There’s very strong emotion tied to our ideas about hell. To disagree with them is tantamount to excommunication in some people’s view.
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.
Man, you would be one of my ideal friends! How you choose your perspectives according to your relationship with our Father. I can tell you spend time communicating together over the years!
Ps. Your end times agnostic declaration is of funny!!
Thanks. I’m sure you would be mine too. We find each other in the Father’s love. My encounters with Papa have literally changed everything in my Christianity.
I’m with Jesus on the end-times. I couldn’t figure out all the charts either. 🙂
Reblogged this on The Life of Living Above.
Thanks for this, Mel. Very affirming for me – been thinking along these lines for awhile.Your last line sums it up for me: “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 their anger issues onto God.” Amen. Thanks also for listing some sources to check out–I will. Been researching opinions other than that of the mainstream western church and happy to have a few more. I have been slow in speaking out much about this issue,at least partially due to the fact that it seems many who begin to question our understanding of hell end up going off the deep end and throw the baby out with the bathwater. My heart breaks when those who head down this path ultimately deny the power of the cross and the deity of Jesus, but I have come to believe I CAN cling to the victory that ONLY Jesus won and still happily discard many of our made up inconsistencies about God’s character. It seems the early church was able to do that quite effectively 🙂 That encourages me. Blessings to you!
Thanks for your encouraging comments, Cindy. I have a lot more references if you need them. 🙂 I was very brief here by necessity.
I agree, it is true about being careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Without Jesus we have no communion with God. Only God can bring us into the Eternal Union between the Father and the Son. And for this to happen, God would have to become us and bring us to Himself. The early church fathers, like Irenaeus and Athanasius, insisted on this point in their defense against all heresies in their day.
But our orphan hearts always want to blame someone else, which is where we get ideas like having to change God, appeasing the angry god in pagan cultures. We’ve been eating from that wrong Tree for a long time! Jesus didn’t save us from God, but from ourselves. And hell is just an expression of our refusal to embrace God’s love and all that He has made available to us. Like the Prodigal’s elder brother, we stay on the outside, never accepting the invitation to the Party. We become foolish children. Pretty crazy if you ask me. 🙂 Blessings.
I don’t know much about hell, however I do know there are some things about God that is impossible to change. For instance God is holy, this holiness means that no-one can approach God in an unholy state. The purpose of Christ’s death was to provide a way for God’s most treasured creation (human kind) to access Him. The way we access this door is by making a choice to believe in His loving sacrifice and by allowing Him to become Lord of our life. God gave us a will and he also provided a time of grace (our life on earth) to give us time to choose His way. His heart is that none should perish without knowing Him. However, because He is not a dictator who forces His creation to do things, He will not force people to choose Him. He has a broken heart for a reason, because His love is rejected by so many trapped in deception. He knows the truth, that, without being clothed in righteousness, it is impossible to approach Him. Not because He is horrible or unloving, but simply because He is holy.
There are other things that God can’t change about Himself such as He is light, He life, He is love. There is no darkness in God, but there is darkness where God does not dwell. God’s love is always outpouring, but there are places where no love abounds because God has not been given permission to access. God is life, and only He can provide life. Like I said I don’t know what Hell is like, but when we consider any truth about hell we have to put it in the context of the unchanging truths of God.
Hell was not created for God’s greatest treasure, mankind, it was created for anything unholy, because it is impossible for anything unholy to co-exist with God’s holiness. If that were so lucifer would still dwell alongside of God. When Adam and Eve fell, man became unholy and God’s heart was utterly broken. His greatest treasure was torn away from His protective love. We also need to remember that God’s primary purpose of the cross was to restore relationship. To restore His beloved mankind to His protective love. Being set free from from hell, is a secondary result. His focus was love, restoration, and relationship. Whether we like it or not hell exists and the only thing that takes hell out of the picture is the cross.
Thanks for your comments, Cheryl. I will try to make a brief responses to what you’re saying here. A lot of things you’re saying I agree with, some are what I used to say and believed for many years, but I found out that they were things I was taught rather than what the Bible actually says. I had to change those things because they made God conflicted and didn’t fit the entirety of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
First, you said, “I don’t know much about hell, however I do know there are some things about God that is impossible to change.” I totally agree with this. In fact, my point was that God does not change, period. We are always the ones who change. This is the problem with Penal Substitutionary Atonement that most of the West has been taught. It makes Jesus changing God. That’s impossible. The Father sent Jesus to change us.
Second, we have to be careful we don’t make God a Deist, separating Him from people, places and things, like He’s not part of all things. This is simply not true. “IN Him ALL things consist” (Col.1:16-17). The truth is, no one can escape His presence or His love, whether it be in heaven or hell (Psalm 139:8-9; Rom.8:38-39). That’s the point. Those who hate Him are tormented by the same love that we embrace. Everything good comes from Him, even for those who hate Him. There is nothing whatsoever that can exist apart from Christ. The purpose of the cross was to reconcile the whole world to Himself and remove everything that separated us. There is no separation anymore from God in this sense. However, you are right in that God will not force us to accept His love. We CAN separate ourselves from Him, even though we’re not separated in reality.
