The essay, “Torment Verses” looks at biblical verses that seem to suggest everlasting torment will be the punishment assigned to the wicked. This essay looks at the concept of torment as applied in biblical situations. Is the infliction of pain approved by God? There is a range of possibilities. Let us begin by considering the question of proportionality.
The idea of retribution for injustice is Biblical. A well-known phrase from the Old Testament is, “an eye for an eye”. Exodus, chapter 21, verses 23-25 reads: But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” In practice this was rarely taken literally by the Jewish people. Rather, it was understood as a guide for determining appropriate restitution. If, for example, two men fought and one destroyed the eye of the other, a judge would make a determination about the value of the loss. Determining the value of an eye is a challenging problem, but certainly any lost ability to earn money or perform work would be taken into account. Considerations about the ability of the offender to pay would also come into play.
Revenge has a tendency to ignore proportionality or, perhaps, merely consider the first offense as the baseline for the penalty to be exacted. During the 1200’s, Kwarezmia was a rich empire spanning Greater Iran. Seeing the potential for a trade partner, Genghis Khan extended an offer of peace to the Shah. The Shah was not interested, which he demonstrated by murdering the Khan’s messengers. The enraged Khan responded by dispatching an army of 200,000 men. The Mongols destroyed the capital city of Gurganj, killed countless citizens, and poured molten gold down the throat of the governor. After killing and enslaving hundreds of thousands, the Khan dammed and rerouted the Oxus river, flooding and effectively wiping the entire city of Kunya Urgench off the map. The “eye for and eye” regulation did authorize retribution but, just as significantly, limited it. The regulation encoded protection for the weak.
Recognizing the biblical principle of proportionality in punishment, one should wonder how this can work out when the punishment is everlasting. Let’s suppose that Hitler and Stalin and Mao are in competition to win the Monster of History Award. If the dead could rise for the sake of revenge, each of our monsters might find himself at the end of a line of vengeance-seekers that stretch from Paris to Shanghai. Even so, those very long lines still have endpoints. Hitler was Führer for 11 years; Stalin was Leader for 24 years; and Mao was Chairman for 33. Assuming that torment is a legitimate punishment (and that is a questionable assumption), at what point does the punishment become proportional? I don’t know the answer, and I’m not sure how it’s possible to figure out the answer but human history, though it has often made room for torture, has also put limits on its use. Most of the world today assigns something like 30-50 years of mild torment (incarceration) as punishment for murder. Perhaps we are currently too soft on violent crime, but when it comes to everlasting torment, how is it possible, considering proportionality, to not be too harsh?
Some who believe in everlasting torment argue that the punishment is proportional because the sin is committed against God himself. The argument, as I understand it, is that the quality of sinner’s sins are infinite because they are committed against the infinite God. It’s an interesting point that it is devoid of scriptural foundation. Certainly it is true that God’s “quality” is much greater than human quality. To murder God is a really bad idea. Let us concede that God’s quality is infinitely greater. The problem remains that there is nothing in Scripture that says that killing God would demand a greater punishment than any other killing. Scripture does say that Adam acted as our representative and that we have effectively inherited his punishment. But the punishment assigned to Adam was death.
Perhaps the clearest biblical commentary on the subject of killing God is found in the Parable of the Tenants. The tenants (probably best understood as the Jewish religious leaders, but who can also be understood as all humans) are put in charge of the master’s vineyard. Instead of providing the master with his portion of the land’s earnings, they beat the master’s servants, and kill them. Finally they kill the master’s son. The outraged master runs out of patience, determines that the tenants are to be “put to a miserable death”, and hands his vineyard over to honest caretakers. It is a parable, of course, which precludes it from being a clear guide on how God will actually punish. But it is the clearest biblical statement about God’s anger at the abuse of his son (and his other messengers).
Additionally, it is important to recall that, while on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23.34). The crucifixion of the Lord was committed by the Jewish religious leaders, in collusion with the local representative of the Roman Empire. The general populace had praised him and given him a grand parade a few days earlier. Changing with the winds, they joined in with the priests to shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” We cannot presume that Jesus’ prayer was merely a demonstration of his meek and gracious nature. We dare not infer any insincerity in his words. Neither do we dare presume his words were ineffectual. We know that, because of Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross, the Father granted him full authority over all creation. The lives of all humans are in the hands of Jesus. The One who is our Judge prayed that we would all be forgiven for the sin of his crucifixion.
