Hell Redux

November 29, 2007

I’ve been reading some of the comments on Kimball’s post on hell, and there is a point that I don’t think I made very directly in my posts on the subject a few months ago. Its worth making here.

Like many others, I believe that our best scholars are now telling us that scripture isn’t describing how we will “go to heaven after we die.” Instead, it is telling a story about how God is remaking heaven and earth, reassuming his “rule” over the earth (“the kingdom of God”). It is a present and progressive process – that is, even now God acts to reclaim his world. Furthermore, heaven is something that is intended to be ultimately joined with earth, not something that is separate from it.

The promise that relates to the “afterlife” is that we will be resurrected into the renewed creation, not – as Jedi Master Wright puts it – that we will be disembodied spirits in some distant, ethereal realm.

The message of scripture, then, isn’t about who will go to “heaven” and who will go to “hell,” but who will live within the new creation (and who cannot). It strikes me that, unless we can pose the question in that way, we are going to confuse ourselves from the very start. For example, we may start referring to this new world as the “afterlife,” which implies that – whatever that future existence is like – it is not “life.” But the promise of scripture is that in new creation there is life to the full – life in abundance; more life, not less. God’s new world is more real, more material, more “earthy” than this.

More to the point: you will never find distinctions between those present in “heaven” and those in “hell” in the NT because its not (exactly) framing things in that way. (If you have an issue here because of some images in Revelation – let me know – there’s a pretty clear distinction for me). But  once you frame the question in terms of those who live in new creation and those who do not, I think you begin to think of the issues much differently.

…and just to reiterate: for me, it makes sense that the “outer darkness” of Ghenna is an image for the place where those who are “outside” of new creation are consigned. To say that they are in “Hades” implies that they remain in the realm of the dead, made famous by Greek mythology.

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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”?


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, 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)