So, with the recent furor over Love Wins, and with varying degrees of hand-wringing or gnashing of teeth over the certainty in hell’s manifestation, it probably makes some sense to outline what the Bible actually says about hell, some of the different views of hell, and why loosely holding your beliefs about pareschatology – the study of what happens between death and the final state of humanity – is probably the best course.
Hell in the Bible
First off, you won’t find any references to hell in the Old Testament. The only thing you will find referenced after death is Sheol, which is translated as “the grave”. All people die and go to Sheol, the righteous and unrighteous. Their bodies remain there, but they are still viewed as individual souls. In the Septuagint, this word is translated Hades – a word used a few times by Jesus – where Hades, in Hellenistic mythology was a state of limbo where all souls dwelt, awaiting the final judgment.
In the New Testament, Hades is mentioned five times – Matthew 16:18 (in this case referring to a literal place in Caesarea Philippi called the “Gates of Hades”), Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13; 20:14. This is also translated as “death”, “the grave”, and “the pit”.
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment.
The third and final word translated “hell” in English versions of the Bible is Gehenna. This word comes from ge hinnom – The Valley of Hinnom. The Hinnom Valley lies alongside the Old City of Jerusalem, and by the first century AD was a city dump. Earlier, it had been the place of child sacrifice to the god Molech, and was thus considered cursed ground. In order to prevent the spread of disease and stench, along with reducing the volume of garbage, Gehenna was constantly kept burning, while dogs roamed around the edges, fighting over scraps of maggoty meat, their teeth gnashing at one another.
Jesus refers to Gehenna 11 times, and his brother James, once:
“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of genenna.” (Matthew 5:22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into genenna. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into genenna.” (Matthew 5:28-30)
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in genenna.” (Matthew 10:28)
“And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of genenna.”(Matthew 18:9)
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of genenna as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to genenna?” (Matthew 23:33)
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into genenna, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into genenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into genenna, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:22-28)
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into genenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:4-7)
“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by genenna.” (James 3:6)
These are all of the times “hell” is mentioned in the Bible.
So, since Sheol/Hades is “the grave” for all people, this is not what we would consider “hell” (as a place of punishment). Since Tartarus is only mentioned once and is clearly a reference to a mythological place for the imprisonment of angels (not men), it is also not what we would traditionally consider “hell”. Therefore, Gehenna is the word we would most associate with “hell”, as a place of punishment.
So, some observations we can make about Gehenna from these passages:
- All of Jesus’ references to gehenna are made to religious people, and are made in reference to sinful behavior. None of them are spoken to unbelievers or in reference specifically about unbelievers – and for that matter, none are made in reference to one’s lack of belief or orthodoxy.
- All of the references to gehenna can be reasonably viewed as references to the literal location – a burning garbage dump, where bodies are filled with maggots (worms that, to the ancients, appeared to have come from nowhere and do not die – transforming, instead, into flies) are consumed in the flames.
- If we look specifically at the passage from Mark, which is the one most often quoted by those supporting a view of gehenna as a place of eternal, conscious punishment, Jesus refers to it as “where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’“ This is a direct quote from Isaiah 66, where the prophet describes the view of the fallen Assyrian army (in the Hinnom Valley) “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.“ It is a view of dead bodies on a funeral pyre, full of maggots, being burned to ash.
A problem we’re faced with, in trying to create a systematic or logistical description of hell – gehenna – from these passages is that there is scant information contained therein as to how gehenna operates.
Now, one reasonable question we can ask is “what did the people associate with the word gehenna?” If Jesus’ audience considered gehenna to be a place for the eternal punishment of the souls of the wicked, we can reasonably assert that he never needed to explain what it was or how it worked. So what do we know about contemporary views of gehenna?
Gehenna does not show up in any of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Philo, Apocrypha, or the Pseudepigrapha. The only ancient literature that gehenna shows up in as an eternal place of suffering are in the Rabbinic writings of the Mishna and the Talmud. But in these cases, gehenna is a place similar to Purgatory, where the souls of most sinners go to be purified for up to one year of suffering – with Sabbaths off. At the end of the time of purification/suffering, the souls of all but the most wicked enter the world to come, while the most wicked (a very small number) are then permanently destroyed (see Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin (7) Ch. 11 “Chelek”; and also here). So, the only context under which the people would have understood gehenna (depending on the accurate dating of the Talmud, which is believed to have been orally transmitted during the Babylonian captivity, hundreds of years BC, but was not written down until the third century AD, we can say that it was between 400 BC and 300 AD) is either as a temporal city dump OR as a form of Purgatory.
So – looking at the passages that simply refer to gehenna doesn’t give us a very clear or complete picture of hell. Where else might we look?
The Rich Man and Lazarus
In Luke 16, we read the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
So does this give us logistical or systematic information about hell?
- First off, this is a parable in a series of teachings that are also parables, so it is highly unlikely that Jesus is conveying a real story about real people, so we cannot definitively say that this is a story meant to convey literal truth.
- This story does reference some beliefs from pseudepigraphic books – The Book of Enoch and The Apocalypse of Zephaniah, along with the Rabbinic work, Genesis Rabbah. In these beliefs, Sheol/Hades has different places, separated by a chasm or a river, where the wicked dead and righteous dead are kept until a day of judgment. So, the question becomes – did Jesus consider these works authoritative, or was he using them as common Jewish mythologies his audience would have been familiar with?
