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Hell and how to preach it

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If you mean to imply a preponderance of evidence for annihilation over against eternal punishment, I dispute that. Furthermore, I suspect that efforts to defend this thesis will very quickly resort to placing more weight on warnings of physical death than such warnings would seem to bear.

Well, i dunno. Most of the NT language regarding the future state of the wicked is lifted straight from passages in the OT (the worm that dieth not, unquenchable fire, weeing and gnashing of teeth etc...) The context of those OT verses is very clearly total extermination and not some horror movie premise featuring supernatural bodies burning endlessly in conscious torment.

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Having said that, I acknowledge the difficulty -- the apparent injustice of hell. However it may hinge on our own choice, it is hard to think that anyone could actually deserve hell as it has traditionally be understood. The sum total of all human sins is finite; eternal punishment would seem to be infinite. How can anyone, even Hitler or Stalin or Judas Iscariot, deserve infinite punishment? Saying that it is freely chosen may not obviate the difficulty: Are any of our choices on earth really commensurate with eternal punishment? Wouldn't God have other options? If He loves them, wouldn't He choose to exercise them?

But isn't there a sense in which the punishment one receives is dependent upon the gravity of the crime that one has committed? If I speed, I get a ticket. If I steal, I get thrown in jail. If I kill a bunch of people, I get a death sentence. The graver the crime, the harsher the sentence, right? So what sort of punishment befits turning away from God, the infinite and holy source of truth, beauty, and love? Is that a serious crime, and if so, how serious?

Yeah, I get that, and that may be the answer, or part of it. But doesn't it also seem plausible that while God is infinite, we are finite, and our capacity for guilt -- and therefore our capacity to merit punishment -- is finite? Even if you turn away from the infinitely good God, you're still only turning away your puny little self. That's pretty bad, but does it merit infinite punishment? Maybe. I don't know how to look at it.

Interesting point. But look at the death penalty. If someone commits murder, they've only spent a part of their lives committing that deed. And yet, the thought is that the crime committed, though it involved only a small portion of the murderer's life and though it's certainly possible that the murderer could eventually be rehabilitated and redeem themselves, is so heinous and the debt to life and society is so great that the whole of the murderer's life must be taken from them -- no amount of rehabilitation could make up for it. Or, to put it another way, life is so precious that that the unlawful taking of it must be punished in the harshest way possible.

(BTW, I don't think that the existence and nature of the death penalty is a solid argument for eternal torment in hell, if only because the death penalty itself is the subject of heated debate amongst Christians regarding its morality. I do, however, see some parallels.)

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If you mean to imply a preponderance of evidence for annihilation over against eternal punishment, I dispute that. Furthermore, I suspect that efforts to defend this thesis will very quickly resort to placing more weight on warnings of physical death than such warnings would seem to bear.

Well, i dunno. Most of the NT language regarding the future state of the wicked is lifted straight from passages in the OT (the worm that dieth not, unquenchable fire, weeing and gnashing of teeth etc...) The context of those OT verses is very clearly total extermination and not some horror movie premise featuring supernatural bodies burning endlessly in conscious torment.

I am curious about the exegetical moves that get you from weeping and gnashing of teeth (not an OT combo so far as I know) to total extermination. I have not often noticed weeping and teeth-gnashing from exterminated people.

I suppose in theory you could have weeping and teeth-gnashing on behalf of the exterminated, from other people -- though again I can't find teeth-gnashing used in that way in the OT; it seems always to be a reference to the defiant rage of the wicked.

At any rate, when Jesus appropriates that language, it seems clearly to be the wicked themselves -- bound and cast into outer darkness, or into the furnace of fire, or thrust outside the kingdom -- who are weeping and/or gnashing their teeth.

The imagery of destruction (furnace of fire) is balanced with images of exclusion and exile, and across both sets of images Jesus invokes weeping and gnashing of teeth, making it difficult to see the note of destruction as dominant.

Edited by SDG

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And then there's Revelation 14:

"If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."

