Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Deep Shift: Hell?

posted by Scot McKnight

Here is a question from a reader…

Scot (and the Jesus Creed Blog),

What happens to our view of hell if we shift our understanding of “heaven” to the “new heavens and new earth” to the transformed earth?

There’s been a stream of recent work re-picturing heaven, not as some postmortem location with harps and clouds, but as the sphere of God’s reign that will eventually engulf all of creation. The picture is of course captured in the last two chapters of the Bible in which God’s heaven and our world over lap and interlock in marriage, and a voice from God’s throne says, “Now the dwelling of God will be with man.”
 
This is heaven. And heaven’s future location will be here. Paul speaks of the reconciliation of all things, Peter of the restoration of all things, Jesus of the renewal of all things.
 
Which brings up a new question? If one believes in an eternal hell, where is it? If we reject a three layer world of heaven up there, hell down there, and earth in the middle, where do we put hell?
 
CS Lewis argues that hell is almost nothing, that its existence is less than an atom, but of course this raises a significant problem. If hell still existed somewhere in the space/time world, God would not have restored, reconciled, or renewed all things; God would not be “all in all”. There would be an outpost–no matter how seemingly tiny–in which death and dysfunction reign.
 
For those who believe in a traditional picture of hell, where is it? Where does it fit in your cosmology? If one rejects hell as annihilation (that is, hell is a place where souls are destroyed, and the punishment is irreversible — i.e. everlasting) or some form of universalism (in which eventually all are redeemed) — where is hell?



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Bob Young

posted April 15, 2009 at 7:21 am


For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
(Mat 12:40)
How about the earth’s core?



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Scott M

posted April 15, 2009 at 7:29 am


The traditional view (if by traditional you mean the dominant view from the first millenium) is that those who experience gehenna, who experience torment, will experience it in the same reality as everyone else. There isn’t a ‘place’ separate from the renewed creation. The ‘fire’ they experience is the consuming fire of the love of God who is all in all. God does not change. And he is love. He does not pour out love on some and anger on others. That would be a very changeable God indeed. Those who have been renewed and reshaped in communion with God and with each will experience the fire of his unveiled love and glory as warmth and comfort. Those who remain locked in the grip of their passions facing away from God will experience it as an unending fire of torment, especially as they will no longer have the means to express those passions.
Part of the problem may be one of translation. Hell (or Hel, actually, chosen as the name of the realm ruled over by the goddess of the same name) best translates Sheol or Hades, the abode of the dead. By the time of Jesus, Sheol had also been divided into paradise (also the bosom of Abraham) for the righteous dead and the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth for the unrighteous dead. Essentially, though, Sheol, Hades, Hel, and the rest all mean death.
The center of the Christian story is that upon the death of Jesus on the cross, God descended into death and death could not contain God. God entered the depths of Sheol and rescued the dead human beings from its grip. (That’s why in Matthew, for instance, you see the tombs being emptied and the recently dead walking around alive again.) God shattered the gates of Hades. After the resurrection, it is no longer the nature of man to die.
Images of Gehenna (the town dump) or lakes of fire or the like, describe the experience of those who have not embraced the life found in Jesus and who have not grown in communion with God when God is fully unveiled as the all in all. They are no longer ruled by death since death has been defeated. And the consensus of the first millenium was that God does not begrudge existence to any of his creation. (How awful and uncertain for us that would be if he did!) I tend to share in the hope of a few, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian, that the unveiled love of God will continue to work with those who have rejected him. I prefer to believe that all will not be lost even with the most stubborn human being and that eventually the love of God will win their heart. That is not and has never been the formal teaching of Christianity. And there does seem to be a valid concern that we can become so consumed by our passions that they become all in all to us. But I prefer to hope.
And really, what sort of ‘heaven’ would it be if you knew there was a concentration camp in its center where people you have loved were being tortured? I’ve never understood why the image of a God who would do that is an image of a God anyone would desire to worship.



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Andrew Perriman

posted April 15, 2009 at 7:39 am


If you ask me, it’s high time we ditched the medieval and entirely unbiblical notion that there is a place of post-mortem suffering called hell. The wages of sin everywhere in scripture is death and destruction. Often death and destruction is an appalling experience, which is what Jesus predicts for Israel when he speaks of the judgment of gehenna: the coming catastrophe of the war against Rome would bring enormous suffering on the people, but he certainly does not suggest that the Jews would continue to suffer even after they have died from disease, starvation, and the sword. When the New Testament eventually imagines a renewal of all things (not heaven, but creation remade), all evil, including death itself, will be thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death and an absolute destruction of everything that does not belong in the new heavens and new earth. But admittedly, that’s not the traditional view of things.



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Dan

posted April 15, 2009 at 7:59 am


Scripture describes Hell not as state of discomfort in the presence of God, but a “place” of “judgment”.
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Leaving aside the question of whether the writer is speaking to genuine believers or not, how are western Christians to understand words like “judgment”, and “raging fire?”, “punished”, “avenge”, “repay”, “dreadful”?
Revelation 20:14-15 speaks of the final judgment not in terms of God?s presence, but with a vivid description of a lake of fire prepared for the rebellious angels, a place into which the unrighteous are thrown.
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
This is not the language of passive self-condemnation. It is an active judgment. Jesus spoke of the unfaithful being cast out into an outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, using active language of ?casting out? rather than passive allusions to everlasting discomfort in God?s presence.
Matthew 25:41 also seems to say fairly clearly that those who reject the path of life are not left in torment in God’s presence, but are ushered out of his presence, into a place of torment.
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.
These passages cannot be dismissed as mere misunderstandings of individual words. These are whole sentences with a context and a thrust that is hard to miss. And can anyone who reads the Old Testament really believe God does not judge?
The Nicene Creed speaks of Heaven as a place, since God is ?Maker of Heaven and Earth?. So Heaven is something made, something that has dimension, not merely the eternal presence of God. If all go to God?s presence, but only some enjoy it, do unbelievers then exist in heaven, but merely perceive it as Hell? Orthodox thinkers state that it is a Western misconception to thing of heaven as a place. If so, then what did God make as stated by the creed?
Likewise the Apostle’s Creed speaks of Christ descending into Hell. If not a place, but a state, how then did Christ descend to it? Did he descend into a state of rejection of God? Or is the creed in error?



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Mike

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:06 am


Does anyone else get creeped out by those who take those “outer darkness” passages literally. Like heaven is this city in the center, and outside the city wall are a bunch of people wailing and gnashing their teeth. Doesn’t that kinda resemble the plot of alot of zombie movies?
Don’t be too quick to ditch hell, people. Whether you think it’s eternal conscious torment or just eternal boredom, it serves a purpose. An eternity of do-overs renders all my earthly decisions meaningless… and I think that’s profoundly unbiblical.



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joe t

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:18 am


pittsburgh?
says the cheeky browns fan…



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Scott M

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:26 am


Nicene Creed: God made all that is. That’s what the creed is saying. ‘Heaven’ is not a physical place within the universe. It is God’s dimension of reality and is meant to be interlocking and interconnected with ‘earth’, the dimension of reality in which man is intended to stand and rule as the eikon of God. Right now there is a veil between the two that sometimes grows thin and is sometimes pierced. The veil is for our benefit, but will someday be lifted and reality will be as it is intended to be. But God is everywhere present and filling all things. He’s not off in some other ‘place’ mostly leaving the ‘ordinary’ physical world alone except for occasional interventions.
The Apostles Creed was written in Greek. It does not speak of Christ descending into ‘Hell’. It says Christ descended into Hades, which I already discussed at some length. Further, what you take it to mean is not the way the church that originally wrote it understood it.
God has judged, is judging, and will judge. His judgment is love. Love reveals all things. Love casts light on the darkness, dispelling it.
Personally, I’ll stick with the traditional understanding of God and ‘Hell’ rather than the later perversion of it. I just take a longer view of ‘traditional’ than many seem to take. Hell is real and there’s nothing passive about it. But it is an experience of the same reality we will all encounter. We have a difficult time even conceiving of a reality in which God is all in all. And thus we use a lot of language to try to capture some aspect of it even as we also have to affirm that it really won’t be like what we said at all.
If you’re going to appeal to the ancient creeds, then you also have to accept what those who wrote them and taught them understood them to say rather than reading into them what you wish to find.



