If that is true, then there are very few passages in Scripture which do teach about hell! In fact, there may be only two or three.
And these rare passages use highly symbolic terminology which tells us that we basically know nothing about hell.
One Bible teacher whom I used to listen to a lot, believes that hell is in the center of the earth. His argument is that when the Bible talks about the grave, it uses terminology about people going down into the earth, and therefore, hell must be in the earth. I find this almost laughable, for it shows a complete disregard for biblical imagery and symbolic terminology. “Going down into the earth” refers to getting buried and returning to dust, not going to hell.
Anyway, the few passages which do in fact refer to a place of punishment speak of flames and a Lake of Fire. Does this mean that hell will actually be a place that is burning? I could be wrong, but I really doubt it.
Fire in Scripture, when used symbolically, always refers to judgment. Hell is simply going to be a place of judgment, and it is usually temporal in nature.
Hell will not be a place of torture or torment as depicted in the 1997 Science Fiction movie Event Horizon(If you haven’t seen that movie, I don’t recommend it. It’s about a group of space travelers that travel to hell. And hell is very graphically depicted in the movie.)
So since hell is not a place where God tortures people for eternity, I almost literally shake with anger when I read these words that Jonathan Edwards preached:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.
Aside from his abhorrent view of hell, Edwards reveals a monstrous view of God and a despicable view of men. Forgive me for saying it, but this kind of evangelism can go to hell.
What is hell going to be like? Scripture doesn’t give us much indication.
Personally, I see a lot biblical and theological merit to the way C. S. Lewis portrayed it in his book The Great Divorce. He claimed he was not writing a theology of hell in this book, but I suspect he said that just to keep people from calling him a heretic. He pictures hell as a place where people live and exist because they want to, and where everybody gets exactly what they want. It is not torture. In that book, he wrote this:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
Lewis wrote elsewhere that the doors of hell are locked from the inside.
If you think about what life would be like if everybody got exactly what they wanted, it would be hell. Eventually, people couldn’t stand to be around each other. The longer they are there, the most disconnected they would become. In this sense, hell, ultimately, is eternal loneliness. It is eternal separation from God and others.
That, of course, is pretty hellish, but it is not the same as God torturing us for all eternity. Instead, it is God granting our desire to live apart from Him and live our lives exactly as we please.
Anyway, I will write a lot more about this when I get to the subject of hell in the current book I am writing on the violence of God, but I wanted to just give a short preview of my views on hell, and provide a follow-up from the post yesterday about whether Jesus spoke of hell more than heaven.
I sometimes hear pastors and teachers say that Jesus talked about hell more than heaven, and so we should do the same in our evangelism.
In other words, it is is often suggested that Jesus “scared” people into the kingdom. He threatened people with hell if they didn’t believe in Him, and so in our evangelism, we are perfectly justified in using threats of burning forever in hell and other similar scare tactics to get people into the Kingdom of God as well.
And it isn’t just the wacko fringe Christians who say this. I have heard it preached from the pulpits of some relatively “sane” evangelical churches. This sort of approach is also quite common in some of the leading evangelistic approaches of our day. People are trained to tell others that God is holy, righteous, and good, and since one sin is enough to condemn us to hell, God is justified in sending us there if we don’t believe in Jesus for eternal life.
And rather than shying away from hell, we are told to use it as a way to invite people into heaven. After all, we are told, Jesus preached about hell more than heaven, and so should we.
But is this true?
Is it true that Jesus talks about hell more than heaven?
But by way of preview (and because the topic of this month’s synchroblog is hell), here are some of the main points I will be writing about in that chapter:
References to “fire” are usually not references to hell.
Jesus does speak about “fire” several times in the Gospels (e.g., Matt 3:10-12; 7:19; 13:40-50; John 15:6). But these references to fire are not references to a place of eternal torture for the unredeemed, but are simply symbols of temporal discipline and destruction that come upon some people as a result of straying from God’s instructions. Fire can even be for purification of believers (the Greek word for fire is pur) as seen in 1 Corinthians 3:15.
