“To hell with it,” lets see what the Bible has to say regarding…hell! 😉
Judgment in the After Life
The first issue that needs to be addressed concerns the Old Testament’s complete silence about there being a very serious and horrifying consequence in the next life for sin committed in this life. Now I will certainly agree that every man will be judged for the deeds done in the body, and will receive just recompense for them. But we must realize that this judgment includes Christians. That is why the Bible emphasizes the fact that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of God,” who will “judge without partiality” (2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Peter 1:17; see also Matthew 16:27 and Romans 2:16).
I know it sounds strange, but Christ stated that even Christians are going to get a few “just” (as in justice) spankings at the judgment seat (Luke 12:47,48). In fact that passage seems to indicate that God’s servants are held to a higher standard than those who are not and that their judgment will be worse because they knew what they ought to do, but didn’t; whereas unbelievers who obviously did not know God’s will shall receive a greater mercy.
Further, 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 makes it clear that even our (Christian) works will be judged and burned up if they are carnal…and yet Paul declares that,
“If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
Therefore we would do well to understand that the consequences in the after life for sins in this life are not an issue of salvation.
Here is where the first anomalous issue with the popular concept of hell reveals itself. Remember, these are only “problems” if endless hell were actually a Biblical truth; since I am convinced that it is not; it behooves me to point out such discrepancies in order to better prove that a doctrine of endless hell is inconsistent and inherently flawed. Thus: If the horror of “endless” hell is the consequence of sins committed in this life, why is the Old Testament completely silent about it?
On a side note: some might claim that Sheol; which is used 66 times in the Old Testament concerns hell, but as we will see in the blog concerning Sheol, this is far from true. I wont say anymore about it here, except to say that the Old Testament states that even saints (Hezekiah, Samuel, Joseph, Jacob, David, etc…) were in Sheol, therefore it cannot be a reference to the endless hell that we assume is for unbelievers.
Getting back to the silence in the Old Testament, let’s approach it systematically, starting from the beginning – the Garden of Eden and the creation of mankind.
If the consequences for sin were endless conscious torment then surely God would have made this abundantly clear to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If avoiding hell is the greatest motivator to obey God and also the greatest deterrent from sin, then surely God would have informed the beginning of the human race about it. Yet there is not one word! We would think that this would have been more than enough to keep Eve from eating the forbidden fruit!? I can imagine God explaining this to Eve after the fact…
“Oh! Sorry Eve! I guess I forgot to mention that sin will damn you to a state of unimaginable conscious agony that will never end…ever. Sorry about that! I’m assuming that there was no way you would ever have guessed it on your own…seeing as how you were one of the first two people ever created, so innocent and ignorant of anything that I did not take special care to inform you about. My bad!”
Following this is the story of Cain and Abel. We find that when Cain murdered Abel, God gave no warning of hell, no chance to alter his eternal destination. He merely stated that if he continued down the path of sin, that he would become sin’s slave. God seemed to care more about Cain’s spiritual bondage than his eternal destination.
Next we come to Noah and the world of iniquity to which he preached. The whole known world was in sin and about to be destroyed with a flood; surely God had the wisdom to realize that the threat of endless torment would appeal to all those self serving people, especially if they would very soon be going there! Yet we read of no such word preached to the sinners. Perhaps if Noah had, the ark would have carried a lot more than 8 people through the flood.
Then there is Sodom and Gomorrah, inherently wicked and sinful to be sure, yet not one word of warning is given to them! In fact, their judgment of fire and brimstone is said to be an example of God’s judgment on the wicked! (Jude 7) How can that be? Their fire was a real physical, earthly fire; and it certainly did not burn endlessly. (We will see what exactly that means in the next series of blogs.) And what makes it more confusing (with a doctrine of endless hell) is that Jesus said that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for those who preferred the Pharisee’s teachings to Jesus’!?! And the Pharisees actually believed in God and were trying to keep His laws!
That brings up another issue…how can endless hell be more tolerable or less tolerable? No matter how bad it is, the hopelessness that it will never end makes any literal pain seem like nothing in comparison.
Anyways, Sodom received no warning of hell.
Following this comes Moses and the Law. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and to Mount Sinai where he received the Law directly from God. In case some are not aware, Moses grew up in the house of Pharaoh, being raised by Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:1-11). The Bible also says that Moses was “educated in all the learning of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:20-23). This is important because if you have read, or heard of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it teaches the doctrine of endless conscious torment for sinners! So Moses was definitely aware of such an idea and yet he mentions not one word in the whole of the Law concerning it! Does that not seem suspicious?
