Quick reads: christian belief.
The idea of hell may be the most repugnant of all christian doctrines. Could a loving God really send people to punishment that goes on forever?
Hell in the Bible
Three main words in the Bible are sometimes translated as “hell”:
- Sheol is used 30 times in the Old Testament. It says nothing about punishment, and is best translated as “the state of death” or “the grave”.
- Hades is used 10 times in the New Testament. It has a similar meaning to sheol, and also says nothing about punishment.
- Gehenna, translated as “hell”, is used 12 times in the New Testament, all but one of these by Jesus in the gospels, to warn of the fate of the wicked. Paul never uses the word. Gehenna is a Greek word which comes from the Valley of Hinnom just outside of Jerusalem, which was the location of a rubbish tip where refuse was burnt.
The book of Revelation, which is a vision with highly pictorial language, speaks of punishment and fire, but never uses the word “hell”.
What Jesus meant when he spoke of hell
When Jesus talks about hell, he uses the word “destruction”, and the Greek word used means exactly that – the end. Right through the Bible, the end of the wicked is that they perish.
The word “eternal” doesn’t mean “everlasting” but “in the age to come”. So when Jesus talks about “eternal punishment”, he means punishment in the age to come, not punishment forever.
Three ways of looking at it
Over the years, christians (and the Jews of Jesus’ day) have had three different views of the fate of the wicked:
1. Never-ending conscious punishment?
The most widely held view among christians is that that unbelievers will be condemned to unending punishment. However we can see this is a misunderstanding of the words Jesus used – he didn’t say the punishment for sin would be everlasting.
It seems likely that this view arises from the belief that we have immortal souls, which live forever. But this isn’t a Biblical teaching, but has come from Greek philosophy – the Biblical view is that we return to the dust when we die, except if God resurrects us.
This view also seems quite unjust – a finite amount of sin surely doesn’t deserve infinite punishment? Would God be both unjust and unloving?
2. Everyone makes it in the end
There are a few passages in the Bible that suggest that all will receive eternal life (“universalism”). Perhaps hell is a place where people have another opportunity to respond to God’s love, which will finally win them over.
However if we have freedom, would God over-ride that freedom?
3. The end of life
A midway view, is that those who accept God’s offer of forgiveness receive eternal life, or life in the age to come, but life ends at death for those who refuse God. This was apparently the most widely held belief at the time of Jesus.
This view seems to fit the Biblical passages the best, and is also more humane than everlasting punishment – non-believers receive pretty much what they were expecting – an end to their life.
The bottom line
God has given us all one life. I feel it is clear that the Bible, love and justice all point to God giving eternal life to all who seek him, but not forcing it on anyone who doesn’t seek him. But God isn’t vindictive, and those who refuse him are not punished forever, but their life mercifully ends at death.
If you want to look a little deeper and check out the relevant Bible passages, see Hell – what does the Bible say?
While I agree that Annihilationism (the belief that after the final judgment, some people will be totally destroyed, and cease to exist altogether) is more merciful than ETC (Eternal Conscious Torment), it too strikes me as wasteful. After all, if God says about leftovers, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted,” how much more concerned is He about not allowing the souls of men to be wasted!
Evangelical Universalism affirms that man has a free will; that each person MUST be born again in order to enter the kingdom of heaven; that eventually, everyone will repent, and be born again; and that for many people, that will be post-mortem.
Here is a quote about this from, “Is God Violent, Or Nonviolent?” (at http://evangelicaluniversalist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=6581 ):
[Begin quote] In 1 Cor. 15:20-28, we discover where time will come to its end, and eternity will begin. When the last person has repented in the Lake of Fire, the purpose of the Lake will be finished. It might take a long time, but “Love is patient.” 1 Cor. 13:4.
In a way, that Lake is like the fiery furnace in Daniel:
—Jesus will be present with the captives
(Rev 14:10 Greek: basanizō, means “to test the purity of gold,” but is also translated “to torment”),
—in non-physical, purifying flames of “divine incense”
(Greek: theion; also translated “brimstone,” as “divine” fire was originally used to purify and dedicate something to deity; also, “purge” comes from Latin purgare to purify, from purus ‘pure,’ which derives from the Greek FIRE, pur),
—freeing them from all their bondage.
Of course, to know God is to be loved by Him, and then to love Him in return. The only possible reasons a person would reject God are because he is either deceived, or misinformed. Those obstacles will be lovingly removed. And each individual captive there will eventually repent (change his mind), accept Christ, and come out of that Lake of Fire, with no bonds, and without any smell of smoke! [end quote]
Hi Kevin, I do very much hope it might be like that, but I’m not convinced that’s what Jesus taught.
Kevin, I’d love to believe like that. But when I looked up basanizō, the vast majority of verses I saw used it in the Torment way.