#233: Does Hell Exist?

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #233, on the subject of Does Hell Exist?.

Pope Francis was in the news, quoted by a liberal publication in Italy as having stated that there is no hell.

The Roman Catholic Church immediately did damage control, issuing a statement to the effect that His Eminence was misquoted.  Yet it seems he must have said something which caused the interviewer to extrapolate this notion, and that raises a question that has vexed believers and theologians and deniers for generations, at least:  what is the nature of eternal punishment?  In short, is there a literal Hell?

It sounds very nearly like an heretical question, the sort of notion that would have you dragged before an inquisitor once upon a time.  Yet the fact is that it’s not a new issue, and proves to be one that has been hotly debated even among conservative churchmen for most of the past century.  There are a lot of layers to it, and it’s worth considering.

Let’s start with definitions.

The first issue is what we mean by hell.

The word itself conjures images of a flaming abode where people are tortured eternally by demons.  This, though, is not its biblical nor its historical sense.  Our English word was once the rough equivalent of the Hebrew word “sheol”, the place where the dead in some sense go, sometimes rendered “the grave”.  It is not dissimilar to the Greek concept we call “Hades”, which was originally “Hades’ place”, the realm of the god of the dead, implying that people who died in some sense continued, but weren’t really alive as we would understand it.  We could continue the debate of exactly what the ancients envisioned, but it may have been something like that almost-awake state we sometimes experience when we have a vague awareness of the world around us but cannot fully understand or interact with it.

But doesn’t the Bible tell us that hell is a place of torture?  Not exactly.  It speaks of the afterlife of the lost, and of the punishment of fallen angels, but it doesn’t give us entirely clear answers, only images.  This makes some sense, if we recognize that whatever the nature of the afterlife it is completely outside the experience of every one of us still living, and thus the best we can be told is that it is something like something familiar to us that is different–and Young’s Theorem (my father) states, Things that are not the same are different.

Jesus frequently said that for those who did not come to faith, the afterlife was like Gehenna.  We have created images of this place “where the worm never dies and the fires are never extinguished”, but Gehenna, or literally the Valley of Hinnom, was a real place:  it was for centuries the garbage dump outside the city of Jerusalem, where composting waste supported a proliferation of creatures feeding on it and the production of methane created spontaneous fires.  The message is that if you miss heaven, it’s the equivalent of being tossed in the garbage.  It is of course a metaphor; it doesn’t really tell us what hell is like as a physical place, or even if it is a physical place.

Similarly, Jesus spoke of being cast into the outer darkness.  This, though, was generally contrasted to the other image, the image of being invited to the wedding feast.  We thus again have a metaphor, on one side being included in this wonderful party, and on the other side being locked outside in the cold and dark.  It in that sense tells us what hell is like by analogy, not what it is like in any physical sense.

Doesn’t the Bible speak of a lake of fire, though?  Yes, it does–late in the book Protestants call Revelation and Catholics Apocalypse (the same concept, really–“revelation” coming from the Latin for “unveiling” and “apocalypse” coming from the Greek for “uncovering”).  Almost anyone who attempts to read the book concludes that it is rich with metaphoric imagery, and this is a metaphoric image.

Besides, does it make more sense to see the devil and his angels swimming about in a lake of fire for eternity, or to assume that the fire consumes them completely so that there is nothing left?

Consider the alternative.

That has become the issue.  There are, of course, groups that believe no one goes to hell, that everyone ultimately is saved, but these are not regarded orthodox by anyone other than themselves, and their beliefs are not Biblical.  The “orthodox” alternative lies in the question, as put by John Wenham in his book The Goodness of God, of whether eternal punishment is eternal in its duration or eternal in its consequences.  Fire, one of the critical images, consumes.  If we throw someone in fire long enough, there remains nothing–even ash is reduced to gasses given enough time and enough heat.  C. S. Lewis somewhere suggested that any being separated from the source and foundation of being long enough would deteriorate into non-being eventually, and examples in his metaphorical The Great Divorce suggest that people separated from God ultimately cease to be people at all–the clever example of the issue of whether that person is merely a grumbler or has now come to be nothing more than an ongoing grumble without a person at all.  People without God are becoming less human; people in Christ are becoming more human.  Again as Lewis observed, it might be a very small change during life, but if it sets a pattern that continues into eternity, people who have begun the right pattern ultimately will be perfect, and those on the opposite track ultimately will deteriorate to nothing.

This resolves the objection, that heaven could not possibly be happy as long as hell continued.  Hell doesn’t continue; it merely happens, and those to whom it happens soon know nothing.

It comes to my attention that at least one of the creeds says that Jesus “descended into hell”.  To this, first, it should be said that the creed does not tell us what hell is; second, that creeds are not scripture but only human attempts to distill scripture; and third, that this is probably an interpretation of Ephesians 4:9 where Paul says that Jesus descended “into the lower parts of the earth” (which could mean here where we live, in the context).  The Bible does not actually say that Jesus entered any place called hell.

So what do we conclude?

We conclude that we do not really know anything at all about hell.  It is certainly not impossible that there is a place like Dante’s Inferno in which people continue to live and to suffer to varying degrees based on their wickedness and unbelief.  Those, though, are images from medieval concepts of torture, not Biblical images.  A place of eternal punishment could exist, and people could be confined there.  It could be torture, or it could be that the torture is knowing that there was a chance at something better which was rejected, or it could be that those who are there do not know or believe that death could have brought them to something better.  Perhaps they suffer only in that they don’t know what they missed, but not knowing they don’t realize that they have missed anything.

Perhaps, though, the imagery is meant to tell us that those who embrace Christ are brought into an eternally blissful existence, and those who do not do so are tossed in the trash, thrown in the incinerator, and removed from existence.

I do not say that I believe that; nor do I believe the other.  I believe that God has not clearly told us what happens to those who reject Him, partly because it is beyond our experience and therefore our understanding, and partly because what matters is we understand that whatever happens to those who reject Him is something we want to avoid in favor of what happens to those who embrace Him.  If we turn to God, we may never know what would have happened to us otherwise, and we will never need to know whether there is an eternal hell or only a terminal one.

So the answer is yes, there almost certainly is a hell–but it is probably nothing like you have imagined.

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