Here’s an excellent Facebook post by Jeff Turner, author of ‘Saints in the Arms of a Happy God‘. It highlights just how ridiculous is the current standard Evangelical concept that everyone who does not ‘believe’ in Jesus in the here-and-now is condemned to an eternity of suffering in Hell when they die.
You know I don’t believe in that idea; articles here and here, and my Statement of Belief, reflect my views, for what they’re worth. An especial fabrication is the idea of the ‘age of accountability’ and the other idea that those who have not heard are ‘judged according to the revelation they have’, but once someone hears the ‘gospel’ and rejects it, well then that’s them stuffed good and proper in the Great Hereafter.
It never fails to amaze me how people can make up this stuff and still consider their ideas to be Scriptural, i.e. supported by the Bible*.
Ok, over to Jeff:
“I want you to consider the immorality of the concept of salvation with which most Christians today are comfortable.
“Andrea Yates, some years ago now, admittedly drowned her five young children in her bathtub under the delusion that she was keeping them from hell. Their innocence had not yet been stolen by the world, nor had they crossed that mythical line we call the age of accountability, and so killing them seemed the most surefire way to keep them from hellfire.
“I know a situation like this is difficult to even think about, but it’s reality. What is also reality, and even more difficult to think about, is the fact that, from within that worldview, Andrea Yates should actually be considered something of a hero. If one actually believes that an eternity or flames, torment and misery awaits all who die as non-evangelical Christians, and also believe that only a very small percentage of the world’s population will be saved, then there is a very, very good chance that at least one of your children will, according to that worldview, burn in hell forever. Killing them before they have a chance to reject Jesus, then, from within that view, is actually a kind, compassionate, merciful and moral action, while bringing children into a world that has a 99% success rate when it comes to robbing us of our innocence and thereby condemning us to an eternity of torture, would be the most selfish, criminal and immoral of actions.
“Truth be told, from within that paradigm, abortion doctors should also be hailed as heroes, as they have saved more souls from hell, and sent more to heaven than the most pious missionary among us.
“While we are on the topic of the missionary, consider that from within this worldview, the missionary is actually one who makes people accountable for a truth that perhaps they wouldn’t have been accountable for prior to hearing it. If that’s the case, going to unreached people groups and telling them about Jesus would actually be a mean and hateful action, as now you’ve almost certainly guaranteed that at least one of their number will burn forever, whereas before maybe they would have slipped through heaven’s gates on account of their ignorance.
“When one holds to the popular concept of salvation that almost all evangelical Christians hold to, the immoral becomes moral, and the moral becomes immoral. It taints everything it touches, and twists everything its serpentine form slithers over into hideous knots. Life becomes a confusing mess, and one must come to grips with things like the fact that the angry, red faced street corner preacher of and for whom we feel so embarrassed, is the most sane and moral of creatures. The angry, sign holding mobs are actually the ones with theirs heads screwed on straight, while the upstanding, suburban family who keeps a clean house, a neatly manicured lawn, and have a reputation as kind, decent, upstanding citizens, but who also believe in eternal conscious torment, are actually behaving like psychopaths. If you believe in an eternal hell, normal and sane should, for you, look like street preaching, or perhaps even the early ending of lives in the name of securing them a place in heaven.
“I know these are extreme examples, but one of the reasons the inherent insanity and immorality of certain beliefs are not apparent to us is because we never work them out to their logical ends. When it comes to a belief in hell and eternal conscious torment, what is normally considered sane and moral is insane and immoral, and what is considered immoral and insane becomes moral and sane.
“This doctrine of salvation perverts everything it touches, and for that reason I say we need to be saved from it.”
*I really must elaborate on these points in some future post…..
10 thoughts on “The Absurdity of the Modern Doctrine of Hell”
I’ve always thought that hell had a purpose: annihilation. Where people conciously reject God, God has to respect their decision (with heart breaking regret and tears in his eyes) rather than overruling it saying, sorry, you’re coming into paradise whether you like it or not. Surely anihilation is the kinder option rather than some little corner of the new heaven and a new earth where souls are kept in torture for eternity? That doesn’t sound particularly merciful.
This is an excellent point, and thank you for making it. I too believe that God will respect everyone’s personal decision if they should so decide to not go into paradise. Absolutely. But I think those people will be few and far between…and I also agree that annihilation is probably the most likely ‘destination’ for those souls. But personally I don’t think that ‘hell’ is where the annihilation happens; even if it is, I think that it will be a swift and ‘merciful’ annihilation rather than a protracted and painful experience as modern Hell proponents seem to imagine. I do believe in Hell – but it is the place reserved for the devil and his angels; they will be the prisoners there, not the jailors – and humans will not be there either. I’m currently working on a series on hell and all its ramifications, but it is taking me a while simply because I do not like to dwell on such a nasty subject for long periods of time! I would ideally like to be able to say ‘watch this space’, but I certainly would also add the caveat ‘don’t hold your breath!’ 🙂 Thanks again for your comment!
