8. Postmortem Hell

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In post #7 I explained that Jesus’ teaching about hell (Gehenna) was not about an afterlife destination but rather a present, this-world reality. Specifically, Jesus warned Israel that her current praxis would turn the whole city of Jerusalem into a burning pile of rubble where men, women, and children would weep and gnash their teeth. Does this mean that there is no hell beyond this life? Does this mean that there is no afterlife? Does this mean that there is no final judgment or ultimate justice? It is to these questions that I would like to turn in today’s post.
Full Salvation does not necessarily jettison the belief in a postmortem hell. It does, however, jettison an everlasting hell that is torturous beyond punitive purposes. Full Salvation emphasizes ultimate justice and thereby makes room for a kind of hell. One of the reasons that we have long held on to the concept of hell is because human beings have an innate orientation toward justice. Socrates argued that “if death were a release from everything, it would be a boon for the wicked, because by dying they would be released not only from the body but also from their own wickedness together with the soul,” (McLaren, 79). In the tradition of Socrates, humankind has long affirmed the necessity for ultimate justice, heaven/hell, reward/punishment.
However, Full Salvation contends that the Gospel of Jesus Christ reveals God’s justice, not humanity’s, and that justice is expressed in the salvation of all. The Gospel reveals God’s desire that all be saved and God’s willingness to die in place of humanity so that his may be accomplished. Thus, while a kind of postmortem hell may indeed exist for those who have refused God in this life, it is certainly not the traditional view of hell offered in Calvinism or Arminianism.
Hell as Purification
Full Salvation offers an alternative vision of postmortem hell as a kind of purification or penal education so that persons are made capable of entering the kingdom of God. Universalists find biblical grounds for arguing that God’s judgment is itself salvific (Isa. 48:9-11; Jer. 9:25; 30:11-17; 31:10-37; Ezek. 16; Hos. 6:1; 11:-13; Rom. 14:10-12). As K.F. Keil writes, “Judgments of the Old Testament must not be viewed as eternal punishments; they leave the possibility for future salvation.”
There is one particularly paradigmatic passage in the New Testament that deserves quoting here. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes:

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the fire. (1 Cor. 3: 10-15)

Paul makes clear that not building upon the foundation of Jesus is a grave mistake: those who do not do so will suffer loss. But Paul also makes room for salvation after this suffering. It is not eternal damnation for the sake of ‘justice’; it is God’s punitive cleansing for our benefit. Let the reader be sharp about what this means: it does not mean that hell is without pain, suffering and, in Paul’s words, “loss” (which, in the Greek, denotes injury and damage). Hell is indeed a terrible thought. It brings to mind the tragedy suffered by the servant in the vision of Julian of Norwhich. Building one’s life on gods other than Jesus Christ brings real suffering and loss.
However, this suffering – this “hell” – does not have the final word in much of the Bible. Judgment in the Old Testament, including God’s “eternal fire” is not the final word but rather a means to reconciliation with God (e.g. compare Jer. 17:4 to Jer. 31). Many of the Old Testament passages that speak of God’s wrath/judgment contain nothing of the “unending punishment” that is endorsed by traditional views today. In many places we have read the modern meaning of “eternal” back into the text. The Hebrew word, olam, which is often translated “forever” and “everlasting” did not carry the same meaning in the Hebrew worldview. The word possessed connotations of intensity, not time. It was used qualitatively, not quantitatively.In addition to the passage in 1 Corinthians 3, there are interesting wordplays in the book of Revelation that might indicate God’s punishment as a purification. Though these text-critical studies are beyond the scope of this post, I will note two here. In various visions (14:10, 19:20, 20:10, 21:8) John sees the wicked being thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone to be tormented. The word for “brimstone” in Greek is theion, which closely resembles the word for God, theos. Because of this the wordtheion often meant “divine fire” or “fire from heaven.” This wordplay between God and stone also occurs in the gospels as it applies to Jesus: the Hebrew for “stone” (eben) is applied to the “son” (ben) in the parable of the vineyard (Mark 12:10-11). In addition to these figurative meanings, the literal usage of theion was for burning a divine incense that had the power to purify and ward off disease (see lexicon image below).

The word translated for “torment” is basanidzo. As the lexicon image shows, this word’s primary meaning had to do with testing precious metals by use of a touchstone so that the metals could be purified. This does not rule out additional meanings, but it is interesting to consider what meaning it has in conjunction with theion. To give you an alternate reading allow me to paraphrase 14:10b as follows: “They will be tested and purified by a divine fire while in the presence of the Lamb.”

By no means do these two words provide conclusive evidence that the lake of fire and brimstone is God’s means for purifying sinners. It is nevertheless fascinating to explore. After all, God is referred to as a “consuming fire” on more than one occasion. Could Jesus be the divine fire or the touchstone that purifies? The author of Revelation describes him as having eyes like fire. And isn’t it interesting that the lake of fire and brimstone in 14:10 is in the presence of the Lamb? Perhaps it is not all that far-fetched to imagine that the unsaved will, in fact, be saved – “even though only as one escaping through fire,” (1 Cor. 3:15).

Many who espouse the traditional view find the Universalist version of postmortem hell dissatisfying (which is a bit scary if you think about it). Like Socrates, the traditionalists see ultimate universal salvation as an unfair gift to those who live their earthly lives in disobedience to God. In response to this argument we might consider McLaren’s words:

“What could be more serious than standing in front of your Creator – the Creator of the universe – and finding out that you had wasted your life, squandered your inheritance, caused others pain and sorrow, worked against the good plans and desires of God? What could be more serious than that? To have to face the real, eternal, unavoidable, absolute, naked truth about yourself, what you’ve done, what you’ve become?” (Last Word, 110)

Perhaps there is no greater punishment than an unavoidable encounter with the Truth.  And perhaps it is this very Truth that shall set us free.

