Thursday, May 08, 2008

Life After College and Hell

The title of this blog post should not imply that life after college and hell have anything to do with each other... necessarily.

So far life after college is quite hectic. I am sorry I haven't been able to get to blogging more often since graduation. I officially accepted the job offer (see this post), I had to apply for grad school—I'm going to do the Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) program at the Haggard School of Theology from their San Diego campus—I have been steadily unpacking all of my stuff into my parents’ house where I will be TEMPORARILY rooming, and I just started reading Torture and Eucharist by William Cavanaugh ( I hope to get a few books read before I take off for Israel in June). Overall, it’s good to be home but I am anxious to get out of my parents house and find somewhere I can afford to live.

Among all the things I’ve been doing lately, last night I got to hang out with some friends who live in Escondido, about 20 minutes from my house. We somehow got to talking about hell. Since I did an independent study on the subject my junior year, I’ve had several conversations about the subject. I think people expect me to know something about hell, but I’m still not sure what I think about the whole thing.

Every time I want to go all the way with a thought, I think of some aspect of the conversation that I might be ignoring or not taking seriously. For example; I would like to take hell to be something reserved not for individual people but for the systems of the world—the oppressive and idolatrous governmental and economic powers and principalities with all the spiritual and symbolic realities. This seems to be the thought behind Revelation 19:20

“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.”

In this passage it is the beast, that symbol of the Roman Empire and all its oppressive ideologies and spiritual forces, which is thrown into the lake of fire. Maybe this principal can be carried into other passages of scripture, leaving room for us to believe in universal salvation for all individuals… But then I read on in Revelation 21:8…
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

In this passage, is not the thought towards actual people, actual bodies? Not only is this burning fire, whatever that is, reserved for the Beast but for all those people that were drawn in and participating in the oppression and idolatry of the state. So hell, assuming we’re to think of the lake of fire as hell, is something experienced by people, by flesh and blood. But how are we to think of hell? As separation from God? If that’s so, then it would make sense to ascribe to annihilationism because everything that has breath is consumed by the presence of God (for breath itself is the life-giving Holy Spirit of God) so to be removed from that presence would be to cease to exist in any conscious form (and fire imagery takes us that direction too… fire consumes and destroys—whatever it burns doesn’t stick around forever). So annihilationism is an option. But where is the redemption in that?

However we think of hell, it is necessary to think of it as redemptive in its trajectory. God is not a torturer; he does not punish people arbitrarily because they broke the rules, he doesn’t make examples out of people to strike fear into the hearts of people so that they will follow his orders uncritically. And God does not believe in collateral damage, he doesn’t settle for the complacency of saying “well, some just have to die, and that’s just gonna have to be accepted” (maybe you see why I have a problem with substitutionary atonement.). God’s wrath and God’s actions are always toward a trajectory of redemption. Separation from God, without annihilation, doesn’t seem to have a redemptive trajectory at all, but one of indifference. For us to imagine people being eternally separated from God but still existent we’d have to imagine a God who’d just get over it—a God who’d eventually be fine with the idea that some of his people are alienated. This doesn’t sound like that God of Jesus who refused to alienate anyone. At least with annihilation we could imagine God mourning their deaths and going toward redemption (like we do in “real life”).

I would suggest another option… perhaps the burning sulfur is not the absence of the presence of God but a profound manifestation of it. According to Peter Chopelas, “It is interesting to examine the Greek word for ‘divine’, it is from the Greek ‘theion’, which could also mean ‘divine being’, but also means ‘sulfur.'” And so “the fiery lake of burning sulfur” could also mean “divine fire”—the presence of God. Perhaps heaven and hell are the same “place.” Perhaps heaven will be hell for some. As Rob Bell so eloquently put it, “perhaps the flames of heaven are hotter than the flames of hell.” Imagine a banquet table filled with all sorts of people including all those “others” you never wanted to let in. Imagine dipping bread and touching. Imagine Hitler dipping bread with the same people who were incinerated at his command… would that be more of a heaven or more of a hell? Remember, as an example, the story of Shadrak, Mishak, and Abednego. Joined by the presence of God they danced in the same flames that burned the guards of the furnace. Maybe heaven and hell are the same flames in which some will burn and some will dance, either way all are in the presence of God… some of these thoughts come from this article: Heaven & Hell in the Afterlife, According to the Bible read if you’re interested. I’ll let you know if I ever make up my mind about hell.. I kinda hope I don’t

7 comments:

simplygrand said...

you saw me this week too! lol.

don said...

Wes,

I ran a concordance check on the word "hell" and I found it interesting that in all of the writings of Paul, there were zero occurrences. That is not being very responsible to the Gentiles to not bother to tell them about God's torture chamber if such existed now is it???

One of your billions of redeemed fellow humans.

P.S. And by the way, Paul really threw around a lot of universal-sounding lingo like: 1Ti 4:10 "In fact this is why we work hard and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers."
("especially" = greek "malista" obviously not meaning exclusively)

WES ELLIS said...

Don,
The only problem with concordances is that not every author in the Bible used the same vocabulary to talk about certain subjects. There are at least a few verses with which you must deal where Paul contrasts those who are "perishing" from those who are "saved." Paul also discusses things being "destroyed." You're right, Paul leaves plenty of room for speculation about how it all plays out but he doesn't seem to think that all are "being saved"... at least not initially. I think you can still find a legitimate way to argue for universalism, but not by saying Paul neglected hell.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
-Wes

Just a few:Romans 2:12, 1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15, 2 Thess 2:10 (assuming Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians... either way it's in the canon).

don said...

Wes,
Those verses all contain the word "perish" in some versions. This is the Greek "apollumi" = to destroy from. This same Greek word is used in the "lost" parables of Luke 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. All uses of lost or lose are "apollumi". So sometimes it is lose, perish, or destroy and in no case can you make a case for eternal torment associated with "apollumi".

Pauls strongest sounding language in some versions is in 2Th 1:9 "These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power," where the phrase "eternal destruction" is the Greek "aionios olethros". "Aionios" is the adjective derived from the noun "aion" which means an "eon" or "age" and hence the adjective "aionios" means pertaining to an eon or an age. The word "olethros" is from "ollumi" = destroy, lose, perish etc. This word "olethros" is used in 1Co 5:5 "I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." This indicates a remedial punishment of the flesh to prepare one for salvation.

Thanks for the interchange,
Don

WES ELLIS said...

Don,
Good stuff. Paul's distinctions only imply that some are "saved" and some are something else. I agree, he never talks about eternal torment and I think that'd be a less-than-satisfactory definition of hell. I try not to build too much theology off of Paul anyway... in many cases, we need so much more context than he provides us with in order to make a good interpretation. Obviously, most of our hell-theology (I'm sure there's a technical name for that) doesn't come Paul anyway.
-Wes

don said...

Wes,
In those versions that choose to use the Anglo-Saxon word "hell", such as the KJV, Jesus uses it 15 times. It's Anglo-Saxon etymology is that it just means hidden or unseen with no inherent negative connotation. Eleven of these occurrences are the Greek "geena" and 4 are the Greek "hades". When the Jew heard "geena", he of course knows Jesus is referring to a geographical location, the Valley of Hinnom adjacent to Jerusalem, which became a trash dump with a continous fire burning. "Hades" just means unseen realm such as the grave. This corresponds to the Hebrew "sheol" as the LXX chooses "hades" as the Greek for the Hebrew "sheol". Neither one of these words have any inherent meaning related to eternal torment. You are probably aware that there are many versions of the Bible in which the word "hell" is not used. Sloppy and bias translation plus tradition have given us this pagan myth known as hell.

WES ELLIS said...

Don,
Yep. You're right.
The word hell might not have negative connotation but Gehenna sure does! It was more than a dump... it was infamous as the place where people who died of famine were dumped and burned. Hades is a lot more like the Hebrew Sheol... neither negative or positive. Have you read "Shades of Sheol" by Johnston or "Formation of hell" by Alan Bernstein? They're good ones! They might help guide your thinking, if you haven't already read them. Needless to say, the doctrine of hell is a lot more complex than a word study.

Interestingly enough, I'll be staying at Jerusalem University College when I go to Israel. It's located right next to the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). I get to stay right next to hell... I find that humorous.