Do we all Deserve Hell?

It is a common saying among Christians that every human being is a sinner deserving of punishment in hell. The Christian worldview depicts human beings as wretched, sinful, lost, and in need of salvation. In this short article I want to examine this idea and whether it makes sense in light of the existence of a sovereign God.

I have often been puzzled by the Christian concept of original sin. The idea that a single rebellious action by one man, Adam, could lead to guilt for the whole human race for thousands of years seems somewhat bizarre. I can only imagine that the story of the fall of man must be metaphor – a warning from God that each human being must guard against pride. Either that or the fall is an idea created by theologians outside of Scripture, which has become popular simply because it is a way of justifying the Christian idea that every human being needs salvation.

I have a very high view of the sovereignty of God. I believe God is sovereign over all events. That is to say, we do not have free will. If you believe in free will you are necessarily limiting the sovereignty of God, which I am unwilling to do, because when I contemplate the nature of God I deduce that He is omnipresent and has no boundaries – there is no place where God ends and freedom begins. God is the creator, sustainer, and animator of all that exists.

It is not possible to be a Christian and believe what I have stated in the above paragraph. The whole Christian worldview hinges on the idea that we are guilty of punishment, and in order to be guilty, we must be free. Christians believe God is going to judge us for all the decisions we have freely made. Without free will, the idea of divine judgment makes no sense; nor does the Christian worldview in general.

It all comes down to our conception of the nature of God. What are His attributes? Is God separate from His creation, or is creation contained within God? Is God all-powerful or is His power limited? Is God everywhere, or is there a place where God’s being ends and something else begins? Is God spirit, or matter, or spirit and matter?

What we understand and believe about God determines whether or not we can make sense of the Christian worldview and the idea that we are guilty sinners who deserve punishment in hell. I realise that for everyone who believes in God, this presents a predicament. I have tried to explore this predicament in depth in my essay entitled An Almighty Predicament, which is available as a free PDF download here.

I humbly invite you to read my essay, and reflect upon the presentation I make concerning the nature of God and the Christian worldview. I am open to questions, comments, and suggestions. You are welcome to leave a comment below, though if you have a lot to say it’s probably better to email me.

God bless you, and I look forward to hearing from you.

26 comments

  1. Hi, Steven. I appreciate your sharing your views, but, in contrast, I have no problem accepting what is clearly stated and laid out in the Bible. For the most part, I don’t struggle in my acceptance of these things, though I admit I don’t fully understand the “marriage” of election and free will. This, however, I accept as truth as God’s ways are not our ways, and that He is certainly not obligated to explain everything to us. Despite this, the Bible is very clear on many issues, and I’m grateful for the clarity it gives me.

    Keep working these things out, Steven, and please keep sharing your thoughts. Even to those of us who are not of the same opinion, what you say is still rich, thought-provoking, and certainly challenging. Very good post!

    1. Thank you, David. I was anxious about publishing this post as I know many of my followers are Christians (and good friends as well). I don’t want to upset anyone, but on the other hand, the purpose of this blog is to look at all the difficult questions of theology.

      I really appreciate that you were willing to read my essay and offer a thoughtful and thorough response, even though you disagree with much of what I had to say. Thank you so much for that, and for your comment here 🙂

  2. Some well argued and interesting points in your essay. Some seem to run parallel to the Epicurean dilemma, but with a pro-God twist. Have you on this/these read Augustine’s “On Grace and Free Will”?

  3. “Christians believe God is going to judge us for all the decisions we have freely made. Without free will, the idea of divine judgment makes no sense; nor does the Christian worldview in general.”

    I wouldn’t hinge the entire Christian worldview on the existence (or lack thereof) on free will. The problem is “free will” is a term that means different things to different people.

    For example some arminians will teach a free will means we have free moral agency. We can choose to either be good or bad.