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Phil

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:27 am


I must say I agree with Mike and Dan. I am not well enough trained in biblical languages, but I find it hard not to believe in a sense of “Casting Out”, and a concept of “eternal torment”, eternal being the primary word.
That said, I don’t necessarily thing that heaven is a present physical reality somewhere hiding just behind Jupiter; I do believe in the renewing of all things into a physical new earth (new heaven too, what that means physically?). All this to say, I think heaven and hell are similar realities that are not physical, just as our emotions are not physical, but still real (I do realize that our emotions consist of bio-chemical reactions, therefore the argument is weak.), hell is real, but not necessarily a physical reality.



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Chad Hall

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:35 am


With all humility and candor, we might answer these important questions with “I don’t know.” I don’t think that’s necessarily lazy or a cop out, but just a reasonable inventory of how little we know.
While I don’t know the answer, I have two dimly lit ideas:
1. Total annihilation. I don’t dismiss this as “not hell.” Being extinguished seems like judgment and punishment to me. It also seems in keeping with God’s nature of justice and grace – not forcing anyone to be in God’s presence who refuses to do so. But to be without God is to be without life/existence, and thus doesn’t require space/place. I think this is what Andrew in #3 is saying.
2. Hell as a purpose of heaven. The Kingdom of God/Heaven reigns in all places, spaces and persons – yet for those who refuse God and do not love God, perhaps God’s reign/renewal/restoration is unlike what we imagine in our “happily ever after” imaginations. Perhaps a renewed earth and heaven has some sober realities of what life apart from God is like.
BTW: I disagree with Mike (#5) that “An eternity of do-overs renders all my earthly decisions meaningless…” The good news is that we can join God’s redemptive mission NOW and forever. Anyone who thinks, “I can sin like hell now and still live with God forever in heaven” has missed the point of Jesus’ message and thinks hell is a better kind of life than is heaven (be it here and now or on the other side). I’m open to push back on this one.



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Scott M

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:43 am


Mike, translation is a largely historical task. And in the history of Jewish development of language a number of terms came to describe parts or aspects of Sheol, the abode of the dead. Among those were ‘paradise’, ‘Abraham’s bosom’, and for the unrighteous dead the ‘outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth’. From a Christian perspective, it’s important to always keep in mind that Sheol has been emptied by the Resurrection, that the gates of Hades are destroyed. Jesus has ‘trampled down death by death’.
The matter of interpretation is also complicated by the use of Jewish apocalyptic language in our text, which typically put earthly realities into heavenly terms. So there is a lot of that going on, but I don’t talk about it much because I feel I barely understand the apocalyptic stuff. Scot certainly has a much better handle on it than I do. Having spent a lot of time growing up and as an adult exploring many of the non-Jewish parallels to the abode of the dead, I do feel I have developed a decent grasp of the first century Jewish concept since converting. So I do talk about that aspect.
The church then does reuse and reapply some of that imagery. And that doesn’t bother me. But it fights consistently against ideas that would split reality into physical and spiritual for much of the first millenium. And it repeatedly asserts that death has been defeated. Heaven and earth are real (thus that’s all that God created in the creed) and are part of the same interlocking and interwoven reality. It’s a one-story universe (as Fr. Stephen Freeman puts it). Hell, on the other hand, though real in our experience of it if we turn from God and seek to embrace non-existence, is the ultimate delusion. It is the experience of the unchanging love of God as torment.



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Percival

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:54 am


I wouldn’t want to argue for the “traditional” view of Hell but I think a more traditional view of God might be in order here.
Scott M said:
“God does not change. And he is love. He does not pour out love on some and anger on others. That would be a very changeable God indeed.”
I don’t think this point is entirely valid. This “God does not change” idea has limited utility. (See the Our Collective Faith #7 post for more discussion of the issue.) I think most of us agree that God loves all people. However, that fact means something different to me. As a parent I love my children, but I do not always treat them the same. It makes no sense to discipline them both when only one has broken a rule. Why would I be angry with child #2 when it was #1 who committed the crime? (Alright, I know it is not a good idea to discipline a child while you are angry.) Do we suppose God is never angry?! Love is His constant motivation, and His anger is an emotional response to wrong. Some of us think God’s emotions are real – not merely an anthropomorphic expression of accommodation to emotional creatures such as ourselves.
God disciplines because He loves. Heb. 12:5-11
On another topic, Gehenna, the horrible garbage dump. Isn’t it interesting, that Jesus only warned religious people that they might end up there? The “Lake of Fire” was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” I’m not sure exactly where these “places” are, or how long they endure, but we have applied those images wrongly for many years. I’ve heard that Calvin said that one of the chief pleasures of Heaven was to be able to look down into Hell and see that God was being vindicated forever. Horrible to consider, I know. That’s the kind of view that would make me want to live elsewhere.
We, on the other hand, are more often inclined to say we hold to a certain doctrine, but at the same time, we fail to fully embrace the doctrine and its implications. I think I would like to embrace all aspects of Jesus and his teaching. If I can’t, it means either that my understanding is incomplete or that my reluctance means I am not in line with the truth.



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Ben S.

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:57 am


I too have wrestled with this question in recent months. Coming from a traditional (conservative) background, I have found it difficult to let go of my previous beliefs, but the “traditional” teachings don’t seem to fit with much of what I read in the Bible. I still haven?t “landed my plain” on this one yet, but here are some of the thoughts I’ve been pushing around in my head.
Universalism is too easy and also doesn?t fit a large part of what I read in the Bible. If all would eventually be “won over” by God’s love, then why are we commanded to make disciples of all nations? What is with the passages describing the final judgments? And why did Christ imply that some would never enter the kingdom of heaven?
The language about being “dead in our transgressions” versus “new life in Christ” is all over the place in the New Testament and very helpful to me. For those who are ?dead? spiritually, or have never been spiritually born (born again) death may simply be death of the body because that is all there is. Death is the end for these people because they never really experienced spiritual life. Maybe life is only eternal for those of us who experience spiritual life in Christ.
Again, I?m still kind of up in the air on this, but this is the direction I seem to be moving. Although I will say that I?m not sure it really matters. I don?t think people should come to Faith for fear of death but rather for the love of the Father of Life. For those of us who are alive in Christ, where the unsaved ?go? after they die ultimately shouldn?t matter. What should matter to us is introducing them to their Creator and letting him re-make them into His Image.



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Scott M

posted April 15, 2009 at 9:10 am


Although not really on the topic of ‘hell’ as a ‘real’ place, there is a reflection I encountered recently and through which I’ve been working. Whose presence in ‘heaven’ would make it ‘hell’ for me? If I’m honest, there are names with which I could answer that question. That helps shed light on where I still need to work on forgiveness and healing.
Chad, annihilationism is not a new thought. It’s an idea that the church considered fairly early and rejected for what I think are still good reasons. It’s too long a discussion for a comment and to be honest it’s been enough years now since I studied the details of that particular discussion that I’m a little foggy on it. But it has more to do with what that says about God and the Incarnation and the Resurrection and what it means to be a human being created in the likeness and image of that God than anything else. Lots of things in the early discussions revolved around the profound implications of the Incarnation. That’s why the major disputes all centered on the nature of Jesus.
As with most things in the faith, I’m not really looking for innovation. The problem I run into is that a lot of things people believe today and think are ‘traditional’ are actually comparatively recent innovations.