I was about to contact you for extra clarity on the hell topic, but you said to write a blog comment for additional insights, so here I am on a related blog post.
It was thoroughly interesting reading this resource: http://www.flyinginthespirit.cuttys.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Wrong-About-Hell.pdf. I actually contacted the owner of wrongabouthell.com, but haven’t received a response, so I was wondering if you could kindly shed some light on 2 questions that I have.
The post was illuminating, but I have one question relating to this post, though.
Matthew 25 v 46 wasn’t included in the above PDF and I am wondering how this can be best interpreted based on how the original audience would have understood, alongside what the original Greek is actually saying. By using the original Greek, I feel the correct interpretation is punishment for an age and life for an age. In my view, Young’s Literal Translation is nearer to what the original text is actually saying: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25%3A46&version=YLT
But this runs into difficultly while interpreting ‘life for an age’ because we know that we will receive eternal life based on supporting verses. In similar passages, as the PDF shows, it can be better rendered as ‘life eternal’. In other words, the type of life, rather than the duration experienced.
So with all this in mind, is it fair to say that the verse means the duration of punishment (for an age) and then the type of life experience (life eternal as depicted through life of the ages)?
If this is the case, how can this conclusion be drawn because one refers to duration while the other refers to the type of life? Surely for consistency, both need to refer to type of life/punishment or both refer to duration of life/punishment and not type and then duration?
So in this case it would mean type of punishment and type of life.
I fully understand that the Greek word shouldn’t be translated as eternal. But within the whole context of the verse, how does it all reasonably fit together and how can it be reasonably interpreted?
And finally, if we consider the possibly that punishment will exist for an age, in your view, will this occur following death, or at the point of the 2nd death when people are thrown into the lake of fire?
I am in favor of the annihilation view at the point of the 2nd death (of which there is no return); but punishment can last for an age before annihilation occurs. Is this a fair conclusion?
Overall, it is very convincing apart from this one difficult passage and how it fits into an understanding that involves the ultimate destination. I realise this is a big topic and requires much of your time, but I would really appreciate your thoughts on this.
Thanks in advance!
Hi Denver and thanks for your comment. You express your questions clearly and I am grateful for that!
First up, can I deal with the question about ‘wrongabouthell’. As far as I understand it, the writer of ‘wrong about hell’ is no longer with us. I seem to remember at the time I published this piece (or, more correctly, shared Jeff’s piece!) that this was the case. I think there is someone who is maintaining the site so that the material is still available…that said, yes, there is an email address quoted, but there’s no guarantee that it is monitored. Certainly not by the dead guy, at any rate! Also the whois.com information about the site owner is made anonymous; I seem to recall that this was because the guy who wrote the material didn’t want to be known about even after he’d died. Like I said, this is all a bit of a vague memory but it’s as close as I can get.
Now, for the main questions you ask – it’s late in the evening as I am typing this, so I will have to take a short rain check on replying, because I want to do your questions justice with a clear head. So, I’ll reply shortly if that’s ok!
Talk to you soon!
I’ve thought about the Matthew 25:46 passage (part of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats) and my first instinct is to set the passage into at least three contexts. The first context is, of course, the specific Biblical context of the passage, the second is the context of the ‘Jesus lens’, the assumption that Jesus is speaking in a loving and Grace-filled way of a Grace-filled concept, and finally the general Scriptural context that God is righteous and without injustice (Deut 32:4) and that, as we have already seen, most of the Hell Scriptures don’t mean what we thought they meant.
Looking at the last context first, then, we need to remember that God’s justice is not the same as ours. I have been working on a piece about that for some time, and I would summarise my current thinking by saying that whatever judgement is ‘performed’ – whenever it is: after death and/or on ‘Judgement Day – will be one of restoration and reconciliation and not wrath and punishment. God’s wrath would be reserved for the things – things, not people – that have corrupted and destroyed people’s lives for thousands of years. Things like war, greed, corruption (which are basically manifetations of fear), and natural things like famine and sickness. Those are the things that will be destroyed at the Judgement. That’s good news 🙂
Looking at the local, Biblical context, and here I’m beginning with about Matthew 21 here, He’s cursed the fig tree and entered Jerusalem, and is teaching in the Temple. The fig tree is important because it’s a parable of the religion practised by Jesus’s contemporaries: the Pharisees and the like. He’s also talking about signs of the end of the Age, which as a partial preterism view could be seen as looking forward to the destruction of the Temple in AD70. That’s what I think Matthew 24 is about. Now, to bring those points together, He’s talking about the way in which corrupt religion has failed utterly, to the point that in about 40 years’ time (AD70) it will culminate in the Romans finally snapping and wiping out the Jerusalem temple worship permanently; albeit for political reasons, yes, but it will still happen – and the revolt that the Romans would be quashing was partially religion-related of course. The parables of the virgins and the talents may be interpreted in this light too. We have always been taught that the Parable of the Virgins is to do with ‘keeping our light shining for Jesus’ until He comes, but there are more interpretations than just this one. Reinforcing this parable by using the Parable of the Talents is sheer genius. This parable is, in my view, not referring to God at all (the man who gives out the ‘talents’) but actually it’s referring to organised religion. Organised religion promotes people according to what they can do and what they have done. Everyone who has will be given more, and all that. But those who have nothing are binned. This is organised religion at its worst and I think this is what Jesus was referring to.
