Good question…Why didn't God stop the process before it started, if He knew of the massive amounts of suffering that would befall many of His creatures?? (con't)


(Beginning of Series, gr5part1.html)


Part Two: Criterion One.

 

Let’s look at each of these criteria  in turn…

 

Criterion One:

 

 

1.       There must be more ‘good’ than ‘bad’ (for the creatures, that is, us)

 

 

This is a most interesting issue, because it is often assumed by ‘objectors’ that the world is full of evil and suffering, that life is more-torture-than-not, and that the evil present world order is not “good enough” to have warranted being created itself (before we even get to the issue of heaven and hell).

 

Now, I have argued elsewhere in the Tank that this is simply not the case. Without falling into the folly of Candide, I would argue that although it might be difficult to defend the position that this world is the ‘best of all possible worlds’, I consider it very defensible to maintain that this world is much , much better than the ‘worst of all possible worlds’, and indeed, that it would fall into the “top half” of possible worlds, based upon simple world and life statistics.

 

Let's look at the two most often mentioned specific areas of alleged "vast" suffering: people and the biotic food-chain (e.g., predation, parasitism, etc).

 

First, evil in human experience.

 

Even at a cursory (non-rigorous) level, it should obvious that:

 

1.        If  life really were more evil than good, then violent crimes should be orders of magnitude higher than they are in the world. Violent crime is measured in single and double digits, within population bases of 100,000 people. Of the approximately 50 million people who died worldwide in 1990 (approximately eight-tenths of one percent of the world population), only 1.4% of those were from intentional, violent crime.  [In the USA in 1997, violent personal crime affected only 4% of the over-12yr population.] These numbers should be vastly higher in a vastly-evil world.

2.        Even a quick fly-by glance at basic vital statistics would suggest that "evil suffering" is not the major part of our lives. Life expectancy: of all the major countries of the world, only three have life expectancies of less than 60 years (i.e., Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa). Refugee counts: even with the widest definitions, only two-hundredths of one percent (.02%) of the world population is classified as refugees. Unemployment: the vast majority of the countries of the world have unemployment under 15%, with the 60+ largest countries having 10% or less. Nutritional mortality: in spite of the fact that perhaps as many as one-third of the world does not eat an 'adequate diet,' deaths from nutrition-related causes only accounts for less than 1 percent of all deaths. These figures should be much, much higher in a world of "more evil than good".

 

3.        If life really were more evil than good, then humanity might have killed itself off long ago, by a combination of homicide, genocide, suicide, xenocide.  But somehow, life “outruns” self-destruction in our history…

 

4.        If life really were more evil than good, then the headlines of the nightly news would not captivate us very well…Plane crashes of hundreds of fatalities, earthquakes with similar body counts, serial killers of dozens of people would all be virtually trivialized by the daily experience in each life on earth(!) of "majority evil". If evil were the majority (i.e., more “bad” than “good”), news of it would not be "news" in the least, and the horrors of concentrated points of evil in history (e.g. the Holocaust, the western Slave Trade) would not provoke such moral outrage or pessimism over human nature as they do…

 

5.        There is a basic philosophical argument, that evil, as parasitic on ‘good’, simply cannot exist in the ‘majority’ or it would starve itself, so to speak. You simply cannot have significantly more vampires than you have live humans…

 

 

So, at a big-picture level, the ‘actual numbers’ are overwhelmingly in favor of  “there is more good than bad, for us humans”, relative to life on earth. This point needs to be taken quite seriously. One moment of pain is unbearable and stark, when it occurs in a life of uninterrupted bliss. But in a life that is characterized by chronic pain, the simple moment doesn't even get noticed...Evil gets 'noticed' by us and is used in a POE(!) BECAUSE it stands in such contrast to ordinary lives of non-evil...The statistics of deaths by violence and actual deaths by hunger,  for example, show these to be very, very non-majority in human life on the planet as a whole.

 

But let’s look a little closer at some related issues…

 

If I had to categorize suffering for this discussion, I might make the following distinctions:

 

a.        “low-grade” suffering or discontent. This might include feelings of modern discontent, alienation, bad situations, and the like. These are difficult to really call ‘suffering’ or ‘torturous’ since they can so quickly be forgotten in moments of happiness, fun, or even co-miseration(!), and since they are generally dwarfed (quantitatively) by the simple pleasures of eating, sleeping, nature, friends, music, love, humor, family, and (often) progress or results, and (sometimes) even victory/triumph over adverstity! These feelings can also often be incitements to better ourselves (“tired of that same old boring job? Try being a XYZ!") as well as clues to the Reality beyond ourselves. Although intellectuals frequently complain about the malaise of life, the common folk, although they constantly complain about bosses, wives, kids, sport figures, politicians, in-laws, taxes, bad food, etc., etc., etc., would not appear so morbid or concerned as the “sensitive elite” might lead us to believe. In this category I would also include the annoyance-level illnesses (e.g, colds), and accidents of non-life-changing nature.

 

b.       systemic discomfort.  This would include “continuous” diseases (e.g., diabetes), accidents that force major changes to lifestyles (e.g., amputations), and physical or mental abnormalities that force systemic changes to our ways of life. Generally, these changes then become routine and become part of the “background” of our lives. We develop “work arounds” for these, and often develop compensatory and off-setting skills as well.

 

c.        “crisis level” suffering. This would include events, accidents, severe emotional trauma, debilitating violent crimes, or onset of some serious disease, which prompt a ‘crisis’ in life. In other words, this type of suffering is episodic or incident-based, and often gives rise to questions of personal identify, existence, purpose, etc.

 

d.       “serious” suffering. This would include painful diseases of chronic nature or long-term torture.

 

 

 

[I am excluding from consideration here, any short-term, intense suffering which is part of a death-experience. In other words, since everyone dies and since dying itself is unpleasant (but generally very brief compared to life), it cannot rank “quantitatively” up there with longer-period suffering types mentioned above. Someone who lives 40 years in general absence-of-intense-pain , and then suffers horribly for three days after a car accident before dying in the hospital, cannot be said to have had a life of “more pain than not”. I am not trying to be insensitive here, but I am simply trying to respond to the 'statistical' argument that 'life is more evil than good' of an objector.]

 

Even the simplest of reflection on the above categories should reveal that the more ‘serious’ the suffering level, the less ‘statistically present’ it is in human experience. Category D is by far and away the most intense, and yet is very rare, statistically speaking. Category C we have already referred to, in noting its “parts per 100,000 people” frequency measurements. Category B is still very small statistically, and most of the elements that would be included do not involve large-term physical pain of intense nature. [They could, of course, be related to C and fall into that category as well. And there are also psychological dimensions associated with each of these categories as well, but that phenomenon is much more variant among people than are the physical aspects. In other words, how one ‘deals emotionally’ with crises, impairments, accidents is much less predictable that the physical pain associated with a broken leg.] And Category A cannot be considered “suffering” in any but the most trivial sense (although for various reasons, they sometimes escalate for various reasons, to Category C).

 

I gave a quote in the earlier part of this that bears repeating here:

 

'[If God were a sadist], He could give us infinitely more pain than we do suffer. He could force us to eat as the drug addict is forced to the use of his drug, by the pain of abstention instead of by the pleasing urge of healthy hunger. All physical functions could be forced by pain instead of invited by pleasure...If God were indifferent, why the variety of fruit flavors for the palate, the invariably harmonizing riot of colors in flower and sunset, the tang of salt air and power to vibrate in joy to these things?...If God loves His creatures all is explained, except death, pain, and sorrow, and these things would indeed present, as they do present to all but believers, an insoluble problem. But the Bible's explanation is clear as crystal: 'Death came by sin,' and the glorious end is as succinctly put as the explanation, 'And God shall wipe all tears from their eyes.'" [Irwin H. Linton, A Lawyer Examines the Bible, Wilde:1943, p.31., cited in Dave Hunt's In Defense of the Faith, Harvest House:1996, p.231]

 

And, to size the problem, let me point out that by far and away, the VAST majority of pain and suffering is preventative--it alerts us to take evasive action to avoid more pain and harm. As such, the vast majority of “suffering” is constructive and helpful, even though unpleasant. By the same token, MUCH adversity and challenge result in personal achievement and community care responses; and many horrendous evils result in public outcry, resulting in macro-shifts in public morality and cultural 'compromises' (e.g., the Holocaust, Bosnia). And even the low-level "whining" of discontent sometimes irritates us enough to better ourselves or to change our situation/future.

 

It is important to remind the reader that to satisfy this criteria only requires that ‘obvious, intense suffering’ be 49% or less of all conscious experiences. It does not require suffering to be at an absolute minimum, or non-gratuitous, or correlated exactly with “virtue” or “vice”. This Poor Man’s theodicy is much more ‘tangible’ and ‘intuitive’, and seems to fit reasonably well with our basic moral notions and decision-making approaches.

 

 

So, I have to conclude that Criterion One is met (for humans) with regards to this earthly life.

 

 

The second case is that of the biotic food-chain of the natural world, with its eat-and-be-eaten, predation, parasitism, etc. Surely such a world constitutes more-suffering-than-good for the animals that must run to avoid being eaten every single day.

 

But the facts are otherwise...

 

An extensive analysis of consciousness, suffering, animal 'happiness', and predation indicates quite clearly that there is considerably "more conscious animal good than bad" in the biotic world. [see predator.html]

 

 

 

So, I have to conclude that Criterion One is met (for suffering-capable creatures) with regards to this earthly life.

 

But, the real wrinkle is thought to arise when the afterlife (specifically, hell) is added into the mix…

 

And in this case, we can divide the classes of conscious creatures (we will deal exclusively with human creatures in this afterlife discussion) we need to deal with into two:

 

1. Those that go to a pleasant afterlife.

2. Those that go to an unpleasant afterlife.

 

 

Most people don't complain about the first class--for the people in that class it is generally accepted that the good that they experience in eternal life with God would dwarf any sorrow and persecution that they experienced on earth. The net effect would be "more good than bad" very, very easily! 

 

In fact, the good they experience is considered to be a "multiple" of their earthly existence. Biblical images of this would include the "much more" of Paul, and the sowing/reaping images.

 

So, that category of folks would definitely seem to experience Criterion One (more good than bad).

 

 

[Note also that if this class were somehow quantitatively in the majority, and if their experience of 'post-death good' was at least as good as the experience of 'post-death bad' was 'bad' for the other class, then Criterion One would be achieved--even without consideration of the nature of the 'bad'. But we cannot assume that here, although it is discussed briefly elsewhere, in hnohear.html ]

 

So, we are left with those that experience what the Christian tradition calls "Hell".

 

Now, there are three dominant views of the duration of Hell today--the traditional view, the universalist view, and the annihilation view (in a couple of variations). [There are other views, of course, but only these three are dominant in evangelical theology—that sphere in which this issue arises most vividly. ]

 

 

First, let’s do the “easiest” one—the universalist view.

 

This view essentially has both a hell and a heaven, but the hell is only temporary. Those not ‘ready’ for heaven go to hell (a place of purging or “remedial” suffering), and after some period of discipline/punish (correlated with their acts of evil during their earthly life), they are released from hell and enter heaven, to experience unending bliss.

 

This position obviously has more ‘good than bad’, for even the cruelest of humans, and accordingly Criterion One is clearly met for all humans under this view of the afterlife (and therefore also applies to the aggregate of people).

