Bad Behavior Limiter

What is the purpose of everlasting torment? We can argue that the threat of everlasting torment affects how people behave. Let us call this the “Santa Claus effect”. (You better watch out; You better not cry; You better not pout; I’m telling you why; Santa Claus is coming to town.) Only, the stakes are higher. 

It is impossible to police everyone’s actions all the time, after all. If there is an omniscient eye in the sky that brings terrible retribution on those who do wrong, those who consider doing wrong may hesitate. The Chinese are discouraging jaywalking, for example, through the widespread use of cameras, facial recognition technology, and by dispensing punishments. You may have noticed that, in the news, more and more photos are showing people hiding their faces behind scarves. This is because of facial recognition technology. Some of these people fear prison; some fear missiles fired from drones.  

But has the threat of everlasting torment has ever effectively corrected bad behavior? It’s hard to know, but even in Western cultures where Christian thought predominated, hardened criminals worked the streets, along with the desperately poor, risking punishment in this world and the next. Earthly punishments have remained commonplace. One hard lesson that has been demonstrated in 21st century America is that the removal of punishments has increased crime. 

There are many people today who believe that God will punish with everlasting torment, but who are these people? Evangelical Christians. We should note that their very identity—believers in a gracious God—makes them ineligible for everlasting torment. Here is the conundrum of the utilitarian argument for everlasting punishment: the threat has no affect on those who don’t believe in it and it is of no concern to those who do. Perhaps it has some restraining effect on those who remain uncertain, but uncertain qualms have never been of use in the face of serious temptations. So, as a practical matter, we should doubt that the threat of eternal torment is of significant value. 

Looking at the question from another direction, what are the consequences of teaching a doctrine that is known to be untrue? Or, similarly, what are the consequences of teaching a doctrine that is uncertain and speculative? If Christianity is about the God who only speaks truth and who demands his followers to do the same, the promotion of lies is a grave (literally) danger. When God’s representatives represent him falsely, they undermine their credibility; undermine the credibility of the Christian faith; and they undermine the credibility of God.

Of course, people who stand by the teaching of everlasting torment don’t consider it a false teaching; they believe it is what the Bible teaches. It is the purpose of this book to demonstrate otherwise but, for the moment, let us assume it is. What are the consequences of this belief for those who are Christians as they relate to non-Christians. The most obvious concern is that torturing billions of people for eternity is the cruelty above all cruelties. Christians may say, “Oh, well, God is loving to those who belong to him and the punishment meted out to the wicked is just.” Even so, Christians will find it exceedingly difficult to explain how a lifetime of sin should be punished cruelly forever. It is even more difficult to reconcile such a punishment with what God has revealed about himself. 

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers,what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.43-48). This passage is not specifically about God’s judgment of the wicked, but it says something very important about God’s character. God’s justice includes his desire to be kind and merciful to all people, even those who hate him. It’s a hard stretch to see how, in his final judgment, he will repress this aspect of his being. 

So the practical difficulty for Christians who believe in everlasting torment is to explain how God could be so cruel, in contradiction to what he says about himself. The doctrine of torment presents a stumbling stone that is foreign to the teachings of God. It is a stumbling stone of human manufacture. We must consider carefully whether this doctrine that is defended as driving people to Christ is actually driving them away

Scared Straight

Little doubt, individuals are driven to Christ by fear. It is a natural fear of humans to recognize that we don’t really have control over our lives. We can buy insurance, we can put alarms on our homes, we can work out at the gym, we can brush our teeth, see our doctor annually, and drive a Humvee to work. These measures provide some protection, but we employ them knowing they are insufficient.

People fear degeneration. People fear cancer. People fear dementia. They fear it coming upon them and they fear that it will come upon one of their loved ones for whom they will need to provide long, demanding, expensive care. People fear long-term disability. Will they have the funds to cover their care? Even if they have the funds, will those funds they hoped to pass along to their children be exhausted by medicines and nursing care? There is an immediacy to these fears, especially for people who’ve reached retirement age. 

And there is an immediacy about the fear of death itself, again, especially among the elderly. When you get older, you don’t witness death occasionally—you witness it regularly among your family and your friends. When half your high school graduating class is no longer walking on the earth, you know your number is coming soon.

