Tuesday 18 February 2014

Hell - a test case for your idea of Christian evidence


That there is a place or state of Hell seems clear enough to most real Christians - but what Hell means, who it is for - what kind of people, what kind of proportion of people - and the matter of whether Hell is a default state or if not whether it is an imposed punishment of a self-chosen destination... these are matters of great disagreement among Christians.

My purpose here is simply to point out that how Christians discuss Hell is specific evidence of how they understand and evaluate Christianity in general - and indeed each Christian can reflect on their own way of discussing the subject of Hell as a way of diagnosing their own evaluation scheme.


At one level it is trivially obvious that primary understanding of Hell comes from the authority structure of whatever Christian denomination to which you are affiliated - what I am interested by is what comes next. If further evidence is asked for, or evidence for the view of authority, then differences emerge.

For many people the proper way to understand Hell is to examine the Bible verses which reference Hell - or precursor or related concepts of Hell such as Sheol. These verses are then compared and synthesized to generate a picture of Hell.

I would call this a bottom-up or legalistic approach.

This view seems to suggest that Jesus Christ introduced Hell, and depicted it as a worse place than Sheol: a tormenting place rather than a place of ghostly dementia and witlessness; and that people were to be judged and sent to Hell.

It seems hard to avoid that Hell is a punishment - and Original Sin makes Hell seem like a default for humans primarily because of the transgression of Adam and Eve.


At the opposite extreme is the way I personally tend to approach understanding Hell, which is very 'broad brush' - and that is by (for example) looking at the overall implication of Jesus's ministry in the Gospels.

What I see there is that Jesus was clearly preaching Good News. For me this sets the boundaries for whatever concept of Hell is settled upon - that it had to be something which was Good News in the context of the New Testament, against the backdrop of Jewish and Pagan ideas about the afterlife.

Whatever Hell is, therefore, as a package the destiny of the soul after life as described and promised by Christianity must be much better than anything on offer from paganism and Judaism.


As further evidence, I take very seriously the broad brush context of the first and second commandments (to Love first God, then secondly they 'neighbour' as thyself) plus the repeated concept of God as Love; and the further consideration that all Men we are (in a profound sense) God's children (Sons of God).

So whatever Hell is, and whoever it is for, must be seen in a context of familial love, a Fathers love of children.


A third factor is that in my broad brush way of considering the Bible - the Old Testament is all about the free will, choice and agency of the 'characters' - Adam and his family, Noah, the Kings and Prophets, smaller characters like Ruth, and even baddies like the Pharaoh in Genesis... they are all seen choosing and taking the consequences of their choices - and everything hinges on these being real choices.

So, the fact that Jesus was preaching Good News, that God is love, we are his children, and we have real free choice including the freedom to reject the Good News... all these broad brush considerations set fairly sharp bounds for how a Christian should conceptualize Hell.

So I see what Christ did as wholly Good News, a gift of salvation-by-default; and Hell as an anomalous and self-chosen state (not a punishment, not a place someone is sent against their wishes) - a destination chosen by free will, and against the deepest wishes of God.


(This is not universalism nor Namby Pamby, Pollyanna-ish wishful-thinking - because I believe that many people have chosen, more are choosing and probably many more will in future choose, Hell - and that Hell really is Hellish. And also that Satan and his demons are at work increasing the numbers of people who make such choices. But although this situation surely angers God, as it would any loving parent if their children chose to reject family, goodness and love; this situation is primarily a source of deep, eternal sorrow to God - as it would be for any loving parent.)


And in all this, there has not been not much place for the close analysis of chapter and verse and unravelling hard or ambiguous passages; there is no role for legalism - leave aside the microscopic examination of individual words and issues of the translation of Hebrew or Greek concepts.

Now, ideally I would want to be able to synthesize the broad brush with the chapter and verse sources of evidence - because ultimately they are not in conflict, and all contradictions must be superficial and not deep, apparent and not real.

