I’ve been wrestling with hell for a while now, and thought I would set out some general thoughts here about how to go about approaching the situation.
The first thing to start with is to remember that the central trait of God’s character is that “God is love,” (1 John 4:16). If we are not starting all of our theology work right here, we’re not talking about the Biblical God. Any doctrine of God that does not begin and end here is simply an unorthodox and sub-Christian depiction of God.
The second is like unto the first. Jesus is the exact imprint and precise revelation of the character of the Father and the entire Godhead (Heb. 1:3). God looks like Jesus. If your doctrine of God deviates from Jesus in any place, it is an unorthodox view of God. If this creates tensions between the OT and NT, so be it; God clearly wanted these tensions since the inspired authors of the NT tell that God doesn’t look like the Canaanite invasion but looks like Jesus.
The Wrath of God
We have to be careful when we’re reading about God’s wrath because the Bible is quite subversive when it comes to concepts like wrath and anger and punishment and repayment. If we pay attention carefully, we see the Bible subvert this notion over and over. Take the first chapter of Isaiah for example: “You, my enemies, will not cause me any more trouble. I will pay you back for what you did,” (Isa. 1:26). But how does God accomplish this? “I will turn against you
and clean away your wrongs with soap; I will take all the worthless things out of you,” (Isa. 1:25). God repays evil with good; He rights wrongs not with destruction but with merciful restoration. This sort of Hebraic parallelisms and chiasms are everywhere in Scripture (just read the first ten chapters of Isaiah for dozens of examples), and they are frequently employed in just this way where destruction, wrath, and vengeance are reinterpreted as mercy and love and kindness.
Or consider the chiasm in Psalm 9:
A. The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
B. in the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught.
C. Yahweh has made himself known;
B. he has executed judgment;
A. the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands,” (Psa. 9:15-16)
The wicked falling prey to their own snares is the means by which “Yahweh has . . . executed judgment.” Not by violence, but simply by withdrawing his peace.
Or consider Psalm 7: “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts.” This is said to be “God’s justice,” (vv. 11). Sounds like God is the smiter of enemies. Except, two verses later: “He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.”
Hosea announces that the “days of punishment have come,” and yet, “How can I hand you over, O Israel? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger … I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them,” (Hos. 9:7, 9; 14:4). “For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares Yahweh,” (Jer. 31:20). He is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing,” (Joel 2:13). “His anger is but for a moment; His favor for a lifetime,” (Psa. 30:5). “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities,” (Psa. 103). “I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me,” (Jer. 33:8). “I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them,” (Hos. 14:4). Or take the chiasm in Isaiah 35:
A. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
B. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.
C. He will come and save you.”
B’. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
A’. then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert (Isa. 35:3-6)
Vengeance is fulfilled in a salvation of healing and restoration, not destruction. This is especially clear in the life of Jesus. The characteristic which Jesus identifies as central to the Father is the merciful provision of daily needs for the deserving and undeserving alike (Matt. 5:). Jesus bases his entire ministry on Isaiah 61 (Luke 4): “The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God,” (Isa. 61:1-2). Once again, the “year of Yahweh’s favor” and the “day of vengeance” are parallel. God’s great and terrible wrath is satisfied in announcing good news to the poor, in binding up the heartbroken, in proclaiming liberty and breaking open the prisons. His justice is seen in releasing the punishment owed to Him, rather than requiring it be repaid in full. The ministry of Jesus is pictured as the “day of vengeance,” the great and terrible day of Yahweh, in which God commutes His rightful destruction of humanity and brings instead justice and peace and mercy and love and healing on swift wings.
This is what brings us to hell. A God whose punishment and wrath are pictured as restorative and healing is not a God interested in punishing human beings for all eternity. In particular we have not allowed the context of Jesus’s discussion of “hell” to tell us what he’s talking about. The word translated “hell” is actually “Gehenna,” the valley of Ben Hinnom outside of Jerusalem. This is an historical location and here’s a picture.
There are a couple of observations to be made here.
