Sunday, September 20, 2009

Oh, Hell.

So this is very tongue-in-cheek, but I laughed at it:

Hell is an interesting concept. I've talked about it plenty in the past. But I think I'm finally just to a place where I'm comfortable saying certain things. For instance, I'm comfortable saying that I think most people's ideas about hell aren't shaped by a full Biblical account. I'm also comfortable with saying that if Paul never mentioned "hell" in any of his New Testament letters, then that's probably something worth noting in the discussion on the afterlife.

But one thing I've just grown comfortable with saying is that I think the concept of a real, physical Hell where humans beings are tortured forever by God for rejecting a belief system that involves the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is absolutely ridiculous.

You see, if Hell is a location in the afterlife, then God put it there. If God created Hell, then he, in effect, is the one torturing humans for all eternity. If God is the one torturing humans for all eternity, then I don't think that says much about his loving nature.

I've always talked openly about my belief in some sort of a line of accountability after death. In other words, I believe that humanity doesn't all end up in the same place. I don't know what that line of accountability looks like exactly--I'll leave that to God. However, I do think some people will choose an existence outside of the presence of God. I've also talked openly about being an annihilationist and, therefore, believing in conditional immortality. But even if I didn't believe those things, the concept of God torturing humans in Hell for eternity seems inane. It makes no sense. And I certainly don't think the concept has much Biblical backing. It might have some backing in Dante, but not in the New Testament.

(I've only grown comfortable saying that as of late. Perhaps its because of my attendance to very fundamental Christian churches early on and ignorant adherence to the doctrines being taught there. Questioning and rethinking so many things that you were taught as basics or foundational components of your faith system can be overwhelming and difficult at times. Necessary, yes. But difficult still.)

I guess I'm finding myself more and more surprised when people (particularly those who would call themselves followers of Jesus) hold on to this concept as an integral part of their belief system. It seems odd that other Christians would question my theology when I don't cling to a belief system that includes a God who creates a space called Hell and tortures humans for all eternity in that space.


josh said...

JDR - these will sound like sarcastic questions to people who weren't in on our facebook conversation, but they're not; they're serious questions.

Is the traditional idea of hell "wrong"?

Do you think it is "unbiblical"?

JD said...

I guess that depends on what you define the "traditional idea of hell" as being.

If you'll layout a definition from your perspective, then I'll answer both questions.

josh said...

I'm asking if you think the eternal conscious torment view of hell is "wrong" or "unbiblical".

Kickert said...

Funny that you posted this today... I just wrote a blog post on penal substitution and the difficulties of such a view of atonement.

It is amazing what people take as "gospel truth" without questioning its origins or implications.

You are right to point out Dante... he has done more to influence our views of heaven and hell than the Bible has.

I tend to agree with you, but then we find that pesky "second death" verse in Rev 21 (right next to those happy verses about a perfected world):

7He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."

JD said...

Josh- "Wrong" is a funny word. For me to say that something is wrong is to presume that I stand in absolute correctness on that matter at hand. (For instance, if you said 2 plus 2 equals 5, I could say that you're wrong and be okay with that because 2 plus 2 equals 4.) So I won't say that its wrong because I can't guarantee that I'm right. I will say, however, that yes, I find that idea of "eternal conscious torment view of hell" to be entirely unbiblical.

Ben- Are you saying that verses dealing with the "second death" are problematic for those who don't believe in a view of hell that involves eternal torment?

Kickert said...

I am saying the imagery of a burning lake of fire where people are sent is problematic for those who discount a physical hell, especially when it stands right next to the verses of a perfected world that we often point to.

JD said...

But doesn't it talk about that being the "second death?" Doesn't that imply the cessation of that existence?

Kickert said...

It can certainly be explained (in fact, I think we probably agree on how), but I just wanted to point out the whole "eternal burning" imagery is not without textual backing.

Justin Guest said...

Josh, I'd be interested in what you had to say in regards to JD/Kickert's view of hell as just being a second death.

dahl said...

"You see, if Hell is a location in the afterlife, then God put it there. If God created Hell, then he, in effect, is the one torturing humans for all eternity. If God is the one torturing humans for all eternity, then I don't think that says much about his loving nature."

2 initial thoughts:
1. there is considerable evidence for the evil in this world. pain, suffering, death... God created us, who in fact are the cause for much of this, so based on your logic God caused this and is the primary deliverer of this evil. what does this say about His loving nature?

2. we must ask the question what if God did not create hell but allowed hell to be created. just as God did not create sin, sin occurred with His full knowledge and He responded according to His nature.

JD man I love how you get my mind turning and I'm looking forward to learning more about God through these tough questions and new lines of thought that I have never heard of.

Sheffield said...

I love the way I disagree with all of you. High five for having different's to hoping we got something right.

