Friday, April 11, 2008


You know, I've been thinking about it a lot, and I just don't understand or think anymore that a loving God could send people to hell.


David Younghusband said...

In all of Christian theology, there is not a single idea that is more disturbing than the doctrine of hell. The possibility that an individual or multiple people that one cares about might be subject to eternal punishment is at the very least disconcerting. This difficult doctrine has given rise to many varying interpretations regarding the fate of the ungodly, each trying to wrestle with the gravity of this reality. Although this subject is one of great difficulty, we must not dismiss its message as some have had a tendency to do by suggesting that it is merely a barbaric understanding or a underdeveloped pre-modern theology. Rather in order to truly value scripture we must seek to take the claims of hell seriously by searching for the intended meaning regarding these controversial texts. This paper will attempt to address and give an overview of the concept of hell in the New Testament by focusing in on three areas: First, we must clearly define the New Testament’s understanding of hell. Secondly, this paper will look at some pertinent scriptures regarding hell with special emphasis placed on the imagery that is contained within them. Finally, this paper will look at how others have attempted to address the concept of hell and measure this in light of the constructed framework of the New Testament.
Defining Hell
One of the first things that we must address when dealing with the concept of hell in the New Testament is to examine the original language used to define it. Throughout the New Testament, various images are used to portray the concept of hell. The most significant image is derived for the Greek word most often translated hell, which is gehenna. The word “gehenna” literally means “The valley of Ben Hinnom,” or “the Hinnom Valley.” The Hinnom Valley, or the Modern day Wadi er-Rababeh, runs south and continues south west of Jerusalem and has been an infamous place throughout biblical history. In Old Testament Israel, this valley served as a boundary marker between the tribe of Judah and Benjamin. In the later period of the southern monarchies it was used as a place where Israelites offered child sacrifices under the reign of King Ahaz and Manasseh, who both sacrificed their own children to the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal (II Chon 28:3; 33:6). During the later reforms instituted by King Josiah, he deliberately defiled the valley in order that it would not be used again as a holy site. Additionally, Jeremiah prophesied that the this valley would become known as the Valley of Slaughter and it would be used for a mass grave for the people that face God’s judgment (Jer. 7:30-34). Upon compiling the Old Testament references associated with the Valley of Ben Hinnom we can deduce that, “the prior association of the place with cultic abominations, the exposure of the bodies to carrion-eating birds and animals and the unceremonious nature of the burial indicate that the dead lie under God’s curse” (Longman 376).
In New Testament times the Himmom valley was used for the incineration and storage of Jerusalem’s garbage. As a result, the valley of Ben Hinnom became known as the dump heap, the place of destruction by fire in Jewish tradition. Additionally, the valley also became known as “the valley of tophet or spittle showing how the area was unclean and utterly despised” (Berkhof 735). This place with its grotesque oder, smoldering garbage, and history of impure practices and judgment became the image that Jesus used to reference God’s final judgment for the ungodly.
One of the confusions that often arises regarding the concept of hell is Jesus’ reference to Hades. Hades, which had taken the place of the Old Testament Sheol, which was seen as the waiting place for the dead. The New Testament expanded on the idea of Sheol stating that Hades was not considered their place of final destination. Instead it became a temporary waiting place until the consummation of history, where the dead would be brought forward from Hades to receive final judgment (Bauckham 14). Regarding Hades Donald Guthrie writes, “In the Old Testament, Sheol was considered to be the abode of shadowy existence. In the Intertestamental period, however, Sheol had come to be regarded as a stage between death and judgment. In the teaching of Jesus, Sheol, is now known as Hades” (820). In considering the difference between gehenna and Hades we must understand that “Hades is the provisional place of the ungodly between death, resurrection, and final judgment, gehenna is the eternal place of the wicked after final judgment. Hades receives the soul only, gehenna receives both body and soul” (Watson 927)
Although not significant enough to build a clear understanding of hell, it is noteworthy to point out a New Testament hapax legomenon in II Peter concerning the afterlife. Gary A. Lee comments saying, “In the New Testament the word tartaroo occurs only in 2 Peter 2:4, where the angels who sinned were cast into hell. The verb tartaroo is derived from the noun Tartaros which in Greek mythology was the local below Hades where the Titans were imprisoned” (677).
With a clearer understanding of the terminology used within the New Testament we are able to move on to looking at specific texts regarding hell, or gehenna within the New Testament.
Hell in the Gospels
While beginning to survey the New Testament, one is struck with the fact that Jesus himself references hell more than any other biblical personality. Through short snippets of information that emerge from Christ’s teaching we can begin to build a foundation regarding the concept of hell. The text that we will look at first is the parable where Jesus tells a story about a man who disobeys his master by not using his talent but rather he buries it in the ground. Responding to this disobedience, the master commands to “cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 25:30 ESV). Although the details mentioned here are included in a fictitious parable we do see that Jesus suggests that hell is a place where there will be “consciousness of punishment after final judgment” (Grudem 1148).
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus addresses how the unrighteous will be told on judgment day, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). Jesus makes the point that the unrighteous, “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46). In this passage we see that the promise of heaven is eternal and likewise we should equally weight the depiction of punishment as eternal. Louis Berkhof reiterates this point by writing, “In Matthew 25:46 the same word describes the duration of both the bliss of the saints and the penalty of the wicked. If the latter is not, properly speaking, unending neither is the former; and yet many of those who doubt eternal punishment, do not doubt everlasting bliss” (736).
Next we will look at Jesus’ depiction of hell in Mark 9:47-48. In this text, Jesus is instructing his people about what to do with temptation to sin. In this radical model of discipleship Jesus entreats his followers to lose some of their members rather than be thrown into hell. Here we also see Jesus elaborating on what hell is like by saying it is, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (v. 48 ESV). Jesus employs this citation, reinforcing the Old Testament understanding of God’s wrath and judgment, by quoting from Isaiah 66:24. Through intentionally using this passage, Jesus understood that, “as the final word of the prophecy of Isaiah the passage was thoroughly familiar to the disciples as a vivid picture of destruction that continues endlessly” (Lane 349).