    Many Calvinists will also say they believe in free will, but that something can only act free within it’s nature. And Scripture is clear we are sinners by nature, therefore we are free, but only free to act within that nature. God is perfectly Good therefore free to only act in accordance with that nature, (example, God cannot lie) I am not a Calvinist but my understanding of free will is something close to that. Yes, we can make decisions of our own “free will” but those decisions are not random, but are guided by our nature, which we are inherently bound to.

    So in understanding the fact which you stated, that God will judge everyone for their decisions, I wouldn’t say it’s that black and white. God will decide who goes to eternal punishment based on their natures. Were they born again? Were they regenerated by faith in Christ? Were they in Christ or were they not? That is ultimately what will determine their eternal outcome. After that, works will determine the level of punishment or reward.

    So suppose there is no “free will” according to the classical definition, that we are free to be good or bad, there is still human nature to deal with, and that is why the Christian worldview still makes sense.

    1. Hi N,

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I do indeed think that the notion of free will is central to the Christian worldview. As I mentioned, without free will the ideas of sin and judgment don’t make sense, and surely you would agree these ideas are central to Christianity?

      You seem to draw a distinction between the human will and human nature, but I’m unclear about the way in which you perceive these to be distinct. Perhaps you could give your definitions? From my perspective God is in control of all aspects of human behaviour, so a distinction isn’t necessary (for the purpose of this discussion, anyhow).

      I think it’s a problem with Calvinism that despite the fact the sovereignty of God is emphasised so strongly, Calvinists won’t go so far as to take my position (that we don’t have free will). I have watched Calvinists really struggle on this point, because they realise a God who is truly in control of all poses a real challenge to the Christian worldview.

      God bless you and thanks again,

      Steven

  4. “The whole Christian worldview hinges on the idea that we are guilty of punishment, and in order to be guilty, we must be free.” We are all deserving of judgement regardless of free-will or it’s lack therefore, as we are guilty as charged by our own sins – and that leads to the either or of where we should end up…kinda like going back to the whole you can’t sit on the fence analogy! 🙂

    When we do something whether or not free-will is at work, we did it and so we must live with the consequences. Kinda like “my brother told me to do it but I did it so its still my fault cause ultimately I was in control and had a mind to think and reason my actions through. 🙂 I dunno…just my thoughts.

  5. Hi Steven, I started reading your essay, but have not finished it (the font is very small on my phone). I will try to finish it when I can.

    My overarching impression is that God is using your spiritual restlessness as a ministry to others who may have similar struggles. Your blog feels like a safe place for people to share contrarian views, without fear of harsh rebuke.

    I keep going back to Job 38-41 as I ponder your recent post. There are many things about God which we will never understand in this lifetime, and we are not guaranteed to get all (or any) of our questions answered, either.

    However, my main point this: I’ve said it before (as have other readers), but keep asking your questions, Steven. Just don’t assume – and I do not think that you ever do – that the answer will come in a particular way or form, if it comes at all. There can be a tension between knowledge and trust, and we all struggle with it in one way or another.

    I will let you know when I complete the essay – likely when I am on my laptop (not my phone!). Take care. ✝️

    1. Hi Daily!

      Thank you so much for such a kind and heartfelt comment 🙂

      Please don’t give yourself eyestrain trying to read me essay on your phone! But I’m really grateful that you decided to download it and have a read – it will really help you to see where I’m coming from.

      Hope you have a wonderful weekend my dear friend, and thanks again for your open mind and encouraging words.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

  6. http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/prayerchangesthings.html

    Hi Steven,

    Not sure if you have read much by DA Carson–he is one of my favorites– but I’d highly recommend looking into this excerpt from one of his books. He discusses examples in the Bible of God’s sovereignty acting within our free will. He shows how God can be in control of a situation but that doesn’t leave us free from guilt or responsibility. If you get a chance read it and let me know your thoughts!

