"night on bald mountain--Disney's Fantasia--
the music of Mussorgsky, folk tale about the devil and hell.
In part one I argue that hell is figurative and symbolic since there are no long passages where it is explicit fleshed out exactly what hell is and how it works. It wasn't part of the Hebrew faith originally but came to them from the Greeks. It was imaged by the pit outside Jerusalem where garbage was burned (Gehenna) that became the standard symbol of hell. Yet it's origin was probalby in the Greek notion of Tartarus in the Greek underworld, the place of the dead. In the OT there is a Hebrew notion of the place of the dead to which all go, in most cases where the OT says "Hell" it really says "sheol" meaning "the grave" or the abode of the dead. In Part 1 I argued that hell is almost always mentioned in relation to figurative language or parables or apocalyptic. In this section I want to deal with passage that are literal and that we don't take figuratively. I want to deal with the meaning of hell. I will also try to deal with some questions raised in the comment section on part 1.
I first began to really think seriously about the injustice of hell in college. I had always all my life thought about how much more sever the punishment was than the crime. I was always willing to accept it as some form of absolute, in the ideal realm. Then a friend of mine in college, a Catholic, said "I don't like the idea of hell because no one learns anything. It's a waste." he was telling me about Vatican II and how they take a more symbolic understanding of hell. This changed my thinking becuase it wasn't just a question of stretching the severity of sin to justify the severity of the punishment, it clearly put into the perspective the whole illogical nature of the punishment itself. After all, if God is love (1 John 4:8), and perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18) yet we should believe that the source of all love and goodness would torture us mercilessly for all eternity and fear that torment to the extent that we act on that fear to do right rather than on love? Of course one need not reject hell as eternal conscious torment (ECT) to see the fallacy in that kind of exegesis. Nevertheless this is does point to the notion that there's a lot more going on in understanding the Gospel clearly than just carrot and stick. Haven't we always known that?
Some people think they are being he men when they support the illogical. It's just a matter of talking tough. Peter Kreet uses this tact in saying "perfect fear casts out luv." He spells it luv to get across the idea that he's not saying we should cast out agape but the wishy washy unmanly kind of sisy love that doesn't accept the scary ferocity of God's wrath. We can't use God's wrath or the concept of "fear of the Lord" (which Kreet is using) to justify hell as ECT. That's just circular reasoning. The illogical and waste of the hell concept (no one learns it's all over) strips us of redemption; then you are going to be burning on fire for always just because you grew up in a culture where Jesus wasn't' understood as an iconic symbol? The illogic of that concept is supposed to be made up for by saying we are being tough? The Bible tells us to fear the Lord. That is not an excuse to accept the circular reasoning that would interpret hell as ECT because doing so seems to be more Manly or more zealous than not, then pretending like we are doing real exegesis by just enforcing the prejudice as an exegetical key to wisdom. The fear of the Lord is natural and part of our make up as humans. We don't have to make ourselves have it, we just have to accept it for what it means. It's not a exegetical tool, nor is it predicated upon belief in hell. I fear God believing that damnation means ceasing to exist. I don't believe that God will lose his temper and huff and puff red faced through me into hell because I didn't understand a doctrine. That's not faith.
I think Christians and atheists or skeptics have a secret fear in relation to hell. I think Christians fear that if they mess up on some core doctrine like ECT then their salvation will be revoked and they will be heretics and go to hell. The rule of thumb ought to be that reading passages based secret fears of God losing his temper is not love and what is not love is not faithful. I think the secret fear of the skeptic is a lot more complex. I'll get to that at the end of the essay. We need to understand why the seeming literal passages don't teach hell as ECT.
One problem in dealing with the literal passages is knowing what they are. It is very tempting to take as litteral passages that are actually figurative. For example Mat 8: 5:
And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, 6 And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. 7 And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. 8 The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. 9 For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. 10 When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. 11 And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 13 And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.It's tempting to say "O Jesus is talking about some place of weeping and gnashing of teeth,that must mean hell, this has to be literal because the things prior to this phrase are literal." That doesn't make this literal. First of all Jesus is giving a veiled answer because he doesn't wan to say directly "my own people are a bunch of slobs because they wont accept me." He's talking about Jews. He's not necessarily saying they are going to hell, the passage still works if we assume his answer is a symbolic one dealing with the idea of losing their place, or being outside the kingdom. The recurrent phrase "weeping and gnashing of teeth" used often in relation to eternal damnation must be some kind of euphemism. Even if does mean hell it's not a enlightening description. It probably plays upon the symbolism of hell as reference to spiritual death. The passage still works if we make that assumption. But it's clearly not a literal statement. It seems euphemistic. It works just as well if annihilation rather than eternal conscious torment is implied.
