Perhaps the most vivid and grisly depiction of the popular version of Hell was created by the Italian author, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). His Divine Comedy traced his own journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. The work is considered a masterpiece of world literature. The story was translated into English by no less a personage than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I have a copy of the 136 outstanding illustrations by Gustave Doreˊ(1832-1883) that accompanied that version. The cover depicts Bertram de Born holding aloft his own severed head.
Dante’s work, and its vivid illustrations, depicted the ideas of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise that captured the popular mind in the 13th century. In Hell the souls of the damned suffered everlasting torment at the hands of hateful, sadistic demons.
Purgatory was viewed as a place from which one could escape after suitable punishment.
One hundred sixty-eight years after Alighieri was born, the Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, arrived on the scene. His oil paintings of The Last Judgment and Hell are equally disturbing. Helpless naked people are skewered with sticks by black demons. Critics believe that Bosch’s paintings were consistent with the orthodox beliefs of his age. Sermons and medieval didactic literature express similar themes.
From the time of the Church Fathers to the present, art, poetry, literature and theological writing have often depicted the belief that man’s immortal soul must, at death, go to one of two – perhaps three – places: heaven, an ever-burning hell, or, for Catholics, purgatory. (The word “purgatory” is derived from the Latin purgation, “cleansing.” The doctrine was formulated primarily at the Councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1563). It is supported by a verse in II Maccabees 12:45 which reads, “Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin,” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994 edition, pp. 268-269). Protestants do not recognize that book as canonical.
For our purposes here, we focus mainly on the doctrine of hell as taught by the Protestant and Catholic churches – each of which recognizes a different Canon and interpretive authority.
The doctrine that the immortal souls of the unsaved go to an ever-burning hell, there to suffer consciously and without relief for all eternity is taught by a majority of Christian churches and their leaders and theologians. Perhaps the most famous line from Dante’s work is: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here,” (Divine Comedy, III, 9). In his book Hell, Bill Wiese cites dozens of references to support his belief in that sort of place. Included are Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, The McArthur Study Bible and many others. Matthew Henry says, “God has not in His word represented his wrath more terrible than it really is, nay, what is felt in the other world is infinitely worse than what is feared in this world,” Hell, p. 231.
The fact is, this horrendous teaching is predicated upon the doctrine of the immortal soul – a pagan Greek idea that was brought into the early church by the gentile Greek “fathers” who were enamored with Greek philosophy. (Note Paul’s warning about that – Colossians 2:8.) We have already seen that the immortality of the soul, as it is commonly taught in churches, is unscriptural. Consequently, all that flows from it must be equally bogus. Furthermore, not all Christians believe in the doctrine, or in the notion of the unsaved soul’s endless torment in hell.
The Doctrine of Annihilationism
Those who do not believe in a Dante-esque version of Hell tend to accept the doctrine of annihilationism. That is the belief that those who continue in sin – those who are forever lost beyond redemption – will be annihilated. They will not suffer forever in unrelenting torment while their former brethren enjoy the company of God and Christ forever. Among those who believed in annihilationism were, or are, Arnobius (300 AD), Edward Fudge, Clark Pinnock. John R. W. Stott, B.B. Warfield and John Wenham.
Clark Pinnock, a prominent name in Evangelical circles, and a professor at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, writes about “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent.” Explains Pinnock, “…it was Augustine [354 – 430 AD] who gave the church the standard way of thinking about hell, a way which would become dominant for the next millennium and a half. Specifically he taught us to view hell as a condition of endless torment of conscious persons in body and soul.” Augustine believed, states Pinnock, that, “God plans to torture the wicked both mentally and physically forever.” The fire in Augustine’s hell never burns anyone up because “God will employ his power to perform miracles to keep them supernaturally alive and conscious in the fire.”
