The Doctrine of Hell and the God of the Philosophers

Written by
Megan Fritts
May 18, 2020
Megan Fritts
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned."
Blaise Pascal, first lines of “Memorial”


I was once a guest in a bible study where the following question was asked: “Does the fact that God wills some people to hell make you doubt his goodness?” When the question was asked, I assumed it was a trick question—2 Peter 3:9 explicitly says that God does not will anyone to perish. I brought this up, confident the question was a trick question, and confident that I had cracked the case. There was a long silence, and then an unexpected response: essentially, that when you read the bible in context, this verse cannot mean what it seems to mean. In one sense, God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, buuuuuut… if you don’t believe in him then, yeah, he kind of does want you to go there. I vaguely remember saying something to the effect of, “Well, okay. Then yes. It makes me doubt his goodness.” I doubt I said anything else the rest of the night. I did not want to be annoying, and I could tell I was not giving the answer that the answer-key book was prescribing. In describing this interaction to my husband later that night he responded pithily: “Yikes. Give me the God of the Philosophers any day.”

This is the first thing I have written where I really come out of the closet, so to speak, as a Universalist. But I should qualify my position before I start, because I am really a quietist regarding nearly all questions about the afterlife. My position is, if you feel really confident that the bible teaches something specific about the afterlife, try reading another book of the bible or a different commentary or theologian’s response to the doctrine—it will probably confuse you again. That being said, I am far more skeptical about the notion of an eternal hell than I am about any other purported feature of the afterlife. There are loads of good theological arguments for Universalism, many of them detailed on this blog. There are also, to be fair, many good arguments for an eternal hell, and just about every other afterlife position. Obviously, I find myself more convinced by the former set. But I am not well-versed enough in this issue to make a unique contribution to the theology, so my scope will be different: I want to talk about what the doctrine of hell contributes to the question that follows immediately upon accepting theism (or at least agnosticism): If there is a God, which (if any) of the posited gods is/are the true God(s)? Specifically, why should I be a Christian? Or at least, why should I hope that Christianity is the true religion?

There are a million things to say about this topic, and my piece here will cover a miniscule bit. And perhaps the first thought you had after reading the last sentence of the above paragraph was, “You should be a Christian because Christianity is true!” Here, I hope to convince you that the mere existence of the Christian God does not (on its own) answer the question of whether or not he ought to be worshipped. I further hope to convince you that “Christianity is true” entails more than the existence of the Christian God—its truth depends on the truth of claims about God’s nature. The combination of these two claims will, I hope, show why the doctrine of hell, in my view, takes away much of the edge that Jesus holds over the God of the Philosophers.

Before I get into this, I should define “God of the Philosophers”. With this I mean something rather simple: a tri-omni being, the origin of all things, who rules the world (in some sense of the world “rule”—perhaps he is just the proximal or efficient or final cause of all that happens) from some special vantage point (most philosophers accept God must exist outside of space and time). The God of the philosophers is mostly a sort of black-box explanatory tool. We want to know why the universe exists, some think there must be a necessary first cause, therefore this first cause must be God. It is this sort of sterile, philosophically elegant notion of God that Pascal, in his religious fervor, felt the unreality of.

