Friday, July 30, 2010

Will Lost Souls Be Tormented Forever in the Lake of Fire?

The two most prominent trees in the Garden of Eden were the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. God said to Adam and Eve, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die" (Genesis 2:16-17). A loving and generous God gave them everything freely except one thing.

Satan makes his first appearance in chapter three, giving us a picture of his modus operandi of maligning God and twisting His words. "Indeed, has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?'' (Genesis 3:1). Was that what God said? No. Eve didn't fall for that. So Satan tried again: "You surely will not die!" (Genesis 3:4).

And Eve believed that lie, as have many other people. Most Christians will say that everybody lives forever; it's just a question of where. I believed that myself until recently when I studied what the Bible actually says. The Bible states very clearly that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), not eternal life in torture. God told Adam that if he sinned he would die. Psalm 37:20 says, "But the wicked will perish; and the enemies of the Lord will be like the glory of the pastures, they vanish--like smoke they vanish away." Malachi 4:3 talks about the Day of Judgment when it says, "'You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,' says the Lord of hosts." They will be completely destroyed--dead forever when God ushers in "the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 13). No sin or evil can mar His perfect new creation where He will live among His people (Revelation 21:3).

After Adam and Eve sinned, God forced them out of the Garden of Eden so they would not eat from the tree of life and live forever. This was an act of mercy because to live forever in a sinful state would be eternal torment. So God specifically withheld eternal life from fallen humanity, until He could purchase our redemption with His blood. To His redeemed, He will grant access to the tree of life (Revelation 2:7), and they will live forever in a glorified state, crowned with glory and majesty (Psalm 8:5).

The idea of an inherently immortal soul was alien to the ancient Hebrews. They believed that the dead went down to Sheol, or the grave. Psalm 146:3-4 says, "Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish." And Ecclesiastes 9:5 says, "For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything."

Did the New Testament change this perception? No. In Acts 2:29, Peter quoted Psalm 16:8-11, and explained that David was talking about Christ. “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.” And Acts 2:34: “For it was not David who ascended into heaven.” David is dead and buried and will rise again at the resurrection. John 3:13 states clearly, "No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man."

The Bible does not teach that disembodied souls live forever in heaven or hell, because a soul is not inherently immortal. The words "immortal" or "immortality" are only used in the context of God and the redeemed on the day of judgment (Romans 2:7, 1 Cor. 15:53-54, 1 Tim. 6:16-17, and 2 Tim. 1:10). The soul that sins will die (Ezekiel 18:20). 1 Timothy 6:16 says that God alone possesses immortality. If He alone possesses immortality, and the redeemed will receive immortality when Jesus comes again, then immortality is not something we all possess. It is a gift of God's Spirit.

Instead, the Bible teaches that Jesus will come in glory with the angels for the Great White Throne Judgment, and the dead will rise from their graves. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 says, "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first." If they rise, they are in the graves. All the dead will rise and stand before Him. "Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28-29).  Matthew 10:28 says that God is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. If the soul is destroyed, it ceases to exist. "Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29). How does a fire consume? It destroys completely and leaves nothing except ashes, which is consistent with Malachi 4:3. 

Where then did this idea come from that souls are immortal and we will all live forever in eternal bliss or eternal torture? Greek mythology taught that the immortal souls of the dead go down to Hades, and when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated to Greek in the Septuagint, the word "Sheol" was translated "Hades." Also, the Greek philosophers like Plato heavily influenced a number of the church fathers. So hell came to mean conscious, unceasing punishment in a lake of fire. When we think of it that way, we read "death," "destruction," "perish, "consume," etc. to mean something other than what those words actually mean. They have become euphemisms for eternal torture.

Now, of course the idea of hell as eternal, conscious torture is the traditional view, and there are a couple of passages that have given me pause because they have convinced many that hell is conscious suffering, in spite of all the parts of the Bible that tell us the wages of sin is death. They are the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-30, and the account of Judgment Day in Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats on the basis of what they did or didn't do for the least of His brothers.

