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How the Traditional Doctrine of Hell Undermines Christian Character

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How the Traditional Doctrine of Hell Undermines Christian Character

November 16, 2015 by Randal Rauser in Christian Issues

John Martin, Pandemonium, 1841

Last year I interviewed Robin Parry, author of the book The Evangelical Universalist(which he wrote under the pseudonym “Gregory MacDonald”). During the interview, Robin observed that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, he put the point rather provocatively when he declared,

“You’d have to be a psychopath not to want [universalism] to be true.”

Psychopath?! That’s mighty strong language, isn’t it? But as provocative as that statement might sound, Parry pointed out that Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm agrees on the main point: Christians should want universalism to be true.

If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you

Nor is Helm the only defender of eternal conscious torment to make this point. With the publication of Knowing God in 1973, J.I. Packer quickly established himself as one of the foremost conservative Calvinist theologians and a staunch defender of doctrines like penal substitution and eternal conscious torment. As conservative as he is, even Packer makes the following declaration: “If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!” (Revelations of the Cross (Hendrickson, 1998), 163).

If, as Packer suggests, you shouldn’t want to see anybody damned, then it logically follows that you should want to see them all saved. And wanting to see all people saved entails wanting universalism to be true.

This leaves us with an interesting situation in which all agree that proper Christian character requires that we hope universalism is true even as (according to traditionalists like Helm and Packer) we are to believe it isn’t. That’s awkward for the traditionalist … but it gets worse.

How eternal conscious torment undermines Christian character

As my interview with Robin continued to unfold, he then addressed the underlying tension between the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and the moral character formation of the Christian. Robin explained it like this:

“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, I believe that hell is tormenting people forever. I don’t have a problem with that.’ And I think when you first come across this view, if you’re an ordinary human being, you would have a problem with that unless there’s something really wrong with you, something seriously in terms of your moral compass. So then you have a theological system where you have to try and desensitize yourself to this. And there is a real problem of a theological system that actually, rather than cultivating virtue in your attitudes and so on, cultivates attitudes that are actually vicious.”

Now this is a really important point, one that is worth camping out on. As Parry points out here, the doctrine of eternal conscious torment (i.e. the doctrine that the damned will suffer unimaginable retributive punishment in body and mind for eternity in hell) presents a real problem for the Christian who is serious about developing a Christlike attitude. The problem, in short, is that acceptance of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment encourages attitudes which are, as Parry put it, “vicious.”

Vicious? Really? Indeed, I think Parry is right here. On this traditional view, the Christian is committed to the belief that a subset of God’s creatures (“the damned”) will be subject to eternal torments even as the elect experience maximal joy in a heavenly new creation. Here’s where those vicious attitudes enter the picture: Christians now seek to develop the kind of character they will have in eternity. Indeed, that’s precisely what sanctification is all about: becoming like Christ. But on this view, becoming like Christ means becoming the kind of person who can be maximally happy and joyful despite the unimaginable suffering of the damned.

You think that’s bad? It gets even worse. You see, the mainstream view of eternal conscious torment represented by theologians from Tertullian to Thomas Aquinas to Jonathan Edwards to J.I. Packer, is that the suffering of the reprobate is not merely tolerated by the elect. Rather, it actually increases the joy of the elect since it manifests God’s righteous holiness.

Let’s consider that incredible claim for a moment. But let’s make it personal. In eternity, you could end up in heaven while your beloved parent, child, or spouse, could end up suffering unimaginable torment forever in hell. And you would be maximally happy and joyful even as you witnessed the righteous divine wrath being poured out on this damned wretch: the mother who had raised you, the child you nurtured, the spouse you had loved, now reduced to a writhing burning cinder even as you sing divine praises.

If we’re supposed to become like that now – if that’s what sanctification really looks like – then preparation for eternity requires the cultivation of attitudes that would indeed look on any conventional measure to be vicious, not to mention perfectly horrible, and morally repugnant.

Consider this pale analogy. Imagine the meat eater who is overcome with compassion when witnessing the horrors of the slaughterhouse. But rather than resolve not to eat meat, or at least to adopt a new commitment to the humane slaughter of animals, he instead cauterizes his emotions against the terrible fate of industrial livestock. He will not allow their suffering to adversely impact the pleasure of his meal.

