Hell…and whatnot

There are many theologians and scholars who have studied the subject of hell far more than I ever could. I’m not going to even try and into enter the discussion at their level, but I think it’s important to make sense of it at whatever level we’re working at. This blog is my attempt to do that, so it probably offers more questions than answers and may not always make complete sense. It’s a question that I have wrestled with for a long time and have been asked about by others. Like many Christians, I’m heavily indebted to these theologians, especially N.T Wright so you will see him quoted a lot in this; might as well go with the best. So, here we go.

When we think of hell, we probably have Dante’s Inferno [1] and the nine circles of hell in mind. But does the Bible actually describe hell like this? At first glance it would seem that way:

The punishment of the wicked dead in hell is described throughout Scripture as “eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2), a place where “the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44-49), a place of “torment” and “fire” (Luke 16:23-24), “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), a place where “the smoke of torment rises forever and ever” (Revelation 14:10-11), and a “lake of burning sulfur” where the wicked are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). [2]

Seems pretty clear cut about the fire. Like with anything in the Bible though, context and genre is important and we need to understand what the context is to understand what the author intended. This is when the discussion ramps up in intensity and disagreements ensue. There have been a variety of view points on this and Tom Price from the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, offered his own along with the views of John Calvin and Martin Luther in a recent talk:

Tom Price: Hell is not a place with a high thermal output. It is figurative description of a terrible tragedy of life apart from God

John Calvin: We may conclude, from many passages of scripture, that eternal fire is a metaphorical expression

Martin Luther: It’s not very important whether or not one pictures hell as it is commonly portrayed and described [3]

N.T Wright has expressed similar views regarding hell being the result of humans saying we don’t want our lives to be defined by worshiping God, we want to do our own thing.  Hell would be divorce from God once and for all, and saying that we want to stop being an image bearing human being [4]. Looking at Genesis, this is the definition of being human, to bear Gods image and if we don’t want to bear his image, we don’t want to be human. This inevitably raises the question of what does it mean to not be human? We’re still working out what it means to be a human being. This is making the decision to go to hell very much ours; it’s not a case of God sending us it’s a case of us going of our own free will. In C.S. Lewis’s words; “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way[5]. God does not force himself on us, he won’t force us to stay somewhere we don’t want to be. Tom in the same talk suggests that it might actually be more painful to be in Gods presence for those who don’t want to be there. This would then make hell an act of mercy on Gods part, which is not something I’d considered before now.

I’m not suggesting that we can do what we want then decide when the time comes, it does seem that where we ultimately end up logically and naturally flows out from how we live here. What we do on this earth matters and not just actions, but our relationship with Christ. I’m also not saying that our actions earn our way into heaven. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith but there’s some very high level discussions going on as to what that means. Some critics would say “oh you’re saying your beliefs are the only way to get to heaven” No, I’m saying if you reject Christ and don’t want him in your life, why would you want to spend eternity with him? I cannot and will not make judgements on where people will spend eternity, that’s something only God can do; I am merely asking the logical question based on aspect of what heaven is.  I don’t think it’s as simple as Christians go to heaven and everyone else doesn’t; or that good people go heaven and evil people don’t (though what measure of good and evil we are using is a valid question) There is a theological view called Universalism, the basic premise of which is everybody goes to heaven, regardless of whether they are a Christian or not, regardless of what they do or not. An argument for this is outlined below:

People ask me if Hitler will be in heaven. I ask, “which Hitler?” Long before Hitler was a mass murdering dictator, he was a terrified boy being savagely beaten by his father while trying to protect his beloved mother. That Hitler will be in heaven. [6]

The current thinking with many Christians is that heaven and hell are equal and opposite destinations and where you go is determined when you die. This seems to make no sense in light of the resurrection, it shows we will be bodily raised and renewed and that the earth will be renewed and joined with heaven; and that process has started now. What we do here matters. So what is heaven? Again to quote N.T. Wright, once we die, we go to like a lay-by waiting for this day to come; the main point is what happens then. Death is not the end, not even life after death is the end, it’s the “life after life after death” [7] that should be the main focus. He expands on this more fully in his book “Surprised by Hope” So where will he spend eternity? I honestly don’t know, as I said earlier I leave such judgements to God. Is hell even eternal? It seems Jesus had something interesting to say about that:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5 NIV)

What does Jesus mean by perish? Perish seems to suggest an end, a point where we will cease to exist. Regardless of where we end up, we all die so he doesn’t seem to be referring to physical death on earth as it is now. He could mean that our bodies will not get renewed so we don’t come back physically so our bodies will perish but a part of us (usually referred to as a soul) will continue on; but  he doesn’t say “unless you repent, you will suffer and burn for all eternity” He was addressing the question of people being punished for their sins, but it is curious what he says about what will happen. Paul seems to express similar things in Romans; For if you live according to the flesh, you will die (Romans 8:13) What does Paul mean by this? This opens a whole other conversation about what is meant by death in the Bible.

But that’s heavy for enough for one blog.

 

References:

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inferno_%28Dante%29

[2] http://www.gotquestions.org/hell-real-eternal.html

[3] http://www.oiccu.co.uk/index.php/mp3-reader/items/131.php

[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vggzqXzEvZ0

[5] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/cslewis146406.html

[6] http://leavingtheflock.com/2013/08/13/a-very-brief-argument-for-universalism/

[7] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZC6tbgpsl4

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3 thoughts on “Hell…and whatnot

  1. Nicole says:

    You mentioned universalism. I’m basically a hopeful universalist in that I hope everyone will be saved. There are biblical reasons for believing so. I wrote my reasons here if your interested: http://bipolarchristianity.com/2013/07/15/saved-from-hell/

  2. […] small sample of the questions that I’m currently wrestling with (I haven’t talked about hell yet), and I know I’m not alone in this. Since taking a break from going to church though, […]

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