Thus far I’ve not written on hell because it’s actually not a central component of the gospel.
Of course, to listen to many Christians, you wouldn’t know that. The version of the gospel they preach is thoroughly afterlife-focused: Because of sin, when we die we’re going to hell; but thanks to Jesus, when Christians die we’re going to heaven, and that’s the good news that the bible teaches. But while that’s certainly good news to anyone who’s afraid of hell, the gospel Jesus preached (Mk 1.15) and Paul reiterated is that of the Kingdom. The saved-from-hell benefit of the Kingdom was brought to light by the gospel, (2Ti 1.10) but ’tain’t the same thing. And those who preach that it is… well, you notice how they tend to skip over everything Jesus had to say about the Kingdom, and only focus on the afterlife. Which, since they’re not attempting to live in the Kingdom now, they will be quite ill-prepared for. Good thing for them there’s grace.
Hell has become a controversial topic lately, what with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins trying to explain what he thinks hell consists of, and other Christians pitching a fit that it’s not orthodox theology. I’m not going to review that book here; I’m just going to focus on what the scriptures teach about it.
The burning lake: Not hell.
Most people’s idea of hell consists of a lake of fire and sulfur that sinners will get thrown into at the End. And for some reason (which I’ll get to), they also figure that when sinners die before the End, they go to a variation of this burning lake. While they don’t actually say this, the loose idea is that when they die they go to hell; then at some point at the End, they’ll get a one-day furlough from hell in which they stand before God and get judged… and then get tossed right back into hell. Sucks to be them.
But nowhere in the scriptures is this burning lake actually called hell. (Rv 19.20, 20.10, 20.14-15) Seriously, it’s not. In fact, hell itself gets thrown into it. (Rv 20.14 KJV) If “hell” goes to “hell,” this should give you a pretty good idea that a lot of our ideas about hell need clarification.
The word “hell.”
The English word “hell” originally comes from Norse mythology. That’s why some folks claim the idea of hell itself comes from Norse mythology and not from Judaism or Christianity. Of course, hell has been taught by Christians long before we ever evangelized the Norse, but to be fair, there are a lot of myths about hell, and many of the myths have come from pagan mythologies about the underworld. Local words for “underworld” naturally got borrowed to talk about hell. The Saxon word hel was used to teach medieval Anglo-Saxons about what the Romans called infernus. Both were catch-all words for any biblical teachings about the afterlife. As a result, “hell” actually translates more than one word… and jumbles their concepts all together.
Sh’ól. Regularly mispronounced SHEE-ol, it ranges in meaning from a literal grave, where bodies are buried; to the afterlife, where the spirits of the dead wait for resurrection. (Dn 12.2) It gets translated “hell” in the King James Version. Other translations have “grave” or “land of the dead,” depending on the context; or they just leave it untranslated as “Sheol.”
Ge Hinnóm. In Greek, ge’enna, or English “gehenna.” This literally means “valley of Hinnom,” and refers to the landfill outside Jerusalem that was used, in Jesus’s day, for burning trash. When Jesus taught about plucking out eyes and cutting off hands, lest one go to hell, (Mt 5.27-30) this is the “hell” He meant: A constant fire that doesn’t go out.
Hádis. The Greek word for the underworld, “hades” in English, was used to translate sh’ól by the folks who translated the Old Testament into Greek. Of course, it has its own baggage from Greek mythology.
Tártaros. The lowest part of hades was Tartaros, a pit of eternal torment, where Zeus put anybody who really pissed him off. And Simon Peter used the verb-form of this word (tartaró’o, “to put someone into Tartaros”) to describe what God did to sinning angels. (2Pe 2.4) We don’t find it elsewhere in the bible.
Everybody dies. In ancient Hebrew times, once you died, you were buried; you were put in the grave; everybody goes to the grave. (Ps 89.48) When you expand the idea of “grave” into loose ideas about what people might experience after death, that’s where you start to develop ideas about an afterlife. That’s what sh’ól was, what hades was, and what hell is meant to represent. That’s what the Apostles’ Creed meant where it says Jesus went there.
