God is Not a Torturer: Debunking the Doctrine of Eternal Torment
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16
Pouring water over the covered face of an immobilized person is a brutal thing to do. The captive experiences severe pain and an overwhelming sensation of drowning. Some victims have even been known to break their bones as they struggle against the restraints.
But waterboarding is nothing compared with what American theologian Jonathan Edwards described God doing in his famous 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This torture continues endlessly into eternity from the moment of death.
American evangelist Charles Spurgeon preached that, “In hell there is no hope. They have not even the hope of dying; the hope of being annihilated. They are forever, forever, forever lost! On every chain in hell, there is written ‘forever’. In the fires there, blaze out the words, ‘forever’. Above their heads, they read, ‘forever’. Their eyes are galled and their hearts are pained with the thought that it is ‘forever’. Oh, if I could tell you tonight that hell would one day be burned out, and that those who were lost might be saved, there would be a jubilee in hell at the very thought of it. But it cannot be it is ‘forever’ they are cast into the outer darkness.”
From the perspective of Edwards and Spurgeon, the depths of hell are inversely proportionate to the heights of Heaven, as an all-powerful God gives eternal life to both the saved and the damned. While tears and sorrow will vanish from Heaven, the saved live with enduring knowledge and are even expected to rejoice that somewhere else concurrently living souls of the damned ranging from evil dictators to their unsaved neighbors day after day experiencing continuous ripping pain throughout eternity. An unrepentant child who died 1,000 years ago is being tortured that much longer than a recent mass murderer.
But is this really something that God would do? Does this belief influence how many Christians relate to the rest of the world?
In a 2008 USA Today poll, 57% of Southern evangelical respondents, and 48% of the general public, said that they believed torture can be justified to obtain information from suspected terrorists.
Why would be Christians be more willing to justify torture than the general public? It might go back to the doctrine of eternal torment in hell. Many believe that God will engage in torture day and night for eternity, so it would follow that Americans fighting for a righteous cause are justified in engaging in torture for short amounts of time to meet their objectives.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, on September 13, 2001, Ann Coulter, in an infamous column wrote, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”
In Catholic theology, torture isn’t only reserved for the eternally lost. The church teaches that even the saved will suffer in purgatory for their sins until their debt of temporary punishment for venial sin has been paid through their own suffering.
But does suffering in hell appeal to the blood lust of an angry God, or do many Christians simply have the wrong picture of God? Where did this idea come from?
The doctrine of hell, as is commonly believed, has its origin in Plato and its application in the writings of Augustine who believed that God must punish, not only save, otherwise no human life, lived well or badly, made any ultimate difference. (See James V. Schall, “Regarding the Inattentiveness to Hell in Political Philosophy,“DivusThomas, (Piacenza), (#3–4, 1989), 273–79.)
Augustine believed that ultimately salvation from hell was the ultimate goal since one’s destination and one’s existence were the only things that were eternal. He divided society between the people who were saved in the “City of God” and the damned “Earthly City.” Since the two “cities” were intermingled on earth, The City of God must be fortified against the hellish Earthly City by an all-powerful totalitarian church that could police and protect the flock.
Because humanity set on a downward course through original sin, Augustine created the framework for an intermingling of church and state which would be necessary to ensure the survival of public moral virtues that would save as much of society as possible.
Invoking the doctrine of eternal hell, Augustine made an argument along the lines that if two men lived in a house which people knew ‘with absolute certainty’ was about to fall down on them and kill them. If the men were warned of the impending danger and they refused, what should we do? Should we rescue them now, and reason with them later, or leave them to die? According to Augustine, we should rescue them now, for “I think that if we abstained from doing it, we should well deserve the charge of cruelty.” (See Augustine, “A Treatise Concerning the Correction of the Donatists; or Epistle CLXXXV).
Accordingly, Augustine believed that it was the duty of the religious community to conduct investigations to locate heresy in Hell on Earth — Burning at the stakeorder to prevent the messages of heretics from corrupting the righteous. As a leading bishop, Augustine personally assisted in the interrogation, or inquisition of pagans, unorthodox Christians, and others he viewed as holding unacceptable beliefs. Ultimately, the church took control over defining what was “true” doctrine and anybody who disagreed or preached contrary to these “truths” could be justifiably tortured or even killed in order to keep society free of harmful heresy and to fulfill the greater purpose.
So Christians acting with presumably good intentions resorted to techniques ranging from starvation to heaping burning coals on parts of the bodies of heretics. Then they started inventing ways to cause pain more efficiently while avoiding death in order to obtain confessions. Medieval torturers would tie the hands of the accused to pulleys on the ceiling and attach weights to the feet and ankles. They invented methods of stretching the joints of subjects to the point where bones were pulled from their sockets. They pulled at skin with pincers and thumbscrews and invented waterboarding, a technique first practiced by the Inquisition against Mennonite Christians in 1554.
Augustine’s beliefs in eternal hell, just war, and torture continue to have a tremendous influence on the modern world.
Augustine would consider this vein of thought pure heresy, but if Jesus Christ would really provide for eternal life both heaven and hell, maybe Christopher Hitchens was on to something when he titled his book, “God is Not Great.” If, as I type this, God is burning people at unquenchable stakes, then why would He care about the temporal suffering of a child who lost his pet dog or a father suffering the ravages of cancer? Even His suffering and death on the cross lasted less than a day – how could a week, a year, a century, or eternity possibly be justified? How can a God like this possibly be “love”?
