Scholars: Hell place of conscious suffering

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GRAPEVINE, Texas — What awaits penitent and impenitent souls upon arrival in eternity?

For Christians, being in the presence of their Lord, Jesus Christ, and being reunited with loved ones who have gone on before them would seem reward enough. But what is in store for those who die without confessing Christ?

Scripture says there are only two eternal destinations for humanity. A few books about the Christian's eternal home can be found on bookstore shelves, providing insight on the joy to come. And, conversely, for almost 700 years "The Inferno," a picturesque epic poem by Alighieri Dante, has stirred revulsion and fear in the hearts of those who ponder the fate of the damned.

Philosophers and theologians through the ages have tried to draw from Scripture and extra-biblical texts a clear understanding of the rewards of heaven and the punishments of hell. What are the treasures in heaven? To what degree of punishment are the lost tormented? Are the experiences proportionate to the lives they lived?

Contemporary evangelical theologians warn against reading into Scripture what is not there with regard to the experiences one will have in either destiny. Ken Keathley, professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, "The Bible gives us sufficient revelation, not exhaustive revelation."

Keathley and John Laing, assistant professor of theology and philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's J. Dalton Havard School of Theological Studies in Houston, agree that the human soul begins its eternal trek at the death of the earthly body. Throughout the Old Testament are accounts of the departed existing in Sheol and carried on into the New Testament are accounts of Hades. The account of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 illustrates the fate of the departed in both categories.

"The New Testament unambiguously teaches that the saints who have died in this present age are in heaven with the Lord," Keathley said, citing Revelation 6:9-10. "As for the unsaved, Jesus states four times that the rich man experienced 'torment.' "

It is the imagery of the torment of hell and the solace of heaven that has stirred many a debate. Discussions of heaven, within a biblical context, provide little cause for rancor. But the interpretation of hell — even questioning its existence — has been a source of contention even among Christians.

Both professors said that much of the debate regarding hell is rooted in people's revulsion at the concept of eternal torment created by God. But, fundamentally, they said, it is rooted in a lack of comprehension regarding the righteousness of God and the serious nature of sin.

The Baptist Faith and Message, in the article on "Last Things," states: "God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. According to His promise, Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in heaven with the Lord."

So what are we to believe about the degrees of rewards and punishments? Keathley noted that the existence of a judgment implies an accounting for how lives were lived. With regard to heaven, both men said the Christian should never be satisfied with "just getting in."

Keathley said, "Salvation is not merely exemption from punishment, but the restoration of a right relationship with God. What person who has experienced salvation in the fullest sense of the word would care only about 'just getting in?'"

Laing added, "There are many reasons to do good during this life beyond the rewards [and] punishments of eternity."

Christians, however, should be mindful not to place too much emphasis on "storing up treasures in heaven" as outlined in Matthew 6, Laing added. He has been critical of sermons or lessons that "place an inordinate amount of emphasis on what the individual gets out of being a Christian."

"This, in my thinking, can try to motivate persons to deny themselves and take up their crosses daily by appealing to their selfish motives and inclinations, which is self-defeating," he said.

God does, however, use rewards as a motivator, Laing added. It is finding the balance between doing good deeds for God or for God's rewards that is significant.

Keathley added, "Working for the glory of God and for his commendation are not mutually exclusive motivations."

Citing 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, Keathley said the value of a Christian's work will be tested by fire: "[Paul] likens this judging process to a fire, and only that which is of eternal value will survive. This life is a springboard to eternity, and our faithfulness, or lack thereof, will have everlasting repercussions."

The Bible is not clear on what the specific rewards of Heaven will be for the believers, Keathley and Laing noted. They said Scripture seems to indicate rewards will not be of a material nature but, instead, a distribution of responsibilities. Noting Matthew 25:20-23, Keathley said, "Certain passages indicate that a Christian's role in the coming kingdom is determined in no small part by his or her faithful obedience in this life."

Laing said that because the Christians' eternal existence will be a terrestrial one in the New Jerusalem on the New Earth, "it seems that at least some Christians will have leadership roles in the eternal state." He said he saw no reason to interpret Luke 19:11-27 as metaphorical.

Does heaven hold special rewards for those who have experienced exceptional pain and suffering on earth? Laing said the Bible does hint at special rewards for those who are martyred for their faith. Keathley said there doesn't seem to a one-to-one correspondence to rewards and suffering (for example, a reward for a child who dies from a painful, debilitating illness). But, he added, Paul reminded the Romans that "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."

It is the doctrine of hell that spawns the most heated debate amongst theologians. Biblical interpretations — from both literal and metaphorical points of view — have created doctrines that at best are questionable and at worst heretical.

From the biblical perspective, there are basically four views of hell. What has been the traditional, or sometimes referred to as the "literal," view since the time of Christ is that hell is a place of conscious, physical, eternal torment. This is the view held by most evangelicals.

The metaphorical view holds that hell is an eternal place of conscious torment but the language the New Testament describing the nature of the punishment is symbolic of a different, albeit equally agonizing, experience. In "Four Views of Hell," William Crockett contends, "The Bible does not support a literal view of a burning abyss. Hell fire and brimstone are not literal depictions of hell's furnishings, but figurative expressions warning the wicked of impending doom."

Crockett goes on to note a number of theologians who questioned the literal view of Hell, including C.S. Lewis, John Calvin, Martin Luther and Billy Graham.

The fire and burning which is described in Hell, in the metaphorical sense, is associated with being cut off from God for all eternity. Crockett quoted evangelist Billy Graham espousing this popular idea: "I have often wondered if hell is a terrible burning within our hearts for God, to fellowship with God, a fire that we can never quench."

