More thoughts on hell

“All Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist.” – NT Wright Taking the verses on the final judgement at face value creates discrepancies. How can hell be both a lake of fire and an outer darkness? Corpses (Isaish 66:24) and yet ashes (Malachi 4:1-3)? These questions reveal that the language is figurative, designed to communicate the coming arrival of God’s loving and holy wrath and the aftermath of which merely common words fail to describe. The imagery, despite its figurative nature, serves as an important clue as to what the process and aftermath of God’s final judgement will look like. The words and phrases used include death, destruction, perish, ashes, burning weeds, weeping (sadness), gnashing of teeth (anger and hatred), eternal punishment, corpses, shame, eternal contempt, and being bound hand and foot and thrown out of the wedding feast. The issue is, can we gather a clear understanding of what hell will look like from this language?

Part of the reason I posted the NT Wright quote above because his vision of hell is an attempt to answer that very question. Wright’s main idea of hell is that it is a place where people continue the process of dehumanization, the journey of abandoning one’s God-given status as image-bearers, started in their first life.[1] His view is nearly agnostic on the issue, falling somewhere between annihilationism and eternal conscious torment. Wright takes an honest look at the language about hell and arrives at (through my own eyes…I do not know him personally!) a hesitant conclusion. This example leads us again to the relevant question: Can we gather a clear understanding about hell from the figurative language? Or, to phrase it another way, should we be as careful as Wright is on the issue of hell? I am willing to argue that we can come to a solid conclusion about hell. Why? My reasoning is that, even though hell is described in differing ways, the whole of the biblical witness offers a note of finality to the punishment. The corpses of Isaiah, the ashes of Malachi, the Gehenna of Jesus, the use of words such as death, perish, and destruction by Paul and James, and the lake of fire-“the second death”-of John of Patmos all point towards an end. Like weeds burned in a fire, the language of judgement carries a note of finality, completeness, and fiery consummation. To put it another way, the punishment sounds more like the death penalty than solitary confinement for eternity. How the punishment is carried out though, the biblical writers are unclear on. Perhaps the lake of fire should be taken literally. Perhaps the outer darkness is the true reality, the place where one goes to live out their final days. The point is, we have been given clues pertaining to the nature of the punishment and the aftermath. The method of the punishment itself is simply left to speculation.

Addressing some common questions Why raise everyone, including the wicked, at the resurrection if the unrighteous will then be brought to an end afterwards? I do not pretend to decipher the hidden motives of God himself. I can certainly guess however! The Bible as a whole presents a story. The foreword describes God creating the universe and earth. Chapter one begins with this same God breathing life onto the earth in the form of man. Chapter 2, the Fall, arrives next. Man has chosen to abandon their original vocation. God then chooses a people to bless the earth through. Jesus arrives later, providing a way for man to be reconciled with God while also breathing new life into the abandoned creation project. Evil is defeated on the cross, and the promise of a new earth/creation is now realizable. Then comes the end, where everyone is judged for what they did in their lives. The resurrection of even the wicked fits in with this story. There is a note of finality, of closure to the act. The unrighteous, having sinned in the body, are raised to life and thrown entirely (body, mind, and spirit–also known as a soul) into hell. Now, will unbelievers receive the same imperishable resurrection bodies as believers? Probably not. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul addresses the resurrection bodies. The problem is, Paul is writing specifically to believers, demonstrated in verses 20-23: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in [h]Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming…” Paul is not saying, to the contradiction of Daniel 12:2 and Rev 20:11-15, that only those who are Christ’s will be resurrected. Verse 23 does reveal Paul’s focus however. The issue is those in Christ and the bodies they will receive at the resurrection. Verses 42-49 then describe the nature of these spirit-oriented bodies. Instead of being like the earthly body of Adam, they will be like the glorious body of Jesus after his resurrection. All of this is spoken by Paul as a gift that will be bestowed on believers. That is why I do not think the unrighteous will receive immortal bodies at the resurrection. Of course, this is merely an educated guess, as the Bible says nothing of the nature of the bodies of those resurrected to judgement. How is annihilation a punishment for sin? (A counter question: does the punishment have to be eternal to be a true punishment?) Well…how is it not? Allow me to paint a picture in your mind: You are standing before the great white throne. God, the creator of everything in existence, the one who gave you life, moves his finger down a book-the book of life-in search for your name. Jesus, King over all of creation stand to his right. The presence of both is so overwhelming that your trembling knees can no longer bear the weight of your body, and you collapse to the ground. The pure love, the glory of God, is like a painful wound in your side. Your stomach sinks down into the waves of regret. You hold your breath in dreadful anticipation, taking in every detail of your surroundings as though you have only a moment left to live. Every turn of a page is a grain of sand falling through an hour glass, reverberating off the walls of your thumping heart. Off in the distance, you see the saints, glowing, literally, with the same glory that clothes the unbearable God before you. Laughter comes forth from their joyous celebration. Families hug and greet each other in anticipation of the hope they have held for so long, soon to be fully realized. If only you were so fortunate. The last page slips by. God looks up from the book. “Depart from me. I never knew you.” In that moment, your grief, your pain is overcome by something else, a stronger, terrible feeling. It spreads like a numbing coldness, starting from the very center of your being and crawling like a million ants to the end of your fingers. The tears then come. They drip off the end of your chin and land at the foot of the throne. It is too much to stand up; to do so would be to lift the weight of the sky. Despite the odds, you just manage to look up at the God towering before you. Your face twists and contorts into rage. The anger, impervious to love, gives you the strength to stand. Every fiber of your being wishes to lash out at Jesus, to make him share in your pain, but you direct your anger towards the steps down the path of the condemned. You are lead by the angels away from the shining glory of the throne. Further and further you walk to your death. But this time, you know there is no resurrection, no second chance. This is it. You are tossed into the pit of fire. Every lick of the flame is a reminder of every sin you ever committed. You feel the pain of every evil action committed. You feel the pain of everyone one you have ever hurt. You feel the pain of God. The worst realization, just now emerging from the shock, lashes your insides. You are forever shut out from the kingdom of God, from the source of every hope, every dream, every wish you ever had. Blackness, the darkest shadow of oblivion, begins to creep over the corners of your vision. And then you are no more. A memory lost in the years of eternity. A smudge of paint on the cosmos. Is that not punishment enough? I think it is. [1]

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