Thursday, August 18, 2011

Where, O death, is your sting?

Ten days ago, the 8th of August, the USA Today published an article which would have been unfathomable two hundred years ago.  It wasn't about the new iPad.  It was about Hell, or rather, it was not about Hell.

You see, in this piece titled "Should believers fear Hell - and God?" by Oliver Thomas, Mr. Thomas discussed one of the internal hot-buttons of the church today; whether or not the traditional concept of Hell exists.  Apparently, one major reason this issue is on the forefront is a book called Love Wins by Rob Bell.

Unlike technology, which seems to change faster than my wardrobe, the words of the Bible don't really change.  Finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminate the accuracy and integrity of manuscript copies, and so sometimes changes are made (as in the previous post), but usually these changes do little or nothing to shake the core tenets of Scripture.  Tenets like Hell.  So, how the Hell does Bell make a case for change?

Based off of the words of Mr. Thomas (as I haven't read Bell's book), Bell claims that perpetuated mistranslation is the culprit causing the creation of this wayward doctrine. Thomas provided a four part defense, presumably thanks to Bell.
  1. The Old Testament does not portray the domain of the dead (Sheol) as a place of torture, but as a place of no activity.  
  2. The Greek word "aiónios" (which he had mistakenly spelled "aionos"), which is translated as "eternal," is better understood as a finality, not a perpetuity (in Bell's opinion).  
  3. The word translated as Hell (in the New Testament) is Gehenna, which in Jesus day was in a valley south of Jerusalem where trash was burned, so Jesus was basically telling people that they would be trashing their lives if they did not repent for Salvation.
  4. God has perfect love for all of us.  No parent who loved their child could bear to see their child tortured if that child turned out to be a murderer.  How much more that would be true with God.
And, thus, the traditional concept of Hell is completely wrong.  Gone is the burden of trying to reconcile a loving and merciful God with an eternally enduring punishment for the unsaved.

Well, imagine how relieved I felt upon reading this!  As an atheist, no longer did I have to fear repercussions from God, should He happen to exist!  Oh, death, where is your sting!  I now have a hope spoken of in 1 Corinthians 15:55, only on the flip-side of the coin.  It's not eternal life, but, hey, it's not an eternal roast either.

But.  But wait a minute.  Something... something just doesn't seem right.  Let's take a look point by point:
  1. Yes, he's right, the Old Testament doesn't suggest that Sheol is a place of torture, but it doesn't describe Heaven as a place of eternal life for good human souls after they die either.  In fact, there is very little to suggest that the concept of an after-life punishment or reward in the Old Testament, aside from what could happen to your still-living progeny.  If you use that to debunk Hell, you'd have to debunk Heaven too, or at least the Christian version of Heaven where the Saved will go.
  2. The Greek word "aiónios" has "aión" as its root, which is defined as "agelong, eternal," which is why aiónios itself is defined as "age-long, and therefore: practically eternal, unending; partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting."  This does not necessarily contradict Bell's position, but his position seems a bit more untenable when you consider Matthew 25:46:
    “Then [those separated to the left of Jesus] will go away to eternal (aiónios) punishment, but the righteous to eternal (aiónios) life.” NIV
  3. Ah, Gehenna.  Yes, indeed, Jesus was using the vivid picture of a burning trash dump, but was it simply to say that those who did not repent would be throwing their lives away, or was it meant to be a metaphor for a punishment which would endure forever?  The verses lean towards the latter because of context.

    Take Mark 9:43-48, for example.  That's the lovely passage which says you should chop off your hand or foot if they cause you to sin, or likewise gouge out your eye.  You see, these are better alternatives than being thrown into Gehenna, "where the fire never goes out" and where "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched."

    Why would it matter that the fire never goes out?  How would it be possible that worms feeding on the unsaved would not die, and why would that be significant?  If nothing was to happen to the unsaved at Judgement Day, or if there was just some brief punishment, then these references do not make sense.  On the other hand, if there is an enduring and continuous punishment, well, they are right in line, and probably worth chopping of your hand or foot to avoid!

    That's why Jesus told us that we should fear what God could do to us after death.  That's also why the exact concept of Hell as a place of after-life torment is used in a parable told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31!  That's the one with Lazarus is a beggar, and a rich guy who didn't help him.  When they both died, Lazarus went to "Abraham's side," while the rich guy got thrown into Hell, explicitly to be tormented.  The rich guy begged to have Lazarus sent to warn the rich man's still-living father about the place of torment, but Abraham refuses.

    It's rather hard to believe that this is just a matter of mistranslation which somehow Bell can sweep aside.  Instead, he is just ignoring this passage because it's not what he wants to believe, and isn't consistent with the God of love he "knows."
  4. God seems to have no problem torturing people, or perhaps you are not familiar with the Plagues on Egypt which were the impetus for the Exodus, or the wrath God plans on pouring out in the book of Revelation.
So, it looks like the concept of Hell is well supported by Scripture, and, according to a 2009 Pew pol, 59% of Americans believe that the eternal torment of Hell awaits the unsaved.

