This post has been brewing for a while now. To be honest, I haven’t reached a comfortable landing point just yet, but I think I’m getting close. In fact, by the time I finish writing on this topic, I’ll probably reach a stance. I realize that I might end up receiving a decent amount of angry or frustrated responses to this post (and its follow-ups), so I’m going to maintain at least some irenicism and civility, but don’t be surprised if a bit of sarcasm peeks through (I’m from New Jersey, after all).
Hell. It’s an admittedly difficult topic to cover given the incredible lack of experience most people have on the subject (given the fact that most people who have offered any thoughts on the subject are either alive or were alive when they offered their thoughts).
If you’re at all familiar with Evangelical Christianity (a faction I’ve grown less convinced I’m even a part of anymore), you’ve probably heard of the concept of “eternal conscious torment” (henceforth, “ECT”), even if you might not realize it had a name. The idea of ECT is that the unrighteous will suffer unending punishment after they die in a non-figurative “Lake of Fire,” or colloquially, Hell.
In this post, I want to discuss the concept from an epistemological standpoint, addressing Scripture, history, and Christian philosophy. In a follow-up post (or maybe two), I’ll approach it from a spiritual perspective before finishing with some closing thoughts.
If you’ve followed my blog since at least 2011 (and I do apologize for my complete lack of writing the past couple years. Life took several major turns recently), you might recall that I alluded to an affirmation of the standard Evangelical view of the “doctrine of Hell,” as held by my former colleagues in the “Young, Restless, Reformed” camps. Since leaving that camp and its affiliated churches and organizations, I’ve come to a different place in my beliefs on Hell.
The first thing I want to mention is that the word Hell is an incredibly incomplete and insufficient word that doesn’t come close to describing what the Bible describes. It’s so insufficient that many scholars and theologians think it does more harm than good and that it should be wiped from theological language altogether.
There are, in fact, no fewer than nine words in the Bible that get turned into the English word hell. We’ll look at a few of them, but before we do, let’s examine the English word for a moment. The word hell actually derives from an ancient Proto-Germanic word that meant “to cover up.” According to most etymological studies, the word was a means by which Norse mythology regarding the afterlife/underworld entered Christian theology. To be honest, our evangelical concept of hell has more in common with the Norse idea of Niflheim, where Loki’s daughter ruled over the unrighteous dead, than it does with early Christian ideas about the afterlife. I tend to agree with the aforementioned biblical scholars. The word hell is unhelpful in its vagueness and is so connected to a pagan concept that it sheds almost no light on the biblical concepts whatsoever.
For our first biblical word, let’s take a look at the Hebrew word Sheol. The Christian Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, so it’s probably best to start there since the Christian faith is, at its foundation, a derivative of the Jewish faith. Sheol in Hebrew is a reference to “the grave,” and depending on the context, is often synonymous with death, destruction, the earth (as being buried), the sea (as being a deep, dark place), or the pit. To the ancient Jewish mindset, sheol is a dark, morbid word that connotes inactivity, stagnation, and a lack of memory and awareness. Click here for Scripture references to Sheol.
Second, the Greek word Hades. The Christian New Testament was written in Aramaic and Greek, and while we might look at Greek mythology as espousing pagan concepts, we can’t ignore the fact that a good chunk of the Bible was written in Greek to people who spoke Greek in a culture that believed Greek things about the universe. The idea of Hades was not foreign to St. Paul’s audience, so it’s not surprising that he, along with other New Testament writers, would use the word to convey an idea. The Greco-Roman concept of hades most closely resembles the ancient Hebrew concept of sheol, relating a very similar image of “the grave,” or a state of being dead. Very rarely does it portray the idea of punishment in the afterlife; it’s most commonly used in the previously mentioned context. Click here for Scripture references to Hades.
