Thus far, in my series on “hell,” I have posted 3 articles: 1) discussing the nature of the words sheol and hades, 2) looking at the oft-discussed passage of Luke 16:19-31, and 3) considering the word gehenna, which is the word usually translated as “hell”.
My contention is that most popular discussion around the topic of hell is not greatly centered in the ancient Jewish understanding embedded in Scripture. This leads to some problematic interpretations of the various terms and concepts. And I believe it ultimately steers us toward an unhealthy view of God.
In this article in particular, I want to consider specific descriptors such as eternal and everlasting, especially as they are used in phrases like, “eternal punishment” and “everlasting destruction.”
First off, let me be clear that, personally, I could land in one of two places. This is an area that still needs more study in my own mind, mainly because there are weak points for the two differing positions that I believe work best in regards to a theology of judgment.
Still, what I am quite certain of is this: The popular position amongst many Christians, that of hell being a place of eternal conscious torment after death, fails to fall in line with the biblical details on many fronts. I also believe it falls short of theological and philosophical considerations regarding questions around the nature of God – what is God like – but those discussions have not been my goal in this series.
If you wanted to peg me with a particular view, then I would identify as holding to annihilationism, that is, the wicked being brought to complete destruction in the second death. As to how this plays out, I find that I could lean in one of two camps. So let me explain those two camps. Both come to the same conclusion – that the wicked will be fully and finally destroyed, rather than eternally tormented. But the path taken to get there is a bit different.
1) The view of an abstract, future judgment.
By abstract, I mean something that is above a more concrete, tangible, human level. It’s conceptual and metaphysical at its root. Abstract art is more about constructing a concept, rather than depicting reality.
For many, God’s judgment is a conceptual idea concerning the very far, and somewhat unknown, future. This is not unlike most people’s conception of the kingdom of God. It’s an ethereal concept that is supra-earth, above our lived out reality.
However, when we look at Scripture, the kingdom of God is always a concrete reality being expressed through the activity of God amongst humans, especially amongst the people of God. The biblical writers could only write about the kingdom of God as they saw it being expressed, lived out “on earth as it is in heaven.”
So, in regards to hell and God’s judgment, most see it as something that so distant from real life. We don’t even know where “hell” is, this ethereal place of judgment. Many bat around ideas of where this place might be in the future.
Therefore, within a more abstract perspective, in seeing hell as the final and future destiny of the wicked, the terms everlasting and eternal do not speak of a perpetual tormenting of the wicked, but rather that it will be a lasting reality. They’ll never “come back,” if you will. They’ll be annihilated, being part of the final destruction rather than the completed new creation.
The great proponent of this view, Edward Fudge, says:
Gehenna is the “eternal” fire for two reasons. First, it is not part of the present age but of the age to come. It does not belong to time but to eternity. Second, those who go into it suffer everlasting destruction. When the unquenchable fire finally destroys the lost, they will be gone forever. The Bible calls the fire that fell from heaven and destroyed Sodom “eternal fire” for that very reason (Jude 7). Once destroyed, Sodom was never seen again. (pg 44, Two Views of Hell)
What Fudge is saying is that, every time Jesus speaks of gehenna in the gospels, which again is only 11 times in total, he is speaking of a future judgment to come upon humanity. This would mean that gehenna and the “lake of fire” spoken of in Revelation are synonymous.
There is a lot of solid reasoning for this view, again with the judgment of God being identified as death and destruction (or annihilation). And this is finalized through the “second death” (Rev 21:8), expressed in both the Jewish imagery of gehenna and the fiery lake vision we read of in Revelation.
My hang-up on this view is that the judgment of God within Scripture is predominantly a concrete reality on earth. It’s set within actual history, never an abstract future mystery. When the world in Noah’s day was judged, an actual flood takes place. When Sodom and Gomorrah were judged, they actually met that judgment then and there. When Israel and Judah were judged by God for turning from the torah of God and worshipping false gods, they were judged through the real-life military activity of Assyria and Babylon.
Again, judgment always takes place within the context of history. Imagery might be used to describe the coming judgment or what has already taken place. But it still happens in plain historical sight.
2) The view of an historical judgment.