The third thing to notice is that neither in the Bible, nor in any modern civil code I am aware of, are legal punishments adjusted according the “quality” of the one sinned against. There have been times in history, of course, and perhaps there are places today where different sorts of people are treated differently by the law. Slaves have always been treated worse than ordinary citizens. When Israel was occupied by Rome, Roman citizens were treated much more favorably than everyone else. But there is no caste system in the Bible. And there is no system in the Bible that teaches that rich and powerful and famous people are to receive different legal treatment than ordinary citizens. To do so, in fact, is a failure of justice. (It may happen frequently, but when and where it does, it is a failure of justice). This, too, suggests that the crime committed against Jesus was no greater a crime than if he had not been God. A great and horrible crime, yes, but, from the standpoint of the murderers, a crime against a man and, so, punishable in accordance with just, proportional law.
Let me also point out that humans have never really been able to harm God. Did Adam’s sin harm God? It could not. Jesus, in his human flesh, was truly tortured and truly murdered, but humans could not, ultimately kill him. He rose from the dead. We cannot be punished on the basis of the quality of the one we killed, because it is this very quality that makes it impossible for us to kill him.
The curse that God laid on Adam and Eve, on the other hand, does conform to the concept of proportionality. Why is death a proportional sentence? Because it is a logical consequence of the creature dismissing the Creator, particularly since the Creator is also the Sustainer of life. We are all aware that our days on this earth are numbered. While we are young it hardly seems that way. Most of us grow in mental and physical strength for 25 years. At that point the body plateaus and the mind continues to grow, but the signs of aging soon begin to impose themselves. Our hair falls out. Those that remain turn white. Wrinkles form and stay. The injuries we sustain take ever longer to heal. Then certain aches and pains seem to come to stay. It gets hard to get up from the floor, and then it gets hard to get up from a chair. Bodily functions become less reliable. And on and on, until managing your assignment of pills becomes a mental problem that exceeds your organizational skills. And then the day comes when you are declared “in hospice”. Life on earth is always managed with the grim Specter of Death milling about, hand-on-shoulder.
Only God can do something about the Specter. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15.54-57. To dismiss God by saying, “I will live according to my own ideas and according to my own strength” is to commit suicide. From this vantage point, while God clearly pronounces a judgment on Adam and the human race, it is a judgment that awards humans exactly what they have asked for.
This brings up a deep irony of 21st century thinking. Today’s world is largely made up of “sophisticates” who imagine they are guided by the wisdom of scientific materialism. These materialists scoff at the idea of God and disparage him for his cruel behavior. But it is these materialists who insist that life is short and that we are all due to return to the dust and to the everlasting loss of consciousness. The end of life that materialists point to as “the way life is” is, in fact, the proportional judgement of God assigned to those who refuse to trust him. Materialists offer nothing, while complaining about the God who freely offers everything.
Requirements of Justice
Some will say, “Someone has to pay for what they did to our Lord!”
Christians will counter by saying, yes, God is the God of love and grace and forgiveness, but it is also true that God is the God of justice and righteousness. He cannot be separated from this absolute aspect of his character. True, true. But to debate further, the cross serves the demand of God’s righteousness. Christ paid the price; he received the righteous penalty for our sins. Through Adam we were all condemned to die, but Christ took that penalty upon himself. So the righteousness of God was addressed through Christ by means of his self-sacrificing gift of life. In Christ we see that God’s demand for righteousness is bound together with God’s demand for grace. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8.1
God has no need for revenge. It is clear from scripture that he was not forced to go to the cross. Rather, it was Jesus’ mission to do so. In the garden Jesus told Peter, “Do you think I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26.53). Jesus willed himself to submit to death by crucifixion. His submission was the most willful act in human history. Through his submission he was made Lord over all creation. He has no need to prove himself manly or powerful. He already possesses all authority over all people. Every knee will bow before him. Some will bow in terror and despair; others will bow with joy and thanksgiving. But in either case, the bowing will not be coerced; it will be based on clear understanding.
