Monday, March 19, 2012

What Should We Believe About Hell?

Now that the smoke has largely cleared on Rob Bell's "Love Wins" book and most of the credible rebuttals and responses have long since fell off the Top 10 List of Christian bestsellers, I wanted to share my thoughts on this controversial topic.

Before I get into this one please let me say that this is still an in-progress study for me. My views are not set in stone, but this is where I've landed as of now, based on my studies. These studies have included reading the words of Jesus on the topic of hell, or gehenna, listening to various Bible teachers on the subject, and reading both Bell's "Love Wins" and Francis Chan's response, "Erasing Hell".

 For me, Bell's book was anything but persuasive, and Chan's book was only a re-statement of the traditional view of eternal suffering without any real, hard look at the other two competing views of hell, namely Annihilationism and Universalism.

Honestly, I much prefer the ministry and teaching of Chan to that of Bell, so my opinion of their books isn't reflective of my like or dislike of their individual ministries. I'm simply commenting on my assessment of their books on this subject.

Before I get into this I should probably define what the three main views of Hell are for those who aren't familiar:

Eternal Suffering is the most popular view in the Christian church today, although as we shall see this is a fairly recent development. It was once the minority view in the early church but has risen to prominence in the last few hundred years or so. This view is that those who reject Christ will suffer an eternal punishment of extreme anguish and torture forever and ever without end.

Annihiliationism is the view that unrepentant souls are destroyed forever after a period of suffering.

Universalism is the view that those who reject Christ as Lord will suffer for a period of time and then be offered an opportunity to repent and turn to Christ, thus being redeemed and brought into the Kingdom of God.

I must point out that, although it may seem so, this theory of Universalism is not the same as the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. As I understand it, Purgatory is where only certain people go who are not good enough to be saved, but not evil enough to suffer forever. Catholics do also believe that some go to an eternal place of torment. Those who do not either go to Hell, or Heaven, must suffer a time in Purgatory and are then allowed to enter Heaven.

To study this topic you must only look at the New Testament writings. Why? Because the Old Testament scriptures are strangely silent on the topic of where we go after we die. David and the other Hebrew writers refer to "going down to the pit" or "the grave" but nothing is said about fire, or torment, or suffering forever and ever...or at all, really.

While we can probably wonder about why this is, the fact remains that Jesus and the Apostles give us our only clues about what happens to those who reject Christ after they die. So, let's look at what the New Testament tells us.

If we look at what Jesus taught about Hell, or Gehenna, (the term Jesus actually uses when He speaks of the place that people go if they do not accept Him as Messiah), we see that in every case the language that Jesus uses has to do with destruction of the soul, not eternal suffering without end.

Yes, there are a handful of verses that speak of "everlasting fire" or "everlasting torment" and Jesus talks about "fire that is not quenched" and "the worm that does not die", but these are only a handful (and we will address these in a moment). The majority of verses do not speak of an eternal suffering but instead about destruction, perishing, and death.

In the places where Jesus does speak of an eternal duration of hell, the eternal quality is placed on the fire, or the smoke, or the worms, not on the torment, and not on the souls of the people who are suffering.

The view of eternal suffering is predicated on an assumption which I believe is scripturally unsound; the idea that the human soul is eternal.

You and I have always heard it said that "every soul is immortal, the only question is where you spend eternity." But, does the Scripture teach us that those outside of Christ will live forever? No. I can find no scriptures anywhere that affirm the eternal quality of the human soul per se, without Christ.

Starting in Genesis, the reason that God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden is why? "Lest they eat of the Tree of Life and live forever." (Genesis 3:22)

And what was their punishment for eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? "You shall surely die" (Genesis 3:2)

So, if death was the punishment for their sin, and if they were prevented from eating from the Tree of Life because to do so would be to "live forever", then are human souls inherently eternal?


