Surviving “Hell”

One of the most blessed truths I thank God for is the fact that His Word does not teach that people will suffer for all eternity in an ever-burning “hell.”  I thank Him that those who ultimately reject Him will suffer eternal death, not a torturous eternal life.  And while I might write more on this in a future post (as in, why I believe this), it isn’t this fact that motivates my writing this morning.

As I meditate on it, I find myself wondering if I am more thankful for the truth that there will be no eternal torment, or if I am actually more thankful for the fact that I have been blessed to know that truth.  Do you understand what I am (clumsily, perhaps) trying to say?

For those who do sincerely and wholeheartedly believe that God has created a place where those who die unsaved (allowing “unsaved” to mean whatever their faiths tell them for the sake of discussion) are mercilessly tormented in untold agony for eternity — making only billions and billions of years of agony seem like a vacation on the beach — how are they able to function?

I mean, forget the numerous billions — the vast majority of humans who have ever walked the earth — who have lived and died without even hearing the name of Jesus Christ and who are therefore consigned to eternal anguish (a thought which makes the “save everybody now” version of “God” seem incompetent or capricious at best and sadistic at worst).  If they have someone very close to them (say, a beloved grandmother, or sibling, or best friend) who died in an “unsaved” state, how do they live day in and day out knowing that their special someone is facing yet another day of torment so horrific that it would exceed the limits of imagination?

What is the key to surviving such a belief?  How do those who believe this way live life from day to day?  What are their thoughts when they pray to the God whom they are supposed to call “Dad”?  How do they interact with those around them who are only a breath away from such a fate?

I am currently working on a telecast to offer our booklet “Is This the Only Day of Salvation?” and these thoughts have been on my mind.  Comments are welcome (as long as you don’t mind being moderated, per the comment policy).

12 thoughts on “Surviving “Hell”

  1. gls

    “how are they able to function?”

    Watching the BBC documentary on the Phelps family of Westboro Baptist Church, I can perhaps provide one answer. “I rejoice in all God’s judgments.” When one of the girls — probably a young lady of about 20 — was asked what her father’s reaction would be if she were sent to hell.

    “He would rejoice, as he does in all God’s judgments.”

    “And if your father…”

    “I would rejoice in God’s judgment,” she replied, with a big smile.

    I must admit that of all of Herbert Armstrong’s semi-distinct doctrines, this one is most appealing.

    Yet, I can imagine a better solution. All are forgiven. Isn’t that what “unconditional” means?

  2. Dear Mr. Smith,

    I’m sending you a fuller version of the following by e-mail. This much may be of interest to your other readers.

    Currently I am reading what is considered a “modern Christian classic”, praised by many theologians and others (including Billy Graham): KNOWING GOD by J.I. Packer (InterVarsity Press). Prof. Packer is Board of Governors Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., and appears to be a conservative Anglican. He expresses well the evangelical-Christian position on a number of subjects, including ideas about God’s judgment. (I was asked by a prospective member here to read and evaluate this book.)

    Like many other Protestant publications from the most populist tract on upward, Prof. Packer’s book deals with “hell” in largely figurative, not literal terms — even leaving aside the ideas that everyone must accept or reject Christ now and that people go to heaven or hell immediately after death. The figurative terms in which the biblical language is interpreted are bad enough, but they are figurative. At any rate, all the sources of this genre describe hell as above all a state of separation from God and not of mere torment for torment’s sake — drawing upon (among other things) 2 Thessalonians’ 1:7-10, especially verse 9 (“they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,” RSV).

    Here is Prof. Packer’s explanation of Matthew 16:24-26 on the subject of Hell (p. 153):

    > “But what does it mean to lose our souls? To answer this question, Jesus uses his own solemn imagery — Gehenna (“hell” in Mk 9:47 and ten other Gospel texts), the valley outside Jerusalem where rubbish was burned; the worm that dieth not (Mk 9:47), an image, it seems, for the endless dissolution of the personality by a condemning conscience; fire for the agonizing awareness of God’s displeasure; outer darkness for knowledge of the loss, not merely of God, but of all good and of everything that made life seem worth living; gnashing of teeth for self-condemnation and self-loathing.
    > “These things are, no doubt, unimaginably dreadful, though those who have been convicted of sin know a little of their nature. But they are not arbitrary inflictions; they represent, rather, a conscious growing into the state in which one has chosen to be. The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God except those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that his attitude here is supremely just — and is poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty.”

