In How hell will really glorify God, Jefferson Vann responds to the idea that a perpetual hell best demonstrates God’s holiness.
A few years ago, Canadian pastor Tim Challies wrote a series of articles in which he argued that hell has to be perpetual. He asserted that “hell exists because God is holy–that hell must exist because God must be holy.”1 For Challies, God’s holiness apparently requires that in hell “there will be no escape; (sinners) will never repay their debt; they will never cease to exist or be annihilated. Their punishment will be eternal.”2 Challies defends this view by asking: “If this infinitely holy and just God declares that hell exists and asserts that hell must exist, then rebellion against His will reveals a failure in my own understanding of justice and goodness. Do I know better than God?”3
Dr. Glenn peoples responded by showing that Challies “starts out with the very strong claim that if we believe God is good and holy, then we must believe in a God who torments people forever. Yet the biblical evidence to which Challies alludes offers support for no such claim.”4 Some of the passages Challies referred to are about final punishment, but none of them establish that hell has to be a place of perpetual torture.
Peoples also rejects Challies’ claim that God’s attribute of infinite holiness requires perpetual torment. Challies alleges that “When you sin against an infinite God—and all sin is primarily oriented toward God—you accrue an infinite debt.” But some of it is opaque. In particular, what does it mean to say that God is “infinite”? Infinity is the concept of an unending series of numbers. How is Challies applying the notion of infinity to God? We just don’t know. As far as I can tell, Challies is simply reverse-engineering the argument. He is trying to get to the conclusion of a punishment consisting of an infinite number of days/weeks/years of torment, so he inserts the language of infinity into his description of God. If Challies is using the word infinitely with its typical numerical meaning, then it does not say anything coherent to say that God is “infinite.” The classical way of talking about God is much more helpful here: God is “perfect being” or “perfectly holy” or “perfectly good.” When we say that a room has no light in it at all, we do not say that it is “infinitely dark.” Instead we say that it is “completely dark” or “in total darkness” or perhaps “perfectly dark.” Similarly, God is perfect or complete, not “infinite” in some numerical sense.5 There is a sense in which we can claim that God’s existence is infinite, but that infinity of being is not a numerical formula that can be brought over into the discussion of hell. Hell is about destruction, and anything that can be destroyed is not capable of being destroyed infinitely.
Graham Ware noted that “the traditionalist argument often turns to God’s holiness as a basis for insisting on ECT (eternal conscious torment).”6 But Ware shows “God’s holiness separates God as giver of eternal life and his creation as recipients or rejectors of eternal life. He can therefore withdraw his life from those whom he chooses, and allow the death which comes from sin (Rom. 6:23, James 1:15) to claim those who refuse his life. God’s holiness therefore cannot be the grounds for assuming ECT, but actually better supports a conditionalist view.”7
The debate continued when traditionalist Mark Ballenger suggested that there are two specific ways that a perpetual hell would glorify God. First, he said that “hell magnifies the greatness of God through his absence by showing how wretched an existence is without his grace.” Then, he said that “hell is proof that all existence is not about humans. It’s about God. If God was more concerned with saving humans than with the display of his glory, hell would only be for the demons.”8 Ballenger’s first argument is that hell exists to glorify God by showing humans how great our need for him is. But his second argument suggests that what we humans need is not really the issue. Hell exists to glorify God no matter who populates it. These arguments are somewhat inconsistent with each other. But even if that were not true, Ballenger’s arguments are simply more examples of what Peoples called reverse-engineering. The arguments start by assuming a perpetual hell, and then look for ways that idea might fit with what we know about God from theology in general.
Conditionalists call on Christians to rethink the nature of hell. Instead of imagining God giving immortal beings a place to sit and stew, and writhe in agony for eternity – what if God punished the unrepentant for their sins in hell, and then destroyed them permanently? What if the purpose of hell was to clean up God’s universe, making all things new – a universe with no sin, no evil, no pain, no suffering, no more death?
That is the kind of hell that will truly magnify and accentuate the holiness of God because it will allow the universe to return to the point of purity and sinlessness it enjoyed before evil darkened and distorted it. The God who created the universe will show himself greater than the sin which temporarily afflicted it. That is how hell will really glorify God.
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch (Malachi 4:1 KJV).
1 Tim Challies, The Holiness of God and the Existence of Hell. August 13, 2012.
2 Tim Challies, The Essential: Hell February 10, 2013.
3 Tim Challies, What Kind of God Would Condemn People to Eternal Torment? June 24, 2012.
4 Glenn Peoples, Answering Answers in Genesis: An Infinitely Bad Argument October 29, 2014.
6 Graham Ware, Clark Pinnock, Hell and the Holiness of God December 20, 2014.
8 Mark Ballenger, How Does Hell Glorify God? December 27, 2016.