Saturday, October 23, 2004

To hell with 'Hell'

Well, it's an interesting title - but an important issue, I think. Lots of relevant information and verses about hell can be found on my other blog. Here, I've tried to condense down my main ideas.

The word ‘hell’

Originally, ‘hell’ simply meant to conceal, to hide, to cover; hence it was properly descriptive of any concealed, hidden, or covered place. In Old English literature may be found references to the helling of potatoes - that is, putting them into pits - and of the helling of a house, meaning to cover it with a thatched roof. Thus, originally, the word had no connotation of an ‘eternal world of torment’, but rather a practical daily meaning.

There are four words translated as ‘hell’ in the KJV, ‘sheol’ (63), ‘hades’ (11), ‘Gehenna’ (12), and ‘Tartarus’ (1). I will only talk about the first three.

Almost invariably in the OT, ‘sheol’ simply means ‘the grave’, or the condition of being dead. Occasionally, it seems to be used as a hyperbole. ‘Hades’ is synonymous with ‘sheol’, being used to translate ‘Sheol’ in the LXX. It should be noted that neither of these words indicate punishment of any kind, or a literal ‘place’ – they both simply refer to the state of being dead.

‘Gehenna’ is another Greek word that Jesus uses in his teachings. Gehenna, literally, was a deep valley just outside Jerusalem which was used as a place for the disposal of the offal of the city. Fires were kept constantly burning in this valley in order to destroy the offal cast into it. The same offal would breed worms, (for all rotting meat does), hence came the expression, ‘Where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

In Jesus' day the people were well acquainted with the purpose for which Gehenna was used, so when he employed it as a symbol of the utter destruction of those unworthy of life everlasting, they would be quick to get the force of the illustration. It is said that the carcasses of dead animals and dead criminals - whom the Jews judged as unworthy of a resurrection - were also destroyed in Gehenna. So, people listening to Jesus would be quick to catch the thought of eternal destruction and death when he used Gehenna as a symbol of the punishment of the wicked.

Jesus used the word Gehenna in his Sermon on the Mount, saying, "Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell [Gehenna] fire." (Matt. 5:22) Gehenna was not far from where Jesus uttered these words, and those who heard them would not think for a moment that he was teaching that all who do not accept him before they die were to be tortured forever. So, while both Sheol and Hades represent the death condition, Jesus seems to have used ‘Gehenna’ when referring to the destruction, not punishment, of those unworthy of life.

Eternal torment as the punishment of sin

It seems that eternal torment/punishment of the wicked was a heathen idea, as it is not found in the Old Testament, yet had its beginnings with the Egyptians a few centuries before Christ. The Romans expanded these myths, and they came into the church gradually, as heathens were converted but carried across their old ideas. The Egyptian and Roman authorities fostered the belief in eternal torment, that they did not believe themselves, as a means of controlling the uneducated masses. Several ancient works, from Polybius to Plato to Aristotle make it clear that this was the purpose of these myths.

Consequently, there were mixed opinions on the matter in Jesus’ time. Many have debated what Jesus taught on the matter, indeed what the Bible teaches on the subject, and there are several aspects that need consideration…

The Biblical punishment of sin - death

Clearly, the Bible states many times that wicked people are “destroyed”, will “perish”, and are punished with “death” and “eternal destruction”. Some example verses are:

Joh 3:16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that everyone believing into Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Rom 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is everlasting life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Phi 3:18-19 For many walk as hostile to the cross of Christ, of whom I often told you, and now even weeping I say it, whose end is destruction

1Jo 5:12-13 The one having the Son has life. The one not having the Son of God does not have life. I wrote these things to you, the ones believing in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have everlasting life, and that you may believe in the name of the Son of God.

Gen 2:17 but of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you may not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, dying you shall die. (c.f. Gen 3:4 And the serpent said to the woman, Dying you shall not die.)

