As we begin I want to read this evening a passage that does not have to do with hell, but, as we will see, helps illuminate the Bible’s language used to describe hell. This is Jeremiah’s lament in chapter 20. We’re reading verses 7-18, and I want you to listen carefully to the language that Jeremiah uses to describe his frustration, his pain, his sadness, his anger.
So far we have considered the existence of hell as a datum, a fact of biblical revelation, but, at the same time, a very controversial one, so uncongenial to modern tastes, so unwelcome to the mind, that it has produced both scorn and derision on the part of unbelievers and, perhaps partly for that reason, serious, sometimes fatal, doubts in the minds and hearts of professing Christians. It has also produced a serious effort in the modern evangelical world to interpret the Bible’s teaching about hell in a different way so as to remove the opprobrium of the world and the embarrassment and conflict in Christian minds. We spent last Lord’s Day evening arguing that this alternative interpretation – annihilationism or conditional immortality – attractive though it may be, true as we might wish it were, does not do justice to the biblical teaching about eternal punishment and, therefore, cannot serve as our solution to the problems posed by the existence of hell. Dante had it right. Those who enter hell must pass beneath the sign that reads: “All hope abandon you who enter here.” Annihilation would be hope for those being punished temporarily in hell, or for those simply coming to the end of their existence in this world, but there is no such hope of release taught in the Word of God.
But, we have said already several times that the description of hell we find in the Bible has more often produced a caricature of the biblical conception than a fair, serious, and intelligent representation. Even devout scholarship has often failed to do justice to the biblical teaching. Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which, as you may know, provoked a powerful work of the Spirit of God in the church in Enfield, Connecticut when it was preached there on July 8, 1741 in the midst of the Great Awakening, is not as lurid as many others, but it traded powerfully on the physical sufferings and torments of the damned.
I came across another example of this conception of hell in reading the new biography of George Whitefield by Thomas Kidd. A book that made a great impression on Whitefield was the French Reformed pastor Charles Drelincourt’s The Christian’s Defense against the Fears of Death, a popular devotional book that had been translated into English as early as the 1670s. Drelincourt invited his readers to imagine a damned person languishing in the exquisite miseries of hell, ‘devoured with worms, burning in hot flames, who is broken and tortured continually, in[to] whose wounds kindled brimstone is poured without intermission, with boiling lead and burning pitch… All this will give us but a light, and an imperfect image of hell torments.” [Kidd, 22]
Now, you may well say, “But isn’t that something like what the Bible itself says about hell, with its lake of fire, its torment forever and ever, its worm that does not die, its fire that doesn’t go out, and its wailing and gnashing of teeth?” And, of course, those are biblical descriptions of hell. But what do they mean? How are they to be understood?
We look back, as we should, with great gratitude to the doctors of the Christian church and to the great preachers of our faith, such a preacher as Jonathan Edwards. But, though we may not live the Christian faith as well as they did, and though preachers may not preach the gospel as powerfully or faithfully as they did, and though the terrible burden of the unsaved may not weigh upon our hearts as it did upon theirs, there is something we do better today than they did in their day. And that something is interpret the Bible. They were, almost to a man, affected by a literalism that we now know does not respect the literary character of Holy Scripture or the style of communication common to the culture in which it was composed. We have many examples of this, of course.
Ancient Christian scholarship and preaching struggled to imagine that the Song of Songs could really be about the erotic romance of a young Hebrew couple and their passage to marriage and, accordingly, for most of two-thousand years they foisted on the Song an interpretation sufficiently bizarre that, however credible it seemed to them at the time, it strikes us nowadays as more than faintly ridiculous. No one should ever have supposed that “My lover is to me like a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts” was actually a reference to Christ between the Old and New Testaments!
