An ongoing research project in my theology journey is that of the concept of Hell. Eternal suffering for, well, whoever is in there. I find it incredibly hard to match up the loving Heavenly Father whom I know, with a god who would do that to someone. Indeed, the concept of Hell is one of the main stumbling-blocks that prevent lots of good, conscientious and thoughtful people from wanting to know more about God. Because who’d want to know a god who’d do something like that?
This article addresses this issue in a scholarly and thoughtful manner.
A.W Tozer once wrote that, “What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
I agree with Tozer and would take it one step further: what comes into our minds when we think about hell tells us a lot about God’s character– or at least what we envision God’s character to be.
Continuing our discussion on hell from yesterday, we arrive at a critical barrier those who hold to the traditional view on hell must find a way to pass: the traditional view on hell, if true, would reveal some disturbing qualities of God’s character.
Let me summarize the scenario: If hell is a literal place where people are tortured for all of eternity, it must exist somewhere in God’s creation (what Cook calls the “problem of location”). We further know from scripture that everything which has been created was created by the pre-incarnate Jesus himself (John 1:3), that everything created was for Jesus (Col 1:16), and that God looked at everything Jesus created and called it “good” (Gen 1).
Therefore, if hell as a literal place of unending torture exists, it exists because it pleased Jesus to include it within creation, and the infinite torture of people postmortem (the purpose of traditional hell), is somehow good. As Cook makes the point:
“If eternal conscious torment is a potential future for a living soul, that possibility will have been known and embraced by God. As such, the traditionalist must show us the great goods that would not be possible without eternal conscious torment. That is, there must be a something about hell that God finds desirable—otherwise God would not have created it.”
Obviously, even a cursory reading of Jesus as revealed in the Gospel accounts should raise some red flags as to the legitimacy of the traditional position on hell. To truly weigh the traditional view of hell however, one must seriously consider what this would tell us about God’s character– nay– the character of Jesus– since Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being (Heb 1:3).
Cook touches on this point by arguing that if God created a universe where hell exists, and being tortured eternally in flames was a high probability for the pinnacle of his creation, he is at least partly culpable in that result. While he uses one illustration to make the point, I’ll use another: if I had a five-year-old child and let them play near the road instead of on the lawn, I would at least be partly culpable if they got hit by a car, since I would know in advance that getting hit by a car was a very real possibility of allowing them to play near the street.
While I agree with his point, I would make it more forcefully. If we want to move to the question of God’s character, I would skip straight to the elephant in the evangelical living room: the issue of torture.
The traditional view on hell, by definition, states that individuals will be consciously tortured in flames for all of eternity. Since we know that all things (including hell, if it exists) were created by Christ, at the pleasure of Christ, and that the triune God has pronounced it “good,” it would also have to be true that God finds torturing people by burning them alive, yet never dying or losing consciousness, to be in the realm of good, purposeful, and somehow pleasing to him.
Yet, this isn’t what we see in scripture– instead, we’re told that God takes “no pleasure” in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). If God takes no pleasure in the earthly death of those who hate him, he surely would not take pleasure in torturing them, and therefore would not and could not have created a “good” place where such torture takes place.
As I wrote about here on the blog previously, when ISIS burned a man alive and posted the footage on the internet, the world- including Christians- was outraged that ISIS would commit a cruel, evil, and barbaric act on another human being. Yet, the chief irony was these same Christians believe the Jordanian pilot, presumably a Muslim, is being burned in the flames of hell right now. Yet, unlike the ISIS video where the man died and the pain ended, the traditional view on hell states that he will never experience relief from God doing the same thing to him. In this regard, if the traditional view is right, God takes more pleasure in torture than even the most vile ISIS terrorist. He would have to, as such a place would have been created for him, by him, and pronounced to be “good.”
After my previous post on the ISIS burning I received an email from a very conservative, hell-believing friend. He told me, “man, I watched the WHOLE execution video, and you’re right on this hell stuff. There’s no way I can see God doing that to people. It was pure evil.” And, my friend’s God-given moral instinct was correct– if God would do that, it would reveal something disturbingly sadistic about his character. In the end, he would be found worthy of fear but not of worship– just like ISIS.
Finally, Cook asks a question to those who hold to the traditional teaching on hell– one that is painfully difficult (pun intended) for them to answer: “Why would Jesus include the state of eternal conscious torment as part of the inventory of the universe?” In other words, what is “good” about torture? For the traditional view of hell to line up with what we know about God’s character, one must answer this and demonstrate the inherent goodness in torturing people for all of eternity.
I share his question. What is it about torturing people- perhaps the vast majority of everyone who has ever lived– be something that would be pleasing to Jesus and worthy of being called, “good?”
I’d love to hear some answers from the traditional folks– answers that go beyond the canned statement of “because God is perfectly just,” which doesn’t actually answer the question. Or, an answer beyond the John Piper-like alternative explanation, “because God is God, He can do whatever He wants, and we must respect his authori-tah without question,” as if God is more like Cartman from South Park than Jesus on the cross.
I believe this is an impossible question to answer. God is not Cartman; God is Jesus.
For me, the verdict is in: I see nothing about torturing people that is worthy of being called “good” or remotely being associated with the Jesus I find in Scripture. Therefore, as Cook argues, hell must mean something else.
– Ben Corey