Joh 15:6 Whoever doesn't live in me is thrown away like a branch and dries up. Branches like this are gathered, thrown into a fire, and burned. (clearly the idea here is destruction, not torment)

Rev 21:8 But for the cowardly and unbelieving, and those having become foul, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all the lying ones, their part will be in the Lake burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

Irenaeus supported the idea that the wicked go out of existence. In his work against heresies, he says: "The principle of existence is not inherent in our own constitutions, but is given us of God; and the soul can exist only so long as God wills. He who cherishes the gift of existence, and is thankful to the Giver, shall exist forever; but he who despises it, and is ungrateful, deprives himself of the privilege of existing forever."..."He who is unthankful to God for this temporal life, which is little, cannot justly expect from him an existence which is endless."

Most ‘traditional’ Christians teach that the punishment of sin - ‘death’ - is actually not death. It is ‘the death that never dies’, it is ‘separation from God’, it is ‘somewhere we don’t want to go’ – it is anything but death in the commonly accepted definition of ‘the complete absence of life’. On what basis is this taught? Why, it is on the basis of eternal torment of the wicked.

So let us consider some of the verses, words and phrases in the Bible people use to support eternal torment.

‘Torment’ after death

First the supporter of eternal torment points to Mat 25:41:

Then He will also say to those on His left, Go away from Me, cursed ones, into the everlasting fire having been prepared for the Devil and his angels.

And then connects this with Rev 14:9-11:

If anyone worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead, or in his hand, he also shall drink of the wine of the anger of God having been mixed undiluted in the cup of His wrath. And he will be tormented by fire and brimstone before the holy angels and before the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.

And also Rev 20:10:

And the Devil leading them astray was thrown into the Lake of Fire and Brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet were and they were tormented day and night to the ages of the ages.

So, eternal torment is concluded by such arguments. But, consider two places where similar figurative language is used:

Isa 34:9 And its torrents shall be turned to pitch, and its dust to brimstone; and its land shall become burning pitch.

Isa 34:10 It shall not be put out night or day; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation, it shall lie waste.

Rev 18:8b And she [Babalon] will be consumed with fire

Rev 18:18 And they cried out, seeing the smoke of her burning

Rev 19:3 And her [Babalon’s] smoke rose up forever and ever.

From these passages, it seems clear that the ‘smoke rising for ever and ever’ is a symbol of their complete destruction, not that the things are being continually burned forever. So, why do we assume anything different in the other passages in Revelation? Perhaps it is because of that word ‘tormented’ (‘basanizo’ in the Greek).

The word for ‘tormented’

Some research on this word quickly yields that originally the word simply meant to test the authenticity of gold and silver coins using a touch-stone. If the scratch made by the coin on the stone is a certain colour, the testing of the coin resulted in it acceptance. But if the testing proved it to be fake, it was no doubt removed from circulation. A jailer, who confined prisoners for debt, was called a "basanistes" (Mat 18:34).

So, the idea of ‘test’, ‘examine’ or ‘convict’ perhaps best conveys the meaning. I suggest that ‘basanizo’ does not carry connotations of torture, but perhaps it ties in with being ‘tested by fire’ (see 1Co 3:11-15, Mar 9:49, 1 Pe 1:7, Luk 3:16, and also Heb 12:29). Perhaps God will both test and prove who are His by ‘fire’ – those who are righteous live through it, and the wicked are destroyed by it. Furthermore, in general usage, fire is associated not with torture, but destruction. In light of all this, relevant passages from Revelation seem to be best interpreted not as torment, but instead ‘the smoke from their *test and destruction by fire* would go up forever and ever’.

Even if one grants the meaning of ‘torment’, the torment is not everlasting. Rather, it is the smoke that is ‘everlasting’. What would that smoke be from? Perhaps, just like Sodom and Gomorrah, it is of what the fire destroyed.

“Nashing of teeth”

Jesus uses pictorial language of ‘weeping and nashing of teeth’ only in His parables, often seeming to use it to highlight how undesirable everlasting death is in contrast with everlasting life. Further, the weeping and nashing of teeth is never described as ‘everlasting’. Hence, even if there is ‘weeping and nashing of teeth’ of the wicked after physical death, it needn’t be prolonged. Indeed, when they are informed of their fate, they will likely weep or be angry before it is carried out.

