Do People Choose Hell?
Because the traditional doctrine of hell generates such a visceral response of moral revulsion in most people, there have been many attempts made to make the doctrine feel more morally acceptable. One such attempt is claiming that people choose to go to hell of their own free will. Consider the following from C.S. Lewis.
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
Now, it must be said that I like C.S. Lewis. He wrote many things that showed deep thinking about the Christian faith and that are helpful expositions of Christian thought. The quote above, however, just isn’t one of them. Why do I say this?
The answer is that there are numerous scriptural and philosophical problems with his statement. Let’s examine them.
First, it is apparent from Scripture that those who are being punished by God are cast into the lake of fire at the final judgment. They don’t walk in of their own free will. The imagery of Gehenna is the same. There is never any sense in the Scriptures that people choose it. In fact, if we are to take the parables of Matthew 25 on the subject, we see that the unprepared virgins came to the door late and said, “‘Lord, Lord,… open the door for us!’” But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you’” (Matthew 25: 11-12). It is the same of the wicked servant who is thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30). Likewise, the goats in the parable of the sheep and the goats are commanded to depart from Christ (Matthew 25:41). There is simply no scriptural support that people choose hell.
Yet Lewis makes this claim repeatedly. Consider the following:
C.S. Lewis The Problem of Pain
I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.
Again, there is no scriptural support for this claim. None. In fact, we are told who has the keys and the authority over all things: Christ himself.
I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
It is Jesus who holds the keys to death and Hades. You may recall that the final place of judgment for the wicked is called the second death. He holds the keys. He holds all authority over everything. Saying that people have the keys to hell and that we lock ourselves in has no biblical support at all.
It also is wholly unreasonable.
I think it is a verifiable fact that nobody wants to be tormented forever. Hell advocates love to say that hell is eternal, conscious torment. Would people really see God on judgment day and choose this over Him? Shall we take a survey? We can make it quite simple. Here is a sample of what this survey could look like:
Survey Question: Which would you rather experience? Choose one of the following:
Option A: Eternal happiness with a good, majestic God who loves you more than you can possibly imagine.
Option B: Eternal conscious torment in hell. In other words, absolute misery forever and ever.
Nobody would really choose option B. It is incredibly absurd to insist that most people on earth would. If the survey were actually given, some people might do so sarcastically, in order to mock the survey, but no one actually wants to be tormented, especially not forever.
This brings up another highly problematic aspect of this view. Remember that all people will appear before God at judgment. Consider the scene:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
So, everyone will see our judge on a glorious white throne and his majesty will be so impressive that even the earth and the heavens will flee from Him. I can’t even imagine what that means, but it certainly suggests greatness beyond comprehension.
The notion that people see God face to face in this way and still choose hell, however, suggests that God’s majesty isn’t very impressive. It suggests that a person’s response upon seeing God at judgment is “well, I guess that’s God but I’m not too impressed. I’d rather go to hell so I can be a self-centered jerk for all eternity.” Is God really not impressive enough, not great enough and not powerful enough to generate repentance in our souls? Will people really see Him and choose eternal conscious torment in hell? Really? This makes God out to be pathetically weak and unappealing. This is not a biblical view of God. Consider the following:
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, You are very great;
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
Covering Yourself with light as with a cloak,
Stretching out heaven like a tent curtain.
He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters;
He makes the clouds His chariot;
He walks upon the wings of the wind;
He makes the winds His messengers,
Flaming fire His ministers.
"Who is like You among the gods, O LORD? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders?
Is God so feeble that we won’t be impressed enough to choose Him? The Bible makes it clear that this view of God is mistaken. We will be absolutely blown away by His awesome majesty! His power, goodness and light will be overwhelming and irresistible. There is simply no way that people will see God at judgment and choose to walk into the lake of fire. They won’t see God, shrug, and say “meh, where can I sign up for that second death bit? That sounds more like my cup of tea.” The very notion is incredibly ridiculous. And it makes God sound like He isn’t very captivating, forgetting that He is the most spectacular Being that has ever existed.
Yet this view has had a significant impact on many Christians, so much so that many forget that it has no biblical basis. It is a way that people make themselves feel better about eternal hell, so people cling to it. After all, something must be said to sooth our consciences. If people are just choosing eternal torment of their own free will, we can feel then that it isn’t so bad, right? For this reason the concept that people choose eternal suffering has become ingrained in our imaginations. Because of this, it is important to further examine the philosophical assumptions of this argument and test them against Scripture and reason. So let’s take a look at another angle of this argument next:
Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.
In the above quote, Chesterton takes the concept that people choose hell a bit further, suggesting that it is, in a sense, an ethically superior thing for God to allow this choice because it honors human dignity and our ability to choose for ourselves. Again, there are serious flaws in this line of reasoning.
First, does the hell doctrine really honor human freedom? Consider the fact that the doctrine says that people are cast into hell where they experience endless torment and are never allowed out, for any reason. This is clearly the opposite of freedom. It’s like being tossed in a medieval dungeon where you will be tortured for the rest of your life. And the traditional doctrine prohibits the possibility that you could choose God from your location in hell, even if you really wanted to. Once there, you have no more choices at all. Saying that this honors your freedom is ludicrous.
