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.

 

 

 

Is Heaven Somehow Incomplete?

Many people have a biblically naive understanding of the afterlife.  That is one of the motivations for this blog.  It is typical to believe that immediately at death you go to Heaven if you were “good” and Hell is you were “bad”.  Heaven is commonly viewed as “perfect”.  Whatever “perfect” is.  That belief is folk religion, and biblically wrong in so many ways.

Most importantly, you are not destined for Heaven or Hell based on whether you are good or bad.  To God’s standard we are all bad–all tarnished by sin.  We are saved based on whether we have forgiveness or not, and the only way to have forgiveness is to have Jesus’ sacrifice of himself apply to us personally.  Jesus died for all, but God has to also be able to connect us to Christ through faith and baptism.

Popular conceptions of Heaven and Hell are a bit muddled as well.  The Bible makes you aware that there is an intermediate state, which is essentially the time between your death and Judgment Day.  Post Judgment Day the destination of God’s people is a “New Heaven and Earth”  with resurrected physical bodies.  The post-Judgment Day destination of the unforgiven is described as:  a lake of fire, Gehenna (which evokes a picture of a burning garbage dump), and a condition of being forsaken by God.  God won’t hang around to torment you.  Rather, God will permanently forget you.  That place and condition is what I prefer to call “Hell”

So where is Heaven in all of this?  It is the current dwelling place of God and the angels.  It will persist until Judgment Day when Heaven itself will be modified.  It is the immediate destination of those who die (I don’t buy the “soul sleep” paradigm and address that in a later blog), but there are some things incomplete about Heaven and our experience of it.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience of Heaven will leave our experience of life so far in dust.  We will see God, be without sinful nature, have no exposure to Satan, possess a heavenly body and no longer experience the discomforts of the curse.  It is hard to even imagine how good all that will feel compared to current life, so it is even harder to imagine what will be lacking.  While we consciously experience Heaven, our earthly bodies will still be in some state of decay or ash, and our earthly bodies are a part of what makes us.  The final release from the consequences of sin will happen at the resurrection.

For that matter, it would seem that the same is true for Heaven, the place.  Heaven has not been perfect.  Heaven hosted Satan’s rebellion and the corruption of a large minority of angels.  Heaven has experienced war.  God isn’t just going to make a New Earth.  He is going to make a New Heaven.

If you search the internet on the topic of Heaven, you will get a wide variety of interpretations, including mine.  You will encounter quite a few who suggest that we never will see Heaven, rather we are destined only for the resurrection and the New Earth.  They are right in saying that this was the Jewish, Old Testament expectation.  They might also state that the idea of our souls inhabiting Heaven forever is a Greek idea.  I agree in part.  The folk Christian idea is heavily influenced by the Greeks.  The Bible shares God’s revelation, which is the only reliable source on this topic.  It does speak of Heaven, even a Heaven we can inhabit, but it is a temporary dwelling with something even better to follow.

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.

The Destiny of Satan

It is a classic picture, found in sources as diverse as Renaissance art and The Far Side, to see the damned trapped in Hell with Satan and demons.  Some of that art seems to suggest that Satan and demons somewhat enjoy it.  They are captives not masters.  Don’t depend on artists or cartoonists to be biblically correct.  The Pre-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Sheol, Hades) has no mention of the presence of Satan or any fallen angel.  The Post-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Hell) does.  We have already seen one quick reference in Matthew 25:41.  The other two are in Revelation.

But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf.  With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.  The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.    Revelation 19:20

Though the word “Gehenna” is not used in this paragraph, the “lake of fire” would seem to be an obvious reference to the same place.  Where is this place?  No information is given.  With possibly this one exception, it doesn’t seem to be a destination for any human prior to Judgment Day.  The fact the beast (possibly a powerful demon not Satan) and his false prophet go there Pre-Judgement Day, may suggest that Hell exists already somewhere.  The classic ideas of Hell as being at the core the Earth are both the product of confusing it with Sheol and the ancients not having any information about it.  If I were to guess, I would guess Hell is in some dimensional space completely segregated from either Heaven or Earth.  Hell’s distinction is not the endless fire, but rather it is its absence from the presence of God.  It is forsaken.

