The Temperature of Hell

This is the second of two posts, much delayed, on the subject of Hell.

The first may be found here:
 
 ♦ The Death of Hell
 

 

On an earlier post about grace and Karma, a commenter posed this question:

I \'d like to ask you a question because you strike me as an intelligent man of faith. I was taught that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment, a nice euphemism for a torture chamber. Do you believe that those of us who fail to accept grace will be tortured? If not, why not? Augustine and Calvin seemed to believe it.

I began to answer this question in my prior post on the subject, tackling it from a mostly metaphysical perspective, basing a belief in Hell on four principal pillars: that man is a moral being, comprised of an innate sense of right and wrong, good and evil; that man is a transcendent being, with a nature which seeks out and relates to the immaterial, to the eternal, to the divine; that man has a sense of justice, with a desire for reward for good and punishment for evil; and that man is incapable of functioning without reference to absolutes — in practice, always, even when denying them intellectually — which infers a standard against which we are measured, and consequently implies a sentient and just deity — indeed a personal deity — as the source for such absolute standards.

Such premises cannot be “proved” — at least from the viewpoint of the two-dimensional determinism so prevalent in contemporary materialist scientism. The arrogated assumptions of the materialist preclude a priori anything of transcendent or immaterial nature as inherently beyond scientific proof, no more than mere whimsical fantasy or superstitious drivel, and consequently false (an interesting conclusion, this: as that which cannot be proved is not by necessity false, but rather, unprovable, is it not?). Yet these very presumptions are reasonable reflections of the observed nature of man, and the materialist’s moral judgment on transcendent beliefs as foolish, or even evil, belies his own deterministic worldview, which permits no transcendent absolute against which to judge such convictions as right or wrong.

So it is reasonable to believe (if not “provable”), that as transcendent, moral beings, something of our immaterial and conscious nature survives our physical demise, given that we relate to a Being unbound by time, physical existence, or mortality. It is therefore also reasonable that the nature of such existence after death itself has a moral and just dimension. Though we might ponder or dispute the moral criteria about which such a final determination of justice might be made, if there is justice at all, then there must be justice in the existence (in whatever form it may take) after death.

But what might such a state of retributive justice for evil be like? Is it, as our commenter suggest, a place where God “tortures” those with the audacity to disobey his dictates? Is it hot, cold, dark, or colorless? Are there levels of torture, as envisioned by Dante, or flaming lakes and fire and brimstone, as some Biblical passages suggest? What, indeed, is the temperature of Hell?

Such speculations, whether arising from literature, popular culture, or the inferences and metaphors of Scripture, are by necessity insufficient to grasp the nature of Hell, for we mortals are incapable of fully apprehending the nature of an eternal afterlife, inherent in its nature far beyond the capacity of mortal man to comprehend. Rather than fret over the fires or torments of Hell, or whether Hell abounds in pitchfork-wielding demons or endless Bacchanalian debauchery, it is perhaps a more fruitful source of insight regarding eternal punishment to focus instead on the nature of God and the nature of man, to understand the nature of Hell.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is understood to have certain innate and unalterable characteristics, the most important of which are His holiness and His love. Holiness refers to his purity of motive and perfect goodness of character, manifested in His grace, His justice, His mercy, His patience, and a host of other virtues embodying perfect goodness. The love of God, which is the very essence of His nature, is not the superficial sentimentality nor maudlin physicality of our current culture, but rather the completely selfless devotion to the well-being, happiness, and success of those He loves, His creation. It is selfless to the point of self-sacrifice: unlike, say, the god of Islam, who commands the death or enslavement of unbelievers, the Christian God dies for unbelievers, that they may live in freedom.

Just as God is selflessly devoted to man, created in His image with the capacity to love — and therefore possessed of free will, without which love is impossible — man is designed to selflessly love God and serve Him. But sin — the tendency both innate and intentional to serve self rather than God — intervenes, and breaks the relationship. Man, now functioning autonomously on self-will, increasingly bears the fruit of his growing distance from the source of goodness. The natural result of this relational disruption and flight from the ultimate good is everywhere evident in man: hatred, pride, arrogance, decadence, evil behavior, fear, pain, suffering, purposelessness, despondency. Such is the natural gravity of rejecting God to serve oneself. The inexorable trajectory of life thus lived is misery, darkness, and hopelessness — though we strive mightily to mitigate the inevitable consequences a life thus lived through denial, blame, addiction, and the distractions of money, power, and materialism.

