Some see the death of Jesus as inexorably linked with our salvation from Hell. Indeed, the doctrine of ‘Penal Substitution’ which we examined previously teaches that Jesus bore the wrath of his Father on the Cross so that we would be saved from God’s righteous punishment in Hell. This concept is so embedded in my tradition that even to hint that is might be up for discussion is unthinkable.
Why on earth would we choose to be ‘Christian’ at all if not to be saved from Hell? – so the argument goes for many. I was once caught up in such thinking myself – so I am not here to judge by any manner of means – but in reality this is a very poor and self centred way to understand and relate to the God who calls us in to a love communion with himself. If my Christianity today is merely an insurance policy against Hell tomorrow – I am of all men most miserable.
It comes as something of a surprise to many of us then when we discover that the word ‘Hell’ does not appear, even once, in the Greek New Testament – ‘The Christian doctrine of Hell derives from passages in the New Testament. The word Hell does not appear in the Greek New Testament; instead one of three words is used: the Greek words Tartarus or Hades, or the Hebrew word Gehinnom. (1)
The shocking truth is that this word and concept, which has become so central to Protestant theology, is in fact drawn from Norse Mythology. The old English word ‘Hel’ or ‘Helle’ (circa. 725 AD), means – ‘nether world, abode of the dead, infernal regions or place of torment for the wicked after death’. It comes from the Proto-Germanic word ‘haljō’ – the underworld’. In old Norse ‘Hel’ was the name of Loki’s daughter who ruled over the evil dead in Niflheim, the lowest of all worlds (nifl ‘mist’). It might have reinforced the English word – ‘as a transfer of a pagan concept to Christian theology and its vocabulary’ (2)
Significantly, the mother of Christianity, ancient Judaism, did not appear to have a specific doctrine of the afterlife at all. Nor does the word ‘Hell’ appear in the Old Testament. It is the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ which is translated as ‘Hell’ in the KJV of the Old Testaments (31 times). However this appears to be a very poor and misleading translation. The word ‘Sheol’ actually means – ‘a place of darkness, silence, and dust to which the spirit, or vital principle, descends at death’. (3) or ‘The Pit, and ‘The Land of Forgetfulness.’ In ancient Jewish thought all of the dead go down to Sheol, whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free man. (4) Sheol is then what we today might speak of as the grave.
One of the most popular lies in my Evangelical traditional and one which I have heard repeated hundreds of times, as recently as at a funeral a few weeks ago, is that Jesus spoke more about Hell than about Heaven. However, that would be most difficult as the word was totally unknown to him. As an aside this is a huge issue in my religious culture – sound bites. In fact I think Evangelical Christianity invented them! They may sound snappy – but in truth they raise more questions than they answers. Think of the old image of a street preacher with his Sandwich Board or, in more modern times, his t-shirt, proclaiming ‘Repent of Perish’. Great sound bite – but what does is mean to repent or indeed to perish?
But to pick up on Jesus speaking about Heaven and Hell – someone has done that math and discovered that when evaluating the possible concepts connected with what might be considered as references to the word translated as ‘Hell’ in our English Bibles they account for about three percent of Jesus messages. On the other hand concepts linked with Heaven account for ten percent of his message. (5)
Some will say I am playing with semantics when I say Jesus never used the word Hell. But I don’t think so – and I am coming to the conclusion that the word ‘Hell’ has been used as a convenience in order to present a clear, if somewhat inaccurate picture of the possibilities we face after death. It pains me to say this but I believe many of the preachers I have listened to and some I have known personally have, I suspect, fully understood this, but have chosen to perpetuate what is, at best, a half truth and at worst downright deception. This is one of the reasons that, in my research for this post, I have chosen, as far as possible, to use non biased sources.
One of the words Jesus uses (twelve places) and which is translated as ‘Hell’ in the KJV of the Bible (which most of us have been brought up with) is ‘Gehenna’. ‘The term does not refer to a place of eternal torment but to a notorious valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem, believed by many Jews at the time to be the most unholy, god-forsaken place on earth. It was where, according to the Old Testament, ancient Israelites practiced child sacrifice to foreign gods. The God of Israel had condemned and forsaken the place.’ (6) If you doubt this assessment please read Jeremiah 32:35.
The second word attributed to Jesus in this regard is the Greek word ‘Hades’ (four places). Hades is the name of the Greek god of the underworld. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ is most often translated as ‘Hadēs’. We have already noted ‘Sheol’ means simply the grave or the pit – and the word ‘Hades‘ appears to have a similar thought behind it. The word ‘Tartarus’ comes from Greek mythology. Tartarus is both a deity and a place in the underworld. It is used only once in the Greek NT – 2 Peter 2:4, where it is used to speak of the location of rogue angels.
