It’s often the case that traditionalists will object when their detractors use “torture” to describe the traditional view of final punishment. In Hell Under Fire, Christopher Morgan challenges Clark Pinnock on this point: “…notice [Pinnock's] pejorative use of ‘torture’ rather than an appropriate word like ‘punishment’” (207). In the same volume, Robert Yarbrough, while responding to Edward Fudge’s assertion that “Scripture nowhere suggests that God is an eternal torturer,” writes: “Some of Fudge’s language can be set aside as overwrought rhetoric. The historic view does not view God as ‘an eternal torturer’; hell is not unjust torture but is rather, according to Scripture, a just recompense for people who are without excuse…” (78)
The above quotation of Fudge can be found in Two Views on Hell. In that volume, Robert Peterson responds: “I hold to the traditional view of hell. But I most certainly do not think that ‘God is an eternal torturer…’” (85, Kindle ed.)
To many of us not wedded to the traditional view, “torture” just seems like an appropriate description of what the Church has historically taught will be experienced by the damned after judgment: in addition to being deprived of God’s goodness and blessings, the unrepentant will forever suffer excruciating pains of both body and mind (what medieval theologians called the poena sensus, or pain of sense). Being punished with prolonged, agonizing pain is just the dictionary definition of torture.
One thing is for certain, many historical descriptions of hell sure sound like torture:
…Thine heart beating high with fever; thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony; thy limbs crackling like the martyrs in the fire, and yet unburnt; thyself, put in a vessel of hot oil, pained, yet coming out undestroyed; all thy veins becoming a road for the hot feet of pain to travel on; every nerve a string on which the devil shall ever play his diabolical tune of Hell’s Unutterable Lament; thy soul for ever and ever aching, and thy body palpitating in unison with thy soul…
Perhaps not surprising to anyone but apologists for the traditional view, Christians of the past were quite comfortable using “torture” to describe the torments of hell:
An ever-burning Gehenna will burn up the condemned, and a punishment devouring with living flames; nor will there be any source whence at any time they may have either respite or end to their torments. Souls with their bodies will be reserved in infinite tortures for suffering.
For neither is eternal fire itself, which is to torture the impious, an evil nature, since it has its measure, its form and its order depraved by no iniquity; but it is an evil torture for the damned, to whose sins it is due. For neither is yonder light, because it tortures the blear-eyed, an evil nature.
when the soul of the wicked is forced to go out of the body, angels of Satan presently receive her; and, binding her roughly with chains of fire, and forcing her still more roughly on from every side, hurry her off to the torments of that hell where Satan, plunged in the pit, lies deep and low, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where ‘fire and brimstone and storms of wind is the portion of the cup of sinners’. Then the infernal king, Satan himself, clutching her in his grasp, and belching on her a breath of loathsome fire, orders her to be pinioned by his satellites, and, thus bound, to be cast into the midst of the tormenting fires, there to be tortured with out end with them, there without end to die undyingly for very grief.
The fiery oven is ignited merely by the unbearable appearance of God and endures eternally. For the Day of Judgment will not last for a moment only but will stand throughout eternity and will thereafter never come to an end. Constantly the damned will be judged, constantly they will suffer pain, and constantly they will be a fiery oven, that is, they will be tortured within by supreme distress and tribulation.
(Ewald Plass, What Luther Says, 3 vols., 2:627)
Now, because no description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked, their torments and tortures are figuratively expressed to us by physical things, that is, by darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth, unquenchable fire, an undying worm gnawing at the heart.
(Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Battles), 3.25.12)
The following are examples from works composed in English (in case the reader suspects that those above are simply mistranslations):
…the fire of divine wrath which tortures them is never quenched, and the worm of conscience which gnaws them never dies…
Do but consider what it is to suffer extreme torment for ever and ever; to suffer it day and night, from one year to another, from one age to another, and from one thousand ages to another, and so adding age to age, and thousands to thousands, in pain, in wailing and lamenting, groaning and shrieking, and gnashing your teeth; with your souls full of dreadful grief and amazement, with your bodies and every member full of racking torture, without any possibility of getting ease; without any possibility of moving God to pity by your cries; without any possibility of hiding yourselves from him; without any possibility of diverting your thoughts from your pain…
When thou diest thy soul will be tormented alone—that will be a hell for it—but at the day of judgment thy body will join thy soul, and then thou wilt have twin hells, body and soul shall be together, each brimfull of pain, thy soul sweating in its inmost pore drops of blood, and thy body from head to foot suffused with agony; conscience, judgment, memory, all tortured, but more—thy head tormented with racking pains, thine eyes starting from their sockets with sights of blood and woe; thine ears tormented with “Sullen moans and hollow groans. And shrieks of tortured ghosts.”
