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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Understanding Hell, Part 6

(To read the earlier posts in this series, click here:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5)
Objection #4: “One of the New Testament words for hell is “gehenna” which refers to a site just outside of Jerusalem where children were once sacrificed to the pagan god Molech.  Josiah, out of disgust for the practice, turned the site into a garbage dump.  Doesn’t it make sense that when Jesus used this word he was warning people against making a waste of their lives?”
It is possible that gehenna refers to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, which would have burned constantly to dispose of the garbage, and it is possible that it was the location of child sacrifices to Molech.  (I say “possible” because there is no evidence in any primary sources that there was once a fiery dump there.[1]) But to use these referents to limit Jesus’ teaching on final judgment is to ignore all that Jesus says about gehenna.  Consider a couple of references.

Matthew 18:8-9
 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell [Greek: gehenna] of fire.
It’s important to look at these two verses together because they are clearly describing the same situation.  V8 warns of the penalty of being thrown into “eternal fire.”  V9 warns of being thrown into the “gehenna of fire.”  I won’t rehash what we have already discovered concerning the word “eternal” in the New Testament other than to remind you that it means eternal.  When Jesus uses the term “gehenna” here He is referring to a place of eternal fire. (See also Mark 9:43,45,47.)
Further, Jesus contrasts entering “life” with being thrown into gehenna.  Of course, this isn’t a reference to literal birth, but rather life after death, an existence that Jesus repeatedly describes as eternal (Matt 19:29, John 3:15-16,36; 5:24; 6:40; 17:3).  This is an example of Jesus describing the two possible eternal destinations, heaven and hell (see also Matt 25:46).

Matthew 10:28
28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna].
Now we see that gehenna is a place where the body AND soul are destroyed.  (See last week’s post on the use of “destroyed” here.)  The parallel passage in Luke 12:5 is helpful: But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, we see that the casting of the body and soul into gehenna takes place after death.  If we pile up Jesus descriptions of this place so far, we find that it is a place of post-mortem, eternal torment of both the body and soul.  This does not work if Jesus intends for us to understand gehenna as the finite dump outside of Jerusalem, or even as a metaphor for annihilation.
So what are we to make of this?  When Jesus used gehenna, He was using a frightening geographical reference familiar to Him and His listeners to warn about an eternal destination that people should seek to avoid at all cost.[2] In other words, it is best to take gehenna to be a reference to the place traditionally referred to as hell.

[1] Peter Head, “Duration of Divine Judgment,” in Eschatology in Bible and Theology, eds. Kent E. Brower and Mark W. Elliot (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 223.
[2] Robert W. Yarbrough, “Jesus on Hell” in Hell Under Fire, eds. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 79.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Understanding Hell, Part 5

(To read the earlier posts in this series, click here:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4)

Objection #3: “Because of the New Testament’s use of the term “destruction” to describe the judgment of the ungodly (Mat 7:13; Rom 9:22; 2Th 1:9; 2Pe 2:12), doesn’t it make sense to conclude that the conscious torment of hell is not eternal?  How can someone who is “destroyed” continue to live consciously?”
This objection is one made by those who hold a view called annihilationism, which is the belief that those who die apart from saving faith in Jesus Christ will eventually and ultimately cease to exist.  To the word “destruction,” annihilationists would add “perish” and “death,” each of which are words used to describe the final state of the unbeliever. 
On the surface, this appears to be a strong objection to the idea of hell as a place of eternal, conscious suffering.  However, those who raise this objection assume a definition of “destruction” that does not accord with its usage in the New Testament.  That is, it is assumed that to suffer “destruction” must entail ceasing to exist.  But this is not the most natural understanding of the word as defined by the major Greek lexicons.  Typically, it carries the idea of ruin or loss.
Douglas Moo, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College notes that the biblical terms translated destruction usually refer to the state of a person or object that has lost the essence of its nature or function:
“The key words for ‘destroy’ and ‘destruction’ can also refer to land that has lost its fruitfulness (Ezek 6:14; 14:16); to ointment that is poured out wastefully and to no apparent purpose (Matt 26:8; Mark14:4); to wineskins that can no longer function because they have holes in them (Matt 9:17; Mark 2:22; Luke 5:37); to a coin that is useless because it is ‘lost’ (Luke 15:9); or to the entire world that ‘perishes,’ as an inhabited world, in the Flood (2 Pet 3:6). In none of these cases do the objects cease to exist; they cease to be useful or to exist in their original, intended state.”[1]
Taking “destruction” to refer to annihilation not only forces us to assign a meaning not demanded by its usage elsewhere, but it also requires us to ignore all that we have already seen regarding the eternality of hell, and specifically those texts that refer to the eternal, conscious suffering of hell.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus describes the rich man in Hades as “being in torment,” a description born out by the rest of the parable.  Truly, it is the agony of the experience that gives meaning to the story.  The suffering is so intense that the rich “lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.  And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame’” (Luk 16:23-24).  When the rich man learns that no relief is possible, he begs that Lazarus be sent to warn his five brothers, “lest they also come into this place of torment” (v28).  The torment of hell is the point of the parable.  If judgment consists of annihilation, there is no torment, and if there is no torment the parable serves as a pointless warning.  Worse, the parable is deceptive.
Elsewhere, we read of other descriptions of the agony of hell.  “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Jesus warned repeatedly (Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Lk. 13:28).  James 5:1 warns the rich of the “miseries that are coming upon you.”  Rev 14:11 gives this description: the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.  In other words, the torment of hell endures forever and there is no relief from it.  Rev 20:9-15 describes hell as a lake of fire, the destination of all the unbelieving, where “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (v10). 
Given such descriptions, it is difficult to imagine a way to justify annihilationism.  The concept of hell as “destruction” is therefore best understood as utter ruin or waste.
Some might wonder why someone would argue emphatically that hell will mean eternal, conscious suffering for those who go there.  I can’t answer for others, but I will tell you why I do.  First of all, the Bible clearly teaches it.  You and I don’t get to decide what hell is like, no matter how much of an emotional problem we have with it.  God created it and He has told us what it is like.  There should be no argument.
Second, the seriousness of hell demands that it be represented accurately.  To soften it or make it less than what it is is to remove the urgency of the Bible’s many warnings about it.  How could we possibly be regarded as loving our neighbor if we minimize the gravity of the judgment that awaits them?  Which picture provides a greater incentive to repent – an eternal nap or an eternal, physical, unrelenting torment in a lake of fire?  The irony is that the people who so boldly declare hell to be simply the end of one’s existence are actually aiding the forces of darkness so eager to usher them into the real hell.
The reality of hell makes me shudder for those who will go there.  Our Lord spent far more time warning of the horrors of hell than of the wonders of heaven.  For that reason, I also shudder for those who have gone behind Him, declaring persistently, “Don’t worry.  It won’t be that bad.”

