A Doctrine of Fear
I think that it goes without saying that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell is meant to inspire fear. It seeks to motivate via sheer terror. While fear can be motivational, its employment as a device for controlling people is certainly more Machiavellian than Christian. Consider Machiavelli's words from his work on the principles of governance The Prince:
Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. - Niccolò Machiavelli
This seems to be the attitude of many modern Christians, that it is safer to preach a message of fear than of love. The underlying assumption of this attitude is that fear is a more powerful motivator than love. In other words, fear will inspire repentance, but love won't. But is this attitude biblically sound?
I think that the clear answer to that question is no. Instead we see what truly inspires repentance is God's kindness, as Romans 2:4 declares. In addition, the principles of worldly governments (which often do use fear to control people) are not the principles of God's kingdom. Consider Jesus' words:
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45)
So, we see that the kingdom of God is structured differently than the kingdoms of the world. God's kingdom leadership is based on sacrificial love and servanthood rather than domineering intimidation. This fact has apparently been overlooked for much of church history as the institutional church has sought to control the masses through terror. There are many examples of such tactics.
For now, let's look at one such example, but first let's set an imaginary scene that will help you to understand the true nature of such a strategy...
Imagine you are about to put your sweet children to bed with a bedtime story. You feel confident that the Christian book you have selected will be suitable. After all, it comes with official church approval as follows:
"I have carefully read over this Little Volume for Children and have found nothing whatsoever in it contrary to the doctrine of Holy Faith; but, on the contrary, a great deal to charm, instruct and edify our youthful classes, for whose benefit it has been written."
William Meagher, Vicar General, Dublin, December 14, 1855.
Sounds good, right? So, you begin to read some excerpts from the "charming" little book such as the following:
Little child, if you go to hell there will be a devil at your side to strike you. He will go on striking you every minute for ever and ever, without ever stopping. The first stroke will make your body as bad as the body of Job, covered from head to foot with sores and ulcers. The second stroke will make your body twice as bad as the body of Job. The third stroke will make your body with three times as bad as the body of Job. The fourth stroke will make your body four times as bad as the body of Job. How then will your body be after the devil has been striking it every moment for a hundred million of years without stopping?
But there was one good thing for Job. When the devil had struck Job, his friends came to visit and comfort him, and when they saw him they cried. But when the devil is striking you in hell, there will be no one to come and visit and comfort you, and cry with you. Neither father, nor mother, nor brother, nor sister, nor friend will ever come to cry with you. Lam.i. "Weeping she hath wept in the night, and the tears are on her cheeks, because there is none to comfort her amongst all them that were dear to her." Little child, it is a bad bargain to make with the devil, to commit a mortal sin, and then to be beaten for ever for it.
Or perhaps this one:
If you cannot bear the sight of ugly vermin and creeping things on the earth, will you be content with the sight of the venomous things in hell, which are a million times worse? The bite or the pricking of one insect on the earth sometimes keeps you awake, and torments you for hours. How will you feel in hell, when millions of them make their dwelling-place in your mouth, and ears, and eyes, and creep all over you, and sting you with their deadly stings through all eternity. You will not then be able to help yourself, or send them away, because you cannot stir hand or foot. One of the most painful stings in the world is to be much frightened.
You will be lying helpless in the lonesome darkness of hell. The devils come in the most frightful shapes on purpose to frighten you. Serpents come and hiss at you. Wild beasts come and roar at you. Death comes and stares at you. How would you feel, if at the dark hour of midnight, one that was dead should come to your bedside and stand over you and mock at you? You hear the most horrible shrieks and dismal sounds, which you cannot understand. The sinner, frightened out of his senses at those terrible sights in the darkness of hell, roars out for help, but there is nobody to come and help him in his fright.
Or yet another charming excerpt:
You are going to see again the child about which you read in the Terrible Judgement, that it was condemned to hell. See! It is a pitiful sight. The little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out. See how it turns and twists itself about in the fire. It beats its head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor of the oven. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell -- despair, desperate and horrible! The same law which is for others is also for children. If children, knowingly and willingly, break God's commandments, they must also be punished like others. This child committed very bad mortal sins, knowing well the harm of what it was doing, and knowing that hell would be the punishment. God was very good to this child. Very likely God saw that this child would get worse and worse, and would never repent, and so it would have to be punished much more in hell. So God, in His mercy, called it out of the world in its early childhood (Furniss 1882).
Imagine now that you've finished your reading to your sweet little ones. "Good night, sleep tight" you say, "don’t let the demon bugs bite and sweet dreams..." Sounds pretty realistic, right?
