Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What About Hell?

Many Christians today believe that the Gospel is about helping people to escape an eternal suffering in Hell. But what they don't realize is that the scriptural evidence for an eternal hell is pretty hard to come by. In fact, there seems to be a lot more evidence for a hell that is limited and purposeful rather than punitive and eternal.
If your entire Christian walk centers on escape from hell, the suggestion that hell isn't eternal can be challenging, to say the least.
Moreover, if you're only a Christian because you don't want to burn in hell forever, you might not actually have any interest in following Jesus (which is actually what being a Christian is supposed to be about). You might only want to avoid endless pain, making your profession of faith little more than a totally selfish act.
But doesn’t Jesus talk more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible? Well, yes and no.

Jesus does teach that those who reject Him as Lord will suffer in Gehenna, which we translate as "Hell", but His contemporary hearers would have understood this as a reference to 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. (See Matthew 25) 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?

That’s hard to say.

Yes, Jesus warns that unbelievers will be sent to a place of torment – a place that should be avoided at all costs – but we do not know for how long these people will suffer in this way.  Jesus does say that the fire will be eternal, but 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 involves eternal suffering.

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)

For most of us the idea of an eternal hell is almost universally accepted as being what the Bible teaches. We almost cannot imagine any other view being taken seriously. However, that was not always the case. In fact, for MOST of Church history, there were 3 different views of Hell, and the eternal suffering viewpoint was in the minority.

Note this reference in the New Schaff-Herzog Christian Encyclopedia which says: 

 "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)

So, what are the other two views? One is “Universalism” which teaches that those who die without Christ will suffer for a time in Hell but eventually everyone will accept Christ as Lord.

The other view is the “Annihilationist” view which teaches that those who die without Christ will suffer for a limited time in Hell and then be destroyed forever and cease to exist.

So, throughout the centuries, Christians have disagreed with which view of Hell is correct. Many Christians are also unaware that when Augustine attempted to refute the Universalist view of hell – which was the majority view in his day – he freely admitted that his doctrine of eternal suffering was against the grain.

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.

In the final analysis, Christians should have mercy with those who disagree with their view of Hell since all three views have scriptural support and on this side of the grave none of us can decisively claim one is more correct than the other.



NoahM said...

We who believe God loves us all (so much that He sent His one and only son to save us) and that God does not change his mind, must believe that our Father will only send us into detention (in hell) until we come to our senses and believe the truth. Our Father love us and will always love us, even if he sends us into the proverbial corner until we accept the error of our ways.

How long will they have to remain in hell? The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) gives us an insight. When the rich man recognized he had arrived in hell he still acted with self-interest in trying to have Lazarus sent warn his brothers. Perhaps if he declared repentance and a desire to love and save all the story would have been different.

Will people sent to hell be annihilated? A clue might be gathered from the story of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:4-6) in which people were resurrected after Ezekiel prophesied to them to hear the word of the Lord. So these people who were dead for a long time (very dry bones) arose after they heard and accepted (they will know their Lord) God. So people might languish in hell a long time, but there is always hope of their resurrection.

the alternative1 said...

just focus on Christ and you wont have to worry about hell

Brian said...

Thank you. It's time to come to our senses and take our theology from scripture rather than popular belief.