I can remember sitting in church as a 10 year old listening to our tall, slim pastor talk about the book of Revelation. I remember being intrigued as he talked about the dragon, the beast, and about how one day Jesus would come back and rapture all of the “believers” away. I remember thinking how cool it would be to float up into the air and then either vanish into thin air and reappear in heaven, or go up, up, up, up through the clouds and through space and past Venus and Mars and into some magical Kingdom with golden streets that existed somewhere way beyond the stars.
Then I remember the pastor saying that all the people who were left behind after the rapture and all the people who died without believing the things that the church doctrinal statement told us to believe about Jesus ...
That He is God’s Son.
That He died for my sins.
That He took my punishment.
That He rose from the dead.
... I remember him saying that if people didn’t believe those things when they died then (no matter how “good” of a person they were) they would go to a place called hell where they would be tortured forever in eternal fire.
If they didn’t believe those things when Jesus came back to rapture His people away, that they would be left behind to endure terrible times (aka “the tribulation”), which would ultimately end in a lake of eternal fire that was filled with all the other sinners who didn’t believe the right things.
And then I remember imagining myself floating high above the clouds and into space all the while feeling immense guilt and shame that I would get to live in eternal bliss while others were tortured forever simply because I had somehow believed the right things about this guy named Jesus and His loving Dad.
Did my mom believe right?
What about my grandma?
How about my best friend?
I remember imagining myself floating further and further away as I watched people reaching up to me, begging me to save them, screaming for me not to leave them, and pleading with me to take them with me as they grew smaller and smaller and smaller. And I remember worrying that my family would be amongst those who were left behind or those who were thrown into hell after they died, and I remember feeling very, very confused that this God who the pastor insisted loved me and loved my family and loved everyone, everywhere would also so flippantly toss us away because we believed something that was different than what He wanted us to believe.
As a 10 year old, that made no sense to me. But since it was what the tall, slim pastor with the suit on told us ... I assumed he was right.
This is week 5 of our series “God’s Not Mad” and today I want to talk to you about hell. It’s no secret that my thoughts on hell aren’t what most would consider normal or orthodox or whatever.
Actually, correction: some would consider it pretty normal, but not so much people from my evangelical upbringing.
Like, the tall, slim pastor with the suit on who talked about Revelation when I was 10 years old - he would definitely raise an eyebrow or 2 (or 3 if he had an extra one, HA!) if he listened to anything at the What If Project. He (as many others have) insisted 1000% that hell was a place of eternal torture. Maybe it’s a place with literal fire and devils and weeping and crying or maybe it’s just a place of eternal separation from God.
Whatever it is, he would say, it’s terrible and you don’t want to go there.
Here’s the thing with hell, though. Well. At least concerning the above version of hell: it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible.
I just said that.
Read it again:
HELL AS A PLACE OF ETERNAL TORTURE IS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND IN THE BIBLE.
The idea of people burning forever in some sort of fire because they didn’t believe the right things about God or surrender to Jesus is somewhat found in Greek folklore and poetry like Dante’s Inferno, but it isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. Sure, you can take verses that talk about fire and torture and things like that and turn them and mold them and shape them to say those kinds of things …
… I’m really not all that convinced that those verses have anything to do with those kinds of ideas.
Not only that, but how could this idea of a God who tosses people who don’t believe the right things about His Son into a fire possibly be real? Like, how on earth could this possibly be the way things work? How does that mesh with the kind of God that Jesus came to show us? If Jesus is what God has to say and Jesus preached forgiveness and peace and inclusion, how does it make any sense to believe that God would withhold forgiveness and exclude people into an eternal fire simply because they didn’t “believe in Jesus” or “say the sinner’s prayer” or “get baptized” or whatever?
Before we talk about what the Bible says and doesn’t say, here’s a simple thought process for you to walk through.
I talked to Brian Zahnd on last week’s podcast episode and one of the things he said that struck me so deeply is that if people get sent to hell to be tortured forever because they believe the wrong things about God ...
Didn’t “accept Jesus into their hearts”.
Didn’t “say the sinners prayer”.
Didn’t “surrender to Jesus”.
Didn’t “get baptized”.
... Whatever you want to call it, that means that every Jew who was burned alive, tortured, raped, etc. during the Holocaust went from Hitler’s earthly oven right into God’s eternal oven.
