One Helluva Problem
It’s probably one of the most frightening topics for any Christian: Hell. Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) is notorious and widespread in the public imagination, being the ‘traditional’ view of Hell. This perspective can be summarised as follows (cf. Piper ):
- All humans have rebelled against God (and are guilty of Adam’s sin). Therefore, all humans deserve to go to Hell — the place of eternal conscious torment.
- However, in his grace, God has elected some to be exempt from it.
- In Hell, the people who rebel against God will be punished forever. In this way, Hell displays God’s power, wrath, and justice.
- For that reason, God and those who are saved will find eternal joy in Hell (point 1 & 3), the latter being especially grateful for God’s mercy towards themselves (point 1 & 2).
Now, in this article series, I want to ask five critical questions to see if this account holds up. In this first article, I will discuss election. In the second article, I will talk about desert, and in the final article, I will think about embodiment and the ending of evil. But first: election.
1A. When did election happen?
Theologians have disagreed about the logical order of the decrees concerning creation, fall, election and redemption in God’s mind. The two positions are supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, which can be sketched as follows:
(1) Supralapsarianism — Election ‘Before the Fall’ (Supra Lapsum)
- Decree of Election in Christ
- Decree of Creation
- Decree of the Fall
- Decree of Redemption for the Elect
(2) Infralapsarianism — Election ‘After the Fall’ (Infra Lapsum)
- Decree of Creation
- Decree of the Fall
- Decree of Election in Christ
- Decree of Redemption for the Elect
The latter is the (implicit) position of many ECT-adherents (again, see Piper). The theological starting point is that everyone is created by God but has fallen into sin and is therefore deserving of eternal torment. It is only merciful that God has even elected some! (Quite bizarrely, it would therefore not be problematic for God if no human would be saved at all.)
This order of decrees feels somewhat natural, because election is closely tied to redemption, which of course historically followed the fall, as the fall historically followed creation.
However, infralapsarianism inevitably portrays creation as God’s ‘plan A’, which evidently fails, after which God installs ‘plan B’, Christ (which takes 2,000 years to arrive).  This is problematic for three reasons:
- It degrades the wisdom and power of God, as if he ever has to change plans.
- In so doing, this position also degrades the work of Christ, as if Christ had to come to the rescue but was actually not ‘first choice’.
- Lastly, it endorses a functionally Marcionite view of creation, that is, it strongly correlates ‘God’ with creation and ‘Christ’ with redemption, thus tending toward a Christ-less creation, contra, e.g., Colossians 1:16, which states that all things were created not just ‘through him’ but also ‘for him’.
So, theologically it is only proper to start with election in Christ as ‘plan A’, logically conceived of before the decree of creation. God is logically first Elector, not Creator. In other words, before decreeing creation, God determined its ultimate destiny.
1B. What is the scope of election?
Now the question arises: whom did God elect? All humans, or only some?
(1) Arminian: God elected all humans — but not all are saved
In this view, God loves all humans and truly has a ‘good plan for their life’. He did not create them for the purpose of eternal Hell (or annihilation). Nevertheless, history turns out just like that, supposedly because of human free will: in creation, God accepted the possibility (for some unimaginable reason) that people could make certain choices that would separate them from him forever — supposedly because only this kind of freedom could realise true (i.e., ‘free’) love.
The final claim, however, is somewhat misguided, because God is not just another being with whom we ‘choose’ to have a loving relationship. He is Goodness and Beauty, the telos of our deepest and truest desires. Therefore to know him is to love him, and not to love him is not to know him and thus not having the freedom to choose him (cf. part 2, in which I further discuss human free will). 
Update September 20, 2023: See this great article by Roberto J. De La Noval criticising the ‘free will theodicy’ of Hell:
Moreover, if Hell is not part of God’s purposes, but it still remains an eternal reality, then God would turn out to be an imperfect and unhappy being.
- Firstly, he would be imperfect. A God who cannot accomplish his creational and salvific purposes is not a perfect being. God’s plans would be conditional upon human choices. That is not in accord with the apocalyptic, unconditionally liberative nature of salvation revealed in Christ — and most Calvinists will broadly agree with me here. But even for Arminians, there should be a scenario where God’s will to save people weighs stronger than their ‘autonomous’ (and completely irrational) choice to reject him. Is the free will of people you love really more important than their eternal fate? 