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Joey

posted April 15, 2009 at 9:27 am


If my memory serves me, I believe C.S. Lewis also advocated for a Hell that is within the realm of God’s love, therefor justifying hell even in the midst of renewal and reconciliation.
I have no idea what to believe about the whole thing.



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Scott M

posted April 15, 2009 at 9:42 am


Percival, God being unchanging has nothing to do with the emotions he experiences. While I think anytime we attribute emotions to God, we are of necessity anthropomorphizing to some extent, we really can’t talk about anything without doing that. And the Incarnation gives us, I think, a pretty fair degree of latitude in that regard. But God can have all sorts of emotions. The unchanging aspect deals with the attitude, will, and character of God.
God is love, so everything must be understood in light of that, even if the love that God in Trinity is transcends anything we know of love.
God willed creation into being, though utterly self-sufficient, out of the overflow of that triune love. Some aspect of creation required the withdrawing or the yielding of the God who is all in all so that the space for the ‘nothing’ from which all was created could be formed. Creation itself is another form or expression of the internal yielding love of the Trinity expressed outwardly. Creation is the expression of God’s love and the eikon the pinnacle of creation.
God wills that none should perish and though love never forces its own way upon the other, that will never changes, even if some stubbornly push toward non-existence. The hope I expressed in empathy with St. Gregory and St. Isaac is not what is called modern universalism. It is a pious hope that all is not lost even in the eschaton, that even the worst and most stubborn is not eternally locked in hatred of God, but rather still has room to change. Why do we need to make disciples? Because we carry the words of life! Whatever we are in the eschaton will be more continuous with who we are and become now than discontinuous. That much is clear. That is a scarier thought than some seem to credit once you begin to know our God.
There are lots of people and threads of thought in the West over the last thousand years that I do find helpful. In almost every case, though, when I trace the thought back I find it connects in some way back to the earlier thoughts in a way that is consistent with Christian tradition rather than consistent with the blatant innovations (some might say aberrations) of other trains of Western thought. I find that true even in the modern era. C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, and others have a lot more in common with the ancient theology of the Church than with more modern streams.



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Travis Greene

posted April 15, 2009 at 9:58 am


I probably fall somewhere more along the lines of annihilationism. Although the Christian radical universalism that would say “Jesus is so good at what he does that eventually, everyone repents” is appealing to me. We are obliged to believe in judgment, not necessarily hell as it is described popularly today.
But I think only our poetry and parable get close to the truth. The Great Divorce by Lewis and Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright are good primers for this discussion. See also “The Last Battle”, and Tolkien’s “Silmarillion”. At the end of the day, I’m comfortable not knowing much about the specifics of judgment, heaven, and the eschaton. Because, as with so many things we simply don’t know very much from Scripture. We know enough, and no more.



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Bob Cornwall

posted April 15, 2009 at 9:59 am


To be flippant, although I’ve not yet been there, it would appear that Hell is a small town to the west of Detroit!
But, more to the point, if God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, does that allow for anything not reconciled?



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Rick

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:04 am


Joe T- You just could not resist :^)
Scott M- Always appreciate your thoughts. What did you mean by your “since converting”? Just trying to make sure I know where you are coming from.
Some questions in regards to post’s/reader’s question:
1) is Hell the antithesis of Heaven?
2) if they are antithetical, what do we then think Heaven is, and how does this impact how we think of Hell?
For example, Scott M stated:
“Heaven’ is not a physical place within the universe. It is God’s dimension of reality and is meant to be interlocking and interconnected with ‘earth’, the dimension of reality in which man is intended to stand and rule as the eikon of God.”
Therefore, is Hell then a dimension of reality that apart from God and is never to to inerlock and interconnect with ‘earth’?



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Tom Grosh

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:11 am


Helpful question to raise.
As many of you know “descended into hell” is not present in the Nicene Creed or early versions of the Apostles Creed. It seems to have emerged from an expansion of buried/in the grave (i.e., Hades) — For some conversation on this topic one can read Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, p.586 ff.
Wayne Grudem terms hell, “a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked” (p.1148). He cites a number of passages from stories told by Jesus (Mt 25:30, Mt 25:41, Mt 25:46, Mark 9:43, Mark 9:48, Luke 16:22-24, Luke 16:28) and the book Revelation (14:9-11, 19:3, 20:10).
After discussing annihilationism at some length he comments, “Yet after all this has been said, we have to admit that the ultimate resolution of the depths of this question lies far beyond our ability to understand, and remains hidden in the counsels of God. Were it not for the scriptural passages cited above which so clearly affirm eternal conscious punishment, annihiliationism might seem to us to be an attractive option. Though annihiliationism can be countered by theological arguments, it is ultimately the clarity and forcefulness of the passages themselves that convince us that annihiliationism is incorrect and that Scripture does indeed teach the eternal consious punishment of the wicked.
What are we to think of this doctrine? It is hard — and it should be hard — for us to think of this doctrine today. If our hearts are never moved with deep sorrow when we contemplate this doctrine, then there is a serious deficiency in our spiritual and emotional sensibilties.”
Grudem continues by noting Paul’s, God’s, and our love for sinners who rebel against God. In the personal application section, I spent time dwelling upon I John 4:16-18:
“So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.”



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ChrisB

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:12 am


“For those who believe in a traditional picture of hell, where is it?”
I may be taking this wrong, but it seems to be implied that, if we can’t explain where hell is, we have to drop our belief in it (at least as we understand it).
That’s doesn’t follow. My inability to explain the renewed cosmos has no bearing on whether hell is a real place in it.



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Harald

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:42 am


I would like to come at to come at this from two angles:
1. What does our view of hell tell us about God?
The God who allows a hell similar to the Calvinist picture Percival portrays, is a God I would have a really hard time worshipping, and I do not think that kind of God is compatible with the God revealed in Jesus the Christ. The question of what kind of God we worship makes the understanding of hell an important issue.
2. How does our understanding of what it means to be human inform our understanding of hell?
I am a chemist, not a theologian, but based both on our understandings from science and on the Old Testament, I would thoroughly reject a dualist understanding of human nature. The notion that I have a soul with an independent existence apart from the physical body does not make any sense to me. The resurrection is physical as the gospels go to pains to describe; it is a new new creation both continuous and discontinous with the old. If my soul does not exist apart from the physical, I can not be in a self-conscious state between death and resurrection. What I would “be” in that period is a bit hard to explain, especially in a pre-scientific world-view, and I think the way the terms sheol/hades and paradise/Abraham’s bosom are used reflects that. I assume that this view of human nature indicates either an annihilist view of hell or a form of universalism.
It would be nice to get an understanding of why annihilation was deemed heretical.



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Scott M

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:42 am


Rick, ‘since converting’ refers to my process of conversion to Christianity which occurred as an adult. Although I grew up with a number of Jewish friends of our family (and thus attended some seders and such things) and had other connections with and some appreciation for modern Judaism, I did not delve much at all into ancient Jewish history before my conversion. This was a gap in an otherwise broad interest in the ancient world that I didn’t even notice until I began to really try to understand Christianity and our texts. I also realized fairly early on that I didn’t actually know much about Christianity. As almost anyone in our culture does, I had absorbed the general cultural impression of Christianity and had actually been directly exposed to a wide array of the Christian traditions and denominations to some extent or another. I had rejected that cultural norm as anything worth believing out of the spectrum of beliefs to which I was exposed during childhood formation (most not Christian at all), admittedly helped along by some pretty negative experiences with Christian churches. But I didn’t really realize how I had ignored Jewish and Christian history until I converted and the huge hole was staring me in the face. I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
I would say that ‘Hell’ is not the antithesis of ‘Heaven’. That is an utterly false picture of reality. Heaven is God’s dimension of our reality and if anything C.S. Lewis was right in his efforts to capture as something even more sharply real than anything we’ve yet encountered. Earth is also part of that one interlocking and interwoven reality we call ‘creation’. Hell, by contrast, is the ultimate delusion. It has no reality. And to consign ourselves to hell is to enter into a permanent state of delusion.
Making hell the antithesis of heaven is similar to promoting Satan to an almost equal and opposing status with God. Satan is nothing compared to God. He has no independent existence and depends on God for his existence from moment to moment just as all the rest of us do. Creation is entirely contingent on God in the Christian perspective. Always has been and always will be.
Oh, and that also pretty much eliminates the idea of ‘Hell’ as someplace separated from or apart from God. There can be no such place. Nothing apart from God has the characteristic of self-existence. And in the Christian perspective, nothing and no-one ever attains self-existence. To say that something is apart from God is to say that it has ceased to exist.
I also remembered the thread in the ancient discussions of annihilationism that most struck me at the time. I think it still does. At a very deep level, to say that the eikon ever ceases to exist is a denial of the Resurrection. God did not defeat death once and for all. The nature of man is not changed. And death still reigns. To sin, to pursue evil was generally recognized as our facing toward death and attempting to achieve non-existence. But since Jesus made our nature one with God it is not and cannot be the nature of man to die. The Resurrection changed reality. It does not depend upon belief.