 

 

Next, let's do the "easier" one--the annihilation view.

 

There are a couple of variations of the annihilationist view (also known as ‘conditional immortality’), but the one the most relevant for our analysis here would include the following elements:

 

1. The hell-bound are raised from the dead at the final judgment.

2. They are judged and sentenced on the basis of the violence they perpetrated on others during their lifetime (at least those that did not accept some sort of ‘pardon’ offer from God).

3. They are sent to a place/state of punishment (hell) where they receive themselves what they did to others (in some analogous form?). This is a "proportional" judgment/sentence, which might consist of solely 'self-inflicted consequences', but might also involve punishment from external forces (e.g., pain from heat, thirst).

4. When they have served this sentence, since immortality is NOT inherent in humans but is SOLELY an add-on gift from God, they die a second time (the Second Death) and/or are annihilated (simply "poof" out of existence--disintegration like when a cell dies and the components simply disperse?). [Alternately, the punishment itself disintegrates their consciousness over its duration--the image of 'destruction' and 'consumption' and ‘perish’]

 

In this case, the justice element is exact. The damage done by them is the damage done to them (perhaps with a slight penalty up-tick, to account for the destructive ripples in history their acts would have caused, and perhaps with a slight down-tick, to account for any undue oppression done to them). In this case, this temporary state of punishment would not exceed the 'improperly acquired good'  (e.g., extorted) during the earthly life. In other words, if their "default" earthly life were more good than bad, with an abnormal extra "layer" of good gained by oppression and exploitation of others, then the "layer of bad" in hell (proportional to that oppression/exploitation) would simply "cancel out" the extra "layer of good" (resulting in a "net" life of still more good than bad, or perhaps something "close to zero").

 

In this case, the life, although lasting longer than physical death, is still finite, and the judgment (however long) merely compensates for 'excess' good gained by evil actions. Accordingly, under this view of hell, these people would also satisfy Criterion One (more good than bad) although the good would be VASTLY LESS than that experienced by the heaven-bound individuals.

 

[The data to support this view is considerable, and I intend to deal with it as soon as I can get to it.]

 

Notice that the two views above deny explicitly that any human will experience unending, conscious punishment.

 

 

Now, we will deal with the traditional view.

 

[The official Roman Catholic view, with purgatory as a 'staging area' for those who will end up in heaven, falls into this category of traditional. Those in hell are conscious there for forever, and those in heaven likewise. This can be found in the theological works (e.g., Ott, Tanquery), the modern catechisms (e.g., A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults, Seabury:1966, by the bishops of the Netherlands), as well as the compendia of church documents (e.g., editions by Neuner and Roos,  by Neuner and Dupuis).]

 

The traditional view maintains that the souls of all people are inherently immortal (in the Greek sense, not the biblical sense), meaning that all conscious beings remain conscious forever. As beings created within a universe, we are part of our surroundings. We 'put' elements from our character and our choices 'into' our environment, and we 'take in' elements of the environment into our selves. We exist in intake/outtake "dialog" with our surroundings (including our peers). Since much of the environment is "put there" by other agents like ourselves, what happens to one generally trickles out to affect the others (like passengers sharing the air on an airplane flight). In life, my smile might start a chain of smiles, and my scowls might start similar chains at the office...

 

 

When such a 'minimally immortal' soul is placed in the presence of God (a state in which God is 'contributing' much of His internal personal joy, peace, love, well-being into the environment for 'intake' by others), it enjoys the experience and draws creative and healing-integrative life from Him, and from others around Him. When such a soul is placed in the area of God's non-contribution (in which none of the elements of the environment available for 'intake' are contributed from God's internal values, but only from the soul itself and from other souls without that feed also), the result would be unpleasant and degenerative.

 

The 'logic' of hell in the bible is surprisingly simple: You receive back the treatment/effects you gave other agents (including God and yourself) with some kind of multiplier effect. [The bible is full of images of this reciprocity concept: reaping what you sow, being paid back, suffering loss as you had despoiled others, unkindness for unkindness shown, apathy for apathy rendered, 'eye for an eye', proportional judgement, etc.] Most traditionalists also recognize that our exploitative actions toward others also modify our own characters in the process. When I treat people destructively, I also treat myself destructively. When I treat people kindly, I also treat myself kindly.

 

In this model of “interaction with one’s environment,” receiving back any negative treatment/effects you gave to others may consist largely of ‘re-breathing’ one’s own character, soiled by exploitative actions and destructive choices. [There may be other elements as well, externally administered by victims perhaps.]

 

Now at this point I need to do a lot of Dante-debunking...

 

The religious imaginations and speculations about what goes on in hell are staggering, and even famous theologians in the past have not been exempt. The images that (sometimes) influence our perceptions of what hell is like are DECIDEDLY unbiblical and MUST consciously be distanced from. A smattering of these extra-biblical (both Christian and Jewish) images is given by Crockett in Four Views of Hell (Crockett, ed., Zondervan:1992; pp.46-47):

 

"From the second to the fourth centuries, we find no uniform view on the fate of the lost, but from some Christians emerged descriptions of hell that were gruesome beyond belief. Not satisfied with the images of fire and smoke, some of the more creative pictured hell as a bizarre horror chamber. No excess or novelty escaped them. These vivid Christian portraits are similar to, and often dependent on, earlier Jewish accounts of hell.  In both literatures, punishment is based on a measure-for-measure principle, as in the formula, 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth' (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20). For Christians, Jesus' words about final judgment were significant: 'For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get' (Matt. 7:2,NRSV).

 

"In short, whatever member of the body sinned, that member would be punished more than any other in hell (at least they attempted proximate punishment). In Christian literature we find blasphemers hanging by their tongues. Adulterous women who plaited their hair to entice men dangle over boiling mire by their necks or hair. Slanderers chew their tongues, hot irons burn their eyes. Other evildoers suffer in equally picturesque ways. Murderers are cast into pits filled with venomous reptiles, and worms fill their bodies. Women who had abortions sit neck deep in the excretions of the damned. Those who chatted idly during church stand in a pool of burning sulphur and pitch. Idolaters are driven up cliffs by demons where they plunge to the rocks below, only to be driven up again. Those who turned their backs on God are turned and baked slowly in the fires of hell.

 

"Italian poet Dante Alighieri fueled these early speculations with the publication of his Divine Comedy, a popular work that achieved a certain notoriety in western culture.  He imagined a place of absolute terror where the damned writhe and scream, while the blessed bask in the glory of Eternal Light. The descriptions of hell come complete with loud wails of sinners boiling in blood, terrified and naked people running from hordes of biting snakes, and lands of heavy darkness and dense fog. In Dante's hell, people must endure thick, burning smoke that chars their nostrils, and some remain forever trapped in lead cloaks, a claustrophobic nightmare.

 

"Jewish literature is often more graphic than the frightful descriptions of hell found in Christian apocalypses. The rabbis speak of licentious men hanging by their genitals, women who publicly suckled their children hanging by their breasts, and those who talked during synagogue prayers having their mouths filled with hot coals.

 

"Graphic descriptions of hell are not limited to Jews and Christians. The Koran talks about the damned roasting in the flames of hell (Al-Muddaththir 74:28-29) and being forced to drink scalding water and cold pus (Sad 38:57-58).

 

 

 

The traditional evangelical view DOES NOT include the active, monstrous torments that occur in the more speculative religious literature (Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian), in those vivid medieval paintings, in some fundamentalist preaching, or in many skeptics' formulation of this objection!

 

 

To demonstrate this, let me simply quote from two VERY traditional sources, one evangelical protestant (very conservative and holding to the traditional view of hell) and from a modern (but still conservative) Catholic work.

 

The first is from Immortality: The Other Side of Death, by Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland  [CS:IOSD:169-170, 172, 174, 159]:

 

"Before proceeding, though, one more preliminary is in order. We do not accept the idea that hell is a place where God actively tortures people forever and ever. There will indeed be everlasting, conscious, mental and physical torment in various degrees according to the lives people have lived here on earth. But the essence of that torment is relational in nature: the banishment from heaven and all it stands for. Mental and physical anguish result from the sorrow and shame of the judgment of being forever relationally excluded from God, heaven, and so forth. It is not due to God himself inflicting torture."

 

"In response, we should first point out that we would agree that an un-ending hell of moment by moment, active torture by God would be unjust and hard to square with his love and the intrinsic dignity of man. But we have already shown that our understanding of hell is different from the torture-chamber model."

 

"Remember, hell is not a torture chamber, and people in hell are not howling like dogs in mind-numbing pain. There are degrees of anguish in hell."

 

"The Bible describes hell primarily in relational terms--it is 'away from' God. Therefore, it involves banishment from his presence, his purposes, and his followers. Like heaven, hell is a freely chosen destination. What we decide to believe and do in this life sets us on a road leading to a final destination in the next...Hell is also a place of shame, sorrow, regret, and anguish. This intense pain is not actively produced by God; he is not a cosmic torturer. Undoubtedly, anguish and torment will exist in hell. And because we will have both body and soul in the resurrected state, the anguish experienced can be both mental and physical. But the pain suffered will be due to the shame and sorrow resulting from the punishment of final, ultimate, unending banishment from God, his kingdom, and the good life for which we were created in the first place. Hell's occupants will deeply and tragically regret all they lost. As Jesus said, 'For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?' (Matt 16:26)"

 

"The Bible's picture of hell, therefore, indicates that upon death, some people will be translated into a different, nonspatial mode of existence. They will be conscious, and they will await the resurrection of their bodies, at which time they will be banished from heaven and secured in hell where they will experience unending, conscious exclusion from God, his people, and anything of value. This banishment will include conscious sorrow, shame, and anguish to differing degrees, depending on the person's life on earth." [CS:IOSD:160, note: no torture]

 

The second is from a Catholic source, the A New Catechism: Catholic Faith for Adults, Seabury:1966, p.480:

 

"Jesus speaks of the possibility of one's being eternally condemned. We read of 'eternal punishment' (Mt. 25:46). This could be wrongly understood, as if a disaster or even an injustice then befell the damned, as can sometimes happen with punishments on earth. Hence we find it more enlightening to express the same truth by the term 'eternal sin'. The state of cold obstinacy has become eternal. They have become impervious to God, love, goodness, Christ and fellowship. But it was for these things that man was made. It is now a total perversion, sin brought to its fullest self-expression. To be lost means to be entirely closed in on oneself, without contact with others or with God. This is the punishment, the 'second death' (Rev. 20:14). Scripture uses terrifying words to express it: darkness, gnashing of teeth, fire. They need not be taken as literal descriptions. They are apt expressions nonetheless of the dismay at having missed the end and object of existence."

 

Let me point out here that these two sources would not be 'liberal' in ANY sense of the word. They would represent mainstream, conservative, traditional views of hell. Moreland and Habermas, for example, would probably be considered 'literalists' when it comes to the Book of Revelation (probably pre-millennialists). The couple of passages that paint potential "mind-numbing" pictures of torment in hell would not be 'explained away' by these two, but would be given full weight in constructing their comment quoted above. There is no 'softening' of the reality of hell here by them, but there is no Dante here either (they literally refer to hell as "living in a state with a low quality of life"--hardly a description of mind-numbing torment! (p.173))...

