One Helluva Problem
Part 3: Embodiment, Ending Evil + Final Remarks
This is the final part in a series of articles asking questions about Hell; see also part 1 and part 2.
4. Are people embodied in Hell?
(1) Yes — they are embodied
In one scenario, humans destined for Hell are resurrected with their own fallen body, but endowed with a special kind of ‘immortality’ — the ability to endure infinite torment with a mortal body. However, besides the sheer absurdity and lack of biblical support for this suggestion, it would mean that humans in Hell still (or, again) bear God’s image, since they endure torment with a body created by God. Now we are back at the fundamental issue of how creation relates to election (see part 1).
(2) No — they are disembodied
In another scenario, those going to Hell are not resurrected at all, but are tormented forever as a soul. This reveals a covert assumption of the immortality of the soul, which, as annihilationists have pointed out well, is more Platonic than biblical.
Alternatively, a scenario is postulated in which God gives souls the special ability to experience torment in a disembodied state. However, again, there is no biblical warrant for this. On the contrary, there is a strong biblical and scientific warrant for posing that human experience and identity are inextricably linked to embodied existence.
5. How does evil come to an end?
(1) It doesn’t — humans keep on rebelling and being punished
If humans keep on rebelling forever, then the cycle of sin and punishment is perpetuated as well, so that we end up with an eternal dualism between good and evil. Humans sin, God punishes, humans sin, etc. There is never a point where God is definitively victorious. Humans never learn their lesson. Here the shortcomings of any purely retributive system become clear: if punishment does not include some form of rehabilitation, the cycle will repeat itself, thus leading one to question how efficient such ‘justice’ indeed is.
One might object that this would be still an asymmetrical dualism — evil would be ‘contained’ in Hell (one might even say ‘incapacitated’). However, this is simply not enough. If good was truly and completely victorious over evil, and God would really be ‘all in all’, (cf. 1 Cor 15:28), then evil (including rebellion in the heart of man) should be vanquished in its totality. Godlessness (both literal and metaphorical) should cease once and for all.
A short look at 1 Corinthians 15 might be helpful here. There we read this:
24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all (πᾶσαν) dominion and all (πᾶσαν) authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all (πάντας) his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put all things (πάντα) under his feet.” Now when it says that “all things” (πάντα) have been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put all things (τὰ πάντα) under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put all things (τὰ πάντα) under him, so that God may be all in all ([τὰ] πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν).
Now, it is simply impossible to change the last reference of πάντα (‘all’) to ‘all the elect’. This passage does not describe the destruction of unbelievers or the reprobate (see point 3 below on annihilationism), but of the evil powers that subjugated creation. And when the final trace of those evil powers is destroyed, God will be ‘all in all’, that is, in all his good creation, including all of humanity.
Thomas Talbott puts it like this:
“…there is but one way for God to defeat a rebellious will and to bring it into subjection to Christ; he must so transform the will that it voluntarily places itself in subjection to Christ. For so long as a single will remains in a state of rebellion against Christ, so long as a single person is able to cling to his or her hatred of God, at least one power in the universe — the power of that person’s will — is not yet in subjection to Christ” (emphasis mine). The Inescapable Love of God (Cascade 2014), ch. 5, ‘Saint Paul’s Universalism’.
And David Bentley Hart:
“[God’s] final victory, as described in scripture, will consist not merely in his assumption of perfect supremacy “over all,” but also in his ultimately being “all in all.” Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature? If this fictive and perverse interiority were to persist into eternity, would God’s victory over every sphere of being really be complete? Or would that small, miserable, residual flicker of Promethean defiance remain forever as the one space in creation from which God has been successfully expelled? Surely it would. So it too must pass away. (…) Any rational will that does not surrender to God as the true end of desire and knowledge is a whole world from which God is absent, and so is God’s defeat” (emphasis mine). That All Shall Be Saved, ch. 4, on ‘What Is Freedom?’.
Moreover, apart from dualistic worries, reflections on the nature of evil and sin preclude the possibility of ‘eternal’ evil or ‘eternal’ sinning.
- As we noted in our previous article, evil is something absurd, not existing substantially but as a privation of goodness. In other words, it can only exist if there is some goodness to corrupt in the first place. And if there is some goodness — in this case, a human created by God, through Christ and for Christ (Col 1:16), in the image of God, with mental faculties, etc.— all this goodness flows from God who is Goodness himself. This further implies that all this human goodness is teleologically oriented toward God, the Good, so that, when it is delivered from evil, it inevitably flows back to God. When God eradicates evil, humans cannot but find themselves drawn into eternal joyful communion with God, which was their destiny all along.
- In addition, sin (in this case rebellion) is intrinsically destructive — relationally, rationally, etc. — and thus naturally leads to death, which is at the same time its (gracious) termination.  (This is not to say that death has the last word, as annihilationists would; God is able to overcome any destruction wrought by sin and death through resurrection.) So, it is intrinsically impossible to sin forever — unless people are given the special ability of destroying themselves forever, but again, such a suggestion has no biblical basis. (One gets the idea by now that such ‘special abilities’ fill some rather deep holes in the argument.)
(2) It does — humans repent but keep on being punished
But now suppose that humans do stop rebelling at some point. They come to their senses, realise their wrongdoing and repent of their sins. What’s more, they come to love and obey God from the heart. In this way, evil truly comes to an end. This is more tenable than the previous option. However, we of course still retain all the other problems of ECT as noted in the previous two articles, but now in an even more absurd scenario.
