Going to hell

hellmy early church upbringing had a singular focus:  death.

now that’s not quite as morbid as it sounds.  but it’s still reality.  oh…we had our potlucks and vacation bible schools and choir practice and church work days and prayer meetings and fellowship nights.  we still did lots of church stuff in church ways and much of  it was formative and laid the foundation for my faith to grow.

but make no mistake.  our focus was on death.

to be fair, the focus was really on what was going to happen after we died.  in comparison to all of eternity, these measly 72.3 years we get to live on earth seems pretty short.  the real issue was always whether i would make it to heaven when i died or whether i would exist in eternal and unrelenting pain and torture after death.

talk about scaring the hell out of a young kid!

this discussion deserves a lot more than i am going to give today, but here’s the simple version:  in spite of its popularity… and apparent biblical justification…i haven’t believed in the concept of a literal “lake of fire” or endless, conscious suffering for those who don’t know the grace of god through faith in jesus, for over thirty years.

i do, however, take the words of john 3:16 (and many, many others like it), quite literally.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

i believe that those who die without believing in jesus perish.  perish means to cease from existence.  i believe in eternal life, but not eternal death.  in spite of the passages that have traditionally been used to teach that hell is not really death, but an eternal life of conscious punishment,  i have come to believe that those who die without experiencing the life god intends will simply die forever.

But sinners shall be altogether destroyed;  the future of the wicked shall be cut off.  Psalm 37:38

i realize this position is not without controversy, especially because it is not consistent with the popular view presented in the church and society.  but i am not alone in this conversation.  if you are interested in further study, here is a good link to a paper written by dr. glenn peoples.  also, here is an awesome book written by edward fudge (probably the foremost modern apologist for this position).  finally, here is a link to a great website on rethinking the whole concept of hell.  these are pretty cool resources.

i hope this whets your appetite for study.  don’t be afraid to rethink this.  it could change your whole outlook on being a follower of christ.

for the better.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  John 10:10


11 thoughts on “Going to hell

  1. .interesting post. need to take everything in context. Sheoul …. hell… everything evolves as man’s understanding evolves but the principles and Truth remain the same. That’s the beauty of the Bible … it stands true and applicable for all time. Chardin presented a whole new perspective that made prior understanding seem totally antiquated … the quest goes on … all will be revealed in time .. ..

  2. Hmm. No offense Mike but I have to totally disagree with you. Because if God is Holy and if He is Holy, He is Just and if He is Just, there must be punishment for our lack of acceptance of him. You could argue that simply ceasing to exist after death and missing eternity with Him is punishment, but I don’t see ANY evidence to that in His word.

    Are you saying that the need for Hell ceased upon the new covenant?

    I think that the “there is no literal Hell” view is generally an attempt to answer the question about the perceived unfairness of condemnation.

    I have some experience with this. My father died when I was 27 from a heart attack. He was on life-support for 3 days before he drew his final breath. Amongst the grief of losing my father, my overarching concern was if may dad, who was a professed atheist his entire adult life, would go to hell. The Army chaplain that was at my father’s bedside with me didn’t help my grief when as a non-believer at the time, I asked the question. His response was very cold and sterile. He said, “Well son, if he never accepted Christ, he will go to hell. I never forgot that and that moment alone set me on a path to seek the truth about Christianity.

    What I have come to believe, mostly out of fear that I will never see my father again, is that we can’t know what is truly in a persons heart and hopefully, there is the opportunity of a moment in the last firing of synapses that Jesus wrapped his loving arms around my father and he saw what he had missed all his earthly life and accepted.

    To think that he died a non-believer and that was the end, period; It is just to painful to even consider.

  3. I am willing to accept ‘perish’ if I can’t go to Heaven and live happily ever after. I don’t believe I deserve eternal punishment in Hell no matter how bad I am.

  4. This is a complex subject but all I took away from the discussion about Hell it was a place to be avoided. It’s like creationist who defend the literal 7 day creation and argue endlessly about it. Does it matter if hell is eternal punishment we can experience or eternal death? Does it matter if God created the universe in 7 24 hr days or initiated the evolutionary process?

    Bottom line: life without God here and now or through eternity is not “living”. Life is more than our respitory systems functioning and brain waves. Can you imagine living without purpose for all eternity? Or C.S. Lewis’s metaphor in “The Great Divorce” living in an ever increasing isolated world.

    To Kirk, our culture executes prisoners and their life is estinguised and we call it justice. Justice does not require continued physical torment.

  5. Wow, Mike, very thought provoking. but you always were (back then) challenging me/us in Biblical thought and principles. Remember Don McClains “Starry starry night”, when you said that he was talking about Jesus and his life in that piece. Fun memories anyway. My question to many people regarding eternal suffering is, if when we die, we are in spirit form, then how can we feel pain that would be felt in a fleshly, physical body? So if the unbelievers do go to the lake of fire, are they in spirit or do they revert back to a physical body? I ponder this stuff all the time, but I subscribe to the teaching that once we are born, we have a spirit that will live eternally somewhere, and Hell and Heaven have varying degrees or levels of bliss or torture. Anyway that is my thoughts for whatever they are worth. Thanks for sharing….Paul

  6. Mike, please explain your interpretation of Luke 16:19-26 in the context of your beliefs outlined in your post. Thanks.

