Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In Search Of Truth, "Hell"

Hell is an uncomfortable reality. We don't like to think about it. We definitely don't like to talk about it. And as Christians it can seem like the big elephant in the room when we are trying to represent Christ and the truth to others. How do we talk about the infinite love of Christ when the alternative to trusting in him is eternal punishment?

This topic has been on my mind for a few years now. On a purely logical level, I haven't had  difficulty reconciling the existence of hell with the existence of an all-powerful and loving God. In fact, logically speaking, I think the existence of an all-powerful, loving God not only allows for hell, but demands for it to exist. (More on that later.)

However on an emotional level, the idea of hell is very troubling. I don't like it. And I'm not alone in feeling that way.

Some Christians have concluded that hell is not permanent, and no one will end up there forever. Others believe that hell ultimately amounts to the cessation of existence for those condemned, rather than an eternal, conscious experience of suffering.

The most popular ideas of what hell is like are reflected in many horror movies and games, such as Hellraiser, Event Horizon or the Diablo series of video games. The late 90's Spectre comic book series by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake (one of my personal favorites!) depicted hell as a place of physical torture, where human flesh was burned, or ripped apart by hooks and chains, and put back together again to continue an endless cycle of gory dismemberment and incineration, carried out by cackling demons.

Hell does not make me feel good. (At least not directly, but we'll get to that.) Even more troubling are the stereotypical concepts of hell I've grown up with. But in the last few years I've been exposed to some scriptural teaching on the subject that has brought clarity and a degree of comfort. I can't present it all here, as my understanding of the subject has grown through the course of many books and study sessions. But what follows are some highlights of information I've come across, and my observations about their implications for our understanding of Hell. My hope is that, at the very least, they will be useful as you seek to determine what scripture does and does not say about hell.

The description of hell I'm going to lightly build a case for is this:

1. The "fire" of hell is terrible, but it is not literal, physical flame.
2. The suffering experienced in hell is primarily emotional. 
3. Hell is a physical reality. Those in hell will have real, physical bodies. In one sense, even those in hell will be physically immortal.
4. Hell serves the purpose of quarantine. Hell is a prison colony, not a torture chamber.
5. Hell likely preserves the human trait of freedom. Those who want freedom from God will have it, and will likely be free in many ways to continue pursuing their desires.
6. Hell lasts forever.
7. Not everyone experiences the full potential torment of hell. Hell is not necessarily completely devoid of all pleasure.

1. The "fire" of hell is terrible, but it is not literal, physical flame.

This is deduced by looking at the various metaphors used to describe hell, which cannot be taken literally with any consistency. Hell is a fire (Matthew 25:41) but is also shrouded in darkness (Matthew 8:11-12). If the fire is physical it will produce light and eliminate darkness. So what we seem to have here are two different metaphors used to describe something that we probably could not appreciate or understand if it was described to us without metaphor.

Additionally, the word "Gehenna" is often translated as "hell" in the New Testament. As theologian and apologist Dr. Norman Geisler explains, "the Valley of Gehenna was a putrid dump outside Jerusalem that burned perpetually." (Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 4, pg. 328) Jesus used this nearby location as a metaphorical point of reference when describing hell to his listeners.

The fact that these descriptions of hell are metaphorical shouldn't reduce the sense of torment associated with hell. Hell is not a destination that anyone will be satisfied with. But it seems unlikely the suffering experienced there is primarily of a physical nature, and almost certainly not the result of physical fire.

2. The suffering experienced in hell is primarily emotional.

(Matthew 8:12, ESV) while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

A number of verses describing hell use the phrase "weeping and gnashing of teeth". So let's try to get to the bottom of that phrase a bit.

The Greek word used for "weeping" comes from a root word meaning lamentation, or as we would more commonly say, "grief, mourning or regret". In the Old Testament, "gnashing of teeth" is an expression of anger. (Job 16:9, Psalm 35:15-16, Psalm 37:12, Lamentations 2:16, ESV) From this we can conclude that "weeping and gnashing of teeth" refers to a state of regretful mourning combined with anger.

Grief, mourning, regret and anger will be a common combination of emotions among those in hell, although scripture does not specify if these emotions will swell and recede back and forth for the individual as time passes, or if these emotions will be felt on a consistent, static level at all times.
Scripture does not indicate that God will be manufacturing or forcing these emotions on anyone. It appears that these feelings will be a natural reaction to some other aspect of existence in hell.