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Travis Greene

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:45 am


Rick @ 18, “Is Hell the antithesis of Heaven?”
No. Satan isn’t the antithesis of God, either. Satan/Hell are anti-God/Heaven, but not in the dualistic sense that they’re reflections or equal-and-opposite flipsides of the coin. I think it’s very important that we recognize that, no matter what we think of hell, it cannot be in this kind of binary with Heaven. If it exists, or continues to exist, or whatever, it is as Lewis described, a tiny fragment. It’s not the mirror image we frequently imagine.



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Bry Leigh

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:51 am


Man. My mom always told me, “If God is a God of love, why would He create a Hell?” To this day, though, I have yet to see her read Scripture.
Am I mistaken or is it Satan (perhaps us) who created hell? Considering, of course, “left of the Crab Nebula” or GPS coordinates are not valid descriptors …



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Richard

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:56 am


Scot, I’m far from being a theologian and one who is not planning to find out from first experience what hell really is, allow me to offer a few non-expert thoughts.
If God is eternal and if He is unchangeable and if he is omnipresent, does that include a presence in Hell. Now before the tomatoes fly, consider…
If God is omnipresent wouldn’t hell be terrible, because the one sentenced there would still somehow be in the presence of God, but unable to be present with Him? Does that make sense? I mean, I can’t think of any hell worse than being in the presence of perfection while in a state of total sin. There would be terror, abandonment, fury, all the terrible adjectives you can think of that describe total lostness.
Oh..and to add to the mix, a God who is love and omnipresent and a person who is reduced to hate by their own sentence. Sounds like hell to me.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:59 am


Albert Harrill in Slaves In The New Testament: Literary, Social And Moral Dimensions has some interesting insights into the ?weeping and gnashing of teeth? and outer darkness. He points out that the Greeks believed that slaves were mindless animals. However, the Romans believed that slaves had minds and wills that must disciplined to be brought into line the master?s mind and will. Slaves were assumed to be untrustworthy and in need of regular discipline. There were actually businesses in cities devoted to disciplining slaves.
Outside the city, many of the villas had their own private prisons (ergastula) for disciplining slaves. They were outside the Roman penal system. Occasionally, an unfortunate free person might be kidnapped and thrown in these secluded prisons. They were often dark windowless facilities from which people could hear weeping and gnashing of teeth. Note Jesus comment to the Roman Centurion in Matthew:
?When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:10-12, NRSV)
Rebellious and recalcitrant servants were the primary reason the ergastula existed and Jesus was drawing on this imagery in Matthew 22:12-13, 24:50-51, and 25:29-30. Disciplining errant servants who do not have the master?s mind seems to be the context for the ?gnashing of teeth? imagery. But if you follow the imagery, the discipline has the aim of creating a disciplined slave, not eternal torment. Don?t know what to make of this but I thought it might be applicable.



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Travis Greene

posted April 15, 2009 at 11:03 am


Scott M @ 22, “At a very deep level, to say that the eikon ever ceases to exist is a denial of the Resurrection. God did not defeat death once and for all. The nature of man is not changed. And death still reigns.”
I get that, and it’s a powerful argument. But at the same time, I’m drawn toward annihilationism because I think it is, paradoxically, God’s prerogative to lose sometimes. Think of the breakup cliche: if you love someone, you have to let them go. This gets back to free will and determinism, and maybe love just doesn’t win, because to win at the cost of free will it would cease to be love. And you are right, we are not self-existent, and so to be apart from God is to cease to exist. Or, and this is very interesting, do all eventually repent out of free will, even if it takes millenia?
Well, I hardly know what I am even saying.



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Paul

posted April 15, 2009 at 11:06 am

Scott M

posted April 15, 2009 at 11:18 am


Harald, I generally agree with your perspective about no conception of an existence that is not bodily. That’s also entirely consistent with the Jewish roots of our faith and Christian theological development opposing the dualism of Greek philosophy. And, of course, it’s utterly consistent with modern science. Change the physical brain either in structure or chemistry and you markedly change the person. For good or ill as the case may be.
I do inject one caveat. Although our Holy Scriptures do not speak very much about the interim period between the time we fall asleep in the Lord and the final Resurrection of the dead, what it does say does not line up particularly well with a period of unconsciousness. We are told that sleep is to be with Christ which is far better. Revelations pretty clearly (as clearly as anything in apocalyptic language) shows the saints praying beneath the altar. Hebrews speaks of the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us. It is a mystery and seems to be intended as such. But it does seem pretty clear that not only do we not experience death, but those of us in Christ remain conscious and active in some way while awaiting the eschaton. Somehow God fills the place of our body for that period. How? I don’t see any place we’re told. And even what we do see is shrouded. But it seems pretty clear that somehow he sustains us consciously and we continue to pray and commune during that period. Now, even less is said about those who are not ‘in Christ’. It seems reasonable that the sleep is to them a period of unconsciousness until the resurrection.



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chris

posted April 15, 2009 at 11:19 am


I was helped greatly by an Eastern Orthodox friend who showed me an Icon of Matthew 25, the separation of the sheep and the goats. In the Icon (unfortunately I couldn’t find an image online) Jesus sits at the center in judgment and for those on the right standing in front of Jesus is eternal life but for those on the left the presence of Jesus is to much too bear and it is eternal anguish.



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Tom Grosh

posted April 15, 2009 at 11:24 am


N.T. Wright’s “Surprised By Hope” stands in the “stream of recent work re-picturing heaven.” In Chapter 11 he explores “Purgatory, Paradise, Hell”(pp. 165-186). Early in Chapter 11, he confesses that the topic of “What about Hell?” “demands a book in itself, and I am torn between my lack of desire to write such a book and my recognition that one must at least say something” (p.175). Near the end of chapter he notes hell serves as “one of the darkest theological mysteries” (183).
Wright begins by rejecting the medieval imagery which has led to a caricature of the final judgment which encourages many atheists and universalists. He then discusses Jesus’ references to Gehenna, “a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the south-west corner of the old city of Jerusalem” (p.175). He argues, Jesus was underscoring the ramification of continued revolution against Rome, i.e., Jerusalem becoming “a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap”(p.176). Furthermore, Wright points out that Jesus’ references to what happens after death occurred in parables/stories and are not “descriptions of the afterlife.”
Wright transitions into the failure of universalism and liberal theology in the face of the necessity of judgment in our broken world. Instead of “universalism,” “conditional immortality,” and “eternal conscious torment,” he proposes,
“When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. … My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not,creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond home but also beyond pity. There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal” (pp.182-3).
Wright returns to “the foundational claims that this world is the good creation of the one true God, and that he will at the end bring about that judgment at which the whole creation will rejoice” (183).
At http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Zk31Uc_pCY Wright comments, “it is as though within God’s all in all-ness, there will be an absence, a loss, the possibility of there being creatures who were once human, but now are not. I dont know what the word where would mean at that point. Cause, I dont know what location is like at that point. And I fail to see why we should speculate about it. I just think its a state of being, of creatures that once were human, once did reflect the image of God, but have chosen to do so no more. And I have to say, people often ask me about this, and I dont like talking about it, partly because I know a great many people and love a great many people, some of whom, as far as I can see are saying precisely that to God. And I shudder to think, of those people saying, I truly dont want to be human. Thank you very much… because they are lovely human beings at the moment, and you can see glimmers of God in them, but how that works out is up to them. So this is not something I talk about readily or happily. I know some Christians who, ah, theres heaven and theres hell. And those guys are going to get it. Thats not what Im saying at all. This is a matter of really a terrifying possibility. And every so often you look in the mirror, and say, hmm. Are you worshipping idols as well. Is that where youre going. Christians have to ask themselves that. It doesnt destroy your assurance, but its a question you need to ask.”



