I’m sure all of us can relate to the pleasures of resentment, bitterness, self-righteousness and so on. It is not hard to see that anyone who is resentful is not truly happy, indeed, they are miserable. But those who choose to hold on to their resentment do enjoy a perverse sort of pleasure and a distorted sense of satisfaction. To anyone who urges them to repent and give it up, they may well give the bird and insist they are doing just fine, thank you.
I have tried to make philosophical sense out of this in chapter 5 of Hell: The Logic of Damnation, as well as in the popular book I am currently writing. Also, keep your eyes open for Kevin Timpe’s forthcoming book Free Will in Philosophical Theology, which has a very insightful discussion of the logic of choosing evil, including damnation. But again, I’d start with Lewis.
Similarly, Nate asked: First, what is the nature of the "conscious, eternal misery?" Is it physical (fire, pain, etc.), is it emotional/spiritual (loss, separation, despair, etc.), or is it both? Second, if there is opportunity for repentance upon experiencing conscious misery, why would some not choose it? This seems to go against the human instinct for survival and comfort.
I think the essence of the misery of hell is the natural unhappiness that results from resisting the love of God and having a character decisively formed by evil, with all that that entails. For instance, such a character cannot enjoy meaningful relationships, which are essential to human happiness. The nature of such misery is not hard to understand, indeed, there is a profound continuity between such misery and the misery evil naturally produces in this life. John Wesley put it like this:
For it is not possible in the nature of things that a man should be happy who is not holy….The reason is plain: all unholy tempers are uneasy tempers. Not only malice, hatred, envy, jealousy, revenge, create a present hell in the breast; but even the softer passions, if not kept within due bounds, give a thousand times more pain than pleasure.
However, I also believe that the misery of hell includes a physical dimension for the simple reason that human beings are embodied beings by nature, and the damned will be resurrected in their bodies. I do not believe the fire is literal but rather an image, just as I think “the worm that does not die” is an image or a metaphor (Mark 9:48). As has often been pointed out, hell is also pictured as darkness (eg Matthew 22:13), and literal fire and darkness are incompatible. This does not mean that the realities imaged by fire, undying worms and darkness are not terrible because that language is metaphorical rather than literal. After all, a metaphor communicates because it the reality it depicts is similar to the image that is used.
I discuss my view of the misery of hell in detail in chapter 6 of Hell: The Logic of Damnation.
From Rachel: So the most common Bible passage cited by those who oppose the possibility of postmortem salvation is probably Hebrews 9:27-28: "And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him." How do you interpret these words from Priscilla and Aquilla? (Okay, so that last bit is a personal theory about the authorship of Hebrews, but the question still stands!)
Well, I think this text is way overrated by those who cite it against the possibility of postmortem conversion. Not the text itself, because it’s pretty hard to overrate Biblical texts, but rather the way the text is interpreted. In short, those who cite this text for that reason are trying to squeeze more out of it than it actually says. So what does it say? We die once. Well, I certainly agree with that, and I would guess most proponents of postmortem salvation do not posit that we die multiple deaths.
Next, it says that after we die, there is judgment. And of course I agree with this. But notice: it does not say judgment is immediately after death, nor does it say, (if there is an immediate judgment) that it is final. Indeed, most traditional theology holds that the final judgment is yet to come. So there could well be a preliminary judgment immediately after death that would judge one’s life to that point, but that judgment could still allow for repentance.
The text goes on to compare and contrast the first and second comings of Christ, but again, I see nothing there that rules out postmortem repentance.
It is also worth emphasizing that God’s word of judgment often leads to repentance and ends in mercy and redemption. For just one example, consider Jonah’s word of judgment to Nineveh: in forty days, Ninevah will be overthrown (Jonah 3:4). Of course, as the story turns out the Ninevites repented and their city was not overthrown. Did God change his mind? No, he did not. Implicit in the word of judgment was an invitation to repent. The Ninevites, however, did change their minds, which is what repentance literally means, a change of mind. Had they remained impenitent, the judgment would surely have fallen.
