The “creep” factor shoots pretty high when you start thinking or talking about hell. “Hell no!” seems to be the only appropriate response to the topic. Definitely disturbing. It surprised me to discover God is uncomfortable with the subject too. Scripture suggests that He hates hell and He hates that people are going there (see Ezek. 33:11). God’s dream is for all to experience eternal life. But the problem still exists: the Bible says there is a hell and people are going to go there forever. I still can’t get my mind around that.
The Bible is clear: there is a hell. And whatever it is like, it is a real and horrible place. That being said, there are varying opinions on whether or not the descriptions of hell given in Scripture are to be taken literally or symbolically. Saying a description is “symbolic” is not to say the place being described is not real.
If the images of hell are to be taken literally, then we should accept those images at face value. After all, we say we believe what the Bible teaches. We should not try to adopt a softer view simply because it violates our American sensibilities. We cannot allow sentimentality to dull or undermine the authority of Scripture. But there are some compelling reasons why many Evangelical scholars do not take the descriptions of fire and worms literally (including conservative scholars like F.F. Bruce, Billy Graham, C. S. Lewis, and J. I. Packer).
When examining the descriptions of eternity (heaven or hell), we find the imagery given to us in Scripture a little confusing. For example, the text says in eternity there is no need for the sun or moon to shine in the New Jerusalem, for the radiance of God will fill the city (Rev. 21:23-24). What does that mean? And when the city is actually described, it is unlike anything ever seen before (14,000 miles square!). Are the words to be taken literally, or is the message to be that our eternal home is beyond what we can imagine?
The literal view of hell has produced some pretty wild imaginations in the past. In the fourteenth-century Dante imagined a place of absolute terror where the damned writhe and scream. The descriptions of hell come complete with loud wails of sinners boiling in blood, terrified and naked people running from hordes of biting snakes, and lands of heavy darkness and dense fog. In Dante’s hell, people must endure thick, burning smoke that chars their nostrils, and some remain forever trapped in lead cloaks, a claustrophobic nightmare.
Descriptions like Dante’s have proven somewhat effective at jolting folks to repentance, but the Scriptures do not explicitly teach what he imagined. Certainly, the Bible teaches that hell will be a place of frightful judgment, but precisely what it will be like physically is really questionable.
Let’s talk about “fire” first. In an interview with journalist Lee Strobel, conservative evangelical scholar J.P. Moreland points out, “We know that the reference to flames is figurative because if you try to take it literally, it makes no sense. For example, hell is described as a place of utter darkness and yet there are flames, too. How can that be? Flames would light things up.”
But there is more. The flame imagery is most powerful when you think beyond literal fire. Fire has been symbolic of judgment all through the Scriptures. For example, we are told Christ is going to return surrounded by flames (Rev. 19:12). It is also says he will have a big sword coming out his mouth when he returns (Rev. 19:15). Nobody thinks Christ is performing a literal circus sword-swallowing trick here. The flames and sword stand for Christ coming in judgment. Fire is used in another verse to describe God as a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) Nobody thinks God is actually a gigantic, cosmic Bunsen burner. Again, the flame imagery is a way of talking about judgment.
We are not diminishing these texts by looking at them metaphorically—in fact, they come alive as we do! It is possible to interpret the fire of hell as a portrait that symbolizes the wrath and judgment of God, which means the words are not necessarily indicating a literal, fiery abyss, but a severe (though unspecified) judgment that awaits those who are God-ignorers.
What about the “worms” Jesus mentions that will eat people’s flesh in hell? Will they be in hell? In Jesus’ day there was a sewage area where the blood and fat of thousands of animals from the weekly sacrifices held in the temple would flow into. Worms constantly ingested that stuff where it pooled just outside the city gate. Jesus referred to that wormy place, calling it “hell.” But did he really mean that hell was going to be the sewage pit outside of Jerusalem’s gate, or did he mean that hell was going to be worse than that disgusting, odorous, abandoned place? Everyone present would have understood he was speaking metaphorically and not literally.
Then there’s the phrase “gnashing of teeth” (Luke 13:28). You can take it literally as the reaction to physical torment, or you can take it as an expression of rage. Ever see how a self-centered, self-absorbed, highly narcissistic two-year-olds grind their teeth and growl in anger when they doesn’t get their own way? Perhaps the “gnashing of teeth” symbolizes the anger that will be realized as hell-dwellers discover their deep, permanent loss of all that is good.
If there are no literal flames or worms or gnashing of teeth, does that mean hell isn’t such a bad place after all? Nothing could be further than the truth! Back to Moreland: “It would be a mistake to think that [hell isn’t that bad]. Any figure of speech has a literal point. What is figurative is the burning flame; what is literal is that this is a place of utter heartbreak. It is a loss of everything, and it’s meant to stand for the fact that hell is the worst possible situation that could ever happen to a person.”
GOD IS LOVE
This discussion seems important to me because many push back from faith because they cannot justify the idea of a loving God sending someone to an unimaginable torture chamber for all of eternity. But what if we are missing the point here? The Bible says 49 times that God is a rock—none of us think He is literally a “rock.” Thinking so would make us miss the point.
What if the point of hell is not torment? What if it is actually proof of God’s respect for the human race and a compliment to the reality of human freedom? Remember, God’s will—His great longing is that no one perish, not a single person. So, why does He allow anyone to do so? Because he created human beings with free will, and He has no intention of violating that. We are not modified monkeys, subject to instinct alone; we are unique creatures who have the power to cognate, reason, and choose. God will not force his purpose on us (though the purpose He set for the human race is one that causes us to flourish in a way nothing else can!). We can choose to reject God’s purpose for us (and to ignore or reject God). God created us with that right. Sadly, many choose to ignore and reject God. This is the worm that has curled its way into the apple of the human condition.
Here’s the deal: we humans either have free will or we don’t. If we do, then God cannot strip us of the right to choose, even if we choose something He did not want for us. That means it would be a violation of our free will for God to force us to be with Him for eternity if we don’t want to be. By allowing us to say no to Him, God is actually showing respect for us and keeping human dignity in tact.
To Moreland one last time: “Hell will forever be a monument to human dignity and the value of human choice. It is a quarantine where God says two important things: ‘I respect freedom of choice enough to where I won’t coerce people, and I value my image-bearers so much that I will not annihilate them.’”
The formation of hell is not an indication that God is mean, angry, or capricious, like a spoiled child who is hacked off about not getting his own way, so He’s decides to make the disobedient pay. It is evidence that God will never force Himself on the human race. It evidences that He honors human will by choosing to create a place where He is not.
There is a hell (whatever it will be like) precisely because God loves the human race.
New York Times bestselling author Ed Gungor has been in pastoral ministry for more than 25 years. You can follow Ed on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. Used by permission; copyright Ed Gungor, 2009.