Can Hell Be Real if God Is Love?

Everybody would really love it if “Hell” were just a concept and not a real place.  I would have no objections if God announced that all were being saved.  In fact,  I’m even for Hell being a destruction where the damned simply ceased to exist.  That is better than the picture painted in the Bible.  I will say this: beware of believing what you want to believe or rationalizing until you arrive at what you want to believe.  It is best to know what is really out there.

I believe that an eternal Hell is a reality only because the Bible speaks of it frequently.  Jesus himself mentions it often and with great warning.  But if that is the case, how can God claim to be a God of love?

Imagine a judge who is a champion of the legal system and justice.  During his career, he fairly executes the letter and intent of the law.  Then imagine that this judge’s son commits murder.    While most judge’s would recuse themselves from the case, this is a small place and he is the only judge around.  He loves his son.  He also believes and follows the Law.  This judge carries out justice even though it breaks his heart.

God’s law is unambiguous.  The wages of sin is both physical death and permanent alienation from God.  This law applies to Satan and fallen angels.  It also applies to human beings–all of them.  Is it love for God simply to exercise his sovereignty and cancel the Law?  If it is, then this is not the kind of love God has for us.  Instead, God’s love is to send his only Son to become a human being, fulfill the law for human beings, and then on behalf of the whole species suffer the consequence of sin.  This is a more costly, more loving and more just approach.  Unfortunately, many people will never take advantage of this.  They will go to their condemnation because they reject God’s ways and His love.

Don’t think that this doesn’t grieve God.  He doesn’t damn people because He hates them and is eager to punish them, even though human action does provoke Him.  God’s efforts on behalf of our species deserve the title “God is love”.  It is just not a love that compromises with sin.

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.

Go to Hell

We have probably all said this to someone or something in anger.  Or we have said its more profane equivalent.  These words flow easily without understanding their literal meaning.  Hell is not a place I would wish on my worst enemy or on the worst of people.

Is Hell real or was it just a fable to control people with fear?  Without a doubt the fear of Hell has been abused by some, but Jesus clearly speaks of its reality.  If you take Heaven seriously, you have no ground for not taking Hell seriously since Jesus spoke of it often, maybe even more than Heaven as a destination for mankind.

To be specific, I make a contrast between two words that are often rendered as “Hell”.  Jesus speaks of Gehenna and Hades.  These are not synonyms, so they should not be translated as the same word.  Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol.  It is the destiny of those without the forgiveness of sins prior to Judgment Day.  The characteristics of Hades do resemble that of Gehenna, so people have tended to conflate them.  Hades and Sheol constitute the majority of references to Hell in the Bible.

When I, and most people, think about Hell, they are thinking about the final place of judgement, not a temporary one.  Because of this, I prefer to reserve the word Hell for the post-Judgment Day destination of the damned.  That convention would limit the references to Hell to the following passages that I would like to handle a couple at a time over the next few entries.

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)

This passage comes at the end of the Sheep and the Goats story which definitely describes Judgment Day.  Just two words describe Hell here: eternal and punishment.  We will have to look elsewhere to find the nature of the punishment.  The disturbing thing here is “eternal”.  There is no end to it.  I would be more comfortable with “permanent destruction” suggesting that the evil people come to an end, or even “long” punishment.  Eternal is tough.  What could be bad enough to deserve eternal punishment?  The gravity of this has caused some to postulate that Hell doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t exist for any human, or it actually is temporary.  I think this passage is pretty clear.  People are going to eternal punishment.

In the same chapter are these words:

And throw that servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:30)

Does this refer to the eternal Hell, too?  It doesn’t expressly say, but a couple of things would make me conclude so.  First, Matthew 25 is all about preparation for Judgment Day, so this seems like an outcome of that.  Then the words “outside” and “darkness” imply a separation from God, which is the ultimate judgment.  When Jesus was forsaken by His Father on the cross, it seemed that was far worse than the nails or other torments.  Jesus being forsaken results in our not needing to be forsaken, if we are connected to Jesus.

The other descriptors are “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth”.  Both sound horrible.  They also sound physical.  The final judgment is a punishment of both body and soul.  More about this later.

I would love for Hell to be either fictional or empty, but I would rather know the truth rather than be surprised by it.  I would also prefer to learn about Hell from afar rather than from experience.  Though unpleasant, please follow me as I look at the other references in the Bible.

 

 

Christ’s Descent into “Hell” (Part 1)

For many people, the Apostles’ Creed is a regular part of their worship life. In confirmation instruction, we are taught what each line of the creed means; but if there is one line that is quickly glossed over, it is this: “He descended into hell”. It is through the Apostles’ Creed that most of us become first aware of Jesus’ descent into hell. Though curious, we may not ever get much information about it, and eventually most people just let it go. We do ourselves a disservice if we do that, however. In the next several blog entries, I want to talk about why this line appears in the creed and how Jesus’ descent fits in the overall story of what God has done for people.  It is interesting and important aspect of the work of God.

This topic is far more understandable if you have already come to some understanding of what Sheol is and the confusion that exists over what to call Sheol in English.   So if you haven’t read the blogs I posted back in August and September, you need to do so first. You should be able to get to them through the calendar on the right.  I stand opposed to calling Sheol, “Hell”, considering our modern connotation. Still, most English translations of the Apostles’ Creed say either, “He descended into Hell” or “He descended to the dead”. This should sound familiar to you. Often Sheol is translated as “Hell” or “grave”.

What did the original say in Latin? It says that Jesus “descendit ad inferos”. Literally, “He descended to the lowest place” or “He descended to the underworld”. Given what we discussed previously about Sheol, clearly this is saying that Jesus descended to Sheol.

There is a shockingly wide variety of understandings when it comes to Christ’s descent “into hell”. Here is the spectrum of beliefs as far as I have found them, starting with probably the most common:

  • What? Do you mean that we believe that?
  • The descent simply means that he was buried. (Liberal)
  • The descent refers to Jesus’ suffering on the cross. (Reformed)
  • Jesus descended to Hell to proclaim His victory. (Lutheran)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to proclaim His victory. (Various)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to pay the final price for sin. (Some Roman)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to free the Old Testament righteous. (Roman)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to proclaim the Gospel to Old Testament damned and save some of them. (Certain Orthodox)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to liberate everybody, both the righteous and the unrighteous. (Certain Orthodox)
  • Jesus descended to Sheol to liberate everybody and basically destroy it. (Certain Orthodox)
  • Any combination of the answers above.

There is also a difference in regard to the importance that various groups assign to the descent. Eastern Orthodoxy makes Christ’s descent critical to both theology and liturgical life. Roman Catholics regard the doctrine as important, but modern Catholic theologians want to de-emphasize it. Lutherans acknowledge the reality of Christ’s descent, but consider the purpose of the descent to be too unclear to establish it doctrinally and not important enough to explore. The Reformed and liberal theologians find ways to dismiss or demythologize this part of the story.

So can anything be definitively known about Christ’s descent or should we just stay away from this part of the story and wait until we get to Heaven for answers? What Christ did after His death does not change what we are to do as His disciples. Still, it is a part of the story of Christ and potentially has some explanatory power on several levels. For this reason it merits our exploration, even if we can’t settle all disputes. Ignorance, then, is not a good choice even if it is a popular one.

I hope you will continue to follow this discussion.  You might be surprised at how many references and possible references exist in the Bible.