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FWIW I'm an anhilitionist/conditionalist (with leanings towards universalism if anything), though I don't have time to go into that now, apart from to say that I think much of the imagery (worms fire etc) is imagery of destruction, and that the weeping and gnashing of teeth is not necessarily weeping and gnashing of teeth for all time.

But that Wright quote is rather odd. I can see how that squares with purgatory, but I don't think he would go along with that. But otherwise he can't seriously believe what he says about people becoming lesser people up until they die. Certainly not in a way that covers it all. What about those who die unexpectedly? To argue that suggests every non-Christian death occurs cos they have run out of personhood.

Sorry that doesn't make any sense, but my (considerable) respect for Wright just shrunk a little.

Matt

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Matt, I'm not sure your reading of Wright squares with what he said.

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As I've pointed out in other threads, the NT teaching on hell includes several strands or themes and images:

1. fire

2. darkness

3. imprisonment or bondage

4. exclusion or banishment

5. weeping and gnashing of teeth

6. torment

7. eternal or unending status

Etc.

Each of these is attested in multiple passages, and each is linked to the others in various passages. Some of the imagery, as Matt says, is linked to destruction, and when Jesus speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth in furnace flames is natural for annihiliationists to want to latch onto the idea that the flames will soon put an end to the weeping and teeth-gnashing. Likewise, it is tempting to argue that when Jesus speaks of "eternal punishment" (Matt 25:46), he means a punishment of eternal oblivion.

But there are also the images of imprisonment, bondage and exclusion: the closed door, the binding hand and foot, the outer darkness. None of these offers any support to the notion of a short time of torment, followed by oblivion.

Furthermore, even fire is repeatedly connected -- in Luke 16, Revelation 14 and Revelation 20 -- with perpetual suffering rather than with brief suffering followed by destruction.

These passages offer plausible context for interpreting NT declarations that the wicked will be consigned to a fire that not only "is not quenched" (Mark 9:48, an allusion to Isaiah 66:24), but also fire that is "unquenchable" and "eternal" (Matt 3:12, 25:41, Luke 3:17, Jude 1:7). In light of this repeated motif, the destructive properties of ordinary fire offer dubious support for maintaining that when when Jesus speaks of flames that die not, it can safely be understood that those enveloped in that flame will soon no longer care whether the flames die or not. Why should the flames burn forever once the lost are consumed?

The ambiguity even of fire in the NT weakens still further in light of the total range of images, which depict the punishment of the lost as fire, but also as darkness, imprisonment and exclusion. No one image dominates. Given the plurality of metaphors, destructive and non-destructive, as well as the passages that mitigate the destructive implications even of fire and explicitly depict perpetual suffering in flames, the assumption of destructive fire and annihilation as the prevailing concept becomes essentially indefensible.

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FWIW I think at least some of the exclusion passages could be taken as linked to a destruction. It's been a while since I looked at this so I'd be interested to know which passages you were thinking of in terms of exclusion and bondage.

Matt

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"If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."
Ryan, there was a thread from a few years ago where this topic was batted around pretty vigorously. I'm too lazy now to link it, but we touched on this hotly-debated passage and several others. I think even most traditonalists would caution against extrapolating doctrine from the highly symbolic language of the Revelation prophecies. This verse obviously represents the ace up their sleeve in favor of everlasting torture, but at best--using the rigid, literal exegesis of the traditionalists-- it represents a single curious passage indicating certain people (those who receive the Beast's mark) will be punished publicly in eternity.

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Each of these is attested in multiple passages, and each is linked to the others in various passages. Some of the imagery, as Matt says, is linked to destruction, and when Jesus speaks of weeping and gnashing of teeth in furnace flames is natural for annihiliationists to want to latch onto the idea that the flames will soon put an end to the weeping and teeth-gnashing. Likewise, it is tempting to argue that when Jesus speaks of "eternal punishment" (Matt 25:46), he means a punishment of eternal oblivion.

But there are also the images of imprisonment, bondage and exclusion: the closed door, the binding hand and foot, the outer darkness. None of these offers any support to the notion of a short time of torment, followed by oblivion.