But what about those who are not in Christ Jesus? Yes, the sentence of death remains in place. But where does the idea of everlasting torment come from in this picture? Did the judgment of God become more severe through Christ? This idea seems rather out of the blue. But, aside from coming out of the blue, it is a conclusion that fails to account for the grace of God. What grace is applied to those who are required to suffer for eternity? The absence of grace in the idea of everlasting torment makes it very difficult to reconcile with a very central characteristic of the heart of God. This profound failure makes the possibility highly doubtful.
The Bible is clear that many will be sent away in tears because God does not know them. But it is not because their sins have not been paid for; it is because they refused to trust their Lord and Creator. They refused the gift of life.
C.S. Lewis was correct in that condemnation is essentially what people get when they spurn God’s love—they end up without it. What they don’t understand is that, even now, everything they love and enjoy is available to them only because of God’s love. When God withholds his love, nothing remains. Humans cannot survive in a vacuum (whether literal or social or spiritual). I imagine being sentenced to Nothing is like being released from a spaceship into outer space. It is a bitter, cold moment.
Retribution for Victims
What good does the suffering of the wicked do for the victims? Is there joy in
retribution? If there is, is that a good thing?
All the redeemed must remember that they are guilty of wickedness. Perhaps their wickedness has not been as horrifying as the mighty wicked ones, but those who pass through the pearly gates only do so because their earned condemnation has been stricken from the record book by the Judge of the universe. Will those who are absolutely dependent on grace harbor longings for punishment on those who have not benefitted from that grace? Will those in heaven not be surprised by some of the wicked people who end up being there? Of course they will. Moses committed murder. David committed adultery and murder. Paul was an accessory to murder and a persecutor of the Church. We have no idea what horrible things wonderful people have done. We really have no idea of the extent of the damages we have caused in our own lives (which is probably a good thing). Is not harboring the desire for revenge or for “satisfaction” a profound hypocrisy?
Matthew 18.21-35 is known as “the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.” Jesus gave this parable in response to the question, “How many times shall I forgive the one who sins against me?” In other words, how many times do I have to forgive before I am no longer obligated to? The parable made the point that those who believe in Jesus have been forgiven an enormous debt. The value of their debt was their life, which had been fully and everlastingly restored. Whatever debts others might owe, they cannot stack up to the value of one’s own life. Jesus’ point, then, was that we dare not not forgive small sins when our very lives depend on being forgiven for great ones. The parable concludes with the warning that God would be furious with anyone unwilling to forgive the small debts. The terrible warning seems to say that those who refuse to forgive will not be forgiven by him.
The point here is not that sin is okay because it has to be forgiven. The fact that God requires his people to be gracious and forgiving does not imply that sin is inconsequential or deserving of casual treatment. We don’t have to be forgiven. Forgiveness nearly always depends on the offender sincerely repenting. Repentance is not fundamentally about feeling bad, though feeling bad is appropriate. It is fundamentally about changing direction. It is a recognition of the wrongness of a certain behavior and a determination to no longer do that thing.
This takes us back to the question presented to Jesus. After all, how sincere can a person’s repentance be if he continues to do the same thing over and over. It’s a good question. Repentance truly should lead to changed behavior, but we all have bad behaviors that are very hard to break. It’s possible to be physically addicted to alcohol or cigarettes or hard drugs, for example. Some of us have struggles with bad eating habits; some of us have trouble with meanness or impatience or laziness, or with insecurity, or with being honest. Some of us are deeply afraid. Are these sins? Yes they are, and we know that problems such as these run deep and don’t necessarily go away, as much as a person might want them to. So it is important that we are willing to forgive such incorrigible sins in others, just as it is important that we are willing to forgive such incorrigible sins in ourselves. How can we do this? Trust. The One who set the example of forgiving us first is also the Lord of all. This means he is in charge and he is brilliant. He makes it clear that the practice of forgiveness is a critical element of personal and social peace. Forgiveness leads to happiness.