    There are other statements before and after this one; one of the most telling is on p. 152:

    > “…God’s wrath in the Bible is something which people choose for themselves. Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which a person himself opts by retreating from the light which God shines in his heart to lead him to himself. (…)”

    But while in this context Prof. Packer makes clear his idea that John 3:18-19 applies to those who reject God’s special revelation in Christ now, and the implication elsewhere is that everyone is being given their first and only opportunity for salvation now, yet he also seems to posit elsewhere (based on Romans 1-4 and 9-11) that people can be saved or lost depending on whether they accept or reject God’s general revelation in creation and conscience (which is given to everyone). Such general revelation (he thinks) would take care of those who have never heard the name of Christ in the past or present; God takes account of what people do with what they know.

  3. Howdy, Mr. Wheeler & GLS —

    First, let me respond to Mr. Wheeler. Thanks for the comment (and the more extensive e-mail). I am aware that many mainstream theologians define “eternal damnation” in such terms and know of no one who pictures it as “torment for torment’s sake.” Yet regardless of how the pictures are interpreted, I also know of no one who tries to paint such a fate as one for which the sentiment “Wow — this isn’t the *worst* thing I’ve ever experienced…” wouldn’t apply. As for Prof. Packer’s ideas of accepting or rejecting God’s “general revelation in creation or conscience,” I’ve heard others attempting that escape hatch before (e.g., the “Bibleless Answer Man”), but the Scriptures don’t really give a lot of wiggle room for that (e.g., Acts 4:12).

    So I think the dilemma still stands, whether for a flaming, agonizing, eternally torturous hell, or for a “kinder, gentler” agonizing, eternally torturous hell. Although my post makes it clear that it is to believers in the first of these that my questions are posed.

    And, Mr. GLS: Thanks for your comments, as well! I don’t think that everyone who believes in such a fate finds “consolation” in that manner, but I would not be surprised if many do — if they take the doctrine seriously there aren’t many other paths to remaining sane, methinks (the definition of “sane,” here, might be subject to discussion). I have often figured that were I to believe in the “eternal torment” doctrine (that is, to *really* believe in it) I would have to go through the self-lobotomy that these individuals have gone through and abandon all natural affection for others.

    As for the “All are saved,” I would add that God is going to do just that with one addition: “All are saved who wish to be.” The former might fit the idea of “unconditional,” but the Biblical path to salvation is in no way “unconditional.”

    I did give it a shot, though. After reading your comment, I looked for “uncondition*” (used the wild card “*” character so that I did not miss “-al” or “-ally”) in oodles of Bibles (“oodles” being a technical word meaning more than 5 but less than 55), and the only one I found it in was “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language” which had it in two verses: Daniel 6:8 and Matthew 18:35. And even in Matthew 18:35, the “unconditional” forgiveness was in the context of an important pre-condition: the asking of forgiveness.

    We may not be able to earn forgiveness, but that doesn’t make it unconditional. And as for such providing a “better solution,” that would depend on the kind of eternity we want, I would suppose.

    Thanks, again, to both of you for your responses!

    Best regards,
    Wallace Smith

  4. Hi Mr. Smith,

    Probably due to the nature of the argument I copied, the overriding point I wanted to make has not been made. “Kinder and gentler” or not (and either way, it’s taken as both *eternal* and *unimaginable in severity*), suffering in “hell” is justified (by Prof. Packer as by everyone else) as something that human beings *have chosen for themselves* and even *richly deserve by nature*. I submit that THIS is how people “survive ‘hell'” as a concept in their thinking. One can easily see how this may be twisted into the vindictiveness some people have toward the “wicked”. But not all people yield to this temptation; many I have known (as not doubt with you) are deeply sorrowful for the “lost” and “unsaved”.

    I hope this next paragraph is both proper and properly provocative. First, how is this justification of traditional “hell” in whatever form essentially different from our own? Don’t we say that being destroyed forever is what rebellious humans effectively choose for themselves, and even richly deserve by nature? The only debates — if God’s judgment is taken seriously at all — center on when people face eternal judgment and what just penalty they face if they persist in rebellion against God. So people “survive ‘hell'” in their thinking the same way we “survive” our concept of hell: they think that the penalty is just. Or (I submit) more often in our case, we think “hell” is a manifestation of God’s mercy even though the Bible says it’s exactly the opposite — it’s a manifestation of God’s justice. One may argue that it’s merciful by comparison to what Satan will suffer, and we typically do argue so; but the Bible doesn’t make that comparison — I submit, because it implies that angels and men will each get the just (not the merciful) penalties they deserve for their own sins.