    Nathan

    1. Hi Nathan,

      Good to hear from you and many thanks for sharing the article by DA Carson. I read most of the article, though I did skim over certain passages as it’s rather long. I believe I understand Carson’s arguments, and they are all familiar to me.

      In response there is much I could say but for the sake of brevity I’ll just make a couple of points.

      The reason Jesus goes to the cross is to pay the penalty due to sinners; the assumption is that these sinners bear real moral accountability, real moral guilt for which a penalty has been pronounced. If human beings are not held responsible for this act, why should they be held responsible for any act? And if they are not held responsible, then why should God have sent his Anointed One to die in their place?

      Carson here has explained my problem with Christianity in a nutshell. Believing as I do that God is sovereign over all events makes the ideas of sin and judgment seem somewhat absurd (unless they are simply a part of God’s grand game, which I could believe, but that’s not something I’ve ever heard a Christian accept). I find no arguments from Carson that persuade me that God is not sovereign over all events. I realise that Carson dare not consider that the error could be in the Christian worldview, and I understand that would be a fearful thing for him (or any Christian) to consider, even if it is the truth.

      But what does “freedom” mean? Sometimes without thinking about it, we assume that such freedom must entail the power to work outside God’s sovereignty.

      This is exactly my definition of free will. If an event is under God’s control then it is not free. I’m not sure whether there can be another logical definition of free will. Nowhere does Carson give a solid argument that we operate outside of the sovereignty of God, so I consider his argument that human beings have moral responsibility to be rather weak.

      A lot of Carson’s article is arguing that God is both sovereign and personal. I don’t disagree with that, but it’s different to saying God is sovereign and we have free will (which I deny).

      I hope all that makes sense.

      God bless and thank you for your comment!

      Steven

      1. “Carson here has explained my problem with Christianity in a nutshell. Believing as I do that God is sovereign over all events makes the ideas of sin and judgment seem somewhat absurd (unless they are simply a part of God’s grand game, which I could believe, but that’s not something I’ve ever heard a Christian accept). I find no arguments from Carson that persuade me that God is not sovereign over all events. I realise that Carson dare not consider that the error could be in the Christian worldview, and I understand that would be a fearful thing for him (or any Christian) to consider, even if it is the truth.”

        I think the idea of sin and judgement is crucial for a fair and loving God. If there is ultimately no judgement for sin, then someone never has to answer for wrong committed against God, or other men and women. Judgement demands wrath is either paid by his son Jesus or refused to be accepted and then paid by those who refuse to accept Jesus as the one who pays the debt. Also, without sin there is no need for a savior. In that case there is less glory given to God because now he is just a creator and not a savior. With sin, he is both creator and savior. I think Carson’s argument is just because God is sovereign doesn’t mean we are free from guilt or don’t have control over our sinful actions.

        1. Thanks Nathan, I do understand and appreciate your perspective and your well-argued points.

          Your argument once again implies freedom of the will, so rather than reiterate my argument against free will, I’ll leave it there!

          Thank you so much.

          By the way I totally forgot but last year I wrote an article about Carson and compatibilism – if you’re interested it’s here.

          Blessings upon you.

          Steven

  7. Steven, I hope I am not repeating anything that was said already, but I wonder if you’ve heard of philosophical compatibilism? It seems that you believe that free will and God’s sovereignty must inherently be in conflict with one another. Most people, of course, come to the same conclusion. Myself, I do not hold this view, and instead see a way the two can be compatible (i.e. compatibilism). Perhaps this view can hold reconcile this conflict you have above?

    Secondly, I also wonder if you are not holding God to a moral standard of judgement and punishment that you wouldn’t hold yourself or others to? What I mean is that there are occasions in society where we punish people for their actions even though they argue that they had no choice (freedom) in the matter. Perhaps this is a poor example, but suppose a pedophile argues (as some do) that they didn’t choose their sexual disposition, but that they were born with an inherent attraction to children. Societal values and laws expects them to deny themselves this basic physical urge, and should they choose to act on it they will be punished. No leniency is usually given to them, regardless of how strongly they argue that they had no choice. Is society evil or unjust for holding the pedophile accountable for his actions even though he didn’t choose how he feels? No. In fact, most people, I feel, would still argue that holding him accountable for his actions is the just and right thing to do. If humans, however imperfect we are, think it is just to hold someone accountable regardless of a certain degree of freedom, is not God who is omniscient even more justified?

