Problem Of Hell

The problem of Hell is an ethical problem in religion in which the existence of Hell for the punishment of souls is regarded as inconsistent with the notion of a just, moral, and omnibenevolent God. It derives from four key propositions: that Hell exists; that it is for the punishment of people whose lives on Earth are judged to have sinned against God; that some people go there; and there is no escape.

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There are several major issues to the problem of Hell. The first is its definition, as there are several words in the original languages of the Bible that are translated into the word “hell” in English. A second issue is whether the existence of Hell is compatible with justice. A third is whether Hell is compatible with God’s mercy, especially as articulated in Christianity. An issue particular to Christianity is whether Hell is actually populated forever or they perish, or if God will ultimately restore all immortal souls (universal reconciliation) in the World to Come.

In some aspects, the problem of Hell is similar to the problem of evil, assuming the suffering of Hell is caused by free will and something God could have prevented. The discussion regarding the problem of evil may thus also be of interest for the problem of Hell. The problem of Hell can be viewed as the worst and most intractable instance of the problem of evil.

Criticisms of the doctrines of Hell

Criticisms of the doctrines of Hell can focus on the intensity or eternity of its torments, and arguments surrounding all these issues can invoke appeals to the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence of God.

If one believes in the idea of eternal Hell, unending suffering, or the idea that some souls will perish (whether destroyed by God or otherwise), author Thomas Talbott says that one has to either let go of the idea that God wishes to save all beings, or accept the idea that God wants to save all, but will not “successfully accomplish his will and satisfy his own desire in this matter.”


See also: SheolGehenna and Jewish eschatology

Almost no forms of Judaism share the traditional majority Christian belief in the immortality of the soul, therefore Sheol (Hades in the Septuagint, “the grave” in many instances in the King James Bible) is simply the destination for all the dead, and no “problem of Sheol” exists. Gehenna, found in the Mishnah, is the Lake of fire or destination of the living sinners and raised wicked at Judgment Day, and the place of either destruction, in the Mishnah or, in some rabbinical texts, eternal torment, which would potentially create a “problem of Gehenna.”

Jewish religious thinking has traditionally held, even among different schools ranging from Jewish Orthodox teachings to Reform Jewish thinking to Conservative Jewish thinking and more, that “The righteous of all peoples have a place in the World-To-Come”, in the words of the Talmud, with humanity as a whole being “saved”. Thus, rabbinical scholars have broadly held the inclusive view that the vast majority of people in existence, both Jewish and gentile, will be reconciled with God in the afterlife given the power of his grace and the fundamental goodness of humanity.


See also: Christian views on hell

In Christianity, Hell has traditionally been regarded as a place of punishment for wrongdoing or sin in the mortal life, as a manifestation of divine justice. Nonetheless, the extreme severity and/or infinite duration of the punishment might be seen as incompatible with justice. However, Hell is not seen as strictly a matter of retributive justice even by the more traditionalist churches. For example, the Eastern Orthodox see it as a condition brought about by, and the natural consequence of, free rejection of God’s love.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Hell is a place of punishment brought about by a person’s self-exclusion from communion with God. The Catholic Church believes that hell is the free and continual rejection of God’s forgiveness of sins. The church believes that this rejection is by committing and refusing to repent of a mortal sin. The church believes that those who die only in original sin are not predestined to hell, since God is not bound by baptism. The church believes that hell is eternal because the sinner refuses to turn away from his mortal sin to God’s forgiveness of sins. The church believes that hell is its own chief punishment.

In some ancient Eastern Christian traditions, Hell and Heaven are distinguished not spatially, but by the relation of a person to God’s love.

I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love?…It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God…it torments sinners…Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret.
— St. Isaac of Syria, Ascetical Homilies 28, Page 141

In terms of the Bible itself, issues of salvation and access to heaven or to hell are mentioned frequently. Examples include John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” which tends to show the wicked perish and the saints have everlasting life or John 3:36 (NIV), “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them”, and 2 Thessalonians 1:8–9 (NIV), “Those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

The minority Christian doctrine that sinners perish and are destroyed rather than punished eternally such as is found in John 3:16 “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”, is referred to as Christian mortalism; annihilation for those not awarded immortal life, conditional immortality for those who are. This Christian view is found in very early Christianity, resurfaced in the Reformation, and since 1800 has found increasing support among Protestant theologians.


