The morality and logic of hell

  • Question 118, from RF, Australia

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    I have a question about hell. What do you think of a God who says (to paraphrase Brian McLaren), ‘If you don’t love me, I’ll torture you forever in hell’? If the lake of fire scenario is right, then the vast bulk of humanity are going to be eternally tortured in ways that make Guantanamo seem tame. I want to be faithful to the Scriptures, and to God, so what do you think? Is annihilation-ism an unscriptural cop-out, or a better rendering of the biblical evidence?

    One of the big issues of Western theology since the Enlightenment has been the application of moral judgements on theological statements. Frequently the debate about hell descends into a moral debate: is it right for people to suffer eternally, regardless of what they have done? Can Christianity assert on the one hand that God is loving, and yet equally willing to condemn people to hell?

    This contradiction is a common criticism of Christianity. The cartoonist Scott Adams sums this up in one of his earlier books when he illustrates a conversation between a believer and a skeptic. “What happens to the four billion people who don’t know that God loves all his children?” asks the skeptic. “Eternal hell!” says the believer. [Dogbert’s Clues for the Clueless, p.95]

    However, logical and moral arguments both face the same difficulty: reconciling Biblical and traditional theology with either a universalist or annihilationist stance. Exponents of traditional teaching on hell are quick to emphasise Jesus’ warnings about hell as a tangible reality that lasts for eternity (see Matthew chapter 26, verse 46). The teaching of the early Church found in the New Testament epistles also regards hell as a real place, and the destination of unbelievers.

    It is worth noting, though, that while some sort of afterlife (‘sheol’; the pit) was hinted at in the Old Testament, the concept of hell developed mainly within Christianity. It possibly drew on other negative views of the afterlife, such as Hades (which is the actual word used in some of the original Greek texts). Certainly the notion of hell being ‘below’ is a borrowed concept, common to many cultures of the time, about an ‘underworld’ which was the abode of the dead.

    But ‘Hades’, like ‘sheol’, seems to be a neutral place where the souls of dead people dwell. In only three instances (out of 10) Hades is described as a place of suffering (Matthew chapter 11, verse 23; Luke chapter 10, verse 15 and chapter 16, verse 23). The more common term for a place of suffering after death is ‘Gehenna’.

    This distinction between a place of suffering and a place where the dead wait until judgement/resurrection possibly informed later Christian concepts such as Limbo and Purgatory. In Revelation chapter 20, verses 11-15, the dead are judged and those who’s names are not “found in the book of life” are thrown into the “lake of fire”, which is described as “the second death” (verse 14). In this passage, ‘the sea’, ‘Hades’ and ‘death’ all appear to be resting places for souls awaiting judgement, and no mention is made of punishment.

    Revelation chapter 20, verse 14, is open to a number of interpretations.“The second death” has often been cited as final – possibly an indicator of the annihilation of the wicked. But the fiery lake described in Revelation has also contributed to the image of hell as a place of torment, where heat and fire are used to torture the sinful.

    If the concept of hell still seems abhorrent morally, or illogical, it is worth recalling that the emphasis on God as holy and wrathful is also a Biblical reflection, that is often only expounded in ‘fire and brimstone’ fundamentalist circles. Any discussion of God’s love does need to take into account this other aspect of God’s character attested to in the Bible – both Old and New Testaments. It may be that feeling uncomfortable with traditional teaching on hell is grounded in an over-emphasis on God’s love and mercy at the expense of an equally valid portrayal of holiness and judgement.

    The reverse is also true, of course. God’s love and mercy often seem to be ignored by preachers who seem very certain about who is destined for hell. If anything, Christ’s teaching on this is ambiguous, and dependent very much on God’s mercy – in fact, if the judgement scene in Matthew 26 is anything to go by, some religious people will be judged as unrighteous and assigned to a place of eternal punishment. And those who never knew they were serving Christ when they performed acts of kindness will go to “everlasting life”.

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