    I think we’d be a lot more motivated ourselves to overcome if we thought this through. Certainly we’d focus less in our preaching on the Tribulation and the Day of the Lord — which will be bad enough — and more on the final Day of Judgment — which these events are meant to help people avoid.

  5. gls

    I guess I didn’t make it clear that I wasn’t suggesting that the God of the Christian Bible offers us unconditional love. Every Christian formulation of salvation has some condition or other attached to it. Even the “accept Jesus and be saved” has a built-in condition (i.e., accepting the “gift” of salvation).

    As a non-believer, it does not affect me one way or the other. However, I would think that if there is a God, he would be so infinitely compassionate that the only way we could define it would be “unconditional.” I know that’s how I feel about my own daughter — there is nothing she could do that would stop me from loving her. And there is nothing she could do that I wouldn’t forgive, even if she didn’t ask for forgiveness. How could I do otherwise?

  6. Howdy, again, Mr. Wheeler —

    I have heard that argument before: that those who suffer in the flames of hell are there at their own choice. And for those who believe in such a place of eternal torment, that understanding might be a comfort when some “horrible” people come to mind.

    But that isn’t the situation under discussion. When I was 14-ish and I told my grandmother of my decision to be baptized (a decision I had to rethink later, but that’s another story), she was very pleased and told my how worried she was a couple of years earlier when I had flown to England, because she feared the plane might crash and I would go to hell. To suggest that the thought “Well, he made his choice,” alone, would be sufficient to help one survive such a belief — I don’t see it. And if accompanied by “deep sorrow,” well, how deep would be sufficient to satisfy one’s natural sympathy, given that the suffering is eternal and “unimaginable in severity”?

    I know: “A 12-year-old may not be considered by some to be accountable in such a way.” Yet, to some he is. And for those to whom he is not, there would generally be similar circumstances — similar cases in which a man or woman would have to say to themselves, “Yup, my ‘little’ Johnny has been gone for seven years, now; and today — right now — he continues to experience agonies and suffering untold.” Perhaps you are right, and the thought, “Well, he’s boiling in the oil of his own choosing… the oil of God’s justice,” is a sufficient sentiment to make the thought survivable. But I doubt it.

    As for the tendency to picture eternal death as a merciful end instead of the exacting of God’s just penalty on sin, I do not disagree that the former sentiment can sometimes be emphasized to the detriment of the latter. I would not agree, however, that we are bound by scripture to think of that ultimate punishment as being mercy-free — as long as the element of mercy is seen as inherent within the penalty earned and not a lessening of the penalty. God’s scourging of his sons is often painted by God as an expression of his wrath in the case of his “son” Israel, yet it is also considered an expression of His mercy, given its purpose to direct things toward a better end (a la, Hebrews 12:5-4; Proverbs 3:11-12). In the case of the incorrigibly wicked, it can easily be argued that final destruction is, truly, a better end.

    Putting down a rabid dog may be necessitated by the laws of man (and even, possibly, nature), but exacting that punishment to its fullest can also be considered merciful for the dog — a mercy inherent in the full punishment, not in its lessening. And there is nothing inconsistent with Scripture in thinking that God’s exacting of His terrible and just penalty on the incorrigibly wicked is also an expression of the beautiful truth that “God is love.”

    I’m short of time, but I hope that this response is helpful. It isn’t that I am disagreeing with you that the views you quote may be out there — I know that they are. I just do not believe that their presence is enough to help some survive their belief in that ultimate, torturous punishment. For many (most, I would argue), there must be some other ameliorating element.

    (As for “focusing” on the Tribulation and the Day of the Lord, I will reserve my comments for another time or place.)

    Have a great Sabbath!
    Wallace Smith

  7. Howdy, again, GLS, and thanks for clarifying.

    I agree with your sentiment (and tried to convey a sense of it towards the end of my response above to Mr. Wheeler), but when it comes to turning that sentiment into action, our differing stands on God’s existence will result in differing approaches.

    Though, not so much as might be supposed… I can forgive my son should he grow up and become involved with a murderous gang, but that forgiveness should not entail letting him know where to get the best deals on automatic weapons or buying him a copy of “Shooting Cops for Dummies”. There is a difference between forgiving and enabling, and I doubt that you and I would be standing in different places on this. So here in this life, I think that the application of our “unconditional” parental compassion would not differ so much (even if the framework of values in which we act may differ greatly).