But what matters is which level is primary: what needs to be reconciled to what.

Many or most modern Christians are bottom up - and reconcile the broad brush with the chapter and verse - I am pointing-out that the top down and broad brush view is of at least equal validity to legalism (and has the great advantage of being much less dependent on the minutiae of translation and historical context).



Mercurius Aulicus said...

Hell is not a holiday camp in most Universalist thought - it is a place of remedial punishment and correction of sin, not a pleasant place to be. I've been reading some modern and some old Universalists and you can't really get around examination of translations of Greek and Hebrew words - what is meant by "eternal"?, is the word translated "Hell", simply the grave or the place of the dead etc. Is Jesus using the conventions of a current story in his parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man rather than telling us anything about the afterlife?

Mercurius Aulicus said...

For people interested in looking further at Universalism may I recommend http://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/ or http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/barclay1.html

Bruce Charlton said...

@MCB - "you can't really get around examination of translations of Greek and Hebrew words"

I am assuming that the Authorized Translation (King James Version) was accurate-enough because divinely inspired (there being a lot of evidence for this) - it is further necessary to assume that the act of reading an inspired translation is also (sufficiently) divinely sustained. I suppose all ideas of scripture require something of the sort.

Mercurius Aulicus said...

To quote from William Barclay's "I AM A CONVINCED UNIVERSALIST" (http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/barclay1.html) the English translation of the KJV may lose nuances that are present in the Greek e.g. "Second, one of the key passages is Matthew 25:46 where it is said that the rejected go away to eternal punishment, and the righteous to eternal life. The Greek word for punishment is kolasis, which was not originally an ethical word at all. It originally meant the pruning of trees to make them grow better. I think it is true to say that in all Greek secular literature kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment. The word for eternal is aionios. It means more than everlasting, for Plato - who may have invented the word - plainly says that a thing may be everlasting and still not be aionios. The simplest way to out it is that aionios cannot be used properly of anyone but God; it is the word uniquely, as Plato saw it, of God. Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give."

Mercurius Aulicus said...

Also regarding translation may I quote from WHY I AM A UNIVERSALIST. BY HON. PHINEAS T. BARNUM (http://www.pacificuu.org/publ/univ/writings/barnum_why.html):Against my hope is quoted the Bible word "hell." The Universalist is characterized as one who does not believe in hell. We believe the Bible doctrine of hell. Sin in a soul is fitly symbolized by the words Gehenna, Hades, Sheol, and Tartarus. Not one of these words primarily means a place of torment after death. The word °` hell " in its old English sense of °' to cover" was a passable translation of these original words, but in its present orthodox sense is not a translation of one of them, but an unwarranted substitution.

What are we to say when these substantives are described by the adjectives "everlasting," "forever and forever," etc.? What is the Bible use of these adjectives ? They are applied to God and immortal life: here we know they mean endless from the nature of the subject. They are applied to the rainbow, Levitical rites, Jewish possession of Canaan, hills and stars; here we know from the nature of the subject they do not mean endless. These adjectives are therefore indefinite, and take their force from the nature of the subject to which they are applied. That eminent Bible scholar, Professor Taylor Lewis, said: "The preacher in contending with the Universalist would commit an error, and it may be suffer a failure in his argument, should he lay the whole stress of it on the etymological or historical significance of the words aion and aionios, and attempt to prove that of themselves they necessarily carry the meaning of endless duration." Lange's Commentary on Ecclesiastes, P. 48.

This is an honest concession from a great orthodox scholar of what my church has always contended for. On Sunday, Nov. 11, 1877, in Westminster Abbey, the great preacher, Canon Farrar, said very impressively: " I ask you where would be the popular teachings about hell if we calmly and deliberately erased from our English Bibles the three words damnation,' ' hell,' and ' everlasting' ? Yet I say unhesitatingly, I say, claiming the fullest right to speak with the authority of knowledge, I say with the calmest and most unflinching sense of responsibility, I say, standing here in the sight of God and my Saviour, and, it may be, of the angels and the spirits of the dead, that not one of these words ought to stand any longer in the English Bible."