In like manner, on this picture the Christian who is now overcome with compassion or immobilized in anguish for the eternally damned should recognize that these attitudes are at odds with the end goal of becoming Christlike. The sanctified person in glory is the one who can rejoice in the glow of the suffering of the damned.

This brings us to a deep paradox with the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment. Even defenders of this view of hell like Paul Helm and J.I. Packer agree that we ought to hope that all are saved. Despite this fact, a commitment to become sanctified like Christ requires that we seek to cauterize our emotions so we may become indifferent to, or even rejoice in, the torment of the damned.

Right doctrine should lead to right character

The problem can be put simply. This doctrine of eternal conscious torment seems to be fundamentally at odds with becoming like Christ. But isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t right doctrine seamlessly interweave with right character formation? Put another way, if a doctrine requires us to cultivate vicious attitudes, isn’t that reasonable evidence that this doctrine is false?

Eric Seibert believes so and he offers a way forward with a hermeneutical principle to guide theological reflection. (For more on Seibert see my audio podcast interview). Seibert begins by quoting the great Church Father, St. Augustine:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

Seibert then fills out Augustine’s principle:

“Whenever we read and interpret the Bible, we should always be asking whether our interpretation increases our love for God and others.” (The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012), 66-67).

The Augustine-Siebert principle offers a reasonable resolution to the problem. Whenever we encounter a doctrine or a reading of a biblical passage, we must ask of it, does that doctrine or reading increase our love for God and neighbor? If one concludes that it does neither, and indeed does the opposite, we have a reason to reject it.

With that, we can turn back to our current dilemma. Defenders of eternal conscious torment are left with a cognitive dissonance at the heart of their conception of sanctification. On the one hand, they recognize the obvious: if you want to see folk damned, there’s something wrong with you. On the other hand, they are obliged to recognize that in eternity you will find joy in seeing folk damned, and yet there won’t be anything wrong with you. Indeed (and incredibly) this will be what it means to be like Christ.

But that’s not what it means to be like Christ. The logic of eternal conscious torment leaves one with the cultivation of vicious attitudes that militate against love of neighbor. This doctrine is fundamentally at odds with Christian sanctification and discipleship, and that devastating consequence provides a reasonable ground to reconsider the biblical and theological credentials of eternal conscious torment, if not to reject the doctrine altogether.

 

 

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Seven77

Sometimes I wonder about hell and eternal torment, it's hard to wrap your mind around… like, people actually end up there forever. That's pretty serious.

 Nobody wants to see people damned forever and ever. Certainly, Jesus doesn't want anyone to be damned. And in heaven, we will not "find joy" in seeing people damned.

 Just because we don't understand something doesn't give us the right just throw It out. The author of this article is basically talking nonsense. He is making Jesus out to be a liar. We can't pick and choose which parts of the New Testament are true and which parts are not. Doesn't work that way. And St. Augustine would be appalled by what he's saying. 

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Era Might

I don't believe in hell, just to state upfront, except as mythology. But, I don't know about the article's premise, that not believing in hell makes someone more loving and conscious of Christ in the world. The idea of hell has lead to a lot of grotesque stuff...a lot of the Middle Ages could be chalked up to the idea of hell. But, considering hell purely as an idea, it has its charming effect, because to believe in an idea of hell is, in a roundabout way, to be a romantic, to believe in a world of adventure, redemption, salvation, apocalypse, etc. The alternative, expressed in the article, is to be a sober puritan who loves his neighbor and is concerned about being a stable witness to a peaceable Christianity. This, I think, is another form of being grotesque, just in the opposite way of the middle ages, or Jonathan Edwards preaching "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The Gospels are mythology. Even if they are true, they are  mythology, a mythos of the world where time is salvational, where there is a cosmic drama going on all around us, where there are spirits and powers and dominions in the air, etc. We love and maybe need mythology, whether we believe in it or not. St. Francis is mythology. St. Augustine is mythology. Mother Teresa was mythology. A world of saints, of romantics, who believe in something so much that they are foolish about it. That's what every love story is about, religious or secular, about a world of uncertainty and a step into foolishness and faith. But then you have modern Christians (I'm using modern loosely, going back hundreds of years) who are concerned with propriety, social structures, being reasonable and agreeable, etc. That fits a certain religious sensibility, but I don't know what it has to do the mythology of the Gospels.

