I haven’t been able to believe in eternal conscious torment for many years now but I haven’t systematized my thinking in light of scripture about what should be put in its place. I tend toward believing in annihilation but there are some difficulties I need to work out if I am to give that proposal my full consent. I feel certain about what I can’t believe in this matter but only lean strongly to its replacement.
I can’t believe in eternal conscious torment because I don’t see the texts used to support it as being able to bear the weight of it. Secondly, I don’t believe that the God revealed and profiled in scripture as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ would eternally and consciously torment a sinner. But neither of those two points is what I’d like to address in this short piece.
I would like to take it for granted for now that in normative scripture teaching “hell” is annihilation (I would offer 2 Thessalonians 1:9 as pointing that way) and I would like to propose that it is an act of mercy on God’s part.
In his first epistle John insists that God is love. Whatever else we should say God is, John is sure that if we are to know him at all we must know that at his heart he is a lover. He insists that the love that describes God best is holy love and therefore sin must be taken seriously, so we’re not to make a “heavenly sweetheart” out of him and always “croon romantic ballads” about him. But it must surely be clear that if God is love he can do nothing lovelessly. That being the case, since he will certainly subject some appropriate persons to everlasting punishment (not everlasting punishing) then his consigning them to this must be a loving act. But how can eternal “capital punishment” be a loving act?
The love of God is not merely a case of warm and affectionate feeling and much less is it the “warm fuzzies”. Whatever there is of affection and warmth in it, God’s love toward us is a commitment to which he is faithful. The OT word hesed expresses God’s love and it is often rendered as “mercy” though we’re not to suppose that that exhausts its vast reach. It is almost always used in a covenant connection so that it is God keeping his covenant commitment. But as Dumbrell has taught us, a “covenant” is essentially the formalizing of a prior personal commitment. So, however we understand it we end up with God committing to his human family and keeping his pledge. (He covenants not only with Israel.)
From the biblical perspective the human family to which God has made a commitment (Genesis 1—9) is a family he created with the capacity to make creative decisions even if those decisions result in self-hurt. That is part of what it means to be “human”. Humans really can resist God at one level and within certain limits. Stephen said that in Acts 7 and Ezekiel 18:30 says that it is self-ruin to oppose God, especially in light of the truth that their prosperity came from him and in relationship with him.
To persist in impenitent rejection of God and to choose self-service pollutes the inner world of a person and the scriptures would say that life becomes a living death (compare 1 Timothy 5:6). Francis Thompson in his Hound of Heaven confessed that he had been running from God because he feared that in having God he would lose everything else and he wanted everything else. He did not have the heart that would enjoy God so the thought of being “captured” by him was one of horror. And F. D Maurice assured his readers that the ultimate horror would be God leaving us rolling forever in our sinfulness. He thought that the notion that God might leave us that way was “monstrous” so he went in another direction. (He took a path I can’t take.) Earlier Robert Browning in his poem Easter Day (22 and elsewhere) suggests the view that “hell” is being stuck with the choice you make and getting what you want even when what you want is lifeless stuff that doesn’t satisfy.
Let such men rest
Content with what they judged the best.
Let the unjust usurp at will
The filthy shall be filthy still,
Miser, there awaits thy gold for thee;
Hater, indulge thine enmity;
And thou whose Heaven self-ordained
Was to enjoy earth unrestrained,
C. S Lewis, in his own way, pointed in that direction in his book The Great Divorce. There he introduces us to characters from Hell. They are invited on a bus ride to a plain, which turns out to be the foreground to and foretaste of heaven which is in the heart of the mountains they see in the distance; but when they get to the plain they experience it as torment and unedurable. They don’t have the heart to enjoy heaven so they want to take the bus back to the realm of the damned. Lewis would agree with Maurice that in a very real sense Heaven and Hell are less about reward and punishment as about sin and holiness. One disqualifies a person for the other, not only and not primarily as reward and punishment but as an inner incapacity. Those who can rejoice in all that Heaven means could not possibly endure Hell and those who find themselves at home in Hell are incapable of living in Heaven. As Lewis puts it, “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”
I take this approach to be one strand of biblical eschatological truth. If we are not “born again” we cannot see or enter the kingdom (John 3:3-5). To love darkness is to repudiate light and to embrace Jesus Christ is to say no to all that “the world” means. I believe “hell” is punishment at the hand of God but I think it is an act of God suited to the condition of the finally impenitent sinner.
To spend endless ages in doing again, saying again, seeing again, thinking again the same empty and life-denying things would be torment indeed. To “live” through endless ages without life, hating and being hated, lusting without being satisfied, planning without point and purposing without hope, endlessly repeating the same banal wickedness that expresses our inner nature—all of this and away from God. Away from God not only because he sends us away but also because he sends us away because we find his presence unendurable—that would surely lead us to beg for a final death and we would consider it kindness if someone gave it to us.
We get the sense of this when we hear people speak of “mercy killings”. I’m not advocating or even approving “mercy killings”. I want only to say that we can understand the point being made when someone says, “What we call ‘life’ does not exist any more for these persons and to give them medicine that kills them is a merciful act.” We have neither God’s wisdom nor his love and our talk of “mercy killings” might be using the right words ignorantly and from wrong hearts. But I would hold that if God in his wisdom and mercy took such a view of the finally impenitent sinners and permanently took their lives that it would indeed be holy love operating. He would be delivering them from a fate worse than death.