- We know nothing about the rich man or Lazarus’ temporal life, in terms of their orthodox belief, just that the rich man was rich, and that Lazarus was poor and afflicted with sores. We do not know why the rich man was in Hades and Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham.
- Ultimately, this is a story of ethics, not one trying to teach about the cartography of hell. While we might make some guesses, we do not know if Jesus was teaching about a literal truth or a literary truth (a story familiar to his listeners).
Sheep and Goats
The next Scriptures often referenced in arguing for a conscious, eternal punishment view of hell comes from Matthew 25, in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
So let’s examine this passage:
- Once again, we’re dealing with parables, as opposed to literal description, so we cannot assume that this is a literal description of the Judgment. The purpose of this passage is not to describe the logistics of hell, but to make an ethical point.
- Even if it is a description of Judgment, the criteria for separating sheep from goats is the treatment of those in need – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned. What separates the sheep from the goats is their works for the poor, not their orthodoxy of belief. Arguing that this is a literal story, rather than a parable, opens an entire can of worms when trying to explain grace, faith, works, etc.
- “Eternal Punishment” – this could encompass annihilationism (being destroyed for eternity) as well as eternal, conscious punishment. Additionally, the Greek for this phrase (kolasin aionion) translates to “an age of pruning/correction”. This, too, could support annihilationism, and even the Rabbinic view of gehenna (similar to Purgatory), in addition to eternal, conscious punishment.
The Lake of Fire
One of the most vivid descriptions referenced in talking about hell is the Lake of Fire from Revelation. In Revelation 20, we read:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
This passage has a lot of meaning that could be unpacked. Some of the high points, as they relate to our conversation on hell:
- This is from a genre of writing called “apocalyptic literature“, which is highly symbolic and sometimes hyperbolic. Arguing for symbols in Revelation to be literal is quite difficult, and often inappropriate (leading to all sorts of wild interpretations).
- Just from this passage, we have a number of problems of making the “lake of fire” literal. Not only are the wicked dead (whose names are not in the book of life) thrown into the lake of fire, but “death” and “Hades” are thrown into the lake of fire. So we have to argue that “death” and “Hades” are figurative, but the “lake of fire” they are thrown into is literal. Additionally, “death” and “Hades” are ended when their are thrown into the “lake of fire”. But to argue that the “lake of fire” is eternal, conscious punishment, we must argue that the wicked dead thrown into it are not ended. So, in essence, we must make a couple illogical steps to support a view of conscious, eternal punishment.
- The dead are judged “according to what they had done”, not according to their having the right orthodoxy. Aside from this, there is no indication of what determines whether or not one’s name is written in the book of life (be it literal or figurative).
- The lake of fire is referred to as “the second death”. This seems to argue more for annihilationism (or the Rabbinic view of gehenna) than for conscious, eternal punishment.
- This does indicate that there are those whose names are not found written in the book of life (be it literal or figurative), and that they are thrown into the lake of fire (be it literal or figurative). This would seem to be a good argument against pluralism or Universal Reconciliation.
What About Paul?
The Apostle Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles”, is silent on the issue of hell, and that his few references to the wicked in the world to come reference “destruction” or “death” rather than “punishment”. This would support an annihilationist view moreso than other views of hell. Additionally, one could argue, if hell was conscious, eternal punishment for all but cognizant, believing Christians, Paul would have spent much more time and space in urgently outlining it, explaining it and clarifying the right steps that have to be taken to make sure you avoid it. But that’s not the case.
What to Think
So what should we think? Probably one of the best articles I’ve read on this subject is by pastor Glen Elliott (written a two or three months before Love Wins became a subject of debate), who posits (like Bell) that we not hold to a pareschatological doctrine as a test of faith or fellowship. There is enough room for doubt as to the cartography and mechanism of hell, along with the criteria God uses for His righteous judgment, that we ought not demand a specific view from Christian believers, but that this should fall under the auspices of non-essentials.
From examining the Scriptures and the likely cultural understanding of their First Century audience, we can somewhat safely assert that multiple views are possible (with varying degrees of certainty): Annihilationism, eternal conscious punishment, and possibly the inclusion of a purgatory-like state from the Rabbinic view of gehenna.
Even so, pluralism or pure Universal Reconciliation (with the Rabbinic exception, noted above, which would allow for Revelation 20’s view of the book of life and the lake of fire – literal or figurative – to be true) are not supported in Scripture.
Regarding “who’s in and who’s out” – this is ultimately up to God, and we have no business judging whether or not someone who has died is in hell (be it Ghandi, Spurgeon, or Hitler). The Scriptural support for a strict exclusivist paradigm (where only a small group of individuals who believe the “right” doctrine are “in” and all else are bound for hell) as the only viable model is quite thin. Most Christians actually hold to some degree of “exclusive inclusivism” – where they believe that there are people (children, the mentally disabled, those who have not had the chance to accept or reject the Gospel) whom Jesus will save in the afterlife who were not fully cognizant Christians in life, but that the criteria for this are up to God. They often point to Romans 1 for some evidence of this:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
As Bell notes in Love Wins, the teaching Jesus and his disciples passed on to us is about how we should live, love and believe today, and that we should trust Him to take care of tomorrow. How we live today determines how the Kingdom of God looks to others today – and thus it is urgent that we live righteous and upright lives, and that we make disciples of all nations. Not as a form of fire insurance, but as a form of worship of our Creator and for our own salvation, today. We trust God with our todays, and we can trust Him with our tomorrows, whether we are alive or dead.