We are offered, in this life, the opportunity to change; to seek reconciliation, acknowledging our repudiation of God, seeking forgiveness, and the power to turn from our autonomy of the will to a place of submission which will lead us back to the joy and purpose originally intended for us in the plan of a loving, relational God. Yet free will being what it is, not all will make this choice; blinded by the deception that we may be happy only by being masters of our own life and destiny, we endlessly pursue this illusory and unobtainable goal down a path which only leads us away from the only source of true happiness. It is a path many pursue to the gates of death.

And thus, having squandered our many chances to turn back to God during our life, we arrive at the threshold of death, our wills fully steeled in determination to have our own will and our own way. And so our wish will be granted, for all eternity. Whatever the form or essence of that which we call Hell, it will be nothing more than the fullness of what we ourselves have chosen, with all the illusions and deceptions of this life stripped away. We will bear the full weight of our pride, our hatred, our fear, our rage, our selfishness and discontent, our profound loneliness, in an eternity of hopelessness and regret over what we have lost, irretrievably, in casting away the goodness and mercy of God in what was naught but a pure triumph of the will.

C.S. Lewis, in the The Great Divorce, wrote about the intransigence of spirit which is the essence of Hell:

For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.

In our therapeutic culture, where all is tolerated but the good, the assertion that there are consequences for our behavior, either temporal, or especially eternal, is a truly noxious notion. The idea of Hell is perceived as an anachronistic anathema, promoted cynically by clergy controlling the poor, ignorant fools who follow them. Even those with a nominal belief in a deity will attest, with a pretense more wishful than wise, that a God of love would never condemn those who reject Him to Hell. In some sense–surely not that which the proponents of such pop theology intend–this may well be true. It will be, for those who enter that dark, hopeless, and agonizing eternity, not something dictated from on high by a vengeful God gleeful at our torture. It will be our own choice, fully, to reject the mercy and grace which has been offered to us without cost by Him who gave everything to draw us toward an eternal relationship, filled with unspeakable joy and peace, with Him.

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6 thoughts on “The Temperature of Hell

  1. It is interesting that this comes up just after I finished writing to someone about this subject.

    Before I add my comments on this . . .

    I am aware of pwyll’s own writing on this subject because I have previously read through some of his website carnalreason.org. At that time I was tempted to respond to his posts, but never got around to it. On both his website, and in his comment here on the doctor’s previous post pwyll references John Calvin. I think it is clear from Dr. Bob’s writing that he does not share Calvin’s particular views on the matter, so before I launch into my further comments I need to make my view clear.

    I agree with Dr. Bob that hell exists, and it is important. However, I do believe in God’s sovereign predestination of all people (I prefer to avoid the term “Calvanist” because there is much of Calvin I disagree with, but others would call me a Calvinist). So, Dr. Bob and I would disagree on why people end up in hell.

    Dr. Bob attempts to resolve the question of God’s justice in sending people to hell by saying (in effect) “God didn’t chose to send them to hell–they chose hell for themselves.”

    I think this doesn’t really escape the problem that pwyll sees, because in Dr. Bob’s answer we have either (a) a weak God or (b) a God who is still “unjust.”

    In the first case we have God who offers salvation but is unable to persuade and convince people to accept what is best. In this formulation, He is too weak to save all, and therefore only saves some.

    In the latter case we have God who was capable of “convincing” everyone, but chose not to. For example, my understanding of Dr. Bob’s position is that he would deny that God was too weak to save all. Dr. Bob would say (in essence) that God chose to refrain from using his infinite power to “make” man believe and so allowed men the choice. Someone then might level the accusation that God has willingly stood back as men went to hell. In the end, with this view we still have the question of, “Is it just for God to have refrained from saving those He had the power to save?”

    To be clear, my view is that the Bible teaches that God chose (or predestined) to send some to hell, and to save others based upon His own sovereign will, and not that person(s) own merit. And I fully accept this raises the question of whether God is just in the eyes of men. The Bible, unlike some people, does not squirm with embarrassment over this issue. As Paul says forthrightly, in Romans 9:11-23:

    Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

    What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,

    “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

    It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

    One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

    What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory

    I think this gets to the heart of pwyll’s complaint, and it is my sense that pwyll does not feel that the Apostle Paul gives an adequate answer. But even if pwyll accepted what Paul says about God having mercy on whom He will have mercy, there can still remain the question: “But why hell?”

