"I couldn't hold someone’s hand to a flame for a moment. Not an instant. How could a loving God, just because you don’t obey him and do what He wants, torture you forever, not allowing you to die, but to continue in that pain for eternity. There is no criminal who would do this."
– Charles Templeton
I think Templeton has an excellent point.
Nevertheless, the strongest statements on hell in the Bible come from the lips of our Lord himself (Mat. 5:29-30, 10:28, 18:9; Mark 9:43-48; Luke 12:5). So what are we to make of this doctrine?
Consider first a few simple observations:
- Throughout Scripture, the language of fire is used to describe divine judgment, even when that judgment clearly does not involve literal fire. For example, the “burning anger” of God was said to have “consumed” the Egyptian soldiers “like chaff” when they were drowned in the Red Sea (Ex. 15:7).
- The explicit language of hell fire is used by James in a context which precludes a literal interpretation. The tongue “is a fire,” James says, which “sets the whole course of one's life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (Jam. 3:6).
- The language of hell fire is coupled with a reference to immortal maggots, imagery which is surely figurative (see Is. 66:24 and Mark 9:48).
- Hell is described with both the language of fire and the language of darkness; both images cannot be understood literally, since literal fire dispels literal darkness.
- The imagery of fire seems to be used figuratively in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 to describe the final judgment of believers.
- The rich man in Jesus’ parable does not act like a man who is literally burning, even though he is said to be “in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24). If even one small part of your body was on fire, you could not carry on a rational conversation; the rich man, however, pleads and reasons with Abraham. If we insist on a literal reading of this parable, then we cannot insist that the experience of the damned will be identical to the physical sensation of burning.
- Jesus states that the final judgment will be “more bearable” for some than for others (Mat. 10:15, 11:22- 24; Luke 10:12-14). It is difficult to conceive of two people being at different levels of torment if both are literally on fire.
So the language of hell fire should not be pressed literally. But why does this matter? Whatever the precise nature of eternal torment may be, it is so bad that Jesus compared it to the experience of being burned alive. This is, apparently, the closest analogy between our experience in this life and the experience of the damned in hell. How does the observation that hell fire is figurative bring us any closer to answering Templeton’s objection?
In arguing that the language of fire is figurative, my point is not that hell isn’t painful; my point is that hell isn’t arbitrary. If we conceive of hell as a place of literal fire, we are left with a troubling question: why doesn’t God put the fire out? We are forced to conclude that the fire is a feature of hell which God chose to include simply because he desires to inflict pain on the damned.
However, if the language of fire is figurative, then we may understand the torment of hell as the inevitable anguish of a soul who refuses the only Source of happiness, peace, comfort, and joy. This torment is of such an intensity that it is described with the language of fire, but it is certainly not arbitrary.
So in response to Templeton, I would simply say that God is not holding anyone’s hand to the flame. If you forever refuse the light of the world, you will forever be in darkness. If you forever refuse the living water, you will forever be thirsty. If you forever refuse the bread of life, you will forever be hungry. If you forever refuse the good shepherd, you will forever be lost in the cold. If you forever refuse the door, you will forever be outside.
The message of the Bible is not that God wants to torture you. The message of the Bible is that God became a man and was tortured for you so that you could share in his eternal life.