Thursday, June 2, 2011

To Hell and Back

I've been thinking about hell and eternity lately.

Maybe not just about hell. Really, more about the CONCEPT of hell. The tradition of it. What we think about it, how it works, what it is. And mostly, what Jesus said about hell, and what the Bible says about hell.

Traditionally, I think most of us evangelicals have a similar concept of hell. It's the standard place people go when they die (unless they've been saved). It's pretty much eternal agony and flames. Punishment forever, apart from God. You don't want to be there. The concept is fairly cut-and-dry, even though a good many of "secular" people don't really like it. Right?

However, so many different things I've been reading, and people I've been talking to, have caused me to question how our view of hell managed to get to what we think about it today. So let's take a moment to go back to the Bible, and what Jesus said.

There are a couple of different words in most versions of the Bible that get translated into the word "hell." Let's take a look at what they are.

Sheol: This is a Hebrew word used often in the old testament. It means "grave" or "depths" or "the deep." The King James Version of the Bible translates this word (incorrectly, most would agree) as "hell" 31 times.

Gehenna: Jesus used the word "Gehenna" a number of times, and it is what is generally translated into "hell" in the gospels. Gehenna (or Ge-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom) was a real, physical place outside the southern part of Jerusalem. It was where old-time pagan religions had sacrificed their children by fire. It was used as the town dump, and was generally on fire. It was a lot of smelly, burning trash. Not the kind of place you'd want to go.

Hades: The word "Hades" is used a few times in the New Testament, and translated as "hell." It's a Greek word, derived from the the name "Pluto" (Hades), who the ancient Romans and Greeks believed was the god of the underworld, the realm of the dead. It was a pagan concept.

Besides those three terms, there is also one other interesting Biblical term that perhaps has wedged itself into our 21st-century minds in a different manner than was originally intended.

Aeon is a Greek word that is commonly translated into "eternity" in the Bible, and what we would consider "forever." But I've read that aeon also means "an age" or "the ages" or "period of time" or even "an intensity of experience." Jesus often used the phrase that could be translated as "this age" and "the coming age" or "the age to come." Does that mean "eternity, forever" the way we think of eternity? I don't know. Maybe.

Ancient Hebrew and Greek were complicated languages. Actually, it wasn't that they were necessarily more complex than our modern English -- The issue generally is that they were much simpler. Especially in Hebrew, there were many, many fewer words. Only a fraction of the number of words that we have today. So some words had multiple meanings. That's why we have issues where words like "ouranos" get translated as "heaven" or "the heavens" or "the sky." And "pneuma" gets translated as wind, spirit, or breath.

This little words study with these four words is just the tip of the iceberg. I don't have the depth of knowledge to write a term paper on the subject. I do know that it's important to question the ideas and "traditions" we have in our mind, because sometimes they can evolve over time into something they weren't meant to be. (I blame Dante. And years of bad movies involving a red, horned Devil holding a pitchfork beside flames and underground rock formations.)

For instance, one popular question that I've heard from multiple people: Does God torture and punish people eternally for finite sins?

I suppose it's in my best interests here to point out: I'm not saying I've decided that hell doesn't exist. I'm simply saying perhaps sometimes, it's a good idea to look at things from a fresh perspective. When looking at Biblical passages, it's good to know who the audience was, and what they were thinking at the time. That's tough to do.

Now: Discussion time. What do you think? Is the standard doctrine of "hell" untouchable in the church? Is any of this information even relevant? And most importantly: Was it a bad idea for me to open this can of worms?


Anonymous said...

This is truly rhetorical... it just came to me...

but what is the purpose of teaching on "hell" at any time?

Anonymous said...

oh rhetorical isn't the right word... let's say it was an honest "first question" i had without much thought about what it actually might mean

Craig said...

What - no thoughts on Purgatory?


Of course, this is a current topic in evangelical-dom, what with Mr. Bell's latest book, and all. . .

I have a more-or-less random group of thoughts, which may or may not contribute to the discussion, or even add up to a fully-coherent thought, at least at first.

- I am reminded of CS Lewis' famous quote (which I'm rendering loosely, here, as best I can; probably not an exact quote) that Heaven is the place for those who say to God, "Thy will be done", and Hell is the place for those to whom God says, "Thy will be done".

- You also call to mind an ongoing conversation I've had with some Greek Orthodox friends, to the effect that, in Western Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic), the emphasis, in terms of what Christ came to save us from, is on Sin, and juridical models of penalties due for our sins, and dealing with the 'guilt problem'. Whereas in Eastern Christianity, the theological emphasis is on Death as the 'fundamental problem' that Christ came to deal with on our behalf. The Orthodox will often speak disparagingly of 'Western legalism', and the penchant of Western Christians to think solely in terms of a 'legal model' for salvation. Eastern minds tend to emphasize that Adam's sin brought death to the human race, whereas Western minds tend to think in terms of legal penalties incurred. . .

