(1) Is Hell real?
(2) If so, is it a place of literal fire forever?
. . . . .
How should we think about this?
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“May whatever I say that’s true and important be remembered. May whatever is trivial or false be forgotten and do no harm.” That’s a favorite prayer and I offer it up again today.
As I’ve said before, metaphors can be used to tell the truth. The Bible declares that the mountains will “shout for joy” and the trees will “clap their hands”1 in praise to God. This is no lie. It’s a poetic picture of something that may be hard to understand otherwise.
Perhaps when the prophet Ezekiel speaks of seeing “wheels within wheels,”2 he was actually seeing something he had no words for. In my novel (see right) I explore this problem. On another Earth-like planet Prince Gavin (a human living far from Earth) has a vision from the “God of Heaven.” He, with “a “medieval” understanding,” zeroes in on the results of devastating EMP explosions on faraway planet Earth. At one point he beholds a string of automobiles forever stalled on a roadway. He says to his mother and brother, “There was a long line of little shiny huts with windows of the purest glass! They even seemed to have wheels–small black ones–though none turned and nowhere could a driver sit or attach horses. But, then, Mother, you know how dreams are…”
He saw, but reported with the best words he could muster.
Admitting that, let’s not forget that a poem, or a metaphor, may just be the best way to tell the truth about something.
We’ve talked about how a growing number of scientists and philosophers today take the Bible “very seriously,” or to speak more cautiously, more seriously than other non-science books. The Bible, which is actually a library of old books, is filled with metaphor–as well as, we believe, much literal history. And in it is much prophecy filled with metaphorical elements.
If the Bible is discussing the creation of the first life, we must remember that until “recently” there were no words for molecules, cells, or single-celled life. But in their place the Bible presents holy metaphor: “The Spirit of God hovered over the waters.”3 Several have said that this could be the best old way to record the early creation of (microscopic) life. Later God is said to have made the first man out of “dust,” but is this soil you could dig up with a shovel? loam? or eroded rock? We’re not told how God (with his “hands”) shaped this man, or how (with his “lungs”?) he “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”4 We’re just told God did it. Obviously there’s more detail, but we have no Biblical record of it.
Then, in New Testament times, we have Nicodemus, a serious educated Pharisee who came to Jesus by night. Right off Jesus told him he had to be “born again.” Nicodemus, unable to look past the literal words, asked, how could this be? Did he somehow have to return to his mother’s womb? If he was looking for a fill-in-the-blank answer with limited write-in space, he had difficulty. He, like many others, missed the metaphor and the power of its meaning.
Now let’s deal with Hell.
One key place where “hell-fire” is mentioned in the Bible is Jesus’ parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus”5. In it a poor man dies and ends up in “Abraham’s bosom” and a selfish rich man ends up in a place of hell-fire, begging for a drop of water to cool his tongue. This story has led to many artistic expressions of eternal bliss and eternal torture. Smart children, seeing such pictures and hearing the story, certainly want to avoid the rich man’s fate. Many children have taken steps they’ve been told are necessary to avoid eternal torment. Hell-fire is not a happy thought.
But wait a minute.
What about the “other side” of this story–”Abraham’s bosom”?
It had to be better than fire, but I don’t remember ever considering just what that meant. When jumping off a hot stove, choosing your landing pad is secondary.
Abraham’s bosom is a good example of a metaphor. As is the idea of being an obedient “good” sheep in the Good Shepherd’s sheep pen.
Back to Hell.
I suspect that’s another concept we don’t have detailed language for, and if we had a prophetic vision of it, we might have the same kind of trouble Benjamin Franklin might have had if God had given him a vision of the Big Bang.
So what do I think about Hell and the “Lake of Fire”6? (Though some make a distinction here, I won’t because the issue of the reality of eternal punishment in both is one and the same–grim.)
I’m convinced that the Bible teaches that Hell is a forever place where the “God hangover” is removed, where there’s no knowledge of God whatsoever, and the conditions and limitations are few.
When I taught in the university and discussion about God arose (yes, that could happen back then), students would often complain about God, that if he really did exist and create the world, He did it all “wrong.” When I would ask why, I’d be told in one of several ways that “God wasn’t fair.” On occasion I would respond, “Okay, suppose you were God…how would you create differently?” After giving them this (in my office if it was only one student) I’d ask something like, “Would you, for example, create male and female, or would everyone be the same?” Students would usually agree, that unisex instead of two sexes would be pretty disappointing, so I would go further with something like, “Would you have both men and women bear children–50-50–wouldn’t that be the best way to be fair?” If they would accuse me of joking, I would add, “Not hardly. I’m being very serious. If you’re God, right? you to want to be fair with everyone. So take your moral system, whatever you consider right and wrong to be, and show how if babies are born in your world, how people would be responsible for them, and how things would be different from now, how men and women would be “free” and fulfilled, with nobody starving or being thrown out on the streets for mistakes. How would you make this happen? Or would you be hard-nosed and have survival of the fittest with the “losers” dying off?” Unregulated freedom is a hard thing to enjoy if everyone around has the same privilege. People have a habit of getting in each other’s way.
