What About Hell I Don’t Know

Textually, as I covered in a couple of posts before this, I must affirm a literal hell which consists of judgment, separation from God, punishment, eternality and should be rightfully shunned. I think it is dangerous to say the place doesn’t exist when the volume of Scripture teeters with the weight of the matter. I also gave some responses to the nay-hellsayers and some broad theological reasons why we should affirm a hell. This was all consistent with the broad philosophical reasons I gave earlier which allow the doctrine of hell.

But in this last post, I wanted to touch on the fact that although we know certain things from the text, there are certain things we don’t know and can’t even really be sure. We might be able to posit careful answers but even then, those answers might need a lot of nuancing or niggling when we’re not forced to appeal to mystery. So if you wish, these are questions that may or may not have answers but I may not be as confident on them as the textual basis already listed.

Is Hell the same as Sheol? I know that Sheol has a semantic range that goes all the way from the place of righteous rest down to the place of the wicked. I know that Christ uses the metaphor of Gehenna and the New Testament uses Hades or Tartarus or even the Lake of Fire. So surely, Hell lies on the semantic range of Sheol but that doesn’t help me understand the mechanics of the Grave. Indeed, Hades seems to have more of the semantic range of Sheol than Hell. This gets into questions of geography and so forth but even then we still wind up with Hades being thrown into the Lake of Fire. So maybe Hell is specifically the Lake of Fire but Hades is something else? It seems to contain some similar elements but can we be sure?

Is the intermediate state all the same place? I doubt Dante was right but we have Jesus’ parable where the Rich Man looks across a chasm. I understand the point (there’s no crossing over from one side to another) but is this merely hyperbolic language or is it a detail? Is it possible that the Wicked Part gets thrown into the Lake of Fire but the Other Part isn’t?

Do I think that every presentation of the Gospel needs an explanation of hell? No. But I do think that every Christian should be concerned with the people that are heading there. If there is some random child on a train track while the 6:35 Shuttle barrels down in his direction, all of us would be horrified and quick to act—but what about this Thing that is currently reaching up and out?

Why don’t we have more details? Sheol occurs some 65 times in the Old Testament. Gehenna is found in 12 verses. Hades is found eleven times in the New Testament. Tartarus is used once. Lake of Fire occurs 4 times. Just counting that, we have to admit that it’s not that much. But then again, we have more verses here than we do about a literal Adam, about Adam’s Sin causing death, and several other things we believe. But the fact is that we do have quite a bit here but even so, it’s never as much as we would like. But maybe God is using these details as a means to motivate us to warn others?

Should we be happy about hell? I think that it may be okay to hope that there is no hell. I think it is okay to hope that God saves everyone pulling them from the very edge of the fire. I think it is even okay to hope that one day, all sinners will repent and that God has allowed a way for them to be saved. But I think we need to be careful about not trying to be more moral than God. We don’t know everything that’s going on. On the other hand, I think it’s proper to not be gleeful with this doctrine. I remember getting into a conversation with a Christian who planned to be standing by the lake of fire cheering as the unregenerate, the Devil, his cohorts, and me were being tossed in screaming—horrifying thought. I think that sometimes we Christians can get a bit too hell-happy. Christ took the place seriously and painted some graphic images of people sawing off their arms to ensure that they don’t head there but then we get the book of Revelation showing that same Christ squishing bodies and the blood reaching up to the side of a horse and filling the valley. As my last post noted, hell is predicated on several attributes and actions of God and yet we see there is an equal amount of saying the place should be shunned.

Can we go to Hell? I know people die and go Somewhere but, it looks like people don’t necessarily have to die to go to that Somewhere (ala Enoch). We get location information from Scripture (it is down) but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s below our feet. What if that means sub-dimension? What if that means something else altogether like a black hole? A blackhole would end in a singularity whereby the closer you approach the singularity the closer you approach that single point into infinite. Or not. But if hell is like that, we’d have an eternal testimony while the people in it are eternally going but not reaching. But that’s complete speculation. In fact, some theologians have argued that hell is a state…a position absent God…and I think that sounds partly right while it ignores that there is a spatial element but, what do I know.