On July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards, a famous American preacher, set the tone for many subsequent “Hell fire and brimstone” sermons. His message was entitled “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” It was delivered in Enfield, Connecticut. It was intended to frighten sinners into repentance with its vivid imagery of a fiery hell from which there is no escape. God is pictured in the sermon as dangling sinners over the flames like loathsome spiders. Pinnock quotes Edwards scholar, J. Gerstner, to summarize Edwards’ view of hell, “Hell is a spiritual and material furnace of fire where its victims are exquisitely tortured in their minds and in their bodies eternally, according to their various capacities, by God, the devils, and damned humans including themselves, in their memories and consciences as well as in their raging, unsatisfied lusts, from which place of death God’s saving grace, mercy, and pity are gone forever, never for a moment to return,” (Pinnock, p. 2).
Pinnock comments on this view: “Not only is it God’s pleasure so to torture the wicked everlastingly, but it is the happiness of the saints to see and know this is being faithfully done. It would not be unfair to picture the traditional doctrine in this way: just as one can imagine certain people watching a cat trapped in a microwave oven squirming in agony and taking delight in it, so the saints in heaven will, according to Edwards, experience the torments of the damned with pleasure and satisfaction,” (ibid.).
What kind of God does Edwards envision here? God is lumped together with sadistic saints and cruel demons in delighting in the endless suffering of the unsaved. We can’t help but agree with Pinnock that “…I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind to be an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. How can Christians project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon His creatures, however sinful they might have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God…Does the one who told us to love our enemies intend to wreak vengeance on his own enemies for all eternity? As H. Kung appropriately asks, ‘What would we think of a human being who satisfied his thirst for revenge so implacably and insatiably?’” (ibid. p.3).
This is not a liberal/conservative issue. Nor is it an issue of cultism vs. orthodoxy. As we pointed out earlier, citing Fudge, it is an issue of the Biblical text itself. What does the text actually say about the matter?
It is possible for even the most celebrated historical Christians like Augustine to be wrong about some things. As we said earlier, orthodoxy was not a matter of self-evident exegetical correctness, but of which party won the various doctrinal and ecclesiastical battles of earlier times. On the basis further analysis of the text, any doctrine ought to be subject to challenge. This one is especially egregious for it paints God to be the ultimate sadist.
The Biblical Position
Writes Pinnock, “The Bible repeatedly uses the language of death, destruction, ruin and perishing when speaking of the fate of the wicked (ibid. p.4).” It employs the imagery of a consuming fire, not of torture. We read in Psalm 37 for example: “Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
“A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found…the wicked will perish…they will vanish – vanish like smoke,” Psalm 37:2, 10, 20, excerpts).
Malachi 4:1 also speaks of the annihilation of the wicked: “’Surely the day is coming it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord.”
This imagery is carried over into the New Testament. Paul tells the Romans that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) – not eternal life in an ever-burning Hell. John the Baptist prophesied that Yeshua would eventually “clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire,” (Matthew 3:12). No one will be able to thwart the process by putting out the fire.
Pinnock explains that Jesus presented God’s judgment as the destruction of the wicked “He said that God could and perhaps would destroy body and soul in hell, if he must (Matthew 10:28) – ibid. p. 5. Pinnock cites Matthew 13:30, 42, 49, and 50 as further examples of fiery destruction.
Paul, says Pinnock, taught the same thing (II Thessalonians 1:9; Galatians 6:8; I Corinthians 3:17; Philippians 1:28; Romans 1:32; and Philippians 3:19).
Peter too writes of “the fire which has been kept until the day of judgment and the destruction of ungodly men” (II Peter 3:7). He speaks of the “swift destruction” that will come upon false teachers. They will be like Sodom and Gomorrah (2:6). They will “perish” like those who died in the flood (3:6, 7).
Hebrews – we don’t know who wrote it – says the wicked who shrink back are destroyed (Hebrews 10:39).
What kind of fire did Sodom experience? “Eternal” fire according to Jude 7. Is it still burning? Are the inhabitants of Sodom still in torment?
