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About God, salvation, and Hell:

Is permanent torture in Hell a just and fair
punishment? Is it compatible with the attributes
of God as understood by many believers?

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About this essay:

It discusses the clash that some followers of Christianity, Islam, other religions perceive between two concepts:

  • The existence of the torture chambers of Hell where some -- perhaps most -- persons after death are subjected to horrendous and continual pain for all eternity without any hope for mercy or relief, and

  • An omnibenevolent God who exhibits perfect goodness & moral perfection -- a deity who seeks a loving relationship with humanity.

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The conflict:

Historically, the attributes of God have been believed to include omnipotence (all powerful), omniscience (all knowing), omnipresence (all present) and omnibenevolent (all good and fully moral).

Many Christians have difficulties with their faith group's teachings on the nature of God, the criteria for personal salvation, and the torture chambers of Hell. Examples are:

  • Many evangelical Christians are taught that in order to be saved and attain Heaven after death, a person must have first repented of their sins and then have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior. This must be done when they were alive on Earth. Trying to do so after death is too late, and is ineffectual. Some denominations delete the need to repent because they regard the act of repentance as a good work. They believe that entrance to Heaven is solely based on proper beliefs (orthodoxy) and does not involve good works (orthopraxy).

    It logically follows that because:
    • About two out of three people on Earth are not Christians, and

    • Most of 'the minority who are Christian are not evangelical Christian, then

if evangelical teachings are correct, then the vast majority of humans will go to Hell. For many, this would have happened because they were born in a country that is not predominately Christian. Thus, they would probably have been brought up in a non-Christian religion and have no concept of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Alternately, if they are Christian, most likely they are non-evangelical and thus may have been taught different criteria for salvation.

Many find this belief unfair. It makes no sense to them that people who have never heard of Jesus, Christianity, the Bible, or Hell are punished for not accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.

  • About half of all Christians are Roman Catholic. The Church teaches that a person will end up in Hell if they die after having committed a mortal sin. Committing the sin separates them from the Church and from God so that they are destined to spend eternity in Hell after death. The Church has a Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, commonly called Confession, whereby a person can become freed from mortal sin(s) that they have committed. Eastern Orthodox churches have a similar category of sin that they refer to as "serious sin."

These beliefs can cause logical difficulties. Consider:

  • A person who went to confession in the morning, committed adultery during the afternoon and died of a heart attack in the evening. She or he would end up in Hell according to the Churches' teaching without hope of any release from pain.

  • A person who committed adultery in the morning, made a sincere and valid confession in the afternoon, and died of a heart attack that evening would not be sent to Hell. Rather, they would spend some time in Purgatory, where they would be cleansed. Eventually they would be accepted into Heaven.

Yet the persons'' three actions during the day were identical. They were merely done in a different order.

A second concern is that most Roman Catholics no longer attend this Sacrament. I live in Kingston ON, a city with a population of about 120,000. On the order of 40% identify as Catholic. The main Catholic Cathedral only has confession available for 30 minutes on most days. It is apparent that only a miniscule percentage of mortal sins are being confessed. It would seem that the vast majority of Catholics must be destined for Hell, according to Church teaching.

  • Islam teaches that, on the Last Day Allah destroys the world, the dead will rise from the grave and be judged. Those people who did not believe in God, have disobeyed his laws or rejected the teachings of Jesus, Muhammad or God's other messengers will be sent to Jahannam. This place is also called "the fire," "blazing fire," "that which breaks to pieces, "the abyss," and 'the blaze." However, "Enemies of Islam" will bypass the judgment and be sent to Jahannam immediately upon death.

    There is a lack of agreement among Muslims about whether those sent to Jahannam will spend eternity there, or whether they will eventually be forgiven and admitted to Paradise. To some Muslims, an eternal punishment because of a finite sin while on Earth appears immoral.

