A Hellish Week

This will serve as the series home for my posts on Hell.

  1. Philosophical Responses to the Denial of Hell (Hell? Oh!)
  2. An examination of Sheol in the Old Testament (What the Sheol?)
  3. An examination of Gehenna, Hades (etc.) in the New Testament (Get the Gehenna Out of Here?)
  4. A theological response to Christian deniers of the doctrine of Hell (Hell?  No?)
  5. Several broad theological reasons we should hold to the doctrine of Hell (Hell? Yeah.)
  6. Unanswered questions that I don’t think should force us to lose this doctrine. (What About Hell I Don’t Know)

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Hell? Yeah.

I’ve touched on lots of Scripture (in both Testaments) but I needed to bring up some broad theological points. I didn’t want to make this a book, I just wanted to put up a few posts that pointed out that the Scriptures are fraught with the doctrine of hell and Christians should believe it. This second to last post is to affirm that the answer to the question “Do you seriously believe in hell?” should not be no, but yes (for all the reasons I’ve already stated but also) because:

God really is saving people from Something. It’s strange to posit that God’s salvation is merely a matter of everyone Going to be with Him. If annihilation was true, then one can still argue that God is saving people from Something but with the preponderance of texts, and some of the further reasons I give in this post, that solution is just as wrong as universalism.

God is love. Yes God is sovereign. Yes, he’s not willing that any should perish. But people are still going there because they have rejected God. This isn’t merely the ruin of poor choices. This is people in active rebellion against a loving God.  Like CS Lewis, I like to think that Hell is barred from the inside.

God is consistent. Folk might also want to say is that this doctrine is inconsistent with a loving God who has been revealed by Christ. I encourage these folk to read the Gospel accounts again to see Christ on his own terms. Clearing a temple with a whip. Calling people white-washed tombs and vipers. I encourage reading of the Revelation of Christ to see a Christ who is stamping his enemies down. As CS Lewis said in the Chronicles of Narnia about the gentle, loving, and kind Aslan: he is not a tame lion. He is powerful. He acts how he wants. You take him on his own terms. And one must be careful with telling him he must act a certain way.

Justice Demands It. Folk might raise a charge that we wouldn’t punish our own children forever—why would God do worse? Look, the concept that is more predominant throughout the entire book of Psalms is the idea of justice. The righting of scales. The setting things back in order. The fact is that God stands ultimately against all sin. If you get rid of hell, and the eternality of judgment, you wind up with disbarred justice.

God is right. The people who haven’t heard of Christ have already rejected God. They don’t only reject him upon hearing the Gospel. They reject the very revelation of God wherever they are. Romans 1 gives a long explanation of people who have been exposed to God’s illumination and who reject it forthwith experiencing God’s wrath in the present. This is why Christ can say that the folk who don’t believe him are condemned already (John 3:18).

Scripture is fraught with the Seriousness. Scripture is fraught with the fact that there is a condemnation in the now and the hereafter. Saying things like Heaven and Hell are here on earth reaching outwards is fine, but that shouldn’t blur the line that there is in fact a Heaven and a Hell—even if this series didn’t bother drawing out what we hear about Heaven. The book of Proverbs goes as far as having a person beat a fool with a rod so as to save him from Sheol and that wasn’t even with all the information that Christ decided to reveal.

Jesus took it seriously. Jesus  took the place seriously and painted some graphic images of people sawing off their arms to ensure that they don’t head there.  If he thought it was this serious, so should those who follow him.

God Knows what He’s talking About. Folk might want to say is that Scripture and Christ are both wrong on this point. I don’t know how someone would go about proving that since we don’t have many hell-travelers coming back and letting us know that “it was all a mess of bunk. Not even there.”

We take God on His terms. I didn’t go over the numerous texts that establish that God is both holy and loving but they’re there. How we put those things together in our mind can raise some questions, but the fact is that Scripture presents it as fact. We shouldn’t shy away from that. The same God that was concerned with how the Egyptians were treating Hebrew children is the God who wound up pouring plague after plague on the Egyptians. We can’t just throw out the Biblical Concept of God into the purifying flames of reason and pull out whatever is right in our own eyes and call it “The God that Saved Us.”

