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.

Do people choose or refuse to believe, or does God choose who is saved?

As my small group was using the guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, a question came up in 2 Thessalonians.  In one section, Paul says that some will perish “because they refused to love the truth.”  But in the very next section, he tells the Thessalonians, “God chose you as firstfruits to be saved.” The first statement seems to place agency in the hands (and hearts and minds) of individuals, while the second one seems to imply God’s agency in determining who is saved. How do we reconcile ostensibly contradictory statements that are right next to each other?  What is the bigger picture we are missing?

This isn’t the only place in the Bible where God’s sovereignty and human moral responsibility are asserted in the very same place.  For example, Peter says about Jesus in his message on the day of Pentecost, as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”

Image
Benjamin West, “St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost”

It seems to me that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are two sides of a mystery or paradox that we today have much more difficulty reconciling and living with than the biblical authors did.  So how can we reach the place where we’re as comfortable with this paradox as they were?

I find it helpful to think about this by analogy to the understanding the community of Jesus’ followers eventually reached, after centuries of debate, about whether he was divine or human.  The answer was, “Both.”  The Council of Chalcedon proclaimed in AD 451 that Jesus was “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.”  That is, he was somehow 100% divine and 100% human at the same time, without it being possible to say which things he said and did as God and which things he said and did as a man, and without either nature getting in the way of the other.

We might say similarly that when a person is saved, this is the result of a process or action that is “fully divine and fully human, without separation and without confusion.”  Paul says in 2 Thessalonians, after all, that when people “refuse to love the truth and so be saved,” “God sends them a powerful delusion so they will believe the lie.”  Divine and human agency working simultaneously—in this case, unfortunately negatively, but the same thing happens positively when a person is saved.

The practical takeaway is to acknowledge that we have a human moral responsibility to respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation through the gospel, but also to acknowledge in all humility that our salvation is a work of God achieved only through the incarnation, life, ministry, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus.

What did Jesus do for three days after he descended into hell?

Q. I have a question.  What do you think Christ “did” for three days after he descended into hell?

The Bible doesn’t tell us very much about what Jesus did between the time he died on the cross and when he was raised from the dead, but it does give us a couple of tantalizing hints.

Peter writes in his first letter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah when the ark was being built.”

This suggests that Jesus, between his death and resurrection, went in the Spirit and actively preached the gospel to those who had perished centuries before in the great flood.  Perhaps these people, because of the great wickedness on the earth at that time, were considered not to have had a reasonable opportunity to respond to God, and so Jesus came and proclaimed the gospel to them in its fullness, in light of his just-completed death on the cross.

Even though Peter doesn’t mention people from other historical periods, since his concern in this part of the letter is to develop an analogy between baptism and rescue from the flood in the ark, it’s possible that on this occasion Jesus also proclaimed the gospel to other “imprisoned spirits” who had lived at different times.  Peter says more generally later in this letter that “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regards to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”

Paul gives us a suggestion that some of those who heard the gospel under these circumstances responded positively.  In Ephesians he quotes from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train,” and then applies these words to Christ: “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth?”  The “captives” would be the souls whom Jesus led out of their “imprisonment” after they responded positively to the gospel when he proclaimed it.

From these biblical hints about what Jesus did between his death and resurrection, the community of his followers later developed the doctrine of the “harrowing of hell.”  To “harrow” means to despoil; the idea is that Jesus triumphed over hell and released its captives.  This doctrine has a rich history in the art and literature of the church.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, "The Harrowing of Hell"
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Harrowing of Hell”

If someone’s prediction doesn’t come true, are they a false prophet?

Our church believes that the gift of prophecy is still available today. There’s one man in the church who recently predicted something that didn’t happen.  The Bible says in Deuteronomy that if a prophet’s words don’t come true, they’re not genuine.  I mean, we’re not going to kill this guy or anything (as it also says to do in Deuteronomy), but is he a false prophet?

