Why Would God Create People He Knows Will Go to Hell?
By Jimmy Akin
This is a common question, and many have tried to answer it online.
Most of the answers are unsatisfying. They tend to do one of two things:
- Say a lot of stuff that doesn’t really address the issue (e.g., discussing why anyone would go to hell and the possibility of salvation)
- Say it’s a mystery
Many of the answers you’ll find spend a lot of words on these two things (frankly, a painfully large number of words), but the first is irrelevant and the second is not very informative.
It’s true that, since God’s mind is infinite and ours are finite, we often can’t give definitive answers about his decisions, so an element of mystery remains.
However, we can often give partial answers—or at least make informed proposals. In other words, we often can do better than saying, “We just don’t know; it’s a mystery.”
I think we can do better in this case.
Keeping the Issue Focused
To avoid going off on tangents, let’s make the issue as focused as possible. Suppose there is a person—we’ll call him Bob—and the following is true:
In his eternal perspective outside of time, God knows that—if he creates Bob—then Bob will freely choose to go to hell.
We’ll also assume that:
- In his eternal perspective outside of time, God could freely choose not to create Bob (i.e., God has free will).
-God is just.
-God is loving and thus does not want anyone to go to hell.
Given these things: Why would God create Bob? Let’s look at some possibilities . . .
Possibility #1: There Is a Competing Good
Even if people don’t want something, they may tolerate it for the sake of a competing good.
I may not want the pain of having to get an injection, but I may tolerate it in order to avoid getting a disease.
In the same way, God may not want Bob to go to hell, but he may tolerate it for the sake of some other good or set of goods.
What might these be?
a) Free Will (and Love)
An answer that some propose is free will. In other words, God tolerates the decisions of some to go to hell because he wants to preserve their free will—which he does for the sake of genuine love.
Love is God’s most important priority (Matt. 22:37-40), and he wants people to be able to freely choose love. Programmed, robotic “love” would lack something and not be fully genuine. This means he must tolerate the possibility that they will misuse their freedom and reject love.
All that’s true, but it doesn’t really address our issue.
If our starting assumption is true—that God knows what Bob will freely choose if he creates him—then God could simply decide not to create him.
In that case, he could stop Bob from going to hell without seeming to violate his free will. Bob would simply never have existed.
The free will defense thus doesn’t seem to work if our starting assumption is true, so what other possibilities are there for a competing good that would lead God to tolerate Bob going to hell?
b) God’s Glory
Perhaps the most commonly proposed answer is God’s own glory. The idea here is that it brings glory to God to have illustrations of his character that actually exist.
Bob’s going to hell provides a concrete example of God’s justice in that God did give Bob the offer of salvation—and Bob freely rejected it. He’s thus an object lesson that illustrates certain aspects of God’s character and brings glory to God.
Many will find this answer unsatisfying. If a human being were willing to let someone go to hell simply for the sake of his own glory, we would say that human was a raging egomaniac.
Of course, God is not a human being. We have only finite value, but God has infinite value, so his glorification would be worth more—even infinitely more—than the glorification of a human.
This would make it more understandable how God might tolerate the loss of Bob’s soul.
c) Something Else
It’s also possible that there might be a different good for the sake of which God tolerates Bob’s loss.
The history of the world involves a complex tangle of the billions of interrelated choices people make, and you could propose that—in order to set up the free will decisions of some to go to heaven—God must tolerate the misuse of free will by others.
Thus, God might tolerate Bob’s misuse of free will for the sake of making it possible for others to use theirs properly.
Or, since the universe is vast and we know only a tiny part of it, there might be some other good—perhaps one that we haven’t even conceived of—that justifies God tolerating Bob’s misuse of free will.
While both of these suggestions are possible, they are both very speculative, which means many will find them unsatisfying.
So perhaps we can look at the issue from a different angle.
Possibility #2: God Isn’t Being Unjust
One of our starting assumptions is that God is just. In the present context, that means it isn’t unjust for God to tolerate Bob’s free decision to reject salvation.
(You could challenge the justness of anybody going to hell, but that’s a different discussion. Here, we’re assuming that it is just for God to allow people to go to hell.)
In this case, God has genuinely given Bob the offer of salvation, and he has freely chosen to reject it, so God is not being unjust by respecting his choice.
Bob cannot—and, if he’s thinking rationally, would not—accuse God of injustice. God has been fair with him.
Is this enough to resolve our dilemma?
It certainly helps to realize that God isn’t being unjust, but it doesn’t seem to fully resolve the matter.
Our starting assumptions didn’t simply involve God being just. They also involved God not wanting people to go to hell.
So, if we’re not appealing to a competing good that would lead God to tolerate Bob’s loss, why wouldn’t he act on his desire to keep Bob out of hell and simply not create him?
There doesn’t seem to be a good answer to this question. So, while realizing God isn’t being unjust helps, it provides an incomplete answer.
Possibility #3: God Is Actually Benefiting Bob
But perhaps God is being more than fair with Bob. Perhaps he is benefiting him by creating him, even though he will spend an infinite amount of time in hell.
Some have argued that it’s better to exist—even in hell—than not to exist at all.
If that’s the case, then God is actually being generous to Bob by creating him, despite his damnation.
And we would know what the competing good is that leads God to tolerate Bob’s misuse of free will: It’s Bob’s own existence.
If it’s better to exist in hell than not to exist at all then that’s why God chooses to create him. Bob will actually benefit!
Whether you find this solution plausible will depend on how bad you imagine hell to be and how great a good you suppose existence to be.