The other reference to the “lake of fire” happens in Revelation 20:7-10:

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth- Gog and Magog- to gather them for battle.  In the number they are like the sand of the seashore.  They marched across the the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of  God’s people, the city he loves.  But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.  And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and false prophet had been thrown.  They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

For some reason not shared with us, Satan is allowed a short time of being at full power, and he uses his time to drag a large segment of humanity down with him.  God thwarts his effort to attack those who remain true to God and then Satan is pitched into the lake of fire, also Pre-Judgement Day, but just barely.  His confinement and torment are then permanent.

Judgment Day then commences in Revelation 20 with this conclusion:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  The lake of fire is the second death.  If anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Hades is a place not a person.  What is death?  Death is a sentence.  It is a sentence pronounced by God’s Law that the unforgiven human must be separated from God forever.  The movement of death to Hell is a victory for the forgiven human but it is the consummation of the Law for the sinner.  Everyone whose name is not found in the Book of Life, which would be everyone not connected to Jesus, is thrown into the lake of fire with a resurrected and indestructible body and soul.  The torment is both physical, by fire, and spiritual by being forsaken by God.

As Jesus said, you really don’t want to end up here.  Jesus gave himself so you don’t have to.

 

The Brochure for Hell

Do you ever look at travel or entertainment brochures?  Sometimes they are found in a big rack in a rest stop or the lobby of a hotel.  Some of the brochures are for places or events to which you would never go in a million years.  This series is, in a way, a brochure for a place written with a goal that you would not go.  It is the Bible’s description of Hell.

I covered two passages from Matthew 25 in the last installment.  There are others right out of the mouth of Jesus.  Why should anyone read about such a place?  Primarily, it is because Jesus talked about it.  It is better to know than to not know.

And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell (Gehenna).  Matthew 18:9

Please don’t take this passage as a literal instruction.  Gouging out your eye or cutting off your foot won’t stop you from sinning, but Jesus uses this gruesome scenario to emphasize how much you don’t want to go to Hell.  Can you imagine this? Here the classic description of Hell as fire is used.  The other descriptor found here is the word “thrown”.  “Gehenna” is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom right outside of Jerusalem.  In the day, it was the city’s garbage dump where fires continually burned.  It is also where pagan worshippers of Molech sacrificed their children on fiery altars.  The damned, who have rejected God’s love and the sacrifice that Jesus made for them, are thrown out.  They are trash at this point to God.

The fact that Hell is fiery, that you are cast there and that it is eternal is substance of many of references to Gehenna in the New Testament.  An additional insight worth discussing is found in Matthew 10:28:

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in (Gehenna).

Why would the body end up in Hell and how does one kill the soul?  Hell is a post-Judgement Day destination.  So consequently, it is also a post-resurrection destination.  The Bible says everyone, saved or not, will be raised imperishable.  It would seem here that the imperishable bodies of the damned will be cast into a physical fire.  Their souls “die” because they are forsaken by God.  Hell is a total being experience.  The word “destroy”, unfortunately, does not give hope that the person is consumed then the experience is over.  The Greek word translated here does not necessarily have that connotation.

What is the nature of the “fear” that Jesus speaks of in this passage?  It is not a hopeless, consuming fear.  Fear of God is made relative to the fear of others.  People will deny Jesus or withhold information about Him because they fear other people.  This, Jesus says, is having your priorities messed up.  God is the ultimate power and the ultimate judge.  If you are going to fear, fear Him.  Don’t lose sight, however, to the fact that God is trying to spare people from Hell.  God loves people.  That is why Jesus was sent.

Some argue that the love of God and the concept of Hell are incompatible.  That will be the topic of the next entry in the afterdeathsite.