Sometimes Jesus refers to “hell fire” (e.g., Matt 5:22), but these are actually references to “Gehenna,” which I discuss in a later point.
The few references where fire may refer to the everlasting flames of hell are places like Matthew 25:41, and are used in reference to a place created for Satan and his angels. Do some humans end up there? It appears so, but again, this will not be for torture and torment. To explain why will have to wait for the book…
References to “the outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” are not references to hell.
There are several instances in Matthew where Jesus refers to “the outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12; 13:42-50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). These terms are sometimes used in connection with fire and so most people think they also refer to hell.
But they don’t.
A careful contextual study of most of these texts reveal that the image of “outer darkness” is a symbol of exclusion from blessing and honor, and the image of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a vivid symbol of deep and profound regret. The events discussed in these places are typically events that will take place at the Judgment Seat of Christ (which is only for believers) and the Wedding Supper of the Lamb (which is also only for believers).
Again, I need full studies to show this, and these will have to wait for my book…
References to “hades” and “gehenna” are not references to hell.
There are numerous references in the Greek New Testament to hades and gehenna, and regrettably, most English translations translate these words as “hell.” But a place of eternal, conscious torment is what modern people think of when they think of hell, this is not what first century Jewish people would have thought of when they heard the words hades and gehenna.
Hades, of course, is the ancient Greek god of the underworld, the god of death. In biblical usage, it is often a Greek translation from the Hebrew sheol, which means “the pit” or “the grave.” Neither of these are references to hell, but simply refer to the hole in the earth in which dead people are laid (cf. Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 20:13).
There is, of course, the story about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, which seems to equate hades with torturous flames in a pit of hell. But there are numerous problems with understanding this text as referring to what really happens to people after they die (for example, Lazarus is there with the rich man and they can communicate), and so it is dangerous to take this text to literally.
Finally, Gehenna refers to an actual place that existed outside the gates of Jerusalem. It was a little valley in which trash was thrown to be burned. This imagery must be understood wherever Jesus talks about “hell fire” and uses Gehenna (cf. Matt 5:22).
And do I need to say it? … Yes, I know a fuller explanation is wanted on all these terms and texts, but it will have to wait for the book…
When all of this is considered, we see that Jesus didn’t talk about hell more than heaven. He rarely mentions hell at all. As such, I think there is absolutely no place for threatening people with hell if they don’t believe in Jesus for eternal life. Yes, we can warn people (as Jesus did) about the disastrous temporal consequences of their sin, but threatening people with eternal torment in flames is neither Christlike nor theologically correct.
To say that Jesus warned people of hell and so should we is just plain wrong.
Jesus Really Didn’t Talk about Heaven that Much Either
Having said all this, Jesus really didn’t talk that much about heaven either.
Just as we don’t really want to scare people into believing Jesus, we shouldn’t try to bribe them either. While Jesus talks about heaven more than hell, neither have a big emphasis in His teaching.
Instead, Jesus frequently talks about everlasting life, and life in the kingdom of God. Eternal life, of course, begins the moment we believe in Jesus for it, but the longer we live in Him, the great the experience of eternal life gets.
And the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven) is not a synonym for heaven, but simply refers to the rule and reign of God in our lives.
If you want to evangelize, and you want follow the way of Jesus and the apostles, you don’t need to threaten or bribe. Simply lay out the grand vision of what life is like when we live it God’s way. Life under the rule and reign of God is a life of joy, freedom, contentment, fulfillment, and satisfaction. It is a life of laughter and delight. It is a life free from bondage and slavery and addiction. It is life as it was truly meant to be lived.
This is the life Jesus lived, and this is the life Jesus invited people into. If we want to evangelize others like Jesus, we don’t need to threaten them with hell or bribe them with heaven, but can simply invite them into a way of life is that is better than anything else the world has to offer.
