Responding to common objections
Hell is not really torture
One of the most common apologetic acrobatics that happens here is that the apologist will try and white wash hell to make it seem as though eternal conscious torture isn’t all that bad.
First, let’s take a look at how the Christian bible, specifically the New Testament and Jesus describe hell:
1. “Everlasting Fire" (Matthew 25:41)
2. “Unquenchable Fire" (Matthew 3:12)
3. A place where "the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44-49)
4. A place of "torments" and "flame" (Luke 16:23,24)
5. “Everlasting destruction" (2 Thessalonians 1:9)
6. A place of torment with "fire and brimstone" where "the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever" (Revelation 14:10,11)
7. A "lake of fire and brimstone" where the wicked are "tormented day and night forever and ever" (Revelation 20:10)
8. Jesus Himself indicates that the punishment in hell itself is everlasting - not merely the smoke and flames (Matthew 25:46)
I’m not sure how you can read these descriptions and also accept the idea that whatever hell is, it will go on for eternity, and conclude that it is not some form of eternal torture. I think it’s safe to say that when you’re in a situation where the only thoughts you have are “make the pain stop or kill me”, you can call what’s going on torture.
Now I’m sure at this point there are plenty of Christians out there who are screaming the word “Metaphor!” as loudly as they can when these verses are pointed out. Some may even condescend with questions like “You don’t think it really means there’s an actual lake of fire do you?”
Whether or not hell is an actual place of eternal burning torture, or some other kind of punishment is immaterial. It’s worth pointing out that in years gone by, the fire pit is exactly what most Christians thought hell actually was, but things have softened a bit. Now we get ideas from CS Lews or “serious theologians” like NT Wright who describe hell as more of an “eternal separation from god” where the individual in hell “is no longer human because they no longer bear the image of god”. These views of hell are more reminiscent of the “Dementor’s Kiss” from Harry Potter than the classical versions of Dante’s Inferno. It’s mental torture, like isolation, sleep deprivation, and sensory deprivation. That’s still torture, and you can’t whitewash torture.
Now just as an aside, this has to be one of the least justifiable dodges about the nature of hell that is out there, but it’s got to be one of the most prevalent. There is one verse that talks about hell as “eternal separation from god”, 2 Thessalonians 1:9. But even in that verse it’s preceded by the idea that hell is eternal destruction. Compare this with at least 6 verses describing hell as eternal and 5 verses describing hell as a place of fire. I mean seriously, when describing Lazarus in hell in a parable, Jesus is pretty clear about him being in fire, to the point where he begs for water to be put on his tongue – but the people in heaven can’t do that because of a chasm separating them from hell that no one could cross even if they wanted to. The idea that hell is just separation from god, and that maybe people in hell would enjoy it there is an incredible dodge, a convenient reinterpretation for Christians who know they’re on the losing side of an argument.
But apologists aren’t done trying to white wash the torture of hell, many go on about how the “gates of hell are locked from the inside” and that people in hell really don’t want to be with god and so are stuck there.
The issues here are that in each case, hell is a fate worse than non-existence. Even if the ‘gates were locked from within’, god is still sustaining the souls in hell, denying them the ability to cease to exist. That’s what’s immoral about the situation, that continual infliction of pain when non-existence would be preferable.
Finally, I’ve had some post-modern preachers I know try to retreat to some form of agnosticism about what hell is like. Claiming that they can’t really know what hell is like “because it’s only described to us in literary terms”, so it’s not fair for an atheist to say that hell is a place where no happiness or relief from the torments is available so that continued existence in hell is preferable to non-existence, and so the argument fails.
The issue here is that these apologists are inconsistent, one wonders where their epistemic humility goes when discussing heaven. Would they be willing to sign up for the idea that there may be suffering in heaven, or that some people in heaven may at one point wish for non-existence after growing tired of praising god for countless millennia? There is nothing in the bible that leaves room for believing there is any happiness or relief from the torments of hell, just as there isn’t anything to believe that some people in heaven will be unhappy.
