Friday, November 21, 2014

Eternal Torment

In a Bible study group I once led, one of the members — a deacon on the church board — told why he had become a Christian. His chief motivation, he explained, was that he didn’t want to “go to hell.”

The desire to avoid the eternal punishment of hell is probably the reason why many have made the commitment to Jesus Christ. In some Christian circles, at least, the “gospel” is often presented in those terms: “Come to Jesus, in order to be saved from everlasting torment and ‘go to heaven’ instead.”

Scripture does contain a few hints about the possibility of eternal torment. Speaking of the need to avoid sinful motives and actions, Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:24: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48). Jude, the brother of Jesus and James, also has harsh words for those who rebel against the way of God, calling them “wandering stars for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved for ever” (Jude 13).

Most vividly, the Revelation to John speaks of the “lake of fire,” the ultimate destination of those whose names haven’t been written in the book of life of the Lamb of God. They, and particularly those forces who deceive and oppress the people of God, will be cast into the lake of fire “and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:7-10; 14-15).

But is the idea of eternal torment believable today? Two arguments, at least, speak against it. First, if God is good and merciful, would he really consign a person to an eternity of unspeakable anguish and suffering? Such an action seems unworthy of a benevolent Deity whose being is so often identified with love in Christian teaching.

Second, where is this everlasting hell, anyway? The first Soviet cosmonaut famously returned to earth and announced that he didn’t see any God “up there.” If hell is real, wouldn’t it also show up somewhere as powerful telescopes range throughout the vast reaches of the universe? In the age of science, people have trouble believing in things that can’t be detected and measured by our sophisticated instruments. “Spiritual” concepts like heaven and hell have been relegated to the sphere of private opinion, and therefore ruled out of public discourse.

Whatever one thinks of avoiding hell as a motivation for committing one’s life to Christ (and I think there are better reasons), it is ironic that contemporary science itself — especially astrophysics and cosmology — provides an interesting analogy to the biblical hints concerning eternal torment. I am referring to the phenomenon of the “black hole.”

A black hole is the remnant of a star that has “burned itself out,” having expended all the energy created by the nuclear fusion that gives the star its brilliance. When this occurs, the core of the star collapses to a tiny ball of matter so dense that nothing — not even light — can escape its gravity. Anything near the black hole is affected by its gravity and is in danger of being drawn into it and annihilated, as it crosses the “event horizon” that marks the point of no escape.

And here’s where the idea of “eternity” enters the picture. Einstein showed that, as a body approaches the speed of light, time slows down for that body. What to an outside observer would seem like a thousand years would be experienced, by someone on that body, as mere seconds. The gravity of a black hole is so powerful that objects streaming toward it approach, or perhaps exceed, the speed of light. Thus, as you near the black hole’s event horizon, time will slow down for you to the point that it ceases to exist and becomes an eternity. In the interior of a black hole, time has no meaning.

Astronomers now contend that a huge black hole occupies the center of our galaxy, and that most of the 100 to 400 billion galaxies in our universe (I have heard both extremes) have such a black hole at their center. Anything falling into their clutches has indeed come to the place of eternal torment. The phenomenon of the black hole, by analogy, makes the everlasting “lake of fire” believable.

People need to know that the concept of eternal torment isn’t so far-fetched, after all. Maybe I will go ahead and put that bumper sticker on my car: “ETERNITY — SMOKING OR NON-SMOKING?”