Hell 12: Hunting for Hell

Posted: April 6, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Magnifying glass man for scrutinyI remember when I sat for my doctrine ‘grilling’ prior to ordination. The ‘panel’ was dear old John Chapman (God rest his soul) and a couple of officials from the diocese. Somewhere along the way, they asked me, did I believe in Hell? I knew the right answer was yes. But I thought I’d better be honest, so I said I could see both sides of the argument, the jury was still out for me. The panel told me, I’d better get clear about this (i.e. decide that Hell was real!). A couple of them started casting around in their bible, looking for proof-texts. The best they could come up with was a vision from Revelation 14:

and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.   And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who…   Rev. 14:10-11

Well, I remember thinking, (I said nothing!) Is that the best you can do? I mean, if you can only find your doctrine in a highly symbolic passage in a book like Revelation, that’s pretty weak. That’s not what I’d call a solid grounding for any doctrine. That interview made me wonder if many people who believe in Hell, do so  for exegetical reasons. 

It’s time to turn to the NT to consider its teaching on God’s wrath. Before we start we should make one point: seems to me that the ‘panel’ was right to go looking for proof-texts. Proof-texts are definitely needed. This is not a doctrine that follows obviously from anything else we believe. Our Gospel-theology doesn’t require it. The shape of biblical theology does not suggest it. Historically, the doctrine does not seem to have arisen from exegesis of Bible-texts (more on this later). It arose along with the idea of the immortality of the soul. Which is a disgraced doctrine. We no longer believe in Hell for that reason. So now, if it is to stand as a doctrine, it will need a different underpinning. We will only believe this is we are persuaded to it by specific NT teaching on the subject.

So it’s the ‘everlasting Hell’ view that needs to make its case here, not annihilationism. In the OT, God’s wrath basically equals destruction. All things being equal, we would expect this to remain unchanged in the NT: God is the same God. So unless we find some compelling new teaching on this theme, our default will be to believe in some sort of destruction of the wicked. Bible-believing Christians have always accepted this much.  (I’m treating annihilationism as a kind of catch-all term for those who aren’t convinced about Hell – convinced about judgement and death, but agnostic about the details). This more general view has no case to prove here. The burden of proof is rather with the much more specific view that that destruction takes the form of ‘everlasting torment in a special place of fire’ – i.e. the doctrine of Hell. Why would we believe such a thing?

So while we’re going to need to explore passages that talk generally about judgement, much of it may not be to the point: we’re looking for something pretty specific here.

What is there?

Surprisingly little. We’re scouring and scraping looking for relevant references. Everyone agrees that there aren’t many places that even appear to teach everlasting Hell. So let’s pull back a little.

John Wenham in his book The Enigma of Evil (p.81–83) has classified 264 New Testament references to the fate of the lost:

  • 10 texts (4%) “Gehenna”
  • 26 (10%) to “burning up”
  • 59 (22%) to “destruction, perdition, utter loss or ruin”
  • 20 (8%) to “separation from God”
  • 25 (10%) to “death in its finality” or “the second death”
  • 108 (41%) to “unforgiven sin”, where the precise consequence is not stated
  • 15 (6%) to “anguish”

This is a helpful overview, though its virtue may be its comprehensiveness rather than its accuracy.

According to Wenham, just one single verse (Revelation 14:11 – the one my panel found) may envision eternal torment. Just one verse. This should give us pause for thought. Even if Wenham is understating things, we’re talking slender support.

Out of these references, the ones that will interest us the most are the first and last: the ‘Gehenna’ teachings and the ‘anguish’ teachings. These two categories have at least a possibility of being relevant. (Remember we need verses that actually teach everlasting torment.) That’s around 10% of the total references.

So at the very most, in the NT teaching about the fate of the lost, it wants to talk about Hell 10% of the time. Probably much less often than that. That’s important to notice. The vast majority of what the NT has to say about the lost, is not of this nature. Rather, it is more general ‘destruction’ teaching. Most of the NT teaching fits with a broad ‘annihilationist’ view.  ‘Hell’ is not exactly a prominent teaching in the NT (and it’s not found in the OT).

Tomorrow: Gehenna

  1. jeltzz says:

    > Nothing else on the list looks very relevant to our inquiries.

    I think this is the wrong approach to exegeting a doctrine. You don’t go, hmm, which of these passages about judgment may or may not support eternal hell, let’s look at them. You go, hmm, I suppose I ought to look at the totality of seemingly relevant passages and see what they say.

    Otherwise, you are just doctrine-hunting.

    For similar reasons I am not sure ‘weighting’ verses for importance is meaningful. I don’t word search Tolkein for references to the Aragorn and see how many hits I get and then calculate how important he is as a character in the book. For similar reasons, I don’t find this a constructive way to analyse NT documents.

    • J says:

      Hi Jeltzz, thanks for your comment. Here at the Grit we like it when people talk method. Method is so often a fatal flaw in biblical studies and theology. You may well have a point in what you say.

      It’s not easy to decide which passages to look at, and which ones to leave. I guess we all have ‘relevant’ as our criterion, but we might not all agree on which are the relevant passages.

      I sympathise with your reservations about word studies. I used to get frustrated when this was the main approach to biblical studies back at college. It’s quite inadequate.

      However, I used to know a bloke who always talked about his wife. He was always telling stories about what she’d done, or said. That guy really loved his wife. Repetition is a way of creating emphasis. So I reckon word frequency is a relevant factor in understanding the weight or prominence of an idea in a text. It just doesn’t get you much further than that.

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