Biblical proof texts supporting eternal torment for the wicked are virtually non-existent. While many passages are commonly referenced as proof texts, they only “work” as proofs when mental contortion is applied. Even so, belief in torment remains prevalent within Christendom. Why is this so? There are a number of reasons, some understandable, some reprehensible but, in the final analysis, they all fail to actually be reasonable.
Early Christianity embraced everlasting torment because of its exposure to Greco-Roman polytheism. Christianity surfaced as a Jewish sect in Jerusalem but, from the beginning, Christianity was evangelistic, and it saw itself as the bearer of God’s Good News to the entire world. The church spread in every direction, but its primary growth came through conversions of Gentile citizens of the Roman empire. These Gentiles had to leave Greco-Roman polytheism in order to become Christians. The unsurprising and unfortunate result was that elements of Greco-Roman paganism were carried into Christianity. Syncretism, or the blending of religions, is common, and is a natural bi-product of cultural interplay. Syncretism has affected Christianity in many ways, some harmless, some troublesome, and some seriously problematic.
On the relatively harmless level, look to the Easter Bunny and Easter egg hunts. These child-oriented deflections from Easter’s meaning derive from Germanic pagan rites of spring, and have almost nothing to do with Easter. (If we stretch a bit we can see a connection between the glory of new life emerging in the spring and the glorious resurrection of Jesus.) The very word, “Easter” appears to be derived from the goddess Eostre. It’s clear that folk of every sort of religious conviction are quite happy to hunt Easter eggs while, simultaneously, rejecting the belief in a resurrected Jesus.
Similarly, Christmas trees and gift-giving are not meaningfully connected the birth of Christ. Whether syncretism harms or helps the celebrations of these two Christian holidays is open for debate. When I see a lawn covered with blow-up Santa Clauses, Rudolph reindeers, Frosty Snowmen, and Frozen Elsas, I experience a sadness as I consider those who long for the feeling of Christmas but who simultaneously seem bent on suppressing the source of the feeling. Today’s Christmas syncretism, while still retaining pagan Germanic elements, such as Christmas trees, is really more about a syncretism with consumerism. Christmas, which is fundamentally about God’s expression of love through the incarnation, can be remembered through gifts…or it can be forgotten because of gifts.
A more problematic instance of syncretism is the Roman Catholic saint system, in which the church community is encouraged to pray to various saints who are, apparently, specialists for certain locations, trades, or problems. This construct, too, has roots in Greco-Roman polytheism. (We’ve got a god for every occasion.) The Apostle Paul noted in Acts, chapter 17, that the Athenians, making sure to cover their bases, even had a statue to the Unknown God. Prayers to saints diminish the truth about the Lordship of Jesus, our only intercessor in heaven. They obscure the fact that God alone possesses the power to answer prayer.
Everlasting torment, as noted above, is another example of the syncretism between Christianity and Greco-Roman polytheism. In Greek mythology, Hades is a god who rules over the place of the dead. Odysseus visits Hades in Homer’s Odyssey. There we find many hapless characters, perhaps the most famous being Sisyphus. Not everyone is familiar with this name but he is the character doomed to forever push a large boulder up a steep hill. Every time he nears the top, he loses control of the stone and it rolls back to the bottom of the hill. References to Sisyphus are common, and variants of his doom commonly make there way into present-day illustrations. Later in history the Roman, Virgil, revisited Hades in his Aeneid. Much of Virgil’s accounting is repeated by his Christian disciple, Dante, in The Divine Comedy.
The term, “Hades” is found in the New Testament. Why? Because Greek was the language of commerce across the Roman empire. While people spoke many languages, they bridged those differences through Greek. Peter, in his address to the international crowd gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost, used these words: “He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.” (Acts 2.31,32). Why did Peter use the term, “Hades”? For the simple reason that it was the Greek term for the place of the dead. This illustrates the difficulty inherent in all translation. While “Hades” was a good word choice by Peter, the term carried the baggage of many pagan ideas about the nature of the place of the dead. There is little doubt that language differences contributed to the Greek idea of Hades influencing Christian understanding.
But syncretism doesn’t normally take place strictly on the basis of thought-bleed. Something attractive in an idea leads to its adoption across religions. What has been attractive about this vision of torment that has preserved it in Christian culture?
We can start with what I will call, “scared straight”, part A. If the peasants who make up the vast majority of the populace think there is no punishment beyond the powers of the local civil magistrate, they will believe they can get away with all sorts of evil. But if they believe in an omniscient God who punishes with extreme and everlasting punishment, they are powerfully discouraged from mischief and evil. As such, the threat of everlasting torment served as an arm of the law; it helped to maintain peace and stability within society.
