Theology

What Kind of God Would *Not* Condemn People to Eternal Torment?

Book of GenesisAnswers In Genesis (AIG) recently posted an article by Tim Challies entitled: “What Kind of God Would Condemn People to Eternal Torment?” His article is a bold defense of the traditional view of hell as a place of endless, conscious torment for nonbelievers. It is so bold as to claim that one cannot believe in a good, holy God without believing that God will torture evildoers endlessly after death.

First, full disclosure: I am a long-time fan of AIG. I commend their efforts to be Biblically-based, and to scientifically expose the lie of godless macro-evolution. I have supported their Creation Museum and admire their work to build a life-size model of Noah’s Ark.

AIG, Challies, and I are on the same team, with the same goals. We all want to help people understand the world through Scripture, since that is the best way to follow Christ by faith. Once people understand the truth and authenticity of the Bible, they see a God who loves them so much that He sent Jesus to die to offer them eternal life. We all desperately want to see people receive this message.

What makes Challies’ article so tragic is how hard it works against our shared goals. The false doctrine taught and the arguments used to defend it may be more effective in turning nonbelievers away from the Bible than the secular humanists AIG constantly challenges.

Two key messages in the article work tragically together: an assault on the character of God, and a rejection of the message of Genesis. I know that neither AIG nor Challies wants to assault God’s character or deny Genesis, but the blindness caused by their unbiblical tradition has produced this outcome nonetheless.

Assaulting God’s Character

The article’s sidebar contains this bold assault on God’s character: “If you want a God who is good—truly good—and if you want a God who is just and holy, then you must have this God, this God who condemns people to suffer the eternal torments of hell.”

The good, just, and holy God of the Bible did not create a place of endless conscious torment. If He would have done that, He would be neither good, nor just, nor holy, by His own definition of each of these ideas in Scripture. Our free e-book and the resources shared on this site go into detail about the Bible’s definition of goodness, justice, and holiness. In summary: the goodness of God is shown in His love, which gives everything to save the lost. Justice is shown in the many references to punishing “according to their deeds,” not according to God’s infiniteness. The holiness of God is shown in the price He was willing to pay to make a way for people to be free from their evil choices through the sacrifice of Jesus.

In his latest book, Hell: A Final Word, Edward Fudge tries to help us feel what God must feel when we assault His character by telling the world that He is going to torture people endlessly in hell. In his chapter “Tough Minds and Tender Hearts,” Fudge writes:

Suppose you hired a babysitter for your evening out. You learn later that she told your children that you said you would punish any misbehavior by putting staples in their fingers, cutting off their ears, then stuffing them into the microwave oven until they popped. And suppose your children were young enough that such nonsense made them question and distrust your parental love.

If you are like me, there would be no words strong enough to describe your feelings in response. Yet the babysitter’s misrepresentation is nothing by comparison with the slander against God, if everlasting torment is not true.

When we tell the world that God will torture them endlessly for not following Him, we drive them away, and we work against the God who loves them by insulting His good character.

Denying the Message of Genesis

The ultimate irony of the AIG article is how it so dramatically it ignores the clear teaching of Genesis. It does this by re-defining “death” as “endless conscious torment” in hell.

Three specific sections of Genesis show what the end of evildoers will be. First, as I detail in my last article, death is defined in Genesis 3:19 as “returning to dust.” Second, Genesis 7:21-23 tells us that after the Flood, every living thing “died,” “perished,” and was “blotted out.” In 2 Peter 3:5-7, Peter confirms that the ungodly will be “destroyed” in the same manner, except instead of water, God will use fire. So the fire that God uses “destroys the ungodly,” meaning they are “blotted out.”

The most compelling case in Genesis comes from the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 19:15-24, the fire and brimstone that rained on those cities was “punishment,” caused them to be “swept away,” “overthrown” and “destroyed”. An analysis of the Hebrew shows that none of these terms mean “endless conscious torment.” They mean destruction—completely and totally gone.

Jude interprets the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for us, in case we don’t see it clearly in Genesis. In Jude 7, he writes: “just as Sodom and Gomorrah … are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.” This is the definition of “punishment of eternal fire”: Sodom and Gomorrah are gone forever. Never to return. Eternally. Are they still burning? Certainly not. However, the “punishment of eternal fire” is clearly evident in the fact that they are gone.