These quotes were easy to come by and I could go on for pages. Apparently, contemporary traditionalists are out of step and out of touch with the very tradition they see themselves as champions of. Does Christopher Morgan accuse Spurgeon of using a pejorative expression? Does Yarbrough dismiss much of Edwards’ prose as “overwrought rhetoric”? Note that these are the very theologians whom traditionalists will appeal to when making a historical argument for their view (and frankly, that’s their only decent argument). Four of the theologians above are cited by Peterson in Two Views on Hell in the section where he seeks to demonstrate the historical ubiquity of his view. In fact, the quotes from Luther and Calvin were taken directly from that section!
It’s worth noting that most traditionalists who repudiate the use of “torture” are quite comfortable using “torment” to describe their view. This is despite the fact that the words are synonyms with nearly identical definitions and have been used interchangeably by traditionalists of the past (see, for instance, the quotes above from Cyprian, Anselm, Calvin, Edwards, and Spurgeon).
Interestingly, a number of modern English Bibles translate basanizo as “torture.” Basanizo is the Greek word that’s typically translated “torment” in English translations.
Notice how the NET translates Revelation 14:9-11:
If anyone worships the beast and his image, and takes the mark on his forehead or his hand, that person will also drink of the wine of God’s anger that has been mixed undiluted in the cup of his wrath, and he will be tortured with fire and sulfur in front of the holy angels and in front of the Lamb. And the smoke from their torture will go up forever and ever…
The Lexham English Bible also uses “torture” in this passage.
The NIV’s take on Matthew 8:29:
“What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”
This is how the ISV renders Revelation 20:10:
and the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were. They will be tortured day and night forever and ever.
So what’s going on here? Why are contemporary traditionalists OK with one word but not the other? It is true that “torment” and “torture” have different connotations and seem to be used in different contexts (and the following are merely the observations of a layperson who is intimately acquainted with contemporary American English). While there is overlap, “torment” seems to be used more for mental or emotional anguish (e.g. “he was tormented by his memories”) whereas “torture” tends to refer to physical suffering. “Torture” also has a more serious or “extreme” feel to it compared to “torment.” If a child told his parents, “the school bully tormented me today,” that would likely elicit serious concern. But if he said, “the school bully tortured me today,” that might lead to a criminal investigation.
But it’s precisely these differences that arguably make “torture” a more fitting word than “torment” to describe the traditional view. On that view, the pain which God inflicts on the damned is both physical and mental, lasts an extremely long time (forever), and is more intense than can even be imagined. In fact, some traditionalists are fond of saying that the torments of hell are much worse than the descriptions of burning found in Scripture (see, for instance, #7 here or B here).
In any event, it’s just not the case that torture is by definition unjust, as implied by Yarbrough. If it were, then current debates over whether torture is ever justified would immediately be settled as a matter of definition. Moreover, I’m simply not aware of any dictionary that indicates such a thing.
It is true that, in certain contexts, some people associate “torture” with cruelty and sadism. But the reason for this is significant: “torture” is associated with cruelty and sadism because those who inflict excruciating pain on others for prolonged periods of time are very often cruel and sadistic. But it’s hard to see how this would be the grounds for traditionalists’ aversion to the word. “Jealousy,” for instance, is often associated with negative qualities. But I’m not aware of any Christian who argues that we shouldn’t say that God is jealous simply because the word has negative connotations. Instead, Christians typically argue that while human jealousy is often (though not always) sinful and inappropriate, God’s jealousy is holy and pure.
The consistent, intellectually honest traditionalist should argue that yes, when human beings torture other human beings, it’s usually unjust and reflective of a depraved mind. But when God tortures human beings, he is completely holy and just and not cruel or sadistic. “Torture” sounds bad because torture usually is bad. Take the bull by the horns, own up to what you believe, and try to explain why it’s not problematic. Don’t try to avoid the issue by attempting to control the language.
Of course, I understand that many “traditionalists” today soften the traditional view so much that penal suffering is minimized or denied altogether (which is another topic for another day). But if you believe that those in “hell” will be punished with excruciating pain forever, then I’m sorry but you believe that people will be tortured forever. I understand that you may have a problem with me saying that.
But the problem isn’t the word torture; the problem is your view.