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William Lane Craig, Raymond Bradley and the Problem of Hell. Part Two.

June 23rd, 2008 by Matt

In a previous post I mentioned Professor Raymond Bradley’s (Bradley) contention that,

[3] The bible teaches that God will torture people endlessly for their beliefs.

In his article he cites several scriptural passages in support of this contention. I think his exegesis is problematic; I cannot go into huge detail in a blog post but I will endeavour to address the main arguments he offers.

In essence, Bradley cites from three sections of the New Testament: Matthew, Acts and the Epistles, and Revelation. I will examine each in turn.

Matthew
Bradley writes:

In the Gospel of Matthew alone he characterizes it in terms which evangelists adore: “unquenchable fire,” “fiery hell” (twice), “torment,” “burned with fire,” “furnace of fire” (twice), “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (five times), “eternal fire,” and “eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels. [Emphasis Original]

Bradley refers to references to “fire,” “torment” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He assumes, without argument, that each of these phrases refer to torturing people. However, an examination of the relevant passages shows this to be false.

Unquenchable Fire
The phrase “unquenchable fire” occurs Matt 5:12 and does not refer to torture.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. [Emphasis Added]

The phrase originates in the Old Testament. There it refers not to a fire that tortures but one that consumes what it devours, because it is never put out. (see Isa 1:311, 34:10, 11; Jer 4:4, 7:20, 17:27, 21:12; Ezek 20:47, 48; Amos 5:6). The context bears this out; Matt 5:12 states “burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” [emphasis added]. The metaphor here is a farmer burning chaff. Now when burned, chaff is consumed and destroyed by fire and not tortured (unless Bradley is asserting that Chaff has consciousness). The picture then is of separation and annihilation, not everlasting torture.

It is worth noting that not only does this passage not support Bradley’s contention (a), it does not support (b) either. In v 10-11 the reason people might be subject to judgement is not because of what they believe, but because of unrepentant wrongdoing. Moreover, the earlier context alludes to “lack of fruit,” an Old Testament idiom for lack of virtuous conduct.

Fiery Hell
The references to “hell fire” do not bear Bradley’s point out either. The Greek word for hell is Ge-Hinnom. Ge-Hinnom was a valley outside of Jerusalem. In the time of Manasseh, this valley was used for human sacrifices to the Canaanite God Molech. For this reason the area became a euphemism for disgrace, shame and contempt. Later after the Assyrian invasion, it was a place where dead bodies were piled up and cremated. Isaiah used metaphors of mass cremation as a metaphor for future judgement. This imagery became a metaphor for final judgment in Jewish Apocalyptic writings.

The term “fiery hell” does not necessitate a picture of everlasting torture; again the references to hell in Matthew bear this out. In 5:29-30 the contrast is drawn between cutting off your hand and throwing it into hell or throwing your whole body into hell. This again is not an allusion to torture (unless severed hands have consciousness?). In Matt 10:28, the contrast is between a person who kills a body and God who kills body and soul in hell. The picture is, again, not of torture but of being discarded and destroyed. Moreover, in all these references things are thrown into hell not because of what they believe but because of what they do.

Burned with Fire
Again when one looks at the actual passages in context, one sees they do not say what Bradley alleges. The repeated picture is of a tree being cut down and burned due to its lack of fruit (Matt 3:11 and Matt 7:19). The imagery is again of throwing something away and destroying it and not of torture (trees are not conscious). Moreover, fruitlessness is standard apocalyptic imagery for unjust conduct, not for mistaken belief.

Furnace of Fire
The references to a “furnace of fire” in Matt 13 do not convey endless torture. In 13:40 the explicit metaphor is of weeds which are pulled out and burned. Moreover in v 47, the furnace stands in a Semitic parallel to fish that are already dead but are thrown away as rubbish. Moreover, in both passages it is clear that judgement is inflicted upon people because they “do evil” or are “wicked”; it is again actions not beliefs.

Gnashing of Teeth
Similarly Bradley appears to interpret the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” as referring to the agony of torture. This again is unlikely. The phrase occurs many times in the Old Testament (Job 16:9; Ps 35:16, 36:16, 37:12; Lam. 2:16) and in the New Testament, and in almost every instance signifies hatred or rage at God or the righteous. Not the agony of pain and torture.

Eternal Fire
It is equally doubtful that the phrase “eternal fire” means eternal torture. Jude v7, for example, uses the term “eternal fire” to describe the judgment that befell Sodom and Gomorrah, towns that were reduced to rubble and not tortured forever.

