They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I didn’t command, nor did it come into my mind.—Jeremiah 7:31
and have built the high places of Baal, to burn their sons in the fire for burnt offerings to Baal; which I didn’t command, nor speak, which didn’t even enter into my mind:—Jeremiah 19:5
They built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through fire to Molech; which I didn’t command them. It didn’t even come into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.”—Jeremiah 32:35
If the thought of burning children in fire didn’t even come into God’s mind, why do we insist he would do much worse—eternal torment by fire?
Isn’t he the same God yesterday, today, and forever?
I read a question somewhere several months ago and have been researching it since. The question was: Is hell a part of the Gospel (Good News)? First, I wanted to define the meaning of hell I’ve been taught most of my life as a reference point, then I’ll state what I’ve found by researching the Bible.
The traditional meaning of hell I was taught centered around: a place of everlasting, conscious fiery torment where any human that dies without becoming a Christian will end up. The exact methodology of this process was always a shifting target though. Even after the initial salvation experience, there was a host of other mandates to follow to increase the coverage of the fire insurance policy. The very word hell became associated with fire and brimstone and feelings of absolute dread and despair. This led to all kinds of confusion for me growing up as I struggled to figure out why God would allow anyone to go to such a place as it was heavily counter intuitive to his love nature that was also being taught. I’ve touched on many of my conclusions in several other posts, but they are not the main point of this writing, though I may repeat a few points I’ve made before.
So, first, the Old Testament. In translations such as the KJV, the word hell appears in several places. However, this concept mainly refers to Sheol, a Hebrew term for the grave or place of the dead. Note, there was no burning or torment here, and David even stated that God would be there! Compare the below verses from Psalms 139:8:
KJV: If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
NIV: If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
WEB: If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there!
Which translation is most accurate here? Is God in hell like the KJV states?
This brings me to my next point: What did the term “hell” mean in Old English?
Well, searching for the origin of the word hell, I found it was neither a Hebrew or Greek word. It comes from the Germanic and means “to cover or hide” in Old English. So, we can see that the original meaning of the word through the Old Testament syncs up well with the KJV translation. The dirt of the grave covers us when we die. So technically, hell (the covering of dirt) has frozen over many, many times all over world. If anyone has ever said “when hell freezes over,” well, then they have an outstanding debt to someone.
This brings about the next big question: How did burning and torment come to be associated with Sheol between the Old and New Testament?
It would seem between the end of the Old and the beginning of the New, the idea came about of “bad” people going to a torturous, burning afterlife while the “good” people went to a place of peace and joy. It would seem the Greek views of the afterlife (Hades and Elysium) somehow got incorporated into the Jewish culture. Which brings us to the next two interesting points:
Jesus never talked about hell as we know it today, he spoke about Gehenna and Hades. Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades were all universally translated to say hell in the KJV. This is probably the biggest pitfall to that translation as they are three different, distinct places. In short:
Hades is the Greek version of a conscious, burning afterlife. Keep in mind this originated as a “pagan” concept and not as a Hebrew one.
Gehenna, aka The Valley of the Son of Hinnom, is a place outside of Jerusalem that was constantly burning. Corpses were “thrown into the fires of Gehenna” after major wars, and it breed an exceptionally hard to kill worm (Mark 9:48). It also originally hosted child sacrifices by fire to false gods (2 Chronicles 28:3).
Sheol, as explained above, is the original Hebrew concept of death or the grave.
When these three are mixed, we get a doctrinal quagmire we refer to today as hell. While we have scant evidence as to why this happened, it would seem the religious leaders adopted the Greek invader’s version of hell into their afterlife theology and held it over the Jewish people’s heads as the place to avoid by observing the strictest principles of the law.
So, what did Jesus mean when he referenced Gehenna and Hades?
