A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d
For those rebellious, here their Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and their portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.
— John Milton, Paradise Lost
Last week, in honour of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I wrote a post about the huge theological problem posed by the Holocaust and other such horrors. If you haven’t already read it, I invite you to do so before you read the rest of this post.
At Auschwitz and other extermination camps, innocent men, women and children were imprisoned, underfed, forced to work, often tortured, and finally killed, not because of any crime but simply because of their race or religion. Those who lived at Auschwitz lived through hellish conditions. Those who died there died a fairly hellish death: after the guards had introduced the deadly Zyklon B pellets into the gas chambers, it would take up to twenty minutes for everyone inside to die, up to eight hundred of them at a time. Six crematoria burned day and night to get rid of the bodies.
Places like Auschwitz have often aptly been referred to as “hell on earth”. Few people would deny that the Nazis’ final solution to the “Jewish question” was a moral horror and an abomination. And most would agree that only someone of staggering evil could conceive of and preside over such an atrocity.
What I want to suggest, however, is that many Christians believe in something far worse than the horrors of Auschwitz. In fact, not only do they believe in it; their entire theological framework and associated worldview requires it to be true. I’m talking, of course, about the doctrine of hell, especially in its most extreme form of infernalism: the belief that unrepentant sinners will spend eternity in conscious torment likened to unquenchable fire.
Let me ask you this: which is worse, to murder six million Jews purely because of their race, or to consign untold billions to unending, fiery damnation purely because they declined the opportunity to convert to a particular religion? And who is worse, the evil dictator who oversaw the extermination of those six million Jews, or the supposedly all-powerful, all-merciful God who consigns those untold billions to hell, or who at the very least allows them to go there?
I submit that if hell as a place or state of eternal conscious torment is real, then the Holocaust pales into insignificance beside God’s final solution to “the sin question”. In fact, if such a doctrine is fundamentally true, then the countless Jews who suffered the agonies of Auschwitz will awake at the Last Day to discover that their suffering at the hands of the Nazis was a mere prelude and a walk in the park compared to what they are going to have to endure forever because of their failure to convert to Christianity.
Hell, as many Christians are taught to understand it, is Auschwitz on a grand scale. And if that is true, then God has an awful lot more to answer for than Hitler.
Or, to use a different and much more recent example, how is a God who punishes sinners with eternal hellfire any different from than the ISIS radicals who have slaughtered thousands of innocent Christians for refusing to convert to Islam?
Of course, this post will set alarm bells ringing for many Christians. “What about justice? What about all the times Jesus spoke of hell?”, they will cry. While those are good and valid questions, I am not going to attempt to address them here; perhaps I will come back to them over the coming weeks. Suffice to say that there are other ways of thinking about judgement, justice and humanity’s eternal fate while still taking the Bible seriously. Indeed, for the first few hundred years of Christianity, infernalism was only one of a range of beliefs about the afterlife that were considered to fall within the bounds of orthodoxy. It can be argued that popular contemporary notions of hell owe more to Dante and Milton than they do to scripture or church tradition.
For most of my thirty years as a Christian, I’ve believed in hell without question. But this was not because I’d thought it through and considered its implications; it was simply because it was part of a package of beliefs that I was told you had to accept in order to be a proper Christian (you know, rather than the lukewarm, liberal, second-class kind). But here’s what I’m finding: the more I get to know and understand the God decisively revealed to us in the life, teaching and death of Jesus, the less I see any compatibility between that God and the doctrine of hell. In short, I do not believe that the same God who spoke forgiveness from the cross condemns his children to eternal agony.
I realise this post may cost me some friends and maybe even earn me some unpleasant labels, but so be it. There comes a time when colours must be nailed to the mast, and when entrenched dogmas must be challenged.
[Image: Jim Sheely; detail from Judgement by Hans Memling)