In his November 2016 video, “Is HELL REAL or an Invention of the Church?” former Christian pastor and missionary, Joshua Tongol, sounds off on his problems with the doctrine of hell and eternal damnation. He opens with the example of a loved one who doesn’t believe Christianity but still has a loving heart. They die suddenly. “Where are they now?” he asks. Fundamentalists would say, “Hell. Forever. Eternal conscious torment.”
Of course, most Christians trying to be soft in their response would say, “Well, that’s for God to judge.” Theologically speaking, however, most Christian fundamentalists still silently feel—without the salvation prayer (an invention within the past 100 years)—the unregenerate “unsaved” will be going to hell. Even if one says the prayer, without true repentance and a heart-felt desire to pursue Christ, can’t they still be counted as “still-born”?
Tongol poses some tough questions. I was completely unequipped to answer the same questions in my late teens when a Jehovah’s Witness friend fired them at me. My inability to answer these questions in the face of my staunch Catholic upbringing marks my own launch into personal apostasy. That fall would last over two decades before I returned to the faith. The questions:
- What kind of loving parent would send their children to eternal damnation? For not believing? For having little context for believing?
- How to reconcile God’s unconditional love and everlasting mercy with eternal damnation? Preachers push this concept often when they posit “God loves you so much, but if you don’t love Him back, you’re going to burn.”
- If God is omnipresent, how can the common explanation that hell is “existence without God’s presence” hold any water?
My Children Are Destroyed By Lack of Knowledge
When you can’t reckon the gap with logic, folks rebut with, “What does the Bible say?” Well, which Bible? Certain bibles don’t mention the word “hell” at all. Furthermore, the images of hell don’t seem to coincide. Are we talking about the verses that support an eternal hell, the verses that support the destruction of sinners, or the verses that support a temporary hell? So, which is it?
If God is all-knowing, as the Bible affirms, why create people who are simply destined for eternal hell? As a parent, say you’re able to clearly see the future for your children. You see that your next child will have less than 100 years to live on the planet, and then will burn in eternal conscious torment afterwards. Would you still bring them into existence? Our lowly, natural minds would say certainly not. If we can agree that God is way more just, way more loving and way more merciful than we are, it’s safe to assume we don’t have the whole picture.
Does it seem fair to be eternally punished for believing the wrong thing about God? Maybe you’re born in the wrong place, at the wrong time or into the wrong religion. A common response to the remote aborigine who never hears the Gospel is, “Well, God will take that into account then.” Essentially, they’ll be graded on a curve because of their ignorance. So then are missionaries doing a disservice to proclaim the Gospel to indigenous people, placing them in the path of eternal damnation by risking their rejection of Jesus? Why make them responsible and put them at risk? Wouldn’t ignorance over a span of less than 100 years and a higher likelihood of union with the Father be better than risking them making a bad decision and landing in eternal torment? This same argument has been applied to abortion providers, as if abortion simply jettisons the unborn into the lap of God.
Will we really be infinitely punished for finite sin and understanding? This possibility is hard for our fallen minds to swallow. Yet, if we believe the Bible, we can expect God is fair. Not only is He friend and father, but also judge.
And so, the questions continue to brew.
What’s the Big Idea?
Tongol asks, “Does God’s loving pursuit of humanity end at death?” If love is patient, does one’s physical death mark the end of that patience? What of the many who live short lives?
The common retort is, “God gave us all free will. God doesn’t send His people there; we send ourselves.” And if that is true, and it was our free will that landed us in hell, can we not use our free will to get back out of hell? Does our free will stop at physical death? Isn’t the concept of hell dangerously abstract to those with no experience of it?
If the residents of hell (angelic and human) have–through their own free will–resisted the love of God, can God’s love be resisted forever? Wouldn’t even a loving earthly parent try to snatch their child out of eternal torment? If God is love (as Christians claim) why would God do anything less for His children?
The scenario can be irreverently described like this:
Humanity starts with two people who trip over themselves in the garden of Eden and commit all subsequent generations (billions and billions of people) to sin-driven lives, losing most of the Father’s creation to hell. God, being smart and loving, has a plan. He sends His Son to die on the cross to take our sin from us and model the Way, the Truth and the Life, BUT still only a few people will find salvation. “Narrow is the path, but wide is the road to destruction.” (Matthew 7:13)
So, what would be the point to losing most of your creation to the devil; to free will; to sin?
If eternal hell does exist, shouldn’t Christians be more passionate about witnessing to the world? How can we even sleep with millions of people dying everyday with little or no knowledge of the Gospel? Do we not care? Do we not believe in hell? Are we just lazy?
In the Nazi holocaust of World War II, millions of people were tortured and killed. Fair to say most of those were not evangelical Christians. The unsavory question: Should we believe that most of those people are in hell along with their persecutors because they didn’t believe and convert during their time on earth?
Many fundamentalist Protestants may even say Mother Theresa herself has been swept into to hell. As a Catholic, the Protestants may argue she would have been works-based and not operating under grace. But if we believe our eternal salvation hinges upon accepting Christ or saying a salvation prayer before our physical death, isn’t that works? Both contingencies are actually marketed by churches as steps we have to take in order to become “saved.” Does your chance to accept Christ as Lord and Savior end upon physical death?
