Recently I read an article from Answers in Genesis on the subject of Hell. As anyone familiar with this particularly fundamentalist ministry might expect, the article was a defense of the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. As a conservative Christian (I actually happen to be a Young Earth Creationist) who rejects the doctrine of eternal conscious torment, I offer a critique of this article.
The author, Tim Challies, begins with a startling statement that includes a typical bait and switch: “if you want a God who is just and holy, then you must have this God, this God who condemns people to suffer the eternal torments of hell. You cannot have the God you want unless there is a hell.” The idea here is that a holy God must deal with sin (I agree) and that dealing with the sin of those who die as sinners requires some sort of doctrine called hell (I agree). The bait and switch, however, is that Challies takes a leap from the necessity of hell to his particular opinion of what hell is like (eternal conscious torment).
Next, the article attempts to defend this leap with a section titled “Scripture is clear about hell.” But if you actually read the scriptural references contained therein, you won’t find a strong case for eternal conscious torment. For example, the very first reference given is Matthew 10:28, which reads, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” A destroyed soul/body doesn’t sound much like eternal conscious torment to me.
Since the references in that section obviously weren’t all that helpful for his argument, the article makes a mini-argument for each word of its doctrine:
Why ETERNAL? Well, because, of course, “When you sin against an infinite God… you accrue an infinite debt.” Not only is this a non-sequitur, but it also fails to recognize that extinction would be just as ‘eternal’ a consequence for sin as conscious torment.
Why TORMENT, then? Umm… because “God’s holiness is unable to tolerate anything or anyone that is unholy; His holiness is like a gag reflex.” OK? Are we to think of God as, somehow, out of control of His own emotions? And, again, why is torment a better ‘reflex’ than destruction?
Why CONCIOUSLY? The author says that because “those who have sinned consciously must also bear their punishment consciously.” This is some sort of ‘the punishment must fit the crime’ argument. But clearly they didn’t sin consciously forever! So by the author’s own logic, his argument doesn’t make sense. Why not a doctrine of hell that allows for some conscious torment, but not eternal conscious torment? The author uses Jesus’ conscious torment on the cross as an example, but, obviously, his conscious torment wasn’t eternal (yet I’m sure the author would say it satisfied God’s holy demands!).
Frankly, the article simply doesn’t make the case it sets out to make. It’s flawed on various fronts. Perhaps most significantly, it comes from what I would consider a very flawed theology. The author states, “God’s goodness flows out of His holiness.” I would say the opposite. God’s holiness flows out of God’s goodness (God’s love). Love deals with sin, so there is such a thing as hell. But hell must be loving… or it cannot have been created by God.
Meanwhile, the author (I'll assume he's a Christian man with a transformed heart) admits that his “heart naturally cries out in rebellion against the thought” of his own doctrine, but apparently he is more eager to follow a particular interpretation of the Bible than a possible impression God has put on his heart. I would suggest that he not so quickly attribute his heart’s cry to worldliness and, instead, recognize it as identical to the kind of love that Jesus commands us to have for our enemies. The article asks, "What kind of God would condemn people to eternal torment?" My answer... not a God like Jesus.