Third, I agree that God is holy, but we have to be careful that we don’t make holiness a behavior. Otherwise we get into legalistic performance. Holiness is a state of being in Christ. Christ has already provided His holiness IF we will accept it. It’s a free gift already given 2,000 years ago. We can only have His holiness. We have no holiness of our own. Never did.
Fourth, we cannot “make” Jesus Lord. He cannot become Lord. He IS Lord, whether we acknowledge it or not. His Father made Him Lord over us (Phil.2:9-11). I know it’s a figure of speech that preachers say all the time, and I used to say it, but it’s just not true and gives the wrong message. The truth is, we can’t make Jesus anything! The only thing we can do is believe that He is Lord. The reason I make that distinction is that our “making Him Lord” is a bit humanistic and conditional. Jesus IS Lord over ALL–in heaven, earth and even hell. Again, the only one changing here is us.
Fifth, you said Lucifer cannot be where God is. I think I know what you meant, but we know that’s not actually true because Satan visited God with regularity (book of Job). This goes along with the myth that God cannot look at sin, which I covered in a previous post. But, that said, the unholy CANNOT dwell in the New Jerusalem where we are and will be (Rev.21:27;22:15). That’s why I said that the Holy City and hell are in the same proximity but not in the exact same place. And Christ is over both.
Sixth, you said that you believe that hell is real. I do too, which is what I said. I’m just saying that our Dante-like images of torture chambers do not come from Scripture. Over the last several hundred years, we’ve made something up that the Bible and early church didn’t clearly teach. The best we can say is that we don’t know for certain. A lot of the images are symbolic and metaphorical. It’s impossible to be dogmatic. But we do know for certain the nature of God in Jesus Christ. So whatever hell is, it cannot be inconsistent with His love or apart from Him.
Finally, I DO wholeheartedly agree that God’s main purpose was to restore relationship! YES! Amen. We just have to be consistent in our understanding of what that means–EVERYTHING finds its focus in His love–even His judgment. For those who don’t want Him have already condemned themselves. If they will but turn their hearts toward Him they will find this Prodigal Father’s warm embrace.
Thanks again. Blessings.
To be honest I struggle more with the thought of God’s love being torturous. I find no reason why God’s love could ever being torturous. When I was very ill, and didn’t know God’s love, everyday was tortuous to endure. God’s love is what set me free from my torture. The thought of not knowing and experiencing God’s love is more of a form of torture to me, then experiencing God’s love.
I also looked at those two verses ps 139:8 and Romans 8:35. The first one is written by David, a man who knew the intimacy and ever present nature of God. I believe He was able to say this because He knew God. For many who don’t intimately know God, especially those who haven’t turned to God and confessed that He is their Lord, this is not truth them. The moment they do turn to Him, this becomes truth; not because God suddenly appears, but rather because they realise that He is there. The problem is that they have a blindness to God’s love and light. They are separated from God, because they haven’t accessed the blood of Jesus to be able to draw near to God. The Romans 8:35 is talking about our position in Christ, that is our salvation. While God’s love is available to non-Christians they cannot access this truth until they choose to be God’s child.
So I think I will have to agree to disagree on this one.
As for holiness I never said we could obtain holiness by working for it, if that were so then Jesus did not need to die. I am only holy and righteous by faith. Faith in the power of Jesus blood. That the moment I confess and repent I am forgiven, made righteous and holy, because of the blood of Jesus. That is my point, that no-one can access God without being covered by Jesus blood (Heb 4:14-16). I love this truth about the Christian faith. I love talking to God and I am forever thankful that Jesus made a way to do this. Not being able to access God, because I have not been made holy by Jesus blood, which is the case of those who aren’t God’s child, is a horrible thought to me. To me it would be living hell.
As for images made by that man, of a fiery hell, I don’t really have an opinion. For me the emphasis is focusing on God’s Father heart of love and restoration, not the old turn or you will burn emphasis. My emphasis is God is extremely beautiful and you don’t want to miss out on meeting Him.
Thanks again for your honest and thoughtful comments, Cheryl. I think we’re very close to saying the same thing. This deserves further elaboration.
You said, “For many who don’t intimately know God, especially those who haven’t turned to God and confessed that He is their Lord, this is not truth them. The moment they do turn to Him, this becomes truth; not because God suddenly appears, but rather because they realise that He is there.” Amen! We’re saying the same thing here.