Some opponents of the traditional doctrine of Hell claim that the punishment is disproportionate to any crimes that could be committed. Because human beings have a finite lifespan, they can commit only a finite number of sins, yet Hell is an infinite punishment. In this vein, Jorge Luis Borges suggests in his essay La duración del Infierno that no transgression can warrant an infinite punishment on the grounds that there is no such thing as an “infinite transgression”. Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in 1793 in Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason that since morality lies ultimately in a person’s disposition, and as disposition is concerned with the adoption of universal principles, or as he called them: “maxims”, every human being is guilty of, in one sense, an infinite amount of violations of the law, and so consequently an infinite punishment is not unjustified.

Some theists, particularly in the Thomistic tradition, have argued that God’s infinite dignity requires that any transgression against him warrants an infinite punishment, and the correct punishment for a crime is proportional to the status of the wronged individual. Opponents of this view object, citing that the severity of a crime is determined by the amount of harm done to the victim, not by their lifespan or scope of being. An omnipotent being, by definition, cannot be harmed. Therefore, by condemning souls to an eternal damnation, God would be punishing souls for actions that had no effect on him.

Another apparent injustice is in being punished for something one does not know exists, as some denominations of Christianity believe that only by accepting Jesus can one be saved from Hell. However a few branches of Christianity teach that one cannot sin unless one performs an action knowing it is wrong, or performs an action knowing it could result in harm. Catholics say that as far as strict necessity is concerned, faith in Christ may suffice in implicit form, though explicit faith is better, and implicit faith in Christ may even be compatible with misled rejection of appearing Christendom.

The eternity of Hell has also been justified in the Scholastic tradition by appeal to the irrevocability of the reprobate’s decision to oppose God after death. Eternity is perceived not as an infinite stretch of time, but as an unchanging present (though these may not be qualitatively different). This argument however, could be challenged by the view that if wrongdoers are to be punished in Hell they must suffer, and for this they must retain their sentience in order to experience suffering. If this sentience is retained it follows that the wrongdoers would be aware of their transgressions and capable of repenting them. Consistent with the Thomistic mode of disputation, one might also question whether a being finite in intelligence can justly be condemned to a punishment infinite/eternal in extent.

Another argument against the justice of Hell is that humans are not culpable for their sins, since sinning is unavoidable to them. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Epistle to the Romans 3:23). However, the statement “all have sinned” does not necessarily indicate that sin is unavoidable (Hebrews 4:15). Also, if God is omniscient/prescient, he is aware of the outcome before anyone enters into Heaven or Hell. From the reasoning that God created them in the first place, some go so far as to ascribe to Him the culpability for a person’s eternal fate. The question is all the more burning if one states exactly this (positive reprobation, Calvinism). However, the (theoretically distinct) doctrine of negative reprobation without consideration of future demerits (Domingo Báñez)—God elects some, the others fall into sin on their own, but of necessity, and are then judged for their sins—will be felt not so much distinct “in practice”. If the angels and the blessed without inconvenience to their free will partake of an irresistible grace (which is thus shown possible), even who holds an at least conditional election of every human being (Molinism and, despite notable academic success of Thomist grace theology within the Catholic pale, in practice the stand of Catholics) needs to say that God could have rescued some and did not. Here, again, the discussion shades into that on the problem of evil.

Divine mercy

Main articles: Divine Mercy, Works Of Mercy, Divine Grace,

Another issue is the problem of harmonizing the existence of Hell with God’s infinite mercy or omnibenevolence which is found in scripture.

As in the problem of evil, some apologists argue that the traditional view of the torments of Hell are attributable not to a defect in God’s benevolence, but in human free will. Although a benevolent God would prefer to see everyone saved, he would also allow humans to control their own destinies. This view opens the possibility of seeing Hell not as retributive punishment, but rather as an option that God allows, so that people who do not wish to be with God are not forced to be. C. S. Lewis most famously proposed this view in his book The Great Divorce, saying: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”

Two problems remain regarding Christian theological teachings about grace, the first which grants that God could indeed convert the heart of every sinner and yet leave the freedom of will in its integrity. In the Thomistic tradition, God grants sufficient grace for salvation to all people, yet it only effects salvation for some. The early modern controversies on grace among the Jansenists, Jesuits and Dominicans focused in part on the question of sufficient and efficient grace, and whether these differed in kind. Secondly, an omniscient God would be aware of the future choice of the individual human’s free will, to accept or reject God, prior to the creation of the individual human. This omniscient God would then exercise his own free will in choosing to create a human that he knows, a priori, would be condemned to eternal torture. God could, in this circumstance, simply choose not to create the said human. Such a choice would be incompatible with God’s infinite mercy or omnibenevolence.

