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Shawn Bawulski and the Problem of Hell: Part One

April 26th, 2014 by Matt

The traditional conception of hell understands the punishment of the finally impenitent to be conscious eternal torment. The punishment of hell is eternal in the sense of it being of unending duration and it involves conscious torment. Annihilationists, on the other hand, argue the traditional view is contrary to scripture. They contend that, in scripture, the punishment of hell is eternal destruction, which involves the total and irreversible destruction of the wicked. Hell is eternal in the sense that the ultimate punishment inflicted in hell, death, is permanent; one is dead forever and is never resurrected or reincarnated to live another life.

HellMuch of the debate over this in evangelical circles is exegetical. It focuses on the meanings of biblical phrases such as “eternal fire,” “eternal destruction,” “death,” “perish,” “everlasting contempt,” “eternal punishment,” “unquenchable fire,” “second death,” “killing the body, “soul,” “lake of fire,” “the smoke of their torment rises forever,” “blackest darkness [that] has been reserved forever,” “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”, and so on. Traditionalists take these passages to refer to eternal conscious torment where as annihilationists argue that, in their contexts, they signify permanent destruction of the wicked.

In his article, “Annihilationism, Traditionalism and the problem of Hell”[1], Shawn Bawulski brackets these exegetical issues and focuses on the ability of each conception to answer an objection to the concept of hell. He dubs this objection as “the logical problem of hell”. His conclusion is that traditionalism offers a more plausible answer to this objection than annihilationism does. I think Bawulski’s arguments for this conclusion fails. Here, however, I will simply comment on the “problem of hell” as he articulates it.

Bawulski’s elucidates the problem of hell as follows:

(A) Justice demands that punishment for sins must be proportionate to their seriousness; it is unjust for punishment of sins to be disproportionate to their seriousness.
(B) No human sin or lifetime of human sinning can be infinite in seriousness.
(C ) Hell is infinite punishment.
(D) To punish human sins with hell is to punish human sins disproportionately to their seriousness. (From (B) and (C)).
(E) Therefore, hell is an unjust punishment for human sins.[2]

This argument turns on the notion of “infinity.” Bawulski notes: “The language of infinitude in this discussion can be vague and slippery” and the argument “has the liability of possibly equivocating” and can, be used in at least two different senses. The first sense, is the sense Bawulski officially states he is using. He defines infinity as meaning “something skeletal like without limit or to the highest degree.”[3]

Elsewhere Bawulski appears to use the term in a different sense to refer to an infinite duration in time. He later states in the same article:

“If annihilation is a finite punishment, then in the standard annihilationist picture of final punishment described above, a limited period of punishment ends in extinction. The degree of punishment is finite-less than in an everlasting hell, and in this way the annihilationist hell can handle the disproportionality problem … The punishment is finite in virtue of the limited duration and can be proportioned to the deserved degree of punishment. … there is an objection sometimes leveled against annihilationism when it is regarded as a finite punishment: once the end of the punishment is reached, why are the reprobate not at that point reconciled with God and worthy of heaven?”[4]

Here, Bawulski takes the claim that annihilation is a finite punishment to be synonymous with the claim that it involves a limited period of time and a punishment of limited duration. This suggests that Bawulski consider’s the question of whether a punishment is finite to be the question of whether it is of unending duration.

These two senses of the word are not the same. A punishment can be infinite in duration or permanent without being infinite in the sense of punishing to the highest degree. Bawulski, inadvertently provides an example. On p 75 he states:

“There are passages that suggest the punishment of hell will be experienced in varying degrees, which can be realized in an everlasting hell. The infinite seriousness view does not entail that all sinners are punished equally, even if all sinners’ punishments endure everlastingly. I suggest this calculus: the degree of punishment is a function of the duration of the punishment and the experiential intensity of the punishment. In this model, various considerations might affect the experiential severity of the inflicted punishment, but the duration will be uniformly everlasting.”[5]

He gives an illustration drawn from Jonathan Edwards on p76:

“It is important to realize that while the duration of hell is infinite, it is merely a potential infinity. This is to say that hell’s duration is never complete, but rather is one of successive moments, so that time progresses on everlastingly. An illustration: we might imagine two tunnels both being continually dug by a rotating crew of miners at the rate of two miles each  week. One of the tunnels is three feet in diameter; the other is eight feet. The digging never stops and the tunnels are never completed; yet one tunnel is  certainly greater than the other is. By way of analogy, we see that God can implement meaningful degrees of punishment in an everlasting hell.”[6]

Here, Bawulski’s claims that different punishments that are all equally permanent or unending can be more and less severe. Hence, he is committed to a conception of hell where the punishment is infinite in duration but does not involve punishing to the highest degree possible.

