Just for the Hell of it

January 20, 2012

A few of us were sitting around solving all the world’s problems and somebody brought up the topic of Hell. That is always bound to get a strong reaction; mostly because nobody believes they are in any particular danger of going there and everybody wants their enemies to end up hissing away in the unquenchable flames.

While I come down on the side of fire and brimstone, the other viewpoints are always worth hearing, and we always seem to come away with a deeper appreciation of God’s boundless grace and mercies. Of course, it may seem odd to mention grace and mercy in a conversation about the nether darkness, but without God’s good favor the only thing I deserve is go burn in Hell this very minute. The centerpiece of the eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ is the New Jerusalem, not the ever burning flames.

Despite the influence of some very fine theological minds, and outstanding Christian thinkers, I tend toward the blazing inferno option. Before looking at more conclusive evidence, we should probably set aside Luke’s parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It does portray a burning unpleasant conclusion for the wealthy person, but the language is figurative. It is, after all, a parable. Now, for sure, Jesus might have easily dispelled the common view of an eternal pit of fire and a gulf between the saved and unsaved in the afterlife, but he did not do so. Nonetheless, I am throwing a bone to the other side and we will exclude the Lazarus passage.

Jesus consistently talks about a fiery final destination. Let’s take a quick look at a few texts that might support my view (all cites around here are ESV, unless otherwise noted).

And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (Is. 66:24, quoted by Jesus in Mark 9:28)

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3:10, Lk 3:9)

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matt 3:12, Lk 3:17)

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt 5:22)

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 7:19)

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt 25:41)

If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:6)

… but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:27)

But 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 sulfur, which is the second death. (Rev 21:8)

And Paul has one that may draw these together.

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10)

All of this is just a sampling and we could parse out different texts from now till Doomsday. There is a reasonable position that says the evil people are burned up and some of the verses might be taken that way. There is, I think, a distinct common thread here.

The damned are separated from God and from his redeemed people. Now that may not sound like much and some folks are fond of jesting about how much fun they are planning for the big party in the afterlife. The suds will flow freely in the unending party in Hell. It is a weird counterpoint to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Let’s see if that idea holds water. Will there be kindly brotherhood and jovial good times in Hades?

Our Presbyterian friends have a term that might be useful here. “Common grace” is the idea that God loves and provides for all humanity. We get four seasons, there is water in most places, all of the forces of nature work together properly to benefit mankind. If man is separated from God in the afterlife, there is nothing but chaos. That, in fact, is the condition of things before Gen 1.

Life is completely unpredictable in Hell. All anybody can ever count on is that, without God’s providence, things will be Hellish. With the Prince of Liars firmly in charge, government will really suck. All your old drinking buddies will be even more completely given to constant self-interest and lying. If you think greed is bad here, imagine how it will be without the restraint of moral people. No trust. No peace. No rest.

This is such a light treatment of a very heavy subject, and almost entirely speculative. What do you think? Comments are welcome.


6 Responses to “Just for the Hell of it”

  1. Gene Daniels Says:

    As long as Jesus is the theological center of the debate, hell is going to stay hot. But the actual Jesus of the gospels is too controversial for most modern Christians.

    The problem is, as one of the few points at which we can agree with Islamic theology, Jesus is the judge on the day of God’s fearful judgement. So his views about hell are going to be the only ones that matter.

  2. Tracey E. Herzer Says:

    I’ve always loved C.S Lewis’ take: “the doors of hell are locked from the inside”. One of the fundamental aspects of creation is that we are given freewill and if we are bound and determined, we can choose to screw our eyes shut and refuse to see or accept the astonishingly abundant Grace that is freely and lovingly offered.

  3. Joey Says:

    If God is omnipresent, how can there be a place that He isn’t?

    • patlynch Says:

      Darned good question. Let’s begin with me admitting that this conversation is speculative, since Scripture is vague on the details. There is a place of eternal punishment and fire is consistently mentioned as a part of the deal. Separation from God is hinted at in a couple of places, especially 2 Th 1:9. My speculation here is that God is not looking after the people in Hell, even as he is watching over everybody on earth. As it says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. So, yes, I would propose that God is present everywhere in the universe, but his grace does not penetrate the realm of the condemned.

      • Greg M Says:

        Thank you, Pat, for admitting that this is speculative. In that vein, I like what our Eastern brothers have to say on the topic. There is a thought within Orthodoxy that says that God’s presence is with those in “hell” and that is precisely why it is miserable. Think of how miserable it is to be in a room with someone you dislike. Now consider being in the fullness of the presence of someone who loves you beyond explanation, but you are determined to passionately hate them. That would be miserable…akin to burning in an unquenchable fire.

  4. Joey Says:

    I like Isaac the Syrian’s explanation: “I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? I mean, those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret. But love inebriates the souls of the sons of Heaven by its charm.”

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