Q. I read your series of posts on “Is hell a place of never-ending punishment?” with great interest. Which view do you personally favor?
When it comes to my own personal reflections on this issue, I actually start with a different question, not “Does hell last forever?” but “Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?” I say at the end of my last post in the series you mention, “Maybe the thing to do is to allow our understanding of the character of God to inform our view of what happens after death, rather than letting possible interpretations of the afterlife make us question what we would otherwise believe about what God is like.” And based on what I understand God to be like, I can’t imagine God leaving sincerely repentant people in hell—that is, people who wish they had repented, based on what they now realize. (I recognize this view might be controversial, something that many people may not have heard before, but this is the view I favor.)
So I guess you could say I believe in some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death. Paul did include “death” as among the things that cannot separate us from the love of God in his list in Romans. It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who genuinely want to come in.
On the other hand, there actually are people who will want to be in hell. They will take the same attitude as Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” To give another example, in James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the main character, Stephen Dedalus, after explaining that he has “lost the faith,” continues:
“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning. . . . I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.”
William Ernest Henley wrote similarly at the end of his poem Invictus:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
So there are some people who will chose self-determination above God’s gracious offer of salvation, because they want to run their own lives, no matter where that leads. (These are all examples from literature, but they capture an attitude that can be found in life as well.)
So hell is a place where people do not acknowledge the sovereignty and authority of God. My next question is, “Would God allow such a place to exist for all eternity?” I don’t think so. I think we see from the Bible that the end matches the beginning. In the original creation, everything was harmonious and under God’s rule. God allowed the rebellion of sin for reasons we don’t fully understand, but I believe God gave only conditional and temporary permission for this rebellion to occur. God’s ultimate design is to bring all things back under his rule and authority. (Paul wrote at the beginning of Ephesians, for example, “With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” Paul also wrote in 1 Corinthians, “For Christ must reign until God has put all his enemies under his feet”—no lingering rebellion.) If that’s the case, then hell will not exist for all eternity, since it is a place where, by definition, God’s authority is denied and resisted.
Well, that’s the view I favor, anyway, though I respect the opposite view as well. Both views can appeal to much in the Scriptures for support. I don’t think we can dot every I and cross every T when it comes to filling out all the details of our understanding of the afterlife. But that’s how I think about these things personally, anyway.