In the same way, the apocalyptic language of Daniel and Revelation was read through the centuries in an overly literal manner that created real misunderstanding of the Bible’s eschatology, of which newspaper exegesis – interpreting current events as having been predicted in Daniel or Ezekiel or Revelation, which Christians have been doing for more than a thousand years – and pre-tribulation dispensationalism were but two results. There is nothing quite like the apocalyptic idiom in modern English, except perhaps in some forms of science fiction and comic books. That way of writing and that way of describing the future was highly imaginative, highly imagistic or symbolic in style. It was well understood and appreciated by its original audience, but was hard for later readers to appreciate in the same way because it was so foreign to their tastes and literary customs. They read it, therefore, as if it were language more like what they were used to; as if it were a literal rather than a highly figurative picture language. I could give you still other examples of unwitting failures to read the Bible according to the conventions of its literary style.
My point is that for a very long time there was a widespread failure to read the biblical statements about hell – often apocalyptic in form and even more often highly figurative – in a way that did justice to their literary character. Thankfully, huge steps forward in understanding the literature of the ancient near east has brought a new sophistication in reading the Bible and especially in reading its emotive language, language meant to provoke an emotional response, the language we typically encounter in its descriptions of hell. Some of the Bible’s descriptions of eternal punishment are straightforward and bare: death, punishment, and destruction. But those terms, by themselves, are too general to aid us in forming an idea of hell. The other class of descriptions are highly figurative and emotive and, while they are certainly intended to provoke in us a fear of hell and a determination not to go there, they likewise do not tell us a great deal of what hell is actually like or in what its punishments consist.
Our theologians have always understood this to some degree. In the 17th century Francis Turretin, sometimes referred to as the Aquinas of Reformed theology, admitted that no one could tell from the language of the Bible precisely what the punishments of hell consist in. The biblical language fires the imagination, but it does not provide us with a tourist guide of Gehenna. Before you take me to be saying that hell isn’t a terrible place after all – which would obviously miss the point of the Bible’s language altogether –, let me remind you that the same is true of heaven. We are given apocalyptic and highly figurative descriptions of heaven which are obviously intended to make us want to be there; but what life in heaven is actually going to be like, what we are going to do with our time, how we are going to relate to God and others forever, such questions we simply cannot answer from the information we are given. Hence the caricatures of heaven that we encounter so often: sitting on clouds playing harps and so on. A misunderstanding of this language is why it was far too easy for Somerset Maugham to opine that heaven was “apt to be dull.” He, like so many others, read the imagery as if it were meant to be taken literally.
We have now learned that the apocalyptic imagery used to describe heaven cannot be understood as a literal description. Consider, for example, the description of the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation 21, first there referred to as the bride of Christ but then described as a perfect cube made of gold that was clear as crystal. No one can even visualize the picture we are given there. It is like Ezekiel’s vision of the wheels within the wheels. The language is meant to overwhelm and impress, not to furnish the equivalent of a photograph. I thought we believers were the bride of Christ, not a perfect cube of see-through gold! See my point?
There are a number of examples of the employment of a literary style that modern readers struggle to appreciate. The so-called imprecatory psalms are a case in point. How can a godly man pray that God would break the teeth of his enemies in their mouth? How could any Christian pray that the infant children of his enemies be dashed against the rocks? That language strikes us as grotesque and bloodthirsty, describing desires that are incompatible with Christian love. But we are not hearing those passages as they did who first heard them and, indeed, as those who sung them as hymns. In fact language like that is commonplace in the Bible. We find in the Word of God frequently such expressions of powerful emotion couched in such absolutist and figurative ways.
And so we return to the text that we read at the beginning. Here is another example that reminds us that such language wasn’t reserved only for a person’s enemies. In that way it helps us understand the difference that an appreciation of the character and qualities of ancient near eastern literature can make to the understanding of some of these highly emotive utterances that we find in the Bible. Remember, these are very like the sort of utterances we find in the Bible’s description of hell, utterances that have so troubled the minds of Christians.
As we began this evening we read Jeremiah’s complaint to the Lord in chapter 20. The prophet was brooding over the fact that he was stuck with a message no one wanted to hear, that he had become the butt of everyone’s jokes, that he was ridiculed and mocked on a regular basis for doing just what the Lord had told him to do. We can certainly understand why he was frustrated and angry and depressed. But he expressed his sorrow and frustration in a way that would never have occurred to you or to me.
“Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, “A child is born to you – a son!” May that man be like the towns the Lord overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing in the morning, a battle cry at noon. For he did not kill me in the womb, with my mother as my grave…” [20:14-17]
Murdering a baby! Good grief. That’s a bit over the top! He wants the poor guy who happened to bring his father the news that he was now the proud parent of a baby boy, he wants that man to be ruined, his happiness destroyed, his life blighted. Really? Well, no; not really. His language was a typical Semitism, common enough in the languages of the ancient near east; still today quite common in the languages of the Middle East! Exaggerated expressions of emotion are commonplace. And not always pain and sorrow; sometimes triumph and joy. Take, for example, David’s account of what he did to his enemies, the sort of statement we read in the psalms all the time.
“I beat them as fine as the dust of the earth; I pounded and trampled them like mud in the streets.” [2 Sam. 22:43]
That is hardly to be taken literally, however impressive an account of total victory it may be, which was, of course, the point of the language. Hyperbole is Hebrew’s stock and trade. It is a vivid picture language, but, even more than that it is a language of absolutes, of the blackest black and the whitest white, never of gray. When Dave Barry wanted to describe how small the population of South Dakota was, he didn’t say that it was very small; he didn’t give a number; he didn’t say what percentage of Florida’s population it was – Dave Barry lives in Florida –; he said that the population of the state is so small that just by driving into South Dakota you automatically become a member of the legislature! We laugh at that, because we get the hyperbole and we use hyperbole all the time to make a point more emphatically. So we recognize it for what it is. We say to our children, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Or we say that we’re so hungry we could eat a horse. Well, Hebrew uses hyperbole all the time and the Bible is chock full of it and for the same reason: it is an effective way to make a point. But we don’t take such expressions literally. We know what they mean; we get the point without confusion. Well, so it is with the Bible’s language concerning hell, language that is very like the language of the imprecatory psalms or the expressions of woe that we find in Jeremiah: highly emotive, highly imagistic, certainly not literal.
Consider the last few verses of Isaiah, a magnificent description of the triumph of the kingdom of God. This is an important example because it includes language that left a definite mark on the Bible’s description of eternal punishment as we find it in the New Testament.
“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me declares the Lord. And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
Now, no one supposes that the prophet literally expected every human being in the world to travel every week to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh. Such language was a figurative way to describe a world in complete submission to the Lord. But, then, in the same way no one should take the description of staring at the dead bodies whose worms shall not die as a literal description of the end of the wicked. It is rather a highly emotive and symbolic way to describe the triumph of God’s kingdom against its enemies. It paints a picture, it does not give us a military after-action report. [Cf. Caird, Language and Imagery of the Bible, 116] So much of our sense of the violence, if not cruelty of divine judgment stems from a failure to respect the figurative character of the Hebrew imagery, which we find in the New Testament as well, so much of it written as it was by Jews thoroughly steeped in the expressiveness of the Semitic world.
Wiser biblical scholars and theologians understood this to some degree in ages past, but increasingly in our own time biblical and theological scholarship has begun to appreciate that the Bible’s descriptions of hell, likewise, must not be read in a woodenly literal way. One modern scholar writes:
“Many of the opponents of the doctrine [of hell] in the present day are really tilting against windmills. They often fight a form of the doctrine which few [biblically minded] Christians hold [I’m not sure that last statement is true, but it would be true if he said that ‘few biblically minded Christians ought to hold.’]… Much of their distaste for this truth stems from the fact that the word ‘hell’ brings to their minds physical bodies writhing in literal flames, but this is not [our position]. As [Charles] Hodge says, ‘There seems no more reason for supposing that the fire spoken of in the Scripture is to be literal fire, than that the worm that never dies is literally a worm. The devil and his angels who are to suffer the vengeance of eternal fire…have no material bodies to be acted upon by elemental fire.’” [H. Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, 129]
And, of course, that is right. The images, figurative that they are, if taken literally contradict one another and so cancel one another out. Spiritual beings without bodies are described as suffering physical torments – the man in hell in the Lord’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus, remember, wanted a drink of cool water to cool his parched tongue, but, of course, the man had died and his tongue lay cold in the grave. In similar ways “outer darkness” is not compatible with the “fire that goes not out” and “the worm that does not die” is incompatible with unquenchable fire.” Such language is the florid picture language characteristic of both the Semitic mind and the Hebrew Bible. Klaas Schilder, whose valuable book on hell I mentioned last Lord’s Day evening, puts this point even more strongly.
