Tag: Hell

The actual words behind hell—Robin Parry

Here’s an 8-minute video clip and transcript of Rev Dr Robin Parry explaining the important differences between the Hebrew and Greek words “Sheol”, “Hades”, “Gehenna”, and “Tartarus”, which are translated “Hell” in many Bible translations. This was raised at Gospel Conversations’ Hope & Hell Conference.


In the Old Testament, Sheol is the realm of the dead. It’s a very murkily defined place, it’s dark, there are people there but they’re not really living. They are sort of conscious but they’re not. Nobody wants to be there and they don’t worship God there. It’s a bit of a dreary view of death.

Then it gets complicated because in the Second Temple Jewish period, you get different views arising. And that’s part of the debate: What’s behind the New Testament texts?

Hades is from Greek mythology but got imported to become the translation of Sheol. So Hades is sometimes just the word for Sheol and it’s this world of the dead. But it also, sort of, evolves in this Second Temple period to become a place where bad things happen, like in Greek mythology, nasty stuff happens in Hades. The only text in the New Testament that really deals with Hades like this is Luke 16—the parable of the “Rich man and Lazarus”—it’s Hades that they go to. What is this Hades? The rich man is in torment, he just wants a drop of water on his tongue. So that’s not just like the Old Testament Sheol, that’s developed. In the book of Revelation, at the end:

Then the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them; each one was judged according to their works. Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

Revelation 20:13-14, CSB

So Hades is where the dead people are. Given this passage, if the lake of fire is “hell”, and that’s the way we normally think, Hades isn’t “hell” in that text—Hades is like the “waiting place” until it’s thrown into the lake of fire and then it’s hell.

Gehenna is what Jesus talks about in most of the texts that are considered to be about hell. Gehenna (“Ben Hinnom Valley” in English) is the valley next to Jerusalem:

Gehenna—Ben Hinnom Valley—near the Old City in Jerusalem, Israel

It’s a valley that had all sorts of associations in the Old Testament because it was associated with idolatrous sacrifice of children and so on. It was considered an unclean and despicable place in Jeremiah:

[The Judeans] have built the high places of Topheth in Ben Hinnom Valley in order to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, a thing I did not command; I never entertained the thought. 

“Therefore, look, the days are coming”—the Lord’s declaration—“when this place will no longer be called Topheth and Ben Hinnom Valley, but the Valley of Slaughter. Topheth will become a cemetery, because there will be no other burial place.”

Jeremiah 7:31-32, CSB

Gehenna becomes a place of judgment. God will bring judgment and there will be slaughter in Gehenna—there are lots of corpses there. The bit at the end of Isaiah 66, with all the worms and the fire, the corpses, which then become used by Jesus as a “hell” text about the worms that don’t die and so on. That is almost certainly dealing with imagery about Gehenna, with lots of corpses. I mean, they are dead, in Isaiah they are not conscious but they are in Jesus’ texts. So this is Gehenna, it’s a literal valley, which is associated with judgment, punishment, and so on.

There are debates around this. Were there strong Jewish views about Gehenna being postmortem punishment? Did Jesus feed off those views or did Jesus actually innovate? It’s complicated by the fact all of the Second Temple Jewish texts we have about Gehenna weren’t written down until after the time of Jesus. Was Jesus the first person to really use Gehenna as postmortem punishment? Did later Jewish texts pick up on this and take it in different directions? It also becomes complicated because the Second Temple Jews had different views about Gehenna. Some thought about it in terms of eternal torment, some thought about it in terms of annihilation, some thought you could get out of Gehenna. It wasn’t a fixed idea, it was a fluid image. It was an image that was used in different kinds of ways by different groups of Jewish people—Jesus one of them. So the question is, in what sense is Jesus using it? That becomes the issue in terms of interpretation and it’s difficult to set down a fixed background against which to interpret Jesus because it was a fluid notion. Also the problems of dating, etc. Anyway, this is getting a bit technical.

There is debate among New Testament scholars, as to whether Jesus is talking about a postmortem punishment at all. Tom Wright argues that Jesus is not talking about hell but the literal destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He’s warning about the dangers of literally being thrown into the valley next to Jerusalem when the Romans come. It might not even be that Jesus is talking about eschatological punishment there. When Paul talks about eschatological punishment he doesn’t use the language of Gehenna, it’s really restricted to Jesus who does that.