Scared Straight, Part A was effective in Western culture for centuries. But before a person can worry about justice meted out by an angry god, a person has to believe in a god. This has become less and less the case in Western culture. It’s one thing to live in a culture where the default view is a creator God; it’s quite another to live in a culture where a creator God is merely one view among many, with the predominant view being multiple variants of humanism. Kids behave for a week before Christmas because Santa Claus is “making a list; he’s checking it twice; he’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.” Most people today fear God no more than they fear Santa Claus. They have “discovered” he is a fairy tale.
“Scared straight”, part B, is the idea that the threat of hell will drive people to God. This is simply unbiblical. While John the Baptist was not shy about telling people to repent, his explanation was always because, “the kingdom of God is at hand”. He never said, “Lest you suffer the torments of hell”. Nor, for that matter, will you find that message anywhere in the Bible. While the torments of hell will sometime give people pause—just about everyone has given the possibility some thought at one time or another—no one comes to a faith in Christ out of fear of everlasting torment. Faith in Christ comes from recognizing Jesus as Lord, as the source of all good, and as the one who must be trusted for salvation, and then obeyed. A belief in hell as a place of torment will not save. Neither will a belief in hell as a place of torment keep a person from salvation (however difficult it may be to believe in a loving God who would design or permit such a place). Jesus rescues his people from death, certainly, and that is a great blessing. But Christians are not people running from death; they are people running to Jesus and the fullness of his Kingdom. In the final analysis, non-Christians don’t believe in a hell of torment and, while many Christians do, they see it as a place that can no longer threaten them. In short, no one who believes in hell as a place of everlasting torment has any need to do so.
Perhaps the idea of everlasting torment will, rather than drive people to Christ, cause them to despise God for being an extreme sadist. Perhaps the idea produces sadists. Perhaps some will determine that it is important for “good people” to arm themselves with assault rifles and other pain-inflicting devices because they have been taught that this is the fate of the wicked, anyway. One thing is clear: we become like the gods we worship. The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak; eyes they have, but they do not see; they have ears, but they do not hear; nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them are like them; so is everyone who trusts in them (Psalm 135:15-18). This principle underscores the importance of not adding or subtracting from what God tells us about himself. Has God actually taught that he tortures those who fail to trust him?
Ecclesiastical privilege has always been a problem, no matter the religion. Priests and ministers are human and are tempted to serve themselves, just as all people are. When Jesus walked about Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the first century, he found a remnant of the people of God, some who were of great faith, but most who were rather confused about the faith that gave shape to their culture. (Perhaps in this sense it was similar to Western culture today.) Jesus was filled with compassion for the Jewish people, but he was consistently angry with the religious leadership. He called them “white-washed tombs” and “a brood of vipers”. These leaders had fine-tuned Judaism in a very lawyerly fashion to be a religion of regulations. Piety was equated with conformity to the Law. The Law was fundamentally the revelations found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), but it also included the numerous commentaries on the Pentateuch. The commentaries had become a millstone hanging on the neck of the Pentateuch.
The millstone manifested in two major negative consequences. The first was that many of the rulings of the commentaries were false. They did not fairly represent the meaning of the original Law. Typically, the false rulings had a way of increasing the power, prestige and finances of those making the rules. They had that familiar flavor of government officials who had forgotten that their role was supposed to be as a servant of the people. The other negative was that Judaism had largely transformed into a religion of rules. Salvation (if there was a salvation) came from strict adherence to regulations. As such, it was a religion of human pride. Pride for those who were good at following the rules (especially publicly) and shame for those who could not manage to do so. This man-centered characteristic substantially pushed God out of the picture. The heart of God was largely forgotten. They said to him, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8.19). Any religion that is formulated in such a way that humans earn their way to heaven is a religion that leads to death. Jesus came to the earth in order to save people from their sins and to usher into the world a greater manifestation of the Kingdom of God. But he also came at a critical time when it was necessary to rescue his people from wayward, heretical religious leaders.
However wayward the religious leaders of Jesus’ time were, they never harassed the people with the torments of hell. Such an idea was foreign to them, perhaps not even imagined. But later in Christianity, when syncretism had infected Christianity with the ideas of torment, opportunity knocked. What if the priesthood could forgive sins? Wouldn’t this make them indispensable? What if the priesthood could administer last rites? The last rites were meant to be a final cleansing of a person’s soul. The process would include a confession by the dying person, followed by an absolving of their sins by the priest, which would enable the dying person to enter heaven instead of hell. That represented considerable power on the part of the priesthood. A person would have to be extremely strong willed, willing to live counter to prevailing culture, willing to take on great risk, in order to live outside of this system of priestly power.
