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What is hell, and is it biblical? Part 2: the nature of hell

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11 minutes to read A response to Jacob McMillen and Josiah Pemberton. In this installment, I illustrate their fundamental misunderstanding of the traditional doctrine of hell.

A basic problem with J&J’s case is how they argue against a crude caricature of the traditional view of hell. This doesn’t affect their positive arguments all that much, but the positive arguments are too weak to have any force without the support of an airtight negative case. In other words, if J&J don’t persuasively prove the traditional view is wrong, we have little reason to accept their alternative.

They describe hell as “a place where people are consciously tormented for all eternity.” Now, that sounds fine until you realize that they understand this completely differently to traditionalists. They talk about how hell “replaces the face of a loving Father (bringing good news) with the nightmarish mask of a merciless tormentor”, and is “a perverse lie…so horrid, it depicts God as perpetrating evil the Earth’s most depraved minds wouldn’t even consider.” They speak of God “planning on PERPETUALLY ROASTING BILLIONS OF PEOPLE [sic], allowing them to permanently agonize for all of eternity”. They wonder if traditionalists think that the limited number of references to hell in the Bible indicate that God is “just super casual about being the cruelest, most perversely genocidal maniac in history”.

Now, I don’t wish to be unkind or uncharitable—but when you set yourself up to teach publicly, you had better be sure you know what you are saying, because God is not too kind on those who lead others into false doctrine (James 3:1; 1 Timothy 1:6-7 etc). Teachers open themselves to stern rebukes when they err, because it is not just their spiritual health on the line, but the spiritual health of others (cf Matthew 23:15). So I will ask J&J to gird up their loins, because I shall not mince my words.

The first error they make is in taking Dante’s Inferno or Hollywood-style memes as their frame of reference for hell. A cosmic torture chamber is not something you find in the Bible. The second error, delivered along with the first, is a lamentable rehearsal of standard atheistic histrionics. Their rhetoric sounds like it’s copied straight out of The God Delusion or God is not Great. Then, the third error comes as they are commenting on Matthew 5:30:

In traditional Hebrew thought, Earthly physical bodies were left on Earth while spirits were preserved, so it wouldn’t have made sense for Jesus to speak about a physical body being cast into a spiritual hell.

So we have three separate misunderstandings here:

  1. Hell is a spiritual, rather than a physical place;
  2. Hell is a fiery torture chamber;
  3. Hell is an immoral doctrine that turns God into a monster.

1. Hell is not a spiritual place

Somehow—and I don’t know how, because it defies the biblical data—modern Christians have gotten this idea that the message of the Bible is how to get to heaven, which is where we go when we die. And the opposite of heaven is hell. And since we’re dead wherever we go, we don’t have bodies in either place.

The reason I say this defies the biblical data is not because I deny there is a spiritual existence after we die. There is. But it is temporary—a place where we await the resurrection. The entire trajectory of Scripture points from the initial, ruined kingdom of man established in Eden (Genesis 1:26-28), to the final, restored kingdom of man—aka the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven—that will be established in the new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). As the name suggests, this is a physical place. It is this physical kingdom the Jews were looking for when the Messiah came; it is why Jesus had to veil his identity from them, lest they take him by force to make him king, thinking he would then defeat the Romans and establish the eternal kingdom in Israel (John 6:15; 12:12-15; cf Zephaniah 3:15; Matthew 27:37; John 19:3).

Of course, we know that the Messiah had to come twice; once as the suffering servant, and the next time as the conquering king. But the point remains that when he returns a second time, he is returning to earth to establish the eternal kingdom. Regardless of how exactly you think that will happen, the fact remains that this is the end game. This is why there is a resurrection—because we need our physical bodies for physical life on a physical earth.

It is this physical kingdom which is contrasted with hell:

…an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. John 5:28-29

We see a picture of this in Revelation 21. Here, the lake of fire, the second death—what traditionalists take as one metaphor for hell—is compared with the new Jerusalem, which is a metaphor for the eternal kingdom. John describes the New Jerusalem, and then goes on to mention that:

…the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. Revelation 21:8

It is a second death because they are now alive again, having been resurrected after dying the first time. By the same token, Daniel emphasizes the physical nature of the eternal state, post-resurrection, when he notes that “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake—some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

I won’t rabbithole on the question of whether the second death is a destruction of annihilation, or a destruction of ruin. Suffice to say annihilationism betrays a ham-fisted handling of the doctrine of death—as should be obvious from Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13; Luke 15:24; Genesis 2:17.