Perhaps you agree with the vicar's approbation that such a work has "a great deal to charm" children with. If so, perhaps you are a psychopath and I hope we never meet (especially in a dark alley). Truly, there is nothing charming about this book. Instead of charm, there is a great deal of unscriptural nonsense that was introduced to terrify children into being good, including the idea that demons, who are described as “laughing and rejoicing” in a later section of the book, will be in charge (just like they always wanted). It really makes you wonder where such notions truly come from.
To be clear, I did not make any of those passages up, not even the vicar’s approbation (no matter how unbelievable it seems). All of them are direct quotes from The Sight of Hell by Reverend John Furniss, which was intended as a “Little Volume for Children.” Charming indeed. I apologize if you can’t sleep tonight…
You may object that this is certainly an atypical example. Surely this was not the way the “traditional” doctrine was presented, you might think. But you would be wrong. This is the “traditional” view, little children writhing in the red-hot oven and all. Let’s look at some other examples for confirmation:
Set the case you should take a man, and tie him to a stake, and with red-hot pinchers, pinch off his flesh by little pieces for two or three years together, and at last, when the poor man cries out for ease and help, the tormentors answer, Nay, 'but beside all this,' you must be handled worse. We will serve you thus these twenty years together, and after that we will fill your mangled body full of scalding lead, or run you through with a red-hot spit; would not this be lamentable? Yet this is but a flea-biting to the sorrow of those that go to hell; for if a man were served so there would, ere it were long, be an end of him. But he that goes to hell shall suffer ten thousand times worse torments than these, and yet shall never be quite dead under them. There they shall be ever whining, pining, weeping, mourning, ever tormented without ease; and yet never dissolved into nothing. If the biggest devil in hell might pull thee all to pieces, and rend thee small as dust, and dissolve thee into nothing, thou wouldst count this a mercy. But here thou mayst lie and fry, scorch, and broil, and burn for ever. For ever, that is a long while, and yet it must be so long. -John Bunyan ( A Few Sighs From Hell, or The Groans of the Damned Soul…1658)
Or consider the following excerpt from Endless Punishment, In the Very Words of Its Advocates by Doctor Thomas J. Sawyer. In it he quotes from a variety of traditionalists, spanning a several hundred year period:
Hugo Victorinus assures us that in hell “there is misery, there is darkness, there is no order, there is eternal horror, there is no hope of good, no expectation of shunning all evil.” Cardinal Hugo says: “Hell is a boundless and bottomless lake, full of incomparable heat, an intolerable stench, and innumerable pains; there is misery; there is darkness; there is eternal horror; there is no hope, no avoiding evil.” “Hell,” says Erasmus Franciscus, “is the abyss of torment; the scene of racks, and pains of eternal, penal justice; the pit of everlasting death; the hall of mourning; the house of ceaseless lamentation of heaven-lost souls; the glowing cage of spiritual lions, and bears, to wit, of devilish-minded men; the burning furnace of burning tares. Hell is an eternal prison, and at the same time a place of eternal execution to the prisoners; a sty of goats and swine; a carrion pit for all those who go thither like brutes, without repentance; it is a place wherein scorpions, snakes, and dragons, to wit, spirits, creep around and look continually on the damned firebrands of hell! It is a wilderness full of fiery serpents, but in which there is no brazen serpent to be lifted up for the healing of those that are bitten.”
Among the Protestants these representations were not at all softened down, but, on the contrary, one might almost say that they were made more frightful. Calvin says: “As no description can equal the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobates, their anguish and torment are figuratively represented to us under corporeal images, as darkness and gnashing of teeth, inextinguishable fire, a worm incessantly gnawing the heart. For there can be no doubt that by such modes of expression the Holy Ghost intended to confound all our faculties with horror.” The venerable Christian Stock says that “hell is a place where the damned will be racked and tormented forever.” Watson, in his Body of Divinity, declares hell to be “the very accent and emphasis of misery. There,” he adds, “is judgment without mercy. Oh, what flames of wrath, what seas of vengeance, what rivers of brimstone, are poured out there upon the heads of the damned!” “The evils of hell are truly evils,” says Jeremy Taylor, “and so purely such that they have no mixture of good in them; in that place of unhappiness all is eternal sorrow and complaint; there is no room for comfort, there shall not be the least good which may give ease; nor shall there want a concourse of all evils which may add affliction: no good is to be found there, where all goods are wanting; neither can there be want of any evil, where all evils whatsoever are to be found; and by the want of all good and the collection of all evils, every evil is augmented.” “Oh, could we turn aside the veil of the invisible world, and hold the bottomless pit open before you,” says Dr. Watts, “what bitter groans of ghosts would you hear, not only oppressed and agonizing under the wrath of a righteous God, but also under the insults of cruel devils! As there is joy among the angels of heaven when a sinner repents, or when a soul arrives safely at those blessed mansions, so, when a rebellious and obstinate criminal is sent down to hell, you would hear the triumphs of those malicious spirits over him, with the voice of insulting pride and hellish joy” (Sawyer, 1880).