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Mike M

posted April 15, 2009 at 11:36 am


“Hell” is a hole in the ground. That’s where Jesus was for 3 days (3 whole days, BTW, not “parts” of 3 days, just like Jonah). The lake of fire that burns eternally doesn’t exist yet but will at the end times. Note that it burns eternally, not necessarily that sinners burn eternally.
The notion that bad people go to hell when they die and good people go to heaven is not only bad theology, but also nonbiblical and speakes against the resurrection. And it is dualistic thinking bordering on gnosticism. Our souls are products of our bodies which, for believers, will be transformed into glory at the resurrection “in a twinkling of an eye.” The bodies of unbelievers will be thrown into the lake of fire which will consume them (along with the gnashing of teeth and moaning since it is a bodily, and therefore sensual, experience). End of body, end of soul (but not without the torment). The visions of “hell” written about by prophets like Paul Bunyan’s brother John, capture that time period of destruction and torment.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted April 15, 2009 at 11:39 am


Hell is Beliefnet’s comments system. :-) Right now, I see the whole post I get only comments 28-32. If if hit “comments” I no longer see the whole post and can see comments 1-23. So now I think I double posted with #32 but I now realize it was because it was somewhere between 24-27 and I couldn’t see it.



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Ben S.

posted April 15, 2009 at 11:41 am


One further comment (or two).
Harald, I like your line of thought. If we are to reject a dualistic view of human nature, and realize that the true hope of Christianity is a resurrection/remaking of this world and the uniting of heaven and earth, it follows that there is also not a permanent outer body/post mortem existence for the unsaved either. It is important to realize the impact Plato had on ancient (and modern) culture and try to weed those assumptions out. I also would like to know why annihilation was deemed heretical.
However, I still think that if we were meant to “know” about life after death, it would have been clearer. I think the danger in talking too much about these unclear issues is that it can lead to a bunch of “right belief” Christians who satisfy themselves on being able to articulate finer points of (divisive) theology instead of living out the clear message of Christ which is well summarized in the Jesus Creed.



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Scott M

posted April 15, 2009 at 12:03 pm


Beliefnet is annoying. The preview page show there are 35 comments now and the last couple of them. That’s number that has been steadily growing. But the comments page where you can actually see all the comments has been stuck at 23 for at least the last hour. Sigh.



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Al

posted April 15, 2009 at 12:08 pm


An interesting passage to consider is 2 Peter 2:12. Do animals experience eternal conscious torment?
1 Co 15 is relevant too as to when we “put on immortality.”



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Brian

posted April 15, 2009 at 12:23 pm


Bob (#17),
Before you make a visit to Hell, I would recommend visiting Paradise, a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. You can also visit Nirvana, a small town about 80 miles north of Grand Rapids, MI, which puts it appropriately in the middle of nowhere.



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Mike M

posted April 15, 2009 at 12:29 pm


Maybe beliefnet is hell…



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Rich

posted April 15, 2009 at 12:52 pm


Brian, Paradise WAS hell last year…Paradise, California that is. They had a huge forest fire up there and a lot of people thought it was hell.



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dopderbeck

posted April 15, 2009 at 12:57 pm


I see here a very interesting parallel to what happens after Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden — an angel with a flaming sword is placed in front of the entrance to the Garden so that humanity no longer has access to it. By implication, we can no longer walk with God in the garden in the cool of the evening. We lack the safety and fellowship of the Garden.
What does these images mean ontologically? Satellite photos of Iraq reveal no literal flaming sword, nor would we expect them to. But there is a “place,” a state of existence, to which we as human beings now do not have access. If we had to describe this in terms of modern cosmology, would we say that this is a “dimension” of the universe which is now closed to us?
I think this ties into the image in Revelation of the “New Jerusalem” — “heaven” as a city. Biblical cities, of course, have walls and gates. Those within the city walls are safe, housed, fed, and able to enjoy the blessings of community. Those outside the city walls lack the security and fellowship of the community. In fact, in the New Jerusalem, redeemed human beings again have access to the “Tree of Life,” which was last seen in the Garden. In contemporary cosmological terms, have we again skipped dimensions? Are those outside the New Jerusalem’s city walls barred from the city in the same way that we now are barred from Eden? I often wonder whether the universe is so much stranger than we think that many of these quandries will make more sense as science advances.
Having said all this, I think we can get tied up into too many knots when we try to figure out the place-ness of Hell from the Biblical imagery. If God is ominpresent, and is the sustainer of all creation, and if nothing exists apart from God that is not God’s “creation,” then Hell surely cannot be a “place” where God is not present in some ontologically sustaining sense. It seems to me that references to being cast from God’s presence refer not so much to topography or ontology as to blessing.
Scott M — are you Eastern Orthodox? Curious for the background of your understanding of the Ante-Nicene fathers. Who would you identify as a capable contemporary interpreter of the Ante-Nicene fathers regarding Hell?
It seems to me very difficult to dismiss the Biblical references Dan and Tom mention concerning Hell as an active punishment. I don’t think this precludes the more Eastern notion of Hell as a more passive suffering in the light of God’s holiness, but it seems to me both images are required in order to do justice to the entire range of Biblical narrative and imagery. God actively judges and punishes, and His judgments are fearsome; He also allows us to make bad choices. Both aspects are present in, for example, God’s judgment of Judah, the Babylonian exile.



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Kenton

posted April 15, 2009 at 1:00 pm


I’m having a hell of a time trying to read all of the comments. When I click on the comments link, I only see the first 23. Where are 24-37?



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RJS

posted April 15, 2009 at 1:26 pm


The see all comments view on all posts stopped refreshing between 10:45 and 10:50 am EDT (best estimate) – we will just have to hope they get it taken care of soon.



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Tom Grosh

posted April 15, 2009 at 1:37 pm


Kenyon, Thank-you for raising the commenting concern.
RJS, Thank-you for seeking to address the issue.
I thought it was something w/my browser. Hope my long comments are creating the problems. …



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Tom Grosh

posted April 15, 2009 at 1:40 pm


In comment #44, I meant to say,
“Hope my long comments are NOT creating the problems.”
Waiting for my perfected state. Oh, Lord come quickly.



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William Cheriegate

posted April 15, 2009 at 1:42 pm


Hell was the valley of Hinnon, just outside the gates of Jerusalem.
Amazing how complicated we’ve made it. This is what happens when you take the context out of Jesus’ words. Remember, “this generation shall not pass away until all this is accomplished”.
Free yourself from your favorite theology, or at least try to.



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Timmy C.

posted April 15, 2009 at 1:45 pm


My view is that when Jesus talked of hell, outer darkeness, the local Gehenna trash dump, etc, or even when he oddly referred to the Greek Hades*… he was describing a spiritual state of being…
A being disconnected, alone in lost darkness, in a state of waste and loss and despair…. Only a “place” in the sense of being a state of existence that some of us are “in.”
I would think of “heaven” as a similar but mostly opposite state of being connected to God and others, being in a state of wholeness and fulfillment, and being where we need to be, doing what we need to do in God’s rule.
Looking back on it, i see that even this language is somewhat “metaphroical” too — trading the image of a “underworld dungeon” for the image of “connectivity” like two wires connecting, or not.
But then again, isn’t all language a symbol?