So how does this requirement of forgiveness impact our right to wish everlasting torment on others? The principle of forgiveness taught by Jesus simply does not allow for it. God is not necessarily bound to every demand that he makes of humans. Nevertheless, one biblical principle that runs deep and wide is that God’s commands are for us to behave as he behaves. We cannot be omniscient or omnipresent or omnipotent or triune. There are some characteristics of God the Creator that cannot be realized in the creature. But the Christian faith is pretty much about the characteristics of God that are transferrable.
Why do we love God? Because he first loved us. Why do we love one another? Well, because he first loved us. What is love? It is being gracious and kind and respectful and just and supportive of one another. It is taking delight in one another. Why do these things? Because this is what we must do in order to thrive. God created humans in his image. This means that in marvelous ways we are like him, but it also means we are made to represent him. “Be like me,” is the essential teaching of the Bible. So, as a creature it is not for me to make demands of God, insisting that he forgive. For me to do such a thing would be a demonstration of hubris and disrespect. What I will suggest, however, is that if Jesus makes the concept of forgiveness and grace a critical teaching for us, we have strong evidence that this is part and parcel of his character. He does what he is.
If I may pull out the big guns here, let us look to the cross, the central event in human history, for corroboration. Jesus was determined to die on the cross in order that he might extend grace to the condemned and deliver us from the corruptions of sin and death. It was this very self-sacrifice that so deeply pleased the Godhead. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2.5-11.
One purpose for torment, or pain infliction, is warning, the essential idea behind corporal discipline. There are varying opinions about the benefits of corporal discipline. My experience suggests its benefits are limited. I remember my father threatening us children many times with, “Do I have to take off my belt?!” This was, of course, a warning that he might use it on us. I think maybe he swatted me on the bottom once with that belt. The stick works best when used rarely. There is much more to discipline than punishment. Discipline from a teaching perspective is about training students to understand the importance of good decision-making. The message of the sting is that the refusal to listen to guidance and reason ultimately results in the more severe pains of foolish decision-making. Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. – Proverbs 13.24.
Pain inflicted in this way is, first of all, measured, causing no injury. Secondly, it is purposeful, intending to train and warn. Thirdly, it is limited in duration. The assumption of this sort of discipline is that lessons are learned, which precludes the need for continued physical punishment. A spanking that is not received as discipline by a child is useless for training. All parents stop spanking their children at some point (except for those who never started). Parents stop because, after a time, spanking becomes a useless tool. Spanking is a bit like diapers. There is a time when diapers are very useful as a governor for digestion expulsion management. But once a child learns to be the manager, the diaper ceases to be of service, and literally gets in the way. So, too, the long-term aim of all discipline is that that the child will learn to be governed by reason rather than the rod.
Everlasting torment does not qualify as corporal punishment. There is no disciplinary purpose in a punishment that continues forever because, whatever the one punished may learn, there is no benefit in the knowing. There is no opportunity to exercise what has been learned. The shackles of everlasting torment do not allow for repentance. Furthermore, the pain inflicted cannot serve as a warning about worse pain because the pain is already terrible, and will not get worse. Everlasting torment does not fulfill the requirements for purposeful corporal punishment.
Another purpose for pain infliction is to force behavioral change. The plagues sent on Egypt is a biblical example of this. It took ten plagues before Pharaoh finally relented to let the Israelites leave Egypt. After they left, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after them. The army ended up at the bottom of the Red Sea. This wipe-out could be considered the eleventh plague against Egypt. Nothing was learned in this case but the oppression ended. Perhaps wars could be categorized in this way, at least sometimes. America’s Civil War may not have been absolutely necessary but without it slavery would likely have continued for another hundred years. World War II put a stop to murderous, racist German and Japanese expansionisms.
Prisons, I suppose, also fit into this category, though I do wonder sometimes. The New York City tab for each inmate in fiscal 2020 was $447,337, according to Comptroller, Scott Stringer. One has to question in this case who exactly is being punished. You can say that when someone is in jail it is difficult for that person to commit violent crimes, so force is governing bad behavior. This use of torment or force, if you will, has its place in human history, unfortunately. Nonetheless, its use provides no precedence or justification for everlasting torment because coercive torment is for the purpose of curtailing evil. Once the wicked are dead they are no longer capable of evil; there is no need to coerce the dead.
