‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ Matthew 10:28
There was a tradition in Anglican churches that the season of Advent, a time when the church looks forward to Jesus returning on the last day to judge the living and the dead, was a time for thinking about the ‘four last things’: death, judgement, heaven and hell. As the years passed, and the various Christmas observances crept further and further forward into December, so the four last things disappeared from our thinking, to be replaced by nativity plays and carol services. This was an unfortunate development as it meant we lost sight of things important to our faith. How many people who come to church on a Sunday now give thought to heaven or hell? Yet without them, what is our faith about?
Heaven and hell did not feature in the early thought of the Old Testament; life was here and now and one received what one was due in this lifetime. There was a place of the dead, sheol. It appears in our Bibles as the ‘grave’ or the ‘pit’. It was a shadowy underworld where everyone went, however they had lived.
By the time we reach the end of the Old Testament, we see a belief that God will come as judge. The prophet Malachi in Chapter 3 Verse 1, warns, ’Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple’, and in Chapter 3 Verse 18 he points to the need for individual response, ‘And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not’.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find the King James Version translated two different words as ‘hell’. ‘Hades’ was a place similar to ‘sheol’, it was the grave, the place of the dead; ‘gehenna’ meant ‘hell’ as a place of eternal fire.
When we look at the Gospels, we see Jesus talking of hell as a place of fire to which those who turn against God destine themselves. Jesus is strict about the behaviour he expects: in Saint Matthew Chapter 5 Verse 22, we read, ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire’ . In Matthew Chapter 5 and Mark Chapter 9, we see Jesus warning people that they should have nothing in their lives that brings them danger of facing hell, ‘If your right eye causes you to sin’, he says in Matthew Chapter 5 Verse 29-30, ‘tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell’.
It is important to distinguish between ‘Gehenna’, the hell of fire and ’Hades, the place of the dead, for some passages of Scripture to make sense. In Acts Chapter 2 Verse 31, Peter declares to the crowd of listeners, ‘Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, “He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption’. Jesus did not go to Gehenna, the place of hellfire, he went to Hades, the place of the dead.
Hades, the place of the dead, is somewhere for which Jesus holds the keys and from which Jesus offers freedom, he declares in Revelation Chapter 1 Verse 18, ‘I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades’.
The book of Revelation tells us that at the end of all things, death and Hades will themselves be consigned to hell, in Revelation Chapter 20 Verse 14, we read, ‘Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire’.
Drawing on the book of Revelation, the traditional Christian understanding of hell has been of a place of eternal torment. In his novel, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, James Joyce describes a Redemptorist preacher describing Hell to a congregation of schoolboys:
‘And this terrible fire will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals. O, how terrible is the lot of those wretched beings! The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls’.
Perhaps we would not use such graphic language, but I think James Joyce captures the picture many people would have in their minds when they think about hell; it was certainly the picture of hell taught at the evangelical school which I attended.
For me, it was always a troubling picture. People who had spent their entire lives as rogues but underwent a death bed conversion, would enjoy eternal bliss, while those who lived good and decent lives but had never been religious would suffer eternal torment. It seemed odd and my school teacher would respond by pointing out Revelation Chapter 20 Verse 12, ’And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books’.
The question still remained of not wanting to see God as someone who might be eternally vindictive, did God really wish to see someone eternally suffering unimaginable torment?
Scholars like John Stott saw hell as a place where people ceased to exist, where they suffered ‘annihilation’; hell was the place where both body and soul are destroyed. Jesus says in Saint Matthew Chapter 10 Verse 28, ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell’. Hell is the place where both body and soul are extinguished, consciousness is ended, the person ceases to be.
Believing in hell in the 21st Century can seem very old fashioned, it was thought old fashioned by some in the 1940s when C.S. Lewis wrote his novel ‘The Great Divorce’. The title came not from the breakdown of any human marriage, but as a counterweight to William Blake’s 19th Century book, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. Lewis, a lecturer in English at Oxford, believed very firmly in the divorce of heaven and hell. It’s a story about belief and unbelief; about holding onto your faith when it’s not fashionable to do so. It’s one of those books that makes you ask, “Well, what is it that I do believe?”
In the story, a spirit from heaven meets a ghost from hell. The spirit is a young student who carried on believing the Christian faith, even when it was not fashionable. He is considered a narrow-minded stick in the mud, but he will not let go of his beliefs. The ghost is a very polite, very charming bishop who refused to accept traditional Christian beliefs. He lives in a town full of ghosts; it is dirty, grey and it is always night time. The people are bad-tempered and miserable and there is nothing to give them hope or encouragement.
The student and the bishop find themselves on a bus that shuttles between Heaven and Hell—the bishop had always refused to believe in such things and had mocked the student for such old fashioned faith.
“Why my dear boy you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!”
“But wasn’t I right?”
“Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure, I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological . . .”
“Excuse me. Where do you imagine you’ve been?”
“Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.”
“I didn’t mean that at all. Is it possible you don’t know where you’ve been?”
“’Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?”
“We call it Hell.”
“There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.”
We live in times of where people are like the bishop in the story, where they believe that they know all there is to be known; even the church gets caught in this process, becoming apologetic for talking about spiritual things. But if we become apologetic for our belief, what have we left to offer?
Without the absolutes; without a belief in heaven, and in hell; without the old faith; the Christian Church has nothing to offer. Reduce our faith to what is acceptable in a secular world, and what is there left that is worth preserving? C.S. Lewis would have urged that we be on the right side of the great divorce between heaven and hell.