We've been having an interesting conversation on the Rush messageboard about hell. One of the more enlightened and intellectually honest Christians on the board created a thread asking about what the bible actually says about hell. He has, apparently, been struggling with the concept of an all-loving, all-merciful God who also sends the majority of human beings to eternal damnation in a lake of fire (what intellectually honest Christian wouldn't struggle with such an abominable and counter-intuitive idea?).
As a result, there has been an interesting conversation taking place. I wanted to post some of my own thoughts from the thread here on my blog, for a wider reading audience.
Did you know that the word "hell" only appears 14 times in the bible? Fully half of those instances are in the book of Matthew alone, and 12 of the 14 are in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The other two are in James and 2 Peter.
How can something that plays such an otherwise insignificant role in the bible be such a central theme within Christianity? By way of comparison, consider the instances of these words in the bible:
I mean, for crying out loud, the word "vomit," or a variation thereof, is used as many times in the bible as the word "hell"!!! And look how many times "love" appears in the bible. Based on some of these numbers, what do you think is most important in the message of the bible? Eternal damnation for sin, or showing love and compassion to each other, and bringing the message of abundant life to the people you encounter each day?
There is very little in the bible regarding hell. There are plenty of references to Satan, but not a single one of them is referenced in a passage regarding hell.
Think about that for a moment.
In the bible, Satan is characterized as the embodiment of evil, temptation, and wayward living. Hell, on the other hand, is where you end up if you are out of communion with God. Christianity, and other religions, connect these two things, but if you simply look at biblical texts, you won't find a clear connection between Satan and Hell. If you assume hell is a real place, the very first question you must ask yourself is "Is Satan there too?" The bible doesn't make this clear. For me, this is strong evidence that our modern concepts of hell and Satan are entirely manmade. If God were a supernatural entity attempting to communicate with us through the bible, he sure messed up on giving us a clear picture about hell and Satan.
The reason for the ambiguity in the bible, of course, is because hell, as a theological concept, was still in its infancy when the New Testament was being written. I've remarked elsewhere that I don't personally believe Jesus probably ever said anything about hell. I think the references Jesus makes to hell in the gospels were probably words put into his teachings by later Christian writers who were writing after the concept was beginning to be incorporated into Christian theology.
Thus, for instance, when Matthew has Jesus say, in chapter 5, verse 4, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell" I think the part about hell was probably added to Jesus's authentic teaching. More than likely, Jesus's teaching would have been about eternal separation from God -- thus, discard your sinful ways (that is, ways that lead you out of communion with God), and begin leading God-centered lives, so that you don't end up permanently out of communion with God. When such a teaching is translated into late 1st century emerging Christian theological language, you end up with what Matthew wrote.
Whether Jesus actually used hell language or not, the issue still remains irrelevant for me. As a 1st century spiritual teacher, Jesus may well have used language and concepts that were common to the people he was teaching and to the culture in which he lived. However, since hell wasn't a concept within Jewish theology, I don't believe he ever talked about hell. Even if he did, 1st century conceptions of eternal damnation are irrelevant for 21st century theology, in my opinion, even if they are from Jesus.
To go a little deeper, let's look at another hell reference in the New Testamant. Most scholars agree that 2 Peter was probably the last NT book to be written -- written sometime in the first part of the 2nd century. There is a reference to hell in the second chapter.
"For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment....."
Gloomy dungeons? That doesn't sound like a lake of fire to me. Interestingly, the Greek word for hell used in this passage was "Tartarus," which refers to a deep, dark pit or hole where the dead await judgment. This concept was drawn directly from Greek mythology, which stated that Tartarus was within Hades -- Hades being the abode of the dead. It's very closely related to the Jewish concept of Sheol.
The point, of course, is this -- this particular biblical reference to "hell" is clearly not related to the concepts of fire that you get in other biblical hell references, and certainly not in the modern evangelical concept of hell. To the Christian community that composed 2 Peter, hell was not about eternal fire and damnation, but more in line with Jewish and Greek concepts as a holding tank for the final judgment. This speaks to Jeremy's original question about whether we get a chance, after death, to accept God. It would seem, by the standards of the writer(s) of 2 Peter, that final judgment doesn't happen during life or even at death, but at the end of time -- and this was a distinctly Jewish idea, not at all like what we understand in modern Christianity.
All this leads back to the original statement -- and that is that the bible gives no clear idea of what hell is, and no clear connection at all to Satan. Hell was a concept that was in use in sporadic Christian communities during the 1st and 2nd centuries, and there was no clear agreement even among these communities about what hell was or what Satan's role was there. It was not until much later that specific ideas about hell, Satan, fire, and eternal damnation were developed. And because we now have these sorts of ideas about hell, we read those same ideas back into the bible, even though those ideas aren't actually there.
It's important to note, too, that no reference to hell ever appears in Paul's writings -- the earliest Christian writings in existence. If Jesus talked about hell, and hell was an important Christian concept, wouldn't the father of Christianity have at least mentioned it in passing? I firmly believe no Christian ever talked of "hell" until the latter part of the 1st century, long after Jesus, his followers, and the earliest missionaries were gone.
Just remember....hell, as a location, is mentioned in only 5 of the 66 biblical books (that's less than 8% of the books in the bible), with a total of only 14 mentions, half of which are in one book alone. Hell is never mentioned by the New Testament's earliest writer, and the general father of Christian theology, Paul, and it is also not mentioned in other early New Testament books like the book of Hebrews. Finally, hell and Satan are never mentioned together in the bible, and there is no indication in the bible that Satan lives in hell, or that hell is place of eternal and irreversible damnation. All of those ideas were developed long after the biblical books were written, and by people and institutions that were not part of the earliest Christian communities.
If you want to read further on my beliefs and feelings about hell, click here. This is a blog post from March where I talk about hell.