Hell: Oppression or Justice?

An argument about the existence of hell broke out, and I couldn’t help inserting myself into it.

Something interesting, however, struck me about how arguments were phrased. Formulations (from theists) of the belief that hell either does not exist or does not contain anyone seemed to be based on a need to avoid thinking of God as on oppressor:

“I refuse to believe that a just and loving God would condemn anyone to eternal suffering.”

Defenses of the existence of hell and the idea that at least some people are in it tended to emphasize the ability of people to do wrong:

“People choose hell by utterly and irrevocably rejecting God. Given the willingness of people to choose evil in this life, even when it makes them unhappy, I don’t see why it’s hard to believe that some people would reject God permanently.”

The more I thought about these two formulations, the more it struck me that these tied in the with Kling’s “three axis model of politics” which I mentioned a while back. The three axes are:

[P]rogressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

Here we have those who deny hell (which is, indeed, generally thought of as a “liberal” theological belief) doing so based on the argument that allowing some people to experience eternal misery turns God into an oppressor. Since they don’t want to see God as an oppressor, they reject the possibility of anyone being condemned to hell. Also implicit in this is a belief that everyone is, at root, good. No one will really, really, really choose hell over the beatific vision, so obviously the only explanation for anyone being in hell is that God is a big oppressive meany who put them there.

Those who believe in hell (a belief we might term “conservative” theologically) see hell as a matter of justice and free will: Some people will reject God, and if they choose to do so, then justice and free will demand that God allow them their condemnation. Thus, the “conservative” belief is based, like many other conservative beliefs, on a conviction that we can be pretty sure that some people will do evil, and that the application of justice will necessitate those people being punished.

Kling’s model is one of those things which I am a little annoyed to find working as well as it does, since it seems so utterly simplistic. Yet I have to admit, in its basic sort of way, it provides a bit of insights into a startling number of arguments.

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  1. I do not see how God could grant us both free will and eternal life without making allowance for a Hell. If the damned after death could repent and escape Hell than the blessed in Heaven could sin and find themselves in Hell, which would make our mortal lives rather pointless. In our brief span in time we make the decisions that fix our destinies for eternity, and those decisions all boil down to whether we love God and our fellow man.

  2. Part of the problem I see with the liberal view is casting God as an “oppressor” when the reality is the individual is his own oppressor. If you choose to jump off a cliff, seems odd to cast gravity as the oppressor that causes you to fall.

  3. I’m so liberal and so orthodox that I wrap around the other side and become conservative. So I’m going to give you a third option:

    Hell is mercy.

    God wants everybody to be in heaven, but knows, due to free will, that some will reject heaven- just as Lucifer rejected what he saw as slavery. Hell was created for a place for those who choose to reject.

    And because I like Dante and am more modern than he is, I like to think of hell as a lounge chair in a corporate cubicle with four monitors and a nice gaming system. THAT would be tempting away from God for my generation…..

  4. Sacred Scripture says that we were born dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:5), that there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10), and that all of man’s righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We all – every single one of us – deserve to go to hell, because we all in one way or another put the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, and thrust the spear in his side. There is no exception to this.

    The way to avoid that? Believe, repent, be baptized (Mark 16:16). Give drink to the thirsty, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). Love God with all your heart, mind, body and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).

    As Matthew 7:13-14 states:

    “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

    Note Jesus own words: “…those who find it are few.” That means that there will sadly be a lot of people in hell. And that’s why WE have to spread the Good News.

  5. Both St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) and St Isaac of Syria (died c 700) teach that every human being is destined to see God in His uncreated glory.

    “For those who love the Lord, His Presence will be infinite joy, paradise and eternal life. For those who hate the Lord, the same Presence will be infinite torture, hell and eternal death,” says St Maximus the Confessor.

    “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) who “dwells in unapproachable light.” (I Timothy 6:16) For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the “consuming fire” of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same consuming fire” will be the cause of their “weeping” and their “gnashing of teeth.”

