Many Christians have a sub-Christian view of hell, more pagan than biblical. Most people in the Greco-Roman world believed in hell, which was why the 1st-century BCE Roman poet Virgil urged his readers to imagine there being no hell, just like John Lennon did 2 millennia later. By the Middle Ages, pagan pictures of the afterlife’s bliss and torment had co-opted the biblical view.
The popular view of an inferno populated by evildoers and demons grew out of a misinterpretation. People conflated the Bible’s statements on hell/judgment, taking them all as literally as possible, without regard for its context.
But is that really what Jesus meant? Much of his teaching about final judgment comes in his parables. They, for example, liken the judgment of
- false believers to weeds being thrown into a fire during harvest
- the one who spurns his rule to a wedding crasher’s being thrown out of the reception in the dark
Some parables speak of gnashing teeth, suggesting the anger, pain and remorse of the lost.
Jesus says similar things outside his parables too. For example, he warns that the broad road leads to destruction. And he uses Gehenna to refer to the danger awaiting those rejecting his rule. Translated “hell” in most Bibles, Gehenna was Jerusalem’s dump, where garbage burned endlessly. Jesus thus uses a familiar image to picture hell’s exclusion and irreversibility.
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.” 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, embellished by pagan and Muslim imagery.
The question is, Is the image to be taken literally? Looking at the heavenly city pictured in Revelation 21:19-21, we see how culturally shaped it is. Being something of a minimalist, I find the vision of a jewel-encrusted city with golden streets very unattractive. But all the villagers I knew while living in the Middle East loved it since it went so well with their elaborately carved, gold-painted furniture. That showed me 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 equally if we take the image literally.
Revelation overflows with imagery we shouldn’t take literally. And since the wonders God has prepared for those who love him far exceed their biblical descriptions, why wouldn’t the same be true of hell? How could earthly descriptions adequately picture realities transcending what we know in this life?
If hell isn’t a literal lake of fire, then what it is? It is living totally apart from the God who is love and suffering the eternal effects and the anguish of that choice. “Hell,” says James Houston, Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College, “is an individual’s losing her ability to love or receive love.” What could be worse than an eternity of lovelessness? That is the progressive dehumanization pictured by Jesus’ images of endless decay and destruction.
Thus, not taking the image literally makes hell not less frightening, but more.
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 Some go so far as to say that hell is inhabited by demons, evildoers and their “worms” since Mark 9:44-48 says the maggots or worms of those thrown into hell (Gehenna) are undying.
 Jesus’ parable of the wheat and weeds (Matt. 13:40-43) points to the seriousness of our choices, but doesn’t say that evildoers will be thrown into a fire. Jesus uses the image in Matthew 22:13 to make clear that some people will be permanently excluded from his kingdom celebration.
 Matt. 7:13.
 E.g., Matt. 5:22.
 Verses 41, 46.
 1 Cor. 2:9.
 2 Thes. 1:8-9.
 In a personal interview, August 18, 2019.