Part of my journey in the past five years has been re-assessing what I think I know about life, God, the Bible, and theology. It has been a particularly fruitful time, this half decade. Paradigms should be questioned and knowledge continually re-evaluated.
The greatest trend in my own re-evaluations, I have discovered, is a realization of ambiguity and complexity. Much that was once simple to me I find was based on too little and even on tradition instead of solid evidence.
I remember reading some Catholic graffiti in Chicago some time back. There were a number of slogans written on the walls in a downtown area about Mary and the Church and so on (that’s how I know it was Catholic graffiti). One slogan which appeared often was something like, “Don’t be like those who fail to attend church weekly and who will burn in the fires of hell forever in conscious torment.” I may have the wording wrong, but I do not exaggerate the intensity of the message.
Much of my old view of hell was based on tradition more so than Biblical theology. A certain view of hell was formative for me in my own turning to God in the late 80’s. And that view certainly was not based on the Bible, since I did not yet read it.
To put it bluntly, my view of hell was something like this: immediately upon death people would wake up in burning flames which would hurt every bit as much as flames in this life and the pain would never diminish for eternity without end.
I cannot imagine a greater torture.
Having reviewed the New Testament on this matter, I am no longer so certain that this is how it works. In fact, I find that the New Testament’s images of the afterlife for those excluded from God’s presence is ambiguous and leaves much to mystery. I wrote a chapter about it in my recent book, The World to Come.
The New Testament and Hell (excerpted from The World to Come)
If you try to find the Bible’s teaching on hell, you can easily be led astray. Don’t use a concordance to search for the word. Some translations of the Bible use the word hell where only the grave is meant, the Hebrew sheol.
If by hell we mean a place of judgment after this life, then we only see this concept in one or two places in the Hebrew scriptures. The first is less than certain and it comes at the end of Isaiah. As Isaiah sees the time when God will perfect the world, he sees two groups. One group trembles at God’s word. The other group, chooses their own way, even though they are religious. It’s interesting that the first group consigned to judgment in the Bible are religious hypocrites!
Isaiah’s prophecy, rather difficult to understand, goes on with a contrast between the blessedness of the first group and the doom of the second. At the end, the blessed group goes out to look on the dead bodies of the doomed. Isaiah says, “For their worm will never die, and their fire will never be quenched; but they will be abhorrent to all humanity” (Isa. 66:24). Later, Yeshua himself uses this imagery to describe hell (Mk. 9:48).
The second place in the Hebrew scriptures that describes a place of judgment after this life is far more certain. In Daniel 12:2, we read again of two groups. Both groups are raised to life. Yet the first is raised to life while the second is raised to “shame and everlasting contempt.” It is significant that the first idea of hell being everlasting is from the Hebrew scriptures.
When we turn to the New Testament, what sort of picture do we get of hell? We find that Yeshua, Paul, and other New Testament teachers speak of a time of judgment after this life. Yeshua puts it unequivocally in one place, “They will go off to eternal punishment, but those who have done what God wants will go to eternal life” (Mt. 25:46).
As Christopher Morgan puts it in Hell Under Fire, there are three aspects to the New Testament picture of hell: punishment, destruction, and banishment.
The punishment aspect of hell is very common and can be found in scriptures such as: Mark 9:42-48; Matthew 5:20-30; Luke 16:19-31; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Hebrews 10:27-31; James 5:1-5; 2 Peter 2:4-17; Jude 13-23; and Revelation 20:10-15.
The theme of hell as destruction might incline us to believe that hell is not eternal punishment. If the doomed are destroyed, then they will not exist any longer, right? Yet the picture of destruction was seen by biblical authors in harmony with hell as suffering. Something can continue to exist in a destroyed state. References to hell as destruction include: Matthew 7:13-14, 24-27; Luke 13:3-5; John 3:16; Romans 9:22; Galatians 6:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:13; 1 Timothy 6:9; Hebrews 10:27; James 5:20; 2 Peter 2:6; and Revelation 21:8.
Finally, hell is also a banishment from the presence of God. References include: Matthew 7:21-23; 8:12; 13:42, 50; 25:10-12; Luke 16:19-31; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; and Revelation 22:14-15.
Aside from punishment, destruction, and banishment, what is hell like? The Bible uses two primary images. The first and best known is fire. Yeshua calls it the eternal fire in Matthew 25:41 and speaks of fire that will never be quenched in Mark 9:48. The second and lesser known image is darkness. Yeshua speaks of some being cast into the outer darkness where there is gnashing of teeth in Matthew 8:12; 22:13; and 25:30.
It is evident from these varying descriptions, fire and darkness, that hell is being described in images. Is hell truly a place of continual immolation in fire? We cannot say, but we know that images often communicate something different than the image. You would not find fire and darkness in the same place here on earth, so perhaps we should not be so literal about the fire in hell. We can take literally, however, the ideas of hell as punishment, destruction, and banishment.