I must admit that for quite a long while I have been sympathetic to the view that hell is self-chosen. That is, rather than being sent there by God, people make their own choice, and live (or, rather, exist) with the consequences.
Perhaps the most celebrated exponent of this view is C.S. Lewis, who wrote: ‘[a] man can’t be taken to hell or sent to hell: you can only get there on your own steam’; ‘the doors of hell are locked from the inside’; ‘[t]here 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.”‘
Again: ‘In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.’
J.I. Packer (Concise Theology, p262f) writes: ‘Scripture sees hell as self-chosen; those in hell will realize that they sentenced themselves to it by loving darkness rather than light, choosing not to have their Creator as their Lord, preferring self-indulgent sin to self-denying righteousness, and (if they encountered the gospel) rejecting Jesus rather than coming to him (John 3:18–21; Rom. 1:18, 24, 26, 28, 32; 2:8; 2 Thess. 2:9–11). General revelation confronts all mankind with this issue, and from this standpoint hell appears as God’s gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshiping him, or without God forever, worshiping themselves. Those who are in hell will know not only that for their doings they deserve it but also that in their hearts they chose it.’
And Tim Keller has expressed the same opinion: ‘hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.’
There is truth in this point of view. Hell is the consequence of attitudes and actions that we have chosen, as responsible agents, in this life.
A corollary of this position would be that God is thought to be entirely absent from hell: indeed, hell is virtually defined, by some, as being the place where God is not. Keller writes: ‘If we were to lose God’s presence totally, that would be hell’. Again, there is truth here. Certainly, God is not present to bless in hell, and to that extent hell may be defined as separation from God. At the final judgment, God’s words to the impenitent will be, ‘Depart from me!’ (Mt 7:23; cf.Mt 8:12).
But is this the whole truth of the matter? May we say that because it is true that hell is self-chosen, God is entirely passive in determining that destiny?
Consider that hell is pictured in Mark 9:42-48 as
- a real place, (cf Lk 16:28);
- subject to God’s rule (cf Mk 10:28);
- in which real pain is experienced;
- real punishment is inflicted (cf Mt 25:46; Rom 1:18-32; 2:5; 2 Thess 1:6-10).
- and active banishment from the presence of God (cf Mt 7:23; 2 Thess 1:9f).
This truth, however, does not mean that God is altogether absent from hell. After all, when Adam and Eve forfeited the presence of God in the garden that did not mean that God was absent outside. When Israel and Judah were exiled, they were ‘cast from God’s presence’ (2 Kings 17:23; 24:20), and yet God was present in Babylon (Eze 1:1-13). According to Rev 14:10, sinners are tormented ‘in the presence of the Lamb’.
There is nowhere where God is not (Psa 139:7-10). To be cast from his presence, then, means to forfeit the enjoyment of his favour, he smile of his blessing. It means to be shut out from God’s ‘comfortable presence’ (2 Thess 1:9). If heaven means to be with God with a Mediator, hell means to be without him without a mediator.
Although scriptural teaching on hell (and on heaven) is necessarily communicated in language that is full of imagery (and, the case of Jesus’ teaching, cast in the form of parables), nevertheless, we can be fairly certain that hell is something more (although not something other) that self-chosen exclusion from the very presence of God.
See “Where the Fires are Not Quenched”: Biblical, Theological & Pastoral Perspectives on Hell, by Jonathan Gibson