People joyfully walking over to that glorious city with streets of gold while there lost family members and loved ones are being thrown into the fiery pit below with screams of agony and torment in horrific pain that will go on FOREVER!!! Do you really believe this??? Pastor Dennis
What Is Hellfire? Part 3
Sun, May. 13, 2012 Posted: 09:05 AM
Part 1 laid the groundwork for this series by identifying some biblical principles that have a bearing on our understanding of hell. Part 2 gave three pictures of what hell might be, each of which finds some support in Scripture. Here in Part 3 I attempt to put it all together to formulate an alternate view of “hellfire” that is more consistent with the revelation we have of God’s character and purposes.
By taking into account the observations from Scripture in Part 1, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the views in Part 2, and being careful not to build theories on faulty assumptions, we can come up with reasonable conclusions about what after-life judgment will be like.
Caution about Assumptions
Before attempting to answer the question “What is hellfire?” we really should examine the assumptions that are implicit in the question. Most English Bibles have taken four different biblical words (Hades, Sheol, Gehenna, and Tartarus) and translated them with the same English word (hell). That word is then invested with a meaning that the original speakers and writers never intended. Detailed studies of these four words and of the origins of the concept of hell have been done by many people more capable than I. For example, a number of nineteenth-century writers have written in-depth discussions of these words and traced the origins of the prevailing notion of hell.[i] Contemporary writers have come to many of the same conclusions; George Sarris[ii] asks and answers the question “Where did hell come from?” and explains Jesus' references to hell. John Noe[iii] has written a thoroughly researched and documented exploration of the whole concept of hell. I will not attempt to convey all their conclusions, but let me say that we need to be very careful not to make unwarranted assumptions.
For example, we should not make the mistake of equating Hades and Gehenna—an easy mistake to make if both are translated with the same word. Sheol and Hades are the Hebrew and Greek words, respectively, that refer to the place of the dead (both the righteous and the wicked). Neither should we assume that when Jesus was talking about Gehenna, He was referring to “hell” as we commonly conceive of it—a place or state of after-death punishment for the wicked. In His day, Gehenna was known as the accursed place outside Jerusalem where children had been sacrificed to pagan gods and where dead bodies were dumped without a proper burial. As John Noe points out, Gehenna “was and still is a proper noun and the name of a real, literal, familiar, this-world place.” This fact and certain Old Testament prophecies “render as highly suspect our modern-day concept of Jesus’ Gehenna being a metaphorical, other-worldly, afterlife place of eternal conscious punishment and torment that we have come to know as ‘hell.’”[iv] Rather, Jesus was speaking of a literal, impending, this-world judgment resulting in suffering and death.
Nor should we assume that “the lake of fire” is equivalent to hell. In Scripture, the lake of fire is never identified with any of the words translated as “hell.” (In fact, Hades is thrown “into” the lake of fire, indicating that they are not the same.) Rather than attempting to translate the four “hell” words with equivalent English words, which do not exist, I believe it would be better to transliterate the words and then explain what they meant in the minds of the original speakers, writers, hearers, and readers.
With these considerations in mind, let’s look at how we might understand the biblical references to “hell” and after-death judgment.
“Hellfire” as the Presence of God
Western Christians tend to think of “hell” as a place of torment or a state of being separated from God. But the teaching of Orthodox Christianity may be closer to the truth in this regard: that all will be in the direct, intense presence of God, but each one will experience it differently depending upon his or her relationship with God. For example, some contemporary Orthodox scholars put it this way: “Those theological symbols, heaven and hell, are not crudely understood as spatial destinations but rather refer to the experience of God’s presence according to two different modes.”[v] An analogy might be the blazing fire that instantly destroyed Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers. It not only failed to harm Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but it gave them an astounding, unforgettable experience of intimacy with God, because they worshiped Him alone and refused to bow to any other.
