Is Hell God’s Wrathful Presence or His Absence?

One of my favorite church announcement gaffs is:  Our weekly Bible Study is “What is Hell?” ,followed by “Come early and hear our choir practice.”  We can joke about what would make Hell tormenting, but there is really nothing funny about it.  Hell is eternal suffering.

Hell, the place of final judgment, is described this way in Revelation 20:10, 14:

“and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever…Then death and Hades were thrown into 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.”

The picture of fire and brimstone is a classic one.  Satan and his minions are there, but not to add to the torment.  Rather they are tormented themselves.  A lake of fire that would normally consume someone fails to do so because the resurrected body of a human is indestructible.  The fire only adds to their physical suffering.

The question I am asking today is about the presence of God in Hell.  Some characterize Hell as God continually and intentionally venting an unending wrath against these beings.  While God can be a God of judgment and the biblical warnings about Hell should be taken seriously, is this the type of being that He is?  Does God have a wrath that is never satisfied?

I believe the answer about God’s presence in judgment comes from the story of Jesus on the cross.  Being whipped and nailed to a cross was indeed painful, but the worst of it seems to be something unseen.  Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus knew the plan.  He knew that He would experience the full judgment on sin which included being forsaken by God.  When that finally happens the experience overwhelms him.  Even Jesus can’t stand being forsaken.

Hell fire sounds bad and I’m sure it is, but the judgment on sin isn’t God battering you for an eternity.  It is God forsaking you.  God being “all-knowing” and “present everywhere” doesn’t mean that God must know everything and be everywhere.  He can intentionally forget and intentionally leave.  The worst part about being damned is that He does.  For this reason, the ultimate judgment for sin can be experience is a space, which we call “Hell” or on a cross.

We don’t realize how “present” God is with us all the time, even for those who deny His existence.  But you would certainly know it when He is no longer present.  It is agony.  That is why it is so good that God wants to be with us.  Jesus’ forsakenness was the main event on the cross.  It is questionable whether the scourging and the torturous form of execution is even God’s idea.  I think it is Satan’s idea to get Jesus to bail out on us.  Forsakeness is the scary part, and since Jesus experienced it for us, we never have to experience it ourselves.  Hell can be spoke of from afar.

Holy Week and Life After Death

For many, Holy Week is a forgotten celebration.  The only remnant of it left in their lives is Easter, and Easter is nothing more than a celebration of Spring and a chance for kids to get candy for some reason.  Talk about missing the boat.

The events of Holy Week are not only historical, they are critical to any of us having life after death versus suffering after death.  Jesus had to do what He did or God’s Law would scoop everyone of us up and drop us in the same bucket with the most evil people who ever lived and Satan himself.  We are all sinners.  Something had to be done about that.  Holy Week is the celebration of the fact that somebody did.

In his life, Jesus did many miraculous and beautiful things.  He fed thousands of people, healed many sick, freed many from demons, gave us clearer insight on God and life after death, laid out a morality based on love and more.  None of these were his main purpose, however.  He was born the way he was (from a virgin mother) so that he could fulfill God’s Law on behalf of the whole species and so that he could bear the required punishment for the sin of all mankind.  To do this he had to be sinless.

The Bible says that we are all born sinful–altered from how God created humans and resulting our in being selfish and hostile to God.  Jesus’ unusual birth allowed him to be without our genetic deformities.  His life stayed within the bounds of God’s Law.  Making Jesus the only sinless human since the beginning.  This is why there is no alternative path to eternal life.  There is only Jesus.  Jesus said of the way to Heaven, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

For God, sin demands death.  This is more complicated than it seems on the surface.  Our life includes our physical body which easily becomes non-functioning and decays away; but it also includes our (mind, consciousness, soul).  This is not caused by our physical body.  It interacts with our physical body.  This aspect of ourselves God has made to be eternal.  Death for our soul constitutes being forsaken/exiled from God, and it is miserable.  Such a thing could happen anywhere, but the plan of how this judgment is to be executed is to resurrect/recreate an indestructible body for all and to cast both that body and our soul into Hell.

That sounds harsh, but it seems appropriate when you understand that it takes the rejection of an enormously costly rescue attempt by Jesus.  Jesus was forsaken and physically died for us that first Holy Week.  His voluntary sacrifice makes a whole different narrative possible.