Sometimes torture has been used to extract information from enemies. If a soldier is been captured, it is possible he has information useful to his captors. Captors may feel justified in inflicting pain on the prisoner in order to gain that information. Torture is outlawed by international law but it’s understandable that a captor might go to great lengths to extract information if he believed, for example, that the prisoner had information about a nuclear bomb that was due to explode in a large population center. You might find yourself wavering about what is the right thing to do in such a situation. Under most circumstances, however, almost all agree that torturing enemies is an evil act. In any case, God doesn’t need information from the damned; he is omniscient.
There has always been a place for the use of force to control human behavior. The most obvious use of this is the presence of police. They are everywhere, and necessarily so. One of the silliest demands of the Black Lives Matter movement has been the defunding and/or the disbanding of police departments. In a couple of places in the U.S. the police actually stepped away, permitting the new “Edens” to govern themselves. Of course, the result was mayhem, property destruction, filth, and the radical increase of every sort of crime. Without governors, society unravels.
But real anarchy never exists for long. People run away. Strong men impose order, according to their best interests. The strong have always tended to take advantage of the weak. This is especially so where societies break down. People are selfish, looking out for their own interests first, often at the expense of others. Frankly, when a person is gifted and powerful in some way, it takes self-awareness, discipline, and a commitment to justice not take advantage of the weak. People of such integrity are rare, indeed. On the other hand, many who are strong are simply cutthroat, convinced they are justified in their dealings by social-Darwinism, or some other bent philosophy.
Inappropriate coercion receives a lot of attention in the Bible. Israel was delivered out of Egypt to relieve their 400 years of slavery there. Israel had a period of national glory under Saul, David, and Solomon, but things fell apart pretty quickly after that. Around 740 BC Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. In 600 BC Israel was captured by the Babylonians, with the result that nearly all the Jews were exiled to Babylon. Sixty years later they were allowed to return. In 330 BC Israel was captured by Alexander the Great and the Macedonians. Then around 60 BC Israel came under the control of the Romans.
The New Testament Church also experienced persecution, both from the Jewish establishment and from the Romans. The Romans considered Christians atheists because they worshipped only one god, disrespecting all the others, which was considered a threat to the empire. When something went wrong in the empire, such as a great plague or a successful invasion by a barbarian hoard, it was the “atheists” who were typically blamed. Misfortune was proof that one god or another had been offended.
Jesus, himself, was persecuted and murdered in a most horrible fashion. Ten of the original twelve Apostles, according to tradition, were martyred. Jesus warned his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. – John 15.18-21.
Terror is a similar type of coercion. I recall watching the movie, “Braveheart,” in which the movie’s hero, William Wallace, was publicly disemboweled. As it happens, this was essentially the reason for crucifixions during the time of Christ. Crucifixions were not typically used for everyday crimes. Crucifixions were applied to insurrectionists—those who would dare to stand up to the imperial power of Rome. Stripped naked, made a spectacle, and left helpless for the general public to gawk at, the crucified one slowly weakened until he didn’t have enough strength left to draw breath. Crucifixions were brutal warnings.
There have been times and places in history, including the present, where torture and torment have been used to force conformity to the predominant belief or political system. Religious inquisitions have been used for this purpose. (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”) Twentieth and Twenty-first century totalitarian governments have used torture as a means of forcing citizen conformity. But there is no biblical support for the idea of political coercion. The Church itself is made up of those who freely assent to the faith. Coercion is Islamic; it is totalitarian socialism; it is dictatorship; it is not Christian. It is not action encouraged or permitted by God.
The book of Revelation focuses on the persecution of the Christian Church. It was written to remind the churches to retain their Christian zeal and to persevere under the oppression of Rome. The writer, John, makes it clear that, though the churches suffer in the present under the thumb of the powers that be, those powers are all subject to the all-powerful One, who will ultimately put an end to their oppressions and wickednesses, and will sentence them with just punishment.
Torment for the sake of coercion, as considered in the Bible, is nothing other than evil. This eliminates abusive coercion as an acceptable reason for everlasting torment.
