[ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joshua M. Walters, M.Div. (Palmer Theological Seminary), is an intellectual nomad, wandering here and there with a devout interest in the mystery of life. He grew up in the tradition of the Wesleyan church (a branch of Methodism), attended seminary at the age of 24, and currently lives in Toronto, Ontario. Major influences include N.T. Wright, Jürgen Moltmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Loida Martell-Otero, and Sallie McFague. Ideas that interest him include Process Theology, postmodernism, and pop-culture. Joshua considers himself a practical or pastoral theologian. If you would like to comment on any of the ideas below, then click HERE to visit his blog and go to the bottom of the page.]
QUESTION: Is the Notion of Hell Outdated and Irrelevant in the 21st Century?
This is a crucial question for the proponents of religion, especially Christianity. In a word, yes, of course it is irrelevant: ask anybody off of the street whether they endorse the traditional view of hell and they will respond in the negative. But as with most religious/philosophical ideas, the question is what one means by the term “hell.” It is about the relevance of [a] particular notion[s] of hell (such is the same with God, I believe). Therefore, those who wish to reflect critically on this question must consider the various ways in which hell has come to be understood and defined by tradition and conventional wisdom. The particular notion that has become outdated and irrelevant is the notion of a postmortem destination in which the individual suffers a kind of endless torment by the direct or indirect action of God. What most people do not know, however, is that this traditional notion of hell was not an essential doctrine of Christianity until the 4th century; and it has been challenged consistently throughout the history of Christianity (the website Tentmaker.org is a good resource on this).
Opposition to the traditional notion of hell continues today. There are websites and books dedicated to the re-understanding of this menacing topic. I myself have dedicated some time to writing about it and in the process have come to believe that hell is relevant for our world today – but in a way that is different from the traditional notion. In the following two essays I argue for a different understanding of hell. In the first, I explain that hell is to be understood as a present, this-worldly phenomenon that is characterized by violence and is fundamentally opposed to the “kingdom of heaven/God” (Matt .4:17). In the second, I explain that there is biblical support for a postmortem hell that is not everlasting but rather temporary due to its remedial purpose. Both essays attempt to rediscover the notion of hell in a canonical theology of universal salvation.
There is a fascinating passage in Jeremiah chapter 7 in which Jeremiah speaks on behalf of the God of Israel and says this:
"The people of Judah have done what I said was evil, says the Lord. They have set up their hateful idols in the place where I have chosen to be worshiped and have made it unclean. The people of Judah have built places of worship at Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom. There they burned their own sons and daughters as sacrifices, something I never commanded. It never even entered my mind." (Jeremiah 7:30-31)
The Valley of Hinnom was a specific location outside of Jerusalem that evolved into what the New Testament authors called "Gehenna" in Greek and what our contemporary bibles call "hell." (This is also the roots of Islam's concept of hell called "Jahannam") As one can see from the Jeremiah text, the Valley of Hinnom was a horrific scene where pagan idol worship led to human sacrifice. Isaiah also alluded to this scene when he wrote of a "burning place" (30:33) where "the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die," (66:24). This real, historical scene provides the background to our contemporary notion of hell. The similarities are obvious: fire, suffering, death, etc. Over hundreds of years it evolved from a particular location associated with a particular cult into a concept associated with the fate of the wicked. This is the same location/concept (Gehenna) that Jesus spoke no less than 11 times according to the Gospels.
It is for this reason that I find the passage in Jeremiah 7:31 so fascinating. Maybe you didn't catch it in your reading, but Jeremiah, who is speaking on behalf of God, describes this hellish scene of fire and human suffering as " something I never commanded. It never even entered my mind." Hold the phone. Is God saying that the mere thought of humans being consumed in fire is abhorrent? Jeremiah mentions the Valley of Hinnom a second time:
"And they built the high places of Ba'al, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin." (32:35)
I won't belabor the point. These passages in Jeremiah are extremely interesting because they portray God as totally repulsed by the Valley of Hinnom. How, we may ask, can the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom be the same God that sends people to a place of fire and torment? How can the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and speak of hell? The traditional view answers with the disturbing picture of God as both compassionate and wrathful, loving and "just," abhorring death and also dealing eternal death. Many, including myself, find the traditional view unsatisfactory. Let us therefore take a closer look at the concept of hell as found in the Bible.