What about Tartarus? Well, this only occurs once in the New Testament:

For if God didn’t spare the angels who sinned but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment;

2 Peter 2:4, HCSB

This is a place in Greek mythology. The background to this is the story in Genesis of the Nephilim. There are all sorts of interpretation complications but this story becomes really big in the Second Temple period. 1 Enoch—which is a fantastic text and was very influential in early Christianity—sees these “Watchers” as divine beings who are thrown into Tartarus. Peter is saying that they are kept in Tartarus in everlasting chains until the Day of Judgment. The word there is not “aionios”, it is “aidios”, which does mean everlasting—it’s the only time it occurs in regards to punishment in the New Testament. And there it’s only the chains that are “eternal” so that these angels can’t escape judgment.

So Gehenna is maybe hell—or not if you’re Tom Wright. Hades is the realm of the dead—Sheol, but it might be more than that, it might be something that crosses over into hell in some texts but not in others. The whole thing is a bit of a mess. You’re asking for clarity but the problem is, it’s not terribly clear, and that’s one of the challenges in interpreting some of the Gospel and New Testament texts. Trying to make sense of it when the thought world at the time wasn’t conceptually clear in the way we’d like it to have been.

Universalism through Christ: a hopeful future starting now

Practical and ethical implications of hell by Tony Golsby-Smith is the basis of the following post.


There is a quiet crisis creeping through the experience of faith today. For whatever reason, the modern church has put ‘hell’ right at the core of Christian faith, so whoever starts to worry about it, feels they are challenging their whole faith. This means they are in danger of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, if they end up rejecting the ‘hell’ doctrine.

Those who try to avoid thinking about the doctrine, may not leave the faith but unconscious anxiety and questions don’t go away. They gnaw at you—potentially eroding your love for God.

This is the negative side of the picture. The positive side interests me more.

I recently met two young Christians who had begun to encounter, through my talks, an alternative picture of the future; the prospect that God will save all people (in fact all the cosmos) as the final end of his purposes. Both were educated Christians in a traditional evangelical church. I asked them what effect this different paradigm was having on them. They paused for a while, and then one of them said, “It has recovered my love for God.”

All human beings imagine the future, including the future beyond death. In order to imagine this future, we need to use imagery more than we normally might, for the simple reason that this future does not exist yet.

This makes the study of future thinking particularly intriguing but also more difficult than analysing the past and the present. This difficulty can make the study of the future seem speculative and optional. However, the future is important for another, more immediate reason; how we see the future will influence how we see the present, and therefore how we understand, decide, and act in the present.

Designers and architects harness this power of the future by a technique called ‘backcasting’. They try to imagine a very different kind of city—buildings shaped more by their aspiration than traditions, and then work backwards from these new conceptions of the future towards the present realities, with the hope that they can design exciting new structures.

The church can learn a lot from backcasting and really should be brilliant at it—at imagining and declaring a great future and using that vision to influence what it does today.

Paul reveals his vision of the future in Ephesians 1—his prayer captures his aspirations for all of us. As such, it is a most significant template for his vision of the character and the mind that he wants to see developed in the believers. Interestingly, he does not pray for a litany of good behaviours, or victories over sins and temptations; he believes that this holy living will flow from an inner transformation of the mind and the ‘eyes of the heart’. He prays that they will grasp three significant new ways of thinking:

  1. The ‘hope of their calling’
  2. ‘the riches of God’s inheritance in the saints’
  3. ‘the greatness of his power exercised on their behalf—specifically the power of resurrection that he first unveiled in raising Jesus from the dead’ 

These are the ways of thinking by which the believer will see all reality differently—as radiating possibility and glory secured already by the massive resurrection work of Jesus.

The effects of this transformation on our minds is all-pervasive. It shines a sense of wonder and hope over all things, all events, all contests in this world. It includes every corner of the cosmos and every moment in time in its transformative vision, and it thus breaks down forever the narrow boxes and divisions into which our faith all too often shrinks. Far from reducing our emphasis on Christ and the claims of Christ, it puts him at the centre of all things. It declares that no category of human endeavour or creation can be excluded from His Lordship and His demands. Finally, it is a beatific vision which circumscribes evil as temporary, insubstantial, and limited; and it amplifies goodness as inevitably eternal and all-pervading because it alone is the quality of God.

