(Hieronymous Bosch painting)
The subject of Hell has suddenly become front burner flame-on hot since little bits of news have been leaking out about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. Patheos is just beginning what will be an extended conversation on the book and the issues it raises, in what it hopes will be a charitable and constructive conversation. See here.
I have not read the book yet, but I do know the testimony of the President of Fuller Seminary, Richard Mouw, who says the book is all about Jesus and within the bounds of what could be called generous orthodoxy as opposed to stingy orthodoxy. I will write a full review when Harper sends me my copy of it, but in the meantime, let’s address the basic questions—
Does the NT teach that 1) there is a Hell, and 2) some folks are going there (not necessarily in a handbasket), and 3) they will experience eternal torment once there?
I have put the matter in three parts, because you could answer questions 1) and 2) with an emphatic yes, and in fact say no to 3). Indeed, there is a time-honored tradition of interpreting the NT to say that what happens to the damned is that they are consumed in Hell or Gehenna or the Lake of Fire — pick your favorite moniker — but then, since they are consumed, there is no eternal torment. Their suffering does not go on and on forever. And one of the possible implications of interpreting the NT this way is that when we finally get around to the last rodeo, which is to say to the new heaven and new earth, only believers in Christ are left standing on the premises. Now this is certainly not universalism in the typical modern sense of the term; it’s not an “all dogs go to heaven” kind of universalism, or a Unitarian kind of universalism. This is, instead, the view that except for those who willfully and knowingly refuse to have any part in Christ and his kingdom, ‘Love Wins’.
I had a student come up to me this week who thought he had resolved the above conundrum and said we need not choose between anihilationism and eternal torment because for the person in question, the torment is forever, if by forever we mean always until he or she ceases to exist. This is an interesting spin on the old question, and worth considering especially when you actually do your homework on the Hebrew word ‘olam’ or the Greek equivalent ‘aeon’.
‘Olam’ has been loosely translated ‘forever’ but the problem with this translation, according to my esteemed colleague Bill Arnold in his 1 Samuel commentary, is twofold: 1) in the phrase berit olam (loosely forever covenant or eternal covenant) it becomes clear that olam actually means a covenant of a definitely long but unspecified duration. In other words, it doesn’t exactly seem to be a synonym for our word ‘eternal’ which means infinitely going on into the future. 2) notice that we have the phrase ‘olam wu olam’ in the OT, loosely translated ‘forever and ever’. Now the phrase ‘wu olam’ is totally unnecessary if in fact ‘olam’ by itself means ‘forever’. In that case, the additional phrase is redundant. And in fact we have the same issue with the word ‘aeon’ in Greek which could be rendered ‘forever’ but it could refer to a specific period of time— an age or aeon. And sure enough we have this same redundancy with a similar Greek phrase. For example in Heb. 13.21 (in some mss.) we have the phrase ‘unto the aeon of aeons’. Why exactly would we need the ‘of aeons’ phrase at all, if ‘aeon’ itself means forever in the modern sense? Inquiring minds want to know.
But what exactly does the Bible say about Hell?
Let’s start with some basic facts. Fact One— the Old Testament says little or nothing about Hell. What it does talk about is Sheol, the land of the dead, which in Greco-Roman thinking has been called Hades. For example, in 1 Sam 28 we hear about Samuel’s shade or spirit being called up from Sheol to be consulted by the medium of Endor. Samuel is none too pleased about the summons, but he is not depicted as having been in either heaven or hell. He is simply in the land of the dead. This concept of Sheol continued on well into the New Testament era, and may well represent what Paul believes about where people have gone who have died, but who are not in Christ. For Christians, of course, Paul says “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5), but what about everyone else?
In 1 Cor. 15, Paul says quite literally that Jesus is raised on Easter “from out of the dead ones”, not merely raised from death, though that is true, but raised from out of the realm of dead persons. This suggests that the dead are still out there, and have not yet been consigned to Hell.
