What do you think of hell? Is it a place for sinners to endure pain/discomfort/sadness forever and ever? Is it a temporary purification process that eventually leads to Heaven? Is it nothing more than a scare tactic? Is it a big party? Is it just poppycock because there is no God anyway?
There is a very wide range of beliefs, regarding that word, and even more when adding to it the overall concept of what happens when we die. I grew up in a church and family environment that taught Hell as a literal place of some type of personal torture (not little devils poking people with sticks, but some kind of indescribable pain and anguish felt in complete darkness) that would last for eternity, just as those who are in Heaven will be there forever. A little while ago, a very close friend (who had been raised with the same ideas of Hell) read a book that cemented himself as a Universalist – an idea, basically, that everyone will end up in Heaven, and that they may (or may not, depending on the individual’s concept) eventually become “saved” like everyone else around them.
I, personally, have found no validity for a Universalist outlook, according to what the Bible says, but I recently discovered another concept that is almost a middle-ground of this newer idea and how I was raised… and I think it’s very interesting.
(still no fix for the “more” tag issue I’m having, but this is a long and wordy post, so I’m using it. If you’d like to read the whole thing on one page, please click for the full post)
As I’ve been studying the Bible, I often come across things for which I seek out a more thorough explanation. Whether it’s a word or a phrase, usually related to the inconsistency between the original language and my English translations, there are times when I will escape for days researching and seeking out my answers. It’s simply my curious nature, hard at work :). Throughout the Old and New Testaments, punishment for the enemies of God is described in terms of destruction. Whether it is by “death” or being “cut off”, among many other descriptors, the basic concept is one of a strong, final judgement by God. I suppose I’ve always thought about this, and at various times throughout my life I have looked into and contemplated how exactly death and the afterlife work, but earlier this week I had an idea that I was surprised I’d never even heard of before.
I was reading in Luke earlier this week, and Jesus mentioned punishment. The verse sparked a certain interest for me, and so I decided to research it. Before I even began to read, though, I had a thought. “What if hell is simply death?” That was the basic phrase that fell into my mind, something I’d never even considered before, but there it was. So, I followed that, and came across a very long argument for the idea that, for those who are unsaved from God’s final judgement, there is an end. It’s not a Universalist idea, at all, because the judgement is final, and God does enact a just punishment for those who rejected Him… but, they do similarly deal with the fact that it is very difficult for many people to see an everlasting torture as a fitting justice.
For days, I’ve been reading about this subject: Annihilationism. Of course, when researching something, it’s of no value to ignorantly read only one side of the argument, so I’ve also been reading work from those who feel that the Bible DOES support the idea of everlasting-torment for the unsaved. The first book I found on the subject of Annihilationism (link below) was actually a great read, because it wasn’t until the very end that it appealed to the emotional case of “it just doesn’t seem fair.” Whenever I’ve come across Universalist hypotheses, it seems that the main thrust is an emotional plea, and from there they find support for their case. Admittedly, a number of Annihilationist proponents have done the same, though from my own pursuit (and this first book), it was purely a theological analysis.. that was THEN followed up by pointing out the emotional and spiritual difficulties in accepting an idea of eternal torture. Fact before feeling, I suppose.
I found that as I was reading and studying, the focus shifted from salvation as a means of being saved from horrible pain, to a means of simply escaping death. It became more about the reward than evading punishment. Not that I didn’t think of it that way before, of course, but I suppose growing up with those certain ideas of Hell gave it more weight than, perhaps, it should have. Considering hell as something that is NOT eternal, though final, seems to even out the scales… where before, at times, the gravity of eternal pain and suffering somehow outweighed the value of eternal joy in Heaven.
I will firmly say that I believe Universalism is incorrect and even dangerous, because it teaches the idea of a second chance after death… one I do not believe is supported by the Bible. However, whether or not the punishment for the unsaved is finite or continues forever, I have not come to as firm a stance. This is a completely brand new concept to me, but it’s one that I am extremely interested in studying further… and I believe I may even lean towards it. From what I have studied from others, and with my own knowledge of the Bible and of God, it certainly seems logical and true that, at the time of the final judgement, those who have been saved by the grace of God will be granted eternal life in Heaven, while those who have rejected such grace will be punished (for a time, according to their sins) before they, basically, cease to exist.
The basic difference between the belief I was raised with, and this newer idea, revolves around the understanding of the word “eternal.” From my parents’ perspective, it is used in the Bible to describe something that continues on and on forever, whereas I have come to understand the Annihilationist viewpoint on it as meaning “permanent.” I have read many other ideas from both sides of this argument, but it seems that, ultimately, this is the central focal point. If God is described as eternal, it can mean both ongoing AND permanent, because in this sense, they are both fitting. When a punishment is described as death, however (and there are many other semantic cases, this is just one), it becomes difficult to say that both ideas are still fitting, because death is mostly accepted as a finite action. Like I said, though, while I definitely currently lean toward an Annihilationist viewpoint, I would not say I am as certain about it as something like my salvation or the fact that I’m working at the LEGO Store tonight.
There is plenty, PLENTY more to this subject, but I am not a scholar, so I simply wanted to share something that was new and exciting to me as a follower of God :). If you are a Christian, and this interests you, I hope this might inspire you to study more about it. Don’t just believe whatever you want and bend (and ignore) verses to fit your ideas, and don’t simply follow one source without ever challenging it. Beliefs should be challenged, run through the ringer, and put to the test in every way… or how can you strongly believe in it? Trust me, I know how unsettling it can be to really question something you’ve always “known”, but even God tells us to seek out answers… as well as seeking Him :).
To start off with, here are two well-written pieces I came across that argue points against one another, without straying (too far, at least) into other theological issues:
Annihilationism – Immortality Or Resurrection: Chapter 6
Anti-Annihilationist Argument – Annihilationism: An Unbiblical Doctrine
P.S. – As of this writing, the current image of “me” on my site is a giant LEGO minifigure… and seeing him smiling next to a picture of fire and the words “hell”, “death”, and “torture” just made me laugh :).