First, Jesus speaks of Gehenna a few times during the Sermon on the Mount. He tells the audience there that if they are unable to uphold the most strictest interpretation of the Law, thereby surpassing the Pharisees, they would be cast into Gehenna. It would be better if they did things like plucking out their eyes to avoid lustful thoughts. The people would have had a good understanding of what Jesus was referencing when he mentions Gehenna here. So how could they—and just as important, how do we—uphold this extremely strict view of the Law? Simply, they—and we—can’t. Jesus was stating the inevitable path of attempting to hold up an ever stricter set of laws to be perfect like God. As humans, we can’t. It is impossible for us to be perfect by our human methods of conformance and rule following. It is only through Jesus that we can be perfect. Striving for the goal of perfection without Jesus leads us to a point of comparative righteous. We consider ourselves better than others, thereby justifying our right to impose our superior standards on others in God’s name. The religious leaders were setting their standard of righteousness by law and professing destruction and doom to any that couldn’t meet it (Luke 11:46). According to Jesus, no one meets the actual standard! This leads to the next point.
Jesus speaks of Hades, specifically referencing the Greek version of where bad people go, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We see Lazarus, the outsider, in Paradise with the Jewish forefather, Abraham, while the evil rich man was being tormented in Hades. What was Jesus’ point here? First, we have to look at who Jesus was talking to—the Pharisees (Luke 16:14). It would seem the Pharisees were one of the groups perpetuating the idea of punishment by burning in hell-fire. In his parable, Jesus places the poor outsider (the gentiles) in Paradise with the Jewish ancestor, Abraham. Meanwhile, he measures those who had thought they were rich in righteousness by their own standard (Matt 7:2), placing them in Hades. He used their own condemnation against them to say, “If you are so adamant about holding the threat of Hades over others, you ‘righteous’ lot will be the ones that end up there while those outsiders receive your inheritance (Matt 21:43).” It seems we still wield the threat of hell today as a weapon of fear the same way the Pharisees did.
This brings me to the final points in this post, the lake of fire and second death. As I stated in a previous post, the Old Testament view of fire, prior to the Greek influence, was for purification. Likewise, fire in the Bible seems to be referencing purification, whether in this life or the next (1 Cor 3:13-15, Mark 9:49). So how about this second death business? This would seem to be the purification process of the lake of fire. In Revelation, death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire and this lake is called the second death—or as the 1st Century audience would have understood it, the second Sheol.
I know this is quite long, but I wanted to hit all the major points. These are my viewpoints and I encourage anyone reading this to research for themselves. My overall point in writing this is to help remove the fear and manipulation of the confusing views of hell and punishment that many have been subjugated by for so long so they can live in the freedom of Jesus’ love (1 John 4:18)! Going back to the original question, I would have to say no, hell, as we’ve defined it is not part of the Gospel. Jesus never told the disciples to go out and teach about everlasting punishment. Likewise, Paul only mentions Hades once, in that Jesus has defeated the very concept of this kind of punishment (1 Cor 15:55).
If we truly believed hell is what we tend to say it is, we would work a whole lot harder to save souls if we love like Jesus. For some reason, our actions don’t reflect our belief in everlasting damnation. Could we really sit passively day after day if we truly felt that friends, family, and the rest of the world are heading to a place of everlasting suffering?
There are three things most Christians would seem to accept about God. However, when thinking more in depth about these, there are some massive contradictions.
These three seem to be:
1. God is all powerful.
2. God is all knowing.
3. God is all loving.
I personally believe all three, but they raise some interesting questions.
If God is all powerful, then isn’t he able to enact a plan to save everyone from hell?
If he can but doesn’t, then is he all-loving?
I believe he has enacted this plan through Jesus. If even a single human goes to hell for all eternity, wouldn’t Jesus’ plan have failed? If God loves each and every one of his creations infinitely, wouldn’t this loss torment him for all of eternity?
Would God create beings knowing in advance that they would go to hell? If so, how is this love?