The passages in Matthew referred to are firstly symbolic, and secondly, do not support Bradley’s contention that they teach that God will torture people forever because of their beliefs. Its also worth noting Bradley’s citations from Matthew are selective. He cites the “fire” metaphor but ignores the metaphors for judgement of being incarcerated or of being expelled from a party which also occur in Matthew, etc and in each case it is the person’s deeds and not their beliefs, which are the basis for judgment.

Epistles and Acts
Bradley’s citations from Acts and the Epistles similarly do not back up his point. He notes,

According to Luke, the reputed author of The Acts, there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). And St. Paul makes it clearer still when he tells us that “the Lord Jesus Christ shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God [my emphasis]and to those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction” (II Thess. 1:7-9). [Emphasis Original]

The problem is that neither passage affirms that people are tortured for ever because of what they believe. The passage in Acts asserts that people are saved in Jesus’ name and does not state that people will be tortured because of their beliefs. Similarly, Paul does not state that people will be tortured but that they will be destroyed and the basis is not that they do not have certain beliefs but that they “do not know God” and “do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Revelation
At the Auckland Craig v Cooke debate Bradley cited a further passage from the Book of Revelation,

If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.

There are several metaphors in this passage, a reference to the “wine of God’s fury” the picture of torment in burning sulphur and the picture of rising smoke. Bradley appears to have attached on to the latter two and interpreted them rather literally. The problem here is that the genre of Revelation is Apocalyptic literature. Such literature is highly metaphorical and uses stock symbols (common symbols repeatedly used in this type of literature). Careful note should be taken when reading Revelation of the metaphors in it and also the Old Testament background of these metaphors. The position is far more nuanced than Bradley appears to think.

The picture of fire and sulphur followed by rising smoke is drawn from the account of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction by “burning sulphur.” Gen 19 adds,

27 Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the LORD. 28 He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land,

This imagery of sulphur being poured upon people and smoke rising was later used in the Old Testament to symbolise the destruction of various nations. (Deut 29:23; Job 18:15-17; Ps 11:6; Isa 30:33). Perhaps one of the clearest uses of this imagery is seen in Isaiah 34

9 Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! 10 It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.

Now Edom did not literally burn forever in sulphur. In fact, taken literally, the differing metaphors in Isa 34 for Edom’s destruction would contradict each other. But Apocalyptic literature is not supposed to be taken this literally (just as many of the phrases we use today are not meant to be taken literally). What Apocalyptic literature does in this instance is use various differing, dramatic, visual images to describe total the destruction of Edom. Similar imagery to this passage is used thought the book of Revelation. In fact, in Rev 18 when the destruction of a city, named Babylon but probably a reference to Rome or Jerusalem, the city is said to be tormented by fire and onlookers watch the rising smoke. The message is that Babylon has been judged and destroyed.

***

In essence, then, [3] is mistaken. It is based on an excessively literalistic reading of Apocalyptic literature. Bradley’s argument is not an argument for atheism. It can only succeed as an argument for atheism if one accepts both the infallibility of scripture and an excessively literalistic reading of the text, one that fails to take into account the genre of Jewish Apocalyptic writings. The correct response to this objection is not to become an atheist but to reject poor hermeneutics.

RELATED POSTS:
William Lane Craig, Raymond Bradley and the Problem of Hell Part Two
The Battle of the Bill’s: A Review of the Craig – Cooke Debate

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13 responses so far ↓

  • The Bottomless Pit, Perdition, the lake of fire, and Hell are one in the same.

    The bottomless pit is a reality upon this earth in the spiritual realm. The Dead Sea is the location of the bottomless pit.

    The Dead Seal is outside of Jerusalem on this earth, and the Dead Sea is outside that great city, the holy Jerusalem in the “new” earth as well.

    In the “new” earth, outside “that great city, the holy Jerusalem” (Re.21:10), are those who have taken part in the second death (Re.21:8, Re.22:15, Re.14:9-1, Re.20:15). In the “new” earth there is no more sea (Re.21:1), and those whose who have taken part in the second death can be looked upon (Isa.66:24, Re.14:10).

    The bottomless pit is opened at the Fifth Trumpet, the First Woe (Re.9:1-2, 12).

    The four beasts of Daniel chapter 7 and the little horn of Daniel chapter 7 all ascend out of the bottomless pit (Re.11:7, Re.17:8).

    The fourth beast of Daniel chapter 7 is seen in the book of Revelation as the beast of Revelation 13:1.

    The little horn of Daniel chapter 7 is seen as the beast of Revelation 13:11.

    Directly after the battle of Armageddon the beast (Re.13:1) and the false prophet (Re.13:11) are BOTH cast into the pit (Re.19:20, Dan.7:11).

