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

Rethinking Heaven: Capturing A Vision Of The Resurrection

Christians and non-Christians alike typically assume that our religion teaches good Christians go to heaven when they die and bad people, or those who’ve never given their lives to Jesus, go to hell. As more and more Biblical scholars, Christian churches, and individual believers are realizing, though, this isn’t the most accurate picture of what the Bible teaches regarding life after death.

click to read article, Rethinking Heaven: Capturing A Vision Of The Resurrection |
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For many years, the churches of God I’ve been part of taught we were the only people to whom God had revealed His Sabbaths and Holy Days, His plan for the world and humanity, and the truth about what happens after death. As I grew older, I realized we had much more in common with other groups than I’d thought — there are a plethora of groups keeping Sabbath, many Messianics observe the holy days, and bloggers with Focus on the Family were talking about God’s plan to bring children into His family. I hadn’t found any teaching the resurrection, though, so you can imagine my surprise when Catholic theologian James K.A. Smith footnoted a comment about Christians not really going to heaven when they die with three book suggestions for further reading (this was in Desiring The Kingdom). The book from this list that I found in the library was Surprised by Hope by Anglican bishop N.T. Wright.

Wright’s teachings surprised me even though I’d been taught the resurrection from my earliest memories. His powerful exegesis on the meaning of the resurrection is inspiring and some of the thoughtful, well-researched ways he diverged from my church’s traditional teachings made me realize there are alternative explanations for a few difficult scriptures that deserve a second look. I also admired his style. Instead of telling people “You’re wrong,” he says, “We’ve been misinformed, and here’s the more wonderful plan God has for us.” That’s what I want to focus on today. The deeper our understanding of what God is actually planning for us, the firmer our hope and faith.

What Happens When We Die?

The idea that human beings have immortal souls comes not from the Bible, but from Greek philosophy (specifically Plato). In Hebrew thought and New Testament theology, the soul refers “not to a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of a disposable body, but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality” (Wright, p. 28). It is naphesh (H5315), the animated life-force we have in common with animals (Strong’s and Thayer dictionaries).
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How Should We Think of Sin?

I wonder why it is that people tend to go to extremes in so many things. It’s almost impossible to be neutral or moderate on anything from politics to how you feel about a TV show without someone telling you that you have to have a decided opinion one way or another. This spills over into how we approach morality as well — we either go along with the culture and adopt an “anything goes” mentality, or we dig our heels in and don’t approve of anything.

Now, most Christians I know are actually a lot more balanced than either of these views, but there is a very real danger of going to either extreme. We can become too tolerant about something like the fact that cohabiting couples are the norm in pop culture, and just accept this trend in society  even though we know what God says about sexual immorality. People tend to go to extremes over the issue of homosexuality as well, either supporting it wholeheartedly or placing it high on their “most horrible disgusting sin ever” scale.

But is either view how God wants us to respond to sin? This is an enormous topic, and I might very well be biting off more than I can chew, as the saying goes. But it’s something I felt like I should study and share, so here it goes.

Sin in the Church

Let’s start with a very foundational principle of scripture: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). There’s no “my sin is better than your sin,” because all of us have committed sins that could only be removed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It can’t really get “worse” on the sinning scale than requiring God Himself to die to remove your death penalty.

But, again with our tendency to go to extremes, we might take this fact and become too accepting of sin in our lives and in the lives of others. After all, we’re no better or worse than anyone else, so let’s just all live and let live, right? That’s what the Corinthians did, and Paul wasn’t too happy about it.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. … Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 6)

They thought tolerance was a good thing. Paul said to get this sinful man out of the church.

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” (1 Cor. 5:9-13)

The issue here is that we cannot approve of someone who knowingly practices sin while professing to follow Christ. The people outside the church who commit sin are still sinning, but it is not our place to make judgements about them. The people inside the church should know better, though, and so should we.

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Is. 5:20)

Christians are not immune to sin, but there is a difference between a Christian who sins, recognizes it, repents, and stops sinning and a Christian who knowingly practices a sinful lifestyle. The latter reflects badly on the One we profess to follow, Jesus Christ, Who said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Paul tells us this type of person who practices sin should be put out of the church until they repent and stop sinning (which did happen in this case, as we can read in 2 Cor. 2:5-11).

A Chance to Be Good

Paul instructed us to exercise good judgement within the church, but not to judge those who are outside it. So what should our attitude be towards those who commit sin while not following Christ?

In answering any question of this sort, the first thing we should look at is the example of Jesus Christ. He was God in the flesh, and the way He responded to a situation shows us how God wants us to respond in similar situations.

And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So He spoke this parable to them, saying: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:2-7)

How Should We Think of Sin? | marissabaker.wordpress.comThe scribes and Pharisees had a very “holier-than-thou” attitude toward sinners. They despised Jesus for eating with people who were not considered righteous and rebuked Him for letting them touch Him (Luke 7:37-39). We get the sense that if a Pharisee encountered someone they thought of as a sinner, they would have either had nothing to do with them or been harsh in their condemnation of how horribly sinful this person was. But that’s not how Christ handled things.