The word "hell" never appears in the Old Testament. Aside from the Valley of Hinnom, the only thing we find is the concept of Sheol, an "underworld" or "place of the dead" that is neither positive nor negative; it is simply the place of all the dead. Old Testament Judaism really had no concept of hell. It was during the Exile (500's BCE) that Judaism began to adopt myths of the afterlife from surrounding cultures. Brian McLaren writes, "The Jews have a lot of contact with these people of other cultures and religions during the Exile in Babylon and during the continuing occupation by the Persians, Greeks, and Romans, so it's natural that there would be some amount of syncretism or mixture between the very this-worldly Judaism of the pre-Exilic period and these other-worldly, speculative elements, especially with the Persian religion of Zoroaster," (The Last Word and the Word After That, 81).
Other-worldly speculations became popular during the Exile as Jews attempted to make theological sense of their experience. The Jews saw themselves as God's chosen people. Their entire story was based upon the covenant that God had made with Israel. Therefore, when the exiles and foreign occupations occurred they were forced to speculate as to how their current oppression would be resolved. The answer that many adopted was that the faithful would be vindicated in the afterlife, while their oppressors would have 'hell' to pay in the afterlife. It was also during the Second Temple period that many Jewish freedom fighters revolted against foreign occupiers (e.g. the Maccabean Revolt). Belief in postmortem justice was an essential element to such revolutionary violence. For more on this see N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God (especially 216ff).
The major point here is that the concept of hell is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. It is obviously something that developed sometime between the Exile and the New Testament. Indeed, David Powys writes, "Gehenna’ is nowhere found in the Hebrew Bible but may be found in the Pseudopigrapha, Palestinian Targums, and New Testament," (Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question,177). James A. Brooks confirms that it was "During intertestamental times [Gehenna (Greek), or the Valley of Hinnom (Hebrew)] became the garbage and sewage dump of Jerusalem and a symbol of the place of punishment (1 Enoch 27:3; 4 Ezra 7:36) because worms and fires were always consuming the refuse," (Mark: The New American Commentary). If you want a detailed development of hell in the intertestamental period then see David Powys' book.
There are various Greek words translated as "hell" in the New Testament. As you can plainly see, the Jewish concepts of Sheol and Valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinom) evolved; notably in step with Hellenistic thought. The classical Greek term "Hades" occurs 10 times and is used to convey both a general realm of the dead (Rev. 1:18, 20:13-14) and that of a negative fate (Matt. 11:23). Also Greek, the term "Tartaro" (from "Tartarus") is used once in 2 Peter 2:4 to refer to God sending angels to a place of punishment. More than any others, however, the word "Gehenna" appears in the New Testament 11 times, namely on the lips of Jesus. Thus it is upon this word and Jesus himself that I wish to focus. Let the reader not forget what we have learned about the history of "Gehenna" above.
Reformed pastor Timothy Keller denounces Universalism after saying, "Jesus talks more about hell and punishment than all the rest of the authors and speakers in the Bible put together." Yes, Jesus talked about hell a lot. But mere quantity of usage is not an argument. Words have to be interpreted in their context to understand their meaning. I'm sure there are plenty of old books that use the word "gay"a lot. Should the quantity of that one word lead us to believe that the authors intended what we now mean by the word "gay?" Obviously not.
We must interpret Jesus' speaking about hell and punishment in the context of his prophetic ministry in first-century Judea at a climactic moment in the story of Israel.
First of all, Jesus was a prophet. "Prophets in the Jewish tradition characteristically announced the judgment of the covenant god upon his rebellious people, and (sometimes) announced also the inauguration of a new movement, a time when Israel's god would again act graciously for his people. Part of Jesus' prophetic persona was that he did both." (N.T Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 182-3). "Jesus' message, so far from omitting or toning down the warning of judgment, seems from a wide variety of texts to have emphasized it continually. We might have guessed as much from the traditions which report on his public image: he was likened not only to John the Baptist but to Elijah and Jeremiah... Once we see Jesus in this light, a great many sayings come together and make sense." (Wright, JVG, 326-7)
So how exactly ought we interpret Jesus' warnings and talk about hell? Wright continues: "We may regard these warnings as threatening the end of the present nation of Israel, if they do not repent. In the sad, noble and utterly Jewish tradition of Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the coming judgment of Israel's covenant god on his people, a judgment consisting of a great national, social and cultural disaster, ultimately comprehensible only in theological terms." (Wright, JVG, 184-5) Let us examine some examples.
