This is a continuation of the post that I posted yesterday where I sort of laid out the dominant images of hell that exist in Christian culture.
I also indicated that I didn't think hell was a place like we understand place.
I also indicated that I didn't think hell was a place where you burned alive for ever and ever.
Now to what I do think...
First, I have to say this. I don't think that any reasonable person would say that they enjoy the idea of hell. Most of us don't want hell to exist. I get it when people say that they don't believe in hell. I don't want to believe in it either.
Lots of people say that they don't really believe in hell---including a growing number of Christians. Ironically, something like 87% of Americans believe in heaven.
The main two reasons that people cite for not believing in hell have to do with the nature of God. First, they believe that eternal retribution isn't fair. The punishment doesn't fit the crime, so to speak. And a just God would never do something like punish a sinner, who only had 80-plus years of life, for all eternity. Second, they believe that God is love, and a loving God would never send anyone to hell, period.
This brings me to an important point---perhaps the most important point of all in this entire conversation.
Heaven and Hell are not what the Story is about... God is up to something bigger than that.
It's too easy to get caught up in the world "yet to come" and forget about the world "now." The Christian faith is about more than fire insurance. It's about more than a mansion in the sky. The Gospel is bigger than that.
However... I do believe that God is just and loving and I believe that a just and loving God gives us the ability to choose. It is clear in Scripture that the way to God is through God's Son, Jesus Christ. It is a mystery how God saves, but I know that it is through Jesus.
God never gives up on what he creates, but I do believe:
There are human beings who will say to a loving, just and holy God, "My will be done," and God will ultimately say, "Very well."
This isn't an original idea----I stole it from C.S. Lewis, and modified it a bit.
I want to come back to this in a bit, but first let's go through Scripture a bit to see what the Bible has to say about hell---both in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, hell is primarily referred to as Sheol, which translates into "grave," "pit," or "abode of the dead." The ancient Hebrew people believed that the souls of the dead in Sheol were like "shades" of themselves without personality or strength. Sheol was also the home of both the righteous and the wicked.
Daniel 12:2 addresses this concept of Sheol and reads:
"Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt."
In Ezekiel 37:17-32 the prophet is given a vision of Sheol where the slain enemies of Israel from all places and times live.
The concept of fiery punishment for the wicked developed over time, and by Jesus' day was part of the cultural understanding of hell.
Jesus refers to hell as gehenna, which was a direct reference to the valley of Hinnom right outside of Jerusalem. In addition to being the garbage dump, this valley was also the legendary site of altars to the god Moloch, which was worshipped in Jerusalem more than once during it's history. Moloch was an Ammonite god, worshipped by Canaanites. Moloch demanded child sacrifice among other things.
By Jesus' day some Jewish scholars had developed a theology for what can best be described as "purgatory," a place of refining where a wicked soul was given the opportunity to "burn off" the things that kept him from being with God.
Jesus mentions gehenna eleven times:
- Matthew 5:22 whoever calls someone "you fool" will be liable to Gehenna.
- Matthew 5:29 better to lose one of your members than that your whole body go into Gehenna.
- Matthew 5:30 better to lose one of your members than that your whole body go into Gehenna.
- Matthew 10:28 rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.
- Matthew 18:9 better to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna.
- Matthew 23:15 Pharisees make a convert twice as much a child of Gehenna as themselves.
- Matthew 23:33 to Pharisees: you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to Gehenna?
- Mark 9:43 better to enter life with one hand than with two hands to go to Gehenna.
- Mark 9:45 better to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
- Mark 9:47 better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna
- Luke 12:5 Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna
Jesus also mentions Hades, which was the Greek word for the underworld---a world that means "hidden" or "unseen." The passage of Scripture that I am reading this week is Luke 16:19-31---the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. In the parable, a rich man dies and finds himself in hell. He sees the poor man who used to sit outside the city gates in Paradise with Abraham. No amount of begging gets him off the hook for paying for his sins, and Jesus ominously ends his parable with that thought ringing in his hearers ears.
We have to understand that this was a parable. To take this literally and dissect it as an indicator of what hell is like, is a pointless exercise. It is, as theologian N.T. Wright quips, like trying to figure out the name of the Prodigal Son. In fact, Jesus was probably trying to paint a vivid picture of the consequences of not storing up your treasures in heaven.
This parable does tell us a lot about what ancient Jews believed about both Paradise and Hades, however. It is not that dissimilar from the ancient view of both the righteous and wicked dead existing in close proximity---only the wicked are in torment and the righteous are lounging around in comfort.
