What the Hell?

What the hell is hell, anyway?

Many English translations of the Bible are confusing. They often translate both Hadesand Gehennaas “hell.” Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Sheol, and simply means the abode of the dead. It can mean a grave, a tomb, or someplace dead souls go after death. In Greek philosophy, Hades is a shadowy underworld where disembodied souls dwell. Gehenna was, in New Testament times, the garbage dump just outside of Jerusalem – the Valley of Hinnom where the city’s refuge was tossed along with the bodies of the many people Rome executed. There, the fire was never quenched and the worm never ceased. (It’s a nice public park today. There might be a sermon in that.)[1]

The concept of hell as a never-ending torture chamber is a mediaeval invention that got its strongest boost from Dante (born 1265), who described his version hell in vivid detail in his Inferno. By doing so, he was reawakening an ancient pagan concept unknown to either Judaism or Christianity. If that’s what we mean by “hell,” we need to cast it off. It is pagan.[2]

Moreover, the concept of disembodied souls that preëxisted this life and continue after death comes from Plato, not Christianity or Judaism. In fact, the Bible has very little to say about where a person is after death, and never implies preëxistence. God does not have baby souls lined up waiting for tiny bodies. 

There are a handful of verses that give us hints. David said he would eventually go and be with his deceased son.[3]Paul speaks of it being far better (than this life) to go be with the Lord and says that to be absent from the body is to be present with Jesus.[4]Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for us so we can be with him[5], and told the thief dying next to him on the cross that he would be with him in Paradise that day.[6]Paradise may also be the “Abraham’s bosom” Jesus’ referred to in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus.[7]

It would seem that Paradise is equivalent to Hades/Sheol – an intermediary resting place between physical death and physical resurrection. It also appears that we will be conscious there. But that’s not the end game. The New Testament is primarily interested in resurrection – the physical, bodily resurrection that will take place when Jesus appears at his “second coming.” Scripture is not mainly concerned with where you go when you die, but rather, that we are faithfully following the teachings of the resurrected Christ now. 

The emphasis of the Bible is on heaven coming to earth,[8]not on a few of us evacuating to heaven after we die. All of nature, the cosmos, creation, is being, and will ultimately be, redeemed, transformed, united with God.[9]The goal of redemption is not simply that a few of us get to go to heaven; it is the means by which God will “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”[10]

Even many Christians, like their non-Christian neighbors, speak (especially at funerals) of being reunited with loved ones, as if a grand family reunion is the goal. When I was a hospice chaplain, I heard countless family members speak of “being in a better place,” “up there fishing with uncle George,” “with daddy,” or the like. The biblical goal is to be with Jesus, not mommy. The purpose of our lives is to be with Jesus right here, right now, following him, loving him serving him, and for that to continue into eternity as heaven and earth become one. 

Jesus, and the authors of the New Testament, do, however, use metaphors to describe damnation.[11]The metaphors are mixed, which indicates that the authors and speakers are saying, “It’s kind of like this.” Those metaphors include: a lake of fire, outer darkness, being bound and tossed into the street by bouncers at a party, wailing, grinding ones teeth in anger, not being let into the house, and separated like sheep from goats. The very fact that so many metaphors are used tells us that we can’t take any one of them with wooden literalness. There’s no torture chamber in the belly of God’s castle. 

Theologians have historically presented four views about hell.

  1. The literal view, held by some evangelical and most fundamentalist believers, sees hell as a literal, physical place that looks much like a huge lake made of fire, in which all people who reject Jesus will be physically tortured for all eternity. Most fundamentalists would even go a step further and say that only those who purposely and cognitively accept Christ will avoid hell.
  2. The metaphorical view also sees hell as eternal conscious suffering, but speculates that the suffering may be more mental than physical. This view sees hell as more of a state of mind or feeling, as opposed to a place.
  3. Christian universalists believe that hell is not permanent, and that God will eventually use his persuasive powers to convince everyone to come to him and be saved. Most mainline Protestant preachers and theologians, many Roman Catholic priests, and an increasing number of Calvinists (who speculate that God has elected everyone and will, either in time or in eternity, irresistibly draw them to himself) hold this view. 
  4. Annihilationism is the belief that those who reject Christ will be annihilated at the final judgment. This view is increasing in popularity among evangelical believers.

In my opinion, we should set aside the first view. With so many different metaphors in play, it should be apparent that they couldn’t all be literal. Hell can’t literally be a lake of fire, outer darkness, and the town dump all at the same time.

The other three views have scriptural support. There are many universalist passages in the Bible. But, there are also passages that may indicate annihilation, as well as passages that seem to point toward eternal suffering or loss. To land on any one view almost requires ignoring or reinterpreting opposing scriptures.

I’d love to believe in universalism, but it seems to me that to do so is to negate human free will. Humans, if truly free, must, I think, have the capacity, tragic as it may be, to finally and permanently reject God. Besides, if universalism is true, it takes the air out of many of Jesus’ stern warnings. 

Is it possible for personhood to cease existing? Perhaps. If so, Annihilationism – the belief that those who repeatedly, knowingly, purposely say a firm “no” to being children of God – may in fact be the end game.

Or, perhaps “hell” is something like what C. S. Lewis describes in The Great Divorce– people rejecting God, refusing love, because of their self-centeredness and self-focus, resulting in them becoming disconnected from love and community, and thereby less than human.

It would seem that the best we can do is conclude that it is possible to permanently and finally reject God, the consequences of which will be dreadful.

If so, who “goes to hell?” 

Not those who have never heard the gospel. 

Not babies or children. 

Not a bunch of people elected for damnation. 

Not Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists 

Not those who were in this life notoriously bad. 

Not those who have never said a “sinner’s prayer,” responded to an altar call, or joined a church

Not those who do not adhere to the “right” set of doctrinal beliefs

Not those who have never been baptized this way or that. 

Whatever “hell” is, it is reserved for those who trample Jesus under foot and despise the blood of Christ[12]– those who purposely, knowingly, consistently over a lifetime tell God to go away. Don’t do that. 

[1]There is also one reference, in 2 Peter 2:4, to Tartarus, which, in Greek mythology is an abyss where the Titans are imprisoned. 

[2]Side note: Dante’s Infernowas more of a political treatise than a theological work – he depicted people he knew and didn’t like in hell.

[3]2 Samuel 12:23

[4]Philippians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 5:8

[5]John 14:3

[6]Luke 23:43

[7]Luke 16:19-31

[8]Revelation 21 & 22

[9]2 Peter 3:13; Romans 8:19-21

[10]Ephesians 1:10

[11]A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object to which it is not literally applicable. Most of us prefer similes to metaphors. A simile would say, “she is like an angel;” whereas a metaphor leaves out the “like,” and would read, “She is an angel.” That sometimes confuses people unfamiliar with figures of speech. 

[12]Hebrews 10:29

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter

Posted on July 20, 2019, in apologetics, Bible, Bible Teaching, bodily resurrection, Christianity, creation, Jesus, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God, parables, Prayer, Prophecy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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