Although many of us now associate hell with Christianity, the idea of an afterlife existed much earlier. Greeks and Romans, for example, used the concept of Hades, an underworld where the dead lived, both as a way of understanding death and as a moral tool.
However, in the present times, the use of this rhetoric has radically changed.
Rhetoric in ancient Greece and Rome
The earliest Greek and Roman depictions of Hades in the epics did not focus on punishment, but described a dark shadowy place of dead people.
In Book 11 of the Greek epic the “Odyssey,” Odysseus travels to the realm of the dead, encountering countless familiar faces, including his own mother.
Near the end of Odysseus’ tour, he encounters a few souls being punished for their misdeeds, including Tantalus, who was sentenced eternally to have food and drink just out of reach. It is this punishment from which the word “tantalize” originated.
Hundreds of years later, the Roman poet Virgil, in his epic poem “Aeneid,” describes a similar journey of a Trojan, Aeneas, to an underworld, where many individuals receive rewards and punishments.
This ancient curriculum was used for teaching everything from politics to economics to virtue, to students across the Roman empire, for hundreds of years.
In later literature, these early traditions around punishment persuaded readers to behave ethically in life so that they could avoid punishment after death. For example, Plato describes the journey of a man named Er, who watches as souls ascend to a place of reward, and descend to a place of punishment. Lucian, an ancient second century A.D. satirist takes this one step further in depicting Hades as a place where the rich turned into donkeys and had to bear the burdens of the poor on their backs for 250 years.
For Lucian this comedic depiction of the rich in hell was a way to critique excess and economic inequality in his own world.
By the time the New Testament gospels were written in the first century A.D., Jews and early Christians were moving away from the idea that all of the dead go to the same place.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the story of Jesus is told with frequent mentions of “the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” As I describe in my book, many of the images of judgment and punishment that Matthew uses represent the early development of a Christian notion of hell.
The Gospel of Luke does not discuss final judgment as frequently, but it does contain a memorable representation of hell. The Gospel describes Lazarus, a poor man who had lived his life hungry and covered with sores, at the gate of a rich man, who disregards his pleas. After death, however, the poor man is taken to heaven. Meanwhile, it is the turn of the rich man to be in agony as he suffers in the flames of hell and cries out for Lazarus to give him some water.
Matthew and Luke are not simply offering audiences a fright fest. Like Plato and later Lucian, these New Testament authors recognized that images of damnation would capture the attention of their audience and persuade them to behave according to the ethical norms of each gospel.
Later Christian reflections on hell picked up and expanded this emphasis. Examples can be seen in the later apocalypses of Peter and Paul – stories that use strange imagery to depict future times and otherworldly spaces. These apocalypses included punishments for those who did not prepare meals for others, care for the poor or care for the widows in their midst.
Although these stories about hell were not ultimately included in the Bible, they were extremely popular in the ancient church, and were used regularly in worship.
A major idea in Matthew was that love for one’s neighbor was central to following Jesus. Later depictions of hell built upon this emphasis, inspiring people to care for the “least of these” in their community.
Damnation then and now
In the contemporary world, the notion of hell is used to scare people into becoming Christians, with an emphasis on personal sins rather than a failure to care for the poor or hungry.
In the United States, as religion scholar Katherine Gin Lumhas argued, the threat of hell was a powerful tool in the age of nation-building. In the early Republic, as she explains, “fear of the sovereign could be replaced by fear of God.”
As the ideology of republicanism developed, with its emphasis on individual rights and political choice, the way that the rhetoric of hell worked also shifted. Instead of motivating people to choose behaviors that promoted social cohesion, hell was used by evangelical preachers to get individuals to repent for their sins.
Even though people still read Matthew and Luke, it is this individualistic emphasis, I argue, that continues to inform our modern understanding of hell. It is evident in the hell-themed Halloween attractions with their focus on gore and personal shortcomings.
These depictions are unlikely to portray the consequences for people who have neglected to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the sick or visit those in prison.
The fears around hell, in the current times, play only on the ancient rhetoric of eternal punishment.
David C. Cook is so confident about the potential marketability of Erasing Hell, it has committed to a 250,000 unit initial print run, “a six-figure marketing budget, and a simultaneous audio release from Oasis Audio,” Publishers Weekly reported.
“In many ways the attempts to revisit the question of hell have been refreshing. Refreshing in the sense that Christians are being confronted by the wonder and transcendence of God in such a way that we believers become displaced or our misplacement is revealed. That is, these discussions have surfaced Christians’ not so uncommon tendency to turn God’s grace towards us into judgment upon others.
“But at the same time I worry that the outrage over Rob Bell and others so often seems to be more intense and vehement than reactions to the many injustices that plague our society. I worry that we do not acknowledge how hell is not a distant reality for some, how the existence of some is marked by perpetual exploitation and suffering that points not to their ‘choice’ for or against God, but of the exercise of power, greed and dehumanization. In this way, I am grieved that some become so incensed over articulating the mystery of a life after death while being so unconcerned with the lives God places before us in this world.”
Harvard professor Robert D. Putman and Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell reported in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Usthat Americans’ doctrinal commitments are weakening and that a growing number of Christians don’t believe that God will send their non-Christian friends and relatives to hell.
Given this climate, do you think the focus on hell and the afterlife is a distraction from the suffering that exists in our world? Or is it a necessary response to the doubts raised by Bell, and the culture at large, regarding man’s eternal destiny?
