I have a serious question concerning the Bible's teaching on the doctrine of hell. Actually I have several serious questions concerning this teaching, but I'll focus on just one point for the sake of time. I'm sure almost all of us at some point in our lives have been to church and heard a preacher giving a sermon on the topic of hell. During my years when I was very religious, I had a favorite sermon entitled, "Hell, Fire, and Damnation." Actually it wasn't a sermon, but rather a five part sermon series. It was preached by my favorite pastor, Dr. Roy Hargrave, who is the senior pastor of Riverbend Community Church, a very large Southern Baptist church located in Ormond Beach, Florida. A friend of mine sat through one of the sermons during a Sunday morning service, and the sermon was so intense and terrifying that he caught a glance of a young college-age girl sitting in the same row literally trembling in her seat, while listening to the pastor describe in vivid detail the unimaginable horror and torment that awaited her if she did not convert.
The entire sermon series is heavily influenced by a sermon that was preached nearly 300 years ago by Jonathan Edwards titled, "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God." This sermon helped ignite the Great Awakening, due to the fact that it simply terrified people into converting. Here is just a small sample of this message:
"It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long for ever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all. You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains."
Although I have never been eloquent enough to describe hell is such vivid detail, nevertheless I preached and taught this doctrine for several years. But even while I was a student in seminary, I had a very difficult question in my mind concerning this topic. My question is this: Why is the Old Testament almost totally silent on the teaching of hell? I'm sure someone will quote a verse (and I could quote a few myself) to argue that the OT does indeed support the existence of hell, but these very few verses are so few and far between that it should disturb anyone who has studied the Bible, when asking yourself why the Old Testament spend such a small amount of time discussing a topic of such vast importance.
In the entire Old Testament, there is really only one verse that could easily be interpreted as a reference to the idea of eternal punishment in hell. The verse is Daniel 12:2.
"Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, some to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt."
Even if we assume this verse is speaking of eternal torment, it raises another question: Why does it only say that "MANY of those who sleep in the dust will awake?" Why does it not say, "ALL of those who sleep in the dust will awake?" Is this verse implying that only a certain portion of those who have died will experience an afterlife? Are there some who will not experience an afterlife? I think it is easy to see how someone could interpret this verse in this manner. My point in bringing this side-note up is not at all to get off track discussing the universality or limited nature of an afterlife, but rather to point out that if one chooses to use this verse to defend the claim that the Old Testament supports the idea of eternal punishment, you have uncovered another problem due to the wording of the text.
But let us get back on track. Here is the main point I want to raise. The book of Daniel is said to have been written in the 6th century BC (although many scholars say the 2nd century BC). And the first books of the Bible are said to have been written around the 14th or 15th century BC (although conservative and liberal scholars debate this as well). So here is my question: If the book of Daniel is the first book of the Old Testament that mentions the idea of eternal torment in hell, why did the Bible wait 900 years to warn its readers about something this serious? If there really is an eternal torture chamber, it seems like the Bible would be absolutely sure to include this teaching on the very first page! I would say that is some REALLY important information to be leaving out!! Could you imagine a person dying who lived during the time of Moses, which would have been hundreds of years before the book of Daniel was written, and waking up in the eternal furnace of fire and screaming, "Oh my God, why wasn't I warned about this?!!"
I have thought about this question, and while I am sure a multitude of answers could be proposed in an attempt to solve this dilemma, I can come up with two answers that are very likely to arise. For the first answer to this question, a person might respond, "Well he's God, and he can do whatever he wants, and if he doesn't want to warn them about hell, then he doesn't have to." But if someone is willing to give a response like this, then he or she should not get angry if a radical Muslim says, "Well he's Allah, and he can do whatever he wants, and if he wants to command his followers to carry out suicide bombings on innocent women and children, then he can do what he damn well pleases." For anyone who would give such a response, it would be helpful to follow the advice of a quote I once heard that said, "Don't make a statement that makes God out to be less compassionate that your average mortal human being."
The second response may possibly carry a little more validity. In the second response, a person defending the teaching of hell might say, "Well maybe the early books of the Bible do not specifically warn its readers about eternal punishment in hell, but it did warn them that God would punish them if they sinned against him." And of course there is no doubt that this is true. There are hundreds of threats in the first five books of the Bible that God would punish people for sinning against him. There were a multitude of cases where God threatened the people of Israel with death if they broke his commands. One man was stoned to death for simply picking up sticks on the Sabbath, because any form of work was forbidden on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). And the book of Deuteronomy commands parents to have their child (more like a young adult) stoned to death for being disobedient (Deut. 21:18-21). So there is no question that the Bible warns its earliest readers that they will be punished for sinning against God. But are such warnings sufficient?
I would say that these warnings are not even close to being sufficient. A general warning that God will punish them for sinning against him is not good enough. Here is an illustration to make my point: A dad tells his teenage son that if he gets caught smoking pot that he will be punished. The son tries his best to not get caught, but eventually his dad catches him in the act. So the dad takes a rope and ties up his son's hands and feet and carries him into the basement, where he has a secret torture chamber set up. The dad keeps his son locked in the basement and puts him through the most sadistic torture for the rest of his life. Every day the son pleads to his dad to let him out, but the dad replies, "Son I told you I would punish you if you smoked pot." And his son says, "But dad, I knew you said I would be punished for disobeying you, but I wasn't expecting this!" Multiply the horror of this torture by infinity and apply the same logic to the doctrine of hell, and you'll see one of the reasons why I have a serious issue with this awful teaching. Feel free to voice any of your own objections or comments, they will be greatly appreciated.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)