Rethinking Hell: A Clearer View of God’s Judgement

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?

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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.” Read more

Those Who Never Knew

Since I was very young, I’ve been taught what happens after death. At a basic level, I understood what our faith teaches and believed it — those who die in faith will be resurrected when Christ returns and live and reign with Him for 1000 years, then those who did not believe during their lifetime will be resurrected and given a chance to learn before the final judgement. I could not, however, give anyone who asked about my beliefs a more thorough explanation than the brief outline I just gave here.

Recently, I’ve been spending most of my study time in Romans as I work on a paper about Old and New Covenants — the differences and similarities, what was changed/updated by Christ’s sacrifice, what stayed the same, things like that. I think my prayers for guidance in studying this topic are being answered, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn more about other aspects of my faith as well. I’m sure my understanding is still shallow, but I feel like I can finally start writing about both the covenants (the subject of future blog posts, I’m sure) as well as today’s subject, which is an aspect of the question, What happens after death?

Going to hell?

God our Savior ... desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time   1 Timothy 2:3-6One thing I’ve always wondered about groups I would call “mainstream Christianity” is how they are comfortable believing that God would condemn people to hell simply for never having heard the truth. I know some wonderful people who do believe this, but it puzzles me. Think how many people that includes throughout history. There were people in the years before Christ who never even heard of the God of Israel, much less understood Him. There were people beyond the reach of the early Christian church who never heard the gospel preached. There were people whose first encounter with “Christianity” was a forced baptism before they were enslaved to mine gold or work plantations. There are children who were aborted or killed as infants who never had a chance to live at all or learn anything.

Why would a God who loved the world so much “that He gave His only begotten Son” and Who “is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”  condemn people who have never understood His truth? (John 3:16; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Those who “perish without law”

Ever since creation, all human beings have sinned (Rom. 3:9). No one is inherently righteous, not matter how closely they adhere to the letter of the law —  “by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). In other words, the law given in the Old Testament lets us know we are sinning, but until Jesus Christ’s sacrifice there was no way for us to be cleansed of sin.

So, what about people who never understood or heard the law which gives “knowledge of sin”? In Romans 5:13, it states that “until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” This hearkens back to a statement made in Romans 2:12: “For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.”

These verses give us key insight regarding how God will judge the world. He is not unrighteous or cold-hearted, and does not delight in seeing people perish because of ignorance. For many, this means He will be patient beyond their deaths and give them a chance to know Him in the resurrection.

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 (Rev. 20:11-12)

Reason for hope

The incredible grace that God and Jesus offer includes not condemning people who don’t have a clue what they are doing. While Their righteousness does demand a penalty for sin, They are also defined by love (1 John 4:8, 16) and allow for repentance once people acknowledge the truth and turn from their sin (2 Tim. 2:25). For some, that is happening now or will happen in their physical lifetimes. For others, this will not be until the resurrection.