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The Gag-Reflex and the Doctrine of Hell

Realigning Our Emotional Response to God's Justice

In his recent book arguing for universalism, David Bentley Hart explains why he abhors the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment. It turns out that his reasons are not first of all to do with God’s revelation in scripture but with a gag-reflex—his moral revulsion against a deity that would preside over an eternal conscious torment in hell. Hart writes,

How viciously vindictive the creator of such a hell would have to be to have devised so exquisitely malicious a form of torture and then to have made it eternal, and how unjust in condemning men and women to unending torment for the “sin” of not knowing him even though he had never revealed himself to them, or for some formally imputed guilt supposedly attaching to them on account of some distant ancestor’s transgression.[1]

Hart’s rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell at least has the virtue of being clear. He does not mince words or hedge in the least. He rejects what the church has overwhelmingly taught and believed throughout its two-thousand year history. He knows he’s in the minority on this, but he nevertheless soldiers on in his contempt for any view of hell as eternal conscious torment. And it is clear that the doctrine of hell is not the only doctrine in his crosshairs. Hart is aware that the doctrine of hell sits atop a foundation of other theological commitments, including the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of man, and even the doctrine of God. Nevertheless, it is his doctrine of God that most drives his scorn for the biblical doctrine of hell. He simply will not bow the knee to a God who would preside over a hell of eternal fire and torment. Hart writes, “My conscience forbids assent to a picture of reality that I regard as morally corrupt, contrary to justice, perverse, inexcusably cruel, deeply irrational, and essentially wicked.”[2] Again, at least he’s clear.

A familiar objection

John Stott also reflects the instinctive reaction that many people have to the idea of eternal conscious torment.[3] He writes, “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.”[4] Stott and Hart are not alone in recoiling from the idea of “eternal conscious torment.” Hardly anyone can contemplate the horror of an eternal hell without shuddering at the thought of someone having to bear such a fate. Nevertheless, are our visceral feelings about hell really a reliable guide to evaluating the doctrine of hell?

What if the gag-reflex that people experience against hell is wrong? Obviously, serious Christians wish for God’s revelation in scripture to be the ultimate arbiter of the debate. But oftentimes our feelings can blind us to doctrines that we prefer not to be in the Bible. And that is often the case when it comes to people’s grappling with the biblical doctrine of eternal conscious torment.

To be sure, many people oppose the doctrine of eternal conscious torment on exegetical grounds, and I have addressed those arguments at length elsewhere.[5] But many others simply express a moral revulsion at the doctrine and then revise or forsake the Bible’s teaching. Herman Bavinck explains, “The grounds on which people argue against the eternity of hellish punishment always remain the same.”[6]

The first three reasons he lists are based less on specific scripture than they are on human judgments about the way God ought to behave: (1) Eternal punishment contradicts the goodness, love, and compassion of God and makes him a tyrant; (2) Eternal punishment contradicts the justice of God because it is in no way proportionate to the sin in question; and (3) Eternal punishment that is purely punitive and not remedial has no apparent value.[7] Given that the Bible teaches hell to be eternal conscious torment and God to be just, then hell must be an indication of how grave and awful it is to sin against an infinitely holy God. Click To Tweet

Over 1,500 years ago, Augustine dealt with similar questions in his defense of eternal conscious punishment.[8] Again, these objections are not new nor is people’s abhorrence for the doctrine. Hart argues that such objections have no good answers under the traditional view. We are left with the “primary question of whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible… can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is.”[9]

Reforming the gag-reflex

When I was in seminary, I wrestled with my own emotional response to the doctrine of hell and how my affections might be rightly ordered towards God’s eternal wrath against sinners. There were two items that shaped my thinking during that period and that still shape my thinking today. The first was a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous.”[10] This sermon is a meditation on Revelation 18:20, which says, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her.”

Edwards observes something profound revealed in this text. One day, God will turn to His glorified people and command them to “rejoice” over the destruction of the wicked in hell. Why? For several reasons: because God has finally given justice to His people by punishing her persecutors (Rev. 18:20b); because God’s judgment reveals His righteousness and justice (Rev. 19:2a); because God’s judgment ends Babylon’s wickedness (Rev. 19:2b); because God’s judgment vindicates the martyrs (Rev. 19:2c; cf. 6:10); because God’s judgment is eternal (Rev. 19:3); and because God’s judgment reveals that He reigns as the true King (Rev. 19:6).

