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If Hell isn't a punishment but instead the logical consequence of our rejection of God, if God doesn't send us to Hell, but we choose to go there on our own; how can Jesus' death on the Cross help us get out of Hell?

If the way out of Hell is to love God again, then I can do that with or without Jesus. If Hell's door is locked from the inside, I can unlock it myself without any help from Jesus. If rejection of God comes from me, and repentance comes from me, why do I need Jesus for anything? I can just repent and return to God on my own.

If I go to Hell because God is giving me infinite punishment for an infinite sin, then I can see that I need Jesus to pay the penalty I can't pay for myself. But if I'm headed for Hell because I don't love God, then Jesus can't help me love God again. That has to come from me, not anyone else. Right?

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    There are a bunch of theories about exactly how the death of Jesus saved/saves us, as well as a few different ideas about whether you'd be able to freely do something good without the assistance of the grace of God. Not all Christians would agree with "I can just repent and return to God on my own", nor would they all agree that "Jesus can't help me love God again". You may want to search for terms like "substitutionary atonement", "ransom theory", "PETAL", and "Arminianism" here - that might give an overview of Protestant viewpoints. May 22 at 15:57
  • How would someone's death on a cross make me want to love God again?
    – Ashpenaz
    May 22 at 16:49
  • As an aside, there is no word for Hell in the Bible, and Gehenna, Sheol, Hades, etc. are "of an age" (aionios), not eternal or everlasting.
    – Ashpenaz
    May 22 at 16:50
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    The main purpose of the incarnation was to render human nature capable of living a holy life. Were humanity to have been able of performing such a task, the incarnation would indeed have been superfluous.
    – Lucian
    May 22 at 18:08
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    This question needs clarification and scoping to a particular denomination otherwise it will attract opinion based answers.
    – Kris
    May 23 at 19:51
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In order to perceive the things of the kingdom of God and enter into that kingdom one must be born again of the spirit.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” - John 3:3-8

The nature that each person is born with on the natural level is a disposition of enmity with God. That nature fully directs all thoughts, intentions, and actions until it's power is broken by spiritual rebirth. Therefore it is not possible for those who are in the flesh (only) to please God.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. - Romans 8:5-8 

It is not merely forgiveness for things that we have done which Christ has acquired for us but he has redeemed us from the law of sin and death. He has opened the way for us to receive a new nature which cries "Abba, Father". The access point is to see oneself a spiritual beggar, entirely bereft of merit or ability, entirely enslaved by a sinful disposition and to call on the name of the Lord pleading with Him to trade places with us. Pleading with Him to come down from the cross and live in us while our old sinful nature is crucified with Him.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. - John 3:14-15

This is pointing back to Numbers 21. The Israelites grumbled (yet again). God sent fiery serpents among them and those bitten would die. Moses pleaded with God for mercy. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Whoever was bitten would live if they looked at the serpent. Jesus said He would be lifted up in the same way.

Question: Since Moses lifted up an image of what was killing the Israelites, How then is Jesus lifted up on the cross an image of what is killing us?

Answer: Jesus is the Word of God made into flesh and he hung on a cross crucified by men. In the garden of Eden Adam put God's word to death within himself when he agreed with the temptation "In the day you eat of it you shall be like God, knowing good and evil" and we are all born the same. The Word of God is dead in us from birth. This is what we are meant to understand about ourselves when we "see" Christ on the cross: the Word of God put to death by Man. The Word of God in the flesh...dead. Ourselves.

It is a seeing of faith. We cannot approach God but by that way which He has decreed.

And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” - Numbers 21:8

 

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In answer to the question, you cannot save yourself. Salvation is not possible without the cross of Christ. You stand condemned in Adam (Romans 5:18), the father of the human race. God's judgment on Adam conferred mortality upon him and all his offspring (Romans 5:12). What you are being saved from is permanent death, not eternal flames. God is not a terrorist and does not confer a sentence that outweighs the crime committed. He is love and He is a just God. He wills all to be saved and to come unto a knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:3-6).

A misunderstanding about "hell" is the direct cause of all this confusion, but it is understandable due to blatantly wrong translation. Those of you who believe in the traditional teachings of an "eternal soul" and a fiery "hell" please pause and consider the following.

Gehenna and Hades are both translated as "hell." Gehenna was a garbage dump where they also threw the corpses of convicted criminals (not live people). Hades is the equivalent of Sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures. Study every usage with a concordance and you will see it is a figurative place where all the dead go -- man and beast, righteous and unrighteous. The word "sleep" is used in the Word over 500 times to describe death because God is going to raise them from the dead, hence figuratively "wake" them from their "sleep."

