Sunday, 30 September 2012

Are the torments of hell eternal? Interpreting scripture - the letter and the spirit


I present a dilemma as an illustration of the difficulties of interpreting scripture.

The question is whether to understand the Bible as stating that Hell is a place of eternal torment, or whether scripture implies that after some period of experiencing torment, the damned are annihilated, destroyed, made into nothing.

This is an issue for me because I tend to understand scripture in a broad brush kind of way, rather than focusing upon specific sentences or words.

And I think that the broad brush understanding leads me to assume that Hell is for some period followed by annihilation; while eternal torment seems implied by a close up examination of the text. 


I hope this is not because I am looking for wriggle room to make space for my own notions, or to twist Christianity into a shape that suits me (instead of the opposite, which is what all Christians should try to do).

I hope it is due to a genuine desire to understand rather than a covert wish deliberately to misunderstand.

But one can never be sure about such matters.


That torment in Hell is eternal is implied by specific passages such as:

Mark 9:43-4 - And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched. Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Also, I have always read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as implying eternal torment in Hell; although perhaps it does not really do so.

Reference to the torments of Hell in terms of fire, worms, thirst etc. mean that intense suffering (if not the precise specifics of its nature) must be real.

Indeed, the consequences of recognizing failure to accept Christ could not but lead to torment - and it was argued as long ago as St John Chrysostom that this torment of regret was the primary suffering of those who did not choose salvation.


But on the other hand I believe there are several 'broad brush' arguments which apparently imply that the damned are annihilated, and that I personally find pretty convincing.


1. In this broad brush sense, I feel a need to reconcile the undoubted fact that the Gospel is good news (and was perceived as such at the time it was first presented), with a new emphasis on the torments of Hell which is absent from the ancient Jewish concept of Sheol.

(Sheol seems to entail annihilation of the individual self and self-awareness, a place depicted as dark and containing of witless gibbering ghosts, but not of active torment).

I tend to think that if the reality or nature of Sheol was being challenged by the advent of Christ, then this would have been specifically mentioned.


2. Also, in a similarly broad brush sense, there is the refrain that Christ offers us everlasting life - which implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) seems to contrast with death, or annihilation; rather than with eternal living-torment.

This, indeed, is an interpretation I find compelling.

Every time I hear or read of the promise of everlasting life, of life instead of death, or the wages of sin being death - it makes me think that death in the sense of non-existence is the ultimate alternative to Heaven.


3. Somewhat aside, there is also the argument that Hell is essentially prepared for the fallen angels, not Man.

Matthew 25:41- Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

I imagine this as being necessary in terms of sequestering irredeemable evil from Good - on a permanent basis.

But it may also imply that Hell is not to be regarded as the eternal dwelling place of unsaved Men.


I am not seeking closure on this issue, and it is a snare to try and try and learn exactly about the nature of life beyond death - indeed the concept of eternity is itself beyond comprehension.

But I use this example to illustrate how reasoning from specific passages may push in one direction, while reasoning in a broad brush way push in the other direction - and for someone of limited spiritual development such as myself, there cannot be a decisive answer.


We must, we should, look to tradition and authority for as much guidance as we need to proceed; and beyond that to try and avoid focusing on such questions for too long, and certainly avoid having disputes over such matters grow into dissensions.

But authorities differ, and often concerning the particular matters under question: we must then choose among the authorities, and within the authorities we sometimes must choose between different teachings at different points in their lives. Or we may not understand their teachings.  

The fact that John Stott, the premier Anglican evangelical scholar of recent decades, was an 'annihilationist' should indicate that it is not an interpretation 'beyiond the pale' - but the fact that he was in a minority among his peers (such as JI Packer) certainly is grounds for caution.


I am a fairly traditionalist Anglican, I think, on the matter of how the torments of Hell should be used in teaching and evangelism: the matter of Hell should not be avoided nor downplayed, but should a matter one for stark and sober realism; on the other hand the torments of Hell should not be deployed to try and intimidate or coerce people into conversion or obedience 'for their own good': that is a short path to spiritual pride hence evil, since we do not know enough of the workings or outcome of salvation to be specific and personal.

In this, I am much influenced by Pascal's Pensees and the idea of the 'Hidden Christ', and the profound insight that the world is made such that there is enough evidence for people to find it if they look, and to choose Christ; but equally the world is not deigned to overwhelm human will into submission by unmasked divine power and terror.

To argue that one must become a Christian/ obey the Law or else personally suffer specifically eternal as well as excruciating torment is - I think - never known with precision; eternity cannot, anyway, be understood by the human mind; and more importantly contradicts the Gospel of Love. The Christian God simply must be loved; and it is simply wrong to imagine that a state of terrified submission to 'God' can be, at some later stage be flipped-over into the free choice of Christ from gratitude for the Glory of God.


We know enough truth for our purposes - I am sure that we do; but this does not mean we ever can know the precise and explicit truth about every matter where we can formulate a question (or imagine that we have formulated a question - the question may be ill-formed and unanswerable, or we may not understand the real answer).

There is always ignorance, and at the heart of things there is mystery.