Lee Strobel: “Eternal Hell Is Not Torture”

by Phillip on June 7, 2012

Continuing our examination of Lee Strobel’s defense of eternal hell we come to his interview with Dr. J. P. Moreland, distinguished philosopher and theologian.

Strobel begins his first gut-level question towards Moorland that was earlier posited to him by the one-time believer-now skeptic Charles Templeton:  “How could a loving God torture someone forever for not doing what He wants?”

Moreland’s quick response was,

“God doesn’t torture people in hell, so he’s flat wrong about that…He has made us with free-will and He has made us us for a purpose: to relate lovingly to Him and to others…if we fail over and over again to live for the purpose for which we were made, then God will have absolutely no choice but to give us what we’ve asked for all along in our lives, which is separation from Him.  And that is hell…” (pg 173)

Again we have come to that point which magnifies the theological chasm that lies between those who adhere to Calvinism and those who embrace Arminianism.  A Calvinist, even though he may parrot something similar to the above (Tim Keller for example), technically must hold to a very different paradigm of the nature of eternal hell.  According to their doctrine, which I had subscribed for over 35 years, eternal hell is the payment for betraying a holy God and belittling His name.  It is not something we choose (no one would choose pain for eternity) but rather what God has chosen for us– in order to display His holy wrath against sinners and defend His honor.  Mark Chandler, who took over the leadership of Mark Driscoll’s Acts29 Network and a Calvinist, says in his latest book The Explicit Gospel the following:

“…Hell ultimately exists because of the belittlement of God’s name.” (pg 44, The Explicit Gospel)

It is clear that the Calvinist’s and the Arminian’s explanation for the reason an eternal hell exists are completely incongruous and remain on opposite poles.

Strobel continues to communicate his points through the answers given by Moreland:

“It’s wrong to think that God is simply a loving being…yes God is a compassionate being, but He’s also a just, moral and pure being.  So God’s decisions are not based on modern American sentimentalism…they’ve forgotten the hard virtues of holiness, righteousness and justice.”

We agree wholeheartedly that God is love and God is just.  But they are not in competition forcing God, “giving Him no choice” but to allow what He hates for all eternity, as Strobel surmises. God is not two but one.  His love, justice, fire and judgment have one purpose because God is one.  To unpack the idea of righteousness = justice in the Bible and that justice literally means to return something to its “right-useness” and its implications for the concept of an eternal hell check out the following:  Justice = Righteousness.

Now Strobel digs for a definition for hell.  He asks, “You said that hell is not a torture chamber.  Then what is it?”  Moreland defines:

“The essence of hell is relational.  Christianity says people are the most valuable things in the entire creation.  If people matter, then personal relationships matter, and hell is largely relational…Hell is separation or banishment from the most beautiful thing in the world—God Himself…”

Strobel asks if hell is punishment for breaking God’s laws or if it is the natural consequences for people living a life where they say, “I don’t care if I’m separate from God, I want to do things my way”  and consequently given their desire for all eternity.  Moreland says that it is both:

“Make no mistake, hell is punishment–but it’s not punishing.  It’s not torture.  The punishment of hell is separation from God, bringing shame, anguish, and regret.  And because we will have both body and soul in the resurrected state, the misery experienced can be both mental and physical.  But the pain that’s suffered will be due to the sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment from God, His kingdom, and the good life for which we were created in the first place.  Hell is the final sentence that says you refused regularly to live for the purpose for which you were made, and the only alternative is to sentence you away for all eternity.  So it is punishment.  But it’s also the natural consequence of a life that has been lived in a certain direction.”  (emphasis mine)

Strobel goes on to give us ten more pages of arguments and we will consider them all but for now let’s camp on this last paragraph and ponder what was just presented to us.

1. I think most would agree that to distinguish between the source of our punishing, whether it be God or the consequences of our own free-will makes little difference as to the nature of the horror of an eternal hell.  However you slice it it still comes down to the God and Father of us all allowing most (actually billions) of us to do irreparable harm to ourselves, something we cannot fathom as human parents. Moreland’s attempt to make a distinction as to where the pain and torture is actually coming from I think you can see falls short.

2. “It’s not torture.”  The fact that God birthed mankind knowing billions of us would “not get it” and send ourselves hopelessly into an oblivion of regret and misery “both mental and physical” sounds like He is responsible for the outcome whether you espouse to Calvinism or Arminianism.  If people in eternal hell are miserable and want out but are given no hope, that is torture.  If the people in eternal hell do not want to leave but rather are delighting in their sin and misery then they are getting what they want and that goes against most definitions of an eternal hell.

3. Moorland makes the observation that in this paradigm of eternal hell God has actually created mankind where most will defy His original intention for them, forever!  Does that sound reasonable that the Sovereign Creator of the universe would actually create something that would fail in the purpose for which He intended it?  Can He be glorified if His intentions fail?  What did St. Irenaeus mean when he said, “The glory of God is man fully alive”?

4.  Hell is “Unending banishment from God, His kingdom, and the good life for which we were created.”  First how is it possible to actually be banished from God’s presence when it is His very breath that sustains us and by Him we are held together?  (Job  34:14, Col 1:17) It must be that He will be holding together every atom for every millisecond of all eternity those who are in hell…!

Lee Strobel’s chapter on an eternal hell is a very honest look at a doctrine that he himself admits “seemed like cosmic overkill” (pg  170).  As an Arminian response this chapter is a very helpful basis for us to address the objections coming from those holding to a more free-will paradigm.

Next we will consider Moorland’s premise that “Hell is God’s fall-back position.  Hell was something God was forced to make…” (pg 175)








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