Is hell barred from the inside? A Catholic theologian (cited here) has a hope for universalism while allowing for hell because people are basically free to reject God. CS Lewis, knowing that God judges, looks at free individuals who reject God as rebels. We also know that people stand condemned because they haven’t believed Christ. I find it hard to imagine a place where the rebels can push out God (especially when Scripture has God even in Sheol, in some sense) but I also find it hard to imagine that these people are there against their choice. And here I don’t mean the Calvinistic pseudo-choice. I mean that these people have really made a mad decision by rebelling against God. So yes and no?

Does the grave finally win by sheer numbers? If the scenario was based on quality vs. quantity (if one finds a piece of gold that is better than all the fools gold others have) I guess it could change things. But I personally think that more people will be in a state of eternal life. I think God saves children (babies, miscarriages, kids who don’t know wrong or right) and the mentally handicapped but I don’t have much to base that on. A few scant passages and lots of hope. But in this way, I think that it will wind up that the quantity (and the quality) is all the greater. I don’t think that means we should go out killing children. To me it means God made provision.

Is all hell equally horrid? There are passages in Scripture speaking about more culpability to those who know more. So you’ll have Christ wailing for Jerusalem and saying it would go better at the judgment for some other cities than for Jerusalem during the time of her visitation. To my mind that sounds like hell is in general bad but not equally torturous for everyone. I don’t think that means that people should be fine going there. It might be that it’s bearable for reasons we don’t even know.

Is the torture of hell eternal? Scripture says that the place seems to be eternal, the punishment seems to be eternal, the flames seem to be eternal—but I don’t know if that means that the people being in the situation of torture is eternal. What if the eternality of the tears is the fact that they are there, want to be there, and knowingly hate it? I don’t know.

Like I said, a lot of these I don’t know. I believe some of the things without knowing but I think I’ve explained why. Some of it is predicated on God’s dealings with people throughout history. Some of it is sheer imagination. I don’t think believing these things makes a person an heretic though it may make them an uncareful teacher. What’s important here is that we don’t take our questions and make them overrule the information we do have.  Be honest having the questions but be equally honest with what God has said.

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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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Philosophy Fridays: Hell? Oh!

Folk who know me might remember that the reason I became a believer was, in the first case, a fear of hell. Well, a roundabout fear anyway: I had just seen the Exorcist and hell became a reality to my young brain. Some atheists like to say hell is an abusive scare tactic and that my initial belief is unsubstantiated but this is predicated on four arguments which I will respond to in under 700 words (perfect for a Philosophy Friday): (1) that there is, in fact, no hell; (2) that hell is merely a boogeyman to scare people into believing Christianity (3) that the teaching of hell is incompatible with the teaching of an all-loving God;(4) and that the way we come to believe something matters to its veracity.

Christians have embraced the same sort of rhetoric. Hell, like Heaven, is not somewhere out there: it’s right here; now (1). Hell is presented as something scary with red-tailed devils with pitchforks which are completely antithetical to the reality of the Gospel (2). Hell is not compatible with the revealed God by Christ (3). Since what we’ve learned in Sunday School is wrong, and that’s where we learned about hell, then what we know about Hel is wrong (4).  Fellow PB’er Keith Keyser makes a point that this is just old teaching being brought up today and though I agree, I want to respond first on purely philosophical grounds.

These main arguments can be addressed in a few quick points:

Contra (4) the way we come to a belief doesn’t matter to its truth value. If I was colorblind and discovered that the grass was green by watching a cartoon, it doesn’t mean that the grass is in fact purple. Likewise, if I learned about hell in Sunday School or watching the Exorcist doesn’t make what I learned untrue—it might be true just because it’s true.