    During the Millennium, Satan is bound in the pit where the beast (Re.13:1) and the false prophet (Re.13:11) are (Re.20:10, Re.20:1-3).

    Patricia © Bible Prophecy on the Web
    Author of the self-study aid, The Book of Revelation Explained © 1982
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BibleProphecy

  • Matt, do you not believe in Hell?

  • I believe in Hell. However, as I outlined, I do not believe that Hell is a place where God tortures people forever. I don’t think that this position is justified by the Scriptures that both Catholic and Protestant accept as Apostolic tradition.

    I believe that there will be a judgement of all people. This judgement will be final, irreversable and eternal.

    Hell is the Biblical term used to designate eternal destruction. Eternal destruction means destroyed. When something is destroyed it remains destroyed forever. Destruction is eternal.

    Matt

  • Matt, thanks. So your definition of Hell is therefore different from mine, which is what I thought from reading the post. Which I must admit I’ve only skimmed as opposed to read in detail.

    I actually agree that God is not the torturer, but I honestly don’t really know what will happen at the end of time to all those souls and angels in Hell.

    So, all I’d say to the atheist who believes that God is the one who tortures – a soul in a state of sin cannot be in the presence of God, therefore Hell exists by God’s mercy for those souls who can never hope and would never choose to be in His presence. There is no other possible alternative for them.

  • Good to see you two at the C.S. Lewis seminar today (well presented paper, Matt)! Cheers,
    -d-

  • “The bible teaches that God will torture people endlessly for their beliefs.”

    Gee, here’s me thinking that the Christian message was all about pointing out the danger – and the way out.

    I guess it’s all in the spin, isn’t it?

  • I’m surprised you didn’t deal with Matt 25:46, or John 5:28-29 c.f. Daniel 12:2. These seem to be more compelling evidence for the lasting existence of the wicked than any of the other texts you mention.

  • From the verses Scott cites, hell certainly seems to be eternal…

  • Rob,

    I agree that Hell is eternal, its eternal destruction.

    The passages Scott cites actually agree on me here.

    Matt 25;46: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    This does not say that ( as Scott suggests) that the wicked have everlasting existence. Its says the punishment is everlasting and the punishment the wicked suffer is contrasted with everlasting life which is attributed to the righteous.

    The passage also says nothing about “torture” and nothing about being punished for the wrong beliefs.

    John 5:28-29 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

    Again there is nothing here about eternal torture. It simply states that those who do evil will be condemned. The condemnation they receive is contrasted with everlasting life which those who do good receive.

    Again also the issue is what they have done not what they believe.

    Dan 12: 2 “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”

    This again says nothing about the eternal existence of the wicked, its states they contempt they will be held in is eternal, and again, it is contrasted with living forever. It says some will live forever others will not they will be held in contempt forever.

    There is also nothing in this passage about people being tortured for their beliefs.

  • I first came across an interesting argument about this by William Barclay, in which he says that the fire in question is redemptive and purifying. He maintains that ‘hell’ has a purgatorial function! Now as I was then a firm fundamentalist, I had no concept of purgatory…
    I have since then become convinced by arguments for universalism, which I realise may be a step too far for you, but I think those arguments are worthy of investigation!
    http://www.tentmaker.org/biographies/barclay.htm
    http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/barclay1.html
    I have taken the liberty of providing some links to Barclay’s essay which was my introduction to the subject.
    Deb

  • Sorry Matt but I have to disagree, all have eternal existence, some get to spend eternity with God some without. Spending eternity without God is Hell and is a case of God respecting our choice to live without Him. I do believe that God is unlikely to be a divine bully tormenting people forever. The best explanation I have met comes from easten orthodox theology–in eternity those in Heaven experience God [his love, grace, mercy etc] as bliss while those who have rejected Him experience God [his Perfection, Holiness, Justice] as torment. An analogy might be found in the way that people sometimes cannot recieve love from someone they believe they have hurt too much.Our own guilt and regret provide the torment.
    To Deborah, universalism directly contradicts the Just and Holy aspects of God’s character , renders Christ’s death redundant and would also mean that God was ultimately denying the choice of those who chose to live with out Him.
    Also the idea of prolonged torment to burn away sinfullness would still leave us spiritually dead ie not made alive in Christ. We would still not meet the fundamental requirement for entering God’s presence which is Holiness/Perfection. These are only to be found in Christ,. Not in works which is what extended torment would amount to, ie endure some pain to pay for our sins and entrance heaven.
    Kind Regards
    Jeremy

  • […] The issue of annihilation is important for Christians to consider. One reason is how we are able to give the reasons for the hope we have: We have a God who is just and will destroy all evil not torture evil doers for ever. […]