I was a bit tired in church that morning, but when that came up in the dramatic sketch I definitely paid attention, and to the follow-up comment which implied that if there was a hell God would be some kind of sadistic torturer. Did the pastor really believe that? And if so, had he really thought it through?
Now look, ‘Hell’ is a pretty emotive subject – and easy to make fun of. Please understand that in defending the idea of Hell I’m not defending any and every version or representation of the concept. To start with, I’m only concerned with the version in the Christian Bible. I’m not going to defend the beliefs of other religions; that’s up to their adherents.
Nor do I necessarily defend every version of Hell that purports to be Christian or derived from Christian beliefs. Hollywood and comic-book Hells may be great fun – or sadly just excuses for porn and sadism – but need not be taken seriously. The same applies to many of the great paintings of Hell – even by masters like Michelangelo or Bosch. At a more literary level, Dante’s Inferno is a brilliant flight of fantasy, but is perhaps more a satire of Florentine politics than a useful guide to infernal geography. I’m a great admirer of CS Lewis, but his portrayal of Hell in the opening of ‘The Great Divorce’, though an original one that will give you serious food for thought, is merely a literary device or extended metaphor and Lewis himself didn’t pretend otherwise.
I certainly reject any idea of Hell which portrays it as needless torture for the sake of it, or of God sadistically enjoying such torture. I don’t believe God either causes or allows needless suffering; if God tells us there is a hell, then I trust him that it is fair and just and necessary that it is so, and that when all is clear to us in the next life we will understand it as perhaps we can’t from our present perspective.
Furthermore, we should always remember that both Heaven and Hell are outside our everyday experience, so accounts of them in human language are likely to be metaphors, similes or analogies based on our everyday experience. For Heaven we get images of banquets, of pleasant fertile lands – and the infamous harps could quite properly be translated into modern terms as “Heaven is like the best ever rock festival”!
Such images if taken too literally can seem contradictory. Hell, for example, can’t be literally both everlasting flames of fire and outer darkness. We need to think about the images a bit and take the main point without being too distracted by the details from this world. (Images can even differ with culture; in another context we Mancunians can find it difficult to understand how the Bible treats rain as a blessing – but then Manchester isn’t exactly an arid land as Israel can be! And while I said I wouldn’t bother much with other faiths, it’s interesting to note that in the Germanic mythology which gave us the English word ‘Hell’, Hell was always thought of as frozen over! But make the cultural adjustment and you get the same underlying point made.)
For example, the image of Hell as ‘outer darkness’ is generally in contrast to the banquet image of Heaven – all bright lights and feasting and celebration inside, while outside are people who have been excluded (and through their own stupid fault at that, not because anyone else wanted to be nasty to them) who can only look on from the ‘outer darkness’.
The ‘Fire’ images for Hell come from various sources. One is the usual Jewish word of the time for Hell, ‘Gehenna’ in Greek, in Aramaic/ Hebrew ‘Ge Hinnom’ the Valley of the Hinnom Brook. Having become ritually defiled in the past by human sacrifices, in New Testament times Gehenna was basically the Jerusalem rubbish tip, an eco-disaster of bonfires and maggots ‘where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched’. I’d suggest that as an image or analogy of Hell, the fire bit is secondary to the notion of disposing of rubbish in an appropriate place, where the fire is about cleansing rather than torture. Probably the best known of other fire images is the ‘lake of fire’ in Revelation; best guess is that this refers to some volcanic phenomenon which John came across in his exile; again, John’s actual use of the image is about destructive cleansing rather than torment. Other fire references bear similar interpretations.
But there is another point to make; just because something is portrayed by figure of speech and analogy doesn’t mean that it can be disregarded as trivial. The point of an analogy is that in important ways it is like the thing it describes. If a concert is described as a ‘musical banquet’, you’d be unhappy to get just one brief tune on a penny whistle for your money! The fire and maggots of Gehenna may not be literal descriptions of Hell; but anyone who uses such imagery should be describing a reality at least that awful, not something just trivial. And we aren’t talking about just anyone here; this is the Word of God.
So OK, I’m not defending the pictures of hell as literal; but I am saying the pictures are nevertheless meaningful and serious. Whatever dishonest games humans may get up to[i], surely God doesn’t do the equivalent of warning us with images of a ravenous tiger if in reality what he ‘believes in’ is more like a fluffy toy bunny!