The Challenge

To my brothers and sisters at AIG: you rightly admonish people daily to take Genesis seriously, to change their minds and believe the truth of God’s word. Will you? Will you, against centuries of man’s tradition, look deeply into Genesis, beyond the influences of Plato and other Greek philosophies, and actually read the plain words of Scripture? Will you do what you daily ask your audience to do?

Or, will you hold on to the traditional view of endless conscious torment even though it maligns God’s character, conflicts with Genesis and the rest of Scripture, and keeps people from the truth and a relationship with God?

Theology

A Review Of “Hell – Why It’s Eternal”, by John G. Weldon

TraditionJohn Ankerberg posted an article by John G. Weldon entitled Hell – Why It’s Eternal and the Remarkable Ease of Entering Heaven. The article presents three arguments in favor of the traditional view that hell is a place of endless conscious punishment.

Unfortunately, the three arguments articulated in the article have no Biblical foundation. None of the scriptures referenced define or teach the core arguments advocated by the author.

With a subject as important as whether people will suffer endlessly in hell, it is vital to be certain in our source of truth. This isn’t a game. It’s not pretend and it’s not academic. Real people will face these real consequences.

Most Christians consider the Bible to be that source of truth. However, with a doctrine like an endless hell, tradition has so colored Biblical interpretation that some traditional teachers seem to see the tradition as scripture itself.

Let’s examine Weldon’s three arguments:

Argument #1: “First, hell is eternal because sin, though finite by itself, is primarily committed against an infinite God; the punishment must therefore also be infinite.”

This is a foundational claim, put forth by the author as an absolute. In response, I ask: where is the scripture that says: “Thus says the Lord: the one who sins against his Maker commits an infinite sin deserving of infinite punishment.”? I have never seen anything close to this. Instead, I’ve seen the opposite expressed in the Bible. Consider Genesis 2:16-17: The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

God’s clear instruction, the one command, was to abstain from the forbidden fruit. The consequence was clear—death. Scripture defines death like this in Genesis 3:19: “Till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

There is no ambiguity in the language here. Death means that we return to the dust. In later books, The Bible reveals details about the dead being raised for judgment before the “second death,” but ultimately the unredeemed end up returning to dust. Dead. Nowhere does the scripture define “death” as actually meaning “alive, but suffering for an endless eternity.” It just isn’t there.

In contrast to the article’s first claim, the Bible teaches that when men sinned against an infinite God, He promised them death, or a return to the dust from which they were made. God does not hold people responsible for the fact that He is infinite.

Weldon makes another claim in his first argument: “once God declares an eternal hell exists (such as in Matthew 25:46), it is by definition in harmony with His infinite love and mercy.” This reasoning is frequently used by advocates of the traditional view:

  • Given that hell means eternal conscious torment,
  • and God is infinitely loving and merciful,
  • then eternal conscious torment must be loving and merciful, and inline with the character of God.

This logic is flawed. By the Bible’s own definition of justice, an infinite punishment for finite sins is unjust. The Bible says that punishment should fit the crime. See my previous article for explanation and scripture references. If the Bible says that crimes should have a fair, just punishment, then a punishment  that doesn’t fit the crime is unjust.

Therefore, if God does torment people endlessly for less than a finite lifetime of sin, He would be, by His own definition, unjust. The fruit of an unjust, endless torture would logically define God as unjust (“you will know them by their fruits” Matthew 7:20).

It seems some Christians are used to living with logical contradictions because they think “well, it’s God, so it’s beyond my ability to understand”. And yes, while many things about God are above our comprehension, we are expected to understand those things he specifically explains, like the definition of justice. God expects people to love justice like He does, and frequently criticizes injustice in the Bible.

Ultimately, everyone knows that an endless conscious torture for a finite amount of sin is unjust. Those who defend this view are admirable in their desire to uphold tradition, to hold the Bible in high regard, and to take a stand even when it doesn’t make sense to them. My hope and prayer is that they will re-examine the Bible for what it says, not for what their tradition teaches, and come to the more Biblical conclusion that the end of those who reject God’s loving offer of eternal life is actual death, meaning a complete end of conscious existence.

