There was that "torture chamber" imagery again. "No wonder that's a popular vision of hell," I said. "When I was about ten years old, I was taken to Sunday school, where the teacher lit a candle and said, 'Do you know how much it hurts to burn your finger? Well, imagine your whole body being in fire forever and ever. That's what hell is.'"
Moreland nodded as if he had heard that kind of story before.
"Now, some kids got scared," I added. "I just got resentful that this guy was trying to manipulate me. I think lots of people have had this sort of experience. You have to admit that when it comes to talking about hell, the Bible certainly does have a tendency to refer to flames."
"That's true," Moreland replied, "but the flames are a figure of speech."
I put up my hand. "Okay, wait a minute," I protested. "I thought you were a conservative scholar. Are you going to try to soften the idea of hell to make it more palatable?"
"Absolutely not," came his reply. "I just want to be biblically accurate. We know that the reference to flames is figurative because if you try to take it literally, it makes no sense. For example, hell is described as a place of utter darkness and yet there are flames, too. How can that be? Flames would light things up.
"In addition, we're told Christ is going to return surrounded by flames and that he's going to have a big sword coming out of his mouth. But nobody thinks Christ won't be able to say anything because he'll be choking on a sword. The figure of the sword stands for the word of God in judgment. The flames stand for Christ coming in judgment. In Hebrews 12:29, God is called a consuming fire. Yet nobody thinks God is a cosmic Bunsen burner. Using the flame imagery is a way of saying he's a God of judgment."
"What about hell being a place where worms constantly eat people's flesh," I asked.
"In Jesus' day thousands of animals were sacrificed every week in the Temple, and there was a sewage system for the blood and fat to flow outside, where it gathered in a pool. There were worms constantly ingesting that. It was a very ugly place," Moreland said. "When Jesus was teaching, he used this metaphor as a way of saying hell is worse than that disgusting place outside the city.
"There's also the phrase 'gnashing of teeth' to describe those in hell," I said. "Doesn't that refer to people reacting to the pain of torture?"
"More precisely, this is meant to describe a state of anger or realization of great loss," Moreland said. "It's an expression of rage at realizing that one has made a huge mistake. If you've ever been around people who are self-absorbed, self-centered, and highly narcissistic, they get angry when they don't get their way. I believe the gnashing of teeth is an expression of the type of personality of people who will belong in hell."
"No flames, no worms, no gnashing of teeth from torture-maybe hell isn't as bad as we thought," I said in an effort to inject a little levity.
Moreland responded quickly. "It would be a mistake to think that way," he said firmly. "Any figure of speech has a literal point. What is figurative is the burning flame; what is literal is that this is a place of utter heartbreak. It is a loss of everything, and it's meant to stand for the fact that hell is the worst possible situation that could ever happen to a person."
"You mentioned people in hell who are self-absorbed and narcissistic, who've rejected God all their life," I said. "Is it possible that, for these kind of people, heaven would be hell?"
"Let me put it this way," he said. "Have you ever been around somebody who was unbelievably good looking, extremely attractive, and a lot smarter than you are? When you're in a social situation, people want to listen to him, not you. Suppose you don't care for that person, but you're kept in a room with him twenty-four hours a day for thirty years. That would be an unbelievably difficult experience.
"Now, multiply those qualities ten thousand times, and that's a little bit of what God is like. He is real, real smart. He's very attractive. He's a lot more morally pure than we are. And if people do not fall passionately in love with him, then to force them to have to be around him forever-doing the kinds of things that people who love him would want to do-would be utterly uncomfortable.
"You have to understand that people's character is not formed by decisions all at once, but by thousands of little choices they make every day without even knowing about it. Each day we're preparing ourselves for either being with God and his people and valuing the things he values, or choosing not to engage with those things. So, yes, hell is primarily a place for people who would not want to go to heaven."
"You're saying people consciously choose hell?"
"No, I don't mean they consciously reject heaven and choose to go to hell instead. But they do choose not to care about the kinds of values that will be present in heaven every day."
I said, "So, in effect, by the way we live our lives we're either preparing ourselves for being in God's presence and enjoying him for eternity, or we're preparing ourselves for an existence where we try to make ourselves the center of the universe and we have no interest in being with God or the people who love him."
Moreland nodded. "That's absolutely right. So hell is not simply a sentence. It is that, but it's also the end of a path that is chosen, to some degree, in this life right here and now, day by day."
Even so, there are aspects of hell that seem to violate our sense of justice. At least, I've felt that in the past. I took advantage of a pause in our conversation to reach into my briefcase and retrieve a list of them that I had written on the airplane.
"How about if I ask for your reply to each of these issues," I said to Moreland. "My goal isn't to get into an argument with you. I just want you to spell out your perspective, and then at the end I'll weigh whether I think you're giving adequate responses and if, in total, the doctrine of hell stands up to scrutiny."
"Sounds fair," he replied.
I glanced at the list and decided to begin with one of the most emotion-charged objections of all.
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