Retribution, Restoration or Both?
Tongol goes on to ask, “Is true justice retributive or restorative? Is it all about getting what you deserve or is it about restoring a person?” If unending punishment is the solution, then evil is not overcome by love, not overcome by good. In fact, it would appear evil would have won. An eternal hell keeps the cycle of evil and penance going forever. It keeps the cycle of evil demons doing evil things to evil people going forever. If that is the case, there is nothing redemptive in that. Was Jesus’ example to us an example of retributive or restorative love? (Hint: John 3:17 NKJV, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”)
When our Lord stood down the crowd wanting to stone the woman for fornication, most of us agree He disqualified them from casting the first stone. Maybe fewer of us notice that—in doing so—He qualified Himself at the same time. He did not cast stones but simply told her to go and sin no more. (John 8:11)
Do we not know the will of the Father through the life of the Son?
Here is where the opposing comments arise:
- “It doesn’t matter how you feel on this topic.”
- “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
- “While you may not be willing to send people to hell forever, you’re not God.”
“So even people you love may be burning in hell forever,” Tongol says.
Love heals. Love restores. We know the will of the Father through the restorative life of the Son. Did Jesus not teach we are to forgive our neighbor not seven times but seventy-times-seven? Will not a loving, infinite God do even more for us?
Is It Wrong to Even Ask the Question?
Rejecting the notion he is a Christian Universalist (who says everyone is going to heaven,) Tongol makes the point: Once he lands in the afterlife, he “would rather be guilty of overestimating the love of the Universe rather than underestimating it.”
The “Universe”? An apparent nod to pantheism and the notion that the Creator and the creation are all one. While Tongol’s questions are well-constructed, he—like the rest of us—has room to grow in the understanding of God’s character. The potter is not the clay.
I believe there was way more accomplished through Christ’s atonement than we can intellectually grasp. I believe Jesus taught on hell and that it certainly exists, but my jury is still out on how many will be lost to the grave and how many will be lost to eternal conscious torment or everlasting destruction.
Of course, maybe that’s the problem with the whole question. I’m placing questions about salvation into my own court instead of keeping them in God’s. We’re counseled by God’s response to Job and by verses like:
- Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? (Romans 9:21 NKJV,)
- And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the Lord. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel! (Jeremiah 18:4-6) and
- Surely you have things turned around! Shall the potter be esteemed as the clay; For shall the thing made say of him who made it, “He did not make me”? Or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:16.)
Is it darkened and audacious to even ask questions then? Yes, we are to seek His face and grow in our understanding of His character, but far be it from us to push an “ought” or “should” onto the Father. It is surely a darkened mind that seeks to pass judgment over the methods and intentions of our infinite Father.
Questions Bought by Eternal Conscious Torment
To summarize some of the questions provoked by the doctrine of eternal conscious torment:
- Are your deceased loved ones exposed to eternal conscious torment for not saying a salvation prayer?
- What kind of loving parent would send their children to eternal damnation? For not believing? For having little context for believing (e.g. born at the wrong time, in the wrong place or into the wrong religion?)
- Will we really be infinitely punished for finite sin and understanding?
- How can we reconcile God’s unconditional love and everlasting mercy with eternal conscious torment?
- If God is omnipresent, how can the common explanation that hell is “existence without God’s presence” hold any water?
- Will our loving God sustain spiritual torture for all eternity? The Bible says all are sustained through God. We cannot exist apart from him.
- Are the punished granted eternal life as well as the redeemed? According to the doctrine of conscious eternal punishment, they are.
- If God is all-knowing, why create people who are destined for eternal hell?
- Does God stop pursuing us upon physical death? Does your chance to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior end upon physical death?
- Does judgment and subsequent delivery to heaven or hell occur immediately upon physical death? If so, how do we rectify the resurrection and judgment during the Second Coming? (Matthew 25:31-46)
- If eternal hell does exist, shouldn’t Christians be way more committed to saving the lost than they are?
The doctrine of eternal conscious torment—a stumbling block that brings emotional distance and confusion to believers and unbelievers alike—seems to be far out of character with the Father of unconditional love and unending mercy. Jesus even went to his death without chastising his accusers. “You will be with Me in Paradise,” He told the believing thief.
In our confusion over this issue, are we as wrongly accusing God as the Jews did Jesus?
If I’ve established anything on the doctrine of hell, it is to continue to seek understanding and intimacy, but to do so with a heart hungry for communion—not with a heart rife with intellectual judgment or emotional confusion surrounding my prospects for the afterlife.
Amirault, Gary. Tentmaker. Bible Translations That Do Not Teach Eternal Torment. Retrieved from http://www.tentmaker.org/books/GatesOfHell.html.
Jones, Erik. Life Hope & Truth. What Is Hell? Retrieved from https://lifehopeandtruth.com/life/life-after-death/what-is-hell/.
Tongol, Joshua. YouTube. Is HELL REAL or an Invention of the Church? – Joshua Tongol (Former Pastor/Missionary). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/54KoNT-19Bk.