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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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,  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.
Tags: Apologetics · Atheism · Bill Cooke · Debates · Divine Command Theory · Faith and Reason · God and Morality · Hermeneutics · NZARH · Philosophy of Religion · Rationalists · Raymond Bradley · William Lane Craig13 Comments