This post is part of the May Synchroblog on the topic of hell. Below is a list of the other bloggers who participated this month. Go read what they have to say on the topic of hell.
I have been studying the doctrine of hell recently, and by coincidence, ran across the following video.
The quality is pretty bad, but you don’t really need the images to get the… horror of it… Not the horror of hell, but the horror that Christians would use such tactics to try to scare people into heaven.
What makes it worse is that this video is obviously geared toward High School Students. The video is called “A Letter from Hell.”
I recently heard of a church that at a Youth Rally had 100% conversion. The speaker passed out little pieces of paper and had everyone write their name on their paper. Then he brought up two garbage cans, and in one, put some paper and lighter fluid and lit the thing on fire. Then he told the kids that the flaming trashcan represented hell, and the other represented heaven. He had the kids line up, and pass by the cans putting their piece of paper in the can where they wanted to go when they died…
Amazingly, not a single kid put his name in the flaming can! Instead, everyone wanted to go to heaven. The church reported that 100% of the kids at the rally were converted.
Now that’s evangelism success.
…Or is it?
Last week, Mark Driscoll tweeted that all unbelievers are going to hell.
If you are not a Christian, you are going to hell. It's not unloving to say that. It's unloving to not say that.
Thanks for clearing that up, Mark. We wondered where you stood on this issue and am glad you gave the watching world yet another reason to realize how kind and loving we Christians are…
But seriously, Mark’s point was that it is loving to tell people they are going to hell.
I know, I have heard the arguments:
If a man was about to drive his car off a cliff, the loving thing to do is to warn him. So also with hell. If a person is headed for hell, the loving thing to do is warn them.
If that’s true, then why did Jesus talk about hell so little? Why is it rarely (if ever) mentioned by Paul or Peter? The New Testament authors do not try to scare people into heaven with threats of hell.
OK, some of you Bible scholars are thinking to yourself, “Jeremy doesn’t read his Bible. Doesn’t he know that Jesus talks about hell more than He talks about heaven?”
Yes, I know that this is what some people claim. But it simply isn’t true. The passages where Jesus mentions “weeping and gnashing of teeth” are not talking about hell, but about profound regret for a life poorly lived that some Christians will experience at the Judgment Seat of Christ (cf. Matt 8:12; 22:11-13). Most of the references to “fire” in Jesus’ teaching are not about hell, but about some sort of temporal divine discipline; not eternal conscious torment.
I think maybe the only place Jesus talks about hell is with the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (which is likely a parable), and when Jesus says that hell was made for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41), and sadly, some people end up there as well.
…Speaking of which…. if hell was made for the devil and his angels, why are they on the earth now? Hmmm…. simmer on that one for a while.
Look, when Jesus, Paul, Peter, John and everyone else in the New Testament sought to invite people into the family of God, they did it winsomely. They didn’t threaten or coerce. God does not force people to love Him. God does not rape.
Even in the early church, people became Christians because they saw how loving and generous the Christians were (see Acts 2-3).
Look, people are never going to truly respond to the Gospel if you tell them that unless they accept Jesus they will be going to hell. Many people are already living in hell, and they think God has done this to them, and another such threat from God only reinforces there idea of this angry God up in the clouds who is out to kill and hurt them. Do we seriously want people to “come to Jesus” with this sort of picture of God in their minds?
Not only because it doesn’t “work” but more importantly, because it isn’t true!
God looks like Jesus, and Jesus always loves people into the Kingdom.
You know what is really loving? Not warning people that if they don’t believe in Jesus they will go to hell. That’s not loving, nor does it draw anyone to God or into His Kingdom.
What is really loving is living in such a way that people notice a difference in your life. They see your joy, your grace, your generosity, and your patience in trials. They never sense judgment coming from you, but only acceptance and love. If given the opportunity, you can use words to invite people to follow Jesus with you, and experience the true contentment, peace, and joy that comes from living in such a way.