I’ve seen these questions circumvented by stating humans can’t understand. While it is true that we can’t fully comprehend God, the Bible goes to great lengths to describe him as infinite love, power, and knowledge. Many have tried to manipulate God’s character for their own ends, but are only left with a loveless, powerless, and/or ignorant god. Is it any wonder people have trouble believing in that kind of god?
God is love, and he has a plan for humanity conceived from that love.
He has the knowledge and power to bring that plan to ultimate fruition.
This I believe.
If the title of this scares you, it’s probably because this term has been used to manipulate for so long by casting our all-loving Father into the role of a vengeful, almost maniacal, being. I was always made to fear this expression, most likely to uphold a conformity based religious performance.
So what can everlasting punishment mean if not what we’ve so often been told as burning forever and ever in hell?
This is something I wondered about for a very long time and God helped me understand this from his perspective of everlasting love and his will being fulfilled in the end (Col 1:19-20).
The first thing I came to better understand was the word everlasting. What could this mean other than continuing on and on without end? I pondered this for some time asking myself and God how he could be so cruel as to create humans that he knew would suffer forever. This didn’t quite jive with the claim of an all-loving Father.
As I began to research this more, I saw the word originally seemed to modify what it was explaining. In this case, the word punishment (I’ll get to that in a minute). In another case, it modifies the word life, as in everlasting life. I don’t want to go through all the iterations but I encourage looking into the original word meanings. For brevity’s sake, I’ll state that I personally came to believe the word everlasting, as it refers to punishment, means that it will last as long as we make it last. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man was still presenting himself as being superior to Lazarus, who was at father Abraham’s side in paradise, by ordering him to do his bidding. Even so, it seems his heart was being changed as he was now concerned with the fate of his brothers still living.
So, if everlasting could mean “age during/age of,” or in other words, a time of punishment, then what does the word punishment mean?
The first question to ask would be: Is punishment for God’s benefit or ours? That being, is God’s punishment to sooth his anger towards us or to correct our actions? Is God so fickle that he has to torture us forever?
Any loving parent wouldn’t punish their child just to appease their own anger. God, being infinitely patient with us, his children, likewise has no need to punish us to appease his anger. Punishment is a corrective action for our benefit.
Another situation that drove this point a little further home for me is as follows:
I was at a gathering with a family who had got a new outside dog. The dog kept wanting to come in the house but wasn’t allowed. The husband stated, “If I pop him on the nose one good time, he’ll know not to try to come in again.” As I thought about this, I realized this would have been an “everlasting punishment.” Now, this isn’t exactly how I would view God’s corrective actions towards us, but the principle here is a corrective action meant to permanently end the dog’s stubborn insistence on getting his way on his terms.
Likewise, fire is presented more as a purifying means of burning away our stubbornness and anything else that would be unfit to enter into heaven.
For example, In Daniel 7:9-10, fire is explained as flowing from The Throne. If this corrective fire comes from God, and God is love, wouldn’t this be a means of purifying us? Further, we see Zechariah and Peter talking about God using fire as a purifying agent, just like it is used to burn away the impurities in silver and gold. Some may go through these fires in this life by following Jesus, others in the next.
All of these are my personal opinions and how I’ve come to experience living with God. You can take what is beneficial to your walk or throw it all out. However, is the good news really good news if it has to be sold under threat of eternal punishment?
I just can’t. Something just isn’t right. I know this might rub some the wrong way. That isn’t my intention.
I’ve struggled with how to present these things for weeks, months even. I just can’t dictate the terms of unconditional “surrender” to “unbelievers” under threat of everlasting burning in hell. Something here just doesn’t add up.
Had I the power, I would save every single person from such a fate, and God is much more powerful than me. He is also much more loving, gracious, faithful, and merciful than I am. Placing him in the role of eternal tormentor just doesn’t make any sense, especially for beings he created knowing their fate in advance.
If I’m called to love my enemy, why couldn’t God love so much more than me, especially if my love for others flows from him?
If God never changes and his love is never ending, what causes him to change when our heart stops beating?
