By The Venerable Doctor Christopher A. Brown
In my late teens and early twenties I was quite hostile to Christianity. I shared John Lennon’s assessment that, “Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary.” The idea of a personal God struck me as crudely anthropomorphic. But I was especially disturbed by the stark dichotomy between Heaven and Hell.
What God worth believing in, I thought, would consign any creature to everlasting torment? What sort of faith is driven by the fear of eternal punishment? And where is the moral integrity of those who allow themselves to be bribed into being “good” by the promise of eternal reward? Shouldn’t a person do the right thing because it’s the right thing, regardless of rewards or punishments?
When I became a believer, these problems worked themselves out. This was, in part, because many of my objections were based on caricatures and oversimplifications. The God I came to believe in as a Christian, did not bear much resemblance to the God I had previously rejected. Similarly, Christian Eschatology – the Theology of Last Things – proved far more complex and nuanced than I had assumed.
Sheol: The Shadow Realm of the Dead
Old Testament does not speak of Hell. If we are seriously to consider the notion of Hell – which orthodox Christianity resolutely affirms – we must recognize it to be an example of “progressive revelation.” It is a theme that gradually emerges over the course the biblical narrative.
For the Hebrew patriarchs, the place of the dead was a shadowy realm called Sheol. The first reference is from the story of Jacob, where he mourns the loss of his son, Joseph, and piteously declares, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” (Gen 37:35)
Sheol resembles “Hades,” the place of the dead in ancient Greek literature. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus visits Hades on his way back from Troy to his home in Ithaca. There he meets the shades of those he has known in the past. They are not suffering eternal punishment, but neither are they in a state of joy. One is left with an impression of sadness and resignation.
Similarly, the dead in Sheol persist as mere shades. Any personal immortality for the Israelite is only through the continuation of the family line. Yet the notion of Sheol of lacks that Homeric quality of sadness and fatalism because of the Israelite conviction about the goodness and sovereignty of God. This bedrock trust in God allows the Israelite to face the eternal “fadeout” of Sheol with a calm acceptance – and even, at times, with hope.
At fi rst Sheol appears to lie outside the reach of God’s presence. “In death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:5) Yet this resignation gives rise to the confidence that the faithfulness of God is without limit, and can extend even into the depths of Sheol, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 139:8)
Hope of Resurrection
Psalm 16 goes further. Not only does the reach of God’s presence extend into the underworld, in his mercy God will deliver the psalmist from its power. “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” (Psalm 16:10)
The tantalizing hope of the psalmist becomes a certain expectation for the Prophet Isaiah. “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead. ” (Isaiah 26:19) Later,
the Book of Daniel picks up the same theme – echoing Isaiah’s language about rising from the “dust.”
Your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:1-2)
Isaiah describes a resurrection of the just; all who are raised “will sing for joy.” By contrast, Daniel introduces the theme of judgment;
some will rise to everlasting life, others will face eternal punishment. Thereby, Daniel ties resurrection to a common theme of the prophets, the “The Day of the Lord,” when God intervenes to judge the nations and vindicate the just.
Hell in the New Testament
Jesus speaks of Hell more than anyone else in the Bible. In the original text, Jesus uses two terms to speak of Hell. The first we have seen before, “Hades.” Jesus commends Peter and says, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18) Hades is no longer the shadow realm of the dead from Homer’s Odyssey, nor is the focus on divine punishment. Here, Hades is the source of demonic power, the abode of demons.
A similar idea appears in 2 Peter 2:4, “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into Hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.” The text borrows another term from Greek mythology, Tarturus, according to Bauer’s Greek English Lexicon, “a subterranean place lower than Hades where divine punishment was meted out.” 2nd Peter uses the term to denote an intermediate place of punishment for the demons.
“Hades,” reappears in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man who “died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” (Luke 16:22f) Here the emphasis is clearly on divine punishment for a lifetime of disregard for the poor.