“Do we still have to tell you that no man who has any reverence for the Scripture understands this literally? Did you think that we Reformed folk did not know that all this gruesomeness, is to be understood not simply symbolically but essentially symbolically?” [Cited in Buis, 130]
So what do we learn from the biblical descriptions of hell? Well we learn that it is punishment. We learn that it lasts forever. We learn that it is to be avoided at all costs. But as to the nature of existence in hell, there is almost no specific information provided in the Bible. The fact is we do not know, no one knows precisely what hell will be like or in what its punishments will consist. What is more, the Bible is explicit in teaching us that some will be punished more severely than others; some will be beaten with many stripes, some with few. What is hell, pray tell, for the man or woman who is to be beaten with few stripes? And how many may there be at last who are beaten with few stripes? If it will be worse for the citizens of Capernaum in the judgment than for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps those punished to a lesser degree will prove to be the great majority of men. Who can say?
Dante, as you know if you have read The Divine Comedy and, in particular, the Inferno, made a great deal of two features of the biblical description of divine justice. First, it is strict justice. That is, each person in hell will get what he or she deserves, nothing less but, as well, nothing more. Hence through circles of hell down which Dante descends, the punishments increase the lower he goes. In the first circle
“No plaint was heard except of sighs, that made the eternal air
Tremble, not caused by tortures, but from grief
Felt by those multitudes, many and vast,
Of men, women, and infants.” [Canto IV]
He has vast multitudes in the first circle of hell, where there are no tortures, only sadness. Second, the punishment fits the crime. The various circles apportion punishments that not only increase in intensity but differ in nature. So, famously, those whose sin it was to presume to predict the future are compelled to walk backward forever. In only the second circle of hell are found the carnal sinners, guilty of sexual sins, who are condemned to be tossed to and fro ceaselessly in the dark by powerful winds. You get the idea. They sought the pleasures of lust, of bodily appetites, and now are subject to forces beyond their control. They sought what had to be done in the dark, and so they remain in darkness. So, in the seventh circle the violent, are punished by being forced to remain in a river of blood, and so on. Once again, evocative and suggestive as Dante’s description of hell is, it too is only a brilliant poetic reflection on the image-laden biblical description of hell. It is speculation, as, of course, the great poet himself realized.
To be sure, it may be that the images the Bible uses to describe hell do communicate something more specific; that is, there is a literal meaning beneath and behind the symbol. They have long been thought to say more than simply that hell is a terrible place and to be avoided at all costs. The worm has been thought to represent the nagging self-reproach with which the damned will live. In other words, the person in hell is his own tormentor. [Strong, Systematic Theology, 1041] That interpretation goes back at least as far as Ambrose in the 4th century. [Blocher, “Everlasting Punishment and the Problem of Evil,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, 305] Or the gnashing of teeth symbolizes the fruitless dwelling on wasted opportunities that consumes the mind in hell. “Why was I so thoughtless and cruel; why was my heart so hard to God; why did I refuse so many times the opportunity to go to church, to hear the gospel; why was I so careless of eternity?” and so on, forever. But still we are speculating.
Indeed it is worth pointing out that in Christian theology there is no universal agreement even as to whether those in hell continue to sin. For many, perhaps for most, it is easier to believe that the punishments of hell continue because the rebellion continues. W.G.T. Shedd, the 19th century American Presbyterian, imagined that the “wicked will intensifies itself perpetually.” “Sin,” he went on to say, “ultimately assumes a fiendish form and degree. It is pure wickedness without regret or sorrow, and with a delight in evil for evil’s sake.” Remember C.S. Lewis’ famous remark to the effect that the doors of hell are locked from the inside! Or think of his description of hell the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self, or as people being left to their own envy, prurience, resentment, loneliness, and self-conceit. [Letters to Arthur Greeves, 508] People in hell hate God and so not want to go to heaven, or so it has been thought by many. They remain defiant forever.