Some people take pleasure in the suffering of others. This extreme lack of empathy is difficult to understand but I suppose sadists have their own histories of victimization. Sadism seems to be a kind of revenge and/or is a way to prove one’s virility and power.
Frances Larsen, in his book, “A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found” argued that sadism is common to humans. According to Larson, where executions were done in public, they always attracted crowds of people of every sex and walk of life. “Some will laugh and jeer, others will studiously take notes, some will faint or vomit or cry—and to an extent these responses are culturally determined, but the lesson of history is that it is within our capacity as humans to witness decapitations and other forms of execution and, more than that, to enjoy them as popular public events.
“For as long as there were public executions, there were crowds to see them. In London in the early 19th century, there might have been 5000 to watch a standard hanging, but crowds of up to 100,000 came to see a famous felon killed. The numbers hardly changed over the years. An estimated 20,00 watched Rainey Bethea hang in 1936, in what turned out to be the last public execution in the U.S.”
Some say that God himself is cruel. The question of everlasting torment certainly touches on this question. For an essay that addresses the issue directly, refer to, “Yahweh the Cruel”. Sadism is in contradiction to God’s commands. It is also contrary to God’s character. Sadism cannot serve as an explanation or a justification for everlasting torment.
Many Christians say that the everlasting torment of hell is an important attention-getter—a big, red warning sign that steers people into the Faith. As such, many see everlasting torment as motivation for Christians to evangelize. But no one has ever been terrified into the kingdom of heaven. There’s an irony about everlasting torment: no one alive believes it applies to him. Many Christians believe in it but they believe it applies to the unsaved. Then there are those who do not believe in the Christian faith. These are simply dismissive of everlasting torment as fairytale stuff.
Some argue that, indeed, people have been terrified into heaven. The thought of everlasting torment does give pause. Perhaps it’s like looking into an active volcano. The experience can’t help but be sobering. But it’s not possible to imagine an everlasting torment, based on our worst experiences and memories. I’ve never encountered a person who expressed a credible fear of everlasting torment. I suspect there are few such people.
Some counter, “Well, if it saves a few, it’s worth it.” This particular argument is of dubious worth, as it implies that context and repercussions are irrelevant. Where the number who come to salvation is unknown, the equally unknowable and equally relevant question is: “How many people are driven away from the faith due to this teaching?” I suspect the idea of everlasting torment drives more people from God than to him.
Furthermore, salvation does not happen out of fear. It takes place when a person’s eyes are opened and he or she sees the beauty of God. A person becomes a Christian out of thankfulness, out of humility, out of recognition that God speaks truth, out of a longing for what life is meant to be, out of hope, out of amazement, out of delight in the promises of God, especially of his love. Christian faith is something a person runs to, not something a person runs from. A belief in hell, no matter what hell might be, will not save. Similarly, no matter what one believes about hell, that belief will not condemn. Only Jesus Christ can save us. So, while I agree that some Christians were disturbed by the thought of everlasting torment and that this disturbance drove them to investigate the faith, it is the investigation and, most of all, the Holy Spirit who granted spiritual sight. Those who have come into the Church would all have been there without staring into the mouth of the volcano. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. – John 10.27,28.
Could Humans Bear It?
Tom Stoppard once quipped, “Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it going to end?” Stoppard’s remark is intended to bring a chuckle to the room but when I think about it, I have to agree. At least I would agree if eternity would be a continuation of humans’ current circumstances. What if our bodies and minds did not decay? How would that be for us? I believe our present life would eventually prove intolerable. When we are young, all is new and the world is full of wondrous possibilities. As we age we begin to experience déjà vu at all the world’s problems, as well as with our personal problems. It seems like the world never learns. It seems like our neighbors and family members never learn. It seems like we, ourselves, repeatedly make the same errors, while repeatedly wounding the ones we love most. Eventually, the world would become unbearable. It’s hard to be patient with intractable idiocy. Eventually we would not be able to stand ourselves.