    In other words, let us say God does save those He wishes to save and condemns those He wishes. Why does He condemn them to hell, to eternal torture (as pwyll says) instead of simply making them wink out of existence? If God simply caused the wicked to cease to exist on the day of judgment wouldn’t this get rid of the whole nasty issue of hell?

    Dr. Bob has given his answer to the need for hell. Below is my slightly different presentation. It was initially written a short time ago to a Christian, but seeing as the discussion has come up here, I thought I would share it (with some modifications):

    ***

    From a Christian perspective, to discuss the issue of hell in any depth we would need to consider the passage of the Bible where it is spoken off. I would suggest, however, that many people frame the question wrongly. What is life? We all can easily fall into a “Greek” mode of intellectualizing things into abstractions separated from God. But everything–life and death–derives its meaning from God.

    People commonly think of life=existence and death=non-existence. I see the Biblical presentation (and to understand this I think one needs to carefully read and understand scripture) is that life equals “union” or “fellowship” and death equals “separation” or “non-fellowship.” People will admit that Jesus et al speak of death as “sleep” because the prhase alludes to the fact that they will be made alive again. But I think this observation fails to recognize the full implications of the word usage. The implication of “asleep” is not just the fact that one will be “alive” or “awake” again, but it speaks about the nature of death as well. Being “asleep” implies not a lack of existence but a lack of “fellowship.” One who is asleep is not having fellowship. One who is dead is not having fellowship–be it with the living or, in a sense, with his own body. In the Bible, the presentation of death is not of non-existence, but a strong emphasis on separation. It is non-biblical thought which makes death to have an emphasis on non-existence. The “be no more” of ancient thought regarded death as “being no more” on this earth, and going to be with their fathers. Thus death for the ancients had an implicit existence (with the fathers of old) tied up in its meaning. Death was a separation from this present life, not becoming non-existence.

    Further, I believe that the Bible teaches that life is fellowship with God. From a Christian perspective, that is the fundamental way it must be understood. Life is union with Christ. The question of death (the opposite of life) may seem like a bit of a philosophical question. My understanding that as life is fellowship with God, death is non-fellowship with God. And, if you do not exist you cannot be in a state of non-fellowship with God–because you simply do not exist. That which is not, cannot be in any state. If something ceases to exist, they do not exist in a state of non-fellowship with God (a non-philosophical person is not going to understand that). If the book of Revelation says some are raised to everlasting life and some to death (which is the second death) that death cannot be annihilation because it would then no longer be death–death is a state of separation which requires it to be a state of existence (but not a state of life). Anyone who does not understand life to be something intrinsic to a relationship with God will not understand how someone can go on in “everlasting death.”

    If the “first life” is being united at birth with our Adamic bodies and the first death is separation from our earthly bodies, then as our “second” eternal life is being united with Christ the second death is being in some final sense separated from God–in a sense not before experienced. And, as I said, death in the Bible is not presented as non-existence (that is a non-biblical conjecture) but rather separation.

    Certainly in some way my own mind struggles to wrap itself around why God would have people live in a state of everlasting death. To anyone who truly has even a hint of what separation from God would be like, the whole discussion of “fire” becomes rather silly. The idea of existing in separation from God is a horror beyond imagining to which fire pales to nothing.

    So why? It comes back to Christ, and I think when you understand that you begin to understand why hell is so important. Christ died for our sins. What punishment did our sins require? Death. But what was death? Again, people like to think of it as non-existence, but what the Bible presents it as is, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” What Christ experienced for us was not non-existence but rather separation from God. Christ experienced death–separation, the loss of fellowship with, and rejection by, God–that is, what the everlasting punishment of unbelievers will be. He experienced it for us.

    This leads us to the question of: What was Christ’s suffering/death equal to? Was it equal to five minutes of separation from God by a mere man? (Because once such a man ceased to exist he would no longer suffer.) No, we understand that because it was God himself (Christ) who suffered on the cross his suffering of separation was of infinite worth. We understand that humanity, for it sins, deserves eternal separation from God, not non-existence. The wages of sin is death–and that is not annihilation, that is separation from God.

