Below is my transcript of the second half of the Life & Faith hell series.
Simon: Hi, it’s great to have your company. You’re listening to Life & Faith from the Centre for Public Christianity. My name’s Simon Smart. In recent weeks we’ve been talking about a rather unpopular subject—I have to say—the judgment of God and particularly the notion of hell. We discussed a documentary out of North America called Hellbound?, which has been getting a lot of attention. The film picks up this question of hell and discusses the fact that this is not only a topic that people avoid thinking about and talking about these days but there’s a growth within the Christian Church of a view that would question the traditional view of hell as eternal punishment.
Now the documentary Hellbound? really comes down at the end on this idea of the victory of God’s love that will overcome whatever sin and hardness of heart that exists towards God and that because this, eventually, all people will find their way towards a loving relationship with God in eternity. This is a very big, a very serious, and it seems to us, an important question. So we want to spend some more time thinking about that and to do that we’re joined by my colleague—who hasn’t been in the Life & Faith chair for a while—Dr. John Dickson, biblical historian, ancient historian. Good to have you in, John.
John: Thanks but I’m not sure this is the best topic to get me in on but thanks for the favor.
Simon: It’s a hospital pass possibly. Now let’s get straight into it John. Do you believe there is a hell and if so why?
John: Well, yes and no. I don’t believe in the hell most people think of when they use the word “hell” but I do believe in the hell that I’m pretty sure Jesus himself believed in and taught about. So it’s a mixed situation and part of the problem is that people have picked up their ideas of hell, not from Jesus and that tradition but from pop culture—from Simpsons cartoons where the Simpsons go to hell—and criticisms. You know critics caricature the idea of hell and we go, “Oh man, I’m not sure I believe in this anymore”, and we sort of diminish the whole word.
Simon: Yeah, there’s been a tradition of this from Dante’s Inferno, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment—a big painting in Rome—and these are the sorts of images you’re talking about in a sense—that have educated the culture in their ideas of hell?
John: Yeah, the difference is when Dante wrote about hell and the classical painters depicted it, they were actually trying to make serious points in metaphorical language and in the imagery of painting but they were trying to convince us how serious it was. The difference now is hell is mocked and joked about so that, you know, the Simpsons can find the devil in hell and all this. And there can be skits about it and and it’s laughable. So both images are helpful actually but now we face the problem that hell is a thing to be mocked, not a thing to be terrified of.
Simon: The concept of God’s judgment and hell are increasingly unpopular these days it would seem. Do you think this is true among Christians, as well as those outside of the Church?
John: I think so, and for similar reasons. When people criticize the judging God, I think Christians feel really bad and so question whether they believe in the judging God. So they’re definitely Christians who are upset about this or nervous about the notion of God’s judgment but the problem is, if you keep reading your Bible, Old or New Testament, you’re confronted with the God of judgment. There’s no getting around it. And the Bible actually is quite proud of the God who will right the wrongs of history, which is the main category for judgment language. It isn’t, you know, the school bully language that you hear in the popular media. I mean, we shift the emphasis onto a sort of school bully and we all hate that idea of judgment but if you think of the God of judgment more of like a Justice Commissioner, who’s seen the injustice of the world and is coming to right wrongs, then your thinking about judgment is far more like Jesus thought about it—far more like the Old Testament prophets thought about it.
Simon: Let’s hear what people on the street are talking about when they’re asked about the notion of hell.
Vox pop: I agree, I think, with the highest post of England of the church that recognizes that hell exists within you—throughout your life—and that’s something you struggle with.
Vox pop: I think hell is a man-made concept so I think it plays on the fears that everyone has—it’s part of being human really. And certain religious groups like to play on the fact too because it suits their purposes—they get more followers, it gets them more money, gets them more power.
Vox pop: I think we create that because we need it for our own self belief. Both heaven and hell, to be honest, I think is what we aspire to. I do think there is a higher being out there that looks after us and created us but I reckon once were gone were gone. If we come back maybe our souls come back and are sort of around—one likes to believe that.
Vox pop: I think it’s the man-made thing to create a supernatural kind of police force to bring people in line. I mean it has its place in society. I do believe that’s the social benefit. Whether or not it exists, I can’t prove either way.
Simon: We’re talking today about judgment and the notion of hell on the back of this documentary we’ve been talking about called Hellbound?. John we often hear that the Christian gospel is about good news. What’s the good news when we’re talking about judgment and hell?
John: Well it’s two parts of good news. One part is that God sees the injustice of the world, He hears the oppressed’s cry, for someone to make things right. And he is coming to make things right. This is why the Bible can actually say “hallelujah” for the judgments of God and you certainly see that in the final book of Revelation in the Bible—there’s great praise for the God who finally comes to overthrow those who have oppressed the poor, who have shed blood around the world and so on. So if you think of it like this, that it’s actually a sign of God’s love for the oppressed that he is coming to bring his justice on the oppressor. In a weird way judgment is a great sign of God’s love because it’s that he loved the massacred indigenous people of Tasmania, that he will bring those who perpetrated those judgments to justice and there’s a sense in which love fuels that judgment. So judgment itself is good news. The other part of the equation is…
Simon: You know, when we’re included in that judgment, that’s when we have a slightly different interpretation, right?
