point of the valley was a place where items were discarded and cast away. Its references in the Bible are therefore a more appropriate description of separation, loss, and lack of worth, not burning torture. Additionally, we see descriptions of hell unrelated to fire, like Revalation’s description of hell as a bottomless pit. Lang writes, “Is it [hell] a ‘literal’ fire? That question misses the point. The point is that the person who chooses to separate himself from God is in the worst possible circumstance.”[36]

Some descriptions of hell seem to contradict each other. Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30 describe hell as he “outer darkness.” Yet in other accounts we read of flame and fire. This becomes a contradiction as flame and fire produces light, the opposite of darkness. With that I believe there are only two possible ways to look at this contradiction. Either it is testimony to the supernatural aspect of hell in which the darkness and flame aren’t necessarily literal experiences, but instead metaphoric experiences of hell as intense isolation and pain. Whether metaphoric or literal, we can conclude it is dreadfully bad. The other way to understand this contradiction is a theology of different levels of hell.

So are there different levels of hell? Many theologians believe that there are indeed different levels of hell based on scripture’s depictions of such.[37] Matthew 11:20-22 states that those that did not repent after seeing Christ’s miracles would fair far worse than those in the city of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom on the day of judgment. Luke 12:47-48 and Hebrews 10:29 states that the level of offense while determine the level of punishment. John 19:11 states that some sins are greater than others. Koukl writes, “You don’t cut off somebody’s arm for stealing a loaf of bread. You give a punishment equal to the crime. Jesus says there are crimes that are more heinous than others and, therefore, it stands to reason that the punishment will be greater for those crimes that are more heinous. It can’t be greater in terms of duration because the duration is the same for everyone. It must be greater in terms of intensity which is supported by Jesus’ words and practical reason.”[38] So for those that take the descriptions of hell in the Bible as literal descriptions of what hell actually is, this can be rationalized with varying levels or severity of pain in hell.

Does Satan rule in hell? All depictions of Satan in hell are not ones of power, but of persecution. We must not forget that it was not Satan that created Hell, but God. Don’t be mislead by the book Paradise Lost in which Satan states that it is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Hell is a place of eternal pain, weeping and gnashing of teeth. It will be a very unpleasant place for all those there, including Satan. Another thing to consider is that Revelation 20:3 states that Satan will be locked in hell. Why would he need to be “locked” in hell if he desired to be there? Clearly even Satan does not wish to reside in hell.

Will those in heaven be able to view hell from heaven? Though one cannot pass from hell to heaven or visa versa, there still seems to be some scripture that eludes to the possibility of being able to view those suffering in hell from heaven (Isaiah 66:22-24, Luke 16:23-24, and Revelation 14:9-11). Why would this viewing be available? Some argue that viewing the horrors of hell will serve to highlight the greatness of heaven. Past archbishop of Dublin, William King wrote, “The goodness as well as the happiness of the blessed will be confirmed and advanced by the reflections naturally arising from their view of the misery which some shall undergo.”[39]

This can be problematic however as some skeptics point out the immorality of getting pleasure from seeing the afflicted tortured. But the Bible does not suggest this is motivated out of pleasure, but that there will be a sense of relief and justice from witnessing the plight of the evil. The joys in heaven will be more properly experienced and understood via witnessing the afflicted.

Will there be more people in hell than heaven? With all these details analyzed a long held argument against the doctrine of hell regarding population should be addressed. As scripture declares numerously, there will be less saved than those lost (Matthew 7:14, 22:14, and Luke 13:24). Even the term “elect” refers to a smaller population.[40] This brings about a problem for the doctrine of hell. As Daniel Walker, past English historian for the Warburg Institute for the University of London explains, “…if the universe, let alone its admitted present defects, is to contain for all eternity a heavy preponderance of evil both physical and moral, that is, the great mass of the wicked and tormented damned compared with a handful of happy saints, then it is difficult to explain why a good God created it.”[41] Indeed, why would God create humans with foresight knowledge that the vast majority would be suffering in hell? And if so, wouldn’t that mean Satan’s kingdom is greater than God’s?

