The Logic of Hell

I know there are a lot of Bible verses that one can quote about the nature of hell. But I’ve just been thinking about the basic logic of the idea.

Why punish someone for doing something wrong? It has to either be for retribution or reformation. You’re either trying to “balance the scales of justice” or you’re trying to get the person to reform – to change his or her thoughts or actions.

So what does Jesus reveal to us about himself, his Father, and the Holy Spirit? Is the life of the Trinity rooted in retributive justice or reformation? It seems to me that adoption, salvation, forgiveness, the story of Israel, the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, and the whole story of the Father’s relationship with the creation is grounded in reformation. The whole theme, logic, and life of the Trinity seems to be rooted in the idea of adopting what is created, healing what is diseased, and mending what is broken.

Therefore, how can a retributive hell make sense in the light of the nature of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? The only purpose I can see in the Father allowing suffering in our lives is so that we would reform – so that we would change our minds and believe the truth of who we are in Jesus.

As C.S. Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, the door to hell must be locked from the inside. At any time we can unlock the door and come out. The pain is there to help us change. Maybe that’s why Revelation 14:11 says that the torment of hell takes place “in the presence of the Lamb.” After all, the door to the pain in which we trap ourselves is hard to unlock from the inside. Maybe the Lamb of God lives in hell with us (Psalm 139:8) in order to help our reformation and lead us out to the Father’s house when the punishment has accomplished its purpose.

It seems to me that the Trinitarian logic of hell has to be reformative and purgative. Therefore hell need not be a permanent condition of any human life – whether now or into eternity. When we are reformed and purged then there is no longer any need for hell.

~ Jonathan Stepp

6 comments so far

  1. Jerome on

    This reminds me of my current musings upon the words of Romans 11:22 that refers to the “kindness and sternness of God” in the NIV, how “God is both kind and severe” in the NLT, and “these qualities of gentle kindness and ruthless severity that exist side by side in God” in The Message. If you read the entire chapter, you see that the Father’s purpose in Jesus by the Spirit is restoration – WHATEVER IT TAKES, and a lot of it is very unpleasant, like hell. The Father’s “ruthless severity” is only for our good, not our destruction! Such is the state of the human condition, that it takes this suffering, and a God who is willing to allow it, to bring us to Himself! John Newton (writer of song “Amazing Grace”) wrote a poem where he prays that the Lord would grant him growth in faith, love and “every grace,” and “might more of His salvation know” but found himself beset by fearsome trials, upon which he prayed:

    “…that in some favour’d hour,
    At once He’d answer my request:
    And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
    Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

    Instead of this, He made me feel
    The hidden evils of my heart;
    And let the angry pow’rs of hell
    Assault my soul in ev’ry part”

    There is more lamenting, and then the Lord replies:

    “Tis in this way, the Lord reply’d,
    I answer pray’r for grace and faith.
    These inward trials I employ,
    From self and pride to set thee free;
    And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
    That thou mayst seek thy all in me.”

  2. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, Jerome, I think those words from Newton say it well.

  3. Paul Kurts on

    Great observations Jonathan. However, as long as one has the Platonic, Augustinian view of a fire burning hell tormenting and torturing humans in a suffering , firey, burning forever pit of Hell Fire, one will have difficulty seeing our Loveing Father as one who is always desiring to draw all of us to Himself in love–even if it takes forever to do so. Your post makes God look like He really does love all of us. Thank you Holy Spirit.

    Paul Kurts

  4. Boyd Merriman on

    I think this is the first real argument I have heard that may actually support Purgatory rather than hell! For years, I scoffed at the idea of “purgatory” until you wrote “It seems to me that the Trinitarian logic of hell has to be reformative and purgative” and I thought “purgative…Purgatory!”

    So I think maybe we won’t end up in hell after all if we first go through “purgatory” or a place of purging and cleansing. Like this life for instance. This life can be a purgatory life or a hellish life.

    Or just plain heavenly!


  5. Pastor Jonathan on

    There probably is an historical connection between the Church Fathers, such as Gregory of Nyssa, who viewed hell as purgative and the later, medieval development of the doctrine of purgatory, but I haven’t yet done the research to find out what it is. Of course, the doctrine of purgatory applies to baptized Christians whereas as a purgative view of hell speaks to our view of all of humanity.
    And I agree – this life itself can be both purgative and painful!

  6. Barry Fall on


    I enjoy reading your blog! On this subject maybe you should try a little science fiction. Authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have written a modern day spit on Dante’s Inferno. Science fiction writer goes to Hell and meets up with Benito Musselini (sic). It’s the sequel that is interesting. Both are in paperback.

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