When “the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery,” Christ’s response was to write on the ground and then say, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” They all left one by one, and when there was no one left to accuse her Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:1-11). He did not condone her sin by telling her she could go off and continue committing adultery, but neither did He condemn her as a person.

Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Matt. 9:10-13)

We’re not supposed to be okay with sin or say that it is good, but the key to what our response should be is mercy and love. That is how Christ called people to repentance — not by telling them they were evil, but by offering them a chance to be good.

Making Judgements

The goal of Christ’s interactions with sinful people was that all should come to repentance. The goal of our interactions with sinful people (so, really everyone we come in contact with) should be to point them to Christ by modeling His attitude of love, mercy, and gentle correction when necessary.

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? (Matt. 7:1-3)

We saw how harshly the Pharisees judged other people, and we can see how severely they were judged in return by reading Matthew chapter 23. It serves as a warning to us not to judge others from a self-righteous attitude. We do have to make judgements about right and wrong as relates to our own conduct and in situations like Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians, but we need not be harsh and condemning. In fact, that attitude can be dangerous.

Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. (Rom. 2:1)

The context of this verse (Rom. 1:18-2:16) discusses some of what we think of as the very worst sins. That might make us think this warning doesn’t apply to us, until we read James.

For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:10-13)

I’ve heard it said that we can’t judge other people for sinning differently than us, and I think that’s true. We all have weaknesses, and we’re not supposed to decide that they are better weaknesses than someone else, even if they’re less visible (like, a tendency to lie can be less visible than a tendency towards promiscuity) or seem like they’re “not hurting anyone.”How Should We Think of Sin? |

We’ve now made a full circle in our discussion, and are back to the topic of “all have sinned.” I said earlier that all sins are equally bad, because all sins require Jesus Christ’s death to pay the penalty on our behalf. I want to add something to that, though, because I’ve never felt satisfied with such a black-and-white view of sin. It’s obvious that there’s a difference between petty theft and murder, for instance. Both are against God’s laws, both are sins, and both can only be washed clean by Christ’s blood. But one is far more damaging to society and other people.

We can see God acknowledging this in the Old Testament laws, where some sins incurred a physical death penalty and some did not. In the New Testament, we see similar distinctions. A thief is told to “steal no longer,” but rather work “with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need” (Eph. 4:28). In contrast, those who commit sexual transgressions are warned, “he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body” and defiles the temple of God (1 Cor. 6:18-20). Both are sinful, but one causes more damage than the other.

As we consider the topic of sin inside and outside the church, let’s keep our focus on following Christ’s example of showing mercy while faithfully revealing God’s laws in our words and actions. We must not “approve of those who practice” sin (Rom. 1:32), but we also must not hate other people or follow the scribes and Pharisees’ example of harsh judgement.

Gift of Mortality

We tend to approach death with a kind of horror, even though we know that it is not permanent (1 Thes. 4:13-18). It is natural to value life, to not want to die and to not want to lose the people we love. I think much of our longing to live forever comes from a desire God has given us to become part of his family. But sometimes I hear people say they want to live forever, and they mean an indefinite extension of our human lives here on the earth.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to live with myself the way I am now for that long.

Elves leaving Middle Earth, from The Lord of The Rings

When I think about the idea of immortality or living a really long time as a human, it makes me think of Tolkein’s elves in Middle Earth. Unless something interferes (they can be killed and they can fade away with grief) they’ll live forever. One of the things I find most interesting is that in The Silmarillion, the immortality of the elves is described as a sorrow and death is presented as a gift given to men.

the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon whither the Elves know not. Whereas the Elves remain until the end of days, and their love of the Earth and all the world is more single and more poignant therefore, and as the years lengthen ever more sorrowful. For the Elves die not till tile world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief (and to both these seeming deaths they are subject); neither does age subdue their strength, unless one grow weary of ten thousand centuries; and dying they are gathered to the halls of Mandos in Valinor, whence they may in time return. But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy.

Sown in Weakness

Death became something that every human being must face as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin. I wonder, however, if after the fall mortality might have been as much a gift as a curse. Yes, death is a penalty associated with disobedience to God and it is an enemy that will be conquered in the future. But the absence of death in our fallen state would not have been a kindness.

Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body. (1 Cor. 15:36-37)"Gift of Mortality" a blog post by

We are “bare grain,” as the KJV says, which after it dies to this existence will spring up into the far more glorious body that God gives us. Thank God that immortality is not give not us as we are now — corrupted, dishonored, weak, and natural. Living like this forever would not be a gift. We cannot have eternal life as we are now, nor would we want to. We need to be changed first.

For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Cor. 15:53-54).