Does Hell Exist?

I received a few great questions from Jan via email last week and wanted to share my responses with you as well.

The first question had to do with Christianity and other religions and I referred Jan to what I had previously posted:

The next question was one to which I had not responded before – Does hell exist?

To start, I think that people have many different conceptions of hell. An eternal place of punishment, a lake of fire, and separation from God are just a few of the ideas that someone may have when thinking about hell. I best understand hell as a place of separation from God. God’s free and unmerited love for us and the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to live in relationship with God.

I believe that we can choose to receive God’s freely given love and live our lives in response to this good news. Alternatively, we have the opportunity to choose (either actively or passively) not to be in relationship with God. I believe that God does not force us to be in relationship. If we refuse this relationship, the alternative is living in a way in which we are separated and moving away from God. Eternal separation from God would be hell.

I believe one may experience hell on earth, in the sense that we can live in isolation from God and other people. This may be a result of our actions and it may be a result of the actions of others. I think of circumstances of divorce, suicide, unexpected death, the death of a child and many other circumstances may elicit these feelings. Our way out is the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

Jan followed up this response with a clarifying question about specific mention of hell in the Bible.

There is a discrepancy about how exactly such passages should be interpreted. I do not know the word that is translated as hell in English to be able to speak to the nuances of the original language.

How would you respond to Jan’s question? What did I miss in my response? Where could it be improved? What do you think?

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11 thoughts on “Does Hell Exist?

  1. The word that most editions of the NT translate as “hell” is the word “Gehenna”.

    That word comes from “Ge Hinnom” which means “Valley of Hinnom”. The valley is on the SW side of Jerusalem and tradition says that following the cleansing of the Temple and city by King Josiah the valley became a dumping and burning ground for the refuse of the city.

    It could I think be logically argued that the valley’s smell, fires and job as a dumping ground for the unwanted might have come to stand as a metaphor for the fate of the wicked in the time of Christ.

    Other translations (notably KJV) will also translate the word “Sheol” as hell – particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures. This I believe is an inaccurate portrayal of a different concept in Jewish theology. Sheol might be better understood as the “waiting room” before resurrection.

  2. Just to add a bit to Ben’s (very fine) remarks: the KJV was not very precise on this issue. The Greek hades was also sometimes translated as “hell” in the KJV. But, the modern translations are careful about this. They use the words “hades” and “sheol” where the original has that, and “hell” for gehenna.

  3. I think there is good reason to believe that Hell is separation from God, but only in a certain sense. Since God is omnipresent, it would stand to reason that’s God’s presence is as present in hell as in heaven. I think the separation is relative to the person’s related-ness to God; meaning, to be in the presence of God is bliss to one and torment to another. Kind of like how seeing the sun and having light is normally considered a good, until you have lived in a cave for a year and come out into its blinding light, in which case it causes nothing but pain.

    I’ve always found it interesting that in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st the trend among some has been to ‘tone down’ Hell by saying it is separation from God, which it certainly is. However, it seems to me that upon reflecting on exactly what separation from God would entail, being literally roasted alive would probably be preferable.

    I think the most important aspect is to deal with the punishment facet of it. If, as you have mentioned, we look at the moral responsibility with which humanity is endowed, as well as the positive will of God that all should be saved and live in love with God, then Hell becomes less of a punishment and more of a self-imposed prison in which those who reject God lock the door on themselves in their attempt to keep God out forever.

  4. I agree with Jason for the most part, with an additional unusual Caveat. How could a Loving God NOT send some people to hell. This is a play on the traditional challenge to the Christian Concept. My argument is that we need to turn this protest on its head. What kind of a Moral Leader would not banish evil from the community. As a society we construct prisons to isolate “Evil Doers” from the rest of the population. Hell, or the place of eternal punishment, is an essential concept for a God of Justice and Righteousness.

    Now, one other thing is that the concept of Hell is, in the scriptures at least, primarily introduced by Jesus himself. The Lake of Fire, second death, etc language is fairly novel with Jesus. As Jesus is seen by most (Even Non Christians) as being the embodiment of Love – should we then not assume that Hell is a necessary corollary to the love and justice of God. That it is precisely because of God’s love for his people that Hell (A place of separation from the unfaithful) is necessary.

  5. Ben and Craig – Thank you for your scholarship and additions.

    deviantmonk – Beautiful and elegant response. I really like the assertion of a self-imposed prison and the focus on the person’s related-ness to God. Good stuff. I will definitely use your insights here in conversations in the future. Thank you.

    Chuck – Interesting. I am going to have to think about your assertion here a bit. I agree that discipline and removing evil is an important part of a community. However, I disagree with the assertion that God sending people to a place of eternal punishment is essential to the nature of God. I do need to think about this a bit more. The comments here have really got me thinking.

    What do others think? Is eternal punishment necessarily a possibility? Does God send individuals to hell? Do individuals experience hell of their own choosing?

  6. In the end it’s easier to provide some background info than face the issue itself. I do am intrigued by Chuck’s response, thought I may not agree with it at first blush.

    I guess a important question for me is: is death the end of the game? To put it another way – it is only possible to achieve salvation only through faith professed in this life? If so – what does it say about the limiting power of death? If not, how might that reframe our thoughts about the afterlife?

    Questions of soteriology and eschatology such as these don’t really have sure answers, but sometimes it feels important to struggle with them anyway.