Before I begin to analyze these passages, I would like make one general observation. In both of these passages, the lost souls were not terrible people by any stretch of the imagination. The "goats" may even have been professing Christians, because they called Jesus "Lord." (It's not much of a stretch to conclude that since Matthew 7:21 says that only those who do the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven.) The text doesn't tell us one way or the other. The only thing we know about the rich man and the "goats" is that they lacked love. In other words, they failed to do God's will to love their neighbor as themselves (Matthew 22:37-40, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8). The rich man didn't kick Lazarus when he walked past him. He just ignored him. Likewise, we don't get a laundry list of the sins of the "goats"--all we know is that they didn't seem to care about those who suffer.

So if we want to ignore everything in the Bible that say that the wages of sin is death in order to focus exclusively on these two passages, we have to face the fact that lovelessness will put us squarely in the goat camp. If we don't feel tremendous relief at the idea that nobody will be eternally tortured, we should examine our hearts and ask ourselves whether our relationship to a God of love is what it should be.

This reminds me of the story of Solomon and the two women who fought over a baby because one the women's babies died. When Solomon suggested that they cut the baby in two and give one part to each of them, one woman readily agreed and the other one asked Solomon to give the first woman the baby instead of killing him. Solomon immediately knew that the baby belonged to the last woman because of her love for him.

Likewise, our love for other people (or its absence) should tell us if we really belong to Christ. If the idea of the vast majority of people suffering excruciating pain forever and ever with no relief doesn't trouble us deeply, we either don't really believe it, we don't want to think about it, or we know nothing of love. If it's the latter, Matthew 25 and Luke 16 give us no assurance that they are not describing us.

However, I think these two passages are consistent with the rest of the Bible, and do not teach unrelenting conscious torture for the lost. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus says, "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." The same word for "eternal" is used in both instances, so the argument goes that if the righteous will live forever, the others will also be alive and punished forever. However, the word for "eternity" is "aion," which according to Strong’s Concordance means 1) for ever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity 2) the worlds, universe 3) period of time, age. So it doesn't definitively mean forever and ever. In fact, the word "aion" is used in Hebrews 11:3: "By faith we understand that the worlds ("aion") were prepared by the word of God." And the Bible clearly states that this universe is not forever. 

A form of the word "aion" is also used in Jude 1:7 when it says that Sodom and Gomorrah were an "example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire." But Sodom and Gomorrah were completely annihilated. The inhabitants of these cities are not still being tortured in an unrelenting fire. If, as Jude said, these cities were an example for us, and the traditional view is correct, then we would expect to read about screaming ghosts in the fire after they died. But all we know is that the "smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace," and that "God destroyed the cities of the valley" (Genesis 19:28, 29). This is how the Bible illustrates what it means by destruction by eternal fire.

As for Luke 16:19-30, it is important to remember that since Jesus always taught in parables, this is also a parable. And that means that we have to think about what it means rather than taking everything at face value. All the parables contain symbolism. If we read this in the context of the rest of the Bible, we know that this does not represent something that has already happened. Why? Because nobody except the Son of Man has gone to heaven (John 3:13). This means that Lazarus is not a real person who went to heaven. But some say that "Abraham's bosom" is a pre-heaven for the redeemed, a place where they stay in a disembodied state until the resurrection. However, Hebrews 11:8, 13 tells us that Abraham was a great man of faith who has not yet received the promise. He is still awaiting its fulfillment, like all those who are symbolically in the bosom of Abraham, the man of great faith. Like David (Acts 2:34) and Daniel (Daniel 12:13), he is dead and buried--or rather "asleep" and awaiting the resurrection. Most likely this is a picture of Judgment Day, and the rich man would not be quite so loquacious in the real lake of fire, because, like all the examples in the Old Testament of death by divine fire, it would be sudden and complete (for example, Leviticus 10:2 and Numbers 16:35). There is no example of slow torture anywhere.

Speaking of Abraham, he said, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Genesis 18:25). Most of us fallen creatures would not torture an animal for even a few seconds. Would the God of love, who is the source of the moral law written on our hearts, torture billions of people throughout all of eternity, just for failing to receive His gracious gift of eternal life? Job 4:17 says, "Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be more pure than his maker?" The obvious answer is no.