From Chris, and the community at rethinkinghell.com: Proponents of the eternal conscious torment view typically hold to the biblical teaching that the unsaved are likewise resurrected and that both body and soul are subject to hell. However, they believe that these resurrected bodies of the lost will live forever, albeit separated and isolated from God. Yet the Bible explicitly says that only God has immortality inherently and that immortality is brought to light through the gospel and granted to the glorified saints who persevered in the faith to the end, whereas it does not appear to say anywhere that immortality is granted to the unsaved. So when eternal conscious torment is the very question at hand, what biblical evidence would you point to as teaching that the resurrected bodies of the lost will likewise be made immortal?
Immortality, like eternal life, is far more than ongoing conscious survival, or even the resurrection of our bodies. Or to use a distinction philosophers often employ, continued survival is necessary but not sufficient for immortality. Scripture of course speaks of a resurrection of both the just and the unjust (John 5:28-9; Acts 24:15). Immortality properly speaking is the resurrection to the fullness of life in relation to God and others for which we were created. It is the glory that comes from having the character and likeness of Christ (2 Cor 3:18; 4:4-7).
It does not follow, however, that to fall short of glory, as sin inevitably causes us to do (Romans 3:23), is to lose existence altogether. The resurrection of the unjust can be a resurrection to ongoing existence even though it is not resurrection to the immortality of life with God. I believe that texts like the one from Revelation 14 cited above give us reason to believe that even those who reject God’s gift of salvation and the glorification that entails still remain in conscious, embodied existence. Indeed, they remain in relationship to God even though it is a relationship of sin and rebellion.
I will grant you the biblical data on this matter is debatable. But if hell is freely chosen, as I have argued, and is not the torture chamber sometimes depicted, the conditionalist view loses a lot of its motivation. God’s perfect love and goodness is perfectly compatible with those persons who refuse the gift of salvation and immortality, but whose ongoing existence is defined by an ongoing rejection of the very God of love in whom they continue to “live and move and have their being.”
From Preston Sprinkle: Are there degrees of punishment in Hell? And if so, could those who receive a "lesser" sentence ultimately be annihilated? For instance, a 15 year old Saudi girl has been raped her whole life, and has just met a Christian on the streets who gave her a 5 min gospel presentation (in Arabic), making her now accountable, but seconds later she gets hit by a bus: will she be kept alive by Jesus so that she will consciously feel the most tormenting pain for ten trillion years. And more? And will she sit alongside Hitler in his misery? I ask not facetiously or rhetorically (assuming a right answer), but because I've been faced with the same question ad nauseum.
Yes, I do think scripture gives us reason to think the misery of hell varies in quality as well as intensity, depending on the patterns and kinds of sin committed. A person consumed with hatred, for instance, likely experiences a different sort of misery than one who simply let his life and character be formed by following his lusts and desires. The different forms of suffering Dante depicts, as well as Lewis in The Great Divorce, is very suggestive in that regard.
As for the scenario with the 15 year old girl, well, that is the very picture of “minimal grace” and the very sort of thing that would be ruled out by my view of optimal grace. Given this story, we have no reason to think this girl has really understood the gospel, let alone well enough to reject it decisively. The assumption that she would be lost forever simply because she heard one garbled sermon makes the doctrine of hell as often defended a moral and theological absurdity.
From Eric: Whoa, whoa, whoa. This is not directly related to the post, but there's seriously a place called Knock 'em stiff, Ohio?
Not only is there really a place named Knockemstiff, Ohio, but it has also achieved notoriety fairly recently in literary circles. This is due to my friend and high school classmate (though he dropped out his Jr. year and did not graduate with our class) Donald Ray Pollock, who lived up the road from me in Knockemstiff, and has used it for the setting in his critically acclaimed fiction. Don burst on the literary scene in 2008 after working 32 years as a truck driver in a paper mill when he published an extraordinary short story collection entitled Knockemstiff. He followed that up a couple years later with a novel, The Devil all the Time, which won several awards including “Badass Book of the Month” from GQ. He is currently finishing his third book, another novel, on a Guggenheim fellowship.