A cheat sheet on hell

A cheat sheet on hell January 24, 2013

Lately I’ve had to do a number of interviews and Q&A sessions relating to Hellbound?, so I thought it prudent to write up a little cheat sheet to remind me of a few key points I’d like to cover. Here’s a sneak peak.


This list goes back to my days working in youth custody facilities (my educational background includes a degree in social development studies, particularly the processing of young offenders). But I think the principles of justice I learned about back then certainly apply to the hell debate.

1. Retribution: I view this as the lowest form of justice, simple “eye-for-an-eye,” you “do the crime you do the time” mentality. It’s more about averting revenge by providing people with a sanctioned form of punishment. However, it ultimately fails in my book, because it doesn’t teach the offender anything except to be more careful next time. Rather than introduce a higher morality, it merely outguns the “bad guys.” I should also note that a focus on retribution tends to reflect a view on free will and individual autonomy with which I disagree. For starters, I don’t find the concept of free will tenable. We have a will, yes, and we make choices. But I would argue that few of us when pressed can actually articulate what motivates us to make the choices that we do. Second, a focus on retribution also tends to scapegoat and punish individuals for what are ultimately societal problems. People who offend tend to be the ones who are most susceptible to negative relational patterns endemic to the community.

2. Deterrence: Many people think the way to solve crime is to get tough on crime. But study after study shows that this logic fails. Harsh sentences have a minimal effect on reducing crime rates. In fact, crime rates–especially violent crime rates–are often worse where sentences are the harshest. This is partly because violent crimes are also crimes of passion, where the last thing on the offender’s mind is the consequences of his or her actions. Second, harsh sentences, such as capital punishment, legitimize violence under certain circumstances, thereby giving tacit permission to the offender to imitate the violent state in which he or she lives. Furthermore, studies of parenting styles demonstrate that harsh, external punishment and reward schemes actually prevent children from forming an inner sense of morality. So I have to think the same is true for adults.

3. Public protection: Who could argue that taking violent offenders off the street is a bad thing? I’m definitely in favor of incarcerating those who are unable to stop themselves from offending. I’m not sure how this plays out in the world to come, but I tend to think it won’t be much of an issue. That said, one of Mark Driscoll’s arguments in favor of eternal hell is the notion of public protection. However, like the other two purposes listed above, if this is all the justice system does, it fails in my view because “justice” comes at the expense of the offender.

4. Restitution: You break it, you fix it. Makes sense to me. The problem is, certain actions cannot be undone–at least not by mere humans. Hence certain theologies of penal substitution/satisfaction. Again though, this is a point where I think we tend to project human limitations onto God. I don’t think there’s anything God can’t undo. Which raises a question though: If God can undo all of our bad decisions, do they have any meaning? To help answer that, I find it helpful to reflect upon my own children. I can undo most of their bad decisions. Does that mean their decisions have no meaning? Certainly not. In fact, it provides an atmosphere of safety and security for them as they seek to grow and mature. If God can’t undo our bad decisions, we’re really in trouble.

5. Rehabilitation: In this case, the justice system is truly aimed at correction. It’s about transforming offenders into citizens that contribute to the public good. At the same time, it works toward the public good. So neither the offender nor the community are sacrificed.

6. Reconciliation: To me, this is the highest form of justice, because it doesn’t come at the expense of the community or the offender. Instead, it seeks to bring them back into relationship with each other. That’s one of my key problems with eternal hell and annihilation–justice comes at the expense of the offender. Certain people are deemed to be beyond redemption. I just can’t buy that notion. I call it a massive failure of the imagination.


Various religions will differ in their view of post-mortem rewards and punishments according to how they view time. Religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, which have a cyclical view of time, will tend to view hell as a way point rather than an end point in the purification of the individual. Religions like Christianity and Islam, which have a linear view of time, tend to view hell as an end point.


This is another key sticking point for me. I fail to see how you can reconcile the notion of a loving God with punishment that is an end in itself. Hence my rejection of Infernalism and Annihilationism. If God is loving by nature, I have to believe he will not achieve justice for the 99 at the expense of the 1 or vice versa. Reflecting on my experience as a parent is crucial here as well. How could I be called a good father if I punished any of my children merely because I felt he or she deserved it and not for the purpose of correcting them?


As I wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post a couple of months back, hell is doing a lot of work in our society. For one thing, it helps to simplify an increasingly complex world. Hell fulfills the function of every archaic religious concept–it creates differentiation. Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell. Who are the good people? Us. Who are the bad people? Them. Now we know who we are, we can get about our business.

Second, without the language of hell, when something terrible happens we’re stuck with the language of psychology, sociology and politics, and none of them seem equal to the task. So the notion of hell does what any good sermon should do–it afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. It seems to me that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, for instance, is seeking to assure those who are suffering that one day justice will come. At the same time, Matthew’s Jesus is bent on assuring those whose comfort comes at the expense of the afflicted that their comeuppance is at hand. So it cannot be denied that the gospel writers fully embrace the notion of divine judgment and even punishment. So even though the debate between Universalists and those who hold to other versions of hell is often framed as a debate between those who believe in punishment and those who do not, it’s more accurate to say it’s a debate between the nature and purpose of divine justice and punishment–is it an end in itself or simply a means toward an end?


As I’ve listened to and engaged in the hell debate, I’ve noticed that people tend to build fortresses around three main concepts.

1. Love


3. Justice

Where you plant your flag pretty much dictates everything that follows. Those who place the highest value on justice or freedom tend to come out as Infernalists or Annihilationists. Those who place the highest value on love eventually arrive at some form of Universalism. That’s not to say Infernalists and Annihilationists aren’t loving, and it certainly doesn’t mean Universalists don’t place a high value on freedom and justice. However, people tend to define these terms or envision their fulfillment in very different ways.

So there you have it. This isn’t the last word on hell–far from it! But it helps keep me on track when the heat is on.

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