In all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) Jesus pronounces judgment upon various Galilean towns because they do not heed his message of the coming judgment and the kingdom of God. In Matt. 10:14-15 he says to his disciples:
'If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than that town.'
Wright explains, "Once again, this was not a prediction of a non-spatio-temporal 'last judgment'. It was a straightforward warning of what would happen if this or that Galilean village refused his way of peace which Jesus had come to bring. This was amplified in the words of woe uttered over Chorazin, Bethsaida, and even Jesus' own adopted home town of Capernaum. Judgment would fall upon them which would make the judgment of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom seem mild by comparison. The horrifying thing was that Jesus was using, as models for the coming judgment on villages within Israel, images of judgment taken straight from the Old Testament..." (JVG, 329)
"The catalogue of judgment upon the scribes and Pharisees, as it appears in the material common to Matthew and Luke, concludes with a further warning that is specific to 'this generation':
'Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to Gehenna? Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.' (Matt. 23:32-36)
Faced with this prospect, it would be better to abandon that which was most cherished rather than go straight ahead into the conflagration:
'If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to Gehenna, to unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. For every one will be salted with fire.' (Mark 9:43-49)
The judgment was coming upon 'this generation', now caught in the act of rejecting the final messenger who had been sent to call it back to obedience." (Wright, JVG, 330)
"Luke 13 opens with a double solemn warning. Unless Israel repents of her headlong rush into destruction, she will suffer the same fate as those whom Pilate killed, or who were crushed by the tower of Siloam: in other words, Roman swords and falling masonry will be their fate if they persist in going the way of idolatrous nationalism (13:1-5)." (JVG, 331) As one begins to understand the socio-historical context of Jesus' ministry, as well as the story of Israel, it becomes increasingly clear that his teaching about Gehenna is nothing less than a prophetic warning of present tense, this-worldly destruction.
One classic passage that is often cited as proof of Jesus' teaching the traditional view of hell is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Again Wright is helpful:
"The parable is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination. If that were its point, it would not be a parable: a story about someone getting lost in London would not be a parable if addressed to people attempting to find their way through that city without a map. We have perhaps been misled, not for the first time, by the too-ready assumption, in the teeth of evidence, that Jesus 'must really' have been primarily concerned to teach people 'how to get to heaven after death'. The reality is uncomfortably different.
The welcome of Lazarus by Abraham evokes the welcome of the prodigal by the father [Luke 15:11-33], and with much the same point. The heavenly reality, in which the poor and outcast would be welcomed into Abraham's bosom (as everyone would know from [a well known] folk-tale), was coming true in flesh and blood as Jesus welcomed the outcasts, just as the father's welcome to the returning son was a story about what Jesus was actually doing then and there. ... The point of this, when the story is seen as a traditional tale with a new ending, was not so much what would happen to both in the end... but rather what was happening to both rich and poor in the present time. (255)
Another popular passage in which Jesus speaks of hell is Luke 12:4-7:
'I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.'
"Some have seen 'the one who can cast into Gehenna' as YHWH [God]; but this is unrealistic. Jesus did not, to be sure, perceive Israel's god as a kindly liberal grandfather who would never hurt a fly, let a lone send anyone to Gehenna. But again and again - not least in the very next verse of this paragraph - Israel's god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be lovingly trusted in all circumstance, not the one who waits with a large stick to beat anyone who steps out of line. Rather, here we have a redefinition of the battle in terms of the identification of the real enemy. The one who can kill the body is the imagined enemy, Rome. Who then is the real enemy? Surely not Israel's own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan." (Wright, JVG, 454-5)
What we see over and over again in Jesus' career as an itinerant prophet is that he announced imminent judgment upon Israel if they did not turn from their self-righteous, violent, nationalistic ways and follow Jesus' way of peace: "Those who take the sword will perish by the sword," (Matt. 26:52). This is evidenced again in the Olivet Discourse as Jesus predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
At the end of Jesus' life we find a final, cogent warning as Jesus warns the women who weep for him that they should instead weep for themselves. "There will come a time when they will utter a terrible 'beatitude': Blessed are the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!' The great blessing of children will be turned into shame; for if they (the Romans) do this when the wood is green, when the condemned one is innocent of violent revolt, what will happen when the wood is dry, when the children at present playing in the streets grow up into a revolutionary force that will pit itself directly against Rome? Jesus, knowing that Israel has now finally rejected the one road of peace, knows also that within the next generation she will find herself embroiled in a war that she cannot but lose, and lose horribly." (Wright, JVG, 332)
And lose horribly she did. About 30 years later, in the same generation, the Jews revolted against the Romans in 66 C.E., which led to the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. "The entire city was plundered and burned in A.D. 70 and it must have seemed that not one stone remained upon another (see Luke 19:43-44). Christians in the city are reported to have escaped to Pella. Tens of thousands of Jews perished and were thrown outside the wall into the Valley of Hinnom." (The Biblical World: A Dictionary of Biblical Archeology, ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer, 323)
Let that sink in.
