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Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Problem of Hell

The Problem of Hell is a common objection to the idea of a Christian God on the grounds that a just, loving God, would not inflict such needlessly severe torments on the wicked. Such a God would be unjust, because the punishment does not match the crime. Such an image of Hell did not begin to develop until around the 5th century AD, in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.

Throughout the following centuries, Hell began to be a place where the wicked were subjected to symbolic or poetic punishments, according to their sins. One of the most notable depictions of a cruel, tortuous Hell is given in Dante's Divine Comedy. The idea of a literal fire in Hell is still common today. However, even through medieval and ancient times, one can trace back the belief that Hell is a state of loss rather than a fiery, subterranean torture.

A Little Background

The Bible uses four words to refer to the final destination of the wicked. Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, and Tartarus.

Sheol is the only word used for “hell” in the Old Testament. It is also translated as the “grave”, “pit”, or “abyss”. Because of references such as Gen. 37:35, in which Jacob says he will go down into the grave (Sheol), it is generally accepted that Sheol does not refer to a place of torment, but rather to the state of the dead in general, regardless of righteousness or wickedness. It is not used to refer to a place of endless, fiery punishment. Sheol is not a fiery hell, but simply the common grave of all mankind.

Hades occurs eleven times in the New Testament. It is translated as “grave” once in 1 Cor 15:55, and rendered as “hell” every other time. Hades is used in two ways in the New Testament. It either refers to the general state of the dead, regardless of righteousness, much in the same way as Sheol is used, and it is used in a figurative sense to represent a state of degradation, calamity, or suffering, arising from any cause whatever. About this, Thomas B. Thayer, in The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment, wrote,

“'And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell' (hades). Matt. 11:23. The parallel passage is in Luke 10:15. No one supposes that the city of Capernaum went down to a place of endless woe. The word hell here, as Dr. Clarke says, is a figure to set forth 'the state of utmost woe, and ruin, and desolation, to which these impenitent cities should be reduced. This prediction of our Lord was literally fulfilled.' Bp. Pearce says, 'It means, thou shalt be quite ruined and destroyed.' So also Hammond, Beausobre, Bloomfield, and others. The last named says it is a 'hyberbolical expression, figuratively representing the depth of adversity.'”

Hades, even when translated as “hell”, is not used to refer to a place of endless, fiery punishments.

Tartarus is only used once, and then in a participial form, in 2 Peter 2:4. "If God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell...” This word is also used to refer to a place for both the good and the wicked, like Hades, but I won't bother explaining this because even if I am wrong, the verse does not give any description of Hell as a place of fiery torment, so it's still irrelevant.

Gehenna is used twelve times in the New Testament, but about half of them are simply repetitions by each of the gospel writers. Describing this place in Mark 9:43-44, the Lord says,

43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
44Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.


Valley of Hinnom, c. 1900

What is noteworthy about the word Gehenna is that it was the name of a small valley just outside of Jerusalem. This is where people would take their garbage and waste. Also, it is where they would throw the bodies of criminals, or those who died as sinners, and the bodies would be burned. Quoting another scholar, Thayer writes,
The following from Schleusner, a distinguished lexicographer and critic, will show the origin of the word, and indicate its scriptural usage: "Gehenna, originally a Hebrew word, which signifies valley of Hinnom. Here the Jews placed that brazen image of Moloch. It is said, on the authority of the ancient Rabbins, that to this image the idolatrous Jews were wont not only to sacrifice doves, pigeons, lambs, &c., but even to offer their own children. In the prophecies of Jeremiah (vii 31), this valley is called Tophet, from Toph, a drum; because they beat a drum during these horrible rites, lest the cries and shrieks of the infants who were burned should be heard by the assembly. At length these nefarious practices were abolished by Josiah, and the Jews brought back to the pure worship of God. 2 Kings 22:1. After this they held the place in such abomination that they cast into it all kinds of filth, and the carcasses of beasts, and the unburied bodies of criminals who had been executed. Continual fires were necessary in order to consume these, lest the putrefaction should infect the air; and there were always worms feeding on the remaining relics. Hence it came, that any severe punishment, especially an infamous kind of death, was described by the word Gehenna, or hell. It is proper to add that Schleusner also says that it was used to represent the future torments of the wicked "

So in using the word Gehenna, the Lord was not giving a direct description of the future torments of the wicked, but using a real place, with which the Jews were very familiar, to help them understand the more abstract afterlife. Gehenna was literally a place where the wicked were placed after death to be destroyed, and the fire was never quenched. The worms were ever present and the smoke would ascend up forever and ever. However, Gehenna was not Hell. It was just a valley, a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. Hell is a place where the wicked go after death, but the worms are just a symbol, and the fire is just a symbol.