None of those alternate images indicate eternal torture. The NT judgement images convey the identical payload as their OT counterparts. Darkness, blotting out, banishment and binding all express the desperate finality of the wicked. As someone who has watched a few unrepentant rebels breathe their last, I know a small part of the reality conveyed in those end-of-the-road images-- bitterness, craven anguish, emptiness.

The OT judgments on God's enemies make repeated references to things like fire, everlasting smoke, burning and ever-hungry worms. The context of these declarations is always obliteration. Fire was a means of utterly razing the encampments of the wicked. That the prophets used colorful and exaggerative language to describe the utter finality of this physical destruction is only fitting.

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"If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."

Ryan, there was a thread from a few years ago where this topic was batted around pretty vigorously. I'm too lazy now to link it, but we touched on this hotly-debated passage and several others. I think even most traditonalists would caution against extrapolating doctrine from the highly symbolic language of the Revelation prophecies. This verse obviously represents the ace up their sleeve in favor of everlasting torture, but at best--using the rigid, literal exegesis of the traditionalists-- it represents a single curious passage indicating certain people (those who receive the Beast's mark) will be punished publicly in eternity.

No, as I just indicated, there are at least three passages that explicitly describe perpetual torment in flames -- Luke 16 and Revelation 20 as well as Revelation 14 -- as well as several evocative references to punishment in "unquenchable," "eternal" flames. Also, as I pointed out in the other thread you mention, it seems unconvincing to argue that the fate of the worshipers of the beast in Revelation 14 is unique when in Revelation 20:15 we read that "if any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire" -- the same location in which the devil, the beast and the false prophet "will be tormented day and night for ever and ever."

But there are also the images of imprisonment, bondage and exclusion: the closed door, the binding hand and foot, the outer darkness. None of these offers any support to the notion of a short time of torment, followed by oblivion.

None of those alternate images indicate eternal torture.

But that isn't the question. The question is whether there is any reason to posit only a short time of weeping and gnashing of teeth, followed by oblivion. Jesus offers no indication that the weeping and gnashing of teeth outside the door, in the outer darkness, etc. should not continue perpetually.

The NT judgement images convey the identical payload as their OT counterparts.

No, they don't, and to say that they do is like saying that when the NT applies to Jesus OT phrases like "You are my son, today I have begotten you," or "You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek," etc., they mean by those phrases only what the original phrases meant in their original context.

The NT writers saw the OT writers as using language that was uniquely and more momentously true of matters revealed to them (the NT writers) than of anything that was clearly understood in the days of the OT writers, and they upped the ante in their own writings. David's son in the OT might have been called God's son in some sense or other, but Jesus was understood to be the Son of God in a unique and far more momentous sense.

Likewise, Isaiah was speaking of merely earthly calamities when he wrote "their worm shall not die, nor shall their fire be extinguished" of a worm that did die and a fire that was extinguished, but Jesus is clearly speaking of something beyond all earthly calamities, and he upped the ante, speaking not only of a fire that shall not be extinguished, but of one that is unquenchable and eternal, which is not language found in the OT.

To reductionistically flatten Jesus' words against the backdrop of their OT sources is to misunderstand the whole way that the NT uses the OT, and if followed consistently would result in turning Jesus into just another servant of God, much as he is seen by Islam. It is also to overlook the force of the image found in Luke 16 and in Revelation 14 and 20 of perpetual torment in flames -- an image without parallel, so far as I know, in the OT.

Edited by SDG

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Here's the old thread on hell. It blows my mind that that discussion happened over four years ago!

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Ross Douthat makes a case for hell.

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death ... salvation or damnation.”

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In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

I'm in complete agreement with this sentiment, actually. I just can't understand why the public dialogue is always limited to the choice between universalism and eternal torment-- the most extreme options in the debate.

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In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

I'm in complete agreement with this sentiment, actually. I just can't understand why the public dialogue is always limited to the choice between universalism and eternal torment-- the most extreme options in the debate.

