In previous articles we tried presenting a more spiritual picture of heaven, minus the harps, angel wings and fluffy clouds. This begs the question, could the reality of hell also be different than what many of us grew up with? The classic imagery of fire and brimstone appeals to our bodily senses but is that the reality or is it just a flesh oriented deterrent? There are many who will reject the non literal understanding of hell but for centuries now, the notion of hell being a physical place of fiery torment has been questioned. If heavenly bliss is a spiritual state of existence in sync with God, why could hell not be the exact opposite; a spiritual state of existence against God rather than a place of fire and brimstone? But if hell isn’t a place of fire, why does the Bible describe it that way?
The fiery torments we read of in the Bible may be flesh oriented deterrents intended to drive home the eternal, unchanging agony of living out of harmony with God. Hell is described in terms of agonizing torments of the flesh because that’s what gets the attention of fleshy creatures like ourselves. We of the flesh are woefully inept at perceiving the things of the spirit. We are fallen, fleshy brutes of a lower realm reaching upward to a God we know but cannot comprehend. Fortunately for us, God reaches downward too, most dramatically in the world changing advent of Jesus Christ but in other ways too. The Biblical descriptions of hell as a place of eternal flame are one of those other ways.
God speaks to us through the Bible and the Bible is filled with anthropomorphisms, descriptions of God which attribute fleshy, human like characteristics, behaviours and emotions to Him even though God is Spirit. Anthropomorphisms are actually demeaning to God’s spiritual nature but He inspired men to write the Bible with them anyway because fleshy minded men would better perceive God if He were described in human like terms they could relate to. Passages about the voice of God “walking” in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:8, or of God “chasing” the enemies of Israel and throwing stones at them from heaven in Joshua 10:10-11, are anthropomorphisms.
The Old Testament seems to be much heavier in anthropomorphisms than the New Testament however. This may be because by the time of the New Testament era, mankind was ready for Christ to lead us further away from fleshy perspectives into a more spiritual and truthful worship of God as mentioned in John 4:24 when he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. Despite being fewer and farther between however, anthropomorphisms still exist in the New Testament. Jesus Christ himself spoke in anthropomorphic terms in Luke 11:20 when he talked of using the “finger” of God to cast out devils.
There are other parts of the New Testament which speak to us in semi-anthropomorphic terms that appeal to the senses and things of the flesh but don’t apply directly to the personhood of God. Christ spoke of hell in the New Testament using the word Gehenna, or Valley of Hinnom, an actual place that everyone knew about which was located southwest of Jerusalem. Centuries earlier, this valley was used as a place of human sacrifice and some believe that by the time of Christ it was a garbage dump kept in a constant state of flames so as to incinerate refuse. For centuries now Christians have believed hell and Gehenna were synonymous as used by Christ but still, nobody thinks the condemned will spend eternity in an ancient garbage dump. Instead we are left with a fiery anthropomorphism called Gehenna by Christ, and correctly translated as hell in our Bibles. This type of understanding begs a question though. Are we watering down the horrors of hell by thinking of it less as a fiery, physical reality and more as a spiritual state of existence against God?
The torments of hell may well be more spiritual than hot, but that’s no reason to presume they are less horrible. We need to remember there is no repentance in the afterlife. When we die, it’s too late to improve our relationship with God. If we are in a state of opposition to our Creator at the time of bodily death, we will remain that way forever. Our last chance for peace with the God who created us will be forever lost. We will be self condemned to remain in an unchanging state of useless opposition to our unchanging God. And eternity is an immeasurably long, long time to be opposed to he which created us and rules over us forever.
The fiery descriptions of hell are good because make us sit up and take notice. They give us small minded, bodily creatures a painful, fleshy reference point which our reflexes instinctively shrink back from. It causes us to try staying in sync with our God and since the fiery descriptions of hell are God inspired in the first place, they cannot be bad. Neither are passages about God’s voice “walking” in the Garden of Eden or descriptions of hell as a garbage dump but still, we don’t accept them as being literally true.
We know that God’s relationship with mankind progresses from one level to the next through the ages. We are pushed this way by God. This is how we evolve socially. It is how we move; two steps forward and one step backwards it seems, closer to God over time. We’ve been led from legalism, law and harsh punishments in the Old Testament to forgiveness, charity and grace in the New Testament. With the willing, self sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we moved forward again, leaving behind all other sacrifices for sin and entering into an age of forgiveness from God, to be learned and practiced by all men in our dealings with each other.
Much of Christ’s mission on earth was about leading us away from old, fleshy, physical understandings of God to new and more spiritual perceptions. We are told by Christ that not committing murder is is no longer good enough but that mere anger puts us in danger of judgement. We are told that not committing physical adultery is no longer good enough but that even a lustful gaze is equal to adultery of the heart.
All of these things show us a steady path away from fleshy, physical understandings of God and the things of God. All of these things lead us to a more spiritual understanding of things. All of these things show us that our understanding of God and the things of God are a work in progress. We should not exclude our understanding of hell from this idea.