I have noted with great interest how the subject of the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment has come under increased scrutiny recently. One who apparently dissents from the traditional understanding of this subject is Billy Graham, himself, as noted in a recent article in Newsweek magazine. As one might imagine, some castigated Graham for his unorthodox position on this subject.
In my mind the orthodox position on eternal punishment, which roughly states that all those who don’t at least claim to be Christians, will be tormented eternally, raises innumerable issues and inconsistencies. Therefore, a dissenter is fully justified in asking for re-evaluation. Since “Hell” is such a horrendous concept, one might reasonably hope for this re-evaluation to be welcomed by the average Christian. Many “defenders of the faith”, however, call for the “excommunication” of anyone daring to question the traditional position, Billy Graham included.
No amount of historical precedent can overcome the basic irrationality of the traditionalist’s understanding of God. No amount of equivocation about God’s election as a limiting factor in the efficacy of the Gospel, can explain how a redemptive plan devised by an omnipotent, loving God can result in ultimate fiery punishment for the majority of mankind. If the traditionalists really believe what they say they believe, then let their actions say so. Let their frantic efforts to save as many as possible be on evident display. I can’t imagine that anyone can really believe in a God who punishes as has been taught, because the doctrine is morally reprehensible, and the human mind cannot truly accept such a thing.
The very first issue which any proponent of the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment as outlined above must face is the question of whether there are any exceptions to the general rule. The general rule says that all who escape this punishment must do something to escape. They must believe a certain fact and/or perform a certain act and/or submit to a certain ritual. These requirements are what I shall refer to hereafter as the redemptive process. In most cases, adherents recognize that some individuals, for a variety of reasons, will find it impossible to do what is required. This impossibility leads to the question of whether a just God would grant exceptions in some or all of these situations.
Perhaps number one on the list of possible exceptions would be those small children who cannot yet comprehend and comply with the requirements of the redemptive process. An intriguing corollary to this issue is the fact that many, many people who were born prior to the advent of modern medicine died in this state of childhood. If this exception is granted, then a great number of those who escape “Hell” will be those who never lived past infancy. If one feels compelled to grant this exception, then a second conundrum arises. What is the point when a child becomes responsible to the need to complete the redemptive process? This is no small matter for the parent who is concerned for the eternal destiny of a child. In answer to this related question, some have decided to kill their young children and thereby insure their salvation. The “Christian” community reacts in horror when this happens, but it is perversely logical in light of traditional doctrine.
A second category of possible exception would contain those individuals who are mentally handicapped to the extent that they cannot comprehend and respond to the required process. There again, the basic question raises another question. At what level of intelligence or mental capacity does it become necessary for one to respond to God’s requirements? One can say that they simply leave that up to God, but does that satisfy the parent of such a child who must feel some responsibility for their child’s eternal well-being.
The third, and perhaps most ambiguous category for most believers, would be those people who never even heard of Christ and his message. In our day, that group is undoubtedly smaller than in previous times, but that does not mitigate two outstanding facts. First, most people who ever lived, do not live today, so most people supposedly affected by the doctrine of eternal punishment are not privileged to enjoy the wider knowledge of Christ available in our time. Second, merely hearing of Christ and having a reasonable opportunity to understand and accept his teaching are not the same thing. Acceptance of “Christianity” is very much a function of cultural conditioning. Western civilizations are steeped in “Christian orthodoxy”, while the majority of the world is not. This does not imply that a non-westerner could not embrace Christianity, but it does say that it would be much more difficult and therefore less likely. Some may object that other civilizations are at this disadvantage because of their heritage is spiritually deficient and therefore they are disadvantaged through their own collective doing. The point here is that no one chooses his or her heritage, so the disadvantage is still a matter of happenstance as far as the individual is concerned. Others may counter that God’s Holy Spirit, working in the willing heart, would overcome this disadvantage for those who are truly seeking. This does not negate the basic issue, because what determines whose heart the Holy Spirit works on. It is undeniably true that “Christian” converts in these non-western cultures are few in number.
Some, in recognizing the Pandora’s Box which any exceptions represent, have resorted to the “no exceptions” rule. No child, no mentally deficient, no anybody can be excepted. All must comply with the letter of God’s requirements. This only exchanges one set of difficulties for another. Now we have a new twist on the abortion question. If life begins at conception and there are no exceptions, then abortion sends a soul to “Hell”. No wonder one can feel justified in killing someone to protect the unborn. Under this concept all those infants who died prior to modern medicine fill up the population of “Hell” along side Hitler and Attila the Hun. The story just gets more and more preposterous as we wind our way through these scenarios.
So how do we escape the morass of inconsistencies and incomprehensibly horrendous consequences of the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment. The first step in any such process is to accept the need to question openly and honestly what we have been taught, first within our own hearts and then with our friends in our religious communities. No dogma is so sacred that it cannot be subjected to such scrutiny.
The second step is to recognize that our own human sense of justice is perfectly relevant to this discussion. Some would have us believe that this is not the case, stating dogmatically that God’s sense of justice is superior to ours and that he requires retribution when the human mind might grant mercy. In fact, the exact opposite is true. God’s sense of justice is superior to ours because he grants mercy even when the human mind demands retribution. This is amply born out by the Bible, in that the entire story is about how God worked to reconcile man. The human mind struggles to comprehend a God who would sacrifice himself for mankind’s benefit. This in no way describes the arbitrary God depicted in the traditionalist’s orthodoxy.
The final step is to open your Bible and see once and for all that these scriptures do not convey what has been traditionally taught. The Bible does not teach everlasting punishment as claimed by the fundamentalists. They are keen to grab verses here and there from the Bible text and say that this teaches their doctrine, but those claims don’t hold up to even minimal scrutiny. The word “Hell” does not even appear in the Old Testament. All references in the New Testament to “Hell” are derived from the words, “Gehenna” and “Hades”, which mean either a place of utter destruction or the abode of all the dead. Neither intimates eternal punishment in the traditional sense. Additionally, these passages about “Hell”are all prophetic and therefore highly symbolic and hyperbolic, like all Bible prophecy. The use of symbolic language in prophecy is corroborated by none other than Christ himself (Matt 11:14). When some claim otherwise, they merely profess their denial of the obvious. Almost anyone, “churched” or “unchurched”, Bible knowledgeable or Bible illiterate, can appreciate the incomprehensibility of the traditionalist doctrine of eternal punishment. It is an admixture of misunderstood Bible and Greek mythology, and in no way defines our future.