Saturday, June 23, 2007

Few Lashes

There's an ongoing discussion in another thread concerning the nature of Hell. Gene Bridges and others posting there have made many significant points (the fact that there are degrees of punishment in Hell, the self-perpetuating nature of Hell, etc.). I'm not attempting to repeat all of the relevant points here, nor am I attempting to make a full case for a Hell of eternal, conscious punishment. That's the position I hold, and I've argued for it elsewhere, but what I want to do here is add some points to those already made in the other thread.

I think that one of the best Biblical passages that can be cited to illustrate the balance of what scripture teaches on this subject is Luke 12. In Luke 12:49, Jesus not only uses the common Biblical language of the fire of judgment, but He even speaks of how He "wishes it were already kindled". He goes on to refer to how He brings division, even within families (Luke 12:51-53). Comments like these, involving fiery judgment, division, and such, are often cited by critics of Christianity as illustrations of how hateful and divisive Jesus was (or how hateful and divisive the people who falsely attributed such comments to Him were). Modern Christians who argue for the sort of qualifications on the doctrine of Hell that Steve Hays, Gene Bridges, and others are arguing for in the thread linked above are often accused of revising what scripture teaches on the subject. Comments like the ones Jesus made in Luke 12:49-53 are often represented as the Biblical view, which was only later revised when it was perceived to be untenable.

But read Jesus' comments leading up to Luke 12:49. He refers to degrees of punishment (Luke 12:45-48). He refers to some people receiving only "few lashes" (Luke 12:48). These are the words of Jesus, not the opinions of a twenty-first century Christian attempting to revise what He taught.

As Gene has noted in the other thread, one of the earliest Biblical passages to explicitly address the concept of an eternal Hell, Daniel 12:2, focuses on the concepts of disgrace and contempt, not something like physical burning. The variety of terms and images used in the Bible to describe Hell is itself evidence that the Biblical authors had a more nuanced view of the subject than many modern critics suggest. People often associate a term like "weeping and gnashing of teeth" with physical suffering, but Jesus refers to people weeping and gnashing their teeth in a more spiritual than physical context (Luke 13:28). These passages I've been citing from Luke are in the same gospel that uses some of the strongest physical imagery of Hell in scripture (Luke 16:19-31). The same Biblical authors who use such imagery sometimes use other imagery and add other qualifications that are often neglected by critics.

The fact that Jesus would speak of degrees of punishment in Hell, yet use one image of Hell in a given discussion of the subject, should caution us against applying that one image to every person in Hell without qualification. People often use a worst case scenario to warn people about something, even if the majority of people would experience something less than what's reflected in that worst case scenario. Around the time when taxes are due each year, I sometimes see billboards or some other type of advertisement warning about the consequences of tax fraud. Even if most people who are involved in some sort of dishonesty in handling their taxes might be subject to a less severe punishment, these advertisements will often mention or allude to jail time, use jail imagery, or do some other such thing to express the potential consequences in a worst case scenario. We often see the same with regard to warnings about drug abuse, drunk driving, etc. To refer to a Tibetan villager, to use an illustration from the other thread, as if he would be in the same state of suffering as Hitler in Hell, or to assume that everybody in Hell experiences what the rich man in Luke 16 is described as experiencing, is dubious. We shouldn't quote what Jesus said in Luke 16 without also taking into account the common imagery and modes of expression used in that day, as well as the further qualifications mentioned by Jesus in passages like Luke 12.

In the other thread, SteveJ commented:

"The biblical doctrine of final punishment is uneven at best. Some texts appear to teach traditional eternal torment, others annihilationism, still others universal redemption."

It should be noted that the earliest post-apostolic Christians believed in a Hell of eternal, conscious punishment. See here, for example. Some sources did argue for some other position, such as annihilationism or universalism, but the view I, Steve Hays, Gene Bridges, and others in this forum have been defending was the popular view. It's historically probable that Jesus and the apostles taught the concept of a Hell of eternal, conscious punishment, and we have good reason to believe that they were speaking by Divine inspiration.

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