Greek Mythology, the Enlightenment, and Hell
Text I’m writing against: Elmer Towns HELL
You can also listen to the post by clicking here: Is there really a Hell?
Whenever I attack a subject like this, many Christian people have a tendency to think I’m trying to throw the whole subject out. But while I’m really not throwing it out, the Christian might complain, “Well, if Y is the case about X, then X must be false and worth throwing out. And, since I simply cannot throw out X, Y must be false.” They throw the baby out with the bathwater just to show the absurdity of such an action and then put the baby and the dirty water back in the tub just as it was. I would just ask a little leeway from these people to let me hold on to X and keep it intact while questioning Y about it. I promise X will not be damaged in the process.
Now, let me state up front that it is not the case there is no Hell. It is the case that I’m attacking our understanding of it (which is Y). I’m going to address two things that I think have affected Y and show how they have led to a wrong understanding of God. The text I am writing against is an chapter in a book written by Dr. Elmer Towns simply entitled “Hell: Eternal Abode of the Unsaved.” The link to it is at the top of the page. His entire book is available online.
So much of what this world rejects about hell is wrapped up in two things: Certain Christian folks insisting on describing Christianity as a system of spiritual rewards and punishments, and the idea of never ending torture. Many today are told that if they do not believe Christianity is the one true religion, they will experience torture without end in hell. But, if they accept Christ, they will go to heaven. It is no wonder that, as a consequence, God is viewed as a great celestial bully. He holds out two hands and slaps you when you pick the wrong one. But, the proper response to a bully is to stand up to him. Today, we have many atheists who have the fortitude to pronounce that they are more moral than God. After all, if they were God, they would not create an eternal torture chamber just to make themselves feel better about being rejected.
The modern attitude toward God is a direct result of this faulty understanding of Hell. God is rejected today in the name of human freedom. But, even though they don’t know it, God is the only chance for freedom humanity has. How can we make them see this? It is by recognizing the errors in our thinking about Hell. Towns, in his chapter, “Hell, the Eternal Abode of the Unsaved”, hit the nail on the head when he said, “God created Hell.” This ought to cause us to wonder why we attribute eternal torture to Hell. Why would God torture? Why would he do it eternally? Is eternal torture consistent with what we know about God?
Let me start to answer these questions by saying that God is the source of everything. He is the origin of all things. And, without God’s preserving activity keeping everything in being, everything would cease to exist, even torture. Everything is totally dependent on God’s on-going creative activity. Colossians 1:17 says, “By him [that is, God] all things consist.” So, if Hell is created, why do we think it is eternal? Eternal is something we attribute to God and nothing else. He is the Eternal One. Nothing is just like God. God, being the source of everything, does not exist in the same way that created things do. God is Existence itself. He does not have it for a time, nor does He have it for an infinite amount of time. It follows then, that God does not endure. He does not have duration. He is not confined by time to endure it. Therefore, it is an error in Theology as well as the doctrine of Hell to say as Towns says later on in the same chapter, “Hell lasts as long as the duration of God.” In principle, Hell cannot possibly last as long as God; God is not something that lasts. And, nothing can have a divine attribute like God has it. So, in what sense can we say Hell is eternal? It’s not all that clear. Is it simply that it’s effects are eternal? And what’s the difference between something lasting eternally and lasting forever? Let me identify what I think is the cause of this confusion.
This idea that torture in Hell will last forever seems to have a correlation with Greek mythology which was later combined with Enlightenment thinking. The Greeks imagined a place of eternal torment. Think of the myth of Prometheus who was tied to a rock while a vulture picked at his liver every morning. While the vulture was gone the liver would grow back just so it could be picked at the next morning. Sisyphus was condemned to eternally push a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down for him to do again. Both things were repeated over and over with no end to them. And borrowing this idea of eternal repetition, Hell has come to be described as a place where one is burned again and again eternally with no hope of ever being burned up. In other words, there is no end to be achieved. There is no goal to be reached. There is no point to it; no purpose. And, if there is no point, what is the sense in saying that justice will be satisfied by those being eternally tortured? The occupants can still hold hatred toward God and perversion in their mind, and add to the list of sins that warrant punishment. Even if the burning somehow made them more moral, it would be no advantage to them. There is no second chance available for them to finally say, “Now, I trust God.” Therefore, Justice’s work will never be done, it will be eternally at work with no end in sight.