- The salient point in hostorically-orthodox thinking about Hell, I think, has been the notion of Separation from God. Which, taken in light of the Lewis quote above, could be taken as being in continuity with the life the Unrepentant Sinner has lived up to that point.

- Universalism (the idea that all will inevitably, eventually be saved, usually paired with an idea of the Irresistibility of God's Love and Mercy) seems to me to be inconsistent with our human nature; specifically, our free will (which is also my objection to Calvinist 'Double Predestination').

I'll leave my stream of consciousness at that point, for now; you all can decide whether or not it rises to the level of coherent thought. . . ;)

Joe B said...

I kinda liked your stream of consciousness, Craig. Thanks for the mini-education on the Eastern Orthodox point of view, I had no grasped that point and it shouuld be terribly important to me in particular. It happens that I am squarely in that "eastern" camp of thought, and I think the bible overwhelmingly shows it to be proper: The Problem is Death from the first page to the last, and the juridical notion is a tiny sliver of the scriptures. Death is the first final enemy and the final enemy, and it is the wages and consequence of sin. I think that changes the perspective from which one must view the reality of hell. Hell is rightly viewed as a consequence of deeds done, not as a punishment for mere existence (as is too often preached.)

Anonymous said...

I wasn't going to say much, then I had a lot to say, then I decided not to say it.
Here goes.
Hell is real whether the words we have translated it mean the same in the orignal language or not or whether the context or target audience is all the same.
Jesus taught that it is the place of separation from the Father in the lesson about the rich man and Lazarus.
"The rich man in () lifted up his eyes and saw Lazarus in the arms of Father Abraham." And his torment was real.
So, if Jesus taught it, I will say, "Yes, it is a real place."
To the question of whether God tortures people as punishment there?" It is described as a place of torment and "Gnashing of teeth" by Jesus again. Does that mean the pointy tail, pitchfork and flames. I can't say.
I have heard the statement, "Someone is in hell because they (did) ...." You fill in the blank.
The only reason anyone is in hell is because when they had the oportunity to accept or reject Christ, they rejected Him and the Grace that was offered.
Because it is portrayed badly or even saterically, it does not mean that it is not real.
That is just my 2 cents worth.

Joe B said...

Yeah, Anon, I hear you. Good thoughts. But rememeber, hell is not the consequence of an incorrect or inadequate religious conception. People are punished for evil deeds. Those who renounce evil by turning to follow the way of Jesus escape their deserved punishment. They "do not come into judgement; They have crossed over from death to life." In case you think this is a subtle point, think how these 2 ways of stating it sound in the ears of the not-yet-Christian. And those are the people Jesus came to seek and save.

Joe B said...

One more point I think is worth making: Be careful about over-interpreting Jesus words like "outer darkness" and "gnashing of teeth." That story Jesus told ends with unfit people being put out of the house into the dark outdoors, and weeping and gnashing teeth has to do with regret and bitterness. This passage paints a particular picture, but it is a picture not very similar to a lake of fire or the "depart from me you evil doers into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels." I think peple tend to blur all these things together rather than reading them individually as Jesus told them. The result is that we lose a lot of what he said.

Anonymous said...

"The only reason anyone is in hell is because when they had the oportunity to accept or reject Christ, they rejected Him and the Grace that was offered."
Thanks Joe, I agree it is a very important, though subtle point of difference.
I should have referenced John 3:17 in my first opinion, "For God did not send His Son into the world to condem the world, for the world was condemed already." As you point out, we are not "on track" then veer off and wind up lost. We are off track and through Grace and acceptance of what Jesus did on the cross, we cross over into life abundant.
Hell is real. Grace is the only way not to end up there.

Joe B said...

Well said. It is important to know that punishment is meted out in accordance with evils done in life. God doesn't simply stack the deck against us before we are born, and then confront us with a dizzying theological multiple-choice to pass or to fail. Every man either stores up death for himself, or stores up life. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, we can cross over from death to life simply by changing horses in mid-stream. That is grace! Often our theological short-hand is internally correct, but it can fall wayyyy short of the full, rich gospel itself which is, as we recall, "the power of God unto salvation for all who believe"

Joe B said...

I saw a short video of the great Dr Scott McKnight commenting on this subject. I will try to link it here, it is awesome. He even unhorses John Piper, most deservedly, for veering off from the gospel.