Wednesday, January 10, 2007


[here is the culmination of my study of the doctrine of hell last semester... enjoy!]

Old Testament
Though we may read a concept of hell into the text, there is no representation of any sort of eternal punishment for the wicked after death. The Old Testament authors were primarily concerned with punishment and reward before death. There is only a hint toward retribution after death. So what does the Old Testament have to say?
The Hebrew word most commonly translated a “hell” is Sheol (she’ôl – שְׁאוֹל). This word Sheol is “almost universally accepted” to mean “realm of the dead” or if it’s in context a as a place, “the deep” within the Tannak.[1] The word does not exemplify the contemporary definition of the word hell—as a place of fire and brimstone where the wicked suffer for all eternity. Sheol is simply death itself or the experience of death. Sheol was seen as the immanent and natural end of life for all mortals.[2] Unlike our perception of hell Sheol it is seen in a positive light as a “peaceful event” depending on context and “when it comes at the end of a long, happy, and fulfilled life.”[3] Other times it is seen as an “enemy” that comes in unexpected and unnaturally.[4] With Yahweh giver the giver of life Sheol was his opposite and in light of this it was Yahweh who could rescue one from Sheol.[5] In reaction to death the living responded with mourning and funeral rituals in order to honor their dead and treat the event with proper respect.[6] “Burial is recorded… for most major figures in the text, but not all”.[7] Burial was important to the Jews but we cannot infer that it is essential. Worship of the dead is never indicated in the text and this is not surprising because to the Jews “death was the end of this life, not the start of the next…”[8] Sheol, according to some scholars could be interpreted as “the underworld.” It wasn’t simply a concept but it was also a place, particularly a place at an “opposite theological extreme to Yahweh,” a place of “separation” where contact was shut down between the dead and Yahweh.[9] This is where we contrive our cliché description of hell as “separation from God.” People could not pray or talk to Yahweh. Sheol “is characteristically ‘the land of forgetfulness.’” But Sheol is also portrayed as “accessible” to Yahweh.[10] We have writers crying out to God from Sheol, praying for release. How can the dead, who are thus far seen as basically lifeless be crying out to God from a place that is supposedly separate from Him? Christopher Barth, a son of the great German theologian Karl Barth, notes that death or the experience of death may be more complicated than we think. It is common for us to think of life and death in linear terms. Death is commonly thought of as an end of life, i.e. the time that life ends. But Hebrew thinking is much less linear. The Jews were much more quality oriented, for example the term “eternal life” had less to do with time and more to do with the present life and numbers were a representation of quality more than they were a representation of quantity.[11] So why are we so quick to assume that we share a definition of death when the Jewish intellectual construct is so different? Barth asserts that death for the Jews was not just the end of life or a place where the dead dwell. “For Barth, Sheol is more a power which invades life than a place to go after life… the individual in any form of affliction… has a real experience of Sheol” (p.91). According to Barth for the Jew if one is sick or poor they are experiencing death. Death is the lack of life. This may bring new light to many of our conclusions. It may for example cause us to re-think what St. Paul meant by “dead in sin” (for example; Ephesians 2:1) and if the New Testament authors were truly influenced by Hebrew thinking we must re-think our conclusions about hell. Though the concept would have evolved by the time it was received by first century authors this may give us reason to conclude that hell is more present here on earth than we normally might think of it. Perhaps hell is an experience in this life not to say it doesn’t transcend beyond this. Perhaps it’s a sort of invader, an unwelcome guest in the present which robs us of true life. Perhaps our primary concern should be that we are not robbed of life during life rather than after it’s over. It is safe to say that the Hebrew concern was for fear and following of Yahweh in this life and in this world alone. They had “little interest” at best for any other world, i.e. the “underworld.”[12]
What did the Jews believe about the dead? The inhabitants of the underworld were by no means a primary concern for the Old Testament writers.[13] There is some dispute over the name of the dead in the Tannak. The Hebrew word “rephaim” could have carried different meanings depending on the origin of the word. Some wished to argue that it meant “weak ones” while others argued that they were “healers or providers.”[14] The original readers of the text would not have had such dispute. The word occurs with the assumption that the reader has prior knowledge of what it’s referring to.[15] We cannot assume any concept of “porous death.”[16] Calling upon the dead or “necromancy” was not a major issue for the authors.[17] Necromancy was approached and condemned by some of the prophets but it still seems that “for all their faults, Israelites… [were] more concerned with the living than the dead” in their customs[18](p. 194-195).
What about the afterlife? Thus far there has been no discussion of what the Jews actually thought about the afterlife. There have been sever scriptures interpreted to be discussing a New Testament understanding of heaven. Job 19 for example has been interpreted to be talking about the coming Messiah. Job’s declaration that his “redeemer lives…” has in the past been read to discuss his faith that he’d see the messiah on earth after his death. This conclusion would be based on anachronism because “this… reads a fuller New Testament understanding back into the Old Testament.”[19] It is more plausible that Job was declaring vindication in life, “he will have a defender who will stand on earth to defend him.”[20] There are some psalms that may be alluding to a postmortem union with God but it is seen as something in this life “projected into the future.”[21] Resurrection does occur several times.[22] Resurrection is usually used as metaphor for “national restoration” of Israel as a whole.[23] There are other scriptures which seem to presuppose a concept of individual resurrection, i.e. Isaiah 26 and Daniel 12.[24] Even these scriptures are not primarily concerned with the concept of individuals being resurrected so we cannot infer that they affirm it as a theological truth.
Resurrection may have evolved from Old Testament documents but it would be a stretch at best to assert that it is a subject in Old Testament Soteriology. By the New Testament period the concept was alive and well and was sometimes read back into the Old Testament texts.[25] As much as we can read into it, the “Old Testament eschatology has no concept of judgment after death.”[26]

