Jesus and Hell, Part Two: What the Hell? (The Meaning of Jesus’ Infernal Imagery)

In the last post, I noted that there have been at least three ways Christians have understood hell – as either everlasting conscious torment (ECT), annihilation, or as a process of purification. Now we will take a closer look at the Gospel texts to see what they’re really talking about.

The first text I quoted in this series (Mark 9:43-48) appears at first glance to be talking about ECT, with its language of “unquenchable fire” and a worm that never dies.

When we look at the word Jesus uses here for “hell” (Greek Gehenna), however, we see something quite different.

Gehenna literally means “Valley of Hinnom.” The valley of Hinnom was a place just outside of Jerusalem that served as a garbage dump, and it may also have been a place of human sacrifice. Bodies were often dumped here, where they were burned and eaten by worms. The fire in this valley was “unquenchable” since it was always being reignited to burn more bodies.

When Jesus refers to Gehenna, then, this is what He has in mind – a place of complete and total destruction. There’s nothing in this text, or others that speak of Gehenna (Matt 5:22, 5:29-30, 10:28, 18:8-9; Luke 12:4-5) that necessarily speaks of everlasting conscious torment. In fact, in another reference to Gehenna, Jesus tells us not to fear those who can only kill the body, but to fear the one “who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Gehenna)” (Matt 10:28).

As for the text that speaks of the wicked departing into “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46), this also has been misread – and often poorly translated as well.

The word translated here is as “eternal” is the Greek aionios, which literally means “of or pertaining to an age or ages.”

When understood as a reference to time, this word speaks of an age that may be exceedingly long – but it doesn’t, by itself, imply something with an endless duration. It does not usually mean “eternal” in the sense of “everlasting.”

Aionios may also have a mystical meaning, referring not to length of time but to depth of experience. All of us can think of experiences that shock us to the very core, to the very depths of our being. These experiences can be called “eternal” in the sense that they seem to transcend space and time. This too is contained in the word aionios.

We should also note that the word translated as “punishment” (Greek kolasis) doesn’t usually mean punishment in the sense of vengeance. It refers to chastisement, or disciplinary measures aimed at rehabilitation. (The root of this word comes from a word used for the pruning of trees). Everlasting torment could not achieve this purpose.

Thus when we read that the wicked are headed toward “eternal punishment,” we should not understand this to mean “everlasting torture.” A better rendering might be something like “the chastising of the age to come,” or “long-lasting correction.” While this may not be as satisfying to our sense of vengeance as everlasting torture, it’s probably more in line with what Jesus (whose Father loves the just and the unjust) actually taught!

The third Scripture I quoted (Matt 13:41-42) is representative of a series of Gospel texts (Matt 8:11-12, 13:40-43, 13:49-50, 22:11-14, 25:30; Luke 13:22-30) that describe hell in terms of conscious suffering. Some of these speak of a “furnace of fire” and others “outer darkness”; common to all of them is the image of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Since hell is described here as both a furnace and “outer darkness,” it’s clear that these images aren’t meant to be taken literally. Most likely, they refer to a sense of gnawing regret, which can be described either as a burning fire or as “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” There’s no escaping the horror of the realities described here; but we must remember that none of these texts imply that this pain is everlasting!

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) is perhaps the most terrifying of all the hell texts, since it not only speaks of conscious suffering, but a conscious suffering that cannot be escaped from.

When the rich man asks for Lazarus to comfort him in his suffering, he is told bluntly that “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us” (Luke 16:26).

If any Gospel text hints at a hell of everlasting conscious torment (ECT), this is it; and it’s no wonder that many preachers have used this passage to literally scare the hell out of people!

We must remember, however, that this a parable – not a literal description of post-mortem suffering.

The point is that our choices have consequences that can’t be reversed. If we oppress the poor, for example, we will one day have to live with the results of such actions – and we may find that such results are irreversible! The walls we build to keep others out may end up being the walls that keep us imprisoned.

Author Rob Bell makes an important point by noting that the rich man in this parable never really repents; he never comes to see the error of his greedy ways. He wants to be relieved of his suffering, but he still sees Lazarus as his servant.

“It’s no wonder Abraham says there’s a chasm that can’t be crossed,” Bell writes. “The chasm is the rich man’s heart! It hasn’t changed, even in death and torment and agony” (Love Wins, 75).

It may well be that some people will cling to their sin and selfishness to the very end. But this is not a punishment from God; it’s simply what happens when God allows us the freedom to choose our eternal destiny.

Some may refuse God’s love to the bitter end. But even here, there is always the hope that God’s grace will prove irresistible. There’s nothing in any of these texts that says our chance for repentance ends at death.

When we look at all of Jesus’ references to hell, we see that some of them speak of destruction or annihilation, and others speak of conscious suffering. But none of them says that this suffering will necessarily be everlasting!

ECT is a concept that has to be read into the texts. The fact that the majority of the church in every age has done so says more about our (fallen) human nature than it does about the nature of God, of Jesus, or the Bible.

Still, a couple of questions remain. For one thing, why do some of these passages describe hell in terms of destruction, others as conscious suffering, and still others as correction intended at rehabilitation? Which is it?

I got a great deal of clarity on this point one night in December of 2015. In a dream, I saw Death personified as a friendly old man with a white beard.

“You don’t need to be afraid of me,” said Death. “I am your brother, and I love you. When your time comes, I will take you away gently.”

In this dream, I saw that Death had been purified by the resurrection, and was no longer something to be feared. I also saw that this was the meaning of the verse that describes Death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14). I came to see that the purpose of hell isn’t everlasting torment, or even annihilation, but purification!

This purification can be quite painful, to be sure; thus the imagery of fire, worms, darkness, and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The purifying fire of hell can also be spoken of in terms of destruction, since there are parts of us that may need to be destroyed before we will be able to enjoy an eternity in God’s presence.

And so it is that hell can be described as both destruction and torment; but its ultimate purpose is restoration.

The other question that remains is this: if there’s a chance for repentance after death, why does Jesus speak with such urgency?

Why does He tell us that “it would better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” than for us to go to hell (Mark 9:42-48)? And why does He tell us to fear hell more than physical death (Matt 10:28, Mark 12:4-5)?

If the purpose of hell is to rehabilitate, why should we fear it? This too can be explained – but you will have to bear with me.

(Coming Next – Jesus and Hell, Part Three: Why the Hell? (The Reason for Jesus’ Warnings))

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