In the previous three posts we have been discussing hell from the Old Testament, the Second Temple Period and from the Gospels. In this final post I want to conclude with some thoughts on what the rest of the New Testament has to say about hell. As we saw in post 3, Jesus certainly taught that there will be a place of judgment for those who are sinners. That place is primarily referred to as Gehenna by Jesus, which was a valley known for death and agony. In the rest of the New Testament there is hardly any mention of hell. In the Pauline Epistles, hell is almost completely absent aside from a few allusions.
In James we have one mention of hell with reference to what will happen to those whose tongues run unbridled.
And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell (James 3:6).
As with Jesus’ use of the phrase in the gospels, James here uses the word Gehenna. It is not clear what he is envisioning when he says this, but it appears that James is using this term in a manner similar to the way Jesus used it. Namely as a phrase to denote a real punishment that will take place, in this case for those who use their tongues violently.
In 2 Peter 2:4 we have a parallel with the Second Temple story of the fallen angels in Tartarus.
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus] and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment;
As with 1 Enoch and Jubilees, the angels who fell have been thrown into Tartarus to await the judgement. Hell here is not the final place of judgement, but a temporary waiting area where angels will be held until the final judgement.
In Revelation, hell is simply referred to as the lake of fire. In Revelation 19 and 20 we are told that the false prophet, the beast and the devil will be thrown into the lake of fire. We are also told that “they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10). This passage is often used to argue for a literal hell where sinners will be tormented for eternity. In Revelation 20, however, both death and hell (Hades) are thrown into the lake of fire. This, we are told, is the second death. This is a peculiar passage, but it seems to me that death and everything that comes with it, including pain and suffering is totally being done away with, and the lake of fire is the end of all disorder in God’s creation. Finally, we are told that all whose names were not in the Lamb’s book of life were thrown into the lake of fire. It is not clear what happens to these folks, however, since the text does not explicitly state that they were tormented forever and ever, as it states with reference to the devil, beast and false prophet. It seems plausible that the aforementioned curse of eternal torment might extend to these others as well, but it also seems possible that something else happens to those who enter the lake of fire, namely, second death.
In conclusion, what appears to be the case here is that hell is a complex, multifaceted reality. Thus, the term hell does not adequately describe the nuances described in scripture and should be replaced where it is used in scripture with the appropriate terms: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus. Sheol, as we have seen was not a fiery place of torment, but was where all the dead rested. This idea was similar to the Greek idea of Hades, which was later adopted by some New Testament writers. The term Gehenna, used by Jesus, is certainly meant to be understood as a place to be feared and avoided. “Hell” for Jesus was the place where those who died in a state of sin would ultimately find themselves, but he is never clear what this really means. It seems that the term Gehenna is the most appropriate word to use for this eternal judgment, rather than hell. Given the variety of options for understanding this judgment, Gehenna should perhaps primarily be understood as the opposite of eternal life. As the opposite of eternal life, Gehenna would logically be the place of eternal death. Is Gehenna then possibly the second death spoken of in Revelation, where those who die in a state of sin go and exist no more? This appears very plausible. If this is indeed the case, Gehenna is still a place of torment, since ceasing to exist entirely would indeed be an eternal punishment.
While the image that Jesus is painting with talk about sinners being cast into the Valley of Hinnom does not demand a literal reading, a literal option remains viable for many reasons. First, it is always risky to attempt to read allegory or metaphor into Jesus’ words, yet it is often necessary. Second, the risk of underestimating hell is great. If hell is “simply” where souls are annihilated, that may not be enough of a deterrent for people to turn to Christ, and yet it seems just as likely if not more likely that this is what the New Testament writers had in mind (to this author at least). Third, going against the literal reading of these passages goes against much of Church tradition. This is a serious issue and one which must not be taken lightly, but it is more important to read scripture rightly and faithfully than it is to maintain the status quo of tradition. That said, I am far from certain about my current understanding of “hell.” I get the sense that this will be the case as long as we are on this side of eternity. Nevertheless, what does seem clear to me is that Jesus warned boldly against dying in an unforgiven state, because the result would be hell. Whatever that actually means…