  • Many other major religions teach the existence of Hell: Wikipedia refers to Naraka, the Sanskrit word for:

    "... the underworld; literally, of man. According to some schools of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism, Naraka is a place of torment, or Hell. The word 'Neraka' (a modification of Naraka) in the Indonesian and Malaysian [languages] also describe the Islamic concept of Hell in those countries. 2

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  • Many liberal and mainline Christians view the Bible's view of Hell as ambiguous:
    • In the Sheep and Goats section of Matthew 25, Jesus is quoted as saying that people from all nations -- and thus persons of all religions and none -- will be judged on the basis of only one criterion: how the person has treated other people when the latter are in need: they may have been hungry, lacking sufficient clothing, sick, in prison, etc. If a person treats others according to the Golden Rule and is helpful, then they will go to Heaven; otherwise they will go to Hell. A person's actions are the only measure, not their beliefs. From the words attributed to Jesus, it does not matter whether the person is Christian or not. It doesn't matter what their beliefs are; only actions matter.

    • In contrast, many of the epistles and gospels stress the need to trust Jesus as Lord and Savior/ Perhaps the best known is John 3:16, which says:

      "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."

      Another popular verse is Romans 10:9, which says:

      "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved."

    Faced with this conflict, many accept Jesus statements in Matthew 25 and believe that a predominance of good deeds over bad will gain them access to Heaven.

  • Many Christians view the existence of torture chambers in Hell as incompatible with a loving, caring, and moral God. They might consider the greatest evil committed by humans during the 20th century to be the Nazi Holocaust. Six million Jews, about 200,000 Roma, 200,000 disabled persons, perhaps 10,000 male homosexuals, and millions of others were systematically exterminated, worked to death or starved to death by the Nazi government. 1 Many Christians might view the creation of a Hell in which billions of humans are continually tortured for all eternity as a much greater evil that the Nazi system of mass murder in which most victims were killed quickly. They find such a Hell to be incompatible with their concept of an all good, all loving, and forgiving God.

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Shifts in Christian beliefs about God, salvation, and Hell during the millennia:

Perhaps the best known sermon ever delivered on American soil was by Johnathan Edwards. It was titled "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" and delivered on 1741-JUL-08. Edwards described the traditional concept of Hell in a manner that was so terrifying to those who heard it that it triggered the Great Awakening -- a mass return to the traditional Gospel. This You Tube video contains the sermon as spoken by Max McLean.

 3

However, there have denials of the endless nature of the torment in Hell, as far back as the early leaders of the Christian church:

  • Theophilus of Antioch (circa 120 to circa 183 CE): "And God showed great kindness to man, in this, that He did not suffer him to continue being in sin forever; but as it were, by a kind of banishment, cast him out of paradise in order that, having punishment expiated within an appointed time, and having been disciplined, he should afterwards be recalled...just as a vessel, when one being fashioned it has some flaw, is remolded or remade that it may become new and entire; so also it happens to man by death. For he is broken up by force, that in the resurrection he may be found whole; I mean spotless, righteous and immortal."

  • Diodore of Tarsus, (320 to 394 CE): "For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetual, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them."

  • St. Basil the Great (330 to 379): "The mass of [Christian] men say there is to be an end to punishment and to those who are punished."

  • St. Augustine (354 to 430 CE): "There are very many in our day, who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torments."

In recent centuries, the belief that all humans, after death, will eventually attain a right relationship with God in Heaven is called Christian Universalism. It was promoted by the Universalist Church of America. That denomination merged with the American Unitarian Association to produce theUnitarian Universalist Association-- a very liberal faith group, whose members are largely a mixture of Agnostics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, and theists.

Today, many Christian theologians and pastors teach that Hell is not a place of eternal torture. Rather, it is viewed as a place of permanent isolation from God.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Introduction to the holocaust," United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2015-AUG-18, at: http://www.ushmm.org/
  2. "Jahannam,"Wikipedia, as on 2015,OCT-23, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/
  3. Max Mclean, " 'Sinners in the hand of an angry God' by Johnathan Edwards," You Tube, posted on 2012-NOV-21, at: https://youtu.be/

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Copyright © 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2015-OCT-28
Latest update : 2015-OCT-28
Author: Bruce Robinson

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