Monday, March 14, 2011

Hell, Part 1

I do not believe in Hell. That is to say, I do not believe in the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. My opinion about Hell is not the product of wishful thinking. Rather, I arrived at my present beliefs after many years of in-depth study of scripture, history and theology. I have long held the conviction that ideas, including (especially!) theological ideas, ultimately manifest in attitudes and actions. I believe that the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment has done more damage and caused more misery in the course of human history than almost any other idea known to man.

Many people think that Christianity has always taught Eternal Conscious Torment, but that isn't the case. Over the course of Christianity's history, there have emerged three distinct views about the "fate of the wicked" (i.e., those rejected by God or who have rejected God):

1. Annihilation - This is the view that only the "righteous" will be resurrected; the wicked will remain dead. This was the common belief of Jews at the time of Jesus (though not the only view: Sadducees, for example, didn't believe in any form of resurrection or afterlife. More on this later). A variation of the Annihilation view is that everyone gets resurrected and stands before God at the Great judgment, but those who do not make the cut get snuffed out and cease to exist. The Annihilation view is sometimes referred to as Conditional Immortality.

2. Universal Reconciliation - This is the view that God will ultimately reconcile everyone who ever lived to Himself. In other words, everyone gets saved, even if they don't choose to follow Christ during their lifetime. This view, when expressed within Christian theology, is sometimes called Christian Universalism. Universal Reconciliation was, at one time, a very common (perhaps even majority) view among Christians.

3. Eternal Conscious Torment - This is the view that God will judge all souls and those who don't make the cut will spend hopeless eternity in agony, separated from God. It has typically been taught in Evangelical Christianity that anyone who does not accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior (including those who never hear the Gospel) will be subjected to this fate. Some theologians, such as C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce) have painted Hell less as a fiery torture chamber and more as a dreary endless existence filled with regret and dissatisfaction--sort of Eternal Depression.

In the first few hundred years of Christianity, there does not appear to have been a consensus about the fate of unbelievers. Support for all three views can be found in writings by Early Church Fathers. There were learned Christian leaders and devout followers of Jesus who belonged to each of these three theological camps. (See Part 8 for details, including a list of Early Church Fathers who's writings indicate support for Universal Reconciliation).

The earliest Christian creeds did not address the subject. For example, the oldest extant Christian creed--called the "Apostle's Creed"--did not (in its original form) contain any reference to Hell: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty; and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Ghost, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, buried, rose from the dead on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and sits on the right hand of the Father; whence he will come, to judge the living and the dead: and in the Holy Spirit; the holy church; the remission of sins; and the resurrection of the body." (The astute reader who is familiar with the Apostle's Creed will notice that there is something missing here: "He descended into Hell". This statement does not appear in the oldest versions of the Apostle's Creed. It was added sometime between 359 and 400 AD). The Nicene Creed, which dates back to the 4th Century, likewise makes no mention of Hell.

The greatest weakness with any view on the afterlife (Heaven or Hell) is that the Bible actually provides very little information on the subject. It seems to be much more concerned with how we live here and now. This lack of detail about the afterlife creates room for divergence among Christians. A lot of what we believe about Hell comes from extra-Biblical sources, coupled with extrapolation from what scripture tells us about the character and intent of God. A person's view on the fate of non-believers tends to be directly related to their view of what God is like (along with a lot of baggage inherited from 2,000 years of tradition, history and literature).

Regarding the three views:

Although Annihilationism is often associated with Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, it is not an uncommon view within the Anglican church. Annihilationism has been championed by the likes of venerated Evangelical Anglican theologian John Stott. Annihilationism can be found in the writings of some early church fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. A form of Annihilationism (the belief that only the righteous would be resurrected) was a common view of Jews at the time of Jesus.

A belief in Universal Reconciliation (Christian Universalism) can also be found in writings of early church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Respected church historian Philip Schaff has noted that "In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked." (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Page 96).

Many historians credit the ancient Greeks with inventing the idea of eternal conscious torment in the afterlife. In ancient Greek religion and mythology, Hades--the abode of the dead--was neither a place of punishment or reward. Everyone went to Hades and experienced the same shadowy existence. But below Hades was a deep pit called Tartarus. Tartarus was the place where the "worst of the worst" were sent to be tormented. For example, Sisyphus, who murdered house-guests, committed incest, usurped his brother's throne and betrayed Zeus, was condemned to an eternity of frustration in Tartarus--rolling a large boulder up a hill, only to have it slip from his grasp and tumble back down each time he neared the top. The primary inhabitants of Tartarus were the Titans--ancient dieties who had been overthrown by Zeus and the Olympian gods. This motif appears again in Jewish and early Christian literature in the form of rebellious angels chained in a gloomy abyss.

Babylonian Zoroastrianism--a religion which the exiled Jews would have been exposed to--also had a concept of Hell: a dark and foul-smelling place in the earth where evil people went after they died. The Zoroastrian name for it translates approximately to "the place of bad existence." Zoroastrians believed that this place served a penitentiary role and that eventually--when good conquered evil once and for all--its inhabitants would be freed and restored.

Ancient Jews--prior to the Babylonian exile in 586 BC--did not have a clearly defined view of an afterlife and no apparent concept of post-mortem reward or punishment. The idea of reward and punishment in the afterlife gradually found its way into post-Babylonian-exile, Greek-influenced Judaism, though it was initially understood to be punishment of a limited duration and for redemptive purposes. This view was adopted into early Christianity. It was hundreds of years later (after Augustine, 354-430 CE)--at the dawn of the Medieval period--that Eternal Conscious Torment became the establishment view. As church power became married to government power and gradually became centralized in Constantinople (and then Rome), Annihilationism and Universal Reconciliation were condemned as heresy and the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment became codified. It has remained the dominant view ever since.

In subsequent posts, I will explore the history behind the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. I'll also examine what scripture has to say (and doesn't have to say) about it. And I'll explain what I believe about the afterlife, and why.

To Part 2
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents


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