So this then leads us to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Remember that this is the last in a sequence of teachings about organised religion and its failings. Remember also that, although it does not really read like a parable, it could still be one because of its context with the other stories which are also parables. Bear in mind, therefore, that it might not need to be taken literally. I am undecided on that point at present! Anyway, personally, I think that this teaching refers to those who are convinced that they are ‘doing everything right’ for God, and that they deserve to have some sort of reward for this. Like the elder son in the Prodigal Son story. Now, first of all, who of us can claim that they are doing everything ‘right’ anyway; certainly most people fail in some way. But the Grace of God is given as a gift, and this is done not through anything – anything at all! – that we have done or not done. Organised religion will produce people who, on meeting the Lord face to face, will be surprised that what they ‘did’ was not good enough, because organised religion has told them, during their earthly lives, that it is all about doing things. On the other hand, there are those who are surprised that Jesus appreciated the things they did quite naturally – I see this as the works that proceed naturally from a lifestyle of Grace in the Spirit – which suggests to me that they didn’t even notice that they were ‘doing things for God’. Also remember that Jesus’s earthly ministry was not only spiritual but intensely practical too: He healed people and gave them a reason to live; He affirmed them and showed them how much they mattered to God. So this passage is indeed about good works, but not, I believe, about the eternal consequences. Because, as you rightly point out, the word ‘aionios’ refers to things ‘of the age’, including ‘eternal life’ which, as we know, is not just in heaven but also in the here and now. Therefore, I think that the reward AND the punishment are more to do with this life, because eternal life is now, as is eternal ‘punishment’. Being a person who is not familiar with the concept of God’s incredible Grace is in itself a kind of punishment – but one intended to bring a person to the point where they recognise their need for Grace rather than trying to follow a set of Rules.
Remember also that, counter-intuitive though it may seem, the ‘Son of Man coming in his glory’ may not refer to the Second Coming, nor indeed to Judgement Day, if indeed that’s a real thing.
Now, for your second question, in some ways I have already answered it in that the ‘punishment’ is one of correction and bringing people into the blessings of eternal life rather than letting them languish in the despair of not being in that life. But your question also refers to ‘when’, and to the ‘second death’.
As for ‘when’, I personally believe that the judgement is not one of fear but, as I have already said, of restoration. And also bear in mind that he who follows Jesus will not be judged, because he has *already* passed from death to life (Jn 5:24). With this, then, the ‘punishment’ referred to in Mt 25:46 is not really relevant to the after-death experience – except that, if a person has not experienced the life-changing power of real faith in Christ, there will be a lot of baggage to get rid of. (and especially if they have been in organised religion!). For this reason, they will have to ‘unlearn’, or have ‘burned away’, many harmful attitudes that will not serve them well in the afterlife. And I think that’s what it refers to. The second death is where all things that have ever been harmful to humanity will be finally done away with once and for all. This is why it is significant that ‘death and hades’ are also thrown into the fire. Death, as the thing that has held mankind in its thrall of fear for all time; and Hades – the Greek equivalent of ‘Sheol – the ‘grave’ or ‘pit’. Even if ‘hell’ *is* an actual thing, this suggests that it will be a temporary arrangement and not everlasting, and once it has fulfilled its purpose, which we can assume is one of ‘purification’ – getting rid of attitudes not useful in the afterlife – it will be disposed of as no longer needed. But I think of the ‘pit’ in this context as being all the bad things that ‘sin’ and ‘wickedness’ have used to destroy people in life. Addiction, greed, and things from the list I gave above. I think it’s a picture of all bad things – and especially (because they are specifically mentioned by name) death and suffering – coming to a firm and final end. This is why the next part of Revelation is all about the ‘happy ending’ – because all the bad stuff has been done away with.
And all this fits with the Jesus/Grace lens concept too. So, for now, I’m happy with that.
I’m sorry this has been so long – it’s almost a blog post in itself! – but I did want to do justice to your excellent questions. Hope it helps.