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Mike Beidler

posted April 15, 2009 at 3:40 pm


Full disclosure: I’m both a preterist and an “evolutionary creationist” who has been wrestling with the concept of hell for several months now in light of my eschatology and “protology.” So, what I will briefly outline here is a work in progress:
(1) I believe that a fairly solid scriptural argument can be made to connect the old “heavens and earth” with the Old Covenant and the new “heavens and earth” with the New Covenant. They were never meant to describe physical things, but rather covenantal things. Thus, we have been living in the “new heavens and earth” since the Old Covenant was done away with in AD 70 with the destruction of Temple economy. The new heavens and earth is something to be lived out, not lived in.
(2) Therefore, we should not look to those passages about the new heavens and earth as post-mortem descriptions of heaven. In fact, I believe that the Bible says very little about the believer’s post-mortem state other than to say it’s a new life/reality with God.
(3) The physical descriptions of Sheol/Hades in both the OT and NT cannot be reconciled. There are clearly insurmountable differences; however, they can be chalked up to cultural accomodation on the part of God in his pursuit to give mankind theological truth via the Bible. Inerrant theological truths via fallible vessels.
(4) Thus, “hell” is an eternal separation from God which does not entail the sending of any portion of our being (e.g., the soul) to a physical place or alternate reality. From my “evolutionary creationist” perspective, hell is simply death, i.e., non-existence, identical to the fate of the “souls” of animals, which is the normal way of things from the beginning. Eternal life with God is “conditional” and a gift, quite contrary to the “normal” way of things. Mankind is offered “conditional immortality,” which is transformed into “eternal life” upon entering the New Covenant (i.e., being “born again” or “born from above”). Upon a believer’s death, s/he receives a new body (and, from my preterist perspective, will not be meeting up with his/her old one). Like Harald said, quite well I might add, our new body “is a new new creation both continuous and discontinous with the old. (I’m neither a monist nor a dualist, but somewhere in between.)
If someone wants scriptural references, they can email me privately via my blog (listed above). I’m on a brief lunch break and don’t have the time to squeeze those in. ;-)



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Mike Beidler

posted April 15, 2009 at 3:44 pm


Fixing my previous post, specificially, Harald’s quote …
Like Harald said, quite well I might add, our new body “is a new creation both continuous and discontinous with the old.” (I’m neither a monist nor a dualist, but somewhere in between.)



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Scott M

posted April 15, 2009 at 4:02 pm


I know! Travis Greene (23) broke beliefnet because he wanted to have the last word! :P



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Harald

posted April 15, 2009 at 5:30 pm


Scott M:
I do not see the texts you mention as opposing the idea of the saints being unconscious while awaiting the eschaton. To be with Christ could be could be “far better” both in conscious and an unconscious state, as long as what they await are the resurrection and the new creation. Revelation uses imagery to tell important truth about God and the world. It is written from the perspective of the persecuted Christians, and portrays the martyrs awaiting final justice. I do not however believe the text wants to say anything about the state of the martyrs in this case.
I do sense a universalist understanding in your comments, where people eventually will be saved. And I do think that this understanding, or the idea of eternal existence in hell, is the only things that necessitate a conscious non/pre-resurrected conscious state.
Ben S:
I agree that we are not meant to know everything about what happens after death or after the eschaton. However, what I do think is important to realize is that what we believe about this matters informs how we understand God and what salvation means. For my part I can not reconcile a traditional Calvinist understanding of eternal torment in hell with the God we know through Christ. This would be a divisive issue for me. Divisive in the sends I would have a hard time being active in a church who thought that view and hell. On the other hand, I would have no problems with the views expressed by Scott M, although I might disagree on specifics, because I believe his views to be compatible with the way God is revealed through Jesus.



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Jeff Cook

posted April 15, 2009 at 6:57 pm


Many thanks to all for commenting!
(On Comments 1-30)
Questions for Scot:
(1) Are there any passages that speak of God’s consuming love and the fires of hell being synonymous?
(2) How do you wrestle with the “lake of fire” in Rev 20 in the light of your first post?
(3) Why think that being made “in God’s image” means that the human soul is immortal? (Some passages imply that God is the only immortal being – ex. 1 Tim 6:16)
(4) The better argument for immortality for all is the one you based on the resurrection where you say, “Since Jesus made our nature one with God it is not and cannot be the nature of man to die.” But isn’t being united to Christ–being “in Christ”–dependent? Why think it is universally apllied? Is this not what baptism symbolizes our identification with and particaption in the resurrection?
We are both on the same page on the metaphysical nature of heaven and the rejection of hell as as “someplace seperated from or apart from God.” I agree. “There is no such place.” Which is why the question of location for those who affirm eternal conscious torment is central. It seems you are getting past this objection with a form of universalism. Which I think is an acceptable move.
To Ben (12) – The question of where Hell is matters because the answer would give us a better understanding of what hell “is”. Many who are not yet Christians reject Christian theism because of the belief in eternal conscious torment. And perhaps that is a bad doctrine. Perhaps it is in fact disproven by the idea that God will restore, reconcile, renew everything.
(Tom -19) Your counter arguments need to be spelled out. One might not inturpret your cited passages the same way. AND, I’d love to hear your answer to the question. On Grudem’s view, where is hell?
(Chris – 20) The question actually seeks to show an inconsistency with an (assummed) clear teaching of scripture–the renewal, restoration, reconciliation of all things, AND a place, location, condition of eternal conscious torment. The two seem contradictory.
As the one who asked the question, there aren’t many answers to “where is hell?”
One answers seems to be that hell is the frame of mind of those continuing to reject God in their post-mortem existence, but that seems to go against God restoring all things, for the human mind is certainly part of God’s creation.



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Tom Grosh

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:07 pm


Jeff (52),
I don’t know where Grudem locates hell, except that it’s hard to accept ;-) Maybe he discusses this further in another text. Maybe it’s a speck in relationship to the blades of grass on the outskirts of heaven, like ‘purgatory’/hell as described in C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce.” Maybe it’s the concentration camp view passed over by N.T. Wright.
Now that the whole set of comments can be seen (well done RJS), visit comment 31 for my summary of N.T. Wright’s perspective as articulated in “Surprised By Hope.” That provides a different take on some of the same texts.
In Christ, Tom



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RJS

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:13 pm


Tom,
Wish I could take credit – but those at beliefnet seem to march to the beat of their own drum…



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Brian

posted April 15, 2009 at 8:17 pm


Good comments, great discussion.
On a more personal note, I was always intrigued by the Lewis/Kreeft comment that for the one who says to God, “My will be done,” earth is as close to heaven as she gets and for the one who ultimately says to God, “Thy will be done” the current world is as close to hell as he will get.
On the poetic, metaphorical side, I am still moved by The Great Divorce by Lewis. Lewis gives a strong caution that what he says in the book is all a literary device and he is not advocating literal understandings. it turns out, in the Great Divorce, that Purgatory is so small as to be contained in the smallest hole in the ground, it is virtually without substance. And then hell has less substance yet.
I really have no idea what this adds to our theological discussion. I just find myself drawn to the imaginative and metaphorical side of the conversation for these matters. Ultimately I think hell is real. But is it real torment forever? Or is it real annihilation forever? I hope that it would be the restoration/renewal of all things and all people, even those who have said “no to God.” If that is not how it will be, I hope it would be the annihilation of consciousness for all those who have said no to God. If that is not how it will be . . .
-bkr-



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Travis Greene

posted April 15, 2009 at 10:37 pm


Scott M @ 50,
Well, it worked for awhile, didn’t it?