It seems strange to us that one person’s actions could potentially result in the satisfaction of a condemning law for all people.  That isn’t our idea of fairness.  But if you understand that one person’s decision (pick Adam or Eve) resulted in a modification of our DNA to make us sinful, and that this was inherited by everyone; the idea seems less out there.  Jesus was doing what needed to be done to save the people he loved.

If you still celebrate Holy Week, celebrate it again with a fresh appreciation of how much those events have changed your life and eternity.  If you are skeptical or unsure of such things, I exhort you to read one the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ death and ask God to keep your sinful nature in check if possible.  Perhaps you will see this story through a different set of “eyes” and understand that God is real, He loves you, and the road to eternal life in joy has been cleared for you by Jesus.

 

 

 

What To Do With “Sheol”

Unless you are quite the Bible expert, you probably don’t even know what “Sheol” is.  You might be shocked to find out that this Hebrew word is actually quite common in the Old Testament, yet in many English Bible translations the editors struggled to know what to do with it.  It is a place name.  So it should capitalized and left as is, still many times it is translated as “grave”, “pit” or “Hell” with a little footnote that says:  Hebrew:  Sheol.  The footnote almost seems like an apology.

The main reason why Sheol is not something you heard about or that it gets translated away is that it doesn’t fit in the most common understanding of places in the afterlife.  Most people just know Heaven and Hell.  It is poorly recognized that Judgment Day makes a big difference in what will exist.  Before Judgment Day the best fitting understanding of what exists after death is Sheol and Heaven.  After Judgment Day, Sheol (or in Greek Hades) is thrown into a “lake of fire” along with Satan and his angels, as well as, all the damned of humanity.  This lake of fire is what I think of when I use the word “Hell”.

Sheol/Hades does have some Hell-like properties, which adds to the confusion.  There is suffering, fire, worms.  It is a prison.  But I can’t connect the presence of Satan and demons nor can I connect being completely forsaken by God with Sheol.  It is different than the final destination.

The classic picture of demons tormenting people, whether it be from Michelangelo or “The Far Side”, is biblically incorrect.  In Sheol, they don’t seem to exist.  In Hell, they suffer with everybody else.

I’m sure most people dismiss both Sheol and Hell as a myth.  Who wouldn’t want to?  I don’t like the idea that these places are the destination of most people at their death.  I hate it, but I can’t dismiss it. Jesus speaks of both Hell (Gehenna) and Hades.  Jesus also descended to Sheol.  It is forbidden, but apparently possible to communicate with people in Sheol.  And modern people have had out-of-body experiences of Sheol.

My dog hates going to the Vet.  When they are about to do a procedure on him, he hides his face under my arm.  It is like he is thinking, “If I can’t see you, you don’t exist.”  That is how those who dismiss Hell or Sheol are coping with a frightening reality.  Unfortunately, the Vet still exists, so does Hell and Sheol.

Would God really do this?  Where is the love?  God is very “literal” in the sense that once a law is written in Heaven, it is enacted.  The Law requires sinners to be sent to Sheol and Hell.  The love is found in that God created a personally costly way for both the Law to be fulfilled and people to be spared Hell and Sheol.  That way is Jesus being forsaken on the cross.

That is serious stuff.  You don’t go to the extremes that Jesus went to if you don’t really love who you are trying to save and what you are trying to save them from is something aweful.

Rationalizing about Hell, living in denial, ignoring it until later are all dangerous coping mechanisms that push one close to finding out about Sheol and Hell from personal experience.  I would rather just read about it.

Salted with Fire

You only need to burn yourself once to know that you don’t want it to happen again.  This familiar experience is used by Jesus to describe the experience of those who are cast into Sheol (Hebrew)/Hades (Greek), which is the place of the unforgiven dead prior to Judgment Day; and also to describe part of the experience of Gehenna (Greek), which is the place of the damned after Judgment Day.  He says,

And if anyone causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone around his neck.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands go into hell (Gehenna), where the fire never goes out.  And if your foot causes you to sin cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell (Gehenna).  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell(Gehenna) where

their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched”

Jesus is making a point about the seriousness of sin and damnation.  Unfortunately, maiming yourself will not keep you from sin, but you get the idea.  We all need a solution for our sinfulness.  Jesus is that solution.  He is the difference between being in Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth versus Sheol and Gehenna.

