Category Archives: Hell

Will the Ancient Greeks be Saved?

I love ancient Greece. I adore the stories they told about heroes and gods, and delight in how they displayed these stories in stone works and painted objects. My desktop background on my computer is an image of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt. Admittedly I am far more fascinated by ancient Greece than ancient Israel, my religious forebears.

I should point out that I’m using the phrase “ancient Greeks” rather loosely – to refer to everything from the Mycenaean empire to the classical Greece of the philosophers. What has happened to these people? Where are they now? For atheists the answer is simple: they have gone the way of all flesh; dead and decomposed, leaving only a selection of artworks and old ruins to testify that they ever existed. They have been, as we one day will be, gnawed away by the savage teeth of time.

However, for theists – and Christians in particular – the answer is not so simple. Christians traditionally believe that when we die our soul will (prior to the final resurrection) abide either in the presence of God – Heaven – or a place of punishment – Hell. Some might hold to a belief in some form of purgatory, and others might adhere to the notion of “soul sleep,” whereby the dead unconsciously rest awaiting the final resurrection and judgement at the end of time. Regardless, even if we can’t answer the question “heaven or hell?” now, most Christians would agree that the ultimate fate of every person is either heaven or hell – the presence of God, or His absence (sometimes thought to be annihilation, but more commonly conceived as conscious torment). And so the question remains: what of my beloved Greeks? The Greeks lived long before Christ, so knew nothing of the gospel. Moreover, they knew nothing of Yahweh or the Old Testament covenants. Their world was much smaller than ours. Greeks believed that most people went to Hades after death – a ghostly shadowy existence. If you were a particularly great hero you might make it to the Elysian Fields, or even get promoted to Olympian immortality, a la Heracles. But what should Christians think? Will the ancient Greeks go to heaven or hell?

I want to look briefly at four common Christian answers, (though please note this is far from an exhaustive list).

1. The Strict Calvinist Answer

God has preordained the lives of all people. Some are preordained to everlasting life, others to everlasting damnation. Since the ancient Greeks were not part of God’s elect or his chosen people, they are condemned to Hell. God has chosen, in his sovereignty, not to disclose Himself to them and save them. He has chosen to leave them in their wickedness, their fallen human state, a state we see clearly from the poverty of their religious ideas. This is not unjust, on the contrary God is right to punish them as sinners. I confess I have a difficult time with Calvinist explanations such as this one. That God creates millions of people without any hope of salvation and destined for eternal conscious torment is a rather disgusting doctrine that every fibre of my moral sense resists. Of course, it might turn out to be true, but given how the doctrine flies in the face of our sense of morality and justice I think we are justified in looking at other answers.

2. The Qualified Universalist Answer

This view holds that whilst everyone who hears the gospel and rejects it is hellbound, those who have never heard it – such as the ancient Greeks – get a free pass through the pearly gates by dint of ignorance. This view can be heard often enough at the popular level, but it isn’t one I’ve heard from any Christian theologian, since it suffers from one fatal problem: If it’s the case that ignorance of the gospel gives a free pass to heaven then there seems fairly strong moral case against evangelism. Preaching to those who have never heard the gospel puts them at serious risk. The way to populate heaven would be to keep the gospel to yourself, hide all the Bibles, close the churches, and suppress the gospel message as far as possible.

3. The Liberal Universalist Answer

On this view people such as the ancient Greeks will go to heaven because ultimately everyone does anyway. This obviously avoids the problem with qualified universalism by dispensing with the eternal punishments of Hell, but does it threaten the importance of preaching and mission? Many Christian theologians think it does, but I think that might be hasty. Admittedly, if all religions are equally good paths to God, then the importance of preaching and mission with a view to conversion is unnecessary. However, that idea is not essential to universalism. Perhaps a universalist could hold that whilst everyone ultimately goes to heaven, there are different ways of getting there and some are better than others. Perhaps Christianity is the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation to the world, and perhaps those who embrace it get further along on the journey. This, however, strikes me as speculative and with little basis in Christian tradition, despite the best efforts of excellent thinkers – such as John Hick – to give it a theological basis.