This is also why Paul and the other Apostles go on and on about how "our life is hidden in Christ" and "when Christ, who is your life, appears, you will appear with him also." (Colossians 3: 3-4)

Jesus even tells us that if we come to Him we will have life, but if we do not come to Him we do not have life. (John 5:40; 10:10; etc.)

So, only those of us who are in Christ have life, and without Christ we have no life beyond this one.

However, Jesus does teach that those who reject Him as Lord will suffer in Gehenna, which we translate as "Hell" but that His contemporary hearers would have understood as the garbage dump outside the city gates.  At best, Jesus is using this constantly burning trash heap as a metaphor for what will happen to those who die without His life in them.

At the resurrection, when Christ returns, both the righteous and the unrighteous will be raised from the dead to face the Judgment seat of Christ. Those who love Christ and who have followed Him will be raised to live forever with Him in the New Heaven and the New Earth. But those who do not belong to Christ will be raised for...what?

This is where it gets tricky.

Jesus warns that it will be a place of torment, but we do not know for how long. While Jesus says that the fire will be eternal, we are not told that the people, or the suffering will be eternal.

Jesus tells us that in Gehenna there will be weeping (Matt 8:12), wailing (Matt 13:42), gnashing of teeth (Matt 13:50), darkness (Matt 25:30), flames (Luke 16:24), torments (Luke 16:23), and "everlasting fire". (Matt 25:41)

As scary as this may be, and Jesus did emphasize that this was a fate to avoid at all costs, it does not specifically teach us that Hell is about suffering eternally without end.

We have to balance these statements with verses where Jesus warns us to fear God who:

"...can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28)

One thing I came across that really opened my eyes on this subject was a reference in the New Schaff-Herzog Christian Encyclopedia which revealed something fascinating:  

"The earliest system of Universalistic theology was by Clement of Alexandria who was the head of the theological school in that city until 202 A.D. His successor in the school was the great Origen, the most distinguished advocate of this doctrine in all time." (From the New Schaff-Herzog, page 96, paragraph 2)

"In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked." (From the New Schaff-Herzog, page 96, paragraph 3)

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[The info is at the bottom, left corner of the text.]

Also, when Augustine refuted Universalism in his day he freely admitted that it was the view of a majority of Christians in the Christian Church.

So, what are we to make of this? If it seems that the Old Testament scriptures hardly mentions the topic, and if Jesus speaks mainly of the "death" (perishing, destruction, etc.) of the unrepentant sinner, and if the early Church had no grid for the concept of eternal suffering, and if both the Old and the New Testament Scriptures affirm that only those in Christ have eternal life, then the views of Annhilationism and Universalism (after a period of suffering/punishment) seem to be much more in line with the whole of Scripture. 

At the very least, all of these facts certainly make the commonly held doctrine of Eternal Suffering seem very weak in comparison.

I'd love to know your thoughts on the subject. Please post your comments below.

For more on this topic I recommend part two of Steve Gregg's excellent series: "Three Views of Hell" on MP3 here>


Eli Chitaka said...

I've read a lot on this subject. Your concise blogpost packs a huge punch in summing up such an extensive topic. Its really hard to encounter people that are genuinely questioning and seeking things out in this matter so thank you for your refreshing honesty and humility.

I personally believe universalism as you've described along with the understanding that the soul is not immortal supports the most fluent reading of scripture.
That said many great minds who have sought out the truth believe eternal torment or annihilation is the most accurate understanding. Pervasive interpretive pluralism at work there.

I think what Rob Bell achieved was to help get people talking both publicly and privately.
This helps out witness as unfortunately many have made acceptance of eternal hell as central to the gospel. The gospel being more about avoidance of punishment than receiving christs life.
Another thing Rob helped is to bring to many believers attention the fact one can believe all end up in heaven without sidelining the significance of the death and resurrection of christ. Most christians i encounter think universalism strictly means all roads lead to heaven... but to me that is like saying all roads eventually end up on the one road which is christ... ie from gods perspective there is only one way even though man may think there are many ways.