Third, the Greek word Geenna (Latin, Gehenna). King Jesus used the word Gehenna as a symbolic reference to the Valley of Hinnom, a region southwest of Jerusalem where, according to the prophet Jeremiah, the unrighteous kings of Judah sacrificed children to the pagan god Moloch. It’s also likely to be the location of a mythological event during the reign of King Hezekiah when the legendary Messenger of YHWH slaughtered 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in King Sennacherib’s army. See 2 Kings 19:35-37.
The Valley of Hinnom is also traditionally known as the place that the prophet Isaiah refers to in the final chapter of his book (“they that go out” is a reference to leaving Jerusalem and entering the valley). This place is where dead bodies were cremated by an all-consuming fire and undying worms. Ancient Aramaic translations of Isaiah’s book explicitly refer to the Valley of Hinnom, leading the majority of scholars to believe that Jesus confirms this traditional view of the Valley of Hinnom as a place filled with fire and maggots. Click here for Scripture passages referencing Gehenna***
As I mentioned, there are at least nine different terms throughout Scripture that end up translated as “hell” in English, but I won’t go into all of them here. Others such as Matthew Hartke, Benjamin L. Corey, and Mark Edward have done much more work and research than I could have done. I would encourage you to dig into this a bit deeper, particularly Edward’s works. And don’t forget to check out Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. (Really, anything by Tom Wright is vital for Christians to read. He is, after all, the C.S. Lewis of our generation.)
Let’s transition to a more philosophical approach to the subject matter. Over the 26 years or so that I’ve been a Christian, attended Christian day school, studied theology as part of my admittedly non-theological degree program at a “Bible-based” university, and worked both part-time and full-time as a minister in “Bible-teaching” churches (I mention this not to brag, but to address some who have sent me messages calling into question my knowledge of the Bible), I’ve observed a few key themes across the narrative of Scripture. The one I’ll touch on here is that of God’s work as reconciliatory/restorative rather than conciliatory/debt-cancelling.
Scripture’s overarching narrative paints God’s salvific work as restorative; in other words, God is mending the fractured relationship between himself and the world, which includes the work of mending the fractures in the world itself (between the world and the world).
If death (another word translated into hell) and hades are the two great enemies of God’s people and the antithesis of his restorative work, then the idea of ECT is actually detrimental to that work. We have a future where evil and the satan win and where God loses.
Track with me for a moment. God creates the world and says it’s good. Humanity’s choice to rebel against God releases the satan into the world along with all its evils, the most destructive of which are death and hades. But God still loves the world and all humanity in it, so he sets out to rescue them. He chooses a nation through which he will reveal himself to the world, but they fail him. He doesn’t give up on them, but he decides to take matters into his own hands and enters the world he loves as a human and as a Jew. He succumbs to the satan that has been destroying the world he loves and allows the enemy to overtake him in order to show the world just how much he loves her. But good will not be overcome by evil, and in a sudden twist of events, he delivers a blow to death by rising from the grave and then calls on humanity to announce and usher in the kingdom he has inaugurated.
But if humanity at large is defeated by death and hades as ECT unintentionally asserts, how can God be victorious?
As this post has gone on for quite some time now, I’m going to end here and continue these thoughts in part 2. For now, I want us to consider the implications of ECT and its compatibility (read: incompatibility) with a restorative view of God’s work. If God is by very nature love, how is the idea that the vast majority of people over the course of human history are experiencing torment consciously forever and ever compatible with that characterization of God? Did St. John use the wrong word when he wrote, “God is love”? Should he have written, “God is wrath,” instead?
Or, as the 19th-century author Thomas Allin put it in his book Christ Triumphant:
“God is not anger, though he can be angry; God is not vengeance, though he does avenge. These are attributes; love is essence. Therefore, God is unchangeably love. Therefore, in judgment he is love, in wrath he is love, in vengeance he is love — ‘love first, and last, and midst, and without end’.”
Stay tuned for more on this topic. I’m far from finished.
*** I completely forgot to include this paragraph when I initially published this post.