God is Not a Torturer

God is Not a Torturer January 22, 2013

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 don’t think anyone who reads this blog, or who knows me personally, will doubt that I am generally conservative when it comes to social issues, political issues, and (most importantly) theological issues.  I’m thoroughly educated on such matters as biblical interpretation and historical and systematic theology — and I’ve emerged from it all pretty conservative.  But there are some areas where my views diverge.  This is one of them.

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.

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  • Jeremy Forbing

    It is brave of you to come out and express this, given the reaction to someone like (as you discuss) Rob Bell. I have struggled with this issue as well, especially given the number of non-Christians I have close friendships with.

    • Stephen

      Considering the actual content of Bell’s book, that entire flame war strikes me as a bigger overreaction than when Mohler, Geisler, and co. went apoplectic over Mike Licona’s interpretation of one verse in Matthew.

  • Dave Vander Laan

    I hear where you’re coming from, Tim. Yet wouldn’t God’s sense of justice be cheapened and Christ’s death become more trivial if eternity didn’t offer a choice between heaven and hell?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      It would, I think. But the question here is what hell means.

  • Mike M.

    Thank you, Tim, for this very insightful and courageous piece, with which I also agree. Some years ago, I read Edward William Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, and found it presented very persuasive arguments to support an annihilationist interpretation of Scripture. I highly recommend it on this subject.

  • Kelly

    Oh man, you’re going to get some comments on this one!

    I agree with you that I’ve never been able to swallow the idea that God would allow a place where His children are endlessly tortured. Then I read “The Great Divorce,” with its incredible line about how hell is a place where God says to us “thy will be done.” In that books, hell is a kind of self-imposed prison. We see this every day in serious addictions: when a person returns again and again to the thing that is destroying him, until eventually it consumes his dreams, his personality, his relationships, and finally his body. That’s a picture of hell that makes more sense to me than God as a torturer.

  • I, too, have wrestled with this. I share the perplexity because I, too, was raised in awareness of a continual torment in hell. It makes persuasive motivation at some level, to escape hell-fire, which is perhaps why it has been so popular in pulpits. But God as a torturer?
    I am sure that none of us realize the full awfulness and impact of sin. Only One who is infinitely wise can understand all of that. Perhaps if we saw it from His viewpoint, we’d not think a eternal torment unjust. But an eternal torment for a white lie? If that were the only sin a person committed (granted – an impossibly hypothetical straw-man), would God torture such a person, even if they rejected Christ, for eternity? It sure seems like overkill, doesn’t it?
    I don’t know if I’m an annihilationist or not…but I’m much closer to that than I used to be. As you said, it just doesn’t “square” with a God who is Just, but who is also merciful…especially given that “mercy triumphs over judgement.” (James 2:13)
    As with so many things about God, there is a vast, infinite ocean of things we don’t understand. If God’s will will ultimately triumph and hold complete sway, and if He wills all to come to repentance, will they? I should, if I have the heart of Christ.
    Thanks for the thoughts.

  • Martin

    Dostoyevsky’s “Rebellion” comes to mind.

  • Laurel

    What I got from C.S. Lewis, (The Great Divorce as well as others such as The Last Battle – of the Narnia books) is that, as the person above said, the people who go to Hell, choose something else rather than choosing God. They don’t want God, so God gives them what they want. But I get the idea that in making that choice, they lose their humanity and become worse than a beast, without a self; soulless. Also from C.S. Lewis, that being without God, being imprisoned in the self – IS Hell. I would think that that condition would be torment enough.
    But with others, I can’t fathom that God would let that torment last forever. I do believe that the scripture is “God breathed” but I can’t reconcile “a place of eternal punishment” with Jesus.

  • Randy

    I certainly agree that the idea of eternal conscious torment in hell is too much for the human heart and mind to bear. I think it’s too much for God to bear as well, which is why he sent his Son to die “while we were still sinners.” I’ve had to remind myself that hell was created for the devil and his angels, not for man. Refusing Christ is effectively choosing hell. I hope it does end for those who go there…but I’m afraid that’s not how I read it. This is one time I hope I’m wrong.

  • Gregory Morris

    “I think,” “I feel,” “I can’t imagine….”

    Hmm, I am seeing a pattern.

    Someone will need to show me how it’s possible to come to a position other than “eternal conscious torment” if the relevant words of Christ and the Apostles are to be taken seriously. There’s just no way “And the smoke of their torment rises up for ever and ever. There is no rest, day or night…,” or “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'” can be understood other than some kind of conscious agony for eternity.

