Well, it’s happened again. Another one of those awkward, disturbing interactions with a “Bible-believing” Christian about “the wicked.” You know the the type of conversation where the believer has memorized snippets of KJV bible verses about the conscious eternal torment of those who “reject Christ.” A Christian friend at work knew I had just finished reading “Raising Hell” by Julie Ferwerda, and that in the book she raises questions about the traditional church teaching on hell. He responded with a barrage of verses fired off at me devoid of context and based on a bad English translation of the original languages.
I say disturbing, because, what kind of a person memorizes scripture verses that describe the torture of human beings by a “loving” God? And the smile on his face as he recounted the torment of the rich man in Luke 16 and the Lake of Fire in Revelation , was chilling. My friend is a wonderful, generous man who would not hurt anyone, but this type of belief about our Heavenly Father reveals a strange dichotomy of God’s Nature found among traditional Catholic and Protestant teaching on the afterlife.
On the one hand, the majority of American Christians generally portray God in glowing terms referring to His perfect love for us, even though we don’t deserve it. It is the reason He sent His son Jesus. But they are quick to tell you about God’s dark side. Traditionalists usually portray God in absolute terms, absolutely just, good, wise, etc., His Omni-qualities. Although, God so loved the world He sent His Son, and He is not willing that any should perish (John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9), there is still a limit to His Love it seems. God’s Love is not a limitless love. Although Jesus admonishes us to love our enemies, God the Father is not so willing. As one might surmise, this creates a schism in the Father-Son relationship, especially when the dominant Orthodox atonement theory is penal substitutionary atonement, …that Jesus’s death was to appease God’s Wrath toward us.
That God’s general inclination is to destroy the majority of mankind is a dominant theme among conservative Christians. Generally, among conservative Protestants, atonement is either limited to the “elect,” (Calvinism), or sufficient for all, but effective only for those who “receive” it, (Arminianism). A rather crass way to explain this “gospel” is that God will torture you unless you accept His Love, or, …He has already chosen you before hand to love Him, you have no real choice. This should raise flags with anyone who understands the meaning of love. Instead of a patient lover who pursues us, persuades us, we have a psychotic lover who threatens us, who is so needy for attention and worship that He forces us to worship Him, (Calvinism), or gives us an offer we dare not refuse, lest He torture us day and night, (Arminianism).
This begs the question, if our love for God is so coerced, is it a genuine loving relationship? If our love for God only stems from those He has pre-selected, and enabled, is it true love? From a psychological standpoint, it would seem not. Still, the escape from God’s Wrath is foundational to understanding conservative evangelistic efforts. I suspect that part of the reason conservatives paint such a bleak picture of mankind outside of the conservative church is to justify a God that would not just destroy “the wicked,” but keep them supernaturally alive so they can be tormented for eternity. Also, I suspect, it relieves some of the guilt associated with failing to tell everyone to repent, or they will go to hell.
But the Bible does teach us of consequences associated with our life choices. The question is: is the “torment” mentioned in the NT retributive or restorative? Using the analogy of parental discipline we have the technique of “timeouts” for young children or the method of corporal punishment. Both are painful, one psychologically, the other, physically. True to the traditional church understanding of God’s parental skills, James Dobson admonishes Christians to “Dare to Discipline” their children by beating them with a paddle or switch, a common theme among neo-fundamentalists. When various states in the US began passing laws to thwart child abuse, Christians were outraged at the thought of the government meddling in parental matters. But the sad fact is that Proverbs 22 has been used to justify severe child abuse, leaving permanent scars, both physical and emotional.
On the other hand, the disciplinary technique of timeout by removing a child from play, sitting them in a corner for ten minutes to “think about what they did wrong” seems like “torture” to a young child. They “stew in their own juices,” the unpleasantness is their own doing, not the parent’s. But they have time to reflect on their rebelliousness or bad behavior and develop understanding of right and wrong. Although viewing the experience of the “unsaved” in the afterlife as a “timeout” may seem a bit simplistic or odd, essentially this is how the early church viewed the afterlife, at least until the Roman, Latin speaking church twisted the Biblical understanding of hell into a monstrous affair of eternal torture by God of His enemies.
Because the Bible assures us that God will restore all creation (1), the majority of the early church believed in a form of universal reconciliation, the popularity of which was not surpassed until after the Roman branch became the state church in the West. Coincidently, as Christians in the West were no longer persecuted, the church’s methods of spreading the Gospel became more coercive and militaristic. It was in this atmosphere of power and politics that eternal torment in hell became the popular teaching of the church to maintain control over the masses. Not only did the church control a person’s life in this age, but held the keys to eternal life the age to come.
But doesn’t God punish sinners? I ask you, what kind of person would eternally torment an individual for a wrong choice made within the narrow window of opportunity in this life? What about all the individuals not fortunate enough to be born in western societies? Those that have suffered hell on earth, but never heard of Jesus? St. Augustine thought unbaptized children went to hell! Ridiculous you say, but look at what Mark Driscoll had to say about his own stillborn child. He did not know if he went to heaven or hell! (2) It is this coercive, vindictive and cruel view of God that many individuals today find so offensive and turns them off to Christianity.
Unfortunately for the western church, most individuals know these days, that torture under any circumstances is wrong. We have laws guarding against it’s use. During the church’s rise to power during the Holy Roman Empire, the church used violence, the sword, burning at the stake, the Spanish Inquisition, and similar violence following the Protestant Reformation. All because of a misunderstanding of how the Kingdom of God operates, how it is to be spread. But fortunately for all of us, God does not work that way.
So why do Christians still cling to a retributive, violent God? I will attempt to answer that in my next post.
(1) Genesis 12:3, 2 Sam. 14:14, Psalm 22:27-29, Psalm 65:2, Isaiah 25:6-8, Isaiah 45:22-23, Lam. 3:31-32, Hosea 14:4, Zeph. 3:8-9, Luke 2:10, Luke 9:55-56, Luke 23:34, John 12:32, John 12:47, John 17:2, Acts 3:20-21, Rom. 5:6; 18-20, Rom. 11:32-36, Rom.14:11, 1 Cor. 3:11-15, 1 Cor. 13:8, 1 Cor. 15:22-28, 2 Cor. 5:18-19, Eph. 4:5-6, Col. 1:15-20, Col. 3:11, 1 Tim. 2:5-6, Hebrews 8:11-12, James 2:13, 1 John 2:2, Rev. 5:13, Rev. 15:4
Rob Bell, “Love Wins”
Bradley Jersak, “A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel”
Julie Ferwerda, “Raising Hell: Christianity’s most controversial doctrine put under fire”
Derek Flood, “Disarming Scripture”
Eric A. Seibert, “Disturbing Divine Behavior, Troubling Old Testament Images of God”