    1. Hi Brandon!

      Not sure if you saw in my comment to Nathan (above) but here’s an article I wrote a while ago about compatibilism:
      https://perfectchaos.org/2016/08/11/compatibilism/

      Thank you for your well-argued points. I think the only way the Christian worldview makes sense is if life is like a grand game (or perhaps puppet show is a better analogy) where we have the illusion of free will but ultimately everything we do is what God is doing through us. This is what I believe is happening. So while on the human level, sinning and judgment may make some kind of sense, ultimately I would say God is in control of the crime and the judgment and the punishment. Everything unfolds according to His sovereign will.

      Peace and blessings,

      Steven

  8. I love that you ask these questions, Steven. I see your love for God, and it is a joyful thing to me. I have an opinion, but it is just that a faith based opinion. It’s very simple in nature and therefore I don’t think it adds much to the discussion :):) or if I’d even know how to explain it to where it would read through what I mean. I feel God is using you here, and that is glorious 🙂 God Bless you :):)

    1. Hi Margaret! Good to hear from you – I hope you’ve had a great week. Thank you for your kind words, which are appreciated and encouraging. God bless you abundantly!

  9. Hi, Steven! You and I have discussed this a little in the past…and so I won’t repeat my thoughts here. I just wish to say that I appreciate your willingness to ask tough questions, to scrutinize faith and allow others to listen to your honest and authentic journey. I think God will ultimately direct you to the answers you seek and will give you peace. He and His Word can certainly stand up to our scrutiny. So no worries. Ask and ponder away! God is using you to reach many who are asking some of the very same questions that you pose here! 🙂

  10. Steven,
    I would argue that this is all cleared up in Romans 9: “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?””
    ‭‭
    God is sovereign, He chooses whom he will save and whom He will destroy, and then he imputes free will upon us to justify His judgments.

    The key point here is that to Jews, this was a perfectly normal way of thinking. They all grew up with the verse about Pharaoh’s hardening. Gentiles, however, struggled with this. Paul was telling them that God’s ways are not our ways, and that we are not to question it (which is why Calvinists and Arminians so spectacularly fail to resolve it – because it’s unresolvable).

    Think of it this way: do you ever feel bad about using a toilet because you wonder how the porcelain feels about it? No! And why not? Because we have sovereign choice over what becomes a toilet and what becomes a treasured keepsake.

    Think also of this: would the Christian perspective really bother you if God predestined everyone to heaven? But why not? It’s the same lack of seeming logic as for Hell. My belief is therefore that it’s the sinful nature inside you that doesn’t want to be held accountable for its evil. You wouldn’t care if everyone got eternal bliss, even though everyone knows deep down we don’t deserve it (to God, a single sin is completely unacceptable, even though we think it’s perfectly normal). But you care about hell, even though, according to Jesus in the Bible, that’s exactly what we deserve. Our perspective is backwards from how God thinks. We should be offended by heaven, not hell, but because of our own selfish self-interest and loving interest in the people we care about (something arising out of the nature God sovereignty gave us, btw), we root for the way that works out best for us, not what is divinely appropriate.

    That’s my 2 cents.

    1. Hi Steven, what a careful and incisive writing style you have. I found your article very easy to understand-it’s a quality that I rather envy and wish I had in my own work.