Lake of Fire

One of the only other references to Hell as a place of fire occurs in Revelation. Rev 20:14-15 says,

“14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.”

Rev 21:8 adds,

“8 But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”

Revelation is a book filled with symbols, metaphors, and similes. I do believe that every word of it is true, but I do not believe that every word of it is literally true. I do not believe that a giant beast with seven heads and ten horns, which are ten kings, that is, that this beast will have ten prominent male world leaders growing out of its heads, will rise up out of the ocean. That's simply ridiculous. They are symbols. Given the highly symbolic, stylized writing utilized by John, it is equally ridiculous to assume that this one image is literal. Rev 21:8 is helpful because it explains what the lake of fire actually is. It is the second death, separation from God. There is absolutely no indication in the biblical text that this refers to an actual lake of fire and brimstone. Rather, we have every reason to think that it is just one more in a long list of symbols used by John.

The Problem of Hell

So what does all of this mean for the Problem of Hell? The Problem of Hell is based primarily on the idea that Hell is a terrible place full of torturous demons and burning fire, where the punishments do not fit the crimes. The Bible says nothing about torturous demons, this idea was introduced later by apocryphal gospels and writers like Dante, and the Bible says very little about fire, none of which can necessarily be taken literally.

Another issue related to the Problem of Hell is the fact that Hell exists at all, even if it isn't needlessly cruel. Why would God even bother creating it? Hell was not intended for mankind. Matthew 25:41 explains why such a place was prepared,

“41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:”

Hell was not prepared for us, it was prepared for the Devil and those who chose to follow him. That is still the standard. Hell is only there for those who choose it. This is a sort of Free Will defense to the Problem of Hell. Some apologists argue that Hell exists because of free will, and that hell is a choice rather than an imposed punishment. Jonathan L. Kvanvig writes,
“ [C.S.] Lewis believes that the doors of hell are locked from the inside rather than from the outside. Thus, according to Lewis, if escape from hell never happens, it is not because God is not willing that it should happen. Instead, residence in hell is eternal because that is just what persons in hell have chosen for themselves. ”

Similarly, Dave Hunt writes:
“ We may rest assured that no one will suffer in hell who could by any means have been won to Christ in this life. God leaves no stone unturned to rescue all who would respond to the convicting and wooing of the Holy Spirit."
It may seem difficult to accept that somebody would make such an irrational choice, but there are some, such as Cain or Judas, who do make that choice. The words of the Lord Himself support this. When speaking with the Pharisees in John 9:41, he said,

"41 Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth."
It is not those who do evil who will be punished, but those who knowingly do evil.

The Problem of Heaven?

Another issue is why God wouldn't just let everyone into Heaven? What's the point of having people qualify by living up to a standard? The lifestyle we experience in Heaven will be quite different from what we see in mortal life, but one similarity is that we will still have to put up with each other. This is why the vast majority of commandments, perhaps all of them, are focused toward helping people live together in a community. I suspect nine out of ten anthropologists will agree that lying, stealing, killing, adultery, and envy over material goods are not good for the community. All of Jesus' talk about love and selflessness wasn't just because He was a hippie. It was because it helps people live together in a group.

In other words, Heaven isn't peaceful and harmonious simply because God made it that way. It's peaceful and harmonious because those who dwell there make it so through obedience to Gospel principals. To put it simply, there will be two kinds of people. The first are those who love others as they love themselves, who lose themselves in selfless service, and who do all they can to uplift the community, thus being lifted up themselves as part of that community. The second are those who lie, steal, kill, cheat, and envy. They disrupt the harmony that would otherwise exist there.

God needs a place to put these individuals so that those who have prepared themselves for a higher lifestyle may not be disrupted. This place does not need to be particularly wretched or painful, but it must be separate. The Problem of Hell is concerned with how, if at all, the justice and love of God is extended to the wicked, but His justice and love is also extended to the righteous. He must allow them to live the lifestyle of peace and bliss that they have prepared themselves for, free of disruption.


The Problem of Hell claims that it is unjust and unloving of God to condemn the wicked to a state of eternal torment in fire and torture. Not only is the condition of the wickedly departed not nearly as terrible as commonly believed, but we have absolutely no reason to think there is any torment other than their own feeling of guilt and regret. Likewise, these sinful souls cannot be allowed into Heaven because not only must God be loving and just to the wicked, but He must be loving and just to the righteous, as well. Thus the existence of Hell is not a sign of God's injustice towards the wicked. It is a sign of His love and justice for the righteous.

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