Eternal Conscious Torment?

hellEternal Conscious Torment. It’s an emotional issue. I recently experienced a flash flood of comments on Facebook, mostly positive and some negative, when I said:

I used to feel pressure not to go this direction. I was clergy. Many of my constituents were sold on what seems to be the crux of evangelicalism: salvation is a contract. God’s part is to provide afterlife. The part men and women must play is to arrive at a correct doctrine about Jesus prior to dying. I no longer feel pressure about things like what to believe. So I find in myself an increasing belief in what is known as universalism —the idea that God’s transforming power will eventually reach every person. God doesn’t have prerequisites for his love and intent to transform us, all of us. Nor does God face any deadlines, such as the oft-believed and weakly supported notion that death is the last chance.

Judging from the feedback — which I swear to you was mostly positive — it occurred to me, “I should explain briefly what the problem is in many standard beliefs about hell and then I should mention to people what some of the theological options are.”

In other words, I found out I touched a nerve. A surprising array of people were very exercised about his issue. I mean, what could be more emotionally powerful than answers to things like “is my loved one in pain in the afterlife” and “is God cruel or kind”?

In this post I will raise some problems with a commonly held view of hell. In a soon coming post I will explain some alternative views (there are multiple “options”).

A Few Problems with the Eternal Conscious Torment View of Hell

The eternal conscious torment view (hereafter called ECT) means simply this, “A large number of people will find themselves after death sentenced by God to live in a place which will be continually painful, perhaps excruciatingly so — and this suffering will never end, ever.”

Some imagine it as pain like being burned with fire. I am reminded of something I read, perhaps in a Chuck Colson book, about the former evangelist Charles Templeton, who became an atheist. He thought to himself, “Imagine holding a child’s finger over a burning candle for sixty seconds while they cry and ask for mercy. Now imagine God doing that to a child’s entire body forever.”

God loves people. God made people in his image. The idea that God planned to torture the vast majority of us forever — hell, even if you say he only planned to torture a relatively small percentage of us — does not square with the previous two statements.

People try a number of tactics to lessen the horror of ECT.

One is to say, “God only loves believers.” He can torture those who never become believers because he does not live them (he “hates” the wicked). To that I respond simply. Romans 5:8 does not say, “For God has made his love known in this that while we were yet sinners God planned to torture us.” In case you don’t know, Romans 5:8 says, “God shows his love for us in that, while we were rebels, Messiah died for us.” (Yes, I realize this doesn’t prove absolutely that God loves those who never become believers — maybe it only means he loves those who eventually will become believers.)

For those who want more verses, here are a few. “Have we not all one Father?” (Mal. 2:10). “Men of Athens . . . we are also his children” (Acts 17:22, 28). “I bow to the Father . . . from whom the whole family in . . . earth is named” (Eph 3:14-15). “He is good to all; his tender mercies are over all” (Psa 145:9). “Look to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth” (Isa 45:22). “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). “I came . . . to save the world” (John 12:47). “God was in Messiah reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us” (1 Jn 4:10). He “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2). The Lord is “longsuffering . . . not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet 3:9). Thank you Gerry Beauchemin, author of Hope Beyond Hell, for a quick reference list of verses about God’s love.

Another tactic for lessening the horror of ECT is to say, “Hell isn’t that painful, only lonely or dreary or slightly painful.” Or perhaps it is different for everybody, with some deserving more pain than others. So then it would be, “Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot are roasting in agony, some are lightly tortured in various ways, and some are just in a dark lonely place.” These views are a slight improvement. But they still amount to a huge problem. God made so many human souls only to exile them for eternity to a dark, lonely place with no happiness?

The “hell isn’t all that bad” tactic is silly. It’s permanent exile to a place with no happiness. Even if it’s not constant torture, it’s still a problem to think God exiles his sons and daughters forever to greyworld.

That brings up another major problem with ECT. People will say that hell is about justice. In many cases they mean that people who have been wronged by abusers and tyrants need to see some divine vengeance. Even in cases of abusers and tyrants, should a person be punished forever without end for crimes that they committed for a limited period of time?

Infinite punishment for finite crime. How is that just? Infinite punishment for finite crime does not fit the Judge of all the earth who will do right (see Gen 18:25).

And most people who will end up in hell, by the usual theologies of salvation, are just normal people who did not come to a specific theological conclusion about Jesus. What kind of justice do they need? Should God say, “You were morally about average, pretty decent in fact, but since you did not choose my theological rescue package I’m going to torture you (or at least banish you to a joyless place forever without end)”?

