It’s a common and controversial possibility. But is the common view of Hell the right view, or does the Bible describe something different?
From the beginning, the concept of Hell has plagued man’s hearts, and in some ways, filled them with fear. To the critic the concept of Hell is the nail in the coffin of the view of a loving God, to others, it’s a place of ultimate justice for wrongdoing. Hell (or Hades) is typically viewed as a place of eternal fire and torture. A place of every imaginable horror one can conjure up. This view of Hell has been the pinnacle of philosophical and emotional arguments against the existence of a loving God, but is this view of Hell Biblically sound? To understand why this isn’t so, we must begin by looking at one of the most horrific deaths in history: The death of Jesus Christ.
When I first saw the film The Passion of the Christ, a diverse string of emotion overwhelmed me. Everything from sadness, repulsion, anger and guilt swirled together into an uneasy mix (not to mention it was my very first R-rated film, not ever before had my eyes seen so much gore). The pain Jesus endured must have been unimaginable. He could not have been recognized by the end, His body was so disfigured. During my research of Biblical culture, I’ve since embraced another view of the cross, one so much more painful.
There is a vast difference between the social view of the West-a guilt based culture -compared to the ancient Biblical world-a culture based on honor and shame. For those new to the view, this article sums it up.
Crucifixion was a common practice in Biblical times, and it was when I began to view it in the context of the social setting that its meaning became clear. What Jesus endured was designed to humiliate and ridicule in an extreme way. From the mockery, the constant spitting, and slapping, to the crucifixion itself with its symbolic nailing of the arms and legs signifying a loss of power. It was meant to demean one of all his honor and status.
My focus when watching the Passion was the physical pain, but in reality, physical pain was a secondary focus to the ancients, whose main objective was to recategorize a person as a social freak, utterly shamed for His wrongdoing. While pain and the shedding of blood was a crucial, integral part of Christ’s death and atonement, it was the shame that was the main focus. Jesus, as the divine, was due the highest honor by nature, but that was all taken away at Calvary. A God who was willingly shamed and degraded displayed an extraordinary act of love that will never to be repeated. What has this got to do with Hell? The event of the crucifixion is the ultimate example of the concept of sin and Hell.
What is Sin?
In light of an honor-shame based society, sin was seen as an honor offence against God. It’s a mockery of His position by disregarding His authority and law. This can only be justly repaid with shame, and Jesus, bearing human likeness and the honor of God, was the only payment suitable for such a debt. His blood alone could take away sin and its ascribed shame.
Is Hell Fire and Burning?
This is one of the questions posed by many critics of Christianity. The view of an infinite fire is a common concept of this terrible place. There are a few reasons this isn’t supported in the Bible. Firstly, the Bible not only describes Hell as fire (Mark 9:43, Matthew 25:41, Rev. 20:13-14) but also of darkness (Matt. 8:12, 2 Peter 2:4). So is this a contradiction? Not at all. The Bible often uses symbolic imagery and Hell’s description as fire is one such example. One cannot have fire (which produces light) and darkness (the absence of light) at the same time. What does this fire represent? Looking back to the concept of shame, the Bible’s use of fire symbolizes the shame one feels when denied the honor of God.
Is Hell Torture?
Nowhere does the Bible use the word torture when describing Hell, rather the chosen noun is torment. To give a clear example of what this means, when one is denied the honor of God, the full weight of his sin falls upon his shoulders. Shame and guilt become his existence. C.S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce, likens Hell as a microscopic world when seen in Heaven. Within that world, people constantly get tired of each other’s company and place themselves further and further away, out into a place called the “boondocks.” Napoleon is seen to have done this, and when two travellers find him in his house, he’s pacing back and forth muttering and mulling over his sins and failures, which he blames everyone else for.
It works the same way with God. God, in His perfect glory and honor, cannot be approached by a man without a covering of divine honor (the blood of Jesus). When those without the covering catch a glimpse of His glory and presence, they turn away, utterly ashamed of their offences. They would be driven away by His very nature alone, seeking refuge as far away as possible. The heavier the weight of sin, the further and faster one runs, and the more he has to be ashamed of. Hell would essentially be a constant struggle, a never-ending escape from the holiness of God, but as He’s omnipresent, a refuge can never be found, and they can never run far enough. Thus, inhabitants are eternally tormented by their failures, realizing they’ve been excluded from a relationship with their creator and from His loving mercy, grace, love, and goodness.
Scripture also supports this point. Daniel 12:2 speaks directly of this, “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Those who awake to life will grow in the grace and God, and those who awake to death will look to those in Heaven and realize what they have really rejected. The phrase “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” also supports this, as it was a common reaction of those who were publically shamed. There are also times throughout Scripture that God’s glory is referred to as “Fire.” (Exodus 3:2-3, Exodus 19:18) It also compares it to the sun in Matthew 17:12, and it is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 that best presents the reality of Hell, a reality apart from God’s gift of grace and nourishment.
In the end, a correct view of Hell is essential when it comes to realizing the grace and mercy of God. It’s not that God “sends” people to Hell, nor does He actively “torture” them, rather He offers salvation from death and shame. Those who reject and deny, take upon themselves the shame Jesus bore for them on the cross instead. Those who turn from God are placed exactly where they wish to be, outside of Heaven’s walls, although they can never be separated from God Himself.
For those who want to dive deeper this article is one of the best.