From this perspective, we can return to the topics of ‘hell’ and ‘judgment’. The church fathers took these themes seriously (as did most people who have espoused some forms of cosmic redemption) but they circumscribed them as means or ways to God’s purposes, not the ends. If the end of all things is humans sharing the rule of God, then humans need to develop and grow the capacity to do this. This development cannot be imposed on anyone but must be embraced and chosen. We don’t grow if we don’t want to grow. That is the basis of every decent educational program. Thus, cosmic redemption is not a free ticket to glory, it is an invitation to grow and develop towards the only end game in town.

In the writings of the church fathers, this could take place both before death and after death. In other words, death and the promise of immortality are not a mere open or shut gate but a continuation of a pathway; we are growing in this life, and we will also grow in the life of the age to come. Furthermore, our growth and trajectory in this life continues into the life of the age, and deeply affects our journey in the life of the age. If we reject our opportunity to grow in this era, we won’t be cast aside but we will travel a hard path in the age to come. There is judgment to be faced—and this judgment will include the believers in this life—but this judgment, like all fires in the Bible, will be for the purpose of purifying us not punishing us.

This leaves Christians with a very sobering and plausible warning to declare over human life and activity in this era. It boils down to no more than this: nobody gets away with evil, neglect, complacency, selfishness, cruelty, greed, or oppression in this life. Not Assad, not the cruel rulers of Sudan, not the despots who pillage their countries for personal gain—and not you and me. Thankfully, we have a God from whom nothing is hidden, and whose judgments are utterly pure and uncompromising. This means we need to take life seriously and weigh our actions in the light of this eternal rectitude.

But the Christian view of judgment goes one step further. The true success of any punishment system is not to crush a wrongdoer but to reform them so they choose to live godly lives. The mechanism for enabling this epic transformation remains the same as it has always been in the Christian gospel; the death of the God-man, Jesus and his subsequent resurrection from the dead—a resurrection which means not just our salvation but the death of death.

Living in the Light of the Future: Universal Restoration and Practical Theology—Robin Parry

Robin‘s final talk in our [Hope and Hell conference] series explores perhaps the most significant question of all: “How does a belief in universal salvation influence my life and service in the world—including things like evangelism, counselling, and taking funerals?”

Robin is a pastor as well as a theologian, and he brings a wealth of practical experience to this huge question. Does universal salvation mute the gospel and just make us melt into a kind of uncritical pantheism? Robin argues that universal salvation, far from muting our voice in the world, amplifies our voice, and the many ways through which we can bless the world.

Tony Golsby-Smith, founder of Gospel Conversations

This podcast episode was originally published on PodBean.

The Story of Salvation: A Narrative Theology of Hell—Robin Parry

In this third talk of our Hope and Hell conference, Robin paints a sweeping picture of the story of salvation beginning with creation and ending with the eschaton. He then poses the significant question—which fits best into this picture—hell or universal salvation?

This talk is quite awe-inspiring—not because it advocates universal salvation (which it does) but even more because it stretches our horizons beyond individual redemption into the purpose of the cosmos. In developing his theme, Robin draws heavily on the magnificent Patristic fathers and their grand conception of the irresistible goodness of God. 

Tony Golsby-Smith, founder of Gospel Conversations

This podcast episode was originally published on PodBean.

Sarris & Rankin Debate—Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished? part 1

Below is my transcript of George Sarris‘ 15-minute presentation in the above video of the Mars Hill Forum debate titled, “Will Hell Eventually Be Abolished?”


Host: The format for tonight’s forum is each of the speakers will present for 15 minutes, then they’ll have a discussion between two of them for about 20, we’ll take an offering at that point and after that, we’ll have Q&A for half hour or so. So that’s the form and we’re going to start with George Sarris.

George Sarris: I want to start by asking you three questions.

First question is: how much are you worth? And I don’t mean that in a financial sense like how much is your net worth, I mean how much are you worth as a person? How much are you worth to those who love you? How much are you worth to God who created you?

Second question is: I want you to think of some people that you know and love, how much are they worth? Again not in a financial sense but how much are they worth as a person? How much are they worth to those who love them and how much are they worth to God who created them?

The third question: I want you to think of some people you don’t like, or some people that may have hurt you, or whose lifestyles you don’t approve of. How much are they worth? Again how much are they worth—maybe not to you but to others who love them and everyone is loved by someone—how much are they worth to God who created them?

