Friday, June 19, 2009

By Request: Hell

A reader recently posted a comment on Hell, wondering if it were fair that people burn forever. My simple answer was to ask if eternal punishment were fair in light of eternal rewards. So, this is a post about hell. Beware, some heady stuff is to follow.

As with many things you see here, my views are a little unorthodox, however I believe they lie within the shadow of orthodoxy. What I mean is, I think they're compatible, so lets get to it.

I find it interesting that many American Christians hold the official doctrine of hell almost as strongly as something like the doctrine of the Resurrection. So much so in fact that they'll run anyone out who doesn't. Figure 1, the Curious Case of Carlton Pearson. After being the favored son of of a more charismatic sect of Christianity, he was almost literally run out of town when he stopped believing in hell. His story was featured on a very interesting NPR report recently. He was also seen in a debate involving Deepak Chopra, a slightly crazy lady and Mark Driscoll (who did quite well.) While I do believe in a concept of hell, I don't find it ponderous how he can disbelieve and still be a Christian. I know of nowhere in the Bible that says you have to believe in a literal eternal burning hellfire to go to heaven. That's not the gospel I heard about.

I am near the end of a book called "The Reason for God" by Timothy Keller and early in the book he explains what he believes about hell. My beliefs are quite similar. I believe that hell is an eternal conscious punishment, however I will not firmly hold on to the idea of it being directly caused by fire. I believe that as used in the scripture, fire is probably a metaphor for extreme anguish. The kind of anguish that is worse than anything you've ever experienced. But not necessarily just burning on fire forever. Let the punishment fit the crime.

Keller like many takes his prime beliefs about hell from Jesus' story about the rich man and Lazarus. Remember, the rich man and Lazarus have died and are in Sheol and they are separated by a vast chasm. Lazarus is comforted in Abraham's Bosom and the rich man is tormented. He cries out to Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to wet his tongue because he is in torment. Abraham replies that he cannot since they are separate and persons may not travel between the realms. So the rich man tells Abraham to send Lazarus back to tell his brothers so that they will not end up in the same place where he is. Abraham says that the rich man's brothers have Moses and the Prophets and if they don't get it from them, they won't believe even if someone rises from the dead.

There are numerous perpetrations of this passage. Some think it is literally literal, complete with Abraham and Lazarus and the rich man actually talking to one another. Some think it is essentially literal with some figurative elements to it. And some like my dad (a former Seventh-Day Adventist who still believes in annihilationism) and Jehovah's Witnesses believe that this is an essentially figurative tale meant to be speaking primarily to Jesus' unbelievable resurrection rather than to the nature of hell.

I lean toward the literal interpretation because it shows us a lot about the attitude of the rich man. Notice how he doesn't seem to really notice that he's in hell and that all his power and comfort is now lost. In fact, he tries to order Lazarus around as if he's still the rich man and Lazarus is still the poor man. I think it makes sense that God simply ratifies our choices in life to apply beyond death. If you live your life in service to God, your afterlife will reflect that. If you live in contradiction to God, your afterlife will reflect that. I might go so far as to say people may not even notice that they have died. They continue on in their selfish and wicked attitude. Hell is full of people given to wretchedness, selfishness, and anger.

A point I think needs to be inserted here is my belief in degrees of reward in heaven and degrees of punishment in hell. Jesus, multiple times, mentioned how it would be better for a certain person or city if it had never existed or if he had a millstone tied around his neck. How it would be better or worse on the day of judgment if they had done such and such. If there's a better and a worse, then it follows that there is a something that the better or worse is better or worse than. Paul mentions that some will make it into heaven but as one who loses everything in a fire. Jesus says some who are first will be last and last first. If there's a first and a last then there has to be a bunch of intermediate steps as well. The same goes for hell. So it's only fair that those who devote their lives to God get great riches in heaven, and those who just barely make it in live in something more akin to an earthly trailer park (hopefully no tornadoes.)

And now for eternity. I get the feeling when I read the Bible and think about God and mathematics that time is not as some of us think it is. We exist in essentially four dimensions. We have the three standard physical axes, up/down, left/right, and front/back (to be simple.) But we exist in a fourth linear dimension called time. God as creator of this is outside it. He stands above and looks at the whole thing as a city planner looks at a map. When we die, we exit our dimensions and enter the spiritual realm where time does not go on forever as some of us understand eternity, but rather there is no time and no physical existence. Realize the truth Neo, there is no spoon. So an infinite punishment is not exactly the same as we might think it is. However, I believe the resurrected saved humans return to the restored earth as fully physical AND spiritual beings like we are today and may live in an unlimited time sort of situation. Those who are still and eternally dead exist in the spiritual realm where there is no such thing as linear time. This is the nature of the eternal conscious (and likely self perpetuated) punishment that I believe in.