Discussion then would often led to cultic notions, an undefined expression of pantheism, the conclusion that any “god” they could think of would have trouble, or that no god could exist, or a retreat to bewilderment and direct or indirect agnosticism or atheism.
Since I would listen and take them seriously, they usually would talk.
Am I wandering…too far? I don’t think so.
Back to Hell.
To say it quite simply from my framework, according to the Bible, God wants people to do two things: (1) Love Him first and foremost, and (2) Love people around us as we love ourselves.7 That requires the risk of personal commitment to Him. (Of course, there’s some more fine print but let’s not worry about that now.)
Many Materialists and Darwinists—who extend their naturalistic faith beyond science—consider those two reasons absurd. Modern society should know better than to depend on a “selfish” God, or gods, or absolute values established by superstition. Or to put their genes at risk by being vulnerable to those around them. Look at the violence, hatred, and terror in our world. More than a few have said we would be better off wiping away all memory of God, starting over, and deciding things for ourselves.
Hell may just give people just that chance.
Let me build a story.
In Hell, human minds in new “forever” bodies find themselves in a new, and different, multidimensional never-ending world.
“Freedom without rules” and “(better) survival of the fittest” is implanted in every brain. FIVE FACTORS, however, control what can happen. (1) Every memory of God and his influence is erased. (2) Although resemblance to Earth humans remains in many ways, You can’t die or be killed, or be physically injured and maimed because eternity owns you. (3) You can’t ever be imprisoned or physically constrained. (4) You can freely see the thoughts in others’, including fallen angels’, minds; therefore no secrets (which by their very nature lead to “domination,” or advantage, over others) are possible. (5) And, like the fallen angels, you can’t repent and enter Heaven, or harm anyone who might be there.
No secrets, no unfairness. No “selective” natural disasters. No God interference with anything. No demeaning, whining prayers that could belittle you. No “God memory” to cause fear. No capital punishment or unfair reprimands. Your new body that houses your human consciousness or “life” is finally yours to make of it whatever you will–or can. But, as with the animals in your previous existence, nothing is wrong. Will there be some kind of spacial environment to resemble the lost 3 dimensions of Earth and our solar system? Possibly. The “old” 3 dimensions are gone along with the 4th dimension of time. The new dimensions–that we can’t conceive of, but can play with with numbers–would be hard to say much about. But since the universe began, matter and energy has had a history of moving and spinning outward in large spirals around large clumps of burning gas and solid matter. Would new bodies be able to “relocate” away from those you want to be away from? Maybe, maybe not. But some movement from place to place may be possible. And sleep? It’s unnecessary. It may be an unheralded chance to finally live out the “Sinatra Philosophy”: “I did it my way.” But you’ll be doing it “elbow-to-elbow” in the company of millions of others. And without the supernatural hang-up of rules and rights and wrongs that has faded from memory. The lessons of history have disappeared. if some have longed for a new age, well, the true New Age has arrived.
So that’s how the Bible pictures Hell?
Absolutely not! The Bible sticks with its metaphor of a place of eternal fire and torment which has the strong, but to some modern people the one-dimensional force of a never-ending automobile crash.
What Hell actually is is God’s secret.
My description is the most terrifying picture of Hell I can imagine–a eternal place without any God protection, God knowledge, or God history. And to share personal freedom without consequence with everyone around me. Why do I have such a hang-up with the “God thing”? Three reasons: (1) Evidence , even scientific evidence, that strongly suggests that God exists; (2) My personal experience of having thrown myself upon His mercy, accepting the salvation that He offers, and committing myself to Him; and (3) My long-time experience–one of education, comfort, and joy–that has come through personal prayer (my words) and reading the Bible (His Words).
I cannot bear the thought of giving that up.
And I feel deep sorrow for others who don’t welcome, or want to welcome, that kind of relationship.
But if you agree with what I’ve said, and want to stand alongside me (at a distance) you can begin your own personal relationship with God and receive the benefits that go along with it. Or so I believe…
Regardless of what you may have done, thought, or heard, you can turn to the God of the Bible. You can choose.
(And after reading these words, you will–there’s no way around it…)
[My last wandering thoughts I’ll stick in footnote 8.]
1 Isaiah 55:12
2 Ezekiel. 10:9–10.
3 Genesis. 1:2. Note that this is the second verse in the Bible.
4 Genesis. 2:7
5 Luke 16:19–24. Note that some versions say “side” instead of “bosom” (as in NASB)
6 Revelation. 20:14
7 Matthew 22:34-40.
8 One problem, perhaps you’ve never thought about: What keeps people in Heaven from again rebelling against God once they get there, and perhaps weary of the Heavenly splendor? After all, long ago many angels, including Satan the greatest of them all, rebelled. Perhaps one reason why “free” humans in Heaven will not rebel, is that they’ll be able to see what’s happening in the Hell they avoided. The God Way is the only one that works.