    That said, it seems obvious to me that you’re is exaggerating and stuffing the “torment” position with straw. I don’t see where you get the idea that God or anyone else is supposed to be doing the “torturing.” I don’t even understand why you has the picture of maleficent torment in your mind to begin with. I have always had the impression–based on how God “cursed” Adam and Eve (pushing them out of His direct presence) and what Christ endured on the cross (“my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) that the Lake of Fire is nothing more than the complete and final separation from God–who is life. What could possibly be worse? That, of course, would explain why it’s called “the second death.” Yet if Milton and Lewis are right, sinners gladly choose such a fate over submission.

    You say that “fundamentalists” would be surprised by how little scriptural evidence exists of “ECT.” If you’re reading the New Testament I’m reading, I would say your belief in the Trinity is now in imminent danger. There is no less plain teaching on eternal damnation than any other orthodox doctrine.

    It’s pretty apparent to me that this willingness to entertain the argument from personal incredulity (“my God wouldn’t do that”) over vividly explicit revelation and historical consensus is dangerous territory. A Christian who is not willing to accept revealed truths that rub him the wrong way isn’t really worth his salt.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great comment here, but I’ll have to beg your indulgence and just ask that you read my responses to some of the similar comments from others, since I’ve already written them.


  • Gregory Morris



    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks. I often have to pound these posts out very quickly and don’t have a chance to proofread.

  • Not gonna comment on the actual topic (because minds much sharper than mine will surely weigh in here with all sorts of viewpoints) . But regarding your comment about what caused the Bell backlash: I would say that the blame lies with that infamous video promo he did for the book. He came out fighting; he displayed a very contentious tone. “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?”

  • Well, Tim, you have your mouse finger in the hornet’s net – a tendency of yours I applaud. If I could take one thing out of the Bible, it would be hell. But Jesus believed in it (and one could make a biblical argument that He had a hand in creating it.) I understand Lewis’ picture of hell in “The Great Divorce” (my favorite of his) but what he describes still is a state of consciousness instead of the cessation of consciousness implied by annihilation (ECT sounds more benign, I admit). Others, including John Stott, Frances Chan and Mark Galli, have arrived at the same place with Fudge being the classic work. But this is part and parcel of a more compresensive issue. Did God really destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Did He really deliver some people from Egypt only to destroy some by the hundreds by swallowing them up in the ground or by an invasion of poisonous serpents? Did He really order the death of all inhabitants of the Promised Land as Israel moved in? Did Ananias and Sapphira really die for lying to the Holy Spirit in Acts? How can God be utterly holy and completely loving at the same time – a justifier and just as Paul would say? A suggestion for you and your readers is “The Goodness of God” by the Brit John Wenham published by IVP. One bookseller is selling it for over $800 (Now there is a reason for eternal conscious suffering!) but it can be had for five or six bucks and well worth the thought.

  • Alex

    Add to the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment the idea that one is only saved through Jesus, and you have the inescapable conclusion that billions of people have been condemned to Hell for the “sin” of never having had the opportunity to hear the Word. Those Amazonian tribes who have live their lives with no contact with the modern world – all damned to eternal torment. The entire population of pre-Columbian Americas – damned. The entire population of Asia and Africa before European missionaries arrived – also damned. Northern Europe before the Romans – guess what? And all without any possible opportunity to be saved.

    It’s one thing to believe that God is stern, but just; it’s another to believe that He has defined His rules such that huge numbers of people cannot hope to ever satisfy them. And it’s one thing to say that people are choosing something other than God and quite another to condemn those who were never given the choice.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Not necessarily. There are all sorts of theological options available when it comes to the question of what happens to those who have never heard the gospel. I’m not advocating any one option here, just noting that it is not an “inescapable” conclusion in the light of biblical passages suggesting that people will be held accountable to what they were able to know of God naturally.

  • Keith

    I’m a believer in what is called eternal conscious torment, but I can certainly understand and sympathize with the struggle that can come with pondering such a horrifying fate. This is an issue in which ECT believers are stripped of our own assent and left with nothing but raw surrender to Scripture, and that brings up my question: What about Scripture? In Tim’s piece and its responses, I would have liked to have seen engagement with the passages from which the belief in ECT derives, rather than expressions of personal conscience. Tim writes, “The scriptures leave a fair amount of room for interpretation on the matter,” and I’d be interested in specific alternate interpretations of verses such as these: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46) and “And the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever” (Revelation 14:11). I’m not looking for why these passages don’t mean ECT; I’m respectfully asking, if they don’t mean that, what do they mean?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Ultimately, of course, you’re right that sustained scriptural exegesis is necessary. In the 27 minutes I had in which to write a blog post, I just wanted to wrestle publicly with something that’s concerned me privately for quite some time.

