Hell versus Theodicy

John Hick’s main contribution to the problem of evil debate came with his masterful book “Evil and the God of Love.” This text deserves to be read, re-read, discussed, underlined, quoted, digested, memorized, margin-noted, and read again by anyone – scholar or layperson – Christian, atheist, or undecided – who is interested in this most fundamental and age-old question. And even if you’re not interested you should get interested and read this book. It is, quite easily, the greatest discussion of the problem of evil in print.

I don’t say this as some kind of rabid Hick groupie. In fact I disagree with Hick on a number of points. For instance, his critique and dismissal of Leibniz’s position is all too quick, and I have shown in other articles that Leibniz’s position can be easily modified to defuse Hick’s criticisms of it.

In this article I want to focus on another point of disagreement with Hick: his dismissal of the doctrine of Hell as somehow being incompatible with theodicy, the quest to defend the goodness and justice of God in the face of the evil and suffering in the world.

Hick on Hell

Hick agrees that a central plank in any viable Christian theodicy is the idea that God will eventually bring an over-riding good out of the evil in the world. However, Hick sees a problem here. If, as certain traditions of Christianity teach, few are saved and most are lost to Hell, then what we have is not the drawing of good out of evil but rather an endless series of sin and suffering which is, says Hick, “an evil that is never turned to good, but remains forever a blot upon God’s creation.” Hick wonders then, whether Hell itself might simply be part of the problem of evil. He writes: “those exigencies of Christian theology that have led to the doctrine of eternal punishment are directly in conflict with those other Christian impulses that underlie the search for a theodicy.”

It’s important to know what Hick means when he speaks of Hell: “eternal suffering inflicted by God upon those of His creatures who have sinfully rejected Him.” Since such sufferings are unending they can never lead to any constructive end beyond themselves – it is, thinks Hick, “utterly pointless and wasted anguish.” Hick has little time for theories, such as that advanced by William Lane Craig, that the damned continue to sin and therefore deserve to be punished. Hick thinks even this idea is fatal to theodicy, viewing it as amounting to unending evil – even a much greater frustration of God’s purposes than the misery of the damned. In such a world, argues Hick, sin would never be defeated, and creation would be eternally shadowed and spoiled by evil.

We come then to the crux of Hick’s argument, which he presents in the form of a dilemma: Hell presents problems for either God’s sovereignty or perfect goodness. Why? “The doctrine of Hell,” argues Hick, “has as its implied premise either that God does not desire to save all His human creatures, in which case he is only limitedly good, or that His purpose has finally failed in the case of some – [or most] – of them, in which case he is only limitedly sovereign.”

Hick continues by denying the route of annihilationism to escape his argument, since in this case God’s purpose would have failed with respect to those whose fate is extinction: “To this extent evil would have prevailed over good and would have permanently marred God’s creation.” And this brings us to the core of Hick’s solution: “God will eventually succeed in His purpose of winning all men to Himself in faith and love.”

Hick-Up on Hell

Before I tackle Hick’s dilemma, I want to pick a few holes in his conception of Hell. Not all theologians are in agreement that Hell is a place of eternal suffering inflicted by God. Some thinkers – Kreeft and CS Lewis, for instance – see the essence of Hell as a self-separation from God. On this conception the existence of Hell simply follows from the existence of Heaven and free will, as a place for those who freely reject Heaven. Even those who adopt a more traditional understanding of Hell – such as JP Moreland – deny this torture chamber image. Moreover, I don’t think Hick has done enough to reject those views – such as William Lane Craig’s – which hold that Hell could be self-perpetuating as the damned continue to sin and therefore accrue more punishment on their own heads. The view of punishment underlying Hick’s argument is that unless punishment is restorative it is pointless, a view that is far from obvious. Punishment might well be perfectly meaningful and legitimate purely on retributive terms. It seems to me that a case could be made that the retributive punishment of sinners is a good, not an evil. Rejecting the idea that Hell as a place of retributive punishment is an evil, Augustine writes: “since there is happiness for those who do not sin, the universe is perfect; and it is no less perfect because there is misery for sinners. . . the penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin.” This means that the perfection of God’s universe is not marred by the existence of Hell, since all sin is balanced immediately by just punishment.

In any event, is there any reason to suppose that the existence of Hell is a massive frustration of God’s purpose? Does the existence of Hell necessarily mean that God’s creation is eternally spoiled? I want to agree first of all with the first horn of Hick’s dilemma: if God does not desire to save all then He is only limitedly good. I think that’s something that most (certain breeds of Calvinist aside) would agree with. But is it true that the existence of Hell means that God’s purpose has finally failed in the case of some people, and thus that God is only limitedly sovereign? I don’t see how that follows at all.

Hick appears to think there is something inconsistent between these propositions:

(1) God can accomplish everything he desires to accomplish.
(2) God desires that all be saved.
(3) All are not saved.

The problem is that God’s desires are arguably a tad more complex than Hick allows. Whilst God might desire that all be saved, he might also equally desire that all be saved according to their own will. Further, God may also desire that those who wish to reject Him are permitted to do so. God’s desire that all be saved might be called a secondary desire. His primary desire is to create free creatures that can reject Him if they wish to do so. God remains fully sovereign; nothing happens without his say so or permission.

Holding propositions 1-3 above is no more inconsistent than holding:

(A) Stephen can help his son with his homework test, and if he does his son will pass.
(B) Stephen desires his son to pass his homework test.
(C) Stephen’s son fails his homework test.

As with the case of God there are other desires at play, making the situation more complex than it appears at first glance. In this instance whilst I desire my son to pass and can ensure he does so by giving him all the right answers, I also desire to see the true level of his ability, to see where his weak points are, and for him to learn the lesson that good results often come only with hard work. The point is that desires are complicated and often qualified by other desires we have.

Oddly enough we could throw Hick’s argument right back at him. Presumably God wants all to be saved now. And yet, some will not be saved now but they will in, say, 10 years time. Why, on Hick’s understanding, is this not regarded as a frustration of God’s will and thus a question mark against His sovereignty?

I think then that the dilemma that stands at the heart of Hick’s argument is a false one. It is no barrier to theodicy to hold that God wills to save all but respects the humanity of those who freely refuse Him. If Hell is a just punishment for sin or a freely chosen self-separation from God then there needn’t be any problem presented for theodicy by the existence of Hell.

Stephen J. Graham


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