Can Hell and the God of Love Coexist?

can hell and the god of love coexist

On Christian doctrine, God loves all human beings and desires union with them. But there cannot be a union of love between two persons, even if one of them is divine, unless there are two persons and two wills to unite. Universalism[1] is not only not a consequence of God’s love; it is not so much as compatible with God’s love.[2]

On this view, God is open to rejection by human beings, who are not compelled by suffering or anything else to love God. On Christian doctrine, which rejects universalism, this possibility is actualized in some cases. There are some people who never cease rejecting God. On this view, God loves some people who do not love him.

But someone might suppose that if God loves unrequitedly, Christian doctrine is stuck with the specter of a disappointed God. In response, it needs to be said that in some cases God does love unrequitedly; but the inference to the conclusion that God is disappointed is invalid. If God had an unfulfilled desire about the nature of his whole creation, then perhaps it would be true that he would be disappointed in it. But not every unfulfilled desire of God’s is like this; not every unrequited love of God’s is a disappointment for God.

When God creates human beings with free will, God judges it acceptable to him that possibly some human beings might not be united with God and that human beings have control over whether this possibility is actualized. If God had not willed to create human beings with free will, then all states of affairs would have been up to God alone. But then union with human beings would have been precluded for God, since union requires two wills to unite. So, it is God’s will that it lies ultimately within the control of human beings whether God’s desire for union with each human being is fulfilled.

For this reason, some of God’s unfulfilled desires are part only of God’s antecedent will; they are what God would have willed if everything in the world had been up to God alone. But they are not part of God’s consequent will, the will that God has in the actual world.[3] In his antecedent will, God desires to be united with every human being; but, in his consequent will, God wills that some human beings are not united with him because they reject him. Therefore, although God has unfulfilled desires when he loves unrequitedly, God’s consequent will is not thereby contravened. It is one thing for God to have an unfulfilled desire because some of his creatures reject God’s love; and it is another thing for God’s consequent will—God’s actual will—to be frustrated. So, God is not disappointed in the outcome in which some human beings reject God’s love, because that outcome is in accordance with God’s consequent will. God is not disappointed in having his will fulfilled.

This conclusion would seem to settle the matter, but an objector might insist that there remains something for God to be disappointed in. Even if the outcome is in accord with God’s consequent will, would God not have preferred that it was in accord with his antecedent will?

This question has force because, on Christian doctrine, those who reject God’s love permanently are in hell. Is there not something to disappoint God in his creation when the creation includes hell? Is there not something for God to mourn over with regard to every human being who is in hell?

It is common in some Christian and atheistic circles to conceive of hell as God’s torture chamber where the damned shriek insanely in pain, and to conceive of God as an incompetent accountant, who assigns infinitely enduring pain for finite evil done. This is a conception of hell and of God that would itself have seemed evil to the major strand of the Christian intellectual tradition, as represented, for example, by Aquinas and Dante, as I have explained in detail elsewhere.[4] As Dante portrays hell, it is founded on God’s love; and those in hell are very like what they were during earthly life. As Dante portrays them, whatever their sufferings in hell, they are able to engage in lengthy, even eloquent conversation with Dante the traveler. In considering the objection that hell raises the specter of a disappointed God, I will reject the popular conception of hell, which I repudiate, and assume instead the Thomistic conception. The objection has force even on that conception.

In this connection, it helps to see that a person—let us call him “Jerome”—who permanently rejects God’s love lacks union with God just because Jerome himself refuses it. God’s love, God’s desire for union with Jerome, is always there for Jerome, given that God loves everything that God has made. And here it is important to try to understand the psychic condition of a person who refuses love forever. It is also common for people to suppose on Christian doctrine that hell is populated by nice people who for one reason or another have not accepted certain theological beliefs. But this is to suppose that what is needed for salvation is a conscious commitment to a set of religious beliefs, and that supposition is untenable on Christian doctrine, as I have argued elsewhere.[5]

The necessary and sufficient condition for entry into heaven is the will of faith, that is, a will for a will that wills the good, that loves God’s goodness and rejects its own evil. Given the rejection of Pelagianism, on Christian doctrine, this is a will that God infuses into everyone who does not reject it. To be a person in hell, then, is to be a person who lacks even the will to have a good will, and who lacks it because he spurns love. Such a person is not a basically nice person who unfortunately just happens not to be an adherent to Christian theological beliefs. Rather, a person in this condition shares something of the condition commonly attributed to Satan. As he is typically portrayed, Satan is characterized as an intelligent being who does not even want to have a will that wills the good.