Because of the shortfalls of the above position, I find myself appreciating what is called the narrative-historical perspective and how that plays out in discussing judgment within the framework of Scripture. I’ve touched on this already in previous articles, especially part 3, but I believe this view best allows for the Scripture to be rooted in the actual narrative setting of the Jewish people. The Bible is not an abstract text with all people in mind of all times and cultures. It is focused in one particular story related to one particular people.
Now, this doesn’t mean we cannot benefit from Scripture. Of course we can! But, as I regularly note: The Bible was not written to us, but it was written that we might also benefit from it.
That’s important to remember.
This is why it is of great import to understand what is going on historically, culturally, and situationally within the Jewish context from which Scripture is written.
So, in the gospels, I’m fairly convinced that Jesus is not using gehenna imagery to speak of some abstract future judgment. He’s pointing out something the Jews see and smell on a regular basis, warning them that this, too, will be the place of judgment for the unfaithful. And it would come about just as Jesus said it would: Rome sacked the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple, and put the Jews to death, filling the the Valley of Ben Hinnom (or gehenna) with the dead bodies. Gehenna, which still existed in Jesus’ own day, was going to be a place of destruction and fire for the faithless Jews.
But what about Jesus’ words such as, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt 25:46)? This must point to the far future that has yet to come, right? Eternal life speaks of heaven in the future; so, eternal punishment speaks of a hell in the future.
The word translated as “eternal” is aiōnion. It literally means age-long or that which lasts for an age, not necessarily a future “eternal” state, as normally conceived. So, within Jesus’ setting, he is recognizing that a major age-changing event was on the brink. There was a forthcoming transition from one age to the next. Regarding Matt 25, theologian and author Andrew Perriman states:
The Gospels give us no reason to think that this phrase refers to the end of history and good reason to think that it refers to the catastrophic transition that will accompany the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (cf. Matt. 24:1-3). This is also in keeping with the statement found in both Paul and Hebrews that “the end of the ages” has come upon the current generation (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 9:26). (Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, loc.733-736)
This cataclysmic judgment would take place in major historical events: a) one in which the unfaithful Jews would encounter judgment through the hands of Rome and b) ultimately, the Roman empire and its pantheon of gods would come to nothing. Judgment would be served up to both. This would be particularly seen as a) the Jews received judgment via the Romans in AD 70 and then b) the pagan nations, represented by the great empire of Rome, would be judged in their own sacking and destruction by the Visigoths and Vandals in the 5th century.
This is the general narrative flow of Scripture from beginning to end. First, God’s people are judged and then the pagan nations are judged. Sure, the above historical scenario represents a long period of time that spanned a few hundred years. However, that was the exact story of Israel in the Old Testament as well.
- God’s people judged first – Israel defeated by Assyria in 722 BC and Judah defeated by Babylon in 586 BC
- Assyria’s defeat by Babylon (612 BC)
- Lastly, Babylon’s defeat by Persia (539 BC)
Here we’re looking at a span of a couple hundred years.
And, so, the historical setting into which Jesus speaks would be seen as a separate warning from the imagery that would be used later in the final chapters of Revelation. This would, then, mean gehenna and the lake of fire are not synonymous entities, though they might have relatable elements.
Sure, there will be a final and full judgment at some point in history, represented by the destructive nature of this lake of fire. Death itself will one day be destroyed (not “eternally tormented,” if one could do that to death). But Jesus, and the main corpus of the New Testament, have an actual historical situation in view. It follows the usual prophetic focus within Scripture.
I do believe this second view ultimately makes more sense when you get into the nitty-gritty of Scripture and its historical setting. My challenge with this viewpoint, though, is two-fold: a) There is an actual “abstract” future judgment spoken of in Scripture, in Revelation. So why can’t we connect the words of Jesus (and Paul) to that of Revelation 20-22? It’s possible they need to be. b) When I read actual passages, such as Matt 25, at times it is extremely hard to not see a more abstract and future judgment being described. The wording seems to point to such.
Still, I’m also aware that, when you’ve seen something one way for so long, it’s hard to consider a different viewpoint. For example, try reading Romans 5 without the Augustinian lens of “original sin”. It is a difficult feat!
In all, though, after some years now, I find myself leaning toward the second view I’ve laid out above, I do understand the first view. There are justifiable points in both positions. However, what I am greatly convinced of is that “hell” (gehenna and the lake of fire) are not places of eternal conscious torment of the wicked. Rather they both speak of the final destruction of the wicked. That’s the consistent story of Scripture.