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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Views of Hell - Part 1

When I was beginning the process of looking for a school that would be best for my graduate work, I came upon a belief statement (which admission to the University would require I sign) that said something along the lines of “we believe that Hell is the eternal, conscious torment of those who have not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.” I thought to myself, surely there is an even more gruesome and explicitly cruel way of wording it! Why not, “We believe that in Hell, nonbelievers will remain eternally conscious as they forever suffer the most excruciating, torturous pain imaginable – both physical and psychological. Amen.” Must a genuine follower of Christ really commit themselves to such a literal interpretation of Biblical imagery? 

Hell is not something a lot of Christians like talking about. Most all Christians believe in it in some form or another, but the reluctance to talk about it stems mostly from the cruelty inherent in it (or so I imagine). Often times when a pastor begins to talk about hell, I bring my fingertips to my ears, not to eliminate all sound of it, but only to muffle it—as if to lessen the cruel and barbarous sound of a place where souls suffer immensely for an unimaginably long duration. I don’t like to talk about hell. Could even the most profane and indecent acts of cruelty deserve such malice in punishment? What temporal crime can deserve such infinite punishment? Because of my emotional reaction to the doctrine of hell, I began a long process of seeking to understand it. There is no person less wise than the one that denies the truth of something simply because he does not like it—so if it were true, I would submit to it.

Moreover, it is precisely because I believe in heaven and that not everybody is going there that I think Hell is an important topic that deserves more vigorous attention then it is generally allotted.

Because this topic is so robust and there's a lot I would like to say about it, I have decided to make this my first series. I will try my best to remain impartial (to the extent that it is possible) regarding the explanation of the differing views.

Christian Views on Hell

There are at least five
 prominent and distinct views on hell that are worth discussing here. 

(1) The Literal Orthodox View
(2) The Metaphorical View
(3) Annihilationist/Conditional View
(4) Purgatorial View
(5) Universalist View

The Literal Orthodox View

For the first part of this series, I will discuss the Literal Orthodox View. As is inherent in its name, this view is both seen as a literal interpretation of the verses regarding Hell and is seen within Protestantism as the orthodox view, inasmuch as hell is eternal and conscious punishment. The clearest rendering of the traditional understanding of Hell can be seen in the Greek word gehenna, translated Hell. From a biblical point of view, what this view has going for it is that literally all instances of gehenna in the New Testament were uttered and explicated by Jesus (save for James 3:6).

There are quite a few passages that talk about being thrown into hell or hell being a place where God will destroy both body and soul (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 23:33, etc.). But what is at hand is not really an existential question of hell but rather a question of its nature and eternality. Is hell eternal, conscious torment? What are the passages that speak to this?

Revelation 19:3 says that in Hell, “The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.”

Revelation 20:10-15 makes a pretty definitive case for the eternality of Hell, or at least the future eternality of it:

And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever… then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Moreover, there is an explicit reference to the eternality of Hell in Jude 7:
In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
The idea then, that Hell is also a place of conscious torment, or literally of something substantially similar if not ontologically identical with fire, follows by an application of literal consistency. If the Bible is considered to be best understood in its literal reading, then Hell is a place of fire (James 3:6). For instance, in Mark 9, we’re informed three times that Hell is a place of “unquenchable fire” and where the worm “does not die.” Moreover, in Luke 16, the Parable (or not?) of Lazarus is told, and Lazarus is said to be in a place of conscious torment (though the place is referred to as hades and there is a relevant distinction to be made between hades and Hell).

The weakness of referring to Hell as a literal place of fire is that it is an application of selective literalism. Hell is referred to as a place “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,” “outer darkness,” "worms that do not die," "destruction," and "death" as well (Matt. 8:12, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30, Lk 13:28). Are we to really believe that hell, in addition to being unquenchable fire, is full of worms that do not die? Moreover, don't the implications of a place of eternal destruction and death portray a radically different picture of what hell is? This sort of selective literalism functions as a hermeneutical filter that may give us a less realistic view of hell.

The Philosophical Criticism

If hell truly is a place where people consciously exist and suffer for eternity, not as a redemptive process but as a wholly punitive or retributive one, there seems to be a level of logical inconsistency. Sermon after sermon expresses the deep, unconditional love and mercy of God and Jesus, and the apostle John even expresses the ontological nature of God as Love itself. This inconsistency is most clearly seen in the problem of disproportionality. The temporal crimes of any given individual can never merit infinite punishment; as such a punishment is not proportional to the crime.

This is answered by many traditional proponents by assuming the infinite nature of sin. That is to say, sin itself is infinite in its transgression and thus merits infinite punishment. It is unclear as to how or why sin is of infinite magnitude, as this necessarily renders the fall infinitely greater in proportion to the redemption. Moreover, it raises the larger problem of what gruesome judge would ascribe infinite magnitude to a crime committed in space and time and demand infinite, torturous retribution? How could someone truly be satisfied with such superficial reasoning on a topic so serious as this one?

Next series post I will discuss some more criticism of the traditional view and also look into how the metaphorical view may both escape some of these problems whilst creating some of its own.