14: The Imagery of Hell

  I have heard of stories of people buried alive.  They are laid in a casket presumed dead, buried, and somehow later wake up.  That, what is the right word, I have no word for how this makes me feel.  It terrifies me!  The truth about hell is worse than that!  I would like to think the fears of those who happen to find themselves buried alive come to an end when they truly do die.  But, the truth of the matter is that this would only be true if they were following Christ.  For all others, the fun has just begun.  This agonizing thought produces all sorts of rebellion in my heart.  What can cause my heart to turn back to truth?  Clotfelter will begin to speak to that in this section and finish in the next.
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  This is a review of Sinners in the Hands of a Good God by David Clotfelter with study questions added to turn them into lessons.  These lessons are part of a wider study on Sanctification by Faith.  Its goal is the fulfillment of Gal 5:16...

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.   

I’ve set these studies in a specific order so that all may easily build on the foundation of Christ with the finest materials - gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-13).  God has gifted the Church with amazing evangelists, pastors, and teachers to help us in this building project (Eph 4:11-16).  I invite you to study along with me.  You can see an overview of the complete Sanctification by Faith study here.  To go to the start of the current lesson (Sinners in the Hands of a Good God) click here. 

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  1 Thess 5:23

THE IMAGERY OF HELL

But what is the nature of this flame? As already noted, there is an apparent contradiction between the hellish pictures of a lake of fire and utter darkness. It seems plain that we cannot take these pictures completely literally. On the other hand, it also seems plain that we are not at liberty to drain them of their horror by pronouncing them merely metaphorical. Metaphorical they may be, but they are clearly intended to point us to a terrible reality.[1]

It is likely that in our present state we are not capable of really understanding either heaven or hell.[2] Nevertheless, we ought to follow up the clues we have been given. In the case of heaven, the fact that the redeemed will have resurrected bodies suggests that their life will have a physical dimension to it, however different that experience of physicality may be from what we know here and now.

Again, the various pictures of heaven in the Revelation—a city with high walls, streets paved with gold, life-giving fruit trees, the absence of sun and moon—are intended to teach that in that place the redeemed experience complete security, abundance, renewal, and the constant and immediate presence of God. The pictures may not be literal, but they are full of meaning.

The Lake of Fire

In the case of hell, the image of a lake of fire appears designed to convey the idea of suffering that is unbearable in its intensity. “The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”‘ (Isa. 33:14). Isaiah’s use of the imagery of fire and the New Testament texts that describe hell as a place of blazing fire appear to coincide. All of us know how painful a burn is; these texts invite us to extrapolate from our experiences of being burned to the idea of a place where one’s entire body endlessly suffers the excruciating pain of contact with fire. Such pain is almost unimaginable, and when one thinks of suffering it forever, without respite and without hope, the idea is almost too terrible to contemplate.

The image of fire seems designed to tell us that the misery of hell is intense, and the picture of a lake of fire into which people are thrown tells us that that misery will envelope the damned. It will be unbearable and inescapable.

Will that misery be physical, spiritual, or both? The fact that the lake of fire is a place of everlasting torment for Satan, who has no physical body and is presumably impervious to physical fire, suggests that we should not be too quick to think of hell’s torment as primarily physical. Even in this life we experience pains that can be described as spiritual, emotional, or mental. Among these are sorrow, regret, fear, unfulfilled desire, a consciousness of God’s disfavor, and hopelessness. It is not difficult to imagine that in hell these pains are vastly greater than our worst experience of them in this life, and that they are made all the worse by the fact that they grow endlessly stronger and stronger. One can imagine (though one certainly does not like to) that the damned are engulfed in sorrow, rage, and horror, and that the “fire” with which they must dwell burns them from within as well as from without.

Still, the fact that the wicked as well as the righteous will participate in the resurrection (Dan. 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Rev. 20:5) suggests that the punishment of the wicked must have a physical aspect to it as well. If we conclude that the righteous will experience physical pleasures in heaven, it seems to follow that the damned will experience physical pains in hell. I believe we must speak cautiously, since the truth is that we know very little of the nature of the resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:35-44). But the Bible does portray the lost as having bodies. It therefore seems most likely that the punishments of hell involve the whole person and consist of pains both physical and emotional.

Outer Darkness

What of the image of hell as “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) or “blackest darkness” (Jude 13 NIV)? This emphasizes not pain but desolation.[3] To be in darkness is to be abandoned, disoriented, fearful, and lost. The image suggests the total absence of divine blessing and the consciousness that one is not the object of divine mercy and never will be. When Jesus uses the image of darkness to refer to hell, He always describes it as a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” which further implies both misery and despair.