4. The Standard Answer

Here the notion is that those who have never received the gospel are simply judged by the light that they do have, and thus some of the ancient Greeks are bound for heaven, whilst others bound for hell. What is it to be judged by the light one has? Well, it means that each person is held to a standard suitable for their moral and spiritual knowledge and awareness. Has some given person done well with the knowledge he or she had available? Take some ancient Greek – perhaps a priest of Apollo. He believes in the gods, has a sense of right and wrong which he seeks to live by, desires to worship the gods in the way he sees as proper and fitting, and in particular wishes to see Apollo exalted and honoured and the people who come to worship him blessed. He does not know Yahweh, but he does have some religious or moral awareness which he seeks to follow as well as he can. Is it not plausible that such a man will be saved? I cannot of course say that he will or he won’t – humans are poorly placed indeed – morally and epistemologically – to make such judgments, but I don’t see that we can rule it out and it strikes me as a solution to the problem which should satisfy most believers.

Perhaps then one day I might just shoot the breeze with Plato or have a good laugh with Aristophanes.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Calvinism, Eternal Life, Heaven, Hell, Salvation, Universalism

The Nature of Hell: An Examination of the Traditional View

During the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553AD the Emperor Justinian issued 9 anathemas against Origen, the last of which reads: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary and will one day have an end. . . let him be anathema.”

In defiance of his excellency Emperor Justinian, fellow blogger, tweeter, & Christian thinker, Elijiah Thompson has written the first installment of a series of articles explaining his rejection of the traditional notion of Hell as eternal conscious torment. Instead, Elijiah defends a version of conditional immortality – the doctrine that those who die outside of Christ will at some point simply go out of existence, leaving eternal life to those who have been saved. You can read his article here:

I adhere to neither the traditional concept, nor to conditional immortality; nor do I reject either. My own view is that I can’t really be sure about the fate of unbelievers: maybe they will go out of existence (Stott), maybe they will experience eternal punishment (Craig), or maybe God will somehow win them all (Hick). In a nutshell I adhere simply to this: will not the perfectly good and flawlessly just Judge of the earth do right? I agree with the American theologian Charles Hodge who comments that we mortals are incompetent judges concerning the penalty that sin deserves; or of just how supreme is the being against whom we commit it. Nor do I think we have much grasp as to the depths of God’s love and mercy.

One of the problems with writing about Hell is that the word “hell” comes to us laden with all kinds of literary and artistic associations. In fact, I suspect that there is a significant portion of people – from evangelicals to their staunch atheist critics – whose idea of Hell is influenced more by medieval art than the biblical text. Sometimes it’s thought of as the realm of Satan, as if he rules there like the Greek god Hades rules the underworld in Greek mythology. Typically, though, Hell is conceived as some kind of cosmic torture chamber for the damned, and such understandings are well worth challenging.

In this article I want to address the biblical case for the traditional understanding of Hell as a place (or state) of eternal conscious torment, hopefully showing why I think the traditional doctrine is not as strongly supported as is often claimed.

First of all we turn to the Old Testament. Within the pages of the OT we find a plethora of metaphors used to describe the end of the “wicked” – and they always suggest destruction (for a small sample see Elijiah’s article). One passage – Isaiah 66 – is sometimes thought to teach more than this in its language of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire; imagery which Christ himself uses. However, the passage doesn’t speak of souls surviving in pain. It’s a passage speaking of rotting corpses which suffer the shame of having no burial and the horror of being eaten by maggots and destroyed by fire. As Fudge says: “The final picture is one of shame, not pain.” The OT seems to give very strong testimony to a fearful end for “the wicked,” but doesn’t lend any weight to the doctrine of endless misery.

Advocates of the traditional view typically draw their proof-texts from the NT. However, once again we find that the language used is almost always of destruction, not unending torment or misery. John Wenham provides a great breakdown of the verses in his book “The Enigma of Evil,” and I owe the next section largely to him (% are approximate).

