Hell 25: Conclusions

Posted: May 14, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Piss-weak. That’s how I’d summarise the exegetical evidence  for the traditional doctrine of hell.

We’re ready to summarise what we’ve found in this survey of hell-related passages in the NT. It’s gone on so long, by now you’ve probably started to believe in the reality of everlasting torment(!)

We prefaced this survey by saying that the shape and direction of biblical eschatology led us to expect the total destruction of evil and the complete renewal of the creation to a final state of blessedness – rather than the continuance of a ‘torture chamber’ down in the dungeons of the kingdom. It led us to expect a future that is embodied and material – rather than one for disembodied souls.

However, sometimes the Bible surprises us. So we wanted to see if the NT taught anything about the punishment of the wicked that clearly altered this direction, or overturned this view of the new creation. In particular we were interested in the intertestamental doctrine of Gehenna, which Jesus inherited from his culture. It’s not in the OT, but we were looking for any sign that Jesus or his apostles were buying into this new doctrine, treating it as a reality.

We’ve tried to be open to the possibility, willing to rethink. We’ve patiently sifted a bunch of NT teaching. We haven’t covered it all. Wenham identified a few different categories of passage, that related to this question of hell. One of them was references to anguish. We haven’t exhausted that lead. What we have tried to do thoroughly is examine the use of ‘fire’ imagery and other explicit Gehenna images, in connection with judgement.

The results have been underwhelming. What we’ve found is a decided lack of interest in Gehenna. Jesus mentions it in passing, uses it as the frame for a parable, but always when speaking about something else. He just doesn’t seem to have anything to say about Gehenna itself. Paul doesn’t seem to even know about Gehenna, he’s so silent on the subject. For him judgement = destruction. Likewise John’s Gospel is silent. The other NT writers make it clear, on the rare occasions when they use the imagery of hell and fire, that they are treating it as part of the stock of symbolic language they have inherited from the prophets, and which they feel free to adapt and apply freely to make their own theological points.

Gehenna is almost never let loose anywhere other than in metaphorical territory. Jesus has it in parables and such-like. John has it as part of the dense symbolic fabric of Revelation. These guys are using Gehenna imagery as symbols. Symbols of the terrible reality of judgement: but still, symbols.

No one seems keen to come out and teach Gehenna.

What they do teach, throughout the NT, is the destruction of God’s enemies on the day Christ is revealed. This is a strong emphasis, and deserves to be heard.

Not only that, but importantly, Luke subverts the Gehenna tradition by having the fires of hell poured out here on earth. In my view this is a decisive re-asserting of the prophetic eschatology of the OT Scriptures. In the prophets, God’s judgement was always something to be experienced in this world.

We already suspected that the traditional Gehenna doctrine ran counter to biblical theology. It turns out it runs counter to Luke’s message in particular.

All in all, there’s so little here on which to build a doctrine of Gehenna, that it’s a bit of a worry. Certainly nothing like the strong clear teaching we would need, to redirect the whole course of biblical eschatology. Nothing here one tenth that strong.

There may be other Scriptures that clearly establish this doctrine without referring to Gehenna or fire directly. But if there are, no one seems to be saying so.

There are good theological reasons to question this doctrine. At the big-picture level, the problem with Hell is ultimately a worldview problem. Hell is the answer to the wrong question. ‘What happens to our souls in eternity?’ is not a question that would have meant much to anyone who believed in new creation. Hell fits with a disembodied ‘spirit’ future, but not so well with a resurrection future.

Think about our biblical theology, and the story it tells. Look at the picture at the top of this post. Is that really how the bible story ends up – God’s final purpose for his creation? I wouldn’t have thought so. Doesn’t the story of redemption project forward into a new world from which every trace of opposition to God has been judged and eradicated? No pit of furious, teeth-gnashing skeleton-souls. Nothing but the glory of God, covering the whole earth? That’s how it reads to me, anyhow.

So, I’m left thinking, after this lengthy search, that it’s time for some serious questions to be asked.

We evangelicals are supposed to get our beliefs from Scripture, yes? Trinity, incarnation, atonement, church, free grace, justification, judgement, return of Christ – all truths we believe because we find them clearly in the good book.

So what about Gehenna? Is this a legitimate family member – or is it a cuckoo’s egg that got sneaked into the nest? If that latter, then should we tolerate it there any longer?

We’ve seen how it came into popularity between the testaments. Only Luke took the trouble to actually subvert it. And we don’t pay much attention to Luke. But it concerns me that no one else in the NT seems to be promoting this teaching, either. Why are we holding on to it?

