Imagine three people in a windowless prison cell. The first is a torturer, the second a prisoner, and the third an observer.
The torturer is with the prisoner, doing what torturers do. He puts the prisoner in the most extraordinary agony a human being can experience. Horrendous pain. The prisoner is screaming, writhing, begging for relief — but the torturer keeps going. At the same time, the observer sits on a wooden chair in the corner of the room and does what observers do. He observes. His face is covered by the shadows, so you cannot tell whether he is watching with sorrow or compassion, disinterest or grim satisfaction. All you can tell is that he is not doing anything to intervene. In fact, as it happens, the observer owns the prison and he could destroy it and halt the torment, or at least put the prisoner out of his misery. But he never does so.
There’s no way for the prisoner to get relief from his torment. The torturer is not trying to extract any information from the prisoner. He’s not trying to get a confession. He’s not really trying to accomplish anything except to torture him.
Now, imagine this goes on for 24 hours straight. A single day. By the end of the day, you cannot stand to watch another moment, you cannot stand to listen to another scream, and yet the torture continues. 48 hours. For 48 hours straight, without a single moment of rest, the prisoner is forced to endure the most terrible pain you have ever witnessed. His skin is being flayed and burnt and rent apart. His bones are being broken and broken and broken again. He is horrified and hopeless, knowing that nothing he can do will bring an end to his torment.
Now imagine this goes on for a full week. A full month. A full year. Imagine if you have to observe this. What would you be feeling toward the torturer? What would you be feeling toward the observer? What would you be feeling toward the prisoner?
Okay. Now imagine that this torture goes on not just for one year, but it continues, 2…3…4…5 years straight. Then it reaches 10 years. The prisoner never seems to change; he doesn’t grow older. Neither do the torturer and the observer. No one ever rests. No one ever eats or sleeps or leaves the prison cell. 20 years. 50 years. 100 years. For an entire century now, the man has endured torture. And yet it’s not over for him. In fact, it will never be over. It goes on for 1000 years. Then it reaches 2000 years. For an amount of time equivalent to the period between the birth of Christ and our own time (roughly), the man is tormented ruthlessly. And it keeps going. 5000 years. 10,000 years. And the truly terrifying thing is that it will never stop. Even after 10,000 years, the prisoner is no closer to the end of his suffering than he was when he began. 100,000 years. A million years. A billion years. For the same amount of time that the universe has been in existence, 13 billion years, the man is tormented.
Now imagine that the observer is God. And he’ll permit this torture to go on forever. Forever.
I was raised with a pretty traditional (Protestant or Catholic) view of hell. I was raised to believe in something like eternal conscious torment (ECT) — that those who did not put their faith in Christ would endure the agonies of hell forever and ever. That, at least, is what I was told.
Yet I find it impossible to believe that God would countenance such a thing. I know the horror I feel if I am forced (through a movie, or etc.) to watch even a minute of true torture. I know the deep, black feeling of wrongness that arises in my heart when I see that. So when I really sit down and contemplate what eternal conscious torment would be like, I’ve never been able to believe that the God I’ve come to know through Jesus Christ would permit it.
Perhaps I’m just not mature enough. Perhaps I’m too much of a softy. I know the objections that I’ll hear. “We just don’t appreciate what a grave thing sin is.” Jesus looked on sinners with great love and forgiveness. John tells us that God is Love. I cannot imagine a God of Love would condemn anyone, no matter how grave sin is, to suffer the most horrendous torture for an eternity — the kind of eternity where a billion years gets you no closer to the end. “You’re elevating your own moral sensibilities over the Scripture.” Perhaps — but I don’t think so. The scriptures leave a fair amount of room for interpretation on the matter, more than many traditionalists realize, and the very reason I object is because of the character of the God I have come to know through the scriptures and through the Word.
I don’t think that the people who accept the Eternal Conscious Torment view are sadistic or hateful. I know they too believe that God is loving, but that God is also Just and he will judge the wicked into hell. Within their own theological tradition, it makes a certain amount of sense. I’ve always felt like 90% of the anger against Rob Bell was not because he suggested what was essentially some kind of modified universalism, but that he so badly misrepresented the traditional view, offered a terribly superficial engagement with scripture, and branded the traditional view as irrational and sadistic. It’s neither. It makes sense within a certain worldview.
I just can’t believe it. I’ve never been able to. Maybe one day I will be able to. For now, I wrestle with it.
I can believe in Annihilationism — that hell is a place where the wicked are consumed and then exist no more, or that they simply cease to be. I can hope that the grace of God will ultimately reach all, or almost all. There are many views in the early church. But I simply cannot bring myself to believe that God would be that observer, able to intervene, able to destroy the prison, but allowing the torture to go on eternally, all the while observing. Because in the end the observer who owns the prison and refuses to intervene, it seems to me, is not much different from the torturer. And the God who gave us Jesus Christ, who died for us, who seeks so earnestly for the lost sheep — that God is not a torturer.