Second, I cannot think of any doctrine that could possibly be more manipulative and coercive than the threat of eternal punishment for not believing something properly. In what possible sense does it honor freedom to say “if you don’t believe and do what I tell you, I’m going to torture you! And by the way, I’ll torture you forever in the most awful way imaginable! Now go be free and do what you want…" It is like a gun is being held to your head, and your assailant is telling you to make a choice, but if you choose wrong, he’ll pull the trigger. In what sense is freedom present in this situation? How is the “dignity of human choice” preserved? It is quite ironic that proponents of the traditional hell doctrine claim that it honors free will; nothing could be further from the truth.
Third, the assumption being made by Chesterton in this statement is that free will is a moral good that surpasses all others. His argument makes free will into an almost ultimate good. I say this because it trumps all other ethical considerations. For example, we could list some ethical problems with hell:
1. Torturing people for no purpose is morally wrong.
2. Torturing people who never heard the gospel is unfair.
3. Torturing people forever is worse than anything any madman has ever done in all of history.
But Chesterton’s argument says all of those things are OK because choice is being honored. Given the terrible nature of this fate, why wouldn’t God be morally obligated to make Himself known in such way that everyone could be reconciled to Him? If God is our Heavenly Father, as the Bible claims repeatedly, why would He let His children end up eternally lost? Chesterton’s answer is free will. He is just honoring our choices.
The problem with this is that allowing people to choose whatever they want is not actually an ethical good. As a father myself, I do not let my children choose to eat only candy and ride their bikes on the freeway just because that is what they want to do. That would be considered neglect. As a parent you want to help your children grow up into mature adults and you restrict freedom when necessary because their ultimate well-being is more important. Since God is our Heavenly Father, He too wants what is best for us. Consider the following:
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
God is a good, good Father. He wants what is best for His children. Though He allows us to make choices and make mistakes, “he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). In fact, we are told that our free will and subsequent disobedience compliments God’s purpose, “for God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32). Therefore, our choices aren’t honored by sending us to hell, but rather by being a tool that God uses to further magnify his amazing mercy.
“God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice” isn’t hell, but grace, for “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). In spite of our awful decisions, God is gracious to us and shows us mercy, even when he disciplines us as a Father rightly should. This truly honors human dignity and freedom.
How Much Choice Do We Really Have?
Now let’s consider one more aspect of the “people choose hell” argument. For all the talk of human choice in this view, a huge amount of what we experience in life has nothing to do with our choices at all. And these experiences powerfully shape our psychology and our decisions. For example, nobody chooses where they are born. Yet, if you are born in certain places in the world, you are virtually guaranteed to never hear the gospel, while in other places it is readily available. You don’t choose your parents or your influences. You don’t choose to be abused and experience the psychological baggage and trust issues that come along with such treatment. Yet these experiences profoundly affect who you are and how you feel about God and the gospel.
But it isn’t just experiences that you don’t choose. You also have no choice about your genetic makeup or your health. You have no choice about being born with a neurodegenerative disease like Tay-Sachs that slowly robs you of brain function and kills you during childhood. And you don’t choose whether your child inherits a disease like that. But all of these things affect a person’s perceptions about the gospel.
The Bible also disagrees with the notion that we choose to follow God. Paul, referencing Psalm 14, Psalm 53 and Ecclesiastes 7, clearly claims that no one chooses God, but instead that all are "under the power of sin" which makes us powerless to choose rightly of our own accord.
For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
The clear implication here is that we don't choose God but rather that he chooses to love us. In fact, Jesus Himself elucidates this further when speaking to his disciples, saying "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other" (John 15:16-17). It is apparent that Christ chooses us so that we can show His love to others and bear fruit. We are not chosen to be an exclusive, reclusive group, but rather to serve as His ambassadors that bring others into His kingdom, which will only be complete "when the times reach their fulfillment" and He brings "unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ" (Ephesians 1:10).
The great fallacy of the Christian who assumes superiority over others who don’t come to know God in this life is thinking that our belief is because we are good, and other people aren’t, ignoring the fact that we believe purely by grace. Your life was different from other people’s lives in a way that allowed you to come to faith. We have no right to judge the reasons why other people have not come to faith yet. Claiming that it is because they “chose” the road to perdition is arrogant, myopic and uninformed. In what sense do infants choose to be raised in an Islamic country where Christianity is illegal, or become orphaned and have to raise themselves on the streets of Calcutta? If they do not hear the gospel, or do not understand it because of their circumstances, does this mean that they are choosing hell? Of course not.
Choosing to claim that “they” are all wicked and want to rule themselves ignores the plain fact that “we” too are wicked and want to rule ourselves. Saying that “they” will never learn to submit to God overlooks that “we” are still learning this very thing. And pretending that “we” chose God neglects the reality that He “chose us in him before the creation of the world…” (Ephesians 1:4).
Freedom of choice is not the ethic that drives the gospel. Instead it is driven by a love far greater than we can imagine, by a grace that we don’t deserve, and by a justice that redeems the unredeemable through whatever means our all-knowing God knows to be necessary.
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