 

 

Now, it is important here to make sure we understand this point--that the traditional view of hell does not contain the images of torture of Dante, the Greek and Roman writers, the Jewish pseudepigraphal writers, and many of the early Church Fathers. We must try to see the biblical teaching without these cultural and historical preconceptions.

 

To make sure we understand that the biblical teaching is best summarized this way, let me make a few comments on some biblical passages related to this:

 

1. The first 'long-term judgment' verse in the Bible:

 

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. (Dan 12.2)

 

This is the first verse in the bible that refers to post-death, post-resurrection, long-term effects of this life, for those who actively reject God’s goodness. Notice that the 'quality of life' is described as 'disgrace' and 'contempt'--hardly mind-numbing torture terms! If the hell-experience had been understood as the intense suffering commonly attributed to it, then this verse has focused on very minor aspects of that--to the point of being misleading perhaps.

 

 

 

2. The "weeping and gnashing of teeth" passages:

 

I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (matt 8.11ff)

 

As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.  41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.  42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (matt 13.40)

 

Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.  48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.  49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous  50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13.47)

 

Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (matt 22.13)

 

But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’  49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.  50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of.  51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (matt 24.48ff)

 

Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents.  29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.  30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (matt 25.28ff)

 

There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.  29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13.28ff)

 

The discomfort described here is weeping/sorrow, NOT screaming/pain--contrary to most of the popular images of hell used for this question.

 

Notice that a few of these passages have the 'darkness' and 'fire' images, but the effects are cast in terms of sorrow ('weeping') and anguish/regret/anger ('gnashing of teeth', cf. Acts 7.54, Ps 37.12). Notice especially that in the Lucan passage the weeping occurs "when they see" their own exclusion--it is due to the separation issue, not some torture or pain.

 

Indeed, Moreland/Habermas can say [CS:IOSD:164]:

 

"Since God cannot force his love on people and coerce them to choose him, and since he cannot annihilate creatures with such high intrinsic value, then the only option available is quarantine. And that is what hell is."

 

This needs to be seen clearly. If you look back through the verses above carefully, the weeping and gnashing is explicitly related to ‘exclusion’ from future Kingdom blessings. The weeping is NOT related to some pain of fire, even in the passages that mention that. It is consistent throughout these passages—“but you yourselves thrown out”…

 

 

3. The picture in Luke 16.19ff:

 

Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. 20 “And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 “Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 “And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and *saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 “And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 27 “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “But Abraham *said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 “But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”

 

Notice that this picture of a dead man in some intermediate post-death, pre-resurrection state ('Hades' here), is in "torment" (but cf. 2 Peter 2.8: "for by what he[Lot] saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds"), but is able to carry on a very subdued conversation with Abraham. There is no screaming (or even weeping/gnashing, in this case), and the only request he makes is for a simple 'fingertip' of water for his thirst. There is fire, but it doesn't seem to burn him--it only makes him thirsty/warm. His "quality of life" is equated to the quality of life that the beggar Lazarus had during his lifetime (e.g. lack of getting all of his basic needs met in community). He carries on a reasonable argument with Abraham about his brothers, without alternating the sentences with shrieks and screams of pain. This would be quite a disappointment to Dante...

 

A couple of exegetical notes:

 

1. The Rich Man's word for being in 'agony' is better translated 'anguish'. So, Bock, Luke:

 

"The rich man has gone from self-indulgence to anguish. Luke here uses a different term for suffering than that used in 16:23: 'odynaomai' refers to continual pain and grief, especially mental pain, which is why 'anguish' is a good way to render the term." [cf. its usage in Luke 2.48: "When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” And Acts 20.38: "What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.")

 

2. The only type of anguish alluded to here seems to be thirst (i.e. the Rich Man doesn't seem to have sores, hunger, attending canines--so his situation is already 'less bad' than what Lazarus experienced in life), and this fits the only early Jewish parallel we have. Bauckham describes it [HI:FD:99]:

 

"It will be useful to summarize the earliest of the Jewish versions, which occurs in the Palestinian Talmud (y. Sanh. 23c; y. Hag. 77d). It tells of a rich tax collector named Bar Ma'yan and a poor Torah scholar in Askelon. They die on the same day, but whereas the tax collector is buried in style, the poor pious man is unmourned. A friend of his is troubled by the contrast, until in a dream he sees the poor man in paradise and the tax collector tormented in hell. His punishment is tantalization: he continually tries to drink from a river but cannot."

 

3. The contrasts between the Rich Man and Lazarus (name means 'the help of God') cannot be starker: mansion/outside at gate; feasting/hunger, splendor/squalor, extreme wealth/extreme poverty, burial/none.

 

4. We have no idea how long Lazarus has been a beggar, been at the man's gate begging, or been covered with sores. He is clearly able to talk, but not able to keep the dogs away. The Rich Man, however, probably knows Lazarus' name, since he refers to him by name later in the story (although this may be pressing the details too much).

 



Strictly speaking, this verse AT BEST describes the intermediate state of the Rich Man, between the First Death and the Second Death, as opposed to the “lake of fire” or "hell". It might not be representative of the final state, although the image of ‘fire’ is still present therein. And even the "torment" that the Rich Man feels may be relative to his 'comfort and luxury' experienced on earth.

 

And there is a strong possibility that it teaches almost NOTHING about the next life...Many (conservative and moderate) biblical scholars argue that this picture was not intended by Jesus to be taken as a detailed description of hell, but rather solely as an image of status-reversal (i.e, the last will be first).

 

It is in the form of a rabbinic parable (cf. esp. the many conversations of Abraham in rabbinic lit), and accordingly was ONLY 'parsed' by the reader for the SINGLE lesson point (like "normal" parables are supposed to be taken). Rabbinic parables were never "used" to base factual conclusions on--the audience knew not to make assumptions about the size of Abraham's lap from this, or about the identity of Lazarus.

 

For example, Bauckham does an excellent job of pointing out how difficult it is to sustain the argument that this story teaches ANYTHING OTHER THAN the principle of 'reversal of fortunes' [HI:FD:103-105]:

 

"The first part of the parable (vv 19-26) is solely concerned with the reversal of fortunes of the rich man and Lazarus. The point is that the rich man's luxurious lifestyle in this life is replaced by suffering in the next, while Lazarus's destitution and suffering in this life are replaced by exaltation in the next."

 

"It is sometimes said that the parable does not explain why the fortunes of the two are reversed after death, and so some implicit criterion of judgment must be supplied. It must be assumed that the rich man is condemned because he was not only rich but misused his wealth, or because he acquired it unjustly or because he neglected to give charity to the poor man at his gate.  Similarly, it must be assumed that Lazarus was not only destitute but pious. But the claim that the parable does not explain the reversal of fortunes is untrue. The reason is clearly stated in verse 25, where Abraham justifies the reversal to the rich man. Of course, there is something implicit even in verse 25. It is assumed that the state of affairs in the next world is due to God's justice. The common Jewish eschatological assumption that the next world exists to put right the injustices of this world can be taken for granted. What has to be put right is the fact that one man lived in luxury while another was destitute. The next world compensates for this inequality by replacing it with a reverse inequality. The rich man has already received his good things, it is now his turn to suffer. Lazarus has already suffered enough; he should now be 'consoled'.

 

"For this view of the matter, it is not relevant to condemn the rich man for over-indulgence, dishonesty or even neglecting his duty of charity to the poor (if that means he should have relieved Lazarus' suffering while remaining rich himself. What is wrong with the situation in this world, according to the parable, is the stark inequality in the living conditions of the two men, which is vividly and memorably conveyed simply by the juxtaposition of the rich man's expensive luxury and the poor man's painful beggary (vv 19-2 1). This is why there is no mention of the moral qualities of the two men. The injustice which God's justice in the next life must remedy lies in the mere facts which are stated in verses 19-2 1. To try to base the fate of the two men in the parable on considerations other than these stated facts is to evade the parable's clear-sighted view of the flagrant injustice of the situation it sketches. What is not stated is not relevant.

 

"In effect, therefore, it is true that the rich man suffers in the next life just because he was rich in this life, while the poor man is blessed in the next life just because he was poor in this life. The reasons why scholars have been so reluctant to accept that the parable teaches this, even though it so explicitly does, are no doubt various. Probably some do not themselves see the inequality described at the beginning of the parable as in itself unjust. But then it is characteristic of the Gospel parables to shift our perspective on things. Others perhaps object to the notion that the eternal destiny of individuals should be determined solely by this one consideration. But this would be the teaching of the parable only if we understood it to be a systematic statement about human destiny after death, whereas in fact it is a parable concerned with the single issue of wealth and poverty. Finally, it may be objected that the notion of justice involved in the reversal of fortunes is unacceptably crude. The inequality of the two men's position in this life is not satisfactorily remedied by the imposition of a reverse inequality in the next life (especially if the brevity of this life is contrasted with the eternity of the next).

 

"If the theme of eschatological reversal were taken as a literal description of how God's justice will operate after death it would be morally intolerable. However, if it is taken as a popular way of thinking which the parable uses to make a point, it can be seen as serving primarily to express and to highlight the intolerable injustice of the situation where one enjoys luxury and another suffers want. The motif of the eschatological reversal of fortunes for rich and poor surely belongs properly to the religious folklore of ordinary people, the poor. It is their hope in the justice of God against the injustice of this life as they experience it. Jesus in the parable takes up that perception, that hope and a popular way of expressing it. The parable is one of many indications that Jesus was close to both the religious folklore and the concerns of ordinary, poor people.

 

 

Even the more traditional Bock (Luke, in.loc.), who sees--contra Bauckham--a moral to the story about lack of compassion, points out the problem of using this for details about the afterlife:

 

"Calling the account an example story implies that its details about the afterlife are graphic portrayals, not necessarily actual descriptions of the afterlife." (p.1363)

 

Accordingly, this story may provide no information about the afterlife. But if it does, the information it yields is hardly that of mind-numbing torture.

 

 

 

4. The 'more bearable/tolerable' passage in Luke 10.12ff (par. Matt 10,11):

 

“I say to you, it will be more bearable in that day for Sodom, than for that city. 13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 “But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment, than for you.

 

And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. 24 “Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matt 11.23)

 

"More bearable" or "more endurable" or "more tolerable" is NOT the way you would describe active, conscious, unending, without interruption, mind-numbing torment...In fact, it would probably not be the way you would describe ANY intense suffering of any significant length of time.

 

This is of major importance, and needs to be given its full weight.

 

There are several passages that teach that the severity of judgment varies, of course, but the use of "more bearable" (anektoteron, comparative form of the adj. anektos, from the verb anechomai "to bear, endure") is QUITE surprising. Note that the contrast in the passage is NOT between "unbearable" and "bearable"; or between "more unbearable" and "less unbearable"; but between "bearable" and "more bearable"!

 

This comparative form does not occur often in extra-biblical lit, but Cicero uses it in his letter to Atticus, written from Tusculum in 45 BC:

 

"That's good news about Attica. I am worried about your listlessness, though you say it is nothing. I shall find Tusculum more convenient, as I shall get letters from you more frequently and see you yourself at times: for in other respects things were more endurable (anektotera, a Greek word in the middle of a Latin letter!) at Astura. My feelings are not more harrowed by galling memories here than there; though to be sure, wherever I am, they are with me." (Loeb)

 

"...Otherwise, life was more tolerable at Astura..." (Penguin translation)

 

This word has no 'suffering' content in it, actually, and is only related to annoyance or convenience issues in this passage--Cicero found life generally 'better' at Astura.

