It was a relatively quiet night at work until I walked into a hearty discussion between two of my work friends. One, a sincere Christian, and the other, a sincere agnostic. My Christian friend was trying, somewhat in vain, to convince my agnostic friend about God's existence and the consequences of not living God's way. Then came the line that seems to be the sticking point - “I refuse to believe in a God who would torture you forever just because you don't believe in him”. My Christian friend tried the whole it's God's justice line but it seemed a deal breaker – she just wasn't going to buy it. But it got me thinking. Do I believe in a God who would torture someone for all eternity just because they choose by their own God-given free will not to believe in him? It had been something I had been wrestling with for a few years but my friend’s conversation bought it to a head – I needed to know what I believed and here are my conclusions.
|Clark Pinnock - 1937 - 2010|
I would have to answer “No, I don't believe that God punishes people in eternal conscious punishment for their unbelief”. The whole notion in my opinion is erroneous and doesn't fit the revelation of God's nature we have in Jesus and the Scriptures. I am not throwing out or ignoring the concept of 'Hell' for as Clark Pinnock states “hell is an unquestioned reality plainly announced in the biblical witness, but its precise nature is problematic” (4views, 135). The traditional view that non-believers will spend eternity in the agony of a lake of fire fails the mark on several levels but it’s not the only view out there.
There are various views on Hell. The obvious traditional view of endless conscious punishment of body and soul. Then there's also the metaphorical view which also views hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment but not necessarily involving a literal lake of fire. There are those who hold to Universalism, that is, that God's love and mercy and grace is so limitless that eventually all will be saved and go to paradise. Then there is Conditional Immortality (also called annihilationism) which articulates that God eventually destroys the souls of the wicked rather than punishing them endlessly, and it is within this camp I have pitched my tent. Conditional Immortality is a solid view of Hell that I believe is consistent with our revelation of God through Jesus and is also scripturally sound (more so I believe than the traditional view).
A flaw with the traditional model seems to be an implied immortality of the soul. Almost as if because the saved soul will go to eternity for eternity then surely the unrepentant sinners soul will go to hell for all eternity. However, Scripture states that “God... alone is immortal” (1 Tim 6:15-16) but graciously allows us to be clothed in his immortality (1 Cor 15:50-54). Paul states clearly that immortality is a gift from Almighty, Immortal God and not something inherent in human nature. It is not surprising the concept of soul immortality took hold when one looks at the early church and the environment in which sought to develop its early doctrines and theology. Immortality of the soul was a Hellenistic thought, predominately found in the writings of Plato, and it was within this setting that the early church grew and developed, and it seems reasonable to assume, was influenced by as its theology was being formed.
Often people say “But what about God’s justice!” Well what about God’s justice? Does the crime (not accepting God’s gift of salvation) really fit the punishment (eternal torture)? I believe it is too heavy a sentence and makes a mockery of God. Is God really so aggrieved and hurt by our rejection that he sentences you to eternal torture? Could this suggest that God is insecure and fickle? Sure the Old Testament talks about a standard of Justice – an eye for an eye – but the New Testament, through the Word of God himself, talks of a higher standard. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39). I believe God is a just God, but eternal conscious punishment is not just in any circumstances.
Eternal conscious punishment also creates a metaphysical dilemma in the form of a cosmological dualism. How can Christ have victory over death and evil, whilst evil remains locked in hell? In 1 Corinthians 15:28 it claims ‘God will be all in all’ yet if we believe as I do that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) then how can love be in a hell of eternal suffering. In Revelation 21:5 we hear the exclamation “I making everything new!” yet how can everything be new whilst somewhere in some other dimension the vast majority of humans who ever lived are being tortured for their unbelief? Pinnock sums it up well – “only if evil, death, devils and the wicked go into oblivion does history issue unqualified victory. Victory means that evil is removed and nothing remains but light and love. The traditional theory of everlasting torment means that the shadow of darkness hangs over the new creation forever” (4views, 155). I believe Christ has the victory and as such evil is no longer part of the new creation. The concept Conditional Immortality includes this as a part of it.
I said earlier that I believe Conditional Immortality is well supported by scripture so let’s look at that. There is a lot to consider and space doesn’t allow for me to get too deep so instead I’ll consider a few passages in the hope that you might do some deeper digging! Let’s start with Mark 9:42-48 because it’s so often brought out to affirm eternal conscious punishment. Jesus warns about hell several times so we know it exists as somewhere you don’t want to end up. In doing so he quotes Isaiah 66:24 where it states that “the worms that eat them will not die” and “the fires that burn will not be quenched”. It is assumed here that those thrown into hell are somehow experiencing this forever. Yet in Isaiah the reference to ‘dead bodies’ being eaten and burned and doesn’t refer at all to any level of mental consciousness for those dead people. They’re dead. Why would they be conscious of anything?
In the Old Testament we have Psalm 37 which tells us a lot about the lot of the wicked. In verse 2 they ‘wither’ and ‘die away’. In verses 9 and 10 they will be ‘destroyed’, ‘no more’ and ‘won’t be found’. In verse 20 “the wicked will perish” and be ‘consumed’ and ‘go up in smoke’ and finally in verse 38 “But all sinners will be destroyed; there will be no future for the wicked.” Here the overwhelming notion is that the wicked will be destroyed, not placed somewhere to suffer forever. Turning to the New Testament we have Matthew 10:28 saying the same thing – “be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Destroy not torment. On the fate of the unrighteous see also 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (‘everlasting destruction’); 1 Corinthians 3:17 (‘God will destroy that person’); Philemon 1:28 (‘they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God’); Philemon 3:19 (‘Their destiny is destruction’); 2 Peter 3:7 (‘destruction of the ungodly’); 2 Peter 2:1 (‘even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves’) and verse 3 (‘their destruction has not been sleeping’). There are others but the picture of hell painted here suggests that the wicked will be destroyed, not made to suffer eternal conscious punishment.
It is the punishment that is eternal – not the punishing.
Matthew 25:46 says “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Once judged at the end time the decision is final and the punishment is eternal. You cannot come back from non-existence. We can have confidence in this judgement because it is made by God and all who have to account will be held to account. But they will not be tortured for all eternity because God is love and merciful and just. I like a quote from theologian John Wenham’s autobiographical Facing Hell in which he says
"I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the Gospel. I should indeed be happy, if before I die, I could help in sweeping it away.”To this I say ‘me too John, me too.”
The Salvation Army, Salvation Story, London: MPG Books, 1998.
Walvoord, John F. et al. Four views on Hell, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.
Wenham, John. Facing Hell, An Autobiography 1913-1996, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1998.
Matt Cairns is 34, lives in Sydney and is married to Kristen. He has three daughters who love to run his life for him. He is currently the Worship Team leader at Rockdale Salvation Army, leads a Home Church group, and is applying for a Research degree in the area of Christology. He is a stay-home dad and part-time nurse at St.George Public Hospital.