Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? (5 – Razing Gehenna!)

Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares? (5 – Razing Gehenna!) April 20, 2012
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The following is part of a series on Hell, partially as a response to the Love Wins controversy.  To catch up, go here.

As I stated in the first post, this section will be mostly based on Sharon Baker’s Razing Hell.


Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares?

Razing Gehenna

Sharon Baker recognizes the importance of Jesus’ warnings about the fires of hell. From her perspective, in order to understand hell in the gospels, we must realize that wrath in the Bible is twofold. First, wrath is what happens when God “gives them over” (Rom. 1). In other words, the pattern throughout Scripture is that God removes protection allowing people to experience the full consequences (on earth) for disobedient choices. Some might call this hell on earth. This is consistent with how God dealt with Israel in the Old Testament. Second, wrath is God’s purging love that burns away evil at the return of Christ (122).

Connecting hell, then, to Jesus must consider the twofold pattern above. The word in the New Testament for hell is Gehenna, which literally means: the Valley of the Son of Hinnom. This location is referenced throughout the Old Testament and is a valley outside of Jerusalem. It was a place of bloodshed (sometimes child sacrifice) that eventually was used to destroy dead bodies. The prophets speak of it as a place where fires devour corpses and the flames seem to burn non-stop (Isa. 30.33; 66.24). In this valley, the worms didn’t die and corpses were utterly destroyed. Some even believe that during the time of Jesus, this place became a trash heap of burning fire. We also know historically that when the Romans seized Jerusalem in 70 CE, they placed the dead bodies in the valley. Gehenna was a literal place of death and decay (128-129).

When Jesus appeals to Gehenna, he evokes a literal place, not in the underworld, but outside of Jerusalem. Most of the time Jesus uses “hell” in the context of parabolic imagery. To say “hell” is to use imagery that helps listeners understand the danger in this life and the next of not joining up with God’s kingdom purposes. There will be consequences in this life and also, by extension, in the life to come. Baker states: “Although the experience of suffering consequences for sin can seem like pure hell for many of us, I think Jesus refers to something more, something beyond that, when he uses the Gehenna imagery as a metaphor” (140).

She goes on to connect the “lake of fire” imagery from Revelation 20 with Gehenna, basically to say that the metaphor Jesus used pointed to this future reality of Judgment Day. Simultaneously, she reminds readers that this fire is God’s own self or at least comes from God. She states:

… [T]he lake of fire is the same as God’s fiery presents at judgment… [it] tests, purifies, and puts death and evil to death. So Otto stands in the fire. It burns away impurities. But what if auto has no good at all and him? The fire would burn all of him. It would completely destroy him. There would be nothing left of him, which means that he would be annihilated…. Otto [is] in one of two conditions: totally annihilated because after testing and purification nothing good and righteous remains (the second death – the death of death), or the completely good and righteous auto standing before God, tested and purified (144-145).

Summarizing Baker’s Hell

To summarize Sharon Baker’s view, we need to see that she doesn’t believe that the traditional view of eternal torment is consistent with the Bible. God, although wrathful, ultimately seeks to use this sort of judgment on sin as an opportunity to reconcile with broken humans. By understanding Scripture through the “Jesus lens” we are able to see that God is not a vengeful deity, but a God who is full of compassion and seeks a restorative form of justice. Judgment Day will come and all people, Christian and non-believer alike, will pass through the fiery heat of God’s purifying justice. All that is evil and brings death will be burned off like chaff, completely annihilated. All that is good will remain, so that we are fit for God’s renewed world as resurrected people, free from sin and decay.

Those without Christ will experience the pain they caused others and God as they endure the metaphorical flames of justice. The overwhelming nature of this will likely be more than they can bear. Yet, the possibility remains that this judgment will turn hatred to love, and that God will utilize wrath restoratively, which is constantly how such fire is depicted throughout the Scriptures. Those who hold onto hatred will ultimately cease to exist, because nothing human will remain.

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  • “To summarize Sharon Baker’s view, we need to see that she doesn’t believe that the traditional view of eternal torment is consistent with the Bible. God, although wrathful, ultimately seeks to use this sort of judgment on sin as an opportunity to reconcile with broken humans. ” Exactly. God’s Holy fire is profoundly redemptive in its imagery and metaphorical usage with here and now implications. Submitting to God’s redemptive presence can be quite painful when faced with “who” we really are as God’s “laser fire” cuts to the quick, to the “bone and marrow” of our motives and intentions. If we chose to “hide in the darkness” and not come out into such holy light/fire well that is our doing but God has made a way through the fires of grace. Great article.

  • Malandsman

    “God, although wrathful, ultimately seeks to use this sort of judgment on sin as an opportunity to reconcile with broken humans”- Sorry but no. That’s the cross.

    • I, like Kurt, am an annihilationist too, but I’m not too fond of the post-mortem evangelism thinking here either.