Based on some of the images in Scripture (e.g., hell as a lake of fire; Rev. 20:14-15), many have thought that it would be better not to exist than to go there.
However, the images that Scripture uses to describe the afterlife are accommodated to our present understanding, which is limited by our experience of this life, and they should be read with some caution.
It could turn out that, from the greater perspective the next life will offer, even the damned will see that it is better for them to exist in their current condition than not to exist at all.
Some, even in this life, have made this argument.
Possibility #4: God Doesn’t Create Bob
Suppose that it’s better not to exist than to spend eternity in hell. In that case, if there is no competing good that would lead God to create Bob, he might simply not create him.
However, Bob is only a representative of an entire class of people—those who misuse their free will and reject God’s offer of salvation.
In that case, it would seem that God would not create anybody that would reject his offer, in which case hell would be empty.
This idea has been explored by various figures down through Church history, including the recent theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), who discussed it in his book Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?
Von Balthasar frames his proposal carefully. Since the Church teaches that hell is a real possibility, he only proposes we may be able to hope (not assert) that hell is empty.
The difficulty for this view is found in various statements in the New Testament that appear to indicate some people actually are in hell (Matt. 7:13-14, 21-23, Luke 13:23-28).
(For a careful analysis of part of this issue, see Cardinal Avery Dulles’s insightful article The Population of Hell.)
Possibility #5: Reject the Starting Assumption
If the above possibilities are not fully satisfying, perhaps we should revisit our initial assumption concerning Bob, which was:
In his eternal perspective outside of time, God knows that—if he creates Bob—then Bob will freely choose to go to hell.
This assumption holds that God knows what Bob would freely choose to do if he existed.
Does God have that kind of knowledge?
Historically, theologians have recognized that God has two types of knowledge:
-Knowledge of all possible things
-Knowledge of all actual things
Both of these kinds of knowledge cover everything past, present, and future.
If God creates Bob and makes him an actual thing, then God also knows what Bob’s actual choice is, which is to reject salvation.
However, suppose that God doesn’t create Bob. What does God know in that case?
By his knowledge of all possible things, God knows from his eternal perspective that it is possible for Bob to accept his offer of salvation. He also knows that it is possible for Bob to reject salvation.
But that doesn’t reveal which Bob does choose because Bob doesn’t exist and never makes the choice.
For God to know what Bob would choose if he were created, God would need an additional kind of knowledge that lets him know what people would freely choose if they are placed in certain circumstances (such as being created).
In the last 500 years, theologians have begun to explore this idea and have named this third kind of knowledge “middle knowledge,” since it seems part way between God’s knowledge of the possible and the actual.
In his book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott holds that the Church has definitively taught that God knows all possible things and all actual things, and they are matters “of the Faith” (de fide) (pp. 40-42).
However, he lists middle knowledge as only the “common opinion” (sent. communis.) of theologians (pp. 42-43).
There are a passages of Scripture that one can appeal to in support of God having middle knowledge (e.g., 1 Sam. 23:1-13, Wis. 4:11, Matt. 11:21).
However, there are only a few such passages, and they can be read in ways that don’t require middle knowledge.
There also is an argument to be made against middle knowledge.
Omnipotence and Omniscience
Because God is all-powerful and all-knowing, one always should be hesitant to say there are things he “can’t” do or know, but there are limits to omnipotence and omniscience.
Omnipotence means that God can do everything that can be done—in other words, anything that is logically possible. However, it does not mean that God could make something that involves a logical contradiction, where the terms themselves conflict.
For example, God could not make a square circle or a four-sided triangle, because these involve contradictions in terms. They are just nonsense—a kind of word salad that has no real meaning.
Similarly, omniscience means that God knows everything that can be known. However, it does not mean that he knows logically impossible things.
For example, God does not know the shape of a square circle or the shape of a four-sided triangle.
What about Bob’s choice to go to hell?
To Be or Not To Be?
If Bob exists, then he freely makes the choice, and God knows it.
But if Bob is never created, then he would never make this free will decision, and God would have to know the outcome of a free will decision that is never made.
“The outcome of a free will decision that is never made” sounds a lot like “square circle” or “four-sided triangle.”
The essence of a free will decision is that it is really possible for a person to make one choice or another when the moment comes. But if the moment never comes, then there simply is no outcome, because the choice is never made.
There is thus a case to be made that “the outcome of a free will choice that is never made” involves a contradiction in terms.
In that case, God would not know Bob’s decision—unless he creates Bob.
The Free Will Defense Returns
If middle knowledge involves a logical contradiction, then God wouldn’t have it, and so he would not be able to foresee what Bob will freely choose and refrain from creating him.
To know what Bob will actually choose, God would need to create him.
And in that case, the free will defense that we discussed in Possibility #1 would work!
God would create Bob, see his decision to reject salvation, and the counterbalancing good that explains why God tolerates this is his desire to let Bob have free will so that he can make an authentic choice between love and non-love.
While “It’s just a mystery” isn’t a satisfying answer, it is true that we can’t always propose a single, definite answer to matters involving God.
However, while his mind is infinite and ours are only finite, we often can at least sketch the outlines of possible reasons he makes the decisions he does.
In this case, I haven’t settled on a final answer to the question we began by posing, so mystery remains.
But we have fleshed out possible reasons that shed light on this question.
Which solution you find most likely will depend on your views of various matters, but at least we can have the assurance that there are solutions.
And that God is just. And that he really does offer us salvation.
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