I never cease to be amazed at the discussions I end up getting sucked into. I never cease to be amazed at how easily I am distracted from my, currently hell-ish, workload (actually, it;s not that bad, but I really ought to focus on it more). And I never cease to be amazed at the often quantum shift that occurs when we engage in open dialogue.

Since starting this blog, I have been drawn steadily deeper into the blogosphere although I do try to be discerning about what I read. Strangely enough, I generally ending up reading (and enjoying) blogs that I don’t agree with. It helps clarify my own thoughts to set them against a different perspective. Via a somewhat convoluted trail, I ended up reading the Parchment and Pen Blog. They’ve recently been running a series on how one might characterise ’emergent/emerging church’. One of the series of articles took a bit of a tangent in the comments section and it was here that I got sucked in to the discussion.

The topic was hell and its literal-ness or otherwise. Now, I’ve always had an issue with hell, or at least the classic fire, brimstone, pointy-tailed demons with pitchforks version of hell. I’ve also always had issue with the idea of eternal punishment. It simply doesn’t square with the idea of a loving, forgiving God and it certainly doesn’t square with the idea that Jesus came to take all all the sins of the world so that all would be forgiven. Don’t get me wrong though. This is not a licence to dismiss sin and judgement. They are still there and God is still a God of judgement – this is a look at our idea of what hell is.

I implied on the comments of that other blog that, for me, the idea of separation from God, Godless-ness, is a far more hell-ish vision of hell than anything with fire, brimstone and pitchforks. Imagine a place of no love, no hope, no light, no healing, no relief, no joy, no peace, no acceptance, no laughter, no smiles, none of the ‘good’ from God. Well, actually I can’t, but even just trying to scares me. A place where God isn’t is my idea of hell.

But doesn’t the Bible speak about hell? Well, actually, no it doesn’t. The Old Testament speaks of Sheol, the place of the dead where all go. Jesus speaks of Gehenna, the noxious, ever-burning rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem. He uses it as an example of what being cut off from God is like. There are a few other instances, but let me point you to a series of articles on another site (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and a useful summary here.

It also raise another issue I’ve long been uncomfortable with – the concept of bullying people into becoming Christians through fear of hell. And, to me, that’s exactly what it is – bullying. It preys on people’s fears; it’s emotional blackmail. Someone on the discussion I got drawn into said that Jesus speaks a lot about hell (Gehenna), so we must give it its place. Well, to my mind (and as I replied there), Jesus spent much more time on the positive. He didn’t speak about what God isn’t (and therefore where God isn’t – hell), but about what God is. Jesus spoke about forgiveness, about the kingdom of God (the one now and not just the one to come – yes, I do have have sympathy with a semi-realised eschatology), about Christ the exemplar (and others and not just the substitute – there are many viable ways of looking at atonement), about the church as the body of Christ (His do-ers, not His conscience), about imago dei, grace, relationship, new Spirit-filled and Spirit-led life, about love to those in need (the ‘widows and orphans’) and so much more. Maybe Jesus did mention Gehenna more than once, but He spoke about all those other things far more still. And that’s where our emphasis needs to be as well!

I’m not saying throw away sin and judgement because if these didn’t exist then the cross and salvation become largely meaningless. But put them in their place – alongside, not ahead of, the rest of the gospel.

12 responses to “Hell!”

  1. an instant response…. The offer of salvation is universal. The take up of that offer certainly isn’t. Our mission is to take the Gospel message to those in our care, and those that we meet. Their response determines their eternal relationship with God. I’m not into ‘bullying’ people into the kingdom. It may get a response to begin with but the conversion, if real, is superficial at best.

  2. I’d completely agree. The offer is universal but there is always the option of turning it down. The debate was more about the nature of hell than whether there was ‘something’ for those who turn from God. I simply don’t accept the Dante-an version. But the idea of Godless-ness seems, to me, to be far worse.

  3. I would also agree that God-less-ness is worse. The absence of God is desolation indeed. That stillleaves us with the Gehenna imagery, and other imagery in the New Testament. I’m thinking particularly of the parable of the rich farmer who wants his relatives to know about this awful place called hell so that they wouldn’t end up there. This spoken over a chasm between heaven and that other place (thus dispelling the Catholic notion of purgatory).

