Several authors, some used by Glenn Miller in his series here, have set the pace for a new look at this question by dismantling the old-fashioned conception of Hell as a place of flesh being seared on sizzling grids, of torture devices and of extreme physical pain. In contrast Miller argues -- even apparently without recognition of the Biblical world as an honor and shame society -- that the components of eternal punishment in the Bible are shame and disgrace.
Let's now look at some of his primary points and relate them to our own arguments:
- The 'logic' of hell in the bible is surprisingly simple: You receive back the treatment/effects you gave other agents (including God and yourself) with some kind of multiplier effect. [The bible is full of images of this reciprocity concept: reaping what you sow, being paid back, suffering loss as you had despoiled others, unkindness for unkindness shown, apathy for apathy rendered, 'eye for an eye', proportional judgement, etc]
This is suited as well to what we have said of honor debts and shame as a response. You dishonor God; you receive dishonor in return. Appropriately your required response is to acknowledge your own need -- in effect, giving up your "honor" -- by admitting that you need God's help to pay the debt.
C. S. Lewis wrote a book titled The Great Divorce in which Hell is depicted as a microscopic world that is smaller than a piece of dirt in heaven (though inhabitants do not realize this except by a special "bus trip" to heaven). Within that microscopic world, people constantly get tired of the company of others and move themselves farther and farther out into the "boondocks" away from others. Napoleon is presented as having done this, and two modern travellers who go to his house arrive to find him pacing back and forth muttering over his failures, for which he blames everyone else.
Lewis, we think, was on to something here, even though he did not mention an honor-shame dialectic. The person who is ashamed cannot come into the presence of God, but would indeed be driven away from it by the very nature of the dialectic, seeking to get as far away from the presence of the greatest glory and honor as possible. Literally speaking, "Hell" would be a life on the lam -- always trying to get yourself further and further from God's holiness, but because God is omnipresent, and because in Him all things move and have their being, never being able to succeed.
An analogy I once used for Kyle Gerkin may help: God is like a magnet, and the "polarity" of sinners is all wrong.
- Miller cites sources indicating that the torment of hell is relational in nature and involves banishment from heaven. A source says, though again apparently without knowledge of the Biblical world as agonistic: Mental and physical anguish result from the sorrow and shame of the judgment of being forever relationally excluded from God, heaven, and so forth.
In this sense, someone with greater sins has more to "be ashamed of" than someone with lesser sins. Thus the lesser sinner may perhaps be able to withstand God's omnipresence to a greater degree than a greater sinner; to put it another way, the person who has greater sins finds themselves to run harder, more often, and farther than the person with lesser sins.
- Biblical passages support our thesis: Daniel 12:2 speaks not of everlasting pain, but of disgrace and everlasting contempt. The "weeping and gnashing of teeth" associated with punishment verses "describes a reaction of persons who have been publicly shamed or dishonored" (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary, 76, emphasis added).
Miller says of the passage in Luke, of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man: [The rich man's] "quality of life" is equated to the quality of life that the beggar Lazarus had during his lifetime (e.g. lack of getting all of his basic needs met in community). Note that a beggar was a person of the lowest social status, and therefore one of the most "shamed" individuals.
We may relate this point to that of the doctrine of theosis. Those who belong to God will grow in His grace; but those who reject him will never grow. Like Lewis' Napoleon, this will no doubt be a frustrating and shameful experience; especially if you can look through the window, so to speak, and see others growing. But it will not involve physical pain.
- A reader asked this question: I gathered from your response to [another Skeptic] that the Jeffery Dahmer, who apparently repented before that unfortunate encounter with a mop handle, would be in the “nosebleed section” in heaven. Why would that be if Christ suffered the shame for everyone who is saved?
I think the answer here relates to the concept of rewards in heaven as opposed to salvation. The rewards will be rewards of honor; obviously someone like Dahmer isn't going to have a lot of rewards, and nor would an Adolf Hitler who repented on his deathbed. So yes, to say they will be in the "nosebleed section" of heaven would be accurate.
So in conclusion on this tangent: The data would indicate that the primary focus of eternal punishment is the denial of the honor accorded to those who reject God's offer of salvation, and who bear themselves the shame and disgrace Jesus took in their stead. Therefore there is no inequality in the "suffering" -- these persons have denied God His ascribed honor; they are denied in turn the honor that is given to human beings, who are created with the intent that they live forever in God's service, reigning with Christ and serving him.
They choose rather the shame and disgrace of serving their own interests; they are also shamed in accordance with their deeds (i.e., Hitler obviously has more to be "ashamed of" than, say, a robber baron). By denying their ascribed place in the collective identity of humanity, they are placed outside the boundaries, excatly as they desire to be and to the extent that their deeds demanded.