    1. Scott, I’ll probably deal with some of this in a follow-up post tomorrow or the next day. I realize this is a little controversial. Theologians and Bible scholars have debated it for years. Camps are pretty well settled. But it is usually a debate with far more grace than other topics that divide Christians these days!

      Here’s my short response (realizing that all parts of it can, and should be, challenged). First, although there are some who believe Luke 16:19-31 is an accounting of an actual historical event, I believe this story falls into the category of a parable…Jesus’ primary method of teaching in the NT. I have always taught (and been taught) to be very careful to avoid ascribing literal meaning to every detail of a parable, but to look for the over-arching meaning. This parable appears to me to be about the deceitfulness and deadliness of making riches your god, rather than seeing the parable as the description of what hell is going to look like.

      Second, even if we agreed this parable gave a “reall”, rather than a “figurative” description, the problem is with what it is describing. It is not describing the final judgment or the final destination of the wicked…it’s describing what goes on in Hades. Trust me, I am no expert on this! But in my limited study of Hades (and its OT counterpart, Sheol), I’ve always understood it to be a temporary place…the place that the dead go to wait the final judgment. For the righteous dead, it’s a good place. For the unrighteous dead, it’s a bad place. Some even believe its a place where the unrighteous might even get a second chance. (I’m not sure I buy that, but many believers through the ages have). Either way, it seems obvious to me that this story has nothing to do with the final judgment. Its a story that speaks of the torment that would take place for the wicked during that temporary, in-between time before final end is played out. To me, it does not speak of eternal, unending torment.

  7. Floored that you wrote about this today, as it goes hand in hand with my personal study of late. Having some difficulty putting it into words, I think partially because I’m still studying. But I’m re-processing some theology that was drilled into me at an early age, and which no longer fits with my understanding of God and of what Jesus did on the cross. Have to make sure its God that’s revealing Himself to me through His word, and not me trying to make God into something I’d simply like Him to be, but I’m discovering that I was brought up with a culture/method of fear that just doesn’t exist in the Bible…when the truth is that Jesus really did come to set us free and to give life. And that changes everything.

    And it should.

  8. So here is my problem with this. This theory of the non-literal interpretation of Hell is trying to fit God in to a box based on our emotions and our human since of fairness. We can never understand God’s character.

    In the New Testament, there are three Greek words meaning “Hell.” Hades is often referenced as like the Hebrew word “Sheol.” Sheol refers to the fiery destination of the immaterial portion of the unredeemed that confines the soul for on the intermediate time between death and final judgment. The second term is “Ghenna” which refers to unending punishment and the “The Final Destiny of the lost.” The last Greek work is “Tartaros” which refers to the destination for some fallen angels between the time of their first sin and the time of their final judgment. Tartaros is found in Peter 2:4.

    All of these reference to “final judgment” indicate to me that you don’t just let the lights blink out and “nothing” after death should you choose not to accept Christ.

  9. Sean, I appreciate your struggle with my interpretation and position on this matter. None of us are able to come up with definitions and interpretations completely on our own. Years ago, I submitted myself to a set of scholars, Bible interpreters, pastors and theologians who helped frame my understanding of Scripture on this matter. I understand fully that people do not all see the Bible alike, nor do they always come to the same conclusions and understanding of Biblical definitions. We all subject ourselves to sources of information and wisdom and have to do our best to pick and choose those we trust for the most accurate rendering of truth. I am no different than anyone else on this. I read, study, compare, criticize, question and ultimately choose who and what I believe.

    My understanding of the word gehenna does not include the word “unending” in it…though I do agree it appears to refer to the “final” judgment. In my study, there seems to be a rich Jewish history to the word that is somewhat complicated and very specific to the Jews in Bible times. I have come to understand gehenna to refer to a “smoldering dump” where trash and refuse was sent to burn. But my understanding of trash burning is that though a pile of trash may smolder and burn indefinitely, it will only keep burning because new trash is thrown on…the original trash eventually burns up and is no more.

    As far as “the lights just going out” not being enough punishment for those who don’t know or experience the love of God through Christ…I just have to disagree. To get to the end of 50-60-70 years of painful, disappointing, unpredictable, up and down human existence… and then miss out on an unending, limitless, eternal and everlasting perfection in the presence of our Creator…well, that seems like over-the-top justice to me. My mind simply cannot comprehend…nor has my study of Scripture presented me with a God who needs to inflict unending torture and suffering on top of the most heinous punishment I could imagine: to be left out.

    To me, justice is fully served by God cutting off his relationship with his unbelieving and unrepentent creation forever. And just like when the door of the ark closed, I believe the unredeemed will know they have missed out on the Great Banquet as their last experience of consciousness. How much worse does it need to be?

    I hope my perspective does not come across as insensitive to your struggle in dealing with the loss of your father. Thanks for challenging me to dig deep and work hard to be clear.

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