Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?

Q. I read your series of posts on “Is hell a place of never-ending punishment?” with great interest. Which view do you personally favor?

When it comes to my own personal reflections on this issue, I actually start with a different question, not “Does hell last forever?” but “Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?”  I say at the end of my last post in the series you mention, “Maybe the thing to do is to allow our understanding of the character of God to inform our view of what happens after death, rather than letting possible interpretations of the afterlife make us question what we would otherwise believe about what God is like.”  And based on what I understand God to be like, I can’t imagine God leaving sincerely repentant people in hell—that is, people who wish they had repented, based on what they now realize.  (I recognize this view might be controversial, something that many people may not have heard before, but this is the view I favor.)

So I guess you could say I believe in some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death.  Paul did include “death” as among the things that cannot separate us from the love of God in his list in Romans.  It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who genuinely want to come in.

On the other hand, there actually are people who will want to be in hell.  They will take the same attitude as Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”  To give another example, in James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the main character, Stephen Dedalus, after explaining that he has “lost the faith,” continues:

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning. . . . I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.”

William Ernest Henley wrote similarly at the end of his poem Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

So there are some people who will chose self-determination above God’s gracious offer of salvation, because they want to run their own lives, no matter where that leads. (These are all examples from literature, but they capture an attitude that can be found in life as well.)

So hell is a place where people do not acknowledge the sovereignty and authority of God.  My next question is, “Would God allow such a place to exist for all eternity?”  I don’t think so.  I think we see from the Bible that the end matches the beginning.  In the original creation, everything was harmonious and under God’s rule.  God allowed the rebellion of sin for reasons we don’t fully understand, but I believe God gave only conditional and temporary permission for this rebellion to occur.  God’s ultimate design is to bring all things back under his rule and authority.  (Paul wrote at the beginning of Ephesians, for example, “With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”  Paul also wrote in 1 Corinthians, “For Christ must reign until God has put all his enemies under his feet”—no lingering rebellion.)  If that’s the case, then hell will not exist for all eternity, since it is a place where, by definition, God’s authority is denied and resisted.

Well, that’s the view I favor, anyway, though I respect the opposite view as well.  Both views can appeal to much in the Scriptures for support.  I don’t think we can dot every I and cross every T when it comes to filling out all the details of our understanding of the afterlife.  But that’s how I think about these things personally, anyway.

Do the souls of believers “sleep” after death until the resurrection?

Q. Some people say that if you are going to heaven, you go right away after you die. Others think that you just “sleep” until the second coming. (One snag in this idea might be Jesus saying to the thief on the cross, “Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.”) What do you think?

You’re actually asking about an issue that has been the subject of continual debate throughout the history of the Christian church. References to controversy over the subject extend back to at least the AD 240s. The debate remains lively today.

The actual issue is whether the soul is immortal, in which case it survives death, or whether it is mortal, in which case it dies with the body and is resurrected with the body, or else it “sleeps” until the body is resurrected (perhaps “dreaming,” as some have suggested, of life in the person’s future ultimate state). There is, of course, no philosophical discussion in the Bible as to the mortality or immortality of the soul. (The Bible isn’t that kind of book.) So we have to try to come to some conclusion about this based on what the Bible does say.

Without intending any disrespect for the view that the soul is mortal, since this view has a long and venerable pedigree in Christian theology, let me nevertheless cite some passages in the Bible that lead me to believe that the soul is immortal, and that believers who die therefore pass directly and consciously into the presence of God:

• The author of Hebrews writes that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” I believe this means more than that the lives of faithful people, catalogued just before this statement (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, etc.), are witnesses and inspiring examples to us. I believe the author is saying that such people are currently witnesses of our lives, so that we should “run the race” in the awareness that they are in the grandstands, as it were, cheering us on. But this means that they would have to be conscious and aware, looking on from a heavenly vantage point.

• In several places the psalmists express what seems to be the lively expectation of going immediately and consciously into God’s presence when they die, for example:
– In Psalm 16, “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead . . . you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand”;
– Near the end of Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”;
– Perhaps best known, in Psalm 23, “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

• As you mentioned, Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him “today” in Paradise.