  • Very interesting take on what the consuming/everlasting fire could mean. I have more thinking to do.

  • Vanessa Page

    I’ve really enjoyed this series, when I stopped believing in hell as an actually lake of fire, it was very freeing. Living in fear is not inline with the love of Christ. I’m going to grab her book and dig a little deeper. Thank you!

  • Dave

    “But what if Otto has no good at all in him?” So, is salvation then a spark of inherent goodness within the individual? Or can those who don’t confess and believe Christ still have some of Him within themselves? 

    If God’s wrath consumes all of us, to what effect is Christ’s death? 
    How does He save us, and from what? 

    This is interesting, and I can see certain Scriptures peeking from behind some of her statements. But there are other Scriptures, for example, Jesus referenced that in “hell” or “gehenna” or “hades,” that it is a place where, “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48, NKJV). It denotes eternality to the punishment.  

    • Mark 9:48 (referencing Isaiah 66:24) denotes eternality to the *place* of punishment.

      “The worms that eat [the dead bodies of those who rebelled against God] will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

      In other words, “eternally destroyed” more likely means that the *result* of destruction will last forever rather than the *process*.

  • I suppose that I’m going to have to read the book now 🙂 I’m tracking with you and, Baker,  but I’ve got a couple questions that don’t seem to have been answered thus far. How and where does the atonement fit in to all of this? And what are we to do with stories like the Rich Man and Lazarus? I think we may be on to something here, but, at least thus far, there really hasn’t been any discussion on the atonement, or how such passages would be understood in light of this “razing hell” frame of reference.

  • It sounds like I’m closer to Baker’s understanding than to Rob Bell’s, which if I understood it correctly is similar but more optimistic that eventually all will be purified. Purification hurts – we can all attest to that to some extent in this life – and even when we know something is bad it is often comfortable because we’re used to it, so I’d probably argue that some will never be purified. This idea makes sense to me that those people would ultimately have everything burned away until there is nothing left.

  • Kenton

    “Those without Christ will experience…”

    What exactly does “without Christ” mean in this context? That they didn’t self-identify as Christians in some way? (IOW, say the prayer, walk down the aisle, get baptized, etc.) Or could it be something more broad/more open? In my circles I often hear talk about the “general” revelation as opposed to the “specific” revelation – that God has revealed to everyone that He exists, that He desires for all to be in communion with Him, and that He wants us to live according to a general way He prescribes. Would those people be “with Christ” even if they couldn’t “finger Him in a line-up” as it were, but they did recognize a need for a merciful God and a hope that He would show forgiveness in some way, shape or form?

    It’s not “Love Wins.” It’s better – way better – than a traditional ECT, but it’s not as good as it could be.

  • In this illustration with Otto and God and this purifying fire… I’m still wondering where Jesus Christ is saying the words, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  ??

    Does the Christian (who has accepted, believed, and confessed the Name of Jesus) also need to pass through the “fiery heat of God’s purifying justice”?  If so… why?

    • I think Greg Boyd, the guy whose position Kurt closely adheres to, would say yes. I think the idea is that nothing impure can enter God’s presence and since none of us are perfected this side of the first death we would still have some impurities that need burning away. The more we grow in discipleship to Christ, the less we have to be burned away. At least I think this is the gist.

      •  good comment Zack! thanks for explaining

      • Thanks Zack, that sounds like a well thought idea.  I just look at a Colossians 2:12-14 type of passage and think that my sins (past, present, future) are paid for in Christ’s atoning death.  If my soul is then bought and paid for by Christ, am I going to take impurities with me to God’s presence that demand burning away?

        The idea that a “strong disciple” needs only a little more work, and the thief on the cross needs a lot more work seems unusual.  Christ’s death pays the way for both in equal installments.  The vineyard workers in Matthew 20 all received the same pay and their reward is equal.

        • Certainly, all sins are covered. As a proponent of Christus Victor atonement theory, I do not so much see Christ’s death as “payment for sin” (although it is a valid expression) as I do a ransom from the grip of the devil. Christ’s death set us free, free to lay hold of the promises and serve Him. Even so, none of us are perfected before we die and nothing imperfect shall last.

          As with the vineyard workers, the reward (our inheritance in the coming Kingdom) is still the same. I don’t think that’s the issue. Rather, it’s whether or not we get to enter that Kingdom with our impurities.

  • I read all 5 of your posts and talked about them with my wife today.  I told her about the idea of “hell as the evil-purging and all-consuming love of God.”  That God’s might act a light like wrath.

    She said that she (and probably many other Christians) feel something like this in our relationships with God already- and that some of us walk away feeling the tinge of bitterness and resentment towards him for it.

  • Question for ya, Kurt.

    You said, “Those who hold onto hatred will ultimately cease to exist, because nothing human will remain.”