“Everlasting/unquenchable fire”

These phrases were used by writers of the time to express fires that completely consumed (destroyed) what was put into them. The suggestion that people will dwell in fire forever, being ‘tormented by the flame’ and yet not destroyed is never hinted at in these phrases.

“Everlasting punishment”

Simply, if the consequences of a punishment are everlasting, surely it is within reason to call it an ‘everlasting punishment’. Both ‘everlasting life’ and ‘everlasting death’ are everlasting in nature, one is a reward, the other a punishment. So, if the wicked are put to death by being consumed by fire (which may well be painful for a time), they will be dead forever – not tormented forever.

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luk 16:19-31)

There are abundant reasons why this is, in fact, a parable. A manuscript of the seventh century (Beza) introduces it with, "And he spake also another parable." Another of the tenth century reads: "the Lord spake this parable." This is the fifth in a series of parables; the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the unjust steward, and Lazarus. He reproves the Pharasees (who were listening), before telling them this parable.

Lazarus means "whom God helps" (a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar). The Rich man portrays the Jewish leaders and their nation. The symbolism used is clearly targeted at conveying that God accepts the lowly but does not like the self-righteous. It is suggested by some commentators that this parable was an adaptation of a heathen story common at the time.


In light of all this, plus verses on the resurrection, I have reached something like a ‘conditionalist’ view of eternal life. These are a few difficulties with this view, but it seems there are far more with the idea of eternal torture, and on the whole this view seems to line up with Scripture more.

1) When anyone dies physically, they do not live again at all until the resurrection. Their ‘soul’ is not conscious, for they are not alive.

2) Both the ‘saved’ and wicked will be resurrected

3) The ‘saved’ will continue to live forever, but the wicked will be ‘turned back’ into the state of death (not being consciously alive/ceasing to exist as a living person).

4) Upon learning this and possibly while being destroyed by fire, the wicked will probably ‘weep and be angry’. However, they will ultimately be destroyed. 5) Thus, our ‘hope in resurrection’ is quite literally the promise of eternal life instead of ceasing to consciously exist.


Andrew said...

Fair enough, but I want to challenge you on whether "gehanna" is actually referring to the afterlife. You argue that we should take "sin causes death" in its most obvious sense. Then why not take gehanna in its most obvious sense also - ie as being a thing in this life rather than the afterlife? You need to deal with the possibility that in passages referring to Gehanna, Jesus is talking quite literally about normal death in the here and now, not about the afterlife.

I am not convinced one way or the other on this, but from what I can see, the idea that Gehanna refers only to Jerusalem's rubbish dump has a lot to commend it. Either way you look at it, it's a possibility that needs to be taken very seriously given that people such as NT Wright are advocating it. He presents a good case and integrates it well with his extremely compelling analysis of Christ's ministry.

Can you give me the precise references for the Irenaeus quotations?

Philotas said...

I shouldnt be on here, so ill be really quick! (wordcount 1,830/3000 done!)

It sounds like youre just skimming over the fact that Jesus did mention suffering. I dont think we should read into the name of the rich man that much (just talking about that part of the parable here). If Jesus had meant to say God doesnt like Rich exploiters, surely he didnt need to describe hell and the burning?
If you take it figureatively (which i dont know how you could) what could it represent? if Jesus isnt descirbing Hell, what is he describing? surely if this is just a metaphor its coming very close to lying? And Jesus aint told no lies.

Im about to get blasted! ^_^

Philotas said...

As a second thought here (BAD BAD procrastination Sam! BAD!) It worries me that these days there seems to be so many Christians around pushing the very weak view that there is no hell, that there is no suffering. God is love, how can he let people suffer?
How can we reconcile this with the Old Testament? what about the guy who was fried for touching the ark? (trying to stop it falilng). What about Sodom and Gomorrah?
Our God is wrathful. we cant go around saying that he isnt because if we do we contradict the first half of the Bible! check out the plagues!
If God wanted us all to be with him, why did he kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden?