What a person believes about hell has a lot to do with what they think about God and how they believe people should be treated. As we enter times of social stress and ambiguity, when fundamental values are at stake, people of faith who doubt the power of God to change lives and believe that they are needed to fight the spiritual battle often engage a persecutory impulse, justified by a concept that whatever torture they mete out will be nothing to the fires of hell. In fact, for over a thousand years, Christians were religious persecutors.
(For a more detailed history, pictures of torture devices and illustrations of torture for religious dissenters, visit MedievalWarfare.info. Warning — the content is very disturbing.)
I’m not a theologian so this may not be complete but here is a basic overview of what the Bible says about heaven and hell.
- God created a perfect world that was originally designed to last forever. God did not create a hell. It was not through a process of trial and error with death introduced before perfection. “God saw that it was good.”
- Satan was a high ranking created being who felt that he should be honored just like God was honored, and Satan accused God of being unfair and unjust – Satan argued that God’s love was not unconditional and unlimited and that if God’s rule was ever challenged, God would become a tyrant and arbitrarily destroy those who challenged Him. (If this sounds a lot like current popular teachings on hell, that’s because it is the same.)
- God allowed Himself to go on Trial before the universe of created beings. Was Satan right about God being an unjust tyrant? God’s argument was that He was both loving and just. The entire universe of created beings is the jury.
- In order to make his case, Satan was given an opportunity to tempt Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God told Adam and Eve they could eat the fruit of any other trees, but not to eat the fruit of the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil”, because it would lead to their death. When they ate the forbidden fruit, Creation became mortal. Satan tempted them and said that if they ate the fruit they would not die, but that their eyes would be opened and they would know both good and evil. (Genesis 3)
- When they ate the fruit, plants and animals began to die, and it wasn’t long until people began to die as a consequence of the sin that had been introduced to the world through this action. God did not lose his love for humanity but He also knew that the penalty for their transgression was eternal death. (Romans 6:23 – “The wages of sin are death.”)
- Rather than destroy His created people like Satan said God would do, God found a way to pay the penalty for sin while allowing those who chose to live to avoid eternal death. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the price for sin once and for all, and there was enough grace to extend to every person on earth. It is not limited. The saved will not have to supplement their salvation in purgatory. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.” 1 Peter 3:8 (NIV).
- Jesus was placed in a borrowed tomb and was unconscious from His death on Friday until His resurrection on Sunday. Jesus did not descend into hell (he did descend to death) on Friday and did not ascend to heaven until after He was resurrected. In fact, He told Mary not to touch Him because He had “not yet ascended” to Heaven. (John 20:17)
- Jesus will return as He promised. The living who have been saved by accepting this sacrifice on their will ascend to heaven and the righteous dead will be resurrected at that time. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
- During the 1,000 years after the Second Coming, the books will be opened and the saved will be able to examine all of God’s actions throughout history and to see whether the accusations that Satan brought forward were true or false. They will also determine whether God was just in his decisions involving those who were not saved. (1 Corinthians 6:2,3 Revelation 15:3, 20:1–4.
- After that, there will be another resurrection of those who were not saved for the sentencing and final disposition. (John 5:29, Revelation 20:5,7) The actions of God will be explained to everybody who has ever lived in history. Satan will try to rally the unsaved to mount a physical attack on the Kingdom of God. (Revelation 20:8, 9). God’s “Great White Throne” will become visible to all inside and outside of the Holy City and God will pronounce judgment. (Revelation 20:12; Luke 13:28) At this point, everybody will bow before God and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2:10; Isaiah 44:22,23)Those who have been saved through the death of Christ will live and those who were not saved will be destroyed with finality along with the earth which has suffered the ravages of sin. “Fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured” all the unsaved. (Revelation 20:9, 15; see also 2 Peter 3:7) “The heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10). “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 21:11).
- The destructive results of the fire will be eternal, but the fire itself will go out. (Malachi 4:1–3)
- God will show his Creative power and recreate the earth again, just as He did at the beginning but this time those who are saved will be able to watch it happen. In this new earth, there will be no more hell. The saved will be able to fully enjoy Heaven without knowing that somewhere else God is torturing those who are not there with them. God’s character will vindicated as a God of love and a God of justice.Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev. 21:1–5).
- The perfection of Eden will be restored and the only remnants of sin and death will be the memories of those who lived through it. The curse of sin will have been destroyed. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:1–5)
Christians need not live as if they are victims of Stockholm syndrome, with irrational love for a captor who actively tortures His creation. Instead, the Bible paints a picture of a God who does not torture. The freely available gift is eternal life, the wages of sin are eternal death.
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” Revelation 21:4.
Thy mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens;
and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds.
Thy righteousness is like the great mountains;
thy judgments are a great deep:
O Lord, thou preservest man and beast.
How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God!
Therefore the children of men put their trust
under the shadow of thy wings.
For more information about the doctrine of hell, visit:
Hell Truth (Amazing Facts) — http://www.helltruth.com/
Brian P. Phillips — “Annhilation or Everlasting Torment?” Ministry Magazine (1996) http://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/1996/August/annihilation-or-endless-torment
Film: Hell and Mr. Fudge — http://hellandmrfudge.org/