This post is a continuation where I left off last time on the subject of wrath and hell. As I said last time, this subject is too vast to adequately cover here. I will mostly quote other people and throw my own thoughts in the mix.
Again, the reason I’m bringing this subject up is that our traditional assumptions about wrath and hell are a bit embarrassing and contradictory. “God loves you…but if you mess up He’s going to torture and fry you alive forever! Really???
Did God, who is Love, create an eternal torture chamber beyond human imagination, far worse than Auschwitz, for most people who will ever live? American founding father, John Adams, expressed contempt for this popular concept in one of his letters to Thomas Jefferson,
“He created this speck of dirt and the human species for his glory; and with the deliberate design of making nine tenths of our species miserable for ever for his glory. This is the doctrine of Christian theologians, in general, ten to one.” (Letter to Thomas Jefferson – September 14, 1818)
This was not only a sticking point for Adams, but has been for many who reject the God of the Bible. Certainly, if we’re to take the biblical language of eternal punishment with wooden literalism, we would have to be honest and say their conclusions would be a fair assessment, at least on a surface level of understanding.
But is this the way the church has always interpreted what the Bible says about hell?
Is it possible to interpret what Scripture says about hell differently and not be sent outside the camp to be stoned with the heretics, or be branded a Bible-hating liberal by the evangelical Sanhedrin? (As they did with Rob Bell after his book, “Love Wins“)
Should we take the Bible’s description of hell literally, or are these descriptions metaphorically describing something mysteriously spiritual?
According to Ron Dart, an Anglican professor of World Religions, if we take the description of hell in a strictly literal sense, this is actually the modern innovation, not the historical view. Here’s what he said from an interview with Kevin Miller for his documentary movie, “Hellbound?” (Bold-type added):
“The literal rendering of hell that has crept into the church over the last several hundred years is historically not the conservative view but an innovation. It’s a new way of reading the Bible. The conservative way is getting back to reading it in much more allegorical literary way.”
What’s striking to me personally about the Bible’s teaching on hell is that it was not a central part of the gospel message of Jesus nor that of the New Testament writers. In fact, there is no word for “hell” in all of the Old Testament (KJV fans, the word used was “sheol” in Hebrew, or “hades” in Greek, which was seen as a place where both the righteous and unrighteous dead go. It was not hell). Eternal hell was only directly taught by Jesus Himself. Other than that, we see descriptions of eternal torment in Revelation but, like all prophetic and apocalyptic books, Revelation is highly symbolic and metaphoric in nature.
Jesus, when teaching on hell, alludes to a garbage dump on the south end of Jerusalem called “Gehenna” (Greek word for “hell”). Is hell a garbage dump? Was Jesus talking about literal smoke and worms or was He speaking in metaphorical terms?
Unfortunately, much of our imagination on hell comes from the lurid Medieval images of Dante’s Inferno and angry Fundamentalist preachers rather than from divine revelation of Scripture. But there are serious problems with this view.
For instance, as Canadian Orthodox archbishop, Lazar Puhalo, points out in the same interview with Kevin Miller, “Ironically, this vision of demons torturing people in hell means that God has rewarded demons for their wickedness by allowing to spend eternity to do what they enjoy most, which is tormenting human beings.” That, of course, makes this view absurd.
While we’re here, the Eastern Orthodox don’t have a view of hell where people are tortured and eternally burned by God. They don’t even see hell as separated from God. Since Christ is “before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col.1:17), they believe there is nothing in heaven or hell separated from Christ, or even from the fire of His love.
Here’s a quote from an Eastern Orthodox blog by Eric Simpson (bold-type added):
“Hell in this view is understood as the presence of God experienced by a person who, through the use of free will, rejects divine love. He is tortured by the love of God, tormented by being in the eternal presence of God without being in communion with God. God’s love is the fire that is never quenched, and the disposition and suffering of the soul in the presence of God who rejects him is the worm that does not die. Whether one experiences the presence of love as heaven or hell is entirely dependent on how he has resolved his own soul to be disposed towards God, whether communion or separation, love or hatred, acceptance or rejection.
Hell, then, is not primarily a place where God sends people in his wrath, or where God displays anger, but rather, it is the love of God, experienced by one who is not in communion with him. The figurative, spiritual fire of God’s love is transcendent joy to the person purified and transfigured by it through communion in the body of Christ, but bottomless despair and suffering to the person who rejects it, and chooses to remain in communion with death.”
What we find is that the oldest view of this fire of torment was that it was the same fire that delights those who love God. Simpson quotes Isaac the Syrian (613-700 AD) in the same article (bold-type added):
“It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it.” (Homily 84)
Peter Chopelas said this in his article, “Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife According to the Bible” (bold-type added):
“The idea that God is an angry figure who sends those He condemns to a place called Hell, where they spend eternity in torment separated from His presence, is missing from the Bible and unknown in the early church. While Heaven and Hell are decidedly real, they are experiential conditions rather than physical places, and both exist in the presence of God. In fact, nothing exists outside the presence of God.”
This would seem to line up with the Bible’s view where it describes hell’s torment in the presence of God and His angels (Rev.14:10), it being situated in “outer darkness” (Matt.8:12; 22:13; 25:30) and being outside the Holy City where the dogs are (Rev.22:14-15). This all speaks, not of totally separate places, but two distinct places in the same proximity.
C.S. Lewis, in his classic work, “The Great Divorce,” describes a place where people are living in their own infinitely expanding suburbs because they just can’t get along with each other. They are left to drift endlessly apart, forever busy with their own agendas. And, as Lewis points out, they prefer it that way. Of course, he was describing hell.
Lewis also said, “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” Like the Prodigal’s elder brother, they refuse to join the party inside.
In this view, hell is ultimately the continued trajectory of one’s life who does not want to be in communion with God.
My conclusion about hell is that I have no dogmatic conclusion on the subject. I do believe that hell exists and it’s not a place, or state, that I would want to experience, nor would I want it for anyone else. However, I also do not believe God to be a cruel and sadistic child-abuser who creates eternal torture chambers to get even with those who hate Him. I do not believe in the Dante-version of hell. God is love, and any description beyond Scripture that we make up about hell that is inconsistent with Love is no more than man’s wicked imagination, projecting his anger issues onto God.