And then there are the scriptural problems. Now here is where most people who will argue for ECT think they have the best case. There are so many warnings of judgment and the word “eternal” is in some of the references. So many people think the Bible gives us an open and shut case for ECT.

The problems are many. Most of the references are to judgments in this life which are misread as if they are about the life to come. Some of the “forever” and “eternal” references are not actually about eternity either. Take, for example, references to the smoke of judgment going up forever, as in Revelation 14:11 where it is said about those who worship the Beast. Surely if smoke goes up forever, it means they are being kept alive in fire pits, tortured forever, right?

No. It doesn’t mean that. The image in Revelation is drawn from two passages in the Hebrew Bible. The first is about Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction. Abraham looked over the valley where Sodom had been and “he smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace” (Gen 19:28). Isaiah took this image and reapplied it to the destruction of Edom, adding the forever part: “Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever” (Isa 34:10). Is Edom still burning today? Of course not. It is a poetic image meaning the destruction lasts forever.

For people who need more, who really want extensive Biblical discussion about why ECT is not the best interpretation of the many references to judgment in this life and beyond, I recommend Edward Fudge’s book, The Fire That Consumes.

But the biggest scriptural problem for ECT is something else. It is more than just realizing that judgment verses are not describing unending torture. It is realizing something about God. His character, his compassionate nature, his intent for his creatures, is not consistent at all with ECT. Thus we read:

“The Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31–33 ESV).

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1–2 ESV).

Summary

The eternal conscious torture (ECT) view of final destinies fails primarily on three counts:

It is infinite punishment for finite sin, which is unjust.
It does not fit descriptions of God’s nature as compassionate and a Father to his sons and daughters who does not punish forever, but who heals and saves.
It misreads hundreds of Bible verses, assuming in some cases that earthy judgments are about the afterlife, misreading “eternal” as meaning unending after history has come to an end, and mistaking passages about destruction as passages about continual torment.

Next time, “Theological Alternatives to the Angry God Theology.”

23 Comments

  1. The problem, Derek, starts BEFORE the various schemas that those who are trying to come up with some other alternative to ECT.
    The problem is the belief that Jesus is the ONLY way to God in the first place, now that the “cross” has happened. If one believes there is “no other name” whereby people can be “saved” (however that “salvation” is construed) then the more liberal-types like you have to jump through a lot of theological hoops to come up with an explanation as to how “unbelievers” can participate in this “salvation”.
    The very quick and simple answer to this theological conundrum is simply to GIVE UP the belief the Jesus is the ONLY way to God, and to affirm (in a twist of interpretation) that “in my Father’s house are many mansions”….and many paths that lead to that House.

    1. Alan, you’ll just have to wait with baited breath as I work this all out and show how I see it going down. Jesus is the center, I believe, absolutely indispensable. But there will be some surprises in there. People confuse agency and prerequisites. John 14:6 is about agency, not a prerequisite.

  2. Interesting insight. Can we take John 3:16 at face value? If nobody perishes, why even mention perishing? And Luke 13 seems problematic to fit with your view. “gnashing of teeth, fruitless trees cut down, narrow is the door, etc”
    Another view (which I’m not a fan of) is that ALL people after the fall are sinners and therefore doomed to hell, and God is merciful enough to some (who He knows will accept Him) and pulls them out, so to speak.
    Another idea: It’s not that HE is sentencing us for hell, we did it to ourselves. Just like one had to become clean or would die (even if it wasn’t a moral sin, but simply touching a dead person, etc). Adam and Eve did it to us, it was their choice, not God’s. So, I personally don’t like to say “God destined people to hell” or “God is sentencing someone for hell” or “God has prerequisites”. I like to shift the blame from God to myself.
    Another question: why did the apostles die and risk their lives and engaged in evangelism? I mean, why not just do a positive Tony Robbins spiel?
    But, eternal hell also doesn’t make sense to me, a permanent nonexistence feels better. But who know what God is really going to do…

  3. Ilya said: “But, eternal hell also doesn’t make sense to me, a permanent nonexistence feels better.”

    If we take Mat 10:28 KJV at face value and don’t try to eisegete the concept of ECT into it, destroy probably means destroy in the sense of causing to cease to exist.
    Mat 10:28 And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

    Don

  4. Rabbi, thank you for dealing with this ‘Topic- Eternal Conscious Torment.” As stated on your FB page- I remember Carlton D. Pearson when he said that God revealed to him that no man goes to hell. He was treated so badly and excommunicated from the church because he stayed with he believed God had revealed to him. Although, he went through a major storm…lost his title Bishop, Church, and finances, he never lost focus. It good to see you are helping us understand the real truth about God plan of salvation.