God had no choice in creation
This is a rather silly objection to the argument from hell that tries to deny the idea that god had a choice in whether or not to create angels, humans, and the material universe – as though this would absolve him from any wrongdoing in creating hell.
Still, some Christians will claim that creating is part of god’s necessary nature, so he couldn’t refrain from creating.
First, that’s amazingly implausible, and it lends credence to the idea that “god’s nature” is a convenient dumping ground for all sorts of things that would make the life of an apologist easier to solve paradoxes in theology.
However, the more substantial answer here is that even if god had to create, there’s nothing that says he had to create beings that would be immortal, or that he couldn’t just destroy the souls of those who didn’t freely choose to love him, or that he even had to create creatures with free will at all.
Further, by claiming god had no choice in creation, an apologist robs god of all agency and free will. To the point where we can add another reason to question why humanity had to be created with free will. But it gets worse; the Christian god then becomes no different than a mechanistic or naturalistic force that would just generate universes. It opens up a whole can of theological worms to avoid the issue, but in doing this move, the Christian implicitly acknowledges that if god had a choice in creating hell, he’d be wrong to create it.
You can’t have morality without god
This kind of objection takes aim at the premise that eternal conscious torture is immoral, but since most apologists don’t want to directly claim that torture must be moral if god does it, they try to attack any atheist’s appeal to morality.
The issue here is that this merely a diversionary tactic, hoping to move the debate to the moral argument for the existence of god.
The moral argument is its own ball of wax that can be defeated on its own terms, but the point here is that the moral argument doesn’t save the Christian from having to deal with the argument from hell because of stances the Christian must take on the moral argument.
The moral argument is an argument that without god there is no objective basis for morality, it is not about “moral epistemology”. In non philosopher speak, it’s not about “how we know” what is good and evil, it’s about what the basis for good and evil actually is.
The issue here is that even if we grant that god is necessary as a basis for morality, even theists would have to admit that we have moral intuitions. In fact the evidence that they use for the moral argument is the fact that we as human beings have moral intuitions that tell us that things are right or wrong.
The issue here is that torture, specifically eternal torture without end, violates our basic moral intuitions. It is a horror that is hard to imagine, let alone something that a loving god could knowingly condemn his creations to.
Seriously, if you’re an American, we have an amendment to our constitution that forbids this kind of a thing (8th Amendment). Are we more moral than god?
Now I don’t grant that we need a god to ground morality, but even if I did, I could still use the argument from hell to show that if a god does exist and grounds our morality, then Yahweh, the Christian god, is most certainly not that god.
The argument from hell is an argument to convince people that they should not be a Christian, or at least not a certain kind of Christian.
There is no justification
There are a few more laughable objections, like saying hell is a prison that’s run by the inmates, and since god isn’t there, it’s only as terrible as the people in hell make it. But any person who made a prison that let the inmates do whatever they wanted to other inmates would be arrested for crimes against humanity on earth. What does that say about god?
The entire problem is that there is no justification for eternal conscious torture. Even on the most charitable version of hell, we’re dealing with a god that literally says: “I could have let you cease to exist, but why not let you spend eternity in torment instead?”
Escaping the Argument
I want to make it clear; this argument doesn’t apply to all sects of Christianity. In fact we can see some Christian apologists like Randal Rauser and even the well known Richard Swinburne adopting views of universalism or a form of annihilationism.
As David Silverman pointed out there are more denominations of Christianity than there are sentences in the bible, and certainly any Christian that believes in universalism or annihilationist versions of hell can escape this argument. Now I think those Christians will ultimately come up against problems with picking and choosing which parts of the bible they want to follow. However, to be fair the bible is so contradictory on even this point that Universalist Christians can say Christians who believe in the eternal conscious torture versions of hell are picking and choosing.
That said, these alternate views exist mainly because the standard Christian interpretations of hell are so abhorrent that the Universalist or annihilationist views pretty much accept this argument, which is why they reinterpret their scriptures to get a more moral version of the afterlife.