What is Hell? by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
We are a product of our history. Much of our theology has been formed by the ancient church, by medieval thinking and by our personal theology. Recently I was asked, ‘Do you believe in Hell and if so what or where is Hell’?
What is my view on Hell? This stumped me for a while? I actually found it pretty difficult to answer. So this post comes out of weeks and weeks of me digging around in my theology attempting to work out what it is that I believe. I actually came up with more questions than answers but here goes.
Our first images of Heaven and Hell came from the middle ages where heaven and hell were seen as places of reward and punishment. You may like to read my post on What is Heaven?
The most prominent illustration of hell from this period was by Dante’s Divine Comedy. He portrays Hell as nine circles in the centre of the earth where Satan dwells (Mc Grath).
There are a few differing doctrines on Hell. “One, the traditional Christian model of hell, articulated by some of the West’s most historically significant philosophers and theologians, hell involves permanent, conscious suffering for the purpose of punishing human sin. According to annihilationism, the damned ultimately cease to exist and so are not conscious. According to the free will view of hell, the purpose of hell is to respect the choice of the damned not to be with God in heaven. Finally, according to universalism, there is either no hell at all, or only a temporary hell” (Ref).
The most common translation for the word ‘Hell’ in the New Testament is Gehenna. It was an actual location in Jerusalem. The term Gehenna is derived from the Valley of Hinnom, traditionally considered by the Jews the place of the final punishment of the ungodly. It was an old rubbish heap outside the southwest corner of the old city. A smouldering smoking rubbish dump. The valley was used as a burial-place for criminals and for burning garbage. They used sulphur, the flammable substance we now use in matches and gunpowder. Thus when the Jews talked about punishment in the next life, what better image could they use than the smoldering valley they called gehenna? (ref)
‘What Jesus was meaning in this reference when he referred to Gehenna was not that they would burn in hell as our medieval ancestors have translated, but that if they did not turn away from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing Gods Kingdom on their own terms, Rome would do what all larger empires do when they take over smaller ones, Rome would turn Jerusalem into a smouldering stinking rubbish heap and that is exactly what has happened and it is still smouldering and stinking. When Jesus said: “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” that was the primary meaning that he had in mind’ (N.T. Wright).
Jesus did say that who reject God will go away into eternal punishment,” which is “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. Elsewhere in Matthew (8:12, 22:13, 24:51, and 25:30), Jesus invokes a rather different image, suggesting that hell is “outer darkness” (that is, outside heaven) “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Though not always expressly stated, the implication is that the punishment will have duration and be endless.” John F. Walvoord in Four Views on Hell, p. 20
I come from the Christian worldview of eternal life. I think that heaven and hell are linked and that the goal is actually life now, not later and that it be a life that is demonstrating the goodness of God to those around us now and to the care of the planet. N.T.Wright also confirms the connection saying that hell is necessary as part of the ethics of heaven.
Otherwise, it’s chaos. Unless God hates child murderers, child rapists, whatever, then God is a bad God. But God wants them to change. If they say, “No, this is the way for me to be human. I like doing this stuff,” then God will say, “Well, I’m sorry. There is no place in my new creation for somebody who insists on remaking their own humanity in that deadly way (Ref)”
My view on Hell is similar to C. S. Lewis. His book The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is a good picture of life without God – the frozen paralysing fear of Narnia.
Personally, my view of Hell would be considered the ‘free will’ view. According to the free will view, one of God’s purposes in creation is to establish genuine love-based relationships between God and humans, and within the human community. But love is a relation that can exist only between people who are genuinely free. Therefore, God gives people freedom in this life to decide for themselves whether or not they will reciprocate God’s love by becoming the people God created them to be (Ref).
It teaches that God places the damned in hell not to punish them, but to honor the choices they have freely made. On this view, hell originates not so much from divine justice as from divine love.
Jesus prayed “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Lewis says in The Great Divorce:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” He is saying that Hell is actually life without God.
When someone says, “I do not want to have a relationship with God,” in that limited sense they ultimately get their way. The unbeliever’s “wish” to be away from God turns out to be his worst nightmare. The ultimate or eternal absence of God is an eternity without goodness where you will live with your own poor character.
“In one of his few treatments of hell in Following Jesus, Tom Wright employed a metaphor which would have made Lewis proud. He imagined a grand piano that had once played brilliant music, but it changed hands and fell into disuse. Eventually wormwood set in to the disused piano and it was chopped up and used for kindling (p. 91)“.
Second Thessalonians 1:9 describes hell like this:
“They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord.”
Where God withdraws, there can be no good. So, in Lewis’s terms, the unbeliever gets what he wants — God’s absence — yet with it gets what he doesn’t want — the loss of all good.
I hope that this has helped a little. It is a very abbreviated look at these topics which I found a little overwhelming to be honest. I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Happy to be corrected.
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