  5. Thanks for this piece Derek.
    You mentioned earlier that you take the “Universalism” view. Does this view in your mind differ in any way from the Conditional Immortality view?
    My impression of the Universalism view is that it extends to all human beings no matter what their earthly conduct has been like. In other words ALL will eventually be redeemed and live externally with God, including the Hitlers, Stalins, Neros, possibly even the rebellious angels, including Satan himself.
    Is this your view? I look forward to your response in your follow up piece.

    1. Shavua Tov, Merrill — It seems to me that when a term such as “Universalism” is invoked, one must clarify to what it is intended to apply. For example, it could refer to Universal Justice, or Universal Condemnation, or Universal Opportunity for Repentance and Redemption. One thing that is made clear in passages like Rev.20:10-15 is that it would be erroneous to interpret as a Universal Uniformity of Outcome. Clearly, haSatan, a deceptive devil, a false prophet, and a “beast” (previously identified as an image of an evil persecutory political entity) are consigned to a place of eternal torment described with a visionary image of a lake filled with fire and volcanic lava and/or molten sulfur (i.e., brimstone). Note that this “beast” is not an individual, but rather a more ephemeral notion encompassing an entire political system, its outlook, and its leader(s), much like the four beasts of Daniel’s prophecy which represented future empires. Thus we see that this visionary destruction is somewhat metaphorical or midrashic. Similarly we see in v.14 two more categorical notions, “death” and “Hades”, also consigned to this fiery “lake”, though with no specification about any torment, as might be expected since they are not conscious individuals. But finally in v.15 we see certain individuals, who are identified only as those not listed in the book of life cited in v.12 by which their trial and judgment had been rendered, also consigned there. Consequently, the outcome for some is an unspecified duration of torment that may be inferred from the characteristics of the place to which they are consigned, while for a few the torment is explicit and specified as eternal. From our present perspective we can hardly begin to imagine what might justify such a verdict, except to infer that some sins are not so finite in their effect as they may seem from their finite duration of commission within a limited human lifespan.

      Of course, in a heavenly scenario such as envisioned here, time is likely to be rather fungible. We might even borrow from science fiction or quantum mechanics the notion of “time dilation” to allow for infinite eternal torment to be compressed into a finite time-span within a separate space-time framework. Nonetheless, this “lake” is referenced also in the subsequent chapter, even after a new heavens and earth had replaced our present ones where that “lake” was defined. Of course, that reference could possibly be merely a memory of something that had been already destroyed, but we ought not to minimize or dismiss the severity of torment that is envisioned for those described as characteristic enemies of life, even if some ultimate mercy of annihilation might be granted to them.

      Regardless of those deemed worthy of destructive torment for any duration, the purpose of this vision is to motivate the reader to eschew the evil behaviors that are contrary to life, and to seek rather to be among those listed ultimately in the book of life, and even to aspire to be listed in “the Lamb’s book of life” and among the participants in the first of two resurrections, thus to share in the establishment of the messianic kingdom rather than to be required to wait for another thousand years for the second and final resurrection and Judgment that precedes the creation of new heavens and earth. The motivation is to strive for the best outcome by adjusting one’s behavior and attitudes beforehand, despite any obstacles that might need to be overcome. With this view in mind, Universalism is a term best applied to the outcome that HaShem would prefer and encourage, as indicated in passages like 1Tim.2:4&6, rather than the actual projected outcome that includes some casualties.

      1. Good to hear from you PL,

        This topic is filled with questions (and emotions!). However, I think we can agree that:

        1) There is a judgment after this physical life, and we will each give an account regarding “the things done in the flesh”. (2 Cor 5:10, etc.)
        2) God is 100% righteous and just, and His judgments (as well as His plan of redemption via Yeshua) pertaining to each of us will perfectly reflect this.

        What this judgment will actually look like, especially for the “unredeemed” is the question at hand.

        As for the definition of “Universalism”, I realize that there are varying definitions as well as sub-definitions/conditions within the general definition. (For example: some believe the “unredeemed” can become “fully redeemed” after undergoing a purgatory of sorts.) My comment here was more to Derek. I am curious as to what his particular definition/view of “Universalism” happens to be.

