The problem of evil has many branches: the existence of evil in a cosmos created and ruled by an omnipotent and yet holy God; the source of temptation in the fall of Satan, the desire for evil in Adam’s heart (if free will is compatibilist), the continued suffering in a world where much evil could be restrained or eradicated.
The soteriological problem of evil is a form of these. If God has a desire for universal salvation, why is salvation particularised in Christ, resulting in most people being condemned? Much of the dilemma of this problem of evil has to do with the amount of people suffering in eternal hell. It appears, on the face of it, that the vast majority of the human race will suffer in hell, and only a minority will not. Certain Scriptures seem to verify this (Mat 7:13-14; Luke 13:23-24).
On either a Calvinist or Arminian view of foreknowledge and human will, the problem remains unresolved. On the Arminian reading, God knew that most human wills would reject Him, and He permitted them to exist and to condemn themselves. On the Calvinist reading, God knew that all human wills would reject Him, but chose to supply the necessary grace to only a minority of the race. Either way, God chose a state of affairs in which most people go to Hell. This seems difficult to reconcile with God’s universal salvific will.
Several attempts have been made to explain this state of affairs or to mitigate it. All of these attempts either seek to increase the number of elect going to Heaven, or reduce the number going to Hell, or both.
The most extreme of these is universalism. Adherents include F. E. Schleiermacher, G. C. Berkouwer, William Barclay, Jacques Ellul and possibly Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Diodore of Tarsus. The universal salvific will, combined with an unlimited atonement is matched with Scriptures that seem to speak of salvation for all (1 Corinthians 15:22–28). All evil is eventually converted. Justice is restorative, the punishment is remedial and hell is temporary. The key word is refinement, and purgatorial views often fit into this scheme. The Greek view of apokatastasis, that all evil will be removed, is also part of this view. This view cannot stand against the weight of texts that speak of the implacability of evil, the desire of evil doers to hate the light and suppress the truth, and the eternal nature of judgement (Mt 25:46, 2 Thes 1:9).
A second approach is conditionalism, or anihilationism. This approach removes the non-elect from existence altogether, so that however few are saved, they do not end up being a small minority. This also removes the torment and “torture” factor of Hell. The key word for this approach is destruction. Passages on perishing, destruction and death are seen as the elimination of evildoers. All evil is destroyed. Here justice is retributive and the punishment is of a capital kind. Immortality is not intrinsic to humans, but granted conditionally. The saved are raised to immortal glory, but the unsaved are raised in mortal shame to be destroyed. Therefore, unsaved humans may experience temporary suffering in hell (depending on their crimes), but they are then destroyed altogether. In some forms of conditionalism, humans are destroyed, but Satan and the demonic beings are tormented forever. Conditionalism suffers from weak explanations of the account of the rich man and Lazarus, and of passages in Revelation that describe eternal torment. Those conditionalists who hold to soul-sleep also create Christological conundrums – if Christ’s human soul was “asleep” between Good Friday and Sunday, what does that do to the hypostatic union? Finally, there is the question that Anselm raised: does not the gravity of the offence increase with the honour or rank of the one offended? If God is of infinite value, then sin must be an infinite offence, requiring a judgement of either infinite intensity or of infinite duration. Conditionalism battles to explain how the termination of humans would satisfy justice, or even how there can be greater or lesser degrees of punishment in Hell.
The traditional approach holds to eternal conscious torment of the unsaved. In traditionalism, the justice is retributive, and the punishment is corporal. Evil is restrained (not removed), and the key word is suffering. All humans have immortality, and so the non-elect suffer eternal conscious torment.
However, some traditionalists have modified their understanding of what this means. One is separationism. This is the “doors of hell are locked on the inside” view: sinners hate the presence of God and choose their state of exclusion. The torment of Hell is largely self-inflicted.
A second is reconciliationism. Eventually, the unsaved cease to sin in Hell, which means the torment or suffering diminishes or perhaps ceases altogether. However, the unsaved are denied the blessings of the presence of God, and must live eternally without Him.
A third is dehumanisation. The unsaved progressively degenerate into a state of permanent bestial nature. When the destruction of one’s humanity (will and affections) is complete and what remains is non-human consciousness, the soul reaches what C. S. Lewis called “the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity”. The death of Hell is an ever-approaching point of non-existence and non-consciousness, though we do not have license to say that the souls are ever actually destroyed.
As the resurrection body is a true body, but one of another order (1 Cor 15:40-46), so the fire, banishment and death of Hell are real, but of another order. Hell is retribution, banishment, death and destruction. Though immortality belongs alone to God, this does not mean that souls are only conditionally immortal: Scripture suggests conscious existence of the rich man in Hell. However, it may be true that the strength of the soul’s resistance will be commensurate with its consciousness. Perhaps the deeper the resistance to God, the worse the torment. Perhaps those whose rejection and defiance of God is least will reach the place of less consciousness first, and those whose conscious rejection and continued blasphemy of God continues will endure that torment as long as they resist. This is all speculative, and must be held in that light.
Since traditionalism cannot alter or diminish the number of people in Hell (as universalism and conditionalism do), the discussion must then move to the number of people saved. If most are unsaved by their own rejection, then the blame for filling Hell shifts to the human heart. But for this to be true, it must be demonstrated that mankind has been exposed to enough light to leave him justly condemned. We will consider this next.