    “It is not right to say that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God,” says St Isaac of Syria, “but love acts in two ways, as suffering of the reproved, and as joy in the blessed!” (Mystic Treatises)

  6. What MPS quotes is correct. Romans 14:10b-11 says:

    For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.'”

    Revelation 1:7 says:

    “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”

  7. I hope you don’t mind, a post I was thinking about I think I’ll just put here.

    First off, looks like the discussion largely revolves around not Hell, but whether anyone can reject God – that is they do NOT want to be around Him. If yes (even conceptually), then there must be a Hell. After all, if they can’t be separate from God, yet they want to be, then being with God would be torturous, thus meaning even Heaven would be Hell for them. (etc etc)

    As for the details beyond death, I’m agnostic. I do know there is a Divine, and the evidence for its identity is currently heavily in favor of Yahweh. But details beyond that I don’t let bother me. If we are to have a relationship with Him, then it means that a lot of it is up to His whim. He might send me to Hell in the end and welcome someone I didn’t expect. Though since He is faithful and has given us “cheat codes” (or “coupons”) to guarantee our seat up there, I recommend to people to aim for the sure thing. Though as I said, who can say for sure? Maybe there are purgatories or second chances or whatever, it’s up to Him, not me.

    But I do have one theory that tickles my brain…

    Allow me to quote at length, Jonah Goldberg

    I’m reminded of a 20-year-old column by Peregrine Worsthorne (not on the web, as far as I can tell). In an essay (“How Freedom Enslaves Us All”), Worthsthorne recalled the terror of “free time” in school. “In class the bullies were kept in order by a master who was free to coerce them. Out of class they were free to coerce me. As far as I was concerned ‘free time’ meant only a different kind of coercion — by several bullies rather than one master . . .”

    In a society of ordered liberty the physically powerful cannot compel the physically weak for their own ends (at least in theory). Strength and the will to do evil do not grant the license of arbitrary power over others. The rule of law may seem more constraining than anarchy (or even pure democracy which, after all, can be just as tyrannical as any other system), but it’s more just and ultimately more liberating as well. If men were angels, then anarchy would be the only just system of governance, for we could all govern ourselves.

    Maybe in the end, Heaven is a place of ordered liberty, and Hell is a place of naked freedom. Heaven is paradise because all are free, yet bound by its King not to harm others. In Hell, there is no rule but what thou will. So while it could be paradise if everyone behaved, selfish natures will turn it to torture.

    And yes, some overconfident fools might think they can “rule in Hell” but one must remember, we’d be talking about probably billions of other souls and ancient, wretched spirits that have far more experience and practice than any of us. No matter how much power you got, others would eventually topple you because only one being has infinite strength and power to fight and resist any number of challengers.

    And He won’t be found in Hell, because nobody wants Him there.

  8. The people who consider the existence of Hell as somehow oppressive are people who never want to be told “no”, and don’t really believe there’s such a thing as sin. They might give the idea of sin some lip service, but it’s unconvincing.

  9. Hell = ObamaCare

    How many people do you know that actually would choose Hell over Heaven? If any, they are likely being contrarian or seeking attention or are crazy (sick). Who, in their right mind, would choose eternal suffering?

    One argument for hell might be that we inadvertently select it by cumulative action/s (e.g., compound interest). We all have some flaw, something that is out of wack that leads to our downfall (e.g., smoking, poor diet/nutrition, too much/little exercise, etc.). We are our own worst enemy. The argument for free will is that each one chooses their path, makes their own bed and has to lie in it.

    But because we are imperfect is precisely why we need a savior, a redeemer; to save us from ourselves. If we were perfect, there would be no need for a savior.

    Some say that salvation is offered to us and it is up to us to accept. If not, then…. But such a scenario is not salvation, not love. Rather, it is a transaction; how can love be a transaction?

    The concept of hell lost credence with me when I became a parent: I could not fathom what circumstances I would sentence my child to eternal suffering (my ex-wife is another matter – but I got over that too).

    What good is The Good News if our eternal life is up to us alone? Woe, I am doomed. The Good News is only good if we have a perfect savior.
    If our savior is perfect, then everyone will be saved (and they will like it).