    As someone who believes that God’s way is the only way that can be lived eternally such that eternal life is worth having and that rejecting that way and that love would only result in an eternal life of misery and suffering (much like the pictures of “hell” painted by Prof. Packer, above), it is clear to me that destruction is not only a just end for someone who purposefully and permanently turns his or her back on God, both also a *merciful* one. (Since you do not believe this about God or His way, eternal life may not be a question for you, and for us to discuss differences in how God will manage the afterlife is a bit silly, since we have no real common ground on which to begin. We might as well discuss the best sauce to use with barbecued unicorn.)

    So, I do not think that we differ too greatly in our feelings about what would characterize the heart of a God of “unconditional” love, although you are right in that we certainly do disagree with how that love would be expressed.

    Thanks, again, for the helpful comment! I know that you aren’t interested in having a great Sabbath, but I hope you have a profitable day, nonetheless. 🙂

    Best regards,
    Wallace Smith

  8. Hi again, Mr. Smith…sorry to play Mr. Buttinsky once more.

    “Barbecued unicorn”…your wit shows up in unexpected and telling places, as always. 😀 Prof. Packer and his ilk — like us — has some telling biblical and logical arguments about “unconditional love” negating the possibility of punishment, even capital punishment. (Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.) God would not be loving if He were not just, and His justice (whatever it is, for argument’s sake) is what is *best* for the sentenced and those he affects (and is therefore loving).

    This is certainly a mental way of “surviving (traditional) ‘hell'” as a concept. You may not be able to see its efficacy (as noted above), and neither do I, but (I say loudly and clearly for gls’ sake) that’s because *we* are not tied down by doublethink — by trying to believe two or more contradictory things at once (which is so effective a means of deception that it is a standard tool of hypnotism and of psychological warfare).

    As for Hebrews 12:5-6 (with verses 7-11) and what it cites, Proverbs 3:11-12 — you raise a point worth discussing. These contexts speak of chastisement as manifestations of God’s love, not of God’s mercy. There is a difference, and it’s something else we need to think through. For example, He chastises us in love (Proverbs 3:11-12) so that we may confess and forsake our sins and obtain mercy (Proverbs 28:13, etc., etc.). While obviously we can’t have one without the other in God’s economy, mercy and love are different principles of God’s government — of God’s covenant relationship with us — and work together without being one and the same thing (no more than the others — justice, faith, cooperation, support and authority — are all one and the same thing even though they work together). Also, God can’t be merciful without being loving, but He can be loving without being merciful. Sometimes negative justice really is the most loving thing to give someone, and justice implies reward according to one’s works. I believe that’s the whole point of eternal punishment, the answer to the apparent paradox implied by gls, and the real key to why our punishment (if we rebel deliberately and finally) differs from that of Satan and the demons.

    I’ll leave off here. Thanks for letting me write at such length. I’d welcome any private comments as you have time, and any public ones you think are still needed.

  9. Deano

    My two cents ….

    It’s called cheap grace. Do whatever ya want cuz Jesus did it all for ya anyways so all ya have to do is love the Lord an’ believe and yer saved.

    Someone I knew died a couple years back and I went to the funeral and the message was total confusion – babylon to the core. I heard that the person was in heaven and also would be resurrected at some point in the future. I wanted to, very LOUDLY, ask, “Which is it–he’s in heaven now or will he be resurrected in due time?”

    I’m not trying to dishonor the person either–I loved him very much, but if heaven and hell in the traditional deceptive sense were reality, then the person would most likely not be going up. Yet, the eulogy (sp?) pretended he was a perfect example of Christian living – very strange. Denial and confusion.

    Also are those who murder and think they are doing God a service. They justify sin with relgious overtones and propaganda. ThiMk about it. “I’m a gonna go and hate an’ murder an’ destroy so I can have my way with sebmdey (70) virgins – hyuck hyuck hyuck – because alias Ares says it is so!” Unbeliev-a-bull.

    Truly, God’s Truth is beautiful and is something to be greatful for. God speed the Day when Satan’s spell will be pulled off of man’s heart, mind and eyes.

    Anyways … interesting question Mr. Smith.


  10. Howdy, one more time, Mr. Wheeler, and thanks again for your input.

    I did not mean to be too strict in my judgment of what must help some survive their belief in eternal torment, nor too lax in my use of the word “mercy.”

