Many Christians have a twisted, sub-Christian view of hell, more pagan than biblical. Most people in the Greco-Roman world believed in hell. That was why the 1st-century CE Roman poet Virgil urged his readers to imagine there being no heaven or hell, just like John Lennon did in his song “Imagine.” By the Middle Ages, pagan pictures of afterlife bliss and torment had co-opted the biblical view.
This popular view grew out of Christian literalization of the Bible on hell. Conflating all the biblical statements on hell and taking them all as literally as possible, without regard for their context, yielded a volcano-like inferno, populated by evildoers and demons.
But is that what Jesus had in mind? Much of his teaching about hell comes in his parables. For example, he likens the judgment of false believers to weeds being thrown into a fire during harvest. Another parable likens the judgment of those who spurn his rule to a wedding crasher’s being thrown out of the reception, in the dark. Both parables speak of gnashing teeth, suggesting the anger, pain and remorse of those being judged.
Jesus says similar things beyond his parables too. He warns that the broad, smooth, well-traveled road leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). And he uses the word Gehenna—in Matthew 5:22, for example—to refer to the all-encompassing danger awaiting those who reject his rule. Translated “hell” in most Bibles, Gehenna was actually Jerusalem’s dump, where garbage burned endlessly. So, Jesus uses a familiar image to refer to the exclusion and irreversibility of hell’s destruction.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus warns that he’ll ultimately consign all who don’t live by his values—compassion for the weak and poor—to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” which he calls “eternal punishment” (vv. 41, 46). Revelation 21:8 picks up on this, warning that evildoers will be thrown into the “lake burning with fire and sulphur.” A literal reading of this yielded the medieval Christian view, quickly embellished by both pagan and Muslim imagery.
But what if the image isn’t meant to be taken literally? Looking at the picture of the heavenly city in Revelation 21:19-21, we see how culturally shaped it is. Being a bit of a minimalist, myself, I’m somewhat repulsed by the vision of a jewel-encrusted city with streets of gold. But all the villagers I knew while living in the Middle East loved it since it matched their elaborately carved, gold-painted furniture so well. That reminded me of the fact that Revelation’s vision of heaven was given to a Middle Easterner, in terms that would resonate with him and his audience.
Revelation’s image of hell—being cast into a fire—is far more universal than its image of heaven. But I believe we mistake the matter if we take either image literally.
Revelation overflows with imagery we’re not meant to take literally. And since the wonders God has prepared for those who love him far exceed their biblical descriptions (1 Cor. 2:9), why wouldn’t the same be true of hell? How could earthly descriptions adequately picture realities transcending anything we know in this life? Thus, far from diminishing it, not taking the image literally makes hell more frightening still.
But if hell isn’t a literal lake of fire, what it is? It is living forever apart from the God who is love and suffering the anguish of one’s irremediable choice. Theologically speaking, hell is an individual’s losing her ability to love or receive love. And nothing could be more serious than the eternity of progressive dehumanization pictured by Jesus’ images of endless decay and destruction, which is why he warned us so sternly about it.
Some ask why a loving God would want to consign anyone to such an eternity. Scripture declares emphatically that he doesn’t (2 Pet. 3:9).
Instead, hell results from the following facts:
- We were designed to live forever.
- We can’t be truly human apart from the God in whose image we’re made.
- Yet God doesn’t force himself on anyone.
- Rejecting God changes us, leaves less and less room for him or his love within.
The key point is that hell is separation from God (1 Thes. 1:8-9). God grants all who reject his love the freedom to do so. He could easily have kept Adam and Eve from rejecting him. But his respect for their freedom kept him from intervening, though he knew fully how costly their choice would be to both them and him, personally.
Not only does Christ want no one to perish—he died to redeem his creation and cares deeply about every last lost sheep too (Matt. 18:12-14).
Some people spend their lives avoiding God, effectively deem themselves better qualified to rule than Jesus and would hate to spend eternity under his rule. In that sense, no one will be sent to hell who doesn’t choose it over Christ’s kingdom. But many may be surprised to find themselves in hell. That’s because they believe their own claims to love God when they’re actually infatuated with themselves and their religiosity instead. As Jesus taught, one can be highly religious and yet live in full flight from God. And in the afterlife, those who have spent their lives avoiding God—whether irreligiously or religiously—will become like someone crashing down a mountainside, unable to stop themselves despite the terror of their wild descent.
To sum up, the Bible teaches that all our thoughts and actions lead to one of two eternal ends:
- Choosing to love God and live by his values, we are embraced by and filled with his incomparable love, becoming truly and gloriously human.
- Rejecting God and his values, whether explicitly or implicitly, we become increasingly alienated—from everything around and within us—which is to say, inhuman.
Essentially, hell is all about lovelessness and the dehumanization—including paralysis, aphasia and extreme frustration—that flows from it.
So says James Houston, Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College. Those who exclude God from their lives gradually lose the capacity to give and receive love—until they no longer experience it and wouldn’t even want to if they could. At that point, they’ve effectively arrived in hell, whether in this life or the next. That horror is the reality Jesus urges us to avoid at all costs.