- Secondly, God would be unhappy (in a weak sense). Of course, in himself, he always enjoys perfect bliss, but in relation to creation, he does not get what he wants! He had a good plan for humans, but because of their own foolish actions, he has to punish some of them forever (or simply extinguish them). So, there will always be a degree of sadness and pity in God for their fate. (If he wouldn’t feel any compassion toward them, he wouldn’t be God.) He wishes he could have spent eternity with them, but his justice has gotten the upper hand.
Excursus: Human ‘Happiness’ in Heaven
It is worth mentioning that a similar ‘happiness’ argument goes for the redeemed in Heaven: 
- First of all, contrary to popular opinion, no one will be brainwashed in Heaven. On the contrary, we will perfectly remember all the people we interacted with and loved in this life. For, if we would not remember anyone or anything, we would no longer be ourselves, because we are who we are in and through our relationships, with humans and with God. Our stories are full of them.
- Secondly, there will be no ‘blissful ignorance’ in Heaven, so we would be aware of the fact that some of the people we knew and loved, and who thus constitute a part of our story and identity, are now separated from us. We’ve lost a part of ourselves — in tragic cases, our parents, spouses, children, or other close family members and friends. And, if you trace these networks long enough, it goes for the whole of the saved community: it is sundered from its organic relational unity with the rest of humanity. 
- What’s more, we would be aware that these loved ones are suffering relentlessly forever at the hands of the very God we’re spending eternity with (or that they have just dropped out of existence). Even if it would be a just punishment (but see part 2) or simply the consequence of their free choices, our love would not be conditional on their previous actions. We would always keep wishing the best for them, and have a deep and even inconsolable sadness and pity every time we remembered their excruciating suffering (or nonexistence). (If we wouldn’t feel any compassion toward them, we would not be human.) Lastly, we would always regret not having done more for their salvation during our earthly lives, maybe even wishing that God would have had the power to save them. But alas, it depended on their free will.
(2) Calvinist: God elected only some humans — and those are saved
Nevertheless, many ECT-adherents will assert that God only elected a part of humanity for the purpose of redemption. Out of his mercy, he chose some to be rescued from his wrath—but he didn’t have to (that’s supposedly why it’s merciful). It’s what John Piper calls ‘the glory of the freedom of his sovereign grace’, in a phrase resemblant of Paul’s (see Rom 8:21). 
- Up front, this account has a mistaken view of God’s freedom of will (cf. this recent online debate). His freedom is not deliberative, making a choice between different options, with the ‘ability to do otherwise’ (libertarianism) — in this case, to have mercy or not to have mercy. God is not a whimsical sovereign, basking in the freedom of arbitrary decision-making. He necessarily does what he wants, because what he wants is the most rational and good thing, since God is Goodness and Rationality in himself, and God cannot deny himself.
- But even if God had some kind of arbitrary freedom, what kind of God would neglect saving people just for the sake of showing off his freedom not to save them? God does not have to ‘prove himself’ to anyone, since he is self-sufficient (see below). And God could still maintain that freedom and save all, if that’s what he wanted; it would not compromise his freedom at all, and it would show the glory of his superabundant grace all the more (Rom 5:20)! God’s grace does not need to be limited in order to be precious (as gold in our economies); part of its (metaphorical) preciousness could precisely be its superabundance!
The next question then becomes: why doesn’t God have mercy on all? Those who hold to single predestination will talk about ‘preterition’: God simply ‘passes over’ the non-elect, giving them over to what they deserve, without having a predetermined plan for them (except that that they will not be saved, of course).
Human merit may very well be a necessary condition for Hell ( see part 2), but it’s not a sufficient condition. It does not explain why God created humans in the first place, knowing that they were going to deserve Hell and therefore suffer eternally. Hell was foreseen by God — and that means it was willed by God. In other words, it was God’s plan A (see above on infra/supralapsarianism).
Therefore we inevitably end up with double predestination: God chose not to choose some people, having another purpose for them in mind, i.e., Hell.  This is then often explained in terms of displaying God’s glory, notably his wrath, justice, and power (and not his love, for some reason). Heaven presumably needs Hell as its counterpart, because only together do they fully display God’s glory.
- Preliminarily, the argument that ‘God does X for his glory’ is dangerously vague if that glory is not defined properly. Without the appropriate Christological control (see below), we tend to project our own assumptions unto God (see Campbell, Dogmatics, ch. 2, on foundationalism). Moreover, in the places where the Bible does seem to say something along these lines, it associates God’s glory with mercy and grace, not with wrath, justice, and power (cf. Rom 9:23; Eph 1:6; see also Isa 43:7 on Israel’s creation in the context of her salvation).