Gregory of Nazianzus, who lived in the fourth century, believed that God Himself is both paradise and punishment. He spoke of “the Judgment and the Reward according to the righteous scales of God”:
This will be Light to those whose mind is purified (that is, God—seen and known) proportionate to their degree of purity, which we call the Kingdom of heaven; but to those who suffer from blindness of their ruling faculty, darkness, that is estrangement from God, proportionate to their blindness here.[vi]
In other words, those who know God and are right with Him—who are covered by the blood of Christ and clothed in His righteousness—will see His blazing holiness and feel reverent fear but will experience His presence as a state of joy and light. They will bow before their King and be received by Him. They will be so intimate with Him as to be consumed by Him.
On the other hand, those who are in rebellion against Him will have a very different experience. They will stand naked before the Judge of all the earth, with no robes of righteousness, not pleading the name of Jesus. They will fully experience what the writer of Hebrews was talking about:
A fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God (10:27).
It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10:31).
Our God is a consuming fire (12:29).
Imagine having all your sins laid bare before the King and Judge of the universe. Think of the worst thing you have ever done and the most important person you have offended, and remember the deep regret, the fear, the knot of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, the despair—and multiply it all a million times over. There will certainly be weeping and gnashing of teeth, agonizing guilt, and bitter anguish. Even those who once did evil with a seared conscience will now, in the presence of an infinitely holy God, be fully aware of the depth of their depravity. When they see God face to face, every deep recess of their wicked hearts will be exposed. Their consciences will be made acutely aware of the heinousness of their sins before a righteous God, and they will feel the torment of their own utter ruin. They will see God in all His burning holiness and will experience the terror of His consuming fire.
Consider this passage describing the dedication of Solomon’s temple. It catches a glimpse of what it is like to be in the presence of our holy God—both the terror and the glory:
When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, He is good; his love endures forever (2 Chronicles 7:1-3).
Daniel also used the image of fire (not a “lake of fire” but a “river of fire”) as he struggled to try to describe his vision of the presence of God in all His majesty:
As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat…. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him… (Daniel 7:9-10).
The writer of Hebrews describes the contrast between being in the presence of God without a mediator and being in His presence with Jesus as our Mediator:
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel….
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire” (12:18-24, 28-29).
With these images in mind, we can see that a “lake of fire” is an apt metaphor for total immersion in God. It describes the intensity of being in His direct presence and captures both the terror and anguish experienced by the wicked in His presence, and the holiness and light experienced by the righteous. So I would suggest that none of the biblical words and images commonly assumed to refer to “hell” actually describe a place of never-ending conscious torment in the afterlife: Hades/Sheol is the place of the dead, Gehenna represents a terrible national judgment in this world, and the lake of fire is related to the intense presence of God.
As I said in my essay about what heaven may be like, “heaven will probably be very different from what any of us think it will be.” I suspect that the same is true of “hell.” I would be happy to hear readers’ ideas of what you think people will experience in the afterlife. I would also like you to point out any specific statements in this series that are contrary to the Word of God, so that I can correct and refine my ideas.
Part 4 will conclude this series by considering the Why? and How long? of after-life judgment, reviewing the scriptural principles that help to shape our understanding, and giving some final thoughts about the unfathomable destiny that God is preparing for His creation.
[i] J. W. Hanson, “The Bible Hell,” 1888. http://www.tentmaker.org/books/TheBibleHell.html Thomas B. Thayer, “The Biblical Doctrine of Hell,” from The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment, 1855. http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/tbhell.html
[ii] George W. Sarris, “Hell: Where Did It Come From…Really?” 2011 http://blogs.christianpost.com/engaging-the-culture/hell-where-did-it-come-from-really-7697/
[iii] John Noe, Ph.D., Hell Yes / Hell No, 2011.
[iv] Ibid., pp 43, 52. See his detailed study of Jesus’ use of the word Gehenna.
[v] Aristotle Papanikolaou and Elizabeth H. Prodromou, Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars, 2008.
[vi] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration on Holy Baptism (A.D. 381)
Diane Perkins Castro
Wife, Mom, Grandma, writer and editor of educational materials, with a longing to know and proclaim the fullness of the reconciliation that Jesus accomplished on the cross