RETHINKING Hell doesn’t take a stance on many issues other than final punishment, including questions about the age of the earth or the right way to interpret the creation narratives in the book of Genesis. Some of our team members are sympathetic to Answers In Genesis’s points of view on these matters, others less so. If you want to hear two fine fellows who share AIG’s stance, you can listen to Chris Date interviewing Chuck McKnight, whom AIG forced to resign (i.e. fired) when they learned that he held to (what we consider to be) a biblical view of judgment.
Speaking of Answers in Genesis and fire, while Rethinking Hell does not take a stance on such secondary matters as the right way to read early Genesis, Answers in Genesis does take a strong view on the doctrine of hell. This was brought to the forefront again recently when AIG published an article by Tim Challies called “What Kind of God Would Condemn People to Eternal Torment?”
Challies’s answer to this troubling question is striking. In reply to the question of how we can believe in a God who would torment people forever, he has a question of his own: “How can you believe in a God who would not?” He explains:
To ask the first question is to fundamentally misunderstand the very nature of God; it is to re-form God in the image of man, because here’s the thing: If you want a God who is good—truly good—and if you want a God who is just and holy, then you must have this God, this God who condemns people to suffer the eternal torments of hell. You cannot have the God you want unless there is a hell. You cannot have a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful and so very good. God’s goodness doesn’t negate eternal punishment in hell; it demands it.
Like many other Christians, I affirm that God will punish forever. But where I think Challies goes astray from the biblical teaching is in this question: of what does that punishment consist?I beg to differ with Challies’s claim that we “cannot have a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful and so very good.” Indeed, the Christian faith has always maintained that this is exactly what God is like. But there are obviously some issues to separate here. Suppose we agree with the claim that “You cannot have the God you want unless there is a hell.” Suppose we accept that “God’s goodness doesn’t negate eternal punishment in hell; it demands it.” Granting these claims is not enough to grant Challies’s striking position. The issue here is not simply whether we can believe in a good God if there is a hell, or whether we can believe that a good God punishes forever. The question that Challies is setting out to answer is whether or not we can believe in a perfectly good God who torments people forever. Like many other Christians, I affirm that God will punish forever. But where I think Challies goes astray from the biblical teaching is in this question: of what does that punishment consist? The biblical picture of eternal punishment is one of “everlasting destruction,” as St Paul described it in 2 Thessalonians 1:9.
In fact, this is the central weakness in Challies’s article. He starts out with the very strong claim that if we believe God is good and holy, then we must believe in a God who torments people forever. Yet the the biblical evidence to which Challies alludes offers support for no such claim. For example:
The Bible describes hell as a place where God pours out His wrath on people who have been created in His image (Matthew 10:28; 25:46; Revelation 14:10–11; 20:10–15). God the Father has appointed His Son to be the eternal Judge who will condemn people to hell (Matthew 25:31–34, 25:41; Acts 10:42). This is not momentary or temporary torture dispensed by Satan or his demons, but eternal torment poured out by God Himself. This punishment will be inflicted upon conscious human beings, people who know who they are, what they were, what they have done (Luke 16:22–31).
It is common for proponents of the doctrine of eternal torment to simply take their view for granted, so that any time the Bible refers to the concept of judgment or punishment, they will assume that it is referring to eternal torment.It is common for proponents of the doctrine of eternal torment to simply take their view for granted, so that any time the Bible refers to the concept of judgment or punishment, they will assume that it is referring to eternal torment. But even a quick glance at the content of the passages Challies lists shows that they do not support this idea. It is incredible, actually, that the list of proof texts begins with Matthew 10:28, a passage where Jesus states that God is “able to destroy both life and body in hell.”1 The typical inclusion of Matthew 25:46 is somewhat frustrating. As Conditionalists have been pointing out for a long time, this passage refers to “eternal punishment” without telling us what the punishment consists of. As traditionalists like Jonathan Edwards have candidly acknowledged, permanent destruction would certainly be eternal. Challies elsewhere makes the same error, saying that simply because Matthew 25:26 says “eternal punishment,” the lost “will never cease to exist or be annihilated.” To this we can say: “Get thee to Jonathan Edwards!” Or take Challies’s inclusion of Acts 10:42, where St. Peter proclaims that God has appointed Jesus to be the judge of the living and the dead. There is nothing about such a passage that lends support to the doctrine of eternal torment. There is a lesson here, not just in biblical interpretation but in critical thinking more generally: the multiplication of individual pieces of evidence in itself does not make your argument stronger unless the evidence is relevant. Generating long lists of proof texts may be visually impressive if your audience assumes that each piece of evidence you list must be making your case stronger, but it is something of a stolen pleasure if none of the evidence you are citing really supports the case you are trying to make.
