I’ve recently worked with some fantastic students on the OCR A Level Religious Studies course. Our discussions often revolve around how to add A02 evaluative points into essays (i.e. your own opinions!). It’s a tricky thing to get right – but a crucial aspect for increasing your overall grades.
To demonstrate this (alongside the A01 knowledge), here is a sample essay debating the statement “Hell is an idea not a place”. The evaluative points are highlighted in bold.
This forms part of the “Death and the Afterlife” topic within the Developments in Christian Thought module.
If you’re preparing for a similar question, have a read through the essay below and think about which points you agree or disagree with – and why. Reading other people’s arguments is also a great way to revise specific scholars, and the way you can use them to develop your own points.
So, feeling ready? Let’s begin…
Hell is an idea not a place. Discuss.
Despite the seemingly categorical presentation of hell as a physical place in the Bible (with gnashing of teeth and lakes of fire), there are significant logical challenges with the idea of hell. Chief among them is: how can we maintain the concept of an all-loving, all-powerful God in the face of eternal punishment for finite sin? In this essay, I will present the arguments for hell as a physical place (supported by literalist biblical interpretations and thinkers such as St Augustine), before exploring some of the major problems with hell both in physical and spiritual form (notably posited by David Hume) and finally suggesting that hell is best understood as both “idea” and “physical reality”, exemplified in the existentialist writings of John Paul Sartre and the Christian thinker John Hick. To enable meaningful debate, God’s existence will be taken as a presupposition, framing discussion as “can the Christian faith logically maintain hell as a place or idea”, as opposed to the veracity of God and the afterlife itself.
Firstly, the main arguments for hell as a physical place stem from literal interpretations of the Bible. Within Christianity, hell is traditionally understood as physical punishment after death for those who’ve committed moral sins (or sinned without remorse). This is particularly prevalent within conservative and evangelical denominations, supported by verses such as Matthew 25 where hell is described as a place of fire and “outer darkness” where there is “wailing or gnashing of teeth” – taken in a very literal sense. Descriptions in Revelations also support this, where hell is described as a “lake of fire”, a “place of sulphur” and “everlasting torment” – also understood literally by leading Church fathers and theologians such as St Augustine (claiming that physical hell is a necessary punishment as a result of our fallen state). Taken at face value, these interpretations certainly are convincing, as the “torment and suffering” described in the New Testament are concepts traditionally understood as having a physical counterpart. Indeed, even if we are speaking of mental torment, this still relies on a physical brain/body to process the thoughts and “feel” the torment – supporting the idea of hell as a physical place of suffering.
Despite this strong textual evidence, many Christians argue that passages such as Matthew should be interpreted as symbolic and metaphoric. Paul Tillich argues hell is best understood as “psychological alienation” from God, as opposed to a physical place of punishment. He contends there is no place for Augustine’s nightmarish version of physical hell in a modern society, as it’s immoral to exclude some of God’s creatures from heaven. In line with this, many early church fathers (such as Origen of Alexandria) and the modern-day Roman Catholic church state the main punishment in hell is “alienation from God” (Catechism of the Church, 1035). They maintain the physicality of hell, but because this “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God” is actively chosen by our own free will, the ethical question of God’s goodness (eternally punishing finite sins by actively sending people to hell) is supposedly avoided. The success of this argument is debatable however, as by creating humans with the potential for evil and the free-will to choose it, God does not escape accusations of unjustness. This is one of the strongest arguments against hell as an eternal, physical place – as it is hard to maintain God’s fundamental benevolency with eternal, physical torment. The question of how an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God can create/allow human evil then eternally physically punish his creation for it has never been satisfactorily answered. As David Hume asked, “surely a finite sin cannot be deserving of infinite punishment with no chance of parole or escape?” Indeed, even with “lesser” characteristics such as God’s omnipresence, the physical location of hell poses extreme logical issues. Put simply, how is there somewhere God isn’t, when God is everywhere?
The idea of God’s absence can also be used to support hell as a place however. Building on biblical passages such as Matthew and Revelations as well as the teachings of Augustine, Dante’s writings depict hell as a physical place, allowing humans to progress their journey of atonement. Dante’s nine circles of hell (located within the earth!) suggest we are only temporarily removed from God’s presence. The journey through the Inferno reflects our recognition and rejection of sin, and consequent reunification with God. Further supporting this view, New Testament passages describe the Kingdom of God (heaven) as a perfect, physically transformed state (akin to Jesus’ own bodily resurrection) that rewards the good. Philippians 3:21 is just one example of this “glorious” bodily transformation. It would logically follow that hell is a corresponding (physical) state punishing the wicked. If heaven is a physical place of God’s presence, hell (as the ultimate opposite) must be a physical place of God’s absence. This line of argument doesn’t necessarily follow however, as hell could simply be interpreted as spiritual alienation from God’s presence in heaven (physicality not being the theologically important aspect). There are also descriptions of heaven as a spiritual state “like treasure” or “like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (Matthew 13) – revealing contradictory biblical passages on both heaven and hell as physical or spiritual states.
As an alternative viewpoint, secular interpretations of religion have suggested hell has been created as a concept to control people (Marx), as a form of child abuse (Dawkins) or a product of deep-seated mental neurosis (Freud). All of these arguments support the idea that hell is an idea, not a physical place (nor indeed, even a spiritual reality). Whilst these views are worth mentioning, they would involve an entire rejection of Christianity. For the purposes of this essay (presupposing God’s existence), arguments from an atheistic starting point are not particularly helpful.
As a final consideration given seemingly contradictory Biblical passages, there is a way of combining the views of hell as a physical reality and a spiritual state in the Christian tradition. Parables such as the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25) can be understood as warning against immoral behaviour in the present (encouraging people to help the “hungry and thirsty” on this earth), rather than purely eschatological judgement. Hell and Heaven can be understood as qualities of just and unjust people in society (our physical present) – thus, in a way – hell becomes BOTH a physical place, as well as a state of temporary alienation from God in our spiritual development. When Sartre stated, “hell is other people”, perhaps this existentialist understanding was the most cogent of all. Hell, for both Sartre and the parable of the Sheep and the Goats is something to be worked through on earth. Scholars such as John Hick would also support this view, arguing that hell is indeed a physical reality we create in this world (on our journey towards atonement and spiritual perfection) – without the need for eternal separation in the afterlife. This interpretation would also solve the ethical issues regarding hell as an (unjust) place of eternal physical punishment for finite crimes. If hell is a mental state (alienation from God’s love) experienced in our physical reality – it allows the possibility of eventual atonement and eternal salvation in heaven. This understanding is the most logically coherent presentation of hell, allowing for God’s fundamental qualities to be maintained.
What do you think of the essay above, which arguments or sections do you think are particularly strong or weak? What marks would you award it?
Have a go at writing your own conclusion. How would you summarise the points made in each paragraph, and the overall argument?
Good luck for your own A Level philosophy essays – and happy analysing.
Do you have any questions? Get in touch, or leave a comment.