There are passages where Jesus seems to threaten the pharisees with hell, and it's not a pleasant cease to exist hell: Mt 23:33 "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" First of all that passage still works if it's about a state of ceasing to exist. Think about it: Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of ceasing to exist forever?" Works for me. Secondly, it is a prophetic exclamation that evokes the judging aspect of hell. As a symbol of spiritual death that's an appropriate allusion for the shaming of pharisees. There's no real reason to understand it as ECT. We are just moved to do so by the historical association of the word "hell," or words like damnation. That's just begging the question to assume a prori that damnation must be eternal conscious torment and not annihilation.
We need to note the comparision of life and death in relation to salvation and damnation. These are figurative. The words for live (zoe) and death (thanatos) mean literally to be alive or be dead. we put the special meaning on them by applying them to eternal existence. The Biblical text does this too in borrowing the use of Greek terms. There are other terms used than these but these are the major ones. For life terms such as bios and psyche (biosphere and psyche like psychology). The converse is loften tranltsed as destruction (the destruction of their souls). 2 Pete 3:16 "His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction."(NIV) suntrimma: that which is broken or shattered, a fracture calamity, ruin, destruction. So if we are talking a vase we would know it's literal. Applied to eternal state of affairs in a religious context is necessarily figurative. Annihilation seems pretty much like destruction to me. There is also olethros = destruction: uin, destroy, death "for the destruction of the flesh, said of the external ills and troubles by which the lusts of the flesh are subdued and destroyed"
There are a couple of passages using olethros that might be taken literally. 2Th 1:9 "Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power"(NIV). That one seems pretty literal. The destruction is ever lasting but it doesn't say it's conscious. It says from the presence of the Lord which might imply conscious but not stated. Annihilation would also fit. To be exterminated and go while one doesn't sense the Lord's presence would be terrible, but as as inhumane as ECT. The illogic of cruelty is not as sever in this view point. Yet I think the awe inspiring aspect is there. The passage does not say ECT. Then we have 1Ti 6:9 "But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition." (NIV). That also can be taken as annihilation. Also the only word used for Perdition in the NT. Perdition means destruction and its' used in connotation of damnation. Ro 9:22 "What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction." Destruction here no reason why it can't equal annihilation.
The word used here for perdition is (cross-walk, Strong's):
ap-o'-li-a Noun Feminine
1. destroying, utter destruction
1. of vessels
2. a perishing, ruin, destruction
1. of money
2. the destruction which consists of eternal misery in hell
The definition says it means destruction in hell. That is a gloss by crosswalk or Stong's, it is not a true definition of the word. It's a interpretation based upon reading back Christian doctrine into the meaning of the text, this is a constant short coming of religious lexicons. This is why one should always use Liddell and Scott, it has no theological bias. Lidell and Scott's Intermediate Lexicon, the term is derived form the word apollumai to destroy utterly, to waste utterly. Nothing about hell in it. (p88).
There are really no literal passages that clearly say "Hey the alternative to eternal life is eternal conscious torment." The door is wide open to read it as cessation of existence rather than ECT. There's nothing unchrsitain about it, even though yes it is unconventional. It's not sissy it's not abandoning the tough manly way of scaring the bageezers out of children. Before dealing lastly with that secret fear of the skeptic I will try to answer the questions posed in the comment section.
If God is just, then the punishment fits the crime. The caveat here is, What is the proper sentence for rejecting the work of Jesus Christ? Is it a greater sin than all other sins?I think God looks on the heart. I have no proof of this, one can probably find lots of passages that seem to contradict it, but I just dont' see God as stacking up brownie points and weighing little matters to equal big ones. I think it's all based upon what the heart (that is the deeper will) is doing. If we are seeking God at all coast not out of fear but out of real love, then God is for us and gives us grace and that covers a multitude of sins. Of cousre it just makes logical sense that rejecting the work of Christ is going to be more of an umbrella effect because that would cover all bases. You are rejecting the whole package at once. I stopped seeing hell as "punishment" a long time ago. I know one can find punishment related passages especially in the pharisee communities that produced Matthew.* I see hell as a natural proclivity for those who reject God in their inner most being and they move toward annihilation and away form the life which is Christ. It's just an automatic deal like magnetic force and iron. We do have the freedom of will to go back but there may be a tipping point.
Another question: If one is guilty of one sin and is, therefore, guilty of all, is the person who has led "good" life as reprehensible as a child molester?