Scott said...

I think you make a good point Philotas. That when alternative views of hell are being pushed in conjunction with a softening of the character of God, and the seriousness of sin, traditionalists are unlikely to listen, because it is suspected (probably rightly in most cases) that these were the influential factors, instead of a quest for the truth.

I'm not neccesarily making a judgement either way on the issue, but suggesting that in this case various beliefs do have a cluster effect.

Nathan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan said...

[I posted the earlier comment before I finished. oops]

Interesting post there Reubs - This post has a lot of implications, especially to exclusivism (which becomes far more attractive without an eternal hell), and the soverignty of God - I guess that comes back to your previous post on paradigms.

I'm not sure the argument that God is wrathful can be applied here. Sure in the Old Testament God killed people, and allowed people to get killed, but if they don't actually go to hell, God isn't that wrathful afterall. Eternal punishment is a lot more wrathful and far less loving than just killing someone who was going to die anyway.
Just because someone is on occasion wrathful, it doesn't mean that anything wrathful they do has to take the extreme.

Anyhow, I'm interested as to how this pratically applies to our everyday life.
At the moment i'm thinking that if hell exists, we really should be fervently trying to keep people out of there. Even if there is a small chance of it happening, it still gives us a great sense of urgency because its not worth the risk right? (I guess its depending on how soverign God is).
What do people think?

Andrew said...

On the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus:
Reuben, the Beza manuscript is well known for its extensive dodgy modifications of the text... I suppose it proves though that someone thought it was a parable. I have to say though I don't think that's particularly relevant: It clearly is a parable beyond any resonable doubt whatsoever and anyone that thinks otherwise clearly isn't qualifed to interpret the Bible.
Important also is that the "hell" in this parable is HADES (if I recall correctly, this is the only time Jesus ever uses that word), whereas the rest of the time Jesus talks about GEHANNA.
Also, as Reuben correctly points out, Jesus has taken a story known to his hearers and reversed the roles. His hearers would have assumed that the poor man was poor because he was accursed by God and the rich man was rich because he was blessed by God. Thus they were expecting the rich man to be blessed in the afterlife and the poor man not to be.

So a) Jesus is not the one making up the details of hades, he's borrowing a story involving hades to make a point about who really has God's favour and the point has nothing specifically to do with the afterlife, and b) Hades is not the same as Gehanna so equating the terms in ignorance is not a good idea.

I am somewhat amused by, but have to object to, Scott's use of the word "traditionalists" to describe himself against alterative views that vastly predate his own, by more than 500 or 1000 years on many points of doctrine...
Also the idea of the "softening of the character of God" as being untraditional is equally amusing: If you went back to the fourth century for example, you would find that the majority of theologians had a very "soft" view of the character of God. What is "untraditional" from a history-of-theology perspective is the hardened character of God.

At the moment i'm thinking that if hell exists, we really should be fervently trying to keep people out of there. Even if there is a small chance of it happening, it still gives us a great sense of urgency because its not worth the risk right?

That depends, I suppose, on whether it is in our power to do so. (I think it is up to individuals whether they come to God or not, those that will do so will do so at some point in time either now or in the afterlife, and those that will not do so won't. We can't force people to come to God by our power, just as God can't force people by His, what mainly happens when we preach the gospel is we draw those who are open to him. In a very deep sense it might be possible to affect someone and have them change themselves, but this sort of character changing thing would require patience and love and the opposite of urgency.
If hell exists, and its a bad place that we don't want people to go to, then I'm sure that God is trying hard to keep people out of there (and if He's not then I would question whether we should). But if God is trying hard, then it is seriously questionable whether our efforts could actually be effective.)

And the method we want to use to keep them out of hell is highly dependent on our theologies regarding what puts them in hell in the first place and how they are supposed to escape.

Furthermore your ideas of urgency presuppose exclusivism.

