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Is hell real?

I sometimes get emails misunderstanding my views. To clear up the matter, here's what I believe about hell ...




(Revelation 20:10) And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

This is referring to Satan, not to humans.

(Revelation 14:9-11) And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

Those humans in hell will be tormented with fire and brimstone for ever and ever. The image of smoke reminds me of the Old Testament sacrifices in which the smoke of the sacrifice pleases God because the faith of the people offering the sacrifice and their worship of God are pleasing to God — God doesn't delight in offerings performed without faith.

(Genesis 8:20,21) And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour; and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man's sake; for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

The sacrifice of the altar offered in worship of God is pleasing to God. (Presumably the angels are looking on as in the passage in Revelation 14.)

(Jeremiah 6:20) To what purpose cometh there to me incense from Sheba, and the sweet cane from a far country? your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet unto me.

God hates their faithless offerings.

Notice carefully in the passage in Revelation 14 that God is not actively torturing them, rather, those in hell are suffering when in the presence of God's holiness because the unrepented sin in their souls burns them. This burning is literal and it is painful.


Summary

There is such a place (or state of being) as hell. Hell is eternal.

Some (many?) will end up in hell.

Hell is not eternal torture (but it is eternal and it has pain).

For those who hate God, hell is the best that an all-loving God can do to eternally bless them.

The figurative passages in the Bible concerning hell are often interpreted literally.


My View of Hell | What Hell is Not | What Hell Is | God's Purpose for Humans | What is the "Fire" of Hell? | What Is Eternal Punishment? | Sin has Natural Consequences | God Hardens the Hearts of the Wicked | Gnashing Teeth | Jonah | Lazarus and the Rich Man | Punishment | Reasons for God's Punishment in this Life | Reasons for God's Eternal Punishment in the Afterlife | Links


Overview

Many people who reject Christianity object to the doctrine of hell, which they commonly think of as God's judgment on unbelievers by eternal torture. They typically ask, "how can a loving God judge people (1) who weren't properly informed, and (2) using a punishment that is so awful?" I agree that these questions are important. Two additional issues that are troublesome:

  1. The punishment should match the crime, and
  2. Since God is just, he would inform us ahead of time of the rules he is using.

Evangelical, fundamental Protestants typically respond to these objections by referring to John Calvin's doctrine of Total Depravity — that we are so radically wicked to the core that God is just in judging us the way he does. Another common solution to the problems comes from the liberal Christian point of view in which the Bible is not taken to be a factual, historical book but is merely a collection of myths as well as spiritually useful teaching (I reject the view of liberal theology).

I generally agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church about the nature of hell. They teach that Hell is being alone, absolutely and forever, and is the eternal experience of ultimate meaninglessness and despair. The nature of the sufferings are twofold:

  1. Pain of loss — from eternal separation from God.
  2. Pain of sense — but not sadistic tortures, although the body will share in the punishment of the soul.

I offer another way of looking at this important topic.


My View of Hell

Main points:

  1. Those in hell choose to be there with full knowledge of the consequences of their choice.
  2. Hell is an expression of God's love for those who reside there.
  3. Final judgment of the wicked is not to punish them, but to judge which eternal home is suitable for them — heaven or hell.
  4. Sinful deeds contain within them their own judgment and punishment. When people willfully choose to sin they are also choosing to break fellowship with God. The immediate effect of Adam's sin (his sense of guilt and separation) demonstrates this.

Based on my creative frames theorythose in hell are being continually annihilated. They are continuously experiencing God's dissolution of the universewith each creative frame. They are out of synch with God's plan and purpose and don't connect up their souland it's senses to the physical senses and motor nervous system.