The basic message of my book is that in God’s eyes you and every one of them is priceless. The question John and I are discussing tonight is “Will hell eventually be abolished?” So it would seem appropriate to begin by asking what is hell? That word has been defined in different ways down through the centuries: from a place of literal fire; to a kingdom of darkness ruled by the devil and his demons; to what is the most common definition today: separation from God.

But for most people holding to the traditional view of Hell, two components are primary: First, hell is a place or condition of conscious misery and second that misery will never ever, ever, ever, ever end! I said that a little dramatically because in my experience most people—Christians today—have never really thought through the implications of what they say they believe. Punishment for sin is not the issue. We see sin punished all the time in this life and God has made it clear that there is punishment in the age (or ages) to come. But punishment that never ends is a completely different matter. It brings to mind cruel tyrants who torture their subjects who don’t do their bidding. Endless conscious misery is the most horrific thing you can possibly imagine and if you really believed it was true, you would be weeping almost every moment of every day over the fate of those who are lost and especially those you know personally.

I wrote my book to show that that understanding of Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it is not the teaching of the Bible, and is contrary to what the scriptures reveal about the nature and character of God. What the early Church believed is important because they were closest to Jesus and the Apostles, they read the New Testament in their native tongue, they had the greatest impact on the surrounding culture of any time in history, and they established the faith that we now profess. They were the ones who wrote the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed to explain clearly what true Christians believed. They were the ones who formulated the doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity. And they were the ones who set up or who put together the 27 books that we call the New Testament. During the first 500 years after Christ, the dominant view within the leadership and laity of the church was that God will ultimately restore all of his creation.

Clement of Alexandria was one—born around AD 150. For him to believe that God was unable to save all was unthinkable because that would mean God is weak. To believe that God is unwilling was also unthinkable because that would mean that God is not good. For Clement, God is the Lord of the universe who will ultimately bring about the salvation of the universe.

Another leader in the early Church was Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory added the phrase, “I believe in the life of the world to come”, to the Nicene Creed, and is still revered as one of the greatest of the early Church fathers. Gregory explained that in due course evil will pass away into non-existence, it will disappear utterly from the realm of existence. Divine and uncompounded goodness will encompass within itself every rational creature—no single being created by God will fail to achieve the kingdom of God.

Even Saint Augustine—the most influential supporter of endless punishment in the early Church—acknowledged that in his day some, indeed “very many”, deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. Conscious suffering that never ends was not the teaching of the early Church.

And it’s also not the teaching of Scripture, even though most people today think it is. Four different words in the Bible have been translated to the English word “hell”: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus.

Gehenna is the one most commonly translated that way in modern versions. Gehenna was well known during the time of Jesus as a specific location near Jerusalem that had been associated with child sacrifice in the past and was then most likely used as the common dump of the city. It was a place people could actually visit. And it spoke to Jesus and his listeners of repulsion, shame, and horrible death—instead of experiencing honor like their ancestors whose bodies were treated reverently when they died, those cast into Gehenna would experience the immense dishonor associated with those whose bodies had been thrown out into a dump to become an object of scorn for the masses. In an honor-shame culture like that in the ancient, and even modern Near East, that would be a fate worse than death. Gehenna didn’t mean punishment beyond the grave—endless punishment—in the Old Testament, during the time of Jesus, it didn’t mean that in the literature outside of the Bible, and it didn’t mean that for Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament.

The passage most often used as the clearest statement in the entire Bible that punishment in hell is endless is Matthew 25:46. In that verse, Jesus himself says that the wicked will go away to “eternal punishment” but the righteous to “eternal life”.

The first thing to point out in that passage is that the word translated “eternal”, doesn’t mean “never-ending”. It actually means “the end is not known”. It refers to a period of time longer or shorter, past or future, the boundaries of which are concealed, obscure, unseen, or unknown. For example, numerous times the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament that Jesus and the Apostles used—the same adjective in this verse, “eternal”, is used to describe the statutes governing the sacrifices and offerings made by the priests. They were said to be “eternal statutes” but they didn’t last forever, and were never intended to last forever. The Old Testament sacrificial system was designed to be replaced one day by the new covenant in Christ. In Micah chapter 4 verse 5 (and 17 other places in the Septuagint), the phrase “forever and ever” literally means “to the age and beyond”.