41% speak of judgement without specifying any further penalty.

22% use the word “apollumi,” which suggests eternal ruin, destruction and loss.

10% speak of a “burning up” – 3 verses of which refer to a lake of fire; an image suggesting destruction.

10% refer to “death,” and in regular parlance death is a cessation of life, not an unending miserable life.

8% speak of a separation from God. This is significant if God is omnipresent, sustaining in existence all that is. Such verses therefore naturally suggest the cutting off of a person from the source and sustainer of life, which plausibly means destruction.

6% speak of anguish without any mention of duration.

4% speak of Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom – which gives the image of corpses consumed by maggots and fire that we noted in Isaiah.

0.5% – 1 verse – speaks of no rest day or night, and the smoke of torment going up forever (Rev 14:11).

Let’s look closer at the specific passages traditionally used to support the doctrine of endless conscious punishment or torment. There are 14:

7 of these 14 passages contain the word “aionios:”

Everlasting punishment – Mt 25:46
Everlasting fire: Mt 18:8 & 25:41
Eternal sin: Mk 3:29
Everlasting destruction: 2 Thes 1:9
Everlasting judgment: Heb 6:2
The punishment of everlasting fire: Jude 7

There are a number of points worth considering before we jump to the traditional conclusion. Firstly, aionios can take a qualitative sense, not just a quantitative one. Secondly, what are we to make of the Matthean contrast between everlasting life and everlasting punishment? Is he really making the point that since the life is everlasting that the punishment is everlasting? That’s far from certain. We also have the contrast between everlasting life and everlasting death. John Wenham comments that “It would be proper to translate ‘they will go away into punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into life of the age to come.’” And if Wenham is correct here then the question of duration is not settled. Thirdly, we have several examples of other once-for-all events which have unending consequences: for example, “eternal redemption,” or Sodom’s punishment of “eternal fire.”

Other passages refer to “unquenchable fire:” Mt 3:12, Lk 3:17 & Mk 9:43. But the idea presented here is pretty clearly a figure of speech – chaff is burnt up by irresistible fire, suggesting destruction. Mark 9:48 speaks of the “undying worm” with echoes of Is 66:24, but we have already noted that the picture here is of death and shame, not of living beings in torment. There is, therefore, really very little here in these texts that suggests (let alone demands) the traditional interpretation, especially given the overwhelming picture presented of destruction in a great mass of other texts.

This leaves 4 passages. Jude chiefly concerns the issue of godless men infiltrating and corrupting the church and perverting the gospel message. Jude is concerned to point out that for such there is a judgement coming, and then he gives three examples of judgement: (1) How God destroyed those Israelites who did not believe after their release from Egypt; (2) That God has kept certain fallen angels in darkness, bound with everlasting chains, for the judgement on the “great day;” and (3) the archetypal example of OT judgement: God destroyed Sodom with burning sulphur, here referred to as “eternal fire.” Just as God’s judgement was revealed in these cases, so it will be revealed in the case of these godless men, “for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” What’s of particular note here is that we have a range of different pictures and metaphors used with respect to God’s judgement. The point here, however, is not to teach eternal conscious punishment, but rather the theme is the certainty and finality of judgement. Jude, following biblical tradition, presents a range of pictures and symbols which point to the reality of God’s final judgement and victory over evil. I would caution against accepting any one picture as the whole literal truth of the matter, as it seems to be the case that they are intended to point beyond themselves.

Then we have three passages in Revelation, which are probably the most explicit. There’s just one problem: it’s the Book of Revelation. Revelation is ancient apocalyptic writing, and as such is something of an interpretative nightmare. It is full of figures of speech, pictures, and symbolism. With this in mind, let’s look at the three verses:

14:11: “And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

Rev 19:3 “And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her [the “great prostitute”] goes up for ever and ever.”

Rev 20:10: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

With respect to the last two we note that they refer to non-human or symbolic figures. Moreover, the writer of Revelation is clearly a mind that is steeped in the OT, which perhaps gives some clue about the interpretation of these passages. One of the quintessential examples of divine judgement in the OT is Sodom & Gomorrah (which is cited over and over again in the OT), upon which was cast burning sulphur, leaving irreversible desolation and smoke rising from the land. It’s far from an exegetical stretch to interpret the images in these two verses in light of the archetypal example of Sodom – which concerns destruction, God’s final and irreversible judgement, with smoke left as a reminder of God’s triumph over evil.

I think the same arguably applies to Rev 14:11, which is perhaps a more difficult passage. But again, in light of the difficulties of basing doctrines on clearly symbolic and figurative passages and in light of the overwhelming scriptural testimony to God’s final triumph over sin and evil and the destruction of the wicked, it’s ill-advised, I think, to hang a doctrine of eternal conscious punishment on texts like this.

None of what I’ve said refutes the traditional doctrine, but that wasn’t my intention. For all I know the pictures of Revelation are indeed literal. My point is simply that the traditional doctrine does not have the sort of obvious biblical warrant that is typically claimed for it.

One thing we do know: the fate of the lost is entirely in God’s hands. And will not the Judge of the earth do right?

Stephen J Graham



The creed of my own denomination, the Westminister Confession of Faith, cites one further proof-text: the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Firstly, however, there are well-known exegetical difficulties with this passage. Secondly, the passage probably doesn’t mean to represent the final state of the lost, since Hades itself is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation. Thirdly, there is no reference to the duration of this punishment. Finally, the story is primarily a chilling satire on Pharisaic piety, not a guide to the world to come.



Filed under Bible, Eternal Life, Hell

The Attraction of Universalism – Reflections

Universalism has never been Christian orthodoxy though it has always had its defenders, from early days with Origen right up to recent times with John Hick. The reason it has never become orthodoxy is because the Bible nowhere teaches it. Those who argue for universalism typically do so by way of inference from other theological propositions they assent to. Despite this fact the case for universalism has strong appeal.

First and foremost it has a strong emotional, or psychological, appeal. Human beings naturally desire that everything will work out for the best; that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich put it. Even with respect to the worst representatives of humanity – say, Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot – we rightly desire the best. Not, of course, that we would wish well upon them in their wickedness, but rather we wish that even those we regard as hideously wicked would change, would realize their wickedness, would become good; in short that they would repent. Nietzsche once warned of those people who had an unhealthy obsession with punishing others. Surely this applies to Christians as strongly as to anyone else, given that salvation is by grace, and if justice were to have the final word who could stand?

Secondly, universalists are correct to point out possible and plausible roads of inference from certain other Christian beliefs to universalism. For example, the philosopher Peter Kreeft thinks of Hell as in some sense self-inflicted. It is a choice to reject God and thus the damned must live with that consequence. Kreeft even thinks that the damned could turn and accept God but they simply refuse to do so. He even speculates that Hell and Heaven could be objectively the same place – the immediate presence of God – but the damned experience this presence as torturous and rather than turn and face the light they prefer to chase their own shadow – forever.

The late John Hick would, I think, chastise Kreeft for not taking his view to its logical conclusion. God – a being who is all-loving and who desires all people to come to Him is reasonably thought of as a being who would never give up on any of his creatures. He would never stop trying to win them over. Of course, God could never force their will and make them accept Him. But, argues Hick, if we really believe God is the greatest being in the universe – a being possessing omnipotence and omniscience – and if He has all of eternity in which to work, is it not perfectly reasonable that eventually all of the damned will stop “chasing their own shadow” and be won over by God?

Hick admits that it’s strictly logically possible that some free creatures will continue shunning God forever, but regards it as practically impossible. He invites us to consider the analogy of William James, in which a master chess player is playing against a novice. It’s logically possible that the novice will win, but it’s a practical certainty that the expert will, eventually, get the check-mate.

