Hell and why it matters

Acts 23:1-11New International Version (NIV)

23 Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” 2 At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”

4 Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”

5 Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”

6 Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)

9 There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.

11 The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”

A couple of years ago, a friend started talking with me at a party about hell. You know, because what do you do between hitting the piñata and eating Swedish meatballs at a party? You talk about hell.

This friend is a Christian and he often asks me questions about the church, but he had recently been surprised to hear someone talk about hell in a way that he was not familiar with. What this friend was describing to me is called “annihilationism,” –we will define some terms here shortly—and he was interested in learning more. I had actually done a bit of research on annihilationism and we were able to have a nice email dialogue about this subject.

The topic of hell was thrust into the Christian spotlight in 2011 when a pastor from a large church wrote a popular-style book which challenged what we might call the traditional view of hell. This pastor never said that he didn’t believe in hell or that everyone was going to go to heaven when they die or that all religions are essentially the same, just different paths up the same mountain. He didn’t say that at all. All he did was explore the possibility that hell might not be what we have traditionally thought it to be. And before his book was even released, he was being written off as a heretic by many prominent leaders in the church. Before they had even read the book, people were condemning this pastor, just for asking the questions he was asking.

I want to paraphrase something that pastor wrote in his book, because it represents what I believe as well, and I want to make sure you understand this before we begin this study. I believe in heaven on earth, and I believe in a heaven that is yet to come. I believe in hell on earth, and I believe in a hell that is yet to come. Heaven on earth is the kingdom of God in which we can participate right now, which Jesus said is within us, and I believe that the kingdom of God stretches out into an eternity with God at the renewal of all things.

But I also believe that there is hell both here on earth and hell that is to come. A friend of mine tells a story from when he was in seminary at Duke Divinity. A few students were sitting around a table, talking over lunch about the existence of hell, whether it was a real place or not. One of the divinity students said, “I believe in an actual hell. In fact, I’ve been there. I was born in a brothel and my mother was a prostitute.”

I personally believe in a hell on earth that is brought about by our own poor decisions and the poor decisions of others. I also believe in eternal separation from God, which is the worst punishment we can imagine.

We will spend the next few weeks looking at four or five different Christian concepts of hell. The word “Christian” is important, because every religion has their own understanding of hell, and we would be on this topic for a long time if we tried to address all of them. Equally important is that we will only spend time on the views of hell that find their support in scripture. I read a book once where a Christian talked about why there is no hell and how he based this on a dream that he had. I don’t mean to discredit dreams. As we saw last week with Peter’s vision, God can bring about major changes through dreams. But we will be focusing on the biblical images of hell and heaven. And as you will see, there are a lot of scriptures that say a lot of different things that can be interpreted in many different ways.

Finally, I want us all to enter into this sermon series with an open mind. I will be approaching these views of hell from an academic perspective, which is to say I am going to try to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each view and give them an honest assessment. If at the end of the month we aren’t all in agreement, I think that will still be okay. My hope is that you will at least listen to the materials that I am presenting and not simply write me off as a heretic like so many people did when the pastor wrote his book on hell in 2011.

You may be wondering, as I was asked this week, why are you doing this series anyway? The truth is that this subject matters. How we view hell and talk about hell matters.

In the church we often say things like We need to be influenced by the Bible and not simply go along with culture. I agree with that. We should not be shifting our viewpoints with every cultural change that comes about. And I would say that our view of hell in the church has been influenced more by cartoons, myths, and movies than by the Bible. Additionally, we also tend to project our own desires upon God and this informs our theology more than we would like to admit. This happens both ways, it is not just the conservative or the liberal churches.

Take for instance the early church theologian Tertullian. Tertullian died in the early to mid part of the 3rd century, a time when Christianity was outlawed and many Christians died as martyrs. Tertullian is the one who is given credit for writing that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Tertullian also wrote that one of the greatest joys a Christian will have is to one day watch their enemies tormented forever in hell from their place in heaven. Just as the Romans made a spectacle out of watching the gladiators killing Christians in the arena, so too would the Christians be able to watch the suffering of those who persecuted them for all eternity.