But what about the Protestants who finally broke free from this sort of ecclesiastical manipulation? Well, they didn’t utterly reject ecclesiastical power. The Church still retained the power to excommunicate. Strictly speaking, it was and is right that the Church does so. However, biblical excommunication has always been intended as a means for getting the attention of individuals who have embraced sin, with the aim of restoring them to faithful Christian living.
But excommunication can also be applied to anyone who insists on heretical ideas. A clearly heretical idea is to maintain that Jesus was a great moral leader but he was not God. Such a belief destroys the power of Christianity. Those who promote such an idea either do not understand what it means to be a Christian, or they have willfully rejected its meaning. But the church has often failed to show proper care in identifying heresy. There was a time when those who believed in infant baptism called those who insisted on believer baptism heretics, and vice versa. Protestantism has splintered into many small branches, utterly failing at the Church’s responsibility to remain united. This is the product of a lack of grace, the tendency to infer inflexible theological systems, and the tendency to excommunicate those who disagree. It is a failure to draw sensible parameters of the meaning of the faith. With hell as a place of torment, excommunication is a more frightening prospect. Excommunication, then, has been a tool to impose theological conformity. (I will note, however, that, due to the Protestant habit of splintering, this threat has become increasingly meaningless.)
The default position of conservative Christians is to maintain the status quo or to try to maintain a Christianity consistent with the practices laid out by Christ and the Apostles. From this perspective, Christian conservatism is the equivalent of true Christianity.
But there are two factors within conservatism that counter its tendency toward static doctrinal conformity. The first factor is that the Christian life is a sanctification process. Normal human life, and especially Christian life, is to be characterized by growth and maturation. Any Christian who thinks he has arrived at the fullness of truth has only boxed himself into a stagnation that stunts learning. Beyond thinking of individuals, it’s also wrong to imagine that any particular religious tradition has perfectly sorted out God’s mind, either. Why are there so many variations of belief within Christianity? While, clearly, there is value in counsel, it is also true that human counsel is always tainted. Pooling the ideas of a group of muddled thinkers is no certain way to achieve clarity or correctness. We cannot have absolute confidence in committees (or synods, or assemblies of “divines”).
The second factor to keep in mind is that Jesus did not write out all truth in an encoded manual and hand it to the Apostles. He gave the Apostles the “keys” to the Kingdom, implying that they would be responsible for working out many implications of what he taught. The early Church had a sharp disagreement, for example, over whether converted Gentiles would be required to be circumcised. The Church did come to an understanding about this but the transition of Christianity from a Jewish sect into a distinct Christianity was a process that called for much reflection and reform. The New Testament canon was not set until more than 350 years after Christ’s resurrection. While many wish to model the modern Church after the early Church, to do so is not necessarily a good idea. Human nature does not change, but the world has changed in many ways over the course of time. The question of whether citizens should be armed with assault rifles was beyond the imaginations of the early Church fathers. We must learn from those who came before, and we must engage our own minds as we seek to represent Christ in the present. A commitment to the truth is not a commitment to tradition; it is a commitment to the implications of God’s Word.
What this means is that it is not right for Christians to fall back on a millennia of Christian thought about the nature of hell. The question of hell has never risen to the place of most important issue of the day, which is probably the reason it has never been subjected to careful scrutiny. But it is important enough to be scrutinized.
Everlasting torment is, as far as I can tell, a man-made idea. Humans are vindictive. If the concept has any merit, it is that it reminds people that justice is crucial for human society, and that justice sometimes must make use of punishment. One of the glories of the New Earth, the New Jerusalem, is that justice will be complete and pure. Importantly, this means there will be no need for a system of judgments and punishments because everyone will be honest, respectful, and will treat everyone else with fairness. It will be a society in which people will rather cheat themselves than cheat anyone else. Just imagine bartering in the marketplace: “I should pay you at least $20 for that shirt.” “Oh, no; that’s entirely too much. I couldn’t take more than $10.” “Fifteen, and that’s my lowest offer.” “I can’t take more than twelve.” “Well, what if I give you twelve and throw in a couple of these delicious oranges?”
The purpose of everlasting punishment is to exclude those who refuse to trust their Maker, the only wise judge, and the one who defines justice. Those who reject him reject justice. Those who reject justice must be excluded from the society in which justice is written on the hearts of all in the society. Justice demands that those who love justice are protected from those who don’t.
It is a falsehood that says justice demands that the unjust suffer for their evil behavior. It is a much greater fallacy that suggests that people must suffer forever for the crimes they have committed over the very short spans of their earthly lives. To say to a brute, “You have been a brute for 75 years; now I will brutalize you forever,” is a clear example of injustice, not justice. Everlasting torment, as a concept, fails utterly as a means of providing the justice that is so desperately needed on the earth. There are, as noted above, a variety of appealing reasons for everlasting torment. But, under scrutiny, all of these reasons fall apart and must be rejected.