This text from Revelation reveals that—regardless of my feelings now—there is coming a day when I will rejoice in the justice of God revealed in his punishment of sinners. That observation led me to ponder the crucial question: Why would I hold in contempt now the very thing that I will praise God for in the age to come? In the age to come, my heart will be made new, and my affections will be rightly ordered. In that day, I will no longer be haunted by indwelling sin and its distorting influence on my view of things. Therefore, I ought to aspire to be now what God will enable me to be perfectly in the age to come. I won’t be despising God’s righteous judgement in that future day, so I shouldn’t be despising it now.

That doesn’t mean that the thought of hell ceases to horrify me. It does horrify me. I am overwhelmed by the thought that the most powerful Being in the universe will inflict all his holy wrath upon the damned for eternity. I tremble to think that when the damned have suffered a million ages of despair, pain, anguish, and aloneness, their horror will only have just begun. I shudder to imagine the shock and astonishment of the damned, that their grief and pain will only increase forever. So I understand the emotional recoil that causes some people to soften the doctrine of hell or to jettison it altogether. I have felt it.

When I feel it, however, I try to remind myself that the problem is not with the doctrine. The problem is with me. My gag-reflex is malformed and needs to be adjusted to reality. I just don’t see things as I ought to see them. I don’t see things the way I will see them when I am made new. What is it about me now that tempts me to resist what I will one day embrace? It’s my inability to perceive and feel the greatness of an infinitely holy God. My vision of Him tends to be so dim that an infinite hell seems to be an overreaction to finite sin committed in time.[11] If I understand the true greatness of God and the utter horror of sin, I would see that hell is not an overreaction on God’s part. It is an expression of his justice.

Hell is not an overreaction

The second item actually follows from the first.[12] Given that the Bible teaches hell to be eternal conscious torment and God to be just, then hell must be an indication of how grave and awful it is to sin against an infinitely holy God. In other words, the heinousness of sin is not measured by the sin itself but by the value of the one being sinned against. Thus my emotional reaction to the doctrine of hell is a direct reflection of my view of God’s holiness and glory. Sin will always appear as a trifle to those whose view of God is small. Here’s the image that sealed it for me.

If you happened upon a man pulling the legs off of a grasshopper, you would think it strange and perhaps a little bizarre. If that same man were pulling the legs off of a frog, that would be a bit more disturbing. If it were a bird, that would be too grotesque to tolerate. If it were a puppy, you would likely reprove the man and call the authorities. In some way, you would intervene. If it were a little baby, it would be so reprehensible and tragic that you would move heaven and earth to protect the baby—even if it meant a risk to your own safety. The seriousness of the sin is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and the worth of the one being sinned against. Click To Tweet

What is the difference in each of these scenarios? Why would you react with virtual indifference to the dismembering of a grasshopper but with heroic intervention to the dismembering of a baby? Why would your reaction be different? In each of the scenarios above, the “sin” is the same—pulling the legs off. The only difference in each of these scenarios is the one sinned against. And that is why you move heaven and earth to save the baby and do nothing to save the grasshopper. You react differently because the seriousness of the sin is not measured merely by the sin itself (pulling off the legs) but by the value and the worth of the one being sinned against. The more noble and valuable the creature, the more heinous and reprehensible it is to assault the creature. And there is a world of difference between a grasshopper and a baby.

The one sinned against

And this is the real measure of our gut reaction to the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment. The seriousness of sin—and thus of the punishment due to sin—is not measured merely by the sin itself but by the value and the worth of the one sinned against. Herman Bavinck says it this way: “[It is] not the duration of time over which the sin was committed but its own intrinsic nature is the standard for its punishment… That sin is infinite in the sense that it is committed against the Highest Majesty, who is absolutely entitled to our love and worship.”[13] If God were a grasshopper, then to sin against him would be of no great moral consequence. Eternal conscious torment would be an unjust overreaction if God were a grasshopper. It would be an overreaction if God were exactly like you and me. But God is not a grasshopper. And He is not exactly like you and me. Why would I hold in contempt now the very thing that I will praise God for in the age to come? Click To Tweet

God is holy and infinite. He is compassionate and gracious. He is the definition of beauty. He is infinitely more precious than the tiniest baby. He is infinitely more noble than the best person. He is the first and best of beings. His glory and worth are boundless. Thus to sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.

