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3. The Moral Implications of Eternal Torment

The traditional view of hell is being challenged today not only on the basis of the language of destruction and the imagery of the consuming fire we find the Bible but also for moral, judicial, and cosmological considerations. To these we must now turn our attention. Let us consider, first, the moral implications of the traditional view of hell which depicts God as a cruel torturer who torments the wicked throughout all eternity.

Does God Have Two Faces? How can the view of hell that turns God into a cruel, sadistic torturer for all eternity be legitimately reconciled with the nature of God revealed in and through Jesus Christ? Does God have two faces? He is boundlessly merciful on one side and insatiably cruel on the other? Can God love sinners so much as He sent His beloved Son to save them, and yet hate impenitent sinners so much that He subjects them to unending cruel torment? Can we legitimately praise God for His goodness, if He torments sinners throughout the ages of eternity?

Of course, it is not our business to criticize God, but God has given us a conscience to enable us to formulate moral judgments. Can the moral intuition God has implanted within our consciences justify the insatiable cruelty of a deity who subjects sinners to unending torment? Clark Pinnock answers this question in a most eloquent way: "There is a powerful moral revulsion against the traditional doctrine of the nature of hell. Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for His enemies whom He does not even allow to die. How can one love a God like that? I suppose one might be afraid of Him, but could we love and respect Him? Would we want to strive to be like Him in this mercilessness? Surely the idea of everlasting, conscious torment raises the problem of evil to impossible heights. Antony Flew was right to object that if Christians really believe that God created people with the full intention of torturing some of them in hell forever, they might as well give up the effort to defend Christianity."83

Pinnock rightly asks: "How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon His creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself."84

John Hick expresses himself in a similar fashion: "The idea of bodies burning for ever and continuously suffering the intense pain of third-degree burns without either being consumed or losing consciousness is as scientifically fantastic as it is morally revolting. . . . The thought of such a torment being deliberately inflicted by divine decree is totally incompatible with the idea of God as infinite love."85

Hell and the Inquisition. One wonders if the belief in hell as a place where God will eternally burn sinners with fire and sulphur may not have inspired the Inquisition to imprison, torture, and eventually burn at the stake so-called "heretics" who refused to accept the traditional teachings of the church. Church history books generally do not establish a connection between the two, evidently because inquisitors did not justify their action on the basis of their belief in hellfire for the wicked.

But, one wonders, what inspired popes, bishops, church councils, Dominican and Franciscan monks, Christian kings and princes to torture and exterminate dissident Christians like the Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots? What influenced, for example, Calvin and his Geneva City Council to burn Servetus at the stake for persisting in his anti-Trinitarian beliefs?

A reading of the condemnation of Servetus issued on October 26, 1553, by the Geneva City Council suggests to me that those Calvinistic zealots believed, like the Catholic inquisitors, that they had the right to burn heretics in the same way God will burn them later in hell. The sentence reads: "We condemn thee, Michael Servetus, to be bound, and led to the place of Champel, there to be fastened to a stake and burnt alive, together with thy book, . . . even till thy body be reduced to ashes; and thus shalt thou finish thy days to furnish an example to others who might wish to commit the like."86

On the following day, after Servetus refused to confess to be guilty of heresy, "the executioner fastens him by iron chains to the stake amidst fagots, puts a crown of leaves covered with sulphur on his head, and binds his book by his side. The sight of the flaming torch extorts from him a piercing shriek of Ďmisericordiaí [mercy] in his native tongue. The spectators fall back with a shudder. The flames soon reach him and consume his mortal frame in the forty-fourth year of his fitful life."87

Philip Schaff, a renowned church historian, concludes this account of the execution of Servetus, by saying: "The conscience and piety of that age approved of the execution, and left little room for the emotions of compassion."88 It is hard to believe that not only Catholics, but even devout Calvinists would approve and watch emotionlessly the burning of a Spanish physician who had made significant contributions to medical science simply because he could not accept the divinity of Christ.

The best explanation I can find for the cauterization of the Christian moral conscience of the time is the gruesome pictures and accounts of hellfire to which Christians constantly were exposed. Such a vision of hell provided the moral justification to imitate God by burning heretics with temporal fire in view of the eternal fire that awaited them at the hands of God. It is impossible to estimate the far-reaching impact that the doctrine of unending hellfire has had throughout the centuries in justifying religious intolerance, torture, and the burning of "heretics." The rationale is simple: If God is going to burn heretics in hell for all eternity, why shouldnít the church burn them to death now? The practical implications and applications of the doctrine of literal eternal hellfire are frightening. Traditionalists must ponder these sobering facts. After all, Jesus said: "By their fruits ye shall know them" (Matt 7:20, KJV). And the fruits of the doctrine of hellfire are far from good.

A colleague who read this manuscript questioned my attempt to establish a causal connection between the belief in eternal torment in hell and the policy of the Inquisition to torture and burn "heretics" who refused to recant their beliefs. His argument is that the final annihilation of the wicked by fire is no less cruel that their punishment by unending hell-fire. The problem with this reasoning is the failure to recognize that a capital punishment that results in death does not harden or cauterize the Christian conscience like a capital punishment that causes unending atrocious suffering. The difference between the two can be compared to watching the istantaneous execution of a criminal on the electric chair versus watching the unending execution of the same criminal on an electric chair that shock his ever conscious body for all eternity. It is evident that witnessing the latter over an indefinite period of time will either drive a person to insanity or cauterize the moral conscience. On a similar fashion the constant exposure of medieval people to artistic and literary portrayal of hell as a place of absolute terror and eternal torment, could only predispose people to accept the torturing of "heretics" by religious authorities who claimed to act as Godís representatives on this earth.

Attempts to Make Hell More Tolerable. It is not surprising that during the course of history there have been various attempts to make hell less hellish. Augustine invented purgatory to reduce the population of hell. More recently, Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield have also attempted to lower the population of hell by developing a postmillenial eschatology and by allowing for the automatic salvation of babies who die in infancy. The reasoning appears to be that if the total number of those who are going to be tormented is relatively small, there is no reason to be unduly concerned. Such reasoning hardly resolves the problem of the morality of Godís character. Whether God inflicted unending torments on one million or on ten billion sinners, the fact would remain that God tormented people everlastingly.

Others have tried to take the hell out of hell by replacing the physical torment of hell with a more endurable mental torment. But, as we noted above, by lowering the pain quotient in a non-literal hell, the metaphorical view of hell does not substantially change its nature, since it still remains a place of unending torment.

Ultimately, any doctrine of hell must pass the moral test of the human conscience, and the doctrine of literal unending torment cannot pass such a test. Annihilationism, on the other hand, can pass the test for two reasons. First, it does not view hell as everlasting torture but permanent extinction of the wicked. Second, it recognizes that God respects the freedom of those who choose not to be saved. God morally is justified in destroying the wicked because He respects their choice. God desires the salvation of all people (2 Pet 3:9), but respects the freedom of those who refuse His gracious provision of salvation. Godís final punishment of the wicked is not vindictive, requiring everlasting torment, but rational, resulting in their permanent annihilation.

Our age desperately needs to learn the fear of God, and this is one reason for preaching on the final judgment and punishment. We need to warn people that those who reject Christís principles of life and the provision of salvation ultimately will experience a fearful judgment and "suffer the punishment of eternal destruction" (2 Thess. 1:9). A recovery of the Biblical view of the final punishment will loosen the preachersí tongues, since they can proclaim the great alternative between eternal life and permanent destruction without fear of portraying God as a monster.

[PART 9 -  The Cosmological Implications of Eternal Torment]