Now, there are multiple serious problems with the ‘glory-defense’ of Hell, all relating to core principles of classical theism.
- To start off with, it’s problematic to divide up God’s character in this way, as if love and justice are somehow two separable and mutually exclusive sides of God’s character, to be displayed in Heaven and Hell respectively. This goes against God’s simplicity. It is not as if God is just toward some humans and loving toward others. Nor is it the case that God is just to all but only loving to some. If both are essential, integrated parts of his ‘simple’ character, then he is both to all people at all times, ‘since God is one’, as Paul would say (cf. Rom 3:30) — that is, unless one for some reason sees love and mercy as incidental rather than essential to God’s character (but see below).  Here I’m reminded of Origen’s polemic in On First Principles against the Marcionites, who played off the God of the Old Testament, who was just but not good, against the God of the NT, who was good but not just. For ECT’ers, the God of Hell is the Marcionite God of the OT — all justice, no goodness, and therefore pure retribution (see below).
- Moreover, saying that Hell is eternally necessary for God to display the parts of his glory that Heaven can’t, implies that God is eternally contingent on something outside of himself (namely evil). This goes against God’s self-sufficiency. (It is also questionable whether Heaven cannot display his full glory; see below on the sufficiency of Christ.) God existed perfectly in an eternity without Hell, so Hell will exist — as do all things — only because God wants it to (see above on infralapsarianism and God’s freedom). As DBH explains, God’s antecedent and consequent wills necessarily collapse at the eschaton as his will is fully revealed in the world’s final state.
- But this would make God essentially eternally malevolent toward (presumably) a large part of humanity, whom he intentionally created for the sake of eternally consciously tormenting them. This goes against God’s omnibenevolence: God necessarily wills the highest good for all people whom he has chosen to create, no one excluded. There can’t exist even a small bit of malevolence in God — not in his revealed will, nor in his hidden will (which would be all the more malicious and make his temporal ‘benevolence’ hypocritical). God’s decision to create is a benevolent one.
Christ as God’s Definitive Revelation
Now, a Christological assessment of the relevant attributes might be helpful here. Christ is the definitive revelation of God’s character, so he should be the starting point for all our theologising (see Campbell, Dogmatics, ch. 1–4).
- Jesus reveals God as Triune and thus relational love in himself. God is love. This (and not retributive justice) is what truly distinguishes God as the Christian God. Now, God’s love extends to all his creation because creation is an overflow of his love. Therefore, God wants to draw all of creation into this joyful communion. However, this is not some weak sentimentality, but expresses itself in concrete, powerful action: Jesus’ death delivered us, showing that God is pro bonis — for humanity, not against it. The cross shows God is unconditionally committed to his eternal, benevolent plans for humanity. And when we realise that the Christ who will judge the world (cf. Rom 2:16) is the same Christ who died for the world — yes, for sinners (Rom 5:8) — it changes everything. 
- As for justice, it is necessary for ECT to define it purely retributively, since it involves infinite retribution without even the slightest hint of restoration or correction. Besides the Marcionite problem noted above — a God who is not only just but also good would not be purely retributive but ultimately corrective  — ECT’ers are not consistent in their application of this notion of justice. The core value of retributive justice is impartiality, as opposed to favoritism. Everyone must get equal chances at fulfilling God’s Law. This means that God’s love is either nullified or universalised. God must either love everyone or not love anyone to be completely impartial. But double predestination is the epitome of favouritism! So, the ECT-system breaks down at its core.
- However, there are strong biblical and Christological reasons for defining God’s justice not in a primarily retributive sense at all, but in a saving, restorative, and utterly gracious fashion, and thus as an extension of his love. To take the most obvious example, the phrase dikaiosyne theou in Paul refers to God’s powerful action to put things right (cf. Rom 3:21–26), namely by liberating the cosmos in Christ — a cosmos that did absolutely nothing to merit it. So, God’s justice is a free gift to all, paying no regard to desert. 
- Within ECT, God’s wrath is a punitive expression of his justice against evil. As such, it is not an essential part of his character or ‘glory’, because in a state of perfection, evil necessarily does not exist (more on that in part 3). Wrath, like evil, inherently cannot exist forever! But arguably, if justice flows from God’s love, wrath does so too. Therefore, God’s wrath, while possibly being to an extent retributive, is ultimately corrective in nature — as a father who disciplines his children.