So when asked “Do you seriously believe a loving God, the Christian God, the God of the Bible, will send people to Hell? The answer will have to be: unabashedly Yes.

In the next (and last) post, I’ll post some questions and misgivings that I think are justified but shouldn’t detract from preaching the doctrine of hell.

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Hell? No?

At this point, naysayers are quick to say that I’m building a theology off a metaphor. He was using the term Gehenna—which is the burning the trash heap outside of Jerusalem; he was not using the term Sheol. To which the response is, obviously longer in the last post that Christ added details that had nothing to do with Gehenna and usually with the point that this was something to be avoided because of where it resided and its duration. Plus, Christ was using a metaphor that was already being used by Isaiah 30:33. And one must be careful. The word Hades winds up being used in the New Testament (for example, in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man) and the word Sheol in the LXX is translated to that word. Does that mean that Abraham’s Bosom is in Hades? Like I said in the post on Sheol, the word has a semantic range but it definitely has a negative part and a positive part. The fact that Christ gives further details helps us understand what is going on, even if the details are sparse.

The Naysayers would point out that Isaiah was using a metaphor too: for a funeral pyre. The wicked king was dead and was about to be burned. But the point of that passage is not only that the king is dead but that the pyre is prepared by the Lord. Each time that fire comes out from the Lord in Scripture it is to consume. Sometimes it’s to consume an offering. But the rest of the times it is a sign of divine judgment (1 Kgs 18:38). The Lord is deciding something. So why is the Lord setting fire to a lifeless corpse? If the man is dead, hasn’t the point been made? Why is this pyre long prepared? Why does the Lord’s breath come out to ignite it? Simply saying it’s a degrading death doesn’t do justice to what’s going on: God is doing something that he prepared before to a wicked person who deserved it—after they are dead.

Skipping from that the naysayer would point out that my use of Revelation 20 ignores the fact that death, hell and Satan were all thrown into the lake of fire: the second death. This indicates that hell isn’t eternal but that it ends when consumed by the Lake of Fire and the second death. I can’t make that claim. The preponderance of passages point to hell being eternal, the smoke of the judgment of God going up before him as an eternal testimonial, as the duration being unending (Rev 14:11)—then we get a picture of something else happening. There’s no indication that this is an ending to hell. For all we know it’s a change of location pushing things further away so that they don’t see the saints in glory. We don’t know. But what we can’t say is because it happens it automatically means hell is destroyed.

The Nay-Hellsayers would point out that God is not willing that any will perish and that he offers a chance to repent after death. Here they might cite 1 Peter 3:18-20 or 1 Peter 4:6 where Christ preaches to the dead spirits who are imprisoned.

But we hear in the book of Hebrews that it is appointed for men once to die and then comes judgment (Heb 9:27). The judging of the living and the dead is of works that they have done in the past—not what they have done now that they’ve been dead (Matt 25:31-46). It seems like death is the end-line for division. Plus we also have the problem of Jesus’ own understanding. When He spoke the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man he explained that it was impossible for those on one side of the chasm to cross to the other side (Luke 16:24-26). Sure, it’s a parable (maybe…it’s debatable) but even so it affirmed certain things that couldn’t happen within the story. What was the point of that?

We also forget that Christ also had a very hard line as to what constituted condemnation. He says he didn’t come into the world to condemn it but to save it but people are condemned already because they don’t believe (John 3:18). So although they haven’t arrived at the final judgment, unbelievers stand in a state of having—in Old Testament language—Sheol under their feet already gripping them.

Other folk say that the fires of hell are purifying fires.  But the image is never solely fire. It is also a place  of darkness, undying worms, a place to be rejected, a place that has no ending, a place reserved for the Devil, his angels and the wicked. Merely corrective purification?