 

The verb forms "to bear, endure" have wider attestation than non-verbal forms, and the simple adjective meaning "bearable" or "endurable" shows up in Josephus and 2 Clement, in the normal sense of the word. For example, in Josephus' Antiquities 18.348 we read:

 

"But when they also heard of the worship of those gods whom the Parthians adore, they thought the injury that Anileus offered to their laws was to be borne no longer; and a greater number of them came to Asineus, and loudly complained of Anileus,

 

Here we have the adjective describing the 'injury' of a government regulation, which was "complained about"...Although it doesn't describe the most desirable state for the complainers, it certainly would not describe torment, pain, or hellish experience!

 

What these passages from the lips of our Lord mean for us is this: whatever description we come up with for the experience in hell, it must fall into the range of "bearable" and "more bearable", "tolerable" and "more tolerable".

 

It will NOT do, for example, to conceive of this experience as so intense as to be 'unbearable'. Compare Walls' summary of some of the traditional speculative descriptions by Augustine, Aquinas, Edwards, and Wesley:

 

"This conception of hell could be described paradoxically as unbearable agony and torment which must, nevertheless, be borne. No one can bear up under it, and yet, there is no escape from it or end to it. Moreover, since this conception represents perhaps an unsurpassable notion of misery, it is an appropriate place to end this sketch of traditional depictions of hell." [TH:HLD:147]

 

And, amazingly, hyper-traditionalists can completely miss this "more tolerable" aspect and STILL read-in a Dantean meaning!

 

"In this passage, Christ reveals that there will be degrees of hell. While all sinners in hell will be perfectly miserable, they will not be equally miserable." [Morey, Death and the Afterlife, Bethany:1984, p.153, emphasis mine.]

 

These descriptions form a boundary condition that we will need to be aware of as we continue trying to understand the actual biblical teaching on hell.

 

 

5. A couple of the other biblical images actually describe some type of 'comfort' or 'consolation' there, and many affirm the 'shame' and 'disgrace' motif!:

 

And it came about in the twelfth year, on the fifteenth of the month, that the word of the Lord came to me saying, 18 “Son of man, wail for the multitude of Egypt, and bring it down, her and the daughters of the powerful nations, to the nether world, with those who go down to the pit; 19  ‘Whom do you surpass in beauty? Go down and make your bed with the uncircumcised.’  20 “They shall fall in the midst of those who are slain by the sword. She is given over to the sword; they have drawn her and all her multitudes away. 21 “The strong among the mighty ones shall speak of him and his helpers from the midst of Sheol, ‘They have gone down, they lie still, the uncircumcised, slain by the sword.’ 22 Assyria is there and all her company; her graves are round about her. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword, 23 whose graves are set in the remotest parts of the pit, and her company is round about her grave. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living. 24 Elam is there and all her multitude around her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth, who instilled their terror in the land of the living, and bore their disgrace with those who went down to the pit. 25 “They have made a bed for her among the slain with all her multitude. Her graves are around it, they are all uncircumcised, slain by the sword (although their terror was instilled in the land of the living), and they bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit; they were put in the midst of the slain. 26 Meshech, Tubal and all their multitude are there; their graves surround them. All of them were slain by the sword uncircumcised, though they instilled their terror in the land of the living. 27 “Nor do they lie beside the fallen heroes of the uncircumcised, who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war, and whose swords were laid under their heads; but the punishment for their iniquity rested on their bones, though the terror of these heroes was once in the land of the living. 28 “But in the midst of the uncircumcised you will be broken and lie with those slain by the sword. 29 There also is Edom, its kings, and all its princes, who for all their might are laid with those slain by the sword; they will lie with the uncircumcised, and with those who go down to the pit. 30 “There also are the chiefs of the north, all of them, and all the Sidonians, who in spite of the terror resulting from their might, in shame went down with the slain. So they lay down uncircumcised with those slain by the sword, and bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit. 31 “These Pharaoh will see, and he will be comforted for all his multitude slain by the sword, even Pharaoh and all his army,” declares the Lord God. 32 “Though I instilled a terror of him in the land of the living, yet he will be made to lie down among the uncircumcised along with those slain by the sword, even Pharaoh and all his multitude,” declares the Lord God. (Ezek 32, note that Pharaoh is 'comforted' or 'consoled' [NIV] at seeing his age-old enemies powerless to hurt him. Notice also that the dominant negatives are shame and disgrace...)

 

Thus says the Lord God, “On the day when it [Assyria] went down to Sheol I caused lamentations; I closed the deep over it and held back its rivers. And its many waters were stopped up, and I made Lebanon mourn for it, and all the trees of the field wilted away on account of it. 16 “I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall when I made it go down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit; and all the well-watered trees of Eden, the choicest and best of Lebanon, were comforted in the earth beneath. (Ezek 31.16ff, note that the other nations killed by Assyria ('trees of Eden') were 'comforted' [NIV, 'consoled'] when their slayer joined them in hell.)

 

The grave [Sheol] below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you— all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones— all those who were kings over the nations. 10 They will all respond, they will say to you, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.” 11 All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you.  12 How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! 13 You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. 14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” 15 But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.  16 Those who see you stare at you, they ponder your fate: “Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble, 17 the man who made the world a desert, who overthrew its cities and would not let his captives go home?”  (Is 14)

 

 

 

7. And, oddly enough, as I have pointed out elsewhere [whyjust.html], whatever this quality of life is like, humans themselves agree with its just character:

 

"The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 "The Queen of the South shall rise up with this generation at the judgment and shall condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (Matt 12.38)

 

The Jews of that time expected a human element in this process (BBC, in.loc.):

 

"Jewish discussions of the end times featured converts among the poor who would testify against those who said they were too poor to follow God; converts among the rich, converts among the Gentiles and so on. Here Jesus appeals to pagans who converted. "

 

And in the Luke 16 passage, it was Abraham (the human!) who basically defended the fairness of the situation.

 

 

8. Finally, there is an amazing fact that needs to be pondered (although it cannot be used too strongly in this argument): the word for suffering in the NT (pascho and its derivatives) is NEVER used in any passages speaking of hell/gehenna or of the people entering therein...I find this exceptionally odd, since hell is consistently described by moderns as a place of "intense suffering"...

 

 

[We will take a look at the two 'torture-like' images in Revelation a bit later, but suffice it to say here that even the traditional, conservative interpreters use great caution in trying to get theological propositions out of hyperbole-ridden apocalyptic-genre images!]

 

Now, there is a methodological problem hiding in here, and it concerns what 'final hell' is really like. Too much of the scant information we have deals with the intermediate state (between the first death and subsequent pre-judgment resurrection), which data we have seen is not very supportive of Dante-level views of hell. And the few references to 'final hell' (gehenna) contain NO DESCRIPTIONS of what happens 'there'. So, Bietenhard, in NIDNTT, s.v. 'hell' can flatly say:

 

"In contrast with later Christian writings and ideas, the torments of hell are not described in the NT"

 

Methodologically--if we are going to restrict our data sources to biblical writings only--we are either required to (a) be agnostic about the experiences of the lost in final hell (making assumptions only from the 'separation from God' motif, the "more tolerable" boundary, and dealing very cautiously with the images); or (b) assume that the descriptions of the intermediate state are somehow carried over (perhaps intensified through the presence of a body?) to the final hell.

 

And, since the descriptions of the intermediate state (i.e., 'hades') are often related to the judgment of God, the latter assumption is probably the safest. This would fit the 'lower quality of life' themes noted above.

 

If we have been able to adjust "downward" our images of hell to the above, more biblical notions, we can reflect and speculate upon the character of that experience for a moment. Although we have very, very little data on what life apart from God will be like, the less-violent pictures painted by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce  or by Kierkegaard in Sickness Unto Death may be better guesses than those of the more traditional theologians. In Lewis's fictional portrayal, the people in hell live as they pretty much did in life, but (1) without the 'restriction' to be good to people or to live around other people;  (2) without the natural pleasures or extra benefits that God endows all living humans with (e.g., affections of friendship, expansiveness, good times, satisfaction over completed projects, etc.), and (3) with the ability to completely avoid personal change and development. They go through the motions of their existence, increasing their isolation from others there, and are, at some level, "less personal" or "less real" themselves. They don't even know what they are missing--they settle for less and less over time. [The ancient world knew the dead as 'shades'--mere shadows of their former selves. The degeneration and effect of a "second death" might render the very self a 'lower quality self' in the process, with a corresponding reduction in their experience of suffering.]

 

Other thinkers have argued that hell is not 'isolation' (a la Lewis), but one in which the occupants turn their malice and treachery upon one another. Indeed, many have argued that those in hell have the 'perverse self-satisfaction' that comes from rage, resentment, or arrogant rejection of God. This is not happiness or contentment, by any means, but it is used addictively as a surrogate for authenticity. They become "less human" and less capable of (values-based) human feelings and relationships.

 

The smug satisfaction of a self-superior person, for example, may be the 'deepest' satisfaction or joy they can experience, after a lifetime of self-reducing and self-shrinking moral choices. They would not be truly happy in hell, but their capacity for happiness would have been long since shriveled up and desiccated downward to this inauthentic level,  through myriads of small decisions and intentions...

 

Now, here we are faced with an interesting question: is the contrast between heaven and hell (in the traditional view) a contrast between “a good state and a bad state” (in terms of our discussion here) or between “a great state and a low/neutral state”?

 

 

Let’s explore this for a moment, for this might provide an important insight for us.

 

In the traditional view, one of the standard objections that comes up is that a merciful God would at least “put them out of their misery” (i.e., the annihilationist view). The traditionalists laudably fall back upon biblical exegesis to arrive at their answer, but when they toggle into philosophical mode, they sometimes argue that life has value in itself, and therefore even a “low quality of life” life (i.e., of a person in hell) is better than non-existence.

 

For example, Moreland/Habermas argue (in their fight against the annihilationists):

 

"But there is a more important, fundamental consideration than the ones just listed: For the sake of argument, if we compare extinction with life in hell, it is clearly more immoral to extinguish humans with intrinsic value than to allow them to continue living in a state with a low quality of life. In fact, we do not believe the second alternative is  immoral at all, but the first alternative is immoral." (p.173)

 

"In our view, annihilationism versus the traditionalists regarding hell form a precise parallel to quality-of-life versus sanctity-of-life positions regarding infanticide and euthanasia. Remember, hell is not a torture chamber, and people in hell are not howling like dogs in mind-numbing pain. There are degrees of anguish in hell. But the endlessness of existence in hell at least dignifies the people there by continuing to respect their autonomy and their intrinsic value as persons." (p.174)

 

 

 

If this statement is simply a very rarified statement of ‘value without any benefit to the creature itself’ (i.e., the suffering creature is ‘contributing value’ to the universe by simply existing, but their experience is not of this value, but rather only of suffering), then this hardly parries the objection of the superior mercifulness of annihilation. However, if their statement is that the value/suffering “mix” of the individual is ‘better than’ the “mix” of non-existence (i.e., pure neutrality or zero), then you clearly have a ‘more good than bad’ situation for those in hell.

