Hart’s rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell at least has the virtue of being clear. He does not mince words or hedge in the least. He rejects what the church has overwhelmingly taught and believed throughout its two-thousand year history. He knows he’s in the minority on this, but he nevertheless soldiers on in his contempt for any view of hell as eternal conscious torment.
In his recent book arguing for universalism, David Bentley Hart explains why he abhors the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment. It turns out that his reasons are not first of all to do with God’s revelation in scripture but with a gag-reflex—his moral revulsion against a deity that would preside over an eternal conscious torment in hell. Hart writes,
How viciously vindictive the creator of such a hell would have to be to have devised so exquisitely malicious a form of torture and then to have made it eternal, and how unjust in condemning men and women to unending torment for the “sin” of not knowing him even though he had never revealed himself to them, or for some formally imputed guilt supposedly attaching to them on account of some distant ancestor’s transgression.
Hart’s rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell at least has the virtue of being clear. He does not mince words or hedge in the least. He rejects what the church has overwhelmingly taught and believed throughout its two-thousand year history. He knows he’s in the minority on this, but he nevertheless soldiers on in his contempt for any view of hell as eternal conscious torment. And it is clear that the doctrine of hell is not the only doctrine in his crosshairs. Hart is aware that the doctrine of hell sits atop a foundation of other theological commitments, including the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of man, and even the doctrine of God. Nevertheless, it is his doctrine of God that most drives his scorn for the biblical doctrine of hell. He simply will not bow the knee to a God who would preside over a hell of eternal fire and torment. Hart writes, “My conscience forbids assent to a picture of reality that I regard as morally corrupt, contrary to justice, perverse, inexcusably cruel, deeply irrational, and essentially wicked.” Again, at least he’s clear.
A Familiar Objection
John Stott also reflects the instinctive reaction that many people have to the idea of eternal conscious torment. He writes, “I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterizing their feelings or cracking under the strain.” Stott and Hart are not alone in recoiling from the idea of “eternal conscious torment.” Hardly anyone can contemplate the horror of an eternal hell without shuddering at the thought of someone having to bear such a fate. Nevertheless, are our visceral feelings about hell really a reliable guide to evaluating the doctrine of hell?
What if the gag-reflex that people experience against hell is wrong? Obviously, serious Christians wish for God’s revelation in scripture to be the ultimate arbiter of the debate. But oftentimes our feelings can blind us to doctrines that we prefer not to be in the Bible. And that is often the case when it comes to people’s grappling with the biblical doctrine of eternal conscious torment.
To be sure, many people oppose the doctrine of eternal conscious torment on exegetical grounds, and I have addressed those arguments at length elsewhere. But many others simply express a moral revulsion at the doctrine and then revise or forsake the Bible’s teaching. Herman Bavinck explains, “The grounds on which people argue against the eternity of hellish punishment always remain the same.”
The first three reasons he lists are based less on specific scripture than they are on human judgments about the way God ought to behave: (1) Eternal punishment contradicts the goodness, love, and compassion of God and makes him a tyrant; (2) Eternal punishment contradicts the justice of God because it is in no way proportionate to the sin in question; and (3) Eternal punishment that is purely punitive and not remedial has no apparent value.
Over 1,500 years ago, Augustine dealt with similar questions in his defense of eternal conscious punishment. Again, these objections are not new nor is people’s abhorrence for the doctrine. Hart argues that such objections have no good answers under the traditional view. We are left with the “primary question of whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible… can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is.”
Reforming the Gag-Reflex
When I was in seminary, I wrestled with my own emotional response to the doctrine of hell and how my affections might be rightly ordered towards God’s eternal wrath against sinners. There were two items that shaped my thinking during that period and that still shape my thinking today. The first was a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, “The End of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous.” This sermon is a meditation on Revelation 18:20, which says, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her.”
Edwards observes something profound revealed in this text. One day, God will turn to His glorified people and command them to “rejoice” over the destruction of the wicked in hell. Why? For several reasons: because God has finally given justice to His people by punishing her persecutors (Rev. 18:20b); because God’s judgment reveals His righteousness and justice (Rev. 19:2a); because God’s judgment ends Babylon’s wickedness (Rev. 19:2b); because God’s judgment vindicates the martyrs (Rev. 19:2c; cf. 6:10); because God’s judgment is eternal (Rev. 19:3); and because God’s judgment reveals that He reigns as the true King (Rev. 19:6).