We have reached the end of our summer Elephant in the Pew series and our final questions are once again about Hell. They are: If God forgives everyone, then why does hell exist? ...and What is the nature of hell?
Hell is one of those topics that we love and hate to talk about. There are movies and TV shows that depict the end of the world and what the punishments of hell might be like. We all have opinions about Hell – whether it truly exists, what it might be like, and who should go there and for what reason.
There has been a lot of debate by the scholars as to whether or not Hell is real. It seems that we could debate the topic ourselves, because it was on our list last year during our Elephant series, too.
Many believe that hell is very real, and that we are all in danger of ending up there if we don’t repent and change our ways. Others believe that hell was created as a scare tactic centuries ago to try and keep the population in check and easier to manage – and therefore irrelevant in today’s world.
When we look at scripture, we will find texts that support both sides, and how you read those texts can sway you one way or another. Logically, it’s hard to say what is true or not, because there is no tangible proof one way or the other. Plus, we don’t know anyone who has been there and came back to tell about it. There are no stories of individuals having near death experiences saying that they have been to hell. We only have stories of “heaven” encounters. The happy, light filled, family reunion, walk with Jesus stories. We don’t have anything that proves there is another possibility, a darker possibility. So, that could mean a few things:
Reality is all humans are imperfect, we all sin (do wrong) in some way or another – and some of us more boldly than others. If you were to read Dante’s inferno, you would, most likely, find a place for yourself within his 9 circles of hell, and a description of the torment or punishment you are destined for.
Yet, as Christians, we are reminded that Jesus’ death on the cross made it possible for us to avoid eternal punishment. We are assured that we will be able to reside with God in eternal joy and peace – if we profess our faith in God.
In this life, humanity has created a system of laws that help keep our behaviors “in check” or “balance”. We know that there are consequences for our negative actions and behaviors here on earth. Yet what about once our bodies give out? Are there eternal consequences for the way we live in spite of our profession of faith?
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells us there are consequences for our actions and our inactions:
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” AND
41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…
Jesus tells both - “Truly I tell you, just as you did/did not do it to one of the least of these, you did/did not do it to me. 46And (those who did not do) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous (those who did) into eternal life.”
The majority of scholars agree that Hell, in part, is life without God, or living outside of the presence of God. Without a relationship with our creator, without a connection to the source of all life, we will eventually wither and die. That in itself is an eternal punishment.
What is the duration of our punishment? Is the “punishment” for eternity, as the Matthew text states, or is it for a shorter period of time?
Again, the Bible has texts on both sides. Such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – 2 real towns located on the southern tip of the Dead Sea, their physical destruction was a once a done thing. You can see the remnants of them still today. So there “eternal” destruction is symbolic for a punishment that has eternal consequences (Reagan). It is meant to be a warning to others as to what will happen if you live a certain way. For people who live near the remnants of these 2 cities, the warning is still very real.
Since our roots come from the Jewish tradition, I looked for information on what they truly believe about Hell. I found the train of thought from the Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic spiritual revival movement within the Jewish tradition, very interesting. When asked if Jews believe in Hell, one individual responded in this way:
“We believe in a type of hell. Hell is not a punishment in the conventional sense; it is, in fact, the expression of a great kindness.” Punishment as kindness, really? How so? I wondered. I understand that parents punish their children out of love and to help them learn proper behavior, what not to do so they won’t be hurt, etc., but to see punishment as a kindness? That’s a stretch.
The article continued to say, that “The Jewish mystics describe a spiritual placed called Gehinnom – usually translated as “hell,” but a better translation would be the Supernatural Washing Machine. Because that’s exactly how it works. The way our soul is cleansed in Gehinnom is similar to the way our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine.”
Let’s take a sock for example: “If you were a sock and thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you might start to feel that someone doesn’t like you.”
Yet, “We don’t put socks in the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure only to make them clean and wearable again. The intense heat of the water loosens the dirt, and the force of being swirled around shakes it off completely. Far from hurting your socks, you are doing them a favor by putting them through this process.
So, too, with the soul. Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed. If at the end of our life, we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high. We must go through a cycle of deep cleansing. Our soul is flung around at an intense spiritual heat to rid it of any residue it may have gathered, and to prepare it for entry into Heaven.
Of course, this whole process can be avoided. If we truly regret the wrong we have done and make amends with the people we have hurt, we can leave this world with clean socks” (Moss) and hearts.
Wow, now that’s an interesting thought. “Every act we do (or don’t do) in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed.” I think that is one of the best explanations I have heard yet for the connection between the cause and lasting effects of how we choose to live.
We all recognize that we have some “dirty laundry” in our lives. Things that we need to do some cleaning on. Maybe it’s well hidden, but often it’s still there just like a stinky, dirty pair of socks left forgotten on the bottom of the laundry bag. It can hide for a while, but eventually it will come out.
With this thought in mind:
My friends, no matter where you are on your spiritual journey, know that God is on your side and willing to guide you and help you along the way. Remember…..nothing is impossible with and through God.
May it be so….. AMEN
Moss, Aron, article Do Jews Believe in Hell? Printed on https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1594422/jewish/Do-Jews-Believe-In-Hell.htm
Alighieri, Dante, “The Divine Comedy” translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House/New York, NY, 1995
Considine, Kevin P., article Faith in Real Life, published on www.uscatholic.org/print/30965
Reagan, David R. (Dr), article The Nature of Hell, printed on christinprophecy.org/articles/the-nature-of-hell/
Psalm 11 Song of Trust in God
1 In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me, ‘Flee like a bird to the mountains; 2 for look, the wicked bend the bow, they have fitted their arrow to the string, to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart. 3 If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’
4 The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind. 5 The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence. 6 On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulphur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. 7 For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.
Romans 6:15-23 Slaves of Righteousness
15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.