 

Notice that this reflects a ‘time-smoothed’ view of hell, which we are not certain of at all. The ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ at having missed the chance for such a ‘party’ as the Kingdom(!), may only be an initial response to the judgment; they might then simply resign themselves to shame, remorse, and mutual criticism/contempt (the Daniel verse!) as they begin their ‘self-created new existence’.

 

There might easily be types of "change" within hell, especially since entrance into the final state provokes at least some sorrow and grief. The rabbis of the time of Jesus (at least as explained through the Talmud) had an odd mixture of traditionalism, annihilationism, and a type of 'purgatory'. Cohen summarizes some of the main teachings in Everyman's Talmud (Dutton):

 

"What is the duration of the penalty meted out to the sinful? Does the Talmud teach eternal punishment? There is at least one passage where such a doctrine seems to be implied. [he cites Ber. 28b]...It would, however, be precarious to deduce from a rhetorical utterance like this that the Rabbi actually believed in eternal punishment...The authoritative doctrine is enunciated by R. Akiba in these terms: 'The judgment on the generation of the Flood was for twelve months, on Job for twelve months, on the Egyptians for twelve months, on Gog and Magog in the Hereafter for twelve months, and on the wicked in Gehinnom for twelve months. R. Jochanan b. Nuri said, It endures only the space of time between Passover and Pentecost' (Eduy. II.10), viz. a period of seven weeks." (p.376f)

 

"The locus classicus on the subject reads: 'The School of Shammai declared, There are three classes with respect to the Day of judgment: the perfectly righteous, the completely wicked, and the average people. Those in the first class are forthwith inscribed and sealed for eternal life. Those in the second class are forthwith inscribed and sealed for Gehinnom; as it is said, "Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. xii. 2). The third class will descend to Gehinnom and cry out (from the pains endured there) and then ascend; as it is said, " I will bring the third part through fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried; they shall call on My name and I will hear them" (Zech. xiii. 9). Concerning them Hannah said, "The Lord killeth and maketh alive, He bringeth down to Sheol and bringeth up" (i Sam. ii. 6). The School of Hillel quoted, "He is plenteous in mercy " (Exod. xxxiv. 6); He inclines towards mercy; and concerning them said David, " I love the Lord, because He hath heard my voice and my supplications" (Ps. cxvi. i). The whole of that Psalm was composed by David about them: "I was brought low and He saved me " (ibid. 6). The sinners of Israel with their bodies and the sinners of the Gentiles with their bodies descend to Gehinnom and are judged there for twelve months. After twelve months their bodies are destroyed, and their souls burnt and scattered by a wind under the soles of the feet of the righteous; as it is said, "Ye shall tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet" (Mal. iv. 3). But the sectaries, informers, epicureans who denied the Torah and denied the Resurrection, they who separated themselves from the ways of the community, they who set their dread in the land of the living, and they who, like Jeroboam the son of Nebat and his associates, sinned and caused the multitude to sin (cf. i Kings xiv. i6), will descend to Gehinnom and be judged there generations on generations; as it is said, "They shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against Me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched" (Is. lxvi. 24). Gehinnom will cease but they will not cease (to suffer); as it is said, " Their form shall be for Sheol to consume that there be no habitation for it" (Ps. xlix. 14). Concerning them said Hannah, "They that strive with the Lord shall be broken to pieces" (i Sam. ii. i o). R. Isaac b. Abin said, Their faces will be black like the bottom of a pot' (R.H. 16b et seq.).

 

"We gather from this extract that in the first century one of the principal Schools, influenced by a verse from Daniel, assigned the utterly wicked to eternal punishment; but the other School found such a doctrine incompatible with Divine mercy. Sinners must be penalized. They undergo twelve months of pain and then suffer annihilation because they are unworthy of entrance into Gan Eden. They who have been exceptionally wicked stay in Gehinnom for 'generations on generations.' That this expression does not signify eternity is clear from the statement that 'Gehinnom will cease.' They will not, after their sufferings there, undergo extinction, but will continue in existence as conscious entities--how and where is not explained--in a perpetual state of remorse. (p377-378)

 

The rabbis fully expected the initial 'burst' of punishment to be intense, but temporary. Since the 'insides' of hell are not explained in the New Testament, we have no way of knowing whether or not the situation changes over time.

 

 

In fact, the traditionalist view--from a Wesleyan perspective--makes even stronger claims as to the "value" experienced by the lost in hell.

 

Walls [TH:HLD], in a number of places,  paints a picture of the self-consciousness of those in hell, in strokes similar to C.S. Lewis and Kierkegaard:

 

"Even if the damned get what they want--as I shall argue later--and consequently experience some perverse sense of satisfaction, they still are not truly happy." (p.108)

 

"But if the choice of hell is an intelligible one, there must be something about the subjective experience of choosing evil which can account for why some may prefer it to goodness." (p.126)

 

"Those in hell may be almost happy, and this may explain why they insist on staying there. They do not, of course, experience even a shred of genuine happiness. But because they experience a certain perverse sense of satisfaction, a distorted sort of pleasure...Another way of making this point is by noting that something like happiness may be defined, at a very basic level, as getting what one wants. In view of this, it may be that those in hell approximate happiness in some sense because they get what they want. Lewis's character [Big Ghost, in The Great Divorce], for instance, wants to maintain his feeling of superiority over other persons. He wants to hold on to his feeling that he has been treated unfairly. This gives him a feeling of power and indignation which he relishes." (p.126f)

 

"Perhaps this is one of the clues we need to understand Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus. Although the rich man is in torment, he does not seem ready to repent. To the contrary, he is more concerned to justify himself. This seems to underlie his request that Abraham send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them 'so they will not also come to this place of torment.' Implicit in this request is the suggestion that he himself was not fairly warned about the place of torment. Had he known, he would have lived differently. It is not that he failed to do what he knew was right; he was not properly informed as he should have been. Since he has not been treated fairly, he would at least like his brothers to be." (p.127f)

 

"What all these cases show us, I want to emphasize, is that hell may afford its inhabitants a kind of gratification which motivates the choice to go there. In each case the choice of evil is somehow justified or rationalized. In each case there is an echo of Satan's claim that hell is better than heaven. This belief is what finally justifies and makes intelligible the choice of hell...So conceived, we can say hell is a sort of distorted mirror image of heaven. There is no place in it for the strength of real moral character, but an imitation of this can be had by those who deliberately achieve consistency in evil. It can offer no true righteousness, but it does offer the alternative attraction of self-righteousness. It holds no genuine happiness, but those who prefer it to heaven may savor a deformed sense of satisfaction which faintly resembles real happiness. Hell cannot truly be heaven, or be better than heaven, any more than evil can be good. But this lesson may be finally lost on those who persist in justifying their choice of evil by calling it good." (p.128f)

 

"...it leaves open the possibility of real perversity, the possibility that some may choose evil just because it is evil. Such persons would not be deceived in the sense that they think evil is good in some way. Rather, they recognize evil for what it is. However, I would insist that even perverse persons must gain some sort of satisfaction from their choice of evil. They must take some corrupt pleasure in choosing evil because it is evil. Perhaps such a choice represents the epitome of self-assertion and independence from moral norms. Maybe it gives an illusion of complete autonomy that no other sort of choice does." (p.129)

 

"Now some will find this whole line of argument unsatisfactory and insist that if God is truly merciful, he would either annihilate the damned or allow the damned to annihilate themselves. If God is gracious he would not make people face the consequences of their wrong choices, at least not forever...At this point, the defender of the doctrine of eternal hell may seem to have little recourse except to point out that the objector is relying on a controversial moral judgment which is far from obvious. There is, however, another line to be taken, namely, to challenge the objector's assumption that the damned would want to be annihilated. The objector takes this for granted, but it can be plausibly maintained that the damned may not desire extinction. And if they do not, this strengthens my previous claim that everyone gets what he wants. Some want a loving relationship with God and other persons in heaven, whereas some prefer to cling to their sins in hell, but none finally want total extinction...The obvious rejoinder here is to point out that some apparently desire extinction for they commit suicide. At first glance, this seems to be a decisive objection to the line I have just proposed. It is not, however, for it does not obviously follow from the fact that some commit suicide in this life that the damned would prefer annihilation over existence in hell. Maybe the distorted pleasures of hell are sufficient from the viewpoint of the damned to make life in hell preferable to extinction. If so, it is an act of mercy for God to allow them to retain their existence." (p.137)

 

"This basic account of the misery of the damned accords very much with the traditional emphasis on the spiritual and emotional distress as a central component of the suffering of hell. This suffering is seen as the inherent result of cultivating sinful attitudes and feelings. This is reflected clearly in Wesley's observations that 'unholy tempers are uneasy temper.' Persons who are energized and motivated by such feelings are naturally and necessarily unhappy...This needs to be kept firmly in mind when considering the sort of cases I dealt with in the previous chapters, such as the characters described by Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis. These persons derive a distorted sense of satisfaction from their feelings of rage, resentment, and self-righteousness. The sense of satisfaction must not, however, be exaggerated. It must be viewed within the context of the fact that such feelings are essentially destructive of true pleasure. They are incompatible with genuine peace, joy, and contentment. A person who is enraged cannot be at peace. One who is resentful cannot be contented. And one who maintains a posture of self-righteousness has a contempt for others, as well as a sense of dishonestly, which clashes with real joy." (p.150f)

 

 

Now, in my mind, the theological explorations above (of Lewis, Kierkegaard, and Walls) seem slightly at odds with what little biblical data we have. Although they recognize the non-torture nature of hell, they seem to downplay the two consistent biblical elements in the portrayal of hell:  (1) the definite awareness of loss--the weeping of remorse and regret at self-caused exclusion, and (2) the personal sense of shame/disgrace.  The lost realize their plight, at least at the point of final judgment, and do not (apparently) take positions of self-righteous superiority.

 

But we might be over-exalting the sorrow/shame/anger aspects even. The way I have understood them previously might be paraphrase thus:

 

1. They are sorry for being wrong, and for missing out on their true purpose in life--to know and enjoy God and His people

2. They are ashamed for irrationally resisting His overtures of love, and for their  hard-hearted and evil treatment of others

3. They are angry at themselves, anguished over their failure to seize the awesome opportunity in life to be in God's presence for eternity.

 

But perhaps I give them too much credit at this point, for this model assumes their character becomes honest and "sensitive"  and realistic all of a sudden--in spite of a lifetime of building the opposite character. Perhaps its the other way around--they CONTINUE the (irrational) anti-God responses:

 

1. They are sorry for not being able to maintain their "higher standard of living" or for not being able to keep their power over others. They wanted the food of the Banquet, but not to sit at the table with God. "Still 'greedy,' after all these tears..."

2. They are ashamed of their lower-state, even though they don't want to be any closer to God. They are embarrassed that they didn't "beat the system" like they always did. (And with the criticism of others around them, as in the OT passages about Assyria, this would also add to this sense.) Still self-, material-, and status-centered...

3. They are angry at God and His friends, for 'being right' and for not sharing the blessings with them (arrogantly assuming they still 'deserve' such blessings!) and even for having a good time without them. Still raging against the good and against humility and against love...

 

This later model would fit better with the "rapid completion of character" and "removal of God's restraint" themes, to be sure, and would fit the biblical data (esp. even the Rich Man's post-death attitude in Luke 16, where he seems to treat Lazarus as a servant, asking his 'peer' Abraham to dispatch L. to serve his personal thirst needs!). And this would dove-tail into the characterizations of Lewis/Walls/Kierkegaard.

