Making 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