Furthermore, not only is it deplorable to think of hell as God’s torture chamber, but it is a confusion to think of hell as a place at all. It is rather the condition of a human being who repudiates love and so lacks even the will to have a good will. This is the way hell is portrayed by John Milton, who was not a left-leaning theologian with liberal sensibilities about theological doctrines, but rather a stern Puritan. In his great poem Paradise Lost, Milton depicts Satan as having fallen from heaven into a very bad place, which Satan calls “hell.” On first finding himself in this place, Milton’s Satan is arrogantly disdainful of God’s ability to confine him there. He is sure that he can escape that bad place.

Satan has heard that God has created a beautiful new world, and he is determined to break out of the bad place and take over the beautiful new place. With self-assured boasting, he tells his fellow fallen angels that:

this Infernal Pit shall never hold
Celestial Sprits in Bondage, nor th’Abyss
Long under darkness cover.[6]

By intelligence and power, Milton’s Satan does succeed in breaking through the gates holding the fallen angels in the bad place, and he flies until he comes to a vantage point where he can clearly see Eden. The beauty of Eden is breathtaking for Milton’s Satan. It was his certain wish to fly to the new world and make it a home for himself and his legions. But with the first sight of Eden, Milton’s Satan realizes both his mistake and the theological point about hell that matters in this discussion.

As Milton’s Satan views the beauty and goodness of Eden, Milton says of him that the sight stirred turmoil within him, which

now roiling, boils in his tumultuous breast,
and like a devilish Engine back recoils
Upon himself . . . 
And from the bottom stir
The Hell with him, for with him Hell
He brings . . . nor from Hell
One step no more than from himself can fly
By change of place.[7]

At the edge of the earthly Paradise, which lies open to him to take as his own for whatever he wants from it, Milton’s Satan says:

Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell.[8]

On Milton’s depiction of it, which represents one main strand of Christian tradition, hell is the inner condition of those who close themselves out from any desire for love; and the only escape from it is a surrender to the love that God offers always to every human person.

In my view, this understanding of hell gives a sufficient rejoinder to the objection as I framed it above; but even so there are still two further steps that the objection might take.

(1) The putative objector might suppose that, on this construal of hell, a perfectly good God ought to annihilate all those who are in hell, or destined to hell. Those people are broken specimens of what God’s creatures were meant to be, the objector might suppose; and so God ought simply to eradicate them.

But, in response, consider Jerome, a person who rejects God. The putative objector imagines that it would be more loving of God towards Jerome to wipe him out of existence entirely, so that he simply is not there anymore, rather than to keep him in existence and care for him as love can. Put in this way, the objection seems to refute itself. God cannot unilaterally make Jerome flourish in his everlasting true self, but God can still love him while he exists. There is nothing to love if God annihilates him.

In the face of this response, the putative objector may turn to what is, I think, the heart of the concern for those inclined to favor this objection. Even if a loving God should not annihilate Jerome but rather keep him in existence, would God not yearn for what Jerome might have been? Would God not wish for the Jerome who could have flourished in his true self if he had surrendered to God’s love? And if God did long for the Jerome who might have been, then would God not mourn over what Jerome actually is?

But here the objector seems to suppose that a loving God should take as the object of his affections a non-existent person. On the objector’s position, a loving God would yearn for a merely possible person and feel disappointed to have gotten Jerome instead. It seems that, on the objector’s view, God ought to love more something that is a figment of God’s imagination and care less for the actual human being as disappointing. But why think that God would be loving if he acted in this way?

The real person is Jerome, not his non-existent imaginary doppelganger. For God to be loving is for God to love Jerome as he is. To love is to desire the good for the beloved and union with the beloved. To wish that Jerome was replaced by the person he might have been is not to desire the good for the actual Jerome; and it is a rejection of the actual Jerome in favor of desire for the non-actual possible person. To turn away from Jerome in disappointment and wish for the non-existent person he might have been is not loving of Jerome.

(2) But, the objector might still maintain, there is surely something that ought to induce sadness in God if any creature of God’s rejects love. Even if God does not wish for the Jerome-who-might-have-been, would God not still be sad over the condition of Jerome as he is?

Yet consider an analogous case with respect to human beings. Imagine that a person—let us call her “Paula”—loves her son Jerome and has him as one of the desires of her heart, and imagine that Jerome rejects Paula. For the sake of adding concreteness to the example and thereby aiding intuition, suppose that Jerome rejects Paula not because there is anything objectionable about Paula but because Jerome has chosen a lifestyle that is incompatible with ordinary family relations with his mother. Suppose, for example, that Paula is a morally decent person living in Germany during the Nazi era and that her son, Jerome, has enthusiastically joined the Gestapo and has a position of authority in one of the Gestapo’s cruel enterprises.