(Note: Those who read our Free E-Book will learn that Bible statements like “eternal punishment” as in Matthew 25:46 mean that the consequences of the punishment are eternal, not that the punishing lasts for ever — just like “eternal salvation” doesn’t mean that Christ is dying on the cross forever.)

Argument #2. “A second reason hell is eternal is because no amount of punishment throughout finite time has any ultimate meaning compared to eternity.”

Again, this is an absolute statement with no Biblical foundation. Where in the Bible does it say that the only punishment that has ultimate meaning is an endless conscious punishment? In fact, the Bible does teach that death has eternal consequences. Those who are unredeemed will “perish,” as in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

This is among the clearest verses related to the role of God’s Son in providing the hope of eternal life. How can one teach that to “perish” eternally has no meaning when this scripture clearly teaches that God gave His son to save us from “perishing”?

Christians everywhere agree that the most meaningful act in history was the sacrifice of Christ to provide eternal life to those who believe. The fact that God was willing to go to such lengths to rescue us from the death we deserve shows that God thinks death has ultimate, eternal meaning. (Again, we must defined terms like “death” and “perish” as the Bible defines them, as I explained in the first point above.)

Argument #3. “A third reason hell is eternal is because unbelievers can only bring who they are into eternity — their unredeemed sinful natures. Thus, they will sin eternally — and the only possible penalty for eternal sin is eternal punishment.”

This is an amazing assertion, one that is completely speculative and based on nothing scriptural. Where does the Bible teach that people continue to sin while being punished? Again, the Bible teaches the opposite. Hell is shown to be a place of punishment that ends in destruction. Matthew 10:28 says “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Philippians 2:10 says that in the end, “every knee will bow to Christ” as king. How can people bow to Him, whether as Lord or as Judge, and continue to sin? We have already shown that after the judgment, death is what follows, not an eternity of continued sin.

If we’re going to speculate, I would ask: Why would God keep people alive so that they can continue to eternally sin against Him? Why would He make a creature that He could not destroy, so he had to keep them alive eternally even when they hate Him? What would He gain by setting up such a universe?

Conclusion

If this critical doctrine is based more on tradition and speculation than what the Bible actually says, how can we expect non-believers to take the Bible seriously? By clinging to the traditional view of an endless hell, we undermine the very scriptures we claim to respect.

My brother, my sister, isn’t it time to put this non-Biblical tradition behind us and start teaching what the Bible actually says? I strongly believe that a great revival and reformation are in store when the floodgates of truth open and reveal the goodness of God’s true character to a world that desperately needs that message.

Our free e-book, Endless Hell Ended, explains all of these points in much more detail. I encourage you to request it and make it a part of your own personal Bible study.

Theology

Goals and Questions

I started this blog to help non-believers see the goodness and truth of the Bible’s message. I especially focus on the eternal life that God offers to everyone who will follow Him, and the just, finite punishment and permanent death that awaits those who reject God’s gracious terms for eternal life. I also encourage believers who hold the traditional view of hell to re-examine the scriptures and move away from the tradition that is keeping so many people from knowing God.

I recognize that debates among Christians can turn away non-believers, especially as these debates become mean-spirited, prideful and generally unproductive. The church is famous for dividing over foolish things, and the Bible frequently warns against these divisions.

As I write critiques of the traditional view, including specific books and authors, my desire is to challenge and encourage, and not to divide. I write in response to published works, and not as a personal attack on anyone. I would expect those who disagree with my thoughts to do no less. In love, we must challenge one another to grow in our understanding so that we teach things that are correct, and where we are wrong, we learn and change. I certainly want to know where I am wrong, and I welcome positive, constructive debate on these subjects. As we think about these important things, may we always keep in mind the love that draws non-believers to God, and not drive them away in our very human desire to win an argument.

Why do you think Christians have such a hard time evaluating whether the traditions they hold are biblical? What can we do to become more secure in our relationship with God so that we are able to examine our doctrines and (gasp) make a significant change when necessary? Can reformation/revival come without a humble willingness to examine ourselves in the light of God’s word?