Being Worthy of Worship

So, claim number one: The existence of the Christian God does not entail that this being ought to be worshipped. And perhaps here I should disambiguate on the word “ought”, for there are surely instrumental reasons why we should worship whichever gods happen to exist—namely, we wish to not be smote. But in a broader sense of the word, I take it the more interesting question is whether God, if he exists, is worthy of worship. Is the being referred to by the ancient Hebrew texts and the Christian New Testament, if he exists, all-good? This is the question that cannot be answered through most standard arguments for the existence of God. This question is not only difficult to answer, it is also difficult to know how to answer. And the reason it is difficult to know how to answer is that we tend to apply different moral standards to God than we do to ourselves or other humans. In some cases, this is reasonable: there are some things that a parent can permissibly do with their child that another adult may not (say, punish them). Likewise, there are likely things that a God, if one exists, would be able to permissibly do that would be impermissible for humans. Still, this cannot be used as a blanket defense of every purported action of God’s, and Christians know this—hence their oft-used critiques of Islam on the basis of their moral assessment of any number of real or imagined Islamic doctrines. If humans truly have no ability to correctly assess the moral character of a god-like figure, then these critiques of the practices of other religions would be impotent.  Even in cases where some person can permissibly do something some other person cannot do, we understand the moral reasoning behind this discrepancy. To put God in a position where the moral worth of his actions cannot be assessed by the human mind—we must simply, by necessity, label all he does as “good”—should (if we are consistent) plunge us into a deep moral skepticism. “God is good”, we might say, “even though we don’t really know what that means.”

But even this position has its limits, I imagine, for the vast majority of people. Suppose a lost manuscript was found which detailed a story of Jesus telling his disciples that selling children as sex slaves for money was a good and morally permissible way for them to make money to fund their churches. Even if this manuscript were quite old and seemed, in other respects, legitimate, I imagine that most people would reject its authenticity because of the morally repugnant nature of the content. I imagine most people would feel quite confident and comfortable doing so, which indicates that we do not take ourselves to completely lack knowledge of what a worship-worthy God would be like.

Christianity’s Being “True”

The second claim, that “Christianity is true” entails more than just “The God that the bible refers to exists” is probably accepted by most people. If we all find out at the end of time that, while Christians had the right God, they had the wrong everything else, we would probably be comfortable saying “Christianity was false”. There are many ways Christianity could be false even if it refers to the correct God: it could get it wrong about how we are supposed to live; it may be purporting to tell us historical facts but actually giving us only fiction; or it may get the character of God wrong. It is this last possibility that I am here most interested in: Does Christianity get it right regarding the character of God? There is another, related question: based on what Christianity says about the character of God, is the Christian God better than the God of the Philosophers?

As most Christians would attest to, our easiest window to the character of the Christian God is through the incarnate Christ. Privileging the knowledge of God gained through Christ over the ideas of God gained from the Old Testament is not selective reading—it is exactly what Christians are supposed to do. Revealing his character is at least one of the reasons for God’s becoming incarnate in the first place.  God, whose face had been hidden from us, now looks us in the eyes to reveal a beautifully human God who suffers and celebrates and doubts alongside us. And arguably the most prominent feature displayed in the incarnate Christ was the very feature after which this blog is named: his mercy.

Mercy is a fascinating thing, because at the end of the day there is just no getting around it: mercy is unjust. For precision, let me specify: for the remainder of this piece I will be using “justice” to refer to the modern concept of justice (as opposed to classical concepts), and by that I mean the following: justice is when punishment and reward, suffering and wellbeing, are distributed according to moral desert. Any time I show mercy to someone by forgiving them, withholding punishment or censure, etc., I prevent the outcome from being just when I prevent someone from getting what they deserve. Many proponents of penal substitutionary atonement want to say something like the following: God is merciful in Christ, but just in the Father, so the Father must dole out punishment and the Son takes the punishment from us. On the modern concept of justice, this act of Christ’s is just because he literally gives his righteousness to us, allowing us to properly deserve (in a way) the rewards of his grace. It would follow, then, that a failure to dole out punishment where punishment is deserved is always unjust, and therefore something God could not do. But this is theologically uninformed by the lights of most proponents of this theory of atonement, who take the Old Testament as infallible insight into God’s character, because there God the Father shows mercy—it is not the case that God must dole out punishment wherever punishment is deserved. Exodus 33:19 shows God informing Moses: “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” God shows mercy at will, and he is not bound by the dictates of retributive justice.