    Hell is a concept used to make us conform and feel better about those who don’t. Why does anyone feel so satisfied to think that the other guy (it’s always the other) is going to burn in hell FOREVER!?

    If we would be immensely sad if someone we knew were sentenced to eternal suffering, then how much more would God be sad?

    OK, you can now trot out the verses to cite hell and damnation; also the sections from the CCC (check out all the fine print regarding salvation-good luck if anyone makes it). I know what to expect, given the response to (backslider) Rob Bell.

    In the end, I can only do my best and throw myself at the mercy of the Eternal One.

  10. Grace and free will are a great mystery

    Turn to the Lord (Hos 14:2)
    Turn back, turn back from your evil ways (Ez 33:11)

    But, also,

    Turn us, O God of our salvation (Ps 85:4)
    Turn thou me, and I shall be turned (Jer 31:18)

    Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! (Ez 18:31)


    A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; (Ez 36:26)


    Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is producing in you both the desire and the ability to do what pleases him (Phil 2:12-13)

    St Thomas says in Ia, q. 20, a. 3: “Since the love of God is the cause of the goodness of things, no one would be better than another if God did not will a greater good to one than to another.” Likewise, in article 4 of the same question and also in Ia, q. 23, a. 4: “In God, love precedes election.” Already it is evident that the man who, in fact, observes the commandments is better than the one who is able to do so, but actually does not. Therefore, he who keeps the commandments is more beloved and assisted. In short, God loves that man more to whom He grants that he keep the commandments than another in whom He permits sin.

  11. The term “oppress” means that someone’s free will and well being is constrained. The idea of God “oppressing” us assumes an oppositional construct of our relationship with God.
    Hell being oppression describes our very existence as dia bolos opposition to God. Then the whole framework, given our limitations, would be a set up. Our life, not of our choosing, would be but an unfair contest of wills between a Powerful Person of all Light and a person with limited light. Describing God as oppressor says He doesn’t love us purely and freely and eternally, but only on condition of submission.
    The problem with using that “oppressor” framework is that it is false. He has NOT “set us up” in a contest that we can only win by losing. He gave us our freedom (free will) for Good, for the satisfaction of His will in Creating. The fact that we have a will of our own is not a mockery of freedom but implicit Faith Hope and Love to be reciprocated.
    His plans for us are for our welfare and not for woe. Our wills are not designed to be in opposition to God– but to be in harmony with Him. That is freedom. Our will ceases to be FREE when it is no longer ordered to the Good. Then being out of sync with God, disordered, we suffer the encumbrances and shackles of real oppression.
    Being in His image we have a capacity for Him that naturally leads us to Him as we go with His flow. He does not oppress us but meets our choices/consequences with grace (here and in purgatory).
    Love and Freedom are hard for me to understand– but we are not abandoned. Please keep praying for my son whose wedding date is in September. We really need a miracle of grace.

  12. For me, Hell is a place of Justice. Our sins do not affect us only. It affects our society and the church. Failure to repent and achieve satisfaction for our sins will surely attract God’s justice. Consider people who kill people through witchcraft, sorcery and for selfish ambition. Consider the abortionists; Consider the so-called rich who close their eyes to the plight of the poor and needy. If all these will not turn from their evil ways and embrace the God of love, peace and joy they will definitely pay for their actions.

  13. fRed:

    “One argument for hell might be that we inadvertently select it by cumulative action/s (e.g., compound interest). We all have some flaw, something that is out of wack that leads to our downfall (e.g., smoking, poor diet/nutrition, too much/little exercise, etc.).”

    Those are interesting ‘sins’ or ‘vices’ you’ve chosen…those are what pass for ‘sins’ to our age, I guess. Maybe I didn’t understand your point properly, but poor diet would seem to me to be the least of our concerns re: Hell.

    “Some say that salvation is offered to us and it is up to us to accept. If not, then…. But such a scenario is not salvation, not love. Rather, it is a transaction; how can love be a transaction?”

    Have you not in the course of your life experienced unrequited love? If so, you are lucky! It’s very real, I can attest.

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