I know it’s been forever, but Rob Bell has people all stirred up and talking about universalism and Hell, topics that inevitably lead to defining what salvation is, what sin is, and what heaven and hell are. It’s sad that it takes controversy to get me blogging, but it is what it is. Let’s talk about judgment!
There seem to be two streams or types of judgment in scripture. In the OT, particularly in the Wisdom lit but also in other places, there’s a very strong notion that when you sow the wind you’ll reap the whirlwind – or in the language of Proverbs, the wicked fall into their own traps. The natural consequences of sin is death, destruction, and dischord. This is, of course, all worldly or earthly punishment, as there was little concept in the OT of hell or any place of eternal justice. By the same token, salvation was thought of in physical, earthly terms (and usually communally too, rather than our emphasis on individuality). I’m very comfortable with this doctrine; it’s really more of an observation, and some even call it a universal law. Some call it karma. The point is, it’s easy to say that there are negative consequences for doing evil, even if they don’t catch up with you right away. We make our bed, and then we have to sleep in it.
My friend and overwhelming intellectual Rick has noted in a recent facebook debate that this alone isn’t good enough, that Scripture portrays God as being actively against the unjust. I certainly can’t argue with that: any reading of the Prophets couldn’t miss the sermons against the injustice of Israel and her neighbours, and God’s promise to deal with their sins rather thoroughly. But what we must note is His method: God deals with these sins in very earthly ways, by bringing invading armies against them. Looking even closer, we can see that there is still an element of natural consequence involved: God didn’t fabricate armies out of midair to punish Israel for their injustice and idolatry. Looking at Isaiah, we see that God judged them for their reliance on foreign armies by…yup, bringing in a foreign army that wiped out their allies and left them beseiged. Looking closely at the politics that Israel got themselves messed up in, we can see that it was in their fear of Assyria that they became allied with Egypt (rather than depending on God) – but Egypt was Assyria’s ultimate target, so that by allying themselves with Egypt Israel actually brought the invading army upon themselves. That’s not to say that God was not active in that judgment – not at all! What it does, is provides a theological interpretation for the ruin they brought on themselves – i.e. God is actively involved when we get our deserved comeuppance.
This is very much in line with the sages of the Wisdom literature, whose doctrine of providence sees the hand of God in all events, good and bad, that we experience. Our task is to live wisely (i.e. as God directs us to) so that we can do good and avoid evil, though we recognize and accept both as coming from the hand of God.
Somewhere along the line, people figured that that wasn’t good enough, that there were enough evil people getting away with it that, if God were to remain just, then he must have some extra source or form of justice. In the last few books of the OT and in much inter-testamental literature we see Jewish writers developing the concept of Sheol (the place of the dead) and in some ways adapting the Greek notion of Hades, which we call Hell. The idea is that, since justice isn’t always done on earth, it must be done somewhere – so that everyone, in the end, will get their just desserts. This, when combined with the notion of a resurrection (which appeared around the same time), is where we get our Christian notion of heaven and hell as places of eternal reward for good deeds, or eternal punishment for evil deeds. When you combine that notion of heaven and hell with our Christian notion that Christ has paid the price of our sin if we only believe in Him, heaven becomes the place of eternal reward for those who believe in Jesus while hell is a place of eternal punishment for those who, having rejected (or not having heard of) Jesus, lack that protection from God’s just wrath and will thus be punished for their sins. Since God is an infinite being, and sin is ultimately against God, then it requires an infinite punishment, i.e. eternal conscious torment.
