Friday, March 27, 2009

Annihilation and Hell

A good starting point in this discussion would be to detail what common Christian conceptions of Hell are. In movies and books, it's always portrayed as a fiery underground; flames, lava, burning demons and people. This image has its roots in Jesus' own words:

Matthew 5:21-22
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago,'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again anyone who says to his brother,'Raca'[a term of contempt] is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell."

See...Jesus uses fire and hell in the same breath. That must mean it is exactly how we have imagined it, right?

Actually, the word Jesus used in the Greek is Gehenna, a place outside of Jerusalem where human sacrifice to an Ammonite god had been performed by several kings in Israel's history. A later king, Josiah, desecrated the place because of this horrible practice and it became a trash heap. People would burn their trash there. Executed criminals and dead animals were taken and disposed of there.

Jesus often used the image of fire when speaking of judgment. It's important to remember, however, that fire destroys things. If a house burns down to the ground, it no longer exists. The ashes are left, but nothing remotely resembling a house is left. The frightening image of eternal torment by fire isn't really represented in the image.

If Gehenna was a place where criminals' bodies were burned after their conviction, I think it's fair to say that Jesus is saying that that's what we're in danger of encountering; being convicted by God's judgment and having our bodies consumed by fire. It's death and destruction, not conscious torment.

Many Christians have theorized about what Hell is like. Nowadays it's considered unfashionable to proclaim the fire and brimstone version of Hell. In contrast, we can find descriptions of Hell as being "separation from God"...whatever that means. What people who describe Hell in this way are saying is something like this: People who reject Christ will die and "live?" in this sad place and know that they will have to live there forever without God. Because God is the source of everything good, then Hell will be a miserable place. Those in Hell will see the joy of those who have eternal life and will be tormented in their souls because they know that they will never, ever be able to enjoy God's presence in that way and that they have been rejected by Him. This will eat at them and make them "burn" in agony.


The Orthodox Church: teaches that Heaven and Hell are the same place...being in the presence of God. For those who love God it is inexpressible joy. For those who hate God it is torment. They so hate him that they cannot bear his presence, which cause them misery.

The Catholic Church: teaches something similar to the "separation" from God concept. People who do not love God have put themselves into self-imposed exile from God.

NT Wright, a bishop in the Anglican Church: Theorizes that perhaps those who do evil and choose not to worship God somehow lose their humanity.

This opens up a possibility: that a human being who continually and with settled intent worships that which is not God can ultimately cease completely to bear God’s image. Such a creature would become, in other words, ex-human: a creature that once bore the image of God but does so no longer, and can never do so again.

This is an evasion. So what if they are "ex-human"? Tormenting millions of dogs for eternity would be just as repugnant. I also believe the answer is unsatisfactory because it could be used to view non-believers as less worthy of God's love and portray them as being inferior to believers. I don't think that's what Wright is aiming for, but misunderstanding never stops those bent on finding justification for being awful towards others who don't share their beliefs.

People often say that Jesus talks about Hell more than anybody in the Bible. In some ways, they are correct. However, it's a misleading argument based on the fact that other than Jesus' instances, there are few references to Hell in the New Testament at all. If you do a common word search for "hell" in an NIV translation, you'll only find 14 uses of the word. Several of those uses occur together in Jesus teachings and represent a particular conversation with His disciples, wherein he uses the word multiple times in a few sentences. Only 2 instances occur outside of the gospels, one of which is the use of the term as a descriptor--James 3:6, and the other referring to angels and their punishment, not humans--2 Peter 2:4.

When it comes to the gospels, there aren't 12 separate teachings about Hell. A few uses of the word occur as adjectives, such as Jesus calling the Pharisees sons of hell. He's not teaching anything about the doctrine of hell in such a use. At most, Jesus refers to Hell 4 times throughout the gospels. I'm only counting the actual teachings. If He says the same thing in 3 different gospels, it doesn't count as 3 separate mentions because the gospels are reiterating one instance, not relating entirely new conversations.

The most prominent use comes from Matthew 5:29-30. Jesus says it's better to gouge out your eye, or cut off your hand rather than have your whole body go to hell.

He reiterates this in Matthew 18:9 :

9And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.


Notice how he contrasts entering life against being thrown into hell? He is saying that it is better to have a living, imperfect body than a whole one burning in that trash heap called Gehenna. This verse clarifies all those scary sections about cutting off body parts instead of entering hell. Would you rather be one-eyed, going about your life, or have beautiful eyes decaying in death?

Besides this clarification, I think it's important to realize that Jesus is shocking us into evaluating our choices, not telling us that we should literally chop off our hands and gouge out our eyes....just in case some of you are contemplating disfiguring yourselves.

It is kind of funny that we would take the Hell portion of these verses literally, but not the dismemberment part. Some of us don't think it's too much for Jesus to be describing a place of eternal torment, but we do think it's too much for him to actually mean we should cut off our limbs. There's something backwards in that.

Having dealt with the fact that there are very few uses of the term Hell in the New Testament, I would like to caution that word searches are a very basic way of trying to get to the bottom of something and by no means should it be the last word in this exploration. It's only a partial attempt at dealing with the concept. Explaining the concept of judgment and punishment will be far more important than making a case for annihilation based on the scant use of the term Hell.

That's one the next posts I'm going to be working on.

1 comment:

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Lewis captures hell in an imaginative way in several works, all of which hold up pretty well under biblical scrutiny.