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Jeff Cook

posted April 15, 2009 at 11:52 pm


(Comments on 31-56)
(Tom -31) I thought you had outstanding things to add here. Let me start by saying, I am the world’s biggest NT Wright fan. I believe I would not be a Christian if not for his work, and continue to hold him in the highest respect. A few points:
(1) In the Surprised by Hope quote, the location of hell is not specified. It is avoided, and this still seems a vital question, especially for those who hold a position like Wright?s (IE ? God?s total restoration of the cosmos).
(2) If the damned soul is “an absence”. Then that is an annihilationist position, which makes sense of the location question. But this is probably not what Wright is arguing since he explicitly rejects annihilation in Surprised by Hope. Still, if not the annihilation of damned souls then where is hell given “God’s all in all-ness”.
(3) The majority of the last quote is about trying to get out of answering such a depressing question. That’s fine. Wright has a generous and soft heart. But the question is still hugely important and I?m sure he knows ?why we should speculate about it.? Tens of thousands of skeptics fail to pursue or consider Christian theism because of the dogma of eternal conscious torment. And if we are going to defend the position given such losses, we ought to be crystal clear on whether it stands up to scrutiny.
Be well! Jeff



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Rebeccat

posted April 16, 2009 at 12:24 am


Very interesting conversation. The idea of God’s light being hell for some people sounds very much like what John of the Cross had to say about the dark night of the soul. We experience God’s light as darkness because we are blinded by it, much like a person in a dark room when a light is turned on. We see nothing and experience pain. But this also hides the work that only God can do in cleansing our spirit of the darkness which has residence there. In time, we experience the flame of love which as a welcome thing that burns away that which is not Godly and offers illumination. Once that which is ungodly has been consumed by the fire of God, the fire is no longer painful, but life giving. Interestingly, in John of the Cross’s explanation, this work is almost entirely passive on our part.
At any rate, one thing I am surprised that no one has brought up are the problems with translating aonian kolasin (or some form thereof) which is usually translated as eternal or everlasting punishment. According to Josephus, the pharisees who taught eternal hell did not use these words – they used adios timoria. (Alternately they also spoke of eirgmos aidios [eternal imprisonment] and timorion adialeipton [endless torment]. Neither phrase is found in the bible, although they were in common enough use to have made it into Josephus’ account of Jewish teachings.) Adios means eternal and timoria means punishment. In the NT aionian is used instead of aidios. It means age (could be very long, very short, the length of a man’s life or the length of a kingdom’s reign. Be it always indicated a period of time with a beginning and end. It is the root word for eon which is used similarly today.) The second word used in the NT is Kolasin which means chastisement. Chastisement, unlike say, torment, carries with it the idea of correction – not simply the infliction of punishment. It is done in order to instruct and bring about change which is not in the least consistent with the idea of simply suffering forever and ever. At that point you have torment or punishment, but not correction going on.
Anyhow, interesting conversation. It is nice to see this conversation taking place in polite company as it was all but banished just a few years ago, in my experience.



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Yahnatan Lasko

posted April 16, 2009 at 7:56 am


For the last few years I have connected the end of Isaiah (ch. 66) to both the references to Gehenna and being “outside” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, as well as to the vision of a new heavens and a new earth including a new Jerusalem at the end of Revelation. I know these don’t immediately overlap perfectly, but still they seem to me to be of the same nature…and Jesus’ use of a certain key phrase indicates to me that the passage was fundamental to whatever he was talking about.
To address Mike’s point(#5): the picture is not wandering, zombie-dead…the bodies in Isaiah 66 seem to be actually dead.
Also, this might be of interest: the end of Isaiah 57 depicts God saying “There is no peace for the wicked.” Death is often thought of as a “final rest”–so the idea that even in death, the wicked find no peace seems like a starting point for a (scary enough) conceptualization of hell to me. This is not an original thought, of course–it seems to me that C. S. Lewis explores this theme of no peace after death in The Great Divorce.



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Scott M

posted April 16, 2009 at 9:41 am


Jeff (51), I’m not sure what you’re looking for as a sufficient ‘bible passage’. Fire is used to describe God all through Scripture, from the burning bush to the pillar of fire to Hebrews 12. God is light. And in the ancient world, without our technology, light meant fire. God is love. It’s stated most succintly and bluntly in 1 John, but it’s a theme throughout Holy Scripture. Love is not something God has. It’s not something he does. It’s not an attitude. It’s what God is. Taking those two together, the traditional interpretation of the symbols and images of fire in Holy Scripture are always as the energies of God, and those are the expressions of the love that he is. He pours out blessings on the just and the unjust alike. God has one attitude toward every human being he has lovingly shaped – compassion and mercy flowing in rivers of love. Any other claim about God approaches slander. Why would that change in the eschaton?
If you were asking me, I don’t wrestle with any of the apocalyptic images in the Apocalypse of John. Some I grasp better than others. But I don’t expect to find an actual city with streets of gold and walls of precious gems and pearl gates. I really don’t expect to see an actual tree growing by an actual river with leaves healing the nations. Those are all apocalyptic images. I feel pretty confident I have a reasonable handle on those (unlike a fair amount of Revelation). Similarly, I think the traditional understanding of the fire as the unveiled fire of the love of God works just fine making sense of the lake of fire.
The human soul (and I’m assuming you mean some disembodied spirit rather than the whole person from the way your question was framed) is not naturally immortal and has no self-existence. The whole naturally immortal thing and any sort of independent status of body and spirit pretty much comes from Plato and similar non-Jewish and non-Christian sources. I believe you misunderstood a number of the things I have written. At the Resurrection, the cosmos changed. The change is focused on the human being, but it spills over everywhere. The nature of man – the adam – humanity – was changed. We were sourced or headed by death represented in the first adam. Jesus conquered death and replaced our head. Humanity is now sourced or headed by life in the second adam. Thus it is no longer the nature of man to die. That was universal and, as we see in Colossians, has in some sense been proclaimed to creation everywhere. This is why Christians shifted from the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the righteous dead to the general resurrection of all the dead. In Jesus of Nazareth, death is defeated. Universally and for all time. Humanity is now sourced in Jesus. God’s part is finished or completed. Now it is up to each of us to participate in life or in death. There is a way of life and a way of death (Didache).
I don’t hold to the forms of universalism that are essentially just a rejection of an angry God and which say everyone will be ‘saved’ in the sense that God isn’t going to ‘punish’ them. Mostly that’s because I don’t believe in the God against which most such modern ideas are reacting. But there’s also the problem that, if by ‘salvation’ you mean anything other than not punished, those ideas then take on coercive tones. God is going to ‘save’ you whether you want to worship him or not. That God quickly becomes almost as bad as the God who is going to torture you forever if you don’t do whatever things might be on the list. (In some extreme forms, there isn’t even anything you can do or believe. You’re going to be tortured or blessed based on some internal whim of God. Yuck.) There really isn’t room in a comment to even lay the groundwork in our present environment for the things people like St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian were saying. But it is not at all a coercive view. It is rather, having encountered even the shadow of God’s love that we have so far encountered, an incredulity that any heart could be so hardened and closed that the love of God would never be able to warm it. It’s a minority view. I guess most people have a more pessimistic view of human beings, are in a little less awe of God’s love, or some combination of both.
I would say that I find it perfectly reasonable to reject a God who is going to torture people without end for no correction or benefit but merely as an unending punishment. I doubt I would even believe in such a God. But even if I did believe in a God like that, I wouldn’t worship such a God. That’s not a God at all worthy of worship. That’s why I tend to find such views almost slanderous toward God.
Our minds are free. That seems to be an attribute of being an eikon of a Triune God of community. We must be free to commune with God and with each other or we are just animals, not the image of God. All things will be renewed. Even our bodies will be restored to us. But our minds and our wills are and will still be as we have directed and shaped them. If we bend them toward God, his grace and power can complete our desire. But if we turn away, he will not force us to face him.