What Hell is Not:

  1. Hell is not eternal torture by burning (but hell is "eternal fire")
  2. Hell is not punishment as the just judgment for crimes committed against God (but hell is, rather, the result of the natural consequences of sin). More on this later.
  3. Hell is not a place completely without God's presence
  4. Hell is not a place where the inhabitants "vex" one another

What Hell Is:

  1. Hell is judgment for wickedness
  2. Hell is the consequence of unrepented sin and wickedness
  3. Hell is eternal separation from God and self-exclusion from communion with God
  4. Hell is a just consequence by a loving and holy God
  5. Hell is the eternal experience of the unredeemed sinner in the presence of the holy God.
  6. Hell is punishment in the sense that the unredeemed wicked are not given the gift of righteousness

God's Purpose for Humans

We should expect that whatever hell is, it fulfills God's purpose for creating humans in the first place. I propose that the purpose of God is that we all acknowledge God eternally.

You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)

Certainly the worship of God is a central activity of those in heaven:

The twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: (Revelation 4:10)

The people in hell will be eternally acknowledging God's existence and his power. But since they hate God, this will be unpleasant for them.


What is the "Fire" of Hell?

This section gives a few representative passages to illustrate the biblical teaching on the topic. Note that the standard view of hell as eternal torture by fire is not supported by the Bible.


What Is Eternal Punishment?

From the following passage we see that hell is eternal punishment:

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)

But what is the nature of this punishment? Is it incarceration against the will for wrongdoing? Is it torture? Or is it annihilation?

In the following passage, note that the punishment consists of everlasting destruction and being shut out from the presence of the Lord:

They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. (2 Thessalonians 1:9)

The phrase "everlasting destruction," if taken as strictly literal, leads to a contradiction, because when something is destroyed it is gone forever. So whatever this everlasting punishment is, it does not consist of literal destruction. From this we see that the doctrine of hell is shrouded in images, symbols, and figures of speech. It is not reasonable to take any of these as strictly literal.

This passage emphasizes that eternal punishment consists of being shut out from the presence of the Lord. I propose that this is the essential characteristic of conditions in hell.

In the following passage, everlasting punishment is compared with the punishment of death for people who disobeyed the law of Moses:

Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:28-29)

Since physical death is not everlasting torture, eternal punishment is not everlasting torture either. The punishment of death resulted in people being separated from the others in this world. I propose that eternal punishment is also a separation, but it is a separation from enjoying the benefit of coming before the holy God with our sins forgiven.


Sin has Natural Consequences

The natural consequence when people choose to willfully refuse to serve God is that they will begin to live a depraved and sinful lifestyle.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts. (Romans 1:21,24)

A sinful, God-rejecting lifestyle carries with it its own judgment.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)

This passage affirms the following points:

  1. God has made the essential knowledge about Himself available to everyone.
  2. Some people willfully choose to reject God and to serve themselves instead of God.
  3. This results in their falling into a wicked and depraved lifestyle.
  4. This sin has natural consequences including (1) separation from God, and (2) a broken fellowship with God.
  5. The natural consequence of a sinful lifestyle is a hardened heart towards God. This is the wrath of God which is a direct consequence of his holiness.
  6. At final judgment, God judges whether a person has a heart which is hard towards God. This is also the wrath of God based, again, on his holiness.

Those who have rejected God are consigned to hell. But hell is merely a natural consequence of sin when it confronts God's holiness. The result is eternal punishment, which is merely the eternal purification of a hardened heart which will never turn to God.


God Hardens the Hearts of the Wicked

The passages about Pharaoh's hard heart relate to the doctrine of hell. For reference, here are the two passages:

The Lord hardens Pharaoh's heart

I will harden Pharaoh's heart. (Exodus 7:3)

Pharaoh hardens his own heart

But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go. (Exodus 8:32)

The usual understanding of this passage is that:

  1. Pharaoh first hardened his heart.
  2. Then, in response, God confirmed Pharaoh's decision.

This seems contrived to me. The purpose for stating it this way is to avoid the unpleasant conclusion that God initiates the process. If God first hardens hearts then it is no longer a free will choice when we harden our hearts. This is because no one can resist his will.