If God wins in the end, what are the terms of his winning? If he loves each and every one of his creations infinitely, than losing even one person to everlasting torment would mean he wasn’t all-powerful to save them.
If God’s will be done, how does that will get trumped by man’s?
How is it good news or love to repent under threat of everlasting torture?
Paul only mentions Hades once (that I can find) in that Jesus has defeated it (1 Cor 15:55).
Jesus mentions Hades in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (prior to Jesus claiming the keys to Hades and setting the captives free! Rev 1:18, Eph 4:8, Luke 4:18). He mentions Gehenna a handful of times which means the Valley of Hinnom. This was a valley that was often burning that originally hosted child sacrifices (by fire) and mass corpse burning after major wars. This was to perhaps warn of the judgment that was coming on Israel via the Romans in 66-70AD (see also Matthew 24 and my posts on that chapter if interested).
In addition, in all of the Old Testament, “hell” is not directly referenced. Mainly, only the word Sheol, meaning the grave, was translated to say hell in some versions of the Bible.
Why wasn’t God more adamant and clear about proclaiming hell in the Old Testament, through Jesus, or through the Apostle Paul?
All in all, what the Good News was about for the first 500 years of Christianity, and what it is still about today, is the message that all have been chosen for salvation. Jesus has paid the price for our sins and defeated death so we can live victorious lives now, in this world. We are enabled to have true joy and hope. We are enabled to truly love others without comparing ourselves to see if we are better at avoiding hell-fire based on our relative degree of sinfulness.
How can anyone tell a grieving family that their loved one is burning in hell forever?
How could anyone, especially God, live “happily ever after” in Paradise knowing that millions or even billions are endlessly suffering?
Is punishment for the benefit of those being punished or the one doing the punishing? How does God benefit from our corrective punishment, especially for all eternity?
I believe God is good. He is love. And he has a plan.
Being so hellbent on “good news” that teaches everlasting torment is just confusing to me. And it’s confusing to those hurting who are only heaped with guilt and shame instead of being shown the love Jesus exemplifies.
I come across fear and manipulation quite often from religious people. More often than not, this fear manipulation drives people away from a congregation. I understand that many are attempting to bring people to Jesus, but the ways they are presenting the gospel just pushes people away.
Should someone be afraid of hell? Yes, in the sense that it is separation from God’s love. Many are just manipulated to fear hell to remain obligated to an institution’s standards. Often I see attendance, tithing, and participation upheld as methods of fire insurance. Some tactics are outright and unmistakable while others are very subtle. At best, these tactics only manipulate people into a sense of salvation by external compliance but does nothing to help them develop a deeper spiritual relationship with Jesus. Also, this places people in a conundrum where they can be continually manipulated. This may be unintentional, but the result is the same. Many are made to constantly question whether they are truly saved and are convinced that they have to vehemently work while fighting against themselves and the rest of the world to maintain that salvation. When a real relationship develops with Jesus, however, fear of hell dissipates because we are fervently in love with him. Our status with God becomes unmistakable and hell threats no longer hold any weight.
Through the gospels, it seems Jesus mostly speaks of hell to the religious people. It is as though to say those that are pursuing religious rules as their means of righteousness are the ones who are in danger. In Matthew 5:22&30 Jesus mentions hell but is stating how high the standards are to avoid it by religious rule following. If we’re honest with ourselves, it seems impossible–which is exactly the point, it is impossible by our human means of righteousness and rule-based obligation. Ironically, I can’t find any passages where Jesus walks up to a “sinner” and threatens them will hell to save their souls. Instead, he shows them love and lets them choose by that standard!
So why is fear usage so prevalent in the Bible and religion? There are a few points, as I’ve come to understand them, that might clear up some of the confusion.
The Lord said, “Because this people draws near with their mouth and honors me with their lips, but they have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which has been taught;–Isaiah 29:13 (emphasis mine)
It seems that men defined what fear should be and then held it over others’ heads as the means to relate to God.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love.–1 John 4:18