Friday, July 4, 2014

What Does the Bible Teach About Hell? (Pt 2)

The first step in attaining truth about the existence and nature of hell is to recognize that we have presuppositions about the subject that need to be submitted to the source for truth about the subject itself. The only true source of truth we have for understanding the existence and nature of hell is the Bible. So, in order to understand what the Bible is talking about when it talks about hell, we must turn to the Bible and the culture in which in was written.

Before I turn to the subject at hand, it should be noted that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment should not be viewed in isolation from the rest of Christian doctrine. It has implications on other cardinal teachings of Christianity, such as the atonement, judgment, and sin. The impacts to the basic teachings of Christianity will become obvious as I move through the issue of the subject at hand.
Turning to the cultural and historical context of the concept of hell, we find that the idea of eternal conscious torment has a very long history. Concerning this belief in ancient Judaism, Ronald Eisenberg writes,

“A response to the fear of death was the concept that individuals survive as incorporeal spirits. Related to this was the belief in retributive judgment, with the righteous rewarded with eternal bliss in Paradise while the wicked are punished in Hell. The final mitigation of the terror of death in rabbinic literature was the belief in the resurrection of the dead and the world to come.”[1]
In fact, if one investigates the subject of hell and the idea of judgment and eternal conscious torment, they find that it was not a modern invention, but extends back as far as records exist on the subject with views varying on the state of the wicked. We can draw two conclusions from the historical evidence. First, we can conclude that the notion of eternal conscious torment of the wicked predated Christ by several centuries. Second, we can safely conclude that beliefs regarding the state of the wicked cannot be trusted. We cannot rely on extra-biblical historical evidence in order to make definite conclusions about the nature of the state of the wicked in death. However, the historical evidence provides excellent guidance on what the Bible is talking about when it talks about the state of the wicked beyond the living. For that reason, understanding the history of this conversation is extremely beneficial to our understanding of Scripture on the subject.

Judaism is the source of two words used to form the concept of judgment and torment of the wicked after death. Abyssos means a particular place of terror, which constitutes a refuge for demons; gehenna is the eschatological fiery hell to which the ungodly will be eternally condemned at the last judgment.[2] But where did these ideas arise? What was the source of this thinking? Was it the product of sheer conjecture? We are better off reserving judgment until we have more evidence. The best approach is to resist drawing a conclusion until we survey all the available material. Now, that being said, this is a blog and one should not expect an academic level contribution to the subject at hand. Rather, what one should expect is a very high-level overview of the main points of evidence either for or against the orthodox Christian doctrine of hell. Space and time prohibit anything more than that.

We have already explained that ancient Jews discussed the state of the wicked after death. It is clear that there were varying opinions regarding the subject. Now, we move forward to Jewish thought about the existence of hell during the second temple period. You see, the Old and New Testaments are our source for our beliefs about hell and both were written within Jewish context and it is that context that should guide our understanding of what the Bible means when the Bible talks about hell.
The book of 1 Enoch talks extensively about hell. This book was written around 100 B.C. and is even quoted by Jude. It declares, “And the judgment was held first over the stars, and they were judged and found guilty, and went to the place of condemnation, and they were cast into an abyss, full of fire and flaming, and full of pillars of fire.”[3]

Another book written around the time of Jesus is Pseudo-Philo and it also describes this place of torment in several places. This work talks about a place where God sends the condemned and describes it as an abyss, full of fire and flame (63:4). In addition, two other books written near the end of the first century, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch describe a place of eternal torment for the damned. These are just a few references to this place of fire and eternal torment specifically designed for the wicked and condemned.
While none of these texts should be understood as describing hell in an authoritative sense, the fact remains that they are excellent resources and quite useful for helping us understand the context in which Jesus and the authors of Scripture spoke and wrote about hell. Hence, they help us understand what the Bible is talking about when it talks about hell. What this means, as Preston Sprinkle puts it, “The traditional doctrine of hell correlates perfectly with its Jewish context.” (Source)
One text that stands out in the OT is found in Daniel 12:2. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”[4] The Hebrew word עוֹלָם, ʿôlām, carries the basic meaning of forever, everlasting, evermore, perpetual, old, and even ancient. But as Allan Macrae points out, “Though ʿôlām is used more than three hundred times to indicate indefinite continuance into the very distant future, the meaning of the word is not confined to the future.”[5] Before we leap into the abyss of lexicographical confusion, a word or two should be said about the place of lexical studies in the process of exegesis. Moses Silva points out, “In the first place, paying so much attention to a word and (usually) its derivatives often leads to an exaggerated estimate of etymological studies…Second, there is the danger of illegitimate totality transfer,” a somewhat awkward phrase intended to stress the simply fact that any one instance of a word will not bear all the meaning possible for that word.”[6] There is almost always a possible range of meanings with any word in any language and the same holds true for the biblical text. It is completely illegitimate to argue that because a word could mean something else that it must then mean something else. This is precisely the tactic that is employed by bloggers at Patheos like Rebecca Trotter, Ben Corey, and authors like Rob Bell.

The single greatest factor that goes into the meaning of any word is the context in which it is used. What is interesting about Daniel is that he selects a word that in over 90% of the cases where is it employed in the Hebrew text, it is used in the sense of everlasting or perpetual time. Our question is how is it used in Dan. 12:2.

Daniel is referring to a time in the future when mean will wake. This is obviously a reference to the future resurrection. Some of these that are raised will do so to everlasting life. There can be absolutely no question here but that Daniel is using ʿôlām in an everlasting or perpetual sense. It is a life that will have no end. It is perpetual life. The bad news for folks like Trotter, Corey, and Bell is that Daniel uses the very same word and structure to refer to a second class of people that will be resurrected to perpetual and everlasting contempt and shame.

First, if the second meaning of the word is something other than perpetual, then the first use must carry that meaning as well. If group B is being resurrected to a particular sort of life for a particular time then so too must group A. In other words, if the latter group’s contempt is less than everlasting, then the former group’s life must also be limited. But who is teaching that? Would Bell, Trotter, and Corey accept the view that heaven is not everlasting? Would they suggest that somehow we have misunderstood the length of stay we will experience in heaven? If this all hinges on the meaning of a couple of words without respect to their context, then Bell, Trotter, and Corey should be just as concerned that we have also misunderstood the Bible’s teaching on heaven.

I anticipate two to three more posts on this subject. Those posts will deal with the very poor lexicography in the arguments of those that don’t like the Bible’s teaching on hell. In the end we will turn our attention to the heretical views of universalism, which is also embraced and promulgated by these teachers. The reason such teachers don’t attack the Bible’s teaching on heaven is really quite simple: they like it. They like the idea of heaven and of it lasting forever. But if you choose to get rid of hell on lexicographical grounds, then heaven has no choice but to go with it. Either man will occupy heaven and hell forever or they will occupy neither forever. These false teachers are to be commended: they have unwittingly destroyed the Bible’s teachings that redeemed men will dwell with God in a world without end.


[1] Ronald L. Eisenberg, The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 75.
[2] H. Bietenhard, NIDNTT, Vol. 2, 205.
[3] R. H. Charles and W. O. E. Oesterley, The Book of Enoch (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1917), 77.
[4] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Da 12:2.
[5] Allan A. Macrae, “1631 עלם,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 672.
[6] Silva, Moses. Biblical Words and Their Meaning. 25.

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