Does God harden people’s hearts so they won’t be saved? (Part 1)

Q. Peter clearly states in his second letter that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  Several statements in the Bible that seem to be contrary to this don’t make sense to me.  Two examples are Joshua 11:20, “The Lord hardened their hearts . . . that they might receive no mercy,” and John 12:40, “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn, and I would heal them.”   Wouldn’t God want to make it easier for all of us to get to Him?  So why would God discourage some people from believing or make it harder for them than for others?  Related to this is the way people or nations had their hearts hardened so that God could demonstrate his power. Pharaoh seemed ready to let the Israelites go, but instead God hardened his heart and the plagues came, including death to all the first born. 

Thank you for these excellent questions.  I’ll take some time to answer them.  In this post I’ll talk about the reference in Joshua to God hardening hearts and showing no mercy.  In my next post I’ll take up the passage you cite from John.  And in a final post I’ll look at the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

The question of people and nations being hardened, so that they are destroyed rather than saved, comes up several times (quite understandably) in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth.  As I tell groups when they first read through Joshua, “This aspect of the book . . . creates one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.” So let me begin answering your question by sharing what I say about it in the Joshua study guide.  I’ll take up the passages you cite from John and Exodus in subsequent posts.

In Session 4 of the guide, when groups consider the destruction of the city of Jericho, when no one is spared except Rahab and her family, I offer these observations:

Esteban March, "Joshua at the Walls of Jericho"
Esteban March, “Joshua at the Walls of Jericho”

“The Bible sometimes describes judgments of total destruction like this, but at other times God’s judgments are limited and tempered by mercy.  The challenge for readers of the Bible is to determine which kinds of episodes are normative and which ones are exceptional, and why those occurred.

Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.

Jesus taught that we should love even our enemies, and that we should show mercy to others so that we will receive mercy ourselves.  He died to save people who were, at the time, his own enemies.  So his life and teachings show that judgments of total destruction, like the one described here, are exceptional.  So why did exceptional events like this occur as the Israelites took possession of Canaan?

“This is a question that thoughtful interpreters have offered different answers to, but here is one possibility to consider.  It may be that God had determined that Canaanite society had become so corrupt that it couldn’t be redeemed.  This society was particularly violent, oppressive, and degraded.  . . .  If this society was never going to change, then it had to answer the demands of justice.  Moreover, if the Israelites imitated the Canaanites, they’d rapidly be corrupted themselves.  So their influence had to be removed completely.

As God had earlier used flood and fire to purge away irredeemably wicked societies from the earth, now God chose to use the Israelite armies for this purpose.  This was not an ordinary war; these armies were on special assignment as agents of divine judgment.  This is why, in the case of the opening battle of Jericho, the soldiers weren’t allowed to take any plunder.”

I then invite groups to interact with these comments, to say whether they think they might be on the right track, even if they don’t completely agree with them, or whether they’d account for episodes like this one in some other way.

Then, in Session 7, groups take up the part of Joshua that summarizes the conquest of the nations living in Canaan. There we find the statement that you asked about:  “It was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy.”  When we read this statement on its own, it does sound as if God wanted all the Canaanites to perish, in direct contradiction to what Peter writes.  But we need to understand this statement in its context.  I suggest the following in the Joshua study guide:

“The author’s primary concern here is to document that Joshua faithfully carried out what ‘the LORD commanded Moses.’  Canaanite culture was so corrupt and oppressive that God didn’t want it to supply any part of the model on which the new Israelite society would be built.  But this meant that Canaanite influence had to be completely eliminated.

So God led the Canaanites ‘to wage war against Israel so that he’—Joshua—’might destroy them totally . . . as the LORD had commanded Moses.’  The fundamental goal is the complete removal of the corrupting Canaanite influence, so that a new society can be built on God’s laws, as a model for the rest of the world.  Everything else–the hardening, the war, and the destruction–follows from that.”

If this is the case, then paradoxically the indirect but ultimate goal here is to make it possible for people to follow God, not to prevent them from doing so.  And so, as I observe further:

“If the ultimate goal is to make it possible for the Israelites to model God’s ways for the rest of the world, then it’s consistent with that goal for some people outside Israel, at any point, to choose in favor of God.  But this means that the hardening must have been general, on the Canaanites as a whole, and not specific, in each one of their individual hearts.  (The text uses the collective singular: ‘It was from the LORD to harden their heart.’)  To seek the God of Israel, an individual person or city would have to make a choice contrary to what everyone around them wanted to do.  In this culture of corporate identity, this would not have been easy.  But as the cases of Rahab and the Gibeonites show, it wasn’t impossible.”

