–Daniel S. Ferguson
The concept of Hell is perhaps one of the strongest driving forces of people, especially Millennials, away from the church. We, or at least I, really can’t stomach the juxtaposition of all-loving God against an eternity of suffering for those who didn’t happen to claim Jesus as Savior during their lifetime.
Hell has been a difficult topic for any generation, but particularly for myself and Millennials who just can’t seem to swallow it. I don’t envy those who preach Hell to my generation. It’s a tough sell.
So let’s talk about it, as honestly as we can, and see if we can’t figure something out. Here’s my view. I’d love to hear yours.
In any discussion of Hell, it’s important to figure out just what we’re talking about. I believe linguistic issues are absolutely critical here. The Hellenistic Judaism in which Jesus lived in is very important to understand. In the Old Testament, there’s the concept of Sheol, or “the grave,” which in the Old Testament was discussed as both a literal place for a dead body and the resting place for the souls inside those bodies that would eventually, in the final days, be resurrected for the last judgment.
Once Hellenism (Greek thinking and mythology) wound its way into Jewish thought, that word Sheol got translated into Hades in the Greek version of the Old Testament, and the two concepts (Jewish and Greek) very much merged in Jewish thought.
Therefore, quite a bit of Greek imagery was infused in the New Testament understanding of Sheol, including the idea of different levels of Hades, most distinctly that some were meant for punishment of the wicked, which is not mentioned in any Old Testament reference of Sheol.
However, this is distinctly not the word Jesus uses when He discusses Hell.
He uses gehenna, which is an abbreviation of Gin Hinnom (“Valley of Hinnom”), a literal place near Jerusalem that is visible from the Mount of Olives, where Jesus delivers His sermons that use the word. This is the place that Judah’s wicked King Ahaz and his descendant King Manasseh worshiped the Baals and sacrificed their own children.
Later on, the good King Josiah purged Israel of idol worship practices; one of the more important cleansings was desecrating the altar at Topheth, in Gin Hinnom. Basically, he set the whole valley on fire and burned everything in it to cleanse it. When Judah was invaded later on, the invading armies used the valley as a massive trash dump, where things were carried off to burn.
No one lived in the valley for centuries, and it was still a charred trash heap when Jesus was preaching, a visible reminder of God’s wrath against sin.
Jesus is the only person to use this word in any literal sense in the NT (the only other reference is from James, who describes the tongue as a “fire of Gin Hinnom“, clearly a rhetorical flourish), and Jesus only does so in this geographic context. It’s very much like He’s pointing to the literal place when He mentions it in his various Olivet Discourses.
Jesus is predicting a day of judgment against wickedness (pretty much the same message as John the Baptist), and He’s saying that following the law isn’t enough. God’s requirement isn’t merely that you live within the edges of predefined bounds, but rather that your heart itself be righteous. Jesus’ argument (likely a hyperbolic one) is that those who simply follow the law but still harbor sin in their hearts are just as evil as those who sacrificed their own children to false gods, and that their fate would be the same as the valley that was scorched because of that idolatry.
Jesus says to give up the parts of you that sin, to cast those out and purge them, just as Josiah did to the temples and artifacts of idol worship, or else all of you will perish in the day of judgment, much as Judah itself had perished.
So, in my opinion, when Jesus talks about the “fires of hell,” this isn’t predictive necessarily of a cosmic reality after death, but a physical reality in actual life. Everyone knew the story of Gin Hinnom just like everyone today remembers the stories of Gettysburg, Auschwitz, and the World Trade Center. Gin Hinnom‘s cleansing was a pivotal moment in Jewish history, and its physical remains were a constant reminder of what happened there.
Not once does Jesus connect the idea of Gin Hinnnom to an eternal reality. The closest He comes is in a parable (that of Lazarus and the Rich Man), where Jesus specifically uses the word Hades (not Gehenna) and where He indicates exactly which level of Hades Lazarus is in, perfectly according to contemporary Greek understanding. Though I believe Scripture is Truth, I hesitate to base any doctrine of the nature of Hell on a highly metaphorical parable, where Jesus could be employing rhetorical devices that would strain any plain reading as foundational.
And that’s really it. Just those eleven references to Gehenna in all of the New Testament, all by Jesus, all in specific geographic context. That may be enough for other people to preach it as a part of essential Gospel, but it is not enough for me.
For one thing, no one else in the Bible really uses this word. Not Paul, not Peter, not John. Nobody close to Jesus mentions it when they’re discussing doctrine in their epistles. Paul talks extensively about the doctrine of salvation, but not once mentions that we are being saved from Hell. He expresses very real predictions about God’s wrath at the day of judgment, but never anything about eternal punishment.
Sure, some verses are stretched to fit, like Galatians 1:9, but that’s really flaky evidence. The closest we get to any hard evidence from Paul is 2 Thessalonians 1:8, where Paul says that those who oppose the church “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord.” This is where many people get the idea of Hell being an eternal separation from God. However, that’s not what I think the passage says. It says they will be everlastingly destroyed, a plain reading of which means that they will be destroyed for good, never to return, not that they will be destroyed continually forever in constant pain and torment.
Their separation from God’s presence is the natural result of their not existing any more. This isn’t, in my view, and eternal reality of which they would be painfully aware, but a denial of all the glory God shares with His children. They’re simple done. And it should be noted that Paul isn’t talking about all non-believers; he’s very specific in whom he’s discussing in verse 6: “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you.”
One question many people ask is this: “If Hell isn’t a literal reality, then what does Jesus save us from?” My principal problem with this question is that it negates sin as a problem unto itself. Throughout Scripture, God is not concerned with undoing the effects of sin as such. Even redeemed believers still physically suffer and physically die, a clear result of natural sin.
So in a conversation about Hell, here’s what I would mention (and this is just me).
It’s that sense you have that you’re on your own. It’s that constant helplessness, that constant hopelessness, that constant fear that you don’t measure up, that constant addiction to self, that constant loathing that comes from a lifetime of giving in again and again.
Jesus says to let those things go. He says cut them off, cut them out of your life and give them up for good. Follow Him instead. Don’t wait to get it right first. Get out the saw and do it now. Cut off the parts of your soul upon which the chains of sin are shackled, and hobble after Jesus with all you’ve got left. Jesus will heal you; He will restore you, both to Him and to yourself. He will give you a new life and a new hope and a new name and a new spirit. He will help you burn away the parts of you that hold you back. It will hurt immensely, but then–freedom.