The way I read the Bible, saving people from hell is not the point of what we are supposed to be accomplishing as Christians. An exclusive focus on it would therefore seem to be inappropriately neglecting what we are called to do.

incognito said...

1) Andrew, RE: Gehenna. Yes, Jesus certainly was referring to the physical place on earth, but that doesn't mean it doesn't also have significance of the afterlife. He typically used parables which are physically related to our life here (e.g. lost coin, prodigal son, wheat and chaff, sheep and goats), but that doesn't mean they don't have spiritual significance. Personally, I think Jesus talks plenty about the wicked being thrown in the fire, weeping and nashing of teeth, etc.

2) Sam, how did Jesus mention suffering? Typically, it is 'weeping and nashing of teeth', which corresponds to sorrow and anger, not 'suffering'. Fire does not connote 'torture' or 'suffering'. I will post on Lazarus and the Rich Man soon, perhaps, but needless to say that there are good reasons for all the features of the parable. Jesus used HEATHEN concepts to illustrate a completely different point about Jews\Pharasees and Gentiles.

3) God's anger and wrath in the OT typically involves DESTRUCTION, not torture. Indeed, Sodom and Gomorrah is given as an example of what happens to the wicked. So, the very argument you are using seems to in fact support that God would destroy the wicked, rather than torture them.

4) The typical preaching of 'you're going to be tortured forever in Hell unless you believe in Jesus' typically strikes non-Christians as stupid and childish. It turns people away from God because it portrays Him to be something He's not. I don't think it's 'watering down' anything if it wasn't Biblical to start with.

More thoughts later, perhaps.

Scott said...

Andrew: yes you're right, probably 'conservatives' would have been more accurate, I was thinking more short-term. sorry.

The softening of God's character is precisely what has been happening whether you like it or not. We've characterised God almost as someone with bi-polar who had a major switch at zero-AD. There is an aversion to any 'negative' concepts of God in the West. But as I said I'm not using this to make a judgement on the issue of conditional immortality, just pointed out a trend.

Andrew said...

I feel I'm being really pedantic here... but, no, "conservative" isn't really the word you want either. Much of the doctrine I agree with is conservative, traditional, Eastern Orthodox doctrine. To call the EO not conservative or traditional is like a pot calling a whitewashed fence black... historically the EO is the single most conservative and traditionalistic denomination in all of Christianity.

If you added "Protestant" to any of your statements, you'd be okay: "conservative Protestant", "traditional Protestant" would accurately describe what you're meaning. "Fundamentalist" would do it too - I know you don't like the word (which is fair enough since it is often now used in a derogatory sense), but in its original meaning it non-derogatarily picks out the group you want to describe (it was the self-designated title of conservative protestants in the early 20th century). "Evangelical" doesn't work very well as it is too ambiguous in meaning.

I agree that many in Western Christianity have been softening their views of God. But there are only being softened in contrast to the views that were held by 16th century Protestants. Compared to the rest of Christian history the 16th century Protestant views stand out majorly as being vastly the "hardest" views of God. Thus, while you choose to describe us today as "softening" our views of God, it could equally well be described as a rejection of the Reformer's dodgy innovations and a return to historic Christianity... since I hold the historic Christian beliefs, I'm quite pleased to see the direction of modern Christianity away from 16th century Protestantism which I personally regard as the historic peak of heresy.

Anonymous said...

A little line by Philotas "If God wanted us all to be with him, why did he kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden?" and yet such a big question. Why did he kick them out? Why, if he can see everything, did he bother to create them in the first place? Why, after they had sinned, did he not kill them off and start all over again, (although this would imply a mistake)? Why did he wait so long before he brought Jesus along? Why didn't he just knock the devil off in the first place? Why would he make people that wouldn't chose him? Why, if he gives us a choice and free will does he need to punish us if we don't chose him? What would have happened if they hadn't sinned? Did they have a choice? God knew they would sin before he made them so therefore in making them did he choose to allow them to sin, which means they didn't have free choice afterall?
I think I'll go home, my head hurts. Helen