Thanks Tony, really appreciate your time on this.
The response is interesting. The interpretation involving the parables, particularly the parable of the talents where the giver represents ‘organised religion’ (I would say, ‘corrupt organised religion who have created unnecessary barriers’ could be a more accurate interpretation. Jesus himself was a Rabbi and part of ‘organised religion’) is a new interpretation for me.
But interestingly, while reading the passage, I can see how this actually might be the case. Matt 25 v 29 seems to reinforce this as Jesus makes it clear that the person who has nothing will be thrown away. When Jesus spoke, he continually praised those who had nothing, the lowly and the poor.
So that is a very fair point!
I’m also in agreement regarding Matt 24. Many Christians have unfortunately misinterpreted this passage by insisting that it is talking about Christ’s 2nd coming and the end of this world. But the context is about the Temple and the coming of Jesus’s presence and importantly his vindication to the rest of the world that his prophesy would come true within ‘this generation’ or 40 years.
And this reinforces the connection that you are making about how Jesus’s is referring to the Pharisees and the problem of religious corruption. Matthew 23 v 36 discusses how the Pharisees will be punished for their corrupt practices, like their ancestors and they will be guilty of all of it. I guess another way to put this is that this generation will be punished within a generation (40 years) by destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (the symbol of religious corruption at that time). They will receive an earthly punishment and the many years of corrupt religious practices will be dealt with following the temples destruction. I guess this could be a fair way to interpret that?
The one point I’m still struggling on is still relating to how best to interpret Matthew 25 v 46 despite all this context and understanding. The above point does seem to relate to an earthly punishment. But in Matthew 25 – although it is a parable and may not be taken literally – in verse 41, Jesus does refer to those disobedient people who are thrown into the lake of fire for an age aiōnion alongside the devil and his angels.
In Revelation 20 v 10 we read that the Devil and his angels are tormented ‘to the ages to the ages’. Implying continuously through the ages.
So with this in mind, the people to the left will spend a similar existence to the devil and his angels. Now, I don’t think that it is reasonable to interpret that they will be ‘restored and purified’. However, by using the Revelation 20 passage, it doesn’t say anywhere that people will experience ‘torment’.
But it is clear in Matt 25 41 to 46 that the King (Jesus) is in a dialogue between those who will receive punishment in the afterlife (not earthly punishment) as v 41 references the devil and his angels. So in my view, it is still more likely to interpret that those unrighteous will be placed in the lake of fire and will ultimately be destroyed with potential ‘punishment’, but not continuously through the ages punishment.
Whereas the devil and his angels will suffer this continuous cycle of torment.
The earthly punishment in the overall context doesn’t really make sense, unless I’m missing something?
The view that we will be restored and refined in a fire is attractive, but by drawing on Matt 25 v 41 and then Revelation 20, it is difficult to make that work when they are both connected as they do both refer to an afterlife event.
The literal Greek words are ‘ages’ and not ‘eternal’, Revelation is full of symbolic imagery and Jesus is using Parables, so you could say these are metaphors for deeper truths, but as the devil and his angels are mentioned in the same context, from what I can see, only these options are available:
1. Those unrighteous before God will experience torment (like Satan and his angels) through ages to ages.
2. Those unrighteous before God will be thrown into the lake of fire (I know it’s not literal fire because the devil and angels are spirits who won’t be tormented by fire so I grant that it is a metaphor) for punishment lasting an age and then destroyed.
3. Those unrighteous before God will be refined and changed using fire as a metaphor, leading to eventual life as you say (torment isn’t mentioned for people in Revelation).
Based on the available biblical evidence, I’m inclined to think the 2nd option. But based on Jesus’s character and grace, I’m inclined to think that your 3rd option is more likely.
Unfortunately, the 3rd option isn’t spelled out by either the bible or early church tradition, so it is difficult to accept on it’s own.
Matt 25 v 46 in this sense could mean ‘punishment for an age with the devil and his angels and life eternal with God’. So it is a duration of punishment and a type of life, but it can be still strained because I guess we can both agree the devil and his angels will placed in the ‘fire eternally’ and tormented from the ages to ages, so we may experience something similar?
This is already a very long comment and incredibly interesting, yet very important!
I really appreciate what you’ve put into this already – if you have any further comments based on my response, that would be really helpful!
Excellent reply, Denver, and again well put.
Yes, you are right in clarifying the ‘organised religion’ to ‘corrupt organised religion’; that was what I meant. The use of, and need for, ‘organised religion’ – the good sort, not the corrupt sort! – varies with the stage of spiritual growth that a person is at, and most of the time it can indeed be good and useful. Sometimes that has to be filtered through our own personal circumstances, of course.