Although the following is speculation, I suspect these feelings will be the result of those in hell contemplating what they have rejected(subjection to, and eternal life with, God), as well as possibly the result of their interactions with others in hell(if interaction with others takes place).

3. Hell is a physical reality. Those in hell will have real, physical bodies. In one sense, even those in hell will be physically immortal.

(Matthew 10:28, ESV) And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

(John 5:28, ESV) Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

Both the bodies of believers and unbelievers will be reconstituted at resurrection.

4. Hell serves the purpose of quarantine. Hell is a prison colony, not a torture chamber.

(Matthew 10:28, ESV) And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

The Greek word for "destroy" used here and in similar passages does not, in Greek, have the strong connotation of annihilation that it may have in English. This word translates to a wider range, including: "to put out of the way, to abolish, to render useless, to be lost." God sends people to Hell who have chosen that path. He "puts them out of the way" as the Greek word implies, but he does not actively torture them there. There is also nothing in scripture about any kinds of torture devices or tools used on residents of hell.

(2 Thessalonians 1:9, ESV) They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,

The Greek word for "destruction" here does not refer to annihilation, but to refers to ruin, injury, or corruption. But notice the quarantine implied by the phrase "away from the presence of the Lord".
Because God is perfectly loving and perfectly just, he cannot allow selfishness and evil to run around unchecked. Hell is in part a restraining mechanism. Those who turn to Christ for protection from evil will be kept safe from it. God will accomplish this by placing all evil in quarantine.

Hell IS a punishment, much like being sent to prison is a punishment. Those in hell will experience suffering because of their circumstances. But the purpose of hell, somewhat like prison, is separation and not torture.

Additionally, hell is primarily intended for the torment of Satan and his demons. They are not now and never will be in a position of power in hell. They will be suffering in hell more than humans will. In fact hell was created primarily for them.

(Matthew 25:41, ESV) “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

5. Hell likely preserves the human trait of freedom. Those who want freedom from God will have it, and will likely be free in many ways to continue pursuing their desires.

Those who trust Christ as their "surgeon" will have all the frustrations, self-destructive tendencies and pains of life we take for granted, surgically removed. There is, in some sense, a loss of freedom as a result. Granted, it's only a loss of "freedom" to fail and fall short of our potential due to counterproductive distractions. It's not a "freedom" that anyone will have reason to miss. And in fact in one sense, true freedom is perfected by this sort of "surgery", since the believer's ability to choose good will be completely unhindered by selfish tendencies.

By contrast, those who don't want that kind of existence, who hold personal freedom as the highest of all values, will likely be free to continue doing things their own way and will even be given a place all to themselves to carry out their efforts. A place where only they and others who have made the same choice will potentially suffer the collateral damage of their way of life.

The idea of free will for those in hell is supported in Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus. (Luke 16:19-31)

The rich man still has desires and even attempts to impose his selfish demands on Lazarus.

(Luke 16:24, ESV) And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’

The rich man still thinks of himself as entitled. Granted, this fictional scenario is based on a sort of "pre-hell" existence that those who reject God experience until God passes final judgment on everyone. But I think it still supports the idea that free will is not removed after death. We also have no indications in scripture that free will might be removed at a later time.

Someone may argue that if free will existed among those in hell, surely they would change their mind and desire to be with God, especially after being faced with the reality of his judgment. But this isn't a necessary conclusion at all. There are numerous examples of criminals who, after being justly sent to prison, become hardened even more by their incarceration. Some criminals even fear leaving prison after awhile, preferring the life they have come to know. This may very well be the case for those in hell.

6. Hell lasts forever.

 (Matthew 25:46, ESV) And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (See also Revelation 20:10, Jude 1:11-13, Mark 9:47-48)

The solution provided by hell is a permanent one. There is zero potential(despite what the Spawn comic book would suggest) for anyone to "escape" from hell and bring suffering to anyone else. (See Luke 16:26) Hell is an eternal quarantine. The same Greek word used to describe the duration of heaven is used, in the same context, to describe the duration of hell. (Matthew 25:41, 2 Thessalonians 1:9)

On the one hand, this is a very sad thought. For those in hell there will be no hope of life elsewhere. Of course as mentioned before, life elsewhere may not be desired, despite the dissatisfaction with their circumstances.

On the other hand, the fact that hell stands as a never ending, unbreakable, perfectly sealed quarantine of all evil is a great comfort. Evil will be completely contained and separated to itself. The selfish choices of an individual will be allowed, but they will never again have the potential to impact others who don't deserve to be affected by them.

