At times, I've remarked that the gruesome portrayal of the damned in Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" reveals a common human desire for our enemies’ demise. Maybe that is not the whole story. Perhaps we can find another thread. When I first typed “hell” into my laptop a moment ago, “heal” came out. Significant? Perhaps. I—like many of us—hope that God will heal Hitler, and Stalin, and the obnoxiously loud next-door neighbor, and the rabid atheist professor so that they all would turn to the Light. In a word, I hope for a life with no hell.
The Bible is much more interested in the new heavens and earth than in hell. So we ought to start there. It is the direction creation has pointed from the beginning. In fact, with the consummation of creation in mind, Genesis 1-2 receives new light. The Lord calls the world “good,” not only in its initial form, but because God will remain faithful to creation and lead it continually toward perfection. Put in a different way, we fully understand the goodness of the first act of creation in light of the final act of new creation.
In the prophets, Isaiah stands out describing of the promise of the future and insights into creation. As Israel experienced increasing national trauma after its defeat and subsequent occupation by the hated and indomitable Babylonians in the sixth century BC, several prophets looked with hope to a coming day—the day of the promised victory by God’s Messiah. Several passages in the second part of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) link eschatological hope with the creation at the beginning. For example, Isaiah promises a new day of hope for the exiled people in which the natural order will return, subduing chaos as in Genesis 1, and restoring creation in some form to Eden:
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)
The final chapters of the Bible, Revelation 21 and 22, provide a vision of another city, the City of God. In it ceaseless praise of God continues. Beautiful music--I'd like to think it's jazz--fills the heavenly city. And there is continual activity. We are not simply given rest in the new creation, but work without the curse of futility. (“By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,” Genesis 3:19). The final words offer two great promises: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates” (22:14). In this vision of cleansing and glory, we can take hold of the tree that Adam and Eve were forced to avoid after their disobedience (Genesis 3:24). As a final act of triumph, Jesus will return to right our turbulent world, where God’s people face persecution:
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. (Revelation 22:20-21)
In 1994 the author (and now speaker) Betty Eadie sold boatloads of her book, Embraced by the Light, which describes her near-death experiences. Shortly after the book was published, I studied Eadie’s revelations with a church adult education class. We were struck by the specific and comforting details she described about heaven. In many ways, we simply wanted to believe them. On the other hand, we know the difficulty of assessing the truth of these descriptions by Eadie or other similar authors. Broadly, they confirm some type of afterlife. Nevertheless, the interest in Eadie’s book reveals that Americans crave to know precisely what happens “on the other side.” Will I see my mother again? Will I understand why my son died of cancer at age nine? Will my dog be in heaven? The Bible offers both a more profound answer, but does not satisfy every speculation. The Bible concerns itself foremost with God’s justice to right a world distorted by sin and secondly with God’s salvation of a people. We are left without exhaustive detail of what happens to each of us individually. God will create a fully just world where the people of God will—for the first time—live fully human lives, thereby glorifying their Creator.
And so we arrive at the unpleasant doctrine of hell. I would be glad to forget it all about it. It is not only unpopular (“There you Christians go again with your judging!”), but personally repelling (Remember I want everyone to be healed). But unfortunately we hear it in Scripture and particularly on the lips of Jesus. It also makes sense of free will (what if some continue to resist God?) and God’s sovereignty (can a good God allow the unrepentant to exist forever?). Some biblical scholars—notably the prominent English evangelical, John Stott—have taken a fresh look and determined that hell cannot be everlasting, conscious punishment. His work demonstrates the need to re-look at this terrible doctrine. My hope is that we will be able to put aside any notions we have read in Dante’s poetry or seen on The Omen and listen patiently to the Scripture.
First of all, what does hell mean? Beginning with the key words is often a good approach. Sheol and Hades are transliterations of Hebrew and Greek words respectively that simply mean the abode of the dead, not necessarily a place of punishment. In the New Testament, hell translates a Greek term, geenna, which originated as a garbage dump in the valley of Hinnon, in which children ritually were later killed and dedicated to the god, Molech and dumped as refuse. This pit burned day and night. At the time of Christ, it had became a symbol for a place of end times punishment.
C. S. Lewis, in his brilliant book The Problem of Pain, exercises his skills as a literary critic, by analyzing the key texts on hell in the Gospels. He demonstrates that there are three primary images: punishment (the “eternal punishment” of Matthew 25:46), destruction (Matthew 10:28’s “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”), and finally privation and banishment (“the outer darkness” where the slave who hid his talents in Matthew 25:30 is sent). Lewis comments, “it is not necessary to concentrate on the images of torture to the exclusion of those suggesting destruction and privation.” He continues by looking again at the conclusion of the parable of the sheep and goats (especially Matthew 25:34, 41).
[T]he damned go to a place never made for men at all. To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being in earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is “remains.”
If there is existence in hell, it is a shadowy one. Lewis adds one final reflection on the biblical texts: Jesus emphasizes finality, not duration in these texts. “Consignment to the destroying fire is usually treated as the end of the story—not as the beginning of a new story.”
I must add one note to Lewis. There is also a tension in Scripture between final exclusion and an ultimate healing. 1 Timothy 2:4 affirms that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” A note of universalism also finds its way in the stirring conclusion to 1 Corinthians 15, “for all of us die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” And a cryptic verse in 1 Peter describes Christ preaching to perished souls. Verse 19 says that after his death, he “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.”
So in the end, will all be saved? Will “hell” finally end up in “heal”? John Calvin notoriously saw two rooms into which we were born and elected by the sovereign God—either heaven or hell. The doors are looked, and the decision irrevocable. But what if look specifically to the God we know in Jesus Christ? What if we begin with Christ as the elect Representative for all humanity? By his work, we begin in the embrace of God’s love and therefore in the party room of election. The room is, however, not locked. It is of course our choice to move out into the outer darkness. Will God’s ultimate plan for salvation triumph even over our bad decisions? Perhaps this question cannot be solved theoretically, but through prayer—that we are to pray for a redemption far beyond what we could imagine. Perhaps we are to pray for an embrace that includes our cynical co-worker, the rapist who terrorized our streets, and even the most hated and cruel, like the Emperor Nero and Adolf Hitler.