What the Hell is Hell?

There are really only two points I wanted to make about hell, or more specifically the Christian doctrine on hell. Of course an infinite amount of things could be and have been said on the subject but I don’t have the time to do extensive research. Both of the points I want to make came to my attention while listening to a sermon at the church I used to attend, and I found them quite interesting indeed. It’s quite likely that a lot of you readers (especially you Bible school attending folks) will have heard all this and groan at my inaccurate and sloppy account. Nevertheless, here I go…

Point 1: The idea that the human soul is immortal is taken directly from the philosophy of Plato, not the Bible.

It is an undisputed fact that in the philosophy of Plato (writtten in the 3rd century BC (ish)) the human soul is considered to be an immortal thing. Here’s a quote from his work, Phaedo:

“The soul whose inseparable attitude is life will never admit of life’s opposite, death. Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible…Do we believe there is such a thing as death? To be sure. And is this anything but the separation of the soul and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation, when the soul exists in herself and separate from the body, and the body is parted from the soul. That is death…. Death is merely the separation of the soul and body.”

The writings of Augustine (writing in the 4th and 5th centuries AD), which had a huge impact on Christian theology, was extremely influenced by the philosophy of Plato. Theologians/philosophers (during the medieval period they were one and the same) after Augustine consistently thought with their Bible in one hand and one of Plato’s (and later Aristotle’s) texts in the other. Theology become irreversibly wrapped up in ancient Greek philosophy (if you disagree, do some of your own research…it’s all there). In studying medieval philosophy, I found that most theological arguments centered around whether the Aristotelian version of Christianity was better than the Platonic one.

Verses in the Bible are actually not as clear as one might think about the soul’s eternal nature. It may be clear that one who believes receives eternal life, but what of the non-believer? In my research I’ve found only one verse (aside from Revelation, which I will mention later) which actually speaks of hell as a place of eternal torment: “”Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). However, this translation from the original Greek is not accurate. Here’s a quote from a site that may or may not have credibility (I’ll let you figure that out for yourself):

“The Greek form for “everlasting punishment” in Matthew 25:46 is “kolasin aionion.” Kolasin is a noun in the accusative form, singular voice, feminine gender and means “punishment, chastening, correction, to cut-off as in pruning a tree to bare more fruit.” “Aionion” is the adjective form of “aion,” in the singular form and means “pertaining to an eon or age, an indeterminate period of time…The noun “aion” in Greek literature has always meant “an indeterminate period of time. It could be as short as the time Jonah spent in the belly of a fish (three days or nights), the length of a man’s life, or as long as a very long age.” (and here‘s the link)

The word translated in Revelation as “hell” is “hades,” which is the name of the Greek god of the underworld and the underworld itself. I won’t say much about Revelation because trying to sift through the use of metaphor to find what is “literal” is far too big a task for this post. What is more important to most Christian readers, I think, is what did Jesus say?

Point 2: What is translated as “hell” in the words of Jesus has been translated from “gehenna,” which is an actual place…where there was a fire that didn’t go out.

The places where Jesus talks about hell (Matthew 5:22, 28-29, 7:13, 10:28, 13:38-42, 13:49-50, 25:46, Mark 9:45, 9:47, Luke 12:5, 16:23-24, 16:26) he refers to a place called “gehenna” or the “Valley of Hinnon” which is located just outside of ancient Jerusalem. Gehenna was where cleansing through fire took place, a place where the “fire never went out.” In a sense it was just a garbage heap, intended for the destruction of things deemed useless. It also served the purpose of cleansing of things which had been contaminated. Gehenna took on a metaphorical significance as the place where things that were unclean were made clean, and where things deemed worthless were burned. It’s quite plausible, I think, to believe that the concept of hell containing fire comes directly from this.

I’m going to let you draw your own conclusions from this because I’m much too lazy to write anymore. Oh, and please have a look at my sources because I have done EXTREMELY sloppy work compared to any university’s standards (I’m lazy, ok).