Remember Susan Boyle? She went pretty far in the Britain’s Got Talent show back in 2009. But I recently was thinking about her and what heaven will be like, and realized there is something she teaches us about life, dreams, eternity, and heaven.
Watch this video before reading the rest of the post.
Susan Boyle’s story is a parable of our age. She is a singer of enormous talent, who cared for her widowed mother until she died two years ago. Susan’s is a combination of ability and virtue that deserves congratulation.
So how come she was treated as a laughing stock when she walked on stage for the opening heat of Britain’s Got Talent 2009 on Saturday night?
The moment the reality show’s audience and judging panel saw the small, shy, middle-aged woman, they started to smirk. When she said she wanted a professional singing career to equal that of Elaine Paige, the camera showed audience members rolling their eyes in disbelief. They scoffed when she told Simon Cowell, one of the judges, how she’d reached her forties without managing to develop a singing career because she hadn’t had the opportunity. Another judge, Piers Morgan, later wrote on his blog that, just before she launched into I Dreamed a Dream, the 3000-strong audience in Glasgow was laughing and the three judges were suppressing chuckles.
It was rude and cruel and arrogant. Susan Boyle from Blackburn, West Lothian, was presumed to be a buffoon. But why?
Britain’s Got Talent isn’t a beauty pageant. It isn’t a youth opportunity scheme. It is surely about discovering untapped and unrecognised raw talent from all sections of society.
And Susan Boyle has talent to burn. Such is the beauty of her voice that she had barely sung the opening bars when the applause started. She rounded off to a standing ovation and – in her naivety – began walking off the stage and had to be recalled.
Susan, now a bankable discovery, was then roundly patronised by such mega-talents as Amanda Holden and the aforementioned Morgan, who told her: “Everyone laughed at you but no-one is laughing now. I’m reeling with shock.” Holden added: “It’s the biggest wake-up call ever.”
The answer is that only the pretty are expected to achieve. Not only do you have to be physically appealing to deserve fame; it seems you now have to be good-looking to merit everyday common respect. If, like Susan (and like millions more), you are plump, middle-aged and too poor or too unworldly to follow fashion or have a good hairdresser, you are a non-person.
I dread to think of how Susan would have left the stage if her voice had been less than exceptional. She would have been humiliated in front of 11 million viewers. It’s the equivalent of being put in the stocks in front of the nation instead of the village. It used to be a punishment handed out to criminals. Now it is the fate of anyone without obvious sexual allure who dares seek opportunity.
This small, brave soul took her courage in her hands to pitch at her one hope of having her singing talent recognised, and was greeted with a communal sneer. Courage could so easily have failed her.
Yet why shouldn’t she sound wonderful? Not every great singer looks like Katherine Jenkins. Edith Piaf would never have been chosen to strut a catwalk. Nor would Nina Simone, nor Ella Fitzgerald. As for Pavarotti But then ridicule is nothing new in Susan Boyle’s life. She is a veteran of abuse. She was starved of oxygen at birth and has learning difficulties as a result. At school she was slow and had frizzy hair. She was bullied, mostly verbally. She told one newspaper that her classmates’ jibes left behind the kind of scars that don’t heal.
She didn’t have boyfriends, is a stranger to romance and has never been kissed. “Shame,” she said. Singing was her life-raft.
She lived with her parents in a four-bedroom council house and, when her father died a decade ago, she cared for her mother and sang in the church choir.
Then, when a special occasion comes along, they might reach, as Susan did, for the frock they bought for a nephew’s wedding. They might, as she did, compound the felony of choosing a colour at odds with her skin tone and an unflattering shape with home-chopped hair, bushy eyebrows and a face without a hint of make-up. But it is often evidence of a life lived selflessly; of a person so focused on the needs of another that they have lost sight of themselves. Is that a cause for derision or a reason for congratulation? Would her time have been better spent slimming and exercising, plucking and waxing, bleaching and botoxing? Would that have made her voice any sweeter?