That's a problem. I am sure there are Catholic theologians (they distinguish between "moral" and "venial" sins) who ponder this laboriously. Even if there is some equalizing of guilt in the ultimate realm, I doubt that God expects us to think this way. We love God we want to please God, we don't want to sin. We don't excuse sin that doesn't mean we need to feel as guilty about spitting on the side walk as we would about mass murder. If we must think "O God wont hold this agaisnt me it's too trivial" we are thinking the wrong way about pleasing God. We should be thinking "whatever the case may be God's grace is sufficient for me." DavidK had other concerns I'lll answer them in the context of his comments. He points out that the fires of hell are eternal and that God is an all consuming fire, he's asking about a preacher's notion that God himself is the fires of hell. That strikes me as coming form the literalistic school because we can't stack up all metaphors in the Bible and assume they are all literal and they all refer to the same things. For example Lucifer is compared to the morning star ("son of the morning") Isaha 14:12), but Jesus is said to be morning star 2 Pete 1. We cannot assume that Lucifer and Jesus are one and the same. We just assume the metaphor can be applied to both. The question about eternal hell fire assumes the fire is literal. That doesn't mean that the eternal aspect is not the duration of annihilation. There's always the secret fear that hell is literal and if I make the wrong mistake God will blow up and send me there.
That leads me to the secret fear of the skeptics. I believe that great deal of what motivates atheists on message boards is that secret fear, it's the fear of the believer that they never got over from their "believer days." I think that means they were not strong. Notice, I am not saying they weren't saved. I'm not saying they weren't born again. One can be born again and not grow. One can remain a spiritual infant all one's life. They can't let go of whatever the issue was that took them out of sinc with the faith and they still fear at some level (although they vehemently deny it) that it will all turn out to be the way they secretly feared it would. I don't see that fear accomplishing anything valid. It doesn't prevent them from giving up the faith, it may motivate them to hate God. This is atheists who were fundamentalist. It may not apply to those raised as atheists. A funny thing about those guys. They will say "Christianity is stupid it's all no good. I am totally done with it every aspect of it." Then tell them "I am a liberal theologically, why don't you consider liberal theology?" They will say 'O you are the bastards that are destroying the faith!" I've had long haranges with them and baited them with liberal theology to the ponit that they sound exactly like fundies. Guys who professed totall hatred for the Bible suddenly love it, they have such deep respect for the people who just the other day they called idiots, because they at least are not so stupid to be libeals! why? They don't know.
It's not like they read liberal theology. I have seen atheist claim that liberal theologians are always stupid. Ok show me one, tell his name and what you read by him... [Crickets chirping]... They have not read a page of liberal theology but they are so convinced they are stupid. Then they go on to say all the same stuff extreme fundies say about them. In the Atlantic Larry Alex Taunton writes an article about "Listening to the Young atheist" and some of those guys seem really home sick for the fundie days.
Now the president of his campus's SSA, Phil was once the president of his Methodist church's youth group. He loved his church ("they weren't just going through the motions"), his pastor ("a rock star trapped in a pastor's body"), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim ("a passionate man"). Jim's Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn't dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: "He didn't always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn't run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart."
I don't take what they say about literal theology seriously becuase they don't know anything about. These guys are clearly in love with an era in their past when they had youth group that spoke to them and a youth pastor they could admire and they felt at home and they will want to defend the faith from the concerns of that time but some unanswered thing that goes under the heading of "the rational" that led them off and they can't go back. Well they can't go back because the feel damned I would think. There are a lot of things we don't understand about that situation, and a more exacting research is needed. One thing of which I am certain I don't see the notion of hell as ECT playing a postiive role in any of that. It's not scaring them into staying and it may be part of the reason they leave it certainly plays a role in their animosity toward God.
In both sections of this essay I used great was the graphic. In part 1 Dore's illustration of Dante, and in this one the "Night on Bald Mountain." That's great music of Mussorgsky and superb animation of early Disney. I use the greatness of art to reflect the iconic nature of the hell concept. I think that's it's best feature rather than control through fear, is the metaphor is powerful, and the metaphor is mightier than the literal fear. It's also redemptive. Art if healing and we see the end of the animated scene the daemonic reveling is suddenly interrupted by the ringing of the chruch bell and the demons have no choice but to go back to hell. That is evocative of the healing and redemptive power of grace. Hell as the symbol of spiritual death, judgement and damnation is also by contrast raises the possibility of salvation.
see the Night on Bald Mountain excerpt from Fantasia.
*Because of what Mat says about "the pharisees sit in the seat of Moses so do what they say." I see the Mat community as Pharisee. It was told to us in Acts that many Pharisees had come over to Jesus after his resurrection. The reason is because if they weren't Pharisee they would never say they have the seat of Moses that's what the whole issue with Qumran was about; the faction that became the pharisees stole the priesthood from the Zadakites.