I wouldn’t apply a “one strike and you’re out” rule to the question of whether someone who speaks prophetically is genuine.  The book of Deuteronomy offers us more than one test of a false prophet.  One is that their predictions don’t come true.  But another is that even if their predictions do come true, if they then say “let us go after other gods,” they are false prophets and are not to be trusted. The fulfilled prediction is a test of faith for believers.  So we aren’t supposed to go exclusively by outcomes, but by whether a prophet’s words and actions point us to the true God.

Since prophecy is a spiritual gift, we should expect that for budding prophets, there will be a “learning curve.”  As they learn to use their gift, they will become sharper and more accurate in their prophecies.  The corollary is that those who feel called to develop a prophetic gift and calling should be more restrained at the outset, until they develop confidence in their gifting.  That’s why I wouldn’t apply a “one strike and you’re out” rule in every case.  To me the main test is whether the prophet is calling people faithfully to obedience.

That much said, I have to admit that I lost confidence in a man I had considered a prophet, who made much of the fact that “God had told him” everything he was predicting, when several of his predictions in a row didn’t come true.  So there is still something to this test of accuracy.

Another thing to consider is that only a small percentage of prophecy in the Bible is predictive, or “fore-telling.” The rest is exhortation or “forth-telling,” a description of God’s perspective on how the community is conducting itself, rather than a prediction of what God plans to do, whether in mercy or judgment.  I would therefore add that a (mature) true prophet will probably come close to these proportions in his or her words to the community.
DeuteronomyHebrews
(A guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews is available in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series.)

Was Noah’s flood a worldwide event or a local one?

Q. In your Genesis study guide you seem to take for granted that Noah’s flood was a worldwide event. You write, “God must have used some extraordinary means to cause a flood of this magnitude, since ordinary rainfall, even a downpour of forty days, wouldn’t be sufficient to cover all the mountains on earth.”  But I’ve heard some people claim instead that this flood was a local event.  How would you respond?

Floodwater

You’re right, one school of interpretation does hold that Noah’s flood was a local event in which the waters rose 15 cubits (22 feet) above their usual height, or else this far above their flood stage.  This would still be a tremendous flood, but local one.  However, the statement in Genesis that the high hills (or mountains) were all covered with water would seem to rule this out.

The statement is actually made within a poetic couplet that’s based on the repetition of meaning, whose second line provides greater focus, as is typical of Hebrew poetry.  The couplet can be translated this way:

And the waters were great, exceedingly, exceedingly, upon the earth
and they covered all the high hills that were under the skies;
Five and ten cubits upwards were the waters great
and they covered the high hills.

“All the high hills that were under the skies” are in view, and the claim is that these were covered to a height of 15 cubits, so I think the writer’s intention is to describe a worldwide event.

However, it’s important to remember that all of this is written from an observational perspective. The author of the flood account is reporting that all of the high hills out to the visible horizon (“under the skies”) were covered by the waters.  So this would conceivably still allow for a local flood, although it’s being envisioned as a worldwide event.

In either case, however, this would still be a flood of such magnitude that the problem of its mechanism remains. Some extraordinary means must have been responsible, because as I go on to say in the guide, the description of the flood in Genesis, no matter how we interpret it, “doesn’t line up with our modern cosmology.  Much of the universe is described here by analogy to things in human experience, so that there are ‘floodgates’ in the sky and ‘springs’ in the ‘great deep.'”  So it’s a real challenge to get from the way the author envisioned the created world to the way we understand it today.

I think it’s more profitable to realize that the Genesis account here is describing a wrestling match between the waters and the earth.  The waters “were great” or “prevailed” over the earth: “Prevail” in Hebrew is the root GBR, while the adjective “high” applied to the mountains or hills is GBH. Both roots convey the sense of strength and might. In other words, the greatest strength that the earth can muster—supposedly immovable mountains—cannot resist the force that God raises against it.

The flood was sent because almost the entire human race had turned away from God into violence and wickedness, but if they felt nothing could stop them from taking that path, their false sense of security has now been exposed.  The story ultimately has a moral lesson, so if the only thing we take away from it is a conclusion about how widespread the flood was, or about how it happened, we’ve missed the point.

For a further discussion of the flood in light of the way the biblical authors envisioned the created world, see this related post.