In his essay “Where are we going?” Ted Peters describes the modern skepticism about the traditional doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment. He writes:
“Over the last two centuries, liberal minds have been bitten by a moral conscience that finds such threat-discourse undignified and revolting. We modern people with more gentle standards of morality are appalled at the thought that God might punish for eternity someone who committed a temporal sin.” (“Where are we going?” in Essentials of Christian Theology, p. 360)
While not himself a theological conservative, Peters captures well the skepticism the theological conservative has toward this modern discomfort with the doctrine of eternal conscious torment. They tend to view these “more gentle standards of morality” as evidence that Christians have gotten soft and strayed from the hard edge of biblical truths. Francis Chan echoes this view as he recounts his own struggle with hell and then observes:
“But the New Testament writers didn’t have the same allergic reaction to hell as I do. Perhaps they had a view of God that is much bigger than mine. A view of God that takes Him at His word and doesn’t try to make Him fit our own moral standards and human sentimentality.” (Erasing Hell, 108).
But then again, perhaps not.
In other words, while modern standards of justice, mercy, and jurisprudence may indeed be leading us away from the proper biblical teaching, they may also be leading us toward a fuller biblical vision. To see why, you just need to consider at more length an instance of the pre-modern mind.
Let’s consider, for example, the medieval mind. It is true that this mind didn’t have a big problem with hell. It also didn’t have a big problem with public beheadings, torture, xenophobia, the killing of civilians in armed conflict, denial of voting rights to women, and so on. It seems to me that it isn’t necessarily a good thing to find oneself in agreement with this mind.
I used to live in London, England, and while Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is over-rated, it still is worth a visit on a rainy day. And when you go, the one display you will surely remember is the Chamber of Horrors, a ghoulish display which includes a series of haunting reconstructions of various medieval torture devices: the rack, the garrote, the iron maiden, and so on. You thought water boarding was torture? Friend, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Anybody visiting the Chamber of Horrors will leave impacted by the barbarity of the medieval mind. This is the same mind that readily envisioned hell as an eternal chamber of horrors. If we are rightly dubious of the moral character of any mind that would embrace the chamber of Madame Tussauds, it hardly counts in the favor of the traditional view of hell that it may boast this mind among its most enthusiastic supporters.