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 and Paul reiterated is that of the Kingdom. The saved-from-hell benefit of the Kingdom was brought to light by the gospel, 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 pool: Not hell.
Most people’s idea of hell consists of a lake of fire and sulfur into which sinners will get thrown at the End. For some reason (which I’ll get to), they also figure when sinners die before the End, they go to an underworld variation of this lake. While they don’t actually say this, the loose idea is when they die they go to hell. Then at some point at the End, they 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 lake (really, pool) called hell. Seriously, it’s not. In fact, hell itself gets thrown into it. If hell goes to “hell,” this should give you a pretty good idea a lot of our ideas about hell need calibrating.
The words we translate “hell.”
Hell. The Saxon word hel originally came from Norse mythology. This is why some folks claim the idea of hell itself came from Norse mythology, not Judaism nor Christianity. But that’s false. Hell has been taught by Christians long before we ever evangelized the Norse. When we taught the Norse and the Saxons about what the Romans called infernus, we borrowed their word hel. Trouble is, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge about infernus, and just as the Romans filled in the gaps with Roman myths, the Norse filled in the gaps with Norse myths.
Sh’ol (regularly mispronounced SHĒ•ōl, properly shōl). Sh’ol is the Hebrew word for grave. It’s where bodies are buried. But the Hebrews also used it as the word for the afterlife, where the spirits of the dead await resurrection. In the King James Version it gets translated, you guessed it, “hell.” In other translations it becomes “the grave” or “the land of the dead,” or sometimes just untranslated: “Sheol.”
Ge Hinnóm. (Greek, ge’enna/“gehenna.”) This literally means “valley of Hinnom,” and refers to the landfill outside Jerusalem. In Jesus’s day, it was the place you burnt trash. When Jesus taught about plucking out eyes and cutting off hands, lest one go to Ge Hinnóm, this is where he meant: On the garbage pile. Into a constant, stinky fire, which they never put 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. We don’t find it elsewhere in the bible.
One of the afterlife’s levels.
I wrote elsewhere on the afterlife. Briefly, there’s not a lot about it in the bible, because Jews and Christians’ emphasis is on resurrection. The afterlife is temporary. God will make us alive again.
But other religions had an afterlife, and some of their ideas leaked into the Pharisees’ beliefs. By Jesus’s time, the Pharisees believed it wasn’t an underworld, but an overworld: Your corpse went into the ground, but your spirit went to heaven. But not the heaven where God is: God was much too holy for that. Instead, the Pharisees taught there were 10 heavens. (God’s in the tenth.)
In the non-scriptural book of 2 Enoch, there’s a huge section where Enoch got to visit all 10 heavens. Here’s what he found:
- Angels, 200 of them, managing the stars, snow, and dew.
- Apostate angels, kept in torment. (Possibly this is the “outer darkness” Jesus spoke about. )
- Paradise. The Garden of Eden, kept “between corruptibility and incorruptibility.” [2 Enoch 8.5] On its north side was a special place of torment for the wicked, as Jesus described in his story of Lazarus and the wealthy man.
- The sun, the moon, 8,000 stars, and 150,000 angels. (But only 1,000 angels at night. Maybe they sleep.)
- A prison for evil watchers. In the Enoch books, watchers were the “sons of God” who interbred with humans and produced the Nephilim. According to 2 Enoch and other myths, Enoch told God on them, and this trip through the heavens was part of his reward.
- Other scary angels.
- The seasons and times of the year.
- The zodiac.
- God himself.
Now, 2 Enoch isn’t bible. We have no idea how accurate any of it is. But the New Testament writers knew of it; particularly Paul, a Pharisee himself. When Paul wrote about some fellow who visited the third heaven, he meant Paradise, not the heaven our popular culture believes in. Possibly this was 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 of the afterlife. It may be a parable; it may be about actual people Jesus knew. Regardless, here it is.
“A certain person was wealthy, and dressed in fashionable, comfortable clothes. He was cheerful, and every day was brilliant. “A poor man named Lazarus had been thrown to his gate. He had syphilis. He longed to be fed by the scraps from the wealthy man’s table. Instead, wild dogs came, and were licking his chancres. Death came to the poor man; he was carried by the angels to Abraham’s fold. “The wealthy man also died, and was buried. In the afterlife, his torment beginning, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance, Lazarus in his folds. 24 He shouted to him, ‘Father Abraham! Have mercy on me and send Lazarus. He can dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue. I’m in great pain from these flames.’ “Abraham said, ‘Son, remember: You received your good in your life. Likewise Lazarus received evil. Now, here, he’s in comfort, and you’re in pain. Between us and you, all over this place, a great obstacle is set up: Those who want to cross from this place to you, can’t. Nor can you cross from there to us.’ “The wealthy man said, ‘Then I ask, Father, if you can send him to my father’s house, so he can witness to them. I have five brothers. Otherwise they may come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. Listen to them.’ “The wealthy man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! When somebody from the place of the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’ “Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they believe it when someone is raised from the dead.’”