There is another way to think about the issue which resolves the problems:


Gnashing Teeth

People generally assume that the image of gnashing teeth refers to physical pain, but that is not the biblical use of this image. Here are a couple of typical passages where the image is used in the context of God's judgment:

And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:30)

There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. (Luke 13:28)

Even God gnashes his teeth (figuratively) so the image certainly doesn't refer to physical pain.

God assails me and tears me in his anger and gnashes his teeth at me. (Job 16:9)

This image is also used this way in the New Testament.

When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. (Acts 7:54)

People gnash their teeth at people as a sign of ridicule and contempt. They do it to mock and to show disrespect.

Like the ungodly they maliciously mocked, they gnashed their teeth at me. (Psalm 35:16)

Therefore, people in hell who gnash their teeth do so because of their hatred of God, not because they are in physical pain.


Jonah

I propose that the story of Jonah has an important message which directly pertains to understanding hell. The essentials of the story:

Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me. (Jonah 1:2)

But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD. (Jonah 1:3)

But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)

And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 2:10)

Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you." (Jonah 3:1-2)

Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. (Jonah 3:3)

God persuaded Jonah to go to Nineveh but note that God did not violate Jonah's free will. God put Jonah into a situation which was sufficient to persuade him to do what God wanted him to do.

I propose that in hell, God provides a situation sufficient to persuade each of the wicked inhabitants of hell to willfully:

It is God's purpose in creating both angelic beings and humans that we all willfully acknowledge that these things belong to God alone.


Lazarus and the Rich Man

Luke 16:19-31 contains the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. This story contains a picture of what it is like in hell.

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. (Luke 16:19-21)

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. (Luke 16:22)

The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. (Luke 16:22-23)

So he called to him, Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire. (Luke 16:24)

But Abraham replied, Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. (Luke 16:25-26)

He answered, Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment. (Luke 16:27-28)

Abraham replied, They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them. (Luke 16:29)

No, father Abraham, he said, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent. (Luke 16:30)

He said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." (Luke 16:31)

Many people use this passage to prove that hell is a place of eternal torture. The justification for this is that since this passage is not a parable, it must be interpreted literally. But a strictly literal interpretation of this passage has some unintended side-effects, which are usually ignored:

The point of this is to show that a strictly literal interpretation has problems. If people want to use a strictly literal interpretation to prove that hell is a place of eternal torture by fire, then they should also accept the side-effects of doing so.

I propose that this story is not strictly literal but rather, is a rabbinic teaching story. The purpose is to show that the Old Testament is sufficient for people to recognize who Christ is as will be evidenced when Christ rises from the dead and people still reject him.

One reason people give for saying that this is not a parable is because there is a person's name in it. They say that parables never have names. But the following passage refutes this (Satan is named as a character of the parable):

Then Jesus said to them, Don't you understand this parable? . . . The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. (Mark 13-15)


Punishment

Why should any living man complain when punished for his sins? (Lamentations 3:39)

It is common for people to think of hell as eternal torture. Certainly hell is eternal punishment:

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)

But the word "punishment" does not imply torture. In fact, in the Bible, punishment rarely refers to physical pain or torture.

Punishment is done for a purpose, to make a change for the better in the future. But when the punishment is eternal there is no possibility of future benefit so the punishment itself must be its own benefit.


Reasons for God's Punishment in this Life

Some of the reasons that God punishes. What he hopes to accomplish.

  1. So that the person or people will repent and turn back to God

    I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his willful ways. (Isaiah 57:17)

    In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction. (Jeremiah 2:30)

  2. Punishment is a natural consequence of sin

    Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart! (Jeremiah 4:18)

  3. Punishment results in God removing his blessings. This is to demonstrate that only God has the power.

    This is what the LORD Almighty says: "Cut down the trees and build siege ramps against Jerusalem. This city must be punished; it is filled with oppression. As a well pours out its water, so she pours out her wickedness. Violence and destruction resound in her; her sickness and wounds are ever before me. Take warning, O Jerusalem, or I will turn away from you and make your land desolate so no one can live in it." (Jeremiah 6:6-8)

  4. God's punishment is based on our deeds. This demonstrates his justice

    I will punish you as your deeds deserve, declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 21:14)

