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:
- 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.
- 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.