I’ll come back to ideas about Hell later; but first I want to make a slightly different point, following from that last paragraph, In effect, if God ‘doesn’t believe in Hell’, why does he tell us so much about it in the Bible? Also, contrary to what many people think, the Bible doesn’t present a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ who wouldn’t even mention Hell, preaching a gentle message later distorted by disciples. What we actually get is a Jesus who uses the words for Hell more than anyone else. Of the two words Hades and Gehenna, nearly half the uses of Hades in the NT, and almost all the uses of Gehenna, come from the mouth of Jesus. And it is also Jesus who uses many of the other images which we would use in relation to Hell, images of loss of the soul, outer darkness, exclusion from God and payment of debt. If language means anything at all, Jesus certainly ‘believes in Hell’!
So what do we make of this? If God the Father doesn’t believe in Hell, how could God the Son, who was with the Father even before the creation of the world, manage to miss this crucial information? Or is it that God the Son, Jesus, also doesn’t believe in Hell, but chose to threaten us with it as a kind of ‘bogeyman’ even though he knew this would be lying? Did God the Father actually tell the Son to lie in this way? Or are we perhaps actually saying that we don’t believe Jesus is God anyway and that he was just making a human error on so important a matter (on which we lesser beings somehow know better???!!)? The first few of those options are nonsensical enough; the fourth basically destroys the whole gospel, because atonement through Jesus’ sacrificial death just doesn’t make sense except in terms of a divine Jesus. A God who forgives us not at his own expense but at the expense of an innocent and uninvolved third party is a total travesty. All of these options are destructive of the credibility of the Christian faith because they depict a God unworthy of faith and trust.
The trouble is that this crosses the line that really must not be crossed; not a merely academic line or a trivial human ‘party line’, but the line beyond which everything unravels despite the best intentions. On one side of that line is the simple proposition of taking the Bible seriously; on the other side of that line, the Bible is not taken seriously and instead people substitute their own opinions, what they prefer to believe.
You’ll note I say taking the Bible ‘seriously’ rather than ‘literally’; that’s deliberate, because in the wake of modern hyper-fundamentalism[ii] the word ‘literal’ is open to misunderstanding. What I mean by ‘seriously’ is something like the following quote from William Tyndale, which shows pretty clearly what the Reformers meant by the technical term ‘in the literal sense’, which was a long way from dumb wooden stupid literalism. Quoting it from Tyndale also shows how it is a traditional view – it can’t, for example, be accused of being a modern interpretation devised to get round Darwin! Anyway, here is Tyndale ….
“Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense, thou canst not but go out of the way. Nevertheless the scripture uses proverbs, similitudes, riddles or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle or allegory signifieth, is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently.” (my boldening … SL)
What Tyndale is getting at is that the Bible isn’t just a flat boring statement of the truth; rather it is ‘truth in 3-D’ stated dynamically through historical events and through figures of speech and other literary devices, enhanced by divine (and human) artistry. And as he says, in that phrase ‘as all other speeches do’, this isn’t something unusual – in our own small way, we humans (‘sub-creators’ as Tolkien would say) do the same thing in our merely human words, enriching them with metaphor, poetry, etc. This is what human language is about. We generally don’t have great problems in working out such figures of speech etc. in human works – it’s the same with God’s Word. OK, as with human works in other languages, of different cultures, of long ago times, we here and now need to be a bit cautious in interpreting the Bible; but we can still work out the key underlying ideas with considerable confidence.
The trouble is, sometimes we don’t like what the Bible tells us – the plain ‘literal sense’ in Tyndale’s terms that remains even when we have unpacked the metaphors and so on. There is then the temptation to substitute something we find ‘more reasonable’ – or just more comfortable, more congenial to our selfish wishes. At that point, we have stopped taking the Bible seriously, and we are letting our opinions govern the Bible rather than the other way round.
I have no real problem with the guy who aims to take the Bible seriously; he may be more literal in interpretation than me, or less, but we’re both concerned with serving the word and the God who gave it. I have considerable problems with anything that amounts to “We know better than God” – and in light of the biblical evidence for what God does believe (or rather, know), and how strongly he warns us of the danger we are in, saying that “God doesn’t believe in Hell” is a serious case of (supposedly) “knowing better than God”.
The trouble is, if we don’t take the Bible seriously when dealing with issues about Hell, the cure is worse than the disease. At first it seems great, it’s certainly cosy and comfortable and the kind of answer people prefer. But in the end, it just destroys Christianity itself.
What the Bible actually teaches….