For other Christian thinkers, however, it is not so. For them, Christ’s victory over sin is so complete that even in hell sin has ceased. Augustine, speaking of the final division between the two populations, the saved and the lost, writes: “The former shall have no longer any desire to sin, the latter any ability to sin.” [Enchiridion, CV] Indeed, in one place Augustine actually uses the word “repentance” for the lost. He speaks of the soul in hell tormented by a sterile (or fruitless) repentance. [City of God, XXI, ix (2)] Unfortunately he doesn’t tell us precisely what he means by that phrase. In other words, in Augustine’s view, the damned will not continue to rage at God or tear at one another, but be compelled to acknowledge the truth about themselves and about the others who are where they are and the justice of the punishment they are receiving. As Calvin puts it, “the memory of their iniquity does not perish.” [Inst. III, xxv, 5], (though it isn’t clear whether Calvin likewise believes that the damned will not sin in hell.) But if they do not sin, their punishment might be that described in the lines of the English poet, Edward Young:
For what, my small philosopher is hell?
‘tis nothing but full knowledge of the truth… [Cited in Blocher, 307]
We cannot even imagine the experience of absolute moral and existential fixity, the feeling of remorse eternalized. [Blocher, 309] For us, in this life, indeed for anyone, no matter how far we fall, how disgusted with ourselves we may become, there remains always the possibility and the hope of change, of improvement, of better things. It is what keeps us from suicide. What is it like to have lost all such hope; to know oneself forever as the one who has found himself in hell through his own fault? The fact that great theological minds have long disagreed about whether those in hell continue to sin remaining unrepentant, raging against God, or whether they too no longer sin, is some indication of how little evidence the Bible provides us with to answer such questions. How profound is our ignorance of hell!
But take the main point: the lake of fire is not a literal description of hell. I could not preach Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God today. I don’t think it is helpful and I don’t even think it is proper to depict the suffering of those in hell to a congregation of people in the literal and physical way that Edwards did (and, to be fair a great many others with him), to allow them to imagine the punishments of hell as if they were such physical torments, without explaining the nature of the Bible’s language about hell, the picture language and the hyperbole together.
One demonstration of the fact that it is not enough simply to repeat the biblical language without explanation – language that did not mean the same thing for its original hearers as it likely means for a congregation of 21st century westerners – is that this sort of language – the undying worm, the lake of fire, the wailing and gnashing of teeth – does not clearly communicate the feature that is emphatically part of the Bible’s doctrine of eternal punishment, viz. that the judgments of hell differ according to the severity of a person’s sins. Figurative descriptions of the punishments of hell do not provide for distinctions to be made in the judgment of the wicked – everyone goes into the same lake of fire, everyone wails and gnashes his teeth – but the Bible very clearly and repeatedly teaches that there will be significant differences in the severity of God’s judgment of individual wicked men and women. Think of such texts as these:
- In Romans 2: “He will render to each one according to his works…”
- In Galatians 6: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever one sows, that he will also reap.”
- In Psalm 62: “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.”
- In Jeremiah 32: “…O great and mighty God, whose name is the Lord of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the children of man, rewarding each one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds.”
And on top of those and a great many others like them, lest we miss the point, there are the Lord’s statements about some being beaten with many stripes and some with a few, or it going easier for Sodom and Gomorrah than for more religiously informed people in the Day of Judgment. For myself I think those statements some of the most significant in the entire Bible for constructing a view of the judgment of the unbelieving in the world to come. There will be those in hell beaten with few blows! “Not every lost person will undergo the sufferings of a Judas.” [A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 273] Do you realize how fundamentally it alters the caricature of hell entertained by so many simply to recognize that there is such a thing as a light beating [so the ESV] in hell.