Lastly, some Christians are just embarrassed by this doctrine. Here we have the world’s greatest message: God, condescension to save fallen humans—and then we have this bit of eternal separation and sorrow that sounds strange to the modern mind. Angels? Demons? Spirits? Possessions? All of it can be very strange to us but Scripture steps forward believing it no problem.

But we have to be careful with cultural bigotry. Just because they were back then and we are now, in the Age of Computers, doesn’t make what they believed less real. It might just mean that what is real is less believable to us who try to explain things away. We need to be careful with this.

The amount of Scripture, the explanation by the prophets, the revelation of the Incarnate God just point out with no doubt that there is a hell to be avoided and that it’s condemnation there is permanent. The naysayers really have to reach around to try to make passages say something else, but the evidence is just too weighty.

Hell is serious, found in both Testaments (with further details in the New) and we should be careful about giving folk a false sense of hope when we don’t have any reason to encourage it.

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Get The Gehenna Out of Here?

People love talking about the love of Jesus. Man, that Old Testament was brutal—the God there equally so: ordering death of people, constantly warning of impending judgment, horrid stuff. But the Jesus of the New Testament is fundamentally different: loving, warm, drawing all men to himself, eating with sinners and judging no one! Not like that nasty Pharisee Paul.

But these folk forget that the person who spoke about hell most was not Paul or James or even good old Peter: it was Jesus. Metaphor after metaphor, story after story, constantly making the point of a judgment to come and a punishment to follow. This same Jesus who would sit with sinners is the one who would tell sinners that it was better that they rip their eye out of their socket and throw it into hell than their whole body gets thrown into the fiery hell (Matt 18:19).

Of course, the word there isn’t technically hell: it’s Gehenna.  Nay-Hellsayers are quick to point out that it’s a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew term which is Hinnom Valley. This valley was a deep ravine near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where trash was thrown.  The stuff there was cut off from the life of the people and sent over there. Jesus, the master of metaphor, knew the place well and had no problem using it.

What they forget to mention is that the site wasn’t merely for garbage; it was a place for burning. The place wasn’t only a dump, it was a crematorium. The bodies of dead criminals were thrown and consumed there. And it was that same location where children were sacrificed to Molech the God of the Fire (2 Ki 23:10; Je 7:31): Topheth which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom. If you recall in the last post, Isaiah actually uses this same place to connote a place for punishing a certain wicked King and he speaks about it as a place prepared long before (Isaiah 30:33).

Christ would often mention that place but adds details that have nothing to do with the actual Gehenna. He’d say that there is one who has authority to throw people into that place ( Luke 12:5). Well, that’s weird since almost anyone could throw junk into the fire, but here’s one who does have the authority to throw people. Whereas the real Gehenna could kill a person just fine, and burn up corpses equally fine, Jesus ups the ante with the use of Gehenna saying it is a place where also the very living soul is destroyed along with the body (Matthew 10:28). Or in Mark 9:43 where Christ points out that one is either entering into life one way or entering into Gehenna another way but the latter is completely undesirable. The place, he says, was prepared for the angels (Matt 25:41-56) but the actual Gehenna wasn’t prepared for angels at all. While it was a very deep ravine, he calls it an abyss (Lu 8:31). He recalls imagery from Isaiah (Isa 14:11; 66:24) and calls it a place of the worm (Mk 9:48) but unlike the real Gehenna, the worms don’t die in the flames. He calls the place the outer darkness and a place of weeping and gritting ones teeth (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) but who was weeping for garbage and criminals beside fellow criminals?

These are all important differentiations Christ is making with the actual Gehenna near the Temple Mount.  This isn’t nice imagery. It’s horrifying. It indicates separation, punishment, lack of joy and something to be repulsed. I know that modern Christians don’t like to hear that—especially the ones who say “Hell is not what you learned in Sunday School” but there it is: Christ is just adding all these awful details that stand beyond the actual place.