Some things to notice in this story:
- Both died and went to the afterlife. But there are different parts of it: Abraham’s fold (often translated “Abraham’s bosom,” literally “Abraham’s guts”); and torment, with flames and no water, as much like Ge Hinnom as you could picture.
- There was an obstacle separating them, but Abraham could still talk to the rich man, for they were 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 all we have on the afterlife. The rest are hints. We know God, who’s everywhere, is just as much there as anywhere. We know Jesus has keys to it. We know Jesus went there, but didn’t stay. We know its gates can’t hold back the church, 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 unscriptural myths which teach otherwise. Again, they’re in my article on the afterlife.
But after the resurrection, there’s judgment. At some point Jesus will sort us out like sheep and goats, and the righteous get the Kingdom and the rest get the
Christians have a lot of problems with the burning pool idea. Probably our biggest problem is the large number of Christians who don’t have a problem with the idea: It’s totally fine with them if people are tossed into eternal torment. Such people, they figure, are only getting their just desserts. They could’ve chosen Jesus; they could’ve 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. He gave us the worst consequence we could imagine, in part as a motivation to not go there.
Still, the burning pool sounds to many people like overkill: How does a finite number of sins merit infinite punishment? It makes God sound infinitely unfair. Most arguments against it are the usual, “If I were God, I’d do it this way…” followed by some system which eventually gets people out of the pool. In their systems, even the devil gets paroled in the end. (But not Adolf Hitler. ’Cause f--- that guy.)
And even if we don’t invent some system which makes the burning pool less than forever, Christians have tried to fudge our way around the idea: Somehow God will be merciful about it. Or somehow these folks really do deserve eternal torment. Some of the fudgework consists of the following.
“It wasn’t originally meant for humans.” Many Christians point out the burning pool was created for the devil and its angels, not humans. We weren’t meant to go there; we were meant for New Earth. The reason unrepentant humans get tossed in the pool 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 pool to torture humans, but he did make it to torture some of his creatures. And what the hell, he’ll use it on humans too. So God 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 ability to plan ahead.
Yeah, the burning pool 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 purgatory is for believers. Not for almost-good-enoughs. Purgatory is to clean us Christians up before we go to heaven. Our works, after all, will be tested with fire, 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” —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. Not purgatory, even though the thief certainly had sins to purge. They also interpret the 2 Peter passage as Jesus proclaiming his victory over sin, rather than preaching the gospel. So they rule out any chance of another chance after death: You get this life to decide whether you’re gonna follow Jesus. That’s it.
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. This is far more merciful than allowing them to continue to exist, forever, burning.
I admit there is some biblical basis for the idea. The fire is described as eternal and unquenchable, because it can’t be put out: It’s a fire no one can survive. Plus it’s also hard to imagine living happily forever with God, yet knowing family members and loved ones are meanwhile roasting in torment.
But there are plenty of scriptures which indicate an eternal existence in the fire. Not just for the devil, but the devil’s followers, both witting and unwitting.
Universalism. It comes in a lot of varieties, but basically it’s the idea everyone, universally, winds up in heaven.
How’s that work? Well, some universalists believe all the bible passages about hell are myths. Or that God will forgive everyone and let ’em into the Kingdom regardless. Or the burning pool is temporary: People can leave as soon as they come to their senses and repent. (Like C.S. Lewis taught in The Great Divorce.) Or the burning pool is like prison, but everyone gets released once they serve their time.
Yeah, I like the idea of everyone eventually repenting. But I doubt it, human nature being what it is. The other possibility—that God just lets everyone into the Kingdom, either at the End, or after time serviced—also makes heaven much 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 enjoy heaven, and behave ourselves? You see, universalism creates just as many problems as it solves.
Free will. This belief (honestly, my favorite) reminds us people have free will: We’re given plenty of chances to follow Jesus, whether we know it’s him or not. Ultimately we choose whether to live with God in heaven, or take our chances in the lake. So the torment isn’t so much God’s punishment for sinners: It’s what sinners choose for themselves. Like the line John Milton put in Satan’s mouth in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” ]263]
The main flaw in the free-will argument is this: If “the door to hell is locked on the inside,” as it’s said, it works both ways. If 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 another form of universalism. The burning pool has a revolving door, so to speak.
As in The Great Divorce. Christians love that book because we like Lewis’s descriptions of the sort of people who would choose hell. But we dismiss the ramifications of people being able to choose heaven after they die.
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.
Instead I remind you: The focus of Christianity is the Kingdom. Not hell, nor 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 the stick hits them.
The Christians who focus on hell are the Christians who don’t appreciate the Kingdom, or even know the gospel is about the Kingdom. (’Cause they’ve been taught it’s about dodging hell.) For them, preaching hellfire seems to work, and it’s far easier to bash evil than preach sanctification, so they’ll stick to 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.