Additionally, Jesus tells a profound story in Luke 16:22-24 of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. In this story, both men die and Lazarus is carried to eternal life and the rich man to eternal torment. While in torment, the rich man beseeches Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him even a drop of water because of his profound agony. This unusual and dramatic story not only reaffirms the eternal nature and severity of the punishment experienced but it also reflects the continuing unrepentant heart of the rich man. We can see this stubborn heart in the rich man’s request of Abraham, truly “The rich man’s view of Lazarus has not changed since his death. He still views him as beneath him, as someone who might be sent to give him relief. This revels the lack of heart in the rich man” (Bock 433).
In commenting on allegiance to God, Jesus soberly warns his disciples by saying “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28 ESV). This statement addresses one of the common misconceptions regarding hell: that the devil takes you there. Alternatively, we see here that it is only sovereign action that can send a person to hell. Supporting this, J.I. Packer writes that contrary to popular opinion, “the one to be feared is not the devil but the One whom Jesus called Father” (174 KC).
In all of this, we see that Jesus himself warned people regarding the dangers of hell. For Jesus it was not something to be dismissed but an acute reality W. G. T. Sheed comments on Jesus and the doctrine of hell by saying:
The strongest support for the doctrine of Endless Punishment is the teaching of Christ, the Redeemer of men….Christ could have not have warned so frequently and earnestly as He did against ‘the fire that shall never be quenched,’ and ‘the worm that dieth not,’ he had known that there is no future peril to fully correspond to them. Jesus Christ is the person responsible for the doctrine of Eternal Perdition. He is the Being with whom all opponents of this theological tenet are in conflict (qtd in Packer [KC] 172).
Hell in the Rest of the New Testament
Pauline teaching is completely devoid of any reference to hell or gehenna but rather focuses on the wrath, anger, and judgment of God. Even though Paul does not make specific reference to hell, we can understand passages regarding wrath as synonymous with Jesus’ teaching on the eternal torment of hell. Bruce Milne helps us connect these concepts by writing, “hell is simply the locational expression of God’s wrath in post-mortem experience. hell is the eternal form of God’s wrath. The implication of this equivocation is a significant one, however, for the relating of hell to the divine wrath is a reminder that hell is not merely a negative reality, like the absence of God” (216).
Moving on from Paul, II Peter 2:4-6 provides us with a dialogue that draws on logical reasoning using examples from the Old Testament. It reads:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” concluding in verse nine by saying, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment (ESV).
This passage illustrates that for God judgment is impartial. He will judge fallen angels, the apathetic men of Noah’s day, and the men of Sodom all the same. “Thus the fate of the wicked will be similar to if not identical with that of the fallen angels” (Toon 99).
Finally we will look at hell in the book of Revelation. The first passage in the book of revelation we will consider is Revelation 14:9-11:
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he 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, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."
In this apocalyptic passage, we see again the unremitting nature of God’s punishment of the wicked. The anger and wrath of God against those that persistently follow the beast is on full display. Since the followers of the beast have continued to remain obstinate towards the atoning death of Jesus for them, they will now atone for their own sins. It is this stubbornness that leads C.S. Lewis to write, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside” (qtd in Martindale 292).
The people who follow the beast are deceived into believing that there is no need to have their sins forgiven by Christ, subsequently they constantly resist submission to Jesus. New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd comments on the seriousness of unatoned sin saying:
The New Testament concept of the wrath of God is not to be understood in terms of the anger of pagan deities, whose anger could be turned to benevolence by suitable offerings. God’s wrath is the implacable divine hostility to everything that is evil, and it is shear folly to overlook it or try to explain it away. In the New Testament the wrath of God is not an emotion telling us how God feels; it tells us rather how a holy God reacts toward sin and sinners. Wrath is God’s personal reaction against sin. Sin is no trivial matter, and the plight of men is one from which they cannot rescue themselves. Wrath is expressing what God is doing and what he will do with sin (89).
Surprisingly, John also writes that this will be done in the presence of the angels and the Lamb. Grant R. Osborne provides some insight into this passage saying, “The imagery yield an incredible picture, as if the angels and Christ will be watching the torment for all eternity….but it goes beyond this to carrying out the sentence” (541). Although there will be no ability to commune with God in hell, this text combats the common misconception that hell is the absence of God. As J.I. Packer writes, “The concept of hell is of a negative relationship to God, an experience not of his absence so much as of his presence in wrath and displeasure. The experience of God’s anger as a consuming fire, his righteous condemnation for defying him and clinging to the sins he loathes, and the deprivation of all that is valuable, pleasant, and worthwhile will shape the experience of hell” (262 CT). Although it may be a concept that we may feel uncomfortable with, we must understand that God will be very present in hell.
Lastly, we will examine the final passage mentioning hell in the New Testament:
Revelation 20:14-15. John writes regarding the ultimate fate of all that appose God saying, “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” This is a hotly contested scripture and is often interpreted in many different ways including the “annihilation” position. Although these are critical issues that need to be carefully worked through I will not be able to give them proper assessment given the confines of this paper. Rather I will simply state that I agree with G.K. Beale’s view that this passage possibly “affirms that ‘death and Hades,’ as the location of those who have suffered ‘the first [physical] death’ in the preconsummation age, has come to its end and is now incorporated into or superseded by the ‘lake of fire’ as the location of those suffering ‘the second [spiritual] death’ in the postconsummation age” (1035).
Through the course of this paper I have attempted to give a brief overview of some of the significant texts regarding hell in the New Testament. Although other texts could have been presented and also explored at a deeper level, my hope was to give a broad range of passages throughout the New Testament in order to shed some light on this immense subject. It is also important to note that in all that the New Testament reveals about hell, images are often symbolic and sometimes seemingly contradictory, such as darkness and fire coexisting. It needs to be understood that “The images of darkness and fire appear contradictory, but they should be regarded as symbols pointing to a reality more horrific than either symbol can convey itself. In fact, biblical images of hell leave many details to the imagination, perhaps because no picture of doing justice to the reality” (Longman 377).
In conclusion I would like to comment on the almost automatic resistance many have towards the doctrine of hell. I believe that too often people are resistant toward difficult subjects such as this because of either a lack of good teaching on the subject or a compromising agenda that would seek to fuse doctrine with personal experience or cultural opinion. We need to be alert to the fact that, “If such biblical descriptions of God’s character strike us as harsh, perhaps we need to consider whether our thinking has been compromised by the sentimentalist humanism of our culture” (Mangum 118) and is distorted by not submitting to the supremacy of scripture as a guide in all things.