Old Testament teachings about the afterlife were usually very materialistic. After all, nobody had come back from it to tell anyone what it was like. So to the ancient Hebrews, death wasn’t a desirable state at all. There is no work, thought, knowledge, or wisdom there. (Ec 9.10) We can’t even praise God there. (Ps 6.5, Is 38.18)
In Pharisee times, the concept of the afterlife had actually changed from an underworld into an overworld: Instead of dying and going into the ground, the Pharisees believed your body went into the ground, but your spirit detached from it—which is why you’re dead—and went to heaven. But not heaven-where-God-is. Understandably, the Pharisees believed God is much too holy for that. Instead they taught there were ten heavens, with God in the tenth. In the non-scriptural book of 2 Enoch, there’s a huge section where Enoch got to visit all ten of them. In each one, he found:
- Angels, 200 of them, managing the stars, snow, and dew.
- Apostate angels, kept in torment. (Possibly this is the “outer darkness” of Mt 8.12.)
- Paradise. The Garden of Eden, kept “between corruptibility and incorruptibility.” (2 Enoch 8.5) On its north side is a place of torment for the wicked.
- The sun, the moon, 8,000 stars, and 150,000 angels. (But only 1,000 angels at night. Maybe they sleep.)
- Evil Watchers, (Dn 4.13, 23) who were apparently the “sons of God” in Genesis 6.1-4 who interbred with humans. (According to 2 Enoch and other myths, Enoch was the one who told God on them, and this trip through the heavens was part of his reward.) The fifth heaven was their prison.
- Other scary angels.
- The seasons and times of the year.
- The zodiac.
- God Himself.
Now, since this isn’t bible, we have no idea how accurate any of it was. But certainly the New Testament writers (particularly Paul, a Pharisee himself) knew of it. When Paul wrote about some fellow who was “caught up to the third heaven,” (2Co 12.2 ESV) he was referring to seeing Paradise; possibly a near-death experience where someone died and got to see it, but was revived and lived to tell of it.
What is in the bible is this odd story Jesus tells about the afterlife. It may be a parable; it may be about actual people He knew. Regardless, here it is.
There was a certain rich man who was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and who lived each day in luxury. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. As Lazarus lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores. Finally, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and his soul went to the place of the dead. There, in torment, he saw Abraham in the far distance with Lazarus at his side. The rich man shouted, “Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames.” But Abraham said to him, “Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish. And besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.” Then the rich man said, “Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “Moses and the prophets have warned them. Your brothers can read what they wrote.” The rich man replied, “No, Father Abraham! But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent of their sins and turn to God.” But Abraham said, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if someone rises from the dead.”
—Jesus, Luke 16.19-31 NLT
Some things to notice in this story:
- Both died and went to the afterlife.
- There are different parts of the afterlife. Lazarus’s part was with Abraham, and he was brought there by angels and was being comforted. The rich man’s part was a place of torment, with flames and no water; as much like Ge Hinnom as you could picture.
- There was an impassible chasm separating them, but Abraham could still talk to the rich man; they were still in the same place.
- Neither could leave. Abraham couldn’t send Lazarus to the rich man, and wouldn’t send him to the rich man’s family.
Jesus’s story is pretty much everything definite that we can find in the bible about the afterlife. The rest are hints. We know that God, who is everywhere, is just as much there as He is anywhere. (Ps 139.8) We know Jesus holds its keys, (Rv 1.18) since He went there, but wasn’t left there. (Ac 2.27, 31) We know its gates can’t hold back the church, (Mt 16.18) provided we actually storm those gates instead of passively standing outside them.
However, Christians hate the idea that when we die we won’t be standing directly in God’s physical presence, or giving Jesus a big weepy hug. So we’ve invented some myths that teach otherwise. The most popular one, as found in the non-scriptural book The Acts of Pilate, is that when Jesus went to the afterlife, He burst into it, stepped on the devil’s neck, and took the righteous with Him to the tenth heaven. Leaving behind, of course, all the folks in torment. After all, “absent from the body is present with the Lord,” so when we die we must be going to where Jesus is. Right? Isn’t that what we’re looking forward to?
