Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why the Hell? Part 4: The Nature of Hell

This is part four of a four-post series on Hell. One Two Three

This is it. Last time, I attempted to reconcile the apparently retributive nature of Hell with the value placed on grace and forgiveness by Jesus as well as modern culture. But I haven't established what the Bible actually says about what Hell is, besides retributive. This is what I'll attempt to tackle in this post. It's worth stressing even more than usual that the conclusions I draw in this post are exploratory in nature, attempts to interpret and understand something I don't think we can fully understand in this life, and by no means final, even for me. I'll break the post up into three sections throwing the New Testament data up into the air and then an attempt to tie it all together into some kind of package.

The Teaching of Christ

Jesus preaches repeatedly on peoples' eternal destinies, though much more in parabolic than in literal speech. As I said in post 2, He mentions two different destinations for the wicked: Hades and Gehenna. Hades, aside from the connotations it would have carried as the mythological Greek underworld and universal destination for the dead, is contrasted with Heaven in Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15, implying that the righteous (in Christ) will not see Hades. Peter's speech (Acts 2:26-31) may reinforce this, or may be saying that the righteous will not stay in Hades after they die. In Matthew 16:18 Christ promises that the gates of Hades (defensive in nature) will not prevail against His church (which must then be on the offensive).

There is also, of course, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), where the rich man goes to Hades and is said to be in "torment" and "in agony in this fire". Unsurprisingly, some translations render this particular usage of Hades as "Hell" in English, but the Greek is the same.

Jesus makes clear, however, the association of Gehenna (always translated as "Hell") with fire (Matthew 5:22, 18:9, Mark 9:43). Gehenna is a place into which people are cast (Luke 12:5), thrown (Matthew 5:29, 18:9, Mark 9:45), or sentenced (Matthew 23:33), a place where the body and soul are destroyed (Matthew 10:28)--not very pleasant imagery!

Jesus also mentions, mostly in parables, an outer darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30) or fiery furnace (Matthew 13:42,50), whose mention is always followed by the phrase "In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth"--see also Matthew 24:51 and Luke 13:28. These last two references are especially interesting because though the phrase "In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" is exactly repeated in them, no specific place (outer darkness or fiery furnace) is mentioned for them to correspond to, only specific company--hypocrites or evildoers. Luke clarifies that the weeping and gnashing of teeth will be "when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out." Jesus doesn't try to equate this place with either Hades or Gehenna, but from His descriptions it sounds much more like Gehenna.

Finally, in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells of the judging of the sheep and the goats, corresponding to the righteous and the wicked. The goats/wicked are sent "into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels", and in the last verse are sent away to "eternal punishment" versus the "eternal life" of the sheep.

The Epistles

The epistles don't say as much about eternal judgment as Jesus, but they do make a few specific references that illuminate things differently than His teachings. The clearest of these is 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 (emphasis added):
We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
Unlike Jesus' teachings, Paul's writing here is not ensconced in a parable and, beginning his letter, is the most context-free description of Hell we have. We see that when Jesus returns, He will punish the wicked with "eternal destruction" and be sent away from the presence of God. Granted, Paul's purpose here is to encourage the Thessalonians, not establish a definitive doctrine of Hell. Hebrews 10:27 mentions "judgment and [a] raging fire that will consume the enemies of God", which adds little to but corroborates Paul's writing.

One other interesting thing to note is that throughout the New Testament, "falling asleep" is used synonymously with Christians dying to be with God (Jesus describing Lazarus in John 11:11, Luke describing Steven's martyrdom in Acts 7:60, Paul describing David in Acts 13:36, and Paul in his letters in 1 Corinthians 11:30, 15:18, 15:20, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 4:15, 5:10). The Greek literally just means "asleep"; obviously context is essential to distinguishing this usage of καθεύδω from its more mundane one. Of course Jesus didn't die and come back to life on the boat just before calming the storm, and Paul's usages in 1 Thessalonians 5:6 and 10 work against each other or make no sense unless they have different meanings.


Undoubtedly the most colorful depictions of Hell are found in Revelation following the cosmic battle between Christ and the forces of evil, and they have heavily influenced Christians' understanding about Hell along with their hope for a sinless paradise for those who are in Christ. It's worth saying, though, that even more than Jesus' parables, Revelation, as apocalyptic literature, is highly nonliteral in its descriptions and imagery. Literal interpreters often look for people and events in the news that correspond to the figures in Revelation (like calling out Obama as the antichrist) or at least expect the events in the book to mirror more or less exactly to how the end times will be, as in the Left Behind books, which are based on a highly literal interpretation of Christian eschatology.