Jesus’ favorite term for Hell is Gehenna. “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”
Gehenna was an actual place on a map. To the southwest of Jerusalem was a garbage dump. In the Old Testament it was known as the valley of Ben-Hinnom. It was a cursed place, the site of a continuing abomination – the ritual sacrifice of children to the Canaanite God, “Molech.” In the Book of Jeremiah, the Lord declares,
They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and
daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jeremiah 32:35)
By the 1st Century, AD, the cursed Valley of Ben- Hinnom has become the garbage dump outside town, a living metaphor for the place of eternal punishment:
“If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:42-50)
One can imagine the residents of Jerusalem visualizing an incessant fire burning in the local dump just outside of town while worms move about the fetid garbage, and thinking, “the place of eternal punishment must be like this!”
Even in the New Testament, the emphasis is not so much on Hades/Gehenna as a “place” to which an individual goes at the moment of death (though the parable of Lazarus and the rich indicates that this theme is not absent). Rather, the emphasis is on judgment as an end-time event that is tied to the Resurrection “at the end of the age.”
Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:40-42)
Summary of the Biblical Evidence
In the Bible, the notion of Hell emerges gradually, organically related to two themes: 1) the Day of the Lord when God rights all wrongs, 2) and the growing expectation of the resurrection of the dead. In the New Testament, the notion of Hell is pervasive and laden with provocative and unsettling imagery. Overlapping Greek and Hebrew terms, Hades, Gehenna, Tarturus denote 1) Hell the place of demons, 2) an intermediate place of punishment for the individual soul at death, and 3) the scene of the collective Final Judgment at the Resurrection
The scriptural text uses rich metaphors to speak of Hell as a place of divine punishment and separation from God for those who have rejected grace and rebelled against God’s goodness. It reveals God as the divine judge who rectifi es injustice, and restores moral integrity and balance to creation. Above all, Hell plays a crucial cosmic role as an instrument for the eternal containment and separation of the forces of evil – an eternal “time out” reserved for all that would harm God’s good creation.
At the same time, the Gospel stresses the redemptive role of Jesus in taking upon himself the wrath of God for sin. John says, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1) God is eager to forgive all who seek his pardon, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
“Who is in and who is out?” – The Demography of Hell
All this invites one crucial question; as Heidi Klum puts it on the fashion competition reality show, Project Runway, “who is in and who is out?” One answer is that apart from God’s grace, any one of us could face eternal separation from God. One day, Karl Barth’s biographer, Eberhard Busch, visited the theologian and found him quite shaken.
He said, “I had a very awful dream….I was dreaming that a voice asked me, ‘Would you like to see hell?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I am very interested to see it once.’” Then a window was opened and he saw an immense desert. It was very cold, not hot. In this desert there was only one person sitting, very alone. Barth was depressed to see the loneliness. Then the window was closed and the voice said to him, “And that threatens you.” So Barth was very depressed by this dream. Then he said to me, “There are people who say I have forgotten this region. I have not forgotten. I know about it more than others do. But because I know of this, therefore I must speak about Christ. I cannot speak enough about the gospel of Christ.”
The other answer to the question “who is in and who is out” is this: we simply cannot know for sure, but we trust in God’s mercy. Shortly before he died, Avery Cardinal Dulles, America’s premier Roman Catholic theologian (and native of Watertown, NY) published an article entitled “The Population of Hell.” He concludes,
“The search for numbers in the demography of hellis futile... it is good that God has left us without exact
information. If we knew that virtually everybody wouldbe damned we would be tempted to despair. If we
knew that all or nearly all are saved, we might becomepresumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say
fifty, would be saved we would be caught in an unholyrivalry.”
Cardinal Dulles is certainly correct; when it comes to Hell, there is much that is uncertain – and that is a good thing. We know enough, however, to affirm that 1) divine justice (which is restorative as well as retributive) inevitably includes the possibility of eternal punishment. Hence 2) we must always remember thatwe are accountable, and yet 3) we have every reason tohope in God’s mercy.
Publishing in the Advent 2012 issue of The Albany Episcopalian