Call me strange (no, really), but I’ve long been slightly obsessed with the subject of hell. While the Christian faith is primarily about obviously good (if near-impossible) things like love, hope, new life, justice and forgiveness, in the background there always lurks this nasty threat of hell. It’s Christianity’s darkest and most terrifying doctrine; many believers would gladly remove from their creed if they could, and the thought of it has driven more than a few over the years to the brink of madness, despair or abandoning their faith.
Let’s remember that some kind of hell or afterlife state of punishment is common to most faiths and belief systems, in folk versions even if not the mainstream teachings. It seems hard-wired into the human psyche that there should be ultimate justice and punishment for unrepentant evildoers. Probably most of us feel deep down that the likes of Hitler and Stalin ought to be punished for their deeds. We feel that those who have got away in this life with murder, rape, child abuse or whatever crimes we see as most heinous should be brought to book in the hereafter and made to pay or suffer in some way for what they have done.
However, the idea that we, our families and friends might also find ourselves on the wrong end of such stringent divine justice is considerably less comfortable.
Hell in Islam, Judaism and Christianity
Probably the most horrifying view of hell is the Islamic depiction of unending physical torture in literal fire, where in some versions Allah causes skin to be regrown each time it is burnt away in order to prolong the agony eternally. Among the mildest is actually that of Old Testament Judaism, where there is no fully-developed picture of the afterlife, and Sheol (or the grave) is seen as merely a place of shadowy, ghostly half-existence. It’s only in the inter-testamental period that the idea of post-mortem punishment and bliss – and indeed resurrection – starts to enter Hebrew writings, and with them the idea of hell fire.
Christian views on hell range from a sub-Islamic place of literal eternal conscious physical torment – which I find almost impossible to accept – to a very figurative state of regret and possibly of purging or cleansing. Some Christians even hold that there is no such thing as hell, at least not post-resurrection – that those who for whatever reason are not able to enter the final bliss of the redeemed are simply annihilated, blotted from existence into oblivion.
I’ve also explored elsewhere the idea of universal salvation, that in the end hell will be empty and all will be redeemed. Some versions suggest that there is no longer any hell at all, because Jesus has already borne the fullness of hell for all humanity on the cross. Others accept a short-term hell of purgation but not eternal damnation.
Hell in the NT
The New Testament itself presents a very mixed and complex set of pictures of hell. As well as the classic lake of fire of the Book of Revelation we have images of prison, pit, outer darkness (outer space?), exile, exclusion or separation, annihilation or destruction and a state of restlessness which is the opposite of God’s ‘Shalom’ peace, of the wholeness and delight of his presence.
This range of pictures should tell us at least that none of them are literal depictions of a single physical place – for example, it would be hard for an actual lake of blazing fire also to be outer darkness or a prison. Indeed, in the Revelation account Death and Hades themselves are thrown into the Lake of Fire, which makes it clear that the author is talking figuratively. Rather, each image describes some particular aspect of the state of those restless ones who for whatever reason are not (yet?) able to enter the rest and peace – and most crucially relationship – of God’s kingdom.
We should also note that the NT authors use several different terms for what we translate as hell: e.g. Gehenna, Hades (basically Sheol), occasionally Tartarus (borrowed from Greek mythology). It’s likely that most of these refer to a post-mortem, pre-resurrection place where unrighteous or unredeemed souls await final judgement. (There’s also the Abyss which seems to be the home of unclean spirits, but that’s something entirely different.) Only the ‘Second Death’ Lake of Fire of Revelation definitely seems to refer to something post-resurrection and therefore potentially everlasting. And it’s far from clear exactly how to interpret that particular image.
Images of fire and darkness
Fire is the prevalent image of hell in the popular psyche, but the view of lost souls tormented in flames by demons with toasting-forks comes from the grotesque medieval imagination rather than from the Bible. The NT does talk of fire, but always as an image or metaphor (and in Revelation, Satan is tormented in the fire rather than being the tormentor). We should also bear in mind that (unlike in Tudor England) fire wasn’t generally used as an instrument of torture or execution in the Bible.
The image of fire is used in the Bible to depict and represent a number of things:
Firstly, fire sometimes depicts God’s own blazing, dazzling goodness (‘our God is a consuming fire’); and also (the flip side of this) God’s righteous, ‘good’ anger against those who violate, destroy and dehumanise others.
Fire also represents destruction. The prevalent view of ‘Gehenna’, the word Jesus uses for hell, is that it refers to a smouldering rubbish dump outside Jerusalem where waste would be discarded and burnt up – destroyed rather than tormented.
However, many scholars now dispute this view, and instead link Gehenna with the valley of Ben Hinnom where pagan child sacrifices were offered in fire during the time of the Kings. This would rather make Gehenna an accursed and God-forsaken (or God-forsaking) place – a place of horror and evil devised and inflicted by humans not God. This perhaps accords most closely with one of the key ways ‘hell’ is used in common parlance, to describe the worst conditions humans can devise – the WWI trenches, or the Nazi death camps, or the Cambodian killing fields; places where horror reigns supreme and God appears to be absent.
Fire is also sometimes used to represent human passions like lust, greed, anger and resentment which can smoulder away inside our innermost beings. If allowed to continue unchecked, these ‘fires’ may devour us from within until (perhaps) ultimately no goodness or humanity remains. If so, that’s a fairly terrifying picture of one possible aspect of hell.
Finally, and more positively, fire depicts purifying flame, the refining fire which burns off dross till only the pure gold remains.
Prominent among other New Testament pictures of hell is that of ‘outer darkness… where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’. The idea seems to be of exclusion or exile, thrown out into the dark with only regret for company. This is an important idea and one I’ll be returning to in later posts. It’s also similar to the idea that Revelation ends with, that of evildoers outside the walls of the heavenly city (rather than the image of fiery torment).
Other views of hell
So far I’ve barely scratched the surface of this huge, complex and difficult topic. There are many other ideas and views which I hope to explore in other posts – for example, hell as unreality or anti-reality; hell as existential alienation or disintegration; hell as self-chosen and even merciful. In some views, heaven and hell may even be the same place, but experienced differently according to the state of the person’s own inner being and perceptions.
I also want to look at whether anyone actually deserves hell; and whether the standard views of who will go there and what they will experience make moral, emotional or biblical sense. I’d also like to look at healthier and unhealthier views of, and ways of believing in, hell.
Meanwhile, for those who insist on a literal and eternal hell of agonising and God-sanctioned punishment, I can only say what I always say – that God is good and God is love. This is the God revealed in Christ, and indeed the only God that makes any sense. It’s possible that God may allow us to reject his unendingly-offered love for as long as we choose to. It’s even possible that he may allow us to go our own self-chosen way to self-destruction, while always holding out to us the possibility of redemption. But I cannot see that to punish retributively without end and without hope of redemption could ever be an act of holy love.