What is Hell Like?

January 28, 2007

This is a tricky question because, as I’ve already stated, for the New Testament writers, hell’s most important feature is that it is “outside” God’s kingdom – a place for those who set themselves up against the rule of God in the world. I am not sure that their point is to describe what hell is actually like, except to say that it is an unpleasant place to be when compared to God’s kingdom.

It is also a tricky question because, as I’ve indicated in previous posts, hell is always described in metaphor. No one ever lays out a systematic description of exactly what one can expect to experience in hell.

Nevertheless, the predominant voices in scripture seem to portray hell as a place of destruction. Matthew 10, discussed here talks about things being “destroyed” in hell. Likewise, in the Revelation, the description of the lake of fire as the “second death,” and the refernce to the destruction of Hades itself in the lake of fire, discussed here, is also consistent with this concept. A number of other parables that may describe hell in metaphor (such as those discussing chaff that is burned) also lean toward the concept of destruction.

However, there are two texts – one in Luke and one in Matthew 25 – which portray Ghenna/Hades as a place where people are punished and in which they suffer.

Is there a way to reconcile the hell that “destroys body and soul” in Matthew 10 with the hell of “punishment” and “torment” in Luke and Matthew 25? Possibly. In a way, the next few posts will focus on exactly that question. But – in doing so – we should recognize from the beginning that we are asking questions to which there are no clear answers in scripture. As such, any answers that anyone offers, while they may be helpful, are also going to be more or less speculative. And their answers should not be thought of as central to the “good news” that God has come in the form of Jesus to restore goodness and order to his creation. In the end, we must trust that God is good without knowing, with full certainty, all of the answers.

One last issue…if the “place” that scripture refers to as Ghenna/Hades is a place of torment and punishment, is it punishment that (literally) has no end? 

The only New Testament text that may directly state as much is Matthew 25. In that chapter, it says that those who are insensitvie to the plight of the oppressed and poor will go off to “eternal punishment.” [notice again how it isn’t just anyone who suffers this fate, nor is the fate tied to “non-Christians”]

Without going into issues about the original language – which I’m not qualified to discuss anyway – there is some controversy about whether the Greek phrase in question is properly understood in English as “eternal punishment.” In fact, there is an argument that it is referring to a quality or type of punishment, rather than a length and that the language may imply the opposite of “forever” – that it may be time limited. If you’re interested in the argument for a different translation of the only phrase in scripture that directly suggests “eternal punishment,” you can read about it here.

Up next – I will begin working on the principal question posted by universalists: for those who end up in hell, does hell get the “last word”?


Farewell to Exclusivism

January 25, 2007

The traditional way of describing the fate of non-Christians, in more conservative evangelical circles, goes something like this: 

All who are not members of the Christian community at the time of their death will be tortured in hell for all eternity.

This approach is often called “exclusivism,” because it holds that the only people who are spared from hell are those who are expressly and consciously a Christian at the time of their death.

I have come to believe that there is little or no scriptural support for the exclusivist position. The reason for this is pretty simple to understand, if you know something about cheesy TV shows and movies during the 70s and 80s.

Back in the day before cell phones, word processors, and hacks who tried to falsify military documents to make presidential candidates look bad, your typical kidnapper in a TV show or movie had a real problem – how to create a ransom note without giving yourself away. After all, you can’t make the note in your own handwriting, can you?

The solution to this problem was to put on a pair of gloves and then cut and paste individual words or letters out of a magazine or newspaper until you spelled out what you wanted. Here’s an example of typical message of this nature:

Exclusivists, I’m convinced, have to do a lot of cutting and pasting to reach their conclusions. They have to take a text which says that someone who does not “believe” will be “condemned” from some place like this, and then equate “condemnation” with hell in a place like this.

Problem is, what John is saying about condemnation in the first text may have little or nothing to do with what Matthew is saying about hell in the second one, and vice versa. You can only come to an exclusivist position by equating things that were written in different times, to different people, in different contexts, addressing different issues.

To put it another way, none of the direct references to hell (whether the original word is “Ghenna” or “Hades”) ever state anything that is close to the exclusivist position: that hell is a place for all non-Christians. Instead, in each case, they describe only one action (or a small list of particular types of action) that put one in jeapordy of hell.

I’ve also noticed that the pattern in the description of hell-bound people relates directly to another important theme in scripture: power and oppression. That is, the hell-bound people are the powerful who are using that power to oppress others. This is the thing from which God, time and time again, says he will save us.

Hell, then, is not the thing from which we will be saved. Rather, it is an integral part of God’s saving work. Unless God tosses “out” those who make the world a miserable place, those who are in the world can never be saved.

