This week we’re finishing a short series about Foundations of Faith. Today we’re looking at that scary topic ‘Hell’ or ‘Judgement’. Do you believe in Hell? I think Christians used to overdose on Hell, and now most try to avoid the topic altogether. Let’s be brave and have a look around. I think there is no Christian doctrine that I find more difficult than the idea of Hell. Hell, red hot pokers, demons - all that mix of fantasy and violence. I find that really hard to reconcile with the God I know through Jesus. But maybe that’s just my soft western culture.
Two things I particularly find hard. First is the idea of torture. I don’t like the idea of God torturing, or even causing pain to people. Perhaps I can reconcile pain and suffering if they are part of a redemptive process, but suffering without redemption? I just baulk at that.
Secondly, this idea of eternal suffering for a limited offence feels disproportionate; a little sinning in this world and you get all of eternity to regret? That just seems unjust to me. So, I find the whole idea of Hell difficult. Who finds the idea of Hell difficult?
Ok, let’s put our preconceived view of Hell aside for a moment and have a fresh look at Hell.
Firstly, let’s look at the idea of judgement. A lot of people are offended by the very idea that God would judge. Secondly, let’s have a look at New Testament images of Hell – let’s know what we are talking about. This won’t be comprehensive, but let’s look at what’s actually there. And finally, let’s finish with perhaps some options of ways to see Hell, and maybe this will give you the starting place for some really interesting conversations.
Judgement: How can a loving God be angry? Why doesn’t he just forgive? It’s a good question. The best answer I’ve ever heard is very simple. The wrath of God is simply the love of God to those who are opposed to God. So the love of God desires to protect and nurture the weak and innocent; and if you set yourself against that, if you set yourself to exploit or abuse the weak and innocent, then your experience of the love of God will be his wrath.
Miraslav Volf is a Croatian who lived through the violence of the 90’s in the Balkans. He has seen extreme violence, and is dismissive of the idea that God does not judge evil and violence. He says that it takes ‘the quiet of a suburban home’ to think that the idea of human non-violence comes from a vision of God who does not judge (Keller, 74). He believes in non-violence, but he maintains it is because God stands as the final judge, that we can develop a response of personal non-violence. It is only because we can trust in God to avenge that we can give up our own vengeance.
A lot of people struggle with the idea of anyone judging them, “Who are you to judge me?” C S Lewis makes a really interesting comment on this. He talks about the way that over the last few centuries we have gone from the big moral question of “how to conform the soul to reality” to a modern approach where we have subdued nature to our power and ask “how to subdue reality to the wishes to men”. We think that we can shape our own moral universe (Keller, 70).
Let’s look at what the New Testament says about Judgement. Or more precisely about Hell.
The first metaphor / word / or picture of Hell is Gehenna. This Greek word, translated by the King James Version as Hell, is used 12 times in the New Testament, 11 times by Jesus. He uses it in the Sermon on the Mount and when referring to the Pharisees. Gehenna is a transliteration of an Old Testament Hebrew expression “the valley of Hinnom” which is a on the southern side of Jerusalem. It was the city dump - it smelt and there was a fire there all the time. There were worms there. And worse, in 2 Chronicles 28:3 we read that King Ahaz“burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites”. Ahazsacrificed children to the god Molech. Gehenna was a well known place and a well understood analogy for rubbish and false religion. Jesus uses the word to describe the opposite of life in his Kingdom - a place where both soul and body could be destroyed(Mark 9:43-48). “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” (Matthew 10:28). A plain reading of this couplet suggests that we should not fear someone who can just kill the body. The second part of the couplet logically implies that we should fear someone who can kill both body and soul. Destroyed ‘apollumi’ is translated ‘destroy,’ ‘perish,’ ‘loss,’ and ‘lost.’ I want you to understand that the metaphor that Jesus used, Gehenna, was the city dump. Jesus said that his enemies would be destroyed on Trash Mountain.
Hell: The second word that the NT uses is Hades. The King James version translated that as Hell. NIV translates it as ‘depths’ and some versions leave the word as Hades. Hades is the Greek god of the underworld and then by extension a term for the underworld, a term for the abode of the dead that is not overly defined. It was used to translate the imprecise term ‘Sheol’ in Hebrew (the abode of the dead, the common grave of mankind, a shadowlike existence forgotten by the living). We need to be aware that there is a whole Greek mythology about Hades that does not start with Jesus, and I think Jesus used it mainly to mean death. The Greek word ‘Tartarus’ is used by Peter and refers to a deep, gloomy part of Hades used as a dungeon of torment and suffering. Some of the Christian thought over the idea of Hell comes directly from this Greek idea of Hades. Jesus didn’t go into a great deal of detail about Hell in the Gospels. Often Jesus picked up language in common usage without going into a lot of detail. I think we should be careful of assuming too much about ‘Hell’
from Jesus’ use of a contemporary concept. What I find Jesus did talk about was ‘things that brought life’ and ‘things that brought death’. So Jesus used death as a broader term than just physical death.