Indeed, if we understand the episodes of total destruction in the book of Joshua by analogy to the judgment of the flood, then only the earthly destiny of the Canaanites was at stake, not their eternal destiny.  In an earlier post I’ve explored the biblical statement (also by Peter) that Jesus went and preached to the imprisoned spirits who perished “in the days of Noah.”  This is only speculative, I must emphasize, but it’s possible that the spirits of those who perished “in the days of Joshua” might also have been “imprisoned,” awaiting a proclamation of the gospel that they could understand from Jesus himself.

Will the signs at football games just read “John”?

Q. If The Books of The Bible has the desired impact, in the future will we see the guy at the football game holding up a sign that just reads, ‘John’?

John316

I’m sure we’ve all seen the “John 3:16” signs on televised football games. There may even be some signs like this at the Super Bowl on Sunday.

This question provides a great illustration of how The Books of the Bible, the version these study guides are designed to be used with, encourages referencing not by chapter and verse, but by content and context.

The word count is pretty limited on those signs, but if you had the chance to speak with someone at slightly more length, think of how much more meaningful it would be to refer contextually to “what Jesus told Nicodemus when he came to see him early in the gospel of John,” rather than to use the chapter and verse shorthand.  Or, by content, you could refer to how the Bible tells that that “God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son,” summarizing the message rather than just giving its address.

Along these lines, instead of reading simply “JOHN,” a sign at a football game might say something like this:

GOD LOVED THE WORLD – GOD GAVE HIS SON.

Or, in bigger letters:

GOD LOVED
GOD GAVE

I bet that would get the attention of the television cameras.

Do our prayers really get through to God?

Q. I don’t know if I’ve really ever gotten through to God in prayer.  Some great things have happened to me over the years and I’ve said, “Thank you, God” for them.  I’ve looked up at the stars and said, “Wow, that’s awesome, God!”  But I’ve also been through some really tough things, and I’ve prayed about them, too, but I’m not sure what happened. 

I knew I should never ask for anything selfish, like riches.  I just prayed for God’s will to be evident, or for a really sick friend to be healed, or for some victims of a horrible accident, or financial problems to be straightened out.  I’ve tried the “If it’s your will, Lord” prayers.  Some worked out, some didn’t. 

I’ve read many verses about prayer.  One says to ask believing that it has already been done for you. Another says, “Ask, seek, knock.” There’s that parable Jesus told about the widow getting her wish because she wears the unjust judge out with her asking. 

I’ve heard a lot of answers to this problem:
“Just trust God and He will reveal Himself.”
“We can never know the Mind of God.”
“He knows the best thing for us, even if we can’t see it now.”
“God wants us to speak with Him as a young child, so keep praying.”
“Jesus showed us how to pray, so follow His example.”
“Many people prayed for things and it came about, so don’t give up.”
 
I need some assurance at this point.

Thank you for this honest and heartfelt question, which I’m sure many, many other readers of this blog will feel as well.  Prayer is central to the relationship we’re meant to have with God, but it’s also complex and mysterious, and I don’t pretend to be able to explain everything about it. But I can share with you some of the things I think I’ve discovered from the prayers in the Scriptures.

I think your question itself illustrates one essential point:  prayer is not meant to be primarily a way of asking for things; rather, it’s a way of living in relationship with God. And you’re already living in relationship with God through prayer. You describe how you use it to express your thanks for his blessings and your praise for his wonders. In other words, sometimes there’s not an expectation that a prayer will be “answered” with a particular result. It’s just a way for us to express ourselves to God. I’m certain that in those prayers, you got through.

The Bible is full of prayers of praise and thanksgiving. In fact, biblical prayers typically contain a much higher percentage of praise and thanksgiving than ours often do. So one important thing we can learn about prayer from the Bible is to use it regularly to express our gratitude and wonder to God.

Another important purpose we discover in the Scriptures is this: talking to God in prayer enables us to move from a place where we are questioning God’s power and goodness to a place where we have a confident trust in God, even in troubling circumstances. The most common kind of psalm by far is the “psalm of supplication,” whose essential purpose is to enable the writer to make this move. (This is discussed at length in the Psalms study guide, in sessions 2 and 7-11.) In these biblical psalms of supplication we see people make it to all stages along the way from questioning to trust. It’s a powerful and helpful model for us.

So in this case the expected result is not so much in the world around us, but inside us. It sounds to me that prayer also “worked” for you when you were able to trust God with the really tough things that were happening to you.

But I recognize that your ultimate question is about those times when we are hoping for and expecting a result in the world around us: for someone to be healed physically, or for a material need to be met, or for a relationship to mended–things like that. We would know that we’d “gotten through” if we got the result we were praying for. And what I see in the Bible is that prayer is also meant to be a means by which God can use us as his agents to bring about results like these. In other words, God wants to work through our prayers to achieve his purposes.