Starting from a very early age we are confronted with the problem of death. Even children are aware of peers who die in accidents or from harsh diseases. Many children witness the demise of their grandparents. Such losses can be devastating to the young. Someone who loved them, cared for them, and was a large part of their lives, is suddenly, permanently absent. The dark cloud that remains from these experiences is that, even though death is a small present threat, it lurks and it is coming. Children know and we all know that death is coming.  

It seems, therefore, that rational that people would prepare for death. And, so, people do. Not all people, of course, because not all people are responsible, but most people prepare for death by writing a will, by preparing an advanced directive, and by squirreling away enough money to provide for their care until they finally take their last breath. 

But these measures are not actually preparations for death—they are preparations for the end of life. Preparations for death require a plan for the afterlife. For many the plan is to declare that there is no afterlife. For some, they live in hope of a happy afterlife, on the basis that they have done more good in this life than bad. There are some who acknowledge their utter powerlessness in the matter and, so, present themselves in hope to a loving God who, through his grace, will bring them back to life. These are all plans. I suppose there are other plans, but they all seem to me to be variations of those noted above. 

My point, though, is that most people either don’t plan or plan badly for the possibility of living after dying. This, in spite of the certainty of their death. Jesus spoke in the allegory of Lazarus and the Rich Man of how willfully stubborn people can be and that they find ways to ignore the messages even of those who rise from the dead. Jesus proved his point by rising from the dead himself. He was and continues to be met largely with disbelief. 

This is the normal human condition: to live with a self-imposed delusion about what it means to be human. As Paul Simon put it, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” We know death is real but we “address” it by looking away. If this is the case, what makes anyone think that the threat of everlasting torment, which is merely a well-known rumor, would have a meaningful impact on human behavior? The fact that people, on the whole, do not prepare for the afterlife, is proof that the threat of everlasting torment is not taken seriously. We cannot fear the death (everlasting torment) we have not seen if we do not fear the death we have seen (over and over).

Driven to Faith

There are some who argue that the threat of hell is a good means of driving people to God. I doubt it. Look back at the previous argument: people who are not shaken by the certainty of death will not be shaken by the possibility of everlasting torment. Most of us cannot imagine the pain of short-term torture, thankfully. I don’t know how I would do under torture…but I know I am not fond of going to the dentist. One thing I’m pretty sure of: anyone who survives torture will be filled with hatred for the torturer and the regime that spawned the torturer. A natural response is the desire for revenge. The only thing that could motivate someone otherwise is a deep trust in a gracious Lord of the universe who hates torture and who guarantees that the glorified universe will be rid of all who embrace such practices. The difficulty, then, is how it works out that people, terrified of torture, turn to the Being who is the author of the worst torture plan ever devised. How can such a god even be trusted?

It’s clear that there are many people who love God, trust him, and obey him, who also believe that he will torment the wicked forever. This only works psychologically because these people do two things. One, they mostly put the thought out of their minds. The second strategy is a kind of theological “punt”. They trust in a loving God but cannot understand why he would employ everlasting torment. Unable to reconcile these two, they say, “God is wiser than we are,” and “We will understand these things by and by.” There is precedence for such trust, of course. Job trusted God through all his trials. Jesus went to the cross in obedience, but he experienced terrible doubt through the experience. As he put it, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Fair enough. Trusting God when our circumstances are difficult is of crucial value. All this being said, it is not necessary to trust God about inexplicable problems when the problems are manufactured by humans. Let the difficulties of reality be sufficient. 

The fear of torment may grab a person’s attention, but it is much less likely to grab the attention than the fear of death. Fear of either may drive a person to Jesus Christ, but neither fear can save. Only Jesus saves, and only a genuine trust in his grace, love, and power gives a person reason to believe that he will deliver a person from the curse of death. The idea of a god who implements everlasting torment is not an attractive god. He is repugnant. If anyone takes seriously the threat of everlasting torment, it seems unlikely that it would drive them to such a god. Logically, it could only lead to despair…or to a cynical pursuit of an afterlife insurance policy. All of this runs contrary to what it means to have genuine faith.   

Purpose in Retrospect

How do Christians explain the purpose of everlasting torment, looking backward at it. In other words, assuming genuine Christians end up in heaven (in their place as administrators of the rightly ordered new earth), will the thought of evildoers wallowing in torture chambers give them satisfaction? If so, doesn’t that reveal them to be vindictive and sadistic? Such characters will not be permitted in God’s heaven.  