There is some warrant for this in reading the New Testament. It has been commented several times recently that Jesus talked about Hell more than anyone else (which is true), so I’ll stick with what he said, but let’s be clear: even Jesus only talked about it a few times. He referred to it in terms of images, comparing it to a burning garbage dump (Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnom, where people used to sacrifice their children to false gods and where people in Jesus’ day dumped their garbage and burned it). In this dump, “their worm does not die and their flame is not quenched.” He called it “the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” and called himself the person who puts people out into that darkness when they do not respond to his invitation properly, or are not prepared for his coming. We get a very clear image that the alternative to the eternal life that Jesus promises to his followers is a horrible experience, and that Jesus himself will put us there if we respond to him inappropriately, but beyond that he says very little, and nothing clearly. Can we make the jump to saying that he’s talking about eternal conscious torment at the hands of God in punishment for sins? Not from what Jesus says.
The notion of eternal conscious torment shows up most clearly in Revelation 20:10: “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.” It goes on to say that, after being resurrected and judged, all of the people whose names were not found in the book of life were also thrown into the lake of fire. While the difficulties with taking the image of the lake of fire literally are somewhat obvious (and dealt with in an earlier post), from this we can see that those people are cast out (presumably by God) and tormented forever (again, presumably by God, but certainly not explicitly by God, and not necessarily by torture).
So what does it mean to be tormented? In today’s language, torment is often paired with “inner” and used to describe romantic teenage goths and vampires who can also be described as “angsty”. It refers to an ordeal, of great pain and struggle. The reason we usually talk of “inner torment” is because it is usually speaking of something that is self-inflicted, or else relational. In the same vein, we often speak of “self-torture”, e.g. “quit torturing yourself, she’ll never go out with you.” That’s not to say that it doesn’t also refer to waterboarding and crucifixion, or even that the writer of Revelation wasn’t referring to literal, physical torture, but only that we must note that we often use these terms metaphorically: we call our mournful pining away after some lost love “torture” or “torment” because we want to use that image of awful physical pain to describe our emotional situation, or some other situation that is extremely painful, destructive, and even deadly.
Sin, and its consequences, are torment – of this there is no doubt. In one sense, as we saw above, we do it to ourselves, yet at the same time we recognize God’s hand when we receive our just reward – whether good deeds or evil deeds, we almost always receive a fitting reward, and this from God. The New Testament makes this more explicit: God hands us over to punishment for sin. Jesus puts us out into the burning garbage dump, or puts us outside the gates into the outer darkness; He throws those whose names are not in the book of Life into the lake of fire; but it doesn’t go further than that. Paul says it another way in Romans 1:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions…and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error….And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Here, the wrath of God is that God gives people over to the sins that they were already committing. This is not passive by any means, but it surely does not involve God personally picking up the whip with which to torture people forever and ever, lighting fires that will never go out and keeping people from being completely consumed so that they can suffer the burning pain forever.
Consider the love of God, by which He loves us so deeply and desperately that He’s willing to suffer the worst degradation and death that we had to offer in order to reconcile us to Himself. In so doing, He showed us the way to live with Him and with each other so that we can continue in relationship with Him. God is the One Who Saves: saving people is His default. It is allowing people to go their own stubborn way and suffer the due consequences of that choice that is his active response to sin.
I’m going to close by mixing metaphors. I know that it’s bad hermeneutical form, but I don’t do it as exegesis, but merely as an image. Jesus described Hell as being thrown outside the gates, into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Revelation describes Heaven as a city that descends from Heaven to Earth, in which God lives among us and there is no more sun because God himself is our light. Inside the gates is peace and light; outside the gates is darkness and torment. But the gates of the heavenly city are never closed! Though God puts out those who refuse to live responsibly with Him and us, the gates remain open – they can come into the city to worship God, if they so choose. But sin is us choosing our way over God’s way, and God’s wrath is that we are allowed to do so, to our own detriment, now and forever. Those who reject God completely, though they are welcomed into the city when they repent, refuse to do so – and are tormented (by their own existence apart from God) forever.
Please, poke holes in this theory. My main point here is that sin is something that we do to ourselves, and God doesn’t need to use hot needles and whips and chains to punish us for it – nor does Scripture’s revelation of Him require that we believe that He does.