Gary Swisher

Hell Bent

In Christianity, church, Hell, Theology on April 7, 2011 at 11:11 pm

As with many things in Christendom, the understanding of hell is layered with corruptions stemming from church politics, vain imaginations and even paganism. The view of eternal punishment has been embellished over the ages, and oftentimes has seemed much more hellish than the picture scripture seems to paint.

When I grew up, hell-fire and brimstone sermons were more common. If I had been born a few years earlier, I’m sure they would have been a steady diet. The church movement of my formative years was once extremely legalistic. As time progressed, so did the emphasis on God’s grace. In many veins of Christianity, legalism has seemed to wane (not that it’s gone by any means) since the 1960s, and so has the prevalence of fear and judgment as a motivation for moral conduct. Is it possible that one’s particular bent on hell, or the amount of emphasis hell receives, is connected to the degree of legalism and judgmentalism one demonstrates?

The fire insurance view of the gospel has been a sad reflection on Christian theology, showing an impoverished understanding of the true riches found in Christ. Perhaps the reason a book like Love Wins, by Rob Bell, is getting so much attention is because it has become less palatable to focus on eternal torment. Fiery-judgment sermons are surely less prevalent now than in the past. I would argue that the times when church history was most characterized by condemnation and persecution of both believers and non-believers, it was due to significantly greater emphasis on what heretics and sinners deserved in the eyes of an angry God. In medieval times the church raised funds through fear by convincing Christians that they would go to hell for not tithing. So-called “heretics” were burned alive at the stake and unbelievers were tortured in a variety of inventive and sadistic ways, especially during the inquisition.

One such heretic, named Michael Servetus, was helped to his execution by the famous theologian, John Calvin. The quote below shows the degree to which Christian leaders of the time acted as divine judge and jury.

It is true that Calvin and his fellow pastors in Geneva were involved in the death of Servetus [to put it lightly]. However, it would be difficult to find any church leader in the 16th century who advocated a more gentle approach. Luther called for attacks on German peasants and wrote an angry tract against the Jews, called ‘On the Jews and their Lies’. Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, supported the execution by drowning of the Anabaptist leader, Felix Manz. Sir Thomas More, England ‘s Catholic Lord Chancellor, presided over the execution of those he viewed as “heretics” in England during the reign of Henry the VIII.
Source: www.calvin.edu/meeter/resources/servetus.htm

As I expressed in my previous series of posts, the parts of the Bible that lack detailed explanations are often the points where humans endeavor to explain the most. Hell is no different. Where Jesus tells of the weeping and gnashing of teeth, humans chime in with the most grotesque depictions of sadistic torture they can fathom. Thomas Aquinas is credited with saying, “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks to God for it, a perfect sight of [the] punishment of the damned is granted them.”  The Assemblies of God hold in their doctrinal statement that, “It is impossible to describe the … terror and torment of hell.” Why so? Did Jesus lack the words to do it justice?

A Catholic priest named John Furniss (sounds like furnace?) wrote a children’s book in the 19th century called The Sight of Hell. Below are some quotes.

Night came upon them from the lowest and deepest hell. She saw that in the upper hell, the torments were very grevious. In the middle hell they were still more terrible. In the lowest hell the torments were above all understanding.

There is in hell a sound like that of many waters…It is the sound of oceans of tears running from the countless millions of eyes. They cry night and day.

…if one single body was taken out of hell and laid on the earth, in that same moment every living creature on the earth would sicken and die.

The [devil’s] first stroke will make your body as bad as the body of Job, covered from head to foot with sores and ulcers. The second stroke will make your body twice as bad as the body of Job…How then will your body be after the devil has been striking it every moment for a hundred million of years without stopping?

The sinner lies chained down on a bed of red-hot blazing fire!

How will you feel in hell, when millions of [biting worms] make their dwelling-place in your mouth, and ears, and eyes, and creep all over you, and sting you with their deadly stings through all eternity.

With so many things being reformed in the history of Christendom there has never been a reformation of this distorted perception of God’s punishment of the lost. The same darkened mindset that developed such extreme and detailed descriptions of their torments has guided and influenced our Bible translations, scripture interpretations and sermons down to this very day. What mind is it that we bring to scriptures to inquire of God’s final judgment? We come with the foregone conclusion that no imagination of man can grasp what a hideous torture awaits the lost.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

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  1. Gary,

    You document the severity of the Reformers with those who disagreed with them. Is it possible that this is closer to the proper attitude we should have. Many would argue that we live in a dissolute age, full of license and with little sense of absolute truth. A time with few who understand God’s justice.

    Do you believe the scripture is literal where God destroys all living things with a flood except for one family because, “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”?

    We are still the same fallen men if not saved by grace, and even then, still plagued with the “old man.” Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with God’s justice to destroy everyone again? Jesus says in Matthew 7 that only a few find the path of righteousness. Should we be deemphasizing hell when Jesus warned about it more than he spoke of heaven? When the Book of Revelation, the Bible, not people exaggerating about it, calls it,

    “The lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

    I don’t see room for leniency here.

  2. Paul,

    Do you want justice? How much closer should we come to murdering others over religious views? More laws will not reform the old man. There is only one death needful for all mankind if we can reckon it so (2Cor 5:14).

    You say Christians are plagued with the old man. God says we are a new creation and righteous in Christ. If we walk in the spirit we don’t see the old man of flesh.

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