Well, an outline anyway! I’ve already hinted at quite a bit of this in the explanations given above of biblical imagery, and we should be prepared to use that flexibility in explaining the teaching. Not only is this better interpretation to begin with, it will make us think harder about the meaning and honour God’s Word more. We will also care more about our hearers, and that includes demonstrating that care. All too often our preaching of Hell can indeed sound sadistic, with the crabby viciousness of Harry Potter’s Argus-“I-want-to-see-some-punishment”-Filch, as if we were gloating about people frying for their sins; we need to know and do better than that. There is a reason why ‘hellfire preaching’ has a bad reputation….
One of the first things we need to do is to teach people in the church; explain the old meanings, the contexts from which the original imagery came. Put ‘hellfire’ in its proper place for church people to understand before we do too much preaching to the general public. That will include widening our scope; we should not only deal with the passages that actually mention Hades or Gehenna, or the well-known images of fire and darkness, we must take in other passages about the consequences of sin and give them full weight.
In seeking what we might call a positive image of Hell there are three ideas we will keep coming back to – love, justice, and choice.
The key issue about Hell is not the fire, but the justice;
In Paradise Lost, Milton depicts Hell as a place with locks on its gates; but the locks are not locks placed there by God to keep the devils and sinners in, they are locks and bars applied by the devils to keep God out. OK, it’s really a hopeless attempt – if God wanted to break into Hell, could the devils really stop him? But it makes the point that there is a tradition in which Hell is chosen by sinners, they actually prefer Hell. CS Lewis also hints at such ideas in various places in his writings; even points out that for the unrepentant sinner, Heaven would effectively be Hell – the very things that make Heaven enjoyable are distasteful to the sinner. Is there scriptural backing for such a notion?
Yes, there is; we find the idea in John’s Gospel. As is often the case in John, it’s not absolutely clear whether these are the words of Jesus himself, or John’s meditations upon the meaning of Jesus. In chapter 1, John talks of Jesus as the Light, the true Light coming into the World – and of course Jesus said of himself “I am the Light of the World”. But then in John chapter 3, look what follows one of the best-loved verses in all of scripture
For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world but to have the world saved through him.
He who believes in him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is already condemned, because he has disbelieved the only-begotten Son of God. And this is the sentence, that the Light has come into the world, and people have loved the darkness more than the Light: because their deeds were wicked. For everyone who practices evil hates the light and keeps away from the light; else his activities would be exposed; while one who practices the truth, wants light on it, so that it will be perfectly clear that he is working in union with God.
Though the word is not used, this is as much a passage about Hell as any dealing with Hades, Gehenna, or fire and brimstone. God is light; Jesus is light: if a person rejects the light, what is left for them? The whole Creation is God’s; Jesus is the Word through whom it was created; every purpose and meaning of the world goes back to God, all the value of the world is from Him. What is there if a person attempts to live without God, against the grain of the whole creation? Well, whatever there is, darkness would seem to be a good image for it, if perhaps a bit too positive, with a bit too much actual somethingness about it…. Existence in that darkness cannot be good or happy; just preferable, from the sinner’s self-centred viewpoint, to giving up rebellion and admitting the truth of God.
It is a terrible Hell of ultimate deprivation; but note that it is not at all an issue of divine sadism or similar. This Hell is self-inflicted and not at all what God wants for people. But how is this Hell to be avoided if, in effect, God can only offer light and light is the one thing the sinner cannot stand, cannot accept, and indeed absolutely runs from? How can it be unjust if, in effect, God gives the sinner what he so insistently wants? Those who cavil against God are inconsistent here; they complain at being ‘cast into Hell’, yet they also complain at any idea that they should be forced to change, that they should be refused their selfish will; the will, ironically, to run from and reject Heaven, the will to choose the darkness and deprivation which is hell. They do their best to put God in a no-win situation, but in the process they condemn themselves. They are like drowning men who fight against the only rescuer.
Love – well, ‘love’ is what people plead against hell; how can a loving God ‘send sinners to hell’? But those who use that argument are often conceiving of ‘love’ as a vague sentimentality. The Bible doesn’t say that God is gushing fuzzy sloppy sentiment – it says in Greek that “God is agape” which is certainly the ultimate in unselfish and undeserved love – but it is also the ultimate in caring love; GOD CARES! A God who doesn’t care would be a real problem.
From the mid-1800s, as humanity seemed to be in a state of inevitable progress, it could seem harsh that God should punish sin. Hell became unpopular, ‘enlightened’ people dismissed the idea. But after a century that has seen two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Moors Murders and other serial killers, and recent terrorism and wars, I’m detecting a change, a hardening. This isn’t old-style fundamentalists wanting to bring back old-style hell; this is ordinary people expressing a concern for justice, with a mix of motives – not always ideal, but I think ultimately well-founded.