Yes, and although it's not the main point of Douthat's article, he joins the chorus in criticizing Rob Bell for denying the existence of hell. Rob Bell does no such thing. I could quote several passages from Love Wins that explicitly acknowledge the existence of hell. But he doesn't believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.

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In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

I'm in complete agreement with this sentiment, actually. I just can't understand why the public dialogue is always limited to the choice between universalism and eternal torment-- the most extreme options in the debate.

Yes, and although it's not the main point of Douthat's article, he joins the chorus in criticizing Rob Bell for denying the existence of hell. Rob Bell does no such thing. I could quote several passages from Love Wins that explicitly acknowledge the existence of hell. But he doesn't believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.

Right. And I find the all-or-nothing reasoning of Bell's detractors to reveal something akin to a borderline cognitive disorder. However, Bell does sorta leave the door open by not positing any specifics about the kind of judgment he affirms.

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I also found his focus on hell giving our choices more weight problematic. His column suggests tat it is hell that gives weight to choices-both good or ill. It reminds me of Christians who tend to define Christianity as all the things they don't do.

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Link to our thread on Rob Bell's Love Wins (354 posts since February 2011, and counting!).

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I also found his focus on hell giving our choices more weight problematic. His column suggests tat it is hell that gives weight to choices-both good or ill. It reminds me of Christians who tend to define Christianity as all the things they don't do.

I find this critique unconvincing.

Suppose I say not only is there no hell, there's no sin. And even if there were, sin doesn't matter. Are you going to tell me sin does matter? If so, are you then defining Christianity as all the things you don't do?

Or suppose someone says that not only does everyone go to heaven, everyone was always going to go to heaven even before Jesus came, and that even if there had been no Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection everyone would have gone to heaven anyway. The whole Jesus thing doesn't actually make any difference, because there was nothing for us to be saved from in the first place.

Are you going to tell me there was something to be saved from? If so, are you defining Christianity by what doesn't happen to us?

On a purely natural level, if a surgeon successfully removes a tumor, does it matter whether the tumor was malignant or benign, or what the risk of the operation was? If you were going to be perfectly fine whether the surgeon operated or not, and even whether he screwed up or not, did the operation matter? If we say that it did matter because death was a real possibility, then are we defining the value of life by merely not dying?

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So Hell has more power and meaning than heaven? Because that is what it comes down to if Douthat is correct.

Also, "hell gives a major consequence to evil actions" is not proof hell is real. Douthat suggests reasons why believing in hell is helpful...he doesn't show evidence it is true. He also fails to show why his definition of hell is "better" or more accurate than Bell's. Part of that problem is he clearly doesn't have a clue as to what he is talking about in regards to Bell's take on hell.

Edited by Nezpop

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So Hell has more power and meaning than heaven? Because that is what it comes down to if Douthat is correct.

I continue to find this objection unconvincing, for the reasons stated.

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I find the reasons stated supporting of my objection.

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My reasons are a proposed reductio ad absurdum for your reasons. You haven't answered the reductio.

Edited by SDG

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The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

This part from the quote you provided doesn't seem to be too different from the "doctrine of hell" that Bell (& Lewis & Wright, etc.) ultimately espouse. What it doesn't explain or support is the view of hell that Bell is attacking, that hell is a place where people who simple don't have the right doctrine are sent, that it is a literal lake of fire where people are tortured BY God.

The view of hell that, as I understand it, Bell and co. are bringing back into discussion is one that sets aside the Medieval imagery and suggests exactly what Douthat wants: that there are real consequences to HOW we live our lives and that Jesus death and resurrection offer the real good news of how one can enter the Kingdom of God, in this world and world without end.

Or, I could say that I'm not sure some of these people are grasping the distinctions of Bell's argument, or the very damaging doctrines that he is preaching against.

To paraphrase Inigo Montoya: You keep describing what Bell "believes". I do not think he believes what you think he believes.

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Based on what's been said here, I'm entirely willing to grant that the perception of Bell (whom I've not read) as a universalist is a misunderstanding / misrepresentation. That's a point worth making, without detracting from the weight of Douthat's argument against universalism in itself.

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