Hell (part 1). . .

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.

What God is like. . .

I’ve occasionally been accused of making a big deal out of small things. For example, as was evident from my ebook, I made a fairly big deal out of the Calvinism-vs-non-Calvinism thing.

There’s a reason for my “soapboxing” though. It responds to the question, “What is God like?”

Is God angry, vengeful, and misogynistic? Is he genocidal and vindictive?

If we take descriptions of him seriously (particularly those that paint him as the kind of God that would randomly wipe out an entire race of people simply because they were occupying the territory that he wanted to give to his chosen race), do we come to the conclusion that he’s the kind of God that is so angry at his people, his Son has to appease that anger by sacrificing himself on humanity’s behalf?

How then can we say with confidence that “God is love”?

Is the God we trust to rescue us the same God who ordered the killing of the entire population of Canaan, including the women and children?

Can we trust God to rescue us if he is also in absolute control of everything, including those events that hurt us, destroy us, and even cause us to commit unspeakable atrocities?

I would submit that no, we don’t trust a God who ordered the slaughter of entire people groups. We don’t put our faith in a God who dictates and determines the evils that exist in the world.

I’ll wait for my next post to provide thoughts regarding how to reconcile what we see about God in the Christian Old Testament with the type of Man we see in Jesus. But for now, let’s just take a moment to look at what Jesus shows us about God.

We see a God who heals the sick.

We see a God who feeds the hungry.

We see a God who welcomes children.

We see a God who spends time with the broken and marginalized.

Jesus’ death wasn’t to appease the anger of his Father, it was to show us just how far God was willing to go in order to rescue his children from captivity.

Jesus’ outstretched arms call out to us as he breathes his last, “This is how much I love you.”

That’s the kind of God who rescues us.

That is what God is like.

Counterculture. . .

“Go into the culture and speak the language of the culture so that you can be a counterculture for the culture.”

I love this word. It speaks volumes of what followers of Jesus are supposed to be in this world. At my church we use this word practically every week. It’s in our DNA. But the word is often left undefined. What is a counterculture? What does it look like to plow one? Why do I have to be one? Am I plowing it already?

We sometimes talk about what that might look like in praxis; in fact, when talking about our lifestyles we often refer to that as counterculture. Sometimes we might say something like, “living out the gospel.”

Before I dive into what that looks like practically, I want to create an image of what that might look like philosophically.

If you’ve ever studied music, you’ve probably heard of counterpoint. Essentially, counterpoint is the relationship between two independent melodies that together create euphonic harmony. In a contrapuntal line, the once independent melodies become interdependent. One melody is completely distinct from the other melody, but when brought together they don’t clash. In fact, they create a beautiful harmonic line.

Counterculture works in a similar way. Culture may be moving in a certain direction, and a counterculture moves in a completely different direction, but this counterculture doesn’t attack the culture. It’s not an anticulture. To pull from my opening quote: we need to be “a counterculture for the culture.” In other words, we work for the good of the culture around us.

For many years modern evangelicals and fundamentalists have been caught up in a “culture war,” firmly believing that the culture was the enemy, and Christianity is responsible for making it right.

But if you look at the world around you, you’ll find endless possibilities for the gospel to infiltrate and come alongside this culture, creating a distinctly beautiful counterculture.

So what does this look like in praxis? Well, it’s different for every church. But look around you. You’ll soon discover the heartbeat of the culture you’ve been placed in.

What about for the individual? Perhaps that’s a little easier to answer. God requires certain things of his followers, but there’s one command he gives that encompasses all other commands.

Love.

“Love me. Love your fellow disciples. Love those around you who aren’t disciples. Love those who hate you for being a disciple.”

And what does that even look like? Perhaps it’s partnering with a local soup kitchen and helping to care for those facing poverty. Perhaps it’s taking that homeless person walking up and down your block everyday out to lunch. Perhaps it’s sitting next to that despondent guy at the bar in your local tavern and listening to his story.

Perhaps it’s choosing to not ogle the women at your office, to care more about your coworker’s wellbeing than your own, to deflect praise for a “knocked-out-of-the-park” project from yourself to your teammates, to value your community above your individuality.

And when someone asks, “Why do you live the way you live?” you can say,

“Because the God I serve stepped out of his comfort zone and said, ‘I love you’.”

To my future bride (whoever you may be). . .

I don’t know who you are. We may have already met, or we may have never seen each other. I used to be afraid of you. I used to think you would place unattainable expectations on me and try to turn me into someone I’m not. But I know now that’s not what you want.