      My main problem with your thesis is that you limit God’s sovereignty to exclude the operation of free will inside of it. Absolute sovereignty encompasses all dimensions of possibility and does not necessarily make human beings robots. Why would the omnipotent, omniscient God have any trouble fulfilling His plan for the universe while incorporating the choices of His fallen creatures? It does not present any difficulty to me. If I make a conscious choice to drop a pencil, that action was already foreordained by God in His timeless wisdom. He created the molecules that hold the pencil together, the mind that compelled the hand to drop it, and the gravity that sent it to the ground. All of which were presupplied so that I could choose to drop or not drop the pencil. If He knows that I will drop it beforehand (which is biblical) and that I will do so out of my own volition, that does not exclude Him from being the author and proprietor of all the universal factors that went into fulfilling that decision. And as we see from the Bible, God is eminently capable of taking the evil decisions of human beings and working His good plan through them.

      I do not see God’s sovereignty and man’s free will as mutually exclusive concepts. The latter operates within the former, like concentric circles of differing diameters. God’s omnipotence allows Him to fulfill His plan not only inspite of man’s rebellious deeds, but through them.

      That is my belief, gleaned from the Bible as well as from my own understanding of my experiences. I am not troubled by it in the least.

      1. Hi Daniel!

        Pleasure to meet you, and thank you for your kind words. Thank you also for your thoughtful and considered comment.

        I certainly wouldn’t describe human beings as robots. Instead I believe we are more like puppets. I don’t believe it’s possible for anything to exist outside of God, because God is by His very nature boundless. Or perhaps you would be able to give me a different definition of ‘boundless’ and ‘omnipresent’? Or do you believe God doesn’t possess these attributes?

        I’m interested in your conception of God. Do you believe He is an embodied being, or a spirit? Do you believe He is separate from creation, as in traditional theism?

        Sorry to ask so many questions, I’m just trying to get my head around your view of God so I can see where we agree, or perhaps where we differ. If you’d prefer not to get into a long comment debate you are welcome to email me (my email address is on my Contact page).

        In any case, I’m grateful for the discussion.

        Peace and blessings,

        Steven

        1. Thank you, and I share your amity as well. I think we both mean the same thing by “boundless” and “omnipresent.” We differ because you believe that human beings are robbed of their free will if they consist in God (puppets, as it were), while I believe that God’s sovereignty is absolute enough to work through the free choices of mankind. I note that your perspective actual limits God’s sovereignty over his universe in terms of degree; a truly sovereign God would not be limited to countering the choices of his created beings or robbing them of their free will to accomplish His plan. I do not see why God has to start where man stops. Our relationship with God is not linear, but contained–I mentioned the concept of concentric circles, where man’s operations fall into the domain of God’s control. I think it is erroneous to view the relationship as a ribbon in which God’s design is cut off by the start of mankind’s embroidery.

          My beliefs about God are based exclusively from the Bible. It is a fool’s errand to try to work out the specifics of divinity without revelation, and I believe the Bible is an extraordinarily well-attested and coherent document that was produced because God wanted to reveal Himself to mankind. Thus, I hold to Colossians 1:17 which says, “in Him all things hold together.” The Bible does not separate God from His creation, but says that all things actually consist in Him. Yes, I believe that He is a being in Heaven, but Colossians makes it clear that everything finds its structure in Him as well.

          This may be why I do not see the dichotomy between free will and sovereignty that you do. Thanks for replying and I am happy to have a productive discussion with you in the comments section.

          1. Hi Daniel,

            Many thanks for your thoughtful and considered response. You said the following:

            I believe that God’s sovereignty is absolute enough to work through the free choices of mankind.

            If God is sovereign over man’s choices then they are not free. I believe what you stated is nonsensical.

            My perspective does not limit God’s sovereignty, because I believe God is sovereign over all events. He literally could not be any more sovereign. It’s actually your perspective that limits God’s sovereignty, because you are trying to argue for free will (although I don’t believe your argument is logical).

            As I said to another commenter, it’s possible to make a good argument against free will from Scripture – here’s a video I made where I do that.

            God bless you and thank you for the discussion!

            Steven

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