The counter argument to this problem can be remedied by an understanding of exactly who goes to heaven. Naturally, those that give their lives to Christ go to heaven. As of 2009 it was reported that over 2 billion people in the world were Christian, constituting one-third of the world population.[42] Granted those numbers haven’t always been that high and being labeled a Christian doesn’t guarantee salvation and admittance to heaven. Additionally, those that have never been exposed to the redemption of Christ will be admitted to heaven via God’s just judgment concerning how they lived their lives. Such a number is unknowable, especially over the course of history. Moreover, all infant deaths would be candidates for heaven as well. According to the Center for Disease and Control, for every 1,000 children born in America, 4 to 5 did not live past infancy as of 2008.[43] In less developed nations like Afghanistan, Niger and Somalia, over 100 infants die for every 1,000 born.[44] Naturally, infant mortality through out the history of mankind has always been drastically higher, and it is only in more modern times we see figures this low. For example, in ancient Rome it has been calculated that 28% of all infants born did not survive to their first birthday.[45] Lastly, if life begins at conception (as scripture would support) then all miscarriages result in human life that is candidate for heaven. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), 10-25% of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage.[46] It is also speculated that miscarriage rates were much higher in the past. As theologian Matthew Horbery writes, “…one half of our species die, perhaps, before they have actually committed any sin to deserve the damnation of Hell.”[47]

Therefore, when we consider the population of genuine Christians historically, the potential admittance of some peoples never exposed to the gospel of Christ, infant mortality, and miscarriages, it is acceptable to argue that the population in heaven will be incredibly vast. Scripture detailing the road and doorway being small and rarely taken doesn’t pertain to miscarriages or deceased infants, but instead to the living mature. So, whether the minority or the majority, the population in heaven should be considered very sizeable. And thus, the goodness of God should not be questioned regarding population comparisons between heaven and hell.

-Conclusion

 

After exploring the philosophical concept of hell and its details in scripture, I believe that an exile doctrine is the most appropriate doctrine for hell. God does not send people to hell to be punished. Instead, people are separated from God, deprived of His holiness, which is painful and in effect a punishment. The point is not retribution, but separation. The descriptions of hell aren’t retributive, but description of effect from this separation. This is not to say hell does not operate as an existence of punishment. It is an existence of punishment indeed. The primary motivation for this punishment however, is not rooted in retribution.

Under this concept of hell, virtually all the problems associated with a doctrine of hell fall away. The no escape thesis, a problem for many sensitive Christians, is only a problem for a retribution motivated hell. With hell instead being a place of exile, the no escape problem evaporates. Self-determination leads to our rejection of God, to which God cannot be in union with us for eternity, and thus you are exiled into the misery of hell for your rejection of God’s redemption found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is my hope that in better understanding the concept of hell it will no longer be a subject of compromise in the modern church. It should be upheld as a very real existence in the afterlife in a Biblical sense, not the traditional sense. A place of infinite separation, loss and despair. Not a fiery torture chamber where demons administer punishment for fun. Getting away from the traditional and alternative views of hell, in my opinion, will prove to be more effective in bringing people to repentance.


[1] Chesen, E.S., (1972) Religion May Be Hazardous to Your Health, (New York, NY: David McKay Co.), pp. 93.

[2] Winseman, A.L. (May 2004) “EternalDestinations: Americans Believe in Heaven, Hell,” http://www.gallup.com

[3] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 13.

[4] As quoted in D.P. Walker’s The Decline of Hell, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) 1964, pp. 5.

[5] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 10.

[6] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 41.

[7] Wainwright, W.J., (1988) “Original Sin,” as written in T.V. Morris’ Philosophy and the Christian Faith,  (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press), pp. 34-35.

[8] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 52-53.

[9] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 69.

[10] Stump, E., (1986) “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’ Moral Theory, and the Love of God,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16, pp. 196.

[11] Koukl, G., “No Eternal Punishment,” http://www.str.org

[12] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 57.

[14] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 170.

[15] Bell, R., (2012) Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, (New York, NY: Harper One).

[16] Macquarrie, J., (1966) Principals of Christian Theology, (New York, NY: SCM), pp. 327.

[17] Pinnock, C., (March 1987) “Fire, Then Nothing,” Christianity Today, pp. 40-41.

[18] Talbott, T.P., (January 1990) “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment,” Faith and Philosophy, 7.1, pp. 19-43

[19] Talbott, T.P., (January 1990) “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment,” Faith and Philosophy, 7.1, pp. 38.

[20] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 80.

[21] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 82-83.

[22] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 128.

[23] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 96.

[24] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 60.

[25] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 110-111.

[26] As quoted in Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), pp. 108.

