Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Three Views of Hell, Part 3 - Eternal Torment

What is the nature of Hell? Many of us have heard about it since we were small children in Sunday school. It’s lampooned regularly in the old “Far Side” comic, and references to it are common in English literature and in film. Chances are that even the most theologically uninformed individuals know that Christianity teaches that “bad people go to Hell forever.” But what does the Bible teach about the place that has been set aside for those not found in Christ?

As I stated in my introduction to this series, until last year I would never have given a second thought to this subject. I “knew” that the Bible taught what is referred to as the “Traditional View” or the “Eternal Torment” view and that any other understanding of Hell was straying into the realm of cults and theological liberalism. But when I honestly assessed what I really did know about what the Bible said on Hell, I discovered I knew a lot less than I thought.

I’m going to start with an examination of the Eternal Torment view of Hell. To be clear, this view is the common one, held by the vast majority of conservative Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, which says that those who die without accepting the substitutionary atonement of Christ will be separated from God in Hell and will suffer torment for eternity.

It should be noted beforehand that one of the primary assumptions of those who hold the Eternal Torment view of Hell, whether they know it or not, is that man is by nature immortal. The case for this belief is made by pointing out that the Bible teaches that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and one of our shared attributes with the Creator is immortality. Thus, even when man becomes separated from God in Hell he continues to survive forever.

I’m going to spend the rest of this post quoting every passage in the Bible which is generally accepted as saying something about Hell. I won’t need to make the case for this view so much as lay out the passages that are cited for it – most of us in the West, even non-Christians, have grown up with this view so embedded as part of our shared cultural knowledge that we will immediately recognize the view from the following passages.

Matthew 5:22
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 5:29-30
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Matthew 10:28
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.

Matthew 23:33
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

Matthew 23:15
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land
to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Mark 9:43,45,47
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire… And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell… And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.

Note that in each of these quotations the word rendered as “hell” is the Greek word "Gehenna."

What can we learn from these passages? Hell (or specifically, Gehenna) is a place for people who say “You Fool;” it is better to mutilate yourself (cutting off various body parts) than to go there; it is a place of bodies and souls; and it is a place that people are sentenced to go to. While these passages convey the idea that this place is terrible and not one any person would choose to go to, they don’t really give us any specifics, they don’t tell us about the nature of Hell. For that we need to look elsewhere.

None of the following passages explicitly mention hell, however, just because they don't use the word doesn't mean they don't have anything to teach us about it. They also represent the totality of Bible teaching on the subject. Outside of these passages the Bible has nothing else to say about damnation (that I'm aware of).

Matthew 3:12
"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Matthew 7:23
And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'

Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30
I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth… Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth… And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 13:40-42, 50
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 25:41,46
"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.

Romans 2:8-9
…but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and
distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,

2 Corinthians 5:10
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.

1 Thessalonians 5:3
While people are saying, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

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

Hebrews 6:1-2
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

Hebrews 10:27
…but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

2 Peter 2:12, 17
But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction…These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.

Jude 7
…just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

Revelation 14:10-11
…he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its
image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.

Revelation 20:10
…and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

These verses refer repeatedly to separation between the righteous and the unrighteous (the lawbreakers). The unrighteous receive the due sentence for the works that they did “in the body” (that is, while they lived on earth). They will be forced to depart from Christ and be cast into a fiery furnace (called the "lake of fire" in Revelation) where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth and the devil, the beast, and the false prophet are placed to suffer torment “forever and ever.” This fire is said to be "unquenchable" or "eternal" and it has been prepared for the devil and his angels. In addition to fire, “gloom” and “outer darkness” are also referred to. It is place of torment, and the smoke of that torment ascends day and night and those who sufferer it will have no rest. Those who obey unrighteousness will suffer wrath and fury, tribulation and distress. This destruction will be sudden, is called eternal, and will consume the adversaries of God.

After all this, is there any question that the Eternal Torment view has good Biblical support? The fact is, from this list of passages, the traditional view of hell appears unassailable to many and is easily justified. However, we will examine whether this is actually the case or not in the very next post.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Three Views of Hell, Part 2 - Translation Problems

Before I begin an exploration of what I now consider to be the three Biblically acceptable views of Hell, we need to clear a few misconceptions and problems out of the way. Unfortunately, when it comes to this subject, there is one tremendous roadblock in particular that prevents many people from coming to a clear understanding of what the Bible actually teaches about Hell: The King James Version of the Bible.

No offense to those who love the King James Version of the Bible - for its time it was a marvelous feat of scholarship and it still is the most beautifully rendered of all Bible versions - but we now know that there are a quite a few places where the translation is misleading or simply flat out wrong. This is the case with the KJV use of the word “Hell.” Unfortunately, the wide familiarity of the KJV rendering of many passages has led to quite a few misunderstandings regarding what the Bible actually teaches about Hell (among other subjects).

