Heaven and Hell, Doctrines of

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One of the most basic and existentially engaging of all questions has to do with the possibilities for human happiness and fulfillment on the one hand, and misery and loss on the other. Christian theology has returned the striking answer that the possibilities are truly extreme. According to Christian theology, the world is such that humans can experience perfect happiness, delight, and satisfaction, and do so forever. Indeed, that is just what human beings were created for: an eternal relationship with God that will fulfill humankind's best potentialities and aspirations. But the flip side of this is also possiblenamely, that people may fail to achieve this relationship with God and thereby come to utter ruin and misery, a condition that is also believed to be eternal.

So understood, heaven and hell have provided an important moral source for European culture for the better part of two millennia. Not only have they served as moral sanctions that assure people that they are ultimately accountable for their actions, but heaven and hell also have been central to the majestic vision of life and its meaning that flows from belief in a God of perfect character and infinite power.

The fundamental logic of these beliefs is not unique to Christianity and European cultureit is common to Judaism and Islam as well. Of course the details differ in important respects, especially with respect to the crucial issue of the conditions for achieving heaven. In other words, one's beliefs about the nature and conditions of salvation will be closely connected to one's conception of heaven and hell. But the point for emphasis is that belief in heaven and hell are not peripheral to theology, but are integral to traditional theistic faith, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.

Historical Developments of the Doctrines

Belief in an afterlife is either absent or ambiguous in early Jewish scripture. And even where that belief occurs, it is not always clear that there is a distinction between the fate of the righteous and that of the wicked. Sheol, the place of the dead, was conceived to be a place of shadowy existence without clear moral distinctions. A more developed view of the afterlife grew out the Jewish understanding of their covenant with God. While the possibility of punishment for disobedience to the covenant was always recognized, such punishment was understood as confined to this world. Increasing awareness of the injustices of this world led to calls for moral distinctions in the afterlife that would rectify the wrongs of this life, of which the book of Job is perhaps the most famous example. Belief in a double resurrectionof the wicked as well as the righteous, after which the wicked will be punishedemerged later in some Jewish scriptural texts. In extrabiblical literature, heaven and hell have been matters of considerable speculation among rabbis during both the time before the rise of Christianity and Islam, and after.

In the New Testament scriptures there is also significant diversity, and some texts appear to teach that the wicked will be annihilated whereas others appear to teach that all will eventually be reconciled to God. The view that came to predominate in Christian theologyalso based on numerous New Testament textsis that all will be resurrected, but that the wicked, perhaps constituting the majority of humanity, will be banished from the presence of God and forever lost in the misery of hell.

Many notable traditional theologians have conceived of hell as an eternal punishment that is justly imposed on sinners. In the Christian tradition, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, and Jonathan Edwards are among those who have formulated influential arguments in favor of this conception of hell. Anselm formulated his version of this argument in his famous account of the purpose of the atonement of Christ. People owe God total and perfect honor, Anselm argued, so any sin against him puts them in infinite debt to him that accordingly deserves infinite punishment. Edwards developed a similar argument by appealing to God's infinite nature. Because God is infinite in his loveliness, honor, and authority, Edward's believes that a person's obligation to love and honor God is likewise infinite. To fail in this obligation is to merit infinite consequences. Moreover, traditional theologians typically held that repentance after death is impossible, and consequently, no one may escape from hell.

In elaborating the punishment view of hell, traditional theologians often distinguished between the "pains of sense" and the "pain of loss." The former of these was typically understood to include literal fire of agonizing intensity, whereas the latter emphasized the unhappiness that naturally results from being separated from God, the true source of all joy and happiness. This picture of hell, along with its corresponding vision of heaven as a place of unbounded delight, has not only haunted the popular imagination but has also been a powerful source of inspiration for classic works of art, both visual and literary.

Despite its important role in both theology and the broader culture, belief in heaven and hell has been in decline in the European and North American world ever since the onset of modernity. The reasons for this decline are complex and are no doubt related to the more general defection from religious belief during this same period. The doctrine of hell, in particular, has lost credibility among believers as well as unbelievers largely because many see it as morally implausible.