Is it blasphemous to say that God is not always just? Far less blasphemous, I would think, than to say that he is not merciful. And if mercy necessarily overrides justice, then that he is sometimes “unjust” (in a sense) seems undeniable. But this need not worry us so long as we accept a feature of Kierkegaard’s philosophy—the distinction between the religious sphere of existence and the ethical sphere of existence.

Mercy vs. Justice as the Ethical vs. the Religious

Without getting too deep into the extremely complicated philosophy of the 19th century Danish thinker, in his pseudonymous work Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard writes about moments that can be roughly described as ethical dilemmas: situations where every possible way of acting would result in an unethical action. The stock example that he uses, over and over and over again, is the story of Abraham and Isaac. Kierkegaard imagines every possible ethical consideration that Abraham may have acted on when commanded by God to sacrifice his son, and argues that there is no possible way to conceive of Abraham as doing something ethically good—no way unless we posit that, in his action, ethical categories are “suspended”. Why are these categories suspended? They may be suspended, he argues, if Abraham was making a movement to Faith. There is much nuance that I am brushing over here, but the broad point is this: Kierkegaard conceives of the “religious life” or the “life of faith” as requiring actions that are ethically impossible—requiring actions that are unimaginably good precisely because they go beyond what ethical categories can make sense of. “Mercy” or “forgiveness”, for Kierkegaard, falls into this category: it is exceptionally good in virtue of the fact that our ethical categories cannot make sense of why it is good.

Now, this may seem antithetical to my earlier point about our moral intuitions being a good source of evidence, but it is not. Here is why I am not contradicting myself: do you think mercy is good? If you said yes (I bet you did), then I agree with you. Saying that God is good in his mercy, which transcends ethical categories, is different than saying God is good in his torturing, which transcends ethical categories. Why is it different? Two reasons: 1) torture does not transcend ethical categories, it is condemned by them; 2) we know that mercy is good, even if we cannot explain why, and we know that torture is wrong (and we can easily explain why). For Kierkegaard, the religious transcends the ethical by rising above it, not by ignoring it entirely.

The doctrine of hell is easily explained in ethical categories—at least, the traditional understanding of the nature and purpose of hell. It is a tool of justice, deserved by all humans, and received by all humans who do not, in their earthly lives, take shelter under the shield of Christ. We may question how an earthly sin can deserve an eternal punishment, but the idea is that it can—the idea is that we are talking about moral desert, and hell delivers justice because everyone who spends eternity in hell deserves to be there. This idea makes many Christians feel as though they should not only accept the idea of an eternal but should also be joyful in the thought of such an outcome. But the inhumanness of this is clearly demonstrated in the writings of Paul to the Romans (chapter 9), where he expresses his desire to trade his closeness with God—to be cast away from God—in exchange for the salvation of his people. Paul himself desires, not “justice”, but mercy for the undeserving that he loves. Mercy—especially universal apocatastasis—is not easily explained in ethical categories. Mercy is often labeled “supererogatory” for this very reason—it is good in a way that cannot be explained by appealing to a moral obligation that someone is fulfilling. It transcends the ethical for the sake of love.


Christ vs. the God of The Philosophers

I said at the beginning of this piece that I found the plea “give me the God of  The Philosophers any day” to be penetrating—if Christ is not desirable to other gods, we may not have lost all reason to be Christians, but we have lost a large one. Consider the words of Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov in the novel The Brothers Karamazov:

“I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”


In context, Ivan is discussing the problem of evil: the problem of unredeemable suffering. Notably, he immediately rejects the notion that hell could possibly make things right—it would only cause more suffering (of which Ivan wants none) without making the victim any better off. But we can imagine someone responding in the same way to the idea of an eternal hell: “There is nothing that does not seem morally appalling to me about the idea of an eternal hell that all non-Christians go to, and so therefore, for the sake of my integrity, even if I’m ultimately wrong and it is morally justified, I must return my ticket.”