Bibliography:

http://www.tentmaker.org/articles/EternalPunishmentNotTrueToGreek.html

http://kellm.hubpages.com/hub/Bible-Verses-about-Hell

http://www.sermononthemount.org.uk/Background/Gehenna.html

http://www.earlychristianhistory.info/hell.html

http://oneinjesus.info/2008/08/surprised-by-hell-plato-and-the-new-testament/

http://www.british-israel.ca/immortalsoul.htm

http://media.themeetinghouse.ca/podcast/audio/285-2002-10-28.mp3 
(I highly recommend that my Christian readers listen to this podcast. I don’t agree with it but I think it’s swell!)

http://www.oup.com/us/companion.websites/0195153448/studentresources/chapters/ch15/?view=usa

Next up: The problem with Romans 8.

[Note: In order to keep a respectful dialogue, comments will be moderated before appearing on the site.]

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4 thoughts on “What the Hell is Hell?

  1. I still have more thoughts in regards to your previous posts, but I haven’t worked them all out myself yet, and I’d rather wait to avoid making strongly opinioated, somewhat vague claims. They’ll show up in a public place eventually, though.

    Digressions aside, I find myself completely agreeing with your interpretation of hell, such as it is. I’m no “scholar,” but the Bible tends to be ambiguous when it comes to hell, using the word rather as a metaphor or bad omen than anything specific. But it is consistent in one thing, which is the absence of God.

    So, if that is truly the defining trait of the place we’ve mythisized as a fiery pit of eternal torment which is ruled by a cherry red demon figure with pitchfork in hand, we can effectively claim that anyone whose life contains the one true God (I specify because a god that does not exist cannot be absent from anything) will never see hell.

    You quote Scripture to carry your point, which I admire especially given your previous writings (which I swear I’ll write a proper response to. Yet.) but I won’t. I’ve made it a mission of mine to approach arguments involving Scripture first without involving the Bible at all. I do this for two reasons. First, I’m not theologian. I loathe the idea of dissecting the Bible in the same way that I would never find pleasure in cutting up a living, breathing organism. It is more than just a series of technical writings. It is a form of art in some ways. And any conclusion I can draw from it is just as easily nullified by the next guy. Second, if anyone reading this doesn’t believe in the existence of a God, they will consequently not believe in the divinity of Scripture, which in turn voids any legitimacy it may have carried, stripped out of context though it may be. Your approach carries more weight with those on my “side,” though, so I understand. I’ll try to stick to simple logic, if you don’t mind.

    Now, since I can’t seem to stick to one topic, I’ll return again to the point of a life without God, as defined by repeated Biblical references on the subject of hell. If it is as simple as this–and I believe it is–then it could be said that anyone living a life without God, be it as an atheist, pagan or blasphemer, is already living in hell.

    Of course, that claim undermines Plato’s assertion of an immortal soul, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. There are, I’m sure, hundreds of text that support the claim and I won’t bother to muddle with them more than my argument requires.

    You didn’t conclude with much, so I’m assuming your overall point was simply to poke holes in the Christian Hell Theology. I want to say that the theology, if it can be called that, is sound at its core, but that religion and humanity have added to it in the past 2,000 years. If we can strip it down far enough, like you started to do, it gets far less complicated and far more believable.

    A God of love (which is His claim, not mine) cannot conceivably send His own creation to a pit of eternal fiery torment simply for failing to understand the importance of a soul they’ve never detected, can He? It’s inconceivable and reminiscent of hell and brimstone teaching, which amount to little more than fear tactics meant to bring extra coin to the offering bucket. But if hell is a consequence of OUR choices instead of divine punishment, and God’s part in all this is rather to save us from that fate which is incomplete without Him, then the choice becomes a lot simpler and more logical.

    All that’s left from that point is to accept that there is a God out there at all.

    1. I agree with your thoughts on hell for the most part. I had worked a lot of it out while I was still a Christian (and was aware of both of the aforementioned points long before I chose not to be a Christian). Defining hell as a place which is “absent of God, or the love of God” works for me and I think it fits coherently within Christian theology. What’s so terrible about God replying to someone who said to him “I don’t want to be around you,” with “ok, you don’t have to be around me?” There you go. Now you’re in hell. Shucks.

      All these “hell theories” I think are quite pointless in the end. These points I brought up were in no way an attempt to show that hell doesn’t make sense or that Christianity is false (we all know the futility of proving that to those who want to believe). They were just things that I found interesting that I think others may also find interesting. Each of these points can easily be fit right into a fuller understanding of Christianity, because, as I’ve said before, Christianity (and every other world religion) has an answer for everything.

      Am I in hell right now? I’ve certainly heard this theory before and it really does make me curious because I don’t feel any different now than when I was a Christian, not better, not worse, but the same. Does this mean I never was a Christian? Does that mean I’m still a Christian? Or is that just another one of those mysteries that we “trust God” with? Seems there are a lot of those.

      Either way, this is not at all related to what bothered me about hell in the first place. That is, the fact that it is something that is terrible (in some way or another) and that Christians don’t have to experience it but non-Christians do, simply because their experiences and life choices led them in the wrong direction.

  2. Jeremy highlights very important points that I will like to deal with:
    1. Hell is not ambigious
    In the Old Testament, the doctrine of hell was as highlighted as it is in the New Testament. We find in Isaiah 66 a clearer view of hell as you can ever see in the New Testament. It says: “From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”” (v23-24). There is no mention of the word ‘hell’, ‘Sheol’ or even ‘Gehenna’, but we can tell from the verses that it is talking about an actual place where people who rebel against God would be, and it also makes it clear that it’s eternal.
    2. There is no suggestion anywhere in the bible that hell is a separation from God, but rather we learn the opposite. In the text we just looked at, we see that people in hell are suffering in the presence of God. But more importantly, we learn from the bible that God would be the ‘consuming fire’ that makes hell to be hell. Meaning without the presence of God then hell wouldn’t be hell. We ussually get an idea that Satan would be main instigator of hell, but that is not true, but rather God would take great care to ensure that hell is as horrible as possible, even for Satan. What’s there to fear about hell if there’s no God in hell? So in essence, God would be the most fearsome ‘thing’ in hell, not hell itself.
    3. God’s love can’t be divorced from His justice.
    Jeremy says “A God of love (which is His claim, not mine) cannot conceivably send His own creation to a pit of eternal fiery”. Of course God’s love can’t subject anybody to hell, but it would be God’s justice that will do that. We acknowledge God’s love, mercy and grace, but we don’t want to acknowledge his righteousness, holiness and judgements. Reality is that God is as loving as He is holy, and the two don’t contradict each other. Questioning God’s justice in hell is like questioning if a magistrate is loving just because he sent a criminal to death row. It’s possible for a magistrate to send criminals to jail or even death and still love the same criminals. The same is true with God. So insted of rejoicing in His love, then perhaps we should look at Him in totality – as a God of mercy, grace, and love and also a God of righteousness, holiness and justice.
    4. Hell is not a greek invention
    Words like Hades, Gehenna, and Sheol are legitimate Greek and Hebrew words that described the underworld. So it is given that biblical writers used them to drive the point to their readers, but the description of hell has always been different from the typical meaning of those places. The only similarity was the fact that both these places and hell are said to be underground. But biblical writers have always made it clear that is a place where God’s justice is served. So we can’t claim that hell is an invention just because Greek and Hebrew words are used.

  3. This topic has become quite popular lately in mainstream evangelical dialogue, especially due to the release of Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” which, he notes, is not really a book of “new” ideas as much as it is a trendy articulation (my analysis) of ancient ideas about hell.

    But, on the topic of both Hell and Rob Bell’s book, take 5 minutes to read this review (link below) by Ben Myers, one of my favorite theo-bloggers, who I think helpfully addresses the main problem with evangelical critiques of alternative views of hell (one that you also highlight in bringing up plato, augustine, and the like): namely, that evangelical understandings of hell simply do not pay attention to the weight of two thousand years of tradition and theology/philosophy that contain alternative viewpoints of the nature of hell, especially within the eastern orthodox tradition. Interestingly enough, you will find in this review a rejection of both the idea that Hell is a place where God inflicts wrathful torment upon unbelievers, as well as the idea you and Jeremy mentioned that Hell is simply the absence of God. Quoting the Eastern Orthodox position, Myers makes a case that actually, Hell has been completely overcome and filled by Christ (in his descent there) and so that any talk of the torment of Hell now can only be described thus: “the torment of hell can only be understood as the torment of love. Hell’s power is abolished – but someone might still reject God to such an extent that even love becomes a torment, an unbearable ‘scourge’.” If Christ is to be “all in all” then it really isn’t a matter of who is destined for where, but whether we are the “older brother” who stares in torment at the party the Father has with the younger son, or if we will be the younger son, enjoying the huge fatted calf.

    http://www.faith-theology.com/2011/09/will-hell-be-empty-rob-bells-love-wins.html

    Zac

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