Perhaps the clearest current issue arises from the ‘Moors Murders’; in these crimes one Ian Brady and his lover Myra Hindley abducted, mistreated, and killed several children, burying the bodies up on Saddleworth Moor in Lancashire; sadly one boy’s body remains unfound, and is now likely to remain so, since time has changed things so that Brady, who concealed the body, can no longer identify the site.
Later Lord Longford took an interest in Hindley, who could be regarded as less guilty than Brady because she was clearly under his influence and arguably led astray by him. Eventually Longford claimed that Hindley had repented of her crimes and converted to Christianity. He campaigned to have her released; and as might be expected, failed – there was little likelihood of a person so notorious being released precisely because of the notoriety (sadly less deserving but less notorious people may well have been released since. Also if released she would clearly have been in danger of murder by vigilantes; and giving her a protected identity could have put others at risk of being attacked due to mistaken identity). What is interesting to us is the public reaction ….
The unwillingness to see her released is I think understandable; and there were reasons for it besides questions of forgiveness. But I meet a lot of people who can’t believe that God himself could forgive Hindley; and believe that any ‘conversion’ was just a pretence in hopes of release. On that latter point they may of course be right; Hindley wouldn’t be the first to put on finding religion to try to fool a parole board. But could it be real? Could Hindley be truly converted and could God forgive her despite her crimes? I have to say yes, that truly is possible. The hymn sums it up well – “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives”. Jesus himself said that all sins can be forgiven except ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’, and the context shows that sin to be a sin of the self-righteous religious such as the Pharisees, a sin where the guilty wouldn’t even want to be forgiven because they don’t think it is a sin; very different matter to even the worst murders of more earthly motivation. Hindley could certainly potentially be forgiven; and we can’t easily judge if that forgiveness actually occurred.
But of course such forgiveness would not be just a glib ‘letting-off’; God’s forgiveness comes only with true repentance and faith, and therefore a true change in the person forgiven. The Hindley who we hope we may meet in heaven will not be the evil woman who committed the crimes, or the weak woman overborne by her infatuation with Brady. She will be a changed person who has truly faced up to what she did, is truly sorry for it, and truly wants to be a different person, and with God’s help will have changed day after day following her conversion into that different person. Further, she will appreciate the cost of her forgiveness; she will know that this is no simple let off, but a costly sacrifice….
I have seen Richard Dawkins a few times now on television, and read in his books, asking the question “Why can’t God just forgive? Why did it need the death of Jesus?” And the short answer, of course, is that there is no such thing as ‘just forgiving’, and to speak of it that way devalues both human and divine forgiveness.
The essential of forgiveness is simple – if someone does harm, then in justice he should bear the cost of righting that wrong. If instead the wronged person chooses to forgive, then the person who did the harm will not pay that cost, the cost will be borne by the wronged person. Put it in more concrete terms –suppose some yob chucks a brick through your window. That yob should pay for the harm he has done, not only the price of the glass but also the cost of all the inconvenience he will have caused. If you choose to forgive him, he won’t foot that bill – you will! And as you contemplate the bill, you won’t be regarding it as ‘just forgiving’ in the glib way that Dawkins suggests. For you, forgiving will be costly. That is the need of the death of Jesus – that it is, essentially, God forgiving at His own cost, and revealing it to us in our history.
If God has forgiven Myra Hindley, it has cost the sacrifice of Jesus; and in turn, that sacrifice will not have been made for a Hindley who remains evil afterwards. But the converse is true; for the person who refuses to repent of their sin, justice means they should pay the price of their deeds. It can’t be just that anyone else should pay while the sinner remains determinedly sinful. The sinner’s choice of the dark is also a choice to pay the price of sin.
[And with this now just over five pages long, I’m calling a halt and posting it; I hope to come back to this issue and complete some of the thoughts involved. Feedback welcome on ‘as far as it goes’, but also remember it’s incomplete….]
[i] In model railway exhibitions we sometimes avoid the stern ‘Do not touch’ by using humorous notices like ‘Danger 12,000 Millivolts’ – which sounds drastic but of course is simply another way to express the perfectly safe “12 Volts”. In such a hobby context, this is fine; but I seriously doubt if descriptions of Hell in the Word of God should be regarded as similar triviality!
[ii] In case this description seems confusing, I should point out that I have actually read quite a few of the original ‘Fundamentals’ – I even have one of the volumes on my own bookshelves. They are mostly not dumb wooden literalism but serious scholarship taking a view similar to that of Tyndale below. The kind of people we think of as ‘Fundamentalists’ would actually find much of ‘The Fundamentals’ to be too liberal for them!