 

 

But there are other ways to harmonize these positions, if needed. Either the "remorse/disgrace" passages could be limited to those religious leaders of Jesus' day that thought that THEY would be the premier members of the kingdom (a VERY definite 1st century attitude of some of the religious elite); or the lost-in-hell could respond to the initial remorse by constructing walls of self-righteousness, resentment, rage, etc. and begin to experience the situations described by Lewis, Kierkegaard, and Walls.

 

In either case, we still end up with a non-Dante hell, described by Moreland/Habermas as "low quality of life"...

 

If the traditional view can use the phrase “low quality of life” to describe the anguish of eternal exclusion from the “great state” in this way, are we not back into a “more good than bad” situation?

 

 

My purpose here is not to explore the nature of the anguish of hell, as has been done repeatedly by quite prodigious speculators and theologians throughout history. My purpose is simply to make some determination as to whether or not the experience violates Criterion One. If, as the Luke 16 passage (possibly) suggests, the experience of the Rich Man in HELL is on a par with the EARTHLY experience of the poor beggar, then our previous analysis of human experience would also apply to hell, and since Criterion One has been shown to apply to earthly experience, it would therefore also apply to hell.

 

Notice that this would not be impacted in the least by what portion of humanity did not make it to heaven. If everyone went to hell, and hell was still “zero or slightly better than zero”, then Criterion One would still hold! [And, if ANYONE made it to heaven, the overall mix would be that much more improved.]

 

Now, the evangelical might at this point feel quite uneasy, for it might appear that we have taken “the hell out of hell”. If hell now is characterized more by regret and shame and poverty and a self-determined/created experience, than by torture and pain and screaming and victimization by other agents of torment, do we still have the biblical hell at all?

 

And the answer is: “Yes”—because we built this from some of the clear biblical images of post-death experience. (And, to be safe, we even used traditional, literalist theologians to make sure we were not de-Danteing too far). That this "more tolerable" view of hell might surprise us is probably a testimony to the effectiveness of our culture in perpetuating its extra-biblical myths into our worldviews...

 

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Pushback: Whoa, Glenn, you have really gone overboard this time…worse than that stuff about women preachers even!…you have omitted the clearest and strongest torment images in the bible—from the last and final word  in the bible: Revelation…it says clearly “tormented day and night forever and ever”—does it get any clearer than this?

 

Good question…let’s look at those passages and see how ‘clear’ they might be:

 

First Revelation 14.9f:

 

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand,  10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.  11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.”

 

 

And the second is Revelation 20.7ff:

 

And when the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, 8 and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. 9 And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 10 And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. 11 And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

 

 

For some twenty years, these were the proof-texts I used to demonstrate to others that hell consisted of eternal, conscious, active torment. Over the last two years, I have abandoned using these verses in any such way. The problems with (a) understanding them at all(!); and (b) developing a doctrine of hell from these two verses are insurmountable in my opinion, and I simply gave up using them for this.

 

Let me mention some of the difficulties for taking these verses in the traditional way.

 

First, the Rev 14 passage:

 

  1. The torment is said to be in the presence of Jesus (not in hell, but actually in the heavenly throne room).

  2. The torment is a ‘city type’ of torment (e.g., Sodom, Edom), NOT an individual type. See especially Rev 19.3, where this described Babylon.

  3. The “eternal” aspect of this is said by traditionalists to reside in the “eternal smoke” image, but this image was used of VERY finite annihilations/judgments in the OT—events which were not even REMOTELY ‘never-ending torment’

    Compare specifically the OT origin of this image—Is 34 on the judgment on Edom:


”For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah and a great slaughter in Edom.

 

And the wild oxen will fall with them, the bull calves and the great bulls. Their land will be drenched with blood, and the dust will be soaked with fat.

 

For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion's cause.

 

Edom's streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch!

 

It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.

 

The desert owl and screech owl will possess it; the great owl and the raven will nest there. God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos and the plumb line of desolation.

 

Her nobles will have nothing there to be called a kingdom, all her princes will vanish away.

 

Thorns will overrun her citadels, nettles and brambles her strongholds. She will become a haunt for jackals, a home for owls.

 

Desert creatures will meet with hyenas, and wild goats will bleat to each other; there the night creatures will also repose, and find for themselves places of rest.

 

The owl will nest there and lay eggs, she will hatch them, and care for her young under the shadow of her wings; there also the falcons will gather, each with its mate.

 

Look in the scroll of the LORD and read: None of these will be missing, not one will lack her mate. For it is his mouth that has given the order, and his Spirit will gather them together.

 

He allots their portions; his hand distributes them by measure. They will possess it forever and dwell there from generation to generation.”

 

Notice that the images are quite unlike our traditional views of hell. The entire land is said to be eternally on fire (including the water!), but a whole host of flora (thorns, nettles, brambles) and fauna (desert owl, screech owl, great owl, raven, jackals, hyenas, goats, falcons) find ‘rest’ there and grow families (presupposing a much wider range of wildlife and vegetation and water supply)…and the animals possess this place “forever” and “from generation to generation”. One of these images cannot be literal—either the fire one is figurative (probably of war, cf. Amos 2.1ff) or the animal one is figurative. And this matter is settled by the later prophecy of Jeremiah 49, building on the one in Isaiah. In this passage, the punishment on Edom is explicitly related to conquest and dispersion (by the Babylonians):

 

“Concerning Edom. Thus says the LORD of hosts, "Is there no longer any wisdom in Teman? Has good counsel been lost to the prudent? Has their wisdom decayed? 8  "Flee away, turn back, dwell in the depths, O inhabitants of Dedan, For I will bring the disaster of Esau upon him At the time I punish him. 9  "If grape gatherers came to you, Would they not leave gleanings? If thieves came by night, They would destroy only until they had enough. 10  "But I have stripped Esau bare, I have uncovered his hiding places So that he will not be able to conceal himself; His offspring has been destroyed along with his relatives And his neighbors, and he is no more. 11  "Leave your orphans behind, I will keep them alive; And let your widows trust in Me."

 

For thus says the LORD, "Behold, those who were not sentenced to drink the cup will certainly drink it, and are you the one who will be completely acquitted? You will not be acquitted, but you will certainly drink it. 13 "For I have sworn by Myself," declares the LORD, "that Bozrah will become an object of horror, a reproach, a ruin and a curse; and all its cities will become perpetual ruins."

 

I have heard a message from the LORD, And an envoy is sent among the nations, saying,  "Gather yourselves together and come against her, And rise up for battle!" 15  "For behold, I have made you small among the nations, Despised among men. 16  "As for the terror of you, The arrogance of your heart has deceived you, O you who live in the clefts of the rock, Who occupy the height of the hill. Though you make your nest as high as an eagle's, I will bring you down from there," declares the LORD.

 

"And Edom will become an object of horror; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss at all its wounds. 18 "Like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah with its neighbors," says the LORD, "no one will live there, nor will a son of man reside in it. 19 "Behold, one will come up like a lion from the thickets of the Jordan against a perennially watered pasture; for in an instant I shall make him run away from it, and whoever is chosen I shall appoint over it. For who is like Me, and who will summon Me into court? And who then is the shepherd who can stand against Me?"

 

Therefore hear the plan of the LORD which He has planned against Edom, and His purposes which He has purposed against the inhabitants of Teman: surely they will drag them off, even the little ones of the flock; surely He will make their pasture desolate because of them. 21 The earth has quaked at the noise of their downfall. There is an outcry! The noise of it has been heard at the Red Sea. 22 Behold, He will mount up and swoop like an eagle, and spread out His wings against Bozrah; and the hearts of the mighty men of Edom in that day will be like the heart of a woman in labor.

 

Notice in the above passage that the items in bold related both to the ‘wasteland’ image of Isaiah AND to warfare, indicating the figurative nature of the ‘fire’ image. (Notice also, that there would be survivors in the orphans and widows, that God would care for.) Also, this judgment (esp. the “lion” image) is applied to Babylon in Jer 50.44, which referred to the military victory of the Medes/Persians over them.

And, just to make the point of discontinuity even MORE vivid: the passage in Jer 49.14 says that Edom’s cities will be “everlasting”  ruins (heb. Olam). But ‘everlasting’ doesn’t mean a whole lot in this context, for Judah is said to be in “everlasting ruins” in Jeremiah 25.9 (as a result of the exile). The Psalmist in 74.3 prays to YHWH to look at His temple—an “everlasting ruin”—right before YHWH begins the rebuilding program, and in Is 58.12 the “everlasting ruins” of the nation are promised to be rebuilt by God. We know that "everlasting" is often used hyperbolically like this (indeed, George Foot Moore suggests that the 'eternal contempt' of Dan 12 might be hyperbolic, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, vol II. P. 297).

 

What this does to our ‘smoke rises forever’ image is drastically reduce its force—it is neither fire, smoke, nor forever…it IS judgment, to be sure, but to make this image into something not intended by the biblical authors is misguided.

 

 

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Pushback: "Well, Glenn, I agree that  most people DO understand the imagery to be full of non-literal symbols, but the reality behind the symbols must be MUCH, much worse. Therefore, your downgrading of this is obviously false."

 

Actually, in the Biblical literature, the OPPOSITE is true--the symbols are much, much worse, and hyperbole and exaggeration were the norm in public discourse. This can be easily seen from just a couple of genres.

 

1.  Jewish oracles/poetics of judgment in the OT, the symbols are much worse than the reality. Judgment is spoken of in massive terms, and even small battles over small villages and kingdoms (Edom was the smallest nation in the area!) are described in geo-astronomical terms (e.g., earthquakes, tidal waves, sun being darkened, stars falling from the sky, powerful fires).

 

Let me give just a few examples (there are many, many of these):

 

a. Ezekiel 20.45ff we read:

 

"The word of the LORD came to me:  46 “Son of man, set your face toward the south; preach against the south and prophesy against the forest of the southland.  47 Say to the southern forest: ‘Hear the word of the LORD. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it.  48 Everyone will see that I the LORD have kindled it; it will not be quenched.’”  49 Then I said, “Ah, Sovereign LORD! They are saying of me, ‘Isn’t he just telling parables?’” 

 

Notice how sweeping the images are:

 

1. the fire will consume ALL the trees

2. the blazing flame will NOT BE QUENCHED (sound familiar?)

3. EVERY face will be scorched by this NEVER-QUENCHED flame

 

And notice that the audience ASSUMED it was parabolic(!)--and this might be an important clue to us, when confronted with such imagery and language.

 

This passage is followed in the biblical text by a "more literal" version of it (according to most commentators) in 21:

 

"The word of the LORD came to me:  2 “Son of man, set your face against Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuary. Prophesy against the land of Israel  3 and say to her: ‘This is what the LORD says: I am against you. I will draw my sword from its scabbard and cut off from you both the righteous and the wicked.  4 Because I am going to cut off the righteous and the wicked, my sword will be unsheathed against everyone from south to north.  5 Then all people will know that I the LORD have drawn my sword from its scabbard; it will not return again.’ 6 “Therefore groan, son of man! Groan before them with broken heart and bitter grief.  7 And when they ask you, ‘Why are you groaning?’ you shall say, ‘Because of the news that is coming. Every heart will melt and every hand go limp; every spirit will become faint and every knee become as weak as water.’ It is coming! It will surely take place, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

 

8 The word of the LORD came to me:  9 “Son of man, prophesy and say, ‘This is what the Lord says: ”‘A sword, a sword, sharpened and polished— 10 sharpened for the slaughter, polished to flash like lightning! ”‘Shall we rejoice in the scepter of my son Judah? The sword despises every such stick. 11 ”‘The sword is appointed to be polished, to be grasped with the hand; it is sharpened and polished, made ready for the hand of the slayer. 12 Cry out and wail, son of man, for it is against my people; it is against all the princes of Israel. They are thrown to the sword along with my people. Therefore beat your breast. 13 ”‘Testing will surely come. And what if the scepter of Judah, which the sword despises, does not continue? Declares the Sovereign LORD.’