    I’d like to know at what point you think someone ceases to be human. What constitutes being human? What must be lost for “nothing human” to remain? What is the “bare minimum” that would need to be left to still be considered human?

    • Thats a great question… I’m not sure how to answer it. I know that embodying resurrection is what it looks like to be fully human. those who refuse this gift, cannot be fully human and therefore move in the opposite direction… death.
      Kurt Willems
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    • Rickjanzen5

      I wonder if Jesus’ reference to the sheep and goats might help here.  He said that those who clothed, housed, visited or fed Him in this life would get their reward.  Elsewhere He said that if even a cup of cold water were given to the least of these He would accept it as a service to Him.  I wonder if what Jesus was saying here was enormously generous.  Is it possible that He was intimating that any kind and selfless act, even the smallest, would be a redeeming factor in someone’s life?  Even the worst of us occasionally does something human like this in our lives.  Thus there is something human to be saved of nearly everyone.  I think this interpretation is much more generous and in keeping with Christ’s character than the one that has us scrambling to earn God’s favour with our works.  It keeps the spirit too of the first shall be last and the last first.  What do you think?

      • I’m not totally sure I follow, so I don’t want to assume too much in my response.

        It seems to me you’re saying that any selfless act would, in effect, earn us a place in the inheritance to come.

        Is this right?

  • Kurt, it’s a nit and not central to the argument, but you might want to do a little checking on the commonly-repeated “Gehenna” stuff.  Do a quick google on “gehenna archaeology” and you will see what I mean.  The burning garbage dump imagery seems to come out of some combination of rabbinical and preacherly traditions, but from what I’ve been able to find there’s no compelling archaeological evidence to back it up…and archaeologists *do* find garbage dumps in many locations.  I think this may be one of those Christian-urban legends.

    Now seeing the descriptions as metaphorical rather than literal, there’s still a lot to go on.  I’m not arguing (as you know) for a Dante-style hell.

    • Dan, just because it wasn’t a literal garbage dump does not mean that it didn’t function the way the Old Testament describes it. In the Old Testament is a place where dead corpses are placed. After the sedge on Jerusalem it’s also the place where dead bodies are put when they quit burying the dead as there were too many corpses after the war. It is a place of violence and death and if it may or may not be a literal garbage dump. Even if it is not a garbage dump, the imagery still stands.

      • Not just the garbage dump part, Kurt. The whole thing about the worm and the fire…it’s kinda like the frog in the pot…there things that are assumed to be true just by the frequency of repetition, and nobody ever seems to stop and say “hey, do we actually have any evidence this is true?” We rightly call out those unexamined “facts” when conservatives spout them… I’m just asking the same accountability of ourselves.

        As I said before, I’m certainly not arguing for a literal ECT he’ll, as you well know. Further, this is not central to your real point about God’s cleansing and/or punishment. But if we’re going to keep talking about this explanation of Gehenna, I’d like to see some evidence.

        • But Dan, that is clearly outlined in Isaiah for instance. The Valley of Hinnom is a place with dead corpses are and where fire continually burns. If we don’t agree with that then we are undermining the biblical text. Also, according to Josephus, there were so many dead bodies in 70 A.D. that they had to start throwing the dad into the valleys outside Jerusalem.
          KURT WILLEMS

          • Not quite, Kurt.  At least not in anyIsaiah references I can find.  Is. 66:24 has the worm and fire, but in no way related to a geographic location.  In Jeremiah (ch. 7, 19, & 32) Hinnom is clearly the place of the molochian sacrifices, true.  And Jeremiah prophesies that it’s going to become a place of slaughter for the very people who are sacrificing their children (see Jer. 19:6-7 for example).

            Josephus, of course, reported events that took place after the time of Christ.  So however true they are (and I rather suspect they are), they are not relevant to any metaphor Jesus would have been using with his hearers, because while he may have known that future, they did not, so it would have communicated nothing to them.

            So what “biblical text” are you suggesting I’m undermining?  I’m actually appealing to that text, and to all of us not to go beyond what’s written in it.

          • Sorry Dan… you are right. I communicated that last comment via email on the go.  Here are all the passages refering to the valley of hinnom…

            Joshua 15:8

            The border went up by the valley of Ben-Hinnom to the slope of the Jebusite city, Jerusalem, on the south. The border went up to the top of the mountain that is opposite the Hinnom Valley on the west, which is at the north end of the Rephaim Valley.

            Joshua 18:16

            The border went down to the foot of the mountain that is opposite the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is in the north part of the Rephaim Valley. It went down through the Hinnom Valley to the slope of the Jebusite city on the south. It then went down to En-rogel.

            2 Kings 23:10

            Josiah defiled the Topheth in the Ben-hinnom Valley so no one could burn their child alive in honor of the god Molech.

