Friday, September 21, 2012

Rescuing Hell: Defending the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment

Hell is a notoriously difficult doctrine to defend. For one thing, in order to defend a doctrine, we first have to know what we are defending. However, no one here has ever seen or experienced hell. At least, there is no convincing proof of this.

Although the nature of hell or eternal judgment is somewhat unclear, it’s reality or existence is Biblically beyond dispute. Interpretive difficulties abound. For instance, do we interpret “the lake of fire” (Rev. 21:8; 20:10; Mat. 13:42) literally or figuratively? Does God literally stoke the fires of hell for all eternity, as some pejoratively suggest? If we take this description literally, what then do we do with the teachings that claim that the unrepentant will be cast into “outer darkness” (Mat. 22:13)? It is apparent that at least one of these descriptions must be taken figuratively.

As Christians, we want to have a coherent faith. We therefore want to understand how this concept of “hell” or “eternal judgment” fits together with the other doctrines we believe about God – His love, justice, omniscience and omnipotence. We also want to know how to answer militant atheists, like Robert Ingersoll (1833-99), who routinely denigrate our faith. He had reasoned that:

·        Eternal punishment must be eternal cruelty…and I do not see how any man, unless he has the brain of an idiot, or the heart of a wild beast, can believe in eternal punishment.

The doctrine of “eternal punishment” is part of the broader “problem of pain, suffering, and a ‘vindictive’ God.” Even “Christians” condemn the Bible for it’s teachings of a punitive God. Christian evolutionist and former co-head of the Biologos Foundation, Karl Giberson, approvingly quotes the militant atheist, Richard Dawkins, that the:

·        [OT God is a] “tyrannical anthropomorphic deity” [and] “commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages”…But who believes in this [OT] deity any more, besides those same fundamentalists who think the earth is 10,000 years old? Modern theology has moved past this view of God. 

They often term God a “monster,” claiming that such a God lies beyond reason and morality. However, it is relatively easy to combat the Richard Dawkins of the world on this account. They commit the logical error of using God to disprove God. In essence, they claim that the God who sanctions eternal punishment fails to measure up to certain objective and absolute moral standards of love and justice. However, if there is no God, then there are can exist no objective and absolute moral standards by which to disqualify Him.

Consequently, when the atheist claims that the God of the Bible is “unjust,” I merely retort, “How can you accuse our God of violating an absolute standard of justice? You are a moral relativist and deny that there are any absolute moral standards.”

A minority of atheists will respond, “I do believe in absolute moral standards, and your God violates them.” I then can press them, “What are these ‘absolute moral standards’ based upon if you don’t acknowledge that there is anything that transcends this material universe?”

They cannot possibly identify an adequate moral foundation. Moral standards have to be absolute (above culture), unchanging, and universal. If the morals aren’t, then we are guilty of arrogance, arbitrariness, and judgmentalness when we judge with a merely subjective/personal standard. It would be like a math teacher grading students’ math exams with changing and subjective answers. The teacher could rightfully be accused of using an arbitrary and therefore unjust standard. To mark a student “wrong,” you need a perfectly right answer or standard. More laughably, it would be like a carpenter measuring a board with an elastic band.

Once the atheist rejects God, there can be no foundation for absolute moral judgments. Therefore, the thinking atheist might shift his attack. Instead, of claiming that God violates moral standards, he will argue that the God of the Bible violates the Bible’s own moral standards and its portrayal of God. His argument will then go something like this:

·        Premise #1: The Bible’s concept of “Hell” or “eternal punishment” is neither just nor merciful.

·        Premise #2: The Bible portrays God as just and merciful.

·        Conclusion:  The Bible’s revelation is contradictory and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously.

This attack does an end-run around the atheists’ lack of an absolute standard by which to judge God. However, both of these premises are highly problematic.

Against Premise #1: According to the Bible, the punishment fits the crime. Jesus taught that there are many degrees of punishment:

·        "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:21-22)

For those who have more evidence, judgment will be less bearable than for those who had less evidence:

·        But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:48)

I would ask the atheist, “What is unjust about the penalty fitting the crime? Or how does this teaching about punishment contradict God’s character?” He might respond that no God worth His salt would punish. However, this fails to show that there is a contradiction in Biblical revelation – the very thing that the atheist must demonstrate.

Against Premise #1: We do not know enough about hell to indict our Lord for “injustice” or to prove that the Bible contradicts itself. There are too many interpretive uncertainties. While the atheists focus only the most egregious aspect of the teachings – eternal burning - this might be figurative and might only apply to the worst offenders. In fact, Jesus associated the “weeping…and gnashing of teeth” of hell with their own regrets in having eternally missed out on the blessings of the kingdom, rather than any proactive divine torture:

·        "There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” (Luke 13:28)

I would ask the atheist how this represents a Bible contradiction. Also, I think that we Evangelicals have been too quick to dismiss annihilationism as one possible form of eternal punishment – perhaps even the worst one. There is not a verse that actually rules out annihilation as one possible punishment out of many others! (Some Christians argue that we have an eternal soul, and therefore, it is indestructible, precluding any possibility of annihilation. However, this notion seems to be contradicted by numerous verses – 1 Tim. 6:16; 2 Tim 1:9-10; 1 Cor. 15:50-54).

