Dave Grohl as the Devil in Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny
There is something called the Problem of Hell. It goes a bit like this:
1. Hell is a place of eternal punishment and torture.
2. God is all-loving and all-good.
3. A God that has these properties (from 2) would not send people to Hell.
4. Therefore, either Hell does not exist or God does not exist.
This is a pretty strong emotional argument against God, and even Christians have a hard time with it
. Possibly because of this difficulty, there is an alternate, non-physical account of Hell used by some. It is sometimes downgraded from a lake of fire to eternal “separation” from God. It’s not clear to me what this separation really entails, but I want to consider it and the problems I think it poses for certain theistic arguments.
What is separation from God?
Let’s first dismiss a naive account of separation that simply says God doesn’t answer your prayers or play an active role in your life. As an atheist, I don’t think God is doing those things in my life now, so it wouldn’t be a very apt punishment. It seems like the implication is that there is some separate realm that is devoid of God’s presence. We might turn to 2 Thessalonians 1:9, which says, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
But then what does it mean to be away from the Lord? I can see it meaning a lot of things, but I want to focus on some negative implications for theists that lie down a few paths of interpretation.
There are certain ways we could define separation from God that I think raise problems with certain theistic arguments. If Hell is truly some other realm of existence devoid of the presence of God, then that has serious implications for the Modal Ontological Argument. This argument says that, since God is defined as a necessary being, if God exists in some possible world, the God exists in the actual world. In other words, if God is possible, then God is necessary. Now, consider that we’ve said there is a way to exist without God. It could use clarification, to be sure, but this could be admitting there is a possible world without God. Via the aforementioned Ontological Argument, if there is a possible world without God, then God does not exist since a necessary being would exist in all possible worlds.
Or how about certain Transcendental Arguments for God? These generally argue that God accounts for our ability to know things, have scientific discovery, use logic, etc. God is the grounding of all of this, so without God, logic would not exist. Now, if Hell is devoid of God, then it seems like it ought to be devoid of those things that naturally emanate from God, like love. People who use Transcendental Arguments think of logic in the same way or the orderly state of affairs that account for the success of science. Think of a Hell that didn’t contain these things. It would not be effective punishment because we wouldn’t even know we were being punished. We wouldn’t be able to connect events or make sense of them. If you think those things remain without God, then it seems like you have to abandon the original arguments.
The idea of separation from God is in desperate need of definition if theists who use it want us to take it seriously. As I’ve laid out, though, such a path might just cause more problems than it’s worth where other arguments are concerned. In addition, it’s difficult to reconcile the notion with certain verses of the Christian Bible. Hell as separation seems to be more of an ad hoc escape route from the Problem of Hell. If so, then we’re back to facing the problem of reconciling Hell with God’s love. Philosophers and theologians have proposed answers for this, the most popular of which is probably that Hell is a free choice, but that will have to be the subject of another post.