People tend not to take sin or wrath seriously because of their failure to take God himself seriously. We have so imbibed of the banality of our God-belittling spirit of the age that our sins hardly trouble us at all. Our sin seems small because we regard God as small. And thus the penalty of hell—eternal conscious suffering under the wrath of God—always seems like an overreaction on God’s part. If we knew God better, we wouldn’t think like that.

But there is coming a day that we will see him. And when we see him, we will be made like him because we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). In that day, God will summon forth praise from his people for his holiness and justice demonstrated in the damnation of the wicked. “‘Hallelujah! Her smoke rises up forever and ever.’ And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who sits on the throne saying, ‘Amen. Hallelujah!’” (Rev. 19:3-4). There really is coming a day when the unrepentant will no longer have anyone to feel compassion for them. The lost man’s saintly mother, father, sister, brother, grandmother, and grandfather will not feel pity anymore for the lostness of the damned. All the anguish that such Christians feel now over the plight of the lost will pass away as God wipes away every tear from their eyes (Rev. 21:4).

An occasion for marveling

These bracing truths are not an occasion for despising God’s wrath but for marveling at a holiness beyond our comprehension. These truths should motivate us today to call sinners to repentance and faith and to urge them to flee from the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7; 1 Thess. 1:10). Hell really is worse than we dare to imagine. But the grace of God in Christ is bigger and better than our worst fears. This is good news worth sharing. That is why the biblical doctrine of hell compels believers to see the urgency of evangelism.

Have you considered the great mercy of God toward you in Christ? Have you begun to fathom what he rescued you from through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross? If his mercy was big enough and wide enough to include you, is it not sufficient for your neighbor as well? Shouldn’t the terrors of the damned move you to share the mercy of God with those who have not experienced it while there’s still time? Perhaps Spurgeon has said it best:

Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.[14]

This is the vision of God and of his judgments that has sustained and formed God’s people over two millennia of church history. It is also the vision that unleashes evangelistic urgency among God’s people toward the lost. We see that the stakes are high because God made it to be that way. The resentment that some critics express about the doctrine of hell is not merely about an esoteric point of theology. They are recoiling from the God of the Bible. They are backing down from truths that ignite evangelistic fervor. In short, they are losing that which grows and sustains the growth of the Lord’s church in the world. Our emotional response to the doctrine of hell matters, for it reveals how we really feel about God himself.


[1] David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019), 11-12.

[2] Hart, 208.

[3] The following paragraphs reflect an argument I made in the introduction of my essay titled “Eternal Conscious Torment,” in Four Views on Hell, ed. Preston Sprinkle, 2nd ed., Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 17–43., 17-20.

[4] David L. Edwards and John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 314-15.

[5] Burk, “Eternal Conscious Torment.”

[6] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 704.

[7] Bavinck, 704.

[8] In particular, see Book XXI in Augustin, “The City of God,” in Augustin: City of God, Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Marcus Dods, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004).

[9] Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, 17.

[10] Jonathan Edwards, “Sermon IX: The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous,” in Jonathan Edwards on Knowing Christ (Edinburgh/Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 245–65.

[11] Augustine deals with the apparent inequity of eternal punishment for finite sins committed in time in “The City of God,” XXI, 11-12.

[12] The following material follows very closely the section titled “A Parable on Punishment and Justice” in my essay “Eternal Conscious Torment,” 18-20.

[13] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 711.

[14] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Sermon XX: The Wailing of Risca,” in Spurgeon’s Sermons, vol. 7 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2014), 333-34.

Image credit: David Le Batard, Holy Holy Holy

Denny Burk

Denny Burk (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Burk edits The Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and speaks and writes extensively about gender and sexuality. His books include Transforming Homosexuality (P&R, 2015) and  What is the Meaning of Sex (Crossway, 2013). He keeps a popular blog at

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