Why Are Christians Okay with Torture?

“Sinners in the hands of an angry God”
When I was quite young I asked my mother if hell was at the fiery center of the earth. Devout Christian that she was, I never heard her talk much about hell, and she gave a hearty laugh to my question. No! was her response. She could say, about a lot of things in the Bible, “You can’t take that literally.”

Born in 1905 in southern Indiana, she had somehow escaped fundamentalism. She’d never gone to college, but read voraciously her whole life. She had picked up enough knowledge of the world to realize that neither heaven nor hell had locations in the geography of the cosmos. They were states of nearness to, or alienation from, God—or so she said. Maybe she’d heard some preachers with a touch of common sense. But alienation is watered-down hell; it is hard to deduct wrath from the Christian equation.

The prophets of the Old Testament promised horrible punishments for those who defied Yahweh. John the Baptist asked those who came to hear him preach, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7) Jesus warned that those who were not compassionate faced “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)

In other words, there are consequences, and as the centuries rolled on after the Bible laid this grim foundation, Christian imagination did not fail in the depictions of wrath, fire, and hell that awaited sinners. Hence before the geography of the cosmos was understood, hell was literal place of horrendous torture: so much reveling in the idea that God gets even.

There was massive failure to grasp that Christianity itself is falsified by this notion.

Liberal Christians toss off the idea that their faith has been damaged, but it’s not that simple. They ought to own their history, including the doctrines that are intrinsic to the Christian Package. There really is no escape, as Dr. Keith Parsons makes clear in his essay, “Hell: Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine,” in John Loftus’ 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity.

Now, just how do we avoid getting sent to hell? How do we make it to a delightful eternal life? Don’t most folks sense that the key is being a good person? Based, among other things, on Jesus’ advice to the rich man who asked him how to “inherit eternal life.” Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give to the poor.

But theologians who are custodians of truth—their own carefully crafted versions of truth—know that there must be more to it than that. As custodians, they insist that what you believe is as important as how you behave. In an especially important part of his essay, Parsons notes that wrong beliefs will be severely punished:

“…the most unreasonable thing about the Christian doctrine of hell,” Parsons states, is “what I call the ‘doxastic requirement’ for salvation. Christian doctrine has always imposed a doxastic requirement; that is, it has taught that to be spared hell you must believe certain things. That is, there are certain creedal assertions that are such that if you do not believe them, this is sufficient for your condemnation to hell. Even if the rest of your life were blameless, failure to believe these core creedal claims would be sufficient for your damnation. In other words, willful unbelief in the required propositions is a mortal sin. So you had better get it right.” (p. 249)

The Rational Doubt blog recently published an article by Bruce Gerencser, “Why I Am Not Interested in a Nicer, Friendlier Christianity,” in which he describes a conversation with a Christian who knows he has it right:

Evangelical: The church I go to, First Church of the Most Awesome People in Town, is the nicest, friendliest church in town. We love everyone and I am sure if you come to our church you would feel right at home!!

Bruce: Let me ask you several questions. First, do you believe in a literal hell?

Evangelical: Yes, that’s what the Bible teaches.

Bruce: Who ends up in hell?

Evangelical: Well, I am not the judge, only God is, but the Bible does say that a person must know Jesus as their Lord and Savior to go to heaven when they die.

Bruce: So, since I am not a Christian and I refuse to acknowledge Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I will go to hell when I die, right?

Evangelical: (looks down to ground) Uh, well, um, yeah, if you don’t repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ you will go to hell when you die.

Bruce: How long will I be in hell? Is it like Catholic purgatory where I’ll suffer for a time and then be taken to heaven?

Evangelical: Well, uh…. (long pause) if you die without knowing Jesus as your Lord and Savior you will spend eternity in the torments of hell.

Bruce: Fire and brimstone and where the worm dieth not?

Evangelical: Yes.

Bruce: Since this body I currently have would burn up if I was thrown into a pit of fire and brimstone, does this mean God gives me a new body that will withstand the torments of hell?

Evangelical: (silently praying the Rapture would happen)

This bad theology is firmly rooted in the New Testament, e.g., John 3:16, of course, “whoever believes in him” is qualified, and Romans 10:9, “if you believe in your heart…you will be saved.”

But look what happened to Christianity! It is far from being “one great fellowship of love” as the old hymn proclaims. I’ll try not to use this famous Mark Twain quote more than once a year, but it is too good to pass up on this topic of correct belief:

Among my experiments was this. In an hour I taught a cat and a dog to be friends. I put them in a cage. In another hour I taught them to be friends with a rabbit. In the course of two days I was able to add a fox, a goose, a squirrel and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in peace; even affectionately.

