Hell and ‘Liberal Theology’

Here’s a great piece by Jeff Turner about the misinterpretation of the three main ‘Hellfire’ prooftexts[1], by Infernalist[2] people who themselves cry ‘Liberal!!’ when someone tries to interpret them differently.

Ho-hum. Surprise, surprise.

Ok less of my cynicism. Over to Jeff:

Far too often, those of us who do not hold to the eternal conscious torment view of hell are met with accusations that we do not take scripture seriously enough, or that we are far too liberal in our interpretations.


Well, the top 3 passages I usually have it suggested I’m not taking seriously are 1) the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, 2) the parable of the sheep and the goats, and 3) some variation of Matthew 10:28, which reads: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

So, allow me to show you how those who use these scriptures to justify eternal conscious torment do not take them seriously enough, and are far too liberal in their interpretations:

1) The parable of Lazarus and the rich man [Luke 16:19-31, Ed], while a favorite of the infernalist, does not typically match their doctrine of salvation in any way. How? Well, for starters, we are not told that the rich man went to Hades for not believing upon Jesus, nor are we told Lazarus went to “heaven” (that is, to be with Abraham) because he did believe on Jesus. Rather, the text simply says: “…in your (the rich man) lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” In other words, this isn’t actually about saved vs. unsaved, but is something of a role reversal tale.

Literally, just five verses before beginning this parable, Jesus said:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
-Luke 16:14-15, NIV

Clearly, the rich man represents the wealth-loving religious leaders, who justified themselves by their wealthy status, and Jesus simply was illustrating through this parable that God just didn’t see things as they did.

Additionally, if this were really about heaven and hell, you would think it would include a very, Very, VERY clear plan of salvation. Instead, the rich man is told that his brothers, if they wanted to avoid coming their themselves, could find salvation in Moses and the prophets (verse 29). Now, what grace loving Protestant on planet earth would ever stoop to say salvation could be found in the law or prophets? Never mind the fact that Abraham goes on to tell the rich man that Moses and the prophets’ words should hold more sway than testimony concerning a man risen from the dead. Interestingly, though, after expounding upon this passage, most hell believers then go on to preach salvation through a man raised from the dead, rather than anything from Moses and the prophets.

Clearly, this was a parable aimed at the greedy religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Not a hellfire and brimstone sermon aimed at the middle aged man denting pew # 11.

2) The parable of the sheep and the goats similarly lacks any Protestant plan of salvation. You have this great division that occurs, fire, judgment, the works, but not a word is breathed of, “now believe upon Jesus, and you can avoid this fate.”

No, the sheep are told that they’re sheep-like for works they’d done, not things they’d believed or prayers they’d prayed. It’s the same for the goats as well. They neglected to do certain things, and so found themselves on the goats list. There is nary a whisper about salvation as we’d preach it today. Just “works.”

Clearly, this too is a parable, aimed at the religious elite whom Jesus begins rebuking in chapter 23, and continues to speak of here.

Using this passage to preach “hell” and heaven is irresponsible, lazy, and a result of piss poor exegesis. This is not a 21st century turn or burn message, but a parable aimed at specific people, who understood God’s kingdom to consist of literal power, whereas the Kingdom Jesus revealed consisted in love for the poor and marginalized.

3) For this passage, the main thing missed is that “body and soul” are said to be destroyed, not tormented forever. This would be more in line with the annihilationist view, if taken literally, than it would the eternal conscious torment view.

Also, if we’re taking things hyper-literally here, notice that it isn’t “hades” spoken of, but Gehenna. Now, some insist that these are just two generic names for the same specific place-hell-but that doesn’t work out when you’re coming at things from a hyper-literalist perspective.

Notice, Jesus speaks of bodies being in Gehenna. Now, according to the literalist, there will only be bodies in the lake of fire, à la Revelation 20:13-15, after a physical resurrection occurs. So, this would mean that Gehenna, according to this logic, would have to be the lake of fire, but since Hades is thrown into the lake of fire in Revelation 20:14, they can’t be the same place.

Another problem arises for the hyper-literalist in Matthew 23:33-36, when Jesus says plainly that some of the religious leaders of his day will find themselves in Gehenna within a generation. Why is this a problem? Well, if Gehenna is the lake of fire, no one is supposed to go there until after the final resurrection, which, at least to my knowledge, has yet to occur.

Now, I know, I know. These are absurd ways of looking at these texts, but I’m just following the logic of the hyper-literalists themselves, and staying faithful to their own methods of interpretation.

Bottom line? Those who cry “Liberal!!!” are often far more liberal in their interpretations of texts than they’d like to admit. And while maybe I am too, so are they. So who’s right? That can only be decided by looking to the character of the God Jesus reveals, not by badly interpreting parables and words spoken by Jesus.

Just some thoughts.


– Jeff Turner, used here with his kind permission


1 I alluded to two of these texts in footnote [4] of this piece some weeks ago; this present essay goes a long way towards justifying why I was correct to explain them as I did
2 That is, people who really, firmly and gleefully believe in eternal conscious torment in Hell for all those who do not believe in Jesus, in the way they say He has to be believed in. Happy people, these, and so full of joy 😉

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