Contemporary Accounts of the Doctrine

Both heaven and hell, however, have received renewed attention from contemporary philosophers as part of the revival of interest in philosophy of religion. A number of philosophers have moved beyond issues germane to generic theism to explore issues generated by distinctively Christian belief, including Trinity, incarnation, atonement, and the nature of salvation. Heaven and hell are closely connected to these beliefs, especially those pertaining to salvation. Heaven and hell have also played an important role in discussion of the perennial problem of evil and the project of theodicy. Whereas hell is typically seen as a particularly difficult aspect of the problem because it involves the prospect of eternal recalcitrant evil, heaven is often invoked as an essential component of a satisfactory theodicy. Only the hope of eternal life, it is argued, provides adequate grounds to believe the horrific tragedies of this life may be fully healed and redeemed.

Much of the contemporary discussion of hell has centered on the traditional arguments defending the claim that eternal torment is the just punishment for human sin. Among those who have subjected these arguments to searching critical scrutiny are Marilyn Adams, Jonathan Kvanvig, and Charles Seymour. This critique begins by contesting the claim that human sin could ever be infinitely serious. Even the most notorious of sinners, such as Hitler, have done only finite evil and caused finite harm, however enormous it is. Next, it is contended that a just punishment should fit the crime. Thus, if God is perfectly just, he cannot punish human sin with infinite punishment. So eternal hell cannot be defended as a just punishment for sins committed in this life. There is a general consensus among contemporary philosophers that this critique is sound, so those who affirm the doctrine of eternal hell have turned to other arguments to make moral sense of it.

The most common strategy is to appeal to libertarian freedom to show how eternal hell can be compatible with God's perfect love and power. That is, it is contended that people have the freedom to reject God, even to the point of being forever separated from him. C. S. Lewis famously summed up the essence of this view in his remark that the doors of hell are locked from the inside. In the same vein, Richard Swinburne has defended the doctrine of hell on the grounds that people may, over time, form the sort of character that can no longer choose God and the good. Those who take this position thus typically affirm the pain of loss, but downplay or deny the pains of sense.

Kvanvig (1993) has defended a variation on this position that he calls the "issuant conception of hell." His position is so called because he believes the doctrine of hell should issue from the same character of God as the doctrine of heavennamely, his love. It is a mistake, he thinks, to stress love only with reference to heaven, while emphasizing justice in connection with hell. The final choice everyone faces, according to Kvanvig, is either a relationship with God or annihilation, for to choose to live independently of God is in fact to choose annihilation, because living independently of God is actually impossible. Of course, God prefers that all persons accept his love, but he respects the freedom of those who reject a relationship with him.

However, not all who reject God choose annihilation in a clear and settled way. It is precisely because of his love that he allows them to remain in existence. Kvanvig's view is accordingly a "composite" view because it allows for both eternal separation as well as annihilation. God need not force people to choose either a relationship with him or extinction, so this allows the option of everlasting separation from him.

Seymour has focused on human choice in developing a defense of eternal hell that he calls "the freedom view." His fundamental definition of hell is that it is "an eternal existence, all of whose moments are on the whole bad" (Swinburne 1983). For this to be true of hell, he thinks it is not enough for hell to have the pain of lossit must also include pains of sense. His appeal to freedom is crucial for he rejects the traditional arguments for the claim that sins committed in this life could be sufficiently serious to warrant eternal punishment. Rather, it is the continuing choice to sin that keeps sinners in the perpetual pains of hell.

Seymour believes that sinners can in principle repent and would be accepted by God if they did, so if they remain in hell it is due to their choice to persist in sin.

Contemporary Challenges to Heaven and Hell

A growing number of Christian philosophers are challenging the doctrine of eternal hell in favor of a doctrine of universal salvation. Some Muslim thinkers have also advanced the speculation that all may be saved in the end. Not surprisingly, Christian philosophers who challenge eternal hell typically focus on libertarian freedom and the crucial role it plays in the contemporary defense of the doctrine.

Thomas Talbott (2003) has mounted a sustained attack on the doctrine of eternal hell, building his case on both biblical and philosophical grounds. In his biblical arguments, he has attempted to show that the New Testament is best interpreted as affirming that all will eventually be saved. He thereby aims to undermine one of the main pillars of the orthodox view of hellnamely, the contention that scripture requires Christians to believe it. Talbott's philosophical case against eternal hell largely focuses on his claim that the idea of choosing hell is finally incoherent.

His argument for this claim hinges on his account of what is involved in freely choosing an eternal destiny. In short, such a choice must be fully informed, and once the person making the choice gets what he or she wants, then it must be the case that the choice can never be regretted. This means that the person must be free from ignorance and illusion both in the initial choice as well as later. One must fully understand what has been chosen while freely persisting in that choice.