Though I have not examined each of the 11 occurrences of "Gehenna" on Jesus' lips, the above study clearly demonstrates that Jesus' talk about hell was not about the afterlife but rather about apresent tense, this-worldly devastation. Jesus was warning that if Israel did not repent and "enter the kingdom of God," that is, Jesus' way of living, then there would come a time when the whole city of Jerusalem would be indistinguishable from the smoldering trash dump outside the city. Every single occurrence of "Gehenna" in the Synoptic Gospels should be interpreted in this manner. To read our contemporary [Greek mythological] understanding of hell back into Jesus' words is to miss his point entirely and prolong the harm caused by this absurd [mis]interpretation that is behind the traditional view of hell.
In Jesus of Nazareth we find the incarnation of the God who abhors the Valley of Hinnom. In Jesus we find the prophet of God who warns us to turn from our wicked ways so that we might not turn our world into Gehenna. In the final analysis, Gehenna is no mere metaphor for a place in the afterlife, it is a literal, present tense place of evil where humankind has turned from the will of God.
I cannot think of anything more EVIL than to twist the meaning of hell as Jesus used it into an other-worldly concept or metaphor that turns our eyes from the current hells in this world happening all around us. This is the ultimate evil of the traditional view of hell. And it is this distorted understanding of hell that prevents us from seeing the Gehennas of our world.
With the God who abhors Gehenna, may we weep for ourselves and the hell we have caused for refusing the Way of Jesus and His Kingdom.
In Essay 1 I explained that Jesus' teaching about hell (Gehenna) was not about an afterlife destination but rather a present, this-world reality. Specifically, Jesus warned Israel that her current praxis would turn the whole city of Jerusalem into a burning pile of rubble where men, women, and children would weep and gnash their teeth. Does this mean that there is no hell beyond this life? Does this mean that there is no afterlife? Does this mean that there is no final judgment or ultimate justice? It is to these questions that I would like to turn in Essay 2.
Universal salvation does not necessarily jettison the belief in a postmortem hell. It does, however, jettison an everlasting hell that is torturous beyond remedial purposes. Universalism emphasizes ultimate justice and thereby makes room for a kind of hell. One of the reasons that we have long held on to the concept of hell is because human beings have an innate orientation toward justice. Socrates argued that "if death were a release from everything, it would be a boon for the wicked, because by dying they would be released not only from the body but also from their own wickedness together with the soul," (McLaren, 79). In the tradition of Socrates, humankind has long affirmed the necessity for ultimate justice, heaven/hell, reward/punishment.
However, Universalism contends that the Gospel of Jesus Christ reveals God's justice, not humanity's, and that justice is expressed in the salvation of all. The Gospel reveals God's desire that all be saved and God's willingness to die in place of humanity so that his may be accomplished. Thus, while a kind of postmortem hell may indeed exist for those who have refused God in this life, it is certainly not the traditional view of hell offered in Calvinism or Arminianism.
Hell as Purification
Universalism offers an alternative vision of postmortem hell as a kind of purification or penal education so that persons are made capable of entering the kingdom of God. Universalists find biblical grounds for arguing that God's judgment is itself salvific (Isa. 48:9-11; Jer. 9:25; 30:11-17; 31:10-37; Ezek. 16; Hos. 6:1; 11:-13; Rom. 14:10-12). As K.F. Keil writes, "Judgments of the Old Testament must not be viewed as eternal punishments; they leave the possibility for future salvation."
There is one particularly paradigmatic passage in the New Testament that deserves quoting here. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the fire. (1 Cor. 3: 10-15)
Paul makes clear that not building upon the foundation of Jesus is a grave mistake: those who do not do so will suffer loss. But Paul also makes room for salvation after this suffering. It is not eternal damnation for the sake of 'justice'; it is God's remedial cleansing for our benefit. Let the reader be sharp about what this means: it does not mean that hell is without pain, suffering and, in Paul's words, "loss" (which, in the Greek, denotes injury and damage). Hell is indeed a terrible thought. It brings to mind the tragedy suffered by the servant in the vision of Julian of Norwhich. Building one's life on gods other than Jesus Christ brings real suffering and loss.