These are only a few of the passages that could be considered in support of the immortality of the soul.  I don’t doubt that proponents of soul mortality would counter with some passages of their own. This is, in short, a question on which people of good will who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures have long disagreed. So we each need to be “fully convinced in our own minds” but respectful of the other position.

Still, as I said, all things considered, my overall sense from the Bible is that the soul of a believer does pass directly and consciously into the presence of God upon death.

Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief,” c. 1566

What does the Bible tell us about the “third heaven”?

Q.  Paul mentions that he knew of a man caught up to the third heaven (which he proceeds to call a paradise). Is there more information about each of the seven heavens in the canonical books of the Bible? There is some information in  books not included in the canon (the book of Enoch, for example). How trustworthy is this information?

Nicolas Poussin, “The Ecstasy of St. Paul”

When he speaks of the “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians, Paul most likely means the place of God’s abode.  His language echoes the cosmology found throughout the Bible in which the “first heaven” is the firmament or sky, in which the sun shines and birds fly; the “second heaven” is the “waters above the firmament”; and the “third heaven” is the place of God’s throne:  according to Psalm 104, God “lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters” (i.e. the waters of the second heaven).  And so when Psalm 148 says “Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies,” it’s saying, in a poetic parallel, “Praise him, you third heaven, and you second heaven.”

But Paul doesn’t do much more than allude to this cosmology.  He does refer to the “third heaven” also as “paradise,” which could mean the blessed abode of departed souls.  But we can’t say for sure, because Paul quickly shuts down his story by saying that “no one is permitted to tell” about the things seen and heard there.

This single and simple New Testament account of a journey into heaven contrasts strikingly with other more highly elaborated accounts from this period.  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes, “The reserve which leads [Paul] to make only a brief reference distinguishes his account from the fantastic descriptions of heavenly journeys by contemporary Hellenistic mystics and Jewish apocalyptists.”  One of these is found in the book of Enoch, which describes seven heavens, and there are similar descriptions in other apocalyptic works.

But I think we do well to take our cue from Paul’s reticence and not speculate about various “heavens” and what they might contain.  His real point in telling this story was that he had all the credentials of an apostle, including visions and revelations, but that even so he should be recognized as genuine by the way God’s power shone through his weakness.

That being the case, even someone today who was entrusted with a vision of heaven should probably be very reserved about how much of it they shared.  And we should probably be wary of the “fantastic descriptions of heavenly journeys” in books like Enoch.  If the Bible doesn’t want to tell us much about such things, then there are much better areas of inquiry that we can more profitably devote ourselves to.

Is hell a place of never-ending punishment? (Part 3)

Most verses that talk about hell in the Old Testament call it Sheol, or the grave, or the pit.  It seems to me that it’s just talking about a place that holds the dead.  There are a couple of verses, however, that sound like the New Testament hell.  Daniel 12:2 says that some will rise to everlasting life, and others to everlasting contempt; Isaiah 66:24 says that the worms that eat the bodies of those who rebelled against God won’t die, and fire that burns them won’t be quenched.  Some verses in the New Testament seem to say that the punishment for sin is death or annihilation, and some verses talk about God’s wrath not lasting forever, but others talk about eternal punishment.  Eternity is a long time!  I can’t imagine God creating people, already knowing some wouldn’t listen to him, just to be sent to hell forever.  It’s too disturbing for me to imagine. What’s your take on this?

In my first post in response to this important and heartfelt question, I confirmed that Sheol in the Old Testament, translated as “hell” in some English Bibles, is indeed simply the place that holds the dead.  In my next post I considered the passages cited from Isaiah and Daniel and showed that they could be interpreted within the framework of a belief in either unconditional immortality (everlasting punishment for those who reject God and everlasting blessing for those who embrace him) or conditional immortality (annihilation or non-existence for those who reject God and everlasting blessing for those who embrace him).  In this final post I’d now like to look at the references to hell in the New Testament.

English Bibles have used the word “hell” to translate three different Greek words in the New Testament.  One is Hades, the Greek equivalent of Sheol.  We see this in quotations from the Old Testament, for example, the quotation from Psalm 16 in Peter’s Pentecost sermon as recorded in Acts:  “You will not abandon my soul to Hades” (ESV, NRSV), translating Sheol in Psalm 16.  (The NIV has “the realm of the dead” in both places; while the KJV has “hell,” the NKJV has Hades, here and in every other place where this Greek word appears.)

