I didn’t become a Christian out of my fear of hell—but in spite of it. When I believed at 21, it was after being overcome by Christ’s grace and goodness despite the fact that I found the concept of eternal torment abhorrent. I’d been saved into a very fundamentalist church, and I figured I’d eventually come to embrace the idea of hell. I never did.
Over the last 20+ years, the traditional view of hell has sat in the back of my mind demanding my attention. I’d take it out, examine and wrestle with it, try and engage other people with the issue, and eventually put it away out of frustration.
I’ve found the issue to be one of the most divisive topics in the church. Questioning it has created more relational headaches than nearly any doctrinal position I’ve ever explored.
I process all sorts of questionable and silly things on Twitter, but it’s my questioning of hell that regularly costs me the most followers and encourages the angriest responses, subtweets, and emails—and not just from strangers.
For many, the Gospel’s good news is bound to the idea that we’re being rescued from the flames of damnation. It’s become a sacrosanct and untouchable doctrine that even questioning gets you shoved to the outskirts of evangelicalism (Rob Bell anyone?).
Jesus is not afraid of our questions
It’s time to come out of the evangelical closet on this issue. Like everything else, when it comes to wrestling with this doctrine, I throw myself on the grace of God. I believe he validates my concerns, even when others don’t.
I refuse the label “liberal” because of my questions . . . in fact, I’m tired of carrying other’s labels of all together. Jesus is not afraid of my questions, and neither am I.
What we’re advocating with the idea of eternal conscious torment (ECT) is a hopeless Auschwitz-without-end. More than any other doctrine, I think we need to wrestle publicly with this one. The implications are huge, and what if we’re wrong?
A little clarification
What I am talking about here is the issue of eternal conscious torment. I’m not saying that God isn’t angry at sin or that everyone gets into heaven. I am in no way suggesting that there’s no penalty or consequence for our behavior. For some reason, these arguments get used to discount and dismiss this discussion.
I think questioning hell deserves more than a simple dismissal: “Well, God’s God and you’re not,” “Who are you to question God,” or “You’re just not willing to accept what the Bible clearly says.” Most conversations I’ve had regarding this issue can be summed up as, “Don’t question it. Just accept it.”
For the record, I tend toward conditionalism/annihilationism. This means that God alone is an eternal being and immortality is bestowed upon us as a gift. The soul that rejects Christ dies.
My philosophical struggle with ECT
When it comes to whether unbelievers are going to exist in a state of never-ending suffering, these are some of the philosophical problems I have. I intend to address scriptural issues in a future post, but not this one.
Don’t leave me a comment about ignoring the biblical narrative. That isn’t this post. This post is about the issues that I can’t shake when I consider tthe traditional view of hell. I encourage you to think about them as well.
So much of our interpretation is culturally conditioned, and I think we often fall back on traditional readings for many of these passages. And reason is not the antithesis of scriptural fidelity.
1. God is a good father
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”—Luke 11:11–13
God prides himself as on being the example of a good parent. I have two children, and I could never imagine inflicting long-term suffering on them no matter how terrible they were—and I’m a marginal dad at best.
If I, who am evil, cannot imagine holding any child’s hand against a hot stove for a moment. How can I imagine that God would be willing to do it forever?
What about the childhood accountability angle?
While I am on the subject of parenthood, one way we have attempted to make the hell idea more palatable is by assigning children some magical age of accountability (an idea based on scant biblical evidence). This way young children don’t go directly to hell and God doesn’t look like a complete monster.
When you factor in the idea that the road to eternal life is narrow and the path to destruction broad (for argument’s sake, let’s say that 95 percent of the world’s population ends up in hell), how can we be so strongly against abortion? Of the 55 million children aborted since 1973, 100 percent have gone straight to heaven and skipped out on the likely potential of eternal wrath. That’s more than 52 million souls that will not be tortured without end. (Bear in mind that I haven’t factored in the Calvinist view of election as it applies to the unborn. I’m not even sure how that works. Anyone?)
