Is there torture in hell?
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The recent release of The Passion and questions we have received because of it have brought to bear, and to mind, some issues of regular interest and debate:

These questions, it has occurred to us, are in some sense perhaps misdirected. Our focus as persons is on pain, but is this what the Bible puts its eye on when describing what Jesus endured? In fact, it does not. The NT writers never speak of the pain of the cross. What do they speak of? Hebrews 12:2 says:

Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Indeed, the OT sacrifices for which Jesus' death were a type also had as their main focus the death of the sacrifice -- not its torture. So what's wrong with the focus on the torture and pain aspects?

In several articles we have noted that there is a vast difference in attitude between modern Western society -- a "guilt culture" -- and the ancient Biblical world, which was an honor and shame culture. This popular summary will fill in the details for those new to the matter, but for the present we will stress the most relevant point, that in this world, honor was as important as paying the bills is to us; that which was honorable was, to the ancients, of primary importance. Honor was placed above one's personal safety and was the key element in deciding courses of action.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note in their Social-Science Commentary on John [263-4] and the Synoptics [406-7] that what Jesus underwent in the Passion was a "status degradation ritual" designed to humiliate in every way: The mockery, the buffeting, the spitting; the crucifixion with its symbolic pinioning of hands and legs signigfying a loss of power, and loss of ability to control the body in various ways, including befouling one's self with excrement.

We focus on the beatings and think the purpose was mainly to inflict pain. But in fact, the pain was of secondary focus to the ancients, for whom such rituals were a "process of publicly recasting, relabeling, humiliating and thus recategorizing a person as a social deviant."

How might this affect our understanding of the atonement? In answering Skeptical objections that Jesus endured "too little pain" to atone for the sins of all men and prevent their eternal punishment, Glenn Miller has written a detailed article in defense. Miller argues, essentially, that it is because of Jesus' divine identity that his experience of death, and that the emotions would remain with Jesus throughout eternity, made for the difference: "His sacrificial death/suffering was ‘once for all’, but the memory and emotional experience of that will be forever with Him."

While not wishing to critique Miller directly, we believe that the issue can be resolved at a different level by understanding that it was not the pain, but the shame and degradation (of which, the pain, and the shedding of blood, was of course an integral part) that was the "payment" for our sins -- and that this makes much better contextual sense of the doctrine coming out of an honor and shame setting.

Consider what this answer accomplishes:

The application of honor and shame to this issue leads to another area of great sensitivity, for which we also find some new answers: Is it really fair for one who does not accept Jesus to suffer in Hell forever?

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:

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.