The passage continues,

Everyone will be salted with fire.

Is that everyone is Gehenna, or everyone everywhere?  I find most study bible explanations of this unsatisfactory.  It is a bit cryptic because Jesus goes from describing something negative to describing something positive, which in this case is salt as a metaphor for godliness.  The godly will not cause one another to sin, but will encourage each other to righteous living.  But what does it mean to be salted by fire?

Some want to make the word “fire” in this sentence into another metaphor, that for persecution or trial.  I think that this use of fire correlates with what John the Baptist says in Matthew 3:11:

He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

And also what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14:

If any man builds on this foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.  It will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.  If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through flames.

Jesus will put all through a Judgment Day trial by fire.  Those who are connected to Jesus will be saved.  Those who are connected to Jesus and have built on the foundation of Jesus in a worthy, Holy Spirit driven, fashion will be rewarded.  Those who have squandered their lifetime but remain in Jesus will be saved but without reward.

Through all the confusing metaphorical and literal language, the message is this.  You can’t save yourself.  If you could, it would be worth any cost.  But you are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  You can build on the foundation of Jesus in a worthwhile way, however.  You can live salty.  Righteous living will have its reward and that is worth it as well.

 

The Immediate Judgment

When we sin, God knows.  You can’t slip things by Him.  Because we don’t see God, we sort of forget that He sees.  It is similar to what happens to us in a hotel.  We get into an empty hallway and we feel all alone even though possibly every room is full.  So we talk loudly as if no one is there to hear.  But everyone hears us.

God knows our sin, but for those who are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism God sees Jesus, and we live as forgiven for as long as faith remains.  In a way, we have been judged as righteous from the moment God connected us to Jesus

For as long as we live, forgiveness through Jesus is possible for anyone whom God can bring to faith.  Their fate has not been sealed.  You can’t plan on it, but even on a death bed it is possible for somebody to be saved and avoid the permanent judgment of God.

Is death the line in the sand, the point of no return?  Or is Judgment Day when eternal fates are sealed?

The Bible clearly indicates that some kind of judgment accompanies death.  With our death, we either enter Heaven because we are forgiven and therefore righteous or we enter Sheol (see my other blog entries about Sheol), because we are sinners without a Savior. Is that the final judgment?

Hebrews 9:27-28 is often evoked on this topic:

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.

The understanding of most is that the judgment accompanying death is immediate and final, but what is the function of Judgment Day in that scenario?  Is it merely a technicality?  The passage is making the point that Jesus doesn’t die multiple times for sin.  To bolster the point, the writer appeals to the fact that we don’t reincarnate.  Hebrews 9 doesn’t technically answer our question.  1 Peter 4:6 may speak to our question better.  I’m quoting New King James here because NIV is a lousy translation of this passage.

For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

The uncomfortable yet literal understanding of this passage is that the Gospel was preached to dead people with the end goal of having them live or, in other words, be saved.  The context of this passage is Jesus’ descent into Hell (Sheol) mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19.  If we are to understand this passage as the Gospel was preached to living people who have subsequently died, then the second half of the sentence doesn’t make much sense and you are not literally translating the original text.  You are adding (now) dead, which is what the NIV does.

Could it be that Judgment Day is the line in the sand, the point of no return?  We are given marching orders to spread the Gospel to the living.  It is of urgent importance that people hear about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the promise of salvation through that event while they live.  I cannot go to Sheol to preach to the dead.  But did Christ do that?   Does He still do that?  The ancient church, particularly in the East believed that He did.  I hope so, too.

Spirit, Soul and Consciousness

One critical question related to a discussion of life, death, and life after death is, “What exactly are we?”  For example, are we just a physical body whose chemical interactions create the illusion of thought, self-awareness and experience of an external world?  Or are we just a mind (whatever that is) that experiences an external world that is an illusion (Think the movie, “The Matrix” here).  Or does the external world really exist, our brains and their chemistry really exist and our conscious self is really something that is not formally part of this universe, but interacts with this universe via the brain.  The last theory is a dualism favored by scientists who are not wholesale devotees of materialism (the idea that the only real things are measurable things).