 

14 “So then, son of man, prophesy and strike your hands together. Let the sword strike twice, even three times. It is a sword for slaughter— a sword for great slaughter, closing in on them from every side. 15 So that hearts may melt and the fallen be many, I have stationed the sword for slaughter at all their gates. Oh! It is made to flash like lightning, it is grasped for slaughter. 16 O sword, slash to the right, then to the left, wherever your blade is turned. 17 I too will strike my hands together, and my wrath will subside. I the LORD have spoken.”

 

Notice how a traditionalist commentator explains this (EBCOT):

 

"Having surveyed the history of Israel's rebellion and found the nation deserving of judgment in Ezekiel's day, God announced and described the judgment that he was about to bring on Judah. Four messages described God's judgment by Babylonia (cf. vv. 45; 21:1, 8, 18). The first message consists of a parable (vv. 45-49) and its explicit interpretation (21:1-7). The parable described a forest fire in the southern forests that burned every tree, whether green or dry (vv. 46-47). Each person would see that God kindled the unquenchable fire (v. 48). The parable emphasized the "south" by using the three most common Hebrew terms for that direction (cf. Notes). The southern forest referred to the southern kingdom of Judah, a forested area in biblical times, even into the upper Negev.

   

"Verse 49 provides a transition between the parable and its interpretation. Ezekiel's hearers were frustrated. Ezekiel, the old parabolic speaker, was at it again. This was another one of those parables they did not understand. Therefore, God would give the interpretation.

 

"1-5 The parable's interpretation was revealed in these verses. Ezekiel was instructed to "set [his] face toward the south" (20:46). The south was defined as Jerusalem, its sanctuaries, and all the land of Israel (which was then Judah) (v. 2). The fire in the parable (20:47) represented a sword of judgment (v. 3), i.e., the sword of Nebuchadnezzar and his armies (cf. vv. 18-27). The green and dry trees symbolize the righteous and the wicked, respectively. God's judgment would be comprehensive. When God would pour out his wrath on the sinner, the effects would cover the entire land from north to south. Each person would be touched by the sword of his fury (vv. 4-5; cf. 20:47). Both the righteous and the wicked would experience the land's devastation. Everyone would know that the Lord was the one who brought the judgment (v. 5; cf. 20:48).

 

"6-7 The effects of God's wrath on Judah would also be devastating. The people would lose strength. Ezekiel communicated these emotional responses to the people by groaning as one who was in emotional distress and in bitter anguish. When the exiles inquired as to the cause of his grief, he would tell them that he was a sign of the emotional distress they would have when God's judgment would come. At that time their hearts would melt, their spirits would faint, and their hands and knees would become weak like water (vv. 6-7). This would happen. This was not just a scare tactic. God declared that this judgment would "surely take place."

 

Here was case where the symbol of unquenchable fire burning down the entire forest and scorching everyone's face was worse than the actual Fall of Jerusalem itself (literally).

 

 

b. Deut 32.22f:

 

For a fire has been kindled by my wrath,

    one that burns to the realm of death below.

  It will devour the earth and its harvests

    and set afire the foundations of the mountains.

 "I will heap calamities upon them

    and spend my arrows against them.

 

EBCOT comments:

 

"The result of the Lord's anger (v. 22) is described as a world-embracing cataclysm of fire adversely affecting three entities: the realm of death (whether the afterlife or the grave for dead bodies), the earth and its harvests (its productivity), and the very foundations of the mountains (Ps 18:7). In its context this is hyperbolical language to represent the frightful carnage to which Israel will be exposed because of infidelity to the Lord. The calamities of v. 23 are those experiences that affect men adversely. These disasters or calamities will be heaped on Israel, and the Lord's arrows will be used up against his people.

 

 

 

c. David's psalm in 2 Sam 21 (Psalm 18) after having been delivered in battle from the Philistines and from Saul:

 

 In my distress I called upon the Lord, And cried to my God for help; He heard my voice out of His temple, And my cry for help before Him came into His ears.

7 Then the earth shook and quaked; And the foundations of the mountains were trembling And were shaken, because He was angry.

8 Smoke went up out of His nostrils, And fire from His mouth devoured; Coals were kindled by it.

9 He bowed the heavens also, and came down With thick darkness under His feet.

10 And He rode upon a cherub and flew; And He sped upon the wings of the wind.

11 He made darkness His hiding place, His canopy around Him, Darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies.

12 From the brightness before Him passed His thick clouds, Hailstones and coals of fire.

13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens, And the Most High uttered His voice, Hailstones and coals of fire.

14 And He sent out His arrows, and scattered them, And lightning flashes in abundance, and routed them.

15 Then the channels of water appeared, And the foundations of the world were laid bare At Thy rebuke, O Lord ,At the blast of the breath of Thy nostrils.

16 He sent from on high, He took me; He drew me out of many waters.

 

Strictly speaking, this psalm is a 'spoof' of Caananite deities--all of whom YHWH has conquered in David's battle, but the imagery is also consistent with most of Israel's 'numinous' language.

 

 

d. David's prayer for victory (after an apparent setback) in Psalm 60:

 

O God, Thou hast rejected us. Thou hast broken us; Thou hast been angry; O, restore us.

2 Thou hast made the land quake, Thou hast split it open; Heal its breaches, for it totters.

3 Thou hast made Thy people experience hardship; Thou hast given us wine to drink that makes us stagger.

4 Thou hast given a banner to those who fear Thee, That it may be displayed because of the truth. [Selah].

5 That Thy beloved may be delivered, Save with Thy right hand, and answer us!

 

EBCOT comments:

 

"There are sad moments in the history of the people of God. God has promised to be with his people; but in his own inscrutable wisdom, he seems to abandon them. This psalm raises the issue of divine abandonment and challenges the godly to abandon themselves to the love and compassion of a wise God. According to the superscription, this psalm alludes to David's success in Aram Naharaim, Aram Zobah, and Edom (cf. 2 Sam 8:1-14; 10:16; 1 Chronicles 18:1-13). Apparently the successes were not always immediate, as this psalm is a community lament in which the people pray for God's success after an apparent defeat.

 

"It is evident that adversity has strained the covenant relationship between God and his people. The people feel that God's temporary abandonment of them has brought them nothing but trouble. Seven verbs emphasize the divine initiation: "you have rejected ... [you] burst forth ... you have been angry.... You have shaken ... and [you have] torn it open.... You have shown ... you have given" (vv. 1-3).

 

"Rejection, even though for a brief time, is serious (v. 1; cf. v. 10; 44:9, 23; 74:1; 77:7; 89:38), because it results from God's anger (v. 1; cf. 2:12; 79:5; 1 Kings 8:46). His anger is like "wine that makes us stagger" (v. 3; cf. 75:8; Isa 51:17, 22; Jer 25:15-29); its impact is felt throughout. God's people live a meaningless existence without his presence. They take defeat seriously, because divine abandonment is the most miserable condition. The psalmist likens abandonment to a state of war (v. 1; NIV, "burst forth"; cf. Judg 21:15 [NIV, "made a gap"]; 2 Sam 5:20; like the breach in a wall; cf. Isa 5:5), to an earthquake (NIV, "you have shaken ... torn it open;... it is quaking," v. 2; cf. 18:7; 46:3, 6; Isa 24:18-20), and to a state of intoxication (v. 3; cf. 75:8; Isa 51:17, 21-22).

 

 

e. The locust invasion of Joel 2 (foreshadowing the invasion of Assyria, as well):

 

At the sight of them, nations are in anguish; every face turns pale. 7 They charge like warriors; they scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line, not swerving from their course. 8 They do not jostle each other; each marches straight ahead. They plunge through defenses without breaking ranks. 9 They rush upon the city; they run along the wall. They climb into the houses; like thieves they enter through the windows.  10 Before them the earth shakes, the sky trembles, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine. 11 The LORD thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful. Who can endure it? 

 

 

 

 

f. The OT/Taanach judgment on Babylon:

 

See, the day of the LORD is coming —a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger— to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. 10 The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. 11 I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. 12 I will make man scarcer than pure gold, more rare than the gold of Ophir. 13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger. (Is 13:9-13, addressed to Babylon vss. 1, 19; and indicating the means--Medes/Persians--in verse 17)

 

Stein points out [DSIG:62]:

 

"The prophecy given here is addressed to Babylon (13:1, 19). God will judge Babylon for her many evils. This is certain! Yet the terminology used is certainly not literal, for the stars and moon did not cease giving their light and the sun was not dark in its rising when Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 B.C. We have here, in the idiomatic language of judgment, picturesque descriptions of the impending destruction of the Babylonian Empire. Judgment did indeed come upon Babylon when it was absorbed by the Persians and the once mighty kingdom simply ceased to exist. The genre of prophetic judgment, however, does not demand a literal fulfillment of every detail of its impressionistic terminology. Such prophecy finds its fulfillment in the fact that judgment does indeed take place. Similar examples of exaggeration and hyperbole in prophetic judgments include Deuteronomy 28:25-46; Isaiah 3:24-4:1; 33:9; 34:1-15; Jeremiah 4:11-13, 23-26; 15:8; Amos 8:9; Nahum 1:4-5; Habakkuk 1:6-9; 3:10-12; and Zechariah 2:4-5.

 

Since the images in Revelation are taken dominantly from the images in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, this alone should caution us about making the images carry too much ‘detailed’ and ‘sweeping’ content.

 

 

 

2. In addition to contexts of judgment (the actual context of OUR discussion), there are literary contexts of hyperbole and overstatement, with which the Bible and the Gospels are filled. Stein has collected many instances of this, and even formulated guidelines for detecting exaggeration in the teachings of Jesus (DSIG). It was quite standard practice in biblical Israel, the rabbinic writers, and on the lips of Jesus.

