Saturday, 16 November 2013

Episode One: Does God send people to Hell?

Show Notes

I believe the question of God sending people to Hell has caused more Christians to lose their faith than any other. I think it also makes those outside of Christianity think it's a pretty horrible religion with a pretty terrible God. After all, what kind of God creates creatures, then makes a place to punish them forever and ever? How is eternal punishment for temporal sins fair or just?

Good questions? Not really. I think they arise because most of us are pretty confused about what Hell is. From the perspective of ancient, Orthodox Christianity, it wouldn't even make sense to ask if God sends people to Hell. Why? I'll try to show you how that question is confused in at least three ways.

Our first problem is that the King James Bible translators, lovely and intelligent and wonderful as they were, took a bunch of different words in Hebrew and Greek and translated them all into the English word "Hell." So when the Bible wants to talk about the place where all the dead went before Christ's death, whether they were good or bad, in Hebrew it calls it Sheol and in Greek Hades or Tartarus; but in English, it's Hell. And when the Bible wants to talk about eternal punishment in eternal fire for the unrighteous, the King James Version still speaks of Hell in English. To paraphrase the Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Icon of the Descent into Hades. Public domain image from
Wikimedia Commons.
If you mean "Hell" in the sense of a place of temporal punishment, the prison to restrain the fallen angels, then no, God doesn't send people there. Just the opposite in fact--He’s the victorious king who descends into Hell to rescue and set free His people, as in this icon of the Descent into Hades.

And if you mean "Hell" in the sense of eternal punishment, then no, God doesn't send people there either. In that sense of the word, God is Hell. Perhaps that sounds shocking to most modern minds, but since the early Church, that's what Christians have taught. We know from the Scriptures that our God is a "consuming fire" (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29). Fire can burn you to a crisp, but it can also warm you and provide light. The ancient Christians taught that was what the life to come is like. In that Eternal Kingdom, God will become the "all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:28) and no one will be able to escape from His light. Those who love God will bask in His warmth eternally, and those who can't stand Him and can't stand light and truth and beauty will be tormented by His presence. The first will be in Paradise, and the others in Hell.

In this video, I'm not trying to prove that Christ descended into the place of the dead, or that God's presence is experienced as the eternal fire (those can be separate videos for another time), I'm shining a bit of light on the fact that the question of this episode--a question which troubles so many--is based on some false, mostly modern assumptions about God, the Bible, and Hell.

So does God send people to Hell? Not from the ancient Christian perspective. He Himself descended into Hades-Hell to save those who were trapped there. He Himself will be experienced as Gehenna-Hell for those who have twisted themselves up so much that His presence will torment them.

Well, that was Episode One. Feel free to agree or disagree in the comments below, or to suggest ideas for future episodes. Or even to tell me to go to Hell--as long as you know it won't be God who sends me there.

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