You seem to hold to this position with more dogmatic certainty than I’ve seen with other issues you’ve addressed on this site. Moreover, you’ve resorted to a flippancy that I find troubling (e.g., “roasting middle schoolers over a spit”). It’s as if the majority of Christians in the history of the church are not only uncharitable, but stupid.
First, if I’ve implied anyone is stupid, I apologize. That is not how I feel. I held to the traditional view for most of my life. I was not stupid. Just mistaken. But as I get older, as more friends and family die, and as my own health worsens, the topic of the afterlife becomes much less abstract and much more vital. I confess that I hold my views with intensity. I do. I’ve been through these questions many times before, and every time I take the topic on, I become more thoroughly convinced.
In addition, I’ve been working on a series responding to David Bentley Hart’s criticism of the traditional view of hell. And as the posts indicate, I’ve also been working through the “eternal fire” passages. And we need to confront these arguments and passages head on. No hiding our eyes. We owe it to ourselves to be brutally honest in assessing the evidence
— and Hart rubs our noses in it.
Let’s start with eternal fire. The Bible says,
(Isa. 66:24 ESV) 24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
(Rev. 20:9-10 ESV) 9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
(Rev. 14:9-11 ESV) 9 And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
This language is pretty graphic, too. Really, more graphic than my own — and the traditional view is that these passages apply to damned, being every one over the age of accountability who has not been saved. And they apply forever.
I really do find myself emotionally affected. I mean, I know people who are lost. I’ve known dead people who are lost. It’s very real to me. And I don’t apologize for finding the traditional position deeply upsetting. It should be.
Hart, one of the world’s premier theologians (and Orthodox), has recently pointed out that the Calvinist version of the traditional view has led to some outrageous teaching.
Calvin, in telling us that hell is copiously [heavily] populated with infants not a cubit long, merely reminds us that, within a certain traditional understanding of grace and predestination, the choice to worship God rather than the devil is at most a matter of prudence. So it is that, for many Christians down the years, the rationale of evangelization has been a desperate race to save as many souls as possible from God (think of poor Francis Xavier, dying of exhaustion trying to pluck as many infants as possible from the flames).
Really, Reformed tradition is perhaps to be praised here for the flinty resolve with which it faces its creed’s implications: Calvin had the courage to acknowledge that his account of divine sovereignty necessitates belief in the predestination not only of the saved and the damned, but of the fall itself; and he recognized that the biblical claim that “God is love” must, on his principles, be accounted a definition not of God in himself, but only of God as experienced by the elect (toward the damned, God is in fact hate).
And it is fitting that, among all models of atonement, Reformed theology so securely fastened upon a particularly sanguinary [blood-thirsty] version of “substitution”—though one whose appeasements avail only for a very few, leaving the requirement of an eternal hell for the great many fully to reveal the glory of divine sovereignty.
(Paragraphing added here and throughout to make more readable in this format.)
Whew! Calvinists will doubtlessly take offense at what he says, but it’s hard to argue with his logic. Calvin’s doctrine of original sin and double predestination (both the damned and saved are predestined to their fates) does in fact result in the millions of babies who die before being baptized burning in hell — as a matter of God’s election. Let that sink in.
We Arminians (non-Calvinists) think much more highly of our own tradition, except we teach an “age of accountability” of around 12 (varies with the child) and that a single sin post-age of accountability damns. So Arminian hell is not populated with babies. The youngest will be middle schoolers — some of whom will have committed very few sins. And yet the traditional view applies the above passages to middle schoolers who die without having been saved.
It is not merely peculiarity of personal temperament that prompts Tertullian to speak of the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate [damned], or Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas to assert that the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude [joy] of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven), or Luther to insist that the saved will rejoice to see their loved ones roasting in hell. All of them were simply following the only poor thread of logic they had to guide them out of a labyrinth of impossible contradictions; the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities.
If the goal is for us to be restored to the image of God, as the NT repeatedly teaches, and if God is pleased to torment middle schoolers for all eternity, then surely we will feel the same way. Luther, Aquinas, and other great theologians of the traditional school so taught because the logic is inescapable.
I’ve been asked how the saved can enjoy heaven knowing that their family and friends are in hell? Well, I respond with Conditionalism. The traditional answer is that we’ll forget our friends and family — meaning, I suppose, that we’ll have a different sense of justice from God himself — which is contrary to the rest of the Bible. I mean, being restored to the image of God is a central NT teaching. If we can’t enjoy heaven while in God’s image, well, that’s a serous problem for the traditional view. And yet few Christians can even imagine that heaven will be joyous if God doesn’t expunge the memory of friends and family burning forever in melted sulfur (which I’ve had fall on my arms, and it sticks to the skin, burns the nostrils with stench and acid, and burns and burns and burns).
Hart notes further that losing our memories means losing ourselves —
Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us? We are those others.
To say that the sufferings of the damned will either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude [joy], what then remains of one in one’s last bliss? Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one. But not a person—not the person who was.
Hart makes a good point. I really don’t know how traditionalists overcome his logic. If we must lose all memory of our loved ones who don’t make it to heaven, how do we remain who we are?
Moreover, God does not forget, and so how can we be restored to his image and yet be unable to tolerate the knowledge of what God himself is doing to these people?
Some respond that the damned have chosen to worship someone or something other than God and so hell is the afterlife they’ve chosen, their false worship fully realized — separation from God, an all-consuming craving for money or sex, or what have you. But does that change what the scriptures say about punishment? Aren’t they saying that whatever punishment we suffer will be that awful? And while someone may choose to worship money, does that mean that they’ve knowingly chosen to be tormented day and night forever? I don’t think that’s a fair argument (N. T. Wright’s advocacy of that position notwithstanding.)
So, yes, I confess to finding the traditional view more and more intolerable the more I study the question.
In fact, I intensely feel the offense of those who would rather deny Jesus than accept the truth of the traditional view of hell. I disagree, of course, but I understand why many unbelievers choose unbelief when the evangelistic sales pitch begins with, “God will burn you alive for all eternity unless you accept his love.” (Sorry if that sounds sarcastic, but isn’t that how we often sound to our unbelieving friends?
Now, Hart reacts to the problems of the traditional view by advocating for Universal Reconciliation. I find that contrary to scripture. Conditionalism responds just as well to the problems noted by Hart, if not better, and also has much stronger scriptural support from Gen to Rev.