John, in Revelation, describes the resurrection to the lake of fire as “the second death” (Revelation 20: 14, 15).
There are dozens of passages and related issues that have not been addressed in this brief series of articles. Time permitting. Some of them will be addressed later. Suffice it to say that we have learned that the unscriptural doctrine of the immortality of the soul is central to the equally unscriptural doctrine of the conscious suffering of the unsaved in an ever-burning Hell. As Clark Pinnock writes, “…belief in the natural immortality of the soul which is so widely held by Christians, although stemming more from Plato than the Bible, really drives the doctrine of hell more than exegesis does…I am convinced that the Hellenistic belief in the immortality of the soul has done more than anything else (specifically more than the Bible) to give credibility to the doctrine of the everlasting conscious punishment of the wicked…The Greek doctrine of immortality has affected theology unduly on this point. It is one of several examples where there has been undue Hellenization of Christian doctrine. The idea of souls being naturally immortal is not a biblical one, and the effect of believing it stretches the experience of death and destruction in Gehenna into endless torment,” (ibid. p. 6).
The Bible teaches that God alone has immortality (I Timothy 6:16) and that everlasting life is granted to man by God as a matter of grace (I Corinthians 15:51-55). The Bible, as Pinnock again points out, refers to resurrected bodies of people reconstituted by the power of God (Philippians 3:20).
A Cosmic Monster?
What kind of God would create an everlasting concentration camp for the hapless children who didn’t make the grade? As Pinnock states, “…everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die. The idea of everlasting torment (especially if it is linked to soteriological predestination) raises the problem of evil to impossible dimensions,” (ibid. p. 7).
John R. W. Stott expresses similar feelings, “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain,” (ibid.).
God is love. He created us in his own image. He is not willing that any of his children should perish. Each of us is precious to him. He loves us so much so that he sacrificed his only begotten son for us. He is not vindictive – yet he permits us to reject his grace. We are free agents. We can choose life with him or death without him. If he grants us that crown of life, we’ll have it forever. If we refuse it, we will be annihilated in “the second death.” For those who experience it, it will be the death of both soul and body – something which only God can accomplish.
If we live forever, it will be through a resurrection to life, or a change if we happen to be alive when the Lord returns. Study I Thessalonians 4:13-18. Paul said those words ought to be encouraging to us – and indeed we know the truth which sets us free of the bondage of false doctrine. Study the whole of 1 Corinthians 15. It is “the resurrection chapter.” Read John 5:28-29: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”
Judgment is coming on all who have lived: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body,, whether good or bad,” (II Corinthians 5:10).
The judgment has not yet occurred. No one is presently suffering in hell. When the Lord returns, he will bear the reward for righteousness, and the wages of sin: “Behold, I am coming soon. My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
“Blessed are those who wash their robes that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and anyone who loves and practices falsehood,” (Revelation 22:12-15).
As Christians, we know that our salvation will be revealed in the last time – I Peter 1:5 – but for now we have an “earnest” or down payment in the form of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1: 13-14). Our possession of the Holy Spirit guarantees our salvation, no matter how long we “sleep” between now and the resurrection (I Thessalonians 5:9-10). Note also I Thessalonians 4:13-18 for the language of sleep and the resurrection.
For those who overcome and avail themselves of the boundless grace of God, the world to come will be a glorious reward in the presence of the Lord forever. For those who reject salvation, there will only be “…a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that shall devour the enemies of God,” (Hebrews 10:27).
For Further Study
The Fire that Consumes by Edward Fudge
Two Views of Hell by Edward Fudge & Robert A. Peterson
The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent (article) by Clark H. Pinnock
Whatever Happened to the Soul? Edited by Warren S. Brown et al.
The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe
23 Minutes in Hell by Bill Wiese
Hell by Bill Wiese
A History of the Christian Church by Lars P. Qualben
Catechism of the Catholic Church 1994 edition