Saturday, March 7, 2015

The unbelievable-ness of eternal torment

My children and I are reading through the series The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. There is a humorous exchange in the book, The Horse and His Boy, when a rich and powerful princess was asked to make her servants keep a secret. This was her statement to them: “Here. All of you... anyone I catch talking about this... will be first beaten to death and then burned alive and after that be kept on bread and water for six weeks. There.”1 Although the threat was grave, it was not believable. The same phenomenon can be seen with the doctrine of hell.

Although many say they believe it, their actions seem to deny that.

This observation came up in the post “Confession: I've always hated hell”. Here is the excerpt:

“What is going on here that we can contend that such a reality exists without being overcome by holy fear? In addition, if we really believed this was the destiny of non-Christians all around us, wouldn’t there be weeping and begging and endless sorrowful prayer? Would you not make an outrageous commotion to save someone from a burning building? And even being burned alive on earth is temporary suffering. 
If we actually believe they all go to this hell, I say our hearts are yet stone. 
If we really believe it, when we stand before the King and Judge of creation, could He possibly ask what we have done in response to our belief about hell? 
Will there not be consequences as we stand before the Throne with this doctrine in our pocket, yet the sorrow of its implications lacking? Before we even get to the question ‘is it a true doctrine or not’, we need to ask: am I living what I say I believe? 
To believe in this hell is a fearful thing indeed. There is no avoiding the terrifying implications. In fact, it seems to me that it is such a horrifying concept that we really can’t get our brains around it – like the size of the universe. Who can imagine? 
I think one reason I have come to a burdensome place concerning this topic is because when I contemplate ‘what if it is really true?’ – then I kind of lose my mind. Maybe it’s just me, but I just can’t handle that reality – there is something so beyond horrifying, so much more than absolutely dreadful. And to think, I was just a decision away from being there. I deserve to be there just as much as my nice, Hindu neighbor – probably more. 
And just maybe I will stand in front of Jesus and say “Lord, Lord” and He’ll reply “I never knew you”! I just start to lose it, I feel like I’ll go crazy. I imagine being in hell – and I’m conscious of being there - and it never ends. I imagine my loved ones being there, who I just couldn’t convince – maybe I didn’t pray enough?... Oh, merciful God, how can it be true? 
Tell me, truly, do you believe it?”2

Conditional immortality determines from Scripture that those who do not inherit eternal life will be destroyed by experiencing the second death. This belief has been criticized as characterized by “sentimentality” but that consequence is actually fairly terrifying. Annihilation is a severe and permanent (eternal) punishment. It is not a walk in the park, as some traditionalists would try to paint it. Also, in light of God's mercy and justice and holy Word, it is believable.

John W. Wenham notes, “Conditionalists regard their doctrine as providing a more effective deterrent than the traditional teaching, on the ground that the latter is incredible to those who hear and is simply not believed. The point was put by a writer... 'We only imagine we believe it... Nothing that is over-strained, or seems exaggerated, strikes the Mind. Let a Schoolmaster tell his Scholar that his Father will hang him if he doth not study; he laughs at the Menace. It is too much disproportion'd both to his own Demerits, and the Idea he entertains of his Father's Equity.'3

Do I know my Father in Heaven? Does His character as revealed in the Bible prove that He is capable of tormenting His creation for time without end? I try to avoid philosophic thinking, but at some point one needs to consider the reasonableness of it all – but always in the light of Scripture.

Does not God say, “Come now, and let us reason together.” (Is. 1:18)? He does, indeed, expect us to use our minds as we are able. Not independent of Him, but with Him. In total reliance and trust in Him. Abiding, knowing, seeking - “...I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord... that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection...” (Read Phil. 3)

I am certainly convicted as I copy those verses into a page of my own opinions. Do I know Him? Does He know me? This is my reminder to continue to strive to know Him and abide in Him. May we all know Him more. Dear Jesus, draw each of us closer to You, that we may say confidently with Your beloved disciple...

“We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)

Now, that is something to believe.

1 C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy, Collier Books, New York. 1954. p. 95.
3 John W. Wenham, The Goodness of God, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. 1974. p. 37.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Proof texts about hell - what do they prove?

It seemed about time to address these so-called proof texts for the doctrine of 'hell'. I have posted about several of them in detail individually, but I realized something interesting about them overall.

What I saw was this: The mainstream verses that folks use to support eternal torment are either symbolic or allegorical, or they are drawn from a parable.

You can review the definitions of these types of writings (or ideas) below. What strikes me is that they are not literal, but many times must be interpreted or explained by the rest of Scripture. Taken alone, their meanings would be at the mercy of the reader, concluding any number of interpretations that may or may not be biblical.

The verses have no fault; they are as God-breathed as the rest of Scripture.

The fault of interpretation will always fall with us, the reader, if there be any. It is pretty tough to muddle a literal command, "Love one another" or a teaching, "Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith..".

There are all kinds of temptations in interpretation when it comes to symbolic language. Some of it is just mysterious - and we do well to wait on God and pray for revelation and discernment.

One thing we know - much can be deduced by using the full counsel of God's word in our meditating and studying. Another sure fact - if we start with a doctrine and only focus on the verses that seem to fit and support its conclusions, then we are headed on the road of self-deception!

As far as looking at each one of these 'proof' texts about 'hell', I found a quicker way to address them! In my research I came across a great website with a study called "The Bible and Hell: Supposed Proof Texts for Eternal Torture". It goes into fine detail about most of them. Although their study differs with mine in some minor areas, I thought they did a great job of explanation and I suggest you read their post:

"Watch your life and doctrine closely." (1 Tim. 4:16)

Allegories are typically used as literary devices or rhetorical devices that convey hidden meanings through symbolic figures, actions, imagery, and/or events, which together create the moral, spiritual, or political meaning the author wishes to convey.
A parable is a succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. Parables have human characters and are a type of analogy.
An analogy is a comparison between two things, typically on the basis of their structure and for the purpose of explanation or clarification.
Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities. A symbol is an object that represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action, or material entity.