I think the central story about Hell in the New Testament is this story about Lazarus and the rich man. And it’s a fascinating story. It is clearly a parable about a life lived in self indulgence, and it is clearly a story about reversing the lot of the poor. The NT has a particular passion for the poor. In the story, the poor man dies and is carried to the bosom of Abraham – notice there is no report of his faith or decision of faith. This is not a story about how can I be saved. The rich man died and was buried. He ends up in Hades - now this is where it talks about torment. But notice what he does. He doesn’t ask to be saved. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool his tongue because he is in agony in this fire. We get this picture of the rich man suffering in a fiery hell. That’s where the idea comes from. But what’s the story really about? Four things:
Firstly, the rich man is still treating Lazarus like a slave, as a ‘chai boy’. “Abraham, send the boy to help me . . .” (vs 24). He’s in Hell and he’s still self obsessed!
Secondly, Abraham tells the rich man that he has had his fill, and that he didn’t nurture compassion when he could have. (vs 25) A powerful message for us.
Thirdly, he talks about a chasm - you can’t go from here to there, and from there to here (vs 26). There is a division in our fates in the afterlife.
Fourthly, I want to suggest that the last few words are what the story is really all about. This is not “an idiots guide to hell”. This is a foretelling of Jesus’ mission. God has sent Moses and the prophets, and no one listens. Even if someone rises from the dead Jesus says no one will listen. This story is all about Jesus. We have been too quick to build a description of Hell on this parable, and we have been too slow to see the needs of the poor. The core of this story is a challenge to the rich men Jesus was encountering.
Verse 13 gives us the clue, “You cannot serve God and money”. That’s what this story is about.
Finally, we have Hell described in Revelation 20 where “death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire…the second death” (Rev 20:14). Personally, I think the most important thing to remember about Hell in Revelation is that this is highly symbolic language. It is poetry and not technical writing; and while I believe that it is prophetic into the future, I am certain John was also describing things that were happening in living memory. I think Revelation has a strongly polemic flavour to it. Let’s realise that in 64AD there was a great fire in Rome and Nero blamed the Christians. This is recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus. If you ever read people claiming that Jesus is not mentioned by contemporary non-Christian writers that’s just rubbish. Jesus is spoken about by Josephus and Tacitus. And here’s what he said. “Nero set up [i.e. falsely accused] as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty a class hated for their abominations, who are commonly called Christians. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. … Besides being put to death they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clothed in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Christians were being burnt alive. This is the context into which John spoke about the beast and his friends (Caesar is a pretty good bet for the beast) being burned in everlasting fire. It’s tit for tat. When John sees the beast and the false prophets being thrown into the lake of fire and tormented day and night forever and ever(v10) it’s not the same sort of genre as Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount.
This is a very brief summary of the biblical background to Hell. You can read a lot more books that will argue different cases. Now I want to present you with four options, and I suggest you talk around these with people. Not just what do you like, but on what basis do you believe them? And let’s be fair, Jesus doesn’t give a lot of sustained teaching on Hell.
1. A conservative and more literal view of Hell, that the soul is immortal and those who do not enter into God’s kingdom are consigned to eternal punishment, it may not be a literal lake of fire but some souls suffer forever (Isaiah 66:24; Revelation 20:15).
2. Keller promotes a view that a soul that does not embrace God and life becomes a soul turned in on itself, paranoid, angry and blaming everyone else, a soul that would demand Lazarus to serve it, a soul that wouldn’t accept salvation if it meant giving oneself over to God’s will. The question Keller puts is “Thy will be done, or my will be done”. “In short Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity” (p78). He talks about Hell being personal disintegration on a broader scale. Keller avoids directly answering whether this happens in a MOMENT or over a long time. And of course what is time in eternity?
3. Thirdly, I’m an annihilationist. I think those who reject Christ, and therefore reject his Kingdom, do not have eternal souls. I think human immortality is contingent upon God (in whom we live and move and have our being) and that without God we cease to be. And I believe ultimate existential pain is to stop existing. I take fire as a metaphor for finish, end, kaput. It may be that souls at the moment of death are transported to the final judgment, and that for those wrapped up in evil or unwilling to receive Christ’s help, there is a judgement, vengeance is paid, and a death. But that death is final.
4. Of course, there is what we would now think of as the ‘Rob Bell’ universalist view expressed in his book ‘Love Wins’. The possibility that ultimately God may be able to redeem every soul in a way we do not understand, maybe it is only the faintest sliver of the image of God that remains in a person that is redeemed. But there is hope for all.
Are you right with God? Are you living a self-centred or self-loathing life; both and equally self indulgent? God made you because he loves you. From what we’ve been discussing today, if you choose to ignore him, he’ll probably let you have your choice. But you can choose for him today. I can give you a formula to pray, it’s a good little one, ‘sorry, thank you, please’. But really, the choice is very simple. Do you understand that saying ‘Yes’ to God would mean turning away from the things he will tell you are wrong for you? Do you understand that saying ‘Yes’ to God is saying ‘I want to do your will in my life, not my will’? Do you understand that? All you need to say is ‘Yes’.
Keller, T. 2008. The Reason for God, Belief in an Age of Scepticism. London. Hodder. Tacitus (c. A.D. 60-120), Annals (XV.44).