The second thing to note is that when the same adjective is used twice in the same sentence it does not necessarily mean the same thing each time. For example, if an NBA basketball player we’re standing in front of one World Trade Center in New York City, you could honestly say, “a tall man is standing in front of a tall building,” but no one would think you thought that the man in the building were the same size! The adjective tall derives its meaning from what it refers to. In the first instance to a man, in the second to a building. In Matthew 25:46, the adjective that Jesus used [aionios] “eternal” refers to two completely different things: life and punishment. Eternal life is the divine life that comes from God—that life never ends. Eternal punishment is the divine punishment that comes from his hand—the duration of that divine punishment may certainly be temporary, lasting as long as it’s necessary until it accomplishes its purpose. The verse should be translated, “the wicked shall go away to the punishment in the age to come and the righteous to the life in the age to come”.

So what does the Bible actually teach about the salvation of mankind? We’ve been so accustomed to thinking that only a few will ultimately be saved that we often completely overlook the message that is at the heart of Christianity. Jesus Christ is the savior of the world not just the savior of part of the world. The angel who appeared to the shepherds on the night of Jesus birth did not say, “I bring you good news of great joy there will be for some of the people,” he just said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” When speaking to the crowd after his triumphal entry, Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself.” In Romans, Paul said, “as in Adam all die so in Christ all will be made alive.” The Apostle John told his readers that, “Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” The message at the heart of Christianity is that Jesus Christ came to redeem all mankind. Endless conscious suffering in Hell was not the teaching of the early Church, it’s not the teaching of Scripture, and it’s also contrary to what scripture reveals about the nature and character of God.

It’s not uncommon to see a bumper sticker on a car or graffiti on a wall that says, “God loves you”. They’re so common that it’s almost become a cliche but is it true? Does God really love you? The religious leaders of Jesus day didn’t think so. They thought God only loved people like them. So Jesus told them three parables to show them God’s heart. The Good Shepherd is not satisfied with the restoration of 99 percent of what is his, he seeks until he finds the one lost sheep. The woman with ten silver coins is not satisfied with 90 percent of her wealth, she searches until she finds the lost coin. The prodigal son’s father waited until his son returned after completely messing up his life. He welcomed him joyfully and his son was restored. “God is not willing that any should perish but desires that all will come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Scripture says there is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord. No plan of his can be thwarted—nothing is impossible with God. What Scripture reveals about God that his love is unconditional, his power is irresistible, and he never gives up.

Let me close by making a few observations about free will, since that’s a major focus of John’s position. Only God has absolute free will, only he is free to accomplish all that he desires. He gives each person some free will but always within limits and in the context of his absolute free will. For example, none of us was given the freedom to choose when we were born, where we were born, who our parents would be, what our physical stature or mental capacities would be, whether we’re male or female, or even when and how we will die. We have no control over many of the factors that directly impact the situation and decisions that we make every day. Joseph didn’t choose to be made second-in-command in Egypt, God arranged the circumstances for that to happen. Jonah ran away from God but God’s will prevailed and Jonah found himself in Nineveh proclaiming the message that God had given him. Scripture is clear when it says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, he directs it like a watercourse wherever he wishes. The mind of man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps. Many are the plans in a person’s heart but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” God is not helpless in the face of mankind’s free will. God specifically said that “he desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” God specifically said that “one day every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will freely and joyfully confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Will hell eventually be abolished? Yes, it will. When all is said and done, all those who were created by God will walk through Heaven’s doors and “God will be all in all” after “the restoration of all things” the final word will once again be, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good!”

Thank you.


God willing, I’ll get an opportunity to transcribe the rest of the debate over the next week or so…

What is Hell?

My transcript of the above:

Eric: Hey there folks—it’s The Eric Metaxas Show. It’s Hell Week on The Eric Metaxas Show. Chris Himes did you know it’s Hell Week?

Chris: Hell-o—I can’t stop.

Eric: Yeah. We’re talking to George Sarris. The book is Heaven’s Doors. I want to be real clear, even though you take what some people call the Universalist position, you’re not saying, “Hell does not exist”?

George: That is correct.

Eric: Okay. If somebody says, “You’re going to hell”, what is hell?

George: Hell is a place where you experience the consequences of your actions—just like it is here on this earth. One of the major people in the early church was a guy named Theodore of Mopsuestia, and his basic position was that sin leads to misery. So eventually if you continue to pursue sin, you will become totally miserable. At that point, you’re open to experiencing the love and grace that God offers—and God doesn’t give up.