The Bible is dualistic.  Body and soul are mentioned many places.  While body and soul were not to be separated, they can be.  I am both my body and my soul.  Hence, the promise of the resurrection of the body and not just an eternal heavenly separation of the soul from this world.

In one passage, Hebrews 4:12, a third category is introduced.  It states, “(the Word of God is) Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even is dividing soul and spirit…”  The words soul and spirit are clearly not synonyms here.  To what do they refer?   “Soul” in Greek is psyche.  “Spirit” is pneuma.  We use these roots in many words, but do we understand what the writer meant, and do these words relate to what we have learned about the brain?

Materialists want us to believe that our whole experience of consciousness is merely brain chemistry.  They point to the fact that electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain can give us sensory and emotional experiences.  They also refer to imaging from PET scans that show brain activity in certain parts of the brain for any conscious experience.  True materialist devotees then extend this connection to a form of fatalism, suggesting that we have no freewill of any form.  Our bodies simply do what our brain chemistry makes us do, and brain chemistry is strictly cause and effect according to the laws of physics.  It’s the perfect excuse.  “Was I speeding, officer?  I couldn’t help it my brain made me speed.”

Besides being morally absurd and not corresponding at all with our own experience of self, this theory doesn’t explain well the experience of people put in a medically induced coma and cooled down for brain surgery.  They have no PET activity nor access to either their senses or a scientist’s probe, still one Arizona woman experienced being out of her body and accurately described all the activity in the surgical suite.

I personally believe that our brains are the interface between our consciousness and body and not the source of our consciousness.  Our pneuma is something non-physical.  It can experience Heaven or Sheol.  It can even experience the Earth without our bodies in certain conditions.  Our spirit also interfaces with our brains to create chemical and electrical activity (our psyche) driving our body to interact with the world.

Physical death disconnects our pneuma and psyche.  Hebrews 4:12 says God’s Word is powerful enough to kill.  More importantly, it is powerful enough to make alive. We are more than interesting chemistry.  We are a created being with self-awareness for a reason.  We are meant to know ourselves and to know our Creator.  Despite the sin that results in a division of soul and spirit, we have a Savior that values body, soul and spirit and redeems them all.

The Victory that Makes Eternal Life a Reality

We are closing in on another Easter.  For many the meaning will obscured by pretty dresses, candy and the Easter bunny.  These are fun, but we are not merely celebrating Spring.

Easter is a pivotal event for humankind.  Without Easter we have eternal existence but nothing that should be called eternal Life.  Jesus risen from the dead is more than evidence of life after death.  He is the cause.

It may not appear this way to the casual observer, but humans are created to be eternal.  Because of a major screwup on our progenitor’s part, we are all destined to experience the death of our physical body’s.  In fact, we are experiencing it every day as we age.  Our physical death will create a universal but unnatural condition of the separation of our soul (consciousness) and our body.  They were originally designed to be a unit.  This is the least of our problems.  God will exile our conscious self because of our sinfulness.  People have experienced this in Near Death Experiences (NDE) and returned to tell of it.  The Bible describes it in terms of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.  That exile goes from bad to worse with the advent of Judgment Day when God forsakes us permanently.  It’s bad and we want no part of it.

That’s what makes Jesus’ resurrection such great news and a reason for a truly joyful celebration.  Jesus’ sole mission was to become a sinless human and then fulfill God’s Law’s requirement for the punishment detailed above by himself.  Jesus died without sin and was forsaken by God so that we never have to be.  Because of Jesus there is a way to Heaven and a place for us there.  That’s God’s promise to all who are baptized into Jesus’ death.

You may be skeptical because you typically don’t get a tour before it’s too late.  But prophecy, eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the experience of God calling you to faith, and, if you like, many NDEs confirm the story.  The Bible describes life after death with God as “truly life”.  It is as though what we have experienced so far hardly deserves the title of “life”.  In fact, our existence so far may be described in the Bible as the “great tribulation”.

If you would like a further explanation of what the Bible says is coming after death for those who belong to Jesus, please look up some of my previous blog entries on Heaven or the New Earth.  There is much to joyfully anticipate.

Happy Easter.