A third view, the teaching of purgatory, is an extra-biblical doctrine rarely taught outside the Roman Catholic Church. The doctrine teaches a purging and refinement of the soul through hell fire with heaven as a final destination.

The fourth doctrine of hell, and one Keathley said is relatively new, teaches annihilationism or a variant called conditional immortality. He described this view as "the view that the unbeliever is punished only for a finite period of time, and then he ceases to exist. Appealing as this position may be, it is flatly contradicted by Revelation 14:11. The annihilationist position plays on our sense of proportionality."

Universalism, or the gospel of inclusion, is yet another idea that is gaining in popularity. The idea purports that, in the end, everyone goes to heaven. Citing several passages out of context, proponents of this belief say Jesus died for all and his sacrifice ultimately covers all.

Baptists have long been stereotyped as Bible-thumping, hell-fire preaching, angry people. Keathley said it is true that outside the evangelical denominations there are few theologians who are "concerned about hell." Within academia, "we're surrounded by this chorus of voices that say, 'You're wrong.' We have a very different standard ... the Bible is very unambiguous."

Images of eternal torment and suffering are what disturb Christians. In "The Inferno," as Dante and his guide, Virgil, pass through the gates of hell, Dante notes the words inscribed above the entrance:

"I am the way into the city of woe. I am the way to a forsaken people I am the way into eternal sorrow. Sacred justice moved my Architect. I was raised here by divine omnipotence, primordial love and ultimate intellect. Only those elements time cannot wear were made before me, and beyond time I stand. Abandon all hope ye who enter here."

Such a miserable fate is difficult for Christians to reconcile with the God who loves the world. In an effort to mitigate the scandal of judgment, they may downplay the severity of the punishment of hell. Keathley acknowledged the misgivings that believers have with the literal concept of hell. But, he added, to reinterpret the difficult passages leads down a path that denies the sufficiency of Scripture.

"It's a very risky thing to reject or question what the Bible says and say, 'This is not reasonable,' because we don't comprehend how eternity works," he said.

Whether there is a fire as we perceive the concept of fire is a point of discussion, both professors admitted. How could Satan and his angels who are spirit beings, Keathley asked, be tormented in flames as we understand them? He added that our inability to comprehend some things in the eternal does not negate the harshness of the sentence. The fire as mentioned in the New Testament "is whatever process that will bring punishment and torment to spiritual beings."

Laing concurred and said the interpretation of hell in the metaphorical sense — pain at the separation from God — does not sufficiently address the passages that speak of an active, physical torment imputed by God. He said he sees merit in both the literal and metaphorical arguments concerning the nature of the punishment of hell, but the metaphorical view alone is a "passive component" not taking into account the wrath of God to be poured out as noted numerous times in the New Testament.

Though its fidelity to Scripture is unquestionably suspect, the professors agreed that Dante's "The Inferno" does have a ring of legitimacy. Keathley and Laing said the Bible does indicate there will be degrees of punishment upon arrival in the second death. "After all," Laing said, "we feel that God's justice requires more suffering for Adolf Hitler than for the man who is really quite nice but never accepted Christ as Lord and Savior. To some degree, though, this is merely a finite, human way of looking at things."

James 2:10 indicates that one sin is sufficient to separate an individual from God, but, Laing added, Jesus takes note of the degrees of severity of sin as indicated in Luke 17:1-3.

The discussion of hell — among the saved and the lost — always begs the question, "What happens to the people who never had the opportunity to accept Christ, who never heard of Jesus?" The question itself, Laing and Keathley commented, is not couched in an accurate understanding of Scripture.

Keathley said: "The Bible does not directly address the issue of the fate of those who have never heard, but passages such as John 14:6 indicate they are in peril. If God is doing something among the unreached that He hasn't told us about, then that is His business. But we have no right to assume something the Bible does not teach. The thing to remember is that we do not deserve an opportunity to be saved."

Laing said, "There is no other way. Those who have never heard stand condemned. It's their sin that condemns them, not their lack of hearing. We should not make light of the sin, rebellion involved in refusing to accept Christ."

"God doesn't have a Plan B," Keathley said.

Ultimately, the professors concluded, humanity does not seek to be reconciled to God — with or without being told the Gospel message. Harkening to a passage in Romans 2, Laing said the law, in some degree, is ingrained in humanity, and yet they do not seek God.

He said: "I think we don't take seriously the sin of unbelief; that at its heart is rebellion against God and a rejection of him. It is not as though persons really want to believe in the right God and be good — people by nature really want to be masters of their own destinies."

"We consistently underestimate God's attitude toward sin," Keathley said.

Even with the light of Scripture, Christians still have difficulty reconciling the two eternities. "What we're struggling with," Keathley said, "[is the question] 'Is the punishment proportional? Therefore, is it just?"

That, he said, is a matter of faith. Is God just, he asked? Believers must ask themselves, "Can I trust the character of God when I don't understand what He is doing?"

Because evangelicals in general take hell very seriously, it is no coincidence that they are so mission-minded. Obedience to the Great Commission is the driving force behind mission efforts at home and abroad. Understanding what is at stake adds a sense of urgency to the task, Keathley said.

He gave an example of a pastor — one who believes in and understands the finality of Hell — who is called from his bed in the middle of the night to pray with an unsaved individual who is dying. That pastor responds immediately to the call, not to be a comfort to the family of the dying, but to make an attempt to help secure an eternity in heaven for the ill man.

Keathley challenged Christians to give heartfelt consideration to the nature of hell. Any Christian, he said, who has never stayed awake at night burdened by the fate of the lost has not thought about it enough.

In order to alleviate their distress about such a fate, Laing simply said, "Go tell!"