Take two unbelievers, Adolph Hitler and some generally kindly sort of fellow, loved by his family, someone who gives to charities, perhaps once or twice helped serve a Thanksgiving meal at the local rescue mission. Not believers in Jesus either one of them, both of them proud, neither of them even interested in what ought to animate and motivate the human soul, but not the same either. There will be, apparently, an immense difference between their punishments. Still punishment, but not the same punishment. Terrible crimes against God and man will receive a much heavier sentence than the moral failures of unbelievers that are more petty and run-of-the-mill, if we can speak in such a way. Gossip is a real sin and does real harm and is often a particularly ugly expression of pride and contempt for others, but it is not mass murder. But take my point: the lake of fire as an image of hell does not convey this precision, even though it too is part of the Bible’s picture of hell. We’ve already made the point several times when the Bible speaks of the Last Judgment it speaks repeatedly of its exact justice, by which is meant that everyone will get precisely what he or she deserves, nothing more and nothing less! That is not what the ordinary person, even the ordinary Christian typically thinks of when he or she thinks of hell. But that fact alone should utterly transform our understanding of eternal punishment.
We conclude then that the language of the Bible, understood properly, paints a highly symbolic picture of hell, intended, of course to make us recoil from the prospect, but tells us very little specific about hell or its punishments. It is more like modern art than the representative classical art that most of us enjoy to look at. We are reminded that it will be strict justice, careful distinctions will be made between sinners, and the punishment will fit the crime. Beyond that we know next to nothing.
However, that is not to say that we know nothing! There are some other things we do know that are immensely important for us to remember.
- The Lord Jesus, who spoke frequently and frankly about hell (more than any other person in the Bible), also mourned the unbelief he encountered. The Lord never took delight in the fact that men by their unbelief and disobedience and rebellion are storing up judgment for themselves. Justice must be done, but we never find the Lord relishing that fact. Indeed, in Isaiah the judgment of God is described as his strange and alien work (28:21)! The idea that hell is some sort of divine sadism is utterly blasphemous and contrary to everything we know about God and Christ. The punishing God is the mourning God, which surely is some assurance that hell will be nothing more than is absolutely required by perfect justice.
- Further, we are taught repeatedly in the Bible and then shown magnificently in the life and death of the Lord Jesus that God is love. He desires the salvation of all; his heart is grieved by the sinfulness of his creatures. We do not believe that God is partly love and partly justice – as if he could express his love, forgetting his justice or could express his justice forgetting his love – we believe that he is entirely love and entirely justice all at once and always. This God, the God whose nature and character is most profoundly revealed at the cross – where infinite love and infinite justice conspire to save the world – is the one who punishes wickedness and rebellion. Not some heartless potentate, but the God of love and goodness. Any Christian must realize then that the judgment of the wicked – of which we understand so little – is in the hands of the one person who can and will execute that judgment with perfect wisdom, moderation, and even tenderness of feeling.
I do not mean, of course, to minimize in any way the force of the imagery of the lake of fire, or the worm that does not die, or wailing and gnashing of teeth. Those figures, figurative as they are, hyperbole as they are, were nevertheless meant to tell us something about the judgments of the Lord on the unbelieving. The Lord is describing a life situation, an existence that any reasonable person would avoid at every possible cost. When people glibly speak of meeting one another in hell or when they speak of hell being a more interesting place than heaven, all they are doing is advertising the fact that they know nothing about what hell will be like. The Lord Jesus – and we can detect the bell-like tone of the truth in everything he says about this – obviously did not wish hell on anyone!
What I want you to understand from all of this is that when someone says, “I can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell,” he or she is almost invariably talking without knowledge: without knowledge of the Bible’s teaching about hell, such as it is, and without knowledge of the character of God himself. It is one thing to doubt a biblical teaching which you know only in the form of a caricature. It is another thing altogether to reject the actual teaching of the Bible. Much of our sense of the injustice of hell disappears if we interpret the biblical descriptions of it intelligently and in their literary context. We’ll have more to say about that next time, as we consider what must be lost if hell is lost.