Which way is home? Hell, the will of man, and the intentions of God

You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.

~ St. Augustine

There are profound theological implications for one’s understanding of the fate of sinners depending on whether one believes Augustine’s words. Was Augustine correct?

Much of the church’s soteriology in the last several centuries has taken its cue from the very old notion, found in Augustine, that the will of every human is utterly opposed to God. But stated this way, that stance takes no position on the more important issue of whether this state of opposition is intrinsic to us. Many Protestants have mistaken Augustine’s opposition to Pelagius’ tabula rasa as implying that humanity is intrinsically opposed to God, but even Luther’s own terminology recognized that our wills are not naturally predisposed toward enmity with God: rather, our wills are in bondage. The universality of the bondage of the will undercuts the instinct of some among the Reformed who will be quick to suggest that Augustine’s words refer only to the elect. Remember, Augustine was the most important advocate of what we call Original Sin: his contention was that there was a vacuum in every human soul that could only be plugged by God. We are all fallen, but we are fallen into a restlessness of heart, not into an annihilation of that aspect of our hearts. We are fallen into a bondage of the will.

For me, this basic belief – that whatever fallenness all flesh is heir to is a corruption rather than a default orientation intended by our Creator – frames the whole debate over the fate of those who die in rebellion against God. The human species is designed such that it finds rest only in its home, and its home is with God.

At the outset, I cannot believe that God made people in a certain way and now condemns a majority of them to suffer irredeemably for it. There is no room in my heart or mind for such a view of hell and the afterlife, nor room in this post to persuade those committed to the idea. If you are content with that view, I will not pry it from your fingers, though I hope better for you; I will look elsewhere.

A more Arminian view (although you needn’t be a five-point Arminian to hold it) is that many sinners will reject God despite having been presented the alternative and being given a genuine choice. They are responsible for their own damnation by defying and resisting God, who (more reluctantly than in the Calvinist view) sends them to hell as just punishment. But to grant this we have to grant a few things that I find problematic. To begin with, I have severe problems with calling a punishment meted out in mere retribution, without any intent or hope for exacting compensation and reconciliation, a “just punishment”.

Perhaps the most popular alternative to that conception of hell as divine satisfaction of justice through punishment of sins, a conception present in both Arminian and Calvinist forms, is that of C. S. Lewis. His famous understanding of hell as outlined especially in The Great Divorce avoids my objection by contending that hell is not as much divine punishment as it is the result of a final and irreconcilable discord between God and sinners that, crucially, is attributable not to God but to a conscious and persistent choice on the part of sinners. For Lewis, those who finally choose to reject God will never, even given endless opportunities in their post-mortem state (the door is “locked from the inside”), take Him up on His offer of reconciliation. To those who wind up in hell, their selfishness is their home and their reward, and God mercifully lets them go with a sigh and a “thy will be done.” This is Lewis’s hell.

That may be a satisfactory solution to my first objection to the Arminian view, but there are pitfalls shared by both the Arminian view and Lewis’s. Once you grant the position of Augustine, Luther, etc. that God crafted the human soul to be oriented even in its fallenness toward home with Himself, you’ve got to satisfactorily answer the question of why certain souls would never ultimately find their way home. I have trouble accepting that anyone who knew enough about hell to make a reasoned and responsible choice would choose hell: these views require either that God callously accepts the impaired decision of an impaired will or that He designed some of us to have wills that, even if let out of their chains long enough to make a free decision, would point in the polar opposite direction from Himself. We have to ask why a God who loves us all would make some of us in such a way that we would not be attracted to His goodness, preferring a destiny where we’d waste away, all to His own bereavement. Would you have a child if you knew beforehand that he would hate you and die in selfishness and bitterness at a young age? Finally, notice that in these views, God is made out to be an incomplete victor in His war against sin and death. Neither view is much of an alternative to the Reformed one, which after all has a certain terrible logic to it.

The best solution I am aware of comes from the man C. S. Lewis regarded as his mentor from beyond the grave. George MacDonald’s view was that, because God created humans in such a way that our deepest yearnings are for communion with our Maker, God’s purposes would not – could not – be successful unless those children He made remembered where they belonged and eventually turned back homeward. God is the Great Physician who heals all our diseases, even if they have penetrated deep into our wills and desires. Inasmuch as our wills are misshapen, God’s intention and accepted responsibility is to restore them, through what will undoubtedly be a painful process for all involved (this is MacDonald’s “hell”), but it will eventually be accomplished in all alike. As the greatest and highest objective Goodness, God is wholly and utterly lovely to all He has made. He has never made a soul that could become so blind as to be utterly incapable of recognizing Him as Father, and MacDonald doubted to the extreme that there ever existed a soul that would not be irresistibly drawn to Him and His goodness once it did recognize Him. Our wills are bound, bound by our biology, bound by our cultures, habits, and prejudices: what else would a loving Father do but make every effort to free His children from that bondage? “The will of God should be done. Man should be free—not merely man as he thinks of himself, but man as God thinks of him.” Neither a final death (annihilationism in its various forms) nor eternal death (an eternal hell) would be acceptable to God, because it is Death, not the wayward will of one of His children, still less His child itself, that is truly His enemy; He intends to put Death under His feet once and for all, swallowing it up in Life that He may be all in all.

