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.