Tuesday, March 27, 2007

To Where in a Handbasket?

What does the Bible actually say about hell?

Not a lot.

And Jesus says more than anybody else.

In Matthew 5:22-31, Jesus is quoted several times as warning against it. He says nothing about being torched alive there forever in an indestructible body.

He warns against it again in Matthew 18:9 in what can only be described as a hyperbolic commentary on blaming parts of your body for your sins. He doesn't say anything about being tortured in hell forever.

He instructs us about whom we should fear in Matthew 10:28: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." I tend to take the word "destroy" literally. I picture it as meaning "obliteration" of "both soul and body." I do not see it in this context as literal for one and figurative for the other. I take this instruction to mean that we should have a healthy fear of God's power to judge, since He has the power to offer eternal life as His gift. But I see nothing here about being roasted alive for aeons.

Jesus decries the Pharisees' efforts to create converts to their legalism in Matthew 23:15 by saying the new converts become just as much sons of hell as their mentors. Not a politically correct observation. Also not a teaching about endless physical torment in flame. Nor does such a teaching surface a few verses later in 33 where He calls them the offspring of vipers and asks how they plan to escape hell.

The parallel passages to Matthew 5 in Mark 9:45-48 does apply a quote from Isaiah to describe hell: "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." The original does indeed describe a prophetic vision of the consequences of God's judgment by Isaiah (66:24. But it only says that the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. It says nothing about the "bodies" in that scene being still filled with life. In fact, the impression is quite the opposite. Maybe the worm and the fire do not die out because they are being continually fueled with more bodies to consume.

Then, in that expansive picture of judgment Jesus paints in Matthew 25, Jesus clearly warns in verse 41:
Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.


Eternal fire. Prepared for the devil and his angels. But He does not say that those humans thrown there will endure it eternally.

Luke 12:5 echoes the instruction about whom to fear - given at the sending out of the twelve in Matthew 10 - as a polemic against the Pharisees, also given later after the twelve and 72 have returned and thousands are following Him. Still no elaboration about unending agony.

However, Luke 16:23 is part of the enigmatic story Jesus tells about Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man finds himself in hell (literally, the Greek word for "Hades," the place of the dead) and begs for Lazarus to bring just a dripping finger of water because he is "in agony in this flame." It's not a pretty picture. But no one says anything about it being eternal. Is the rich man's plea for his brothers motivated by the realization that he doesn't have much time left to beg (a terrible irony, since Lazarus lived and died a beggar at his gate) for their fate? Is the point of the story to relate actuality; to teach us something we needed to know about hell? Or to use the existing, probably Zoroastrian-Greek-originated beliefs about life and life after death to make a point:
"If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."


James, generally regarded as the Lord's brother, warns of the tongue's fiery destructive inspiration and capability (in what strikes me as a curious comparison to the Holy Spirit's fiery church-constructing activity in Acts 2) in his general epistle (3:6). Still nothing there about timeless excruciation.

Now, II Peter 2:4 does tell us something about hell: that it is a place of gloomy dungeons where God sent rebellious angels to be held for judgment. Angels. Not people. And not for eternity; just until judgment. Then Revelation 20:14-15 takes up the tale of what happens next:
Then death and Hades (the place of the dead) are thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.


Revelation 21:8 gives us the final glimpse at the sinful and their fate: "their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."

I can't tell you how literally to take the Revelation to John. I don't believe anyone can. It is a highly symbolic book of apocalyptic vision. But I can tell you that nothing in those words says that anyone would survive being thrown into that lake of fire. Nothing. Not a hint. Not a reflection back to law or prophecy or Christ's words or His followers' teachings.

It is final. It is the "second death."

I am not a fan of stringing together tenuously-related scriptures to build a point. I do not have the clear and complete teachings of Biblical times on the question. I can tell you that "sheol" is the Hebrew word that comes closest to the concept of "hell" in the Old Testament, and it is sometimes translated "grave" or "pit." It is the final resting place of the body. I can tell you that, similarly, "hades" is the Greek word which simply describes the abode of the dead in literature as well as scripture. Sometimes its inhabitants are dead bodies; sometimes spirits.

I can tell you that when Paul is talking about "all" of us being changed in the twinkling of an eye into incorruptible flesh in I Corinthians 15:51-52, he is writing to Christians. To conclude that "we ... all" includes anyone other than those who put their hope in Christ is making an unwarranted and unsupported assumption. In fact, he distinguishes between the perishable and the imperishable - only one of which can inherit the kingdom of God. (Guess which one.)