That being said however, I still think the annihilationism viewpoint is pretty valid, and I would not be offended if that were the way it really is, however I don't think so. I don't think it is something we should divide over, but rather to debate vigorously in an environment of Christian unity and grace. Like I've told the Jehovah's Witnesses, their idea of afterlife is not all that appealing. If I live the best life possible here on earth, I still get just to be a resurrected human who doesn't go to heaven, and if I live the most debauched sinful life possible, I just get blinked out of existence. Doesn't seem like the effort is worth it or something.

So, no, I don't think eternal punishment is unfair. It's just as fair as the same sinful life justified by Christ and thus deserving of eternal reward. Except for one factor, it's the same life. It's realizing the atoning work of Jesus in your life, carried out to infinity.

Infinity, what a concept.


Anonymous said...

Carlton- I saw a thing on TV about him. I was surprised myself at the all out attack on him for his views on hell. Even though he could cover his views with scripture. Well I guess I wasnt surprised actually. The time dimension is interesting and maybe if we could wrap our mind around that we might get it. CS Lewis delved into that quite a bit.
Here is a link to something I read:

Looking at such verses I wonder why they warn of destruction and being consumed, instead of writhing in eternal pain ? Wouldnt the warning of an eternal torture be something spoken of moreso than destruction considering the gravity of it?

Anyway, interesting read. I have also read other writings stating that anyone who believes in annhiliation is somehow swayed by Satan. Perhaps, we are all swayed somehow by Satan, but they cannot support that with scripture, mostly only with tradition.

I certainly agree that it shouldnt be a matter of contention between believers...and quite honestly I dont really what I believe about it. I will say it is quite hard to live a joyous and victorious life thinking most of my loved ones face an eternal torture.
God Bless, thanks for taking the time to write on the subject. It was no help at all. ;O) Chris

WiredForStereo said...

Well, I don't know what to tell you, if you're looking for someone to tell you everything's gonna be ok, you're talking to the wrong guy.

But as far as being concerned about your dead relatives, just remember what Ecclesiastes says, even their memory passes away. You're really worrying about something you cannot change, so you're seeking someone to tell you that it's not the way you think it is so you don't have to worry anymore. You're not seeking the truth, you're seeking a version of events that comforts you, and that's not a healthy thing to be doing.

I don't mean to be cruel here, just being honest. But seriously, there are things in life that just need to be let go. You cannot control them, sometimes you cannot understand them. But they do happen, and you need to grieve and move on. And don't think I'm speaking off-handedly about this, my wife just had a miscarriage less than a week ago.

Anonymous said...

Im sorry to hear about the miscarriage, I really am. I hope your wife is doing OK. Maybe you are misreading me a bit, or I'km bad at making my point. I am not looking for some random internet person to side with me to make me feel better or anything.You arent going to hurt my feelings, the day my feelings are hurt over the internet is the day I should unplug the modem. I am just looking for the truth in this, and my point is that what I read in scripture on the subject weighs heavily toward "eternal destruction." Second death, fear Him who can destroy both body and soul...etc.

Just wondered if you saw the same thing or am I just missing something very obvious? Many of what I read from trusted Christian sources, seem to in favor of the 'eternal punishment' view because its counter JW, or traditional. They arent backing it with much from scripture. The reason I pinged you on it was because you have this theme in your writings about going by scripture as a guide and not by populace or tradition.

I agree it is a dangerous thing to try and twist scripture into something it isnt to try and justify one's beliefs. In this case however, I wonder which side is doing the twisting. Anyway again thanks for the response. God Bless you and yours.

WiredForStereo said...

I do understand about being "counter" to things, that's how we got Calvinism (or something like that, I jest.) But I really don't have a problem with believing in annihilationism, I just don't personally. But remember, I was raised SDA and they very much lean that way.

There some things in scripture that are not entirely clear and this is one of them. Even in the times in which scripture was written, they believed different things.

One of the things I try very much to do is to allow dissent. I don't present my beliefs "in no uncertain terms." I think that it is ok to have differing opinions on a broad variety of things. I do agree that scripture does weigh in some respects toward eternal destruction, but then there are places like the rich man and Lazarus where there is a more direct approach.

I really don't know what to think some times.

Paul said...

this was a very interesting read. Amazing how powerful google search is hahaha. Anyhow..i do disagree on few of the things there...i guess the biggest one would be the degrees of punishment in hell. I fully agree in regards to the degrees of rewards in heaven. I think the Bible contains so many passages that talk about different rewards and different riches in heaven. However, it's hard for me to believe about the different degrees of punishment in hell. To me that sounds like the idea of 'works' is too heavily involved. Because it sounds to me that if someone was to have a lesser degree of punishment in hell, it's more of a rewards than anything. That sounds like the doctrine of works to me. Also, it's hard for me to believe in annihilation. I think Bible is also quite clear on eternal punishment. To me annhilation doesnt sound much like a punishment. But yea..again it was an interesting read. God bless

WiredForStereo said...

I don't know what to tell you, works are involved. You don't get a heap of rewards if you don't deserve them, and you don't get a heap of punishment if you don't deserve it.

Anonymous said...

Wired Said: I really don't know what to think some times.

Same here. God Bless ! Keep writing I enjoy reading your stuff.
Chris in Idaho