However, this suffering - this "hell" - does not have the final word in much of the Bible. Judgment in the Old Testament, including God's "eternal fire" is not the final word but rather a means to reconciliation with God (e.g. compare Jer. 17:4 to Jer. 31). Many of the Old Testament passages that speak of God's wrath/judgment contain nothing of the "unending punishment" that is endorsed by traditional views today. In many places we have read the modern meaning of "eternal" back into the text. The Hebrew word, olam, which is often translated "forever" and "everlasting" did not carry the same meaning in the Hebrew worldview. The word possessed connotations of intensity, not time. It was used qualitatively, not quantitatively.
In addition to the passage in 1 Corinthians 3, there are interesting wordplays in the book of Revelation that might indicate God's punishment as a purification. Though these text-critical studies are beyond the scope of this essay, I will note two here. In various visions (14:10, 19:20, 20:10, 21:8) John sees the wicked being thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone to be tormented. The word for "brimstone" in Greek is theion, which closely resembles the word for God, theos. Because of this the word theion often meant "divine fire" or "fire from heaven." This wordplay between God and stone also occurs in the gospels as it applies to Jesus: the Hebrew for "stone" (eben) is applied to the "son" (ben) in the parable of the vineyard (Mark 12:10-11). In addition to these figurative meanings, the literal usage of theion was for burning a divine incense that had the power to purify and ward off disease.
The word translated for "torment" is basanidzo. If you were to look up this word in a Greek lexicon you would find that this word's primary meaning had to do with testing precious metals by use of a touchstone so that the metals could be purified. This does not rule out additional meanings, but it is interesting to consider what meaning it has in conjunction with theion. To give you an alternate reading allow me to paraphrase Revelation 14:10b as follows: "They will be tested and purified by a divine fire while in the presence of the Lamb."
By no means do these two words provide conclusive evidence that the lake of fire and brimstone is God's means for purifying sinners. It is nevertheless fascinating to explore. After all, God is referred to as a "consuming fire" on more than one occasion. Could Jesus be the divine fire or the touchstone that purifies? The author of Revelation describes him as having eyes like fire. And isn't it interesting that the lake of fire and brimstone in 14:10 is in the presence of the Lamb? Perhaps it is not all that far-fetched to imagine that the unsaved will, in fact, be saved - "even though only as one escaping through fire," (1 Cor. 3:15).
Many who espouse the traditional view find the Universalist version of postmortem hell dissatisfying (which is a bit scary if you think about it). Like Socrates, the traditionalists see ultimate universal salvation as an unfair gift to those who live their earthly lives in disobedience to God. In response to this argument we might consider McLaren's words:
"What could be more serious than standing in front of your Creator - the Creator of the universe - and finding out that you had wasted your life, squandered your inheritance, caused others pain and sorrow, worked against the good plans and desires of God? What could be more serious than that? To have to face the real, eternal, unavoidable, absolute, naked truth about yourself, what you've done, what you've become?" (Last Word, 110)
Perhaps there is no greater punishment than an unavoidable encounter with the Truth. And perhaps it is this very Truth that shall set us free.
At this point I want to insert a very important caveat to what has been said about hell as purification. There is a tendency among Christians to hold discussions about hell as if we were only talking about "them" and not "us." I want to include myself in the category of those who will be judged and purified by God. Although I have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, I am not outside the judgment of the Lord. In fact, it is precisely the judgment of Jesus, the merciful one, that I am under. If this entails a kind of hell as purification, I know that I certainly need it in order to participate fully in the Trinitarian love of God.
The "second death" is another concept used to oppose universal salvation, particularly in the form of annihilationism. There really isn't room enough to discuss it here, but I do want to offer an alternative interpretation simply for the sake of exploration.
In Rev. 20:14 John sees a vision in which "death and Hades [are] thrown in to the lake of fire," as well as those "whose name was not found written in the book of life." This "second death" has traditionally been understood as the final annihilation of the damned. However, a universalist interpretation argues that the text itself explains the nature of the second death. In 20:14 we read, "Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death." Then, in 21:8, we read again that the wicked will be thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone and "THIS is the second death." What, then, is the second death? Being thrown into the lake of fire. What is the lake of fire? We already discussed this above, it is the divine fire of purification.
