Hell and Torture

If penal substitutionary atonement might offer support for torture, might not the doctrine of hell? Going to Jurgen Moltmann for some help on this question, I find in his little book Jesus Christ for Today's World, (Fortress, 1994), a meditation on the religious foundations of torture. He writes that "hell is nothing other than religion's torture chamber" (p. 59). In this section he explores some of the theological definitions of hell that emerge in Christian thinking, including that of Tertullian who apparently speaks of "the screams of the damned in the fiery pit actually increas[ing] the joy of the faithful in heaven -- an idea which can still be found in eighteenth-century dogmatics" (p. 60).

This is a Christian dream of revenge: the heathen exulted when the Christian martyrs died in torment in the arena, and in heaven Christians will exult when, in return, the heathen are tormented in hell. (p. 60).
He continues by suggesting that hellish and earthly torture reinforce each other.

Earthly torture was supposed to anticipate the eternal tortures of hell, thereby averting them; and the eternal tortures of hell were thought to justify earthly torture. The hellish pains of torture which apocalyptic lust thought out for unbelievers and the godless are a prototype for all the ways of "making life hell" for other people. (p. 60).

This sentiment, this thrill at seeing judgment happen to one's enemies, leads to a denial of the "conquest of their enmity through love, as in the Jesus' Sermon on the Mount" (p. 60).

Now, for the kicker:
Anyone who is against torture and protests when "life is made hell" for other people must get rid of this apocalyptic friend-enemy thinking. As long as there is a hell for God's enemies -- and ours -- in religion there will also be direct and indirect justifications for torture chambers on earth. (pp. 60-61).

The point is simple -- our theology helps sustain our perspectives, including on that of torture.


Billy Graham said…
This near obsession of liberals with torture is curious. You have a new government that says they won't torture, and yet torture is a major topic amoung all the liberals I encounter. Don't you believe Obama is telling the truth?

Oh, by the way, Hell is real and God sends unbelieving sinners there.
Anonymous said…
This is a perspective issue. I just had a Bible study on how we don't really understand God's wrath. We fear the "Hell and Brimstone" and therefore run the other direction. God is love.. and the definition of love has made God into this wimpy, soft spoken guy who has long hair and is just a plain nice guy.

You are right.. people have said, well God uses Hell, therefore we can enact revenge here on earth. Movies love to glorify revenge. Whether we cheer on Braveheart as he beats back his oppressors, we love the revenge. The great problem of course is that Hell and judgement is reserved solely for God's use and not our own. A proper understand actually gives peace to the oppressed and suppress revenge if you believe God ultimately judges.

Do I believe in substitutionary atonement, of course. God hates sin and the most powerful language is reserved for God's feelings towards sin. Its the proper fear of this wrath that pushes us harder to seek to share the Gospel, to pray for our oppressors, and as the story with Lazarus.. to have someone preach the Gospel to our families. Its in the violence of the cross we see the beauty and majesty of the resurrection.

Bob, I will simply challenge you with this.. while I have seen plenty of slams on evangelicals promoting torture based on a survey.. could you provide someone's words who is promoting this idea? It seems there is a blanket accusation without any direct quotes. Make sense?

John said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
What is interesting is that you have a fairly strong movement against torture, not just among liberals. Richard Land has come out against it. But, you find pretty strong support among Republican officials -- who claim to be representing conservative Christian values.

I've been trying to offer a sustained critique of a practice our nation says it has engaged in. As for Obama, I take him at his word, and believe that such practices have been abolished. But, we need as a nation to say no as well.
Mike L. said…
Great post! Thanks!
Anonymous said…
I know the church makes a poor jailer. Look at Dublin report today.

David Mc
Mystical Seeker said…
The doctrine of eternal punishment really makes God out to be worse than any earthly torturer, since earthly victims of torture are not tortured for all eternity.

I think you raise a good point. If we praise God for being a torturer, then it isn't a big leap to make torture out to be a virtue.

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