All of these statements have one clear, unmistakable goal: to engender sheer, abject, mind-numbing terror. To accomplish this end, there is no hesitance to present imagined dragons, fiery serpents, perpetual pure evil, and whip-wielding demons who experience triumph and hellish joy in the very hell that was made to punish them. None of these concepts are even remotely biblical, but they are scary, especially to an ignorant, largely illiterate populace that you want to control through fear. With this aim, it is also apparently acceptable to describe “judgment without mercy” and forget that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13) or that God’s “mercy endures forever” (Psalm 136).
Make no mistake, this is the “traditional” doctrine and its tactics. You might now say, “Well, I don’t believe in that type of hell. Hell is more psychological separation than literal physical torment.” Or perhaps you have some other view about hell than what was described above. Well then, congratulations, you don’t really believe the “traditional” doctrine either, and you’re on your way to a better understanding.
The Good News
Now for the good news. By the way, that is what the word “gospel” literally means. In Paul’s words, his ministry was “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). The good news of the grace of God. This is quite different than the terrible news of the endless torment of people by cruel, overjoyed demons that the organized church has promoted historically. In fact, we see that the Bible does not promote a doctrine of fear, but rather encourages us not to be afraid “for God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind (1 Timothy 2:7).
Although Proverbs 1:7 tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” it is not the end. Having a reverence for God is a starting point to becoming wise but is only a starting point. We must move beyond it to a place of understanding God’s deep love for us. Consider 1 John 4:18-19:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.
This teaches us that an understanding of God’s perfect love removes fear. When we have been perfected in love, fear will disappear, indicating that a state of perpetual fear is not God’s intention for us. We also see the motivation for living in obedience to Christ is not fear, but love. “We love,” as Christ commanded, “because he first loved us.” An understanding of His love is what motivates our devotion, not a fear of endless punishment. In fact, being solely motivated by terror is incompatible with authentic love. If you only obey God because He terrifies you, do you really love Him? Such a relationship cannot be called loving. Why then is it insisted that eternal hell is necessary in order to inspire people to love God?
Fear does not actually produce love. Love produces love. Perhaps this is why there are so many Bible verses where people are told to not be afraid. Consider the following:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Luke 12:6-7 (with a parallel account in Matthew 10)
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
It ought to be noted from these examples that the tendency of human beings is to be fearful. Fear grips the shepherds, Mary, and Zechariah when they see God’s angels. But these messengers tell them not to fear, because they are bringing the good news of Christ. And we learn that this news of the Savior is “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” News of great joy. Think of it. Is this the gospel being presented by the traditional view with its horror movie portrayals of God’s “justice”?
Consider how Jesus addresses his terrified disciples during the storm. He comforts them simply with the assurance of his presence: “it is I. Do not be afraid.” He assures us of God’s love by explaining His concern for even the birds and by describing His intimate knowledge of every aspect of our beings, down to the number of hairs on our heads. With this understanding of God’s great love, Christ encourages us again: “fear not.” And when His earthly ministry was nearly complete, He leaves His followers with peace and exhorts them: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
The gospel is not a gospel of fear; it is a gospel of love. It is the beautiful story of God loving us so much that He sent his only begotten son, not to condemn the world, but to save it. It is the powerful reality that God’s purpose to unite all in Christ will prevail, in spite of our wickedness and rebellion. It is the good news of the grace of God, a grace that cannot be defeated by evil, but that overcomes evil with good. It is the best news imaginable.
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Bunyan, John. “ A Few Sighs From Hell, or The Groans of The Damned Soul...” Edited by George Offor, The Entire Book: A Few Sighs from Hell- By John Bunyan, truthinheart.com/EarlyOberlinCD/ CD/Bunyan/text/A.Few.Sighs.From.Hell/ Entire.Book.html [bb1] .
Furniss, John. The Sight of Hell. New York: P.J. Kenedy, Excelsior Catholic Publishing House, 5 Barclay Street, 1882, http://www.saintsbooks.net/books /Fr.%20John%20Furniss%20 - %20The%20Sight%20of%20 Hell.html .
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Translated by W. K. Marriott, The Prince, 26 Aug. 2016, www.gutenberg.org/files/ 1232/1232-h/ 1232-h.htm#link2HCH0017 .
Sawyer, Thomas J. . Endless Punishment, In the Very Words of Its Advocates. UNIVERSALIST PUBLISHING HOUSE. UNIVERSITY PRESS: JOHN WILSON AND SON, CAMBRIDGE., 1880, www.tentmaker.org/ books/InTheWords.html .