Some would object to the eternal nature of hell, calling it "overkill" for sins committed which only lasted a finite period of time. There are two responses to this objection that I've found useful.

The first is that those in hell will likely have their free will intact and will therefore continue sinning. Theoretically, by the time they had been justly punished for the sins committed in life, they will have committed many more as they stew in their own bitterness and hatred while suffering. This results in a continual "refreshing" of the need for justice that lasts forever.

Of course this argument assumes that the sins committed in life are only finitely offensive. But when we sin in life, we sin first and foremost against a God of infinite worth. Consider the punishment we intuitively realize is owed to someone who kills something or someone. Perhaps a weed. (Actually that merits reward!) Or an ant. Or a rat. Or a puppy. Or a serial child-torturer and rapist. Or a drunk driver. Or a selfless fireman. Or a 6-month old baby.

Chances are, your feelings regarding the compensation due for killing things on this list roughly increased as the list progressed. This is because you are assigning increasing value to each of those things.

God has infinite worth. He is infinitely perfect and pure. (Even babies are naturally selfish until taught otherwise.) So we should not be shocked to think that sinning against God requires infinite compensation.

It's worth remembering that it is good that God does not force anyone to be with him in eternity. He doesn't brainwash anybody. It's also good that evil is quarantined and set aside, left to its own devices as it were, so that the rest of creation can continue into the eternal future of God's plan without fear of sin or selfishness thwarting any one's happiness ever again.

In so much of our fictional worlds there are ages of peace followed by war. Endless cycles moving back and forth between prosperity and suffering. But one day this concept will be alien. There will be no potential for a future "dark age". Evil will never again rise up or pose any kind of threat. The future will still be unknown to us, but we will have no cause to fear the unknown ever again.

7. Not everyone experiences the full potential torment of hell. Hell is not necessarily completely devoid of all pleasure.

Not everyone in Hell will suffer to the same degree. Punishment will be based on the choices made in this life.

(2 Corinthians 5:10, ESV) For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
(See also Romans 2:5-8)

The knowledge of the truth each individual had in life will also be factored into their final  punishment. Everyone with a healthy mind will eventually know enough during this lifetime, before their death, to choose to pursue or reject God. No one will have any excuses. (Romans 1:20) But those who reject Christ and had less knowledge of him in life will suffer less than those who were surrounded by the truth but continually rejected it anyway.

Jesus tells a parable that describes the nature of God's judgment on those who are  irresponsible with what God has entrusted to them. He compares them to servants who are entrusted with their master's estate while he is away. He concludes the parable saying,

(Luke 12:47-48, ESV) And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

Those who reject the authority of Christ but otherwise aim to love others in their day to day lives will experience suffering in hell to a lesser degree than those who rejected Christ but also lived selfish lives, inflicting suffering on others. The final punishment of those who choose their own freedom over being subject to Yahweh will be measured out based on the information they had and the choices they made.

(Matthew 11:23-24, ESV) And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

God has power and authority over everything, everywhere, including hell. Whether the torment of hell is based on circumstances (the environment of hell itself), self-torment (the anger and regret mentioned earlier) or mutual torment (the result of interacting with others in hell), God will ensure that no one suffers even the tiniest bit more than that which is perfectly just. There will be no overkill in hell.

This leaves a tremendous amount of room for imagining what hell may be like. And although it may be tainted and never as satisfying as one desires, there may even be room for some forms of passing pleasure in hell. It's possible that for some, hell may not be much worse than what can be experienced in a bad season of life right now.

I don't say this to convince anyone that hell is worth risking. There are no guarantees for anyone that hell "might not be so bad". It will be bad. No one there will be happy with their situation. But I do think we need to try and clear our minds of the ideas and images of hell fixed in our thinking by art and entertainment. Those images, while potentially useful in provoking thought about hell, are unintentionally misleading and can result in a wrong view of who God is. These popular ideas of hell, if accepted, promote a view of God that is unloving and unjust.

Feeling Good About Hell?

I implied earlier that, at least indirectly, there is potential for hell to make us feel good. How can that be even remotely possible? Well, the word "indirectly" is key.

God himself does not like Hell and does not want anyone to choose that option.

(2 Peter 3:9) The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

But the existence of Hell means that the problem of evil will eventually be dealt with, and that God will do so in the most merciful way possible, respecting the freedom and dignity of the people he lovingly created.

Hell ensures peace, while respecting human choice. Evil will be completely quarantined.

Perfect justice, perfect mercy, perfect love and perfect freedom. All of these are displayed in the reality of hell.

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