Besides using Hades to translate Sheol in quotations from the Old Testament, the New Testament characters and writers use it to mean the depths of the earth (“You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades“) or the realm of the dead (“I have the keys of Hades and of Death”; “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”). It must be acknowledged, however, that in a couple of places Hades is used to mean something closer to what the word “hell” connotes for us today: a center of opposition to God (“On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it”) and a place of punishment for the wicked (“being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off”).  As we noted last time, all of the biblical data must be considered and an informed choice must be made among alternative interpretations.  It may be observed, however, that in almost every case in the New Testament, Hades means something much closer to Sheol than to “hell” as we popularly understand it.

Another New Testament word that English Bibles have translated as “hell” is Gehenna.  This is the Greek form of an Aramaic word referring to the Valley of Hinnom, which ran just south of Jerusalem. A large body of biblical interpretation holds that refuse from the city of Jerusalem was tossed into this valley, and that fires were kept burning perpetually there to consume the trash and to keep the odor down.  Organic material would be decomposed by worms and other critters. This seems to provide the context for Jesus’ statement, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into Gehenna—where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.'”  (Note that this is a quotation from the very passage in Isaiah that we considered last time, and that this answers our question about into what kind of place unburied bodies might be cast where there would be perpetual flame and decomposition: a garbage dump.)  In other words, Jesus is saying it is better to take whatever measures are necessary to enter the kingdom of God rather than to be thrown into “the garbage dump.”  This would be a metaphorical rather than a literal description of what happens to those who reject God.

landfillMost of the other uses of Gehenna in the New Testament have a similar character: It describes a place of exclusion and disgrace, not necessarily of everlasting punishment.  However, as in the case of Hades, Gehenna sometimes is used with a meaning closer to what we understand by “hell” today: a center of opposition to God (“The tongue is a world of evil . . . set on fire by Gehenna“) and a place where the wicked are punished (“You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?”).  It must also be acknowledged that some people question the interpretation that Gehenna refers to a garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom. See, for example, this post, which disputes the interpretation in order to argue that Gehenna refers to a “place of everlasting fiery torment.”

The final term in the New Testament that’s translated as “hell” by some English Bibles is Tartarus in 2 Peter: “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them into Tartarus” (a single Greek verb, tartaroō). In Greek mythology, Tartarus is an underworld dungeon.  Few if any biblical interpreters would argue that Peter is endorsing a belief in Tartarus precisely as the the Greeks envisioned it. Rather, he’s making an allusion to this belief in order to describe a place of spiritual imprisonment. In any event, in context, Peter is describing a place where the rebellious angels were held pending judgment, not a place where people suffer everlasting punishment, so this reference to Tartarus doesn’t really shed much light on how we should think of “hell” today.

In short, the biblical data does not present a simple, straightforward picture of “hell” as a place of never-ending punishment for those who reject God.  The picture is complicated, and readers of the Bible must understand the Hebrew and Greek terms and ideas behind our English translations in order to reach the most informed conclusion possible about this issue.

One final thought:  In your question, you say it’s hard for you to reconcile the idea of never-ending punishment with your understanding of the gracious and forgiving character of God.  You allude to Psalm 103, which says that God “will not harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”  The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about the fate of people after death.  But it does tell us a great deal about the character of God, in which justice and mercy are perfectly balanced.  (As God said about himself to Moses, he is the “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness . . . yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.”)  Maybe the thing to do is to allow our understanding of the character of God to inform our view of what happens after death, rather than letting possible interpretations of the afterlife make us question what we would otherwise believe about what God is like.