Obviously, I’m not really an advocate for abortion. But if I really believe that hell was real and the likelihood of people going there is high, and I also believed that children were spared by not being old enough to be held accountable, it would have a huge effect on how I viewed child mortality. The loss of temporal life for the promise of eternal reward—that sounds like a pretty good deal.
Foreign mission companies like Compassion International could pull out of impoverished countries and do more eternal good for these kids than they do by keeping them alive and putting them at risk of following foreign gods. We’re comparing momentary and infinite suffering here. If we’re serious, it seems like a no brainer.
I’m being facetious, but my point stands. We take care of the needy and protect life because God, who I believe is a good father, says that life matters. I believe that the Bible teaches that we’re personally responsible when people suffer and we have the ability to make it stop. I refuse to believe that this is all some divine “do as I say, and not as I do.”
2. ECT is an “eye for an eye” on steriods
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”—Matthew 5:38–48
Jesus reframed our understanding of justice. No longer should we look at evil done and desire it be paid back exactly as it was meted out. We should trust that God will ensure that justice is done. Be honest with yourself—is immortal agony justice?
ECT doubles down on an “eye for an eye” and turns it into infinite punishment for finite sin. . . and you thought karma was a bitch.
3. Does God hold eternal grudges?
“When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’”—Luke 23:34
Christ not only commanded me to forgive my enemies, he modeled it on the cross. ECT says he forgave them knowing that eventually he intended to torture them forever. This hardly sounds like the same God who tells me, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt. 5:46)
I don’t have a single enemy that I wish physical pain on, but I’m still instructed to practice the act of forgiveness. This means I have to forgive people that I just don’t really like—even if I don’t wish them any ill. I struggle reconciling that with a being whose plan is agony forever and ever, not just for a Hitler or a Stalin, but for your faithful and altruistic woman raised in a Buddhist culture.
4. God never forgets the suffering
“He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.”—Colossians 1:17
If there is a place of eternal suffering, it is being stoked at the will and order of God. Some believe that hell is full of demons torturing humans, but it’s hell for the devil and his angels, too. If they’re doing the torturing, they’re simply on vacation.
No. If anyone suffers forever, it is only at God’s hand. It is God who turns Hades’ microwave on high and set the timer to ‘always.’ But he doesn’t forget. After one million years, he’s still powering hell’s engine.
It was stormy last night, and it bothered me that I was warm and dry while I knew that there were homeless people out there suffering in the weather. I was thankful for my shelter but the joy was tempered knowing that there were others sitting in the wind and rain. I don’t know them. I don’t know if they’re good or bad people, but the knowledge of their suffering mattered to me.
I can’t imagine enjoying heaven knowing there are people in hell . . . and I don’t love those people as much as God does. I’m left to wonder, knowing that all things are created for God’s pleasure (Rev. 4:11), would he actually enjoy the perpetual torment of mankind . . . even though he says doesn’t even delight in the death of the wicked (Ez. 33:11)? Is there really no end to God’s anger despite his promise to the contrary (Is. 57:16—18)?
5. There is no benefit to ECT
“Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right?”—Job 8:3
One of the most beautiful things about the cross is how my God uses it to redeem the world to himself. It’s the climax of human history and through this work God woos and calls us to him.
I believe that sin is terrible and destructive and there’s a divine rage that burns within the bosom of YHWH towards it. But is that rage leading him towards the punitive response of eternally scourging people? I say punitive because there’s nothing to be gained by it. It isn’t redemptive. It isn’t leading to repentance. It’s simply pain for pain’s sake, and I can’t find any reason in it—no justice.
I can’t resolve the idea that this God, who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, intends to torture people forever for simply not believing. If you were to introduce me to a deity like that from any fantasy novel I’d say that god was diabolic.
These are some of the issues surrounding hell that haunt me. I believe they resonate with many of you, but I know that they annoy a number of you, too. I’m curious to read your thoughts. I intend to follow this up with a more Scripture-heavy discussion at another time.
But before you simply start firing away at me, please know that I’m being as honest as possible. And in the words of Martin Luther before the Imperial Diet of Worms:
“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”