The Nature of Hell: An Examination of the Traditional View

During the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553AD the Emperor Justinian issued 9 anathemas against Origen, the last of which reads: “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary and will one day have an end. . . let him be anathema.”

In defiance of his excellency Emperor Justinian, fellow blogger, tweeter, & Christian thinker, Elijiah Thompson has written the first installment of a series of articles explaining his rejection of the traditional notion of Hell as eternal conscious torment. Instead, Elijiah defends a version of conditional immortality – the doctrine that those who die outside of Christ will at some point simply go out of existence, leaving eternal life to those who have been saved. You can read his article here:

https://elijiaht.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/annihilationism-101-an-introduction-to-conditional-immortality/

I adhere to neither the traditional concept, nor to conditional immortality; nor do I reject either. My own view is that I can’t really be sure about the fate of unbelievers: maybe they will go out of existence (Stott), maybe they will experience eternal punishment (Craig), or maybe God will somehow win them all (Hick). In a nutshell I adhere simply to this: will not the perfectly good and flawlessly just Judge of the earth do right? I agree with the American theologian Charles Hodge who comments that we mortals are incompetent judges concerning the penalty that sin deserves; or of just how supreme is the being against whom we commit it. Nor do I think we have much grasp as to the depths of God’s love and mercy.

One of the problems with writing about Hell is that the word “hell” comes to us laden with all kinds of literary and artistic associations. In fact, I suspect that there is a significant portion of people – from evangelicals to their staunch atheist critics – whose idea of Hell is influenced more by medieval art than the biblical text. Sometimes it’s thought of as the realm of Satan, as if he rules there like the Greek god Hades rules the underworld in Greek mythology. Typically, though, Hell is conceived as some kind of cosmic torture chamber for the damned, and such understandings are well worth challenging.

In this article I want to address the biblical case for the traditional understanding of Hell as a place (or state) of eternal conscious torment, hopefully showing why I think the traditional doctrine is not as strongly supported as is often claimed.

First of all we turn to the Old Testament. Within the pages of the OT we find a plethora of metaphors used to describe the end of the “wicked” – and they always suggest destruction (for a small sample see Elijiah’s article). One passage – Isaiah 66 – is sometimes thought to teach more than this in its language of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire; imagery which Christ himself uses. However, the passage doesn’t speak of souls surviving in pain. It’s a passage speaking of rotting corpses which suffer the shame of having no burial and the horror of being eaten by maggots and destroyed by fire. As Fudge says: “The final picture is one of shame, not pain.” The OT seems to give very strong testimony to a fearful end for “the wicked,” but doesn’t lend any weight to the doctrine of endless misery.

Advocates of the traditional view typically draw their proof-texts from the NT. However, once again we find that the language used is almost always of destruction, not unending torment or misery. John Wenham provides a great breakdown of the verses in his book “The Enigma of Evil,” and I owe the next section largely to him (% are approximate).

41% speak of judgement without specifying any further penalty.

22% use the word “apollumi,” which suggests eternal ruin, destruction and loss.

10% speak of a “burning up” – 3 verses of which refer to a lake of fire; an image suggesting destruction.

10% refer to “death,” and in regular parlance death is a cessation of life, not an unending miserable life.

8% speak of a separation from God. This is significant if God is omnipresent, sustaining in existence all that is. Such verses therefore naturally suggest the cutting off of a person from the source and sustainer of life, which plausibly means destruction.

6% speak of anguish without any mention of duration.

4% speak of Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom – which gives the image of corpses consumed by maggots and fire that we noted in Isaiah.

0.5% – 1 verse – speaks of no rest day or night, and the smoke of torment going up forever (Rev 14:11).

Let’s look closer at the specific passages traditionally used to support the doctrine of endless conscious punishment or torment. There are 14:

7 of these 14 passages contain the word “aionios:”

Everlasting punishment – Mt 25:46
Everlasting fire: Mt 18:8 & 25:41
Eternal sin: Mk 3:29
Everlasting destruction: 2 Thes 1:9
Everlasting judgment: Heb 6:2
The punishment of everlasting fire: Jude 7

There are a number of points worth considering before we jump to the traditional conclusion. Firstly, aionios can take a qualitative sense, not just a quantitative one. Secondly, what are we to make of the Matthean contrast between everlasting life and everlasting punishment? Is he really making the point that since the life is everlasting that the punishment is everlasting? That’s far from certain. We also have the contrast between everlasting life and everlasting death. John Wenham comments that “It would be proper to translate ‘they will go away into punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into life of the age to come.’” And if Wenham is correct here then the question of duration is not settled. Thirdly, we have several examples of other once-for-all events which have unending consequences: for example, “eternal redemption,” or Sodom’s punishment of “eternal fire.”

