Eternal Suffering in Hell

The Last Judgement detail 1504 Hieronymus Bosch

The Last Judgement detail 1504 Hieronymus Bosch

When the subject of hell comes up one thinks of the wonderfully imaginative works of Hieronymous Bosch of skewered people being roasting over fires in hell by gleeful minions of the devil.

But the actual passages in the Bible about hell are very different. There are only a handful of passages in the entire Bible that describe suffering in the after life:

1. Cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matt 8:12, Matt 22:13, Matt 25:30

2. The rich man looked up from his torment and saw Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, and asked for water.

The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch (c.1450-1516)

The Last Judgement by Hieronymous Bosch (c.1450-1516)

3. John in his apocalyptic book said the devil would be cast into the lake of fire that burns forever, prepared for the devil and his angels, who were to be tormented day and night forever. All those whose names are not written in the book of life would be cast into the lake of fire, the second death. But it never says those people will be tormented forever.

All of the other passages about the negative afterlife do not describe any suffering:

1. Gehenna, the garbage dump of Jerusalem that burned rotten garbage constantly, and where the worm did not die. Mark 9:44-48

2. Those who did not comfort and feed the righteous evangelists would go away into eternal punishment.

3. Destruction: Matt 7

And that’s all the verses there are.

Notice the inherent contradiction between outer darkness, and fire. Either these are separate metaphors or they are describing different situations. Some believe the outer darkness was a prison awaiting judgment, a place before the judgment day. The same is also conjectured about the rich man in torment looking up at Abraham and Lazarus in comfort.

None of these passages describes people from other lands and other religions being cast into eternal torment. In fact the nativity story goes out of its way to say that other leaders, the Magi, from another religion, zoroastrianism, came to worship the infant Jesus because they were directed by God to do so.

And why should any verses describe eternal suffering? There is no hell described in the entire Hebrew Bible. Why should it be totally absent in the OT and then suddenly appear in the NT? Some believe that the writers took the metaphors of the time: heaven and hell, and used them to make their points, much like the prophets of our time warn us with dire threats of global warming and eco-collapse.

There are two reasons the ex-fundamentalist needs to re-examine the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell. One is so that we can, from a more studied point of view, ask ourselves if these descriptions reflect the character of God described by Jesus: the father who ran to meet his returning son, even before his son had made a complete repentance, and rebuked his older son for not accepting his younger brother back in. This is a description of the God who longs for relationship with each one of us, not the person who delights in tormenting his children forever. What use would God have in tormenting people forever? It makes no sense in the picture of God we have through Jesus’ eyes.

Eternal torment made sense to people in the Middle Ages. They were used to kings who banished and tortured people. This was what they expected from a king. And when John Calvin of Geneva, Switzerland came along, he decided God chose, before the foundation of the earth, which ones were going to be saved, and which ones were going to be tormented forever in the lake of fire, and there was nothing they could do to resist this determination of God, a picture that reflected the helplessness and harshness of life at the beginning of the Renaissance.

The second reason we as ex-fundamentalists need to re-examine the doctrine of hell is because hell is used as a last ditch argument to keep us in the fundamentalist fold. Nothing much makes sense to us in the fundamentalist fold, but the fear of hellfire keeps us in.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
This entry was posted in Bible, Grace, Hell, Manipulation, Salvation, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Eternal Suffering in Hell

  1. Matt says:

    The word “Sheol” is what’s used in the OT. “The Hebrew word Sheol is probably derived from a root “to make hollow,” and was seen as the common receptacle of the dead and in the great many places the word appears in the OT, it is referring to the grave. It is a place and is mentioned in Gen. 37:35; Num. 16:30,33; Psalm 16:10, etc. Sheol has many meanings in scripture: the grave, the underworld, the state of the dead. It was supposed to be below the surface of the earth (Ezek. 31:15,17; Psalm 86:13). from carm.org

  2. Matt says:

    Some people (such as Christian Universalists) have made the argument that the doctrine of everlasting punishment in hell is founded upon a combination of mistranslations and misinterpretations of the Hebrew word sheol and the Greek words hades, tartarus and gehenna, to mean hell.

    Mistranslations of the Hebrew word owlam and the Greek words aion and aionios, to mean forever or everlasting when relating to God’s judgement of unbelievers and fallen angels.

  3. Junly says:

    “Why should it be totally absent in the OT and then suddenly appear in the NT?”

    Its a good argument, but it applies equally against the notion in Galatians 3:10 that Deuteronomy 27:26 means there was no means of forgiveness under the Law!

    Galatians 3:10 “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.'”