And in so doing, he echoes concepts from the Old Testament as well. It is the ultimate destination of the wicked (Matt 13:41-42). The place is eternal (Mt 25:41). It’s below, somewhere (Mt 11:23; 12:40; Lu 10:15) The place is hot (Mt 13:50). The place is to be shunned ( Mt 5:22). Christ is ultimately master over it (Mt 16:18). Indeed, with the revelation of the Son of God the revelation of Hell seems much more crystalline: the term Gehenna doesn’t have the same semantic range as Sheol, for instance. The pictures for Hades and the Abyss and the Pit are almost exclusively eschatological in nature.  Christ seems to indicate that only the wicked are there (Lu 16:23).

The New Testament has other important details. For example, in the apocalypse, John sees the Lake of Fire being the ultimate destination for the devil, his cohorts, hell itself and the wicked (Re 19:20; 20:14; 21:8). Echoing the repeated Scriptural theme of separation from life he calls this the second death.  Peter might call the place a prison for certain spirits (1 Pe 3:19) waiting the day of judgment (2 Pe 2:4) and though he doesn’t use the Hebrew term, he uses the Greek term of Tartarus. Jude calls it a place of punishment and eternal fire (Jud 7) and somehow ties Sodom and Gomorrah to it but he only does that after saying that angels who left their place are bound there with eternal chains under darkness (Jud 6).

And just like in our last post, we’re left only scratching the surface of the intermediate and eternal states. We have more information, surely, but not all. I didn’t touch on the intermediate state of the righteous or of the ultimate destination. I didn’t touch on how one can be in one and not the other. I didn’t mention the passages that speak of eternal damnation without using either Gehenna, Tartarus or Hades. I didn’t even really offer an apologetic for or against theses readings: I wanted to just list the passages as they stand.

They accord with what the Old Testament says but, as expected since it is usually Christ who does most of the explaining, they expand on it. There are still many core elements there but there are enough other details to still justify that the place is to be shunned. Just like in the Old Testament, the sorrow is not so much the worm—whatever that is—or the darkness or the fire: it is the separation from life. One of the most horrifying pictures that Christ attaches the imagery of wailing and gnashing of teeth is the one of outer darkness.

To understand that you have to envision what it’s like in an pre-industrial agrarian culture. If these guys had a party with their lamps and lights at night, you would be able to see the light from all around—but no one would see you. If you were out in that pitch black night you would see the laughing and the joy but you’d be out there, staring, angry, jealous and separated.  Christ tells a similar story of a rich man who is looking across a chasm, after death, at someone he had mistreated. The man he mistreated never seems to even notice him but he, oh he sees Lazarus drinking while he sits parched and afraid. But the man doesn’t ask freedom from his situation, he asks for the Lord to send a ghost to his brothers to warn them.

It’s a horrid place, says the Lord—and it should be shunned. The horror is that people will still head in that direction even if someone came back from the dead and warned them.

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What the Sheol?

One of the first points folk bring up about Hell is that if it is as horrible as people say it is, and if the way to avoid it is to believe God, then why didn’t God bring it up before the New Testament? Before Matthew or Mark (whichever was first) we don’t get an inkling of the doctrine of hell, they say. All we see are some random intertestamental doctrines that may or may not be true—like the stuff Jude quotes out of the oft-wrong book of Enoch.

And yes it is true; you won’t find the exact Hell from the New Testament in the Old. Most Bible reading Christians in the West know that the OT term for That Place is Sheol but it has a semantic range that is much broader than the Hell of the New Testament.

For example, we have passages where Sheol explicitly means the grave (ie: Gen 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; 1 Ki 2:6). Mind you, there are individuals, some of them Good People, in these passages expecting to die and go there—which sure doesn’t sound like the Hell we know. These people all expected to go there when they died (2 Sam 12:23) and in some cases it’s even called a place for the righteous to rest (Job 14:13)!