Conceptions of salvation, beliefs about the fate of the damned, and interpretations of biblical eschatology — as nearly all doctrines — have tolerated variations and fluctuations throughout church history, but what has remained a constant underpinning of Christianity is an understanding of God as quintessentially good, loving, and just. For my part, I cannot reconcile the latter bedrock assumption with any of the views discussed above except that of MacDonald. While I cannot claim certainty that his stance is true, I find it to be the least damaging to the character of God as understood by Christians throughout the ages, and with him I believe that God would rather us think the best of His character as reflected in that majority Christian testimony than doggedly defend the factuality of every depiction of Him we can find in the Bible.

Moreover, if the problem of pain, which is probably every bit as much responsible for strife, heartache, and savage acts of sin as it is a result of them, has any solution, it’s in a God who will emerge as the victor over suffering by conquering it and redeeming it for the good of everyone He allowed to endure it. Scoff if you like, but my heart was restless until it found its rest in this God, and I will cling to that hope until my dying breath.

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  • Paul D.

    I just don’t see the need for Hell at all. When we argue about Hell, are we engaged in anything more than an argument as to whether Balrogs have wings?

    I mean, surely, as much as we can come up with good reasons to believe in one sort of hell and reasons not to believe in another sort, we’re ultimately talking about a man-made concept that didn’t exist for at least 90% of the time mankind has been on Earth.

    • Maybe it’s not. Maybe all the wrongs we do should just be ignored; I’m just
      not convinced that it’s the right solution.

      • Paul D.

        By “ignored”, do you mean “forgiven”? 😉

        • Ha! No, but now I see where your misgivings lie.

          The issue for me is the human will. Forgiveness in the sense of putting away the wrongs we have done is easy enough to do. But I think God wants us to desire forgiveness and restoration of our own volition. Folks like Peter Hitchens who have said they would (effectively) spit in God’s eye and tell Him where to go…what’s God supposed to do with that? If, as I hope and believe, He designed His creation to be able to want communion with Himself, He obviously has some work to do on ol’ Hitch, unless He wanted to violate his free will. It’s this sort of unfinished business – not punishment, but potentially uncomfortable healing – that I imagine God has in store for those who reject Him, lovingly and carefully undertaken. Could be wrong, though.

    • But you know, there are a host of things we believe that 90% of humanity didn’t believe. I’m not sure that’s a particularly strong point.

      • Paul D.

        I was in a bit of a mood when I posted my comment, but I think the point stands. The things that we, unlike most people over the vast majority of history, are privileged to know are things we have discovered through exploration and experimentation. 

        But really, if hell exists, and God didn’t bother telling anyone about it for the first 20,000–200,000 years or so that humans have existed, what does that say about God? I know you’re not an inerrantist, so I think you understand why we ought to be skeptical about anything that is cobbled together from vague hints in a relatively recent text.

        It seems to me the issue is not defining exactly what hell is. The issue ought to be having a compelling reason we should believe in such a place at all.

        • To clarify, I don’t think that hell, in a traditionally recognizable sense,
          does exist, nor certainly that people oblivious to the wrongness of their
          behavior will experience anything like it. But no one who has a conscience
          capable of judging the rectitude of their actions has any reason to believe
          otherwise than that consequences to what they do in violation of what is
          acceptable are warranted. MacDonald’s supposition was that each individual
          would be placed in the position of letting go of the impulses to commit acts
          of sin, and while many impulses would be easily surrendered (especially
          those not recognized by the individual as wrong), more deep-seated issues
          that they cling to in pride and selfishness would remain until they are
          given up. This is not torture, which would certainly be something
          worth warning people about without a doubt.

          • Paul D.

            Do you believe in an immortal soul, out of curiosity? I can’t remember if you’ve said or not.

          • I don’t know if I believe in “the soul” per se. I believe in God’s ability,
            obligation, and intention to redeem the suffering of this world. And He sure
            ain’t done it in this life.

  • nick b

    Apparently since about 1950 Balrogs can fly.

  • Brilliant post. I read it slowly and thoroughly because there is a lot of meat here. Have you seen the discussion happening on Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, about Chan’s new video?

    • Thanks, Michelle! No, I haven’t seen it yet, but I have seen the video. This post was already in work when I saw it, and the penultimate paragraph of this post was mostly written as a succinct response to Chan.

  • SamB

    Steve, I want to thank you for your blog. It has been very helpful to me, and I appreciate it very much. Just wanted you to know.

    • Nice to meet you, Sam. Thank you so much for the encouragement — I’m just insecure/prideful enough to appreciate it tremendously! 🙂