Lately, hell has become a hot topic; all pun intended.
It might be surprising for you to realize that there is rising, legitimate debate concerning various views of hell. I know what some of my readers might be inclined to think, “But it’s so straight forward in the Bible.” To that, others would add, “so if anybody has any kind of debate about it, they must be moving away from the plain teachings of the Bible.”
Honestly, I understand that kind of sentiment, I really do. In the past, I had my own list of topics that were “no brainers” when it comes to what one should believe and what the Bible “says.” My Evangelical grooming as a pastor convinced me that the more you grow as a Christian, the more black and white issues should become to you. Furthermore, once you land on a conclusion that fits with what prevails in Evangelical-world and puts you in good company, you can take off your thinking cap and put your heart and mind on autopilot.
However, when I encountered the Gospel of God’s Grace in its purity, it has caused me and challenged me to revisit beliefs and assumptions I have long held. I mean seriously, if I could spend 42 years of my life and become a highly trained and competent pastor, and yet completely miss the most important thing, the real Gospel, it only makes sense that it would be wise for me to reexamine a lot of spiritual things. Furthermore, once you discover that “God is love” and Jesus is to be the ultimate focus and example, one’s understanding of the Bible and how it addresses certain issues is completely viewed through a different set of lenses. Grace changes everything!
In fact, my move away from feeling so strong and sure about the current, popular Evangelical understanding of hell as the place God justly sends people to be punished with an eternity of excruciating torture who don’t believe and/or obey Him, began with the revelation that “God is love.” This is where all theology and belief must begin and end, and ultimately be judged.
Since God is love, EVERYTHING that comes from Him must come from and confirm that love. Love is not part of His nature, it is His nature. Furthermore, Jesus is the highest manifestation and example of that love.
So, with that in mind, did Jesus have anything to say about Hell? Well, yes and no.
The single word “Hell” we use today and associate as “Hell” (a place of fiery, eternal torture) is actually not found in the Bible. Nowhere, and in no manuscripts. There are four words in the Bible that are mistranslated as “hell.” These words are: one Hebrew word sheol, and three Greek words hades, tartarus and gehenna. These words do not mean hell as we typically think of it today.
Sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Manuscripts of the Old Testament, and it means the grave (the place of the dead) or the pit, as correctly translated in most modern versions of the Bible. Hades occurs 11 times in the Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament and it is the direct equivalent of the Hebrew word sheol; thus it also means the grave or the pit. Tartarus occurs only once in the Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament in the verse below.
2 Peter 2:4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell (tartarus) and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.
Please note that God cast the angels (not humanity) who sinned down to tartarus and chained them in darkness, to be reserved for judgement.
Gehenna occurs 12 times in the Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament, and each time that gehenna occurs, it has been mistranslated to mean hell in several versions of the Bible. Jesus Himself who uses the word gehenna 11 out of the 12 times that gehenna occurs in the Bible, for example in Matthew 18:9.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell (gehenna) fire.
When Jesus uses the term gehenna fire, I don’t believe He means everlasting, tormenting hell fire in the bottom of the earth as we typically think of today. By the term gehenna fire, Jesus means something much different. Gehenna takes its name from a valley located in Jerusalem called the valley of Hinnom. During Jesus’s time on earth, this valley was used as the city dump. A fire was constantly kept to burn up and consume all of the city’s unwanted junk.
It’s extremely interesting and profound to me that Hebrews 12:9 refers to God as an “all consuming fire.”
Could it be that Jesus was poetically hinting at another entirely different kind of experience for those who reject and rebel from God, one that is actually in the presence of God, the all consuming fire? Keep reading to find out.
It is clear to me that scripture has no one unified word nor description of “hell.” Furthermore, the times Jesus uses the word Gehenna, one must assuredly allow for poetic and symbolic uses thereof. To allow colorific use of a concept such as “pluck your eye out” as not to be taken literally and yet tie down the use of “Gehenna” in the same sentence to mean a literal place in the bottom of the earth where people are tortured by the wrath of God in eternal flames is a huge stretch at best. Furthermore, that kind of place and reality goes directly against the nature of God, who is love.
So, what is hell? What was Jesus talking about? Is it a real place? How does the God (who is love) have connection to hell? Do I have to believe in a hell that is a never-ending torture from the wrath of God upon people who don’t believe and/or disobey, in order to be faithful to the Bible?
Here are some thoughts…
Hell is real-
Everybody spends eternity somewhere. We are eternal beings having a physical, bodily experience here on earth. Heaven and hell are two real, eternal experiences.
However, I am not convinced that the reference to actual places associated with words (Sheol, Hades etc.) that are interpreted as “hell” are automatically to be taken literally in interpretation. These descriptions have a far greater chance of being intended to be figurative or symbolic.
Hell is connected to God-
To suggest that God just allows hell to exist outside of himself and beyond his influence or control is to me, a misguided assertion.
“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” John 1:3
“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” Colossians 1:16
There are no realities, eternal or temporal that do not come from God. God does not take a hands off approach to anything, including “hell.” If you believe in a torturous, flaming, eternal existence of punishment, you must also believe God is the author and sustainer of it, as He is of everything else.