And if that’s true, then how merciful is God?
How loving is God?
How graceful is God?
Can this God be trusted?
Is He really a “good, good Father”?
I mean, the idea that God would turn His back on people (people He created, mind you) who faced terrible injustices on earth just to meet them on the other side of that injustice in the afterlife and then proceed to act on some warped sense of justice by tossing them into the fires of hell for all of eternity because somehow that satisfies His wrath or anger concerning our sin.
I don’t know, man.
Regardless of what the tall, slim, suit-wearing pastor in a pulpit has to say ... it just doesn’t make much sense to me. And if that’s the way God is, you can keep Him for yourself.
And so it’s stuff like this along with my 10 year old self imagining himself floating up to space to be rewarded for believing the right things about Jesus while his friends and family members who didn’t believe those things were left behind to be tortured forever ... it’s this kind of stuff that’s caused me to rethink my thoughts on hell over the past 10 years or so.
One of the things I hear people say a lot is that Jesus spoke about hell more than anybody else in the Bible. And although that’s kind of true, it’s also kind of misleading because although He did talk about hell, He never talked about THAT kind of hell (the kind we’ve been talking about so far).
... He just didn’t.
If you’re a hater reading this, I’ll tell you that at this moment I have 8 books in front of me on the topic of hell (which are just 8 of the many that I’ve read) and so unless you’ve read at least 8 books on this topic, don’t email me hate mail.
(I won’t read it.)
(I’m kidding, of course. Or am I? Email me and find out. HA!)
Also, this is by no means an exhaustive theology on hell, so I’m going to leave stuff out that I could talk about, but won’t. I’ll leave a book recommendation list at the end of this post in case you want to read more - books that present multiple ideas from multiple points of view. My intention here, though, is just to get the ball rolling and deconstruct a bit of the traditional idea of hell and throw some ideas out there that might help us reconstruct a view of hell that’s at least a little more in the tradition of the early Jesus followers.
I’ll tell you what I think, too. (So get ready for that.)
The concept of hell comes from 3 words used quite infrequently in the Bible (there are more intricate ones, but these are the big 3) and in various Bible translations each of these words is often (mis)translated into English as “hell”.
ONE - “Sheol” is the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament to refer to “the land of the dead”. It’s not a place where only bad people go, but the place where EVERYONE goes when they die. You’re going to Sheol one day. Me too. And everyone else who has ever lived and will ever live.
Sheol is NOT hell.
TWO - “Hades” is the Greek word used in the New Testament in place of Sheol. Much like Sheol, though, it refers to “the realm of the dead”. It has nothing to do with heaven or hell or anything, really - it’s just a place where all dead people go.
Hades is NOT hell.
THREE - “Gehenna” is another Greek word used in the New Testament (mostly by Jesus) and is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, which was/is South of Jerusalem.
Gehenna is NOT hell.
And that’s it, really – 3 words that have nothing to do with eternal, torturous fires that await those who believe the wrong things about Jesus … and we’ve somehow built an entire theology around just that.
Regarding this third word (Gehenna), Brian Zahnd (in his book Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God) says that ...
“This valley of the shadow of death had been the infamous site where children were sacrificed as burnt offerings upon the hideous fiery idols of Molech. Later the Valley of Hinnom became the city garbage dump, a place where fires were never quenched and the maggots never died. As a burning, maggot-infested garbage dump, the Valley of Hinnom (transliterated from Hebrew GE HINNOM to the Greek GEHENNA) became a primary source for imaging hellish judgement.”
The reality is that much of the time when Jesus used the word “hell”, He was using the word “Gehenna”, and so He wasn’t referring to some kind of hell that would be experienced after death as a result of …
Not “believing in Him”.
Not “saying the sinners prayer”.
Not “surrendering to Him”.
He was referring to a literal hell in this life - right here, right now – and using a smoldering, maggot-infested garbage dump as a visual picture.
Like the time in Matthew 23 when He said that …
“Unless you repent you will all be destroyed in the same way.”
I was always taught that in that verse and other ones like it Jesus was talking about people being sent to hell to be destroyed or tortured or whatever because of their refusal to repent of their sins, accept Jesus into their lives as their Lord and Savior, surrender to His ways, and change their lives.
Stop sleeping around.
Stop drinking too much.
Stop doing drugs.
Stop cursing so much.
But here’s the thing. In the context of this passage Jesus wasn’t talking about what happens to people when they die. Rather, He was talking about what can happen to people right now, in this life when they choose to live differently than the way He modeled.
Let me explain.
Remember, Jesus lived in a time when the Jews were wanting to stage a rebellion or revolution of sorts against the Roman Empire. (I talked a lot about that last year during Lent on my Medium blog, you can read more about it HERE.). They were expecting a Messiah to come on a white horse of sorts who would raise up an army and overthrow the enemies of Israel once and for all.
They were sick of being kicked around.
They were sick of being under the boot of the Empire.
They were sick of always being at the bottom.
They were sick of being pushed around.
And so they expected a Messiah to come who would be the next King David, the next great Warlord who would lead them into victory after victory and put Israel back on top once again.
Jesus, though, came to show them another way.
A way of love.
A way of forgiveness of the enemy.
A way of praying for the enemy.
A way of radical grace.
A way of radical inclusion.
And so what Jesus was saying to His listeners wasn’t, “Hey so if you don’t repent and believe in me then you’re going to hell when you die.” Rather He was saying, “Hey. Unless you rethink everything you’re doing and planning to do and wanting to do and start embracing the sermon on the mount that I dropped on you guys a few pages back and abandon your ridiculous and laughable idea of a violent revolution against a massive empire like the Romans - you’re all going to die by Roman sword, collapsing buildings, and lots and lots of fire … because they’re going to come in here, level this place to the ground, and make it an extension of that maggot-infested, fiery garbage pit over there in Gehenna.”
That’s exactly what happened 40 years later in 70AD-ish when the Romans invaded the city, killed approximately 500,000 people, catapulted 100 pound hail-stone-like boulders on the city, AND literally threw human bodies into Gehenna (hell) - the burning trash dump that was on the South end of Jerusalem.
In a commentary written by John Lightfoot, he comments on the Valley Of Hinnom and says that Gehenna was ...
“The common sink of the whole city where all filth and all kinds of nastiness met. It was, probably, the common burying-place of the city. And there was also a continual fire, whereby bones, and other filthy thinks, were consumed, lest they might offend or infect the city.”
Scholars say it was a place where unclean corpses were discarded, where fires continuously burned, and maggots forever feasted.
When we miss this context, though, it’s pretty easy to assume that when Jesus talks about being destroyed and having people thrown into hell that He's referring to some future event in the afterlife.
He’s not. Instead, He was giving His contemporary listeners a very real visual picture of what would happen to them and their families in their lifetime if they chose to continue living in rebellion to the life of love and forgiveness and humility He called them to.
There were times He referred to the afterlife. And yes, there were times He referred to judgement in the afterlife - a judgement that was often reserved, however, not for people who didn’t “believe right”, but for people who refused to live the inclusive life of grace and mercy and forgiveness and kindness and gentleness that He came to model. His harshest words were typically reserved NOT for those who we might consider “sinners” (the tax collectors, the prostitutes, even His own murderers), but for church leaders who thought they had it all together and pointed the finger and condemned and shamed everyone who they thought weren’t as good as them.
In his book “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut”, Brad Jersak talks about how in the time of Jesus Gehenna was thought to be a visual representation of something that might exist in the afterlife. He says that opinions varied and there was no single teaching or idea on the topic. In typical Jewish fashion, people weren’t so much interested in having the right answer or view, but were most interested in dialoguing and conversing and wrestling because they believed that was where God could be found. And so in all of those dialogues, Jersak says that 4 general themes stood out and were present in most teachings regarding the topic.
ONE - Gehenna is a metaphor for hell. A real location in the afterlife.
TWO - Gehenna can have a time limit after which suffering would end in either restoration or full annihilation / destruction.
THREE - Gehenna can have an exit where one can be released due to good deeds or acts of justice on behalf of the poor.
FOUR - Gehenna can be cleansing in that it’s not just for punishment, but also for purification for paradise / Kingdom living.
I point these 4 things out because a lot of people I’ve spoken to want to brush aside the historical nuances I mentioned above concerning Jesus’ words regarding the impending doom upon the Nation of Israel of His day and (instead) insist that His words that are translated into “hell” are referring to a place of actual judgement and torment in the afterlife.
