God is Bigger than Hell

Three Greek New Testament words: 

  1. Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom where children were sacrificed to pagan gods, and which became in later history the Jerusalem dump, filled with smoldering garbage and maggots.  There the bodies of the many people Rome executed. There, the fire was never quenched and the worm never ceased. (Found in 12 verses: Matthew 5:22,29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6)
  2. Hades, (Latin, infernus): the Greek god of the underworld and place in Greek and Roman mythology where everyone goes after death. It was shadowy, dusty, and not exactly pleasant. In the Ancient Neareast (ANE), only extraordinary people like emperors and pharaohs, who were considered gods, went to a better place (and then only with great ritual, mummification, tombs, etc.). The Greeks called this place the Elysian Fields. Hadeswas also used to refer to the grave, or bodily resting place. (Found in ten verses: Matthew 11:23, 16:18; Luke 10:15, 16:23; Acts 2:27; 1 Corinthians 15:55; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14)
  3. Tartarus, a place where especially evil satanic spirits were tormented. One verse only: 2 Peter 2:4

Old Testament Hebrew – only one word – Sheol, the grave, the bodily resting place, death in general. Later, under Greco-Roman influence, Sheol came to be roughly equated with Hades. Ancient Jews had no concept of life after death other than a belief in an ultimate final resurrection followed by judgment. Similar to others in the ANE, the focus was on pleasing God in this life.[1]

It’s easy to get confused because some English translations translate all these words as “hell.” 

There are a handful of verses that give us hints. David said he would eventually go and be with his deceased son.[2]Paul speaks of it being far better (than this life) to go be with the Lord, and he says that to be absent from the body is to be present with Jesus.[3]Jesus said that he went to prepare a place for us so we can be with him[4], and told the thief dying next to him on the cross that he would be with him in Paradise that day.[5]Paradise may also be the “Abraham’s bosom” Jesus’ referred to in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus.[6]If so, the picture is one of a division in Paradise – one of bliss, the other of punishment.

It would seem that Paradise is equivalent to Hades/Sheol – an intermediary resting place between physical death and physical resurrection. It also appears that humans are 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 with the sure and certain knowledge of a future resurrection. 

The emphasis of the Bible is on heaven coming to earth,[7]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.[8]The goal of redemption is not simply to get us to heaven; it is the means by which God will “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”[9]

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.[10]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. 

Theologians have historically presented four views about hell:

  1. Infernalism, held by some conservative 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. 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. There are, however, some significant problems with infernalism: First, God is exactly like Jesus and there is nothing unchristlike in God. It is hard to reconcile unending torture with the picture we have of Jesus in the New Testament.  Second, how can it be just that finite sin be punished with infinite punishment? Third, a god who inflicts unending torture with no redemptive purpose would be worse than Hitler – that god would be a Hitler whose victims could burn forever but never die. In my opinion, we should set aside this first view. With so many different metaphors in play, it seems 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 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. C. S. Lewis describes an imagined metaphorical possibility of hell 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.
  • Annihilationism is the view that the damned will be exterminated, obliterated, annihilated. Some evangelicals, such as John Stott, Clark Pinnock, and Greg Boyd lean toward this view. They point out that “eternal” can mean unending in effect rather than in duration. An annihilationist would argue that since eternal life is a gift, the human soul is not eternal by nature.[11]According to this view, when we die, we are immersed in the undiluted, perfect, love of God, which is a consuming fire. That fire is warming and comforting to the saved, consuming of the lost. The Apostle Paul speaks of all of us standing before the Judgment Seat of God where all that we have done will be either refined or consumed. That which is in us that is unlike Christ (analogously, wood, hay, stubble) is burnt up; that which is Christ-like (silver, gold, precious stones) is refined. The annihilationist believes that if there is nothing Christ-like about a person, the entre person is consumed. 
  • Christian Universalism[12]is the view that eventually, everyone will be saved and welcomed into the Kingdom of God. Few who hold this view dismiss the idea of hell – they simply believe that hell is a refining process, more like the Catholic understanding of purgatory, rather than a permanent state. Christian universalists believe that hell is not permanent, and that God will eventually use God’s persuasive powers to convince everyone to come to God and be saved. Some 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. 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.

Personally, I currently lean towards a C. S. Lewis-type metamorphic view of hell – active consciousness in a state of eternal separation from God because of one’s own choice. Infernalism seems to me contrary to the nature of the God who is love; Universalism seems to negate human freewill, and Annihilationism assumes that the human soul is killable. Certainly, it is biblically honest to conclude that it is possible to permanently and finally reject God, the consequences of which will be dreadful. I may, however, be wrong. I am not dogmatic. 

Assuming there is a hell, who winds up there?  

  • Not those who have never heard the gospel. 
  • Not babies or children. 
  • Not a bunch of people predestined 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[13]– those who purposely, knowingly, consistently over a lifetime, tell God to go away. Don’t do that. Why would you? God is Perfect Love.

One thing is certain: Follow Jesus as your Lord, love God, others, yourself, and creation with all your heart, and you will live with God in perfect harmony forever. 

[1]The idea of disembodied souls that preëxisted this life and continue after death comes from Plato, not Christianity or Judaism. In fact, the Bible has relatively 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.

[2]2 Samuel 12:23

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

[4]John 14:3

[5]Luke 23:43

[6]Luke 16:19-31

[7]Revelation 21 & 22

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

[9]Ephesians 1:10

[10]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.” 

[11]See, e.g., 2 Peter 1:6; Psalm 37:9-10; Matthew 3:12

[12]Christian Universalism must be distinguished from universalism. The former is based on the redemption of the cross as a universal atonement for sin. Christian Universalists are not saying, everybody is saved apart from Christ; they are saying everyone will eventually be saved because of Christ.  

[13]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 16, 2020, in anabaptist, apologetics, Bible, Bible Teaching, bodily resurrection, Christianity, creation, Jesus, Justice, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God, parables, Peace Shalom Hesed, Prayer, Prophecy, Spirituality, The Cross, Worship. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: