Hell, No!

My Sunday school class has transitioned from its study of the Book of Revelation to an broader exploration of the topics raised by the book and in particular its ending. And so we ended up talking about the afterlife in general, and hell in particular, last Sunday.

I offered a survey of the development of the doctrine of the afterlife within the Bible. The truth is, there isn't much of a development throughout the Hebrew Bible. There are authors who assume that death is the end of life, that any sort of shadowy existence in sheol is not worthy of being called “life.” Some indicate this through their silence, as for instance Amos and the other prophets who warn of judgments coming upon Judah and Israel within history, but never warn of judgment in an afterlife. Others actually verbalize their assumptions about this, as in the Book of Job, when Job is depicted as saying (7:7-10):

Remember that my life is but breath;My eye will not again see good.The eye of him who sees me will behold me no longer;Your eyes will be on me, but I will not be.When a cloud vanishes, it is gone,So he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.He will not return again to his house,Nor will his place know him anymore.

The character of Job doesn't merely ignore an afterlife, but directly denies one, and rules out anything like a resurrection in particular.

The presentation of judgment in an afterlife involving resurrection enters the Jewish Bible in what is probably the last of its contents to be composed, namely the Book of Daniel. That is in response to the persecution of those who obeyed the Jewish Torah during the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes. It was no longer merely the problem that bad things sometimes happen to good people. Now it was the case that those who obey what they considered the Law of God were the ones singled out for harm and execution, while those who forsook the Torah flourished. In response, some Jews developed the belief that even death could not prevent God from doing justice.

All that is before we get to the time when Christianity emerged. Judaism in that time reflected the range of views expressed in the Hebrew Bible, and more. Christianity sided pretty much unanimously with Daniel and the Pharisees in affirming that there would be a resurrection and judgment.

On the details, however, there are still some signs of diversity. Would God eventually reconcile all things to himself? Would the punishment in the afterlife be everlasting? Would it involve annihilation or eternal torment? Many make assumptions about the nature of New Testament views on these topics which are not always justified by the actual texts and what they explicitly say.

In the case of the Book of Revelation, rather than people “going to heaven,” after the final resurrection, the righteous inhabit a new Jerusalem on a new Earth, and notwithstanding the casting of people into a lake of fire, at the end of the book, there are apparently people still living outside the city and persisting in unrighteousness. And as far as the book says explicitly, it is not clear that the opportunity for them to change their ways and enter is past.

Of course, what the new Jerusalem represents would need further discussion. It descends from heaven dressed like a bride, and there is reference to the bride of the Lamb. Elsewhere in the New Testament it is the church that is the bride of Christ. And so is this heavenly city a symbol of the church?

There are lots of reasons for rejecting the notion of hell, and in particular hell as eternal punishment, on Christian grounds. If the idea of God as Father is to be a meaningful metaphor, however limited we say human language is when it comes to talking about God, then the fact that none few of us would ever respond to the shortcomings and rebelliousness of our children by torturing them forever is a relevant consideration. The New Testament's teaching on not seeking rewards is also relevant, since for many Christians, it is in fact all about the rewards, just heavenly rather than earthly ones. Most parents hope that our children will outgrow the “because I said so” stage and do what is right not because of threatened consequences if they do not, but just because it is right.

And of course, with the late arrival of notions of afterlife in the Biblical tradition, and the depictions in the New Testament of Jesus going back behind later developments to original intentions, it might be appropriate to say something like “Daniel gave you the doctrine of the afterlife because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not so in the beginning…”

More could be said on this topic, but this post has grown long enough. I will leave you with one additional thought. If we include the first part of John 8 in the New Testament, despite its not having been an original part of the Gospel of John, then might we not have a basis for viewing the following as a fundamentally Christian view of a “last judgment”? If not, then why not?

At the final judgment, Jesus appeared and all the saints gathered around him, and he sat them down on thrones to judge the unbelievers. Those sinners were brought in and made to stand before the group. The saints said to Jesus, “Lord, these people were caught in the act of committing adultery, murder, theft, and other such sins. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such people. Now what do you say?”But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.At this, the saints who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the rest of humankind still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked them, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”“No one, sir,” they said.“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

 

  • http://www.justinboulmay.wordpress.com/ Justin Boulmay

    “And of course, with the late arrival of notions of afterlife in the
    Biblical tradition, and the depictions in the New Testament of Jesus
    going back behind later developments to original intentions, it might be
    appropriate to say something like ‘Daniel gave you the doctrine of the
    afterlife because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not so in
    the beginning…’”

    Interesting post! In regard to what I quoted above, though, isn’t Daniel’s vision of the resurrection endorsed by Jesus in John 5? So would we have the liberty to say that Daniel’s understanding was given to us because of our hardened hearts?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I would not be confident using the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John as a source for discussing what the historical Jesus said. But having said that, I do think there is reason to conclude that Jesus believed in an afterlife and thought of it in terms of resurrection. The question then becomes whether and when it is legitimate for Christians today to apply the principles Jesus taught us in ways that lead to us viewing things differently than he appears to have in our ancient sources.

      • Hro

        James, why should the opinion of some ancient guy be relevant in any way? I mean, Jesus seems to have thought that evil spirits caused diseases.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          Well, we are all in dialogue with the past in a variety of ways. I think it is best for that dialogue to be conscious and critically engaged. There are those who would simply accept what they think this or that figure in the past said on authority. And there are those who, rejecting what figures in the past have said, may not realize that, while knowledge is cumulative and progressive, there may still be things that we will be so badly wrong about that people 2,000 years from now will look back and shake their heads.

          Being in conscious conversation with those who have gone before us, while being open to disagreeing with them, seems to me to plot a helpful middle course between two extremes that are less appealing.

  • http://theupsidedownworld.com/ Rebecca Trotter

    I became fascinated with the topic of hell about a decade ago and spent a truly absurd amount of time studying what the bible taught as well as the history of the teaching of hell in the early church. I came away utterly convinced of the same thing which was very widely held in the early church – that of universal reconciliation. I’m not sure that I would agree that the idea of an afterlife was given because of hardness of hearts, though. Rather I think that in the Old Testament it probably reflected a rejection of the cult of death which was common in ANE religions – particularly ancient Egypt.

    At any rate, I did a series this fall on what the bible actually has to say about “hell”, if anyone’s interested:

    http://theupsidedownworld.com/hot-topics/hell/

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I hope people will click on your link, if only to see some of the great images you have embedded in your post! :-)

  • Gary

    Too bad there is not a book entitled “Heaven, Hell, and Afterlife? for Dummies”. Then I wouldn’t have to think about it. Not necessarily what I believe, but I have heard several pastors use the Lazarus and rich man story to justify the actual existence of heaven, hell, and afterlife. I don’t buy into it as anything but a story. But their rationale is:
    Jesus said it, and used an actual name of a person, instead of generic “a man” only. So they figure it must be about a reality.
    For me, it is all an open, unanswered question. Gehenna is about as symbolic as I can imagine. Saying you are going to Gehenna 2000 years ago is like me saying “drop dead!” Strictly symbolic. I certainly don’t want anyone to drop dead. Although I will say, if there is no afterlife, I will certainly be disappointed, considering all the time I (perhaps) wasted going to church. Not to mention the tithing I paid :-)

    • http://theupsidedownworld.com/ Rebecca Trotter

      Tellingly, the first time we find Gehenna being used in relation to the afterlife in Jewish writing is in the 6th century. The people Jesus was speaking to would have had no idea he was talking about the afterlife when he spoke of Gehenna. Rather when he referred to Gehenna, the people would have thought of the exile of the Jews and particularly Jeremiah. Gehenna was the Greek term for Ben Hinnom or Tophet which plays a pretty prominent role in the book of Jeremiah. But the idea that Gehenna had anything to do with the afterlife would have been completely unknown to the people of Jesus’ day.

  • Titus O’Bryant

    Thanks for your blog. I am a long-time reader, first-time commenter. In reference to Job, how do you understand his statements near the end of chapter 19? “As
    for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that as the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my
    skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will
    see God, whom I will see for myself, and whom my own
    eyes will behold, and not another.” Does this indicate some notion of a resurrection and afterlife or something else?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Hi Titus! I’m glad this post got you to leave your first comment!

      I find Job 19 puzzling, since the meaning is so difficult. I am thinking that I might post on it separately, if no one chimes in here in the comments section. But I would love to get some Hebrew Bible specialists’ thoughts, and not just offer my own as someone who mainly does other things.

      The text is challenging to make sense of, as the footnotes in most translations indicate. I wonder whether the one line could be better rendered “After my skin is destroyed from my flesh, I will see God, whom my eyes will see, and no one else.” Is his hope that, in the last moments of his life, someone will stand up for him, and God will appear? Or is there a hope for resurrection? Has the text become confused precisely because some scribes found here a hint of resurrection hope and wanted to make it “clearer”? I honestly don’t know. But the whole of the book, if it raises the possibility of an afterlife as a potential solution to the problem of Job’s suffering, seems nonetheless to end without affirming it clearly.

      I wonder about the significance of Job not getting twice as many children, when he gets twice as many of everything else. Is the point that children are not replaceable as cattle are. Or that the children in some sense continue to exist?

  • http://www.facebook.com/KristiOutlerByrd Kristi Outler Byrd

    Then there is the influence of Zoroastrianism, which helped shape the views of the afterlife….

    What is fascinating is how people (and I was formerly among them) can think the Bible “clearly” and definitively teaches about the afterlife when in reality there is actually a great ambiguity on the subject. I think that the “torture chamber for all eternity” view is highly unlikely, if one gives the issue a closer look.

    The eternal Hell certainly has its uses as a means of fear evangelism and control but there are so many negative consequences to embracing this view. It necessarily presents a view of the character of God in contradiction with the message of Jesus. And it creates a faith that is overly concerned with the after-life and one essentially based in self-interest. I think that THIS life matters very much to God and our faith should inform how we live in this life, how we treat others, etc.

    What happens when we die? Ultimately, none of us truly knows. We all hope and guess.

    Excellent blog! Wish I had read something like this years ago.

  • JEQP

    Hi James,

    I’d like to hear your views on Mark 9:42-50, where Jesus talks about it being better to pluck out an eye and go into heaven with one eye than into hell with two, “where the fire never goes out” (NIV). What do you think Jesus meant in this passage?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      There are, as you are presumably aware, a range of views. Translating Gehenna as “hell” tries to narrow it down to one in a manner that unhelpfully tries to close off discussion prematurely. But clearly whatever it refers to, it is a place of perpetual fire, not necessarily the perpetual presence of human beings. And the fact that one can apparently enter it without limbs or organs one has removed might fit better with some sort of historical judgment than a reference to something that happens in the afterlife, unless it is something that was expected to happen in the Hinnom valley after the resurrection. But if there was such an expectation, we unfortunately do not have clear sources filling in our knowledge about it.

      • JEQP

        Thanks for the reply. I’m aware there’s a range of views about almost everything in the Bible, but I’m not sure what they all are. I think it’s good to hear different positions. In this passage, like yourself, I’m not sure what it’s a reference to, but the main point of the passage is to avoid sin, which comes through loud and clear.

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