So last week I had some thoughts provoked deep inside me. Yes, occasionally, it does actually happen, even to me. But the issue came up as I began reading through Matt Chandler (w/ Jared Wilson)’s new book, The Explicit Gospel (part of the RE:LIT series, published by Crossway books, and yes, I’m planning to do something like a book review of it once I’m done reading it). What troubled me was chapter 2- “Man”. Most of this chapter dealt with why mankind is evil, and that we deserve Hell. The next chapter, “Christ” was devoted mainly to how Jesus’ death on the cross means we can avoid Hell.
So that got me thinking, why do we exhaust so much mental energy and pages in books on Hell? Is Hell that important? Is Hell central to our theology? Should it be? If so, what do we really believe about it? If it doesn’t matter all that much, can we discard it from our conversations? If it does matter, how do we “use” it in our ministries? Does importance mean we should talk about it a lot?
So, I did what I do when confronted with a troubling issue- buried my nose in some books (any more recommendations on the topic? I’m working through Chan and Sprinkle’s Erasing Hell, and consulted a few good systematic theologies) . But the more I read, the more I reflect, and the more I reflect, the more I feel compelled to read. And now, I’m at this point where I’m somewhat bewildered by it all. I am generally ok with living with a certain level of uncertainty and holy tension. But this one has grabbed me for some reason.
What has become abundantly clear is that I can’t cover it all in one post. So, over the coming weeks, I’ll take on some different facets of my reflections. What is Hell? Is it biblical? What does the bible really say about it? Should we talk about it when we evangelize? and other questions surrounding Hell.
Obviously there is a spectrum of perspectives on Hell. Differences of opinion in terms of who goes to Hell, what Hell is like, is it really forever, is it metaphorical, etc., etc. Some of these are based on careful biblical research, some are not so much. Some are in essence exploitation and abuse for the sake of coercive control. Some are dismissive, avoidance, etc.
I think we need to be able to be honest, and reflect and scrutinize what we think about our doctrines and where the come from. If we don’t, we risk being swayed not by the power and will of God, but by someone or something else, and we are stuck with a shallow and naive sort of faith. The doctrine of Hell should be something we actually look at and ask tough questions about. Why it is that people feel like digging into what the bible says, and honestly asking ourselves if our theologies line up, will undermine the faith, is something I don’t get. We should be free, and even encouraged to ask, does what I believe really line up with what was proclaimed by Jesus and the Apostles? It’s vital if we’re going to have a faith worth living out.
So, back to Hell…
I hate the doctrine of Hell. Hell is an awful thing to ponder. A week of reflecting and reading about it does some considerable damage to the psyche. There’s a reason many don’t want to have to think about it. It’s awful. Lamentable. Detestable. I hate it.
I hate it for two reasons:
1. It’s in the bible.
2. The bible clearly says it’s a reality, but then doesn’t give us much about it.
Hell is a slightly elusive thing. There is strikingly little stated about it. The information we have in Scripture is in language which leaves a lot of “wiggle room” (as evidenced by the broad spectrum of opinions which appeal to Scripture, but are alarmingly different). The references are not Hell is a, b, c but not d. Often, it is referred to during parables which are earthly images of spiritual truth. Is the Kingdom of God actually yeast? a man throwing seeds? So is hell really eternal fire and/or darkness (a seeming contradiction there- how can a place of eternal fire be complete darkness?) It is spoken of in imagery which may or may not be metaphorical. New Testament authors use words which depending on context can have more than one meaning. As these posts roll out you’ll see what I mean.
But as to the first reason I hate the doctrine of Hell- it is in the bible. Therefore we have some responsibility to at least acknowledge it.
Hell- in Greek γέεννα (Gehenna)- is a translitterated form of the Aramaic ge-hinnam (Hebrew is ge-hinnom) which simply means Valley of Hinnom. Remember that 80’s pop song “Heaven is a Place on Earth”? Well, so is Hell. Yes, the valley of Hinnom is an actually a place on Earth- right outside Jerusalem. Just South of the city walls is a valley in which the Kings Ahaz and Mannasseh made sacrifices to the Moabite god Molech, including sacrificing their sons with fire (2 Kings 16:3, 2 Chronicles 28:3). This place became infamous because of it. By the Exilic period, Ge-Hinnom became connected with divine punishment and fire, and the location of the future outpouring of God’s wrath (Jeremiah 7:30-33, 19:1-13. 32:34-35). In other words, a lot of what we think of Hell is based on earthly images made to represent an eschatological reality. What will God’s wrath be like?… well this horrible scene is the closest we can think of.
So, when Jesus speaks of gehenna (11 times in the gospels, 7 of which are in Matthew’s gospel; Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark contains 3 references, all of which are in the same passage 9:43, 45, 47; Luke contains just one reference to gehenna- 12:5) he is conjuring up images commonly held in Jewish society. In future posts we’ll get into Second-Temple Judaism’s apocalyptic imagery, which contains lots of referrences to gehenna. Jews would understand immediately what Jesus meant- oh right that place where God will pay back evildoers.
Paul however, never, uses the term. Nowhere in the Pauline material (Paul’s letters or his sermons in Acts) do we see Paul use the word Hell (gehenna). Of course, speaking to folks outside Judea probably means gehenna doesn’t appeal to their sensibilities. They likely don’t know much if anything about this valley south of Jerusalem or what happened there over 600 years prior. The Ephesians and Corinthians likely don’t know or care much about this historical and geographical data. Paul speaks of punishment, death, destruction, wrath, etc., but it isn’t tied to a location, or given a name.
So, this should inform our thoughts about Hell. Jesus, like his Jewish predecessors, draws on historical/geographical references known to his audience to give some impression of an eschatalogical truth. Wrath is coming to those who oppose God. How can it be described? It will be as nasty as the experience of Ahaz’s sons.
So, to sum up, Jesus proclaims that there will be this experience of gehenna. The image of fire, death, darkness, and being cast “outside” are linked to the forthcoming punishment of those who refuse to appropriate God’s offer of grace and salvation. That is a biblical reality; even if I hate it, it’s there.
More to come. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I’ll plug the documentary Hellbound slated for release in September 2012:
**most of the data given here is taken from “Heaven and Hell” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: IVP, 1992, 309-311.