What about an existence that is specifically designed to be a place of torment? Is it conceivable that a person, a human, could actually remain consciously human, knowing that existence stretches on as endless torment? How many people have ended their lives or gone mad in jails or concentration camps? People have survived prison camps for one reason only: hope. Hope to return to a life free of such misery, to return to normalcy and human relationships. Would God fool the wicked into thinking there is something to hope for? No, God cannot lie. After many years the entire inmate population of hell would be a slobbering, slathering mass of madness—individuals so mad they would no longer be conscious of their individuality, nor aware that their torment was a punishment.
Victor Frankl, writing in Man’s Search For Meaning, made the following observations about prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. “Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. By means of this insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell.
“Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, ‘I have nothing to expect from life any more.’ What sort of answer can one give to that?”
Hampton Sides wrote similarly about prisoners of war in a Japanese POW camp during WWII. “O’Donnell was less a prison than it was an incubatorium for disease, a study in what happens when thousands of starving, ill men are brought together in close proximity in the tropics. Antique diseases that had long since been conquered by modern medicine rose out of the latrines for an encore performance. The vectors for contagion were too numerous to count. Pathogens spread from man to insect to beast to shit to man again. Starvation and vitamin deficiency lowered the immunological threshold for everyone so that hundreds succumbed to diseases that wouldn’t ordinarily have killed them. Principally, the patients were dying of malaria, dysentery, pellagra, acute dehydration, beriberi, or various sordid combinations thereof.
“Yet in many cases the act of dying seemed to come by force of will. Every doctor saw it. A patient who was sick but not necessarily terminal would suddenly get an unmistakable look on his face—a million-mile stare, a crushing melancholy, as if to say, ‘I cannot bear another moment.’ He would simply give up. Within hours, sometimes within minutes, he’d be dead. The prisoners called it the ‘give-up-itis.’ The doctors referred to it as ‘inanition,’ the absence of spirit. ‘Living was like holding on to a rope,’ said one medic. ‘All you had to do was let go and you were a goner.’”
Once you’ve read a few testimonials like these about prisoners living in horrible conditions, it becomes obvious that humans are incapable of torment for long. Ten years? Perhaps. A hundred years? Unimaginable. Forever?
No human could endure everlasting torment without being raised from death with a superhuman body and superhuman mental strength. Made immortal for the purpose of everlasting misery, you might say. Those in the faith have been promised that they will rise from the dead, incorruptible; the faithless have been given no such promise (or in this scenario, no such threat).
We can see by looking through the Scriptures that there are situations where the application of a little pain is appropriate. As it turns out, these applications are measured and come as warnings against the continuation of foolish behavior, with its more severely painful consequences. Or they are about constraining the foolish, in order to keep the foolish from bringing suffering to those they would exploit. Other than these measured applications, there is no justified biblical use of the infliction of pain.
God has provided in a similar way through nature. We all feel pain in our bodies when we are injured. This seems like a horrible thing, but it is a wonderful thing. Sometimes all we feel are the hints of pain, such as when we approach a fire. Pain from injury forces us to address our injuries with care that supports healing. The memory of pain from injury teaches us to be careful in our actions, teaches us that there is a cost to carelessness. A fall from a 3-foot ladder is a good warning for anyone who decides to do work on a roof.
A few years back I was on a road trip with one of my sons. One of our stops was the Grand Canyon. Wow! The magnificence and beauty of the Canyon can’t be put into words. But the Canyon is dangerous, too. We walked along the rim of the Canyon for awhile. In some places there are rails, which is to say, in some places there are not. The wind was gusty. I was unnerved by all this, so I walked on the edge of the sidewalk furthest from the canyon rim. My son laughed at my temerity. There were people all over the place with selfie-sticks, giddily backing up to the very edge of the canyon to take pictures of themselves. “These people are out of their minds!” was what I was thinking. Later I did a little research. It turns out that 1.5 people die every month in Grand Canyon National Park, either from helicopter rides (remember the gusting winds) or from falls. Maybe those people had never fallen from a 3-foot ladder. Those who fell and died in Grand Canyon accidents did not learn a lesson. Neither will anyone in the throes of everlasting torment. As such, it is clear that everlasting torment does not find a legitimate place within the framework of God’s revelation about the legitimate purposes of pain.