 

Just a partial listing from Stein of the cases he adduces should demonstrate this (many of these have rabbinic parallels or analogs):

 

q       Matt 7.3f: And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5 “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. [Logs don't fit in eyes]

q       Matt 5.29f: And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 “And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. [ Self-mutilation doesn't solve lust problems, especially if you leave one eye in!]

q       Matt 6.6: But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. [Jesus was not opposed to public prayer!]

q       Mark 13.2: Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down.” [There are some of the foundation stones still visible today.]

q       Matt 5.23: If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. [A Galilean, leaving a live goat at the temple in Jerusalem, until he had made a trip back to Galilee to seek reconciliation there, would likely not find his goat there when he returned in a few weeks...]

q       Matt 26.52: Then Jesus *said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. [Not all soldiers die violently.]

q       Mark 10.24: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” [Obvious, but I should point out that the story of the Needle Gate is a apocryphal story made up in the Middle Ages. Also, there are several rabbinic parallels about elephants going through the eye of a needle.]

q       Luke 14.26: If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27 “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. [Hating is well known as hyperbole here, as is the reference to carrying a wooden cross around.]

q       Matt 6.2f: But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4 that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. [How long can you keep that a secret from your other hand?]

q       Mark 9.23: All things are possible to him who believes. [We cannot become God, etc.]

q       Matt 5.42:  Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.   (with 2 Thess 3.10)

q       Matt 10.34: Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. [No real swords here, only division.]

q       Matt 7.7f: For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened. [Many have been frustrated and wounded by not understanding this as overstatement and generalization...]

q       Mark 11.22: Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it shall be granted him. [Obvious]

q       Matt 6.24: No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. [Jewish day laborers often had two or more clients each day.]

q       Matt 18.23-35: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 “And when he had begun to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 “But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 “The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’ 27 “And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.  (the yearly income of Herod the Great was only 900 talents, according to Josephus, but this king forgave a debt of 10,000!)

q       Luke 14.18: A certain man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; 17 and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. [Nobody came?]

q       Luke 17.5ff: the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you. [Obvious]

q       Luke 10.19: Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall injure you. [Plenty of things hurt the early Christians, even sometimes reptiles]

 

To his, we might add Matthew 6.2: When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. [BBC: "Some commentators have taken the trumpet sounding literally, but it is hyperbolic (people did not blow trumpets when giving alms) and may reflect a play on words (charity boxes were often shaped like trumpets)."

 

So, the actual data of the biblical text leads me to believe the OPPOSITE of the slogan "the reality is worse than the symbol"

 

...............................................................................

Okay, back to the discussion on Rev 14 and 20...

 

A relevant case in point would be the "eternal worms" and "unquenchable fire" images used sometimes of gehenna by our Lord. This image derives from Isaiah 66, in the section on the New Heavens and the New Earth:

 

"For just as the new heavens and the new earth Which I make will endure before Me,” declares the Lord, “So your offspring and your name will endure.  23 “And it shall be from new moon to new moon And from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me,” says the Lord.  24 “Then they shall go forth and look On the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, And their fire shall not be quenched; And they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind.”

This description of the New Jerusalem (cf. Rev 21-22), with its reference to burning and rotting corpses (in full view of the redeemed/the world), seems at odds with the image of the unredeemed being cast 'bodily' into the lake of fire in Revelation (not part of the New Heavens and Earth). The image in Isaiah is clearly one of 'exclusion' from the benefits of the New Creation, and this exclusion motif is carried on in the Revelation passages as well:

 

And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 And the nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it. 25 And in the daytime (for there shall be no night there) its gates shall never be closed; 26 and they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; 27 and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev 21.23)

 

 Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. (Rev 22.14)

 

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, 4 and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” 5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” 6 And He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. 7 “He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8 “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Rev 21.1ff)

 

Notice the emphasis is on exclusion from the 'good stuff' (in Isaiah and in Revelation)--NOT some pain from the immortal worms or refuse fires. This would argue that Jesus' use of this vivid image is consistent with the 'thrown outside' images He generally used to portray the final judgment (noted above). ]

 

Stein [DSIG:35] identifies this image of Isaiah as hyperbole as well:

 

"To have the worm present in the description of the judgment of the unrighteous is understandable; to have unquenchable fire present is likewise understandable; but to have both present together is not, for the fire would kill the worm. To claim that Isaiah conceived of a new kind of worm, an asbestos worm as it were, is to miss the point. The worm and the unquenchable fire are two well-known metaphorical portraits of judgment. Placing them side by side simply reinforces Isaiah's proclamation of the certainty of the judgment.

 



  1. The traditionalist, evangelical, pre-millennialist commentator in EBCOT points out that this is rather inconclusive in this verse:


”John's imagery conveys a sense of finality and sober reality. It is not clear whether the imagery points only to permanency and irreversibility of God's punitive justice or whether it also includes the consciousness of eternal deprivation”

 

 

 

Next, the Rev 20 passage:

 

  1. The eternal torment mention is applied only to the Devil, the Beast, and the False Prophet—not to their followers (who are said to be devoured by fire from heaven in verse 9). The devil is clearly an angel, but the Beast is difficult to identify as being an individual human or a group of humans or a nation or a “movement” or a spirit (the biblical data in Revelation and the other Johannine literature is all over the map on this one). Indeed, Alan F. Johnson, a traditionalist, points out in EBCOT this lack of precision:

 

“The description John gives (in chapter 13) of the beast from the sea does not describe a mere human political entity such as Rome. Rather, it describes in archetypal language the hideous, Satan-backed system of deception and idolatry that may at any time express itself in human systems of various kinds, such as Rome. Yet at the same time John also seems to be saying that this blasphemous, blaspheming, and blasphemy-producing reality will have a final, intense, and, for the saints, utterly devastating manifestation.

“Yet the same paradox found in chapter 12 also appears here in chapter 13. While the dragon (ch. 12) is, on the one hand, defeated and cast out of heaven, on the other hand, he still has time and ability to wage a relentless war against the people of God. Likewise, the beast (ch. 13) has been dealt a fatal blow by the cross of Christ and yet still has time and ability to wage war against the saints. He appears to be alive and in full command of the scene; his blasphemies increase. What the sea beast cannot accomplish, he commissions the earth beast to do (vv. 11 ff.). All three--the dragon, the sea beast, and the earth beast--though distinguishable, are nevertheless in collusion to effect the same end: the deception that led the world to worship the dragon and the sea beast and the destruction of all who oppose them... It is this description that leads to the fourth reason why identifying the beast exclusively with any one historical personage or empire is probably incorrect. In John's description of the beast, there are numerous parallels with Jesus that should alert the reader to the fact that John is seeking to establish, not a historical identification, but a theological characterization (though in this there is no implication against the historicity of Jesus): Both wielded swords; both had followers on whose foreheads were inscribed their names (13:16-14:1); both had horns (5:6; 13:1); both were slain, the same Greek word being used to describe their deaths (sphagizo, vv. 3, 8); both had arisen to new life and authority; and both were given (by different authorities) power over every nation, tribe, people, and tongue as well as over the kings of the earth (1:5; 7:9; with 13:7; 17:12). The beast described here is the great theological counterpart to all that Christ represents and not the Roman Empire or any of its emperors. So it is easy to understand why many in the history of the church have identified the beast with a future, personal Antichrist.

 

But the question must remain open as to whether John in the Apocalypse points to a single archenemy of the church--whether past or future or to a transhistorical reality with many human manifestations in history. Thus the imagery would function similarly with regard to the image of the woman of chapter 12 or the harlot of chapter 17. If such is the case, this does not mean that John would have denied the earthly historical manifestations of this satanic reality; but it would prevent us from limiting the imagery merely to the Roman Empire or to any other single future political entity.

 

 

The False Prophet has a similar imprecision. It is identified with the ‘land beast’ in " (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). Like the other ‘beasts,’ it can be understood as impersonal (and even identical with the other Beast). So EBCOT:

 

“While recognizing that no view is without problems, the following discussion takes the position that the land beast is John's way of describing the false prophets of the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:24; Mark 13:22). This identification is consistent with the previously stated view of the sea beast as describing not just a specific political reality but the world-wide anti-God system of Satan and its manifestation in periodic, historical human antichrists. The land beast is the antithesis to the true prophets of Christ symbolized by the two witnesses in chapter... If the thought of a nonpersonal antichrist and false prophet seems to contradict the verse that describes them as being cast alive into the lake of fire (19:20), consider that "death" and "Hades" (nonpersons) are also thrown into the lake of fire (20:14).

 

Accordingly, I don’t get a very good feeling about even the referents in this verse, much less what its imagery means (other than the finality and factuality of final judgment on the forces of evil, which may be the ONLY point of the image, as in the one-major-point parables.)



  1. In Verse 14, “death” and “hades” are said to be thrown into this lake of fire. I can find no other reasonable explanation of these images OTHER THAN their ‘annihilation’ (“death shall be no more”, the “last enemy to be destroyed is death”). I have difficulty even imagining what John saw as he described this. Were these the Death and Hades horse riders from chapter 6.7 (“And when He broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” 8 And I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. And authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.”). If so, what is the content of the immediately preceding verse 13: “and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them”?

  2. The dead are judged and some are thrown into the lake of fire, but there is no indication of never-ending torment (or existence for that matter) for them, and, since this event follows the description of death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire, it might indicate an annihilation, as G.B. Caird in his commentary on Revelation argues (both 14 and 20, bold is his):


"These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire, which, although they must share it with their human followers, to whom it means annihilation, means something different for beings seemingly incapable of death." (at 14.20)

"John has allowed for the possibility that a man's name may be expunged from the look (iii.5), that human disobedience may in the end prove impregnable to the assaults of love. For such people the presence of God could be nothing but a horror from which they, like the earth they made their home, must flee, leaving not a trace behind. For them there remains only the annihilation of the second death. In justice to John let it be noted that the lake of fire is not for men, as it is for the demonic enemies of God, a place of torment." (at 20.12)



  1.  Even the “geography” of this lake should warn us about pressing this too closely. The images STILL focus more on exclusion than on torment. This “lake” is called the Second Death in 20.14. In 21, the New Heavens and New Earth are described, along with the New Jerusalem:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, 4 and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” 5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” 6 And He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. 7 “He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8 “But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

Notice in verse 8 the excluded ones are NOT residents of this new place, but rather are consigned to the lake/second death.

And in 21.14, the theme comes back to exclusion:


Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.


  1. The fact that this lake is ALWAYS called “the second death” when dealing with humans (as opposed to angels or demons) leads me to question the traditional understanding of this verse. The use of ‘second death’ here by John brings to mind the various “not perish” passages in John (e.g., 3.16; 10.28), Paul (Rom 2.12; 1 Cor 1.18; 15:50; 2 Cor 2.15; 4:3; 2 Th 2.10) and Peter (2 Pet 3.9), which are generally contrasted with continuing existence (cf., e.g., John 3.16; 6.27; 10:28; Heb 1.11). This data, although not conclusive in itself, seems to not warrant using this passage as an support for never-ending conscious torment of normal humans.

 

 

There are other exegetical issues here, but these are enough for me to 'back off' from understanding these this way any longer.

 

Accordingly, I cannot in good conscience use these verses to support the traditional view.

 

...............................................................................................................................................

 

Now, apart from the questionable interpretations of these last two Revelation verses, the biblical images of hell are much more in line with a ‘lower quality of life’ view. The few pieces of data we have (noted above) indicate something more like the C.S. Lewis view than the Dante view (but remember my point about making sure the self-awareness of loss remains, whether motivated by anti-God sentiment or my sudden-honesty development).

 

Let me summarize my conclusions to this point:

 

  1. Under the Universalist position, conscious experience is clearly “more good than bad” for everyone.

 

  1. Under the Conditional Immortality/Annihilation view, conscious experience is clearly “more good than bad” for everyone.

  2. Under the Traditional view (i.e., some human creatures have unending conscious experience in a low quality of life state called ‘hell’), conscious experience is still “more good than bad” for everyone.

  3. Under both the Annihilation and Traditional views, there is a large class of people whose experience is “VASTLY more good than bad”.

 

 

On to the next section...[gr5part3.html]

 


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