So many things people think are part of Christian belief, including hell, do not exactly come from the Bible. There is an idea that some of the angels rebelled against God, led by their captain whose name is Satan. It’s all spelled out in Milton’s Paradise Lost. But in reality, this war in heaven saga is a combination of an ahistorical interpretation of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 with a smattering of other verses thrown in. Oh, and a whole lot of Hollywood-style drama is added to the mix to create this backstory of the angelic revolt.
Recently, a friendly inquirer asked me to spell out what I believe happens to a person when they die if they are not already reconciled with God. That is, what happens to the unsaved at death. You know the usual answer in Christian sermons and ideology. They wake up in a burning place, waist deep in lava or some similar horror.
I described something different, something equally as speculative. My inquiring friend responded, “Where is scripture to support that?”
I can’t say for sure what he was thinking. But I know a lot of people believe the Bible describes plainly what happens after death and what hell is like. Um, no it doesn’t.
Hell? No, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Outer Darkness, and a Lake of Fire
Hell is not in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) at all. Neither is heaven. There are notions of an afterlife there including:
- Sheol (the underworld) where the shades (ghosts) of human beings continue in a dark land
- “Going to the fathers,” a vague notion of being with one’s ancestors following death
- Resurrection, being bodily raised from the dead is in several places such as Isaiah 25 and 26
Sheol is like the Greek notion of Hades. You can see in the Iliad a perfect example of what afterlife is like. Patroclus, who had died, appears to Achilles, his friend. Achilles wants Patroclus to stay, but Patroclus explains he is not whole, that he is half a man.
Hell is not in the New Testament either. Apparently, and I am not claiming expertise, the word itself came into Old English through Anglo-Saxon pagan literature and perhaps before that proto-Germanic tribal languages.
The New Testament refers to Hades, Gehenna, the Outer Darkness, and the Lake of Fire.
Hades (Matt 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13) refers to the underworld and in a general way is a synonym for death. Interestingly, Hades is cast into the Lake of Fire in Revelation 20:13 (hell is cast into hell?). When Yeshua tells Capernaum, “You will be cast down to Hades,” it makes sense to interpret him as saying, “You will die in the coming war with Rome.”
Gehenna (Matt 5:22, 29; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43; Luke 12:5; James 3:6) is the Greek equivalent of the Valley of Hinnom (Gei Hinnom in Hebrew), a valley right outside Jerusalem’s walls. 2 Kings and Jeremiah say that child sacrifice and idol worship happened here in some periods of time. Jeremiah said it would become the Valley of Slaughter (7:30-32; 19:2-6). In 2 Esdras 7:36 it was said to be a fitting place to burn corpses. Yeshua refers to it as a place where people are destroyed (Matt 10:28). It is never associated with unending torture.
Another image of a place or time of judgment in Yeshua’s sayings is “the Outer Darkness” (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). It is a place where people wail and grind their teeth. The origin of this imagery is found in Isaiah and similar passages about the renewed Jerusalem: “Arise, shine, for your light has come” (Isa 60:1), “her righteousness goes forth as brightness” (62:1), and more. The image is of Jerusalem, the shining city in the coming age of God’s messianic peace. Outer darkness refers to people who cannot get into the city, who are kept out beyond its light.
And finally, we have the Lake of Fire (Rev 19:20; 20:10, 14). The Beast, False Prophet, Devil, Death, and Hades are said to be thrown into it along with those who took the mark of the Beast. It sounds like a pool of lava. Do you take it literally? This is Revelation and if you start taking all the images literally, they contradict one another. Do you take it as a place of unending conscious torture? Is “Death” going to be tortured? Is “Death” a person or spirit? Hmmm, sounds very symbolic.
Of course there are other references in the New Testament to judgment in the afterlife, such as “eternal destruction” in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. None of them describe the “Hell” of popular imagination.
Hell: Cobbled Together Imaginatively
The Hell of popular imagination is a place of torture, felt for eternity with no hope of reprieve. Who wouldn’t be afraid of going there? What if that other religious sect is right and ours is wrong? What is we make a tiny theological mistake and find ourselves in a horror that never ends?
Some people think this is what God is like. Before I go on to describe how “Hell” is a cobbled together fiction, let me remind you God is not an Eternal Trickster waiting to inflict pain on people without respite based on theology failures. The God of the Bible is the one of whom it is said: “For the Lord will not cast off forever . . . though he cause grief, he will have compassion” (Lam 3:31-32). God is busy “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).
Where does the Hell of popular imagination come from. It is pieced together from a verse here, a verse there, and by ignoring other verses which do not fit. Yeshua’s parable about a rich man and Lazarus gives people a lot of the ideas they need (so much so, that I think I need to write an article on it separately). Also pulled in are images like the lake of fire and any description that uses the word eternal or forever with an idea of judgment. Oh, and since Yeshua said the way is narrow, most believe the majority of human beings end up in Hell.
From these people piece together the following points:
- Hell as a place of torture by fire
- Hell as a lake of fire
- Hell as a place from which no one escapes
- Hell as an eternal, conscious punishment
- Hell as the homeland of Satan (a.k.a. the Devil)
- Hell as the destiny of the vast majority of people who have ever lived
But the whole idea does not work. It is proof-texting at its worst. The standard Hell Theology is an ideological house of cards built on tradition and flimsy use of biblical texts. It is a wall built with flimsy bricks, like the old Babylonian pyramids. The rains come and the bricks of this wall do not last. They erode under the scrutiny of historical, contextual reading of the Bible.
“Lake of fire” is a notion specific to Revelation and cannot be combined with other ideas outside of Revelation. Hades in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man cannot be absolutized into a depiction of afterlife. Perhaps more importantly, you cannot just ignore the images that do not fit. Outer Darkness is not an image that can be simply disregarded. Leaving out Paul’s term, Eternal Destruction, is a sloppy way to build a theology.
The Grey Place
So, I presented another idea to my friend who inquired about my beliefs. What happens to a person when they die if they have not already been reconciled with God? I have my own speculative, cobbled together notion. It is somewhat like Sheol, a Grey Place. It is possible that in the place of judgment, which we could call hell, we are not whole. Perhaps we are only a semblance of our true selves. After all, in this present life, I believe we lack wholeness, that we are not all we have been created to be.
I certainly do not believe the myth that we wake up in God’s presence, either to be blessed or damned. I think we may wake up in the outskirts of paradise or in a sort of grey world. Those who awake in the ashen landscape of “hell” will find it to be some sort of self-contained universe. Lewis pictured it quite well in The Great Divorce.
God does not leave them alone in that universe any more than he does in this one. Sure, his presence is hidden, just as it is now. But the subtle light of goodness glows inside them just as it does in us in this present world.
They, like us, need to grow to know God is real, to believe in the light, to desire goodness and see through the falsity of self-absorption. The curse of Adam, though, has already been broken. One act of righteousness, Messiah’s, leads to rectification for all human beings (Rom 5:18). As in Adam death came to all, how much more in Messiah who is the Last Adam, will they receive the abundance of favor from heaven and the free gift of righteousness, with which to reign in eternal life (Rom 5:17).
The Grey Place is what I believe awaits those who do not yet know God. But there is hope beyond the Grey Place. It is Hades, Sheol, temporary.
If you say, “There is no specific scripture that supports your view,” I will say the same about your belief.