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MAJOR CONFLICTS OVER HELL

CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIAN vs. SECULAR BELIEFS

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Overview:

Conservative Christians generally:

bulletConsider the Bible to be inerrant -- free of error. 
bulletInterpret Bible passages literally, unless a symbolic meaning is clearly indicated.

This leads most of them to believe that God has created a system for actual punishment of most humans in a real Hell after their death. Although Bible passages appear to be ambiguous about who will be sent to Hell, most conservative Christians believe that Hell is the destination for all individuals who are "unsaved" at the time of their death. According to an estimate by the Southern Baptists, 70% of American adults are in this state. Probably on the order of 80% of Canadians and perhaps 90% of people worldwide are unsaved, and thus headed for Hell according to this belief system.

This belief in a literal punishment in a literal Hell conflicts with secular standards of morality, which are accepted by most people, including conservative Christians. Conflicts exist in the following areas:

bullettorture of prisoners.
bulletimprisoning individuals for thought crimes.
bulletunreasonably long sentences.
bulletthe purposes of incarceration.
bulletreligious freedom issues.

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Torture of prisoners:

The U.S. Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, similar constitutions of democracies worldwide, and various declarations of the United Nations prohibit cruel and unusual punishment, including torture of prisoners. Countries which have a policy of maltreating prisoners in this way are considered pariah nations by the rest of the world. 

This conflicts with numerous references in the Bible, which imply that God has created Hell for the specific purpose of torturing prisoners. Various biblical passages refer to shackles, whipping, flesh eating worms, incredible thirst, total darkness, and unbearable heat in Hell. What is considered profoundly immoral by most religious and secular leaders on earth is routine in Hell, according to the Bible.

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Imprisoning individuals for thought crimes:

In countries with advanced human rights records, people are sentenced to prison because of what they have done, not for what they think -- i.e. not for thought crimes. Rejecting the Gospel is basically a thought crime. It involves no overt act. It does not directly affect another person. It does not threaten society. In fact, there are some indications that Atheists have a lower level of marital divorce and bigotry than some Christians. 

Some pariah nations who grant few human rights to their citizens arrest and imprison individuals because of their beliefs and teachings. Amnesty International and similar organizations commit most of their effort towards freeing such individuals, whom they call "prisoners of conscience." 

Again, this conflicts with many passages in the Bible which appear to state that all unsaved persons will be routed to punishment in Hell after death. They would clearly be guilty of thought crimes -- of holding beliefs about deity, humanity and the rest of the universe which do not include trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior. According to many conservative Christians, the Bible clearly states that Hell is reserved for such unsaved people. 

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Unreasonably long sentences:

In most counties, prisoners are given sentences of various durations. However, almost all inmates are given the possibility of eventual parole later in life -- generally after fewer than 25 years incarceration.

This conflicts with numerous references in the Bible, which appear to imply that imprisonment in Hell is forever -- for all eternity, without any hope of relief or release. Many people feel that an infinite sentence for a finite crime is fundamentally unjust.

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The purposes of incarceration:

In most counties, prison is seen as a method of rehabilitation and/or of warehousing convicted criminals. Punishment is seen as a minor function of the prison system; punishment is generally limited to loss of freedoms. 

This conflicts with numerous references in the Bible, which appear to imply that the purpose of Hell is punishment-- to cause unbearable pain to its inhabitants. There do not appear to be any references in the Bible which suggest the eventual rehabilitation of the inmates in Hell, or of simply warehousing them for later release.

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Religious freedom issues:

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, the constitutions of other countries, and various United Nations documents, guarantee that everyone enjoys religious freedom. This includes the right to follow their own spiritual path, to change their religion at any time, to practice their religion (within certain limitations) and to proselytize to others. Some countries deny some of these rights to their citizens. In some areas of the world, it is an offense punishable by execution for a person to change their faith from the state religion to a different faith. But these countries are generally severely criticized by human rights advocates, and international courts.

Conservative Christians generally believe that only a small subset of humanity will attain heaven. Many believe that Christians who are unsaved and persons of other religions will be punished in Hell. In essence, religious freedom does not exist after death.

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Additional ethical and logical problems with Hell:

Some belief systems about Hell have some apparently unjust or illogical features, when studied within the limitations of human knowledge. 

bullet

Within the Roman Catholic belief system, two people could die on the same day, after committing a mortal sin and sincerely attending the Sacrament of Penance. If one sinned first and experienced the sacrament later, then they would go to Purgatory for a while and then to Heaven. If the other person performed these same activities in the reverse order, they would spend eternity in Hell. One's destination would thus be dependent upon luck, and the order in which deeds are performed. Some feel that this is not fair or just.

bullet

Many conservative Christian denominations teach that those who are saved by repentance and trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior will be saved and attain heaven at death. Those who have heard the gospel and rejected it will go to Hell. This raises the question of what happens to persons who have never heard of Christianity, Jesus or the Gospel. In the past, religious conservatives generally believed that they would not be saved. This belief has been the main motivation for the worldwide missionary movement. Lack of trust of Jesus meant eternal damnation, even if they did not trust Jesus because they never had the opportunity to learn about him and his teachings. This appears to be fundamentally unjust and immoral to an increasing numbers of Christians and others.

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Resolution to these conflicts over Hell:

Some approaches have been proposed:

bullet

Many denominations teach that the apparent immorality of God's actions in Hell are not real. All of our concerns will be resolved at the Final Judgment. Everyone will then understand the justice, wisdom, methods and mercy involved in God's decisions to punish the vast majority of the human race, without ceasing, for eternity because they held wrong beliefs.

bullet

Some conservative Christians are in a state of flux over the issue of sending persons to Hell who have never heard of Jesus, his Gospel or Christianity.  There is a growing belief that people who have never been exposed to the gospel will have some sort of second chance to be saved after death. A consensus is yet to be reached on this point.  

bullet

Some conservative Christians promote Annihilationism: the concept that punishment in Hell is not eternal. 1 Rather, it is finite. Its duration is set for each individual in proportion to the number and seriousness of their sins during their life on earth. After people have paid for their sins in Hell, they are annihilated and exist no longer, in any form. This concept does avoid the concern that many people have over an infinite sentence for a finite crime or sin.

bullet

Some conservative Christians interpret the many severe tortures in Hell symbolically. They suggest that Hell is not a place of severe punishment. The main suffering of its inhabitants is caused by their simple isolation from God.

bullet

Some conservative Christians have proposed that God has two main aspects to his nature: he is both a God of love and a God of wrath. His concepts of morality are quite dissimilar from ours. Genesis talks about God's wrath when he carried out an almost complete genocide of the human race during the worldwide flood. The Book of Revelation talks about God's wrath being inflicted upon humanity in the form of terrible punishments during the end times. He is the creator of the universe, and is both kind and just. It is his perfect sense of justice that actually requires the eternal punishment of unbelievers. 

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References:

  1. E.W. Fudge & R.A. Peterson, "Two views of Hell: A biblical and theological dialog," InterVarsity Press, (2000) Read reviews and/or safely purchase this book from Amazon.com online bookstore 

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Copyright 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-APR-7
Latest update: 2005-NOV-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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