Other passages refer to “unquenchable fire:” Mt 3:12, Lk 3:17 & Mk 9:43. But the idea presented here is pretty clearly a figure of speech – chaff is burnt up by irresistible fire, suggesting destruction. Mark 9:48 speaks of the “undying worm” with echoes of Is 66:24, but we have already noted that the picture here is of death and shame, not of living beings in torment. There is, therefore, really very little here in these texts that suggests (let alone demands) the traditional interpretation, especially given the overwhelming picture presented of destruction in a great mass of other texts.

This leaves 4 passages. Jude chiefly concerns the issue of godless men infiltrating and corrupting the church and perverting the gospel message. Jude is concerned to point out that for such there is a judgement coming, and then he gives three examples of judgement: (1) How God destroyed those Israelites who did not believe after their release from Egypt; (2) That God has kept certain fallen angels in darkness, bound with everlasting chains, for the judgement on the “great day;” and (3) the archetypal example of OT judgement: God destroyed Sodom with burning sulphur, here referred to as “eternal fire.” Just as God’s judgement was revealed in these cases, so it will be revealed in the case of these godless men, “for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” What’s of particular note here is that we have a range of different pictures and metaphors used with respect to God’s judgement. The point here, however, is not to teach eternal conscious punishment, but rather the theme is the certainty and finality of judgement. Jude, following biblical tradition, presents a range of pictures and symbols which point to the reality of God’s final judgement and victory over evil. I would caution against accepting any one picture as the whole literal truth of the matter, as it seems to be the case that they are intended to point beyond themselves.

Then we have three passages in Revelation, which are probably the most explicit. There’s just one problem: it’s the Book of Revelation. Revelation is ancient apocalyptic writing, and as such is something of an interpretative nightmare. It is full of figures of speech, pictures, and symbolism. With this in mind, let’s look at the three verses:

14:11: “And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”

Rev 19:3 “And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her [the “great prostitute”] goes up for ever and ever.”

Rev 20:10: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

With respect to the last two we note that they refer to non-human or symbolic figures. Moreover, the writer of Revelation is clearly a mind that is steeped in the OT, which perhaps gives some clue about the interpretation of these passages. One of the quintessential examples of divine judgement in the OT is Sodom & Gomorrah (which is cited over and over again in the OT), upon which was cast burning sulphur, leaving irreversible desolation and smoke rising from the land. It’s far from an exegetical stretch to interpret the images in these two verses in light of the archetypal example of Sodom – which concerns destruction, God’s final and irreversible judgement, with smoke left as a reminder of God’s triumph over evil.

I think the same arguably applies to Rev 14:11, which is perhaps a more difficult passage. But again, in light of the difficulties of basing doctrines on clearly symbolic and figurative passages and in light of the overwhelming scriptural testimony to God’s final triumph over sin and evil and the destruction of the wicked, it’s ill-advised, I think, to hang a doctrine of eternal conscious punishment on texts like this.

None of what I’ve said refutes the traditional doctrine, but that wasn’t my intention. For all I know the pictures of Revelation are indeed literal. My point is simply that the traditional doctrine does not have the sort of obvious biblical warrant that is typically claimed for it.

One thing we do know: the fate of the lost is entirely in God’s hands. And will not the Judge of the earth do right?

Stephen J Graham

*****

Postscript:

The creed of my own denomination, the Westminister Confession of Faith, cites one further proof-text: the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Firstly, however, there are well-known exegetical difficulties with this passage. Secondly, the passage probably doesn’t mean to represent the final state of the lost, since Hades itself is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation. Thirdly, there is no reference to the duration of this punishment. Finally, the story is primarily a chilling satire on Pharisaic piety, not a guide to the world to come.

*****

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2 Comments

Filed under Bible, Eternal Life, Hell

2 responses to “The Nature of Hell: An Examination of the Traditional View

  1. This article concerns how Christians – those who regard the Bible as inspired or in some way authoritative in matters of faith – should view something like Hell. It isn’t meant to be a philosophical justification of the doctrine, nor a defence of the authority of scripture on the topic. Please keep that in mind before commenting. Thanks!

  2. This was really good and informative (and not that long *phew*). Very very different from the image I had of hell.

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