New Testament
The New Testament is primarily concerned with New Creation and eternal life.[27] Any representation of hell is used to contrast against heaven. By the New Testament period the concept of resurrection had developed to the point where the authors were thinking and asking questions about post-mortem existence for those who are not resurrected with the nation of Israel. Eternal life was related to but distinct from the concept of resurrection. Eternal life was not seen primarily as a post-mortem concept, rather it was something experienced in life—here and now.[28] The term “eternal” had more to do with quality than duration. Eternal life, from the first century Jewish perspective, was a life that was so great its significance went on forever. Hell was the opposite of eternal life. It would be irresponsible to restrict hell to being only in the present and not after death. Just as Eternal life goes on forever even beyond life in the here and now hell carries the same eternal quality and also continues beyond carnal experience.
Jesus used the word gehenna which was a place outside of Jerusalem used as a dump and was traditionally thought of as the future destination for the wicked.[29] This place had an infamous reputation and was referred to as “the place of whipping and gnashing of teeth, where the fire never dies.” During famine, gehenna was the place where the dead would be gathered and either burned or buried. When Jesus refers to gehenna he’s not referring to a place of eternal punishment and suffering. He’s referring to a place of the worst kind of death.
Now we mustn’t miss the eternal implications for this. Jesus statements regarding this destination would have been taken very seriously. He was claiming the worst sort of judgment for a Jew—exclusion from the eschatological resurrection. To any Jewish listener in Jesus’ context this would have been hell—but not our 21st century concept of hell. The real punishment was not where they were going but what they were being excluded from—the national resurrection of Israel. We must remember the cultural context was much less individualistically driven than our own. Implicit in their understanding of gehenna was indeed exclusion because of the inherent death in the place, but there was also implicit suffering. Gehenna was a place where death was far from sweet. This is what sets gehenna apart from Sheol in definition. Sheol is simply death and can be either negative or positive depending on context, but gehenna is far more. If the authors of the New Testament ever meant to communicate Sheol the Greek word Hades was used (This was the word used in the Septuagint for Sheol).[30] Gehenna was not the Greek counterpart to the Hebrew Sheol and it must not bare the same definition, even though some translators have used the same English word, “hell,” for both. Gehenna was closely linked to suffering gaining its reputation through famine and plague. People who find their end in gehenna did not find a happy death. There are no positives about gehenna. This place was so closely linked with suffering that by the time it reached the ears of Jesus’ listeners it was built into the very name.
But what was the real idea in the mind of Jesus and in the minds of his listeners? Surely they meant suffering and surely they meant punishment but was life after death for the wicked eternal and conscious as we have read to be? In fact it wasn’t life at all. Every culture and religion leading up to Judaism and early Christianity used story and myth to find the truth about retribution and justice after death. We have a narrative as well and we must find our truth in the story of Scripture. In the Narrative of Scripture everything begins with life—a tree and a river of life.[31] Then death and chaos enter the picture and corrupt the good creation.[32] The rest of the narrative until Revelation 21 and 22—the end—is a story of God’s effort to bring His people back to Himself and back to life. In the biblical narrative it’s not a contrast between heaven and hell but between life and death. Therefore those who are not resurrected to life are not resurrected at all.
With humility I assert that all New Testament concepts of hell are not of eternal conscious punishment, rather hell in the New Testament is destruction and death. All the imagery, usually highly metaphorical, is used to by means of describing the quality of the annihilation experienced by those who do not choose life. It is impossible, due to the brevity of this article, to detail every mention of hell in the New Testament, but we will approach three; first Jesus’ mention of Hell in gospel of Luke, then Paul’s, then John’s.
Jesus only mentions torment after death and burial once. In Luke 16 he tells a story of a rich man who wouldn’t give and wasn’t generous. It that the rich man was dead buried and “in hell, where he was in torment…” he cried out.[33] The word here for “hell” is Hades, implying only the grave (which was already implied in the mention that he was buried). Implied in the text is that there is torment after death. There is no mention of the duration of this torment. Many have held this verse to be proof of an eternal literal hell. But we must ask what Jesus was trying to communicate. Jesus wasn’t proposing any theology about hell, rather about generosity. It is not unlikely, taking Jesus teaching style into account, that the consciousness of the rich man is hypothetical, metaphorical, and is being used to emphasize his true point. Jesus listeners weren’t asking about hell, rather their minds and Jesus mind was bent toward another point—perhaps generosity. We should not derive any theology about hell from a text that is not focused on hell, especially in this case, since there is no discussion of duration of this torment.
Paul mentions hell fewer times and in much less specific terms. Paul can even seem to have Universalist aspirations.[34] Romans 8:38 is his only mention of hell and it is in passing. He declares that “Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away.”[35]
John—in his apocalyptic book commonly known as the book of Revelation—mentions hell in metaphorical and mysterious terms. The whole book is written as a contrast between the Kingdom of the lamb (Kingdom of God) and the kingdom of the beast (sin). So it is not surprising or outrageous to insist that John’s mention of the fiery lake in Revelation 21:8 is only imagery used to contrast against the New Jerusalem.[36] He also mentions that this fiery lake is the “second death” implying that even though there is consciousness there it ends in death or destruction.[37]

