Should God Annihilate the Souls in Hell?

thThe “torment” of Hell does not involve God actively torturing those who choose to persist in their rebellion against Him. It is, instead, the natural product of separation from God, who is the source of all that is good. I’ve taken this position in previous posts, claiming that far from representing cruelty on God’s part, it is indeed the very least He can do. In other words, the torment of Hell involves nothing more that the fact of such separation, so that the image of souls eternally burning in a lake of fire is not one we should take literally.

A challenger to this view had this to say:

 Hell works off of an overwhelming drive to be with God that is present in all humans and yet is separate from free will and individual desire. Under this point of view, separation from God would, by design, represent a state of eternal suffering. In this case, God cannot be excused for simply refusing to spend eternity with sinners (which would be His divine prerogative), as He designed their drive to be with him in the first place. Given this, if God truly is omnipotent then He would have the ability to stop such suffering, shutting off the drive with the ease of flipping a switch. By choosing not to do so, God is actively punishing sinners just as much as if he tortured them in a literal “lake of fire” for all eternity, thus reopening the initial criticism that eternal punishment necessarily becomes excessive at some point.

The challenger’s first sentence accurately conveys my view. It does not, however, explain its source, which I believe is important to supporting this point. God is that Being who possesses infinite greatness. Whatever qualities we find attractive in another person, whether simply a friend or an intimate partner, is but a dim reflection of God’s glory. Whatever joy we derive from any Earthly pursuit, whether it involves the grandeur of nature, the beauty inherent in art or music, or the joy of doing something well, that too is a shadow of what God in his infinite perfection represents. When we, here on earth, find people or things that give us joy, we naturally want that state of affairs to continue. Indeed, we want things to increase, and we are troubled – terrified in some cases – at the prospect of losing what we have, or what we’ve worked to gain.

I do not think, however, that it is accurate to say that God “designed” people to want to be with him. This creates in my mind the image of someone doing something with the specific intent to cause someone else to feel envy. For example, it conjures up the image of eating chocolate in front of children and refusing to share, knowing that they would really like to have some. It seems to me that built into us is an appreciation of things that are “good” and “beautiful” and otherwise pleasing. I don’t know if I can imagine things any other way, where I deliberately seek broken, imperfect, poorly made, badly operating things. If we were built that way – to seek the bad, the defiled, the ugly and to find joy in such things – I think it would be right to conclude that something is wrong with us. We may all define beauty in slightly different ways, but it is beauty that we seek, not its opposite.

God, as the ultimate expression of not just “good” but of perfection, is therefore a being that we cannot help desire. Our fallen nature perverts this desire, causing us to worship and desire to possess the created thing, rather than to give glory to God and to submit to his kingship.  The challenger does not want to “excuse God” for making us this way. To the contrary, the proper response should be to thank him. He did not make us mindless robots, after all, but gave us a divine spark and the opportunity for relationship with him. In other words, he gave each of us the opportunity to be made perfect through Him in such a way as to allow us to spend eternity with Him. He gave us the opportunity to experience infinite joy eternally, making even the best of experiences here on Earth essentially nothing by comparison.

But could he simply flip the switch to off? The answer, I suppose, is yes, if by switching off one means annihilation. Why he chooses not to do this says something about his view of justice, which should come as little surprise to anyone who has contemplated the harshness built into nature. God, it seems, is not to be trifled with. But I do not think he could turn off the switch if by that is meant turning off the desire to draw near to him. I say this because a free will being will naturally seek perfection. To flip the switch, as the challenger contends, would be to eliminate free will. God, it seems, sees value in creating free will beings, and once created, those beings persist eternally.

So, why doesn’t he annihilate those souls in hell? I’m not sure that I can answer that, although I think it has to do with the nature of “being” generally, and to God’s justice. Time is a function of this present physical universe. Remove the universe – or more precisely remove the soul from the universe – and there is no longer an “end” because ending points are a function of time. Perhaps to annihilate in that setting would be to undo the life from the beginning. Perhaps it is an all or nothing proposition.

 I don’t expect to ever fully understand such things, but of course my adherence to Christianity isn’t based on fully understanding them. No, my faith in Christ stems from believing in the truth of the historical evidence of his life, death and resurrection.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. Fred Gilham says:

    I think you need to do a little more work on the notion of justice. In fact, I’m not really certain it applies here. You say, “God is not to be trifled with.” But this is simply another way of saying, “God has the right to do what he wants.”

    But we all sense that an arbitrary tyrant is despicable while a beneficent ruler who desires the good of his subjects and sacrifices himself to get it is to be admired. We know that God is fully revealed in Christ, and we see Christ emptying himself, not clinging to godhood, for the sake of salvation. Therefore God himself must be like this in some sense. One of my seminary professors said it well: “God is the most other-centered being in existence.”

    Instead, I think it is necessary to picture hell as a tragic outcome of something inherent in the nature of God’s creation. Somehow hell is not arbitrary but—not a necessary evil because evil is never necessary, but a consequence of a risk God took in creating beings that 1) had free wills that could oppose His, and 2) were intended to have a life somehow congruent with His. God’s intention (stated in Romans 8) was that humans should be conformed to the image of his Son so that he would have many brothers. Thus we were intended to be peers of the Son of God. Could this not somehow require that we have eternal substantiality?

    An interesting notion springs from the need to have a “neutral medium” to influence one another. If I completely controlled my environment, only the effects of my will would be present. Imagine hell as a kind of solipsistic black hole of will—only that will can effect its environment. As a result, it is completely alone, unable to do anything but endlessly exercise its finite but unbounded being in endless repetition.

    At this point I’m inclined to say, regardless of the truth of the matter, “Knowing the fear of God, we persuade men….” I think we can agree on that!

    • Al says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I agree with most of what you said, especially about hell being a kind of black hole. I do not agree that hell is an evil, however, as evil is not a thing but a reflection of the rebellion against God of a free-will being. Hell is a place where justice is accomplished, where those who die in their rebellion receive the consequence of their choices. I apologize for not making myself clearer regarding my notion of justice. It is sometimes difficult when writing a few hundred words. When I say “God is not to be trifled with” I do not mean that he has the right to do what he wants (although clearly he does). I mean instead that we should not be surprised that God could in fact sees fit to follow through, so to speak, with what he said he would do. Justice, even minimally speaking, would require that God respond to wrong-doing by separating himself from it, and not reward the wrong-doer who insists on having things “his way.” The model, as you point out, is for human beings to be conformed to Christ’s image. I’m not sure that it means we are to be “peers” of Jesus. I view it more as Jesus doing something in us that we, in our fallen state, are completely incapable of doing. We need to assent – that is what our free will accomplishes – but he does all the actual work.

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