      It’s not hard to find scholars and others who argue for annihilationism, or theologians who argue for different varieties of universalism. They make their arguments, by and large, biblically. So it’s out there. With Matthew 25, for instance, the question has to do with the proper understanding of the term there translated as “everlasting punishment.” When we get into this kind of apocalyptic language, is it intended to be taken literally, as a genre? Does “everlasting” mean something more like “infinite” or even “permanent”? And then you have to balance these passages over against the many others that suggest something more like annihilation. Does eternal fire refer to a fire that destroys forever? What about the language of “destroy the soul”? What if it really means to destroy it? A second death? These generally are the questions, and I think they’re worth taking seriously, especially in the light of a biblical testimony toward the character of God that would seem inconsistent with everlasting torture.

  • I don’t share the same sentiments. However, formerly a traditionalist a year and a half ago or so, I have since become convinced by exegesis alone that annihilationism is what Scripture teaches. It’s quite clear, in fact. So even if a traditionalist objects to the sentiments expressed in this post, it doesn’t change the fact that the Bible teaches annihilationism.

  • Tim, I think you are raise some very important questions about our typical understanding of hell.

    So I don’t want to press back on helping us re-understand these issue for evangelicals. But I do think you analogy fundamentally fails, and falls back into the very same problems which it tries to escape. The old popular medieval view of Hell is something like a place the Devil runs and torments all the soul who fall to him. The reverse is the idea that, no, the devil has no power in hell and rather it is God who runs the place. You in our analogy just combine the two, the devil torturer and God observers.

    But this ignores a third option. What if it is we who are torturing ourselves? “Hell is other people.” as Sartre says in NO EXIT (which everyone should read, of course a Great Divorce is good too). What if hell is that room in God’s mansion where the people who self-mutilate themselves are kept for the protection of all the others. Hell is not some playroom designed by the directors of SAW, that is totally depraved.

    Anyway, as this blog is called “philosophical fragments” it is well known that a philosophical/theological argument stands or falls depending on how it sets up the analogy, and I think you need to tear this one down.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I haven’t actually seen a strong argument here (in your comment) against the analogy. You suggest a third option. Sartre, of course, was not seriously suggesting a theology of the afterlife — and I don’t know of much scriptural basis that could be pulled together in support of your third option.

      I wasn’t necessarily posing the torturer as the devil. The point was just that someone or something is apparently putting the prisoner through extraordinary pain. God is aware of it, certainly has power over the establishment, and yet, in the traditional understanding, does not intervene. So while I fully expected some folks to challenge the analogy, I’m not sure that you’ve made a strong challenge here. Happy to keep the conversation going, though.

      • Tim,

        I suppose questions of “strong argument” are in the eye of the beholder. And certainly by saying Sartre is an atheist goes without saying. But that is not an argument against it (gold from the Egyptians and all that).

        This analogy is self-serving because it either posits God or someone/something else as the torturer. From here you go on to ask why it is that God does not intervene. It certainly tugs on the emotional chords that people wants to stand up and say, “No! God would never do that!”

        But it exactly ignores the third options: It is not the case the God or someone else torturers the damned. Perhaps each damned person is torturing themselves by exactly not wanting God to intervene. The agency of torture comes from within, not from God or someone else. This is exactly the point of Lewis and Sartre: people are in Hell because they chose to be there, not because someone is holding them there.

        Of course my suggestion here is not anywhere near what most people think of regarding ECT, but that is fine with me. But it still might be a type of torture, self-inflicted.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Well, as a philosopher, I have to say that strong arguments are partly in the eye of the beholder and partly not. The usual tact against an argument from analogy is to point to the disanalogies. You’re starting to flesh out an argument more effectively now, I think, but all you really did in the first response was to suggest a different analogy without offering a whole lot of reasons to prefer it. Just because other analogies are possible does not entail that the analogy offered is invalid or unhelpful.

          What I’m addressing here is one of the main, traditional views of hell, and questioning it. If you want to suggest a different option, in which people who choose to reject God are in some sort of waiting room in heaven, then that’s perfectly fine, but that’s questioning the traditional view as well.