  7. I guess my question is this,

    The Idea that the nature of “God” as we Christians understand it, is loving, compassionate, and sacrificial is born particularly out of the life of Jesus. It is Jesus who represents God’s willingness to give up everything, put on human flesh, walk among us, suffer and die for the sins of the world. And yet from the God-Man who was the living embodiment of the Love of the God – we have the introduction (again in a very new way) of the concept of Hell. This concept is not an amorphous separation or a gentle longing to be in a different place – rather its described in the harshest possible terms (Lake of fire, second death, weeping and nashing, darkness, etc). And its described (perhaps most strongly in Matthew 15, but certainly in a huge volume of the New Testament texts) as a place were this loving, caring sacrificial God chooses to send those who have rejected his offer of salvation and eternal life.

    So I have two choices, it seems. One is to say that well – Jesus didn’t really mean that the Father had appointed him to be the Judge of each human at the end of time – this was merely hyperbolic or metaphorical. Perhaps this could be the case if it was an isolated mention of such a place and such a process at the end of time, but the language of eternal eschatalogical Judgment is scatter shot throughout the Gospels and letters, and the sheer volume of its presence in the NT would make excising and/or allegoraizing it problematic.

    Or, I can come to the conclusion that Jesus intended to teach that there was an actual Judgment coming, and that he was the dude with the responsibility to pull it off. All things being equal, the more simple explanation tends to be the accurate one (Head nod to Occom), I think that its clearly the Case that this is what Jesus believed, particularly about the nature of Eternity, and his role in its consummation.

    Now further, I can come to believe that Jesus was A. An impostor and Fraud, or B. Incarnate Deity. If I choose the second, I’m left with the Question, why would God choose to send someone to hell, Unless it was the necessary corollary to His very nature.

    Conclusion – The God of Love and Justice, has no choice (I know strong words) but to make eternal damnation a very real option in the discharging of his self instituted duties. His own integrity demands it.

  8. Sorry not so much a question as a logic argument lol, I guess the question is, where are the holes?

  9. As much as I appreciate Lewis’s Liar, Lunatic, or Lord argument I just want to play devil’s (yes I appreciate the irony) advocate for a moment.

    Your conclusion only holds if the reporting from the Gospels are held to be absolutely true. Not to mention the vision reported in the Apocalypse of John. The question I would raise is: how would this argument stand up with someone who doesn’t understand or profess the concept of inerrancy?

    On a different idea – I find it interesting to note that even the Goats in Matthew 25 can identify the LORD, they aren’t being called to task for adultery or blasphemy but instead if they cared for the poor, sick and imprisoned.

    What’s even more interesting is that there seems to be lacking a aspect of repentance – it seems to suggest that even followers of Jesus who do not show kindness to the “least of these” might find themselves looking at the sheep from across the aisle.

  10. I was just thinking that I needed to assume the caveat that what we have in the scriptures is in fact accurate. I am in no way a fundamentalist or would i promote inerrancy, however I think you make too strong a case, we don’t have to believe everything is “Absolutely True” in some draconian sense, but we do have to believe that taken as a whole the scriptures accurately report what Jesus said and did. The alternative to that assumption is, for me at least, a complete degeneration into utter religious chaos. If in fact we say, with those learned folk at the Jesus Seminar, or even some of the more respectable deconstructionists, that there are significant elements of the scriptures that are basically a-historical, then we degenerate into a debate over which elements of scripture are in fact “God Breathed” and which elements are not. At this point, A well meaning member of the KKK (If there is such a thing) can just as legitimately argue that the “Love your enemies” passage is not original to Jesus, as those of us who have our modern sensibilities assulted by the concept of hell and Judgement.

    All this to say, if I cant trust that Matthew 25 is actually from the lips of Jesus – man I’m throwing in the towel. Time for me to go get legitimate profession!.

    As to your second point – I tend to agree that the Protestant focus on Grace as simply the unmerited favor of God – has taken us so far away from living a life of holiness and righteousness, both in the world of personal morality and social morality, that we have to explain away the call to these things in Mt 25.

    This is why I am a Methodist, I believe with John Wesley that the goal of the Christian Life is to be “Perfected in love in this lifetime”, and that as followers of Christ we are to “Earnestly Strive after” just this. (Taken from the Ordination vows of course). The goal is to be built up “into that holiness without which no man can see the lord” JW.

  11. I believe the word “hell” is itself derived from Norse mythology – to confuse matters even more. So we have Sheol/Hades and then Gehenna, and then the Lake of Fire, and there’s “Abraham’s bosom”/Paradise – which I take to be much closer to what we mean by “Hades” than to what we typically mean by “Heaven.” My personal favorite image of ‘hell’ (whatever that means) in the New Testament is what Jesus calls “the outer darkness” – See Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30. This seem to me to better communicate the idea of seperation and isolation from God and all that is lovely (or intimate), which, like you, I believe must logically be possible if God has given us the freedom to say “yes” to him (there must also be the corresponding freedom to say “no,” else the freedom to say yes is illusory).
    Here the word ‘damnation’ may also be instructive – from ‘damno’ (I believe), Latin for “to suffer loss” – those who experience damnation have suffered the greatest loss there is: loss of God. But I don’t pretend to know much at all about these dark topics with any real certainty – I believe the potential for hell is real and should not (as is the habit of many) entirely neglect it in my preaching.
    I really like C.S. Lewis’ (certainly, fictionalized) account in “The Great Divorce.”

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