    The time of Christ’s rejection by God, was of infinite worth, and for those who are not covered by Christ they must suffer forever. Because they will never, ever, equal the suffering of Christ. This points us to the greatness of God’s holiness–that the failure to live it requires eternal punishment. And it also points us to the greatness of what Christ accomplished. That which required eternal punishment (separation) Christ paid! And how amazing, how wonderful, how glorious that is! The wicked must exist in separation from God eternally–to the glory of Christ, revealing the holiness of God both in the punishment of the wicked, and the work of the Savior of the delivered.

    That is why hell is important and real–because it has direct relevance to the work of Christ.

    ***

    I do not think pwyll will find that answer satisfactory, but perhaps it will add to the discussion.

  2. Whatever our perception of Hell, one thing is certain: it is a place without God.

    Anyone who had the slightest idea of the Greatness, Goodness, Mercy and Grace of God, not to mention His Righteousness and Justness, would never want to be separated from Him.

    Thankfully, not a single person ever has to be separated from Him. To be separated from Him one must step over the death, burial and resurrection of His only begotten Son, Jesus, who experienced Hell on our behalf so we would not have to.

    Simplistic?

    In a way. Yet more complex than the very universe itself.

    That God would love us so much as to sacrifice Himself on our behalf is astonishing.

    Who would reject so great a salvation?

  3. It seems to me that the two ideas:

    1) We choose heaven and hell, and God knows how we will choose, as he knows everything.

    2) God chooses whether we will go to heaven or hell.

    Consists of a distinction looking for a difference. I’m not sure I can change anything about me or my belief system or my behavior based on choosing 1 or 2.

    On a more secular note:

    A long time ago a book was published called “The Bell Curve”. In it, the authors talk about all the ways that American (and presumably European) society has been changed over the years in order to cause smart people to succeed and dumb people (low IQ) to fail. Some of these changes have been natural, but much of it has been artificially induced through government.

    They point out that one way in which society has changed a lot over the years has been in the idea of morality. It used to be (more or less) that morality was “good and bad” or “right and wrong”. Over the years morality changed to a consequential system. You might not want to do ‘A’ because it may lead to consequences of ‘B’. You should do ‘C’, because that will cause ‘D’ which will be good for you.

    One of the societal affects of this change was that high IQ people now had an advantage when it came to morality. “Right and Wrong” are understandable by the dimmest bulb in the room, maybe understood better than the smart ones. Consequences – especially long term consequences – are better understood by high IQ people.

    In their statistical analysis, they discovered that social pathologies were tightly correlated with IQ. These included unwed children, drug abuse and prison. In effect, the low IQ kids couldn’t handle the new morality (designed by the smart people in power of course), and it destroyed their lives.

    It seems like all of that has something to do with Hell, but I can’t remember what it would be.

    James

  4. Dr. Bob, I hate to use a comment to let you know, but by now you have already figured it out: my gmail account and blog have been hijacked and compromised. As a result I no longer can access either and five years of contacts have been sprayed with at least one spam solicitation from the criminal(s) responsible.

    In the aftermath I have experienced a cascade of cyber-problems. I am not technologically smart enough to know for sure, but I suspect that even my IP address may now be tagged as a suspicious site, which makes anything I attempt to do from home contribute to complicating the problem more than finding a resolution. I have yet to receive a single message from any of the security contacts I have attempted to reach from a living person. Google, Facebook and Typepad so far have shut me out. I feel as though a Web-based equivalent of a flesh-eating infection is wrecking five years of blogging and wiping out all efforts to make corrections.

    Feel free to delete that quote from me in the sidebar since the link no longer leads to an active site. It gives me some satisfaction to know that my blog so far remains intact, but like that ship in Longfellow’s poem is unable to sail, stillborn in a cyber-ocean without wind. Even so, last I looked (Oddly I can still get the Sitemeter stats. Go figure.) it was still getting about a hundred hits a day, mostly from Google searches.

    Symbolic, I suppose, that the post was about Hell. I don’t want to trivialize that discussion, but in some way my situation is a metaphor. But when I recall all the real tragedies about which I have blogged — tsunami, Katrina, wars, issues of life and death — what is happening to me is far, far less important than those.

  5. I know one thing about Hell; there is a free ‘get out of hell card’ for anyone who wants it. Just how and why people reject it turns out to be one of those secret things of God. The secret things are His to know and not ours, and our speculation always runs into the sand.

  6. I’m talking about having everything you want , imagine that, at first it would be great, than it would turn into hell.

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