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The following is a reaction paper I wrote for my Christian Theology class on how two theologians deal with the topic Hell. The one is Millard J. Erickson in his book Christian Theology and the other is Norman R. Gulley in his book The Truth As It Is In Jesus. Although this paper is far from exhaustive, I hope it is a blessing to you.
“The idea of hell, as popularly taught, has possibly done more, than anything else, to cause people to hate God” (Gulley 365). And yet, this is the one doctrine that Evangelical Christianity and Catholicism will defend to the death. The idea that a loving and just God will punish people in hell for the ceaseless ages of eternity shows God to be a sadist and an unjust dictator. After all, eternal torment is far worse than what Hitler did to the Jews and yet we consider Hitler evil and God good? Something is amiss. Both Gulley and Erickson take a stab at the issue of eternal torment. I will first follow Erickson’s chain of thought and then I will conclude with Gulley.
According to Erickson, “the doctrine of everlasting punishment is clearly taught in scripture” (Erickson, 1242). He quotes several Bible texts that support his view at the exclusion of others. For example, He quotes Matthew 25:41 in which Jesus says that the fires of hell are “everlasting” as evidence that hell is a place of everlasting, conscious torment for the wicked. However, he ignores Jude 1:7 which says that Sodom and Gomorrha were destroyed by “eternal fire.” This text makes it clear that “eternal” means something else because Sodom and Gomorrha are not still burning today. Erickson rejects annihilationism as un-biblical, however, Archbishop William Temple so eloquently put it, “One thing we can say with confidence: Everlasting torment is to be ruled out. If men had not imported Greek and unbiblical notion of the natural indestructibility of the individual soul, and then read the New Testament with that already in their minds, they wouldn’t have drawn from it a belief, not in everlasting torment, but in annihilation. It is the fire that is called “aeonian,” [eternal] not the life cast into it” (Gulley 365-66). While I don’t have time to analyze every aspect of Erickson’s position, Temple makes a profound observation when he states that the eternality spoken of in the Bible with reference to hell is of the flames themselves and not of the person being tormented. Erickson then attempts to defend the doctrine with three objections. The first is that sin is not finite but infinite because it is an offence against an infinite God. Therefore it must be punished infinitely. However, this line of argument suggests that sin and sinners will be eternally present when the Bible teaches that there will be “a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away…. 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” (Rev. 21:4). These texts suggest that God is going to put an end to sin and the universe will be completely cleansed from its hideous presence. How can this be if it will be eternally punished? In addition, Erickson assumes that sin is infinite because it is rebellion against an infinite God. However, this makes no sense because Gods infiniteness is that He has no beginning and no end. Are we then to say that sin has no beginning and no end? Will God live in an eternal state of anger against the wicked? Will He be eternally offended by sin to the point that He must eternally punish it? None of this makes sense at all for it suggests that God is a prisoner to sin because He can never be free of its effect on Him. He can never return to the state of peace and joy he had before sin entered the universe. It is eternally lost to Him. As I said, it makes no sense. Erickson then argues that God cannot create a creature that is meant to live forever and yet annihilate it when it sins. If the creature was created to live forever then it must by necessity live forever whether it sins or not. Here Erickson has stepped outside of the Bible, for the scriptures clearly teach that only God is immortal (1 Timothy 1:17) and never once refers to mankind as immortal. The final argument Erickson uses is that “God does not send anyone to hell” but that “[i]t is a human choice to experience the agony of hell” (Erickson, 1247). However, this argument does little to vindicate God for if God is the life giver then He alone is its source. If that is so then God would be the one to actively perpetuate the life of the wicked throughout eternity and is therefore perpetuating eternal and everlasting punishment.
While Gulley did not explore this topic as much as Erickson did he did make some interesting points. I do wish he would have been a little more exhaustive on it though for he falls into the same traps as Erickson. While Erickson quoted pro-eternal torment verses at the exclusion of pro-annihilation texts Gulley did likewise in his defense of annihilationism Gulley quotes Malachi 4:1 which states that the wicked will be consumed and “not a root or branch will be left of them.” He also quotes Ezekiel 28:18 which says that Satan will be destroyed by fire until only ashes are left. In addition, he explains how the Greek word for eternal does not always imply eternal in the way we think about it but he fails to explain how we can believe in eternal never-ending life while rejecting eternal-never ending punishment. However, Gulley’s position is at least biblically consistent. All the rationale and logic in the world will never be able to effectively unite the concept of a God of love with a God of torture. God is not interested in eternally punishing sinners. He is interested in restoring the universe to perfect harmony. God is love.