Thursday, July 10, 2014

What Does the Bible Teach About Hell? – Conclusion

We now come to the place where we begin to explore what the Bible is talking about when it talks about hell. The word “hell” appears in the NASB New Testament 13 times. The Greek word translated into the English language is Gehenna. Gehenna was a ravine south of the city of Jerusalem currently known as the Wadi er–Rababeh, running S-SW of the city. It is also, according to popular Jewish belief, a place where the final judgment of God takes place. In fact, the liberal Jewish reform movement said this about the idea of hell in Judaism:

We reassert the doctrine of Judaism, that the soul of man is immortal, grounding this belief on the divine nature of the human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness. We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism the belief both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (hell and paradise), as abodes for everlasting punishment or reward.[1]

This liberal Jewish reform movement is seeking to remove the traditional Jewish teaching on the subject of eternal life for the righteous and eternal punishment for the wicked. In order for the doctrine of eternal punishment to be purged from Jewish tradition, it must exist in Jewish tradition. This indicates that the view of an eternal judgment and punishment of the wicked has a very long and deep history in both Jewish and Christian theology.

The first time we see the use of the term Gehenna in the NT is located in Mark 9:43-48. Jesus is talking about removing things that offend in our lives because it is better for us to enter life crippled than to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire not crippled. The first thing I notice is the Greek expression, εἰς τὴν γέενναν, εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ ἄσβεστον, into hell, into the unquenchable fire. Whatever hell is, it is a place of unquenchable fire according to Jesus. The unquenchable fire is quite simply a fire that no one can extinguish. Should we handle this text literally or as some sort of metaphor? If we decide that it is a metaphor we are confronted with explaining what “life” means in the preceding clause. When Jesus says it is better for you to enter life crippled than to go to hell whole. If we take life at face value, literally, eternal life, then we must take this description of hell literally as well.

Now, someone will add that it does not follow that eternal fire means that a person going to hell will burn eternally. They could eventually be released or they could burn up and cease to exist. Let’s take another look at the text to see if Jesus reveals more about this place of fire He calls hell. Jesus tells us που σκώληξ αὐτῶν οὐ τελευτᾷ καὶ τὸ πῦρ οὐ σβέννυται. Hell is a place where their worm will not die and the fire will not be extinguished. Now, this is an expression that was used hundreds of years earlier to describe the very same place by Isaiah the prophet. Isa. 66:24, uses the very same phrase. So what do Jesus and Isaiah mean by “worm?” The idea is that the maggots will always have food. In other words, while the fire and the worm usually run out of sustenance because the body is consumed and no more, in this place that will not be the case. This condition is pictured as an unending state, however one might understand that state.

Hell is referred to as a place where one is sentenced to go according to Jesus in Matt. 23:33. It is a place where God has the authority to send people in Luke 12:5. Jesus also uses it to describe the religious hypocrites, calling them the sons of hell. James uses it as a description of the dangers of the human tongue, describing it as set on fire by hell. One can clearly see that there is more than one use of the word hell in the NT. But just as we use words differently to mean different things, so too does the NT. The question around how to understand a word revolves more around how it is used than any it does any lexical data we may look at. Rebecca Trotter’s material is, quite frankly, filled with one exegetical fallacy after another. When she says that a particular Greek noun has one agreed upon meaning, she is exposing her ignorance, not only of Greek and Hebrew, but of how any language works. One has to look no further than how the NT uses “hell” to understand that nearly any word has a range of possible meanings and the best way to understand what a word means is to understand how it is being used. That is the most basic issue in how we should engage in the “word study” step in biblical exegesis.
At a minimum then, we know that the NT informs us that hell, when it is used to describe the future abode of the dead is a place where God assigns people that are wicked. We also know it to be a place with unquenchable fire. What else then does the NT tell us about the future state of the wicked? Will they burn up in this place or will they actually have a chance to be released at some future time?
In Matthew 19, a rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked Him what he must do to inherit “eternal life.” The Greek phrase is zoen aionion. Now, we all understand this expression to mean “life that never ends.” They way Matthew uses the word aionion clearly indicates he means life without duration. It is interesting to me that no one ever questions this construction or the meaning of the word aionion in these contexts where eternal life in heaven is the subject of the conversation.

In Matthew 25:41, Jesus uses this very same construction to refer to an eternal fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels. If we take life to be a state without end or duration, we must also take this fire to be the same unless there is good reason in the text, some marker or device indicating otherwise. In this case, no such device is present. In v.46 of this same pericope, Jesus says, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Once more, this is the same construction we have been dealing with all along. The word punishment here indicates that Jesus means “severe suffering.” He contrasts this severe suffering with the eternal life of the righteous. The wicked, according to Jesus will enter a place called hell, which is a place where the fire is never quenched, and according to Jesus, they will be subjected to severe suffering without duration, without end. Daniel references this state in 12:2, calling it everlasting contempt. John refers to two judgments in 5:29 of his gospel, calling them a resurrection of life and a resurrection of judgment respectively.

The fact is that the Greek word aionios always means eternal, unending, without duration everywhere it is used in the NT with two exceptions. In those exceptions the construction involves the use of the word chronos. This construction appears in Rom. 16:25 and Titus 1:2. Chronos actually can mean a long period of time but it is also used to refer to points in time or a moment in time. It is only when aionios is used with chronos that it is not referring to an unlimited or infinite amount of time. This means that 69 out of the 71 times it is used in the NT, it is used to convey the sense of an unending state.

This data, and I have only covered a tiny fraction of it, clearly indicates that the wicked will be consigned to a place described by unending fire where they will experience severe suffering that is also unending. Since one cannot suffer if one does not exist, this effectively closes off the option that the wicked will cease to exist. Moreover, it also closes off the option that the wicked will be released from this state in the future because the grammar does not support the notion of a “long period of time.” Rather, the grammar clearly indicates the state to be eternal, without end.

The end of the wicked is foretold in Revelation 20:10: And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

If Rebecca Trotter, Ben Corey, Rob Bell, and others are correct, that hell is not eternal after all, then neither is heaven. The grammar that describes heaven is the same grammar that describes hell. Furthermore, the implications of their message for the atonement of Christ are far more significant than one could ever imagine. All one needs to do is simply read the Scripture and they can surely understand why the Church has taught from the very beginning that there is a literal place called hell with literal fire where wicked people will enter and where they will suffer eternal punishment without any possibility of escape or annihilation. So how do we account for this challenge? It is really quite simple: philosophical presuppositions about the kind of God that exists have been employed to displace the divine self-disclosure of God in Scripture for the image of a god that is far more tolerable and much less offensive and certainly must less demanding than the one that actually exists.

[1] Jacob Neusner, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green, eds., The Encyclopedia of Judaism (Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 2000), 164.

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