            2 Chronicles 28:3

            and burning incense in the Ben-hinnom Valley. He even
            burned his own sons alive, imitating the detestable practices of the
            nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.

            2 Chronicles 33:6

            He burned his own sons alive in the Ben-hinnom Valley,
            consulted sign readers, fortune-tellers, and sorcerers, and used mediums
            and diviners. He did much evil in the LORD’s eyes and made him angry.

            Nehemiah 11:30

            Zanoah, Adullam, and their villages, Lachish and its fields, and Azekah
            and its villages. So they settled from Beer-sheba to the Hinnom Valley.

            Jeremiah 7:31

            They have built shrines at Topheth in the Ben-hinnom Valley to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, although I never commanded such a thing, nor did it ever cross my mind.

            Jeremiah 7:32

            So now the time is coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer speak of Topheth or the Ben-hinnom Valley, but the Carnage Valley. They will bury in Topheth until no space is left.

            Jeremiah 19:2

            Then go out to the Ben-hinnom Valley at the entrance of the gate called Broken Pots and proclaim there the words I will tell you.

            Jeremiah 19:6
            So now the time is coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or Ben-hinnom Valley but Carnage Valley.

            My point was that this is a Literal Place according the Old Testament… Even if the garbage dump part turns out to be urban legend. 

            And Jesus connects it as the place of the worm and fire, even if Isaiah didn’t explicitly name it as the Valley of Hinnom.  He says, as you know in Mark:

            “47  If
            your eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out. It’s better for you
            to enter God’s kingdom with one eye than to be thrown into hell with
            two. 48  That’s a place where worms don’t die and the fire never goes out.[a] 49  Everyone will be salted with fire.” 

            I should add that the idea of “salted with fire” basically means purified by fire.  Interesting connection I think 🙂

            PS – I think you will like where I go on Monday…

          • OK so the Valley of Hinnom is a geographic place.  No disputing that…my last references to Jeremiah make clear that I acknowledge as much.  As to whether that ties to the “Gehenna” of the New Testament is a point about which the evidence is not so clear.  Jesus certainly quoted Isaiah’s worm & fire reference…it’s certainly poetic enough to make a point, why wouldn’t he?

            I guess what I’m getting at is, Jesus talked about a place of punishment or banishment for which he used the name “Gehenna.”  Whether that was a literal or figurative place in the imaginations of his hearers, I don’t think the evidence is necessarily clear.  What *is* clear is that Jesus often spoke in metaphor, and his (often oblique) references to punishment are quite possibly metaphorical too, considering their context.  On all of this, I believe, you and I agree.

            My only quibble is that, while making perfectly defensible statements about Jesus’ teaching, I think it’s unhelpful to repeat a legend that is poorly substantiated, and in fact refuted by quite a few folks.  It doesn’t really support your cause, and it gives a specious excuse for people who are already inclined to object, to reject the rest of your message.

            And again, I think the vital part of the message isn’t about the nature of whatever hell there may, or may not be, anyhow.  It’s who Jesus talked to *about* hell or punishment or whatever.  And the most important part of all, is that if the New Testament teaches us that “perfect love casts out fear,” then the use of hell as a tool of fear is wrong and unbiblical, *whatever* theory of hell to which we might subscribe.

          • Dan, I guess I agree with most of what you’re saying. The only thing that I don’t quite understand is what your dispute is about Gehenna? Gehenna is literally transliterated as the *valley of the son of Hinnom.* How is that any sort of speculation? I just don’t understand why you say that is speculative? Jesus uses the name of the literal place. Jesus does this, as Jesus always does, with the Old Testament narrative of his hearers in mind.
            What am I not picking up on? If the Old Testament talks about a place and Jesus uses that same place to describe punishment, shouldn’t that be evidence enough? Again, just to be clear, I’m not defending the theory about Gehenna being a garbage dump…
            KURT WILLEMS

          • And I may just be displaying my ignorance, Kurt.  If that really is a transliteration, then so be it.  Part of why I wonder if it really means the same place, is that (for example) in Jer. 19:2 in the Septuagint, the place is described with that whole phrase “valley of the sons of hinnom” while in the N.T. reference it’s just “gehenna.”  I am no scholar, and I may be splitting hairs.  I just don’t know (and honestly haven’t studied) whether these two things are, in fact, the same concept or not.  I have no problem if it is true.  I have a big problem if we’re making a lot of unsubstantiated statements.  That’s what’s been bothering me…and maybe unnecessarily.

          •  Gotcha….  Maybe this will help:

            Strongs –> 1067 géenna (a transliteration of the Hebrew term, Gêhinnōm, “the valley of Hinnom”) – Gehenna, i.e. hell

            This is consistent with other lexicons such as The New International Dictionary of NT Theology Vol. 2.

            Hope that is helpful!

          • ‘Tis.  Thanks.