One Helluva Problem

Part 3: Embodiment, Ending Evil + Final Remarks

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 shere absurdity and lack of biblical support for this suggestion, it would mean that humans in Hell still bear God’s image, since they retain 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.

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.

  • 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. [1] (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.

(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).

  • 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.

Final remarks

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.

  1. ‘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. [6]
  2. ‘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. [7]


[1] See Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, ch. 5, ‘Resurrection and Death’.



Thoughts on Pauline theology and the Christian life

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