You see, in this piece titled "Should believers fear Hell - and God?" by Oliver Thomas, Mr. Thomas discussed one of the internal hot-buttons of the church today; whether or not the traditional concept of Hell exists. Apparently, one major reason this issue is on the forefront is a book called Love Wins by Rob Bell.
Unlike technology, which seems to change faster than my wardrobe, the words of the Bible don't really change. Finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminate the accuracy and integrity of manuscript copies, and so sometimes changes are made (as in the previous post), but usually these changes do little or nothing to shake the core tenets of Scripture. Tenets like Hell. So, how the Hell does Bell make a case for change?
Based off of the words of Mr. Thomas (as I haven't read Bell's book), Bell claims that perpetuated mistranslation is the culprit causing the creation of this wayward doctrine. Thomas provided a four part defense, presumably thanks to Bell.
- The Old Testament does not portray the domain of the dead (Sheol) as a place of torture, but as a place of no activity.
- The Greek word "aiónios" (which he had mistakenly spelled "aionos"), which is translated as "eternal," is better understood as a finality, not a perpetuity (in Bell's opinion).
- The word translated as Hell (in the New Testament) is Gehenna, which in Jesus day was in a valley south of Jerusalem where trash was burned, so Jesus was basically telling people that they would be trashing their lives if they did not repent for Salvation.
- God has perfect love for all of us. No parent who loved their child could bear to see their child tortured if that child turned out to be a murderer. How much more that would be true with God.
Well, imagine how relieved I felt upon reading this! As an atheist, no longer did I have to fear repercussions from God, should He happen to exist! Oh, death, where is your sting! I now have a hope spoken of in 1 Corinthians 15:55, only on the flip-side of the coin. It's not eternal life, but, hey, it's not an eternal roast either.
But. But wait a minute. Something... something just doesn't seem right. Let's take a look point by point:
- Yes, he's right, the Old Testament doesn't suggest that Sheol is a place of torture, but it doesn't describe Heaven as a place of eternal life for good human souls after they die either. In fact, there is very little to suggest that the concept of an after-life punishment or reward in the Old Testament, aside from what could happen to your still-living progeny. If you use that to debunk Hell, you'd have to debunk Heaven too, or at least the Christian version of Heaven where the Saved will go.
- The Greek word "aiónios" has "aión" as its root, which is defined as "agelong, eternal," which is why aiónios itself is defined as "age-long, and therefore: practically eternal, unending; partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting." This does not necessarily contradict Bell's position, but his position seems a bit more untenable when you consider Matthew 25:46:
“Then [those separated to the left of Jesus] will go away to eternal (aiónios) punishment, but the righteous to eternal (aiónios) life.” NIV
- Ah, Gehenna. Yes, indeed, Jesus was using the vivid picture of a burning trash dump, but was it simply to say that those who did not repent would be throwing their lives away, or was it meant to be a metaphor for a punishment which would endure forever? The verses lean towards the latter because of context.
Take Mark 9:43-48, for example. That's the lovely passage which says you should chop off your hand or foot if they cause you to sin, or likewise gouge out your eye. You see, these are better alternatives than being thrown into Gehenna, "where the fire never goes out" and where "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched."
Why would it matter that the fire never goes out? How would it be possible that worms feeding on the unsaved would not die, and why would that be significant? If nothing was to happen to the unsaved at Judgement Day, or if there was just some brief punishment, then these references do not make sense. On the other hand, if there is an enduring and continuous punishment, well, they are right in line, and probably worth chopping of your hand or foot to avoid!
That's why Jesus told us that we should fear what God could do to us after death. That's also why the exact concept of Hell as a place of after-life torment is used in a parable told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31! That's the one with Lazarus is a beggar, and a rich guy who didn't help him. When they both died, Lazarus went to "Abraham's side," while the rich guy got thrown into Hell, explicitly to be tormented. The rich guy begged to have Lazarus sent to warn the rich man's still-living father about the place of torment, but Abraham refuses.
It's rather hard to believe that this is just a matter of mistranslation which somehow Bell can sweep aside. Instead, he is just ignoring this passage because it's not what he wants to believe, and isn't consistent with the God of love he "knows."
- God seems to have no problem torturing people, or perhaps you are not familiar with the Plagues on Egypt which were the impetus for the Exodus, or the wrath God plans on pouring out in the book of Revelation.
Now here is the fun part. Thomas ends his article asking why would anyone want to worship a God who would eternally torture someone? And, furthermore, what does it say about a nation which reveres such a God? Thomas appears to be aligned with Bell, so he can ask these questions from a comfortable distance. Which, I am sure, is why he doesn't flinch at tying believe in such a wicked version of God as the impetus for "Crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, and, yes, jihad."
Why? Because "[f]ear is a horrible motivator for human behavior." Well, Mr. Thomas, on that point, we agree completely. You might want to bring that up to your Maker.