How the Traditional Doctrine of Hell Undermines Christian Character

How the Traditional Doctrine of Hell Undermines Christian Character November 16, 2015

This guest post is written by Randal Rauser.

John Martin, Pandemonium, 1841
John Martin, Pandemonium, 1841

Last year I interviewed Robin Parry, author of the book The Evangelical Universalist (which he wrote under the pseudonym “Gregory MacDonald”). During the interview, Robin observed that Christians should want universalism to be true. Indeed, he put the point rather provocatively when he declared,

“You’d have to be a psychopath not to want [universalism] to be true.”

Psychopath?! That’s mighty strong language, isn’t it? But as provocative as that statement might sound, Parry pointed out that Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm agrees on the main point: Christians should want universalism to be true.

If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you

Nor is Helm the only defender of eternal conscious torment to make this point. With the publication of Knowing God in 1973, J.I. Packer quickly established himself as one of the foremost conservative Calvinist theologians and a staunch defender of doctrines like penal substitution and eternal conscious torment. As conservative as he is, even Packer makes the following declaration: “If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!” (Revelations of the Cross (Hendrickson, 1998), 163).

If, as Packer suggests, you shouldn’t want to see anybody damned, then it logically follows that you should want to see them all saved. And wanting to see all people saved entails wanting universalism to be true.

This leaves us with an interesting situation in which all agree that proper Christian character requires that we hope universalism is true even as (according to traditionalists like Helm and Packer) we are to believe it isn’t. That’s awkward for the traditionalist … but it gets worse.

How eternal conscious torment undermines Christian character

As my interview with Robin continued to unfold, he then addressed the underlying tension between the doctrine of eternal conscious torment and the moral character formation of the Christian. Robin explained it like this:

“Someone said to me, ‘Oh, I believe that hell is tormenting people forever. I don’t have a problem with that.’ And I think when you first come across this view, if you’re an ordinary human being, you would have a problem with that unless there’s something really wrong with you, something seriously in terms of your moral compass. So then you have a theological system where you have to try and desensitize yourself to this. And there is a real problem of a theological system that actually, rather than cultivating virtue in your attitudes and so on, cultivates attitudes that are actually vicious.”

Now this is a really important point, one that is worth camping out on. As Parry points out here, the doctrine of eternal conscious torment (i.e. the doctrine that the damned will suffer unimaginable retributive punishment in body and mind for eternity in hell) presents a real problem for the Christian who is serious about developing a Christlike attitude. The problem, in short, is that acceptance of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment encourages attitudes which are, as Parry put it, “vicious.”

Vicious? Really? Indeed, I think Parry is right here. On this traditional view, the Christian is committed to the belief that a subset of God’s creatures (“the damned”) will be subject to eternal torments even as the elect experience maximal joy in a heavenly new creation. Here’s where those vicious attitudes enter the picture: Christians now seek to develop the kind of character they will have in eternity. Indeed, that’s precisely what sanctification is all about: becoming like Christ. But on this view, becoming like Christ means becoming the kind of person who can be maximally happy and joyful despite the unimaginable suffering of the damned.

You think that’s bad? It gets even worse. You see, the mainstream view of eternal conscious torment represented by theologians from Tertullian to Thomas Aquinas to Jonathan Edwards to J.I. Packer, is that the suffering of the reprobate is not merely tolerated by the elect. Rather, it actually increases the joy of the elect since it manifests God’s righteous holiness.

Let’s consider that incredible claim for a moment. But let’s make it personal. In eternity, you could end up in heaven while your beloved parent, child, or spouse, could end up suffering unimaginable torment forever in hell. And you would be maximally happy and joyful even as you witnessed the righteous divine wrath being poured out on this damned wretch: the mother who had raised you, the child you nurtured, the spouse you had loved, now reduced to a writhing burning cinder even as you sing divine praises.

If we’re supposed to become like that now – if that’s what sanctification really looks like – then preparation for eternity requires the cultivation of attitudes that would indeed look on any conventional measure to be vicious, not to mention perfectly horrible, and morally repugnant.

Consider this pale analogy. Imagine the meat eater who is overcome with compassion when witnessing the horrors of the slaughterhouse. But rather than resolve not to eat meat, or at least to adopt a new commitment to the humane slaughter of animals, he instead cauterizes his emotions against the terrible fate of industrial livestock. He will not allow their suffering to adversely impact the pleasure of his meal.

In like manner, on this picture the Christian who is now overcome with compassion or immobilized in anguish for the eternally damned should recognize that these attitudes are at odds with the end goal of becoming Christlike. The sanctified person in glory is the one who can rejoice in the glow of the suffering of the damned.

This brings us to a deep paradox with the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment. Even defenders of this view of hell like Paul Helm and J.I. Packer agree that we ought to hope that all are saved. Despite this fact, a commitment to become sanctified like Christ requires that we seek to cauterize our emotions so we may become indifferent to, or even rejoice in, the torment of the damned.

Right doctrine should lead to right character

The problem can be put simply. This doctrine of eternal conscious torment seems to be fundamentally at odds with becoming like Christ. But isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t right doctrine seamlessly interweave with right character formation? Put another way, if a doctrine requires us to cultivate vicious attitudes, isn’t that reasonable evidence that this doctrine is false?

Eric Seibert believes so and he offers a way forward with a hermeneutical principle to guide theological reflection. (For more on Seibert see my audio podcast interview). Seibert begins by quoting the great Church Father, St. Augustine:

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

Seibert then fills out Augustine’s principle:

“Whenever we read and interpret the Bible, we should always be asking whether our interpretation increases our love for God and others.” (The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress Press, 2012), 66-67).

The Augustine-Siebert principle offers a reasonable resolution to the problem. Whenever we encounter a doctrine or a reading of a biblical passage, we must ask of it, does that doctrine or reading increase our love for God and neighbor? If one concludes that it does neither, and indeed does the opposite, we have a reason to reject it.

With that, we can turn back to our current dilemma. Defenders of eternal conscious torment are left with a cognitive dissonance at the heart of their conception of sanctification. On the one hand, they recognize the obvious: if you want to see folk damned, there’s something wrong with you. On the other hand, they are obliged to recognize that in eternity you will find joy in seeing folk damned, and yet there won’t be anything wrong with you. Indeed (and incredibly) this will be what it means to be like Christ.

But that’s not what it means to be like Christ. The logic of eternal conscious torment leaves one with the cultivation of vicious attitudes that militate against love of neighbor. This doctrine is fundamentally at odds with Christian sanctification and discipleship, and that devastating consequence provides a reasonable ground to reconsider the biblical and theological credentials of eternal conscious torment, if not to reject the doctrine altogether.

 


randal-rauserAbout Randal Rauser
Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary in Edmonton, Alberta. He is the author of many books, including Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism (2015), The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (2012), and You’re Not as Crazy as I Think: Dialogue in a World of Loud Voices and Hardened Opinions (2011). Rauser blogs and podcasts as The Tentative Apologist at randalrauser.com.

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