What does all this have to do with the God of the Philosophers? The God of the Philosophers is not a personal god—we stand in relation to him as we would to, perhaps, the Big Bang, or a secret path to enlightenment. This god brings no relationship, no comfort, but no real suffering either; if we suffer, we brought it on ourselves. Personal Gods tend to be different—they are decidedly relational, they have a decidedly ethical nature (meaning: their “goodness” is understood by devotees as ethical or moral goodness) and, in virtue of having decidedly ethical natures, their worship-worthiness partially hangs on their being superlatively ethically perfect.

And this is where Ivan’s criticism becomes obviously appropriate. If even one person suffering in hell were necessary to make a whole world of humans happy in heaven with God, would a morally perfect God create this world? Ivan asks his brother Alyosha, a priest, this question with a personal spin: would you, Alyosha, create a world where you could make billions of humans live in bliss for the price of the eternal torment of just one human? Alyosha hesitates before answering honestly: no.

This is not, of course, perfect evidence against the goodness of hell—it is, however, possibly the only evidence we have on the matter. Eternal hell, as best we can understand it, does not seem to us to be superlatively ethically perfect (because a better world would be one where no humans were ever created, or where humans did not experience an afterlife). Eternal hell also does not transcend the ethical by rising above it—it sits perfectly within the realm of those things which are intelligible through ethical description, it’s just that the ethical description is a bad one. In a choice, then, between a personal but ethically bad God, and an impersonal and ethically benign God, the winner is clear: only one of these Gods morally obligates us to “return our ticket”.

I find this tragic, because what seems glaringly obvious to me about the character of Christ is that he triumphs over the God of the Philosophers precisely because he rises above the ethical in his love. In John 8 we read the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, for which the law prescribed a stoning to death. What people usually take away from this case is that we ought not to judge others when we are equally guilty: “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” What is striking, however, is that here Christ rises above his own ethical exhortation—he is, of course, the only one there without sin, and yet he does not throw a stone. And he does this on its own, without telling the woman to follow him, without seeing any sign that she would be a follower of his.

This would have been unintelligible, in ethical terms, to the religious rulers: this man who claims to be the fulfillment of the law is entirely dismissive of it (the stoning law, as discussed in Deuteronomy 17:7, commands the witnesses to the crime to be the first to throw a stone)! But this passage illuminates a feature that everything else in the world possesses, that makes Christ the one who stands apart—the feature of condemning. Revelation 12:10 discusses the “casting down” of the “accuser”—the opponent of everything Godly who brings charges against humans. And through these tales and sometimes wild imagery, a picture of the Christian God emerges as one who transcends the ethical by refusing the trappings of ethical justice in exchange for the renewal brought by persistent and eternally granted forgiveness; an image emerges of one who is indisputably and heart-wrenchingly superior to the God of the Philosophers, because in his relentless extension of sacrificial mercy he is able to give humans the one and only thing that can truly change them.

 I will conclude by addressing those who have a non-traditional concept of an eternal hell. While I do not have enough space to address these views in full, I want to be able to say something. One may object to this whole post by saying “Everything you’ve said is right, but God will never force someone to love him because love cannot be forced. There are those who will refuse, and those people will be in hell.” Whether this hell involves actual torture by fire, or just the torments of living eternally beside the Accuser, clearly this idea is just as hellish as any other, yet potentially avoids the arguments I have made so far. Again, while this is the subject for a different post, I will say this: I doubt that there is a soul on earth whose heart is so hardened that a thousand years of extensions of mercy would not utterly break it. And I cannot, when observing the character of Christ, imagine that his treatment of those apart from him, whoever they are, would be anything besides a constant repetition of his words to the adulterous woman: “I will not condemn you—now go and sin no more.”

Megan is a PhD Candidate in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She primarily works on issues in action theory and ethics, but has side interests in philosophy of religion (especially Kierkegaard). When she isn't writing she is probably running, listening to podcasts on Roman history with her husband, or feeding her cats.