Vatican Council Reaffirms “The Reality of Hell”
HELL is not a popular subject. That is why theologians and clergymen in general ignore it. Thus a leading New York City Protestant preacher noted in his book Heaven and Hell that the subject had not been the theme of a sermon in some sixty years in his, one of the city’s largest and most fashionable churches.
Apparently because of this reluctance on the part of the clergy to preach about hell as a place of eternal torment, Vatican Council II, in its third session, felt called upon to reaffirm the Roman Catholic belief in the reality of hell as a place of eternal torment. Thus a UPI dispatch reported: “The Ecumenical Council . . . voted in four nearly unanimous ballots to approve a text which calls for everyday awareness of the church’s future in heaven. The text, which will be Chapter 7 of a tract on the church, was amended to reaffirm the reality of hell as the place of eternal punishment of sins.”—Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, October 20, 1964.
Just a week later the New York Times reported that a prelate at the Council had said further on this subject: “Many millions of people fail to understand how God the Father can be expected to damn an individual to hell for all eternity for such a thing as eating meat on Friday, thus putting such an individual in the same category as an adulterous atheist. The mentality responsible for such legislation seems to be more legalistic than genuinely religious and makes the Church a laughing stock.” Note, however, that the prelate does not take exception to the teaching of eternal torment, only as to what would merit such punishment.
And just what is the “reality of hell”? While there is some disagreement among Roman Catholic theologians as to the nature of the suffering in hell, they are agreed that it is intense and that it is forever, for an eternity. As to the nature of the suffering, a leading spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States says: “People in hell are lost completely and hopelessly . . . They must go on living a completely frustrated and miserable life. It would seem almost impossible that anything could be added to the suffering to which the lost are afflicted by reason of the loss of God. It is by far the worst side of the picture of what it means to be a lost soul. . . . Our Lord repeatedly chose the word ‘fire’ to describe the cause of suffering in hell. The Catholic Church always has seen in His words the expression of a real fire which would affect lost souls and make them feel pain similar to that which we feel now when we are burned by fire. . . . The fire of hell [however] is never extinguished, does not give light and does not destroy.”—What Happens After Death, Supreme Council, Knights of Columbus.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE TEACH?
What about all this teaching regarding a literal burning hell in which sinners will be tormented eternally? Does the Bible teach such a doctrine?
No, it does not! In the beginning God warned Adam that, “if ever thou eatest of this [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] thy doom is death,” not eternal torment. And when man disobeyed, God did not change that law ex post facto, after the deed had been done, but said to Adam: “Thou shalt earn thy bread with the sweat of thy brow, until thou goest back into the ground from which thou wast taken; dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” God did not tell Adam he would go to a burning hell, but that he would return to the ground.—Gen. 2:17; 3:19.*
Because Adam had willfully and inexcusably sinned, by which sin he brought death to the entire human race, Adam was returned—to where? Eternal torment? Of course not! But to where he had been before he was created. And where was Adam before he was created? In a state of nonexistence, as the lifeless dust of the ground. So, if he was to be returned to where he was before, where would he be? In a burning hell, consciously suffering indescribable torment? No, but in a state of nonexistence. In other words, Adam was destroyed when he died. This is in keeping with the psalmist’s words: “Vigilantly the Lord watches over all that love him, marks down the wicked for destruction.” When Adam deliberately sinned he was ‘marked down for destruction’ by God, and at the end of 930 years of life he died.—Ps. 144:20 (Ps 145:20, AV).
Let us reason on the subject. The Bible tells us that life is a gift from God. And it contrasts, not life in heaven with life in hell, but life and the absence of life, death: “I call heaven and earth to witness this day that I have set such a choice before thee, life or death.” (Deut. 30:19) Upon being created and given the breath of life, Adam received the gift of life. But by reason of his failing to appreciate it, as shown by his actions, God took it away from him.
