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Hell: Jesus, the Early Church, and Answers in Genesis | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Image of an unhoused person, via invisiblepeople.tv.

And now, the final movement in my “Summer of 2024 Hell Quartet.” (For the first three movements, see: here, here, and here.)

Ken Ham, Martyn Iles, and their compatriots at Answers in Genesis (AiG) are fully committed to promoting the idea that God has created and oversees a Hell that involves torment of billions of individuals for eternity, an idea that has been included in the Faith Statement that all AiG employees and volunteers are required to affirm: “those who have rejected [Christ are condemned] to conscious and everlasting punishment in the lake of fire (hell).” 

Not surprisingly, the folks at AiG know very well that many people will be aghast at the idea of a God who is the divine torturer of billions. As AiG contributor Tim Challies observed in an article addressed to fellow fundamentalists, “Would He Condemn People to Eternal Torment?,” “if you haven’t been asked this question, you will.” 

According to Challies, the key to answering this question is to look at it “from a different angle – what kind of God would not condemn His enemies to an eternal hell?” 

Come again?

Reiterating standard arguments made by fundamentalist and evangelical preachers over the past century, Challies explains why “God’s Eternal Holiness Demands That Hell Be Eternal, Conscious Torment”:

  • “The eternal, never-ending nature of the sinner’s punishment is directly related to the infinite and eternal nature of God. When you sin against an infinite God . . . you accrue an infinite debt.”
  • “The torments of hell are directly related to the transcendent holiness of God . . . God’s holiness is unable to tolerate anything or anyone that is unholy; His holiness is like a gag reflex that acts out in wrath against all sin.”
  • “Those who have sinned consciously must also bear their punishment consciously . . . Justice demands conscious punishment, not mere annihilation of the person or his or her sin.”

If you don’t find Challies’ logic compelling, or even logical, take a look at Doug Frank’s powerful book, A Gentler God, where the author questions the idea of a God who “vomits at the sight of sinful humanity,” and unpacks how fundamentalism and evangelicalism have been warped by holding to this understanding of God. 

The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter are all about the “vomiting” God who —  necessarily, according to their logic – spews forth the vast majority of human beings into Hell. In that regard, the Museum has a placard in their three-room Jesus exhibit that includes this rebuke from Matthew 25:41: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Given that the Museum is steeped in culture war rhetoric, it is obvious that it expects that visitors will assume that the list of the “cursed” who are condemned to “everlasting fire” includes evolutionists, those who are LGBTQ, those who are pro-choice, feminists, liberals, and socialists. That is to say, it includes all those who have been condemned by the Christian Right. 

But here’s the problem. Even though Matthew 25 is the place in the Gospels where Jesus elaborates on the Last Judgment, the Museum has removed the verses before and after Matthew 25: 41. Here’s the full passage (Matthew 25: 34-45):

Then the king will say to those at this right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

They will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

This text could not be clearer as to who will be rewarded and who will be punished at the Last Judgment. And it could not be clearer why AiG and the Creation Museum have eliminated these verses. Jesus’ emphasis that whether or not one has cared for “the least of these” determines one’s fate at the Last Judgment absolutely does not square with their culture war rhetoric. 

What makes all this so egregious is that it is so contrary to how the early Church understood and made use of Matthew 25 and the Sermon of the Mount.  My colleague and good friend, Meghan Henning, pointed out in her brilliant book, Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell, that 

Parallel to Jesus’ radical ethical demands in the Sermon on the Mount, there are several texts in Matthew that make clear that it is one’s deeds that determine his or her eternal fate. In fact, the culminating message of the “Coming of the Kingdom” discourse (Matt. 24-25) is that those who did not care for the hungry, the stranger, the sick, or the imprisoned would go away into “eternal punishment” whereas those who did would enter into “eternal life.” . . . Matthew’s emphasis on behavior as the criterion for eternal punishment and reward was foundational for early Christian paideia [cultural and ethical education]. For later Christians, Matthean ethical norms would become the “essential law of Christianity” and provide a codified set of rules and expectations that defined the community (168). 

Such a different Christianity from that promulgated by AiG and the Christian Right. Alas.