J&J’s lack of understanding on this point is indicative of the general problem with their entire thesis: namely, their lack of an eschatological, kingdom-based framework for understanding judgment. Without a clear description of how they understand the eternal state, their view of hell seems, at best, hopelessly confused, and looks to compromise the gospel itself.

2. Hell is not a fiery torture chamber

Laying out the physical nature of hell also helps us to get at what it will be like. The hell-as-torture-chamber model is a gross strawman. I’ve noticed that people who oppose hell tend to fixate on the passages that speak of torment and fire, while ignoring the many other passages that speak of shame, contempt, darkness, weeping, and exclusion.

The passages that speak of fire are metaphorical. This should be plain since physical bodies cannot literally burn forever, and spirits cannot burn, period. Taking the other biblical data into account, it also makes no sense to imagine hell as a place of fire if it is also a place of darkness. Moreover, that the fire here is metaphorical should be obvious—this is a stock image in the Bible for the presence of God (eg Genesis 15:17; Exodus 3:2; 13:21; 24:17; Deuteronomy 33:2; Daniel 7:9 etc), which naturally “burns” and “consumes” sinners (eg 2 Samuel 22:9, 13; Isaiah 10:16-17; 30:27; Matthew 3:10-12) and especially in eschatological judgment (eg Zephaniah 3:8; Malachi 4:1; Matthew 13:40; 25:41; 1 Thessalonians 1:7-9 etc). Sometimes this fire is literal—even a fire of judgment (eg Genesis 19:24; Numbers 11:3). But very often it is quite clearly metaphorical, inspired by the literal examples (eg Psalm 18:8; Job 31:12).

Just as passages which speak of hell as fiery are metaphorical, so are the passages which speak of it in terms of darkness. But whereas fire speaks to God’s unbearably holy presence, darkness speaks to the absence of his beneficent qualities. More than this, it also refers implicitly to something other passages make explicit: that hell is a place of exclusion. Because the kingdom of man is being redeemed and transformed into the kingdom of God (this is the whole point of John 3:16-17), those who reject the Son will have no part in that kingdom. This is clear just by comparing some parallel passages:

But he will say, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!” In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. Luke 13:27-29

Compare this to the same motif in Matthew:

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 8:11-12; cf Matthew 22:13

Entire chapters of the gospels are devoted to parables about the kingdom of heaven, often illustrating the same point: those who are not legitimate partakers in God’s kingdom through faith in Jesus will be thrown out. Matthew 13 reiterates this final judgment and exclusion repeatedly. But because the kingdom of man becomes the kingdom of God, there is no remaining kingdom for the wicked to be thrown out to. All the kingly qualities that comprise the image of God are redeemed into the new kingdom—which leaves nothing remaining for those outside. All the “common grace” qualities they enjoy now, all the remaining “light” that God grants (another metaphor!) in the form of familial bonds, pleasant experiences, ongoing purpose and ambition, desire to help others flourish, and so on, will be transferred into and perfected in the kingdom of God—leaving nothing at all for those outside. For example:

For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 25:29-30

Comparing this with Matthew 25:41, in the same monologue, clearly shows that the eternal fire is identical with the outer darkness.

Shame versus torture

You notice that in this outer darkness there is weeping and grinding of teeth. It is a place of shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). This seems to be primarily how the Bible depicts the “torment” (Revelation 14:11) of those in hell when it is not using fiery metaphors. I’m not suggesting that God’s wrath is “passive” in hell, as if he simply leaves those outside the kingdom to their own devices. Indeed, I think that for their shame and contempt to be a serious punishment, a serious torment, it must take place “before the presence of the Lamb” (eg Revelation 14:10). It is not that hell is a place where sinners are excluded from God’s presence, but rather where they are excluded from his favor. They most clearly are still in his presence—which is precisely the point of the fire metaphor—and hence their torment continues: they cannot hide the shame of their filthy hearts and their abject failure to image him as he commanded. They are discarded as worthless when they should have been God’s princes on earth.