This creates a problem for the character of God. When does God ever do anything with no point to it? The answer is never. He always has a purpose in everything. And, isn’t that really the fear that people can’t take, senseless and purposeless existence? Even Towns seems to realize this when he says, “The worst part of hell is that its inhabitants know it will never end.” Our greatest fear is not the vulture picking at the liver. It’s not pushing the rock up the hill. It’s not the torturous burning described in the Bible. It’s that it repeats without end. No goal or end will ever be reached by these torturous activities. God himself won’t achieve anything. This misconception of Hell actually affects what God is like in our minds. The people of this world know it and that’s partly why some reject Him.
The other error that this conception of Hell is combined with comes from the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment conceived of nature as able to exist on its own steam; that is has, so to speak, existential inertia. God is seen as the divine machine maker which completes his work with creation, stands back, and watches it work. If God were to walk away, or die, it would continue. This idea combined with the pointlessness of the Hades of Greek mythology has infiltrated the Christian conception of Hell. God can forget about something and it will keep on existing. And the horror of the thing that keeps existing is that it repeats the same activity over and over without end.
What does it mean, after all, for God to say in Matthew 7:23, “I never knew you?” For Existence itself to forget you is for you to stop existing. Contrary to the Enlightenment, you have no existential inertia. That’s just not how God creates. God is not the divine machine maker. He is more like the violinist who plays a melody. If he were to stop, so would the melody. He could also be described as a story teller. If he were to stop telling the story, it would cease to be; existing in nothing but the residue of the memory of Angels. The Scriptures indicate, we and all of creation are the very words of God. And, this is His story. He spoke and still speaks all things into existence. For God to say, “I never knew you”, sounds more like what Christ says in Matthew 10:28, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” It seems there is a point to it after all. The burning are finally burned up. The man who murdered or lied for the brief moment that encompassed his life is no more. All that is left is a faint memory of evil actions with no being to have caused them, and even that memory may be wiped away. It is a terrifying thought to imagine that the love that I held in my life, the things I cherished, and the things I built are all for nothing. All meaning and purpose that might have been is wiped away with the closing of a book by the hands of God. The story is over. The actors are finished. The stage is destroyed.
Having an end or goal to be reached is the difference between punishment and torture. Torture is done by those who want to extract information from the tortured, merely demonstrate their power over them, or satisfy some perverted pleasure. But God is in need of no information from anyone, neither is he in need of fulfillment of any kind. God does not have a need to feel powerful or feel pleasure. An argument could be made that the occupant in hell is somehow bettered by knowing that God is more powerful than he, but power needs to be demonstrated only once, and continual demonstration is near to abuse. Not to mention, there are many other ways to show power and some more effective than torture. In any case, making the occupant better is punishment, not torture.
Punishment has a purpose to it. It is meant to correct, to heal, to redirect, to rehabilitate, to change so as to bring in accordance with right living, or to make better. But sometimes making someone better leads to their death. We all know some circumstances where this is the case. Some cancers cannot be removed without killing the patient. Correcting certain medical conditions can prove fatal. And, it is just in this way that Christians understand the damage sin causes. It damages the core of our being. From the very first self-inflicted injury Adam’s rebellion caused, humanity began to bear the fatal marks. We were wounded unto death. All our evil actions changed us for ever, made us defective, made us less than what we should be. These defects, if they were to be corrected, would certainly destroy us. In this way, the punishment of hell will certainly last eternally. We will be eternally wiped from existence. There is an end to be had, and that end is the end of it all. He who is punished is delivered from the evil of his soul; which, when it is removed, removes him as well. The remedy is the cause of destruction.
I’m thankful more than ever that, while we are living, we can partake of the remedy that Christ has offered. Our old life is crucified with Him and we are given a new resurrected life. The new man that we become is born of God. This is the gift of salvation, to receive his remedy now before we receive the destructive remedy later. You can be born twice and live with God, or die twice and cease to live. I will not receive the second death because I have received a second birth. Christ tasted death for every man that we might receive the gift of life. For those who put their faith in him, we have God for our inheritance, the Eternal One whose beauty the world but only reflects.
To some, it may still seem like I am denying the existence of Hell. That is not the case. I’m denying a faulty understanding of it. But, I am also not here to advertise my own understanding of Hell. The reason for this post is to move Christians away from the influences of Greek mythology and the Enlightenment. The character of God has been affected by these influences. He has become a bully who forces surrender through fear, and a God who does at least one thing without purpose, burn people forever. Let’s revisit and debate the verses concerning Hell with renewed interest. Let’s discuss the meanings of words like eternal and forever. Let’s begin to investigate what Hell is really like. Then may we understand what is truly at stake, and reach out with Christ’s remedy for the world.