Works Cited

Bauckham, Richard. “Hades, Hell.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Double

Day, 1992 III: 14-15.

Beale, G.K. The Book of Revelation. The New International Greek Testament

Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,


Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

The Holy Bible. English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.

Ladd, George Eldon. The Last Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdames Publishing, 1978.

Lane, William L. The Gospel of Mark. The New International Commentary on the New

Testament. Grand Rapids: Eedmans Publishishing, 1974.

Lee, Gary A. “Hell.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids:

Eerdamans Publishing, 1982 II: 677.

Longman III, Tremper, et al. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove:

Inter-Varsity Press, 1998.

Mangum, R. Todd. “Three Models of Hell.” Christianity Today. 51.2 (February 2007):


Martindale, Wayne and Jerry Root., ed. The Quotable Lewis. Wheaton: Tyndale House

Publishers, 1989.

Milne, Bruce. “The Message of Heaven and Hell: Grace and Destiny.” The Bible

Speaks Today. Ed. Derek Tidball. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002.

Osborne, Grant R. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.

Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Packer, J.I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. Wheaton:

Tyndale House Publishers, 1993.

Packer, J.I. Knowing Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995.

Toon, Peter. Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview. Nashville:

Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.

Watson, Duane F. “Gehenna.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Double Day,

1992 II: 926-928.

David Younghusband said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason_73 said...

I don't know, it's just how I feel...