As far as our current considerations are concerned then I think the main area of interest centres round Jesus picture of Jerusalem‘s smouldering rubbish-heap known as Gehenna. But is this location really used by Jesus to represent a place of eternal torment for ‘sinners’ we now call ‘Hell’?
This whole subject is a hotbed of debate among theologians and biblical scholars – which goes to show how complex the whole concept is. The highly regarded New Testament scholar and historian, N T Wright sees Gehenna and Jesus references to it as a prophetic warning about what would happen to the Jewish nation in 70Ad when the city was destroyed by the Romans. He says this – ‘The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one … Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smouldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said, ‘Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,‘[i.e. Lk 13:5] that is the primary meaning he had in mind’. (7) In another book Wright states – ‘Modern Christians need to be reminded regularly that Jews in the period (the time of Jesus) did not perceive themselvs to be living within a story of an angry moralistic God who threatened people that he would send them to hell of they displeased him. Nor were they hoping that, if somehow they could make things alright, they would go to a place called “heaven” and be with God forever. Some ancient pagans thought like that; most ancient Jews did not’. (8)
John Stott, the late evangelical leader and scholar, came to the conclusion that ‘Hell’ as eternal punishment and torment was inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible – leaning toward what is known as ‘Annihilationism’ (the belief that those who are wicked will perish or cease to exist). ‘Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal torment] intolerable’ and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain .. We need to survey the Biblical material afresh and to open our minds (not just our hearts) to the possibility that Scripture points in the direction of annihilationism, and that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is a tradition which has to yield to the supreme authority of Scripture.’ (9)
My point in quoting both Tom Wright and the late John Stott is not to enter in to a debate regarding their views – but simply to recognise that even the intellectual and spiritual giants of Evangelical Christianity in our time are far from unanimous regarding this matter. Personally, I find most unconvincing those who are dogmatic in this area. Of course some would dismiss Stott and Wright as having abandoned the Christian faith altogether because of their views and consider them as heretics.
Nor do we gain much by way of clarity on this issue when we look at the early years of the Church –
‘In the first five centuries there were six known theological schools. Four of them taught that all men would EVENTUALLY be rescued from Hell: these being the theological schools at Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea and Edessa/Nisbis. One school, Ephesus, taught Annihilationism (that sinners are totally incinerated into nothingness in Hell). Only one theological school, Rome/Carthage taught eternal punishment.’ (10)
Author Richard Murray has commented – ‘The early Church had a significantly different view of Hell than much of the Church does today. Hell’s purpose, for the majority of the Church fathers, was seen as purifying rather than punishing, restoring rather than torturing, healing rather than destroying.’ (11)
And finally this from another source – ‘In its earliest years, Christianity didn’t have a consensus on the nature of hell. Origen Adamantius, a third-century theologian, believed the wicked were punished after death, but only long enough for their souls to repent and be restored to their original state of purity. This doctrine, known as universalism, envisioned that everyone—including Satan—would eventually be redeemed and reunited with God.’ (2)
Today there is a growing movement within the wider evangelical world who hold to what is termed ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Christian Universalism’ ( The early church referred to this as ‘Apokatastasis’). This view presents a positive theology of the universal effect of the salvation accomplished by Jesus at the Cross – a salvation that will, in the final analysis, see the heart of God satisfied in that ‘all should come to repentance’. (2 Peter 3:9). Interestingly, an earlier Scottish proponent of this doctrine was the renowned Theologian Thomas Erskine of Linlathen (1788 – 1870). The well known Scottish writer and theologian George MacDonald (1824 – 1905) was another. Many years ago an old Presbyterian Minister I used to meet with regularly told me more than once, in very emphatic terms – ‘Never forget that 1 Corinthians 15:22 is the central text in the Bible’ – ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.’ It is only now, about 50 years later, I think I am beginning to understand what he was driving at!
If you have been following this series of posts you will be aware of a question we asked early on – ‘Does the justice of God in and of itself necessitate punishment as its ultimate censure and are the judgements of God retributive or restorative? (13) . It appears clear to me that the overwhelming view of the early church was that the judgements or punishments of God always had and have restoration in mind – and this carried over into their views of the concept of Hell.
