Is Hell Torment or Torture?

imagesMaking sense of concepts such as “eternal” punishment is not easy. When we think about such things – and we don’t very often today, I would submit – we naturally reject the idea that God could be so “vindictive” or “petty” as to want to see us suffer simply because we didn’t “believe” the right things. We’ve come a long way since the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (“sinners in the hands of an angry God”) helped to energize a period of revival in the church.

I wrote some reflections on that sermon in a recent post, and tried to make the case that Hell is not a “lake of fire” as depicted in art but is instead the state of torment that flows naturally from separation from God. In other words, Hell isn’t some arena of sadism in which a cruel and unloving God derives pleasure by inventing increasingly bizarre and horrifying ways to torture someone. No, despite its severity, it is actually the minimum that God can do.

This may seem a strange comment to many. After all, they reason, didn’t Jesus himself use fiery language to describe Hell, comparing it to the perpetual fires in the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, in the place called Gehenna.  And, more to the point, isn’t God all powerful? If so, why would he not be able to minimize – no, eliminate – our suffering, if he so chose? Why would he not simply be able to annihilate us completely, or forgive and reward us without regard to our state of rebellion against him? It would seem that God is not really as good, or in the alternative as “omnipotent,” as Christians claim he is.

The response to this set of challenges requires us to consider what we can know about God’s “nature” and to tease out the assumption that underlies the challenge.  By asserting that God “causes” or “inflicts” eternal suffering, the question compels the answer that yes, this would be torture.  The real issue, though, is whether God does those things to the souls in Hell, or whether those lost souls experience an everlasting torment that is a consequence – and not a separate goal – of the fact that they are in Hell.

In the Civil War, doctors treated most bullet wounds to an arm or leg by amputating the limb, no doubt an excruciating experience in the days before anesthetics.  But these actions were done not to torture the patient but to accomplish some good purpose – namely, to save him.  The patient no doubt felt tormented, but this was a natural consequence of the necessary action that was taken; it would not be fair to say the doctor had engaged in torture.  On the other hand, if one side had taken perfectly healthy prisoners of war and amputated a limb to inflict pain, either to coerce cooperation or as a method of terror, this would indeed be torture. Similarly, if a modern surgeon decided to amputate without anesthetics, it would be fair to characterize such actions as torture.

Christians believe that God is all good and that whatever he creates must also be good.  Hell is a place of separation He has created for those deserving of such separation.  Hell must be good and must serve a good purpose, one that others in heaven will “see” is the right place for those who turn away from God, who cannot stay in His presence.  But if Hell is a place in which God actively inflicts agony simply to terrorize or for some other evil purpose, then Hell cannot be a good place, and God cannot be good.  Alternatively, if God could accomplish His legitimate purpose of separating wrongdoers from Him without inflicting the level of torment that exists in Hell, then, once again, it would be evil to inflict such agony.

How, then, does orthodox Christianity makes sense of this place called Hell?

I submit that the answer lies in understanding that the torment spoken of is the natural consequence of the legitimate end God accomplishes with Hell, and not a separate purpose to inflict agony.  What is that end?   Separation from Him. And what is He?  Perfection.  Absolute, unlimited, infinite perfection, the kind that we as human beings cannot even begin to fathom.  Remember for a moment your first love? Or the way you felt when you beheld your first child? Or reuniting with your spouse after a period apart? Or the feeling of joy that comes from some cherished activity. Conversely, recall to mind the first time you were homesick, or the first time you experienced the death of a loved one?  Now magnify these feelings – not by a hundred, a thousand, or even a billion, but by infinity, and by eternity.  Start to get the picture?  If the “goodness” of these people and activities can cause us happiness, how much more will the “perfection” of God fill us with infinite joy? Would it not be like the giddiness of first love, but an infatuation that sees clearly, loves truly, and endures forever, with no possibility of pain or loss.  By contrast, imagine being forced away from these loved ones, either by, say, a prison sentence or some other outside act. Try to picture the emptiness, the loss, the angst that such loss engenders.  Magnify this to the infinite degree and you’re beginning to appreciate what knowing but not directly experiencing God will be like.

