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Hell and how to preach it


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#41 SDG

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 12:22 PM

FWIW, I am sympathetic to this view. C.S. Lewis has some very powerful -- and, it seems to me, persuasive -- depictions of hell as a place where people lose their "self", not only in The Great Divorce but in his Screwtape works, too. (And it's sort of the flip side to Till We Have Faces, where the implication is that we who live in this fallen state have NOT YET become the "selves" -- the "faces" -- that we were meant to be.) (And this all ties in to the nature of Personhood and the Trinity and how three Persons sharing one perfect divinity are the model for we humans who need to perfect our own Personhood while drawing closer to God and to one another, etc., etc. The Screwtape Letters has some brilliant stuff on this, too.)

Yes, all of this has very much informed my own thinking on the subject.

That being said, I am not sure how "separate" from God one can be so long as one simply exists. I mean, if it is God who creates us and sustains our existence, then hell itself -- if it is to exist at all -- must be sustained by God, yes?

Though admittedly, God sustains the existence of rocks and chairs, etc., too. The mere fact that God sustains something's existence does not, in and of itself, make that something a Person. I guess I'm just ambivalent on the question of whether a person can become a non-person and remain, in any sense, a sentient entity that is aware of its own torment etc. To say that a person becomes a non-person seems tantamount, to me, to saying that the "person" has been annihilated altogether -- and while the grumbles of that person might echo into eternity, the fact that there is no longer a grumbler would have to mean that there was no one to suffer any torment for being a grumbler.

As I mentioned above, I'm drawn toward the idea that personhood is not "annihilated altogether," but degraded, in hell -- perhaps progressively (since otherwise any finite but constant amount of personhood and consciousness and suffering would suffer without limit over time). Any thoughts about that?

#42 SDG

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 12:37 PM

Actually, there is one other possibility I forgot to mention: It might be that the nature of eternity in hell is different than we suppose.

We typically imagine both heaven and hell as occupying an infinite extension of time as we know it on earth, but time in heaven and hell might be very different than what we experience here -- and time in heaven might be one thing, and time in hell something else altogether.

For example, we might liken time as we experience it on earth in Euclidean terms to a line segment, with a beginning and and end, while eternity in Heaven is like a limitless three-dimensional space. But what about eternity in hell? We can't compare it to a point without extension, because that would suggest annihilationism. But what about a very small circle? Or something non-Euclidean that would make the point better? I don't know enough math to go where I want with this, but I'm confident that someone who knew more could make some sense in this direction.

#43 opus

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 02:53 PM

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?

Edited by opus, 22 October 2010 - 02:56 PM.


#44 SDG

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 03:23 PM

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.

And there's also the question why God would create in the first place beings he loves in order to cause them infinite suffering (here perhaps the more rigorous Calvinists have the simplest answer). I appreciate the idea that perhaps hell doesn't necessarily mean infinite punishment, even if it is eternal. Could it possibly be that existence is ultimately better than nonexistence, even for those who go to hell? This might be wrong. But I'm pretty confident it's not the dehumanizing tactic that Andrew was worried about.

Edited by SDG, 22 October 2010 - 03:25 PM.


#45 Greg P

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 04:38 PM

This is where I think Conditionalism offers some relief to the theological tension surrounding the concept of hell.

It's the presupposition of the soul's innate immortality that forces the conclusion that it must then ultimately reside in some "place" after death. Since sin cannot exist in God's manifest presence, the logic goes, then sinners must end up in some wormhole of eternal separation from His presence. This traditional view of hell gives sinners a luxury (immortality)that is not afforded them in scripture. It's no surprise then that leaping off this vantage point, debates about the exact nature of hell quickly get convoluted and problematic. People are chained to a rock in flames of fire screaming while demons and monstrous snakes torture them, black figures wander around endlessly on some barren frozen planet, or anguished souls toil in some miserable, unchanging fever-dream of existence, paying off their life debts . Either way you cut it-- whether traditional, metaphorical or puragatorial views-- they are the unnecessary result of belief in the souls natural state of immortality.

The Conditonalist perspective attributes immortality to God alone, that God gives the gift of immortality to those who receive His grace, and that those who do not will get their wish-- they will die and cease to exist, blotted out of of the community of the living. The righteous will live on in eternities sunrise, the unrighteous will wither and be consumed by the ultimate equalizer- death, irreversible cessation of being.

Edited by Greg P, 22 October 2010 - 05:09 PM.


#46 SDG

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 05:05 PM

This is where I think Conditionalism offers some relief to the theological tension surrounding the concept of hell. It's the presupposition of the soul's innate immortality that forces the conclusion that it must then ultimately reside in some "place" after death.

The immortality of the soul is a dogma of faith for Catholics. No relief there for me.

#47 Ryan H.

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 05:31 PM

The Conditonalist perspective attributes immortality to God alone, that God gives the gift of immortality to those who receive His grace, and that those who do not will get their wish-- they will die and cease to exist, blotted out of of the community of the living. The righteous will live on in eternities sunrise, the unrighteous will wither and be consumed by the ultimate equalizer- death, irreversible cessation of being.

I see the attraction of Conditionalism. But two things keep me from embracing it: I have yet to be convinced of the exegetical arguments for it, and the history of Christian belief does not point in that direction.

#48 SDG

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 06:11 PM

I see the attraction of Conditionalism. But two things keep me from embracing it: I have yet to be convinced of the exegetical arguments for it, and the history of Christian belief does not point in that direction.

Which actually overlaps, partially, with what I said. :)

#49 Greg P

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 07:50 PM

I see the attraction of Conditionalism. But two things keep me from embracing it: I have yet to be convinced of the exegetical arguments for it, and the history of Christian belief does not point in that direction.

There's no question that teaching on the soul's inherent immortality has been the majority position, but there are compelling arguments from history regarding the Greek influence on this theology. That, coupled with a lack of any clear biblical passages in support of inherent immortality, make for a very reasonable case imo.

OTOH, verses in support of the tragic finality of death and total annihilation of the wicked are legion. Eternal life is presented everywhere in the NT as a unique gift afforded earth's undeserving passengers, not just an upgrade to first class for those wanting a better view of the Everlasting.

Edited by Greg P, 22 October 2010 - 07:54 PM.


#50 SDG

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 09:02 PM

OTOH, verses in support of the tragic finality of death and total annihilation of the wicked are legion.

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.

#51 Greg P

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 01:35 AM

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.

#52 opus

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 07:16 AM

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.)

#53 SDG

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 12:32 PM

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, 23 October 2010 - 12:50 PM.


#54 Ryan H.

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 12:47 PM

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."

#55 MattPage

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 02:39 PM

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

#56 SDG

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 02:55 PM

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

#57 SDG

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 03:34 PM

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.

#58 MattPage

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 05:46 PM

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

#59 Greg P

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 06:27 PM

"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.

#60 Greg P

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Posted 23 October 2010 - 06:58 PM

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.