The violence we’re seeing at the hands of ISIS is disgustingly barbaric. If mass beheadings, taking people into slavery, and throwing gay people off the tops of buildings wasn’t enough, they’ve now of course taken to burning people alive. First, it was a single pilot, but now they are parading 17 Kurds in cages with the promise that they’ll be burned alive too.
Burning people alive isn’t anything new, and certainly isn’t unique to ISIS– as Christians we have a long history with this practice as well. Many of the early Anabaptists faced this same fate for the “sin” of baptizing adults, as well as people who had the crazy idea that the Bible should be translated into common language for everyone to read for themselves. Heck, even Calvinism was founded by someone (John Calvin) who had a theological enemy burned alive for disagreeing with his theology (okay, in fairness to Calvin, he tried to do him a favor and get him beheaded instead).
Nonetheless, it’s 2015. Civilized culture has grown beyond the days of burning people alive, recognizing the practice as something that is completely offensive to any rational person. And, not just offensive- we consider it morally repulsive to the degree that many Christians want the perpetrators wiped off the face of the earth.
I must say, those instincts are correct– torturing people by burning them alive is morally repulsive. And so, we pray to God that he would intervene on behalf of these people who are suffering such unimaginable barbarism.
But here’s the irony of it all: while we find burning people alive morally repulsive when ISIS does it, most Christians seem to have no moral qualms about believing in a God they think will do precisely that. In fact, the traditional doctrine on hell paints God in a far worse light than ISIS– instead of just burning people to kill them, this doctrine believes that the people will never die– but will be tortured by the pain of the flames for all eternity. And somehow, they believe God will pronounce this as being good.
The doctrine of “eternal, conscious torment” can get even sicker depending how far one wants to take it: instead of people like Hitler being eternally tortured ISIS style, many would believe that folks like indigenous tribes living in the jungle who have never met a missionary or seen a Bible will all be tortured in the flames too. In fact, some areas of Christianity, such as extreme Calvinism, actually believe that God created most of humanity for the express purpose of torturing them in flames and that they have no right to complain or object– because God has every right to create things for whatever purpose he has in mind, including ISIS style torture.
I’d hope that if we could all detach from our individual Christian tradition for a moment and step back, we’d be able to see that this is actually sick.
As a follower of Jesus, I believe that we were all created in the image and likeness of God, and that God has planted in our hearts a sense of justice and morality. When we see hostages paraded in orange jump suits, caged up and about to be tortured, we feel moral outrage– and I believe this moral outrage comes from the spirit of God within us, reminding our consciences that it’s never okay to torture a fellow image bearer.
That same moral outrage at images of hostages about to be burned alive (such as the image above) should also cause us to pause for a moment and rethink what we actually believe about God and his character. Is God perfectly moral in all his ways? Is God altogether good? Is he altogether lovely? Does God look exactly like Jesus– the one who said “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”?
If God is– and I believe he is— this alone should cause us to be willing to rethink and reexamine the traditional doctrine on hell as “eternal, conscious torment.” Because if we don’t, we’re saying that burning people to torture them is sick and twisted when ISIS does it, but that it’s good and wonderful when God does it.
I’m tired of the canned statements designed to stifle actually using the hearts and minds God planted inside of us.
“But you don’t understand God’s justice.”
“You have no right to question God.”
“Being tortured is what we all deserve.”
“What is moral for God is different than what is moral for us.”
And you know what, I call BS on all of it.
It’s time to question. It’s time to rethink.
Is it possible that our views on hell have been more shaped by medieval barbarians who practically burned their enemies for the sport of it than the actual words of Scripture and the nature and character of Jesus?
Is it possible that we have taken these concepts given to us by people who enjoyed burning their enemies and then read them into the pages of scripture?
Is it possible that God is actually Jesus on the cross dying for his enemies and not an ISIS terrorist torturing his enemies?
I believe a solid case can be made from scripture that hell as a place where God eternally tortures people because they grew up in a jungle without Christian missionaries, is actually unbiblical (you can find the archive of my hell articles, here). But even before we get to the biblical arguments, our moral outrage at ISIS burning people alive presents a completely good and valid reason to begin questioning and rethinking this doctrine. God gave us a conscience that bears witness to his– let’s use it.
Because I am convinced that if we rethink, reexamine, and attempt to rediscover, we might just see that God is not like an ISIS terrorist burning his enemies– but God is actually Jesus on the cross dying for his.
(and if you’d like to read a book on this topic, I recommend Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism.