One of the most uncomfortable aspects of modern Christianity is the idea of hell. The common notion is that those who aren’t following God (including those who reject Him and those who never knew Him) miss-out on their chance at salvation and are tormented forever in a burning place. Few want to talk about it, many have rejected it, but most don’t agree on an alternative. It’s something Christianity has to address, though. What happens after death for the people who are not followers of Jesus?
I’ll be honest with you, this is something I thought I “knew” the answer to because of the teachings I heard growing up. The more I studied it, though, the less positive I feel that I know exactly what’s going to happen. For believers, the questions “What happens when we die?” has some pretty clear answers in scripture. We’re not sure exactly what life in God’s family will be like, but we know that we’ll be resurrected and “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” For other people, things are a bit more ambiguous.
My purpose today isn’t to give a definitive answer, but rather to look at some different readings of scriptures talking about eternal judgement. There are some things we can say with a fairly high degree of certainty, but there are others that I just don’t know the answers to (and I’d rather acknowledge that than take a stance I’m not reasonably confident lines up with God’s revealed word).
What is “hell”?
The word “hell” is used in the Bible, but not with the same connotation we have for it in English. Western ideas of hell come from Medieval imagery (think Dante’s Inferno). Most uses in the New Testament, though, are translated from the Greek word ghenna (G1067). When people of Jesus’ time heard this word they didn’t think of a burning place with a pitchfork-toting devil where eternal souls writhed in torment. They thought of Ghenna — a rubbish heap outside Jerusalem “where the filth and dead animals … were cast out and burned,” which Thayers’ dictionary notes is “a fit symbol of the wicked and their future destruction.”
Strong’s dictionary does describe ghenna as a place of “everlasting punishment,” but that imagery wasn’t originally in the Greek language. As we talked about last week, the Bible doesn’t teach humans have immortal souls. Immortality can only come to us as a gift of God, and unless He grants the gift of eternal life we won’t be around for everlasting anything, including torment.
Another word translated “hell” is hades (G86), which originally referred to the Greek god of the underworld but came to mean the grave in general. There’s also one other mention of “hell” in in the NT that’s translated from tartaroo (G5020), which was considered a place of eternal torment. The only time it’s used is in 2 Peter 2:4, where it talks about God casting “the angels who sinned … down to hell.” When we look at what the Bible says about hell, we have to check each verse to see whether it’s talking about the grave or ghenna.
While the Bible does speak of a lake of fire, it doesn’t talk about humans staying there nor going there instantly when they die. After people die, the prevailing Biblical description is that they’ve fallen asleep and are awaiting the resurrection (John 11:13; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 31; 1 Thes. 4:13-15; 5:10; 2 Pet. 3:4; Dan. 12:2; and others). Some people — the “firstfruits” — will be raised from the dead to eternal life at Jesus Christ’s second coming. But what about the rest of the dead who are asleep?
A Second Resurrection
We don’t actually get a whole lot of information about what happens after the first resurrection and the Millennial reign described in Revelation 20:1-6. We are told in the description of the first resurrection that “the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished” (Rev. 20:5). Skipping to the end, we read this:
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:11-15)
At this point in the future, “The devil, who deceived them” has already been “cast into the lake of fire” where he (along with “the beast and the false prophet”) “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). That’s the only mention of eternal torment, though. The people who follow the devil die in the “second death.” They’ll be consumed, burned-up like the rubbish thrown in ghenna.
- Note: you can argue my reading of everlasting punishment using verses like Matthew 25:41-46 and Mark 9:42-48. For Matthew 25, I would say that just because the fire is everlasting doesn’t mean the people cast in it stay alive, and that the phrase “everlasting punishment” can easily be read “punishment that is irreversible” (because they die in the second death, which fits with Rev. 20:15). For Mark 9, where “hell” is translated from ghenna, I really don’t know what the phrase “worm does not die” means. The Hebrew and Greek both refer to maggots/grubs such as would eat dead flesh, which doesn’t make much sense to me with either interpretation — if the people die, why don’t the worms? and if the people don’t die, why does it say “worm does not die” instead “soul does not die”?
Readings on Judgement
Last week I spent quite a bit of time talking about N.T. Wright’s teachings on the resurrection. He has comparatively little to say about hell, though. He goes through the Medieval hell symbolism and meaning of Gehenna (p. 177-178), mentions that while final judgement was accepted as part of God’s plan it wasn’t widely discussed in the epistles (p. 177), and covers different modern views on hell (p. 178). What he does state is that “God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end,” and that means there will be no people in His future world who worship “that which is not God as if it were” and who fail “fully to reflect the image of God” (p. 179).
God will condemn evil, and Wright thinks that those who reject God will “cease to bear the divine image at all” and continue to “exist in an ex-human state” (p. 182-183). That, however, ignores his own teaching that people do not inherently have immortal souls and doesn’t address what the Bible says about the lake of fire. I do, however, like the way Wright speaks of a “final condemnation for those who, by their idolatry, dehumanize themselves and drag others down with them” (p. 180). We know God doesn’t desire that any perish, but there will be people who end up in the lake of fire and this seems a good way of summing up their condition.
The Churches of God venture into more specifics about the final judgement. Their main teachings are well represented in UCG’s booklet “What Happens After Death?” In brief, it goes like this: Those who are not the firstfruits will be resurrected to physical life after the Millennium and given a chance to understand God’s word. After a period of time (some say 100 years) they’ll be judged and the ones who’ve refused to repent will die in the lake of fire. The others will live on in God’s kingdom.
This teaching is a relief to any who are concerned about those who’ve not yet committed to Jesus. It relieves us of a sense of urgency to convert people before they die because we believe there’s a time in the future when they’ll be given the chance to know Him. If they aren’t saved in this life, they’ll have an opportunity to escape eternal death in the second resurrection.
There are a few things about this interpretation that give me pause, however. Romans 2:1-16 indicates that all will be judged based on their actions in this life. It talks of God exercising abundant mercy towards those who didn’t know Him and yet lived good lives, but there’s also the promise of “indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil.” Yet if people are judged as soon as the books are opened in Rev. 20:12, what about the babies, children, and others who never had a chance to do works by which they could be judged? Is there a time-gap between resurrection and judgement for them? I hope so, and I believe God’s mercy, justice, and love demand they be given a chance to know Him.
I don’t have all the answers. What I do know is that, historically, Christian religion generally taught a terrifying version of God who tortures unbelievers in hell for all eternity. Even if we don’t understand everything about God’s final plan for those who don’t know Him now, it is time to recapture a vision of God that is more in line with how He reveals Himself as One who is love, justice, and mercy. His justice demands recompense for sin, but He also has no desire than anyone perish and will be merciful to everyone. For some, this mercy involves granting salvation because they come to repentance and follow Him with a pure heart. For others, that mercy involves letting them die the final, second death because they can’t be allowed to continue in rebellion against Him. That’s a God we can trust, One Who will keep His promises to reward good with good and evil with evil.
Another thing I think we can say for certain is that it’s best to follow God now, not to wait for a second-chance in the future. The firstfruits do receive a greater reward. If you are faithful to God, He will be faithful to reward you according to His promises. That’s what the church should be teaching — not threatening people with “you’ll burn in hell” but rather encouraging them to pursue God and take hold of the “better promises” and the “better resurrection” that comes with following Him now (Heb. 8:6; 11:35).