2006-12-23

What the Hell is Hell?

This morning Andrew Green (a fellow theomedian) asked me the following question:

It says that demons are tempters in the Bible, but does it ever say that they are tormentors (I know that the two terms are synonymous in some circumstances, but that's not what I mean)? It seems to me that culture picked up somewhere that when we go to hell, lots of happy little demons get to torture us all day long. Where did we get that?

So, I answered with the following:

The Greek word for "temptation" is also the word for "trial/tribulation/torment" (Gk: pei-ras-mos). So yes, implicit in the "job description" found in peirasmos is BOTH temptation AND torment. Think about Job. Satan BOTH whispers temptation to job through the wife ("curse God and die") AND Satan torments Job by disasters and plagues (cf. Job 1-2). And you see the same pattern in the Bible. Satan both tempts Jesus and Peter, as well as taking control of hapless human hosts and throwing them into fires and gruesome stuff like that.

Now, about extending that to the afterworld, I think you find two streams of thought:

a) The Greco-Roman myths of Hades, and torment by evil spirits found there, indirectly add a great deal to Christian thought about hell. In these myths, Zeus, in retributive divine wrath, sends beings to Hades to eternally endure "just punishment" found in stuff like Narcissus being forever in love with his own reflection, and Sisyphus who was doomed to roll a rock up a hill for eternity. Interestingly, it is also in the Greco-Roman myths that one truly finds the idea of an eternal, non-ending torment that has no end to it. In Hades there are a host of daemons led by the god of the underworld to make sure that these punishments are carried out forever ad nauseum. Only on a few occasions do people escape Hades, and that is when someone from the land of the living has enough love and courage to go to Hades to rescue them.

b) Now, I am sure it is obvious how many of these ideas parallel Scripture (especially the hero who descends to the dead to free the captives in Hades!). So, it was quite natural for all of these ideas to be “read into” Scripture as if they were all quite naturally found there.

Within the first few centuries of Christianity, especially after Christianity began to forget or minimize its Jewish heritage, these ideas were read into Scriptures that would "receive" these ideas as possible interpretations.

Thus, when we read in Revelation 12 and 20 that Satan and his horde were "cast down" from heaven, they read in the idea that they had been thrust into hell. When we read that some demons are chained up in "the abyss" or "tartarus", they read in the idea that the demonic homeland is now hell, with earth as a kind of "workplace" or "vacation spot" where they got out of hell to come tempt. Finally, when we read Jesus saying in Matthew 13 that the eternal fire "was prepared for devil and his angels", they read in the idea that Satan lived in the fire with his angels.

And, since the Greek "Underworld" was controlled by the death-god Hades, they eventually read that into the Scriptures to. Hell, the eternal fire, became no longer something controlled by God and used for God's purposes, but instead became a separate realm under the control of the Devil. And from this foundation grew up all of the midieval hell-visions we read, culminating in Dante's "Inferno" and "Purgatorio".

Now, with that said, let me say this: Dante's work is INCREDIBLE and there are many great spiritual lessons to be learned from him (he was a moral and spiritual genius). Even if his vision of the topology and population of hell is in error, the core purpose and meaning of his vision is not, and we should pay attention to it.

I also think the medieval mis-readings of the Biblical passages on hell should be a warning to us. They innocently read cultural notions into the Biblical text in order to make sense of them, and help make sense to the people they preached to. And this is a good and noble starting point as a "step-ladder" to help people get to the massive structure of Biblical teaching. But somewhere the step-ladder became part of the architecture. We need to learn from them and be careful that our "step-ladder" analogies and examples do not become part of our Biblical architecture. There is a place for analogies and examples that help people “get into” the Biblical narrative, but it is a limited place, and if we don’t confine that place, they will grow out of control (like the hell tradition we are talking about here).

Finally, I would recommend the following correctives to our ideas of hell:

1. When the demons were cast out of hell, their primary locale is here on earth to try and destroy those who God loves (Rev. 12)

2. If some demons are being held in "hell/the abyss/tartarus", they are being punished by God there. They are not allowed to roam around and hurt others, because hell IS something like solitary confinement.

3. Hell is a reality that God owns and is in control of, and which he uses for his own redemptive purposes.

4. I think there is a good chance that the eternal fire of hell IS the unmediated presence of God's refining Love, since God alone is the “consuming fire” (cf. Deu. 4.24; Heb. 12.29; 1Co. 3).

5. Hell does not seem to be eternal in the Greek sense of "unending time". Rather, it is eternal in the Hebrew sense of "the perfect/complete amount of time".

6. Purgatory may in fact be a better understanding of hell than the traditional vision of hell. That’s a great debate and essay I need to write sometime.

7. The one place where the Greco-Roman tradition may be incredibly helpful is in the image of the Brave Conqueror who alone has the power to rescue the helpless from Hades by descending into the realm of the dead and carrying people out of it (cf. Eph. 4.7-10).

I realize that several of these things are quite controversial, but I think that we must ask several hard questions on subjects like this, and they are questions that directly affect how we see God. And how we see God directly affects how we see ourselves and others made in God’s image. I think at the core of all of these questions is this: Is God ultimately retributive or redemptive? How we answer this question drastically affects how we see our purpose in this life, and God’s purpose for the next life.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.