This is the conclusion I have reached after studying for myself what the Bible has to say on the subject. But my objective is always to get you to think and never to indoctrinate. Although the word of God is infallible, I am not, and I invite you to study this subject for yourself. I welcome your thoughts, and any correction, in the comments.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Skeptic's Guide to Faith

View Image

In the comic strip Bloom County, Oliver Wendell Jones was the child prodigy who would sit on his roof and ponder the cosmos when he wasn't busy hacking into computers. 

One night the stars suddenly formed the words, "REPENT OLIVER."

Oliver said to himself, "Bloody difficult being an agnostic these days."

Difficult, maybe . . . but not impossible.

A skeptic asked me to do a post about rational steps to faith, and the Bloom County comic reminded me of something not to do: If we start out with a philosophy that excludes the possibility of the supernatural, it is impossible to find evidence for God's existence. This may seem self-evident, but it's easy to lose sight of, and if we do we will commit the fallacy of begging the question without even realizing it.

We may decide that we will not believe without evidence, but whenever "evidence" comes along, we'll interpret it in light of a naturalistic philosophy (the belief that nature is all that exists). So if we start out with the conviction that nature is everything, we will always reach the conclusion that everything, no matter how vanishingly small the odds, has a natural explanation. The issue of whether God exists is a yes/no question, but if we operate from this conceptual framework, the answer will always be no, even if He does in fact exist. It is circular reasoning.

In our scientific age, this is a very easy mistake to make because we are used to explaining things by science, but its scope is limited to nature--it cannot tell us whether anything exists beyond nature. Science never gives "God" as an answer. It tells us how the world came into existence but not why we are here. So the dichotomy is never between theism and science, but between theism and atheism. Science is simply an explanation of how things are, but it doesn't tell us whether it happened by design or as a result of a cosmic accident. If we allow science to become synonymous with atheism in our minds, we posit a false dichotomy: science versus religion.  But the Creator of this universe would have used quarks, genomes, and the elements of the periodic table as His building blocks, leaving us with the task of discovering and naming it all. He has to be the Great Scientist. Everything around us would reflect His qualities, and the natural world and its laws would be one great miracle even though it operates in highly organized ways. 

This doesn't mean that we cannot look to science to make the determination whether the Bible is true, but we have to keep two things in mind: First, we may have a faulty image of God as a distant, alien deity who occasionally intervenes by breaking the laws of nature, and if we do, we will never find evidence of such a deity because he doesn't exist. The biblical God is always present in His creation and He never breaks the laws of nature; He only redeems nature and exercises dominion over it. In the Gospel accounts, He restored the brokenness in nature by healing the sick, and He exercised dominion over it by walking on water, turning water into wine, multiplying bread, and calming the storm. This was in keeping with His mission as Redeemer and as the Second Adam who would have full dominion over nature (Genesis 1:28). But He refused the suggestion of Satan that He turn rocks into bread (Matthew 4:3-4). That would have been a radical breach of the laws of nature. Still, the works of Jesus were true miracles by any definition; they superseded the laws of nature. So although God created nature and declared it "good," He is not limited by its laws.

Second, instead of looking for "evidence" without defining what we would consider evidence, we would be better off asking two thing: whether the Bible is logical and whether it is consistent with reality. This is a question that takes a while to answer because it means asking a lot of different questions within this framework. But this is the general approach I take when I comment on Atheist Central. In my opinion it is the only way to prove that the Bible is more likely true than not. We cannot conclusively prove that the Bible is true any more than we can conclusively prove a scientific theory. But we can determine whether the evidence fits.

Everything we can experience with our senses or test scientifically is within space and time, and the Bible tells us that God exists outside of that (1 Corinthians 2:7, Titus 1:2, Jude 1:25, 2 Timothy 1:9). So the universe is like the underside of a dome that contains all of nature, and all the rest of reality is outside of the dome--unknowable except through revelation. But never fear; since this blog post is about a rational approach to faith, we will examine the revelation of the Bible critically to see whether it lines up with science.

And in making this determination, it makes sense to start at the beginning and look at the greatest miracle of them all: creation (or if you prefer--the origin of the universe). And then we can examine the revelation of the Bible (the outside of the dome) and science (the inside) and see if they match up.

Genesis 1:1-3 says about creation, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light."