This is of course, a problematic notion for many. It is the primary issue of the atheist and a growing issue among Christians. God (who is love) would create such a place? The same Jesus who befriends sinners is willing to burn them eternally, no matter how potentially justified? Really? This is God, this is love? The God who is love, who delights in His creation, who sets the stars in their places….this is the best idea He could come up with?
Hell is a reality that takes place in the presence of God-
Many, in order to justify their view of an angry, torturing, violent God who is justified in sending people to an eternity of unimaginable suffering due to their disbelief and/or disobedience, have interpreted hell to be outside of the presence of God. As if God looks away, can wash His hands, and out of holiness, let hell happen. To them, a fiery, tortuous hell is God’s best idea of what to do with unbelievers. And, they will allow/portray God to take some theological distance from burning, screaming humanity so that He remains holy, and justified in doing so.
I am often amazed how when many allow God to have some inconsistencies, it’s on the side of a willingness to allow Him to be a more violent, torturous, and retributive God instead of a more gracious, loving, merciful, and accepting God. Furthermore, they will go to virtually any interpretive and theological length to prove that God is a violent God who punishes the wicked with internal torture beyond imagination and is Holy, just, and loving in doing so. Some, wanting to kind of disconnect God from it all use statements like, “God doesn’t send anybody to hell, they chose it.” For so many years, I used statements just like that.
But then I realized, that’s like me creating a fire-pit in my backyard, determining it to be a place my kids could go if they don’t believe and act correctly, and then say, as I shrug my shoulders while they scream as their skin melts for all eternity, “Well, I didn’t send them there, they chose it.” Really? My parental hands are clean, free and clear?
Fortunately, this view of hell as being outside the influence and sustainment of God meets the buzz saw of scripture in passages such as…
“The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb.” – Revelation 14:10 KJV
“If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.” – Psalm 139:8 KJV
In both these passages, the concept of hell is described as being a reality that is IN the the presence of God.
Ruh, roh, Scooby.
Hell is not God doing something contrary to His nature (love), rather doing more of it.
Here is where we come to the interesting issue of God’s wrath. It is widely asserted that God’s wrath is the aspect of God that is violent and angry, and desires and executes retribution upon disbelieving humanity. It is God’s wrath that justly punishes the unrighteous.
However, a deeper look reveals something completely different.
The Greek word for “wrath” in the New Testament is the word “Orge”
Unfortunately, the way this word has been translated has been shaped greatly by our pre-existing concepts of God as being angry and temperamental.
The word “orge” actually means “any intense emotion” it’s where we get words like “orgy” and “orgasm” from.
It has to do with a very strong passion, not even associated to anger. In fact, the root of “orge” actually means “to reach out in a straining fashion for something that you long to possess.”
What if the wrath of God is not God pouring out anger and vengeance, or retaliation, but rather furious love; grasping, reaching, shaking to possess every person that they might experience His Grace? Wow, now there is a revelation!
Now for some, that is going to feel like wrath. Why? Because there is nothing more torturous than to be loved by someone who you don’t want to be loved by. To be given love when you don’t want it. To be given Grace when you want no part of it. In all truthfulness, that’s hell.
In fact, the writer James articulates in the Bible that when you love your enemies, it’s as if you were pouring out heaping coals of fire over their heads.
The wrath of God isn’t an expression of God’s hate and contempt, but rather a furious, passionate expression of His love and Grace, reaching, grasping for people to experience His love.
God is not schizophrenic, God is not hate and love at the same time.
Daniel 7:10 refers to a river of fire that flows out from thrown of God. What is that? It’s the white hot love of God.
See, the same sun that hardens clay melts wax. Some people will experience the furious, pure love of God as hate, because they hate being loved by God, they hate pure Grace, trusting in His Grace.
The presence of God is the same. When Moses first met with God being present in a cloud to receive the 10 commandments, he saw that experience as one of glory; a powerful, positive opportunity. Yet, the other people who witnessed that same cloud saw it as an experience of fear. Why? Because they didn’t believe and rebelled against the goodness of God.
Paradise is the love of God, wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness… I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. For what is so bitter and vehement as the punishment of love? -St. Isaac the Syrian
So what is hell?
Hell is an eternal existence in the presence of God who is love, furiously pouring out His love that all people might experience Grace. It is God (who is love) being God (pouring out more and more love), forever. It is hell for some because they reject and despise Grace. They hate Jesus and His unconditional love. The same Grace and love that is heaven for many, is hell for some. The difference is in belief. The difference is in heart.
“The flames of heaven will be hotter for some than the flames of hell could ever be” -Dallas Willard
It’s interesting that in truth you can’t reject Grace. You can’t stop it’s presence, pursuit, favor, or blessings over your life. You can only love or not love it. Loving, believing, trusting Grace fills your life with heavenly rest. Not loving, believing, and trusting Grace serves to fill your life with hellish frustration and angst. It never leaves you, you can never leave it. Only love it, or not.
God never changes. He is love.
I love how Robert Capon states it…
“Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world.” -Robert Capon