Really? For all of eternity? I get bored after watching the same show on tv for a few minutes. And where does this idea that those in heaven will be able to see into hell come from? And what does this even mean in light of Jesus’s command to love our enemies? Even though we fail to love our enemies perfectly here on earth, won’t this enemy love be perfected in heaven?

What was shaping Tertullian’s view of hell? I would say it was culture. He lived in a culture where Christians were persecuted and killed by the dozens, and he projected his desire for his enemies to suffer upon God.

I think you can begin to see why our views and how we talk about hell matters. I’ll say a little bit more about that at the end.

I’ve been talking about the “four or five” views of hell that I want to look at over the next few weeks, and I say four or five because they can kind of blend in with one another and it can be hard to differentiate one from another. I will try to group them together in our teachings so as to make it as easy as possible to understand, and I have created a “cheat sheet,” a set of notes that you can refer to if you have questions along the way. I also hope to reserve about five minutes each week for some question and answer time. I don’t promise that I will be able to answer your questions, but I do promise to try.

We will look at purgatory and eternal conscious punishment on the same day. Purgatory isn’t technically a doctrine about hell, but it is a place where some Christians, mostly within the Catholic tradition, believe that a person’s soul goes after they die because their soul needs to be purged of any remaining sins before going on to heaven. Eternal conscious punishment is what we might call the traditional view where those who are not saved or do not know Jesus as Lord during their earthly life are forever punished in the fire of hell without end. We will look at universalism, which is the belief that all people will be saved through Jesus. This is different from religious pluralism, which says that all religions are essentially the same and that they are different paths up the same mountain. Finally, we will consider conditionalism and annihilationism. These views believe that the human soul is not inherently immortal and that eternal life is a gift from God and is what the Bible calls salvation. Conditionalism, as I will define it, says that those who are not saved simply die and cease to exist. Annihilationism says that all human souls cross over into the afterlife, but those who are saved will have eternal life and those who are not will be punished for a period of time and then they will be annihilated.

Which one is the biblical perspective? You can make a case for all of them, and I will try to show you what is being said about these perspectives on hell. Sounds like fun, right? We’ll have a heck of a good time discussing these ideas, I’m sure!

So why did I choose this passage as our launch text for this sermon series? The first thing that you need to be aware of is that every week I give out my scripture reference and topic to song leader and ask them to find songs that fit the theme for the week. This week I felt that it was necessary to include a personal note of encouragement. I simply said, “Good luck, you’re going to need it!”

This text is an account of Paul coming before the Sanhedrin on the charges of heresy. The Sanhedrin was an interesting group made up of delegates from all of the Jewish territories. These delegates were in charge of making laws that were applied throughout all of the Jewish communities. So in this way, the Sanhedrin was kind of like Congress is here in the United States. The Sanhedrin was also in charge of interpreting the existing laws, kind of like the Supreme Court does today. Often these were religious laws, but also what we might call secular laws, as the first-century Jews really didn’t differentiate between the two. Because of the Roman rule over these Jewish territories, the Sanhedrin was limited in their power, but they were considered the authority on all Jewish law as long as it didn’t conflict with the Roman laws.

Because of the way that the delegates from the various territories were selected, the Sanhedrin was a somewhat diverse group, at least as diverse a group of Jewish men could be. Think again of the Senate or Supreme Court and how our legislative and judiciary system is made up of both Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals, and everything in between. But in the Sanhedrin, the diversity consisted of groups like the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Paul is standing before this august group and he does something rather brilliant in my opinion. As people are making accusations against him, Paul turns the Sanhedrin against itself and actually gains the support of a portion of the group in the process. Look at verse 6-7: “Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, ‘My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided.”

Why were they divided? Because the Sadducees didn’t believe in any kind of life after death. Sadducees believed that when you died, you were dead.

