The question of eternal punishment for the “unsaved” seems to keep popping up these days. I’ve read several well-reasoned (as opposed to strictly emotional) articles over the last few days on this topic, one of which was Jim Gordon’s post on hell over at Done With Religion. It was a thought-provoking article, and I really appreciate where Jim’s heart and focus is. I also recently read C. S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, which offered an extremely insightful perspective on heaven and hell. The book is pretty quick reading and builds in emotional intensity through the last page. I highly recommend it. As a quick synopsis, it’s an allegorical tale about a man who takes a regularly scheduled bus trip from hell to heaven. During the tour, he observes the attitudes and perspectives of both his fellow travelers and the residents of heaven. Lewis states outright that his story is allegorical and that he is not claiming authoritative knowledge of what heaven and hell are like. But he does make the case that those who are in hell are there of their own volition. I think there’s a lot of merit to that argument.
An aspect of the debate that seems to keep popping up is the unfairness of eternal punishment for relatively minor infractions—something I’ve questioned myself. It should be noted that many Christians go to great lengths to demonstrate that even minor infractions are severe to God and deserve everlasting punishment. I think that reasoning is a bit flawed, but I won’t address it here.
Two things cloud the issue and prevent rational discourse, in my opinion. They are our lack of comprehension of eternity and our dogmatic characterization of the environment of the afterlife. To take the hodgepodge of verses in the bible that discuss hell and formulate them into a dogmatic, crystal-clear picture of spiritual geography devoid of temporal constraints is probably an impossible task and will almost certainly result in a misleading picture.
As beings limited by space and time, we can’t truly comprehend eternity. Nor do we have any true concept of what sort of environment hell is. Most Evangelical Christians over the last half century or so have portrayed hell as a medieval torture chamber where God inflicts indescribable pain for ever and ever—even for minor infractions and even on those who have never heard about Jesus and therefore, can’t “believe on Him.” Many other folks seem to get hung up on this portrayal, to the extent that they claim that “there can’t be any such place as hell, for God just wouldn’t do that.” Christians frequently breed animosity towards “those heretics who deny eternal punishment, or conversely towards “those barbarians who think that God wants to torture people for fun.”
In other words, the insistence that hell has to be a place of eternal conscious torture or the insistence that hell couldn’t possibly be eternal brings many conversations to a grinding halt, where they could be opportunities to share our understanding of both God and humanity.
Allow me to briefly add my two cents to this issue, hoping that I don’t muddle things further. While I have no idea what the afterlife will look like (or how long it will last) for those who reject God’s offer of reconciliation, we might be able to get past an all-or-nothing approach to the topic.
Time and space. Duration and environment. We can’t truly comprehend the afterlife because we will be free from the constraints of space and time. When discussing hell, we remove the time constraint, but for some reason, we retain the space constraint. We tend to think of it as spending day after day in prison for millions of years, and then some. That is one perspective, but another perspective may just as easily see eternity as an endless now. You know, “a thousand years is to the Lord as one day, and one day is as a thousand years.” Ultimately, we will be creatures who are no longer under the constraints of time or space. If we look at it from that perspective, then perhaps our view of hell isn’t required to be one where people will be strapped to torture machines while being perpetually burned alive, with the realization that this will go on for billions and billions of years with no hope of relief. Perhaps, rather, it is a place where people choose to go and even remain, despite their misery caused by loneliness, resentment, and regret.
We feel like eternal punishment doesn’t fit the crime, and therefore, God couldn’t possibly sentence people to eternal punishment. I’m a bit torn here, because God doesn’t hold us to a higher standard than Himself. If we have a desire for mercy, His desire for mercy must be infinitely more intense than ours. Yet, God is not subject to the desires of humans. My wishes may not line up with reality or with the plan of God whose knowledge and judgment are infinitely superior to mine.
So here we are, still stuck on the problem of eternal punishment. Let’s frame this problem in temporal terms and see if it changes our perspective at all.
Say you find yourself in a chance encounter with a man who is truly miserable. He views the world and his life in a totally negative light. You feel sorry for him and offer to be his friend. He sneers at you and tells you to get lost. You attempt to do kind things for him and try to give him some hope. “Think of the fun we could have. Think of the good we could accomplish for the world! Think of how wonderful life could be if we hung out and enjoyed all the great things this world has to offer—exciting cities to visit, exotic lands to explore, sports to be played, meals to be enjoyed, people to be helped—whatever you can dream, we’ll do, and it will be a mind-blowing, life-changing experience.”
Nevertheless, this person decides that he doesn’t want to be your friend. In fact, he tells you to leave him alone and not to bother him anymore. You know that if he remains wrapped up in his self-absorbed state, he will be miserable for the rest of his life. Without the benefit of relationship and without the hope generated by being part of something larger than himself, he will remain in his downward spiral of despair. So, you conclude that, in order to relieve him from his misery, you should kill him. Because he chose a miserable life over a fulfilling one, he must be better off dead.
Sort of changes the perspective a bit, doesn’t it? It doesn’t seem right to kill someone just because they choose to be miserable. Perhaps God treats us the same way. Perhaps He allows us to choose our own path and won’t kill us if we choose a self-centered path and reject a relationship with Him. Now just because this rejection of God and God’s decision to not kill (annihilate) someone takes place outside the constraints of time, it doesn’t mean that God is a vengeful, sadistic monster.
Let me add a caveat: I don’t know if eternal punishment, self-imposed eternal conscious torment, temporary punishment with the possibility of reconciliation, temporary punishment with the guarantee of reconciliation, or annihilation are reality; and quite frankly, I don’t think that we need to know. To echo Jim’s article, our future is in the hands of a loving God, and once we understand that, speculation on the afterlife becomes less important.
Whatever hell looks like, I have a hard time envisioning God sending anyone there, kicking and screaming, carried by red devils with pitchforks into a torture chamber engulfed in flames. I suspect that sadly, many will defiantly march through the gates of hell with their middle finger held up to their Creator as a tear rolls down His face.