The hub-bub on hell continues. For now, I have no interest in taking sides on this debate and adding another polemic, especially since I have not read the book. What I would like to do, once again, is to help us pay careful attention to words, particularly the Bible's words. Language in a debate is critical. Too many people are ready to condemn Bell as a heretic because his definition of "Hell" is not like theirs. His definition may indeed by misleading (Once again: I have not read the book). But as I mentioned in an earlier post, there is room within Evangelical Christianity (to say nothing for the wider Christian world of Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism!) for at least four different views on what eternal judgment will be. Each of these can be well-defended from Scripture. Many have been quick-- strangely so-- to defend hell as a place of eternal torture and as a necessary corollary to God's love, while ignoring other possibilities of eternal judgment (such as "annihilationism" or "conditional immortality"). To make things worse, in the midst of all the defenses of hell, it seems that a few respected teachers have been careless about the Bible's own words on the subject.
The two most common Greek words that our English Bibles translate as "hell" are "Hades" and "Gehenna". But the two are not synonymous. Part of the confusion has come from the King James Bible translating both words as hell. Newer, more diligent translations-- including the ESV, which is well-loved by the Reformed tradition-- don't translate "Hades," (they leave it as "Hades") and save the word "hell" for "Gehenna." Hades is the "netherworld", the domain of the dead. "Gehenna", on the other hand, was a trash heap outside Jerusalem that became a symbol, a euphemism of sorts, of the destruction of final judgment. I would venture to guess that almost any commentary or seminary-level dictionary would tell you the same thing. The ones I've checked do. Because I believe it will be more helpful to this discussion to use the terms "Hades" and "Gehenna"-- the Bible's own terms!-- instead of the one generic word "hell", here are some important things to note about each word.
1. Hades is the domain of the wicked dead.
Prior to Christ's death and resurrection, it appears that there was a "section" of the domain of the dead-- Hebrew, "Sheol"-- where the "righteous" were. In Jesus' parable, that place is called "Abraham's side" (Luke 16:19-31). Meanwhile, the wicked are in Hades, which, by Jesus' account, is not a pleasant place. Post-Jesus' resurrection, the "dead in Christ" are in Heaven, yet they are still awaiting their bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12-28). Meanwhile, the wicked dead are in Hades, awaiting final judgment (Rev. 20:13-15). Both current Heaven and Hades are temporary. The hope of those in Christ is bodily resurrection and life on "new heaven and new earth, " joined together as one (Rev. 21:1-4). Hades will be defeated and destroyed after the wicked are judged (Rev. 20:13-15).
2. The story of Lazarus and the rich man is about Hades not Gehenna.
Luke 16: 22-24 (NIV)
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 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.’"
It's a shame that a few trusted and respected teachers whom I love, have failed to differentiate between the word "hell" (in the KJV) in this passage and the other times Jesus says "hell." Here, Jesus uses "Hades"(the ESV, NIV2011, and others have corrected the translation). In the other places Jesus says "hell", the word is "Gehenna." I've already pointed out that Hades and Gehenna are not the same thing.
3. Jesus descended into Hades not Gehenna.
Acts 2:29-33 (NIV)
“'Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead [the word here is "Hades" not "Gehenna"], nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.'"
4. Hades will be emptied out in order for the wicked dead to be judged.
Rev. 20:13-15 (NIV)
"The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire."
It may be important to note that even the wicked dead in Hades are not automatically thrown into the Lake of Fire. It simply says that they are judged. It may mean that they are all thrown into the Lake of Fire, but it may mean that some don't. I think the point here may be that we are not the ones who will be doing the judging. The just and holy and loving God will.
1. Gehenna, though an actual trash heap outside Jerusalem, is a picture of final judgment.
It is well-know that "Gehenna", Jesus' word of choice for final judgment, was a trash heap outside Jerusalem, where fires would burn and worms would destroy the refuse of the city. Timothy Keller rightly argues that even though Gehenna was an actual place-- a trash heap outside Jerusaelm-- Jesus' use of the word seems to be a picture of final judgment. From the number of times Jesus spoke of "Gehenna", it is clear He believed in a place of final judgment.
2. Gehenna speaks of decay, decomposition, and destruction.
Again: saying that there will be a judgment that is eternal (read: final and irreversible) is not the same as saying that the judgment will be "eternal conscious torture." Keller himself draws the parallel between "Gehenna" and the idea of decay and decomposition, a kind of self-destruction that results from rejecting God. (Loads of others have made this same point. I reference Keller because he is a well-loved, well-respected pastor, of the Reformed tradition that has had so much trouble with Bell.)
3. Gehenna most resembles the Lake of Fire imagery in Revelation.
Jesus' language of Gehenna as the place "where the fire never goes out" (Mark 9:43) is consistent with John's language of the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20). Incidentally, John only makes clear that the Beast and the False Prophet will be "tormented day and night forever and ever" (Rev. 20:10). Of the others who are thrown in, nothing is said of their torment.
4. Both Gehenna and the Lake of Fire are future not present.
Here again, Jesus' and John's language are with reference to the future. In other words, while the wicked dead are Hades and the "righteous" dead are in Heaven/Paradise, no one is yet in Hell. There is a judgment that is future, according to Revelation 20, John 5:24-30, and many other New Testament passages.
That does not mean that part of eternity does not begin now. As Christians, we believe our full and final hope is new bodies, new heaven, and new earth-- in short, new creation. Yet, Paul uses this Isaiah phrase to describe what has happened to all who are in Christ: we are a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), even now. Something of God's Life has begun to break out in us. "Rivers of living water" is Jesus' phrase for the Holy Spirit He would give to His disciples (John 7:38-39). Could it also be true that for those who will receive eternal judgment, that their "hell" may, in a sense begin now? Perhaps. We have all likely used the phrase to describe a heinous scene as being "hell on earth." But this is not to negate a real and final hell: a judgment from God that will be the verdict forever.
One Final Note:
That Christ will judge the living and the dead, we can believe with confidence. What exactly that judgment will be, we do not know for sure. That some will be in the Lake of Fire, we can see quite plainly from Scriptures like Revelation 20. But whether that Lake of Fire is a literal place or whether or not it will mean an "eternal conscious torment", there is room within orthodoxy for discussion. Once again, the language of Jesus in John 3:16 for those who do not believe in Him is that they will "perish;" John's language in Revelation 20:14 is that the Lake of Fire is "a second death." Nothing in that language backs us into a corner into having to believe that eternal judgment is "eternal conscious torture."
p.s. it took everything in me to not title this post with some witty play on the word hell in a quasi-cursing form. I'll leave that to others on the blogosphere.