The greatest show in eternity is going to be one hell of an act, theologians have told us throughout history. Tertullian was the first to say so:
What there excites my admiration? what my derision? Which sight gives me joy? which rouses me to exultation?—as I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lowest darkness with great Jove himself, and those, too, who bore witness of their exultation; governors of provinces, too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ. What world’s wise men besides, the very philosophers, in fact, who taught their followers that God had no concern in aught that is sublunary, and were wont to assure them that either they had no souls, or that they would never return to the bodies which at death they had left, now covered with shame before the poor deluded ones, as one fire consumes them! Poets also, trembling not before the judgment-seat of Rhadamanthus or Minos, but of the unexpected Christ! I shall have a better opportunity then of hearing the tragedians, louder-voiced in their own calamity; of viewing the play-actors, much more “dissolute” in the dissolving flame; of looking upon the charioteer, all glowing in his chariot of fire; of beholding the wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows; unless even then I shall not care to attend to such ministers of sin, in my eager wish rather to fix a gaze insatiable on those whose fury vented itself against the Lord. “This,” I shall say, “this is that carpenter’s or hireling’s son, that Sabbath-breaker, that Samaritan and devil-possessed! This is He whom you purchased from Judas! This is He whom you struck with reed and fist, whom you contemptuously spat upon, to whom you gave gall and vinegar to drink! This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!” What quæstor or priest in his munificence will bestow on you the favour of seeing and exulting in such things as these? And yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination.
Read through it a few times. Soak it in. According to Tertullian, his admiration, his derision, his joy at the sight, and his exultation, will be roused by the visible sight of those who did not believe in Jesus, groaning, living in flames, tossing in flaming billows. He looked forward to hearing those who took part in plays, although with much louder voices as they scream because of their torture in hell. He longed to fix his gaze on those who were actors as they suffer in agony before his eyes. Surely, he marvels, no human priest or quæstor (a Roman official governing financial affairs) can provide you with any favour as great as watching and enjoying all this! But God will. It’s a pity that we can’t see it now, but, Tertullian encourages us, as we look around even now at those who are still alive and reject Christ, we can imagine all this happening to them. By faith, thank God, we can picture it right now.
Thomas Aquinas shares this belief:
In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned … So that they may be urged the more to praise God … The saints in heaven know distinctly all that happens … to the damned.1
Like Tertullian before him, Aquinas was no less clear that watching the suffering of the lost will bring us great happiness.
Protestants can’t wipe their hands here. Isaac Watts is purported to have put his famous hymn writing skills to work thus: “What bliss will fill the ransomed souls, when they in glory dwell, to see the sinner as he rolls, in quenchless flames of hell.”2 Jonathan Edwards agreed: “The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. . .Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell. . . I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss.”3 Just in case there was any doubt about watching your own children being tortured in fire forever might not fill you with pleasure and joy, Jonathan Edwards assures you: It will.
But modern believers in eternal torment wouldn’t endorse this, would they? Would they actually endorse a theology of hell in which we sit and watch millions of people, including our lost children and friends, actually being tortured in fire – and would they agree that we will gain happiness and pleasure from the sight? In fact they so just that. In the book Two Views of Hell, Robert Peterson defends his view of hell by, among other things, pointing out that some of the most famous theologians in church history have held it. On that list are Tertullian, Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards. Far from complaining about their view, he names them and aligns himself with their views.
Feel free to abandon the traditional, mainstream historical Christian view if you like – or hold it, heck, don’t let me tell you what to think or anything. But let’s all be honest about whether or not we really hold it the traditional Christian view, OK?
Your friendly neighbourhood annihilationist