- God’s power, again defined in the light of Christ and therefore of the cross,  is not like that of the ‘rulers of this world’ (cf. Mark 10:42)— domineering, aggressive, violent, destructive, coercive, enslaving, and torturous (ECT!!), all of which Paul would rather associate with the powers of Sin and Death. No, God’s power is human weakness (1 Cor 1:25; 2 Cor 12:9). On the cross, Jesus became the victim of worldly power and, in overcoming it, redefined true power as loving kenosis, i.e., self-emptying (see Phil 2:7). It is incarnational, relational, and noncoercive. All of this speaks against ECT as a display of God’s power.
Therefore, the ‘Hell glorifies God’ argument for Hell does not hold up to Christ’s revelation of what God’s ‘glory’ actually consists of.
The Revelation of Christ & the Function of Hell
Now, everyone agrees that Christ not only definitively shows who God is (as the litmus test of God’s character), but that he also does so perfectly and comprehensively. So even if I would concede the ECT-definitions of justice as pure retribution, and power as pure coercion, then Christ would still perfectly display those attributes on the cross according to ECT-adherents themselves! — that is, through penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).
The cross, according to PSA, is the perfect display of both God’s justice and his mercy (again, recalling divine simplicity at this point). Now, no one would argue that God needs to keep on dying for sinners forever to ‘display his mercy’ — but in the same vein, he does not need to keep on punishing Jesus (or others) forever to ‘display his justice’! Christ ‘does the job’ perfectly for both mercy and justice (and wrath and power), so the revelatory function of Hell becomes redundant! The only provided rationale for implementing Hell into God’s eternal purposes does not hold. This surely is the death blow for this whole line of thought.
Objection: Contrasting Darkness?
Contra Piper, one does not need the contrasting darkness of Hell to value the light of Heaven.  Again, that touches on God’s self-sufficiency, as if the beatific vision is somehow not enough. One does need, in some weakened sense, the darkness of the present age to value the glory of the age to come. That is, retrospectively, in the light of Christ, people look back on their previous existence outside of Christ as one marked by slavery and ignorance. This, in some sense, makes their present existence ‘in Christ’ more valuable because of its freedom and enlightenment (among other virtues). However, these two states do not need to co-exist for this comparison to happen; they can be sequentially related, with the comparison happening in retrospect (since people, again, will have perfect memory in Heaven).
Similarly, people in Heaven do not need people in Hell to compare themselves with. Those in Heaven will simply compare themselves with their previous selves (the ‘old human’) who inhabited, one might say, a self-made ‘Hell’ on earth. (Moreover, what kind of an ugly view of redeemed humanity — and of God — would we end up with if those in Heaven would effectively be thinking: ‘Look at those people in Hell, they sure deserve what they get! It’s just glorious to watch their torture. Oh, how I love God!’, maybe even silently adding: ‘At least I’m one of the lucky ones…’) 
In sum, ECT distorts God’s freedom of will; it compromises his simplicity, self-sufficiency and omnibenevolence, and it contradicts his own Christological revelation, the last ultimately negating Hell’s supposedly revelatory function.
ECT-adherents now need to find another way of answering the question: how, as God is supreme Goodness, and God always does what is best, is not saving all better than saving all? Or, to use Piper’s terms: what is it that God values more, what is more important to him, what does he want more, than saving all? To put it even sharper: how does limited atonement + Hell glorify God more than unlimited atonement?
(3) ‘Barthian’: God elected all humans — and all are saved
This is the final position, besides the Arminian and Calvinist positions described above (see summary table below). Arminians think God wants to save all (universal) but can’t (conditional); Calvinists think he does not want to save all (particular) but could (unconditional); ‘Barthians’ think he does want to save all (universal) and can (unconditional) — and therefore will (although Barth himself hesitated to draw this conclusion). 
Only this last view upholds the truly free benevolence of God toward all humans, as well as the unfailing wisdom and goodness of God, expressed in his saving power (‘justice’) toward all in Christ.
 Everything Piper argues is refuted in this article series, although that was not my purpose beforehand. Let’s just say I ‘passed it over’.
One might also compare this article by Ligonier, which, besides some untruths (universalism in general was not denounced in 553, and universalists do believe in some form of Hell, taking Jesus at his word) and unjustified exegetical presumptions (such as translating Mat 25:49 as ‘eternal punishment’, and reading the parable in Luke 16 as a literal description of future Hell), contains two standard arguments for Hell which are refuted in my articles: 1. the free will defense, with a rampant conditionalism, and 2. the Anselmian ‘infinity’ argument.
 Alternatively, it is simply enigmatic, first setting up what seems to be plan A knowing it will fail, and only then executing the ‘real’ plan A, Christ.
 Cf. David Bentley Hart (DBH): God cannot ‘be merely one option among others, for the very simple reason that he is not just another object alongside the willing agent or alongside other objects of desire, but is rather the sole ultimate content of all rational longing.’ That All Shall Be Saved (Yale 2021), ch. 6, ‘Fourth Meditation: What is Freedom? A Reflection on the Rational Will’.
 Cf. DBH: ‘It makes no more sense, then, to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or out of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.’ TASBS, ch. 3, ‘First Meditation: Who Is God? The Moral Meaning of Creatio ex Nihilo’; see also the extended mediation on free will in ch. 6.
 Cf. Gregory MacDonald [Robin Parry], The Evangelical Universalist (Cascade 2012), ch. 1, where similar problems are teased out (and many more besides); also Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Cascade 2014), ch. 8, ‘The Paradox of Exclusivism’.
 This argument is made particularly well by DBH, TASBS, in his third meditation, on ‘What is a Person? A Reflection on the Divine Image’.
 See Piper, ‘Is Double Predestination Biblical?’. The extended quote is this: ‘…what restrains God from saving all is that he prioritizes the glory of the freedom of his sovereign grace above saving all. Better that some perish than that the freedom and greatness of God’s grace be diminished’ (emphasis mine). To be honest, I have a hard time even getting through this quote. In another article he writes: “What does God will more than saving all? … the greater value is the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy (Romans 9:22–23) and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation (1 Corinthians 1:29).”
 That is to say, either God’s love is essential and qualifies his justice (namely, as ultimately restorative), or God’s justice is essential and qualifies his love (namely, as conditional). Another way of saying this would be that either God is always just but only in some situations or to some people loving (i.e., to the elect as opposed to the non-elect), or that God is always loving but only in some situations or to some people ‘just’ (i.e., when retribution and restoration are required).
 This is a problem I have with Michael Gorman’s theology, because, while shedding a much-needed light on the kenotic and cruciform character of God as definitively revealed in Jesus, it fails to extend this insight to the second coming, refusing any universalistic lines of thought, perhaps restrained by conditionalist vestiges of the traditional interpretation of Paul.
 See On First Principles, trans. John Behr (Oxford 2018), esp. 2.4–5: “those who have sinned need to be treated with harsher remedies and … he applies to them those remedies which, though aiming at improvement, seem at the present to inflict a sense of pain”; he then goes on to discuss the restoration of those who perished in the Flood (1 Pet 3:18–21), of Sodom and Gomorrah (Eze 16:55), the Chaldeans (Isa 47:14–15), and those who died in the desert (Ps 77:34). See also 4.2.1, from which it becomes clear that this is very much a hermeneutical issue.
 See esp. Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans 2013), ch. 17, ‘The Deliverance of God, and Its Rhetorical Implications’ (as the culmination of ch. 13–16). “Seven subordinate semantic insights into the meaning of δικαιοσύνη Θεοῦ now unfold: (1) its content as an event or act; (2) its singularity; (3) its connotation as saving and, in this relation, (4) as liberating and (5) as life giving, and hence (6) eschatological, or resurrecting. Finally, (7) it is these aspects that allow Paul to pun on the genitive relation in the phrase, shifting between a genitive of subject and one of author or separation without a significant shift in meaning or reference, the δικαιοσύνη of God segueing into the δικαιοσύνη from God, which/who is Christ.”
 Cf. Michael Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, 20th Anniversary Edition (Eerdmans 2021), ch. 11, and Douglas Harink, Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the World (IVP 2020).
 Here the nasty side of any meritocracy emerges: the ‘winners’ inevitable look down upon the ‘losers’, because of the principle of desert or merit. Cf. Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). But this principle goes straight against the character of humanity (and divinity) as revealed in the incongruous love of Christ. (To be clear, the retributive system of ECT is only for one half meritocratic, which reveals its deep incoherency: God treats one part of humanity on the basis of desert, and the other half on the basis of ‘free’ mercy.)
 Cf. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, ch. 4, ‘Three Pictures of God in Western Theology’, for a similar way of summarising things.
PS: The title is a reference to a song by Lord Huron, ‘One Helluva Performer’. Let the reader understand…