24 May 2018

How long does hell last?

As I explained in my article “The four hells,” there are four words translated hell in the scriptures, and the one I mean by “hell” is ge-Henna, the trash fire outside Jerusalem, reimagined in Revelation as a pool of fire and sulfur outside New Jerusalem. Rv 20.10-15 Into it go Satan and its angels, the Beast, the fake prophet who promotes the Beast, the personifications of Death and Hades (i.e. the afterlife), and everyone whose name isn’t listed in the life scroll—everyone who refused to turn to God for salvation, and therefore don’t get to enter his kingdom.

The Beast and prophet are explicitly described as being “tortured there, day and night, age to ages.” Rv 20.10 Though this lake is known as the second death, Rv 20.14 it doesn’t have a sense of finality like death seems to. Death feels like an absolute stopping point—when you’re dead, you’re not alive, you’re not moving, you’re not breathing, you’re not thinking, you’re not anything; you’re dead. Whereas the second death sounds more like the beings sent into it aren’t inert, but moving, conscious… and suffering from eternal torment. Because they’re in fire. Everlasting fire, as the King James Version put it. Mt 25.41 KJV Where quite unlike the trash fires of the literal ge-Henna, the worms don’t die, and the fire never goes out. Is 66.24, Mk 9.48

Now, I know certain dark Christians who love this idea of eternal conscious torment. Partly because there are certain people they’d love to see tortured forever. Satan obviously. But most of the time they’re thinking of certain political opponents. Certain unrepentant adversaries we’ve defeated in war. Certain obnoxious people they know. Yeah, I know: We all have people we don’t like, but… longing to see them burn forever? What is wrong with these people? Since God doesn’t wanna see anyone perish, 2Pe 3.9 and these people do, this sort of fleshly, fruitless gracelessness suggests these people don’t have any real relationship with God, much as they claim to. I don’t care what they call themselves.

The other reason they love the idea of eternal torment—a reason which is just a bit more legit than t’other—is because they figure it’s a powerful motivator for getting people into God’s kingdom. If anyone’s on the fence about this idea of living under Jesus’s reign in peace and harmony (mainly ’cause the church is full of a--holes like me), Christians can point out the alternative: Outside the kingdom, it’s hot, stinky hell. You don’t wanna go to hell! We don’t want you there either; God doesn’t want you there either; why go there when you don’t have to? Don’t worry about the jerks in the church; Jesus’ll deal with them. Focus on Jesus. Turn to him. Let him save you.

The rest of us really don’t love the idea of eternal torment. Problem is, we don’t really see any way around it. That’s what Jesus describes in the scriptures. So that’s the reality we’re obligated to deal with: When people reject Jesus, that’s the destination they’ve effectively chosen. If people prefer a cosmetic relationship with Christianity over a living relationship with Jesus, that’s where they’re going.

It’s not like we can make up a reality we like better. Although that’s never stopped people from trying, has it?

The possibility of parole.

Ever hear of someone who had a near-death experience where they went to hell? I have.

Sometimes I read their testimonies; sometimes I hear ’em speak about it in church. More than one person tells the tale of dying, then suddenly finding themselves in a dark fiery place which they identify as hell. They didn’t like it; they cried out for mercy; they came back to life. And now they’re Christian. And hoping they’re never going back there again, and warning the rest of us away from it.

I have huge doubts that near-death experiences are legitimate afterlife experiences. For two reasons. One’s the fact every near-death experience fits that person’s cultural expectations. Christians, or people who live in a predominantly Christian culture, experience pop culture versions of heaven or hell. Whereas Hindus encounter Hindu gods, Muslims experience Muslim ideas of paradise or hell, and Buddhists feel themselves being elevated to higher realms. Everybody experiences what their subconscious expects to see in the afterlife, as opposed to every religion’s claim of a uniform afterlife. So they’re clearly dreams. Really vivid dreams, but dreams nonetheless.

The other is how nobody’s been to heaven but the one who came down from heaven. Jn 3.13 Only Jesus knows what’s actually there. The rest of us only have dreams. Not that God can’t speak to us in dreams, and use these “experiences” to set us straight. If a powerful vision of hell gets you to finally take God seriously, great! Same with a dream of heaven. Whatever nudges you into the kingdom.

Problem is, I know people who’ve taken to basing their beliefs on these near-death dreams, and now they figure if any of us die and find ourselves in hell, we can repent… and God’ll hear us, be merciful, and parole us from hell. They figure hell is just temporary. We go there till we come to our senses. Then God’ll let us into heaven.

It’s a nice idea, but y’know we oughta confirm these ideas with the scriptures, the general consensus of fruitful fellow Christians, and basic common sense, before we start establishing theology upon them. And I can’t find evidence that they’re valid.