Bruce Charlton said...

@MCB - Sticking to the subject of the post - it seems that you regard historical linguistic scholarship as the 'bottom line' for understanding Christian doctrine - which I would regard as a bottom-up/ legalistic mode of reasoning; and a secular discipline.

I don't think I disagree much or at all with your conclusions, but this seems to me the wrong way of settling disputes - not least because 200 years of experience says that it utterly fails to settle disputes!

Don said...


You say that people 'choose hell'. Which may or may not be true.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

The preceding seems to say that some people will be going to hell and surprised at that. If they made that choice how could there be surprise. Thessalonians also would clearly contradict your thinking. I believe where you are leading yourself astray is in choosing to look 'top down' so that you may ignore the actual situation on the ground (whether consciously or not).

I am not saying you are disingenuous just that anyone can imagine what the forest looks like by flying over but it will almost always look different than what you suppose when you go for a hike.

The point of the post was well put, what you believe about hell will most likely be as a result of whatever Christian church you belong to. Without a strong attachment to any Christian church you will naturally drawn to an interpretation of hell that most matches your understanding tempered by your own nature. You are obviously a decent and forgiving type of man, rational, kind, and logical. A permanent place of punishment for those who choose to defy God may seem extreme, unkind, and illogical. Sending people to hell who thought they were going to heaven may seem cruel but the Gospels are clear that all will be judged and that some will go to hell including people who believed they were going to heaven.

Punishment serves two purposes, justice and deterrence. There are clear warnings of what will happen to some and it is dire, thus deterrence. Justice is what somebody receives if he rejects mercy. I wish your view of hell were correct. I fear my view is a closer to what we will see.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D "What I personally believe is not really supposed to be the subject here (In a nutshell, I believe a less precise version of what Mormons believe) - but "A permanent place of punishment for those who choose to defy God may seem extreme, unkind, and illogical."

I believe in the permanent place, but not the punishment aspect - although punishment is one way of conceptualizing it - and it may well seem like a punishment to the people who were there - just as caging a feral beast to keep others safe may seem to the beast like punishment.

The ONLY entities in Hell against their will would therefore be demons and irredeemably demonic persons who are kept there to sequester them from the Good - so that they cannot wreck things. It has to be permanent because souls are indestructible.

"Sending people to hell who thought they were going to heaven may seem cruel but the Gospels are clear that all will be judged and that some will go to hell including people who believed they were going to heaven."

Hmmm. I don't think I disagree. In CS Lewis's Great Divorce are people who are in Hell but suppose it to be Heaven, and when visiting Heaven seem to regard it as a place of punishment. People who really refuse Heaven really will not go there, but they may get the labels mixed up - in fact the essence of modern advanced Leftism is precisely a demonic inversion of labels - it remains to be seen how effective this inversion will be in inducing people to reject Heaven when it actually comes to the point.

Don said...


That is something of my own belief. I am Catholic and believe in Purgatory. A 'purgatory' where you learn the lessons you should have learned in this life fits well I believe with the Mormon view of a chance at education and salvation afterward.

Some souls may be irretrievably damned, damaged beyond all repair. I had never thought about the 'why' of an eternal hell before (it was simply accepted). The fact that the soul is eternal means that wherever a soul must wind up needs to be eternal as well.

This is why I read here (other than your love of Tolkien) you stimulate my mind allowing me to better order my own thoughts and beliefs. Thanks for taking the time to engage with us.

Bookslinger said...

Many LDS views of post-mortal, millennial, and post-judgement states of souls, various heavens, and various "hells" are framed by Revelations chapter 20, Doctrine & Covenants Section 19, and Doctrine and Covenants Section 76. Section 19 is very thought-provoking. Section 76 is awe-inspiring.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Books - Chapter and verse again!