Rather than go into great detail on all your points, I would prefer to look at things from a slightly different angle, and maybe do a bit of ‘reverse exegesis’ 😉
Firstly, about the fire prepared for the devil and his angels. While I personally believe that there is a personification of evil called ‘the devil’, and that it has ‘minions’ of some sort, there are also those who do not believe that. Whatever it is, and whether or not it exists, there are two points: firstly, that the ‘fire’ is prepared for the ‘devil and his angels’. It is not designed for humans, and I do not believe that God kinda throws people in there as an ‘afterthought’, because I don’t think He suddenly thinks like ‘Hey, here’s a handy fire I made for the devil and his minions; ah I know, I’ll use it for humans too while I’m on it’. Naah. Secondly, the primary use of the ‘fire’ metaphor in, well at least NT, Scripture, is as a purification. I don’t see it as a means of destruction, depending on the context; obviously the references to AD70 spoke of a literal fire in which thousands of dead bodies were historically burned in the Roman siege. So there’s that. In its turn, the fire of purification is, I think, a metaphor for the removal of bad/mistaken attitudes towards God and our fellow humans that we have picked up in our earthly existence. At one end of the scale, there’s my annoyance against judgemental people. On the other end of the scale, there’s Stalin’s purges against his own people. Git. And people think of Hitler as being the epitome of evil… Anyway, when we see God as He is, these attitudes will fall away; whether gradually or not I do not know.
The other thing, and here’s where the reverse exegesis comes in, is that I do not believe in Hell for many reasons, the main reason (apart from my own personal revelation of the love of God, which is of course subjective), but more objectively, if Hell exists then it must be the most important thing in the universe. To prevent people going there must of necessity be the main focuse of *everything*. Now, first of all, I don’t believe that the whole focus of the universe is Hell, but it would have to be that if it were indeed true. The holocaust is a picnic compared to that. But the Bible, and the attitude even of the Fundagelical church, is not one that puts Hell as of prime importance. As is only correct, of course, because Jesus is of primary importance, and Hell should not even get a look-in. But we can see from this that one of the effects of the Hell doctrine is to take our eyes off Jesus and what He did, and refocus us on Hell itself – or that would be its function, if it were deemed important enough Scripturally. But there are very few mentions in Scripture of anything that could even remotely be construed as Hell passages, and the very fact that we are having this discussion indicates that the issue is by no means clear. And God’s ways are indeed higher than ours, but that does not means that we can call Hell ‘good’ in some way just because it was God who supposedly ‘invented’ it. No, in fact the opposite is true: the passage in Isaiah 55 that speaks of His ways being higher than ours speaks *precisely* that God is in fact generous, merciful and forgiving, in contrast with the vengeful, greedy attitudes of many humans. That’s how His ways are higher. It doesn’t mean that just because He’s God, that the definition of love somehow changes (for the worse!) because it’s being used to describe His love. Far from it; God’s love is so much *better* than ours!
Remember also that there are many passages of Scripture that directly address the idea that there is in fact no need for a punitive Hell at all, for example, “Love keeps no record of wrongs” (1Cor 13:5), and “I will remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:12; Isaiah 43:25). The propensity of humans trapped in corrupt and controlling religions is *always* – yes, *always*! – to choose the bad news rather than the good. If there are two passages of Scripture, for example, one apparently saying there is a Hell and the other not, they will go for the one saying there is a hell. If there’s a passage of Scripture that says do not judge, and then immediately after that passage there’s another Scripture that says you can only judge once you’ve got the plank out of your own eye (Matt 7:1-5), you can jolly well bet that they will ignore the first injunction not to judge and go along with the second – making the unfounded assumption along the way, of course, that their eyes are now clear of planks of any description. [In my view, the tendency to judge others is of itself the great plank spoken of!] Talk about cherry-picking! And so we do not need to be bound up to always looking on the dark side. If we are looking for Good News – the ‘Gospel’ – then we will find it, if we are looking properly i.e. with our Good News filters in place. This, I believe, should be axiomatic in Bible reading for the people of the New Covenant. Pick the good cherries! Bin the others, or at least leave them on the tree until we understand them better.
What this all means is that we can legitimately, if we decide to lay aside the definite, prescriptive and confining proclamations of the Evangelical church, read the Bible *without* a presumption of Hell fire. If the Bible is unclear on the subject – and it is – and if we are going to read the Bible through a Jesus lens, looking for ways in which the Father is like Jesus*, then this is perfectly valid. It does not mean that we are looking for passages to debunk Hell theory, nor are we looking for ‘different’ interpretations of passages in order to prove our assertions about their being no Hell. Instead, if we begin with a presumption that Hell is not how Evangelicalism describes it, based on arguments similar to those above, then we can decide to think for each passage, ‘What else can this mean?’ or ‘If this isn’t about Hell, then what is it about?’. I think this is a healthy thing to be able to do with any Scripture, to be honest. Having become a Christian, we are unconsciously ingrained with the standard teachings of whatever group we find ourselves post-conversion. This is, I think, part of what Jesus meant in the Parable of the Sower where the birds come along and eat the seeds on the path, or the thin soil part. We start out full of joy at our freedom, and then before long someone comes along to spoil things by introducing Rules, telling us that the Bible trumps the Voice of God, telling us that we have to interpret certain passages in a certain way, and all that sort of thing. It’s no wonder the weeds choke the new life out of us. But that new life has a way of breaking through, because it’s Jesus Who carries the work through to completion. And therefore we can always come back to Him, Himself, rather than to the opinions of others.