Conclusion: Annihilation not “hell”
Clarke H. Pinnock represents my argument for the proper inference about Hell from scripture. In his chapter in Four Views on Hell, Pinnock argues for “conditional immortality.”[38] Pinnock combats the traditional view of hell as being a place of eternal torment (whether literal or metaphorical). He wishes to give “rational for an alternate interpretation of the nature of hell.”[39] Rather than a view of “endless torture” that has been passed down through Christian tradition, Pinnock argues hell, in reality, is “destruction.”[40]. Too many people believe that they only have a choice between universalism and eternal torment when coming to conclusions about the nature of hell. Pinnock believes he is giving an alternative, necessary, and superior option.[41]

The traditional view has its roots in ancient Judaism, where there was “no single” view.[42] Out of the differing views the view of eternal torment arose to dominance through many different influences. From Augustine to Jonathan Edwards hell has been accepted to be mostly literal or metaphor for eternal and consistent punishment.[43] The problem with this view, argues Pinnock, is that it’s not morally consistent. “How can one reconcile this doctrine with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ? Is He not a God of boundless mercy? … Torturing people without end is not the sort of thing the ‘Abba’ father of Jesus would do.”[44] Pinnock believes we must re-think this view despite its grounding in church history.
Some others have re-thought this view. First, “the most modest revision,” Metaphor, and second, Universalism.[45] The idea of metaphor is attractive because of its’ conformity to tradition while universal salvation is appealing because of its’ positive and optimistic nature. Annihilationism, as Pinnock argues it, is more faithful to the biblical text. This depends much on your hermeneutic. If you read Scripture propositionally and literally you’ll have trouble with this conclusion. But if your reading allows for symbolism and if you’re focused on the intent of what is written rather than the means by which the point is made you may find this more striking. Scripture never gives a literal description of hell. The Old Testament never really gives much attention to it at all and the New Testament is more focused on destruction (or annihilation) of the wicked. “Jesus’ teaching about the eternal destiny of the wicked is bold in its writing but modest when it comes to precise description.”[46] And Paul writes about the “everlasting destruction” of the wicked.[47]
Pinnock concludes “that the traditional belief that God makes the wicked suffer in an unending conscious torment in hell is unbiblical” and is more influenced by Hellenism and its insistence on the immortality of the soul.[48] He suggests that the bible supports, rather clearly, annihilationist tendencies. Eternal life is conditional and isn’t given to the unrepentant. “Hellfire” consumes rather than torments.[49] The imagery of Scripture is less concerned with the nature of hell as an eternal reality than it is with the quality of the exclusion from resurrection. Suffering in hell is eternal in quality but not in duration.
It is difficult to explain eschatology of New Creation, like the one in the Biblical narrative, while there is still conscious suffering in hell. Is hell not included in “everything?”[50] Therefore, eschatologically, annihilationism makes more sense than the traditional view of hell. The Biblical narrative seems to push us toward the idea of the exclusion of the wicked from resurrection (revelation 21:8). To be totally wicked, to be totally consumed by the curse—by evil—would be nonexistence. Saint Augustine wrote that “Therefore, if they shall be deprived of all good, they shall no longer be.”[51] True separation from God would be exclusion, not only from life, but from existence.
There is still a great problem at hand. We are really only inferring our conclusions about hell from scripture because, in fact, the bible doesn’t teach it at all in the terms in which we are thinking of it. We must answer the questions of our culture in regards to hell so it is necessary to infer, but the authors of Scripture are more concerned with life now than life after death. Hell, therefore must be thought of as a present reality. Hell, in the scriptural narrative is the culmination of the curse of Genesis. By our actions we can bring hell into existence in our context. Anytime we cause anything that is consistent with that curse we are bringing hell, rather than heaven into existence. Ours is the task of bringing heaven into existence. In Uganda, where children are kidnapped at night and robbed of their innocence, hell is in existence. In Darfur, where genocide is plaguing the life of the people and death is all around, hell is in existence. In the streets of Los Angeles, where men and women are asleep on the street and dependant upon alcohol and narcotics, hell is in existence. In our own lives, where we are overwhelmed with sin and death, hell is there and God wants to invade with the restorative power of the cross of Christ and bring heaven to earth. Perhaps the greatest contrast comparison between heaven and hell is not the New Jerusalem and the fiery lake.[52] Perhaps the greatest contrast is Paul’s beautiful dichotomy of “sinful nature” and “the fruit of the Spirit.”[53] The choice is between life or death. Christ came to give us life and so that we might really live it.