          As for Lewis, I’m not sure your “third option” really captures what he’s saying, and I’ve never found it particularly persuasive in any case. It’s self-inflicted in the sense that people chose to be without God. But they presumably did not understand the consequences, or else did not believe there is a God, or did not believe there is a hell, or etc. And it’s not necessarily the case that, in Lewis’ view, they are the ones who are essentially tormenting themselves. So imagine that someone (the person who becomes the prisoner) is standing outside of two buildings. In the entryway to one building are all the apparatus of worldly pleasure. In the entryway to the other are the tools of self-sacrifice and obedience — but also the gospel. If a person chooses to go toward the worldly building, and ends up being tormented in eternity for it, he is responsible for his decision, but that does not mean that the consequences of an eternal torment cannot seem egregious. And it doesn’t mean that the prisoner is the person who is tormenting himself. He may have made a bad decision, ultimately a self-destructive decision, and yet the agents of his torment can be beings or things other than himself (such as a lake of fire, for instance).

          In other words, there’s a difference between making a poor decision and suffering the consequences, and actually being the person inflicting eternal torment on yourself.

  • Jason Garber


    I read your blog regularly and I admire your work. You are a generous, thoughtful, articulate defender of much of what is best in conservative/orthodox Christianity. But this post provoked more questions than answers for me about your position.

    1. If Scripture teaches hell, does Scripture trump yours (and my) moral intuitions?
    2. You write that you’ve come to this position through the God you’ve known through Scripture, but can you write a follow-up post defending your position Scripturally?
    3. Who goes to hell? In your post you talked about “the wicked” but that phrase normally means something very different than “non-Christians”, especially since most Christians know non-Christians who exceed them in many different virtues.
    4. How does the atonement relate to hell? In a traditional penal substitutionary atonement view, Jesus took the wrath of God as our substitute. But that raises the question of what happens to individuals for whom Jesus is not their substitute? Or to put it another way, can be maintain the love of God displayed for Christians through substitutionary atonement while simultaneously denying the wrath of God directed towards those who are not “in Christ”?
    5. Related to number 4, does Scripture portray God as the observer in hell or is God the one implementing the punishment? Revelation 2 and 19 talk about Jesus coming back with a sword in his mouth. There are plenty of Scriptural passages that talk about the “wrath” of God.
    6. This is not a mere intellectual issue. If the traditional view of hell is accurate and if we diminish that view, then we are not acting lovingly to those who are in danger by minimizing it. We also do ourselves no favors by giving us less motivation to become all things to all people so that we might save some.

    One last note: please please please do not receive the impression that I am callous about these matters. I did not grow up in a Christian home. Not only is no one in my family Christian, but until I stepped foot in a church for the first time in my late 20s, I could count the number of Christians I’ve met in my entire life on one hand–and I’d still have a couple fingers left over. The doctrine of hell shatters my heart. I’ve been at funerals of family members where I cannot even mourn together with my family–because we are mourning over two very different things. There are times when I think of Christianity as “bad news” instead of “good news.” Naturalism may be horrible, but at least it’s incompatible with hell. In fact, that may be naturalism’s only virtue.
    Ultimately, I’ve never understood how I can be a Christian, believe in Scripture as God’s Word and believe in substitutionary atonement without also believing in the horrors of hell.

    The topic of hell is so large that it cannot be adequately wrestled with in a single blog post. Tim, I invite you to make this blog post the first of a series that wrestles with this most weighty of issues. I would be very curious to see your more detailed thoughts.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Hi Jason,

      Thanks for your kind comments. We would all agree that Scripture is a far higher authority and a far sounder guide to such matters than my own (or anyone’s own) moral intuitions. My only response here is that (a) I believe there’s a great deal of space within responsible biblical interpretation for an annihilationist position, at the least, and (b) Scripture too conveys a great deal about the character of God that would, I think, call the ECT view into serious question. If it were my intent to make a strong and complete argument in favor of a particular view of hell and the afterlife, then the next step (or the first, really) would be to lay out a biblical position paper. But my intention here was less to do that, and more to let people into a struggle on my own part, where I find my deepest intuitions (which are, at least to some extent, scripture-formed) in conflict with the view of hell that I inherited from my surroundings.

