Bliss, torment, and the temptation of metaphor

I’ve been thinking about how Christians tend to portray the eternal destinies of believers and unbelievers as either “bliss in the presence of God” or “torment away from God’s presence.”

So it’s bliss verses torment.

However, the Bible over and over portrays the distinction as between “life” and “death.” It is so amazingly common to see this; once I started noticing it I can’t unsee it.

In order for the bliss-versus-torment group to keep their doctrine, they have to change the definitions of life and death. To them, life just means bliss, and death means torment.

But this is so hard to do when we just look at the passages which talk about the destiny of believers and unbelievers. I read another one yesterday:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13.1-5

Jesus says, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” What will it be like? It will be like being killed by Pilate or being crushed by a tower. What happened to those people? They died. They weren’t tormented forever; they were killed.

Some folks want to turn this around and say, “Jesus didn’t mean actual death. Death is a metaphor for suffering and pain.” The thing is, Jesus knows how to talk about suffering and pain. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he describes the state of the rich man in Luke 16.23: “In Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes….” It’s not as though Jesus lacked the words to describe suffering or pain, and had to use death as some sort of obscure metaphor.

The temptation of metaphor is this: when we don’t like (or don’t understand) what the text is saying, we attribute it to metaphor and then substitute our own interpretation. And that doesn’t mean metaphor isn’t commonly used: Jesus uses it in this very passage. The murders by Pilate and the death from the tower are metaphors! Jesus isn’t saying that the fate of the unrighteous is precisely to be killed by Pilate or crushed by a building. No, he is saying their fate is to be killed, just like the people in those examples. Their violent (and probably painful) deaths are figures or examples (metaphors!) which Jesus uses to describe the eternal destiny of those who do not repent. To claim that the unrighteous won’t actually die robs these metaphors of their power, and make Jesus’ warning confusing at best.

Let’s be aware of how often the Bible uses metaphor, but not detach the metaphor from the meaning the authors intended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *