Questions About Hell

The following is from a friend who started asking about hell. It’s a common enough theme that I thought others might appreciate. -CL

Corbin,

“I have a friend who says he is a Christian and is always asking me challenging questions that I do not know the answers to. He and I are both growing and we both want to know the truth more. Last week we were talking about hell and the end of the world stuff, and the following questions came about. Would you mind telling me what you think?

1.  When did Hell begin to exist?….. From my quick study and quick reading found nothing on Hell before Matthew.  I guess that it must have been there since creation but is there a verse?

2.  Are Hell and Hades the same or different?…. Again from my reading and understanding is that at least they are similar if not the same. They are both mentioned as places of condemnation and torment.

3.  Is there a Scripture that talks about Jesus taking the keys of hell?… Maybe this is just something we Christians believe or have learned?I thought I read that Jesus went into hell and took the keys.  Maybe it was popular thought?

Any thought or help on these ideas will be great.  I look forward to your reply.” -DJJ

Dear DJ,

Thanks for your questions. Good questions rarely deserve short answers, but I will do my best without writing a novel.

1) When did hell begin? I think it is important to note that the Bible is relatively nondescript about Hell for a reason: the Bible’s focus is not on getting us to avoid hell (or be afraid of it), but rather to get us to focus on God, serve him and serve each other, and encourage us that when all is said and done, we’ll spend eternity with him. Hell is just a byproduct of rejecting God, and he does not “send” us there as far as I can tell, for humans’ conscious rejection of God sends themselves to “hell,” whatever it is.

There is also a significant Christian tradition of understanding hell, not as a place where people live eternally, but where they go to die the “second death” once and for all. This line of thought points out that only those redeemed by Jesus are promised “eternal life.” Stated another way, many popular Christian conceptions of hell are inconsistent because they posit that the tormented suffer forever, but to live eternally (even if being tortured) is still to have eternal life, and that is not what the Bible, nor Jesus communicates. I find this to be a valid argument, especially if forever means non-existence rather than agonizing, conscious pain.

This is not to say that “hell” does not exist, but it may not exist in the way Western Christians have thought since the debut of Dante’s Inferno and his seven circles of hell. PS: All the imagery of red-suited, pitchfork carrying chaps with firey-eyes and cloven-feet are inventions of the Medieval mind of Western civilization, not the Bible.

I think a more accurate and biblically consistent version of hell is a firey pit or “lake” of sorts where those who have rejected Jesus are annihilated and cease to exist. Christians call this “eternal separation from God,” for apart from God there is no life at all. Present humans on planet earth (even if they are not Christians) experience life to a certain degree because God holds all things together and has not withdrawn his life force from anyone (who is alive), see Colossians 1:16-17 for a reference point.

Heaven, on the other hand, is where we experience the fullness of life as God originally intended, and we do so in the complete absence of sin and presence of perfection for all creation (not just humans). In this paradigm, hell is totally devoid of life, earth is a mix between life and death (the place where we choose), and heaven is the fullness of life. I think it is more helpful to think of hell as a mass grave, rather than as a mass torture chamber. Either way, it is a place that we should best avoid.

2) What are the different names for what we call “Hell” in English that are found in the Bible?

Sheol is most often used in the Old Testament and is Hebrew for the netherworld, the abode of the dead. It’s derived from the verb šʾh, which literally means “to be extinguished,” or “to have significant misfortune.” The latter of which is probably a serious understatement.

Hades was the Classical Greek term that carried over into Jesus’ day and was popular among the religious verbiage aside from Judeo-Christian culture. It was also the name of the god of the underworld.

Gehenna: Strictly speaking this is a Latin term, but has its roots in a Koine Greek use of the Hebrew word gê hinnōm. So yes, it is a Hebrew-Greek-Latin word. Its use was most common among first century Christians and Jews.

Hell is English (der) for these biblical usages. They are all colloquial expressions of the same idea: a nasty, brutish place where death reigns. They were originally thought of as a specific place or realm (the Valley of Hinnom was an actual place, used as a proxy for the pit of death), but I am fairly certain that it is a mistake to think that it is a geographical location in the universe (or beyond). It’s use is more figurative than literal as far as I know.

3.  Is there a Scripture that talks about Jesus taking the keys of hell? Yes, there is, but I would caution against taking this too literally or reading too much into it. It is likely to be a useful metaphor for Christ’s unparalleled authority, but I’ll let you decide on that. Rev. 1:18 “I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” Many translations say “death and Hades.”

Finally, I think it is important to note that God is the God of perfect justice. Those who are covered by the blood of Christ receive the justice that he was due (eternal life). Those who are not covered by Jesus receive the justice that they are due (eternal death). But the popular, Evangelical conception of hell is that people live forever as their flesh slowly burns off, only to be reconstituted, just to burn off again and again forever and ever. Given this popular imagery (and one that is not found in the Bible), I think it is fair to ask if a god known for his perfect justice would allow a person (even if by their own decision to reject Him) to suffer infinitely as a result of a finite period of rebellion in life? To put it another way, let’s say that a person lives to be 100 years old and for those 100 years, they were a miserable, rotten person who purposefully rejected Jesus and sinned as much as he or she could. At the end of their life they face judgment. Is it perfect justice to make them suffer unspeakable pain for 100-Bazillion years (and beyond) for their 100 years of badness? I am inclined to say “no.”

There are many Christians who disagree about the issue of hell, but my experience with most of the ones who conceive of it as a real place where people suffer physical torture forever is that they cannot fathom a mercy-killing from God and think that some people do indeed deserve to suffer eternally regardless of a finite life of sin. It is interesting that they want grace for themselves but eternal pain for others. I find that to be a little too convenient and grounded in human vengeance and bitterness, but not God’s perfect justice. However, the bottom-line is that none of us know exactly how hell does or does not work, and I would be extremely cautious towards anyone who acts like they have it all figured out. That includes me, so please don’t mistake my inclinations as the only Christian way to understand hell and its use in the Bible. I am doing my best, just like everyone else.

-Corbin

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About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
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2 Responses to Questions About Hell

  1. C_Lambeth says:

    Another good friend, whose perspective I trust and appreciate, asked me to consider the implications of Luke 16:19-31 for what I have written above:

    Luke 16:19-31There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (NRSV)

    This passage clearly indicates that my notion of a finite period of suffering and annihilation could be questioned. I am open to that questioning, and while I cannot offer a fuller exploration at the moment (due to other circumstances in my life), I intend to do so later. For the moment I just wanted to offer an example of a particular Bible passage that may very well count as evidence for a more traditional conception of Hell.

    Thanks for reading me,
    -CL

  2. C_Lambeth says:

    Apologies for the delay, but I am finally in a position to give the question about Luke 16:19-31 more attention. I have read this story a few times and tried to focus on what it is really driving at. The context of this passage is not super helpful, but just before this text, the Bible talks about the Law of Moses being Israelites’ guide until JBap and Jesus, which I think will be more important towards the end of the passage in question. Anyway, if we take a step back, Luke 16:19-31 seems to be about faith and values (and connecting them with how we live our lives), not about Hell per se.

    When all the chips are down, this story is a parable of sorts, a morality play to be more specific, and as with all such stories, we press it too far if we force all its details to be literal. For example, the Rich Man, post-death, STILL asks for Lazarus to be his servant ([Ask him to “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue” 16:24), and then for Lazarus to return to the Rich Man’s brothers and tell them (v. 28).

    Are we to assume that Lazarus could appear as a ghastly vision (like Dickens’ Marley) to the Rich Man’s brothers, or that he could rise from the dead to deliver the message? Similarly, are we to assume that people between Heaven and Hell can easily discuss such issues across “a great chasm” that no one can cross? These details of the story are not present because they are not important for the tale’s purpose. No one would have stopped Jesus to ask what the Rich Man’s name was, where he lived or how rich he really was. All of these details are irrelevant and unknown. Alternatively, it is interesting that Lazarus is named. As far as I know, this is the only time that Jesus gives a parable-character’s name.

    What does this passage say about Hell? First, the Rich Man is “in torment,” and apparently in a hot and burning place (“in these flames”) and is desperate for water. Furthermore, he cannot leave (cross the chasm) and deeply desires that at least some of his family members will not end up there. Nevertheless, there is nothing in this story indicating that the Rich Man will be there and/ or suffer for eternity. To claim that this story indicates either eternal or limited suffering in Hell goes beyond the text itself and I suspect has more to do with ideas generated elsewhere. That’s really about the extent of it when it comes to Hell, so I think it appropriate to ask if Hell is the focus of the story? Surely listeners may accurately surmise that Hell is a place they want to avoid, but this would appear only to be an ancillary point for Jesus.

    What IS Jesus’ emphasis in this story? It seems to me that the point is on people’s relationship with God and where their hearts (and deeds) are. If this story were the only portrait we had of God’s salvation, it might seem to be teaching that rich people are doomed and that God only saves the poor and the sick, reversing the fortunes of people once they die. However, for those of us familiar with the rest of the biblical text, we know this cannot be the story’s point. Clearly there is something different between Lazarus and the Rich Man besides their respective estates and resources. The curtain is pulled back in verse 30 when the Rich Man petitions Abraham to let the Rich Man’s brothers know that they must “repent from their sins and turn to God” in order to avoid the Rich Man’s calamity. Apparently, despite the message of Moses and the prophets, we are to presume that this man did NOT repent or turn to God, and THAT is the essential difference. The parable’s objective is to demonstrate the importance of appropriately responding to God’s communicative efforts. Nevertheless, the kicker is in verse 31, when Abraham says back to the Rich Man about his brothers, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

    I love it when the Bible does this. It invites the reader or hearer to put the pieces together. For its original audience, this is what we would call “foreshadowing.” Like Moses, the prophets and JBap, Jesus is here to tell people about the Father and the Kingdom in their midst. He will die. He will rise from the dead. He will have ULTIMATE authority on what happens after death and the supreme witness of what it is that people must “do” to be saved (and it has nothing to do with material wealth). If the message of Moses, the prophets and John the Baptist were sufficient to point people to God, then surely Jesus is THE ultra-messenger and message. He trumps them all, and even so, he does not force anyone to open their hearts to him; they must do so of their own openness to the truth and softness of heart. The point of the story is not about Hell or avoiding it per se; it is about listening to Jesus and his message, and investing our lives in that which matters and lasts forever. Jesus has all authority. Listen to him!

    -CL

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