“He became what we are that we might become what he is.” Athanasius
Pick up a study by evangelicals on the nature of hell and you are likely to find that the exegetical section is structured according to the debate between two well dug-in and well-armed theological camps. On the one side are those who believe that the unsaved will suffer endless conscious torment; on the other side are those who prefer to think that the end awaiting the unsaved will be, sooner or later, annihilation. The approach is then to take various New Testament texts that are supposed to say something about hell and ask which argument they support best. This book does not have a chapter on hell because the texts on which the doctrine is based belong in stories and arguments. They are not, in the first place, snippets of doctrinal data that someone has unhelpfully scattered through the pages of the New Testament. They are things that people said and wrote at particular moments in a historical narrative, in response to particular developments, drawing on particular memories and traditions, correcting particular misconceptions, encouraging particular attitudes and actions. Fillet the teaching from the narrative spine of the fish and you have a mass of ideas that can be chopped up and served as fish fingers or something more imaginative, but you no longer have a fish.
This is why I find most conversations I encounter about hell wholly unsatisfactory – they are doctrinal formulations based on arbitrary readings of specific passages that have been ripped from their context, because they purportedly support are presupposed ideas about how things should be.
The phrases a lot is often made of include ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’, ‘darkness outside’, ‘furnaces’, ‘gehenna’ and ‘fires’ that (sometimes) blaze ‘eternally’. Much is derived from these phrases with immense creative rearticulation.
If we take the narrative seriously – when the narrative that begins and ends with ‘the kingdom of God’ that ‘has come’ (Mark 1:14-15) and makes this paramount and we read the NT not seeking universal, timeless truths but with a willingness to take the narrative character the NT places on the events of the 1st century seriously; we perhaps get closer to what is meant.
Jesus spoke of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’, ‘darkness outside’, ‘furnaces’, ‘gehenna’ and ‘fires’ that (sometimes) blaze ‘eternally’ to emphasise what the Jews around him would experience if they concretely, in real historical, time-bound terms, refused to be part of his kingdom of God movement. Why because Jesus, read the signs of the times and he was certain that the Jewish religious and political leaders were leading the people on a path that would lead Israel to experience God’s judgment and ruin.
It is in these ruins, that more than correlate to the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70CE (Mark 13:14-19), that equate, when we consider the narrative character of the NT, to the Jews who refused to become part of Jesus’ kingdom movement experiencing life in the ‘darkness outside’ where they would ‘weep’ and ‘gnash their teeth’ and experience judgment metaphorically equivalent to fire that could be said to never die (Luke 13:31-35). The judged and rejected, unfaithful Jews would have their dead bodies thrown and burned in ‘gehenna’ (the Greek word translated ‘hell’) by the Romans, while the disciples and the churches who “watch out” (13:5) and are “on guard” (13:9) are aware of the times and remember what Jesus anticipated, and in sensing what is coming “flee to the mountains” (13:14) and so carry on the promise of God kingdom.
Incidentally, ‘Gehenna’ properly refers to the Valley of Ben Hinnom. It was a place in the OT known as a site where the Israelites sacrificed children (Jeremiah 32:35), and by the 1st century ‘gehenna’ was to be the rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem known for its perpetual fires. To be thrown into the ‘gehenna’ marked divine rejection and shame (Jeremiah 19:5-7) – it was certainly not a metaphysical location.
Why are the current articulations of hell (ECT and annihilation), broadly speaking, insufficient? Why does ‘hell’ not exist? Because the New Testament really isn’t saying what we have made it say.
I think we need to take seriously the language of death (and ‘second death’) and perishing (John 3:16) – death is ‘hell’ (in the classic sense of a ‘place’ of utter lostness), death renders all things, gone, forgotten, nihil, death is to be without life or hope, death is and will be the judgement and justice we so often long for. We are in dire need of taking seriously the materiality of human life and the Bible is a book that does just that. Death was the ‘curse’, or judgment, or punishment proclaimed in Genesis 3:19, Paul knows death is the problem in Romans 5:12ff, death renders Jesus and the kingdom lost (Luke 24:20-21) – being dead renders you lost to God (Matt. 22:32), life and the world. Death is the problem because death is ‘hell’.
May we return to the New Testament story and read what it says. May we engage the worldview of the 1st Christians so we interpret their thoughts faithfully. May we allow this to help us take the resurrection seriously because God died in Christ, and was lost even to himself, rescuing life from death because God “is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matt. 22:32).
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” Romans 8:11