Down through the centuries has come the image of Hell as a lake of fire. Some believe the language to be literal, while others think it merely allegorical, but until recently there was not much dispute that Hell, whatever it looked like, was a really horrible place. Modern scholars don’t always agree.
Author Tom Harpur challenged the traditional notions about the nature of hell in a recent book. He claims, in part:
Christian apocalyptic literature borrowed heavily from Jewish writings and cannot be understood apart from them; Jewish apocalyptic writings, in turn, owed much to Persian sources.
…The idea of a fiery hell of punishment occurs only once in the earliest Gospel, Mark, once in Luke, and not at all in John’s Gospel or the Johannine Epistles.
…It is unfortunate that the translators of the King James Version used the word “hell” here (and even hell-fire) because that is not what the Greek original plainly says. The word actually used, and repeated, by Mark is “Gehenna.”
…Once you realize this, it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus is using contemporary imagery as a striking way of highlighting the fact that important issues are at stake. Sacrifices must be made by those would be disciples, but they are worth it because the alternative is to endure a haunting sense of loss. In trying to avoid the discipline of discipleship one risks desolation, or being cast on the refuse heap. There is absolutelyno warrant here for the later, terrifying doctrines of the Church about hell.
…One thing stands out in our survey of the roots of the doctrine of hell: there is no overall, consistent paradigm or metaphysical system worked out in the Bible. The ancient Hebrew mind was not given to philosophical or metaphysical abstractions; it thought in concrete images.
…There is no consistent teaching about the fate of the “wicked” or the unrepentant in either the Old or the New Testaments. Nor, considering the figurative language used to describe hell, is there justification for the traditional, popular view of a literal place of eternal, fiery punishment for the “damned.” The Jesus of history never taught such a doctrine, and it desecrates the name of the God he came to reveal to preach and teach that he did. This conclusion will not please those conservative Christians who hate to be disturbed by the facts, but it seems to me inescapable on the basis of evidence.
Responding to such claims of an “expert” is a daunting task. There is some solace in knowing that many highly educated and highly intelligent Christians came before us. But more to the point, and moving away from the “lake,” Harpur seems to be missing the forest for the trees.
Knowing with certainty whether Christian apocalyptic literature “borrowed heavily from” earlier sources would require a level of expertise that most people simply don’t have. But I don’t believe this should cause us real concern regarding the nature of hell. The point of framing an argument the way Harpur does, in my view, is to convince the reader that he should simply accept the “expert” view and realize that he was being mislead all these years. The question, of course, assumes that the early writers were manufacturing a faith system, and looking – intentionally or inadvertently – for ideas to help fill it out. But I have little reason to believe this to be true. People invent things for a reason, usually for personal profit, fame or glory, but the early Christians were persecuted and killed for what they taught. Consequently, it is reasonable to conclude that they said the things they said because they believed they were true, that they really did represent Jesus’ teachings.
To help see this point, consider for example an author who writes about the sinking of the Titanic. He might be accused of “borrowing heavily” from previous “tragedy literature” by detailing scenes of the ship’s lighting finally going out, or the band continuing to play on in the night. But why assume that he is borrowing anything, and not instead recounting the events as recalled by the survivors? The more reasonable conclusion – about an actual historic event being written about by a serious writer, as were the early Christain writers – is that they were relating what they knew to be true, or at least what someone reliable had taught them. Harpur tries to explain how the early Christian writers fabricated their doctrine, without first providing proof that this occurred.
In the next quote, Harpur says that the idea of a fiery hell occurs only once in Mark, once in Luke and not in John’s Gospel or letters. My answer would be, “so what?” How many times must it appear? What contradictory passages about hell surround it? Simply reading the Gospel accounts makes abundantly clear that hell is a place of torment, often referred to as “fiery,” a place where there will be much gnashing of teeth. There is a divide that cannot be bridged, as in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The message is consistently foreboding and ominous. For instance, Jesus says it is better to lose and eye or a limb than to be cast whole into hell.
Harpur complains about the use of the word “hell.” Translation of concepts like hell – for which humans have no direct experience – is necessarily difficult. The author believes that Gehenna is actually what Jesus referred to. How does this help make his case? Gehenna was the city garbage dump – located outside the city’s walls –in which refuse was perpetually burned. Am I to draw comfort from this imagery? Being cast into a burning garbage dump is supposed to gently remind me of a “haunting sense of loss?” And the idea that “sacrifices must be made by the disciples” – while not inconsistent with Jesus’ message – is certainly not the core of Jesus’ teaching. Instead, he taught that he came to be “the sacrifice” and that through faith and trust in Him, our path to the Father is reopened.
Harpur concludes that there is “absolutely no warrant here for the later, terrifying doctrines of the Church about hell.” Really? What was the rich man feeling? What would one feel being tossed into Gehenna? If Harpur is trying to say that there is no actual “lake of fire,” that may be so. But being separated from the presence of the perfect God would make such a lake seem mild by comparison.
Harpur claims there is no overall consistent paradigm or teaching as to the fate of the unrepentant. We must be reading different Bibles. While the imagery is varied, the import is always the same – it is a truly horrible place, a place of utter despair that we would be wise to avoid.
To sum up, much of what Harpur writes may be technically true, but he is deliberately missing the point. Imagine that you are taking a trip to a remote area and you read a brochure that tells you not to get injured or sick because the medical care is a throwback to the surgeon’s tent on a Civil War field of battle. I could say, parsing words, that the author may have meant that the medical care is good, but the doctors like to wear uniforms reminiscent of the Union Army and work in tents rather than buildings. But this would be missing the obvious point of the writer, and anyone with a basic understanding of English would get that. To insist otherwise would simply reveal one’s bias to refuse to believe what is right before your eyes.
For centuries, serious Christians have debated the nature of hell. Room for disagreement exists. But to suggest that Jesus never taught it to be a horrible place is simply to refuse to see what is plainly written in the text.
Posted by Al Serrato