      I don’t think I’m alone in this — as many of the comments show. If anything, I guess my hope would be that people would be honest and upfront if they have questions about these things, that they would look anew at their own theology of the afterlife, and go on to great resources where people lay forth solid biblical arguments for and against. I have roughly half an hour to write a blog post, which is of course insufficient to such a task.

      You raise great questions — questions that the post was not really meant to answer. Briefly, though, on your question about the wrath of God, I would see that having more to do with judgment and less to do with the infliction of eternal suffering directly. But that raises an interesting point, in that God is not simply the observer but also the judge. Thanks for that addition. One of the very legitimate questions here is whether “eternal” in these cases is really intended to convey an everlasting period of time, or whether it refers to a permanent consuming (in the way that a piece of paper, say, burnt up and gone, is eternally consumed).

      I absolutely agree with you that it would not be loving to minimize the danger or the extremity of hell, if it is indeed ECT. A recent post from Scot McKnight looked at a new book on hell that might interest you: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/01/09/what-did-jesus-teach-about-hell/

      I used to teach a tutorial at Harvard on the theology of the afterlife, that began with the OT and went through the NT and then into the history of theological reflection on these matters. What I found was, there’s actually a sort of evolving understanding of hell throughout the OT (not in the sense that the early view is wrong, but in the sense that the understanding of hell revealed to God’s people seems to grow clearly and more fulsome over time), that Jesus’ and the NT writers’ teachings on hell actually leave a fair amount of space for differing interpretations, and that of course there were all sorts of ways of understanding these things in the early church. It’s certainly not a unitary and unequivocal witness toward ECT.

      Thank you for the invitation to conversation, and perhaps I will indeed continue to write on these things and reflect through them together.

  • DanO

    Jason, FWIW you raise substantive points. You are swimming against the stream here. I hope the responses will be as respectful as your questions.

  • T.B.

    Strangely I agree with your conclusions but am unconvinced by your approach. Though I am not a believer in a Hell of torturing demons, one thing we can say about God definitely is, if He exists at all (and I am a Believer) He certainly does observe torture without intervening, because it happens ( stuff that makes waterboarding seem like a child’s game). People also suffer, sometimes for years, from disease. So though I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion of the great and intractable “PROBLEM – OF – EVIL”, I have to point out that the idea that God would not observe suffering and permit it, is simply not true, He does. Though perhaps He has a time limit on it.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Suffering in the present life is much easier for me to understand — even torment. Suffering in general, of course, brings all sorts of opportunities for important growth. And torment is one thing if it’s temporary. But the question here is whether a God of Love could permit eternal torture.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    Nicely done. I agree with all your problems with ECT, and I’ll add another: I can believe in either heaven or hell, but not both. I find the existence of this version of hell to be incompatible with the existence of heaven. If I was in heaven and was aware of what’s going on in hell and what’s not being done about it, I wouldn’t find heaven very pleasant or joyful or the being in charge worthy of reverance. It would be a level of helplessness in the face of suffering unmatched by anything on Earth; at least in this life we can make some positive difference.

  • Kevin McKee

    Perhaps we are looking at this whole issue only from one perspective. The Scriptures speaking from the point of view of believers or God, but not necessarily from those who reject God. From my perspective, I can understand the poetic language used in Scripture to describe the concept of hell. But I do that from a position of faith in God, faith in Scripture and the reality of Hell, if understood as a description of total and permanent separation from God. I like the concepts of the Great Divorce. Ultimately each human being is faced with the ultimate decision, “do I want to be God’s servant, am I willing to cede authority over my existence to God?” I think it is clear from Scripture that some choose to answer that question in the negative. As a result, God allows the decision to stand by ensuring that there is no relationship between that individual and God. From my perspective, knowing the loving God, and believing in His desire to do the best for me, I see that decision by an individual as both foolish and sad, and were I to make it it would be to enter a world of eternal pain and suffering. But that may not be the perspective of the one who abandons God. From their perspective they want to be apart from God, ergo they are not suffering or in torture, simply having an isolated existence. My concept of Hell, but perhaps not theirs.

  • I became fascinated with the issue of hell about a decade ago and spent literally thousands of hours that I should have been using to keep my house clean to studying the subject. I came away completely convinced that universal reconciliation is not only morally and philosophically superior, but utterly biblical as well. What is really interesting to me is that I can make a detailed explanation of the biblical basis for universal reconciliation, explain each and every verse involved and be met with nothing but anger and “nuy-uh!” in response. I had assumed that people would be excited to hear about how good and powerful God really is, but that was not the case to put it mildly.

