Full disclosure: I am a universalist. This means that I believe that all people will eventually be saved and spend eternity with God in the new creation. I do not deny that sinners will be punished in the afterlife. I just believe the punishment will be for a finite duration. It is also worth noting that some Christians are annihilationists. This means that they believe sinners will spend a finite period of time in hell and then be annihilated.
Keith Parsons, in chapter 10 of The End of Christianity, argues that the traditional doctrine of hell as a place of eternal, punitive punishment is morally indefensible. Though I do not hold to the traditional view of hell, I will still try to ascertain whether Parsons’ argument is convincing. Can a just God create an eternal hell?
Parsons proceeds by describing the nature of hell. Unfortunately, this section includes many extra-biblical quotations. Christians are not required to place these later descriptions on par with the descriptions in the Bible. I will focus on the biblical citations that are provided since Christians are interested in whether the biblical doctrine of hell is morally defensible, not whether, for example, Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of hell is morally defensible.
Mark 9:47-48 reads (NET): “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out! It is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” Practically every Christian realizes that hyperbole is used in this passage. Few believe that we are to literally cut off body parts. Rather, it is believed that we should cut sin out of our lives. The passage makes it clear that hell is a place to be avoided but the exact nature of hell is not given much detail.
Revelation 20:10 reads (NET): “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet are too, and they will be tormented there day and night forever and ever.” Here we learn that the inhabitants of hell (or at least the devil, the beast, and the false prophet) are to be tormented. The nature of the torment is not stated. For those wondering how I can be a universalist when this passage states that the torments will be “forever and ever,” the short answer is that the Greek literally means “to the ages of the ages” (YLT) and need not imply eternity as we understand it.
It must be noted that the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) is a parable. It should not be taken too literally, as Parsons appears to do. But even if we take it as a literal description of hell it does not add much to the above.
We can now re-phrase the issue a bit. Can a just God allow sinners to be tormented in hell for eternity (where the torment could take a broad number of forms)? Parsons asks whether even the worst sinners deserve eternal punishment. But we must distinguish between (1) an infinite amount of punishment and (2) a punishment that lasts for an eternity. Suppose a sinner deserves 10 units of punishment (what a unit of punishment consists of is irrelevant for the illustration). God would be just as long as He did not inflict more than 10 units of punishment on this sinner. But note that God could carry out these 10 units of punishment over an infinite period time. For example, on the first day in hell the sinner could undergo 5 units of punishment, on the second day in hell he could undergo 2.5 units of punishment, on the third day of hell he could undergo 1.25 units of punishment, and so on, day after day. No matter how long the sinner is in hell he is never punished, in total, more than the 10 units of punishment he rightly deserves. The point of this illustration is to show that the traditional doctrine of a hell that lasts forever is not necessarily unjust, even if we agree that each sinner only deserves a finite amount of punishment.
Parsons is aware of this objection and rephrases his question (p. 239): “Why is everlasting torture a just punishment for sin of limited duration?” An answer is that the just punishment for a sin is based on the nature of the sin and not how long it took to commit the sin. A murder that took a minute to commit is deserving of more punishment than a theft that took one minute to commit. When looking at the issue of justice, however, we need to look at the amount of punishment and not the duration of punishment. The duration of punishment seems irrelevant to me. Parsons does not address this reply. He goes on to critique other defenses of hell, sometimes successfully in my opinion. But as long as the above points stand, his thesis ultimately fails. The existence of an everlasting hell does not necessarily imply that God is unjust.
The chapter ends with another objection to hell: that you can be sent to hell merely for not believing the gospel. This assertion is actually debated even among Christians. Some argue that a form of implicit belief in God is evident in those who do good. They may not be conscious that they are serving God by being good, but they are nonetheless doing so in some respect. Others note that God is aware of the circumstances surrounding each person’s life and will take account of this on judgment day. Although I don’t share the belief, a belief in a hell of everlasting torment seems both logically and morally compatible with a just God.