At this point I want to insert a very important caveat to what has been said about hell as purification. There is a tendency among Christians to hold discussions about hell as if we were only talking about “them” and not “us.” I want to include myself in the category of those who will be judged and purified by God. Although I have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, I am not outside the judgment of the Lord. In fact, it is precisely the judgment of Jesus, the merciful one, that I am under. If this entails a kind of hell as purification, I know that I certainly need it in order to participate fully in the Trinitarian love of God.

Second Death?
The “second death” is another concept used to oppose universal salvation, particularly in the form of annihilationism. There really isn’t room enough to discuss it here, but I do want to offer an alternative interpretation simply for the sake of exploration. Remember, this series is not to “prove” Full Salvation, but to allow the reader to explore it.

In Rev. 20:14 John sees a vision in which “death and Hades [are] thrown in to the lake of fire,” as well as those “whose name was not found written in the book of life.” This “second death” has traditionally been understood as the final annihilation of the damned. However, a universalist interpretation argues that the text itself explains the nature of the second death. In 20:14 we read, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.” Then, in 21:8, we read again that the wicked will be thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone and “THIS is the second death.” What, then, is the second death? Being thrown into the lake of fire. What is the lake of fire? We already discussed this above, it is the divine fire of purification.

Why this “second death” is necessary is because not all have died with Christ (as in baptism, see Romans 6:6). Thus explains Andrew Jukes:

The “second death” (Rev. xx. 14.) therefore, so far from being, as some think, the hopeless shutting up of man for ever in the curse of disobedience, will, if I err not, be God’s way to free those who in no other way than by such a death can be delivered out of the dark world, whose life they live in. The saints have died with Christ, not only “to the elements of this world,” (Col. ii. 20.) but also “to sin,” (Rom. vi. 10.) that is, the dark spirit-world. By the first they are freed from the bondage of sense; by the second, from the bondage of sin, in all its forms of wrath, pride, envy, and selfishness.

The ungodly have not so died to sin. At the death of the body therefore, and still more when they are raised to judgment, because their spirit yet lives, they are still within the limits of that dark and fiery world, the life of which has been and is the life of their spirit. To get out of this world there is but one way, death; not the first, for that has passed, but the second death.

Furthermore, not only is the second death the fire of purification, the second death is the death ofdeath itself! As Paul writes in 1 Cor. 15:26, “The last enemy to be defeated is death.”

Do We Need Hell for Justice’s Sake?
As you may have guessed, not all agree with the view of hell as purification. In a rather simplistic analogy, N.T. Wright suggests that life is more than a “game of chess” in which we are free to play however we like and afterward God will put all the pieces back in order. Full Salvation, he argues, trivializes the consequences of choices in this life. But what is Wright really saying here? Is he saying that God’s universal forgiveness toward those who have wasted their earthly life trivializes the consequences of their choices or somehow minimizes “divine justice”? Once again I think we are witnessing traces of ‘original ungrace.’

First of all, human begins are not pieces on a chess board! Wright’s illustration fails to take seriously that human beings are living and becoming beings, not static pieces of marble. Secondly, the illustration fails to comprehend the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is never a return to a prior state, as if wiping a chalkboard clean or putting chess pieces back into place. Forgiveness is, in fact, a moving forward into a deeper understanding of relationship. That which has been forgivencontinues to have meaning in the context of relationship. This point merits an illustration.
I recently got into a fight with a good friend. I said things that I should not have said and I hurt her feelings. Our relationship was fractured. Fortunately, we were able to reconcile after I apologized and asked for forgiveness. Now, did my friend’s forgiveness trivialize the consequences of my actions? Absolutely not! The forgiveness that I received transformed my sinful behavior and gave it meaning for our relationship and it will continue to “live” in our relationship forever. It was precisely because of forgiveness that I could re-appropriate my sinful behavior into an understanding of how to exist in loving relationship. Is this not what Jesus taught Simon the Pharisee? Those who have a larger debt to be forgiven are all the more able to understand the nature of forgiveness.
Thirdly, Wright oversimplifies the idea of consequences. Unlike the simple, one-to-one chain of consequences in, say, chess, the consequences we suffer in real life are complicated. Although no one is innocent, we all suffer from undeserved and unforeseen consequences as well. This is why many today argue that all sin stems from woundedness. For example, a person who commits a crime in adulthood may be acting out of the wounds from a traumatic childhood event. Much Christian psychology has helped shed light on the woundedness behind the cyclical nature of sin.Along with the oversimplification of consequences, Wright’s argument assumes that those who disobey God in this life do not suffer consequences in the present. The Bible consistently teaches that those who disobey God suffer real consequences in the present; this is precisely what Jesus’ warnings were about (see post #7). It is difficult to see how those who do not follow Jesus do not reap here and now the consequences of their actions. Is Wright saying that these consequences are not enough? Perhaps.But then again, the Universalist version of hell as punitive “cleansing” seems to speak to this dilemma.

Summary
This topic is unbelievably complex and much more could be said. If you want to research more on this topic, I highly recommend David Powys’ book Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question. At this point, let us summarize what I have put forth in today’s post:

  1. Full Salvation does not necessarily jettison the concept of hell.
  2. Hell, according to Full Salvation, is a transitional phase for the lost to be purified for life in the Trinitarian Love of God
  3. There is biblical support for the idea that the unsaved shall be saved through fire.
  4. The second death is literally the death of death.
  5. Full Salvation does not trivialize consequences.

In conclusion, I’d like to offer two concise statements to recapitulate what has been put forth in this two-part post on hell.

Whatever you mean when you use the word “hell,” know this:

1. The God of the Bible detests hell. 

2. The God of the Bible will bring an end to hell.

Amen.

– jmw

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