But I think this approach misunderstands the point of studying apocalyptic literature. The venerable New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger explains:
Apocalyptic literature among the Jews contained weird symbols of mythological beasts representing nations and individuals. The meaning of such imagery must have been as clear to the original reading public of apocalypses as the significance is today of newspaper cartoons that depict the British lion, the Russian bear, the Republican elephant, or the Democratic donkey.
Jewish and Christian apocalypses have often been called, quite appropriately, tracts for bad times. They were intended to strengthen readers to meet some crisis, some grim ordeal, or some impending calamity. To struggling and suffering people the message of apocalyptic writers was one of hope and encouragement. These writers affirmed in no uncertain terms that God Almighty rules and overrules in the affairs of humankind, and that despite the apparent success of earthly tyrants his righteous purpose will ultimately prevail.1
A few things to note about this description of apocalyptic literature: the people, events, and symbols were meant to correspond to things in the time of the readers, not figures in the actual apocalypse. Revelation was not written as a riddle to be figured out but as an encouragement to the churches in (originally) Asia Minor, so it is to be expected that the author would use imagery that the readers would understand, not that would only make sense to conspiracy theorists thousands of years later. If we get into trying to unlock the "hidden meaning" of the text or find what its symbols correspond to today, we're missing the point. The primary purpose of Revelation is not to give a detailed account of the end times--if it were, we would expect a much clearer, more coherent account.

And yet, I do believe the book of Revelation was inspired by an actual vision the author had, i.e. that he didn't simply make something so elaborate up to encourage his readers. And in light of the promise given just before the vision begin in 4:1, "I will show you must take place after this", I do believe the book is really predictive in some sense, behind the highly contextualized imagery. So, what can we learn about Hell from this book?

Hades is mentioned four more times in Revelation, always along with the personification of Death. (1:18, 6:8, 20:13-14) They are given authority to claim and hold peoples' lives, but give them up for the final judgment in chapter 20. Jesus is given the keys to Death and Hades (1:18), harkening back to His prediction that the gates of Hades would not overcome the church (i.e. by keeping anyone dead). Oh, and then Death and Hades themselves are thrown into the lake of fire.

Now this is very interesting. Hades is itself shown to be temporary here, doomed to the same fate as Satan (20:7), death itself (20:14), and those who don't believe in Christ (20:15). This fate is depicted a lake of fire, "the second death". One other thing I want to latch onto is that in the depiction of the new Jerusalem, the final paradise for those who remained faithful to Christ, it is said that its gates will never be shut (21:25) but that no evildoer or impure thing will ever enter it. (21:27)


If the preceding exposition taught you anything, it should be that the New Testament's teaching on Hell is nowhere near as clear or straightforward as it is commonly portrayed in debates. Hell is portrayed as the outer darkness, and as fire--but how can fire be dark? And it is portrayed as eternal destruction--but how can fire keep destroying anything forever? And how do we know we're making proper sense of this data when much of its is presented in the form of apocalyptic imagery and parables?

Two possibilities can be ruled out from the start. First, as numerous passages, especially 2 Thessalonians 1:9 makes clear, the destruction of Hell is eternal--not a "one and done" thing as annihilationism claims. And second--this may be a huge relief, even though it shouldn't be--I don't think the torment suffered in Hell will be physical in nature. Besides the objections I raised in part 1, Hell is depicted not just as a place prepared for the unrighteous, but for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41) and Death and Hades personified (Revelation 20:14). Last I checked, none of these beings have physical bodies, and unless you want to assert that God will give them bodies just to torture them in, they will not suffer physical torment in Hell--yet their destination is said to be the same as that of unregenerate people.

By focusing on the physical, bodily horror of being burned alive in Hell, preachers not only go beyond what the Bible actually says, they replace the real reason to fear Hell (being shut out from God's presence) with with primal squeamishness and aversion to fire. This is manipulative and misleading. But then what do we do with all the images of fire, which are consistently associated with Hell? Just because they aren't literal doesn't mean they aren't true or meaningful.

My struggles with the surface-level contradictions and tensions in the Bible led me to read it in a deeper way--to look for how apparently conflicting verses, like the descriptions of Hell as a place of fire and of darkness, can both come from a deeper, coherent theological truth. Rather than simply try to reconcile these descriptions as literally as possible, I look for the reality that could produce them both--what is really being said, behind the details and products of genre and culture.