        I think I’ve already expressed to you (previously on another blog) that I hold the view of “Conditional Immortality” which is NOT the same as Universalism. If you’re interested, Dr. Edward Fudge wrote a great book on Conditional Immortality in which the unredeemed do not simply cease to exist. (Derek mentions Dr. Fudge’s book in the main article.) The Conditional Immortality view DOES involve punishment of the unredeemed, but this punishment is not “eternal”. Rather, the duration of punishment is determined by God at one’s judgment on an individual basis. After the determined sentence of punishment is completed, the individual is then annihilated (i.e. ceases to exist consciously in any form).

  6. Hi Derek. I appreciate your thoughts and our friendship. Although we do not always agree, the discussion is always enjoyable and thought provoking.

    First, I think it’s not valid to offer the example, “Imagine holding a child’s finger over a burning candle….,” because it frames God’s plan and purposes within a human value structure. The approach is not much different from the atheist’s argument, “If a loving God really existed, why would he allow such suffering in the world?”

    I thought one of your more effective arguments is that a finite crime should not receive an infinite punishment. However, if this statement is true, then does it follow that finite acts of lovingkindness or a faithful walk in this life will not receive eternal rewards or a salvation that endures forever? Are you arguing that there is no punishment of the wicked after death OR just that this punishment is limited in form and duration, i.e., not forever? If punishment is not forever, then does the soul continue to exist, or as Don has alluded to, “fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell,” (Matt 10:28).

    I thought, but maybe in error, that the rabbinic idea of eternal judgment was encapsulated by the phrase, “For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched” (Isa 66:24), which is also referenced in the words of Yeshua, “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched,” (Mark 9:47-48). Does the phrase, “the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” refer to consequences in the existing creation, but not the world to come?

    Your brother – Scott

  7. Derek:
    I hope you have read through the book by Edward Fudge titled: “The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment”. It is the best and most detailed study I have found on this topic.
    Dave

    1. Dave,

      I love Fudge’s book. My view is more universalist than his, but his work was a great step along the way for me out of the most narrow, cruel view I can imagine of God’s saving nature.

  8. Regarding what you say is the strongest argument – the nature of God, I’m wondering how that squares with the cross. It was not against God’s nature to put the Son of God to death on the cross. Which is harsher? Sending a guilty sinner to hell forever, or the cross? I would argue that the cross is more severe. Jesus was perfectly innocent and pure. He was infinitely worthy of honor and pleasure. His life is of infinite value. For him to suffer in even the slightest way is the greatest possible injustice. But his suffering was severe in the extreme – enough suffering to pay the price for all the guilt of all mankind. For God the Father to inflict that much suffering on the most supremely good Being in existence shows that God is willing to take unimaginably severe measures to punish sin. If that doesn’t violate his nature, why would punishing a deserving sinner violate his nature?

    As for the argument about an infinite penalty for a finite crime, surely you would agree that Jesus’ life was of infinite worth, correct? Which means the Father required an infinite price for the crimes of mankind.

    I would argue that even a single sin is an infinite crime because God is infinitely worthy to be honored and obeyed.