Joe said...

What do you do with not just revelation 21:7-8 but that coupled with revelation 14:9-11. It seems that they are speaking of the same thing "fire and sulfur" being mentioned in both. But in 14:9-11 the phrasing is "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night," These texts seem to be talking about the same thing and if they are, then revelation 21 cannot talk about an annihilation. And if they aren't give your reasoning for disjuncting them and explain what 14 means.

Also I think that Paul is talking about Hell in 2 Thes. 1:9. "They will suffer punishment of eternal destruction." I mean if he meant to say that they would simply be destroyed then why doesn't he say that instead of using "eternal"? It seems to me that he is saying something different than just a second death that is final.

In Christ
joe Hussung

JD said...

Sheffield- I disagree with you disagreeing with us disagreeing with eachother.

Dahl- 1) I in no way think God has anything to do with the perpetuation of evil, pain and suffering. I addressed this idea in a four part posting called "The Problem of Evil." There is way too much in your question to narrow down a concise response, so I suggest you go read those. Here's the link:

(Start with the bottom post "My Apologies..." first, then read up from there.)

2- I don't think God would have anything to do with the creation of a "hell" where humans are tortured for all eternity. I also don't think God would allow the creation of such a place. Who else would have the power to create a place of such an infinite existence?

See, the further you go back in the history of our faith, the less and less you hear about the afterlife--specifically the concept of "hell." Its not in the Old Testament and would be a totally foreign idea to Jews. In fact, I would propose that the majority of people who believe in an eternal hell believe in a relatively new concept that's only a few hundred years old at best. Until Greek philosophy, Nordic religious traditions, and the Latin tanslation of the Bible started influencing Christianity, "hell" wasn't a component of the Christian faith. That's my two cents anyway.

Saintdoc said...

I would be interested in what you think Paul is talking about here in 2 Thessalonians 1.

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— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 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 8 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. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.

Joe said...

I just think you're wrong about hell not being a component of the Christian faith until "a couple hundred years ago at best" Here are two quotes by Early Church fathers about hell.

"Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil reaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire, and so will anyone who listens to him" (Letter to the Ephesians 16:1-2)Ignatius

"If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment (Second Clement 5:5) Clement

Both of these date at the latest mid second century.

In Christ
Joe Hussung

JD said...

I said it wasn't a component until a FEW hundred years ago, at best. And I would stand by that. I think the concept of hell didn't get big until the Middle Ages when, much like today, it was used to scare people into participation in the institution of church.

However, your point is not without merit that there are earlier mentions of the subject matter. But I think you'll find that none of these come from Jewish sources. Ignatius was a Greek who served Greeks/Gentiles. Clement was also a Greek (and 2nd Clement wasn't even written by Clement of Rome, by the way).

The point is: I don't think hell is a Christian idea. It didn't come from Judeo-Christian sources--it came from European influences.

I'll get to the questions from you and Mike about the texts ASAP.

JD said...

Joe and Mike- I think one of the major problems with this doctrine of eternal torment in hell, as with your question, is interpretation of Greek to English.

For instance, in 1st Thess 1, the words used for "eternal" (or "everlasting") and "destruction" are (in Greek) "aion" and "olethros" respectively. "Aion" is where we get the word "age" and "olethros" means destruction--but it just doesn't mean to destroy. Its almost like skin abraison--its rough, they remove the top layer of skin, but only so new, fresh, brighter skin will come out. Or like certain trees that have pine cones that only open during forrest fires so they can repopulate. The forrest fire isn't great, but its necessary in the long run. So its more of a "cleansing before a renewal" meaning.

"Aion" is used all kinds of places and translated all kinds of ways. And honestly, a lot of times, its a terrible translation. If you read some other translations, besides KJV, NIV, ESV or something of the like, you'll find where they do a more direct job of translating rather than interpreting something into the text while translating.

At the end of the day, its all about perspective. The more I read the Bible, the more I research what it meant to be a Jew, the more I find out why these early Christians were writing the things they did, the more I believe we've screwed up a lot of doctrine.

I certainly don't have all the answers, but I just don't find a God who created Hell and tortures souls for all eternity in the Bible.

td shoemaker said...

one of the things about hell is how the translators always take three different words but always translate it hell. As probably most of you know there is:

sheol - which is used mainly in the OT, and is "grave"

hades - which is a greek concept and more of a prisoned death.

Gehenna which is used most of the time in the NT and is a literal place on earth that is kind of the "valley of the lost" (this is my understanding anyways)

In 2 Thess 1:9 - the word used for destruction is Olethros which means death or ruin. "A death of the ages or ruin of the ages" would be more of a literal translation. The context seems to be talking about the way that the "flesh pulls us towards death" by not obeying the gospel. There is a complimentary statement to the "eternal destruction" thought though - separation from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. The irony of the 2 Thess 1:9 passage is that Jesus and his angels are the ones who appear out of heaven in flaming fire (vs. 7). If we take this literally, are their flames in heaven as well? If so, do we want to go there?