Some modern critics of the doctrine of Hell (such as Marilyn McCord Adams) claim that, even if Hell is seen as a choice rather than as punishment, it would be unreasonable for God to give such flawed and ignorant creatures as ourselves the responsibility of our eternal destinies. Jonathan Kvanvig, in The Problem of Hell (1993), agrees that God would not allow one to be eternally damned by a decision made under the wrong circumstances. One should not always honor the choices of human beings, even when they are full adults, if, for instance, the choice is made while depressed or careless. On Kvanvig’s view, God will abandon no person until they have made a settled, final decision, under favorable circumstances, to reject God, but God will respect a choice made under the right circumstances. Once a person finally and competently chooses to reject God, out of respect for the person’s autonomy, God allows them to be annihilated.


See also: Jahannam

In Islam, Jahannam is the final destiny of evildoers and is regarded as necessary for God’s divine justice. God’s punishments are by definition considered to be justified, since God holds absolute sovereignty. Furthermore, with regard to predestination, one of six articles of faith in Islam, the question of how creatures be punished for their deeds arises.

The inhabitants of Hell

The inhabitants of afterlife places are not dogmatically determined in Islam, thus it is up to individual and critical interpretation of the Qur’an as to who enters Hell. A common concern is the fate of non-Muslims and if they will be punished for not belonging to the right religion. An often-recited quranic verse implies that righteous non-Muslims will be saved on Judgement Day:

Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans—those who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness—will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve. 2:62

However some scholars hold this verse may be set aside as only applying before the arrival of Muhammad. Some non-pluralist scholars like Ibn Arabi state that every human will receive a proper message and will not be doomed for ignorance, while others claim non-Muslims are judged by their own moral standards, because of God’s all-embracing mercy.

Another criteria to determine the justice of Hell’s punishment derives from its duration, on which Islamic scholars disagree. Some scholars state that Hell is eternal, others hold that Hell exists to purify rather than inflict pain, and others state that Hell itself will cease to exist.

With the increasing urgency of pluralism, modern writers such as Edip Yüksel and Mouhanad Khorchide hold Hell to be finite rather than eternal: Yüksel argues that evildoers will be punished in Hell for an appropriate period then cease to exist, so that their suffering (which is described in the Quran and is balanced with descriptions of heaven) will be only a just amount. Other universalist-leaning scholars include Tariq Ramadan, Sayyid Qutb and possibly Ibn Qayyim who some argue, like his teacher Ibn Taymiyya, was not a universalist.

Concerning predestination

The degree of free will differs in Islamic thought. Based on Sunni traditions, God wrote everything that will happen on a tablet before creating the world, therefore human free will is not beyond God’s influence. This results in the problem: how punishment is justified since God made humans the way they will sin. In this tradition, in Ashari thought, God created good and evil deeds, which humans decide upon—humans have their own possibility to choose, but God retains sovereignty of all possibilities. This still leaves the question of why God set out those people’s lives (or the negative choice of deeds) which result in Hell, and why God created the possibility to become evil. In Islamic thought, evil is considered to be movement away from good, and God created this possibility so that humans are able to recognize good. (In contrast, angels are unable to move away from good, therefore angels generally rank lower than humans as they have reached heaven because they lack the ability to perceive the world as humans do.)

Proposed answers


Main article: Annihilationism

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Hell fire

As with other Jewish writings of the Second Temple period, the New Testament text distinguishes two words, both translated “Hell” in older English Bibles: Hades, “the grave”, and Gehenna where God “can destroy both body and soul”. A minority of Christians read this to mean that neither Hades nor Gehenna are eternal but refer to the ultimate destruction of the wicked in the Lake of Fire in a consuming fire, but which because of the Greek words used in translating from the Hebrew text has become confused with Greek myths and ideas. From the sixth century BC onward, the Greeks developed pagan ideas for the dead, and of reincarnation and even transmigration of souls. Christians picked up these pagan beliefs inferred by the Greek of immortality of the soul, or spirit being of a mortal individual, which survives the death of the body of this world and this lifetime, which is at odds and in contrast to the scriptural teaching that the dead go to the grave and know nothing and then at the end, an eternal oblivion of the wicked and an eternal life for the saints. Scripture makes clear that the dead are awaiting resurrection at the last judgment, when Christ comes and also when each person will receive his reward or are part of those lost with the wicked.

