Eternal Torturous Existence: The Foundation of Theology Gone Bad Or The Good News of Hell

The doctrine of hell as eternal torturous existence for the unsaved poses “endless” problems which, I recognized many years ago, is foundational to a peculiarly bad theology. An eternally angry God unleashing wrath forever against finite creatures with limited capacities and opportunities depends upon a series of misunderstandings and outright heresies: the innate immortality of the soul, wrath as on a continuum in the divine nature coexisting forever with love, the Cross as an instrument of divine torture, missing hell and going to heaven as the focus of salvation.  This sort of hell is the keystone to a Gnostic Christianity.  Human rebellion and divine wrath become infinite categories and the Cross and redemption are absorbed into this skewed form of theology. In the words of one of my former professors, the Cross is the place Christ suffers eternal hell on our behalf.  He explains, this suffering must be primarily “spiritual” so as to be infinite, which as I pointed out to him, would seem to relieve us of the necessity of the incarnation and the physical-historical necessity of the Cross. Christ could undergo this spiritual suffering in heaven. In other words, to follow this logic will land one just short of the anti-Christ position of denying that Christ came in the flesh – here he simply need not have come in the flesh.  That there is not one Scripture that pictures the Cross as specifically addressing the category of hell or Gehenna in no way slows the momentum of this hellish logic.  The doctrine of eternal conscious torture bears such weight as to skew the doctrines of God, man, and salvation, and it becomes the implicit frame for understanding the New Testament.

I was recently at the Stone Campbell conference where the prominent historian Richard Hughes was presenting for our Peace and Justice group.  Richard asked me how I had come to be a pacifist and I realized I had no clear idea as to my own development in this understanding. I think however, this too must be connected to the departure I made as a teenager in regard to the doctrine of hell. Infinite violence directed at the wicked is an extension of the logic of the necessity of violence.  The predicament we face as fallen human creatures continually throws up the necessity of protecting ourselves through violence against our enemies (war, home protection, church security guards).  In the various “what if” scenarios, violence is posed as necessary for those who would do the good work of saving the innocent. Life is gained for some through the death of others. Hell seems to be necessary vengeance and violence writ large so that it is projected onto God. The law of sin and death are eternalized as eternal torturous existence.[1]

The focus of the New Testament is on salvation from sin and death, but where eternal torturous existence is posited, the orientation to death definitive of sin is inevitably skewed as secondary.  Those passages that explicitly explain the death of Christ as defeating the condemnation of sin and death are made to address a problem other than that which they explicitly entail. For example, in a passage like Romans 8:1, which contains nothing about eternal punishment, it is often presumed that “condemnation” must refer to something beyond which Paul has just spent two chapters explaining.  To read Gehenna or hell or eternal condemnation into this passage is to make nonsense of Paul’s explanation of the problem of sin as a present tense problem defeated by Christ.  The “body of sin” or the “body of death” describes one who is alienated from himself (having a body rather than being a body). Paul is describing the animating force of sin as it takes hold of a person’s life. To confuse this sort of condemnation with an eternal condition is to make the condition of sin an ontological reality in competition with life in Christ. To confuse the condemnation inherent in sin with an eternal state is to believe the lie of sin. It is to eternalize or reify alienation – as if the lie of the serpent has proven correct.

Paul pictures the “body of sin” as being reduced to the “nothing” from whence it came (Rom. 6.6) through a reversal of the power it exercises.  The lie of sin imagines there is life outside of God and Christ and the work of Christ exposes this lie and undoes this orientation. His description of “the body of death” or (its parallel in 6.6) “the body of sin” is described as being put to death in Christ for those who have died in Christian baptism.  Baptism is an ontological alternative to the “body of death,” as there is a joining (σύμφυτοι) to his body as a new Subject.  The “Subject” of death has joined herself to death while the Subject of Christ has been joined to the ontological reality of God in Christ. If one reads the condemnation here as an eternal animate force located in an infinite future category then the subject of death has succeeded in obtaining eternal ontological substance. The law of sin and death is made an everlasting law which Christ cannot be said to have defeated.

To dispossess someone of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment poses similar problems to convincing them of the peaceable kingdom.  In fact, the two issues seem to be intertwined so that belief in the one would seem to preclude belief in the other.  If the kingdom of God depends upon continual violent exclusion then violence, and not peace, is primary. If there is a perpetual kingdom of torture and cruelty presided over by Satan then this is what affords the outcome of peace. This sacrificial exchange, establishing equilibrium through violence, is precisely the way the law of sin and death function in Paul’s description. According to Žižek in his explanation of Paul, self-consciousness arises simultaneously with the realization and refusal of the body and its mortal contingencies (sexuality/castration) so that the Subject arises over and against the real of the body.  The symbolic or the soul “has to be paid for by the death, murder even, of its empirical bearer” (The Žižek Reader, vii). Eternal torturous existence would seem to acquiesce to this law of sin with infinite sacrifice. To eternalize the existence of the soul in hell is to give reality to the disembodied symbolic world which floats free of the mortal body.

For Paul, the negation of the body is in its own turn negated in the work of Christ which is a work in and through the body.  Though infinite struggle and alienation are posited (in the sinful logic Paul is explaining) as absolute categories, Paul pictures an end to this condemnation. The NASB rightly opens Romans ch. 8 under the heading “Deliverance from Bondage.”  Chapter 7 demonstrates how the force of the law and the dynamic of sin is inherently a punishing (κατακρινῶν in 8.1) bondage while ch. 8 explains how this dynamic is displaced and now “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8.1).

The kingdom of death is defeated and the law of sin and death is undone. That which enslaved humanity is destined for final annihilation in the fires of hell where death itself is destroyed (as pictured in Revelation).  This lake of fire is part of God’s redemptive plan in that it finalizes the work of Christ. This hell is part of the good news of Christ.  To picture hell as eternal conscious torment can only serve to negate this good news.

[1] Part of the problem in discerning what is infinite or eternal in Scripture is that the Greek and Hebrew terms, aiōn and ôlām, are sometimes translated as “eternal” or “everlasting.” With this rendering the Aaronic priesthood, Solomon’s temple, Jonah in the belly of the whale, the Mosaic covenant, the fire which destroyed Sodom, Moabites exclusion from the Temple, hills and mountains, and animal sacrifices, could be said to be eternal.  The better rendering is that they endure for an “age” with a definite beginning and end. So too the punishment depicted in a few passages is not endless.  Where the adjective form describes “the coming age” – ôlām ha-ba, the “Age to Come” of God’s reign the point is not to pronounce infinite punishment.  David B. Hart claims this pertains only to Math. 25:46, which he renders, “these will go to the chastening of that age.” As he maintains, “were I to use the word “eternal,” there would be no reason to assume that Christ is speaking of perpetual conscious torment rather than final annihilation; and, indeed, there are other ambiguities about the language of the verse that would render even that uncertain.” Hart concludes Jesus speaks of a final judgment primarily employing metaphors of annihilation “like the burning of chaff or brambles in ovens, or the final destruction of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom.” Elsewhere he uses “metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed doors of wedding feasts,” with a very few images of torture and torment, and “yet these are also for the most part images of penalties that explicitly have only a limited term (Matthew 5:36; 18:34; Luke 12:47-48, 59).” He concludes that there are no passages in the New Testament which teach eternal conscious torment.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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