Maybe I’m different from most guys. I realize you’re not supermodel hot. But I don’t want you to be. You’re beautiful because you’re buried so deeply inside our Father’s heart. You’re captivating because you’re captivated by God.

Your soft smile and gentle touch will be enough to send me to the stars. And your strong, silent support of who I am as a man will empower me, strengthen me, and energize me in ways nothing else can. I won’t ask that you always agree with me, but I will ask that you trust my intention to always seek your best interest. My methods may be wrong, and I may never understand you, but please be patient. I’m trying so hard.

I can’t promise that I’ll be your knight in shining armor, but I can promise that I’ll protect you from the dangers and hurts of our world. I’ll give my life to ensure your safety, security, and joy.

And I’ll listen. I’ll sit still and just hear what you have to say. My natural inclination is to spring into action and fix the problem, but I’ll deny that and just be an ear to talk to and a shoulder to lean on.

I know you’ll want an adventure. An endless adventure where we’ll explore the depth of our Savior’s heart and the intensity of his love. I’ll take you there. I may not have the money or ability to take you to beautiful European countries or to see breathtaking natural wonders. But I can promise you that I’ll take your hand as we discover the love that God has for us.

My love for you will be flawed and weak, so I won’t pour it directly on you. I’ll pour my love on our God, and he will amplify it and rain it down on you.

I can’t say I’m ready to share my life with someone else right now. But after I find you, I know I won’t be able to imagine facing the challenges of life without you by my side.

Listen for my voice. I’m calling out to you. And I love you.

Out of the mouths of babes. . .

In my post “Trust. . .,” I mentioned the special kind of love that God has for children. Evidence of that love is a unique gift God has given them—the ability to love unconditionally.

I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to teach children about God’s love, but there are times that I fail in living out that love. There are times I mess up, and there are times I have to be stern with them. It can’t be fun being the kid who gets called out for goofing off during a lesson.

And even though I’m supposed to teach them, more often they can teach me. I learned a lesson from them on Sunday. My campus pastor’s kids aren’t always the most well behaved in the bunch, but they know something about love. Whether instinctively or thoughtfully, they understand love better than grownups do.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote that “love. . . keeps no record of wrongs,” and it “always trusts.”

Mike’s kids tore after me on Sunday after lunch. “Nate!” they yelled, as they wrapped their arms around my waist. “Where are you going?”

“I’ve gotta go back to Morristown now,” I said.

“Do you have to?” they asked.

I melted.

They didn’t remember the times I got fed up with their antics and took away their snack time. They’d forgotten the moments I put them on the spot for speaking out of turn. They kept no record of the incidents I brushed them off to take care of some administrative work that could have waited till much later on.

“Love keeps no record of wrongs.”

And they trusted that, even in my less-than-happy moods, I still had their best interests in mind.

“Love always trusts.”

It’s how God loves. Kids can teach us something about that in a very powerful, unique way. Do you want to learn?

Possession. . .

He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
~2 Corinthians 1.22

He owns me.

I don’t like that thought. The idea of being owned by someone or something makes me feel like I’ve lost my freedom.

Like I’m in chains.

I want to belong to myself. I want to choose where I go, who I see, what I do.

I want freedom.

But freedom is a lie. I always belong to someone. Or something. I’m always going to be a slave. But there’s only one Master whose chains bring fulfillment, joy, and. . . well, freedom (this time it’s not a lie).

The problem is that every time I seek freedom from His chains, I’m instantly enslaved by something else. But no one is as good a master as He is.

So I was captured. This time by a person. Through no fault of her own I was drawn away from my Creator, the one for Whom my heart truly beats, and I allowed myself to believe that my heart was my own, to be given to whomever I desired.

But it’s not. Giving a heart bought by God to anything but His plan will yield disastrous results. And in my foolishness I was left brokenhearted, weary, and destroyed. I sought a comforting voice among my brothers and sisters, but I couldn’t find any. And then a whisper broke through the darkness.

“Return to me. I’ve paid the price for your freedom.”

Father, I’m sorry for trying to take ownership of my heart and life. You bought me, and I had no right to try to take my life back. The price You paid was Your own blood and death. Thank You that the chains with which You’ve bound me lead to true freedom. And thank You even for the difficult lesson that what I may perceive as freedom is actually slavery.

Captivate my heart again, Father. I’m weary of chasing after things that aren’t in Your plan for me. I want to pursue Your heart, no one else’s and nothing else.