What are we talking about when we talk about hell? I’m convinced that many of us don’t know.
Is hell an actual place?
Can we know anything about what happens in hell if it is a place?
Where exactly do our details about hell come from?
I’ve heard from a number of pastors and scholars that we can’t deny the reality of hell as a literal place because Jesus talked about hell a lot. Since I was resolved to let the Bible determine what I believe about hell and eternal punishment, I hardly gave it another thought, even when Rob Bell told us that Love Wins and the collective evangelical church lost its mind over what exactly that means.
When I started exploring every topic that has ever shaken my faith or the faith of someone else for my Christian Survival Guide project, I had to face the fact that I’d been avoiding hell. I didn’t want to think about it.
And so I finally let myself ask the question I’d been avoiding, Does God punish humans eternally for a decision made during 80 years (give or take) of life?
I’ve heard the arguments that God’s gift of eternal life is so wonderful that denying it requires eternal punishment since God’s infinite holiness demands infinite torment for those who oppose him. That represents a line of thinking I simply can’t follow, and I don’t think scripture warrants it either. I’d like to offer a brief overview of the chapter on hell from the Christian Survival Guide that delves into the details about hell.
As an evangelical, I can’t help but begin in the most obvious place…
What Does the Bible Say about Hell?
Beginning with the question, “What does the Bible say?” hardly settles things for us. The Bible doesn’t even have a single word for hell.
If you’re reading the Old Testament, the Hebrew word Sheol tends to refer to the place of the dead. Jewish scholars later translated Sheol as “Hades” in their Greek translation.
While Hades tended to be viewed in a negative light, that was primarily rooted in the fact that those in Hades were no longer alive. While they weren’t able to enjoy the pleasures of the living, they weren’t necessarily suffering eternal conscious torment.
In fact, the idea of judgment and suffering in the afterlife took on a far richer form in the intertestamental writings. As the Jews suffered at the hands of foreign invaders, they looked ahead to a day when God would vanquish their enemies and punish them. By the time the writers of the New Testament came around, the concept of punishment after death had been evolving. It was far from a single concept that was passed down from one generation to another.
In the New Testament we find two words for “hell,” and neither necessarily demand an eternity of conscious torment. While you can certainly make a case for that based on several passages that mention “eternal fire,” it’s not as cut and dry as many believe.
For instance, Jesus spoke frequently of the Jewish leaders being cast into Gehenna, an alleged garbage dump outside the city of Jerusalem that had once been used for child sacrifices by the Judean kings. The word carried a clear implication of being outside of God’s Kingdom and separated from God’s people in some way, but it’s a theological leap to say that Gehenna equals eternal conscious torment in hell.
When Jesus speaks of God’s judgment, he speaks of eternal fire, but that’s not the same thing as saying the people “in” the fire are eternal. While one could argue for eternal torment based on those passages, they don’t demand hell as a place of eternal punishment. And it’s especially problematic to connect the eternal torment passages with the Gehenna passages since those are two different images given to two different people.
(Check out Scot McKnight’s series on hell for a bit more about the relevant passages, especially his overview of Jesus’ statements about eternal fire.)
As the early church fathers parsed the words of Jesus and the Apostles, they engaged in some of their sharpest arguments over the eternal nature of the soul. If your soul has suffered a “second death” and has been consumed by fire, can your soul exist forever?
In fact, the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles fail to clarify things. Rather, they focus primarily on God’s judgment. Mind you, that judgment is a frightening prospect, but we are also far removed from the literary and mythological world of the New Testament.
Even when the book of Revelation touches on judgment, the beast the devil are the only ones who are explicitly tormented forever (Rev. 20:10, NIV via BibleGateway). And let’s not forget that the ENTIRE book of Revelation is chock full of symbols, imagery, and metaphors. Even if we read about people being tossed into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:15), should we really expect a literal lake of fire?
(For more about interpreting Revelation, see my book The Good News of Revelation).
Based on the symbols and imagery connected to God’s judgment, there is no denying that disobedience is serious. Rejecting God’s ways in order to follow our own brings about disastrous consequences. I’m not making an argument for a “There, there,” grandfather-type of God who chuckles about “those kids” down there who are killing, violating, polluting, oppressing, and abusing each other.