In fact, one would assume that God finally had His opportunity to warn the world about the consequences of sin in the after life, and would make it priority number one in giving the Law. We would think that God, being so wise, would know that people are inherently selfish and self preservation is their most innate instinct, therefore one of the greatest motivators to encourage people to obey Him and follow His laws would be the understanding that the punishment for disobedience would be endless agonizing torment in the next life!? Right? Yet oddly enough there isn’t even a hint of hell in the Law!
Are you beginning to feel as perplexed as I was when I began looking into this?
All of the punishments of the Law, apparently, concern this life only! Can that really be true? Even murder was only punishable by the death of this life. What’s more is that the Law actually had limits to its punishment! It says that when a wicked man’s sin deserves a beating,
“He may beat him forty times but no more, so that he does not beat him with many more stripes than these and your brother is not degraded in your eyes.” (Deuteronomy 25:3)
God cared enough about the sinner that He forbade any punishment that became degrading! Not that a spanking wasn’t degrading, but if it kept going on and on without remorse, that it would no longer be considered just. Eventually even the hardest heart at some point would begin to feel uncomfortable (read compassion) and feel that the sinner/criminal had learned his/her lesson – paid the price so to speak. Quite an amazing law if you think about it, especially if you consider “the spirit of the law,” the law being but a “type and shadow of the good things to come.” He who has ears to hear, let him hear ;).
Alas, no hell up to this point in history. But surely the Bible has to introduce it eventually…? Right? Well, next comes the History Books, again, with no mention of such a consequence for sin, even though Israel turned from God time after time to worship false gods! Yet all their rebellion only ever brought physical, earthly judgments (per the Law – see Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28).
Then comes the Wisdom Books, from which we get a lot of our Theology, but no iota of hell is found therein. Even Proverbs, the greatest book of wisdom, which is full of reasons not to pursue sin, does not utter one syllable of a consequence in the after life. No nuggets of wisdom to warn us of the endless horrors that await the sinner! (It should be noted that Proverb’s references of sin leading to “death” are misunderstood from our western culture and do not concern the concept of hell.)
Finally we have the Prophets who were sent specifically to those who in some form or another were being morally disobedient or were in some form of rebellion towards God. The Prophets are replete with calls to repent, to turn from sin, to forsake their rebellious ways, turn from all their wicked deeds and return to God. Yet they fail to mention that the path of rebellion against God will lead to an endless state of agony and terror. In fact, their warnings only seem to indicate that if they refuse to repent, they will only continue to suffer further destruction in this life; destruction of their nation, capitol, land and finally being deported to another country far away (as per the Law). Its almost like God cared more about them remaining a nation than He did about them not going to hell!?!
If hell is truly endless, this would seem extremely odd. And one would be led to wonder how the Old Testament (and God) could be so silent on the issue? Why would the concept of hell be kept quiet for 4000 years of human history? Especially in light of the fact that for those 4000 years God was revealing His mind and will to His people? How could God withhold the reality of such a horrifying destiny for such a long time? How could God be considered Good in light of that? How could a God who is “rich in mercy” fail to warn His creation, His children that He loves so much, that they will forever be separated from Him?
Perhaps (and I believe this is the truth) it is because there is no such danger. Perhaps our understanding of this issue in Scripture has been wrong. Perhaps God is good and He did not warn people about endless hellfire because
“burning His children in fire…never entered [His] mind” (Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5, 32:35; Deuteronomy 18:10).
At least not eternally burning them in fire.
This brings us to the New Testament.
The New Testament
The New Testament, in contrast with the silence of the Old, is quite different for it is not silent concerning a state of judgment in the afterlife. The New Testament actually uses a variety of language to describe such judgment, however, none of them are referring to hell. This might seem confusing, for I am sure you have read several times in the Gospels where Christ mentions “hell.” But we will soon see He was speaking of several different concepts that are completely at odds with our idea of hell.
As for all the other descriptions such as “punishment, judgment, destruction, etc…” they are not describing hell either. But we must wait until the following series to look at those words. For now our focus will be on what we tend to assume are direct ‘hell’ references.
It is apparent to this writer that the Old Testament is silent concerning the concept of Hell. I am NOT claiming that there is no hell, but that our idea of it has been grossly misunderstood. I do believe that the Lake of Fire in Revelation is the only direct and clear reference to hell in Scripture. And it certainly is not endless. Nevertheless there is quite a mess we have to undo in the Gospels concerning misunderstandings of hell.
Therefore we will next begin to take a look at the 4 words in Scripture that are most commonly considered as regarding the doctrine of hell – the Hebrew Sheol; and the Greek Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna. We will discover a lot of information that will prove just how completely misconstrued that idea is. To begin, in the next blog we will look at the Hebrew word Sheol.