And that’s part of how I cope with the Hell passages. It’s not exactly ‘reverse exegesis’, as that really is reading something into a passage that’s possibly not there – but ironically, I think that’s what has happened over the last couple of centuries with Christians – they have strayed far away from the loving God and instead defaulted to the nasty, ‘Janus-faced’ god that humanity have always assumed is his nature down through the ages, and then found Scriptures to support that viewpoint. And then claimed that they have done no such thing 😉
The following is a disturbing quote from a book called “Hell Is Real” by pastor Brian Jones. This kind of view of God causes such existential terror and instability in people’s minds that it drives good people into psychological trauma and mental breakdown:
“Jesus rescued you from falling into the hands of Someone larger than your mind can conceive, stronger than the combined strength of a trillion nuclear explosions, a holy God destined to unload the complete, unrestrained force of His wrath on you for offending His holy nature. That’s what you were really saved from…
“Apocalyptic urgency is not about saving your friend from hell. It’s about saving your friend from God. Hell isn’t your friend’s biggest problem; God is. Hell is simply the end result of God’s justified wrath. It’s the final permanent expression of his anger towards those who have purposely chosen to reject His lordship over their lives.
“That’s why until you understand how violent and inhumane God really is, how utterly wrathful the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ can become, you’ll never feel the urgency to help your non-Christian friends escape his detestable clutches.”
– Brian Jones, Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) pages 119 and 132.
Wow. This is the utterly evil horror of what we simply must believe if Hell is indeed real, as described by Fundamental Evangelical beliefs. And make no mistake, all the best coffee, the best fundraising drives, the best music, smoke and mirrors, still cannot disguise that god who is supposedly so jealous for our ‘love’ (in this case, forced ‘love’ – it simply must be) that he’s willing to burn people forever if they offend him by not ‘loving’ him despite him being a despicable, torturing tyrant. Does that look like Jesus? I think not. Can we say, he who has seen [Jesus] has seen a god like that? Again, the answer is obvious.
Over to Rob Bell:
“Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the Gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly Father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony. Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?
“That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can. And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.
“And so there are conferences about how churches can be more “relevant” and “missional” and “welcoming,” and there are vast resources, many, many books and films, for those who want to “reach out” and “connect” and “build relationships” with people who aren’t part of the church. And that can be helpful. But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of God is behind all this?
“Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.”
– Rob Bell, Love Wins
It is therefore quite obvious, then, why I personally read the Bible free of a hellfire doctrine sitting on my shoulder all the time. That’s an unreasonably heavy weight to carry, by anyone’s standard.
I hope you can see that I have tried to answer your questions rather than avoid them! To me, the most fitting answer was an indirect one, but one which nevertheless explains how I can look at those passages like the Sheep and the Goats, and still think to myself, “What is all this about, really?” And it’s fine to not have the answers!
*Note that many people use the Jn 14:9 verse ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ as evidence of the deity of Christ. and that’s fair enough as far as it goes. But there is also a deeper meaning: Jesus is not just saying that He’s God; He’s also saying that the Father is like Him. And nowhere does Jesus talk about sending people to Hell (or ‘letting’ them go there, which amounts to the same thing); in fact, he specifically forbade His disciples from calling down nukes on people (Lk 9:54) who had ‘rejected’ Him.
Thanks again for your incredibly well considered response.
Overall I’m in agreement, particularly the points were fundamentalists have overstated what the ‘orthodox fundamentals’ of Christianity. Too many secondary elements are made fundamental, which ironically for them, is moving towards Heresy. The creation v evolution debate is an unfortunate example where Christians have thrown an axe around, butchering Christian creditability, sound biblical exegesis and creating an unnecessary barrier to belief. They say, either you believe in 6000 years and deny evolution, otherwise you’re not a proper Christian. Such nonsense!
The hell topic is certainly one of those topics were belief in it is not a fundamental tenant of the faith, rather it is obviously important in clarifying the perception of Christianity to non-Christians. And yes, the points regarding God’s love is central. God is love. It’s really that simple.
Before addressing some of your points, I’ve got some general points.
