doctrine of hell

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Eternal Conscious Torment, Degrees of Suffering, and Infinite Punishment

One argument for affirming Eternal Conscious Torment (hereafter ECT) is that it allegedly makes more sense of divine justice.* So, for example, the argument is that awful dictators like Stalin or Hitler being simply executed by God (such as in some views of Conditionalism) is unjust, but rather their punishment must be much more severe in order to satisfy justice. To rework ECT and allow for a more palatable sense of justice, the concept of degrees of punishment is sometimes introduced, such that those who did not commit great atrocities suffer less than those who did. Another argument for ECT is that because God is infinite and God is the wronged party when creatures sin, those finite creatures must suffer infinite punishment for justice to be served. Below, I’ll argue that these arguments related to ECT fail.

Degrees of Punishment

Intuitively, it seems unjust that someone who say, did not come to belief in Jesus Christ due to not hearing the Gospel proclaimed have the same level of punishment in eternity as someone like Stalin does or someone who intentionally misleads people about Christ. Thus, the argument goes, to preserve that sense of justice, there are degrees of punishment in hell. Instead of debating the merits of that argument, I’d like to highlight a significant problem for the ECT position on this view. Namely, ECT does not, in fact, allow for degrees of punishment on the basis of it being eternal.

Eternity is a long time. It is infinite. Defenders of ECT are adamant: this punishment goes on forever, without end. However, once one introduces the infinite into real life situations, such as eternal conscious torment, some difficulties appear. To explain, examples like Hilbert’s Hotel can help explain some of these situations. In Hilbert’s Hotel, there are infinite rooms which are all full with infinite people. But, alas, a guest would like to check in! No problem, Hilbert just moves every guest down one room, thus making room for another guest! It sounds paradoxical because it is. That’s not how things in the real world seem to work. Nothing truly seems infinite.

For defenders of ECT, hell is infinite. Let’s say we have two people in ECT’s view of hell. One, Jill, has a degree of punishment significantly smaller than that of Joseph Stalin. Let’s say that Jill’s suffering is only 1/1000 that of Stalin. Now, to determine how much suffering any individual suffers, one can multiply the amount of suffering by the amount of time they’re suffering that amount. But infinity multiplied in such a fashion remains infinity. In both Jill and Stalin’s case, that amount of time is infinite. Thus, their total suffering is equal, because the quantitative suffering they receive moment to moment ultimately multiplies to be an equal, infinite amount of suffering. The aggregate suffering which each endures is infinite. All of the unsaved, regardless of who they are or what actions they did in this life, ultimately suffer an equal amount: infinitely.

This means that the argument about degrees of punishment related to ECT fails, because all of the lost suffer the same ultimate fate: infinite suffering.

Different Infinites

It is true that there are different kinds of infinities in math. However, those differences aren’t relevant in this case for a few reasons. One reason is that no individual’s suffering is infinite at any given moment (this is important, as we will see in the next section). That is, we can quantify one’s temporal suffering, say, on a range of 1-1000. Because of that, the calculus of infinites doesn’t change here. Though there are different kinds of infinite, the degrees of punishment being discussed here are not–and cannot–be significant enough to impact that ultimate amount of aggregate suffering in a way that makes the infinites mathematically discernable.

The other problem is that mathematical proof can show that the different type of infinites don’t matter in the case of ECT. See the Appendix below.

Infinite Suffering and the Justice of an Infinite God

Another argument in favor of ECT is that, because one has wronged an infinite being, the punishment must be infinite. If I’m right about the above problem for ECT, ECT succeeds at providing infinite aggregate punishment, but only at cost of undermining any possibility of degrees of punishment. But the fact that it is only aggregately infinite yields another problem: no finite being actually suffers an infinite amount, which undermines another argument for ECT.

Humans are finite–this is a given and indeed is part of the proponent of ECT’s argument for needing an infinite punishment for wronging an infinite God. However, because humans are finite, they are incapable of suffering, at any given moment, an infinite amount. So, while their suffering will be an aggregate or ultimate infinity, given the infinite time of eternity, at no point in time can one say “Stalin has suffered infinitely.” The reason for this is that, at any given moment in eternity, the amount of suffering would still be finite, having not yet reached an infinite amount. For every given moment, t, there is another moment, t +1, that would yield more suffering.