Even though I don’t agree with that and I think it’s kind of ridiculous, I’ll run with it for a moment ... because here’s the thing - if we go down this road then we need to realize that the topic of judgement and suffering and flames in the afterlife was much, much different back then than what the typical fundamental / conservative / evangelical church might teach today.
To the Rabbi’s of Jesus’ day and the early followers of Jesus, it wasn’t so much a place of eternal torture where there was no way out, but ...
A place that had a time limit.
A place that had an exit.
A place that was used to prepare its inhabitants for paradise.
In other words, if hell is a place of suffering in the afterlife then it’s not necessarily eternal and it’s not necessarily a place where people are written off by God. Rather, it very well may be a place where the fires burn away anti-Kingdom ways to prepare people for eternal Kingdom living. That was what the earlier followers of Jesus assumed - ideas and beliefs that got way, way lost somewhere along the line.
So where do I stand on all of this? There’s so much more to mention and so much more to think about. I’ve barely even scratched the surface in this post. As I said earlier, there are tons and tons and tons of stuff I left out. I don’t claim to have the answers nor do I claim to have the best understanding. And I certainly don’t think that my understanding answers all the questions or leaves no questions left to ask.
I’m content in saying that I’m merely one person in a history of trillions who is on a journey with the Divine. And as someone who has followed the ways of Jesus for the last 25 years of my life and studied His life and this topic in many different settings ...
... I’ve come to believe that no one is going to spend eternity suffering in hell, no one is going to be spending eternity apart from God. And nobody is going to face torture or shame or grief in the afterlife because they believed the wrong things about Jesus. God isn’t an angry Deity who demands that blood be shed to satisfy His anger. And Jesus’ blood wasn’t shed so that by believing in Him we could be covered with that blood and slip past God’s anger and into heavenly, eternal bliss.
I believe in an afterlife, in an eternity where all the prodigals come home. And I believe that such a place will be a living hell for the people who can’t wrap their minds around why God would possible let “those people” in.
I imagine the afterlife to be like the Prodigal Father’s home.
In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story of a younger brother who left home and blew all of his inheritance on wild living while the older son stayed home and worked hard for his dad. In the end, though, the younger, sinful, good for nothing son came home and the father threw a party for him all the while the older, goody-goody brother stood outside the house and complained that someone like his brother was worth celebrating. The prodigal son was in heavenly bliss in his father’s house while the older son (who was invited, but chose not to come) stood outside in his own living hell.
Paul once said that “God desires all people to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4) and I’m audacious and radical enough to think that God will get what God wants. I believe that God’s love will win in the end and I believe that the radiance of His wonderous grace will ultimately draw all people to Himself just as Jesus promised in John 12:32 and that a day will come where everything in the entire cosmos is the way the Divine Creator originally intended it to be.
I do believe there is judgement, though. I don’t think people can just run around, do whatever they want, and not have to face any kind of consequences for their actions.
I believe Hitler has to face the consequences for his actions.
I believe that you do, too. And me. And everyone else.
Whatever that judgement is and whatever it looks like, though, I think it’s best reflected not so much in Dante’s Inferno, but in Jesus’ words from Mark 9 ...
“If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell (GEHENNA), where the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched. Everyone will be salted with fire.”
Everyone will be salted with fire. Jesus said it, not me. In other words, no one is off the hook. Whatever lies on the other side of this life and whatever happens when we close our eyes on this world and open them in the next, I think that the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert in the book of Exodus is waiting for us.
Not with anger.
Not with wrath.
Not with revenge.
With fiery arms open wide. Tears in His eyes. Quivering lip. Smile on His face. Down on His knees. Inviting us to fall into the heat of His embrace so that all of our mistakes, all of our worldly baggage, all of our diseases, all of our sicknesses, all of our pride, our hatred, our pain, our shame, our fears and all of the things that don’t have a place in His Kingdom can be slowly burned away so that room can be made for us to grow and flourish in His Kingdom as the people He created us to be, the beautiful people He has never given up on. Some of us might need to spend a day in His embrace while others might need a thousand years.
For however long it takes, He will hold us. And He will never let go.
That’s what I think of hell.
Much love to you.
Here are some books about hell and the afterlife that I’ve found helpful :)
Love Wins by Rob Bell
The Love Wins Companion Guide by Rob Bell
Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Bran Jersak
A New Kind Of Christianity by Brian McLaren
Surprised by Hope by NT Wright
4 Views On Hell by Various