1. This is a real location in time and history, not some nightmarish postmortem location, and every use of the word in the NT refers to this valley, not as a postmortem location or as a symbol for postmortem torment.
2. The valley of Ben Hinnom was the location Israel sacrificed their children to Moloch, a pagan God (2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6). Thus, it is a place of nightmares, but not caused by God but by false Gods and their idol worshipers. To suggest that Jesus means that some people will be cast into a pit to be tormented by God or on His command is to suggest that God is like Moloch.
3. Furthermore, when Jesus speaks of Gehenna, he is speaking about the impending destruction of Jerusalem in A.d. 70 by the Roman armies. He directly alludes to the prophesies of Jeremiah concerning the valley of Hinnom, that the slaughter in Israel when the Romans come will be as great as in the days of the prophets when Babylon swept over the city: “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away,” (Jer. 7:32-33). “In this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth,” (Jer. 19:7). In other words, Jesus isn’t talking about the afterlife at all, but a massive slaughter in time and history to Israel. Jesus even combines Ben Hinnom with Isaiah 66: “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh,” (Isa. 66:24). But again, this is talking about dead bodies in the destruction of Jerusalem, not the souls of the damned.
4. Our other visions of hell often come from bad context as well. Ideas of chaff being burnt, the wicked being cast out into the outer darkness, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, all come from parables, symbolic stories in which Jesus is still warning Israel about the destruction of Jerusalem, not some postmortem reality. The goats in Matt. 25 also refer to the judgment against Israel and Rome – and they are not sent into “eternal fire,” but into the “fire of the Age.” The Greek word is “aion,” translating the Hebrew “olam.” Neither of these terms carries with it the sense of eternity or never-ending time, but to specific, limited times. The fires of the Age are the fires of destruction that comes upon the old world and opens the way for a New Covenant and a New Creation with a New Jerusalem, in time and history.
5. The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a symbolic narrative talking about how to live in this life. It has nothing to do with the afterlife, and in any case proves nothing about what can actually be expected after death. It is completely unique in Biblical literature in that it does not communicate any belief about the afterlife actually taught by the OT or in any other place in the NT.
6. The Lake of Fire is not hell. “Death and Hades” are thrown into it (Rev. 20:14). Keeping in mind that Revelation is heavily symbolic and even tells us this (Rev. 1:1 – the word “show” actually means “sign,” as in “signs and symbols), we ought to be hesitant to take the Lake of Fire as a literal description of some postmortem state when this is quite obviously not how John intended the book to be read. Rather, the “Lake of Fire” is merely “the second death,” (20:15), a non-literal symbolic description of destruction and death, not hell or actual fire.
7. So what is the Lake of Fire? John is alluding to Isaiah 34, which is a prophesy about the historical destruction of Edom: “For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion. And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever,” (34:8-10). Yet again we see that postmortem realities are not what John and Jesus had in mind in Rev. 20. It refers to national destruction, the end of particular powers. Rev. 20 is also alluding to the Dead Sea, the location where fire and brimstone fell from heaven and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. In Jewish materials of the 2nd Temple Period (the New Testament era). Strabo described the area as a “land of fire.” Other documents such as the Wisdom of Solomon and the writings of Philo speak of it thusly:
The fire is most difficult to extinguish, and creeps on pervading everything and smoldering. And a most evident proof of this is to be found in what is seen to this day: for the smoke which is still emitted, and the brimstone that men dig up there” (Philo, On Abraham XXVII).
The fire which burns beneath the ground and the stench render the inhabitants of the neighboring country sickly and very short lived” (Siculus, Book II, 48).
In the midst of the lake is a source of the fire and also there are great quantities of asphalt in the middle. The eruption is uncertain, because the movements of fire have no order known to us, as it is of many other basis.” (Josephus, War 4:, 8, 4).
So, to recap briefly, God’s wrath is regularly redefined as mercy and love. The word “Gehenna” which we think of as “hell” actually refers to the valley of Ben Hinnom and warned Israel about a comparable slaughter to the first fall of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The Lake of Fire is not hell, and does not refer to postmortem realities, but is instead a symbolic reference to historical destruction of the enemies of God by their own hands.