In my previous post regarding Bell, I stated that it is important to think about both the intended audience for the book as well as the opportunity this presents for us to act Christianly in the context where disagreements and passion merge around very important issues of Christian belief. Now that the book is out, we can identify the primary audience and I can try to make the most of this opportunity to live out the second greatest commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself” — Matt. 22:39) while writing a review with affirmations and critiques.
Bell (left) describes his audience in the preface: “I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’ ” Both the beginning and end of the book make it clear that Bell wants people to come to Christ and to the church, especially those who are turned off by a version of the gospel that states that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.” Later he similarly states regarding the way that some present the gospel as a rescue project:
God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.
Bell correctly identifies the truth that many people within the church and without have questions about how to understand the gospel as good news, and how to understand the character of God in relationship to salvation and judgment if Scripture tells us that God is truly loving. While Bell is primarily concerned about those “turned off” by traditional presentations of the gospel (or, in my view, bad presentations of the traditional gospel that seem so focused on the specter of God’s judgment that it puts it in tension with His love), all of the questions he asks in the book are raised by many Christians, including a number here where I teach.
Were I a betting man, I would wager that even a strong Calvinist who bows before God’s sovereignty wonders about how they will finally understand the economy of God’s justice when we get to the other side. If we surveyed the people in the pews regarding what they know about our eternal destiny and what they wonder about or hope for, chances are we would find that people at least wonder about those who seemed to live like Christians but either never confessed Christ or never heard of him. Even if they believe that after the final judgment there will be a final separation between believers and unbelievers, they wonder about who will be the surprises in the population of God’s consummated kingdom.
What of heaven, hell, and final judgment? Love Wins presents a challenge for this reviewer: on the one hand, Bell is pastor and not an academic theologian, and the book is not written like a scholarly treatise, though it does wade into that realm briefly at times. On the other, Bell pastors a church of 10,000 and has influence on many thousands more, so he has a tremendous burden of responsibility because of his platform. He cannot say, “I am a pastor, and not a theologian” because his preaching and writing frames the Bible reading and theological reflection for many; this is part of his job as a teaching pastor. Now, some affirmation and critique.
Getting What We Want
Bell states correctly that throughout the history of the church there has been a range of belief regarding the final destiny of unbelievers, from the traditional view to positions such as a limited duration of judgment that either ends with annihilation of those outside the kingdom or a second chance to be reconciled to God, to the view that ultimately all humans will be reconciled to God in the end. While there is much discussion today and more adherents to the latter views, Bell is quite wrong to suggest that anything other than the belief in eternal conscious punishment was the dominant view for at least the first 19 centuries of the church. The consensus was that there is a final judgment followed by some unending experience of separation. There were notable exceptions (Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Clement of Alexandria), but they are in the great minority, and Origen’s views are condemned at the 5th ecumenical council in A.D. 553.
Regarding heaven and hell, Bell rightly states that there is a present experience of eternal life (John 3:16 and 5:24 tells us eternal life begins at conversion), but the future reference of life beyond (whether we used the word “heaven” or “eternal life”) is prominent in the New Testament. I think Bell wants to get past the idea that salvation is only about our future experience, to which I heartily say “Amen,” but we need not swap one overemphasis for another. The same is true regarding hell. Yes, life apart from God’s design can be “hellish” in the present, but the warnings about hell and judgment have in view a future experience of existence (or “non-life”) apart from God.
What about Bell and the universalism question? He has stated that he is not a universalist, and while there are passages that suggest he leans in that direction, his emphasis on human freedom does not allow him to clearly conclude that all people will be reconciled to God. As many have already stated about the book, Bell’s view on hell is like that of C.S. Lewis (not a surprise: he directs readers to Lewis’ Great Divorce in the back of the book): people get what they want.
Explaining Heaven and Hell
One more important critique: When talking about the cross, Bell refers to the range of metaphors used to discuss how salvation works for us: ransom, sacrifice, redemption, etc. He seems to be suggesting that blood sacrifice is only a metaphor borrowed from the ancient context. I think this is an error, because Christ is the culmination of the entire history of Israel with its priestly system that includes sacrifice, and it is hard to make full sense of Christ’s work if we only regard sacrifice as a symbol. Christ cannot be our priest and lamb who reconciles us to God without sacrifice as a reality that also has symbolic import. We need to talk about more than sacrifice, but not less. If it doesn’t resonate with modern ears, then the pastor’s task is to explain how it all works.
Books & Culture editor John Wilson’s Wall Street Journal article on the book reminds us that in the last few decades, there hasn’t been much of an emphasis on sin and hell in evangelical circles. In that light, Bell’s book is a catalyst for addressing what is likely a problem even in churches most conservative on this issue: the ability of those other than the leadership to not only confess beliefs about sin and hell, God’s love and justice, but also to actually be able to understand and explain it. I wonder how many in the pews can help their skeptical friends understand how God is truly loving yet also just in the final judgment as well as what exactly the Bible means when it talks about hell as a place of eternal punishment. Even the most ardent critic should see this as an opportunity to bring to light biblical teaching about the seriousness, darkness, and malevolence of sin with its consequences and God’s nature as truly loving, holy, and just.
Is Bell off the reservation? No. Is C.S. Lewis or Richard John Neuhaus? (On the latter, see this article from First Things.) Bell is right to tell us that love wins, but we need to be clear that so do God’s holiness and justice. God’s nature isn’t only love.
Does this debate matter? Yes it does. While it is not the most pressing issue for those in urban contexts (issues of immediate justice have as much or greater import to many in our cities or underserved areas), it is important because we need to constantly think about how we can better seek to understand the God we worship and the gospel we proclaim. We all tell some gospel story in the church, and we can always refine and deepen how we speak and live out a faithful witness.