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Era Might
4 hours ago, little2add said:

I do and it's right here on earth.

hell.jpg

 

Or maybe it's the other way around. Hell is war. We project onto an afterlife what we know of this life. Are we made in God's image, or is God made in ours?

There's a line in Milton's Paradise Lost that's hard to forget. Satan vaunts about the "eternal war" with God, but there's a small detail once he stops speaking: Satan is "in pain, Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare."

Satan, like Man, is at War with himself more than he is with God, and wishes there is an afterlife to come to rest his bones. But I always loved the image of Satan, the loudmouth, vaunting to God, and then realizing his pain, his despair...who is he really talking to?

"We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.

So spake th' Apostate Angel, though in pain,
Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare:
And him thus answer'd soon his bold Compeer."

Edited by Era Might

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Seven77
4 hours ago, Era Might said:

Or maybe it's the other way around. Hell is war. We project onto an afterlife what we know of this life. Are we made in God's image, or is God made in ours?

There's a line in Milton's Paradise Lost that's hard to forget. Satan vaunts about the "eternal war" with God, but there's a small detail once he stops speaking: Satan is "in pain, Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare."

Satan, like Man, is at War with himself more than he is with God, and wishes there is an afterlife to come to rest his bones. But I always loved the image of Satan, the loudmouth, vaunting to God, and then realizing his pain, his despair...who is he really talking to?

"We may with more successful hope resolve
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th' excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav'n.

So spake th' Apostate Angel, though in pain,
Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare:
And him thus answer'd soon his bold Compeer."

9

The only thing is, satan is not at war with himself in the way that man is at war with himself. We are at war with ourselves in the sense that we do not do what we want but that which we hate (Romans 7). Satan, on the other hand, does the evil that he actually wants to do.  He is in despair that he himself has freely and irrevocably chosen for eternity.  Precisely because he has no bones to rest – – he's pure spirit – – he doesn't ache for God as we do. This ache we have has an ultimate end--- God.  The devil is permanently at odds with God, Genesis through Revelation, and his eternal end is the hellfire that he has created and chosen with full knowledge and consent. He is definitely not worthy of admiration and I think that, while I have not read  Paradise Lost – – and don't really intend to, the point is that he wants us to sympathize with him, it's a trick that Adam and Eve fell for and in the process,  lost paradise. 

Hell is real, as certain as Jesus Christ is real and has warned against going there

By the way, have you ever read the Space Trilogy by CS Lewis? If not, you definitely should… I'd like to know your thoughts on it. 

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Era Might
On 11/10/2017 at 3:10 PM, Seven77 said:

The only thing is, satan is not at war with himself in the way that man is at war with himself. We are at war with ourselves in the sense that we do not do what we want but that which we hate (Romans 7). Satan, on the other hand, does the evil that he actually wants to do.  He is in despair that he himself has freely and irrevocably chosen for eternity.  Precisely because he has no bones to rest – – he's pure spirit – – he doesn't ache for God as we do. This ache we have has an ultimate end--- God.  The devil is permanently at odds with God, Genesis through Revelation, and his eternal end is the hellfire that he has created and chosen with full knowledge and consent. He is definitely not worthy of admiration and I think that, while I have not read  Paradise Lost – – and don't really intend to, the point is that he wants us to sympathize with him, it's a trick that Adam and Eve fell for and in the process,  lost paradise. 

Hell is real, as certain as Jesus Christ is real and has warned against going there

By the way, have you ever read the Space Trilogy by CS Lewis? If not, you definitely should… I'd like to know your thoughts on it. 

No I haven't, I'll have to check it out. I read The Great Divorce many many years ago, other than that not on the whole Lewis wavelength.