Breathe into us your Holy Spirit
Who is the New Breath of life.
As you breathed into the Nostrils of the dirt and brought it to life,
Breathe the Holy Spirit into our nostrils
And bring us to life again.
Bring Heaven to earth;
Invade our hell with Your Heaven.
Your Kingdom come,
Your Will be done,
On Earth as it is in Heaven.

[1] Phillip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol,(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002) 73.[2] Ibid 25-27.[3] Ibid 26.[4] Ibid 28.[5] Ibid 39.[6] Ibid 50.[7] Ibid64.[8] Ibid 65.[9] Ibid 75.[10] Ibid[11] Ray Vanderlaan explains this contrast in thinking, see web page accessed Oct. 4, 2006.[12] Johnston, Shades of Sheol, 124.[13] Ibid 128.[14] Ibid 129.[15] Ibid 142.[16] Alan E. Bernstein The Formation of Hell, (London, Cornell University Press 1993)84-106[17] Johnston, Shades of Sheol, 166.[18] Ibid 194-195.[19] Ibid 209.[20] Ibid 213.[21] Ibid 217.[22] Ibid 218-219.[23] Ibid 221-224.[24] Ibid 224-227.[25] “In later Judaism resurrection became widely accepted. The post biblical phrase ‘resurrection of the dead’ occurs in both the Mishna and the Talmud.” Johnston, Shades of Sheol, 230.[26] Ibid 237.[27] Bernstein, Formation of Hell, 205.[28] For details on this concept see Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, (New York: HarperSanFrancisco 1997) 27-28.[29] Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett, Four Views on Hell, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 20.[30] Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A Peterson, Hell Under Fire, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004) 44.[31] Genesis 2:9-10[32] Genesis 3:14-19[33] Luke 16:23
[34] Bernstein Formation of Hell, 228.[35] Romans 8:38
[36] Revelation 21:2[37] Revelation 21.8[38] Gundry, Four Views, 142.[39] Ibid 136.[40] Ibid 137.[41] Ibid.[42] Ibid 138.[43] Ibid 139.[44] Ibid 140.[45] Ibid 141.[46] Ibid 145.[47] Ibid 146.[48] Ibid 165.[49] Ibid 142.[50] Revelation 21:5[51] Saint Augustine Confessions 7:12
[52] Revelation 21-22[53] Galatians 5:19-26


Anonymous said...


Good job Wes!

Your conclusion very much justifies my premise behind my new blog "Storming the Gates of Hell."

I invite you and your readers to check it out.

Many blessings...

Lacey said...

came across your blog through a random link on another blogger's site... great, great stuff. i have only recently begun to think on these things and i graduated with a christian studies degree from a university in tn where if i had thought such things while there, i probably wouldn't have been taken too seriously. very refreshing, indeed! :)