    Concerning the latter, you bring up (and had brought up previously) excellent points. When a distinction is necessary, your distinction is a good one (that is, between love and mercy). But when most mention such words in such settings, they are not aiming at precise theological wording, nor should they be expected to do so, nor is it always profitable to do so. As Jerry P. King mentions of mathematicians, sometimes “devoted precision” is actually is a hindrance to communication and not a benefit. (Seems nonsensical, I know, but I will leave the interested reader to the task of reading his fantastic book “The Art of Mathematics” for themselves. 🙂 )

    Concerning the former, I’m not sure that I communicated well the fact that I am sure some *do* console themselves with the “fact” of God’s justice in the matter of eternal torment. The leap necessary to do so does not seem in any way comparable (in my estimation) to the leap those of us who believe in eternal destruction must accomplish — the orders of magnitude between the two seem to me to virtually differentiate them in essence and kind.

    Still, I believe that something more is necessary than simply accepting the necessity of “God’s justice” in faith. Or perhaps what I’m *really* wondering is this: what does this “accepting in faith” really mean? What changes in one’s psyche are necessary to bring one to a point where he can “survive” having such a horrific belief? I have heard (note: therefore it may not be true, of course) that some male soldiers in the US military have to be trained to ignore the cries of women so as to override their natural instincts on the battlefield and to guarantee that they cannot be “broken” if captured by forcing them to hear a woman being tortured. What truly helps someone to ignore the “cries” of their loved ones writhing around in agony hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and year after year? Accepting what they believe to be “God’s justice” in faith — perhaps… But in what way does this “acceptance” manifest itself in their psyche? What changes in their natural affections must take place through this “acceptance”?

    Having and accepting a “logical” explanation for the perceived necessity of an article of faith isn’t the same thing is making it tolerable to one’s soul. It’s the path to that tolerance that interests me — or, if a distinction need be made, effects of walking down that path.

    Thanks for your worthy and helpful efforts!

    Best regards,
    Wallace Smith

  11. Ray Schaefer

    I think the vast majority of church-goers whose church professes a belief in the unsaved in this life suffering forever in hell fire either do not agree with their church on that point, or they believe it but only on a very superficial level. Deep down people realize the contradiction between the idea of a God of love and an ever-burning hell for all those not saved in this life, whether the official teachings of their church acknowledge the contradiction or not. Call it “cognitive dissidence”. And many resolve it someplace in the recesses of their mind by hoping that mercy somehow prevails and very few are in hell, if there is a hell, regardless of what their churches teach. I once heard a Catholic priest say, “sometimes I think maybe nobody is in hell”. Then for those who really believe it, they believe it only superficially, almost academically to a degree. It doesn’t really seem real to them as their day-to-day lives are. They may say they believe it, but deep down their belief is weak, just as it is about going to heaven. Some of the evidence for this is the way these same church-goers live their lives.

    The human mind finds ways to adapt to ideas no matter how unpleasent, and to find ways to focus on the here and now.

  12. Hm, one more time then…

    Mr. Schaefer raises the idea of “cognitive dissonance” — which seems about the same as what George Orwell called “doublethink”. Either way, one is asked to believe in two contradictory things simultaneously. The paradox is that one’s resulting faith is weak yet persistent. People may or may not like the faith, but either way it’s almost impossible to get them to dislodge themselves from the underlying contradiction. In other words, their souls may or may not like it, but their spirits — with their attitudes — seem surprisingly resiliant in the face of the dissonance.

    I’m reminded of the BHAGAVAT-GITA, which starts off with an ancient incarnation of Ol’ Blue Face (what I call Krishna) and a prince about to face the prince’s brother in battle. The prince laments that many of his relatives are going to die, and that he will never see them again. Instead of moving him to face and act on his abhorrence of murder and war — which seems to me to largely motivate his concerns as well — Krishna starts moving him toward acceptance of reincarnation and all else that the book talks about. Apparently it takes the whole book to build sufficient “cognitive dissonance” to quell the prince’s natural concerns. (I don’t know, because the book got so demonic in its thinking so quickly that I called an early halt to my reading.) But quelled they certainly are. Instead of a recognition of “You shall not murder” motivating the prince, a belief system is imposed to suppress the demands of that Commandment on his natural conscience.

    Whatever the form pagan “hell” takes — including its “Christian” and Muslim offshoots — belief in it seems to require the suppression of one’s natural abhorrence to suffering, pain and hopelessness (or else — in some cases — an unhealthy delight in the same). I wonder too how this can be done, but at least the basic cause — the use of paradox, which is at the root of all mystery religions — seems clear to me. It could account too for how military people could be trained as you have heard.

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