Indeed, traditionally the Christian idea was that no one is consigned to Hell until after the Final Judgment — which, in case you’re wondering, has not yet taken place! Paul is perfectly clear that the Final Judgment comes after Jesus returns, and there is the bema seat judgment of Christ (again 2 Cor. 5) before which we all must appear to give an account of the deeds we have done in the body. (Yes, even Christians are accountable for such things). Thereafter, it would appear, we are assigned to our eternal destinations.
Or consider Revelation 20. Though this is a highly metaphorical and apocalyptic text, it nonetheless suggests the following sequence: 1) the return of Christ; 2) the temporary confinement of Satan; 3) the resurrection of those who are in Christ who will rule with Christ during the millennium; 4) the resurrection from the dead of those not in Christ at the end of the millennium; 5) Satan released, and a final hubbub which leads to Jesus’ judgment on Satan and the nations who are sent packing off to the Lake of Fire, once and for all. So 6) the new heaven and new earth does not emerge until after Final Judgment has been done on the earth. And when John says “and there was no more sea” this is metaphorical but refers to there was no more chaos waters, no more Evil in the universe. This may suggest that Hell is not forever and ever Amen. But there is other evidence, which can be read in different ways.
Let’s be clear that the answer to the first question — Is there a Hell to be found in the New Testament — is certainly yes. And Jesus is perhaps the one most clear about this. He calls it Gehenna, and he says it’s rather like the stinky garbage dump in the Hinnom Valley south of the City of David, and like a garbage dump its where the worm does not die and the fire never goes out. And there are people expected by Jesus to go there, as the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus shows in Lk 16. Granted, this is a parable, an extended metaphor, but it is surely referential, and it indicates the rich man is in an unpleasant place and there is no remedy. There is an unalterable divide between the bosom of Abraham and the place where the rich man currently resides in the after life. The parable teaches that how we live in this life has consequences for where we end up in the afterlife, and this must be taken seriously.
A good presentation on the implications of this is C.S. Lewis’ famous work — The Great Divorce.
So far we have seen that the rather clear answer to the question is there a Hell and are some people going there is— yes, and yes. But consider for a moment the further implication of that parable in Luke 16. It suggests that Abraham, and poor Lazarus did not go to Hell, and yet neither one of them believed in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Indeed belief in Jesus as the risen Lord doesn’t even arise amongst Jesus’ followers until Easter and thereafter. Do we really want to say that nobody went to heaven before Jesus died and rose again? That would be pretty bold theology, and it is a theology contradicted by OT stories (Enoch and Elijah taken up into the presence of God), and Jesus’ afterlife parable in Lk. 16. And then of course there is the issue of whether people are consigned to Hell because they have never heard of the existence of Jesus. The answer to this latter question is no.
If you do study the life and teaching of Gandhi who certainly did know about Jesus and his teachings you will discover that Gandhi didn’t really have much of a problem with the teaching of Jesus — he had a problem with the church. There are a lot of people out there like that these days. More importantly, I don’t think anyone is in the position to say that Gandhi is burning in Hell and we know this with absolute certainty (an issue raised by Rob Bell’s advance video for the book). That is to presume to know the final destiny of someone and where their heart was when they died, and frankly no one has such knowledge except God! We can talk about the criteria the NT establishes for salvation in Christ, but we can’t talk about whether this or that individual definitely embraced these truths before he or she died since we are not omniscient. It is God who looks upon the heart. These facts should cause all censorious Christians to take a chill pill when it comes to definitively consigning someone, especially some living person, to outer darkness, especially since ‘where there is life, there is hope’.
What about texts which suggest that Hell is a place of eternal torment? Yes, there are such texts, and they can be interpreted that way. Perhaps the most famous of these texts is 2 Thess 1.5-10 which should be quoted in full:
“All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.” Note—- there is that word aeon, in this case aeonion in vs. 9, and in the NIV translated ‘eternal’, as above.