We often see this happen in the Bible. For example, the early church in Acts was “earnestly praying to God” for Peter’s release from prison, and he was miraculously set free. We also see it in Nehemiah’s prayer for favor with his king, who let him go to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. We see it in Daniel’s prayer for the return of the exiles, and in many other places.

However, we also have to acknowledge that in the Bible we see some petitions and intercessions (that is, prayers for oneself and for others) fail to achieve the desired result. Just before the apostle Peter was miraculously released from Herod’s prison, the apostle James was put to death by Herod. But I’m sure the early church was praying for the safety and deliverance of both men.

The clearest example for me is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He made a specific request: “May this cup be taken from me” (in other words, keep me from being executed). But he was crucified anyway. If even Jesus didn’t get what he asked for, how can any of us be sure that our prayers ever get through?

Gethsemane
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Church of St. Esteban,Salamanca

But I think Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane actually illustrates one more important thing about prayer. When God wants to work through our prayers, he calls us into an interactive process of speaking and listening.  This process may last for days or even weeks, rather than take place in one concentrated night as in Gethsemane. (I think that’s what Jesus wanted to show us through the parable of the widow and the judge.) Over the course of this process, we come to discern the will of God more and more clearly, so that we can pray with more and more confidence for it. The ultimate goal is for us to receive bold faith from a clear assurance of God’s will, and to see the prayer that’s prayed in that faith answered. I think Jesus’ teachings about “ask, seek, knock” and “believing that we have already received” apply to these cases specifically.

But the description of this process suggests that we begin in a place where we don’t have a clear assurance of God’s will.  That’s where the “if it’s your will, Lord” comes in. We begin by saying what we think God might want for us, but with the expectation that we will hear from God in response (if not in an audible voice, then at least in a change of heart, a new perspective, or something like that). In light of that response, we adapt our prayers, and the process of speaking and listening continues until we reach either a place where we are completely surrendered to God’s will, whatever that might be, or a place where we have a confident assurance of God’s will and a bold faith that our prayers will be instrumental in its realization.

It’s eye-opening and encouraging for me to think that, on this model, Jesus in Gethsemane actually began in a place where he wasn’t certain that it was God’s will for him to receive what he was asking for–an escape from the cross–and that he reached a place not where he knew his petition would be granted, but where he was yielded to God’s will, even if it wasn’t what he was asking for.  I’d say he definitely “got through” on that occasion, and perhaps, looking back on your experiences, you’ll recognize some where you “got through” in the same way. But I hope you’ll also recognize some experiences where your initial impulse to pray for something turned out to be what God wanted, and that he used your prayers over time to bring about his purposes.

How could God traumatize Isaac by having Abraham nearly sacrifice him?

isaacsacrifice
Anton Losenko, “Abraham Sacrifices His Son Isaac”

Q. One of the things I struggle with most is God requesting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I get the dynamic between God and Abraham on this, but why wouldn’t God at least have done it when Isaac was a baby and couldn’t remember it? It just seems cruel to me to inflict lifelong psychological damage on someone from the terror and other emotions that your father tying you up, ready to sacrifice you, would cause. I’m not sure any level of faith in God would compensate for the damage that would do to a person.

In these study guides, I often ask groups to envision particular biblical stories through the eyes of one of their characters. Your question is a sensitive and compassionate one that arises from a perceptive reading of this story through Isaac’s eyes.

We typically interpret this story from God’s perspective and see in it a foreshadowing of the substitutionary atonement: “God himself will provide the lamb.”  Or, we see it from Abraham’s perspective and read it as an object lesson in faith and difficult obedience.  (Charles Spurgeon preached a famous sermon on this passage, using Abraham as a positive example, about the kind of obedience that faith produces: immediate, unconditional, complete, etc.)

But when we see the story through Isaac’s eyes, it is pretty terrifying. It would be bad enough to be tied up and nearly sacrificed by anybody, but for your father to do this, when he’s supposed to be your protector, would be devastating.

One possibility to consider is that Isaac might have experienced this event somewhat differently from the way a person would today. This story is, among other things, about Abraham and his family coming to understand better the character of the God who has called them into a covenant relationship in order to make them a blessing to the whole world. Considered in that light, it’s actually a polemic against human sacrifice, which was widely practiced in this place and time.

It’s not as though God thought up human sacrifice as an extreme way to test Abraham’s loyalty. Rather, God was asking of Abraham what it was believed the other gods were asking of their followers. When Abraham demonstrated his complete devotion, God then made clear that he didn’t want human sacrifices.