What this means, then, is that no one in hell, at any given moment, has suffered or will have suffered infinitely (excepting the abstract ultimate or aggregate eternity). But if God’s justice can only be served by meting out infinite suffering to finite creatures, then God’s justice is never satisfied, for all such creatures doomed to infinite suffering must continue to suffer without ever reaching the actual infinite amount of suffering. Therefore, the argument in favor of ECT from God’s infinite justice fails.

Addendum: Infinite Life in Christ

Another outcome of my reasoning is that degrees of reward in heaven must ultimately be the same as well. Thus, any view which deems it necessary for there to be varying degrees of eternal bliss faces the same difficulties as ECT does, for all of the saved will experience infinite bliss. Therefore, views of eternal rewards which rely upon infinite rewards fail.

*Interestingly, the opposite is also often held by those who argue for positions apart from ECT.

Appendix: Mathematical Proof and Infinite Suffering

This mathematical proof was made by Jonathan Folkerts, a Physics Doctoral Student.

Links

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SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Debate Review: Al Mohler vs. Chris Date on “Should Christians Rethink Hell?”

IMG_0691

Not hell. But it is a pretty picture I took with a kind of intriguing/ominous path.

I want to preface this post by saying I am by no means an expert on the topic of hell. I’ve only read two books on the subject and listened to several lectures. I approach this as one who is still learning and seeking understanding. I hold to what would be called in this debate the “traditional” view of hell as opposed to a literalist view of hell. That is, I believe hell is a place (spiritual? physical?) that is eternal; but I am unconvinced that the fire references made in the Bible are to be taken literally (i.e. how are they literal flames and yet the place is in darkness? – seems to me to be metaphorical language).

I was very interested in listening to this debate between the traditional view, as espoused by prominent conservative theologian Al Mohler and the conditional view (that of annihilationism–those who are unsaved are annihilated at the judgment [typically–please correct me if I have misportrayed this) as put forward by Chris Date. Here, I’ll offer a brief summary of major statements in the debate, followed by my own analysis. Note that these are my summaries of what was said, not necessarily direct quotes. I welcome critique and comments. Let me know if you listened to the debate, and feel free to offer your own thoughts! The debate may be found here.

Summary

Justin Brierly asked Mohler to speak on what he thought about the biblical basis for conditionalism.

Mohler- Anyone who speaks on a doctrinal question sees their side as more biblical, and I find the evidence for conditionalism wanting. We must also present the picture of hell which is that which should be presented to others–we have to see what the biblical picture of hell is. The biblical “meta-narrative” points to dual everlasting destinies–eternal life in a New Heaven and New Earth–and also for eternal punishment. The unified consensus reading of Scripture for the history of Christianity has been the traditional position.

Date– Regarding Matthew 25, the question is not the duration of the punishment but the actual nature of the punishment. The context suggests that the wages of sin is death, physical death and not living any more. At judgment, the conditionalist holds that the second death will be just that–death. Moreover, the alleged consensus opinion on hell has not been completely on the side of traditionalism, and in the last few centuries conditionalism has gained support. [Outlines the biblical evidence for conditionalism while citing a huge number of texts.] The preponderance of Scripture points to conditionalism. The concept of eternal punishment is correct; the question is what the nature of this punishment is.

Mohler– The normal Christian reading of Matthew 25 has been eternal conscious torment, not destruction. The infinite wrath and infinite grace of God are each being experienced. To say that eternal punishment is not an eternal state but just something that endures until it is taken away does not seem to be what the text itself implies. Humans have a life beyond this life–not an inherent right to immortality of the soul but because of the image of God in humanity–we are made for eternal life.

Date– Saying that Christ purchased eternal salvation for us in Hebrews does not imply a continued state of Christ forever redeeming; it was an act in time with eternal consequences. Eternal life is something only experienced by the saved–the punishment is death and its effect lasts forever.

Mohler– It is difficult to square this view with the actual texts. Rather than appealing to a different passage in Hebrews, Date must explain the parallelism in Matthew 25 regarding the phrase eternal–does it mean two things in the same context?

Date– Eternal means forever in both cases–eternal life and death which lasts forever.