This idea, though widespread, just isn’t scriptural. I know; I’ve heard many attempts to justify it. Most of them come from twisting “When He ascended, He led a crowd of captives” (Ep 4.8-10) into saying it’s about Jesus liberating the saints—the “captives” of the devil—in Acts of Pilate. But the “captives” in a Roman triumphal parade are people the general had conquered, not refugees he freed; that interpretation fits the context of Ephesians far better. As for the “absent from the body” line, it’s a misquote of 2 Corinthians 5.8, which is about resurrection.
The other popular idea is unconsciousness, or “soul sleep”—that when we die we go into some sort of suspended animation, and wake up at the resurrection; it’s like we were never dead. After all, death is described as “sleeping” throughout the bible; even Jesus calls it that. (Mk 5.39) But “fell asleep,” (Ac 7.60, ESV) like our present-day “passed away” or “kicked the bucket,” is a euphemism for those people who think “died” sounds too harsh: It means “died.” Jesus had to straighten out His students when they took His euphemism too literally, (Jn 11.11-14) and that’s the same mistake Christians make when they think we’ll sleep through the afterlife. Obviously Abraham was awake for it in Jesus’s story, as he likely has been since his own death 40 centuries ago.
Look, I don’t look forward to any afterlife. Who does? We’re not expected to look forward to it. We’re expected to look forward to resurrection, and Jesus’s return. The sting of death is that people believed it to be permanent; Jesus took the sting out of it by promising us eternal life. (1Co 15.53-57) That’s why when pastors preach at funerals, they don’t talk about the afterlife; they talk about the resurrection. The afterlife is a bummer, and doesn’t comfort anyone. Resurrection is awesome, and comforts everyone. So most Christians skip over the afterlife and talk heaven. As we should.
But after the resurrection, there will be a judgment. At some point Jesus is going to sort us out like sheep and goats, (Mt 25.31-46) and the righteous get the Kingdom and the rest get the
Christians have a lot of problems with the burning lake idea. Probably our biggest problem is the large number of Christians who don’t have a problem with the burning lake idea: It is perfectly fine with them if people are tossed into eternal torment; such people are only getting their just desserts. It’s their own bloody fault, after all. They could have chosen to follow Jesus; they could have accepted God’s offer of eternal life; but no, they were willing to live forever in freakish howling misery. So fine. No mercy for them.
There is something profoundly wrong with people if the idea of eternal torment doesn’t bother them in the slightest. Which is probably God’s point: He wants us to care, and has given us the worst consequence He could think of, in part as a motivation.
Still, the burning lake idea sounds to many people like overkill—how does a finite number of sins merit infinite punishment?—and not fair of God. Most arguments against it are the usual, “If I were God, I’d do it this way…” followed by some way that gets them out of the lake, at least. And maybe even the devil. But rarely Adolf Hitler; and then only to be intellectually fair. (Unless they’re Nazis, they personally might let him burn forever. The definition of “fair” tends to be stretchy whenever we get our hands on it.)
In any event, certain Christians have tried to fudge their way around the idea, sometimes in the interest of theodicy—defending God because He doesn’t care to defend Himself—and of course because we presume God would be at least as merciful as we would be. Some of the fudgework consists of the following.
“It wasn’t meant for us.” This excuse, widely taught, is that the burning lake was created for the devil and its angels. (Mt 25.41) Not humans. We were never meant to go there; we were meant to go to heaven. The reason unrepentant humans get tossed into it is because… well, there were no other options. God made hell, but never bothered to make us a “heck” or alternative place of punishment.
There are of course problems with this argument. God may not have made the burning lake to torture humans, but He did make it to torture some creatures… and what the hell, He’ll use it on humans too. So He really doesn’t come across looking any better. Plus, it makes the whole “I’ll use it on humans” idea sound like God’s afterthought, which doesn’t say much for His wisdom either.
Yes, the burning lake was made for the devil. But it was made for unrepentant humans as well.
Purgatory. Extrapolated from 2 Maccabees 12.43-45, where Judas makes a sin offering on behalf of the dead, many Christians believe God gives us yet another chance in the afterlife. Anyone who’s not so twisted or evil as to be beyond saving is put in a place called “purgatory,” and given a chance to repent.