I get it, our forefathers believed it, and we want to be faithful to their faith. Some of us even imagine our forefathers were able to establish an authoritative orthodoxy that would rule the church for all time. So we must stick with their teachings no matter what.

There’s also the fact that Hell fits in nicely with the Greek cosmological heritage we love so much in the West, with all its dualisms (corruptible body vs immortal soul, life vs afterlife, heaven vs hell, etc). Plus, it scares the heck out of sinners, so we find it kind of useful. And now that the liberals reject it, Hell has become a handy litmus test for ‘orthodoxy’ as well. It’s just so familiar and useful.

Do we, then, just believe in Hell because we’ve always believed it, and because it suits us to believe it?

If your a Catholic person that’s ok. But guys, if you’re evangelical it’s a big problem. Is the church the rule of your belief – or is it Scripture? If it’s Scripture, then at times we’re going to have to disappoint our fathers. At times, even if they are all admiring the emperor’s clothes, you are going to have to point out that he ain’t wearin any. It could be that this is one such time.

If so, then man up, evangelicals. Perhaps its time the reformation arrived at Hell.

More work is definitely needed here. Closer and also broader study. Our findings here are far from conclusive.

But at the very least I think there deserves to be a big question mark over the doctrine of hell. I reckon we should be printing HANDLE WITH CAUTION labels over it. Because of the question about exegetical underpinning, and because of the tension between this doctrine and biblical eschatology. We’ve backed away from the immortality of the soul, that frees us up to question the other side of that coin, too: Hell.

I don’t know about annihilationism. It seems a bit over-specific to me. I’m not sure if Scripture teaches that the destruction of God’s enemies will be immediate or instantaneous. Judgement will clearly be a conscious experience that brings distress to God’s enemies. I’m not advocating annihilationism as such. What I’m pretty sure of is: I can’t find the Bible teaching the everlasting torment of disembodied souls.

  1. Thanks for this series, it’s been fascinating. Just wondering how you read Daniel 12 (some awake to everlasting life and others to everlasting shame). Have you dealt with it somewhere (it’s hard keeping track – you’ve covered so much!)? Cheers.

  2. J says:

    Thanks for your encouragement, Laura. Hey, I don’t suppose many people are gonna read the whole set, so I’m happy to repeat things. But in this case, I haven’t dealt with that text.

    Briefly, shame is a public category like disgrace, opposite to honour and reward. It’s your standing in the eyes of the community. It’s not the same thing as when we say, ‘I feel ashamed of myself.’ That’s an internal experience. What Daniel is envisaging is public and external. Interestingly, the LXX adds, ‘and some to diaspora’. Diaspora is a word from the vocab of exile. Perhaps it has in mind the shame and reproach associated with the exile.

    Hope that helps.
    I’d be interested in your thoughts on this passage, feel free to come back at me!

    • Just a thought on this one. I wonder if just as we have (seemingly, possibly) misunderstood the meaning of ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal’ as regards shame/punishment in the biblical judgement passages, so perhaps we’ve misunderstood it as regards ‘life’ as well. So perhaps in Daniel 12 it’s ‘eternal’ (i.e. irreversible, final) death, contrasted with ‘eternal’ (i.e. irreversible, final) life. Kind of like ‘eternal life’ in John’s writings, which seems to use ‘eternal’ not to indicate that it goes on forever and ever so much as a certain quality of that life. Happy to be wrong. Just a thought.

      • J says:

        Yes, good point Richard. In John’s gospel, I think ‘eternal’ life does have a rich meaning beyond merely ‘everlasting’.

        In the OT in general, there does seem to be an emphasis on the time factor in the word ‘eternal’ (Hebrew ‘olam). But that doesn’t rule out other possible nuances. Daniel 12, I’m thinking you’re right about the balanced contrasting pair. Suggesting a ‘quality’ of life. Hints here of the concept ‘the life of the age to come’.

        Perhaps you’d like to do some blog posts for us exploring this idea???

      • richardrglover says:

        Certainly keen to think through it. The question is always whether or not the time can be found… 🙂

  3. Sophie says:

    Thanks heaps for sharing your thoughts on this. I think I agree.

    Do you have thoughts on “second chance after death” eg in C.S.Lewis’ “the last battle” I think (post death evangelism)

  4. J says:

    Hi Sophie, thanks for chipping in!

    Re a second chance after death, I don’t know what to think. I can’t see any hint of it in Scripture.
    But that doesn’t rule it out. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this one.

    What’s your view Sophie?

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