Once one recognises the distinction between these two senses of “infinity,” it is evident that the inference arising from (A), (B), (C), (D) and (E) is invalid because the argument equivocates between these two senses of the word.

If we take first Bawulski’s official definition: infinity means to the “highest degree” possible, the argument is:

(A) Justice demands that punishment for sins must be proportionate to their seriousness; it is unjust for punishment of sins to be disproportionate to their seriousness.
(B)’ No human sin or lifetime of human sinning can be serious to the highest possible degree.
(C )’ Hell involves the highest possible degree of punishment.
(D) To punish human sins with hell is to punish human sins disproportionately to their seriousness. (From (B) and (C)).
(E) Therefore, hell is an unjust punishment for human sins.

On this definition (B)’ is prima facie plausible. As Bawulski notes: “Premise (B) banks on the idea that a limit case is illusory: we can imagine that even the worst of the worst, for example, Hitler or Idi Amin could have perpetrated even greater evils.”[7] Whatever horrific actions a person commits we can always imagine them doing worse and so no one sins to the highest degree possible.

However, on this definition of infinity, premise (C)’ is false. Bawulski states “(C) is based on the idea that, traditionally understood, hell is everlasting punishment.” [Emphasis added] However, the fact a punishment is everlasting only means it is infinite in duration. As I noted above, this does not entail it involves punishing to the highest possible degree.

So, it seems that if we understand the word infinity to be used in the sense Bawulski officially defines it then both the annihilationist and the traditionalist can avoid the objection he articulates. Both can and will deny (C). While both hold that hell involves an everlasting punishment, one that is permanent or infinite in duration, neither holds that hell involves punishing people to the highest degree possible.  The problem of hell attacks a straw man.

To avoid this problem Bawulski needs to construe the argument in terms of his second, unofficial, definition. In Shawn Bawulski and the Problem of Hell: Part Two I will examine how Bawulski’s argument fares if one adopts his second, unofficial, definition of infinity. I will argue that on the second definition the argument is invalid.


[1] Shawn Bawulski Philosophia Christi Vol. 12 No. 1: 61-79.
[2] Ibid 62.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid 67.
[5] Ibid 75.
[6] Ibid 76.
[7] Ibid 62.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • It seems to my untrained eye, that there is a hidden assumption being made about the seriousness of sin. To me, (B) is false because we know (from the Old Testament) how severely God punishes those who disobey his law.

    Would it be fair to say that the most serious sin conceivable (to God) is not homicide or genocide, but the rebellion from, and the rejection of God himself? if this is true, then a lifetime of committing this sin every day would justly deserve punishment to the highest degree.

  • The whole underpinning of this line of argument is false. To say that hell is a “place” that God “sends” people because of His supposed offended sense of justice is wrong, and based on the false doctrines of Anselm and Frankish interpretations and innovations to Christian faith.

    Ciaron sort of hinted at a more correct view – that hell is the choice we make as people to separate ourselves from God. At the judgment, God will finally reveal Himself to us – the same God, with the same infinite Love and the same Divine Energies. If we are in communion with God, those Energies will illumine and transfigure us. If we are not, they will burn and consume us. Whether they burn us up eternally, or in a final, annihilating way is open to speculation (I believe the former), but God is Love and unwilling to let any perish. As Isaac the Syrian once said, the damned are not scourged by God’s will, but by His Love, which they despise, and which will burn them like fire.

    We put ourselves in hell, and we create hell, not God.

  • Blair,

    I used to take the same line but i’m no longer so convinced. The self exclusionary view of hell that you have articulated escapes the conclusion that God is responsible for sending people to hell by saying that hell is where the reprobate consign themselves as a result of their own free choice.

    This raises a number of questions:
    1. Do the reprobate continue to have the free choice to reconcile themselves to Christ even after judgement day?
    1.1. If ‘yes’, then it seems to me that you’re committed to the heresy of Oreginist Universalism. After all, given enough time in eternity, all of the reprobate would eventually make the choice to follow Christ for much the same reasons that if the universe was eternal into the past, it would have already reached a heat death by now.

    1.2. If ‘no’, then the self exclusionary view of hell can no longer claim that God is not responsible for sending people to hell because of our free will.

    2. Do those reconciled to Christ in heaven retain the free will to reject Christ?

  • Bawulski arguments fail at his premise B ” no human sinning or lifetime of sinning can be infinite in seriousness”. He misunderstands the nature of sin before he even considers the problem of hell. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All we like sheep have gone astray…. Its not how far down the wrong path you have gone, its the fact that you are on the wrong path at all the prevents you from entering heaven. The problem is that any and all human sin is infinite in seriousness. We are all in need of being saved and ironically it is often those who are the “little” sinners who are most in denial of this.