I’m taking a small break from my Genesis series to discuss a few other topics (Genesis series should resume in the late summer). As many of you know, I’m not a huge fan of Christian fundamentalism. However, I am also very opposed to mainline liberalism as well. This is mainly due to the fact that I am very careful about what traditional beliefs we, as a Christian body, should hold on to, but I am also not a big fan of progressing into something new at every corner. There is a healthy balance to be found in there somewhere. Today, I am going to try and find a healthy balance in a big area. Possibly one of the biggest controversies within the Christian faith is the topic of hell. What is hell exactly? Most people have a pretty good idea as to what they think hell is.
First of all, I want to start out by saying I know this is a touchy subject. Many of us have lost loved ones who have not known Christ, and we wonder what awaits them after they pass from this life. Also, many of us have wondered why a loving God would send people to hell for all of eternity for not making one simple decision during their life on this earth. These are good things to ponder! There are a few simple things you should know about my personal beliefs on this subject before I dive into the deep stuff. First, I do not believe that God sends people to an eternal hell in order to be tortured for all of eternity. This would reside far from the reach of God’s character, one that is loving and full of grace and mercy. However, I am also in no way, shape, or form a Universalist. This would also be completely contradictory to God’s character. Now that I have that on the table, I just want to discuss.
I recently came across a post on Patheos describing by one of their writers, Tony Jones, entitled Christian Universalism: Cosmology. Now, Jones brought up a really good point that I would like to address. Jesus held incorrect cosmology. I don’t want to put the focus on Jesus, however, because everyone held incorrect cosmology. This isn’t really anything profound, seeing as if you pay attention to the text, it’s pretty easy to notice. Now, the cosmology back then was very different. Jesus probably believed that he lived in a geocentric universe, on a flat earth, with a literal hell existing underneath our feet. Now, Jones was right when it comes to the ancient cosmology being inaccurate as it relates to hell. What he didn’t address was what exactly the ancient cosmological concepts symbolize. Let’s look at the cosmology as it relates to hell:
- Isaiah 14:15, “But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.”
-This verse is talking about Lucifer falling from Heaven. If you notice, this shows how ancient writers thought that hell was an actual physical place in the ground. The term that is often used is “Sheol”, which literally means “dirt.”
2. Matthew 5:22, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister[a][b] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[c] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”
-Now, what is this verse saying exactly? The term “fire of hell” is translated into Gehenna. There is much debate as to what this is exactly, but the Matthew would have understood it as a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. What does this mean? It means that hell is a really bad place. Simple as that. Matthew isn’t describing hell, he is comparing hell to something else.
3. 2 Peter 2:4, “For if God spared not the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment;”
-In this context, hell is translated from the Greek Word Tartarus, meaning an abyss, one that is in the ground. What do we know now? There is no abyss in the ground.
So, overall, what are we to make of hell in light of this incorrect cosmology? This is a really good question. Many would assume that these verses simply mean that there is no hell. The problem with this assertion, however, is it makes the verses completely meaningless. This is not the case. Most of what the Bible says about hell is a representation of something else. So, if someone were to ask me what hell is, I would say that it is a place of eternal conscious torment, not because of any physical lake of fire, or an endless abyss, but a place where God, the only source of goodness, simply is nonexistent. Does God send people to hell? No. He casts people away from Him, and that is the ultimate punishment. Hell is not a place as much as it is a state of being; a place that is so terrible and horrible that no living human can even comprehend it.