I set out a while back to write a general piece on the unbiblical doctrine of “hell” as part of a glossary or lexicon of key concepts but got side-tracked. Since then the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s book has prompted extensive reflection on the matter, and it now seems worth providing a rough summary of the position that I have argued for in a number of recent posts. Unfortunately, it has turned out rather longer than intended, but hopefully it will be the last word on the subject of “hell” for a while.
The approach I will take is to differentiate between a baseline position and the three eschatological horizons which, to my mind, provide the forward-looking frame of reference for New Testament thought. This approach reflects an important hermeneutical assumption. The New Testament primarily addresses the condition of peoples and cultures within history rather than the destiny of individuals beyond history. If we approach the New Testament with concerns about the moral or theological rightness of a doctrine of “hell” as “eternal conscious torment” at the forefront of our minds, we are likely to misunderstand what is said about judgment, wrath, punishment, and affliction. Ask the wrong questions and you will get the wrong answers.
The starting point is to affirm that there is a baseline of divine—or even existential—judgment on unrighteous and rebellious humanity. It takes the simple but decisive form of destruction, which is a serious enough business. For individuals this is the destruction of death—as Paul puts it, the “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). For the first generations of humanity, which had “corrupted their way on earth” by violence, it was the destruction of the flood: ‘And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth” ’ (Gen. 6:13). The regeneration of humanity that followed the flood could only be described in terms of a new creation: ‘And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” ’ (Gen. 9:1).
For societies that defied the creator—at least as far as the Biblical narrative extends—judgment was likely to come, sooner or later, in the form of corporate destruction: famine, disease, war, slaughter, and the devastation of land and cities. The climactic moment in the Old Testament narrative is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, from which the nation never really recovered. This event is understood not as an accident of history but as an expression of God’s anger against his people because of their incorrigible idolatry and unrighteousness. But it is only a matter of time before the godless and ferocious empire of the Babylonians will be brought to nothing in its turn (cf. Hab. 2:6-20).
The vivid prophetic language in which these events are described already foreshadows the visions of impending judgment that we find in the New Testament. But in Daniel’s symbolic account of the judgment of the fourth beast that makes war against the saints of the Most High and of the transfer of kingdom and authority to “one like a son of man” (Dan. 7), we have an anticipation of the heightened apocalypticism that will give New Testament eschatology its distinctive contours. The point to stress is that in the Old Testament this language always has reference to historical events, seen from the perspective of Israel’s unique existence. It has to be unequivocally demonstrated, therefore, and not merely assumed, that the authors of the New Testament used this language in a fundamentally different sense to speak of post-historical or metaphysical realities. In my view this cannot be demonstrated. The New Testament is as much focused on the historical existence of the people of God as the Old Testament.
The first horizon of the Jewish War
The language and imagery used to describe the intense suffering that will attend divine judgment in the synoptic Gospels has reference to the foreseen disaster of the Jewish War. Jesus’ essential warning to the Jews is that unless they repent they will perish, either struck down by Roman soldiers or crushed under the ruins of Jerusalem (cf. Lk. 13:1-5). But the theological significance of this impending catastrophe is brought out largely through the reworking of Old Testament motifs.
The judgment of gehenna is meant to evoke Jeremiah’s horrifying vision of the dead thrown from the walls of the city into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). Other images have the same frame of reference: the burning of the weeds by fire at the close of the age (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43); the discarding of the bad fish (Matt. 13:47-50). The bodies of the unrighteous that are perpetually consumed by worms and fire (Mk. 9:48) are not the dead being consciously tormented in “hell”. They are the unconscious corpses of those who rebelled against YHWH, which remain unburied outside the city as a sign to all of the stark reality of God’s judgment against his people (cf. Is. 66:24). The thought goes back to Deuteronomy 28:25-26: disobedient Israel will be defeated in battle, will become a horror to the kingdoms of the earth; “your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for all beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away” (cf. Ezek. 23:46; Ps. 79:1-2; Jer. 7:33; 16:4; 19:7; 34:20).
The “outer darkness”, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, is an image of the exclusion of rebellious Israel from the kingdom of God, from the celebration of the restoration of Israel, from the life of the age to come (cf. Matt. 8:11-12; Matt. 13:47). “Wailing” typically connotes the pained response to judgment (cf. Mic. 7:4 LXX; Is. 30:19; 65:19; Bar. 4:11); the “gnashing of teeth” suggests anger and resentment directed towards the righteous Jew (Ps. 36:12; 34:15-16; 111:9-10 LXX; Sir. 51:3; Acts 7:54).
The story of the rich man who is tormented in Hades while the beggar Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham (Lk. 16:19-31) is best understood as a parable of the reversal of fortune that would accompany the coming crisis of judgment and restoration, when “the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away” (Lk. 1:53). Other than in this passage, hadēs is simply the grave or the place of the dead; in effect, it is a figure for death. When Jesus says that “the gates of Hades” will not prevail against his church, he means that it will not be overcome by death—there is no reference to a “hell” teeming with demons, as in the mythology of much spiritual warfare teaching (Matt. 16:18). The judgment on Capernaum, that it will be brought down to Hades, is simply that its population will be destroyed—as, for example, at the time of the Roman invasion (Matt. 11:23).
The second horizon of judgment on the hostile pagan world
While the first horizon of the Jewish War is rather sharply imagined (cf. “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near”: Lk. 21:20), the more distant second horizon is less well defined. Nevertheless, judgment on the “Greek” is not less concretely and historically conceived than judgment on the “Jew”.
In general terms, the Greek-Roman world will be judged—and will experience “tribulation and distress”—on account of its idolatry, immorality, and unjust behaviour (cf. Rom. 2:6-10). This takes an especially intense form in Revelation 14:9-11, where an angel announces that those who worship the beast of an aggressive pagan imperialism will be “tormented with fire and sulphur”. The symbolic language brings to mind Old Testament accounts of the destruction of corrupt cities and nations. Whatever personal torment is experienced must be understood in the context of a decisive judgment on pagan Rome.
The more specific argument in relation to this second horizon is that those who persecuted the churches, prior to the victory of Christ over the pagan gods, will be punished. When God brings the afflictions of these “saints” to an end, he will “repay with affliction those who afflict you”; they will suffer the “punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9). This is not envisaged as a final judgment but as a day within history when Jesus will be revealed as the one who judges the pagan world and his followers vindicated and rewarded for having patiently endured suffering.
When Jesus as Son of Man—as representative of suffering Israel—is publicly vindicated, the nations which failed to attend to the needs of his persecuted disciples will be judged and consigned to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41, 46). Like the “stream of fire” that issued from the throne of the ancient of days (Dan. 7:10-11), this is a fire that destroys empires and cultures which defy the creator God. Individuals will, of course, suffer the consequences of what happens to their society, but this is not the level at which the apocalyptic story is told.
The third horizon and a final destruction
It is simply a recognition of the force of historical perspective to say that the authors of the New Testament were far more preoccupied with the first two horizons than with the third. Nevertheless, the storyline of the creator who persistently re-creates, which begins with the blessing of Noah, culminates in John’s exceptional vision of a new heaven and new earth. At this moment we also come across a final iteration of the baseline argument—that the inescapable consequence of sin is death. Death and Hades are thrown into the “lake of fire”, which is the “second death”; those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire; and “as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (Rev. 20:14-15; 21:8). This is not a place of torment, merely of incineration. It is a final destruction of everything that is contrary to the goodness of creation.