Here is how I apply this kind of "theological interpretation" to Hell. The descriptions of Hell as outer darkness, a fiery furnace/lake, and destruction are all intertwined. The imagery of darkness represents separation from God, the source of light (Revelation 21:23). And yet not total separation (which, according to Colossians 1:17, really would be annihilation); they will still be conscious enough of those who were more fortunate to resent them (Luke 13:28). The imagery of fire represents the destruction of human sinfulness, which is inevitable apart from God. The core theological truth I think all of the above verses are getting at is that Hell is exile from God, the source of all goodness, light, and meaning--a fate worse, though not as cringe-inducing, than being licked by flames forever.

And yet, it is an appropriate fate; a fate more satisfying (if the word can apply here) than God bodily torturing people forever. It is impossible to argue that God is unjust to punish unrepentant sinners who rebel and turn away from Him by giving them what they want. The gates of the new Jerusalem are never closed, but no impure or evil thing enters through them (how could they, if they're in the lake of fire?). Just as salvation is God reaching down to fallen humanity wherever they are and us responding by taking His hand and being raised to life, Hell is the result of God and unrepentant sinners mutually rejecting each other. The difference between Heaven and Hell is the difference between those currently enjoying eternal life and those who know it not, projected out to infinity.


It appears I have arrived at a view of Hell very similar to the one taught by C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller--that is, the one I started with. This was not intentional. I really didn't know where I would land in this series until a few hours ago. In this series I was not simply trying to fortify the position I already held with some more Biblical arguments, but to go from a belief that I held more because I wanted to, to one I held because it really represents the best way I know of understanding what the Bible has to say. It is really affirming to discover that these two beliefs are the same.

I wasn't trying to make Hell more palatable or lessen the tension it gives people; this is impossible, because the tension is intentional. No matter how much intellectual sense we make of Hell, it is still going to be a painful subject because the reality that people can and do reject God is painful. I have addressed the intellectual "problem" of Hell as best I can right now, but the emotional problem is pastoral and beyond the scope of this blog, a subject for heart-to-heart conversation rather than some light theological reading. And above all, remember that the Bible is not a book about Hell, or even how to get out of it, but a message about how God broke into this broken world and transforms it completely. Don't let the fear of hellfire get you to lose sight of that.

1Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content, p. 302.


  1. The background for combining darkness and fire goes back to the great theophanies (appearances of God) in the Old Testament. Thus when God appears on Mt. Sinai in Ex. 19:16 there are thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain. Later, Heb. 12:18 describes that fearful sight as "a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest." After contrasting that shaking of the earth with the unshakeable kingdom (of the heavenly Jerusalem), in Heb. 12:22-28, the passage concludes with a warning "for our God is a consuming fire" (12:29). Another similar O.T. theophany is Ezek. 1, and to a lesser extent Ex. 3, where the bush is burning (due to the angel of the Lord appearing in a flame of fire) but not consumed.

    This "stormy" imagery is then found in Revelation: in Rev. 4:5, from the throne (in heaven) come flashes of lightning, and voices and peals of thunder, and before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; in Rev. 1:14 the risen Christ's eyes are like a flame of fire, and in 5:6 the Lamb has seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God; in Rev. 8:5 when the fire from the heavenly altar is thrown to earth, there is thunder, noises, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.

    This imagery speaks of the storm (dark clouds and fiery lightning) of God appearing to bring (words of) judgment and warning to those on earth (including many churches, since five of the seven churches of Rev. 2-3 are warned to repent). Thus when Revelation speaks of a lake of fire, this might again point to God's coming and ongoing presence in judgment (not to separation from God). And hell thus would be an eternal judgment from (the Spirit of) God, reminding people of what they did (on earth). You are right that this should not be taken as literal torture, but it would be a kind of psychological torment (similar to what people felt on earth when someone like a true prophet warned them about the evil they were part of).

    The passage in 2 Thes. 1:9 about "eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might" can also be translated as "eternal destruction (or death), from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." That is, this judgment comes from the presence of God and from the (bright) glory of his power (to judge).

  2. Thanks for the interesting insights. I guess I would be a bit more careful in assuming that corresponding imagery in various parts of the Bible equates to corresponding theological/thematic elements, but it's possible and interesting. Are you saying people in Hell would perceive God similar to how the Israelites at the base of Mt. Sinai did? Like I said above, Hell can't be complete separation from God because that would be nonexistence, but it definitely means mutual rejection of any kind of communion with Him.

  3. I think hell could include feelings of fear or terror (of God's awesome presence) similar to Ex. 19, but more so the aspect of God's presence as judgment, not communing with them but confronting them (the Spirit convicting them) through their memories of what they did, never letting them forget.