Notice several things about this text: 1) the point at which people are punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the Lord’s presence is “on the day when he comes”. Not before the return of Christ, but on the day when he returns. This certainly suggests that while lots of people are in the land of the dead just now, none of them are yet in Hell. That comes after the final judgment of Jesus. 2) what are we to make of the phrase “eternal destruction”. This has usually been interpreted to mean eternal torment. But note the word destruction. The phrase seems almost an oxymoron — how can anything be eternally destroyed? If it is destroyed, isn’t it done with, over, gone? I agree that this phrase might be interpreted to refer to eternal torment, but this is not perfectly clear. Eternal torment may be the implication of Jesus’ parable of the weeds which ends by saying “They will be thrown into a blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13.43) but Jesus does not say for how long. The fact that the fire doesn’t go out in Gehenna does not tell us how long a particular person in Gehenna suffers from it. 2 Pet. 3.7, similarly talks about the judgment and destruction of the ungodly but it also shortly after this talks about the destruction of the old heavens and old earth, and the author seems to imply that once something is destroyed it is gone. In this case it is replaced by a new heaven and a new earth.
What are the implications of all this? I don’t think we can debate that the NT says there is a place we today call Hell, and that some people will end up there, because of their own choices and wickedness. Whether they will experience eternal torment is more debatable. My advice however is that we abstain from pronouncing a final judgment on any human soul; that is Jesus’ job at the final judgment. We simply don’t know the outcome of many who are not followers of Christ now.
And here is a final reason for caution — Romans 11 clearly says that when the Redeemer comes forth from Zion he will turn away the impiety of Jacob — that is, says Paul, when Jesus comes back and the dead are raised, “all Israel will be saved”, which at least means a lot of Jews being saved who currently do not believe in Jesus. Perhaps what Paul means about the second coming in Phil. 2.5-11 is that there will come a day when all will recognize Jesus as the Christ and as Lord, at the eschaton, even though many of them don’t do that now. But there is a difference between recognizing and embracing the truth about Jesus. The demons recognize the truth about Jesus, but it does not transform them.
What I am more sure of than ever, is that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ, and that in the end ‘every knee will bow and ever knee confess’ even those humans or demons who want to have nothing to do with Jesus thereafter. Salvation in the end is not just a matter of being forced to recognize the truth — it’s about positively embracing and trusting that truth. And there are apparently some who will never ever do that. To them God says “if you insist, have it your way”. Hell is the place you experience the absence of the presence of God for as long as you continue to exist. Whether there is a time when Hell will cease to exist, like the crystal sea of Revelation, equally orthodox persons can debate. Annihilation or destruction of Satan, Hell and its inhabitants is a possible interpretation of the eschatological endgame, but it is also possible Hell will go on ‘olam wu olam wu olam‘. If the former is true, then the last persons standing are all followers of Christ according to Revelation. Revelation 21.8 seems pretty clear — “But as for the cowardly, the faithless…[etc.], their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death”. Even more telling is the statement in Rev 22.15 which states that after the new heaven has landed on the new earth and the new Jerusalem has been set up, “outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” It would appear from these last two text, that Hell still has a future, even after the new heaven and new earth show up at a theater near you. What this suggests is that love, even divine love, does not always win with everyone, not even in the end, and it breaks the heart of God as it should break ours.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy Part One (Inferno), and in Jonathan Edward’s rightly famous sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ we find vivid depictions of Hell. Whether or not these lurid pictures amount to ‘over-egging the pudding’ as the British would say, it has never been the case that we should consign some idea to the dustbin of history simply because we find it troubling or even offensive. Indeed, it may well be the hard edges of the Gospel which we most need to hear in an age in which the unholy Trinity holds sway over our culture — the wrong sort of pluralism, the wrong sort of universalism, and relativism.
Hell in the New Testament is a constant reminder that there is a final accountability for our beliefs and behaviors in this life, whatever the particulars and temperature and durability of Hell may be. It is a reminder that this life is basically the time of decision, and the decisions we make now can indeed have eternal consequences in the afterlife. And, frankly, this is not bad news. It is a part of the Good News that in the end justice as well as mercy, righteousness as well as compassion, and holiness as well as love wins. Thanks be to God.