    I really think it goes to what Paul warned of in 2 Timothy 4:3-4:
    “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”

    The assumption of most Christians seems to be that the ear ticklers are people who reject an angry, wrathful God. However a quick survey of religions through out time and around the world shows that there’s nothing more common, more universally accepted and more fervently defended than angry, wrathful deities. Meanwhile messages of love, humility, sacrifice and such have been preached but have struggled mightily to gain a foothold. There seems to be something very deep in us evil, wicked humans that desires and is drawn to wrath, condemnation and fear. The ear ticklers are the ones who play to this ugly part of the human psyche. (I think it’s interesting to note that Paul tells Timothy that in place of sound doctrine, people will prefer myths. Left Behind, Rapture, Dante’s Inferno, “Sinner’s in the Hands of an Angry God”?)

    At any rate, I can see you have your hands full here, but if you’d like to check out the biblical basis for the great teaching of universal reconciliation, I did a series on it last fall. I’m sorry for putting a link in the response, but I tried making it so clicking my name would take you straight to the page, but it wasn’t allowed through:
    It’s a broad overview, not a comprehensive study, but if you click through the links I provide in the posts, you can dig deeper on the subject.
    All the best and good for you for being willing to stand up for what you believe this way!

    • I was just reading through some of the posts here that I had skimmed over and saw that you mentioned that you taught a tutorial on the theology of the afterlife at Harvard. Please forgive me if my “allow me to enlighten you, little grasshopper” tone was presumptuous. It’s just something I’m passionate and excited about sharing. 🙂

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        No, I appreciated your comments. There are at least four different streams of thought on hell, and each has its own biblical argument to make. One of the books I enjoyed reading toward the beginning of the semester was “The Death of Death.” Have you ever read it? It’s more focused on the OT texts, but I think it prepared me to see that there’s a much more complicated biblical picture regarding the afterlife than I had expected. So we walked through quite a few books — myself and four other students — and really enjoyed tracing things over the course of the semester. It was probably one of my best teaching experiences at Harvard.

        • I’m afraid that my book budget is so small it mostly has to go towards paying late fees at my small town library! So, no I haven’t read The Death of Death. I’ll have to look it up though. Mostly I’ve had to wade through books online – mostly written between 1800 and1950 to do my background work. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing. There were some people who did really meticulous work on researching and compiling of information back in the day. I doubt anything of the sort could get published today. It’s not exactly reader friendly stuff!

  • James Corona

    Like the song goes, “what do I know of holy?” Very little.

  • Leah Hess

    hell is reserved for those who don’t want heaven.

  • M Torres

    When I first started reading this post, I thought you were describing the Trinity during the crucifixion: all complicit in, and enduring the endless torture for the sake of sinners such as you and me. The Bible seems not to give a whole lot of detail about hell and the part God plays in it. I don’t know how your picture or the parts you cast in it compare with the reality of hell. But perhaps the key to reconciling it with our loving Lord is seeing that God most certainly endured the kind of agony you describe for us.

  • Doug

    Good topic, Dr. D.

    What exactly should constitute the “traditional view” of hell is open to question. That’s your point, or one of them. I know you’re aware that mainstream theology in the church’s early centuries allowed for a broader range of views than those typically discussed now. Isaac of Nineveh’s quote below, from the seventh-century, comes to mind, and he’s only drawing from earlier church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor (all three of them basically universalists who still maintained excellent theological credentials):

    “As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful. That is what the torment of hell is in my opinion: remorse.”

    Christian arguments for ECT based on God’s justice tend to fall flat, in my opinion, because they don’t comport with the example and character of Jesus. If we’re to believe his words, that when we see Jesus we see the Father, then we should hesitate to speak so boldly on God’s behalf, assuming that his justice requires this or that. Isn’t the Gospel itself simply that God sets justice aside for the sake of love?

    Like one of your other readers here, the problem of evil is more troubling for me than the problem of hell. In response to the other reader, you wrote that “suffering in general…brings all sorts of opportunities for important growth,” but clearly this isn’t always so. But that’s another post, another day.

    BTW: In case you didn’t notice, I’d just point out that your penultimate paragraph is cut off after “But the God I’ve experienced in and through Jesus Christ…”

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yes, that’s why I wrote “in general,” because I won’t commit to the proposition that all suffering brings opportunities for growth. I think we need to hold open the possibility that some suffering is just so destructive of human agency that there is no possibility that the sufferer will draw anything positive from it.