Eric: Okay. So let’s pick a name out of a hat: Adolf Hitler?

George: Why don’t you talk about the Apostle Paul?

Eric: Why?

George: Because he’s a great example of that. He actually persecuted Christians and put them to death.

Eric: But…

George: But what did God do? He didn’t just punish Paul, he transformed Paul. The goal that God has for mankind is not just to punish, it is to transform.

Eric: Ok. But I’m saying if the goal is to transform Hitler…

George: He doesn’t get transformed in this life so God has ages (because scripture talks about not just an age to come but ages plural to come).

Eric: Aionion

George: He has ages to work in Hitler’s life to bring him to a point where he understands his need for grace.

Oil On Canvas
“Cain or Hitler in Hell” by George Grosz

Eric: Okay. So the thing is that you’re saying that, “Yes, hell is actually hell but it is to bring the worst sinner ultimately to repentance.”

George: That is correct.

Eric: But you still say that hell is horrible?

George: Yes. I mean, if you do some crime and you’re put in jail, just because you don’t get the death sentence, doesn’t mean that jail is really a wonderful place to be. Depending on how long you’re there, is not a comfortable place to be, this is intense, it’s severe. The the punishment, the consequences of whatever it is. Just talk to a recovering alcoholic or talk to somebody that’s been involved in some kind of sin in their lives. Were they happy? No, they’re experiencing all kinds of negative consequences—breaks up of marriages, breaks up of relationships with their children, physical diseases or problems that come along, etc. Those are not positive things at all but at some point, if they can acknowledge their need, then God’s saving grace is available to them in Christ.

Eric: What do you say to somebody who says the scripture says clearly, “Once we leave this life, that’s it”?

George: Where does it say that? The only verse that I’ve ever been able to come across it says that… where it says, “It is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment.” It doesn’t say what the judgment is. [It] just means that once you die you come before God and then God makes a decision. Is he going to send you to hell for however long it is? Are you going to go to heaven? Those are judgments that God makes but it doesn’t say anything about the fact that God is going to stop being God. He’s not going to stop being gracious. The grace of God continues on into the ages to come. Why is it that people would believe that God is willing to forgive Adolf Hitler right up to the very point of, you know, five seconds before he dies if he repented—truly repented—then he would be saved and he brought into heaven, but five seconds after he dies, “Sorry too bad”? God doesn’t change!

Eric: Okay. So what do your detractors say? In other words, answer some of the things that the detractors of this view would say to you if they were sitting here?

George: The first thing they would say is that, “Scripture obviously teaches this because it says in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that whoever’s in hell can never get out of it.” First of all, it doesn’t say that. Number one, the word that is used there for hell is actually Hades—it’s not hell—and Hades, as a place of punishment, will empty itself. That death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire—that Hades will release those who are captive in it. When Jesus talks about the gates of Hades not being able to withstand his church, the gates of Hades are not offensive units, they are defensive. The Christian churches on the attack against the gates of Hades. We are going to destroy the gates of Hades and of hell and of death, and we’re going to bring deliverance from it.

Eric: See this is, I confess, that I hope that’s true and I think every Christian has to hope that’s true too.

Engaging Orr-Ewing: How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?

Amy Orr-Ewing
Amy Orr-Ewing

Amy Orr-Ewing, in her article How Could a Holy/Loving God Send People to Hell?, begins by pointing out that many people are shocked that anyone still believes in hell. Despite that, she says there are serious questions we need to consider:

Is it part of the profile of a loving God to punish people? How could that be fair?

To answer these questions, Orr-Ewing rightly notes that:

Most people want to live in a society where administrators operate the legal system justly and fairly. When we are victims of a crime, we long for justice. Our loved ones want justice on our behalf if they care for us.

Similarly, when our loved ones are victims of crime, we cry out for justice for them and Orr-Ewing shares an example from her own life. Reflecting on this, she makes a profound statement:

Love and justice are inseparable. To ignore evil or injustice would not be loving, so a loving God must also be a just God.

Yes, but doesn’t this also imply that a just God must also be a loving God—that His justice includes the ultimate good of the ones being judged?

“The problem of evil is the problem of love.” If love is to exist, we must freely give and receive it, or else it is not love. If this freedom is possible, withholding love is also possible. Selfishness, violence, and injustice are the result of the abuse of love’s freedom.