So, in spite of disliking the occupation of building my point on all these somewhat-related scriptures, I don't have a lot more to go on and neither do you, unless God has been whispering to you on the sly. And the conclusion I come to is this:

We live. We die. We are all judged. (Whether we are raised at this point as spirits or in bodies as mortal as the ones we have now, I can't tell from scripture.)

Those whom God judges worthy are changed into incorruptible forms to live with Him forever on the new earth among the new heavens. Those whom God judges as unworthy just die. They perish. Whatever is left of them does not seem to be vivified, recycled, or tortured - but annihilated. Burned up in the lake of fire, the second death. Finally. Permanently. Irrevocably.

Fallen angels and demons, including Satan? I have no clearer picture of that. Perhaps, as beings created to be immortal, they do suffer immortally for the sin of having seen God and known His goodness yet opposing it forever. Perhaps, as beings created to be immortal yet becoming God's enemies, they are not worthy even of the immortality they might have enjoyed - and they too are extinguished.

And perhaps that lake of fire burns eternally, not because fuel is continuously added to it, but because God wills it as a reminder of the consequences of evil. But even that I would have to wonder about as a necessity for eternal survivors of an world turned evil, living endlessly in the companionship of God through His Son.

Nothing in scripture inarguably confirms or denies my view of eternity as a gift only for those given it by God.

Neither does it unquestionably paint a picture of human souls being physically tortured forever in a hell of fire as the expression of God's justice.

I have my reasons for holding the view I have; you have yours for your view. It is difficult for me to believe that God would mete infinite torture as punishment for finite sin; it is difficult for me to believe that He would even permit such a place to eternally exist. If Christ conquered sin and death, then He conquered it. Obliterated its power. If He did so on our behalf, then it makes no sense to me that its place should continue eternally. Perhaps "eternal" is meant literally. Perhaps it is meant figuratively. Still, I have to concede, it is described by Him as "eternal fire." And it surely has a purpose.

I believe in scripture. I believe in judgment. I believe that God is perfect in judgment. I believe in the kindness and severity of God. I believe in His mercy and His righteousness. I believe in what hymnist Elizabeth Clephane spoke of as the "trysting place where Heaven’s love and Heaven’s justice meet!":

I believe in the cross.

17 comments:

That Girl said...

You make me think so much my head hurts! :)

salguod said...

Good thoughts. You might appreciate this paper by my friend Douglas Jacoby.

Patrick Mead said...

Some columns I glance at. Some I read. Some I save. This one -- as with most of yours -- is a keeper. I think we are on the same page but, regardless, it is good to be reminded about what the Bible really says. And doesn't.

David U said...

Hell........(I know, you are waiting to see if I am using it as a noun or an explicative).......IS something that I have a hard time getting my arms around.


DU

greg said...

I've had Edward Fudge's book The Fire That Consumes for years, but have yet to read it. I actually pulled it out last week and hope to read it sometime in the next few months. Great post.

Adam Gonnerman said...

So, you believe in annihilationism?

When Jesus spoke about judgment, Gehenna (the trash dump outside town) and Hades (did he use that latter term) I'm convinced he was talking about the judgment coming on Israel that was fulfilled in 70 AD. That is not to deny the second coming (elaborated on in the epistes and Revelation) but to affirm that Jesus' first concern was Israel. He came first for Israel, then for the nations. As a prophet in Israel he was preaching against the false ideologies of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots, Essenes etc etc ad nauseum and calling people to repent and accept Yahweh's agenda for Israel. The judgment predicted would come on Israel, and it did.

Keith Brenton said...

Good observations, Adam. I believe Jesus used "Hades" only in His telling of the story about Lazarus and the rich man. But I belive there are many layers and levels of meaning to Jesus' teachings ... and while His immediate view may well have been Israel's fate, He also had the long view of history in mind (especially in Matthew 25).

You can call it "annihilationism", I guess; "anti-eternal torturistic terminal punishment" is probably too much of a mouthful even for me.

don said...

I don't have an opinion on this, and can see how tradition and early teachings could slant one's view one way or the other.

I guess my only question would be why is such apparent importance placed on the word "eternal" (or unquenchable, etc.) in the actual scripture? It certainly suggests that the eternal nature is intended for those placed there. The place was prepared for the devil and his angels, but humans are sent there.