God is portrayed as a loving father. If we fail, he will lovely discipline us to improve us. Many Christians feel this ‘disciplining’ can only happen this side of life; while there are valid points that you’ve made by suggesting that the disciplining can happen following death by being given another chance. Peter certainly alludes to that possibility by saying Jesus preached the gospel to those who resisted the preaching of God’s love (exemplified using the Noah story as a reference to Peter’s general point, but in my view, it is not to be taken literally by insisting that only those before Noah’s time could get a 2nd chance). Otherwise, it would seem unfair, because in the story, they were certainly not helpless as Noah gave them opportunity to repent. A standard response can be shown here: https://www.truthaboutdeath.com/q-and-a/id/1597/isnt-the-gospel-preached-to-the-dead (interestingly, they don’t state why only those during Noah’s time – this seems odd and obviously not well thought out).
We do know God is fair and will do right for all people across all times and cultures!
They are missing the actual point Peter is making. In that, Peter draws upon a well-known story of the day to better illustrate the point that those who reject God’s message will be given a chance.
I’ve interesting points on the Noah story and why I feel it’s mythological literature discussing truths about God’s relationship with Mankind, but that’s for another day….
Anyway, a key point in this discussion that hasn’t been touched upon is Paul’s criteria for unrighteous. The early chapters of Romans start to highlight this. For example, in Romans 2, Paul interestingly elaborates on the fairness given to all people. In Romans 2:14-15 he states that the Gentiles, who have the law written in their hearts, are not directly aware of God’s plan, unlike the Jew’s. We know that the law didn’t help with the sin problem, in fact, as Paul states, it only made it worse!
So what is my point in all of this?
For consistency, many Christians often state that only belief in Jesus is the way to salvation (and ultimately that is true in my view: either now or following death). But as the Gentiles didn’t know about the arrival of the Messiah or the law, then I don’t feel that it is likely that suddenly at the moment of Jesus’s resurrection that premise will have changed, whereby those who didn’t directly know the ‘route to salvation’ would in a moment have their access removed.
Some Christians could state that when the gospel was being proclaimed, then Judgement would follow.
Fine, but what about all those countries who have not heard the Gospel to this very day?
Does Paul’s Old Covenant principle still remain meaning people’s hearts are tested, or is Jesus still solely required for righteousness? Rhetorical questions 😉
Basically all of this connects with our points quite nicely: Again all rhetorical questions..
– Are those given a chance after death who haven’t heard the message of Christ?
– Is Paul describing a ‘works based salvation’ for those people who are unaware?
– For those who hear, yet reject the Gospel while here and their heart declares them as unrighteous, they may be viewed as ‘unworthy’, but as with the story of Peter, even those people would have heard from the preacher of righteousness, they rejected him and yet they were given another chance. As God is fair, applying this universally across all times would make sense!
So even using this logic, people can be given a chance to be refined and if they reject this opportunity, then fine, it is their choice. So even based on biblical information, there are strong suggestions that salvation is not as simple as many Christians feel that it is.
So with all of this in mind, going back to your points. Yes, the instances of the literal fire, ‘Gehenna’, does reasonably refer to the ‘rubbish dump’ and the literal earthly consequences for those who didn’t listen to Jesus’ message about the ‘end of the age’ and ‘Day of the Lord’ event resulting in Jerusalem’s destruction.
In light of the above comments, the idea that the fire is seen as a purification method is certainly stronger.
While thinking over this more, I feel I have more clarity now. For example, the ‘fire’ metaphor used in Matt 24:41 is the same fire experienced by people. But the text or the Bible itself, for that matter, doesn’t directly refer to ‘torment’ / ‘punishment’ in the afterlife for people, except Matt 25:46. Revelation 20 does directly mention ‘torment’ experienced by the devil and his angels, but in the same passage, it is silent on what will happen to people.
Sure, there are indirect references throughout the bible about:
1. ‘gnashing of teeth’
2. Jesus referring to more whips for those who didn’t do what the master wanted, yet knew his plan, compared to those who didn’t do what the master wanted as they didn’t know his plan.
3. plus it is better for those to have a stone wrapped around their neck than what will be done to them. In other words, it was better that they were not born.
Points 1 and 2 do not necessary refer to an ongoing punishment / renewal, whereas point 3 suggests a severe punishment for certain offenses, but again, it’s not clear that it may not be ongoing.
Overall, from what I have read and understood, I feel the following can be reasonably interpreted: (I know you have your interpretation and I fully respect it and can see where you are coming from).
‘The fire has multiple purposes. For some, like the ‘devil’ etc (whoever they may be) experience continuous torment as Revelation 20 indicates. Those people who have rejected God’s intent for humanity through Jesus and have inflicted intense evil to people will experience some type of ‘greater pain’ (whatever that means) for what they have done and this can purify or eventually destroy them. For other people, punishment is less, resulting in purification or eventual destruction.