[1] Douglas J. Moo, “Paul on Hell,” in Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 105.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Understanding Hell, Part 4

(Find the earlier posts in this series here:   Part 1   Part 2   Part 3)
Objection #2: “I agree that God is a just God.  But wouldn’t it be unjust for Him to punish a finite sin for all eternity?”
This is a very common and compelling question.  Some people reject the doctrine of hell because it seems unfathomable that God would torment someone in a literal, physical hell for all eternity, giving an infinite sentence for finite sins.  There are others who accept the biblical teaching that hell is eternal, but just want help knowing why hell is eternal.
Most of us have no problem with the concept of retributive justice.  The murderer and rapist are rightly sent to prison for decades.  Many of us support the death penalty for certain crimes.  We see that God has placed value upon human life and that when a person takes the life of another, his life should be taken (Gen9:6).  An eye for an eye makes sense to the human mind.  But how can any sin warrant an eternal hell? 
I believe there are at least two good explanations.  The first is that we simply do not have the capacity to rightly judge the sinfulness of sin.  All of us have had others sin against us and all of us have sinned against others.  In either case, our only frame of reference for understanding the offensiveness of that sin is in our capacity as fallen creatures.  There is a very real sense in which it is impossible for us to really grasp the depravity of sin.  That’s because we all sin all the time.  We sin so easily and naturally that it seems normal, and in a way it is normal.  It is normal in the sense that it flows from our nature.   We are accustomed to sin.
My dad has been drinking black coffee for decades.  He thinks it tastes good.  This amazed me for years.  I asked him if he’d always taken it black.  He said yes, he didn’t want to mess with doctoring it up.  I asked him if it tasted good from the very beginning.  He said not at first, but he got used to it.  Now it’s delicious.
A few years ago, I decided I was going to drink it black, too.  That lasted about .5 seconds.  It was rancid.  It was difficult to imagine that my dad had no idea how bad that stuff tasted.  So how is it possible that he drinks it black and doesn’t taste the bitterness?  He’s been drinking it that way for decades.  It’s normal to him.  For those of us who don’t drink it black, he’s not a reliable gauge for the bitterness of anything. 
Likewise, because of our own sinful natures and our immersion in a fallen world, none of us are reliable gauges for the objective sinfulness of sin and therefore for the reasonableness of the penalty for sin.  We simply do not have the capacity to judge the sinfulness of sin the way an infinitely holy God can.  Our understanding of sin is subjective; His is objective.  Our sense of it is dulled.  He sees it for what it really is.  For that reason, His judgment is superior to ours and we should trust Him in that.
But not only is God’s judgment of the sinfulness of sin more reliable than ours, but His offense at sin is far more personal than ours.  God is pure holiness, as we discussed in the opening post of this series.  He is infinitely holy.  Universal moral law is an expression of the character of God, so sin is not merely the transgression of an impersonal rule, but rather it is the violation of His very person.  Further, any finite sin against Him is an infinitely offensive sin, not because the offender is infinite, but because the One offended is infinite – infinite in His separation from all that is sinful.  And an infinite offense calls for an infinite punishment.
A second explanation for why hell is eternal is one that many of us may not have ever considered.  When Adam fell, he plunged all mankind into a state of total depravity.  Ephesians 2:1-3 tells us that the unsaved are dead in their trespasses and sin.  By nature they follow after the world, the devil, and their own sinful flesh.  Romans 8:7-8 notes the inability of the unbelieving to obey God.  Romans 6:17-18 teaches that prior to salvation, man is enslaved to sin.  So what does this have to do with the eternality of hell? 
Well, what is the only thing that can free us from sin?  What is the only thing that can enable us to obey God?  The God-ordained, Christ-bought, Spirit-applied work of salvation that comes by grace through repentance and faith in Christ Jesus.  Nothing else.  So all those who are consigned to hell as a penalty for sin will continue to be totally depraved.  Hell will not turn them into saints or give them the ability to stop sinning.  They will be continuing to earn God’s wrath for all eternity.  The sinful thoughts, the sinful desires, the blasphemous slander against God will not be purged from their nature by hell.  If anything, it will intensify as God removes his restraining grace from them.
The eternality of hell is a terrible thought, but it makes the Savior all the more precious.  By His sacrifice, we have been spared the worst fate possible.  May the truth of this doctrine move us to proclaim His gospel with urgency – time is running out for those around us who have not surrendered to Him.