Hell, then, is a hopeless place, devoid of the light of love or joy. It does not seem possible that it is a place from which the light of truth has completely fled; at the least, the damned are forced to face the truth of their own sinfulness and of God’s anger toward them.[4] But that may well be the only truth they know, and that their minds twist this way and that in the effort not to know the things they know. Whether it is a place of physical darkness seems unclear; the image appears to have a primarily spiritual significance. But it is a place that produces in its inhabitants the same experience of terrified desolation that we feel when we find ourselves alone in total darkness.

Gehenna

One other image should be considered. The most common New Testament word for hell is gehenna, which scholars agree is derived from the Hebrew name ge-hinnom, or Hinnom Valley. The Hinnom Valley is located southwest of Jerusalem. At one stage in Israelite history it witnessed the sacrifice of children to the Ammonite god Molech (2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 32:35), and Jeremiah promised that it would one day be known as the “Valley of Slaughter” Jer. 7:32; 19:5-6). In time the valley became a kind of dump where people used sulfur to burn their garbage and offal. When Jesus spoke of hell as a place where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48), He was thus evoking the image of an accursed, smoky, evil-smelling incineration dump crawling with maggots.

From this image we can infer that hell is to be regarded as a place where God casts aside the lost as we cast aside trash or waste. Garbage is useless; it is fit only to be consigned to the fire and the worm, and once discarded it is not again retrieved.

Hell is thus a place of final and irretrievable loss, and the damned are viewed by God with utter distaste and with a determination to abandon them forever.

All of these images—a lake of fire, a blazing furnace, a place of utter darkness, an incineration dump—have an absolute quality about them, in that it is difficult to imagine gradations of suffering for those tormented in these ways. Being cast into a lake of burning sulfur would produce agony in every nerve ending; being banished to blackest darkness would isolate and terrify every soul so treated. Yet the Bible makes it clear that judgment is according to our deeds (2 Cor. 5:10), and Jesus teaches that punishment will be meted out in accordance with the degree of one’s knowledge of the will of God (Luke 12:47-48; Matt. 11:22-24; see also Rom. 2:12).

This provides another good reason for us to interpret the images of hell as primarily metaphorical rather than literal. Hell will be terrible for all who end up there, but it will be more or less terrible depending on the kind of lives they have lived in this world. God’s judgment will be just, and His punishments will be perfectly proportionate to our sins. According to Edwards, “The damned in hell would give the world to have the number of their sins one less.”[5]

WHY ETERNAL PUNISHMENT?

The single most difficult aspect of the doctrine of judgment is an eternal hell.[6] This staggers the imagination and produces rebellion in our hearts. To think of people suffering insupportable pain for a few moments, days, or years is bad enough, but how terrible to imagine suffering that literally never ends! As we saw in the previous chapter, we have good reason to believe that this is the meaning of the biblical statements about hell. It would be helpful, though, if we could arrive at some understanding of the rationale for eternal punishment.

How can it be just for God to requite the finite number of sins we can commit in this life with a punishment that is never ending? The Bible does not provide an answer to this question, but I am aware of three main lines of reasoning that have been offered to resolve the difficulty.

An Infinite Series of Sins?

The first suggestion is that the lost are punished not only for the sins they committed in this life but also for their ongoing rebellion in hell, and since they never cease to sin, they are never able to pay for their sins through their punishment. Each new measure of suffering produces new expressions of defiance, and these new sins must themselves be punished; and so on ad infinitum. On this view the lost are, so to speak, unable to catch up with their guilt.

There is surely some degree of truth in this idea. It is certain that the damned continue to sin, and it is rational to suppose that their sins add to their punishment. But there is also a problem with this view. Scripture seems to regard eternal punishment as the proper recompense for sins committed in this life, without any consideration of the guilt of sins committed in the life to come. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). We could, of course, argue that an eternity of sinning, with consequent punishment, is itself the punishment of the sins of this life; that is, that God condemns the wicked to remain wicked and to suffer the consequences of their wickedness forever. But it seems to me that we are on firmer ground if we seek a rationale for everlasting punishment that does not require us to imagine an infinite series of sins.

The Eternality of Guilt?