I realize that this may turn a lot of things that you have always heard on their head. But I’m convinced that it is necessary to thoroughly digest this idea before you can gain appreciation of hell that is consistent with that of the New Testament writers.

To Hell and Back Again (A Summary of the Journey So Far)

January 22, 2007

I tend to blog in fits and starts. Often, when I’m dealing with larger ideas and more complex thoughts, the I end up writing bits and pieces of things here and there, and I suspect it is very hard for readers to get the big picture.

So, for the benefit of those who have been following this series, a summary of where I’ve been on the subject of hell is in order.

My interest in this subject arises out of my concern that the idea of hell, though present in scripture, has been tossed to the way-side in many Christian circles.  This is an important issue to explore, in part, because it influences our theology. However, our understanding of hell can influence our attitudes on other important subjects, such as torture.

I have been trying to develop a clearer picture of hell, as that term is used in the New Testament. My recent posts have attempted to describe that picture.

I began with a word study. In actuality, our English bibles usually translate as “hell” two different Greek words: (1) “Ghenna” – the name for a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem and (2) Hades – the realm of the dead in Greek mythology.

I have sought to understand these terms in the context of the larger message of the gospels, which is concerned with the advancement of God’s kingdom. “The Kingdom of God” is a way of describing God’s new world – a world in which God is in charge, and in which those who seek to dominate and control the world and/or their fellow man are displaced. It is a world in which the oppressed and the poor find justice and peace and mercy. Ghenna and Hades are consistently used to describe the status of those who set themselves up against God’s kingdom. That is, “hell” is a way of describing the status of people who try to be in control of the world as God’s kingdom arrives. Such people, we are told, will find themselves tossed “out” of their positions of privilege and power and into the garbage dump.

I am often curious about what hell is like. But the New Testament writers don’t seem to be concerned with that issue. Rather, they are concerned with assuring us that certain types of people will go to hell – they will be thrown out, so to speak, from God’s new world.  

Specifically, Ghenna/Hades is a place for:

– Those who pretend outwardly to be righteous, while inwardly holding onto hatreds and lusts which cause them to be abusive and hateful toward others;

– Those who use their authority as religious leaders to mislead people about God, distracting them from his main purpose – to bring justice and mercy to the world;

– Those who seek to hinder the progress of God’s kingdom by persecuting followers of God;

– Those who ignore the pleas of the helpless and poor;

– Those who participate in systems that persecute followers of God; and

– Those who know of people who are sick, hungry, imprisoned, and naked and fail to respond to their needs.

In the next post, I will state some general conclusions that I’ve drawn at this point.

Jesus and Judgment

January 22, 2007

In previous posts, I’ve been thinking out loud about the two terms that are primarily translated as “hell” in the New Testament. In this post, I will turn to two texts that – while they do not use “Ghenna” or “Hades” – nevertheless seem to be discussing a coming judgment and punishment.

The first text can be found in Matthew 25. In this text, Jesus indicates that he will return to the world in judgment and everyone will either be considered a “sheep” or a “goat.” Those who are “sheep” are considered to be “righteous.” They have treated their fellow man with compassion, dignity and respect. The goats are those who have been self-centered, refusing to help those who are in need. At the end, Jesus says that those who did not treat their fellow man with compassion will go away to “eternal punishment.”

A similar scene is found in the symbol-rich language of Chapter 20 in the Revelation. Here, everyone – both living and dead – is gathered before God’s throne. Once more, everyone is judged “according to what they have done,” as recorded in something called a “book of life.” Everyone whose name is not found in the book of life is thrown into the lake of fire, which we are told symbolizes “the second death.”

(Interestingly enough, we are also told that “Hades” – a word that we commonly translate as “hell” – is also thrown into the lake of fire. Is John telling us that “hell” itself will one day be destroyed?)

Later, in chapter 21, we are told this: “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.” Without going into an extended exegesis of the Revelation, this would appear to be a description of those who support a powerful, oppressive state that sets itself up against God’s kingdom, persecuting Christians.

As if to underscore the point, we are reminded immediately after this that the firey lake represents “the second death.” (The Revelation does this quite a lot, by the way. It uses symbolic imagery, and then immediately tells us what the image is supposed to represent.)

For those of you who wonder where this series of posts is going (or are just hoping it ends soon!), I am going to work toward some more general conclusions in the next post or two, but I do think its important to notice a couple of things here:

  1. People are judged/punished becuase of what they have done. There is no way around it. Some Christians want to change this into “we are judged according to whether we have accepted Jesus,” but the very texts that Christians want to use to beat people over the head about hell just don’t say that. They emphasize judgment based on works.
  2. These two texts beg a really important question: are we talking about a place of “punishment” (whether “eternal” or otherwise) or “death”? This is a tension that I have also noticed in the “Ghenna” and “Hades” texts.