So where did the horrific ideas of Hell with which many of us are familiar come from? Shockingly, it appears we owe much of this to our medieval forefathers who provided us with explicit details and artwork: ‘pits full of dark flames, terrible cries, gagging stench, and rivers of boiling water filled with serpents’. (14) Indeed, there is a suspicion among some, which I must admit has also crossed my mind during research for this post, that the lurid and graphic depictions of Hell we have become familiar with were invented and used in some quarters as a means of controlling the population. What better way to maintain a stranglehold over the people than to threaten them with conscious eternal torment if they failed to comply with the dictates and requirements of the so called church?
So what do we make of all of this? Unquestionably, most of what we are taught and might believe is speculative – it cannot be otherwise. Even if we hold only to what is revealed in the Bible – we see the whole concept of the afterlife morphing from the virtual unknown of the Old Testament to the mysterious, parabolic and symbolic images of the New.
Mark Galli, former editor in chief of Christianity Today, believes that many evangelicals will choose to accept that Hell is a paradox that can never be fully understood – ‘When it comes to heaven and hell, if God had wanted us to know definitively one way or the other, he would’ve made himself more clear,’ he says. ‘But he left just tantalising hints about what might happen. One can move forward, happily, and live with that mystery.’ (15)
Before we leave the Hell conundrum I can hear some asking – ‘But what about the Rich Man and Lazarus – surely this is a clear teaching about Hell by Jesus himself?’ Tom Wright again – ‘ ‘The parable [of Lazarus and the Rich Man] is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination .. We have perhaps been misled, not for the first time, by the too-ready assumption, in the teeth of the evidence, that Jesus ‘must really’ have been primarily concerned to teach people ‘how to go to heaven after death’. The reality is uncomfortably different.’ And – ‘The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is to be treated precisely as a parable, not as a literal description of the afterlife and its possibilities. It is therefore inappropriate to use it as prima facie evidence for Jesus’ own sketching of a standard post-mortem scenario.’ (16)
And, from a sermon preached by Martin Luther King, Jr in Montgomery, Alabama, on October 2nd, 1955 – ‘We must not take this story as a theology of the after life. It is not a Baedeker’s guide to the next world. Its symbols are symbols and not literal fact. Jesus accepted the Hereafter as a reality, but never sought to describe it. There is always the danger that we will transform mythology into theology. We must remember that there is always a penumbra of mystery which hovers around every meaningful assertion about God and the after life. He who seeks to describe the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell is taking the mystery out of religion and incarcerating it in the walls of an illogical logic. Jesus had no such intentions. He was merely telling a parable to get over a basic truth about this life. He who takes this parable as a description of the history and geography of the after life is transplanting it violently from its native soil to a barren literalism where it cannot live.’
Interestingly, King’s namesake, the Reformer Martin Luther, also taught that the story was a parable about rich and poor in this life and the details of the afterlife were not to be taken literally. He states – ‘For the corpse of the rich man is without doubt not in hell, but buried in the earth; it must however be a place where the soul can be and has no peace, and it cannot be corporeal. Therefore it seems to me, this hell is the conscience, which is without faith and without the Word of God …’ . (17) Mind you, if we go with Luther on all this, we would have precious little to examine due to the fact he virtually rejected the book of Revelation – ‘To my mind, it [the book of the Apocalypse/Revelation] bears upon it no marks of an apostolic or prophetic character… Everyone may form his own judgment of this book; as for myself, I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is sufficient reason for rejecting it.’ (18) Oh dear! Perhaps Martin was having a bad day – hit his fingernail with a hammer perhaps?
To sum up then I am forced to agree with Mark Galli that this issue contains much that is unclear. As he says – ‘One can move forward, happily, and live with that mystery.’ Personally I am content to do that and leave the rest with the God of grace and mercy I have met in the person of Jesus Christ.
So much then for Hell and our inability to form any precise or clear understanding of it – far less a coherent theology. But what about Heaven? In a similar way I suspect some of our traditional concepts of Heaven need also to to be reconsidered. Heaven, I believe, is not somewhere in the ‘Sweet By and By’ – but the present dimension of God’s Dwelling – the Father’s House. It is not distant but close, not a location elsewhere in the universe but a parallel reality. It is the place, according to Jesus, where the will of God reigns supreme – and the place, where in prayer, one can communicate with The Eternal.
The word translated ‘Heaven’ is used some 292 times in the English New Testament (Hell is used 17 and, interestingly, is totally absent from the teaching of Paul). However, the question posed in Jesus day was not ‘How can I get to Heaven?’ but rather ‘How can I have ‘Eternal/Everlasting Life’? The term is used about 30 times in the New Testament. For instance the man we call the rich young ruler asked Jesus – ‘Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Luke 10:25). Jesus says, in another context – ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’ (John 10:28 & 28). And the Apostle Paul says – ‘The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 6:23 ). The gift of God is seen then – not as locational but qualitative.
In Jewish thinking Heaven or the after-life is ‘Olam Ha-ba’ (‘World to Come’) and Gan Eden (‘Garden of Eden’). (19) And so it is when we turn to the last book in the Bible, the one perhaps, more that any other, we associate with Heaven (used 43 times), – we see a strong connection with a renewed Eden. Revelation 22:14 is only one of these – ‘Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life.’
But the gift of Eternal Life and access to The Tree of Life bestowed by Jesus is not necessarily presented in the Bible as something that relates only to a future state – it is firmly connected with the here and now. Jesus said – ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.’ (John 6:35) The word ‘never’ has both a present and a future implication for Jesus also says – ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.’ (John 6:51). Again Jesus says – ‘And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you (The Father), the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one you sent to earth.’ (John 17:3). Eternal life then is rooted firmly in relationship! Paul also writes – ‘Even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 ) And finally Jesus promised explicitly – ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.’ (John 11:25).
So in life and in (physical) death, because of God’s ‘gift’ of ‘eternal life’ we ‘triumph over sin and death’ and ‘will live forever’. Furthermore, through relationship with God we are brought in to The Father’s House – the place we call Heaven. (20) After waking from a dream in which he had encountered God personally, Jacob, in the Old Testament, exclaimed – “How awesome is this place! This is none other that the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17 NKJV) . For further insights in to this concept please see my 2017 series of posts entitled – ‘My Father’s House’.
As we have noted in a previous post, Paul says of the present – ‘For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God’. However he goes on to say of the future – ‘When Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. My present and my future are firmly connected here. Paul also said – ‘For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’ (2 Cor. 5:1), ‘I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far’ (‘Philippians 1:23) and ‘We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.’ (2 Corinthians 5:8). Paul’s hope of eternal life in the house of The Father and in the presence of Jesus, is not then a vague one – but one founded on a firm and unshakable assurance of what his future holds. So it ought to be for us.
However mysterious the realm of Heaven or Eternal Life may continue to be to us here in the dimension of time – one thing is certain – it is the place where our Father dwells! It is the place of union and communion with the Beloved, the place where love reigns supreme and the place of our eternal satisfaction. Honestly – that is all I need to know. In the meantime I can join with David when he sang –
Here’s the one thing I crave from Yahweh,
the one thing I seek above all else:
I want to live with him every moment in his house,
beholding the marvellous beauty of Yahweh,
filled with awe, delighting in his glory and grace.
I want to contemplate in his temple.
Triumphant now, I’ll bring him my offerings of praise,
singing and shouting with ecstatic joy!
Yes, I will sing praises to Yahweh!
I heard your voice in my heart say, “Come, seek my face;”
my inner being responded,
“Yahweh, I’m seeking your face with all my heart.”
Psalm 28 (TPT)
1 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell
2 – https://www.etymonline.com/word/hell)
3 – https://www.britannica.com/topic/sheol)
4 – https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/heaven-and-hell-in-jewish-tradition/
5 – https://medium.com/koinonia/did-jesus-talk-more-about-hell-than-he-did-heaven-e3b4e6fc38a2)
6 -https://time.com/5822598/jesus-really-said-heaven-hell/ – Ehrman – Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife.
7 – N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne, 2008. p. 175-178.
8 – N.T. Wright – The day The Revolution Began – Paperback Edition, p 113
9 – John Stott and David L. Edwards, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (London, 1988).
10 – The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Universalism entry, p. 96, Baker Book House.
11 – https://www.patheos.com/blogs/richardmurray/2019/07/four-reasons-the-early-church-did-not-believe-hell-lasts-forever/
12 – https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/160513-theology-hell-history-christianity
13 – https://steve-taylor.org.uk/thoughts/a-question-of-belief-iii/
14 – https://theconversation.com/what-is-hell-94560
15 – https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/160513-theology-hell-history-christianity
16 – NT Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God.
17 – Church Postil 1522–23 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rich_man_and_Lazarus
18 – Sammtliche Werke, 63, pp 169-170, ‘The Facts About Luther’, O’Hare, TAN Books, 1987, p 203
19 – https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4848230/jewish/Heaven-and-the-Afterlife.htm?
20 – Back in 2017 I did a series of posts entitled – ‘My Father’s House’. These can be found by typing ‘Father’s House’ into the search box on the site. Here is the link to the first of these – CLICK HERE