  9. Thank you, Derek, for adressing this topic, eternal conscious torment is indeed a deeply troubling thought, I have struggled with often. Personally I also tend more to the view “conditional immortality”, there are good biblical arguments that destroy really means destroy, but not eternal suffering. I have not read the book from Edward Fudge yet ( I guess I need to read it!), but extracts at hell-know-net. Those who believe in an eternal hell will probably cite Rev. 20, 10 and 21,8, do you have an explanation? The most common interpretation of hell is separation, a preacher once said those who reject God and his ways will receive what they always wanted: living without God – but then realizing what they have rejected. I know this also raises questions, not all have consciously rejected God or Yeshua, some or even many have never really encounterd him – or did they never seek him? This is a serious topic for me, I do not want to triffle with, but I do have a wider more inclusive hope. Someone said, we need to trust God´s mercy, it is a lot bigger than our doctrinal boxes – yes, I believe this. I think you are right, that His character, his compassionate nature, his intent for his creatures, is not consistent at all with ECT. God does not “afflict from his heart” – I remember the verse Is.63 “In all our afflictions he was afflicted” . If God himself suffers when his beloved people suffer, how could He want people to suffer eternally? God is love, this is sure, even his judgements are rooted in love, that can´t let people go on in destructive ways. God did not vengefully destroy humankind at the flood, but it grieved him in his heart. He did not vengefully destroy Sodom, I think when Abraham pleaded with God it´s not because Abraham was more merciful than God. I think this intercession came right from the Spirit, it was God himself longing to save. When I read the prophets, often in the midst of stern warnings suddenly God´s compassionate heart shines through like light with promises of redemption. Some time ago I was moved by Jeremiah, God´s love for Israel was really tangible, on the other hand, tragically, the people did not listen, but still God did not leave them without hope. God always longs to save and has shown us his saving love in Yeshua. But I see also the sad reality in this world, that few people really return to God, neither in Israel before the exile, neither in Yeshua´s time nor today – why? Is human hardheartedness deeper than most are aware of? Blame is on us, not God! God´s character is love, but our is not unless He gives us a new heart and spirit. Will God one day past judgement win over all – believe me, IF it were possible, I´d wish it more than anything – but is this only wishful thinking from human emotion? Here I am hesitant, very cautious, because there are so many other bible passages I just can´t push away, which seem to imply clearly that there is a final separation between the righteous and unrighteous. Isn´t even in Tanakh choosing between life and death a central theme as is in NT, choosing Yeshua is choosing life? I think evangelizing with the fear of hell as a method is wrong, this is not the way of the apostles. They were moved deeply at heart by the greatness of the revelation, that God took on humanity, that he took our sins and death upon himself. I think this is most important for us who follow Yeshua, to never ever loose sight and thankfulness for what Yeshua did for us, that forgiveness and eternal life is not something self-evident or deserved but we are bought by a high price only by his grace!
    Just my thougths, I look forward to your writing.
    Angelika

    1. Angelika, the 18th chapter of Ezekiel confirms much of what you’re saying in your post, but it also shows that God in His Holy nature cannot allow His abundant mercy to override His sense of justice. I also find the following verses to be a very touching insight into His compassion:

      Eze 18:31-32 Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.
      Note that He also confirms here that the wages of sin is death, not ECT!

      Don

      1. Thank you, Don, for you response. Yes, Eze 18 shows God´s compassionate heart and also our responsibility to respond and turn away from evil.
        Shabbat Shalom, you all
        Angelika

    2. Hi Angelika,

      I was just reading through these comments again and re-read yours.

      I once went through all the “hell” related verses in the Bible and found only ONE that definitively describes Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). It’s the verse you mentioned: Rev. 20:10. The objects of “eternal torment” here are the devil, the beast, and the false prophet. However, it’s not completely known if the beast and false prophet are actual human beings. We know the devil isn’t a human being. It may also be that the beast and false prophet are likewise not human beings. So it could be the beast and false prophet are powerful demons who fuel the antichrist and the his prophet, and not men. (Matthew 25:31 is a curious verse which indicates that hell was not originally created for human beings.)

      Regarding Rev 21:8, these do seem to be human beings, but the verse doesn’t seem to indicate anything about the DURATION of the torment experienced by those sentenced there.

      The other “hell” verses in the Bible say things like “their WORM will not die, or “the SMOKE of their torment rises forever”, but NOT actually the individuals themselves.

      Also, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, there is no indication that the rich man is in torment forever. The Conditional Immortality view would say that there is a termination point to the “torment”. The rich man is sentenced to punishment commensurate with his evil deeds. He experiences it consciously until his sentence is complete, at which point he is then annihilated (i.e. ceases to exist).

      I’m not sure how Derek would explain these verses. I believe he said he will share more when he has time. But this is my take.

      Blessings to you Angelika.

      1. Hi Merrill,
        thank you for answering me. I have heard about the interpretation, that the beast and the false prophet could be demons. As for “Their worm will not die ” or “smoke of their torment” it´s the question how literal should we take this. The smoke reminds me at Sodom and the image of the carcasses in Jes.66 ( probably slain soldiers in the last war against Jerusalem) reminds me at the dead Pharao with his soldiers, not necessary eternal torment of these persons. Perhaps it´s like an eternal memorial to remember human rebellion against God and God´s final victory over evil.
        Blessings to you, too Merrill.

        1. We think alike Angelika. This is exactly what comes to my mind regarding “their never dying worm” and “their eternal smoke rising”. It seems that this is memorial language representative of “everlasting abhorrence”.(Daniel 12:2) (Sad and sobering at the same time.)

  10. I’ve been reading scripture for several days now through this lens and, as scary as it is for me to write it, I can see your point. 😵

  11. I think it’s person’s choice which way they want to go. God allows people’s free will, however He’s a compassionate loving God.

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