I don’t claim to have any idea exactly what hell will be like as a physical place; nor exactly what being in God’s wrathful presence will be like for those there. The Bible simply doesn’t tell us. But it does fill in broad strokes with quite enough clarity to see that hell is a place of complete despair and hopelessness, a place of continual anguish before God, but not a place of literal torture or burning.

3. Hell is not a doctrine of demons

What I’ve said has already defused much of the final error J&J make, which is treating hell as an abominable doctrine that turns God into something more like Satan. But I still need to make some firm observations here.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to take the case against hell seriously is the OTT emotional rhetoric that hell-deniers resort to. I’m afraid J&J are no exception, describing how perverse, horrid, depraved, cruel, genocidal and maniacal the idea of hell is.

How can we fail to interpret this as a transparent disclosure of their true motivations? It is just exactly like Christians who “discover” new evidence in the Bible to support homosexuality after their child comes out; or like Arminians who say about predestination that “whatever the Bible says it can’t say that”; or new atheists who can’t even discuss God without repeatedly railing against him with colorful invectives. I’m not saying these errors are all on a par; I’m just saying that deciding in advance what God can and can’t say, can and can’t do, based on how you feel about it, is at root the same error as Adam’s.

The objection boils down to this:

I wouldn’t do things that way, so I can’t believe that God would.

J&J’s denunciations of hell border on the hysterical. This makes their arguments look like post hoc rationalizations, because it is obvious that anyone who feels so passionately that a doctrine must be false will find ways to “prove” it. But following your passions is precisely the error Paul speaks of in 2 Timothy 4:3-4.

If creating hell makes God evil, so does creating this world

J&J’s appeal here—I cannot call it an argument—is especially inept because of how short-sighted it is. Being essentially an atheistic appeal, it can be easily repurposed as a tu quoque argument for which they have utterly no defense, viz:

Millions of children dying every year from bone cancer, starvation, being raped to death, or even torn apart in the womb at the behest of their own mothers, is an evil the Earth’s most depraved minds wouldn’t even consider. But God did consider it, and not only considered it, but knowing exactly that it would all happen, he created this world anyway. Therefore, he is the cruelest, most perversely genocidal maniac in history.

I don’t mean to labor the point, but suffice to say that mimicking the arguments of atheists, of those who hate God and attack his holy character, should be an extremely large, bright red flag that something is wrong with your case. The whole point of hell is that it vindicates God’s honor and reveals his perfect justice and wrath. If true north on your moral compass is not where God’s honor lies, not where God’s glory lies, but rather where man’s well-being happens to rest, then you are either too immature a Christian to be teaching anyone—having not yet learned to submit your intuitions to God’s word and will—or you aren’t even regenerate at all—having not had your heart renewed by God so that you can see his ways as anything except folly (1 Corinthians 2:12-14). J&J’s overt humanism is a very disturbing aspect of their case against hell, which cannot go unremarked by someone concerned about the direction of a brother’s spiritual walk.

None of this it to deny—rather, I should hope, I am clearly affirming—that hell is a difficult doctrine. It requires a clear-eyed understanding of God’s holiness, and his absolute right over creation to use it as a means to revealing his perfections—that is, to glorify himself, including his wrath and judgment. It requires rejecting a man-centered morality. And it requires, to be honest, a certain fortitude. Hell certainly is not a doctrine for spiritual nancy-boys. But it is equally certainly not a doctrine that makes God into a cosmic sadist. Hell is not about inflicting pain, but about the just deserts of people who rejected what they were created for. When you turn your back on the source of goodness and set yourself up as a replacement, there’s no room for complaining when God gives you what you demanded by taking away all the goodness he offered…and you discover that all you have left is your own depravity in the face of God’s justly deserved wrath, forever.

As an aside, but not really an aside, let me again return to the question of the gospel and eschatology. Compare being saved from hell, as I have described it, with being saved from even the most awful temporary suffering in this life, as J&J seem to imagine it. Which would you pick? Which gospel is really good news—mine or theirs?

 1 comment

steve hays

Everything I know about hell I learned from Hollywood slasher films!