Now, no church officially teaches this. The Roman Catholics teach that purgatory is for believers, not for almost-good-enoughs, and that its purpose is to clean Christians up before they go to heaven. Our works, after all, will be tested with fire, (1Co 3.12-15) and purgatory is the fire. The idea of purgatory being a last chance for pagans comes from a combination of popular culture and wishful thinking. Christians believe it because it sounds generous, and maybe it’s what Peter meant when he wrote of Jesus preaching to “the spirits in prison” (1Pe 3.19) —He was evangelizing the dead.
Most Protestants (besides not recognizing 2 Maccabees as scripture) point to Jesus’s statement to a dying thief that he was going to Paradise, (Lk 23.43) not purgatory—even though he certainly had sins to purge. They also interpret the 2 Peter passage as Jesus proclaiming His victory over sin, rather than the gospel. So they rule out any chance of another chance after death: You have this life to decide whether you’re gonna follow Jesus. That’s all.
Annihilationism. This is the belief that even though the fire is eternal, when you put a human in it, crackle crackle crackle, they burn up and cease to exist. They’re annihilated. The thinking is that this is far more merciful than allowing them to continue to exist, forever, burning.
I admit that there is some basis for the idea. The reason the fire is described as eternal and unquenchable is because it can’t be put out; it’s not a fire that anyone will be able to survive or resist. It also seems rather hard to imagine living happily forever with God while we know that family members and loved ones are meanwhile roasting in torment.
Universalism. There are many variations on the universalist idea, but essentially it is that everyone universally will go to heaven. Either all the passages in the bible about hell are myths, and God will just forgive everyone and let ’em into heaven; or the burning lake is something that people can leave when they finally come to their senses and repent; or it’s like prison, and everyone will be let out after they serve their time.
I kinda like the idea that everyone might eventually repent, but I also kinda doubt it, human nature being what it is. The other possibility—that God will let everyone just go to heaven, either at the End or after time served—also makes heaven a lot less heavenly: If you don’t want to be there, in what way is it heaven for you? Or will God delete our free will and make us all like heaven and behave ourselves? You see, universalism creates just as many problems as it solves.
Free will. This belief (honestly, my favorite) points out that people have free will: We are given plenty of chances to follow Jesus, whether we know it’s Him or not, and ultimately we choose whether to live with God in heaven, or take our chances in the lake. So the torment is not so much what God condemns them to as it is what they’ve chosen for themselves; the line John Milton put in Satan’s mouth, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven” (Paradise Lost, 263) reflects this.
The only flaw in the free-will argument is that if “the door to hell is locked on the inside,” as it’s sometimes put, it works both ways: People chose torment; what’s to say that years (or billions of years) hence they might not choose again, and choose heaven? And thus you have a form of universalism; the burning lake with a revolving door, so to speak. That was the idea pitched by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, in which people left a gray town that represented hell, visited heaven briefly, and chose whether to stay or return. Christians love that book because they like Lewis’s descriptions of the sort of people who would choose hell, but they dismiss the ramifications of people being able to choose heaven after they die. It is a very mild form of universalism; and if you push it too hard, as Bell did in his own book, you get accused of heresy.
If you jumped to the “conclusions” part ’cause you’re hoping I’ll summarize all the wordy theology above, then tell you what to think, you don’t know me very well.
I will instead remind you: The focus of Christianity is on the Kingdom. Not hell—or avoiding hell, or having “afterlife insurance,” or “eternal fire insurance,” as one of my former pastors jokingly called it. The focus of the gospel is not on dodging hell by attaining heaven. It is not carrot-and-stick. It is all carrot. Yeah, there’s a stick, but it’s not there to motivate us to follow Jesus; it’s there to motivate us to preach the gospel to the lost before it hits them.
The Christians who focus on hell are the Christians who don’t appreciate the Kingdom, don’t know the gospel is about the Kingdom (’cause they’ve been taught it’s about dodging hell), or just don’t care—preaching hellfire seems to work, and it’s far easier to bash evil than preach sanctification, so they’ll stick to preaching hellfire. It’s a very unhealthy way to look at God, and it produces lousy fruit. We should know about hell, but since we’re not destined to dwell in it, there’s no reason to dwell on it.