Those who reject the mercy of God found in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ run the risk of being “left out.” God is just and sin must be eradicated. Evil and death will be defeated.
Does the New Testament give us cause to speak in great detail about the afterlife, let alone speak of a literal place of eternal torment called hell?
Can we precisely understand how the New Testament writers re-appropriated the Greek word Hades?
Can we dive into the first century Jewish psyche and grasp the meaning of Gehenna, with its burning fire and dark history?
Can we pinpoint what “eternal” or “everlasting” fire is or what its intended to accomplish?
Evangelicals committed to scripture are all over the place on hell:
- The universalists argue that the fire of God’s judgment is purifying and restorative (I understand that traditionalists argue one cannot be universalist and evangelical).
- The annihiliationists argue that it consumes the soul, rendering eternal life impossible.
- The traditionalists argue that this fire means everyone outside of God’s Kingdom suffers eternal conscious torment.
Can you see how big this mess is?
Christians, at least American evangelicals, have become dogmatic about a theological concept rooted in terms we most likely fail to understand.
Can We Blame Dante for Our Concept of Hell?
This is something I’ve heard from a few people. While I have yet to see a truly compelling argument that traces the history of hell form the New Testament to the present day and makes the necessary literary connections to back up such a claim, Jon M. Sweeney has taken a strong step in that direction.
Sweeney’s book, Inventing Hell, argues that Dante’s version of hell has done more to influence the way we read the Bible than we suspect. While I felt that he fell short of proving that assertion, he did a masterful job of reconstructing the various ancient views of the afterlife and offers some thought-provoking reconstructions of the New Testament world.
Inventing Hell reminds us that the literary symbols and mythological stories of the past can’t be ruled out when we interpret the Bible. The writers of scripture were reacting against or recycling the ideas and stories of their day. Paul had no issue preaching about the resurrection to unwilling listeners, but he also used mythological figures such as the “Unknown God” and popular poetry to introduce the story of Jesus.
It’s quite likely that interpreters of scripture have allowed Dante’s epic poem to reshape how they read scripture. The Bible says very little about the actual details of hell, so if we think we know what hell is like, we may have to blame Dante.
Where Does This Leave Us with Hell?
If anything, I want to remind us that the traditional concept of hell as eternal conscious torment isn’t a done deal based on a “plain reading” of scripture.
I especially want Christians to take another look at scripture without assuming they already understand what words like Sheol, Gehenna and Hades precisely mean.
The truth is that Gehenna and Hades touched on both a mythological and religious way of thinking—a way of thinking that often blended myth with religion in ways that we find hard to grasp today. There were historical places, events, and stories that shaped what people made of these words when they heard Jesus and the early Christians use them.
Sincere followers of Jesus may believe that the fire of judgment is an eternal punishment, a final annihilation of those rebelling against God, or a purifying fire. We’re so far removed from the original languages and cultures, I don’t know how anyone today can claim to absolute certainty here.
Perhaps the most revealing question for us today is this: “Why do we need hell to be eternal conscious torment?”
If you’re convinced that the Bible teaches it, that’s fine. But Christians disagree on plenty of other issues related to biblical interpretation and translation. Why make more noise about this one in particular? Why excommunicate someone who believes God is more merciful?
Perhaps the fixation of American evangelicals with hell as eternal conscious torment has more to do with our desire to make heaven look better and to make ourselves into the ultimate “insiders” for all of eternity.
The afterlife has been evolving throughout the writing of scripture, and it’s fair to say that it has evolved as Christians continue to interpret scripture. God will judge sin and evil, but I have no idea what that will look like. Given that the Bible hardly has a uniform way of naming hell, let alone describing it consistently and explicitly with clear details, it’s far more likely that we’re the ones who have made up the notion that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment.
There’s a lot more I could write about this. In fact, I HAVE written more about this.
I’ve been intentionally light on biblical exposition in this post because I did a ton of that in my book. This post is more of a summary of that content. Check out the chapter in A Christian Survival Guide about hell for a more thorough exploration of the relevant passages and some other perspectives from theologians in the church. I spend quite a bit of time pulling together the relevant passages and offer up some points for further reflection, including a suggested reading list.