    The writer pretends that repentance and passages like Ezekiel 18 promising forgiveness based on repentance don’t exist under the Law. If there is no notion in the OT itself that Deut 27:26 means “one strike and you’re irreversibly damned until Jesus comes” then how can we suddenly accept that notion when we find it in the NT? Yet Galatians 3:10 is *THE* passage that holds together all theories of the absolute necessity of Jesus’ death for our salvation……..

    Furthermore, if we acknowledge that the Old Testament doesn’t teach hell, then in Deut 27:26 when it says “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things….” the curse *cannot* be hell. But if the curse is just physical death (and we’re all going to die anyway) then the following argumentation by the author of Galatians about Jesus taking the curse for us seems to fall flat. Jesus saves us from a mere physical death? Yet, clearly he doesn’t because we still die…..

    In other words, denying hell causes all theories of the necessity of Jesus’ death before we could be forgiven to fall apart and become meaningless.

    • Hi Junly,
      In Romans Paul argues that the way Abraham was saved is the way we should be saved: by believing the promises of God.

      I didn’t say I didn’t believe in hell. I said the descriptions of hell by Jesus were usually of destruction, which is more in line with Hebrew Bible descriptions of God’s judgment: Noah’s flood coming to mind first of all. Salvation is not salvation from destruction so much as being ushered into a relationship with God. We feel separated from God, Jesus unites us with God. I don’t need the threat of eternal suffering in hell to realize that a relationship with God based on a clean conscience is valuable to me.

  4. john p says:

    One of the most influential Biblical studies of a non-traditional view of Hell is by a mainline Church of Christ minister, Edward Fudge. Without endorsing all his views, I suggest giving it a read. He advocated annihilationism….and rejects the notion that a loving God could preside over endless torment. Oh…did I mention that he is mainline CofC? He speaks frequently at our Christian College lectures. Just google his his name. “The Fire That Consumes” is his best seller and, agree or not, a great collection of references on the topic. (I THINK I agree with him—but still working on it).

    • Hi John, I read every word of it many years ago. His bibliography at the end of the 700 page book goes on for 50 pages. I have sat down and eaten lunch with Edward Fudge. He is an amazing man, full of grace, now suffering from Parkinson’s. Edward Fudge started out in the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ, as I did. He writes gracEmail which is free to receive regularly.

  5. john p says:

    Nice! I’ve enjoyed hearing him, and one or two brief conversations in Malibu . i do not feel qualified to evaluate his Fire-That-Consumes argument. I do hope it’s true. I feel the same about universalism—-there are hints at it in the NT. Will God’s will be frustrated? (viz “God is not willing that any”…..etc.)”. I hope not. I’ll skulk around your blog and see if I find anything you’ve written on that. Cheers!

  6. Phil says:

    Interesting that we are told (in the NT) not to be double-minded and yet the idea that there is heaven and hell is a double-minded principle in which we are running from hell as much as we’re striving for heaven.

    The coC does not advocate the single-minded principle of living in the Spirit. Living by the words of scripture is not the same as living in the Spirit, no matter how much they insist otherwise.

  7. Gary Cummings says:

    I read of Fudge;s views a few years ag and rejected then in a knee jerk reaction.
    Now that I am older, I have rethought my thinking about hell, and have to say now: “I do not know.”
    I read one of Fudge’s book and a video presentation on Youtube of the main teachings of his book, THE FIRE THAT CONSUMES. I have to say, he makes an excellent case for “conditional immortality” or annihilation. Maybe the Jehovah Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists are on to something here that Fudge lately saw. The other night I was watching an old sci-fi thing called HERCULES IN HELL, It had scenes of the burning lake of fire and people burning in there and being doused with napalm on a regular basis. I remember seeing the photo of the young naked Vietnamese girl running down the road while she was being burned with napalm. The movie about Hercules connected my memory to the lake of fire. The photo of the burning girl was such a horrible thing, why would the Holy God of the universe eternally keep people burning with napalm in hell? That is offensive to me theologically and Biblically and humanly. It is more humane to extinguish the non-immortal soul than to burn then forever in the suffering of hell. That does not jive with the import of all of the Scripture that God is love.
    Thanks, Gary

  8. Brent Bacon says:

    The fire that consumes is the trial and temptations we face. Hell is simply the absence of God. Absence of all that is good.

  9. Gary Cummings says:

    Brent,
    You are close. Eternal Hell May be be the destruction of the soul. That is a surefire absence of God. I have not yet come to closure about my view about Hell. However, I can’t reconcile at this time a loving God who eternally burns people with tormenting fire. That would make God worse than Hitler. I have seen the crematoriums of Dachau, and can not imagine God roasting people forever.

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