Next, in another cage I confined an Irish Catholic from Tipperary, and as soon as he seemed tame I added a Scotch Presbyterian from Aberdeen. Next a Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares. Finally, a Salvation Army Colonel from Wapping. Then I stayed away for two whole days. When I came back to note results, the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds and ends of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh--not a specimen left alive. These Reasoning Animals had disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.

Parsons quotes from the Athanasian creed, which is typical of theological pride that has too often led to “not a specimen left alive”:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”

The creed goes into great detail, “…a list of abstruse Trinitarian tenets that one must ‘keep whole and undefiled’ to avoid perishing everlastingly. For instance…if you harbor the least doubt that the Son was begotten before all worlds, then you are doomed to an eternity in hell fire…

“Indeed, when you consider that different churches and denominations have very different lists of beliefs required for salvation, it surprises me that any Christian who takes hell seriously can sleep well at night. How can you be sure that you are safe?” (p. 249)

“Any Christian who takes hell seriously.” Since Jesus spoke of eternal fire—well, at least as scripted by Matthew—wouldn’t deleting hell be an admission that Jesus got it wrong? Dismissing hell would also mean that major Christian thinkers were seriously off track as well. In the section of his essay titled, “The Nature of Hell,” Parsons points out that Church Father Tertullian “anticipated his glee in enjoying the torments of the damned.” (p. 234)

“Nor can we dismiss Tertullian as a crank. The ugly idea that the saved will enjoy witnessing the torments of the damned is not unique to him but was often expressed by the soberest, most orthodox theologians among both Protestants and Catholics.” (p. 235) These included Aquinas and Calvin. “For centuries, monks, preachers, and even academic theologians all vied with one another to produce ever more horrific depictions of hell.” (p. 235)

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) preached in this tradition, and is famous for describing “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

“It is everlasting wrath. It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it for all eternity. There is no end to this exquisite horrible misery.”

“The idea of hell,” Parsons concludes, “where sinners are tortured eternally is thus not the excrescence of a diseased brain. Such images may appear to be sick men’s dreams, as Hume put it, but they are the elements of a doctrine thought out with careful deliberation and based on scriptural authority.” (p.237)

Many Christians today may object strenuously: we’re not okay with torture. Our God is not like that. And, Yes, that is absolutely true, because Christianity is continually reinvented to suit modern sensibilities—just as the faithful invent the ideal Jesus of the imagination to suit their concept of what Jesus ought to be. There are thousands of different Christian brands, and we’d even find substantial differences of opinions within individual congregations as to what Christianity is. And yes, some of them are still okay with the torture; those who drop by to comment on my book’s Facebook page commonly give me a good scolding for my work, and warn me that I’m headed for hell.

But indeed, Christianity is disabled—it is falsified—by the doctrine of hell. It would mean that God endorses injustice, unfairness. Parsons describes the consequences:

“…the traditional Christian doctrine of hell, as espoused by the historical Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox creeds, is indeed a damnable doctrine…insofar as Christianity is bound to the dogma of an eternal, punitive hell, it forfeits any claim to moral authority…its claim to be the ‘light of the world’ is thoroughly discredited.” (p. 233)

“Why would God create hell, and then make the only way to avoid it depend upon acceptance of certain beliefs that, as he knows ahead of time, many billions will not accept?” (p. 238)

As I mentioned earlier, modern sensibilities have moved believers beyond the concept of hell. They have outgrown infantile get-even theology. But isn’t God still stuck there? Parsons puts the question point-blank:

“How can even the wickedest of human beings, a Hitler, Stalin, or Cheney, say, deserve eternal punishment? We no longer subject even the worst criminals to old-fashioned tortures, so shouldn’t we expect God to have made at least as much moral progress as we have?” (p. 238)

Since wrathful hell is grounded in scripture and by centuries of theological plotting, it is no surprise that even modern defenders of the faith can’t let it go. Parsons calls it correctly: “…the dogma of hell is rationally and morally indefensible, requiring intellectual gerrymandering and ethical contortionism by its would-be defenders.” (p. 234) He devotes eleven pages of the essay to “The Defenses of Hell,” which includes a detailed analysis of C. S. Lewis’ writing about hell. This is a good review for those who want to see why Lewis should have stayed away from apologetics. He has schooled generations of Christians in sophomoric excuses for bad theology.

The splendid irony in all this, of course, is that there is no evidence whatever that hell exists. Or heaven. No reliable, verifiable data, just rambling theobabble. Maybe some believers are buoyed by the reports of Near Death Experiences…those who have “seen the light.” Maybe I’ve just missed it, but I don’t recall anyone coming back from a NDE and reported having “seen the fire.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.