As we go through these posts on Hell you must keep in mind that no matter which of the three views you accept Hell is place where the unrighteous are condemned to go following the judgment of Christ at His second coming. While there are places described in the Bible that look similar to our understanding of Hell, some of these are described as existing before the Judgment, and therefore cannot be what Christians understand to be Hell. They might be precursors to Hell, but not Hell itself.

If you look up the word “Hell” in the KJV you will find that it appears exactly 31 times in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word that the translators chose to render as “Hell” in the OT is “Sheol,” which scholars now know is a severe mistranslation. Sheol literally means “the place of the dead;” it either refers to the place where everyone, both the righteous and the unrighteous, go when they die or it refers to the physical state of death. There is no notion of suffering or separation from God in the word at all. Few, if any, of the modern translations even attempt to translate sheol, as there is not a good modern English equivalent, most just leave it as it is. Later on, as I go through all the verses that are generally cited as telling us something about Hell, you will notice that none of them come from the OT, which apparently (and interestingly) has nothing to tell us about Hell.

In the New Testament, there are three different Greek words that have been translated as “Hell,” particularly in the KJV, and “Hades” is the most numerous of the three. If you’re familiar with the Greek myths, you know that Hades is the land of the dead. Just like sheol, it is either the place where both the good and the bad go or it is simply the state of physical death. It has no equivalence with Hell, as Christians understand the word, but is instead a direct equivalent of sheol. This is most apparent in the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) into Koine Greek made between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC, which translates all instances of "sheol" as0 "hades."

The second Greek word translated as Hell in the New Testament is “tartarus.” Tartarus only appears once in the entire Bible, in 2 Peter 2:4 which reads:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into [tartarus]
and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;

This might sound like the Lake of Fire described in Revelation but it can’t be. The verse tells us that the angels who are held in Tartarus are waiting for the judgment day (it’s a temporary prison) while the Lake of Fire in Revelation 19 and 20 appears to be a final holding place for the beast, the false prophet, and anyone whose names are not found in the Book of Life. Unfortunately, little else is known about Tartarus – it could be the name of the location that the rich man, from the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, found himself in; although there are several dissimilarities between the two places. Or it could be somewhere else completely. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be Hell.

The third and final word often translated as Hell in the New Testament, “Gehenna,” is also the one which is most justifiably translated as "Hell." The word appears several times in the teaching of Jesus and once in the book of James (3:6). Gehenna literally refers to a narrow ravine just outside of Jerusalem, known also as the “Valley of Hinnom” or “Topheth” (pronounced: toff-et) where a number of unsavory things occurred throughout Jewish history.

In the time of the Jewish kings Ahaz and Manasseh the Jews were conducting ritual infant sacrifices to the demon-god Moloch in the Valley (2 Kings 16:2-3, 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6). When King Josiah took the throne of Judah he put an end to this practice by making the Valley unclean through the disposing of bodies of executed criminals and dead animals there and draining the sewage of Jerusalem’s upper city ("Bethso") into it. The fires of Gehenna were kept burning day and night without end to destroy the carcasses and garbage that were dumped there. Apparently, brimstone (that’s sulphur to us) was also used in the valley to assist in the burning of the garbage as well as for it’s disinfectant qualities.

The singular Jamesian reference to Gehenna tells us nothing about the word, other than it has bad undertones. James writes that, “The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by [Gehenna].” While this is a strong warning against undisciplined speech it really doesn’t tell us anything about Hell or Gehenna, as James understood those words.

While the word Gehenna is used by Jesus only 7 unique times (11 times total among the synoptic Gospels), the ways in which it is used lend themselves far better toward being translated as Hell then any of the other three words I covered above. Of course, whether this translation is appropriate remains to be seen; I will go over all the passages that appear to say something about Hell in my next post, which will make the argument for the Eternal Torment view.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Three Views of Hell, Part 1

Recently, I have been studying the Biblical doctrine of Hell, and have come to a surprising conclusion: I don’t know what to believe about Hell.

As I studied the passages that most Protestant Christians believe speak about Hell, I discovered that the Bible has far less to say on the subject than I ever thought. You’ve probably heard it said that Jesus spoke more about Hell than about any other single subject; I have heard it said countless times in my life, but in studying the subject I found that Jesus either rarely, or never (depending on how you understand several vague passages) spoke about Hell. In reality, He spoke most often about the Kingdom of God, but that’s a subject for another time.

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about this subject, and as my views are now up in the air, I would like to present what I have found and see if any readers have any comments. This will probably take three or four posts (or six or seven), and I imagine that each will be pretty long. That said, I hope this interesting for all.

Three Biblical Views of Hell?