The truth is that of all the passages Challies alludes to throughout his article, only two could ever plausibly be used as part of a case for the doctrine of eternal torment, and both of them (Revelation 14:10-11 and Revelation 20:10-15) appear in contexts where a simplistic literal reading of the passage is quite certainly the wrong one. I think we can all be confident that Challies does not think that Revelation’s references to beings such as a lamb, fantastical animals with parts of different animals combined into one creature, and a dragon should be taken literally. Yet somehow he thinks it is legitimate to assume that the details of what those beings do in the vision should be taken as literal history. These passages have been discussed before at Rethinking Hell. The short story is, Challies is dead wrong when he claims that “God’s Word is clear” in teaching “the necessity and existence of eternal, conscious torment in hell.” On the contrary, as many Christians have learned—sometimes to their great surprise, having grown up simply taking Challies’s view for granted—the Bible clearly and repeatedly teaches that sin ends in death; that the lost will die, perish, be destroyed, be no more, pass away; and that eternal life or immortality is found in Christ alone.
Infinity is the concept of an unending series of numbers. How is Challies applying the notion of infinity to God?Challies’s main argument, however, is not biblical but philosophical. He argues that since God is eternally holy, it follows that the punishment for sin must be eternal torment. But there is nothing at all compelling about this argument, in spite of its popularity. In the first place, it is not clear what is even being claimed here; and in the second place, it is far from obvious that the conclusion would follow even if something clear were being claimed. Some of the claims here are fairly familiar. For example, Challies alleges that “When you sin against an infinite God—and all sin is primarily oriented toward God—you accrue an infinite debt.” But some of it is opaque. In particular, what does it mean to say that God is “infinite”? Infinity is the concept of an unending series of numbers. How is Challies applying the notion of infinity to God? We just don’t know. As far as I can tell, Challies is simply reverse-engineering the argument. He is trying to get to the conclusion of a punishment consisting of an infinite number of days/weeks/years of torment, so he inserts the language of infinity into his description of God. If Challies is using the word infinitely with its typical numerical meaning, then it does not say anything coherent to say that God is “infinite.” The classical way of talking about God is much more helpful here: God is “perfect being” or “perfectly holy” or “perfectly good.” When we say that a room has no light in it at all, we do not say that it is “infinitely dark.” Instead we say that it is “completely dark” or “in total darkness” or perhaps “perfectly dark.” Similarly, God is perfect or complete, not “infinite” in some numerical sense. Indeed, to say that God actually has an infinite number of things, whatever those things may be, is problematic from a philosophical point of view as it implies the existence of an actual infinite.
What if God’s perfect, eternal, holy being means that God will not tolerate the presence of sin forever?What’s more, it is by no means obvious that this philosophical argument is valid. Start with the premise “God is perfectly good” or “God is perfectly holy” or “God is eternal” or even just “God is perfect in every way.” How exactly are we supposed to get from there to the conclusion that God will punish people with never-ending torment? In terms of bare logic, the conclusion certainly does not follow from the premise alone. What if God’s perfect, eternal, holy being means that God will not tolerate the presence of sin forever? Does not the complete and permanent destruction of sin satisfy this demand of holiness? On what authority does Mr. Challies declare that an “infinite” God (setting aside the unexplained matter of what that means) is bound to make people suffer forever rather than bring them to an end forever?
This is precisely the sort of unexplained and unwarranted leap that has caused many to stop and say, “Wait a minute, what? How is this argument even supposed to work?”
Both biblically and philosophically, the idea that those who reject God will finally come to an end—although troubling—finds clear support. The overwhelming biblical testimony is there for all to see that eternal life in any shape or form is found in Christ alone. Evil will not last forever. The end of the lost is death, and one day God’s kingdom will really be “all in all.” God’s perfect holiness will be satisfied in a way that makes sense to our basic notions of justice. Those who reject God will not get God or anything that God offers. Those who reject the very source of their being will eventually lose their being. It is not for nothing that morally intelligent people wonder at the notion that the most perfect, good, just, and loving Person imaginable would punish any offence with literally endless suffering. The biblical vision is of a future as good as it can possibly be, which contrasts in the strongest possible terms with Challies’s vision of what God will do: “It is truly, literally impossible to imagine a worse reality than this one.”
It is encouraging to see that when AIG shared a link to Challies’s article on their Facebook page there was a significant backlash from Christian readers, not because they objected to the concept of final judgment at all, but because they objected strongly to the claim that the doctrine of eternal torment was clearly biblical—or biblical at all! Their reply was clear: “This is not what the Bible teaches. The wages of sin is death.”
I hope that Answers in Genesis will take the time to consider the responses they are getting and to take a look at the doctrine of hell with a view to finding what Scripture really has to say on the matter. These strained and unbiblical arguments are not going to help reassure anybody that they are seeking answers in Scripture at all, in Genesis or elsewhere.
- I am aware that our translations read “soul and body,” but as translators are aware, ψυχή usually means “life” in the Gospels. However, even opting for a less than ideal translation of “soul” would not undermine the central point here: Challies has listed a text as support for the doctrine of eternal torment even though it actually supports an alternative view, namely that of annihilation. [↩]