I understand what you're saying about Satan, but I think you're looking at it too literally or abstractly. I understand the "idea" of Satan, but he's a character before he is an idea. We theorize the idea based on the character. Our conception of the devil and hell today is forever shaped by Dante, by Milton, by Melville. If we go back, they are rooted in a mythological idea or story of Satan, very unique to the Jews and that was immortalized in history in the person of Christ.

The reason I'm bringing all this up is because I think it's relevant to the topic. For me, literature is religion, which is why I always bring it up. I'm not just giving references for my entertainment, I'm bringing up literature because it is my religion. And the Gospels are part of that literature and religion. But, if you are willing to read one poem other than Milton, read "The Owl in the Sarcophagus" by Wallace Stevens, and tell me that is not a truer vision of the underworld, the afterlife and the dead than the Christian fairy tell which is largely not based on the Gospels but on our literary imagination (Dante especially). In the Stevens poem, he basically depicts history and mythology as a blanket we switch from generation to generation, and it's a blanket that then creates our realities and covers us instinctively, because mythology is our  intelligent reaction to time and matter, our mythologies are the stories that bind us across all ages...although indidually we die and are forgotten, mythology is our communion of saints...the "doctrine of the communion of saints" is just a literal religious application, but the reality is much more real, we are space-time.

From the poem. Even if you don't read the poem, just meditate on that title, that image of an owl in a sarcophagus and everything it says about who we are.

Two forms move among the dead, high sleep
Who by his highness quiets them, high peace
Upon whose shoulders even the heavens rest,

Two brothers. And a third form, she that says
Good-by in the darkness, speaking quietly there,
To those that cannot say good-by themselves.

These forms are visible to the eye that needs,
Needs out of the whole necessity of sight.
The third form speaks, because the ear repeats,

Without a voice, inventions of farewell.
These forms are not abortive figures, rocks,
Impenetrable symbols, motionless. They move

About the night. They live without our light,
In an element not the heaviness of time,
In which reality is prodigy.

There sleep the brother is the father, too,
And peace is cousin by a hundred names
And she that in the syllable between life

And death cries quickly, in a flash of voice,
Keep you, keep you, I am gone, oh keep you as
My memory, is the mother of us all,

The earthly mother and the mother of
The dead. Only the thought of those dark three
Is dark, thought of the forms of dark desire.

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linate

i think we can all agree that God is God and his ways are above our ways and can do whatever He wants. 

if the bible gave irrefutable proof, or at the very least your church said you can't think different, that's one thing. but times have changed and the traditional idea of hell fire isn't a doctrine even within the catholic church. if it's not, why be so quick to defend it?

should we really be so quick to defend the idea that some people should be physically tortured for eternity?

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Seven77
2 hours ago, linate said:

times have changed and the traditional idea of hell fire isn't a doctrine even within the catholic church.

2

lol... that is not  even true

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linate

so you're saying hell fire is a doctrine of the catholic church?

i didn't say a doctrine has changed, just a tradition. i saw on a catholic encyclopedia something to the effect of "hell fire may not be true but we have no reason to doubt it". it wanted to adhere to tradition, but even it acknowledged that it's not a doctrine. all the time you hear catholic leaders talking about the sad life of people in hell, but they are usually quick to hope that people are not tortured for eternity. 

again, should we really be so quick to defend the idea that some people should be physically tortured for eternity?

here is the catholic encylcopedia reference. it looks more firm in hellfire than i remember, but it does seem there is wiggle room. this reference holds as true that there is literal hellfire, but i dont think doctrine has been settled. 

"The poena sensus, or pain of sense, consists in the torment of fire so frequently mentioned in the Holy Bible. According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct. However, we must not forget two things: from Catharinus (d. 1553) to our times there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation. Nevertheless, Scripture and tradition speak again and again of the fire of hell, and there is no sufficient reason for taking the term as a mere metaphor."

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Seven77
On 11/12/2017 at 1:00 PM, Era Might said:

No I haven't, I'll have to check it out. I read The Great Divorce many many years ago, other than that not on the whole Lewis wavelength.