There is, so it seems to me, real force in Hick’s position considered against that of Kreeft as it stands. Those who adopt a Kreeftian approach to Hell will have to reckon with Hick’s argument, and at the very least be open to the possibility that all will eventually be won to salvation.

More conservative approaches to Hell are not faced with this problem. On these views human beings, during their earthly lives, make a final decision for or against God and the salvation He offers. Thus, more conservative theologians think Kreeft is incorrect to suppose that the damned could turn to God but choose not to and thus remain in Hell. On the conservative viewpoint the door of Hell is irreversibly locked. There is no escape. The damned are lost forever, not primarily by dint of self-separation, but rather as a punishment for their sin.

Universalists typically think this is simply unjust, and presents the Christian theist with the enormous difficulty of squaring the doctrine with the goodness and justice of God. Here again there is strong intuitive appeal in the universalist case. It does indeed seem (prima facie) perverse that a human being should be lost for all eternity – completely cut off from God – as a result of his or her finite sins. William Lane Craig argues that it is at least plausible that the sin of rejecting God is of such magnitude that it warrants eternal punishment. But don’t we rightfully ask: Are such people really irrevocably evil such that not even God in all His majesty could bring them to their senses? I confess I find that a very difficult idea to accept. It’s seems so alien to much of our experience of other people.

What then for the non-universalist? He could take refuge in the doctrine of conditional immortality – the idea that those who reject God simply go out of existence. Or perhaps he or she will point out that reactions to the traditional doctrine – such as mine above – simply don’t reckon at all fully with the depths of the depravity of sin. The defender of the traditional picture might simply point out that since we know God is all-powerful, wholly good and perfectly just, and since Jesus Christ certainly seems to have been no universalist, then the existence of Hell is compatible with God’s goodness and justice even if we can’t see how. Perhaps in our sinful state we grossly underestimate the holiness of God. Perhaps our sin itself blinds us to the depths of our sin, making us poor judges of such matters. And thus with Abraham we can simply cry “Will not the Judge of the earth do right?”

Which brings us full circle to a point I made at the beginning: universalism is not taught in scripture, and I can’t see any plausible way of interpreting scripture in universalist terms, or squaring universalism with the teaching of Jesus Christ. Universalism, however attractive, cannot therefore be adopted as a Christian doctrine – that doesn’t mean we can’t hope that it will be true. True or not the Christian hope is simply that the Judge of the earth will indeed do right.

Stephen J Graham

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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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God, Hell & Philosophical Zombies

Justin Schieber, co-host at Reasonable Doubts, has tentatively offered a rather novel argument against God recently (Schieber has informed me that the argument is not original to him. He heard it briefly mentioned in an unknown podcast a few years ago and it got him thinking about how to formalise it). Schieber hasn’t developed his argument at any length, but helpfully provided this quick summary:

“If God is omniscient, he knows which persons would freely reject him if he were to create them as well as which persons would freely choose him if he were to create them.

If God is omnipotent and morally perfect, he would surely have created those who he knows would freely choose Him. However, God could have created Philosophical Zombies (Characters who look and act in identical ways to free creatures but lacking souls/internal mental lives) to play the roles of those he knew would reject him had he actually created them.

If he did, Hell would contain no conscious torment of persons. Heaven would contain only those who God knew would freely choose him. Those who God knew would freely reject him would never have been created.

In such a story, Free Will and Perfect Justice are preserved.”


The concept of a philosophical zombie might be a new and unusual one to some readers. Philosophical zombies are a famous part of philosophical thought experiments in the philosophy of mind. A philosophical zombie is exactly the same as a human being but lacks consciousness. They are not self-aware. They do not have thoughts, sensations, inner mental lives, or an awareness of personhood. However, they act just like any human does. They will form sentences, walk to work, sit at a computer, eat lunch, talk to taxi drivers, and tell jokes. They are effectively lumps of flesh acting a certain way but with no conscious life.

Now, not all philosophers believe the concept is a coherent one. I disagree with this and agree with comments made by Schieber in a Twitter conversation that it is easily within God’s power to make lumps of flesh look and act like humans whilst lacking any consciousness or inner mental life.

