Sharon L. Baker has an interesting article at the Huffpo today. On the question of hell, she's actually plugging her book on the subject. It's an interesting topic. In all of Christian theology this is one of the focal points and perhaps the most difficult to reconcile with Jesus focus on forgiveness and love.
This is Dr. Baker's summation:
I wonder how many other pastors pounding pulpits across the world have their parishioners running scared out of their wits and into the kingdom of God, taking out fire insurance as a precaution against the threat of hell. "Who cares?" you might say. "As long as they purchase their policy in time, who cares why they buy?" God might. God may desire to save us from the flames in order to spend eternity in loving communion, not by scaring us to death but by luring us with divine compassion, urging us gently with a caring hand, forgiving, reconciling, and calling us to do the same.
Okay, everyone who's read Dante's Inferno raise your hand. Don't be shy. Surely you had to read part of it in your World Literature class in college. Oops, no one ever actually reads what they're assigned they use Cliff Notes. I'm one of the few who I've ever encountered that's actually read all three of Dante's Divine Comedy.
Here's an even more obscure attempt of describing Hell:
A science-fiction writer drinks too much, showing off for fans at a convention, and falls out an eighth-floor window. He wakes up in a brass bottle in the vestibule of Hell, and Inferno details his adventures trying to work his way out. A lot of Dante is recalled, but these authors have more fun with the damned than Dante, and invent a few newer sins to bring the tale up-to-date, including such things as a book collector who kept hoarding beyond the capabilities of his storage, and lost priceless books to mildew, rats, and insects — a hoarder and a waster at the same time.
The one quote I remember from this book where it asks: "Who can take seriously a god who keeps his own private torture chamber?"
After I came home from Seminary and was going through a divorce I started reading everything Sci Fi. I'd read Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein in high school, but during college and grad school other than watching reruns of Star Trek this genre took a back seat. I discovered Harlan Ellison, Anne McCaffery and many other great writers. The afore mentioned book caught my eye after reading their "Earth's too fragile a basket to place all of man's eggs in." Lucifer's Hammer.
Enough preamble. My take on the theology of eternal punishment.
Christianity falls in the catagory of Ethical Religions. That's a religion with a system of rewards and punishments. The Norse concept of hell (the germanic word used for the Greek Hades and Hebrew Gehenna) was a place of eternal cold, which is why Dante has Satan encased up to his waist in ice. Understandable since the harshest environment they encounter is winter. The Hebrews being from a desert environment found the heat the worst environment imaginable so it's understandable that a place of eternal heat would be their concept of eternal punishment. Gehenna was actually the town dump of Jerusalem outside the dung gate. Since all the trash was thrown there along with the animal waste which caused high concentrations of methane gas it was a place of continual fires. When Jesus refers to the afterlife for non-believers he refers to Gehenna which could be interpreted as a place of eternal fire or being thrown out of with the trash. The concept between those two interpretations is huge: literal or symbolic?
Is hell a place of eternal fire and torment, or is it being separated from God? Evangelists find selling "get out of hell free cards" easier than the promise of heaven. The Catholic Church even sells them (Indulgences) or makes you do penance. This is what makes Christianity different from other ethical religions. The others have a clearer concept of justice. Those who lived bad lives are punished, those who lived good lives are rewarded depending on what the culture's concept of good and evil. Jesus changed the rules from good and evil to believer or non-believer. No matter how bad you were, if you are saved before death you're in. Those who lived good lives, but worship differently are punished. Where's the justice in that?
Christianity is not about Justice, it's about forgiveness. It's about mercy. It's about Love. If it was about justice everyone would go to hell, no matter how good a life they lived. Christ's main point of the sermon on the mount where he compares being angry with murder, lust with adultery.
As Hamlet says: "If everyone were given what they deserve, who would escape whipping?"
Here's more rhetorical questions: If after death we have spiritual bodies, what damage could physical flames do? Wouldn't the flames also be spiritutal? Does separation from God need to be physical torture or can it be mental anguish? Does faith have to be only concrete? Isn't there room for abstract thinking too?