A Biblical View of What Hell Isn't

Dante__s_Hell_by_InaOdineContinuing from yesterday

Before I share what I think is a Biblical understanding of Hell (what it is and what it isn’t ) I would like to share some resources I found helpful in thinking about Hell (in addition to the Bible):

  • Scot McKnight’s One Life, in particular chapter 12, gives a good, responsible treatment of the Biblical text and what it says about Heaven, Hell, eternity and so on.
  • Tim Keller’s The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism is a great book on apologetics. It takes doubt seriously and engages a skeptical mindset with respect, which is refreshing. Chapter 5 tackles the question, “How can a loving God send people to Hell?”

I believe in Hell. To borrow the words of McKnight, “I believe in Hell because Jesus did. I hope I believe in Hell as Jesus did,” but I don’t believe in the Hell most people have in mind. Most people’s imaginations about Hell are deeply influenced by Dante’s Inferno or other cultural interpretations of Hell and not what the Bible has to say about it.

Dante is a 14th Century writer who wrote an epic poem that describes the journey of Dante through what is basically the medieval concept of Hell. In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine circles of suffering located within the Earth. The poem was vividly cast and readers throughout the Renaissance were terrified by the horrors that were described. Artists for centuries painted rivers of fire choked with the writhing corpses of the dead. Much of what the western world pictures when they think of Hell has more to do with this poem than the Bible. Here is a brief list of what is commonly thought of when talking about Hell but not supported by Scripture.

  • The Devil (or  Satan or Lucifer) is a guy with a pitchfork, horns, a tail, and red tights who is in charge of Hell. Not true.  Satan is a creation of God in the same way we are.  He is obviously different than a human but has no special privileges in any domain of the afterlife.   Likewise, demons are also imagined as satyrs (half man / half goat) that serve in administration. While the Bible describes a dragon that leads a revolt against God in the book of Revelation (Rev 12),  Satan and demons alike are created beings that are under the same punishment as people who turn their back on God. There is no boss in Hell, rather Hell is full of bosses: everyone a boss of themselves.
  • Hell is underground. Again, a nod to Dante, Hell is spoken of explicitly as a reality (Matt 25: 30, 41; Rev 14: 9-11; Rev 20: 10) but it is not a location under, on, or above the planet Earth.  I believe it to be fundamentally, “different in kind,” to our reality as we see it. Either way, the Bible does not give us directions to Hell. I believe from what the Bible says that Hell is a reality but I don’t believe it is something that I can use a GPS or a cosmic navigation system to find.
  • Jesus teaches what Hell is like. One of my big pet peeves is when people use the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 1-31) to infer things about what Hell will be like.  When Jesus mentions eternal punishment He is not teaching about protocols in Hell or what Hell will be like.  The point of this parable in particular is the proper use of wealth, not what to expect when you get to Hell.  Jesus does teach in other places about Hell but  I’ll say more about that when I write about what the Bible says Hell is like tomorrow.

Hell is compared to fire in the New Testament often (Matt: 25: 30, 41;  Mark 9: 43, 48;  Luke 16: 24; Rev 14: 10; 19: 3; 20: 10) but I believe the ‘fire’ here is meant to be an analogy and not meant literally.  Let me explain.

In the same way I don’t believe that Heaven is a place in the clouds that is literally built out of solid gold that is see through (see Rev 21: 18), I don’t believe Hell is hot in a temperature sense of the word.  I don’t think the architecture of heaven is the point of the biblical text nor is the atmospheric conditions in hell important – it is beside the point. I don’t think Hell will literally be fire (rapid oxidation) burning your natural body or some new fire-proof body.  The image of fire is being used on multiple levels in the Bible.

Fire is often used in the sense of purification.  In the same way metals are melted and the impurities are skimmed off, fire is used in 2 Pet 3: 10-12 to represent this purification of all of creation.

In a similar way, the burning sensation is also being used by the New Testament writers to allegorize the suffering of being continuously destroyed, or disassociated without ever being restored.  it is being used to imagine a world without the hope of redemption, or being made right.

Tomorrow I will write about a Biblical View of What Hell Actually Is.

2 thoughts on “A Biblical View of What Hell Isn't

  1. I thought “What Dreams May Come” neatly conceptualized hell except for how one could circumvent it. Also personal suffering and personal bliss were over emphasized, and God played a figurative roll at best, but I liked how hell was a trap of your own devising and you tortured yourself there in isolation.


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