Given these conditions, Talbott thinks there is an obvious and important asymmetry between choosing fellowship with God as an eternal destiny, on the one hand, and choosing hell as an eternal destiny on the other. Whereas the first of these obviously is possible, the latter is not. The reason for this is because there is no intelligible motive for choosing hell if one is free of ignorance and illusion. One may temporarily choose evil under the illusion that so choosing will make one happy. But God will eventually shatter this illusion by making one ever more miserable until the point is reached that one must repent and turn to God. Thus, Talbott affirms the view that universalism is necessarily true, in contrast to the more common claims that universalism is possibly true or probably true.

Marilyn Adams has also criticized the reliance on libertarian freedom in traditional theodicy, contending that its proponents exaggerate the dignity of human nature as something so sacrosanct that not even God may legitimately interfere with it. She sees this tendency particularly in the doctrine of hell, especially in the mild versions, which hold that hell is simply the natural consequence of freely choosing to reject God and the love he offers. Adams complains that advocates of mild hell tend to assume that God and human adults are moral peers in their insistence that they have the right to resist God and choose evil instead. As she sees it, this is not the appropriate sort of respect for God to pay to the likes of humans.

Indeed, the deeper difficulty here is that free will approaches underestimate what she calls the "size gap" between Divine and created persons. Whereas free will approaches picture the relationship between God and human persons with the analogy of parents and adolescent or adult children, Adams thinks it is better modeled by the relationship between a mother and an infant or a toddler. In the latter relationship, there is little if any sense that the child is free and responsible and that it would be wrong to interfere with his choices. This nicely serves Adams's view that God can save everyone in the end, and relieves her of the worry of how God may accomplish this without violating human freedom. If God needs to causally determine some things in order to prevent the everlasting ruin of some of his children, this should not be seen as an insult to our dignity.

The philosophical credibility of the doctrine of hell will largely depend on one's judgments about the nature and value of freedom as well as one's views of moral psychology. Those who disagree with Adams will argue that freedom is of sufficient value itselfor is the means to other goods of sufficient valueand that God will not override it to save us. In a similar vein, Talbott's critics, including the present writer, have argued that there are, contrary to his claims, intelligible motives for the choice of eternal damnation. Indeed, an essential component of freedom is people's ability to deceive themselves and turn away from the truth. If so, then God may not be able to shatter people's illusions without destroying their freedom.

Whereas the choice of heaven is easier to grasp from the standpoint of moral psychology because it is the choice of true happiness and fulfillment, some have argued that the notion of eternal joy is a dubious notion. Bernard Williams (1993) has made the case that the notion of eternal joy is incoherent because any life of endless duration would inevitably become boring, no matter how delightful the experiences it offered. Defenders of heaven have responded to this challenge in various ways, depending on how they conceive of the life everlasting. Two broadly different accounts of heaven have been prominent in the Christian tradition. On one end of the spectrum is the theocentric vision, which emphasizes the beatific vision as a timeless experience of contemplating the infinitely fascinating reality of God in all his aspects. On the other end of the spectrum is the anthropocentric view, which pictures heaven in terms familiar to this life, purged of course of the evil and suffering that currently mar human happiness.

However these debates continue and whatever resolutions may be achieved, it is apparent the renewed interest in heaven and hell brings into vivid focus some of the most profound issues that animate the philosophical enterprise. Not only the nature and ground of people's moral commitments, but their understanding of the meaning of their lives and their various configurations of joy and sorrow, hinge on what is believed about heaven and hell.

See also Immortality.


Adams, Marilyn McCord. "Hell and the God of Justice." Religious Studies 11 (1975): 433437.

Adams, Marilyn McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Bernstein, Alan E. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Kvanvig, Jonathan L. The Problem of Hell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York: Macmillan, 1944.

Seymour, Charles. A Theodicy of Hell. Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Press, 2000.

Smith, Jane Idleman, and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Swinburne, Richard. "A Theodicy of Heaven and Hell." In The Existence and Nature of God, edited by Alfred J. Freddoso. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Talbott, Thomas. "A Case for Christian Universalism." In Universal Salvation: The Current Debate, edited by Robin Parry and Chris Partridge. Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster, 2003.

Walls, Jerry L. Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Walls, Jerry L. Hell: The Logic of Damnation. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Williams, Bernard. "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality." In The Metaphysics of Death, edited by John Martin Fischer. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Jerry L. Walls (2005)