      My view, however, is that a great portion of human suffering can be instrumentally good if we learn from suffering what it has to teach us. But yes, as you say, another topic for another day.

      And the Orthodox traditions on hell are quite interesting and I think the American evangelical church would gain a great deal from learning more about them.

  • Rebecca McCormick

    The key to your dilemma is Emmanuel. On the cross Jesus bore the sins…and the punishment for them…of the whole cosmos. In what seems to our limited minds a matter of hours, He suffered the eternal death and separation sentence meted out on humankind. All of humankind. Even those who will choose not to accept the grace of forgiveness. In your cell there is no observer. There is Emmanuel, who suffers with the tormented, the tormented who reject him. Though I pitch my tent in Hell, behold you are there. For God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son….. That great love was willing to suffer eternal torment for each of us. Will the tortured be able to see that Jesus is Emmanuel who suffers with him? I don’t know. Never doubt the immense love of God, or His infinite kindness. We can never reproach God for anything because He who did not have to do it, joined Himself to His creation, put on flesh, and is no mere observer! Through the cross, and by becoming sin, He experiences each of our lives, and our joys and griefs with us. His love overwhelms me.

  • Doug Sirman

    While the experience certainly isn’t universal, I honestly thought you were describing the human experience of life which for some is unrelenting torture under the gaze of a God who watches, and does nothing.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yeah, I would see that as a dramatic overstatement. Permissible in literary contexts, but not so much in philosophical or theological ones. Plus there’s the very important distinction that our mortal lives are temporary.

  • Craig Wright

    To Keith; compare Matt. 25: 46 “eternal punishment” with Jude 6-7 “eternal fire”; and compare Rev. 14: 11 with Is, 34: 5-10 “Edom–smoke goes up forever and ever” (Amos 9: 12 “remnant of Edom”), and Rev. 19: 3 “Babylon–smoke goes up forever and ever.”

  • Well-said. I also come from an evangelical Christian background and always believed a hell full of eternal torture exists, because “that’s what Christians believe.” But now I’m questioning that, for some of the same reasons you are.

  • Who wouldn’t wrestle with the concept, or reality, of Hell? And whenever I think about it or am asked about it, I simply defer to the sovereign love, goodness, mercy, grace, justice, holiness, omni-everything of God. He will do what is right, and just, because he cannot do otherwise, no matter how it appears to us on this side of mortality, or the other.

    Hell exists, if the Scripture is true, but its exact nature is simply impossible for us to know. I don’t want to believe in eternal torment (at least for most people), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But I do have a problem with you assuming an eternal Hell is akin to God being a torturer. Your analogy is faulty, to say the least. To buy into it, one must compare temporal, sinful, yea, evil human beings inflicting suffering to either get information (in its most benign form), or to simply be sadistic, to God’s infinite knowledge and judgment. In this, God becomes one of us, only bigger. In my opinion it’s a really bad way to try to think through this horrible and troubling subject.

    I’ve been reading through the Old Testament, and I’ve been struck at how often God not only says he hates sin and evil, but that he hates those who do evil. Not just the sin, but the actual person. It’s really striking. Psalm 11:5 is sobering: “The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates.” We’re so much a part of our age that the very idea that we are *not* all “God’s children” is offensive to most of us. His wrath is real, and justified, and remember he came to save *his* people from *their* sins. To modern man, that God would distinguish or choose is offensive. But the evidence from Genesis to Revelation is that he does. Without Hell, whatever the exact nature of it is, there is no orthodox Christianity.

  • TD
    I often disagree with you. I am on the very “left edge” of the evangelical movement. But I wholeheartedly agree with you on this one. The God that would torture forever even the vilest of sinners would be despotic and evil. His love requires a cessation of the suffering and the “destruction” of the impenitent…

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m always honored to be read by those who often disagree. I appreciate that kind of commitment to breadth. Thank you.

      • You are very welcome. I am a United Methodist. I am theologically about where Roger Olson, Tony Campolo, Adam Hamilton, and Greg Boyd are.

