Scot McKnight: Is Eternal, Conscious Torment a Necessary Part of Christian Belief?

Today I wish to direct your attention to a pair of posts over at Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed.  These posts hone in on a narrow slice of Christian belief concerning the afterlife, specifically hell and whether or not eternal, conscious torment is part of it.

McKnight is working his way through a recent book entitled “Rethinking Hell”, which collects readings from well-known evangelical scholars who support a minority view known as annihilationism or conditional immortality–namely that the wicked who refuse the grace of God through Jesus Christ will cease to exist altogether upon their death.  McKnight looks at readings from John R. W. Stott and Clark Pinnock.

John Stott’s writings come from a book he wrote a couple of decades back in which he first expressed his conditionalist views.  This caused quite a backlash, despite Stott’s influence and despite his careful exegesis in support of his views, so much so that others who shared Stott’s views became extremely reluctant to express those views publicly.  McKnight lays out the crux of Stott’s argument in support of his conditionalist viewpoint; the high points include:  The idea of eternal and conscious torment is intolerable and cannot be accepted without growing numb to it or else collapsing under the burden.  Most of the biblical language concerning hell points toward destruction, meaning a complete cessation of physical and spiritual life, not a state in which physical/spiritual life is preserved so that the soul might experience conscious torment throughout all eternity.

Next McKnight looks at writings from Clark Pinnock.  Pinnock describes the idea of eternal, conscious torment as an “outrageous doctrine”.  He traces it back to Augustine, who was influenced by Platonic ideas on the immortality of the soul.  He likens it to “the person who delights in watching a cat being tortured in a microwave, and taking delight in it”.  Though some try to soften this by importing ideas of human responsibility, Augustine did no such thing.  Instead, Augustine believed that God chose who would be saved, meaning by implication that he also chose who would be damned.  Jonathan Edwards picked up that ball and ran with it.  “Surely,” says Pinnock, “a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God….Does the one who told us to love our enemies intend to wreak vengeance on his own enemies for all eternity?”

My take:  This is reflective of a crazy tendency of evangelicals to get themselves bent all crazy kinds of out of sorts when anyone challenges their cherished ideas about heaven and hell.  We saw this in the ruckus over that Rob Bell book a couple of years back.

Can we please be honest enough to admit that an awful lot of what we think we know about heaven and hell doesn’t come from Scripture but instead from Dante, Milton, Michelangelo, and even Thomas Kinkade?  And why are we so wrapped up on this idea of eternal, conscious torment?  Is it something in us that just cannot be satisfied unless we know that the vast majority of mankind will face eternal torment unless they start thinking and believing like us?

I close with something Stott said:  “No one should speak of hell without tears in their eyes. If you can’t emote over this topic, spend time with God until you can, and then speak about hell.”

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