Jesus told stories where people found themselves under judgment, or in torment, and of course they wanted out of it. Who wouldn’t? No doubt they were really sorry for everything they’d done to get themselves into that mess. But they didn’t get to take it back. There’s the Lazarus and Dives story, Lk 16.19-31 the sheep and goats story, Mt 25.31-46 and of course those folks who call Jesus “Lord Lord,” whom he’ll nonetheless turn away because he’s hardly their Lord. Mt 7.21-23 There appear to be deadlines for repentance, which is why Jesus warns us about them throughout the gospels: They’re when we die, and when he returns. Dismiss these deadlines at your eternal peril.

Yes, God is gracious. Infinitely so; he forgives all sorts of things. The problem is when we presume God’s infinite grace cancels out everything Jesus said about deadlines, and Jesus’s every warning to get off the highway to hell. We hear God can rescue us from sin and death, and imagine he can surely rescue us from the second death; isn’t he almighty or something? Far be it from me to claim he can’t pull us out of hell if he so chooses. But will he so choose? ’Cause I have no biblical evidence he will. Hell’s deliberately made to sound like a fixed point and permanent condition: Once you’re in you’re not getting out. I seriously doubt Jesus lied about that, just to scare us straight.

A lot of Christians are bugged by the idea of hell as a permanent condition, ’cause they see that as inconsistent with a gracious, forgiving God. I agree; it certainly feels that way sometimes. But—to show you how inspiration sometimes comes from the oddest places—I’m reminded of a bit from the TV show Rick and Morty, where Rick breaks into the White House, and warns a Secret Service away from him:

GENERAL. “Arrest them.”
RICK. “Son, you have a right to refuse his order, and I guarantee you’re gonna die if you touch me… and there’s no afterlife; everything just goes black. Don’t do it!”
AGENT. [touches Rick; instantly drops dead]
MORTY. “Wha— Rick!”
PRESIDENT. “Okay, what was that?”
RICK. “Death.”
PRESIDENT. “What kind?”
RICK. “Instant.”
PRESIDENT. “There was no sound! He just died!”
RICK. “Yeah. Terrifying. It’s a terrifying thing to watch happen. It’s called a deterrent.”
OTHER GENERAL. “You couldn’t just knock him out?”
RICK. “How is knocking out a deterrent? Everyone wants to be knocked out. Nobody wants to be dead.”

Unlike God, Rick isn’t good; he cares about nobody but himself, and cares about Morty because he would feel bad if anything happened to him (although he could easily swipe another Morty from a parallel universe). But like God, Rick set up a deterrent with permanent consequences, and bluntly warned people away from it. And yeah, everybody would rather the consequences weren’t so permanent. Like the ideas of purgatory, or getting paroled from hell someday. But again, how is that a deterrent?

A temporary hell isn’t a deterrent. It’s a slap on the wrist. ’Cause if paradise and full restoration is what follows, whether you gotta suffer through hell for 15 minutes or 15 millennia, everything becomes a slap on the wrist. Heaven not only cancels out all the suffering before it; it’s meant to. Rv 21.4 So a temporary hell, in any form, won’t discourage evil. If anything it’ll encourage it, because it means evil has no permanent consequences: Everybody goes to heaven. Even Satan.

And y’know, some of us are fine with that idea. Because we don’t care as much about evil as God does. Stands to reason; we’re kinda evil ourselves.

The possibility of annihilation.

There’s a legitimate alternative to the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment. It’s an idea which is growing in popularity: It’s the Adventist idea that when people are tossed into the eternal fire, they burn up and cease to exist. They’re annihilated. Hence it’s called annihilationism.

It’s based on the idea the fire may be eternal, and burns day and night forever and ever. But the beings tossed into it aren’t. It’s based on the scriptures which describe the wicked as getting destroyed:

Matthew 10.28 KWL
“Don’t fear those who can kill the body and can’t kill the soul.
Fear more the one able to destroy body and soul in ge-Henna.”

And that’s what annihilationists are counting on: God’s too merciful to leave people in eternal conscious suffering. Plus, what kind of paradise will the kingdom be when we’re aware—heck, could probably hear—people outside suffering forever? So when they’re put in the fire, they burn up. They’re gone. They cease to be.

What about the descriptions of hell as eternal punishment? Well, being annihilated is an eternal punishment: Those people won’t exist anymore. Unlike death, where there’s hope of resurrection, in the second death there is no such hope. They’re gone forever. It’s just as much a deterrent as the idea of eternal torment… without the morally bothersome idea of eternal torment.

Annihilationism has historically been a fringe belief in Christendom, and still kinda is: Adventists hold to it, as do Jehovah’s Witnesses. But every so often a prominent Evangelical will decide they believe in it, and it’ll spur another round of debate as to whether that’s actually what the scriptures mean.

Me, I’m not sold on annihilationism. Everlasting fire and smoke means there’s everlasting kindling. Which I admit sounds awful—but I believe everyone who winds up in hell chose hell. Nobody’s gonna be in there by accident. All of them reject Jesus, salvation, and the kingdom. They knew the alternative was fire, but willfully chose the fire. Sucks to be them, but they soiled their beds and are nonetheless gonna lie in them.

Again: God warns us away from hell. He doesn’t want anyone to go there. We shouldn’t either, and need to join him in shooing people away. And stay out of it ourselves.