The reasons for punishing falls into the following categories. One, the punishment removes the wicked from the innocent, ending their ability to continue their abuses and exploitations. Two, punishment can serve as a wake-up call. It is a way of making it clear to the wicked that their behavior is unacceptable and must be stopped. Three, punishment done best provides restitution to the offended. It provides opportunity for offenders to restore justice and, to a degree, make amends for crimes. 

These reasons do not transfer well to everlasting torment. It is true that if the wicked are sent to a place of everlasting torment they will never again be able to disturb the innocent directly. On the other hand, the innocent will be tormented in their spirits to know that billions of people are experiencing ongoing torture. From this perspective, everlasting torment fails the first test. Second, everlasting torture cannot serve as a wake-up call. Any everlasting punishment eliminates the option of repentance and restoration. Thirdly, everlasting torment gives no opportunity for the punished to provide restitution. So, considering the aims of punishment, everlasting torment fails every test.  

From God’s Perspective

This is a bit tricky since Christians readily profess their inability to judge God’s thoughts. But this is a half-truth. It is clear that God is brilliant. He is more brilliant than all human knowledge added up for all of human history. Don’t try playing chess with God—you will be humiliated. (Of course, God is kind and he may even let you win if there are no stakes beyond the game of chess.) But the other side of the story is that God has revealed a great deal about himself. The central purpose of being human is that we have been made to be like him and that we are to represent him in all our dealings. Fulfilling this purpose is impossible unless we possess at least a critical outline of who he is. And, so, it is no surprise that the Bible is rich with information about God’s character, and is filled examples of his gracious and loving actions.  

One little acknowledged fact is that there are no biblical passages that proclaim everlasting torment. One favorite passage cited is the story about the rich man talking to Abraham from his place in Hades. But that passage is clearly an allegory that teaches the lesson of how the love of money leads to spiritual blindness. It is not a revelation about the nature of punishment for the wicked. There are also many passages that speak of weeping and gnashing of teeth coming from those who have just heard God’s judgment upon them. But these are references to the time between the Judge pronouncing sentence and the sentence being carried out. The sentence is death, and it should not surprise anyone that those who have been sentenced are unhappy about it. 

But what I am really going after here is an answer to the question: what purpose does it serve God to torment the wicked forever? While it is clear enough that the wicked provide the essential spiritual boot camp that serves in God’s work of refinement of his people, once the refinement is complete, so is that purpose. It’s appealing to think that hell might be something like a Roman Catholic purgatory and that the wicked would eventually be purified of their wickedness, but there is no biblical hint of such an eventuality. Furthermore, the very idea runs counter to the Christian understanding that salvation is by grace and is a gift of God. It does not come through our works, nor can it come through the endurance of lengthy and terrible torment. Such a design is merely a variation on the theme of salvation by human effort. 

No, the sustaining of the wicked, no matter what condition they might be sustained in, runs counter to the grand narrative of God’s work among humans. That work is to create a nation of people with hearts like his own, who will serve as proper administrators of the earth, who will live and love in perfect community, and who will love him and serve him with joy, knowing that doing so is the very definition of abundant life. A massive prison camp of the wicked does nothing other than set aside a place in the universe that is essentially the opposite of God’s good design for humanity. 

I have often heard it said that “hell is the absence of God”. I’m not sure where anyone came up with this idea but let me make two comments about it. First of all, if there is a place of everlasting torment, it cannot be because of the absence of God. If it exists, it must exist by God’s sustaining hand. Therefore, if hell is a place of everlasting torment, the idea that hell is the absence of God is false. 

As an aside, while fully believing in the tireless omnipotence of God, I cannot help but think that sustaining such a place would be a great source of weariness for him. There are, I think biblical examples that suggest that God can experience weariness. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matthew 23.37).

On the other hand, if there is any truth to the idea that hell is the absence of God, there is no punishment that could fulfill this other than annihilation. To be truly absent from God a person must have his existence rescinded. Here is the great woe. I am, but I will not be. I had, but I will not have. I love, but I will not love. I had hopes but I have no hope. 

Everlasting torment accomplishes nothing, other than to sustain a horrible situation. It is a counter-accomplishment. What does annihilation accomplish? It accomplishes one of the primary goals of punishment: it rids the earth of those who are determined to live selfishly, without regard for the wisdom of God, and without regard for the welfare of others. It is the final removal of the affliction of sin. It is also the end of death for, though the wicked will die, once they have died, death itself will be abolished. The curse that God pronounced on Adam and Eve will finally be completely reversed by the sacrifice provided by the Lord Jesus Christ.