Is hell a place of never-ending punishment? (Part 2)

Most verses that talk about hell in the Old Testament call it Sheol, or the grave, or the pit.  It seems to me that it’s just talking about a place that holds the dead.  There are a couple of verses, however, that sound like the New Testament hell.  Daniel 12:2 says that some will rise to everlasting life, and others to everlasting contempt; Isaiah 66:24 says that the worms that eat the bodies of those who rebelled against God won’t die, and fire that burns them won’t be quenched.  Some verses in the New Testament seem to say that the punishment for sin is death or annihilation, and some verses talk about God’s wrath not lasting forever, but others talk about eternal punishment.  Eternity is a long time!  I can’t imagine God creating people, already knowing some wouldn’t listen to him, just to be sent to hell forever.  It’s too disturbing for me to imagine. What’s your take on this?

In my first post in response to this question, I confirmed that the term Sheol in the Old Testament refers to the place that holds the dead.  Let me now address the passages you cite from Isaiah and Daniel.

By way of background, people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God hold different opinions about what happens after this life to those who accept or reject God’s gracious offer of reconciliation through Jesus.  Some believe that all are raised to everlasting life, and that those who have accepted God’s offer will live forever in his presence while those who have rejected it will live forever away from his presence.  Others believe instead in what’s sometimes called “conditional immortality.”  You only live forever if you accept God; if you don’t, your punishment is annihilation: you cease to exist.

As you can imagine, those who hold these different positions read the same Scriptures very differently.  For example, those who believe in conditional immortality hold that the phrase “eternal destruction” (as in the opening of 2 Thessalonians, “They will be punished with eternal destruction”) describes not a destruction that goes on for eternity, but which stands for eternity–that is, “permanent destruction,” not “everlasting destruction.”  But I’ll look more at the New Testament next time.  In this post I want to look at Isaiah and Daniel.

The passage you cited from Isaiah constitutes the very last words of that book.  God says, “They will go out and look at the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”  Someone who believed in conditional immortality would observe that this is only describing what happens to the dead bodies of those who rejected God.  Their bodies are not buried, but disgracefully cast into a place of perpetual flame and decomposition.  (More next time about what such a place might be.)  But those who believe in unconditional immortality–that both those who accept God and those who reject God live forever, either in or out of his presence–would argue that this image must be depicting the ongoing state of souls or spirits, because bodies would be consumed in a relatively short time and so there would be no need for a fire that was never quenched or worms that never died.

The two groups of interpreters would hold similarly diverging views about the passage in Daniel.  It, too, comes towards the very end of that book:  “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”

starsBelievers in unconditional immortality would point out that this passage describes the resurrection of two groups of people who will experience two different everlasting fates.  Believers in conditional immortality would counter that only the ongoing life of the first group is then described; we hear nothing more about those whose fate is “everlasting contempt,” so that what lives on may be their disgrace rather than their souls or spirits.

Careful readers of the Bible must consider its entire portrayal of what happens after this life and come to one conclusion or another.  The Bible arguably does not go into enough detail for us to be absolutely certain.  So each person must be convinced in their own mind, and they may bring in other considerations to reach a final conclusion, such as your belief about what the character of God would suggest about how he would treat people after their death.

Clearly immortality can’t be conditional and unconditional at the same time; it has to be one or the other.  But we may not be able to say for certain, from our own limited perspective, exactly which it is.  We need to acknowledge the different possibilities that the Bible holds open to us and not be too dogmatic about one or the other.

Is hell a place of never-ending punishment? (Part 1)

Most verses that talk about hell in the Old Testament call it Sheol, or the grave, or the pit.  It seems to me that it’s just talking about a place that holds the dead.  There are a couple of verses, however, that sound like the New Testament hell.  Daniel 12:2 says that some will rise to everlasting life, and others to everlasting contempt. Isaiah 66:24 says that the worms that eat the bodies of those who rebelled against God won’t die, and fire that burns them won’t be quenched.  Some verses in the New Testament seem to say that the punishment for sin is death or annihilation, and some verses talk about God’s wrath not lasting forever, but others talk about eternal punishment.  Eternity is a long time!  I can’t imagine God creating people, already knowing some wouldn’t listen to him, just to be sent to hell forever.  It’s too disturbing for me to imagine. What’s your take on this?

This is a very important and heartfelt question, and I will take several posts to answer it.  Let me reassure you first of all that many people who believe in the Bible as the inspired word of God don’t believe that everlasting conscious torment is the consequence for rejecting God.  We’ll see why as we explore the biblical text in the posts ahead.  Let me begin here with your observation about the word Sheol in the Old Testament.