Contra (3) there are more options than the false dilemma of God is either loving or hell exists. It might be that God refuses to save people from hell because he loves them too much to force them to do otherwise. It might be that it would be worse for them not to be in hell. It might be that we don’t have all the information on how hell works. The point is that there are enough possibilities available that to settle on a false dichotomy is wrongheaded.

Contra (2) just because something is fear-inducing, doesn’t mean that it is in fact wrong. It might just mean that it needs to be dealt with. The sign saying the bridge is out up ahead might be scary but knowing the warning allows you to avoid catastrophe. That biohazard symbol warns about scary things but it also reminds one to be careful.

Contra (1) we have testimony that is being rejected. If hell is a place that was created by God we would expect that he would be the only one to really know about it and talk about it but other than that we’re left with quite a blank roster of witnesses. That’s not an argument for silence. It just means that if we learn about a hell it would have to be by someone who knows about it. Those who believe in Hell think God spoke about it so denying its existence is merely assuming that God didn’t speak it.

Even so, you have to wonder if believing the negative (There is No Hell) is the wise thing to do. I mean, the worst that can happen from affirming that there is a hell is to discover that there isn’t one and nothing—no harm beyond misrepresenting God. Now that’s pretty serious but at least there’s no hell. The worst that can happen from affirming there is no hell is that people die and get there by surprise.

Yeah (Calvinists) I know there’s a whole mess of theology being assumed there but let that lie for the sake of the argument. The point is that this would be a dangerous doctrine to deny if it turns out true.

Well, that’s just some introductory salvos before the deeper work coming next week.

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Getting Tense With Hebrews 1

In the past, I argued against the liberal (or Kenotic Arian) view of Scripture by looking at what the writer to the Hebrews thought about Scripture. I could have argued from Paul, Peter, John and Christ but I was co-opting some of my studies on Hebrews to make the point. Anyway, there was a fundamental thread that should be seen throughout the entire post easily summarized as follows: the writer to the Hebrews sees God speaking the Gospel right now perfectly through others via the entirety of Scripture written in the past to affect change in the present to save from the future shaking. In fact, if I want a scripture summary, I’d probably just quote Isaiah 40 and what the voice of one crying out in the wilderness was to cry: Good News—God is here!

With that understanding I think it’s easier to see why the writer to the Hebrews uses the passages he does and the way he does even if it still generates a whole mess of questions. For instance, a reading of Hebrews 1:1-5 generates five questions in my mind. First a quick overview:

  • Heb 1:1 God spoke via Prophets
  • Heb 1:2 God spoke these days via his Son
  • Heb 1:3 God’s Son is the radiance of His glory; exact representation of his nature; upholds all things by the word of his power; made purification for sins; sat down at the right hand of the majesty on High
  • Heb 1:4 God’s Son became much better than the angels by receiving a more excellent name
  • Heb 1:5 Angels never called Son

Now mind, most of the far context has been dealt with in far more detail by David Gooding in his book(amazon) The Unshakeable Kingdom (read online) and DA Carson in a message both drawing heavily from FF Bruce’s commentary so you can look at all of those for some of the more technical questions but here are mine:

  • Question 1: What does this all (including the citations of 2 Sam 7 and Psalm 2) have to do with Gospel anyway?
  • Question 2: If the Son is the brightness of God’s glory, an exact representation of God’s nature and upholds all things by the word of His power—something only God does—then why does the author downgrade (as it were) his argument by appealing to the fact that He is called “Son”?
  • Question 3: what does that argument (being called Son) have to do with the prior point (Brightness of God’s glory, etc) anyway?
  • Question 4: Angels have been called Son (you know Genesis 6 and Job 1—which includes Satan); what gives?
  • Question 5: Why quote Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7 to prove this at all?

Gooding, Carson and Bruce pull out several points from the use of the passages but I particularly wanted to focus on one matter of tense.

