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).
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.”