Mohler– Substituting death does not explain away the parallelism in the text. The Christian church has long understood that this passage means eternal torment.

Date– That’s why it’s called the traditional view!

Mohler– The traditional view does not rest on isolated texts of Scripture but on the church’s understanding of the weight of the texts as a whole. There is no indication in various depictions of hell in which there is an end to the torment as spoken.

Date– Mohler’s interpretation is incorrect; the Greek can be taken in different senses in the places he cites.

Mohler– These interpretations are based on arguing that when we look at a text, we have to say it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means.

Date– Many Christians held to a conditionalist view in historic Christianity. Moreover, we should not forget that we come to the text with presuppositions, and such giants of the church as Augustine who held to the traditional view had a Platonic view of the soul which influenced their interpretation of the Bible.

Mohler– There was development of the doctrine of hell. Regarding Augustine, if we argue that Augustine’s view was due to Platonism, we have to see that his entire picture of reality was Hellenized and so his view of other important doctrines like the deity of Christ is undermined.

Date– Nobody is claiming that everything found in the Platonic view or the Hellenistic view is wrong. Scripture is the authority, however, not the culture. The Platonic view specifically imported mistakes into the view of the soul and its indestructible nature according to that view.

Mohler– Jesus held to what we call the traditional view. However, Jewish thought at the same time didn’t have much developed thought regarding hell, which is largely a distinctively Christian view.

Date– Jesus’ language speaks of destruction and seemingly endorsed the view of annihilationism through his use of language of destruction and burning up.

Mohler– Gehenna does not point to Jesus endorsing an annihilationist view because the use of that term was a reference to continued endless fire, despite being a distinct historic view. …Jesus spoke more about eternal punishment and hell than about heaven. Our understanding of the Gospel is impacted by a different view of hell. The urgency of the Christian message is undermined by the conditionalist position because it effectively removes any urgency for conversion because the materialist already believes they will just cease existing.

Date– Atheists often reject Christianity because they see the traditional view as unjust, which means that a conditionalist view has greater apologetic value. Moreover, the Gospel can continue to be presented as either the gift of life or the punishment of death. Conditionalism does not undermine urgency of spreading the Good News.

Analysis

It was edifying to listen to both presenters on this program and get a better idea about the differing views related to hell within Christianity. The speakers were each respectful and gracious–something that should be the case!

Chris Date cogently argued for and defended his position against major objections. I think one of the most pressing issues for the conditionalist/annihilationist remains the notion that, on their view, there really is no major difference between the end of the unsaved and that which the materialist believes will happen. However, it should be noted this is less a biblical challenge than it is a philosophical/theological one. Date’s defense of the biblical capacity for conditionalism was challenging to my paradigm as I think he presented some passages which do possibly read more easily on his view than on the traditional view.

I do think, however, some of Date’s claims were a bit of a stretch. For example, his assertion that Jesus endorsed conditionalist teachers perhaps goes beyond the evidence we have. Moreover, his style of argument in some sections was problematic because he simply through a number of texts out (without quoting the text, simply citing the locations) without giving any sort of context. Of course, this latter issue is more due to the format than a defect of his position.

One of the biggest problems with Al Mohler’s defense of the traditional view is how much he appealed to, well, tradition. It seems to me like the traditional view has a solid scriptural basis, and to appeal to the notion that the church as a whole has largely leaned towards the traditional view is inadequate as a defense. Thus, it was his method which I think was greatly problematic. However, towards the end he got deeper into the issues and I think made some solid points, particularly in regards to whether Gehenna necessarily entails the conditional view and on the seeming parity of the unsaved on the conditional view vs. their own position. That said, I think a stronger focus on exegesis would have been more compelling rather than a continued appeal to traditional church teaching.

Overall, I came out of this debate feeling challenged to consider my own position. I also think the conditionalist view is not, as some assert, clearly unbiblical. If one wants to continue asserting that, I think they must deal very closely with the texts Date and others cite for their position. One can’t just cite a single proof text and say that other texts must be reinterpreted in light of a single text.

What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.

Links

Should Christians Rethink Hell?– The link for the audio of the debate along with some related links from Premier Christian Radio.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

*The image in this post was taken by me. I claim the copyright as noted below.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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