Now here is the fun part.  Thomas ends his article asking why would anyone want to worship a God who would eternally torture someone?  And, furthermore, what does it say about a nation which reveres such a God?  Thomas appears to be aligned with Bell, so he can ask these questions from a comfortable distance.  Which, I am sure, is why he doesn't flinch at tying believe in such a wicked version of God as the impetus for "Crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, and, yes, jihad."

Why?  Because "[f]ear is a horrible motivator for human behavior."  Well, Mr. Thomas, on that point, we agree completely.  You might want to bring that up to your Maker.


  1. I first encountered this "fear is a horrible motivator for believing x,y or z" when I tried my darnedest to witness to none other than Ed Buckner, the president of American Atheists. I threw everything I had at him and in desperation tried a Pascal's Wager of sorts. "Wouldn't you rather believe in Jesus than take the chance that you're wrong and go to hell?" He didn't swallow the pill. It is a horrible motivator.

    I can't for the life of me, from a Christian perspective, see how you can weed Hell out of the teaching. You can certainly verse mine. Pick and choose like the cafeteria plan. But taken at face value for what the whole of scripture says I don't see how you can remove the doctrine of Hell.

  2. D'Ma, I'm right with you. :-) Of course, you remember your great post on stages of grief or loss. Sometimes people never get past denial. They read over verses they don't like and neatly categorize, box, and label them as "not the God I know." Once so attributed, they are easily not thought about, permitting their customized version of God to persist.

  3. Interesting story there about Ed Buckner! Using Pascal's Wager in an attempt to convince an atheist to "trust in Jesus--just in case" is wrong on so many levels, but it's used by Christians all the time.

    I completely disagree that fear is a horrible motivator for human behavior--I think what you might be trying to say is just that fear *shouldn't* be used as a motivator, because clearly it's very effective--but regardless of that, the threat of Hell should never be used to compel a person to believe in God (as if that were even possible--I mean, think about that statement!).

    I agree with you, Fool, on the first 3 of your 4 points above. Hell is clearly and repeatedly described in the Bible as being eternal and unpleasant. The question is what makes it unpleasant. The imagery used to describe Hell in the Bible has been used by Christians to make the claim that it's like a torture chamber. But just as the imagery used to describe Heaven is symbolic (e.g., there will be no actual roads paved in gold there!), the same is true of Hell. Books such as _Four Views on Hell_ make that case quite convincingly, if it isn't already obvious. Hell is a place of eternal punishment--that much is made quite clear in the Bible--but I believe the punishment is separation from God, not anything physically painful (as if it were possible to be in physical pain without a physical body). I think as a result Hell will be a sad, lonely, tragic place for those who choose to go there--a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth--but it will *not* be a place of physical pain.

  4. I think Mr. Thomas' word choice was accurate for the intent. Although we have gotten into the colloquial habit of using "horrible" in the sense of being woefully poor or inadequate, the intent based on the context is more in line with the original meaning of something "[c]ausing horror; terrible; shocking." Mr. Thomas was suggesting with such a terrifying fear of the thought of eternal torment, people will do irrationally bad things in trying to avoid that punishment. That's what I was agreeing with. But in the sense that you are using it, yes I would agree with you as well, fear is an exceptional motivator. ;-)

    Getting into exactly what the afterlife holds in store is a pretty deep topic, one that supports a plethora of views due to the rather loose language which has been used and people's willingness to disregard contradicting passages, or label them with a spiritual meaning when it does not seem appropriate, especially as it relates to OT prophesy. Suffice it to say that at this time I reject the notion that Hell is the rather benign place you describe, but in fairness I have not yet thoroughly studied the entire New Testament. I'd be willing to take a look at the __Four Views on Hell_ book if you have it for loan. :-)

  5. That's a good clarification.

    I would most emphatically *not* describe a place of eternal regret and sadness as benign. It's so awful that I have trouble thinking about it. In comparison to eternal torment in a literal lake of literal fire, it certainly does seem benign, but taken by itself it's a horrific fate.

    I have the book right here. Stop in for lunch and/or a debate sometime and pick it up!

  6. I guess that suffering depends on whether or not the annihilation theory is correct. ;-)

    Thanks for the offer! I was thinking I was well overdue for another face-to-face with you. At this time, I'm not certain of when that will happen, but it will happen. That's my prophesy. :-)

    I suspect that there are enough verses to support many differing opinions about the afterlife. The question then becomes is there a version of the afterlife which fits all of those verses?

    In the mean time, I would entreat you to meditate on the word "fire" as it relates to the afterlife.