For instance, David only knew the reality of God’s presence in all places because his eyes were opened to it. Nothing changed about God’s presence; the only thing that changed was David’s understanding. People who don’t know God don’t have this revelation. But the fact remains, He’s there just the same, just like we know that there are angelic beings and spiritual realities around us all the time that we are totally unaware of. Again, nothing can exist outside of Christ (Col.1:17). All WERE reconciled and brought to Him at the Cross but not all receive the reconciliation (Rom.5:10; Eph.1:10; Col.1:20-21). Likewise, you were healed by a revelation of the knowledge of the love of God for you. God never changed His love for you or moved anywhere. You changed by way of revelation. You received what was always there for you. His presence was there all the time. The same thing is true for everyone else, even for those who hate God.
And I totally agree with Heb.4:14-16. Everyone has access to God if they will believe it by faith. This is what changed at the Cross. We are alienated and enemies in our minds (Col.1:21) under Adam. Repentance is changing our mind about God and believing Him when He says we were forgiven. We give up our religious rituals of making ourselves right with Him. Because of the blood of Jesus and the finished work of the cross, we are the only ones keeping ourselves from God’s throne. It’s always there for us, we just didn’t believe it.
You said, “Not being able to access God, because I have not been made holy by Jesus blood, which is the case of those who aren’t God’s child, is a horrible thought to me. To me it would be living hell.” Yes, it is a living hell. That’s my point. What you’re talking about is being out of communion with Him. But holiness comes with accepting the invitation. We go to God to be holy, not the other way around. In other words, the holiness is the gift received. Not because we are holy but because we believe the promise of His holiness. It’s not a prerequisite before being accepted; it’s the result of faith in Christ. That’s what I was trying to say. In the New Covenant, we go to God to get right (Heb.4:16), which was the opposite of the Old Covenant (Psalm 15:1-5)..
I think people who end up in hell are like the Prodigal’s elder brother who refused to join the party. His “gnashing of teeth” and torment was his jealousy and hatred of grace. He was angry at his father’s unconditional love. He doesn’t repent (as far as we know from the story), he chooses to be bound in his own living hell, if you will. This is an analogy of the ultimate and real hell. People refuse the invitation.
You said, “My emphasis is God is extremely beautiful and you don’t want to miss out on meeting Him.” Again, amen and amen! That’s my emphasis too. I only bring up the mysterious subject of hell because our lurid interpretations of it have actually kept people from His beauty. We have maligned His character by making hell a torture chamber worse than Auschwitz. We’ve made Him, with our descriptions of hell, not beautiful but cruel and sadistic. Our descriptions of hell have caused people to get angry and not want a “God who would do this.” And what’s sad is that this isn’t because of who He really is, but because of our poor theology. We are projecting our anger issues on to God. He truly is beautiful in every way, not just to those who love Him.
Like I said at the beginning. We’re basically saying the same things. It’s just a matter of perspective. Thanks again for your extended comments. This is important and deserves thoughtful dialogue so that we can work through these things and truly show every facet of God’s unfathomable love. We’ve made God’s love too small. It’s much bigger and more beautiful than we can imagine. 🙂 Blessings.
I totally agree with all you said in your topic and I really love your topics, they are so inspiring. You mentioned that Hell is the love of God, experienced by one who is not in communion with him. You mentioned also that you think people who end up in hell are like the Prodigal’s elder brother who refused to join the party.
I have 2 questions:
1) What if someone believed in Jesus as lord and savior while he was living on earth but he didn’t have communion with God, will that person go to hell?. I am asking this because I was raised up in a christian family and I believed in Jesus but I didn’t have communion with God because my image of him was distorted because of the very strict religious environment I was living in. I considered myself slave not a son. It’s long story but in short, I didn’t have relationship with him like I do now.
2) Is there “free will” in heaven and hell ?
I am asking these questions because they are crucial. Thanks and looking forward to your reply.
Thanks for your question, Mino.
1) We are saved by grace through faith alone. When I say someone is not in communion with God, I mean they have rejected the only means of communion–Jesus Christ. Beyond that, God judges the heart, we cannot. Being saved has nothing to do with whether we think like a slave or not. We might not understand anything about our identity and relationship with God, but salvation has only to do with trusting Jesus. Period.
2) I believe we do have free will in heaven and even hell because God made us that way, and love requires free will. How that works in the afterlife, we can only speculate. Scripture is silent on it.
I don’t find the “hell is a state” argument a great deal more compassionate than the “torture chamber” view because it still has Gid leaving his created beings in a state of eternal agony. I fibd anhilation to be much more merciful and just (they rejected the author of lìe so their life was revoked), but what do I know?
First of all, I want to thank you for your thoughtful and insightful articles… they are a blessing.
Second of all, I’m surprised that in your basic message of God first-and-last is LOVE you have not yet rejected the traditional notion of eternal damnation in hell… which is not biblical at all.
I don’t want to take up space here when the topic is better discussed at length in books such as:
1- Conditional Immortality: Biblical proof of Annihilation in Hell by Douglas Barry
2- The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Final Punishment
by Edward Fudge
This message is wholly congruent with your entire website.
I do pray that you study on and update it.
Thank you, Mel. Good stuff. Well said.