Christ is "the first fruits from the dead (I Cor. 15:20-28) and he is the only one who has immortal life at this time (I Tim. 6:16). Being the first to be made immortal through resurrection, and being the only one shows us that every single person who has died is still dead.

God breathed the breath ( put for the spirit of man) of life into man and man became a living soul (Genesis 1:27). Man is a living soul while alive, he doesn't have a soul. When a person dies, he or she is a dead soul. So we see the soul is the person him or herself.

When man dies, the spirit ( of man, the life-force, not the personality or consciousness) goes back to God who gave it, the body decays and the person ( the living soul) ceases to exist in any manner or form. Figuratively, he or she is in "hell" ( Hades or sheol). Hence the need for resurrection.

Jesus used the word Gehenna" every time you read "hell" in the 4 accounts of our Lord, except once ( in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man which I can't get into here, but it doesn't teach about the state of the dead). Jesus was not speaking about the final judgement, but about his Kingdom. There will be a Gehenna in the millennial Kingdom, and dead bodies of criminals will be thrown in there. They will be risen at the resurrection of the unjust for final judgement based on their works ( Romans 2).

Jesus never sinned. He laid down his perfect life and died in our place. All who come to him will be saved. Eventually all will be, by faith now or through judgement later, for he is the Savior of the world (John 4:42).

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  • Love this answer +1
    – Adam
    May 23 at 12:17
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    Interesting answer. From which denominational POV does this come? Re your statement that the dead “are to be raised for final judgement based on their works” does this refer to works they do after resurrection or their works prior to their death?
    – Kris
    May 23 at 12:27
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    Doesn't Gehenna literally translate to Valley of Hinnom? I don't know of people throwing bodies there as a common practice. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gehenna May 23 at 13:52
  • @AupakaranaAbhibhaa newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Gehenna
    – Kris
    May 23 at 18:24
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    Universal Reconciliation is the proper term, see Colossians 1:15-20. I have written a book about it but am trying to clarify if I can link to it here. You can find it though at my livefaith.tv site under the books link. May 23 at 20:23
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Is Hell a Punishment?

The views on this will vary according to how a particular Church or individual Christian chooses to understand this subject matter.

Wikipedia’s article on the Problem of Hell in a general way shows how various Christians see this.

In Christianity, Hell has traditionally been regarded as a place of punishment for wrongdoing or sin in the mortal life, as a manifestation of divine justice. Nonetheless, the extreme severity and/or infinite duration of the punishment might be seen as incompatible with justice. However, Hell is not seen as strictly a matter of retributive justice even by the more traditionalist churches. For example, the Eastern Orthodox see it as a condition brought about by, and the natural consequence of, free rejection of God's love.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Hell is a place of punishment brought about by a person's self-exclusion from communion with God. The Catholic Church believes that hell is the free and continual rejection of God's forgiveness of sins. Doctrine states that this rejection takes the form of a committing of a sin without repentance. Notably, however, those who die only in original sin are not predestined to hell since God is not bound by baptism. Catholic teaching explains Hell's eternality by claiming that the sinner, once in hell, will inevitably refuse to turn away from his mortal sin to God's forgiveness. Accordingly, Hell must endure as chief punishment for this continuing lack of repentance.

In terms of the Bible itself, issues of salvation and access to heaven or to hell are mentioned frequently. Examples include John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." which tends to show the wicked perish and the saints have everlasting life or John 3:36 (NIV), "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them",[17] and 2 Thessalonians 1:8–9 (NIV), "Those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might."

The minority Christian doctrine that sinners perish and are destroyed rather than punished eternally such as is found in John 3:16 "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.", is referred to as Christian mortalism; annihilation for those not awarded immortal life, conditional immortality for those who are. This Christian view is found in very early Christianity, resurfaced in the Reformation, and since 1800 has found increasing support among Protestant theologians.

Justice

Some opponents of the traditional doctrine of Hell claim that the punishment is disproportionate to any crimes that could be committed. Because human beings have a finite lifespan, they can commit only a finite number of sins, yet Hell is an infinite punishment. In this vein, Jorge Luis Borges suggests in his essay La duración del Infierno that no transgression can warrant an infinite punishment on the grounds that there is no such thing as an "infinite transgression". Philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in 1793 in Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason that since morality lies ultimately in a person's disposition, and as disposition is concerned with the adoption of universal principles, or as he called them: "maxims", every human being is guilty of, in one sense, an infinite amount of violations of the law, and so consequently an infinite punishment is not unjustified.

Divine Mercy

Another issue is the problem of harmonizing the existence of Hell with God's infinite mercy or omnibenevolence which is found in scripture.