John: It is but you’ve gotta start where the Bible starts with this and rather than avoid it because you don’t want to be included in those who are judged. You better just start with what the Bible literally says, that God is coming to overthrow the evildoer, those who trod down others and so on. And go, “Yeah that’s right!” and then start to feel the creeping awkwardness that maybe I’m included. But I was going to say is, the good news of the gospel message is not just that judgment is coming because that’s righting the wrongs of the world but that there is amnesty. God has declared an amnesty so that all who turn to him for forgiveness, will—because of Jesus death—be forgiven. So not only is judgment good news, the good news is that we can be forgiven.
Simon: Now this film doco, Hellbound?, comes down pretty clearly—especially the latter half of it—with this sense that, you know, the God of the Bible is not a God who requires sacrifice but was a God of love and mercy but those two things aren’t necessarily antithetical are they?
John: That’s precisely the problem with this way of thinking. It sets two ideas against each other and just counts on us going, “Oh wow, so it’s either love or judgment. Yeah, I’m going with love!”—who wouldn’t! The problem is the Bible never plays that kind of game. Like I was saying before, it’s precisely God’s love that fuels his judgment against those who oppress those he loves! So love and judgment actually are intimately connected with each other and the Bible will frequently talk about God’s judgment and love. In fact, unless God is both judgment and love, the death of Jesus means nothing because the traditional explanation of Jesus death—from the very beginning—is that he bore judgment because God loves us so much. So I think you lose the heart of the Christian faith, if you can’t hold together these two ideas at the same time. Buying just one and not the other, is a terrible mistake.
Simon: So John, where does the concept of hell come from?
John: Well, it comes from the Bible, and in particular Jeremiah. There are two long passages in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 19 stands a good example, where there is this valley called the Valley of Hinnom, where some terrible things were done by Israel—burning their sons and daughters to false gods as sacrifices—and Jeremiah says, “In this valley—the Valley of Hinnom—God will bring his own fiery judgment to match the evil that Israel has done.” And the word for the Valley of Hinnom is Gehenna. This is the word for hell and by a couple of centuries before Jesus, we have Jewish literature that’s using this Gehenna word as the stock phrase, expression, for the judgment of God coming on the world. And some of those passages are extraordinary in the gruesome detail that they give. Jesus uses this word Gehenna, wherever you see the word hell it’s actually the word Gehenna, a reference to this park (well it’s a park now) in south Jerusalem (we’ve been there). But it was this metaphor for final judgment.
Now Jesus doesn’t go into gruesome details like some of the literature before him but he does use it as a place of serious judgment. It is metaphorical because on the one hand he talks about it being a fire, on the other he talks about it being outer darkness, and you can’t have fire and darkness unless it’s a metaphor. But it’s a metaphor for something real. God’s judgment is coming on the world and it will match the evil that the world has done.
Vox pox: Yeah, I don’t believe in hell either and I think maybe in the past, you know, priests of religion used it as a way to control people but at the moment, I don’t think it has… I don’t think it’s true.
Vox pox: Yeah, I think there has to be something, you know, better then the conditions we have now and I am religious so, you know, there are passages in the Bible that talk about an afterlife, not necessarily heaven but like a new earth and a new kingdom and therefore things would be better than what they are now.
Vox pox: Is there a sense of an afterlife? Look, there is a sense of one but once again I have to take it with a grain of salt. Is that real or not? I don’t know. I want to be willing and open to the fact that they could be, yes.
Simon: Some people might want to say though, John, that even if someone has lived a terrible life—let alone a moderately normal life—does eternal suffering fit the equation then of a just God, in the judgment you’ve been talking about?
John: Well, the Bible says, yes! It’s an eternal judgment but the important thing to point out is the Bible says it’s proportional. So we need to hold those two things in mind. It’s eternal but it’s proportional. That is, not everyone’s going to get the same judgment. Jesus speaks about the religious leaders being judged more harshly. He talks about Tyre and Sidon—pagan nations—faring better on the Judgment Day, than others. He, several times, speaks about judgment being proportional—that is, compared to your deeds. So however those things fit together in the mathematics of God, I don’t know. But it isn’t an argument to say, “Ah, well, an eternal judgment couldn’t possibly match, you know, finite deeds.” We just have to hold what the Bible says together. Eternal but it is also proportional to our deeds. The thing that troubles me is people who say, “Actually, people are annihilated in hell—that is they don’t actually have any consciousness going on—if that’s true, that means that God’s judgment is not proportional because it means the semi good atheist—who finds himself under the judgment of God—is getting exactly the same judgment as the Hitler figure who never repented. That cannot be true. That defies what the Bible teaches about God’s proportional judgment.
Simon: So the nature of hell and judgment seems to be hard to define but from the Bible’s perspective it’s real and it’s very serious. What then, John, is the message of Jesus in the face of this?
John: Well, he did ask us to be hopeful that God would right the wrongs of the world, which is what the main idea of hell is but then he said that he had come in order to bear the judgment human beings deserve. He announced the great amnesty and—at the end of Luke’s Gospel—he said the thing that was to be announced in his name to all nations, was the forgiveness of sins. So his death on the cross actually takes into himself the hell that I deserve. John Dickson’s deeds have been borne by Him. John Dickson’s judgment borne by Jesus so that forgiveness can be freely offered to others—that is the heart of the Gospel.
Update: I engage with the above in Engaging Dickson & Smart: Loving Judgment, Shalom, & Eternal Proportionality?