Horrendous Evils and the Problem of Hell
Recently, discussion of the problem of evil has turned to more specific versions of the problem, and, in some cases, to more specific kinds of solutions. Marilyn McCord Adams has challenged the assumption that the project of theodicy must provide “global and generic answers” to the problem of evil, arguing instead that, in certain cases at least, the resources of a specific religious tradition must be marshaled to address the problem adequately.  Adams argues that such resources are to be found in Christianity and in the doctrines of the incarnation and Christ’s passion, specifically.
The need for nongeneric resources is especially apparent, Adams thinks, in the case of horrendous evils, which she defines as “evils the participation in which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given theirinclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole.”  Evils qualify as horrendous when they are “so destructive of meaning within an individual’s life” that they seem to render the individual’s life, on the whole, not worth living. Adams lists a number of examples of such evils: “the rape of a woman and axing off of her arms, psycho-physical torture whose ultimate goal is the disintegration of personality, betrayal of one’s deepest loyalties, child abuse of the sort described by Ivan Karamazov, child pornography, parental incest, slow death by starvation, the explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas.” 
Horrendous evils stretch traditional theodicies to their breaking point, Adams thinks, because such theodicies rely so heavily on the “greater-good” principle that we discussed. How could any evil that is so destructive of a person’s life possibly serve any good that is great enough to justify God’s allowance of it? Adams insists that any answer that appeals to “global goods”—for example, God’s actualizing the best of all possible worlds—will not do; only a solution in which the horrendous evil is “engulfed” and “defeated” in the life of the individual who suffers it will suffice. Evils are engulfed when their quantity in the life of a particular person is vastly outweighed by the quantity of good in that same person’s life; evils are defeated in the life of a person when their existence is logically related to some greater good that the person experiences, such that the good could not have come about apart from the evil.
Adams does not try to explain precisely what kinds of individual experiences would bring this about—it is a part of her view that God’s resources for defeating evil are beyond our comprehension or ability to even imagine—but thinks that it could only occur “by integrating participation in horrendous evils into a person’s relationship with God.”  She suggests, further, that within Christian soteriology, we find “possible dimensions of integration.” Most importantly, perhaps, is God’s act of identifying with human horrors in the act of Christ’s voluntary submission to death on the cross: an event that invests all human suffering—no matter how horrendous—with significance and meaning.
It is clear that because many victims of horrendous evils die before such “engulfing” and “defeat” of evil are achieved in their lives, Adams’s theodicy requires the existence of an afterlife in which such things will come to completion. She contends that God must employ incredible divine ingenuity and resourcefulness to mend these broken souls in their postmortem existence—to mend them to the extent that these victims of horrendous evil, in looking back on their “antemortem careers,” will not regret or wish away even their own involvement with horrendous evil. More controversially, though, Adams’s solution also requires a doctrine of universalism: the view that no one is eternally consigned to hell. It cannot be that anyone experiences eternal torment in hell, Adams thinks, for this would be a paradigmatic example of an undefeated horrendous evil.
The requirement of universalism is, for many Christians, an unacceptable cost of Adams’s solution. The doctrine that some (perhaps many) experience in the afterlife the “second death” of eternal separation from God—whether this involves annihilation or a state of conscious suffering without end—is a deeply engrained part of traditional Christian teachings; it is considered one of the central themes of the New Testament and an integral part of the gospel message. As such, abandoning the doctrine would have serious repercussions for other key doctrines, including the doctrines of incarnation, salvation and atonement. From what is one saved if not from hell? If there is no hell, why should the matter of accepting Christ be so important or so pressing? Most orthodox Christians have judged it more reasonable to retain the doctrine of hell and wrestle with its implications ratherthan to abandon it and try to answer questions such as these. 
Yet the traditional doctrine of hell presents enormous theological and philosophical difficulties. Hell is—nearly by definition—the worst thing that any person could experience. If there is any evil that could befall a person such that it would make one doubt whether that person’s life is, on the whole, a great good for him, it is surely the evil of being eternally consigned to hell. Thus, if hell is a genuine possibility, it constitutes the most severe version of the problem of horrendous evil. And if Adams is right that horrendous evils in general are the most difficult evils to reconcile with God’s goodness, then, for those who endorse it, the doctrine of hell constitutes the single most difficult version of the problem of evil. Furthermore, endorsing the doctrine of hell prevents one from dealing with the problem of earthly horrendous evils in the way that Adams does. If universalism is denied and the traditional doctrine of hell is upheld, then one needs an alternate theodicy to explain why God allows some people to suffer to the point that (it seems) it would have been better had they never been born. Thus, hell is both the paradigmatic horrendous evil and that which undercuts an otherwise promising solution to the problem of earthly horrendous evils. The two problems are, it seems, reciprocally exacerbating.
How can the orthodox theist meet this challenge? Two solutions that have been prominent in recent discussions are (1) the doctrine of annihilationism, and (2) the doctrine of mild hell. The former is, as the name suggests, the view that God in his mercy simply annihilates those who make a final decision to reject him.  Variations of the annihilationist view are possible: for example, one might hold that God annihilates the lost immediately (or soon after) their earthly deaths, or one could hold instead that the lost are annihilated only after they have suffered for some finite period of time in hell (perhaps as punishment for their sins). Also, God need not be conceived as exerting some power to bring about the annihilation of any person: given the traditional doctrine of divine conservation, all God must do to bring about the annihilation of a thing is simply to cease sustaining it, for nothing possesses the power to sustain itself in existence. The annihilation of the lost is viewed as an act of mercy on God’s part because, presumably, the only alternative for one who is finally and irrevocably separated from God would be an eternity of conscious suffering.