Why this "second death" is necessary is because not all have died with Christ (as in baptism, see Romans 6:6). Thus explains Andrew Jukes:
The "second death" (Rev. xx. 14.) therefore, so far from being, as some think, the hopeless shutting up of man for ever in the curse of disobedience, will, if I err not, be God's way to free those who in no other way than by such a death can be delivered out of the dark world, whose life they live in. The saints have died with Christ, not only "to the elements of this world," (Col. ii. 20.) but also "to sin," (Rom. vi. 10.) that is, the dark spirit-world. By the first they are freed from the bondage of sense; by the second, from the bondage of sin, in all its forms of wrath, pride, envy, and selfishness.
The ungodly have not so died to sin. At the death of the body therefore, and still more when they are raised to judgment, because their spirit yet lives, they are still within the limits of that dark and fiery world, the life of which has been and is the life of their spirit. To get out of this world there is but one way, death; not the first, for that has passed, but the second death. Furthermore, not only is the second death the fire of purification, the second death is the death of death itself! As Paul writes in 1 Cor. 15:26, "The last enemy to be defeated is death."
As you may have guessed, not all agree with the view of hell as purification. In a rather simplistic analogy, N.T. Wright suggests that life is more than a "game of chess" in which we are free to play however we like and afterward God will put all the pieces back in order. Universalism, he argues, trivializes the consequences of choices in this life. But what is Wright really saying here? Is he saying that God's universal forgiveness toward those who have wasted their earthly life trivializes the consequences of their choices or somehow minimizes "divine justice"? Once again I think we are witnessing traces of 'original ungrace.'
First of all, human begins are not pieces on a chess board! Wright's illustration fails to take seriously that human beings are living and becoming beings, not static pieces of marble. Secondly, the illustration fails to comprehend the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is never a return to a prior state, as if wiping a chalkboard clean or putting chess pieces back into place. Forgiveness is, in fact, a moving forward into a deeper understanding of relationship. That which has been forgiven continues to have meaning in the context of relationship. This point merits an illustration.
I recently got into a fight with a good friend. I said things that I should not have said and I hurt her feelings. Our relationship was fractured. Fortunately, we were able to reconcile after I apologized and asked for forgiveness. Now, did my friend's forgiveness trivialize the consequences of my actions? Absolutely not! The forgiveness that I received transformed my sinful behavior and gave it meaning for our relationship and it will continue to "live" in our relationship forever. It was precisely because of forgiveness that I could re-appropriate my sinful behavior into an understanding of how to exist in loving relationship. Is this not what Jesus taught Simon the Pharisee? Those who have a larger debt to be forgiven are all the more able to understand the nature of forgiveness.
Thirdly, Wright oversimplifies the idea of consequences. Unlike the simple, one-to-one chain of consequences in, say, chess, the consequences we suffer in real life are complicated. Although no one is innocent, we all suffer from undeserved and unforeseen consequences as well. This is why many today argue that all sin stems from woundedness. For example, a person who commits a crime in adulthood may be acting out of the wounds from a traumatic childhood event. Much psychology has helped shed light on the woundedness behind the cyclical nature of sin.
Along with the oversimplification of consequences, Wright's argument assumes that those who disobey God in this life do not suffer consequences in the present. The Bible consistently teaches that those who disobey God suffer real consequences in the present; this is precisely what Jesus' warnings were about (see essay 1). It is difficult to see how those who do not follow Jesus do not reap here and now the consequences of their actions. Is Wright saying that these consequences are not enough? Perhaps. But then again, the Universalist version of hell as remedial "cleansing" seems to speak to this dilemma.
This topic is unbelievably complex and much more could be said. If you want to research more on this topic, I highly recommend David Powys' book Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question. At this point, let us summarize what I have put forth in essay 2:
Š Universalism does not necessarily jettison the concept of hell.
Š Hell, according to universalism, is a transitional phase for the lost to be purified for life in the Trinitarian Love of God
Š There is biblical support for the idea that the unsaved shall be saved through fire.
Š The second death is literally the death of death.
Š Universalism does not trivialize consequences.
In conclusion, I'd like to offer two concise statements to recapitulate what has been put forth in these two essays on the idea of hell in our contemporary time.
Whatever you mean when you use the word "hell," know this:
1. The God of the Bible detests hell.
2. The God of the Bible will bring an end to hell.
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