The closest example we might have of this distinction is the modern prison system.  In dealing with the worst offenders, prison is meant to separate them from society and also to punish.  Both purposes are legitimate.  But the punishment we speak of is the incarceration, the very same act that accomplishes the separation. We do not first separate inmates from society and then inflict additional punishment; there are no medieval tortures that await them, no mistreatment that is deliberated inflicted to further the pain these inmates feel. In a very real sense, the punishment is the product of the incarceration, not an additional purpose.

But why must it be this way, the skeptic will insist? Because, quite simply, it is the nature of things. God saw value in creating free will beings, even though he knew that some would choose to use that free will to oppose him. We recognize the value of free will. That’s why in so many situations we punish acts that violate the consent of a person. Our system of justice is based on notions of personal autonomy, choice and free will.

By giving people what they freely choose – reconciliation with him or separation forever – does God not satisfy both Earthly and eternal justice?

Posted by Al Serrato

Facebook Twitter Plusone Pinterest Email

Tags: , , ,

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  1. Henrydavid says:

    You believe that at least non-Christians are separated from God in this life, but we aren’t all in torment. How could separation from a being you’ve never known cause any suffering at all? (For that matter id’d consider separation from the Judeo-christian god to be a reward, not punishment.)

    • Al says:

      Interesting question. Considering the amount of hardship and misery in this world, I’m not sure I agree that we’re not in “torment” in this life. Not constantly, of course, but we all face the same end, a diminution of health and intellect leading to death. The point of my reflections is to consider what an eternity of awareness of, but separation from, a perfect being would be like. You may not like the Judeo Christian God, but if he is in fact there, then anything or anyone you do like is a faint reflection of him, his glory, his power. I for one do not want to be eternally separated from the source of all that is life-giving, all that is good, and that I believe is what an infinite, perfect Being must necessarily be.

      • Alaine says:

        I am not sure you really answered his question 🙂 it seems to me that in this world, God’s presence exists. He gives good things to believers and non-believers alike. His Spirit is here and alive on this earth whether or not one acknowledges it. Whatever is good about this life is because of God’s presence, even if you don’t acknowledge Him.

        Now imagine going to hell and His presence is not there. It would be the complete absence of goodness and love. Whatever brought you joy, love, peace, satisfaction in your life is no longer there. For all eternity, you would be separated from the Source of all that is good.

        Hard concept to think about because we only experience life with God’s presence and have never been truly separated from Him even when we don’t want anything to do with him.

  2. chris says:

    Mark 9:43
    If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. (NLT)
    Jude 7
    And don’t forget Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring towns, which were filled with immorality and every kind of sexual perversion. Those cities were destroyed by fire and serve as a warning of the eternal fire of God’s judgment. (NLT)
    Hell Is a Place of Fire

    Matthew 3:12
    “His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (NKJV)

    Matthew 13:41–42
    The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (NLT)

    Matthew 13:50
    … throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (NLT)

    Revelation 20:15
    And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. (NLT)

    most convincing of all would be this

    Revelation 14:11
    “And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” (NKJV)

    • chris says:

      I guess my point above from all the scriptures i posted is that i don’t buy your point that hell isn’t a lake of fire. there is not enough scripture to support it.

      • Al says:

        Chris, the question, I think, is whether the words are meant to be taken literally. For example, in Matt 3:12, am I to believe that the saved become “wheat” while the damned become “chaff?” The message is unequivocally stated that hell will involve suffering. Weeping and gnashing of teeth convey this quite clearly, whether the damned actually have teeth to gnash or not. I’m not trying to minimize the horror of hell, but instead trying to show that this consequence does not take away from God’s fairness or justice.

  3. Amorel says:

    Very intersting post- I think about this a lot:
    my two cents-
    God is eternal and infinate, when he comes, there will be no way to escape his presence for all eternity-
    those who accept his son are part of his family, and will know him as a person- those who reject his son will only know him as an impersonal, all-consuming force- which results in the above mentioned torment (not torture)
    those who never heard about his son will be judged by what they would have responded if they had heard

Leave a Reply