I think this is a strong argument.

Why must God’s judgment involve retribution and punishment in hell? Is this not outmoded and vindictive?

I think some theologians and preachers sadly do express a retributive punishment that is vindictive. However, I think retributive punishment can be non-vindictive when the punishment is done for the ultimate good of both the victim and perpetrator—namely their reconciliation.

Retribution is an important factor because, in a real sense, it connects the punishment with the sin. It means that punishment is not arbitrary or random, but rational and consequential.

I’d also add, that retribution should be purposeful—aiming to achieve something worthwhile.

If one of my boys hits his brother over the head and then bites his leg, he knows I will remove him from the room for time out. He endures this separation for a minute or so because he has acted aggressively. Even as a toddler he understands that his actions lead to punishment.

While this example shows that wrongdoing rightly has consequences, it’s already more developed than a simplistic “eye for eye” retribution. I suspect that Orr-Ewing would also encourage (or even insist upon) an apology from the offending toddler. Because her goal is not just to punish the toddler but to heal the relationship between the siblings.

Wrongdoing must be recognized as such both by the perpetrator and the world around us. This is the function of punishment.

I think punishment can be involved in achieving genuine comprehension (see Engaging Shumack: justice and the death penalty).

Hell is the ultimate punishment. It is the destination of those who refuse to recognize their own sin for what it is. Their assertion of the self over others and God, defies divine justice. Hell is the ultimate consequence of egotism.

I think Hell is an inevitable—very sobering—consequence and punishment for the egotism Orr-Ewing describes. At the same time, I don’t think it’s “ultimate” because God doesn’t allow the evil of egotism to continue unaddressed forever. Instead God hides everyone (including Himself) from the egotistic person (“Outer Darkness”), which shatters their delusion of superiority and independence.

The idea of eternal suffering as a result of temporal sinning seems disproportionate if people do not fully appreciate the seriousness of sin. But a biblical view of sin positions it as serious. The worth of people, created as we are in the divine image and given the capacity and opportunity to make moral choices, shows how serious it is to abuse this human dignity by sinning. This applies to one’s own life, to others, and ultimately, to defying the Maker himself. We underscore further the seriousness of sin in the Christian worldview when we reflect on the cost Jesus paid to deal with it.

I think sin is so serious that Jesus died for everyone so that sin won’t eternally infect His creation, particularly all His immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable image bearers!

Orr-Ewing’s appeal to free will being the cause of evil, including people egotistically refusing God, suggests she would agree with C. S. Lewis’ statement, that “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). However, his “Checkmate” chapter (below) reveals there is much more to the story.

Title titled
C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, 247

He describes his own conversion, which demonstrates that even when people make free moves, God will always checkmate them in the end.

I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood [my emphasis], they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 228–29

Looking back he realised that because he chose God it was free choice—an overwhelmingly superior choice. Had he rejected God, it would’ve have been because he was enslaved to a sick, sinful delusion.

… before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom…

C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 224

Imagine a firefighter at the top of a ladder imploring someone to escape the flames. Surely if the person “chose” not to come, they’d be considered insane—not pejoratively but literally unable to make a rational free choice? Because of this, the firefighter may need to drag them to safety so that they can come to their senses. Likewise, our loving Father doesn’t abandon us to our own misguided “choices” but instead shatters our delusions, frees us from our enslaving sin, and heals our minds. In doing so, God comes inside, lifts us up so together we can unlock the door. (I highly recommend reading the article Free-will Theodicies of Hell, where Thomas Talbott fleshes this out).

Jesus is a king because his business is to bear witness to the truth. What truth? All truth; all verity of relation throughout the universe—first of all, that his father is good, perfectly good; and that the crown and joy of life is to desire and do the will of the eternal source of will, and of all life. He deals thus the death-blow to the power of hell. For the one principle of Hell is “I am my own…

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons—Kingship (emphasis mine)

Lastly, consider the context of Lewis’ MacDonald quote at the start of his “Checkmate” chapter. Before MacDonald wrote, “… the one principle of Hell is ‘I am my own'”, he explained that Jesus reveals all truth universally, including the truth that the glorious goal (“the crown”) of all life is to choose (“desire and do”) the will of God, thus defeating hell—all the deluded, sinful, egotistic pride.