Like most Christians, I grew up believing in what is generally known as the “Eternal Torment” view of Hell. We’re all familiar with it - In brief, it says that all people who die without having accepted the saving work of Christ are judged and then cast in Hell, or more specifically the Lake of Fire, where they are separated from God and suffer torment for eternity. While I was aware that liberal Christians and some groups I would call cults had different beliefs about Hell, I never for a moment considered that anything other than the Eternal Torment view was Biblically justifiable.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in “Annihilationism,” that the soul of the unbeliever is destroyed upon death so that there isn’t any hell at all. For the JW, there is only Heaven and non-existence. The Unitarians believe in “Universalism,” that there are many ways to God, and that all people will be accepted into God’s presence upon death. For them Heaven is the only destination. These are not the only pseudo-Christian cults and groups that hold such alternative doctrines about Hell, but they are two of the most prominent.

Neither Annihilationism nor Universalism, as stated above, has any grounding in scripture. Both views primarily emanate from a strong distaste for the eternal torment view – a distaste that most Christians can probably empathize with. I have never been particularly comfortable with the eternal torment understanding of Hell myself, but I have defended it on internet forums and in the High School Sunday School classes I taught because I believed it was what the Bible taught. That said, in conducting a more focused study of the Biblical teachings on Hell I was very surprised to come to the conclusion that two other views, very similar to Annihilationism and Universalism, do have as much Biblical evidence in their favor as the view of Eternal Torment does.

“Universal Reconciliation”

I imagine that most conservative Christians will have a bad reaction to this view instinctively, as on it’s surface it appears almost indistinguishable from Universalism. Like Universalism, Universal Reconciliation teaches that all people will bow the knee, be reconciled with God, and join Him in Heaven. While the end result is the same, there are three key differences which make Universal Reconciliation, I believe, tolerable to Biblical Christianity while Universalism is not.

1. There is a Hell in Universal Reconciliation.
While Universalism teaches that all men go to heaven because God is too loving to send people to hell, that He is pleased with us no matter what we do, Universal Reconciliation teaches that men who die without Christ suffer judgment and Hell for their sins against God.

2. All men will be saved, but that Salvation is only through Christ.
While the god of Universalism loves everyone so much that he will overlook any sin in accepting people into Heaven, Universal Reconciliation holds that it is only because of suffering and Hell that the damned are brought to a place of repentance and repaired relationship with God through Christ.

3. There is a surprisingly (to me) strong Biblical case for Universal Reconciliation.
Universalism is based on a negative emotional response to the doctrine of Hell. Those evangelicals who consider themselves Universal Reconciliationists hold the view not because they hate idea of Hell but because they believe the Bible teaches it.

“Conditional Immortality”

Like Annihilationism, this view teaches that all men not found in Christ when they die, will cease to exist. The ultimate final destination is either Heaven for the saved or non-existence for the lost. Many evangelicals would call this view Annihilationism, and it is very similar to that heretical position except for three points.

1. There is a Hell in Conditional Immortality.
Like Universalism, Annihilationism gets rid of Hell completely, as those who hold to it choose not to believe that a god of love could punish people in Hell. Conditional Immortality recognizes the Biblical teaching of Hell and the requirement of judgment upon those who reject God before they are extinguished from existence.

2. Human Beings are mortal by nature.
Annihilationism holds that God destroys the soul that dies without Christ, that ceasing to exist is the sum total of the punishment that God meets out. Conditional Immortality says that human beings are not innately immortal, and thus there is no need for God to destroy them. Immortality, it is argued, emanates from God, and without God to sustain the soul it passes away.

3. There is a surprisingly (to me) strong Biblical case for Conditional Immortality.
Like Universal Reconciliation, the Biblical argument in favor of Conditional Immortality is surprisingly good. Those who support the view do so not because they hate the idea of hell, like the cultist and the liberal, but because they believe it is taught in the Bible.

Let me reemphasize that I am up in the air, no longer leaning toward Eternal Torment, Universal Reconciliation, or Conditional Immortality. I am totally undecided. As that is the case, I want to present each of the views and the arguments both for and against them as best I can. Because I am undecided, I am very interested in hearing your thoughts and want to know what everyone thinks about each view. I hope everyone will find this interesting.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Nowhere Else to Go

Have you ever considered whether you could come to a place of total unbelief in God, a place where you could walk away from your Christian faith? I have pondered that question numerous times. Recently, Greg Koukl of Stand To Reason gave the best short answer to that question that I have heard:

"I have never doubted so strongly...that I have been tempted to walk away. And the reason is because I think I know too much. What am I going to walk to?

Am I going to walk to atheism? I couldn't be an atheist if I tried! There's too much evidence for the existence of God. I would have to buy all these atheistic conundrums: everything came from nothing; life came from non-life; consciousness came from matter; morality came from nowhere; law came from chaos. All of these are wildly counter-intuitive.

Maybe some other religion? What other religion doesn't have the same kind of problems I'm facing right now? Whatever it is that I might be disappointed with God about, there is no other religion that is going to offer me something more. I could be a Hindu, I guess, and say that it's all just an illusion anyway, but that doesn't ring true.

I have doubted, I have been challenged, I have been hurt, I have questioned God, I have disbelieved God's goodness many times. But in all I have never been tempted to walk away because there's nothing [else] to go to."