Just like when we see "eternal life" it would be better rendered "life of the ages" so it is with eternal death or "death of the ages"; not necessarily a timeless existence.

About the early church fathers, I would interested in knowing which Greek word they used in their writings. But I would agree JDR on this one for the most part. Our idea of hell is greatly influenced by a later Catholic view (specially Dante and his vision of the Inferno).

For an interesting view, check out the Eastern Orthodox view (really probably the oldest view) that seems to have no concepts of the hell and sulfur literal version of hell.

As a side note, my word verification to post this is "quale." Just thought I'd pass that on.

Joe said...

where do you get the hole skin thing from? I am looking at my Greek NT and my lexicon and have nothing like that in it. Every time the word olethros is used in the NT it is not used with any sense of renewal in it. Secondly, the word aeon that is used almost always denotes eternity. though it can mean, with clarification, an age or period of time ex. 1 Cor. 3:18 "the present age". The word means a specific age here but only because of the word outos which means "this". When used by itself it is most commonly referring to an unmeasurable amount of time i.e "eternity" this is a good translation of the text.

even if it is true that our word "age" comes from the greek aeon does not mean that aeon means age. That is a backwards way of looking at things. It would be just like looking at our word "hamburger" and saying that it comes from the german words ham and burger and so when Germans used this term they mean a piece of meat between two loaves of bread with cheese and ketchup and mayo. When really used in german it simply means a person coming from the town of Hamburg. This is called the word-study fallacy in D.A Carson's "Exegetical Fallacies"

With all that said even if you take it to mean "age" instead of eternity leaves you out of even a good interpretation of the text. because for you there isn't even an age. There is a immediate destruction. No age at all.

Joe said...

sorry it comes from hamburg not ham and burg

JD said...

And here we are back again to a point I make often: its all going to come down to interpretation. At the end of the day, you'll see it the way you want to see it.

I'm not trying to change anyone else's mind. I just want people to understand my point of view. I don't blog to change the face of Christedom in America. I do it to get these things that are going on in my head out into typed words. I hope it challenges people, but I don't expect Wayne Grudem or John Piper to call me asking if they can quote me in their next book because I've changed their minds and thought processes.

We all have our persepctives and world views, and that's totally cool with me. Just know that there is sound logic and reason behind why I think, believe and live like I do.

JD said...

Oh. And I like onions and mustard on my hamburger.

td shoemaker said...

could not the "age" that the text is talking about be Paul's present "age" like in his life? Esp. if he thought that Jesus was coming back in his lifetime to end this current age? So in a sense, we could have the life of the ages (presently) and the death of the ages (presently) both meaning more a full life vs. a not full life (none of this has to do with materialism, but that's another topic).

Also, I think that it would be obvious in context to understand, when studying another language, if someone is talking about a sandwich or a person from a village.

This situation isn't like the hamburger scenario at all. We are talking about a word with multiple, similar meanings with no clear direction of which one to use in each text. (Context doesn't give away which one to use). That's why the translators attempt to read the context in each situation, but in the end, the translation is just a good attempt - not full proof.

I like my hamburger fully loaded. And I like people from Hamburg.

Word verification: "nalscred"

Louis Tagliaboschi said...

I love it when there is this kind of conversation here. It makes me read more and challenges me to look at why I believe what I believe.

Thanks John David.

JD said...

High five, Louis. The kind words are much appreciated.

Jason said...

I am a little late to the party, and it feels like the water is getting cold and most of you guys are getting out, but for what it is worth.

I have read that "Gehenna" is the word that Jesus uses most often when speaking about hell. "Gehenna" was also a physical valley strewn with trash and a constant fire to burn up the trash - so when Jesus references it, there is a real time / real place connection. I don't remember where I read I making that up? Anyone else heard that?

I am curious as to how hell / punishment / separation from God / etc. fits into a free-will theology and theodicy. If God gives us a choice, than logically there are consequences (real time / real place and after-time / afterplace). If Eden restored is one "consequence" that we choose, it would stand to reason that there separation is also a consequence. As to the physical make-up of the "consequence", to me is immaterial. Is that consequence a "second death" - would separation from the giver of life be anything but that? This separation, for me, gets around the "physical location that God created" problem.

I think we can agree that post-physical death there is either re-unification with God or continued further separation from God. That is, God continues to honor your free-will decision. The details on both are dependent on metaphor and therefore fallible to human interpretation and misinterpretation.

I think the bottom line is this: pastors of all stripes, particularly in America, have spent too much time talking about hell and too little time talking about kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

so there, i ended it with scripture.