The second suggestion, laid out by W. G. T. Shedd in his book The Doctrine of Endless Punishment, is that punishment lasts forever because guilt lasts forever.[7] Shedd explains:

The endlessness of future punishment, then, is implied in the endlessness of guilt and condemnation. When a crime is condemned, it is absurd to ask, “How long is it condemned?” …All suffering in the next life, therefore, of which the sufficient and justifying reason is guilt, must continue as long as the reason continues; and the reason is everlasting. If it be righteous to-day, in God’s retributive justice, to smite the transgressor because he violated the law yesterday, it is righteous to do the same thing to-morrow, and the next day, and so on ad infinitum; because the case ad infinitum remains unaltered. The guilt incurred yesterday is a standing and endless fact. What, therefore, guilt legitimates this instant, it legitimates every instant, and forever.[8]

Shedd realizes that this argument seems contrary to human jurisprudence, in which a criminal is punished for a finite length of time for his crimes and then declared to have paid his debt to society. This practice causes us to suppose that at the end of the time of punishment, the guilt is expunged. But Shedd insists that human justice differs from divine justice in two important ways. First, human courts see only a part of the criminal’s guilt; they consider the crime’s damage to society but ignore its affront to the honor and majesty of God. God, on the other hand, sees every facet of the individual’s guilt. Second, human courts rightly aim not only at the punishment of guilt but also at the protection of society and the deterrence of further crime. In contrast, the divine justice of the Last judgment has no reformatory or protective element; it is retributive only, designed to vindicate God’s Law and inflict on the person the punishment his sins deserve. For both of these reasons, it is appropriate for human courts to give limited sentences, even though those sentences do not, in fact, remove guilt.

Shedd’s argument is impressive. He argues that while it is right and proper for human courts to punish misbehavior with finite punishments, this very practice obscures for us the reality of the permanence of guilt. The criminal who has been imprisoned for three years for a bank robbery is no less guilty at the end of the sentence than he was at its beginning, even though it is not in either his or society’s best interest to continue his punishment. Neither the length of his sentence nor the greatness of his suffering actually works to remit or diminish his guilt. And since God, beyond the Last judgment, is no longer concerned with either the rehabilitation of the sinner or the protection of society, He will view the criminal’s guilt as permanent and will punish that guilt for as long as it lasts, which is to say forever.

If Shedd’s argument is sound, then the first suggestion considered above—that the endlessness of punishment is the result of the endless commission of sin in the world to come—is shown to be mistaken in that it presupposes that a person who did not continue to sin in hell would eventually, through his suffering, pay back to God what he owed Him for his sin. Shedd’s argument seems to establish the justice of eternal punishment for finite sin.

On the other hand, Shedd’s view also entails some difficulties. First, in saying that one reason why punishments inflicted by a human court are finite in length is that human courts see only a portion of the criminal’s guilt, Shedd seems to call into question his earlier insistence that all guilt, by its very nature, is everlasting. Shedd wants to supplement the idea of the unending nature of guilt with the further consideration that sin is an offense against the Supreme Being. But if guilt is inherently unending, then all crimes—no matter how large or small or against whom committed—are automatically worthy of eternal punishment. No matter that the human court sees only a portion of the criminal’s guilt; that portion in itself deserves endless punishment. It seems as though Shedd himself is not fully satisfied with the idea that guilt is endless, however, and so he goes on to augment it with an additional explanation not really compatible with the first one.

A greater problem with Shedd’s view is that if punishment has no tendency whatsoever to expiate guilt, then it becomes very difficult for us to understand why Jesus’ death had power to achieve atonement for sins. If punishment is not an offset for sin, how is God able to remit our sins on the basis of His punishment of His Son on the cross? The logical implication of Shedd’s idea that guilt is inherently eternal would appear to be that even the death of the guiltless Christ cannot suffice to take our guilt from us.

The Infinite Evil of Sin

The third—and in my view the strongest—explanation of hell’s eternity is one first used by the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury and most clearly expressed by Jonathan Edwards.

Questions & Notes

  1. William Crockett does a very fine job of showing why the New Testament pictures of hell are to be interpreted metaphorically rather than literally, though it seems to me that he abandons too quickly the effort to explain the meaning of the metaphors. See Four Views On Hell, ed. William Crockett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 43-81.

  2. It is likely that in our present state we are not capable of really understanding either _________ or _________.

  3. The image of hell as “outer darkness” emphasizes not pain but _________.

  4. The damned are forced to face the truth of their own _________ and of God’s anger toward them.

  5. As quoted in John Gerstner, Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 61.

  6. The single most difficult aspect of the doctrine of judgment is _________ _________ _________.

  7. Shedd’s argument is an old one, reaching back at least as far as Thomas Aquinas. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: Complete English Edition in 5 Volumes, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1981), part 1, Q. 87, A. 4.

  8. W. G. T. Shedd, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment (1885; repr., Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1986), 129-30.

   Click on the "Sinners in the Hands of a Good God" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here. 

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