So, let’s unpack Schieber’s argument a bit further. Obviously his argument doesn’t apply to all brands of Christian theism. For instance, the open theist needn’t be much concerned by it since he or she will hold that God does not in fact know the future choices of free agents. Nor will the Christian pluralist – John Hick, for instance – be greatly disturbed since on his view God will eventually win everyone over to salvation. Furthermore, annihilationists – such as John Wenham or John Stott – will not be massively perturbed either since unbelievers will simply go out of existence.

Thus, Schieber’s argument need only concern Christians who believe (1) That God does in fact know the future choices of free agents; and (2), that unbelievers will live eternally outside of God’s presence – in Hell, however we choose to conceive of it.

In response to Schieber let’s grant:

1. God is omniscient and knows how any free person that He could create will act in any circumstances in which He might wish to create that person.

2. God is omnipotent and could have created as philosophical zombies those He knows will freely reject Him.

3. The ultimately unrepentant will live eternally outside of God’s presence.

Response to Schieber

It seems to me that there are certain assumptions underlying Schieber’s argument:

1. That in creating actual people God knows will reject salvation, God is in some way wronging them or doing them an injustice.

2. Sending ultimately impenitent unbelievers to Hell for eternity is unjust, and thus a bad thing.

3. A world with no Hell is better than a world with a Hell.

I don’t think Schieber’s argument works unless these assumptions – or others very much like them – are granted. I will argue that all are, in fact, false.

What the hell is Hell?

Let’s begin with the concept of Hell. Schieber refers to Hell as eternal conscious torment. At the popular level this idea raises images of people being burned in flames for all eternity, or perhaps tormented by demons as depicted in medieval art. However, this conception of Hell is not one which you’ll find frequently amongst theologians. Christian philosopher JP Moreland states categorically: “God doesn’t torture people in hell.” I have neither time nor space to explicate a full doctrine of Hell here. The precise nature of Hell is not spelled out in the Bible. Rather what we find are a number of different images and pictures pointing towards it rather than spelling out its precise nature. In the literature on Hell theologians tend to be in agreement on one thing: Hell is fundamentally a separation from God.

In orthodox Christianity God is the creator: a generous, loving being who wishes the best for his creatures. God’s purpose and will for us is that we should relate to and love Him. To this end God has created us with a degree of freedom – to seek, find and honour God, or to go our own way. How this pans out in each individual’s life is beyond my ability to say.

Now, I detect two differing understandings within orthodox Christian views of Hell as the eternal destiny of the unrepentant and I want to discuss both in light of Scheiber’s argument.

(1) The self-inflicted view, represented by Peter Kreeft and CS Lewis.

(2) The retributive view, represented by William Lane Craig.

Kreeft views Hell primarily in terms of a self-separation from God by the individual. He argues that the existence of Hell actually follows from the existence of Heaven and free will – as a place for those who freely reject heaven.

The central point made by Kreeft is best put in his own words: “. . . heaven and hell may be the very same objective place – namely God’s love, experienced oppositely by opposite souls. . . The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God’s truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness.” Kreeft appears to think that the damned could turn and be saved but they choose not to. They refuse God forever, and therefore – as Sartre once remarked – the door of Hell is locked from the inside. This same point is wonderfully made by CS Lewis in his allegorical story The Great Divorce. In this book he pictures people who live in Hell (depicted as a grey, colourless, and comparatively insubstantial world – not a fiery torture chamber) going on a journey to heaven, but hardly any of them choose to stay despite the pleadings of the saints. The core point is that God allows free creatures – out of respect for their autonomy and human dignity – to separate themselves from Him if they choose. Thus, the damned choose Hell, and Hell’s existence stands as a testimony to the dignity of human moral freedom.