My grandfather died an unbeliever; he thought the whole Jesus story was a fairy tale. I would really draw a lot of comfort in thinking he will just cease to exist rather than be punished forever, so have looked at this question with some personal relevance for a while. I just am not really convinced one way or the other.

Laymond said...

I have written many articles on this very subject, I have spent many hours searching for any inkling of the notion of a sinner spending eternity in the firy lake of eternal torture, and have found none, I do see where the lie/ false teaching came from and why it raised it's ugly head. preaching love and forgiveness as Jesus did was not getting the results some wanted, so they figured if they could not convince people to want to go to heaven they would scare them into compliance with threat of eternal pain, nobody likes pain, take the example of the first distruction of man. do we see those poor people still dwelling in the oceans and lakes of the world gasping for breath, while waiting on the final firy punishment? It absolutly makes no since that fire or water would have an effect on the spiritual body. I totaly agree it's nonscence

TCS said...

It just seems interesting to me how upset some folks get when their traditional understanding of Hell is challenged, or even questioned. They seem...well Hell bent on wanting some to be eternally burning. That is an interesting stance to take.

Keith Brenton said...

Agreed - a scary point of view to me, Tommy: hell-bent on condemning others.

And my still-forming views on the matter took yet another turn a few moments ago when I asked myself, "Is there really a fate worse than death?"

After thinking about it a moment, I realized there was: being separated from God forever when you could have been with Him.

JP Manzi said...

You make my head hurt as well Keith, but that is a good thing. Thanks for this study.

Keith Brenton said...

The whole idea of it makes my head hurt, especially when I consider Paul's assertion that he would rather be cursed and cut off if it would save his own Jewish brothers and sisters.

Does he mean he would exchange his own soul to be forever damned if it could bring the rest of Israel back to God through Christ?

Really, eternally torturedly damned?

Or does he understand that such a sacrifice would mean that his life - already drawn closer to God every day and in every aspect - would end without him seeing God once more, face to face, in the glory that blinded him on the road to Damascus?

Either scenario makes my head hurt. And my heart break.

Adam Gonnerman said...

I don't see Matthew 25 as covering a "long view of history" either. Gehenna was still the topic. Try taking that passage apart with evangelical or Church of Christ doctrine and it won't make much sense. Who are the sheep, and who are the goats? Saying that the sheep are those who accept Jesus by faith and the goats are those who reject him (or never hear about him) does no justice to what Jesus was actually saying. I preached on this at a retreat for the Brazilian church in NJ in 2005 and someone went off about how this had nothing to do with justice and everything to do with being a Christian.

Keith Brenton said...

Adam, I would say that the "long view of history" may not have been Jesus' immediate concern in Matthew 25, but I do believe His words there indicate a timeless truth.

I'd disagree along with you that He's implying that "the sheep are those who accept Jesus by faith and the goats are those who reject him."

For one thing, faith in this passage - as in the epistle James wrote - is pretty much worthless if not put into action; if not lived out. It's pretty goat-headed.

I think it has everything to do with justice AND with being a Christian.

Eric said...

Hi, Keith. I realize I'm almost six years late to this discussion, but I just came across it yesterday. There are two passages that seem unavoidable when discussing the duration of hell: Matt. 25:46 and Rev. 14:11. I just wondered if you could comment on the eternal "punishment" specifically in Matt. 25, and the "torment" of Rev. 14:11? Like yourself, I would prefer to believe in something other than a never-ending torture. It doesn't square with any human sense of justice. But I can't seem to get around what these passages say. Am I misunderstanding them? Thanks.

Keith Brenton said...

Non-existence is eternal punishment: final, irrevocable, no reprieve, no hope, no continued existence. I think that is what Matthew 25:46 is talking about. The context is about giving something or giving nothing. To those who give nothing, God gives nothingness.

I'm always cautious about taking prophetic literature too literally, and Revelation is prophetic literature. The context in chapter 14 is specifically about those who worship the beast. They will be tormented in the presence of the God whose glory they have denied. The SMOKE of their torment rises forever; it does not say their torment endures forever. You can fire up a grill and keep it smoking long after you take the burgers off the grill, for example, in case something needs to be cooked later. (Or long after the burgers have been consumed by the fire.)

I think this is talking about some rebellion against God (beast-worship) in the late first century that readers and listeners then would have easily recognized. It is a call for the patient endurance of the saints - presumably to endure the evils forced on them by the worshipers of the beast, without renouncing their own faith. Vengeance would come, and it would be the Lord's, and it would be final.