It is perfectly just and reasonable for a giver to attach certain conditions to a gift, and the condition God attached to the gift of life was obedience. It was not an unreasonable or unjust condition. Because Adam failed to keep that condition, God took back his gift of life, this resulting in the death of Adam and Eve. As for their offspring, since parents could not transmit to their children what they did not have themselves, these were born with an inheritance of sin leading to death. All this is in keeping with the rule: “Sin offers death, for wages”—not eternal torment; “God offers us eternal life as a free gift, through Christ Jesus our Lord.”—Rom. 6:23.
This principle is seen in God’s laws to Israel. The severest penalty for any crime was death by stoning, which was comparatively merciful, as one stone on the head was sufficient to render the doomed one unconscious. After death the body might be hung on a tree as a warning, or, in the case of a notorious crime, it was burned. But there was no lasting torment inflicted even upon willful sinners. For lesser crimes there were fines and at times strokes, by a lash or leather strap, not to exceed forty. The very fact that God limited these strokes showed he was not a God who would inflict eternal torment upon anyone.—Deut. 25:3.
It might well be asked, What kind of sin could merit eternal torment? Even human institutions forbid cruel and unusual punishments. Is man more loving and just than God? God’s very principle of an eye for an eye and a life for a life would rule out eternal torment. What sin could merit an eternity of torture? Besides, what good would or could it do? To destroy the wicked is to get rid of bad rubbish, it might be said, but what profit is there in their being preserved and tormented forever?—Deut. 32:4; 1 John 4:8.
More than that, the Bible tells us that “God, at the beginning of time, created heaven and earth.” If hell is another place, how is it that we do not read of its having been created? And if it was created, when? Before Adam sinned?—Gen. 1:1.
But someone may ask, Do not the Scriptures refer to punishment by fire? Yes, Jesus does in his parables or illustrations and so does the book of Revelation. But let us note that in all such instances highly figurative language is used. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Lazarus is pictured as being taken to Abraham’s bosom. Literally? Of course not! Then neither is the fiery torment of the rich man literal. The same is true of Jesus’ remark: “If thy eye is an occasion of falling, pluck it out; better for thee to enter blind into the kingdom of God, than to have two eyes when thou art cast into the fire of hell; the worm which eats them there never dies, the fire is never quenched.” Even as Jesus did not mean for us literally to pluck out our eyes, so he referred to the “fire of hell” in a symbolic way.—Mark 9:46, 47; Luke 16:19-31.
But why did Jesus use such an illustration? In Mark 9:46, 47 he had reference to the valley called Gehenna, the Greek word here rendered “hell.” In it the refuse of the city was thrown, and some say that the bodies or mortal remains of criminals not deemed deserving of a decent burial nor entitled to a resurrection were also thrown into that place. So to be cast into fiery Gehenna symbolized to be eternally destroyed, without hope of a resurrection. A parallel expression to that of Jesus is found at Isaiah 66:24, which shows that it is the “mortal remains” that will be “a prey now, to worm undying, to fire unquenchable.”
PREMISED ON A FALSE TEACHING
The fact is that the false teaching of eternal torment is premised on another false teaching, namely, that man has an immortal soul. The Bible says: “From the clay of the ground, the Lord God formed man, breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and made of man a living person,” or soul. (Gen. 2:7) So man is a soul, and that a soul can die is clear from Ezekiel 18:4, which tells us that “it is the guilty soul that must die.” So, since man is a soul, and since, when man dies, the soul dies, there can be no eternal torment for man after death, for it is impossible to torment a dead person.* As we read at Ecclesiastes 9:5: “When death comes, of nothing will they be aware any longer; no reward can they receive.” If aware of nothing, they cannot be “completely frustrated and miserable.” Further, the Scriptures tell us of a number of persons who have died and who came back from the grave, but none of them told about their experiences, which they certainly would have done had they been conscious after death!
So we can see that, while the Vatican Council may reaffirm its belief in the reality of hell as a place of eternal torment, the doctrine is not taught in the Scriptures. What is more, the teaching is neither reasonable nor just nor loving, all of which the Bible assures us that God is!
All quotations are from the Roman Catholic translation by Msgr. R. A. Knox.
For an extensive discussion of this point see the article “Death and Haʹdes to Give Up the Dead,” in two parts, in this issue of The Watchtower.