This seems preposterous to me! The members of the Sanhedrin were a part of a religion that traced their existence back 1,500 years or so. And you’re telling me that in all that time they never even came to an agreement on whether or not there is life after death?

Yep, that’s about right. The Jewish people and their Hebrew ancestors did not have a clear understanding of life after death, let alone a doctrine of heaven or hell. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees did not, that much is clear. This was in part because of how they used the Hebrew Bible and what texts they believed to be authoritative. The Sadducees only believed that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, what we often call the Torah, was from God. The Pharisees also affirmed the prophets and the wisdom literature, as well as some documents that we as Protestant Christians don’t use today. And in the Torah, there is very little to go on for teaching about life after death. In fact, in the entire Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, there is very little to go on.

Let’s learn a little Hebrew this morning. Perhaps you have at one time heard or read the word sheol. Older versions of the English Bible would translate sheol as hell. Some newer versions simply leave sheol untranslated and others, like the NIV, will translate sheol as “the grave.”

The Hebrew text is really not clear on just what sheol is. At times it is just a resting place under the earth. At other times, it seems like people are able to move around in sheol and the dead are reunited. A Jewish website that I visited called sheol a pit where the dead come together.

I don’t have a clear understanding of what sheol is in the Old Testament, and it seems like most Jews today or in the Old Testament knew either. It just isn’t clearly defined, and that is why the Sadducees and Pharisees were arguing about it.

We have an advantage as Christians in that we have the New Testament, where, as I’ve said before, Jesus says more about hell than any other character in the Bible. Jesus will help us to formulate a clearer understanding of hell, right? Yes, but…

Here is the challenge. Just as Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of heaven as both a reality here and now as well as yet to come, Jesus also speaks of hell as here and now and yet to come. At least that’s my opinion.

This will be important to understand as we start looking at the different views of hell next week. Jesus uses two different words in the New Testament that are translated as “hell” in our English Bibles. Those words are Hades and Gehenna. The New Testament speaks of Hades eleven times, and Gehenna is mentioned twelve times, with eleven of those uses coming from the lips of Jesus himself. Peter also uses one other word, Tartarus, which is translated as hell, but that is such a minute point that we will simply leave it at that.

Here is why things aren’t as clear as we might want them to be. The Greek New Testament uses Hades in a way that seems to be consistent with how Sheol is used in the Old Testament, only now there is an element of punishment and suffering included. Gehenna literally means “the Valley of Hinnom,” which was a location outside of the city of Jerusalem that was used as the city’s dump. And that dump was always on fire.

So when Jesus spoke of Gehenna, was he using it as a metaphor for what we traditionally have called hell or something else? I personally think that when the New Testament uses the word Hades, it is a reference to punishment after life and Gehenna is the suffering here on earth that we must experience because of our bad decisions and the bad decisions made by others. But as I’ve said before, it is okay if we have different opinions on this matter.

However, to say that it is okay to have different opinions on what happens after we die is not the same thing as saying what we believe about hell doesn’t matter. Those who are more evangelical will tell you that if you remove the doctrine of hell altogether or even make it a little less painful or make it to cause a little less suffering that it will make us Christians less likely to share the Gospel. I get this. Because if you think that your friends, family, and loved ones are going to suffer for all of eternity if they don’t accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, it will push you to share your faith with more urgency. So there are some Bible scholars and Christians who say that we need to portray an image of hell that is worse than we can even possibly imagine or put into words.

Yet I see a problem with this approach as well, particularly when it is coupled with a strong belief in predestination. If you believe that God predetermines who will go to heaven before they are even born, then you necessarily believe that God predetermines who will not go to heaven when they die. And if your only other options is eternal conscious punishment, then God predetermines before birth that some people, maybe even most people, will spend all of eternity suffering in hell. I’m not sure that I want to serve a god like that.

What we say and what we believe about hell matters. What we say and what we believe about heaven matters. I hope that we can all take this matter seriously over the next few weeks and come to a better understanding not only of life after death, but also of who our God is.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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