But going into the story, Abraham and Isaac don’t yet realize how different God is from the other so-called gods in this respect. This is why neither one of them balks when they realize that a human sacrifice is in view (Abraham at the beginning, Isaac later on): if you didn’t do what the gods expected of you, they would bring disaster on you and your family. In effect, Isaac may not have expected his father to protect him from a demand like this from the gods–no one was able to defy them, and trying to do so would only expose the family to greater danger and damage.  Children today don’t have issues with their parents for not keeping a tornado from hitting their house.

But I think this is only a secondary answer.  I agree with you that, whatever the cultural differences, for Isaac to be tied up by his own father and nearly turned into a human sacrifice must have been terrifying and traumatic on some level. So the primary answer must be that coming to know God deeply and truly as our Heavenly Father can and does bring healing from the psychological damage we suffer through things our parents do. If they fail to protect us, or if they actively harm us, this does more damage than almost any other person could cause. But even when this has happened, coming to know God, in a deep relational sense, as our Heavenly Father brings emotional and psychological healing by reassuring us of our infinite worth in his eyes and giving us renewed confidence in his love and protection. And this is what I hope all readers of this story from Isaac’s life will experience.

Do not “quench the Spirit” or “put out the Spirit’s fire”?

In your guide to Paul’s Journey Letters (session 2), you ask us which of the instructions at the end of 1 Thessalonians we’d most like to see put into practice in our community of Jesus’ followers.  Our small group has a couple of questions about one of those instructions.  It’s the one that the TNIV translates “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire,” but which other versions such as the ESV translate “Do not quench the Spirit.”  

First of all, which is it, the Spirit or the Spirit’s fire?  Why the difference in translation?  

And then, if it is fire, how are we to understand what that means within the context of the letter?  There are numerous references throughout the Old and New Testaments of God’s presence/Spirit coming in the form of fire, so it’s easy for a reader to project this kind of imagery here.  I suppose this is a specific case of a more general question: To what extent is it appropriate/accurate/permissible to project extra-textual meaning into a specific literary context?  It seems to me that the answer cannot be “never” nor “always,” which means that it’s somewhere in between.

In this instruction Paul uses the Greek verb sbennúo, which means “to put out a fire.” (This root is found in our word asbestos, which originally referred to a substance, quicklime, that couldn’t be put out when it was on fire; pouring water on it only made it flame higher. Ironically, the word was then erroneously applied to a substance that couldn’t catch on fire, and the name, even though opposite in meaning, stuck!)

asbestos2
Asbestos

In Paul’s sentence the Spirit is the simple object of this verb; the word “fire” as an attribute or possession of the Spirit does not appear.  So “do not quench the Spirit” is the more literal translation.  The reading “do not put out the Spirit’s fire” appears in the 1978 and 1984 editions of the NIV as well as in the TNIV, but in the latest update to the NIV (2011), the reading is now “do not quench the Spirit.” So leading translations are converging in their understanding of what the object in the sentence should be.

I’m not sure they’ve gotten the verb translated right yet, however.  Sbennúo can be used in a more literal sense of putting out a fire (e.g. as in Ephesians, “Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one”), but it can also be used in a more figurative sense, to describe doing to something what you would do to a fire to put it out.  And so I think an even better translation of Paul’s instruction would be, “Do not stifle the Spirit,” particularly since the very next phrase (not necessarily a separate sentence) is, “do not treat prophecies with contempt.”  In other words, if the Spirit wants to speak to you in your gatherings, let the Spirit speak, and listen.  So the notion of fire, certainly associated with God’s Spirit in many places in the Bible, is not necessarily present here.

This means that this instruction may be an even better example than you perhaps realized of readers projecting extra-textual meaning into a specific literary context!  I agree with you that we must expect readers to do this kind of thing sometimes, because words are full of meaning and they are bound to have associations for readers beyond what those who first used them intended.  I’d say that we need to recognize that reading is a creative act, but that at the same time, like any creative act, it should be constrained by considerations that keep it from becoming so wild that it’s meaningless.  I’d argue that these considerations include the author’s overall perspectives and social and historical context.  These must exert some control over the meanings we bring in to an author’s words.

So while Paul probably meant “do not stifle the Spirit,” he was using a word figuratively that means more literally “put out a fire,” and in that word the rich biblical associations of the Spirit-as-fire can be heard echoing. This is particularly true since Paul was writing self-consciously within the biblical literary tradition, as evidenced by his frequent quotations from and allusions to the earlier Scriptures. So when we read the instruction not to “quench” the Spirit, I think we do have the freedom to think about what this means in light of the broader biblical imagery of the Spirit-as-fire, so long as we don’t miss Paul’s main point about allowing the Spirit to speak through individual members to gatherings of Jesus’ followers.

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.