Hell Revisited

(An edited version of two postings on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association discussion list on July 26, 1999)

by Robert Brow     (web site - www.brow.on.ca)

Two weeks ago the National Post reported that the Jesuits had made a important model shift in their theology of hell. The traditional mediaeval picture conveyed the idea that hell is a place of everlasting punishment. As suggested by C.S.Lewis in The Great Divorce, the new model pictures hell as a freely chosen direction of movement away from the love of God into eternal darkness, death, and non-being (the term used in a recent Church of England document).

In today's National Post (July 26, 99) a bold headline announces HEAVEN AND HELL REVISITED by Jonathan Petre. He reports that "the churches are busy shedding the traditional images: the afterlife is now more minimalist than mediaeval. Pope John Paul II last week lent his authority to the process." By calling the new model "minimalist" I suggest Jonathan Petre has missed the real heart of the change.

Most Christians already knew literal red devils torturing us with pitchforks is not what God had planned for humanity. But the article notes that the recently updated Roman Catholic Cathechism still warns sinners that they "will suffer the punishments of hell" which is described as "eternal fire." The key to the old model of hell, both among Catholics and Protestants, has always been our demand for punishment. As the Evangelical Celebration document declared just a month ago "We learn from the Gospel that, as all have sinned, so all who do not receive Christ will be judged according to their just deserts as measured by God's holy law, and face eternal retributive punishment" (Christianity Today June 14, 99 p.53).

What Jonathan Petre has missed is that there is nothing minimalist about the new model of the tough-minded love of God. Love is caring about the freedom of the other. And Jesus said "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). That means that heaven must be the free enjoyment of the love of God, and hell is the free choice of final death, darkness, and non-being (the term used in a recent Anglican statement).

But to help us into the perfection of love, the Messiah rules our world and has continually assigned wrath among nations and individuals in this life. If that is correct, God loves us so much that he has no interest in condemnation and having us tortured for ever.

It is possible that C.S.Lewis, the Jesuits, and now the Pope, have got the model God works by more or less right. It is also possible that the Celebration Document is right about eternal retributive justice. The models are totally different, and have totally different implications. But neither model is minimalist. And a major task of evangelical theology is to take each model seriously, and try the two models out in the Scriptures to see what God may have in mind.

By way of beginning a -sola scriptura- discussion of what hell is about, I would like to suggest that we begin with the seven references to - gehenna - in Matthew's Gospel (the four in Mark 9:43-47 and Luke 12:5 are parallels). In the King James these were translated : 5:22 Whoever shall say, Thou fool shall be in danger of hell fire.

5:29, 30 It is profitable that one of thy members should perish, and not they whole body go into hell.

10:28 Fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

18:9 Having two hands or two feet to be cast into hell fire.

23:15 Twofold more a child of hell than yourselves.

23:33 How can ye escape the damnation of hell?

The Revised Version and NRSV also use the term hell in each of these verses, but they give a footnote to say that "hell" is the English translation of Gehenna. And we know that Gehenna (Hebrew -ge hinnom- or valley of Hinnom) was the garbage dump under the high wall of Jerusalem where the garbage was thrown. On a hot day it flared up with fire (from the cinders thrown in), and in wet weather it was crawling with maggots (Mark 9:48 has "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched).

Gehenna was a well known particular place, but it was used metaphorically of something terrible. The question is whether being thrown into it was metaphorical of being thrown into eternal punishment after death, or as the equivalent of making shipwreck of one's life, being ruined, trashed, or thrown on to the garbage heap of life.

There is not one reference to hell as a place of eternal punishment in the OT. The word "hell" is used as a translation of the Hebrew word -sheol- which means physical death (Psalm 16:10 says "you will not leave my soul in hell" which cannot mean eternal damnation) or it is used for metaphorical death (e.g. Proverbs 5:5, 7:27, 9:18).

If references to Gehenna are metaphorical of eternal punishment, then Jesus is using the threat of hell to bring us to faith. If they refer to bad consequences on earth, then there is not one reference in the Gospels to hell as eternal punishment. The one exception might be Matthew 25:46, where it looks as if nations are judged for lack of concern for the poor and needy. If this refers to the eternal damnation of individuals, then we are all in big trouble and our eternal destiny depends on our good works (Matthew 25:41-45). That is the question at issue in Hell Revisited, which will become the heart of theological discussion in the next few years.

model theology home | essays and articles | books | sermons | letters to surfers | comments