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Tom Grosh

posted April 16, 2009 at 11:07 am


Dear Jeff (56),
Great to meet another NT Wright fan and to read of his testimony (to God be the glory!).
Yes, N.T. Wright appears to argue for a continuing “state” of hell for human beings who do not assume the image of God for which they were created/intended. Such a “state” results in pitiless creatures versus those created in the image of God (as quoted in 31). As I mention in 52 (along w/some others), maybe what we’ll find is something like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It is separate from God’s new world, see for example, http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/nicholas_t_wright/2007/06/neither_is_the_final_destinati.html
In an interview with Dick Staub, Wright comments,
“What I think is far more important in all of this discussion is not, you know, whether there are worms in hell, and this kind of thing, which I?ve been asked before, you know, because it says their worm will never die. And you know, so much of the Bible is appropriately metaphorical and we need to know what it actually refers to, as well as how it refers, but much more important than that is to get into our heads what the New Testament really is banging on about, which is resurrection, which is not a synonym for going to heaven when you die, but is what is going to happen after that. As I?ve often said, heaven is important but it?s not the end of the world. And what the New Testament is on about is what I call ‘life after life after death.’ That is, resurrection life after whatever state we go into after death. So the New Testament teaches a two-stage post-mortem eschatology. And it goes on and on about resurrection and says very little about the intermediate state, which we can call heaven if we like. And it?s very interesting that so much western Christianity has focused on the intermediate state so much that it?s forgotten that there is an ultimate resurrection. And it actually thinks that heaven is all there is. And the answer is, no, not according to the New Testament.” — http://www.dickstaub.com/culturewatch.php?record_id=693
But, as Wright reminds us again and again, heaven and hell are not the main point but instead the whole renewed cosmos, new heaven and new earth … which brings us back to “where is hell” when there is whole renewal. I guess the answer to ‘whole renewal’ is that part of that process is the removal of that which falls under judgment. Is this annihilation or eternal condemnation of sin, evil, and those who refuse to worship the Creator?
How about we think about followers of Christ. Those who worship the true God will become as they were intended to be, but that demands the judgment/removal of sin in their lives. That is the renewal of human beings in the image of God, but it is not the renewal of the sin. The tempter, sin and the power of the tempter/sin is separated from the child of God and eternally subjected to the fire/judgment of God. At some point only so much can be comprehended and the details fall to mystery. Wish I had a little bit more time to think about this comment. But I gotta go … as you probably suspect, I find clarifying conversations in a quasi-educational learning community of great value.
In Christ, Tom
PS. A whole series of “Surprised by Hope” videos can be found at http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=D966D6224EA97F83
PPS. Looks like we can read more in Wright’s upcoming Westminster John Knox Press book series.



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Tom Grosh

posted April 16, 2009 at 11:32 am


Dear Jeff (56),
Great to meet another NT Wright fan and to read of his testimony (to God be the glory!).
Yes, N.T. Wright appears to argue for a continuing “state” of hell for human beings who do not assume the image of God for which they were created/intended. Such a “state” results in pitiless creatures versus those created in the image of God (as quoted in 31). As I mention in 52 (along w/some others), maybe what we’ll find is something like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It is separate from God’s new world, see for example, http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/nicholas_t_wright/2007/06/neither_is_the_final_destinati.html
In an interview with Dick Staub, Wright comments,
“What I think is far more important in all of this discussion is not, you know, whether there are worms in hell, and this kind of thing, which I?ve been asked before, you know, because it says their worm will never die. And you know, so much of the Bible is appropriately metaphorical and we need to know what it actually refers to, as well as how it refers, but much more important than that is to get into our heads what the New Testament really is banging on about, which is resurrection, which is not a synonym for going to heaven when you die, but is what is going to happen after that. As I?ve often said, heaven is important but it?s not the end of the world. And what the New Testament is on about is what I call ‘life after life after death.’ That is, resurrection life after whatever state we go into after death. So the New Testament teaches a two-stage post-mortem eschatology. And it goes on and on about resurrection and says very little about the intermediate state, which we can call heaven if we like. And it?s very interesting that so much western Christianity has focused on the intermediate state so much that it?s forgotten that there is an ultimate resurrection. And it actually thinks that heaven is all there is. And the answer is, no, not according to the New Testament.” — http://www.dickstaub.com/culturewatch.php?record_id=693
But, as Wright reminds us again and again, heaven and hell are not the main point but instead the whole renewed cosmos, new heaven and new earth … which brings us back to “where is hell” when there is whole renewal. I guess the answer to ‘whole renewal’ is that part of that process is the removal of that which falls under judgment. Is this annihilation or eternal condemnation of sin, evil, and those who refuse to worship the Creator?
How about we think about followers of Christ. Those who worship the true God will become as they were intended to be, but that demands the judgment/removal of sin in their lives. That is the renewal of human beings in the image of God, but it is not the renewal of the sin. The tempter, sin and the power of the tempter/sin is separated from the child of God and eternally subjected to the fire/judgment of God. At some point only so much can be comprehended and the details fall to mystery. Wish I had a little bit more time to think about this comment. But I gotta go … as you probably suspect, I find clarifying conversations in a quasi-educational learning community of great value.
In Christ, Tom
PS. A whole series of “Surprised by Hope” videos can be found at http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=D966D6224EA97F83
PPS. Looks like we can read more in his new Westminster John Knox Press book series.



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Jeremy Berg

posted April 17, 2009 at 1:55 am


Sorry, I haven’t read all the comments so far but I would highly recommend wrestling with Greg Boyd’s thoughts on hell – who is interacting with C.S. Lewis and the notion of hell as “Das Nichtige”. Check out http://www.gregboyd.org/qa/end-times/are-you-an-annihilationist-and-if-so-why/ as well as Ch. 12 in “Satan & The Problem of Evil” called “A Separate Reality: Hell, Das Nichtige, and the Victory of God.”
Peace!



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Jeff Cook

posted April 18, 2009 at 8:52 am


(Scot -59)
Point 1 – The picture you are painting is a new one for me, and I wanted to hear how you grounded it in scripture. I like your argument. I do wonder if there isn?t eventual universalism (as you said you hoped for) if this picture of hell can overcome what I think is a clearer teaching of total, universal restoration. The picture as I hear you stating it would still have significant outposts of rebellion.
Point 2 – I would grant your argument about apocalyptic imagery in general. It strikes me as reasonable.
Point 3 – I rather like the idea of a shift from the resurrection of the righteous dead to a general resurrection of all. I follow your reasoning, and think it a worthy place to go. Question: would you place the sheep and the goats parable of Matt 25 in the apocalyptic category? It seems that this is the reality to which the unrepentant are raised, and there is the image of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” which seems to me a different kind of image of fire to that of God’s love. This fire is “prepared” which implies something separate from God.
Point 4 – I, again, find the form of universalism you present compelling. I would reject it on the grounds that I think there is too much language of ?destruction?, ?extinction?, ?blotting out? and the like in the NT. I don’t see it grounded in Jesus statements about hell and the nature of God’s future, which was why I asked the first question. I am quite intrigued though.
Point 5 – On God as torturer. I agree in full, and think this is the primary reason to reassess eternal conscious torment.
Point 6 ? As I say in Point 1, it still seems to me the human will is something that is, and must be included in the all-encompassing category of “all things” when talking about restoration. I think your answer makes sense of this, since you hold out hope for the redemption of all.
(Scot – Thanks for dialoguing with an obvious novice here!!)
(Tom – 60) I enjoyed your comments and links a great deal. I will actually use the NT Wright material in my next writing. Thanks for the thoughts!
(61- Jeremy) I had not seen that Boyd link and it was very helpful. Thanks!
Jeff



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Jeff Cook

posted April 18, 2009 at 9:09 am


Correction. My comments have been addressed to Scott M, and not Scot McKnight.
My fault.
Jeff



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