I understand what you're saying about Satan, but I think you're looking at it too literally or abstractly. I understand the "idea" of Satan, but he's a character before he is an idea. We theorize the idea based on the character. Our conception of the devil and hell today is forever shaped by Dante, by Milton, by Melville. If we go back, they are rooted in a mythological idea or story of Satan, very unique to the Jews and that was immortalized in history in the person of Christ.

The reason I'm bringing all this up is because I think it's relevant to the topic. For me, literature is religion, which is why I always bring it up. I'm not just giving references for my entertainment, I'm bringing up literature because it is my religion. And the Gospels are part of that literature and religion. But, if you are willing to read one poem other than Milton, read "The Owl in the Sarcophagus" by Wallace Stevens, and tell me that is not a truer vision of the underworld, the afterlife and the dead than the Christian fairy tell which is largely not based on the Gospels but on our literary imagination (Dante especially). In the Stevens poem, he basically depicts history and mythology as a blanket we switch from generation to generation, and it's a blanket that then creates our realities and covers us instinctively, because mythology is our  intelligent reaction to time and matter, our mythologies are the stories that bind us across all ages...although indidually we die and are forgotten, mythology is our communion of saints...the "doctrine of the communion of saints" is just a literal religious application, but the reality is much more real, we are space-time.

2

Maybe I'm just dense but I don't even "get" the poem.  It's actually an abstraction to me. Even the title. Owl in the Sarcophagus, that sounds like an Egyptian hieroglyphic etched on the inside of a tomb of a mummy. The best I can come up with is that the owl is the soul that flies away?

 I'm not even sure I understand what you mean when you say that literature is your religion.  However, I think I do understand what you mean when you say that there is a Christian mythos of sorts. But the traditional Christian understanding of the four last things predate Dante and are unchangeably based on the Gospels, I'm talking early church, Apostles', Nicene Creed, etc. The doctrine of the community of Saints is reality based on space-time.  We have someone who claimed to be God and rose from the dead. The resurrection of Christ is not a fairytale, which I'm sure you agree with as it is something found in the Gospels, and if that's the case, my vision of the underworld and afterlife are real and is indeed largely based on the Gospels and not on literary imagination. Circles of hell and imagining historical people to be in it is literary imagination (Dante) which really know nothing about.

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linate

everyone born deserves to be tortured for eternity?

if you take the catholic church at its face value on original sin and hell fire, even if this isn't a firm doctrine, it's still pretty sickening.  and thus evidence of a false religion. at the very least, error creeping into it.

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Seven77
10 minutes ago, linate said:

so you're saying hell fire is a doctrine of the catholic church?

i didn't say a doctrine has changed, just a tradition. i saw on a catholic encyclopedia something to the effect of "hell fire may not be true but we have no reason to doubt it". it wanted to adhere to tradition, but even it acknowledged that it's not a doctrine. all the time you hear catholic leaders talking about the sad life of people in hell, but they are usually quick to hope that people are not tortured for eternity. 

again, should we really be so quick to defend the idea that some people should be physically tortured for eternity?

here is the catholic encylcopedia reference. it looks more firm in hellfire than i remember, but it does seem there is wiggle room. this reference holds as true that there is literal hellfire, but i dont think doctrine has been settled. 

"The poena sensus, or pain of sense, consists in the torment of fire so frequently mentioned in the Holy Bible. According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct. However, we must not forget two things: from Catharinus (d. 1553) to our times there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation. Nevertheless, Scripture and tradition speak again and again of the fire of hell, and there is no sufficient reason for taking the term as a mere metaphor."

15

 Corporeal or incorporeal fire, there is a hell with eternal fire in it… Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with God "being cruel."  The souls who end up in hell go there on their own volition. We can still hope that people we know don't go there… But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

9 minutes ago, linate said:

everyone born deserves to be tortured for eternity?

if you take the catholic church at its face value on original sin and hell fire, even if this isn't a firm doctrine, it's still pretty sickening.  and thus evidence of a false religion. at the very least, error creeping into it.

 the Catholic church doesn't teach that everyone born deserves to be to be tortured for eternity… I don't know where you got that from…

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