  • Steve

    This is my reflection on the matter. Perhaps it will help: https://www.facebook.com/notes/steven-okeefe/what-the-hell/10151539168268154

  • John Osborn

    I’m very glad to see you write this. I only wish you didn’t have to wonder if it’s because of your lack of maturity or being too much of a Softie. It boggles my mind how being repulsed by eternal torment could ever be considered being “too soft.” Forget the billions of years or even thousands of years, (since we have no way of internalizing that kind of time, much less that much time in torture) anybody would be a monster to not be horrified by decades of misery, if this was not about hell. However, I suppose being raised from birth with the idea could cause some lingering struggle on the issue. I’ve got to agree with Rob Bell though – this is a Sadist and irrational doctrine. Certainly many incredibly loving and rational people hold the doctrine and they are not Sadist, but the doctrine is. However, your more moderate rhetoric will perhaps help you sway more conservative Evangelicals and that’s a good thing. Rob Bell’s utter horror, though I think is more helpful to reaching secular people who were not desensitized to the idea by growing up with it, and would find it incredible to even wrestle with it. Sorry If I come across too harsh on this, I’m talking about the idea not the people.

  • Pastor Pete

    When it comes to this subject matter, there is one clear fact presented in Scripture that cannot be denied or diminished without suppressing or twisting the truth: There is a literal place called the lake of fire, in which unprepentant, unbelieving sinners shall be cast. The Bible calls it “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” Whether it is unending or not is something I’m personally not going to waste much time debating. My confidence and rest is in the absolute integrity and perfection of God’s character, and the fact that God will always to the right and just thing. As was mentioned, I do believe we cannot approach the interpretation of Scripture based on our feelings, as they are not a reliable basis for determing truth.

    • Do you know what the lake of fire is made of? The Greek word is theion or theio. Root word theo. Theo is Greek for God or divine. Theio is sulfer which was used by the ancient Greeks to purify and consecrate to the divine. Theioo is actually a Greek verb derived from theio/theion which Scott Liddell defines as ““to hallow, to make divine, or to dedicate to a god.” The people to whom the Book of Revelation was written would have read “lake of divine purification” or something similar. There’s more to this issue than you are allowing for, even excluding every shred of human kindness and compassion.

  • I’m reading my Bible everyday and finding it hard to believe almost every time. You write “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.” and I guess there’s a kind of dramatic effect to the phrase linked to the difficulty of the ECT issue. A lot of people have already mentioned some really good points you’re missing, Timothy. My take is a very simple one: God is torturer because of traditional view of Hell? Come on. If you’re playing Copernic and putting your emotions as the center of biblical credibility you have to start earlier than final punishment. For almost every line of the Book you’ll be able to say that the divinity you’re reading about is not “the God I’ve come to know through Jesus Christ”. The major problem with this your text, Timothy, comes not from weakness of your faith but from weakness of your reading. I’m expecting some improvement. Um abraço fraterno!

  • Richard T

    I’m reminded of the time from the Cuban crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall, when, as one writer put it, “for two decades the race lived within twenty minutes of annihilation.” How did we react? We made some frightening speeches, read some fiction about post-Bomb worlds, and went on living as though it was pure fiction. To treat it as a real possibility was more than almost anyone could bear.

    I suspect many people treat Hell the same way, not theologically but psychologically. The other guy might end up there, but it’s not in their view of their own future.

  • Tony

    From my own perspective as a strong atheist, I am surprised at myself for being wholeheartedly impressed and touched by your honest discussion of this issue. However, given that you have acknowledged that your god thinks that it is right and proper for us to be eternally (and I stress “eternally”) punished for the awful “crime” of not loving him (setting aside the related question of why an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent being would need to be “loved” in the first place), it could be that you have taken a first step along the road to realising what many others have realised for a long time – that the bible is not the word of god, that your god doesn’t actually exist, there is no hell and no heaven, and when we die, that’s it. From my viewpoint, the realisation that I have only one life to live was the beginning of me cherishing every single day, rather than wasting my life in wish fulfillment about eternal life in some magical mansion in the sky.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Tony, I appreciate this comment. For about fourteen years, first in undergraduate programs and then in graduate and doctoral programs, I studied the clash between Christianity and modern atheism as it began to emerge in pre-Cartesian times. I doubt that I will become an atheist, but it’s not for lack of information about it. At various times in my life I’ve been completely open about whether I should believe X or Y or Z, and I’ve come to my current beliefs as the ones I find most compelling and persuasive. But I venture to say that I probably have more respect than most for people who conclude otherwise.

      I remember a passage from Nietzsche where he speaks (I think it was Zarathustra) of an archer firing the arrow of his longing over the current life and into the next. That’s definitely one variety of Christianity. Another variety sees every moment, every day, every person as a gift to be treasured. That’s my variety.