  4. I take it you’re referring to the story in Luke 16. That’s one time that Jesus uses Hades rather than Gehenna and the rich man refers to the heat of the blaze. I wonder if the difference is in the audience – in this case the Pharisees. Would their understanding of Hades have been different? Why use that image when every other time Jesus mentions ‘hell’ he speaks of Gehenna? Was Gehenna an image more meaningful to the common person perhaps. But they (the Pharisees) would have been no less familiar with Gehenna, so why not stick to the same imagery?
    The other point is the close proximity of heaven and hell. Is that how they are physically arranged? If not, it raises further questions about the imagery used. Indeed, it suggests imagery rather than literalness.
    To be honest, once you get beyond this it becomes a philosophical argument in many ways. Are they ‘places’ or ‘states of existence’?
    I guess the real question behind this issue is the one of eternal punishment. The ethics of that strike me as particularly iffy. But I guess that’s probably for another blog entry.

  5. What, then, would you make of the Matthew ‘sheep and goats’ passage ?
    I can’t say that I jump up and down gleefully at the prospect of eternal judgement/damnation etc. (Some colleagues might !) On the other hand, there has to be some kind of divine reckoning. For there not to be would leave individuals like Hitler without some kind of justice.
    I think at the heart of this argument/discussion might be the tension between a God of justice and a God of love. The two don’t easily sit otgether, and I know that I tend to emphasise one over the other in my preaching, but occasionally have to mention the judgement bit.
    We’re once again into an area where mere words aren’t quite enough.

  6. Isn’t it frustrating when scripture gets in the way of a good rant. You’d think it was there to challenge us or something. 😉
    I find this series of passages interesting. The previous group (those entrusted with the master’s money) aren’t condemned to eternal punishment but to ‘the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (from the NRSV since that’s what’s sitting at my elbow just now). The group before that (the bridesmaids) miss out on the party but there’s no specific ‘judgement’ on them.
    To return to the sheep and the goats – those who are condemned seem to be those who are entrusted with God’s work yet don’t do it. Is this a fair reading? That does suggest that the worst possible thing is to be a ‘bad Christian’. Or, more to the point, Jesus is emphasising the seriousness of Christian commitment by contrasting it with the seriousness of the consequences of not following through on it. I’m reminded of Paul’s admonition that not all should presume to be teachers as they will be judged more severely.
    I think, as you suggest, we will always find scripture that pulls one way or the other. It is in the tension between them that ‘truth’ is to be found. Our language simply isn’t up to describing tension though.

  7. Or rather, James’ admonition about being teachers. That’s what I get for addressing one discussion while reading stuff for something else.
    And, yes, I know I could have edited the previous comment but it’s good to admit that I don’t always get it right. 🙂

  8. One of the joys of constructive comment/argument is to realise that we won’t know it all this side of glory….
    There is a definite expectation on those who profess to be followers, more so if called to be teachers (preachers?), but the real doozy is where we let children down !!!

  9. Another “David” (foolishly) enters the fray!

    I just thought you might be interested in this article which makes good sense to me, anyway.

    (P.s. this is a teensy-weensy editing area for commenters! Any chance of making it a bit bigger?)

  10. David,
    Thanks for the link. I’ll read it soon and respond once essays are in and this Sunday’s sermon is written (it’s not about Hell).

    (I’ll have a play with the comment box when I get a free minute – the background’s a fixed size and the space available for the comments box is determined by whether you’re logged in or not)

  11. I have a couple of questions. 1) If there was going to be a discussion on hell why were only the above (posts) mentioned. What about:

    Matthew 10:28  – And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

    Matthew 23:33 – You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

    2 Peter 2:4 – For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment;

    Revelation 21:8 – But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

    And why was sin somewhat brushed off and not used in the discussion of hell. Without knowing what sin is, why we needed a savior, and learn what it truly means to accept God’s gracious gift of salvation we truly are lost.

    Romans 6:23 – For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    1 John 1:8 – If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

    Then we get to the best gospel salvation and the most over twisted misused scripture of all!!!

    John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

    But let us read a little further… John 3:17-21

    For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”

    The greatest mistake that many people make when discussing or debating scripture is using the law and also what the Apostle Paul said 2 Corinthians 13:5 – Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?

    Romans 7:7 – What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”

    So without the law none will use the rest of God’s word properly. We must admit that God is holy, righteous, and just and that we deserve nothing less than his eternal judgment and final punishment. However, glory be to God for sending us His Son who followed the law of moses (that is why he was able to be unblemished) and could handle taking on the sins of the world.

    One more thing before you start the debate on the law. If the Ten Commandments were not that important why is a) it the only time that God communicated with people where he wrote something with his very own finger. 2) After the tablets were destroyed by moses in his anger and he went back up the mountain and God created a second set.

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