  5. It is the wickedness of man that does the punishing. God merely allows the natural consequence to take its course. Wickedness leads to violence

    The day is here! It has come! Doom has burst forth, the rod has budded, arrogance has blossomed! Violence has grown into a rod to punish wickedness; none of the people will be left, none of that crowd—no wealth, nothing of value. (Ezekiel 7:10-11)

    They will come against you with weapons, chariots and wagons and with a throng of people; they will take up positions against you on every side with large and small shields and with helmets. I will turn you over to them for punishment, and they will punish you according to their standards. (Ezekiel 23:24)

  6. To demonstrate God's holiness, that he hates sin

    This is what the Sovereign LORD says: "I am against you, O Sidon, and I will gain glory within you. They will know that I am the LORD, when I inflict punishment on her and show myself holy within her." (Ezekiel 28:22)

  7. God often uses other humans to punish

    I will lay waste Upper Egypt, set fire to Zoan and inflict punishment on Thebes. (Ezekiel 30:14)

  8. So that people will know who God is

    So I will inflict punishment on Egypt, and they will know that I am the LORD. (Ezekiel 30:19)

  9. There are various stages of punishment (standard setting, warning, destruction)

    Because you harbored an ancient hostility and delivered the Israelites over to the sword at the time of their calamity, the time their punishment reached its climax. (Ezekiel 35:5)

  10. Punishment results in people being in bondage to this world

    They offer sacrifices given to me and they eat the meat, but the LORD is not pleased with them. Now he will remember their wickedness and punish their sins: They will return to Egypt. (Hosea 8:13)

  11. To demonstrate that God holds people responsible for their actions

    At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, "The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad." (Zephaniah 1:12)

  12. God can remove the punishment if people repent

    The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. (Zephaniah 3:15)


Reasons for God's Eternal Punishment in the Afterlife

Once someone is in hell there is no possibility of repentance leading to heaven. Whatever the benefit of the punishment, it must be achieved within the context of the punishment itself.

Their punishment causes them to cringe before God. But in cringing before God they are acknowledging his existence and his power.

Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, and their punishment would last forever. (Psalm 81:15)

Punishment of children by their parents is for the purpose of benefiting them. Certainly God's eternal punishment of those in hell will be for their benefit as well, since God still loves them.

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death. (Proverbs 23:13-14)

Because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. (Hebrews 12:6)

There are different kinds of punishment. Eternal punishment does not mean eternal torture. Only rarely is the word punishment used to refer to torture.

Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment. (Ezra 7:26)

God punishes them but still loves them. The punishment is done in the context of love. It is not hateful, spiteful torture but is performed to accomplish a specific purpose.

If his sons forsake my law and do not follow my statutes, if they violate my decrees and fail to keep my commands, I will punish their sin with the rod, their iniquity with flogging; but I will not take my love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness. (Psalm 89:30-33)

Even Christ was punished by God. But there was a higher purpose to be accomplished by it.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Punishment is a natural consequence of sin.

The wages of the righteous bring them life, but the income of the wicked brings them punishment. (Proverbs 10:16)

Punishment of the dead is the same as death itself.

O LORD, our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but your name alone do we honor. They are now dead, they live no more; those departed spirits do not rise. You punished them and brought them to ruin; you wiped out all memory of them. (Isaiah 26:13,14)

Punishment is the same as judgment

See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer. (Isaiah 26:21)

In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword, his fierce, great and powerful sword, Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)


Links ...

Here is a link to the Catechism of the Catholic Church which treats of this topic:
Notice that it doesn't mention the image of fire as literal rather than metaphorical.

From St. Thomas Aquinas — search on:     pain of sense
He remarks that a physical fire will in some way operate on the soul. But he doesn't address my point which is that the image of fire in the Bible is metaphorical.

From the Catechism of the Council of Trent — search on:     pain of sense
Mentions that the term 'everlasting fire' refers to punishments felt by the senses. It doesn't mention how it is that the soul can experience pain through the senses.