Summary: Hell is a misunderstood subject. Myths, urban legends, prejudice and bigotry abound. Is there a balance?
BIGOTRY BUSTERS -- HELL
BY IAN GRANT SPONG
Is there a literal annihilation of the wicked, a literal eternal suffering in fire or a literal eternal banishment in outer darkness? In other words does God kill off the wicked in a Divine Auschwitz, put them in an eternal torture chamber or banish them? The Bible pictures all three scenarios. Are these figurative or literal?
Let’s begin with the least likely view.
Proverbs 15:11, 27:20
Mat 5:29-30, 10:28, 18:9
These verses seem to describe an end to the lives of wicked people. Are words like perish, destruction, ashes, and death in these verses literal or not?
Is hell the Almighty’s Ausschwitz – God’s death camp? Is the death that is described literal death or eternal “life” in a place where people wish they were dead? Is hell the land of the “living dead?”
Most theologicans dismiss annihilation as being heresy. The evidence seems to point to one of the following:
ETERNAL CONSCIOUS SUFFERING: 2 VARIETIES
Luke 12:5, 47-48
Revelation 20:13, 22:15
Are descriptions of dead people speaking, degrees of punishment (annihilation would be the same punishment for all), and wicked people living outside New Jerusalem literal or not?
This eternal pain is seen as either physical and emotional (fire) or just emotional (separation). Let us look at two theories:
1. Literal Eternal Fire
Rev 14:10-11, 20:10-15
These verses seem to describe immortal maggots, a human barbecue, a rich man‘s cry of agony from the grave and beast-worshipers tormented day and night. Are they literal or symbolic? Are the beast and false prophet people or symbols? Does this describe eternal physical and emotional suffering?
Is God sadistic? Can gracious, divine love and eternal torture be reconciled? Is this traditional hell a person’s complete and knowing choice, or have some been predestined to this without a chance? How can a just God punish for eternity sins committed in a finite lifetime?
2. Literal Eternal Exile
Mat 8:12, 22:13, 25:30
These verses seem to describe people separated from God forever, cast into outer darkness, crying and grating their teeth. Does God cause their agony or is it the result of their own sins and the absence of God’s blessings? Does black darkness contradict bright fire, or are both metaphors picturing a horrible destination? Is there really “black fire” as some suggest? Does this picture eternal emotional suffering?
A PURGING PLACE?
Another view put forth by Catholics and Orthodox is a place of restoration. For Catholics this is called purgatory -- a place where sins are purged. For Orthodox, this is a much kinder place of re-education.
Do these verses hint at forgiveness of sins in the age to come? Is there a chance for some to receive salvation at the judgment, or in an interim period between death and the resurrection? Are some saved through flames even if their works fail the test of fire? Is this fire of purgatory, or hell fire or worldly trials?
Rather than condemn people to hell that never heard of Jesus, or had little chance, early church leaders wrestled with this in light of God’s grace. They searched the Scriptures and prayed for inspiration. A belief developed that people can have their sins purged after death.
They named this interim state between heaven and hell purgatory. Eastern Orthodox believers do not like the term purgatory, but rather see it a place for a purifying process of education and growth rather than a place like Catholic purgatory.
Roman Catholics admit there is very little Scriptural evidence for purgatory. They believe the Holy Spirit inspired this growth in understanding and insight. Most Protestants deny purgatory, calling it a post-biblical “revelation.” However, they cling to other ideas that came along after the Bible was finished. Protestants have not thought this issue through. Is there a “reform school” between heaven and hell, or is this one of the purposes of hell itself? Would purgation save some (particularism) or all (universalism) people? Would some still choose hell over Christ?
THREE WORDS FOR HELL
The Hebrew Sheol (sh’OLE) and the Greek Hades (HAH-dace) are roughly the same. This is the place of the dead, between death and the resurrection. The words can simply mean the grave, but sometimes seem to picture a place of torture. The Greek word Gehenna (GAY-enna) pictures a fiery place of punishment.
These are the words most often translated as hell. Ancient Jews believed in both annihilation and eternal suffering. The ancient Greeks believed in an immortal soul and a place of eternal suffering.
Is hell a painful end or eternal suffering? Is the fire literal or symbolic of purging? If hell is annihilation, then parts of Luke 16, Revelation 14 and 20 are symbolic. If hell is eternal conscious suffering, then words like perish, destruction, ashes, and second death are symbolic.