In light of the Matt 25:41-46 passage, this can now take shape. For example, the fire has varying degrees (even Jesus is alluding to this based on ‘punishment’). The passage in Matt 25:41 can refer to people being placed in the ‘fire’, but for a different purpose than what the ‘devil’ will experience: ongoing torment through the ages etc. Matt 24:46 closes with the type of punishment for people: ‘punishment of the age’; similarly, the type of life is given to the sheep ‘life eternal’. In both cases, it is now fair to state that there is no mention to duration, but the type of life or punishment inflicted.
The ‘life eternal’ point is reinforced by the other passages which refer to type of life, rather than duration. So for consistency, it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus is referring to the type of punishment as well.
The bible gives no indication on what this punishment may involve and based on the consistent use of the Greek word for an age, it is certainly fair to not place too much weight on how long the duration will be either. Certainly not eternal!
This conclusion may be different than yours, but it does seem that based on the Bible alone, it isn’t reasonable to be dogmatic and state eternal conscious punishment is what the bible is clearly saying. Sure, I’m still siding with the different levels of punishment and then ultimate destruction for people, rather than a purification, but I still feel this can be deemed as a loving thing, particularly if these people reject the gospel and God altogether: they had no time for God and God will grant them their wish.
Apologies for another really long response. We certainly don’t have all the answers and it’s clear that the view of ‘eternal conscious punishment’ for people is not clearly spelled out. Though, I do feel that there is a fair point that this will happen to the ‘devil etc’.
I’m sure no one will have much sympathy or cause for certain about that!
Thanks once again, this really has been an illuminating time! All the best!
Thank you too – I do love reading others’ takes on these subjects in an atmosphere of respect and learning, as we have exercised here. You are clearly an intelligent man and one who has studied the Scriptures a lot.
I do find it interesting how there is this idea – and you are not alone in it! – where it seems that some parts of ‘the fire’ can be ‘hotter’ than others. If that’s the case, then personally (a) it suggests to me even more strongly that this is a metaphor, and from that, (b) I think that any purification ‘fire’ would neet to be suitable for that which it is purifying. Some need more than others, in other words. But what I don’t believe is that Hell, if it exists, has some parts that are ‘worse’ than others. No; if Hell is the ultimate punishment, then ultimate means ultimate. And there would also be no point.
The other thing is this: as you say, no-one really knows. And to me that includes those who wrote the Scripture. Sure, the writing is (mainly) inspired, but we need the Spirit to explain much of it to us *and* point out to use those parts which are not ‘inspired’, like Jesus did with the ‘Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on Me…’ passage He read from Isaiah in His home synagogue. While we can debate points like Peter’s ‘Harrowing of Hell’ (the passage about Jesus preaching to the dead), I do wonder where ol’ Pete got his information from. The truth of it is that, even were we as humans to be given as much revelation as we could receive about ‘afterlife’, still we could not conceive of it properly because our current bodies and minds are not equipped to do so at present.
And then there’s the passages about ‘punishment’ and ‘judgement’. There are all kinds of bits that contradict each other about that…so personally, once again, I use the Jesus lens and try to read things with the character of Jesus (and therefore Father) in mind. The conclusion to all that has to be that we need to look not only at the Bible, but at the other ways in which God makes Himself known to us – primarily through the witness of the Spirit in our hearts, but also through things like beauty, compassion and love shown not only in nature but in good-hearted humans everywhere. There is far more about God in those ‘books’ than there is in the narrow 1500 pages or so of the ‘Book’. In this way, we can get a holistic approach to our view of God, not confined simply to accounts written by people 2-4,000 years ago. While much of it is relevant, we have to decide how much of it is so relevant for ourselves.
I make no apologies for this; I would imagine that you already realise that, like Jesus did, I try to use ‘creative interpretation’ of Scripture and not just study the minutiae of the detail of the words. I don’t think God is in to punishment at all. Suffering in this life is often the result of our mistakes, but even more often it is the result of others’ mistakes, and these which are imposed on us without our permission. God is not like other humans in this regard; He’s much, much greater than that. Certainly He’s not into vengeance, despite certain Scriptures which might seem to say otherwise. The further I get in life, the more I realise that Jesus is the most important thing, and the Bible’s main function is to point us to Him. Once it’s done that, it becomes very much secondary to our *real* relationship with Him. But I don’t think it’s a book of answers about Life’s Great Problems…we only get to have those answers by walking with Him for our lifetimes.
That said, yes, we can and should discuss ‘what the Bible says’ about afterlife and whatnot, but at the end of the day I feel it all needs to be held at arms’ length and even then taken with a pinch of salt – mainly because those who wrote it are not doing anything dissimilar to what we are doing here: discussing things we can only imagine.