In 2 Samuel 7, God makes David a covenant of a future descendant sitting on David’s throne and reigning in David’s Kingdom. God says that the future descendant would build God’s house but if this descendant sins, God will punish him. We know this winds up happening with Solomon (and not with Christ) but God states that David’s throne will endure forever which looks beyond Solomon who winds up being punished for his own iniquities and eventually dies.

What God says in 2 Samuel 7 is, essentially David’s Real Son (not some other human or even a non-human)  will do what God wants (build God’s house) when God wants and he will be called God’s Son as a title—but (in time) Solomon isn’t the perpetual continuation of David’s promise. Each Davidic King is called God’s Son (“I will be a father to him and he will be my Son”) and this pattern will either continue into eternity or there would eventually come a human son of David who retains the God given title of “Son” eternally.

Shorthand: the promise of God’s naming is made in the future tense, even when considering Solomon.

But that changes in Psalm 2. The Psalm is about the Lord’s Anointed already seated in the mountain of the Lord while the nations already rail against him and the Lord (David was given rest and the Lord promised a future rest to him and his people in 2 Samuel 7). The Lord currently laughs and then the Lord’s anointed speaks in the past tense saying “He said unto my ‘I am your father and you are my son’.” He then proceeds to tell the nations to fear the Son (a Kingly role) and to Worship God (a priestly role).

Anyway, the Anointed One is recalling when God said this to him but in 2 Samuel 7, the one who is called “My Son” isn’t even around yet to receive the title.

Now, I’m not saying that the Psalm is definitely Christ speaking in the past tense but, in light of what I previously wrote about how the writer to the Hebrews reads Scripture, when we hear the tense we should be hearing Christ speaking in that portion. At least the early Christians in Acts read the text that way when they cited the words of the Psalm as part of their prayer.

  • Question 5: The writer has to quote 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 2 because it makes a bridge between God Doing and David’s Family Doing (something that the prophets expand on, especially when you read Ezekiel 34 – 37) that the promise of the bestowed title of Son is bestowed on a man, a son of David, who has both kingly (rule the people) and priestly (build God’s house and direct worship to God) roles.
  • Question 4: Although Angels have been called sons (Job 1) it is only in the sense where they are displaying part of God’s qualities. I wrote about functional sonship before but I think it can be easily summarized as God is both spirit and a consuming fire who ministers to others and angels are ministering spirits and flames. None of them reign or hold dominion. That was something that was explicitly given to the human race (Genesis 1).
  • Question 3: The point has much to do with the previous point because the writer displays Christ as doing everything God does—even down to his nature. God creates…so did Christ. God upholds with his power…so did Christ. John 5 makes this point pretty nicely.
  • Question 2: The writer makes the connection that the one who perfectly expresses God is the one who has come near as a man. It’s pretty much the whole basis of the argument in Chapter 2 through 5 so as to eventually show that he has suffered, he understands our weaknesses, he went on before us and he has conquered and has completed his work. That’s powerful stuff to have a person (Christ) who represents God perfectly also be the very one who can rule and represent men perfectly.
  • Question 1: Well, it pretty much is the Gospel, isn’t it?

As a side point, I think it’s interesting that in a book which is often used to prove the most inane things about what Christ’s humanity necessarily entailed (vomiting, believing error, almost dying from sickness, liking brunette little people) that this point that the one who perfectly represents God (created the world, upholds all things by his word of power, brightness of God’s glory, express image of God) is relegated to his postresurrection ministry when Isaiah looks forward to this Son being born and finally the Father Himself from Heaven declares, in the start of Christ’s ministry “This is my beloved Son—hear Him!”(Matt 3:17)  He suffered, surely, but he did so as perfectly representing the Father (John 14:9)

I’m not too sure on the thought-flow of this post since my brain is currently fuzzy; I may have made the points without tightening the connections as much as I would like.

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