Susan Boyle’s mother encouraged her to sing. She wanted her to enter Britain’s Got Talent. But the shy Susan hasn’t been able to sing at all since her mother’s death two years ago. She wasn’t sure how her voice would emerge after so long a silence. Happily, it survived its rest.
She is a gift to Simon Cowell and reality television. Her story is the stuff of Hans Christian Andersen: the woman plucked from obscurity, the buried talent uncovered, the transformation waiting to be wrought.
It is wonderful for her, too, that her stunning voice is now recognised. A bright future beckons. Her dream is becoming reality.
Susan is a reminder that it’s time we all looked a little deeper. She has lived an obscure but important life. She has been a companionable and caring daughter. It’s people like her who are the unseen glue in society; the ones who day in and day out put themselves last. They make this country civilised and they deserve acknowledgement and respect.
Susan has been forgiven her looks and been given respect because of her talent. She should always have received it because of the calibre of her character.
The song she sings comes from Les Miserables, which may be one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever. Every time I watch the movie, I weep at the part of the movie where Fantine sings for her broken dreams.
Here are the lyrics:
There was a time when men were kind,
And their voices were soft,
And their words inviting.
There was a time when love was blind,
And the world was a song,
And the song was exciting.
There was a time when it all went wrong…
I dreamed a dream in time gone by,
When hope was high and life, worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die,
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.
Then I was young and unafraid,
And dreams were made and used and wasted.
There was no ransom to be paid,
No song unsung, no wine, untasted.
But the tigers come at night,
With their voices soft as thunder,
As they tear your hope apart,
And they turn your dream to shame.
He slept a summer by my side,
He filled my days with endless wonder…
He took my childhood in his stride,
But he was gone when autumn came!
And still I dream he’ll come to me,
That we will live the years together,
But there are dreams that cannot be,
And there are storms we cannot weather!
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed…
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed…
Now why am I writing about all this here? What has so caught my attention about Susan Boyle and Fantine? Why does this song make me tear up?
Because this song, and Susan’s story, is the song of us all. Every person on earth has broken dreams, shattered hopes, lost loves. We all have a “Rosebud” (See the movie Citizen Kane). If you are like me, you often wish that life had a “do over” option. There are times and places in life you wish you could return to, but never can. There are grievous mistakes you made in life which you wish you could go back and undo. There are some memories you wish you could relive, and others you wish you could avoid.
And for many, I think that as life goes on, our list of things we wish we could have done, could have said, could have been, could have seen, gets longer and longer. This is why some people embark on their Bucket List.
But I sometimes think that in heaven, in our eternal life which begins after we leave this one, one of the things we will do for eternity is getting to do, go, be, and become all those things that we never got to experience in life. In the book, Safely Home, Li Quan wants to write and teach, but because he is a Christian living in Communist China, he spends most of his life running and hiding and fearing for his life. I don’t want to ruin the end of the book, but let me just say that at the end, his hopes and dreams are more than fulfilled.
Fantine sings this:
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living.
If you have unfulfilled dreams, shattered hopes, damaged relationships, know this: in the New Heavens and New Earth, part of the process of “wiping away every tear” will be, in my opinion, allowing Jesus to help you fulfill those dreams, achieve those hopes, and restore those relationships.
Heaven is not about sitting on clouds playing harps. It will be like this life, but without the pain, regret, and fear. Life will be what it was always meant to be.
You will learn to sing like Susan Boyle, or dance like a prima ballerina, if that is what you want.
You will train to climb that mountain, or write that book, if it sounds enjoyable.
You will laugh uproariously with that loved one.
You will sit and read and discuss theology with Moses, Paul, and Jesus, if that sounds like fun.
You will ride horses on the beach and be able to read their thoughts while doing so. You will lay down with a lion and let his purring lull you to sleep.
Creation was made to be our playground; not our hell. And in the new heaven and new earth, it will become our playground again. Heaven will be like Susan Boyle, with each of us finally getting to do what we were made for.