I suppose a valid pushback in regards to the early churches views on the after life, is that potentially we have more understanding in this current age... so for example we no longer endorse slavery and know the earth isn't flat and orbits the sun. Not that I personally think the early church was wrong on this matter, I think the fact the majority were christ and cross centered universalists is a weighty proof.

To me the deal clinching scriptures are in ephesians 1, 1 corinthians 15, 1 timothy 4, john 12. It really boils down to God's ultimate intention and purpose coupled with the acknowledgement he will achieve what he sets out to whatever it takes.
So in that regard this discussion is of huge significance as it speaks to our view of gods character and efficacy in his dealings with man. Just how thorough is his plan of salvation.

Reminds me why universalism is also know as the great hope... i think all christians should at least want all to be saved, and many hold to the hope even though their theology perhaps doesn't support it... anything less is picking who we love.

All that said in practical terms i think inevitably the concept of freewill is the dealbreaker for many a believer. I think it scares many people to critically examine just how free (or not) the will actually is.

D. L. Webster said...

This is an interesting idea. For quite a while I've thought that the bible speaks of four things in place of our contemporary concepts of heaven and hell. First, it seems to suggest that presently, when people die, they go either to heaven or to Hades (the land of the dead). Then after the final judgement, people are sent either to the new earth or are thrown into the "lake of fire".

Perhaps I just don't understand what is there, but it seems that the bible doesn't give a real clear, detailed picture of what happens after death. It seems to be more metaphors and general concepts.

Perhaps in using the term Gehenna, Jesus is suggesting that those people are thrown out as garbage. (Trash, in a sense, ceases to exist to us once it is disposed of.) If he were intending to communicate that people were to be torture, might there have been a more appropriate metaphor? Also, it makes less sense for Jesus to tell his followers that they'll have eternal life if everyone already has eternal life (some will just have an eternal tortured life).

Anonymous said...

Paul stated in Thessalonians that only God is immortal. 1 John references as eternal life is in the son. Ro 6 mentions the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.

A Medrano said...

I have read both books myself, along with a couple others, and plan in writing about what I found. But, you brought something up which I don't remember encountering: death at creation. I do know that by the first century, the immortality of the soul was becoming the norm. Prior to that, no one believed they had eternal life. So, I guess, we can say that the Sadducees were more in line with the scriptures since they didn't believe in an after life. And that's probably why they were sad, you see (see what I did there? Lol). And if the new testament really focused on death for the sinner and life for the redeemed, why do we focus so much on eternal conscious torment? If people go to hell, which I do believe some will go, are there degrees of hell? One last thing. If heaven and hell co-exist, I think we'll be surprised at who goes to heaven, as well as who goes to hell.

Martin said...

Universalism: beatings will continue until morale improves.

Martin said...

Annihiliationism: Webster's comment of Gehenna as garbage dump. Tossed out. It echoes: the flood as "mulligan".

Martin said...

Can we ask what happens to babies born dead, etc...

Anonymous said...

Really interesting read, thank you so much for sharing. You know, what the early church taught was really different then the examples mentioned above. Because they believed that Christ defeated Satan on the Cross everyone had eternal life. But:
"... those who find themselves in hell will be chastised by the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love, undergo no greater suffering than those produced by the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart, which has sinned against love, is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that the sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God… But love acts in two ways, as suffering of the reproved, and as joy in the blessed!" St. Isaac of Syria, Mystic Treatises

They believed this because: "It is the “fire” of God’s love; the “fire” of God Himself who is Love. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) who “dwells in unapproachable light.” (I Timothy 6:16) For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the “consuming fire” of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same consuming fire” will be the cause of their “weeping” and their “gnashing of teeth.” Fr. Thomas Hopko

Unknown said...

Patti and I just spent about two hours discussing your article. We were challenge and encouraged. Thank you