What, then, does creation look like from inside the dome, from a scientific perspective? When I said that scientists never give "God" for an answer, I might have lied. After the NASA satellite Cosmic Background Explorer confirmed the Big Bang theory in 1992, George Smoot, who led the thirty American astronomers who made the discovery, said, "What we have found is evidence of the birth of the universe. It's like looking at God." Geoffrey Burbridge, an atheistic member of the team, complained that all his colleagues were rushing off to join the "Church of Jesus Christ of the Big Bang." Psalm 19:1-2 says, "The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hand. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge." So it seems rather prophetic that astronomers are the ones flocking to the "Church of Jesus Christ of the Big Bang."

How does the biblical creation account line up with science? First, astronomer Robert Jastrow said that the universe began suddenly "in a flash of light and energy." So this fits with the biblical description of God saying, "Let there be light."

Second, most scientists believe that the Big Bang marked the beginning of time. Since God exists outside of time  and created the heavens and the earth "in the beginning," this is also consistent.

Third, cosmologists tell us that the universe emerged out of nothing, and Hebrews 11:3 says, "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." God created ex nihilo, or out of nothing.

Fourth, the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of the universe is such that it led astrophysicist Michael Turner to say, "The precision is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bulls eye one millimeter in diameter on the other side." I discuss the Big Bang and fine-tuning in more detail here.

Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who is most closely associated with the steady-state model of the universe (which posited that the universe had always existed), said: "A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question." He was an atheist at the time of this statement but was "severely shaken" by the suggestion of a guiding hand, and abandoned his atheism.

And astronomer George Greenstein said, "The thought insistently arises that some supernatural agency--or rather Agency--must be involved. Is it possible that suddenly, without intending to, we have stumbled upon scientific proof of the existence of a Supreme Being?"

Fifth, science tells us that the laws of physics break down at the Big Bang, so this ordered universe was born out of chaos. The split second after the Big Bang was a state of "lawlessness" which is inherently unpredictable. Anything could have emerged out of it. Some say that this evidence goes against the design argument. But does it? It certainly goes against the idea that the universe is wholly deterministic, but that is not the same thing.

In 1799, physicist Pierre Laplace gave copies of his Treatise on Celestial Mechanics to Napoleon Bonaparte, seeking to explain the universe purely in terms of natural gravitational forces. Napoleon asked him what role God played in his theory, and Laplace reportedly replied, "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis."

Laplace believed that the universe was completely deterministic, an idea that has been overturned by quantum mechanics. Traditional physics said that the laws of nature are fixed, and therefore miracles are impossible. Quantum physics says that nothing is impossible--some things are just very, very improbable. There is a very small, non-zero chance that we can walk through walls. Danish physicist and father of quantum mechanics Niels Bohr has said, "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum mechanics has not understood it." Physicist Alvaro de Rujula of Cern was asked whether there was a possibility that the Large Hadron Collider could produce a world-ending black hole. He replied that it was extremely unlikely but "the random nature of quantum physics means that there is always a minuscule, but nonzero, chance of anything occurring, including that the new collider could spit out man-eating dragons."

So the universe is not wholly predictable and the God hypothesis is back.

If we once again picture the universe as a self-contained dome where the underside represents science and the physical universe, and everything above is eternity, then that moment of "lawlessness" would correspond to God creating by fiat. And physicists hope to someday understand it better by using a combination of general relativity and quantum mechanics called quantum gravity. If quantum mechanics says that nothing is impossible, is it so farfetched to say that the lawlessness may represent the physical properties of the miracle of creation? Physicist Paul Davies said that the Big Bang "represents the instantaneous suspension of physical laws, the sudden, abrupt flash of lawlessness that allowed something to come out of nothing. It represents a true miracle--transcending physical principles."

So the revelation of the Bible tells us that the moment of creation was a divine miracle, and science reveals that the normal laws of physics break down at that moment. Something else was at work in that apparent chaos, but from it emerged a universe that still rests on a razor's edge of finely tuned laws and constants. And science would only be able to detect the lawlessness, but not the Guiding Hand.

The question of creation is of course fundamental, but we should evaluate all theological questions on the basis of whether the Bible is logical and whether it corresponds to reality. It is within this context that I will next discuss what the Bible says about the nature of a soul.