The October issue of Smithsonian magazine (page 14) contains a book review and discussion of portrayals of hell dating back to 400 BC. The pictures in the magazine are horrible scenes of torture and suffering with many of the images related to Catholic teachings on purgatory. All of the pictures reflect a belief that hell is a physical place with physical torture techniques applied to those rejected by God. But is hell a physical place?
We see the same portrayals in our newspapers with cartoons showing little men with horns and pitchforks doing nasty things to those condemned to eternal torture. We get frequent letters from unbelievers and people with doubts questioning the concept of hell. They argue that it is impossible to believe in a God who would punish anyone with eternal physical torture, especially those who never had the opportunity to hear the gospel. Because the media continues to feed those images to the public, a high percentage of our population believes that the Bible teaches this physical abuse.
There is no question that the Bible clearly indicates that there is eternal punishment for those who choose to reject God. But there is a difference between eternal punishment and eternal punishing. A person executed for a crime is penalized eternally, but the execution is not eternal torture.
Jesus spoke of the difference between these two in Matthew 10:28, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” There are numerous other passages which speak of hell as a separation from God and all that goes with God–love, peace, joy, etc. Torturing is not something God does. Then is hell a physical place or is it more likely an eternal separation from God and everything that is good and pleasing?
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Pope Francis has resurrected an old debate by declaring the death penalty inadmissible in all cases. The Pope says that the death penalty “attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person, a dignity that is not lost even after having committed the most serious crimes.”
Romans 13:4 describing rulers says: “For he is the minister of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid: for he does not bear the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon he who does evil.” Some have argued that the sword is a symbol of justice, not execution, so there has been a debate on execution for many years.
One of the major theological issues is that when you execute a person who has not become a Christian you have condemned them to hell. Another problem is that courts cannot always determine guilt worthy of the death penalty in a fool-proof way. In the United States in the past 45 years, 1,479 people were executed. There were 162 people scheduled for execution who were found to be innocent before the death penalty was carried out. How many of those executed were actually innocent? The New York Times says the death penalty “is an arbitrary and hugely expensive barbarism whose victims in the United States are often black, poor, or mentally disturbed.”
Is it wise to make the death penalty inadmissible? We have prisoners in our correspondence program who are on death row. In our discussions with them, it has been clear that in most cases there was considerable doubt about the cause of their incarceration. In many cases, the court debates have gone on for decades. Perhaps finding ways for them to give back to society without allowing them to become a public hazard would be a more merciful and fool-proof response to not bearing the sword in vain.
–John N. Clayton © 2018
Data from The Week, August 17/24, 2018, page 17.