God loves you so much, that he sent his only Son to die for your sins and give you an eternity in heaven. But if you refuse to accept this free and gracious gift, he’s going to throw you into a lake of fire where you will burn for eternity.
Dang. That makes Jabba the Hutt’s thousand-year Sarlacc digestion program sound like a weekend trip to Disney World.
Hell is problematic. There’s no way around it. We can use it to scare people into conversion, or at least give them a stern warning. Or we can try to avoid it, or soften it, or offer hope beyond it. But in any case, one can understand why some people might put finger quotes around the word “gospel” when they try to justify a loving God forcing an eternity of suffering on those who reject him.
If you listen carefully, some sermons about Hell can be downright laughable. I’ve heard preachers warn their congregations to turn from sin or go to a place of absolute darkness with a fire that never goes out. Wait, what kind of fire is that? And, is it a lake of fire or just a big room or a cave? I thought Hell was a bottomless pit. Maybe the lake has no bottom and you just sink in liquid fire forever. Ouch.
And another thing, how do disembodied people even feel fire? Do spirits burn? Should I attack the devil with a flamethrower?
I believe that most of our confusion stems from a general misunderstanding of Scripture. The King James took every biblical reference to a negative afterlife and called it “Hell,” but not all Hell’s are created equal.
If you told any of the Bible writers that the earth was round, spinning in space, orbiting around the sun, they would have told you to take a long hike off a short pyramid. Everyone knows that the universe exists in three tiers: 1) the heavens, where the gods dwell above a watery firmament, 2) the earth, where men serve the gods on a flat surface above a subterranean sea, and 3) the underworld, the dark and silent home of the dead. Duh.
All of the Mesopotamian and Canaan epics present the same worldview. So does the Egyptian Book of the Dead. So does the Bible. It was just as simple and obvious to them as a round, rotating world is to us today.
No one in the ancient world would ask why the sky is blue. It’s water, stupid. Why do you think the author of Job talks about the water jars of heaven, or the storehouses of snow and hail, or of God laying the foundations of the earth with its bases and cornerstones, or of the recesses of the deep and the gates of death?
Israel called their underworld, Sheol (Hades, in Greek). In Psalm 88, Ethan the Ezrahite describes it as a place of utter darkness, where the dead are cut off from the presence of God, severed from his love and faithfulness. In fact, the author of this Psalm claims to be one of God’s own people, yet he begs to remain alive so he is not cut off from God’s presence.
David, however, takes a different approach. He claims that God would not abandon the righteous to Sheol (Ps 16), but would redeem them from the pit (Ps 103). Judging by the tone of these Psalms, David is making statements about the afterlife based on God’s character, claiming that God is too good and just to abandon his chosen people to the same fate as the pagans.
The Greeks of the first century were still hazy about the afterlife, debating if life simply ended, or if it continued in some vague way in an underworld. A parable of Jesus gives some insight into the Jewish evolution of thought, one that could justify the sentiments of both Ethan and David.
In the parable, a wicked rich man and a suffering poor man go to Hades. There, the poor man finds himself in a place of comfort and reward with the saints of God, while the rich man finds himself in a place of agony and flame. They are both in an underworld, but there is a gulf between them.
Is Jesus lying about the afterlife? Or is he just teaching the people about the implications of our present existence using the worldview of his listeners?
Jesus, the man who claims to be God in the flesh, the man who claims to be the Creator and Judge of the cosmos, also talks about Gehenna, translated into English as “Hell.”
There is something you need to know about Gehenna. In Greek, it means the Valley of Hinnom, a valley right outside Jerusalem. In other words, if Jesus told people to go to Hell, they could just turn around and walk there.
The Jews would know immediately what Jesus meant when he talked about Gehenna. It was a cursed place, the valley where the evil kings of Judah would sacrifice their children to Molech, a pagan god, making them walk through fire. Early Christian commentaries reported that, by the first century, the valley had become a garbage dump where the dead bodies of criminals and the carcasses of animals were burned. The fire never went out.
So we have a cursed place outside the holy city where the dead and sinful are burned in a fire that never goes out. Yeah, that pretty much sums up our conception of Hell. Why would Jesus use a physical place to describe the afterlife? I have a few ideas:
Hell is a spiritual “place,” perhaps a state of existence. Just as Jesus compares himself to a vine or bread or a shepherd, he compares the destiny of the wicked to a fiery garbage dump. It is not a literal place of fire, but we can understand the sentiment behind it.
This sentiment goes right along with his statement about unsalty salt being thrown onto the street, or unfruitful branches being removed from a vine and burned. Both of these things are useless, therefore they are cast aside. They are garbage.
God wants his people to amount to something, to be useful. Not just saved. I’m not saying that if people don’t glow with righteousness they are going to Hell. But I am saying that a clear understanding of the biblical teaching of Hell should give us a healthy encouragement to be useful to him.
What do you think? Am I over-spiritualizing this one? Or should we pull out our shovels and start searching for Hell?