Apart from the question of whether annihilationism is biblical—an issue that will be put aside for present purposes—critics object that the view implies that certain evils remain finally undefeated in the world: at the very least, the evil of a person’s being annihilated, but perhaps also any horrendous evils that person may have experienced prior to being annihilated. But proponents of the view may respond that for all we know, such earthly horrendous evils may be defeated in other ways, and the evil of a person’s being annihilated could be defeated by the fact that it is necessary to avoid a worse evil (an eternity of conscious suffering).
A second solution, the doctrine of mild hell, is essentially a version of the free will theodicy.  It holds that hell is something freely chosen by its inhabitants (its human inhabitants, at least), rather than something to which God consigns the damned against their wills. The greater good that is served by hell is the preservation of human freedom: God respects each individual’s choice to finally reject him, if the individual so chooses.
Once again, the view comes in a variety of different forms, but a prominent feature of most is that the damned actually preferexistence in hell to both annihilation and, surprisingly, even existence in heaven. The damned prefer hell to heaven because, in their pride, they have rejected all external authority, including that of their Creator, or they have acquired a wicked and vicious moral character that experiences the presence of a holy God as torturous (or both). C. S. Lewis expresses the view well when he writes, in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.”  Lewis elaborates elsewhere, in The Problem of Pain:
I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wishto come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man “wishes” to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary states of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free. 
On this view, not only are the damned sent to hell of their own free choice, they remain in hell of their own free choice. Presumably, though, individuals could make a fully informed decision to reject heaven and embrace hell in this manner only if hell does not consist of a literal lake of fire or medieval-style torture chambers, ideas which have found their way into popular versions of the traditional doctrine of hell. (Mild hell thus stands opposed to the traditional view, sometimes termed “grim hell.”) Hell is a “place” where those who have rejected God are allowed to continue to exist (presumably, a good thing in itself), and where they are given what they want: namely, to be apart from God.
One might ask whether mild hell is really hell in the traditional sense, since it does not involve literal physical torture, incessant burning and so on. The answer depends on whether one takes an objective or subjective view of the state of the people in hell. Perhaps, from the subjective view of those in hell, who after all prefer to be there, hell may not seem so terrible. But from the point of view of those who enjoy true bliss in heaven by knowing God and being part of the community of those who love God and the good, the fate of those in hell is truly dreadful, one that is aptly symbolized by the biblical pictures of hell as a place of torment. And it must be those in heaven who have a true view of such matters. In fact, part of the misery of hell may be the sad fact that those who are in hell do not even realize how miserable their condition is because they have lost the capacity to appreciate genuine happiness.
A main criticism of the mild-hell solution is that it places too high a premium on human freedom, especially in light of human frailty and cognitive limitations.  The solution implicitly assumes that God’s relation to us is analogous to that of parents to their adolescent or adult children; that is, it assumes that we are capable, if we so choose, of making rational decisions informed by a full (or at least adequate) understanding of the consequences of our actions. But in other contexts traditional theism assumes that our relation to God is more analogous to that of very young children to their parents: our knowledge of the world is, in comparison with God’s, minuscule, and our understanding of the world is likely impaired by myriad confusions and conceptual distortions. But if this is so, how can we be entrusted to make a decision that carries such enormous and irrevocable consequences? Critics allege that God’s doing such a thing would be morally equivalent to a parent who places a bowl of poisoned candy in the middle of a room with a three year old, with a stern warning to the child not to eat the candy, who then leaves the room to allow the child to choose for himself whether or not to obey. Marilyn Adams argues that, in this kind of scenario, if the child disobeys, thereby bringing about his own death, then “surely the child is at most marginally to blame, even though it knew enough to obey the parent, while the parent is both primarily responsible and highly culpable.”  Adams concludes that the value of human freedom, however great, is not enough to justify God’s allowing creatures to make decisions that bring about their own final, irrevocable ruin. This is especially true, Adams thinks, in light of the fact that human agency is a developmental trait, shaped over time by many forces, and the agency of many individuals is stunted, impaired or even rendered dysfunctional by factors that are beyond those individuals’ control (e.g., by traumatic experiences such as childhood sexual abuse).
In response, advocates of the mild-hell solution must insist that freedom really is so important that it justifies God’s allowing even the most extreme of its misuses, namely, an agent’s final rejection of God and consequent willing of her own damnation. Further, they must claim that many people—specifically, all those whom God holds accountable for their choice to finally accept or reject him—possess all that is required for them to be responsible for such a choice: they know what they are doing, they are not coerced, they understand well enough the consequences of their actions, and so on. Perhaps, if they do not possess what is required for a responsible choice in this life, some kind of illumination beyond death may be given that makes possible a genuinely free choice. In response to Adams’s point that the agency of many individuals is stunted or impaired by factors beyond their control, proponents of mild hell may argue that God takes such factors into account in assessing the responsibility—and final judgment—of each individual.
This, in fact, points to a more general response that all proponents of the doctrine of hell may adopt. There is much that we do not know about hell in any detail—including its specific character as well as who will and will not be in it—so we should be cautious in the specificity of the conclusions we draw. But since we know that God is a God of love and mercy as well as justice, we can be confident that he will do what is loving and merciful as well as just. Our confidence in the character of God, then, should outweigh the confidence we have in our theories about hell, especially when it comes to the details, which God in his wisdom has chosen not to reveal to us in the Bible.