Yet we have other passages describing it as not a very nice place to be. Lacking activity (Ecc 9:10; Is 38:10-20), lacking light (Job 10:21-22), silent (Ps 94:17; 115:17), separated from the land of the Living, a place where worshiping God doesn’t happen (Ps 6:5; 88:10-12; 115:17; Is 38:18), a place where God’s wrath is poured out on the wicked (Deut 32:22). It is so bad that it is described as a place where the wise avoid (Pr 15:24) and where the righteous will be ultimately rescued from (Ps 49:15) and appointed to glory (Psalm 73:24).

In both cases it is a place where God is in control of it. It exists only under his say so (1 Sa 2:6; De 32:22; Job 14:13; 26:6; Pr 15:11) and he is there, in some sense (Ps 139:8).

Ancient Hebrew was a funny language. Sometimes you’d have words that had this sort of wide semantic range. So if the thing crawls it is covered under a word that means Crawling Things. And if it flies: Flying Creature. It is no different with Sheol.

As the NASB Topical Index lists, Sheol has been used metaphorically to illustrate greed, murder, jealousy, troubles of live and awful situations—but in each of these cases it is pointing to the way Sheol functions. So jealousy, like Sheol, is never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20) it kills by swallowing the living (Prov 1:12), is severe (Songs 8:6), a place of troubles (Psa 88:3), reaches out (2 Sam 22:6) during awful situations (Jon 2:2) and it even illustrates an active death (Isaiah 28:15, 18). So we’ll see life situations, for example, where a lecherous woman has her feet planted in Sheol (Pr 5:5; 9:18.). In some sense, she illustrates that the wicked come from and return to there (Ps 9:17)

But there is other imagery that is brought up. Sometimes, the writers would delve into the evils  performed by men to illustrate a point. So looking to this awful situation where Kings were sacrificing their own children to idols (2 Kin. 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 19:6). The place is so bad that sometimes authors refer to it as The Valley (Jer. 2:23; 31:40). Isaiah draws a picture of a place long prepared for a wicked king. A place of fire with plenty of wood set aflame by the breath of the Lord. This valley is the same place where those children were tortured and killed: Topheth in Hinnon Valley (Isaiah 30:33). Horrifying imagery. And an important piece of information for the next post.

As I said earlier, this Sheol is being used to punish but it currently has ramifications in the world. This place is not for the righteous, the wise will avoid it (and even try to have others avoid it with severe punishment if need be (Proverbs 23:1) because the contempt of being there is unending (Dan 12:2). But can’t this just be a metaphor for the fact that punishment must happen? Well, it doesn’t seem likely since it looks like God’s punishment is necessarily testimonial (Is 34:8-10) though currently delayed awaiting repentance (Prov. 1:24-31; Eccl. 8:11-13; Hab. 1:2-4 ).

Now, I have barely even skimmed the massiveness of this topic in the Old Testament. I only barely touched on the positive eternal state for the righteous or what constitutes being part of the righteous or if people can swing between positions or not. And in all honesty, if a person spends any time going through all the passages above they will see that vastness of what’s going on in the OT. But the point here isn’t to describe how it all works but to show that it is there. Of course the folk that think every passage of Sheol refers to Hell are wrong; equally wrong are the folk who think because of the wide semantic range that there is no hell in the Old Testament. It takes some serious work to be sensitive to the different uses but it is there.

But even with that aside, what’s important to note here that the fundamental problem with Sheol is its separation from life. In all cases (be it the grave, the eternal state, or the metaphors) Sheol stands antithetical to life—and life is directly the purview of God. The constant point throughout the Old Testament is that Man’s highest end is discovered in a relationship with the living God but being separated from that is catastrophic and horrid. The fact that people make this all the worse by actively rebelling paints the separation as the deepest of tragedies.

So this separation is to be shunned but admitted that it does, and will, happen. That’s why it is fundamentally horrid. Not because of the smoke. Not because of the silence. Not because of the darkness. But because it stands knowingly bereft of the Lord of Life.

If I’m right about that, the New Testament will pick up on that and be equally concerned. But that’s for a later post.

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