Affirming that scripture is inspired and true means one must also affirm the “eternal, conscious torment” of hell, correct?
Nope– not at all, and today I’ll explain how it’s possible to let go of hell without letting go of the Bible. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and saw that Evangelical Theologian Scott McKnight has been discussing it of late (you can find his posts on it here), so seems like a good time to weigh in a bit.
First, it is important to note that our concept of hell certainly did not exist in Old Testament times (the Hebrew word often translated as hell was “Sheol” does not mean “hell” by our modern understanding). In fact, the concept of hell we have today is far more based on the 14th Century Poem, Dante’s Inferno, than it is scripture itself. Because many of us have grown up with the unchallenged concept of hell being “eternal, conscious torment” we often fail to see alternative understandings that still take scripture seriously. In fact, often times we don’t even realize that such alternate understandings exist, believing the falsehood that one must either believe in the traditional hell or be a universalist.
Now, this is a deep theological topic worthy of a book (there are plenty if you want to go deeper) so I’ll obviously be oversimplifying in an attempt to simply explain the basic concepts of an alternative view. If there are aspects of interest to folks, perhaps we can do a few more posts on this topic and go a bit deeper.
First, it is important to understand the basic premise behind the modern concept of hell: the human soul is immortal, and cannot die. As a result, punishment in hell must be one of eternal, conscious torment. What one believes regarding immortality of the soul has direct correlation to the logical consistency they must follow in a concept of hell. If you grew up like me, we were never aware that there is an alternative view to immortality of the soul and certainly were never invited to consider the merits of the concept.
An alternative view to this belief that the human soul is immortal is a concept called conditionalism.
Conditionalism is the theological view I hold of the human soul, and is one that a growing number of evangelical theologians are embracing, so it isn’t a fringe, hippie view. In short, conditionalism argues that the human soul is not immortal in and of itself– it is only immortal if God wills, and grants immortality (see Romans 2:7, John 10:28, 1 Cor 15: 50, 54). Since God is the creator and one who sustains all things, nothing came to exist or continues to exist apart from his will for that thing or person to exist (Heb 1:3). Since the soul does not posses independent immortality, souls can in fact “die” or cease to exist if God withdraws his will for them to exist.
We would argue that this is precisely what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 10:28 when he said that we should not be afraid of human enemies who can kill the body but not the soul, but rather we should be concerned with God, who actually is able to kill the soul.
Now, if Jesus is correct, it seems that the human soul is not automatically immortal– such immortality is conditional.
This foundation of immortal vs. conditional sets the framework for the two ultimate dispositions of the unjust: eternal conscious torment, or annihilation. Conditionalism leads to the latter and immortality of the soul leads to the former.
Annihilation is the theological alternative to eternal, conscious torment, and the position that I hold. In this disposition, instead of being tortured in hell for all of eternity, the unjust die a “second death” or are “destroyed” as scripture itself calls it throughout both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, the annihilation of the unjust is a far more consistent position with the OT than is the traditional concept of eternal conscious torment. In considering annihilationism, it’s important to be willing to re-examine scripture without reading into it what we’ve been taught– instead, we must look at scripture with fresh eyes. Even go-to verses that we memorized as kids can take on a fresh understanding, such as Romans 6:23 which doesn’t say the “wages of sin is eternal conscious torment in hell” but rather, “the wages of sin is death“. Perhaps scripture means what it actually says– the consequence is “death” or ceasing to exist–AKA, annihilation.
These options lead us to two different competing narratives about God, which is why I think our theology on this topic is important. For the argument of immortality and eternal conscious torment the narrative becomes: “those who reject God are tortured for all of eternity and that this is pleasing to God”. Or the alternative: “to those who do not choose God’s love, he respects their decision and does not force them to live in eternal community with him, and therefore allows them to cease to exist”.
Those two narratives are crucially important because of how it impacts our view and our relationship to God. As A.W., Tozer once said, “what we think about God is the most important thing about us”. One narrative leads to a view of God where he delights in the torture of the wicked (in direct opposition to Ez 18:23), or even worse– that he created some people specifically for this purpose! Or, the second option, which leads to a loving God who invites all to come and embrace him, but ultimately respects each individual choice– even the choice to reject love.
As I said, this a complex topic and obviously can’t be properly dealt with in a short post, but this is an introductory to the basic concepts of how one can reject the traditional “eternal, conscious torment” position in favor of an alternative. If folks want to go deeper on this, let me know and I’ll do a few more posts on it. In the meantime, here are a few resources:
Theologian Greg Boyd has a fantastic post from 2008 that goes deeper into scriptures on the topic– it’s a must read, and you can find it here.
Check out the folks at Rethinking Hell. This is both an Evangelical conference, as well as a book and blog. Really great resources that you’ll find valuable– I am regretful that I can’t be at the conference.
Finally, here’s a great 9 minute video from Boyd that brings up some problems with the traditional concept of hell: