Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hell in the Bible (10)

continued from yesterday
It is well above my--or your--pay grade to determine what God does with hell.  What we might do is clarify a little what the Bible seems to say and what it doesn't likely say about it. First, as far as the Bible is concerned, hell is a distinctly New Testament idea.  The vast majority of the Old Testament is either silent about the afterlife or explicitly denies any meaningful existence after death.

Job 7:9-10 captures the Old Testament understanding well: "one who goes down to the grave does not return. He will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more." I used to think that Job's wife was horrible when she was urging Job to curse God and die.  To me, she was wishing him to go into hell forever.  But she actually was urging him to put himself out of his misery.  In her way of thinking, after he cursed God, God would kill him and then he would no longer be in pain.

"Sheol" in the Old Testament is thus not a place of eternal torment.  It is merely the place where all the dead go when they die.  It is a place of generally mindless, shadowy existence. Psalm 6 prays, "save me because of your unfailing love. Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?"(Ps. 6:4-5). Ecclesiastes of course puts it in its starkest terms, "The dead know nothing... never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun" (Eccl. 9:5-6).

Death in the Old Testament can thus be a punishment for sins in life, but it was not understood at that time as a gateway to eternal punishment.  When Achan and his family are stoned in Joshua, that is the end of the matter as far as Joshua is concerned.  The Israelites did not think they were sending Achan's family to hell. Their death took care of the sin.

The only real exception is Daniel 12:2-3, the only passage in the Old Testament that everyone agrees clearly teaches resurrection. [1] In Daniel, some (not all) are resurrected for reward and some (not all) are resurrected for "everlasting contempt." Daniel does not tell us what everlasting contempt is. I hold many individuals from the past in everlasting contempt as a category of shame.

As with so many key Christian concepts, the crucial background to the New Testament came in the two to three hundred years immediately preceding Christ. It is during this time that an understanding of hell developed in Jewish apocalyptic literature (1 Enoch, the Dead Sea Scrolls).  And it is this literature rather than the Old Testament that is the primary background for the kind of imagery of Gehenna that we find in the New Testament.

We have already seen some of the imagery of hell in the gospels. The gospels clearly teach that there will be a judgment of the wicked dead at the judgment.  However, given some of the questions people are asking about hell right now, it might be useful to revisit them with the question of "how long" they say hell will last. And here we only find the one statement in Matthew 25:46 about eternal punishment.

What is eternal punishment? We probably rightly take it to mean a punishment that goes on in real time forever. Others might try to interpret it differently. For example, annihilation is a final punishment that continues forever.  It is a kind of eternal punishment. I doubt that is what Matthew 25 means, but I can see someone trying to interpret the statement in that way.

The other passages are more ambiguous when it comes to duration. The other references to Gehenna in Matthew and Luke talk about being thrown into hell but don't mention how long the torment lasts. Mark 9:43 and 45 speak of the fire of Gehenna never being quenched. Does this mean that the torment of an individual never ends? It probably does.

The word "Hades," on the other hand, is the Greek equivalent of Sheol and refers to the place of the dead in general without specific reference to reward or punishment. The fact that Capernaum will be brought down to Hades could only mean that it will be destroyed in the judgment (Matt. 11:23).  However, despite the generality of the word, the overall context of Matthew probably implies everlasting punishment.

Paul never mentions hell in any of his writings. Revelation of course speaks of the lake of fire, into which the beast and those who worshiped him are thrown alive (19:20).  Similarly, all the dead rise and are judged, with the wicked thrown into the lake of fire, along with death itself.  It is specifically stated that Satan and the beasts of Revelation are then tormented day and night forever (Rev. 20:10). The best assumption is that this is also true of the other wicked, although Revelation does not explicitly say so.

Therefore, after looking at the Bible on hell, we find at least two instances where the punishment seems to be never-ending (Matt. 25:46; Rev. 20:10). Over the centuries, this understanding of hell has crystallized and solidified in Christian teaching. Indeed, the place hell holds in our thinking may come as much from medieval Christianity as from the role it plays in the Bible itself. In the end, you and I cannot decide what hell is, so our best bet is to avoid it at all costs and to share the good news of Christ to as many others as possible in hope that they will avoid it as well.

[1] Other passages are debated, of course, like Isaiah 26 and Ezekiel 37.


Anonymous said...

It may be worth mentioning that the book of Daniel likely originates from that same 2-3 century period before Christ when so many other Christian background concepts seem to have developed.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Differences about eternal life, the resurrection, and God have always and forever will be the differientiating factors between different religions and different sects within the religion. And no one is able to prove one way or another, because every religion requires faith to believe whatever the particular religion teaches.

The recent Supreme Court decision about the church's right to discriminate in employment standards affirms the Founding Father's views of religous liberty. Liberty of conscience prevents from religious wars where there are different "convictions" about faith.

Ken Schenck said...

I prefer not to call it discrimination. Within the scope of religious beliefs, a religious association has the right to hire people who agree with its beliefs.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

That is only just a semantics game, isn't it?

Discrimination is where one draws lines in the sand about who is in and who is out! Therefore, if one does not meet the required standards, then they are out (whatever those standards are).

We believe that nation states are defined by their geographical boundaries, as well as their governing rules, whether offical laws, Constitution, mores, etc.

Social osterization has been a way to maintain social control for eons. Stoning was the height of the "excommunicaton process". Nathanael Hawthrone wrote about it in the "Scarlet Letter".

The way civilized societies "socialize" their citizens is through education, not banishment and social osterization.

Our society believes in "free association", which is based on whether one desires to associate with another. In this particular case, the Lutheran minister had not met standards that the employer (the Church) had set.

I agree with the Supreme Court decision, as religious liberty was one of the foremost concerns for some of those who came to America, and for those who created the Constitution in the First Amendment.

Ken Schenck said...

I don't think it is discrimination to ask men not to go into women's bathrooms. It's rather a fair boundary with which both groups agree. I realize one could make a similar argument in relation to things considered discrimination, but "white water fountains" was something quite different. It's hard to define, but I know it when I see it ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ah, Ken, you must have the mind of a "man and woman" to be able to discern and negotiate the whole thing by yourself! And how convenient for you, as then "when you see it", you can be the "top dog" in making judgments that benefit you alone, ;-)! I understand it differently.

Discrimination makes distinctions. Men and Women's bathrooms are defined that way because it is more convenient. I don't know of a woman, yet, that can stand up to go to the bathroom ;-)! Therefore, all boundaries humans draw are convenient for certain things.

The most important aspect to the boundary drawing is agreement. Both parties negotiate what is or will be the best for both parties/groups. (or in the Supreme Court Case employer and employee)....

Consensus is built to sway public opinion, but consensus can also be a means of discriminating behavior that our government does not condone. Liberty is granted to everyone in our country, as long as there have been no civil laws broken. And sometimes, appeals have to be made to courts, so that social change can occur, regarding discrimination based on certain standards.

The Supreme Court allowed the Church the right to liberty in defining their standards of employment, which are specifically religious. If the minister did not agree to these standards, then there was no way forward, or compromise where negotiation was possible.

This verdict protects individual liberties pertaining to conscience regarding religious conviction, as well, as both the church and the individual must come to terms with what is of importance and agree. The Lutheran minister had already "agreed" to Lutheran standards in being ordained within the Lutheran church! And if the individual changes their commitments, or values, then it is appropriate to "step down".

Paul D. said...

With all due respect to you and your wonderfully thorough and scholarly overview of biblical ideas of the afterlife, the final sentence feels like a bit of a cop-out.

"In the end, you and I cannot decide what hell is, so our best bet is to avoid it at all costs and to share the good news of Christ to as many others as possible in hope that they will avoid it as well."

After demonstrating how unlikely and how alien to most of the Bible the "eternal conscious torture" view of hell is — not to mention the lack of even a single iota of evidence for it — you seem to be adopting Pascal's Wager to suggest we pretend it exists. And worse, that the Gospel of Jesus was "you're going to Hell unless you convert to a new religious system that my followers will concoct".

FrGregACCA said...

If God exists, then hell exists. Hell is the experience of God by those who cannot abide the infinite Divine Love that God is.

Paul D. said...

Fr Greg: That's the Orthodox view of Hell, isn't it? I admit it is much more theologically defensible and more consistent with a loving God than most Protestant viewpoints. However, I do have concerns that even calling it "Hell" muddies the water, as it imposes an English-language category with a lot of baggage.

Would a Greek-speaking priest, saying what you just said, use the word Gehenna? Tartarus?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It sounds like you are giving a "Pascal wager" and suggesting that if one doesn't come out on the "right side" (that is "faith"), then one will suffer consequences. How can you make such a claim, except by "faith"? Aren't your interpretatons biased by your "faith"? What if someone sees or understands something differently? How do you suggest they understand their situation? You must believe that "God" teaches you through trials, etc.

Although I know there are physical laws that guard what I choose to do, there are no simple laws of life, because life has variables, complexities and issues, that most physical laws don't contend with, at least at the level most of us understand.

Moral development is not black and white thinking, but an understanding that life is too complex for "simple answers" and solutions. And shouldn't all be more prone to live in the real world than the spiritual one, as then we can face facts, and deal with issues, rather than appeal to some "hope" of or for the future.

FrGregACCA said...


"Follow the truth wherever it leads you, and you will inevitably end up in the arms of Christ." - Simone Weil

To this, I would add: continue to follow the truth, and you will eventually find yourself in the arms of the Apostolic Church.


A genius of patristic theology is redefining words, regardless of language. (Consider the meaning of "hypostasis" in classical Greek usage vs. its use in the Cappodochians and subsequent trinitarian theology, for example) In any event, "hell" in English has a pretty standard meaning (the "lake of fire" of the Apocalypse), so the issue becomes, how to reconcile the reality of this with that of an infinitely loving God (who is also described as "consuming fire" and who shows up, at Pentecost, as "tongues of fire".)