By Al Serrato
Making a case for Christianity can be challenging in this secular culture. And what can be more challenging than explaining –no, than defending – the existence of a place of eternal punishment? It’s easy to be placed on the defensive, with an aggressive challenger deriding how a good and loving God could be so vindictive or petty as to subject his children to eternal torture simply because they didn’t “believe” the right things.
But Jesus himself repeatedly spoke of Hell, so however difficult a conversation, it is one we cannot evade. Indeed, in some passages, Jesus likened Hell to the perpetual fires burning in the garbage dump outside Jerusalem, in the place called Gehenna. The Book of Revelation leaves us with the jarring image of the lake of burning fire, a place of perpetual torment.
Is the challenger, right? Is Hell, in fact, some arena of sadism in which a cruel and unloving God derives pleasure by inventing ways to torture his children? Or can we make sense of it, at least intellectually, if not emotionally?
The first step in assessing this issue is to tease out the underlying assumption that is at play. If God actively causes someone to burn eternally, if He inflicts agony upon the souls in Hell, then yes, we would have to concede that this would be torture. The real issue, then, is whether God does those things to the souls in Hell, or whether those lost souls experience an everlasting torment that is a consequence – and not a separate goal – of the fact that they are in Hell.
An example may help place this in focus. In the Civil War, doctors treated most bullet wounds to an arm or leg by amputating the limb, no doubt an excruciating experience in the days before anesthetics. But these actions were done not to torture the patient but to accomplish some good purpose – namely, to save him. The patient no doubt felt tormented, but this was a natural consequence of the necessary action that was taken; it would not be fair to say the doctor had engaged in torture. On the other hand, if one side had taken perfectly healthy prisoners of war and amputated a limb to inflict pain, either to coerce cooperation or as a method of terror, this would indeed be torture. Similarly, if a modern surgeon decided to amputate without anesthetics, it would be fair to characterize such actions as torture.
With this distinction in mind, we must next consider whether Hell serves a legitimate purpose. Christians contend that God is all good and that whatever He creates must also be good. Hell is a place – or perhaps more precisely a state – of separation He has created for those deserving of such separation. And who is deserving of separation? Well, if we take God at His word, it is for those who die in rebellion against Him, who, through their thoughts and actions, have asked for that separation. This is intuitively understandable: a parent may seek separation from a rebellious child without wishing to inflict pain upon them. The judge who grants a restraining order, or who imprisons the offspring guilty of elder abuse, accomplishes a purpose that is in no way similar to inflicting torture.
Let’s take this analogy a step further. Imagine that the rebellious offspring insists on living in his parents’ home while refusing to follow any of the rules. Or commits a crime against his parents and is sentenced to prison? The prison sentence is meant to separate the abuser from society, and separating him in this fashion is indeed a form of punishment. But the punishment we speak of is, in essence, the incarceration, the very same act that accomplishes the separation. We do not first separate the wrongdoer from society and then inflict additional punishment; there are no medieval tortures that await the prisoner, no mistreatment that is deliberately inflicted to further the pain the inmate feels, no chain gang to make his daily life unbearable. In a very real sense, the punishment is the product of the incarceration, not an additional purpose.
Now let’s move to the final step. God does not inflict temporal separation or temporal punishment, as in the example of a prison sentence. He is an eternal being, and He made us for eternity as well. And when you grasp that distinction, you can begin to see that forcible separation from God is the absolute worst thing that can befall any soul. There is nothing more to be done, nothing that could increase the pain that such a soul would experience. By the same token, however, there is nothing to be done that would lessen that pain, short of the annihilation of that person. There is no way to make separation from the source of all that is good, more bearable.
Why is this so? Well, consider for a moment of what the pain of separation consists. Do you remember your first love? Or the way you felt when you beheld your first child? Or reuniting with your spouse after a period apart? Conversely, can you recall the first time you felt lost and alone, or were homesick or the first time you experienced the death of a close loved one? Even for the most hardened of criminals, there are people to whom they are attached, with whom they wish to spend time, even if they are simply fellow inmates. These others have some quality, some attribute, which makes them attractive, makes them desired. That is why solitary confinement is such an extreme form of punishment. We were not meant for isolation; however, hardened and lost a person may appear.
Now magnify these feelings – not by a hundred, a thousand, or even a billion, but by infinity, and by eternity. Why should this be so? Because God is… perfection…absolute, unlimited, infinite perfection, the kind that we as human beings, cannot even begin to fathom. Start to get the picture? If the goodness and beauty of the people we love can cause us such torment when we face separation from them, and if that goodness is a mere shadow of the infinite perfection of God, that I shudder to imagine what knowing but not be able to experience God would be like.
Consider finally then the soul in the abyss, facing eternal separation and eternal alone-ness, isolated and embittered, aware of but forcibly separated from the God against whom his rebellion rages? What a human being feels on a limited and temporal basis, such a soul feels magnified an infinity of times. And he is not contemplating separation from a limited and flawed human being, but from the source of all life, all goodness, all joy. Can we even find words to describe what infinite emptiness feels like?
No, God does not actively torture souls in Hell. But he does not change His nature to suit those who shake their fist at Him, who reject the offer He is extending. The separation that He imposes, just though it is, is indeed terrifying.
But it is not torture. It is the nature of things.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
Free CrossExamined.org Resource
Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.