In the beginning of Jerome’s work for the Gestapo, Paula, out of love for her son, will do all she can for her son to recall him from the path he has chosen. She will hope against hope that he can be redeemed from the evil of his new life and restored to his mother’s company. And no doubt she will weep during this time, as Jesus also wept over Jerusalem,[9] with the sorrow that comes while hope is still live but unavailing. But after years of struggle, during which she suffers one pain, one defeat, after another because of Jerome’s continued cruel depredations against the vulnerable, Paula will come to understand that Jerome is what his choices have made him: a betrayer of his mother, a cruel soldier, a callous death-dealer. At that point, Paula will no longer want Jerome’s company. At that point, no one will want Jerome’s company, because no one will want the kinds of devastation Jerome typically causes to others.[10]

Even in these circumstances, it is still possible for Paula (or for anyone else) to love Jerome; but, because of what Jerome has become, the office of love will change from what it might have been. Paula’s desire to have Jerome as part of her family life (which is the form a desire for union with Jerome would have had in Paula) will change in Paula to become only compassion for Jerome held at a distance. And her desire for the good of Jerome will change into a desire to give whatever care Jerome is still able and willing to accept from her. But these changes in Paula’s desire of love for Jerome will not leave Paula in a state of heartbrokenness if Paula has woven her desire for Jerome into a deepest heart’s desire for God. Interwoven in that way, Paula’s love for Jerome will be situated within Paula’s participation in union with God, shared with other persons who are also united to God in love. The loneliness Jerome has willed for himself cannot take away the joy of that shared union for Paula.

On the contrary, Jerome’s choices have changed him from the companion he might have been for Paula into a person cold-hearted to others and focused ultimately only on himself. Seen in this way, Jerome looks less like someone who rejects Paula and more like someone who excludes himself from the joy in which Paula’s life is lived. And so what might have been an active desire on Paula’s part to have Jerome as an intimate part of her life will become an encompassing compassion, content to offer as much care as possible to a person who has walled himself off from love. In this shape, Paula’s heart’s desire for Jerome can be satisfied.

So even if Jerome rejects Paula, it is still open to Paula to love Jerome as she can from within the love of her union with God. In that condition, she will overcome his rejection of love by the joy Paula has in union with God and with the others who are also united to her and to God in love. Ultimately, one person’s darkness cannot take away another person’s joy. But that is what would happen if Jerome’s willed loneliness left Paula permanently grieved. 

No one has put this point better than C.S. Lewis, in my view. In addressing this same issue (though under a different guise), C.S. Lewis has one of the redeemed in heaven say to her husband, who will not accept her love or God’s,

Frank, . . . listen to reason. Did you think joy was created to live always . . . defenceless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? . . . You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do. But you can no longer communicate your wretchedness . . . Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light.[11]

Lewis has his own character in the story comment doubtingly on this speech, “Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?” In response, his teacher in the story says,

That sounds very merciful but see what lurks behind it . . . The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power . . . I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.[12]

A fortiori, an analogous point holds as regards God. The rejection of God’s love on Jerome’s part cannot take away from God and the others united with God the great good of love that is reciprocated.

Therefore, God can love unrequitedly; but God is not disappointed when he does. As Dante presents Aquinas’s understanding of the Christian doctrine of hell, hell is founded on God’s love. It is not a place where God exacts endless retributive punishment from those whose sins do not merit what they receive there. It is the condition of those who reject the love that God bathes them in—to the extent to which they will allow it. The offer of God’s love is there for every human person always, but the joy of union between God and those who are open to that love cannot be undermined by someone else’s self-exclusion from that love and joy.

[1] I am here understanding universalism as at least including the thesis that God unilaterally brings it about that all human beings are brought to heaven.

[2] I have argued for this claim in detail in The Image of God: The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Mourning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), Chapter 4. This essay is a revised excerpt of the last chapter of that same book.

[3] For this distinction as Aquinas explains it, see, for example, Aquinas, ST I q.19 a. 6.

[4] For some discussion of the Thomist understanding of the nature of hell, see my “Dante’s Hell, Aquinas’s Moral Theory, and the Love of God” in The Canadian Journal of Philosophy 16.2 (1986): 181–98; reprinted in The Philosophers’ Annual, ed. Patricia A. Athay, Patrick Grimm, and Michael Simon (Ridgeview: 1988), 236–53.

[5] See my Atonement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Chapter 8.

[6] Paradise Lost, Book I.657–659.

[7] Paradise Lost, Book IV.16–23.

[8] Paradise Lost Book IV. 73–75.

[9] See Luke 13:41.

[10] In this connection, see, for example, the descriptions of Amon Göth and the reactions of others to him that are given by his granddaughter Jennifer Teege, in Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past (New York: The Experiment, ).

[11] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2001), 132–133.

[12] Ibid., 135–146.