Therefore, when the atheist rails against the injustice of God in sentencing unbelievers to eternal punishment, I ask them if their judgment would be any different if I would show them verses pointing to annihilation, and there are many. For instance:

·        “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

·        They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. (2 Thes. 1:9)

Perhaps these (and numerous other verses) are not teaching annihilationism, but the atheist must now answer whether he would consider this too as evidence of contradiction.

Of course, the atheist will retort, “If God is truly merciful, He would destroy no one.” However, we can simply respond, “Where in the Bible does it suggest that God must continue to be merciful towards those who continue to harden their hearts against Him?” Of course, God’s mercy makes no such guarantee! (Against Premise #2)

Against Premise #1: Although there will be a great and final judgment, it seems that before all else the damned are self-damned:

  • For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict [or “condemnation;” KJV; “judgment;” NASB, ESV]: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:17-19)
Jesus taught that He will not “condemn the world.” Instead, the unbeliever is “condemned already.” How did this take place? He condemned himself through his love of the darkness and rejection of the truth (“light”).  Besides, if they reject the light in this world, how much more will they reject God in the next, where His light will beam even more intensely! They will continue to reject the light and run from it. How does this represent the injustice of God? How does this contradict God’s revealed character?

Indeed, there is a lot of Biblical evidence that when we embrace darkness, we hate the light that exposes it. When Adam and Eve fell into sin, they hid from God, lied to Him and even blamed Him. Never once did they repent and ask for another chance. And when they were promised death and expelled from the presence of God, they seemed to gladly accept the verdict (Gen. 3) in order to be free from God’s searing light.

In Jesus’ parable, when the unrepentant rich man cried out to God from his place of torment, he never once asked to be brought to where God is. Instead, he simply asked that he might be given some relief in hell (Luke 16:19-31). Such is the hatred of the light!

There are many other verses that suggest that the unrepentant are self-condemned in their flight from the light (Isaiah 33:14-15; 2:20-22; Psalm 1:5; 15:1-2; 24:3; Deut 5:25; Deut. 5:25; Mal. 3:2). What then should we make of the great judgment if humanity is already self-condemned (Rev. 20:11)? Perhaps they will merely flee away, unable to stand before a righteous God in view of their unforgiven sins.

Indeed, for us, the great judgment will merely confirm what had already been established (1 Thess. 4:14-17; 1 John 3:2). Perhaps, also for the unbeliever, the judgment will merely rubber-stamp what has already become quite obvious.

Where then is the injustice? And how does this contradict the Bible’s claims about God? The atheist will then attempt to accuse God of lacking in mercy, “If God is all-powerful, then He could have changed everyone’s heart to love the light!” Once they do this, you can ask, “Why should God be merciful? According to you, there are no absolute standards, so why indict God for failing conform to your non-existent, non-objective standard?”

In addition to this, the atheists’ understanding of mercy isn’t the Bible’s understanding of mercy. Unlike justice, mercy can discriminate. The Bible never claims that God will be merciful to all in the end. (Against Premise #2). Therefore, there is no contradiction between hell and what the Bible claims about God.

Nevertheless, it does seem that, in the end, God will pour out His Spirit upon many people, and there will be a great salvation (Joel 2:28; Romans 11:15; Rev. 1:7; Mat. 24:30; Isaiah 66:22-23; Zech. 14:16-18)! Our God is indeed merciful!

Nevertheless, there is a hell and the prospect of landing there is a terror, as it should be:

  • The study, appearing in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, found that criminal activity is lower in societies where people's religious beliefs contain a strong punitive component than in places where religious beliefs are more benevolent. A country where many more people believe in heaven than in hell, for example, is likely to have a much higher crime rate than one where these beliefs are about equal. The finding surfaced from a comprehensive analysis of 26 years of data involving 143,197 people in 67 countries. 
Perhaps we need a greater dose of hell. Perhaps we need to revisit Jonathan Edwards and his sermon – Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God. Nevertheless, this essay will certainly not relieve all of our dissonance and confusion on the subject. However, for some of us, it is sufficient to know that our Savior suffers along with us (Isaiah 63:9; Hebrews 4:15). Others are comforted in knowing that, in the end, He will reconcile all of the confusing elements. Indeed, our God has many secrets (Deut. 29:29), which He purposely keeps close to His breast. Consequently, we see only shadows (1 Cor. 13:9, 12).

Abraham saw only shadows when God asked him to go against everything he understood and to offer his promised son Isaac as a sacrifice. Our Lord also thrusts us into situations where understanding fails us, and we are forced to walk only by the light available in the “valley of the shadow of death.” However, we are able to find comfort knowing that He is at our side, and that, one day, we will see Him as He truly is.

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