Jesus also mentions "the gates of hell" when he journeys with his disciples to Caeserea Phillipi---a pagan worship site north of Jerusalem. Here child sacrifice took place for centuries to a variety of gods and goddesses. In Jesus' day it was a symbol of the Empire, complete with a shrine to Caesar. It is at that place of wickedness and idolatry that Jesus declares his Church will stand against such things. I wrote more extensively about this here.
In Revelation we have other images of hell---the lake of fire, most notably. The difficult thing about reading too intently into Revelation is that it's prophecy, and apocalyptic images, indecipherable codes and mysteries run throughout the whole book. It's hard to know for sure what the book means. Is it a prophecy by a first century disciple of the fall of Jerusalem, or is it something else? Could it be a dire and vivid warning of what happens when Christians collude with the Roman Empire?
What we do know for sure is this: The images of the afterlife in the Bible are varied, and seem to develop over time. They are different in Jesus' time than they were in the Old Testament. They sometimes contain elements of torment for the wicked, and sometimes they do not. Hell is either a place of limbo, or a place of eternal burning.
Regardless of how it's described, you don't want to be there. In fact, Jesus used very strong language to describe it---warning his disciples to avoid it at all costs.
So what is it all about really? What do we do with this troubling and uncomfortable concept?
First, we need to come to the realization that God is God and we are not. How comfortable are you with a God who doesn't fit any of your categories? We all want to impose upon God our vision for the way things ought to be according to us. What if God has other ideas? What if God is perfectly okay with the existence of hell? Are you good with that?
Second, we need to understand this. We can say no to the good of God's creation. God is a God of love, and love that is coerced is not love. So we get to choose. There is going to be a party, and we can choose to go. But know this: There is no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. No one there will embrace hatred, violence, racism, sexism, genocide, exploitation of others... There are some people that don't belong at a party, because they ruin it. And in this case, it's their choice whether they want to be a part of eternal goodness, or not. As C.S. Lewis once said, the locks on the door to Hell are "on the inside."
Third, if we are all being honest, Judgment is necessary and inevitable. We all want God to judge what is evil. We need God to judge what is evil. And even people who can't agree on much can agree on what is truly evil. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the people of South Africa through a time of repentance and reconciliation after Apartheid said that there could be "no embrace of reconciliation" without repentance. But there are some who will always spurn repentance, and push away from embrace.
What happens to them?
I believe what we stated earlier... that God allows their will to done in the end. I believe that they run headlong into ultimate dehumanization---where they no longer bear the image of God, beyond hope, beyond pity. And whatever "torment" that they might feel is as a result of this willful choice. The Church Fathers called it Poena Damni, the pain of loss---the loss of spiritual gifts, the image of God, and even faith itself.
Like I said, I am not sure what it's like---but you wouldn't want to be there.
Finally, when Jesus spoke of hell it was directed at those who were on the "inside" rather than on the "outside." It's easy for a lot of Christians to think about hell in relation to "other" people, who are godless and who sin like crazy without a care in the world. It's a lot harder when the finger is pointed squarely at the person in the mirror. As Jesus indicated more than once, those who confess God with their lips and deny him with their actions may be surprised when all is said and done.
Many Christians have allowed their weak, and anemic theology of hell to keep them under a grip of passivity. Jesus' words should wake us up. We should examine our own lives anew, looking for ways to more closely align our own "inside" with our "outside," so that we can be the same purpose on Monday as we were on Sunday. It should also wake us up to the fact that there are those who desperately need to hear the Gospel. How much do we love our neighbors, our relatives, our friends? Do we love them enough to be concerned about their eternal choices?
I am not advocating for weird, door-to-door, in-your-face, obnoxious evangelism. I'm talking about true love, true care, true desire that all should know the same peace in Jesus that you have---and that they should feel that peace forever.
The road to the town of Corioco in Brazil begins high in the mountains, and then descends into a rain forest. It is a beautiful drive, but dangerous beyond belief. Hundreds of people have been killed on this road, including a busload of tourists that died when their bus skidded off the road into an abyss. And yet, year after year, despite the many accidents and deaths, people want to drive on the road.
This is the essence of human nature. There is something in us that constantly believes that we won't fall off the cliff---that it happens to other people. Not us.
At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if it is worth it to keep travelling on that road. And to realize that the chances of certain death are exponentially raised each time you do it.
I don't like the idea of hell. I don't like that it's something we have to talk about. I don't like it that God allows people to choose death over life. I don't like any of it.
But being a Christian is not about figuring out all of the mysteries of God. It's about embracing Him and cherishing Him---even when it doesn't make perfect sense to us.
There are human beings who will say to a loving, just and holy God, "My will be done," and God will say, "Very well."
This is a hard truth. But one that should make us sober... and grateful... and desirous that no one should experience it.
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