[27] Geach, P., (1977) Providence and Evil, (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press), pp. 147.

[28] Talbott, T.P., (January 1990) “The Doctrine of Everlasting Punishment,” Faith and Philosophy, 7.1, pp. 23-30.

[29] Lewis, C.S., (1973) The Problem of Pain, (London: Harper One) pp. 115-116.

[30] Lang, J.S., (1999) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible, but Never Thought to Ask,” 2010 Ed., (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.) pp. 415.

[31] Stump, E., (1986) “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’ Moral Theory, and the Love of God,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16, pp. 181-196.

[32] Stump, E., (1986) “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’ Moral Theory, and the Love of God,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16, pp. 198.

[33] Bruce, F.F. (1983) The Hard Sayings of Jesus, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic) pp. 188.

[34] Kvanvig, J.L., (1993) The Problem of Hell, (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press), pp. 154.

[35] Lang, J.S., (1999) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible, but Never Thought to Ask,” 2010 Ed., (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.) pp. 3.

[36] Lang, J.S., (1999) 1,001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible, but Never Thought to Ask,” 2010 Ed., (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, Inc.) pp. 416.

[37] Slick, M., “Are There Different Degrees of Punishment in Hell?” carm.org

[38] Koukl, G., “No Eternal Punishment,” http://www.str.org

[39] King, W., (1781) An Essay on the Origin of Evil, 5th Ed., (London, England), pp. 393.

[40] Walker, D.P., (1964) The Decline of Hell, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), pp. 36.

[41] Walker, D.P., (1964) The Decline of Hell, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), pp. 36.

[42] Salmon, J.L., (Oct 2009) “Pew Maps Muslim Populations Worldwide,” Onfaith.WashingtonPost.Com

[43] Mathews, T.J. & MacDorman, M.F., (2012) “Infant Mortality Statistics From the 2008 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Data Set,” National Vital Statistics Report NVSS, Vol. 60:5, pp. 1, http://www.cdc.gov

[44] “Infant Mortality Rate,” according to the Central Intelligence Agency, http://www.cia.gov.

[45] Hopkins, K., (1983) Death and Renewal; Sociological Studies in Roman History, (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press), pp. 225.

[46] “Miscarriage,” (2011) from the American Pregnancy Association, http://www.americanpregnancy.org

[47] Horbery, M., (1744) An Enquiry into the Scripture-Doctrine Concerning the Duration of Future Punishment,” (London, England), pp. 207

Reposted from: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/08/noted_atheist_p063451.html

 

 

“In September, Oxford University Press officially releases the hardcover version of a new book by renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel at New York University. It’s a bombshell.

Already available on Kindle, Nagel’s book carries the provocative title Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. You read that right: The book’s subtitle declares that “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.” Nagel is an atheist who is not convinced by the positive case for intelligent design. But he clearly finds the evidence for modern Darwinian theory wanting. Moreover, he is keenly appreciative of the “iconoclasts” of the intelligent design movement for raising a significant challenge to the current scientific orthodoxy. In chapter 1, Nagel cites with favor the work of three Discovery Institute Fellows in particular:

In thinking about these questions I have been stimulated by criticisms of the prevailing scientific world picture… by the defenders of intelligent design. Even though writers like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, the empirical arguments they offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves. Another skeptic, David Berlinski, has brought out these problems vividly without reference to the design inference. Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.

Refreshingly, Nagel is not taken in by one-sided efforts to evade the arguments of intelligent design proponents by stigmatizing their presumed “religious beliefs.” As Nagel points out, “the empirical arguments” offered by ID proponents “are of great interest in themselves.” It’s the evidence that matters, and it’s the evidence that demands a response.
Nagel goes on to say something that likely will really rile some defenders of Darwinian orthodoxy:

I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion. That world view is ripe for displacement….

Wow. Anyone who still believes that the weight of the evidence supports the Darwinian view, and that no rational person can doubt the Darwinian consensus, needs to read Nagel’s book.

Nagel is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and recipient of the prestigious Balzan Prize for his work in moral philosophy. He has received fellowships from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among other institutions. He is one of America’s top philosophers. Obviously, he also is a man of great courage and independence of thought.

Get ready for the book burning parties by defenders of Darwinian orthodoxy. I wouldn’t even be surprised if there is an effort to convince Oxford University Press to disown Nagel’s book. So you might want to get the book while you can.”