The doctrine of hell is one of the leading objections to Christian. But one of the striking features of the polemical literature against the doctrine of hell is the vast disproportion between the intensity of the rhetoric and what the Bible actually has to say on the subject.
Most all of the time, what the critics of hell are attacking is not the Biblical doctrine of hell, but a popular version of hell, based on some colorful bits of imagery in Dante and Edwards or horror flicks of the slash-em-up variety.
It’s like a bunch of boys who double-dare each other to go into an abandoned house, as they regale each other with lurid stories about the unspeakable horror that lurks within.
And when a kid screws up his courage to go inside, the actual experience is quite a let down. The anticlimactic reality can’t live up to the campfire stories.
But what is hell really like? What does the Bible say?
The Bible uses some stock imagery to describe hell, viz. maggots, chains, outer darkness, the lake of fire.
This is usually taken to be figurative.
On the traditional interpretation, the state of damnation is everlasting.
There have been persistent efforts to deny this, but I think the traditional interpretation is sound.
Damnation is punitive.
There have been some attempts to deny this. Hell is locked from the inside. The damned rejected God, but God never rejected the damned. That sort of thing.
But it’s clear from Scripture that damnation is treated as a judicial sentence in which God is exacting retribution against the wicked. Damnation is inseparable from the principle of just deserts.
Hell is characterized as a place of psychological misery, viz. “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This is a bit difficult to separate from the figurative imagery. However, Scripture has a doctrine of the general resurrection.
Since the damned are reembodied, they are presumably vulnerable to pain.
The corporeal dimension of damnation is also a reason to say that hell is an actual place, and not merely a state of mind.
6. Pure evil
Damnation is a state in which sin is unrestrained by common grace.
And that, I think, covers just about everything we can say for sure about damnation. The rest is speculation.
Now, in the customary attack on hell, such as you find in Pinnock or Ingersoll, hell is characterized as a torture chamber—with God cast in the role of the cosmic sadist. Like something from a B-movie of the horror genre.
Several things stand out in this model of hell:
i) The damned are victims.
ii) Apropos (i), the damned are unwilling participants—like a man or woman who’s strapped to a table as a psychopath flays them alive.
iii) An emphasis on physical torment.
But it should be obvious that this model of hell doesn’t derive from the specific exegesis of Scripture.
To depict hell as a torture chamber, you have to make certain assumptions. Ironically, this confronts the critic of hell with a dilemma.
Why would hell resemble a torture chamber? Assuming that it is analogous to a torture chamber, why would the damned be so cruel to each other?
To believe this, you have to accept a pretty traditional view of sin and human depravity.
Yet critics of hell assure us that the traditional doctrine of sin is vastly overblown. Not only does it exaggerate the degree of human depravity, but it artificially classifies perfectly natural and normal impulses as sinful.
What is more, secular critics of hell regard unbelievers as more virtuous than believers. As Steven Weinberg puts it, with or without religion, you’d have good people doing good and bad people doing bad, but for good people to do evil—now that takes religion.
Moreover, a secular humanist would say that a consistent secular humanist is more virtuous than a consistent Christian.
If, then, we take the critics of hell at their word, why would hell be one big torture chamber? Why would the damned torment each other?
This depiction isn’t consistent with either the religious left or secular humanism.
On their view, hell should actually be better than life on earth. Better without God. Or better without the superstitious shackles and Victorian hang-ups of organized religion.
All the most enlightened people end up in hell. The scientists and philanthropists.
The only reason for believing that the damned are truly vicious is if you believe that sin is every bit as bad as the Bible says it is.
But, in that case, where’s the injustice in punishing sinners by making them live with each other? If one wrongdoer wrongs another wrongdoer, is that a miscarriage of justice, or is that poetic justice?
Isn’t that a case in which the punishment exactly fits the crime? Conmen conning other conmen? Muggers mugging other muggers. That sort of thing.
Finally, if we’re going to speculate on hell, then a hellish existence need not entail pain. Interminable boredom would be a hellish existence. Too much sameness becomes unbearable over time.
Conversely, too much change becomes unbearable over time. Imagine an inescapable dream in which nothing ever stays the same. People come and go. Places come and go.
Having your own way came be a source of despair. A dream come true can be a nightmare if your three wishes are sinful wishes. We’ve all seen people who couldn’t cope with success. The man who has everything in life except a happy life.
Life in a fallen world gives us many glimpses of hell. A foretaste of things to come for those who die outside of Christ.
This is the stuff of novels and plays, movies, TV shows, and real life.
The way in which the enemies of Christianity demonize (pun intended) the doctrine of everlasting punishment is exactly the kind of malicious caricature I’d expect if hell is for real. This is the devil’s version of hell. The version of hell he puts out for public consumption so that folks won’t take it seriously. And his P.R. campaign is ironically successful with the hell-bound.
I don’t doubt that hell is a very bleak place. But what makes a hellish existence such a grim existence is not the address, but the company we keep. There goes the neighborhood!