William Lane Craig on the other hand sees hell primarily in terms of retributive punishment inflicted on the unrepentant by God because of their sin rather than primarily as a state the damned themselves choose to remain in. Responding to the argument that any sin only deserves a finite punishment Craig points out that the damned very likely continue to sin: “Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense then hell is self-perpetuating.” (I should point out that Craig disputes the notion that sin cannot rightly receive an infinite punishment. He argues that rejecting Christ is a sin of a different order altogether, one of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore believes the case can indeed be made for an infinite punishment for sin). The central point here is that if the punishment of obstinate, unrepentant sinners is just then the existence of Hell is just, and not therefore an evil.

Through Hell and Back

We return then to Schieber after our brief excursus through hell.

Take two possible worlds: Zombixia and EarthWorld. Zombixia is identical to EarthWorld in all respects except that those who God knows will reject him are created as philosophical zombies – not as real people – and thus will not go to Hell for eternity. Is Zombixia preferable?

I think our brief discussion of Hell allows us to see that Schieber’s argument does not show that Zombixia would be preferable or that EarthWorld is somehow defective by comparison to it. In fact I think a reasonable case can be made for why EarthWorld is to be preferred.

On both the Kreeft and Craig models of eternal Hell God wills the salvation of every single person and every single person is such that they have sufficient opportunity to accept salvation. All can be saved. On the molinist model that I suspect Scheiber has in mind when he offers this argument, whilst it is the case that God knows that some person X will not accept salvation, it is the case that X remains free to accept salvation or reject it. The circumstances are “freedom permitting,” even though God knows that X will freely reject him. But X has the opportunity to be saved, he really can be saved, but he chooses not to be. That he has this opportunity is a great good – one that would be missing from Zombixia.

On the Kreeft model X freely separates himself from God, and his eternal destiny is thus the upholding of his dignity as a free moral agent. In effect God respects X as a person and grants him his will. CS Lewis once said that there are two kinds of people: those who say to God “thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” God therefore doesn’t wrong the unrepentant by creating them; he grants them dignity, respects their will, and upholds their personhood. These are goods pertaining to EarthWorld that are missing from Zombixia.

Alternatively, on the Craig model X is punished by God for his sin. But, this punishment is just, particularly if X continues sinning, continues in his God-rejecting unrepentant course. Now, are we to think this is bad? I don’t think so unless we are prepared to defend the notion that punishment is inherently bad. Sure, it might be bad for X but does that mean that God shouldn’t have made X as a real person? Why should God allow those who freely reject salvation to have some sort of veto power over his creative activity? He creates them as real persons, gives them real opportunity for salvation, but X squanders the opportunity. I don’t see an injustice here that Zombixia lacks by comparison. On Craig’s model no one will be in hell except by their own moral guilt and choice to reject salvation. In Zombixia God has effectively allowed the ultimately unrepentant veto power over his creative will, and to limit the number of people over which he can extend his love and offer of salvation.

Moreover, there appears to be something of very significant moral value lacking in Zombixia. Say Billy Bob is a philanthropist who spends large amounts of time and money helping turbulent Tom, destitute Dick and homeless Harry. But Tom, Dick & Harry are not in fact real people in Zombixia. They cannot truly appreciate Billy Bob’s actions; nor do those actions really accomplish anything of moral worth in the lives of Tom, Dick & Harry. Not so in EarthWorld. It seems to me that there is therefore a clear value and purpose inherent to moral actions in EarthWorld that is lacking in Zombixia.

So, it seems to me that whichever model we advocate (I prefer a modified form of Kreeft over Craig, with the hope that John Hick is right!), EarthWorld and Zombixia each preserve free will and perfect justice. However EarthWorld has values that Zombixia does not and, indeed, cannot have. EarthWorld is a real world, with real significance. There’s no pretense here. There are real choices to be made, and crucially real opportunities for every person to come to salvation. Human dignity and moral autonomy are respected in EarthWorld in a way that they aren’t in Zombixia. X truly can be saved in EarthWorld, but has no such opportunity in Zombixia. It therefore seems to me that God has reason to create the former over the latter.

Stephen J Graham

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