That is, God has to continue tormenting lovingly obedient people forever, because their original life on earth deserved that (though see part 2). Even if God would want to save them, he would not be able to, in ECT, because his retributive justice outweighs all compassionate, merciful and kind concerns. What’s more, according to ECT, God would not even want to show them mercy, since these people have a negative role to play: display his wrath, justice and power. Thus God remains malevolent toward them forever (see part 1).
(3) It does — humans are annihilated
Another way for God to end evil is to annihilate humans (possibly after a temporary punishment). It may even seem kinder than punishing them forever (although that is up for discussion). Up front, I must say that it’s simply too blunt for God to become ‘all in all’ just by annihilating part of the latter ‘all’. And again, this does not correspond with the nature of God’s power as revealed in Christ, namely as cruciform and kenotic, which is the opposite of destructive (see part 1).
Moreover, it entails serious theological problems, again relating to the nature of evil and the teleology of creation.
- Destroying humans could only be a good thing if humans have become evil, rather than just having been corrupted by evil; it implies that evil has become substantial instead of privative (see above, and part 2). This would be a massive win on the side of evil! It has hijacked things that were created good by God and turned it into evil. (This also creates the ‘happiness’ problem for God and humans as noted in part 1.)
- Moreover, humans that are annihilated have ultimately been created for no good purpose at all (unless they temporarily displayed God’s power, etc.). This makes God as Creator a failure — or simply malicious.
(4) It does — humans are redeemed
Alternatively, there is a final option, and the only option which is based on firm Christological grounds: humans in ‘Hell’ will eventually be cleansed and liberated from their corruption of sin because of their continual exposure to God’s loving glory.
First, there is no biblical reason why people couldn’t be saved at some point in the afterlife.  If God wants to save humans this way, he can. There is no divine law that states that opportunities for salvation end at death; indeed, this would go against God’s patience and kindness, which, again, should not be qualified by a foundational conception of his justice as retributive (see part 1). Secondly, there is strong Christological grounds for positing that God never gives up on humans, even in Hell, since he has created them for communion with him and is fundamentally benevolent toward them (see part 1).
Even assuming that salvation is conditional upon human free choices (which it isn’t), there is no way humans would both rationally and culpably reject God forever. Human will and rationality are teleologically oriented toward the great Good, the ultimate end behind all good and rational desires (I’m repeating myself here). So, rejecting God would be the most irrational and thus unfree thing a human could ever do.  And if people are unfree, they cannot be held fully responsible and thus be deserving of eternal punishment (part 2). 
Moreover, again assuming that salvation is conditional upon faith and repentance (which I do not think is the case), God could effect that faith and repentance (by irresistible grace, in the Calvinistic case), or offer people an infinite amount of opportunities to believe and repent (by prevenient grace, in the Arminian case). Both, arguably, ensure the salvation of all. 
But on apocalyptic, Calvinistic grounds, the question is not if God can save people, whether in this life or the next. He can, unconditionally so. The question is: does he want to?
Christ says yes. In dying for sinners, he shows that the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love are immeasurable (Eph 3:18). Dare we limit it?
Thus far my (far too short) critique of ECT, as well as of annihilationism along the way. These accounts of Hell are incoherent and cannot stand up against God’s revelation in Christ.
Two primary arguments remain:
- ‘But what about the biblical texts? They are clear about Hell.’ Well, they aren’t, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this discussion. For now, I would refer people to the following, clearly universalist texts: Romans 5:12–21; Romans 11:25–36; 1 Corinthians 8:5–7; Ephesians 1:8b-10; Philippians 2:9–11; Colossians 1:15–20. (Inserting a condition of faith into such texts is basically a move of Sachkritik, thinking you know better than Paul what he meant — and I would not disagree with such Kritik as such, but with the Sache.) Also, some texts may seem to espouse annihilationism, further contributing to an ‘unclear’ exegetical situation. So, throwing around ‘proof texts’ does not solve the debate. 
- ‘But it is a mystery! We should not try to figure it out rationally.’ This is a smart rhetorical move, because, under the guise of humility (however sincere!), it presumes a particular interpretation of Scripture (that is, by chance, quite irrational), and precludes discussion about it by essentially sacralising it and freezing it as ‘the’ orthodox position — all the while (indirectly or directly) hereticising the opponent. This goes against sound academic and theological method. More often than not, mystery is not inherent in the biblical text but the result of an incoherent interpretive system. Tensions often turn out to be simply contradictions. 
This was the final part in a series of articles asking questions about Hell; see also part 1 (on election) and part 2 (on desert).
 See Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, ch. 5, ‘Resurrection and Death’.
 Cf. James Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death (IVP 2021), which is helpful for broadly making the same point (although I disagree on basic matters of soteriology).
 See this excellent article by Jeremiah Carey on free will and God as the Good.
 It could even classify as a form of abuse to torment those who are mentally impaired.
 If prevenient grace restores people’s rational free will, then this free will inevitably find its telos in God (and thus it comes down, in some ironic way, to irresistible grace). Any rejection of God would be a sign of ignorance and thus bondage of the will, and thus a negation of prevenient grace.
 Cf. DBH, TASBS; MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist; Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, for exegetical discussions of all the relevant texts.
 As David Bentley Hart puts it so sharply: “The most effective technique for subduing the moral imagination is to teach it to mistake the contradictory for the paradoxical, and thereby to accept incoherence as profundity, or moral idiocy as spiritual subtlety” (TASBS, ch. 1; emphasis mine).
It reminds me again of Orwell’s 1984, with its concept of ‘doublethink’. If people are raised with ECT, and sufficiently ‘indoctrinated’ (using that word in a morally neutral sense), they will come to accept contradictions as true and, what’s more, biblical. Therefore, contradictory positions may make you sound more biblical than logically consistent arguments!