You make a very good point about this word.  Like other Hebrew and Greek words sometimes translated “hell” in the Bible, it doesn’t actually refer to a place where individuals are tormented forever.   Rather, Sheol was for the Hebrews, as you say, simply the place that held the dead.  Most modern translations recognize this and use a different word to translate Sheol than the word “hell” found in the King James Version.  This gives biblical statements a very different feel.

For example, in Psalm 9:
KJV  “The wicked shall be turned into hell.”
This indeed sounds as if everlasting torment after death is the punishment for turning away from God.  But listen to the same statement in some contemporary translations:
NIV  “The wicked go down to the realm of the dead.”
ESV  “The wicked shall return to Sheol.”
NRSV “The wicked shall depart to Sheol.”
In other words, if you’re wicked in this life, you’re likely to die an unfortunate death.  But there’s no statement about everlasting torment.

cemetery

To give another example, in the Song of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy:
KVJ  “For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell.”
This sounds as if God is out to get the departed souls of those who have disobeyed him, and he’ll pursue them to the lowest depths of hell to make them burn.  But now hear the statement in more modern translations:
NIV  “For a fire will be kindled by my wrath, one that burns down to the realm of the dead below.”
ESV and NRSV “For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol.”
In other words, if the people of Israel turn to idols (that’s the context here), God will be so rightfully offended that his anger will not just “scorch the grass,” it will burn all the way down to the underworld.  This is a statement about consequences for the ancient nation of Israel in this life, not for individuals in the next life.

Because of the recognition that the Old Testament is talking about Sheol, the abode of the dead, rather than about a place set aside for the punishment of the wicked, most modern translations do not use the word “hell” anywhere in the Old Testament.  The major exception is the New King James Version, which retains the word just about everywhere it’s found in the original KJV.  Still, most biblical scholars working on translation committees agree with you about the need to make readers understand that Sheol is the place that holds the dead.  This discussion illustrates how valuable it is to use and compare different translations of the Bible when investigating important questions like this.

In my next post I’ll take up the passages you cite from Daniel and Isaiah, which don’t use the word Sheol, but rather talk specifically about “everlasting contempt,” worms, and fire.  And in the post after that, I’ll consider the New Testament passages that talk about hell.

Can we on earth do anything to help those who have already died?

As Paul is defending the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, he asks, “If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”  Is there really something we here on earth can do, such as being baptized, to help those who have already died?

In my guide to Paul’s Journey Letters I explain that he doesn’t actually support baptism for the dead.  My understanding of Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians to those who were baptized on behalf of the dead is that he was talking about something his opponents were doing—the people who denied his teaching about the bodily resurrection.  Paul was pointing out how inconsistent and contradictory this practice was, in light of their doctrine:  It made no sense to baptize the bodies of the departed through a substitute if those bodies were gone and never coming back.  But Paul wasn’t advocating either the practice (baptism for the dead) or the doctrine (denial of the resurrection).  He was just delegitimizing his opponents with this rhetorical question.

As for your specific concern, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that some devotional activities can reach across the divide between this world and the next.  Christ’s intercession at the right hand of God for us here on earth is a clear example.  (It may also be that God hears and answers the prayers of believers in heaven for people on earth, although we aren’t told about this specifically in the Bible.) So maybe our prayers can also be of some benefit to those who have passed on.

This gets into the larger question of whether everyone’s eternal destiny is fixed definitively at death, or whether people have some opportunity after death to embrace God’s love, and might be helped towards this through our prayers. There are some hints about this in the Bible, such as when Peter talks about Jesus going and preaching to the spirits who were in prison.  But we don’t know enough to be able to say for sure.

BaptismIn any event, baptism itself is only effective, as the church has held throughout the centuries, if the person being baptized has faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  This faith is not something one person can supply for another.  (In infant baptism, the parents or sponsors are doing for the infant what they believe he or she would if able; the expectation is that the infant will later confirm this action as a believer.)  The issue in this case, in other words, is the nature of baptism itself, not the question of whether we can do anything for those who have passed on.  Prayer, maybe, but baptism, no.