Some modern critics of the doctrine of Hell (such as Marilyn McCord Adams) claim that, even if Hell is seen as a choice rather than as punishment, it would be unreasonable for God to give such flawed and ignorant creatures as ourselves the responsibility of our eternal destinies. Jonathan Kvanvig, in The Problem of Hell (1993), agrees that God would not allow one to be eternally damned by a decision made under the wrong circumstances. One should not always honor the choices of human beings, even when they are full adults, if, for instance, the choice is made while depressed or careless. On Kvanvig's view, God will abandon no person until they have made a settled, final decision, under favorable circumstances, to reject God, but God will respect a choice made under the right circumstances. Once a person finally and competently chooses to reject God, out of respect for the person's autonomy, God allows them to be annihilated.

Ultimately, souls condemned to Hell, are there because they refuse to love God and do not will to repent of their sins!

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  • These are great answers--there is a lot of variety in approaches. My initial question was basically this: I'm in Hell, not for any sin, but because I chose not to love God. If Hell is locked from the inside, then I'm the only one who can open the door. And the only reason I would open the door is if I turned from hating God to loving God. If I don't love God now, what can Jesus do to change that? How can Jesus help me if he's outside the door?
    – Ashpenaz
    May 23 at 22:00
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    @Ashpenaz My thoughts also!
    – Ken Graham
    May 23 at 22:28
  • @Ashpenaz How can Jesus help me if he's outside the door? He knocks! Rev 3:20
    – steveowen
    May 23 at 22:33
  • @user47952 Christ may knock, but souls in Hell seem to refuse the invitation to open. The damned do not love, just as Satan does not love.
    – Ken Graham
    May 23 at 22:36
  • @user47952 You are free to pose a question if there is a dubium in what I stated! Besides, I stated what various denominations have stated on this issue. Thus this reflects paradigms that are not altogether mine!
    – Ken Graham
    May 23 at 23:13
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I think this is a great question so I will try to offer some light and round out the answers. I will try to answer two different aspects of the question before finally examining C.S. Lewis' claim about Hell's doors being locked from the inside.


Debt and Punishment

The first aspect of the question is as follows:

If our sin does not incur a debt then Jesus' sacrifice cannot make atonement for our sin. Put differently: if our sin does not incur an extrinsic punishment then Jesus cannot make atonement for the debt of punishment.

The basic idea here is that the penal substitution theory of the Atonement requires an extrinsic debt and punishment, and this is not present in theories which see sin primarily as a choice or predilection. The person who has abandoned penal substitution because it seems to make God vindictive is thus faced with the question: What was the purpose or value of Christ's passion and death? How does it help us?

The short answer is that the person who opts for a choice/predilection emphasis regarding sin and Hell will need to turn to a different theory of the Atonement than penal substitution. The "Christus Victor" approach is a very common one. It would say that the reason we choose sin is because we are in bondage to sin, and that Christ saves us by breaking the bonds of sin in his passion, death, and resurrection. Once we are freed from this bondage we are able to choose God with the help of grace. See this page for other theories of the Atonement.

The most important part of this question lies in the deep Biblical roots of substitutionary Atonement. It is not clear that the Atonement theories which altogether abandon substitutionary concepts can adequately represent the Biblical testimony.


Choice and Pelagianism

The second aspect of the question is as follows:

If Hell is at bottom just a choice that a person makes, then they could just as easily change their mind and leave Hell. If they locked the door then they can unlock it. But this is problematic because it implies that we can save ourselves.

Most all Christians acknowledge that sin involves choice. If we are forced to do something bad then we usually aren't sinning. We have to actually choose to do something bad before we can be considered guilty.

In Christian doctrine Hell is irreversible. Justifications for this vary. For example, in Catholicism Hell is irreversible because we can no longer make the relevant kinds of choices after death. Our choice in life is our choice for eternity. So the first point is that we can't leave Hell because Hell is irreversible and eternal.

The second point is that sin and repentance are asymmetrical. It is a basic Christian truth that we can do evil by ourselves but we need God's help to do good. So we can sin by ourselves but we need God's help to repent. We can choose to sin on our own, but we need God's help to choose to repent. This is just a basic orientation, at least for Catholics, Orthodox, and Lutherans.


C.S. Lewis and the Doors of Hell

Finally, what did Lewis mean when he said that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside? I think he was trying to say that it is not God's fault that someone is in Hell, but rather that person's fault. It is their own doing, not God's doing. God wanted them to be saved, but they ended up in Hell through their own free choice.

But we must further examine the fact that he seems to be implying that the damned prefer to stay in Hell, for they have locked themselves in. Reading this through works like The Great Divorce, I think the correct interpretation is that the damned, through their own free choice, have departed from God and diminished themselves to such an extent that they prefer to remain apart from God. They have become haters of God. God's light burns them, for they have become so evil that they shrink from his Goodness. So they lock the door to stay far away from God.

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