It didn't take long to get my rental car and drive to J. P. Moreland's house, which is located not far from the Talbot School of Theology, where he is a professor in the master's program in philosophy and ethics.
Moreland's book, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality, showed that he had done a lot of thorough thinking and personal soul-searching about the doctrine of hell. He and coauthor Gary Habermas also delved into the nature of the soul, near-death experiences, reincarnation, and the theology of heaven.
I also selected Moreland because of his broad background. He is educated in science (with a chemistry degree from the University of Missouri), possesses a thorough knowledge of theology (he has a master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary), and he's a highly regarded philosopher (having earned his doctorate at the University of Southern California).
He has produced more than a dozen books, including Scaling the Secular City; Christianity and the Nature of Science; Does God Exist? (a debate with Kai Nielsen); The Creation Hypothesis; Body and Soul; Love Your God with All Your Mind; and the award-winning Jesus Under Fire. All of that and he's just fifty-one.
Moreland, dressed casually in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts, and deck shoes without socks, greeted me in the driveway of his ranch-style house. I shook his hand and offered my condolences. I knew he had traveled to San Diego the previous night and watched as his beloved Kansas City Chiefs were humiliated by the lowly Chargers. He was still wearing a baseball-style hat with his team's name emblazoned on the front.
Inside, after exchanging a few pleasantries, I slumped down on his living room couch and sighed. The subject of hell was big, heavy, controversial, a flashpoint for spiritual skeptics. I searched my mind for a starting point.
I finally decided just to be honest. "I'm not sure where to begin," I confessed. "How should we even approach the topic of hell?"
Moreland thought for a moment, then leaned back in his green padded chair. "Maybe," he offered, "we should distinguish between liking or disliking something and judging whether it's right to do."
"What do you mean?"
"Many times something we like isn't the right thing to do," he explained. "Some people say adultery is pleasurable, but most people would agree it's wrong. And often doing the right thing isn't pleasurable. Telling someone a hard truth that they need to hear, or firing someone who isn't doing a good job, can be very unpleasant."
"And," I interjected, "hell evokes a visceral response. People react strongly against the mere idea of it."
"That's right. They tend to evaluate whether it's appropriate based on their feelings or emotional offense to it."
"How do we get beyond that?"
"I think people should try to set aside their feelings," he said. "The basis of their evaluation should be whether hell is a morally just or morally right state of affairs, not whether they like or dislike the concept."
Moreland paused before continuing. "And it's important to understand that if the God of Christianity is real, he hates hell and he hates people going there," he added. "The Bible is very clear: God says he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked."5
Maybe so, but they still end up spending their eternity in a place of absolute horror and abject despair. I thought back to my interview with Charles Templeton, the evangelist-turned-skeptic. Admittedly, he has strong emotions concerning hell, but they seemed to be legitimately fueled by righteous indignation and moral outrage.
Frankly, I was a bit wary of completely divorcing the discussion of hell from our emotional response to it-after all, they seemed hopelessly intertwined.
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