Today in fundamentalist//evangelical/orthodox (conservative) Christianity what is the worst consequence of turning your back on God?
Answer: eternal damnation
Now, the details of what “eternal damnation” actually entails differs by denomination and even within conservative denominations. Here are some of the most common descriptions:
1. A place of eternal torment; burning but never dying in real flames of fire; brimstone; worms that do not die; gnashing of teeth; total darkness. Hell.
2. A place of psychological/spiritual torment, but no actual physical pain.
3. Eternal separation from God.
Obviously, the first option is horrific and unimaginable, but the second option isn’t pleasant either. Suffering that never ends is still horrific. The third option is very vague. Does it mean that we go on living, partying, having fun…just all without God? I doubt it. I would guess that the people who use this concept imagine it as if God puts you in the corner…forever. Still not a pleasant experience.
So isn’t it strange that if that is what every human being who has ever lived faces if he turns his back on God and dies…the God of the Old Testament never said a word about any concept of an afterlife until after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians??
Let’s look at a few examples:
In the Garden of Eden, what was God’s warning regarding eating the forbidden fruit? Eternal damnation in hell? Nope. Never mentioned. Don’t you think that might be a detail that Adam and Eve should have known to help them resist the temptation of Satan? Imagine if God had said to Adam and Eve: “If you eat from this tree you and every child born to you, and every descendent thereafter for the next 6,000 years will be cast into utter darkness, into a place of torment “where the worm dieth not and the fire is never quenched!”
Now, I know that conservative Christians will read this statement and start jumping up and down saying, “God meant both physical AND spiritual death…in hell!” But that is not what the Good Book says, Pilgrim! You are reading into the passage your own bias.
And what about the Great Flood? Did God warn the people of the earth that if they didn’t repent they would all be drowned, and, much, much worse, they would all burn forever in the Lake of Fire? Nope. Not a word.
And how about Pharaoh and the Egyptians? Did God order Moses to warn Pharaoh that all the first born of Egypt would be killed…and then cast into Hell to suffer unspeakable eternal torment? Nope. Never mentioned.
So in story after brutal story of the Old Testament God harshly punishes the stubborn, complaining Hebrews, often killing large numbers of them…but never warning them of Hell and eternal torment. And never sending a warning to the “evil” inhabitants of Canaan that if they did not repent, not only would they be slaughtered by the sword down to the newborn baby, but they would spend an eternity in hell “where the worm dieth not.”
Nope. Not a word.
So it isn’t until the time of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel do we start seeing a concept of an afterlife and suggestions of eternal punishment and suffering for evil. Why did God wait to bring up the danger of eternal damnation and the opportunity for eternal bliss until that point in time?
Many non-fundamentalist Christian scholars believe that this is why:
The early Hebrews had no concept of an afterlife. No heaven/paradise and no hell. This life was it. But if you wanted a good life with material blessings, you had to obey Yahweh. If you didn’t obey him, he would curse you and maybe even kill you. Obedience to Yahweh brought happiness, material wealth, and the possession of the land (Canaan).
The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Captivity in Babylon destroyed the concept of receiving blessings in this life. This life was a living hell for the captive Hebrews! The Hebrew people were severely depressed and hopeless, living in a foreign land, essentially as slaves. So, what did the Hebrew priestly class do: they created a belief in an afterlife. “If you obey Yahweh and his laws, God may not bless you in this life, but he will bless you in the afterlife. But if you disobey him in this life, He will punish you in the afterlife.” So this is the beginning of the belief that would eventually become Hell: a place of everlasting horrific torment for those who disobey the laws of Yahweh.
So, isn’t it odd that a God who states that he never changes, tells NO ONE for thousands of years that if they reject him, he will send them to a place of eternal torment, possibly including eternal burning? Either this God is very forgetful or this God is not just. In fact, this God by any standard of decency would have to be Evil incarnate…to send people to a place of eternal torment without ever warning them of its existence.