Sarah (my wife) and I were talking the other day about hell! Not a usual tea time chat but our discussion raised a lot of questions in my own mind about the nature of hell and what it is. Before we begin, I'll briefly explain how the discussion ended up where it did.
Sarah has always believed in God. She has, for as long as she remembers, always believed in the saving work of Christ and has no 'conversion experience'. She just always believed. She did say however that one thing always was a stumbling block for her and that was the belief in a place called hell. She told me that she has always been taught in her church (Baptist) that hell is a place of fire and eternal torture, and for her that is a great problem. Why would God, who is Love, allow someone to suffer such torment for all eternity? Does the Bible actually say this is what happens? I have always believed this is what hell is like, and then I actually started to think about it and realised how little I had thought about it and how I just accepted what I was told without ever really looking in Scripture about it. I have to say, my views have changed...
I believe that God is holy, and sin is something that He cannot stand for. I believe that the work of Jesus on the cross means that sinners like you and me are able to stand before this holy God clothed in the righteousness of Christ. I believe, because of the grace of God, I will be welcomed into His presence with great joy and share in His glory for all eternity!! WOW! But I also believe that there are those who can resist His Grace, not be clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and for them, 'something' else awaits. But, what is this 'something' else? What is hell?
Colossians tells us that 'all things hold together in [Jesus].' For anything to exist, God has to will it to exist. Whether it is you or me, angels or demons, Satan, the universe, the cold virus, it only exists because God allows it to exist. Our souls, whatever they might be, only exist because God wills that to be so. We are not God, we do not exist independently of ourselves. Therefore, if someone is 'sent to hell' God has to allow that to happen and they can only continue to exist because, again, God allows that to happen. If hell is a place of fire and eternal torture, then God must willingly allow that to happen and continue for all eternity. I hope alarm bells are ringing for those of us who believe in the God of the Bible! For me, this flies in the face of the crucified God. God is a God of grace and mercy, the cross demonstrates this unambiguously and powerfully. The view of hell as described above completely contradicts this view and I would understand why there are many who, when confronted with this view of God and hell, reject Christianity. I know that God cannot look upon sin, and if we stand before him still 'sinsick' then we're in trouble! But I know that a loving God will always deal with us out of love, His wrath is an expression of His love, so, what is hell?
I'll now go into my revised view and, while my view may be somewhat limited, it sits better for me in light of the cross and in light of what I read in Scripture.
We often use the book of Revelation as the source of a description of hell. It is from here that many of our views of fire and eternal suffering stem from. Certainly this is the book from which most of my views of hell came from. However, I think we are faced with a problem when we do this. This is an apocalyptic book and its language is very symbolic. Christians do not believe that, for instance, Jesus actually looks like a lamb, bleating His way around Heaven, because we recognize that the references to Jesus as a lamb is symbolic and used that way in Revelation. Why then do we accept symbolic language here (and many many other places) but not when Revelation talks about hell? Why do we suddenly take that as literal? For me, this is inconsistent reading of Scripture.
What about when Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man? Again, are we to believe the Prodigal Son, workers in the vineyard or lost sheep are real events and people? Of course not, they were parables. Why then use this parable as a literal description of hell?
What about when Jesus talks about hell being a place where the 'worm does not die and the fire is not quenched'? This is reference to a passage in Isaiah and in the context of that it is about God's divine judgment, rather than a literal description of what hell is like. The word that Jesus uses for hell here is 'Gehenna' which is reference to Ge-Hinnom, a place outside the city walls of Jerusalem where rotting bodies were dumped and burned continually. In reflection of this it seems likely that this is what Jesus was referring to as a means of describing hell as a place of judgment and disintegration, rather than a place of eternal torment. What does hell as place of disintegration mean though?
In Isaiah 6 the prophet sees the Lord and cries out 'I am ruined!' His sinful eyes seeing a holy God causes him to cry out in despair. The original reading of this passage in the Hebrew actually translate better 'I am disintegrated!' Therefore hell could be seen as a final encounter with God. Hell is looking at the beauty, majesty and love of God and knowing, through one's own rejection of Him, all this has been lost. Hell is the loss of God and knowing you will never be with Him. God is the source of all life and the loss of Him means we can no longer exist. This is not a 'kinder' version of hell. It is dark and uncomfortable. God's eternal purpose is to know Him and be in relationship with Him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and hell is a reality of knowing this can never happen because we have willfully rejected Him.
As an evangelist I desire to invite all people to come and share in this relationship with God, and not suffer this eternal loss of God. What is Joe though? Only He who makes it grow is anything.