An extract from the book “Hell No!” by Michael Bieleski
It would be hard to imagine a world where Hell does not invade everyday thinking in one form or another. Popular culture and mass media have worked together to paint a picture that varies according to every creative whimsy.
In the movie “Ghost Rider”, Nicholas Cage sells his soul to save his father and ends up fighting fallen angels who seek a worse hell than the one that exists. Robin Williams in “What Dreams May Come”, leaves heaven for hell to rescue his wife who both start life again as reincarnate beings. “Dantes Inferno” (1924 and 1935) depicted naked men and women suffering in hell. The list of books and movies is immense. Certainly, ghost stories, the scary and the macabre make for entertaining viewing if not profits.
However, Hollywood is not the only contributor. In fact these movies probably owe some of their existence to a long tradition of orthodox Christianity that has not only supported the concept of hell, but has also openly championed the cause.
In its extreme, hell is a never ending place of conscious torment for the hapless unbeliever. Separated from God for all eternity, they find themselves spending their time wailing and gnashing their teeth in bitter regret and anguish in a lake of fire and brimstone. One old church tract asked the reader to think of an oven being heated to incredible temperatures in which the unbeliever would scream and writhe in agony.
In its more moderate form, hell is merely eternal separation from God. A place described metaphorically by fire, darkness and other symbolic descriptions, but nevertheless, remains an eternal place of misery.
And how long is eternal? Well, it is a really, really long time. When I burnt my hand it hurt. Fortunately the pain subsided, a scar formed and eventually life returned to normal. However, in hell that pain will never subside. The suffering and anguish will never end. There will always be a little corner of the Universe full of unbelievers, consciously enduring the unthinkable. They won’t disappear; they will always be there; their nightmare will never end. Of course, all of this is good news to the believer who is happily sitting in heaven enjoying the good life; except possibly for the fact that they might remember that somewhere in the Universe, Granny is swimming around in a Lake of Fire.
The apologetic answer is that these unbelievers have all deserved this terrible, unending punishment. In their previous life they all had plenty of opportunity to believe but chose not to. They got what they wanted. God gave them their choice. They should have known that this would happen and they are without excuse. Certainly, they will have a long time to think about the ramifications of their choice not to believe.
And who will be there? The nice old lady across the street who never believed and Hitler himself. Maybe some children who were a bit nasty to their Sunday School Teachers. One thing for certain, there will be a lot of souls in anguish. All those who never got a chance to hear about God. Billions of people down through the ages, suffering because they did not know or believe that there was a God.
The theologians answer to this is that the knowledge of God is innate within man. Certainly, creation in all its glory points to a creator1 and certainly a benevolent one. In other words, life in this world taught man that there is a God. Therefore man is responsible for his actions. He has no excuse and therefore should suffer his fate.
Jesus himself explicitly declared that just being angry with someone was enough to subject one to the hell fire.2 If Jesus said it, it must be true, however horrible that idea may be.
Between the Church, theologians, Jesus and Hollywood it seems that we all have a pretty good idea about what Hell might look and feel like; and generally for the most part it will not be a popular destination.
Not that everyone believes that there is a hell or even believes that this is where they get to spend eternity. There are many different opinions on what happens in the hereafter and many are quite happily agnostic. In addition, one might hold the view that this is something one can worry about at another time. On the other side, many jokingly look forward to spending time with friends in a destination more suited to their particular lifestyle.
The world lives in a framework of competing values, beliefs and systems. Culture and religion clash head on. The Islamic extremist believes that he goes to a heaven full of virgins while the infidel will suffer in hell. Truth becomes difficult to define. Absolutes are seemingly more vague. Society creates an indeterminate and uneasy alliance of postmodern aspirations and relativistic expectations founded on human endeavour and philosophical idealism.
History, tradition and culture merge in a vortex of competing ideas; each one competing for supremacy. Which is correct? We would be like Pilate saying, “What is truth?”3 Within this noisy arena, the voice of modernism cries out for uniformity and continuity. What better way to find it except in the fundamental values and traditions of Judeo-Christian ethics?
At this point we would have to suggest that to discover the truth about hell requires an honest appraisal of everything that that particular view has on the topic. Hollywood is probably not the best place to start. The Church might be useful and perhaps the odd theologian’s viewpoint might also be valid. But the most important and most useful source will be the Bible, because that appears to be the place from whence the Christian view of hell might have had its origins.
There are a few rules we need to follow to make sure we have a balanced view on the subject. We need to think about context, author, audience, historical perspective, cultural issues, language and translation. If we get the balance right, we will think about intended meanings rather than assumed meanings. Assumed meanings may be misleading because they tend to be biased by our own backgrounds and worldviews; we will end up saying what we want the Bible to say, even though it might be saying something different.
So, what does the Bible say about Hell? Is it a pit of fire into which the unbeliever hurtles into everlasting and conscious punishment, or is it something different? A sensible answer would be quite useful given the possibility of enduring an unending existence of utter misery.
For some, the possibility that Hell is anything other than a horrid place for bad people will be seen as an act of sacrilege. It is not difficult to find Hell supporters earnestly defending the reality of the judgment to come while firmly resisting anything else. Hell becomes a truth by which genuine and orthodox Christian beliefs are measured. To think otherwise indicates heresy, cultism and spiritual delusion.
However, our aim is not take sides. It is merely to seek a clear Biblical view of these matters, unaffected by the baggage of personal bias, culture and tradition. Forming sensible Biblical beliefs will help us understand God’s word and the hope that lies ahead for man.
- Romans 1:20
- Matthew 5.22
- John 18:38