More to come.

Jesus, John, and Hades

January 18, 2007

During the last few posts, I’ve talked about Jesus’ use of the word “Ghenna.” I now want to turn to the way Jesus and the author of the Revelation use another word – “Hades.”

Hades, of course, is a term that is derived from Greek mythology. It describes both the realm of the dead, as well as the person who was recognized as being the god of the dead. Hades the god is also, of course an important Disney villan, which is important to know when you live in a house with lots of young girls.

I don’t want to over-generalize about Hades. After all, it represents a mythology that has existed for hundreds of years, and it has evolved over time. However, generally speaking, Hades was not considered to be a place of punishment. Rather, it was a place that could be characterized as the abode of the dead.

I can readily see how such mythological place would be useful to Jesus in his teachings. Jesus came to earth to talk about newness. A new world. A new birth. New life. God’s new world was on its way, with its ultimate promise of resurrection from the dead – life without death for those who are willing to participate in God’s kingdom.

Like Ghenna, then, Hades is a place for those who are outside. They are those who don’t participate in the Kingdom and therefore find themselves consigned to the realm of the dead.

So when does Jesus use the word Hades? The best example by far is in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16. Here, Jesus tells a story about a rich man who consistently ignored a beggar during his lifetime. Upon his death, the rich man was consigned to Hades (where, incidentally, he did suffer). Interestingly enough, the concept of resurrection figures prominently in this story. Lazarus pleads that he be allowed to leave the realm of Hades to warn his family of the torment that is ahead for those who ignore the plight of the poor, but he is told that his family would not even respond to one who rises from the dead.

In the imagery-rich context of the Revelation, Hades also plays a special role. It always appears with its unholy twin, death. The two of them appear to be fearsome and even unbeatable at times. But we are assured that Jesus can unlock Hades itself (1:18), and in the end Hades and death are destroyed. (20:14).

Up next: God and punishment (eternal or otherwise)

Jesus and Ghenna: The Seven Woes

January 18, 2007

During the last few posts, I’ve been reflecting on the way that Jesus talked about “Ghenna,” a garbage dump that was located just outside of Jerusalem. The word “Ghenna” is often translated as “hell” in English bibles.

The last, major section of scripture in which the word “Ghenna” is used is found in Matthew 23. This section of scripture contains seven woes that are directed at the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Here is an excerpt from that chapter:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

* * *

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of Ghenna as you are.

* * *

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

* * *

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Ghenna?

The seven “woes” fit perfectly with the other texts in which Jesus refers to Ghenna. After chewing on these texts during the last few weeks, I’m struck with how – in each instance – Ghenna is seen as a place where religious leaders will end up. Why? Consistently the answer is that they stand in the way of the Kingdom of God by encouraging systems of religiosity. Rather than doing justice and mercy to their fellow man, they tie their fellow man up with regulations and inordinate focus on external, ceremonial acts.

Up next: Some reflections on “Hades,” the other major word that is translated as “hell,” and how it is also tied – with even more strength – to themes of social justice. 

Jesus and Ghenna: A Place of Destruction

January 13, 2007

I’m continuing my little tour of a place Jesus called “Ghenna,” which our English bibles almost always translate (mis-translate?) as “hell.” Today’s stop: Matthew 10.

In Matthew 10, Jesus encourages his disciples to move into the world and offer the gifts of God – healing the sick, raising the dead, and generally giving of themselves freely as they have received from God. This, he says, is the way God’s kingdom becomes present among the world.

He warns them, however, to expect opposition – people who are in positions of religious and political power who will not like this, and who will even encourage betrayal from family and friends. In spite of this opposition, Jesus assures the disciples that there is no need for fear of those people who are in power. In fact, he assures them that God will come and deal with those who reject his Kingdom. Moving the kingdom forward without fear of the powers that be is a critical theme in this discourse.

In connection with that theme, Jesus says this:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Ghenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

I do not think that Jesus’ purpose here is to threaten the disciples with destruction in Ghenna. In fact, he seems to be saying that – quite the opposite – God has great concern for their well being. Instead, I think Jesus is saying that God should be feared because he is capable of dealing with those powers that oppose representatives of his kingdom.

Even if you are convinced Jesus is somehow threatening the disciples with Ghenna, however, notice what he says happens in Ghenna: body and soul are destroyed. In Matthew 10, then, the purpose of Ghenna is not to maliciously torment people for eternity, but to put an end to those who oppose (or possibly who refuse to advance) God’s kingdom. In other words, Ghenna serves the purpose of “putting out into the trash heap” those who stand in the way of God’s movement to bring healing and life to the world.

More to come.