The Greek words used for those Bibles written in Greek, came loaded with ideas not in line with the original Hebrew, but since at the time, Greek was used as basically English is used today to communicate between people across the world, it was translated into these Greek words, and giving an incorrect understanding of the penalty of sin. In the Hebrew text when people died they went to Sheol, the grave and the wicked ultimately went to Gehenna which is the consuming by fire. So when the grave or the eternal oblivion of the wicked was translated into Greek, the word Hades was sometimes used, which is a Greek term for the realm of the dead. Nevertheless, the meaning depending on context was the grave, death, or the end of the wicked in which they are ultimately destroyed or perish. So we see where the grave or death or eventual destruction of the wicked, was translated using Greek words that since they had no exact ones to use, became a mix of mistranslation, pagan influence, and Greek myth associated with the word, but its original meaning was simple death or the destruction of the wicked at the end.

Christian mortalism is the doctrine that all men and women, including Christians, must die, and do not continue and are not conscious after death. Therefore, annihilationism includes the doctrine that “the wicked” are also destroyed rather than tormented forever in traditional “Hell” or the lake of fire. Christian mortalism and annihilationism are directly related to the doctrine of conditional immortality, the idea that a human soul is not immortal unless it is given eternal life at the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. Such a belief is based on the many texts which state that the wicked perish:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16 (KJV).

“For the day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head. For as ye have drunk upon my holy mountain, so shall all the heathen drink continually, yea, they shall drink, and they shall swallow down, and they shall be as though they had not been.” Obadiah 1:15–16 (KJV).

Annihilationism asserts that God will eventually destroy or annihilate the wicked when they are consumed in the Lake of Fire at the end, leaving only the righteous to live on in immortality. Conditional immortality asserts that souls are naturally mortal, and those who reject Christ are separated from the sustaining power of God, thus dying off on their own.

This is seen in the texts making clear the alternatives at the end are to perish or to have eternal, everlasting life:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23 (KJV)

And that the consequence for sin at the day of judgment when God will judge both the living and the dead when He appears is death, not burning forever. God’s gift is eternal life, very different from the penalty of sin:

“The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished.” 2 Peter 2:9. (KJV).

“As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.” Matthew 13:40 (KJV).
“So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:49–50 (KJV).

The mortality of the soul has been held throughout the history of both Judaism and Christianity, with many biblical scholars looking at the issue through the Hebrew text, have denied the teaching of innate immortality Rejection of the immortality of the soul, and advocacy of Christian mortalism, was a feature of Protestantism since the early days of the Reformation with Martin Luther himself rejecting the traditional idea, though his view did not carry into orthodox Lutheranism. One of the most notable English opponents of the immortality of the soul was Thomas Hobbes who describes the idea as a Greek “contagion” in Christian doctrine. Modern proponents of conditional immortality include as denominations the Seventh-day Adventists, Bible Students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, and some other Protestant Christians.

Free will

Main articles: Free Will, What Is Free Will?, Questions On destiny And Human Free Will

Some apologists argue that Hell exists because of free will, and that Hell is a choice rather than an imposed punishment. Jonathan L. Kvanvig writes:

[C.S.] Lewis believes that the doors of hell are locked from the inside rather than from the outside. Thus, according to Lewis, if escape from hell never happens, it is not because God is not willing that it should happen. Instead, residence in hell is eternal because that is just what persons in hell have chosen for themselves.

Similarly, Dave Hunt (1996) writes:

We may rest assured that no one will suffer in hell who could by any means have been won to Christ in this life. God leaves no stone unturned to rescue all who would respond to the convicting and wooing of the Holy Spirit.

An example from popular culture can be found in the graphic novel series The Sandman. In it, souls go to Hell because they believe that they deserve to, rather than being condemned to it by God or Satan.

Universal reconciliation

Main articles: Universalism and Universal reconciliation

Universal reconciliation is the doctrine or belief of some Christians that all will receive salvation because of the love and mercy of God. Universal reconciliation does not commit one to the position that one can be saved apart from Christ. It only commits one to the position that all will eventually be saved through Christ. Neither does universal reconciliation commit one to the position that there is no Hell or damnation—Hell can well be the consuming fire through which Christ refines those who turn from him. Universal reconciliation only claims that one day Death and Hades themselves will be destroyed and all immortal souls will be reconciled to Him.

It was traditionally claimed by some western scholars such as the Universalist historian George T. Knight (1911) and Pierre Batiffol (English translation 1914) that a form of universal salvation could be found among some theologians in early Christianity. Origen interpreted the New Testament’s reference (Acts 3:21) to a “restoration of all things”, (apocatastasis of all things), as meaning that sinners might be restored to God and released from Hell, returning the universe to a state identical to its pure beginnings. This theory of apocatastasis could be easily interpreted to imply that even devils would be saved, as was the case during the later Origenist controversies. Greek orthodox scholars do not count Gregory of Nyssa (AD 331–395) as a believer in Universal Salvation.

In the 17th century, a belief in Christian universalism appeared in England and traveled over to what has become the present-day US Christian Universalists such as Hosea Ballou argued that Jesus taught Universalist principles including universal reconciliation and the divine origin and destiny of all souls. Ballou also argued that some Universalist principles were taught or foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Critics of universalism maintain that the Bible does not teach universal salvation, while proponents insist that it does.

Recent examples of advocates for the position are Kallistos Ware, a Greek Orthodox bishop and retired University of Oxford theologian who states that many of the ‘Fathers of Church’ postulated the idea of salvation for all, and Saint Silouan of Mt. Athos, who argued that the compassion and love of those in heaven and on earth will extend to eliminating suffering even in hell. In terms of Biblical citations, Father David A. Fisher, Pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Maronite Church and professor of philosophy at Ohio Central State University, has argued that total reconciliation seems to arise from the First Epistle to the Corinthians such as 1 Corinthians 15:22, “As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”, and 1 Corinthians 15:28, “God will be all in all.” Verses that seem to contradict the tradition of complete damnation and come up in arguments also include Lamentations 3:31–33 (NIV), “For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love”, and 1 Timothy 4:10 (NIV), “We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.”


With regards to the problem of hell, as one that can be traced to the more fundamental theological dilemma of God and the existence of good and evil, theodicy offers its own answers. The main issue holds that if God is all good, powerful, and perfect, then how can he allow evil and, by extension, hell to exist? For some thinkers, the existence of evil and hell could mean that God is not perfectly good and powerful or that there is no God at all. Theodicy tries to address this dilemma by reconciling an all-knowing, all-powerful, and omnibenevelont God with the existence of evil and suffering, outlining the possibility that God and evil can coexist. There are several thoughts or theodicies such as biblical theodicy, the theodicy attributed to Gottfried Leibniz, Plotinian, Irenean, and Augustinian, among others. These differ in their respective arguments but, overall, these theodicies – as opposed to a defense that demonstrates the existence of God and evil or hell – seek to demonstrate a framework where God’s existence is plausible. It is, therefore, a logical instead of evidential answer to the problem. A theodicy explains God’s reason for allowing evil, that there is a greater good that justifies such permission.

Empty Hell theory

Some Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner, Gisbert Greshake, and Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar have at length discussed the possibility that any man may be led by a final grace to freely willed repentance if necessary at least at some point in the process of dying. This possible process is described thus by the late Munich dogmatic Prof. Michael Schmaus: “If in terms of theology death is a meeting of a man with God in so far as God calls man and he answers obedience, readiness and love, it would be surprising if in the moment of dying the chances of taking position never were given, even contrary to the outward look. […] One cannot apply to experience as counter-argument, because […] what happens then in the interior and behind the physiological processes is only known by someone who experiences dying itself, and this unto its very end. We may assume that in the dissolving process of the earthly union of body and soul and with the progressing breakaway from earthly entanglements, a special awakeness accrues to man […] in which he can say yea or nay to God.”

Balthasar was careful to describe his opinion that Hell might be empty as merely a hope, but even this claim was rejected by most conservative Catholics, including Cardinal Avery Dulles. The Syllabus says in no. 17 that we may not (even) hope for the salvation of all non-Catholics; this seems to mean conversely that there is at least one non-Catholic in all history who will not be saved. Matthew 7:21–23 seems to say that “many” will be reproved, which may imply hell (not some lesser purgatory). On the other hand, error no. 17 in question only speaks of those “in the true Church of Christ,” which need not imply the visible Church. Roman Catholicism allows for the possibility that non-Catholics can be saved, and rejected the view known as Feeneyism, which held that only people in visible communion with the Catholic Church could be saved.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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