“Has Hell Changed? Or Have We?” is the question that begins chapter two of Erasing Hell. Here, Chan discusses inaccurate ideas and images that many of us persist in believing. He begins with an embarrassing confession about the image that comes to his mind when he hears the name Jesus: a Caucasian man with long blonde hair, staring up into the sky, courtesy of a painting that hung on the wall of a church he attended as a child. Chan acknowledges,

“Jesus did not look that way when He walked the earth, and He certainly doesn’t look like that now. But as hard as I have tried, I have not been able to erase that picture from my memory. It occasionally creeps back into my mind when I hear the name Jesus. Sometimes it even happens when I’m praying!”

Chan’s point here is our tendency to choose a version of Jesus reinterpreted in the light of our own cultural, political, or theological opinions, rather than the Jesus presented by the Bible itself. Having made this point, he then applies it to the topic of Hell, noting:

“The question “what is hell?” has spawned many answers over the years. For Origen, hell was a place where the souls of the wicked were purified so they could find their way back to God. Dante depicted hell as a place under the earth’s surface with nine levels of suffering, where sinners were bitten by snakes, tormented by beasts, showered with icy rain, and trapped in rivers of blood or flaming tombs; some were even steeped in huge pools of human excrement. C.S. Lewis’s portrayal of hell was significantly less creepy. For Lewis, it was a kind of dark, gloomy city, or a place where “being fades away into nonentity.” A happier portrait of hell was painted by the band AC/DC, who said that “hell ain’t a bad place to be”–it’s where all our friends are. Most recently, Rob Bell said that hell is not “about someday, somewhere else,” but about the various “hells on earth” that people experience in this life — genocide, rape, and unjust socioeconomic structures.”

Chan’s plea is that we set aside notions of hell that are based on literature or music or popular culture, and that we examine what Jesus actually said about hell, in the context of the world Jesus actually lived in. To do so, insists Chan, is to acknowledge a world in which hell was seen as a place of punishment for those who did not follow God. So ingrained was this belief among 1st-century Jews, says Chan, that Jesus would have had to go out of His way to set Himself apart from such a view if he didn’t share it. Although he leaves the question of whether or not Jesus did that for the following chapter, Chan devotes most of the second chapter to examining the 1st-century Jewish view of hell, noting that for the Jews of Jesus’ day, three things were believed in regards to Hell:

  1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgment
  2. Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament
  3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment

Chan notes immediately that first-century Judaism built its theology from the Old Testament, which doesn’t have that much to say about hell. He does make mention of Daniel 12:2 as most relevant, with its reference to punishment in the afterlife: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Chan also refers to Ezekiel 32:17-32, another passage which mentions hell and punishment.

At this point, Chan wanders onto some possibly shaky ground, as he must depart from Scripture to examine Jewish belief in Hell — not the best place to wander when one is insisting on examining what the Bible says about Hell. He is careful to note that many 1st-century Jewish beliefs regarding Hell were developed after reading the Old Testament, but that these beliefs are not in themselves inspired by God. The purpose of explaining these beliefs, for Chan, is to demonstrate the beliefs that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament were surrounded by and would have been influence by.

HELL AS A PLACE OF PUNISHMENT AFTER JUDGEMENT

Here is Chan’s description of 1st-century Jewish belief in Hell as a place of punishment after judgement:

“The typical afterlife scenario among Jews in Jesus’ day was that after the wicked die, they go to a place called hades, sometimes called sheol. This is not the same thing as “hell.” Hades is not usually depicted as a place of punishment, though the wicked may suffer there. It is a place where the wicked wait until judgement day. After they are judged, the wicked are then thrown into hell as a punishment for their sins.”

Chan notes that the punishment was not intended as corrective or remedial. It won’t make the wicked fit for salvation. Rather, he states, “hell is retributive — it’s God’s punishment for sin.” Chan cites from first-century Apocryphal book, 4 Ezra, by way of demonstrating this:

“[The chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgement … recompense shall follow … unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. Then the pit of torment shall appear … and the furnace of Gehenna shall be disclosed.”

Chan also cites a second-century work, 1 Enoch, to demonstrate the Jewish belief that after sinners die they go to a place where they await judgement, as they have not been judged in their lifetimes.

“[T]he sinners are set apart when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed upon them in their lifetime, upon this great pain, until the great day of judgment–and to those who curse (there will be) plague and pain forever, and the retribution of their spirits.”

Chan notes how  at odds this is with the notion that Rob Bell asserts in Love Wins, that hell is the various “hells on earth” that people might face daily.

HELL IS DESCRIBED IN IMAGES OF FIRE, DARKNESS, AND LAMENT

The length of time in which 1st-century Jews believed one would spend in hell was the matter of differences of opinion, Chan says, with some believing that the personal existence of the wicked would cease as hell was a place of annihilation, while others believed that the wicked would continue to exist, albeit in eternal torment and pain. What was consistent, he elucidates, is the common description of hell using images of fire.

“[T]he coming world will be given to these [i.e. the one’s obedient to God], but the habitation of the many others will be in fire.“(2 Bar.,  44:15, first century AD)

“Woe unto you, sinners, because of the works of your hands! On account of the deeds of your wicked ones, in blazing flames worse than fire, it shall burn.” (1 Enoch 100:9, first century BC)

Chan aptly compares the language of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and the words of Jesus himself in their use of the images of fire and worms.

“And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people 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.” (Isaiah 66:24)

“where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” (Mark 9:48)

“Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance upon them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.” (Judith 16:17, first century BC).

HELL IS A PLACE OF ANNIHILATION OR NEVER-ENDING PUNISHMENT

Some 1st-century contemporaries of Jesus, Chan states, saw Hell as a place of annihilation, while others saw it as a place of never-ending punishment.

“And their dwelling place will be in darkness and the place of destruction; and they will not die but melt away until I remember the world and renew the earth. And they will die and not live, and their life will be taken away from the number of all men.” (L.A.B. 16:3, first century AD)

This clearly a view of Hell as being a place where — while there may be a period of suffering — the wicked are destroyed. Yet Chan also notes that other Jewish views on Hell posited a place where the wicked were punished eternally. He quotes Enoch’s description of

“a place of “all kinds of torture and torment” where “dark and merciless” beings would use “instruments of atrocities torturing without pity,”

as well as the wicked’s

“pleading that he may give them a little breathing spell from the angels of his punishment … begging for a little rest but find it not … Light has vanished from before us and darkness has become your habitation forever and ever; because we have formerly neither had faith nor glorified the name of the Lord of the Spirits.”

IS HELL A GARBAGE DUMP?

Chapter Two of Erasing Hell ends with an examination of the argument that when Jesus used the word hell (gehenna), he was in fact referring to a garbage dump situated in the Valley of Hinnom outside the city of Jerusalem, a place where the Jewish people discarded their trash. This is not a new argument, but it is one that has been thrown out (no pun intended) recently by Rob Bell. Chan does Bell the courtesy of acknowledging that “one of the most encouraging aspects of Rob Bell’s preaching and writing” is to “try to situate Jesus in His own context.” Unfortunately, according to Chan, as positive a step on Bell’s part this is, he is incorrect in identifying Hell as the city garbage dump. Chan asks the reader to consider how awkward some of Jesus’ statements are if by hell  he really meant garbage dump.

“Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the garbage dump of fire.” (Matt. 5:22)

“It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into the garbage dump.” (Matt. 5:29)

“Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in the garbage dump.” (Matt. 10:28)

“It is better for your to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the garbage dump of fire.” (Matt. 18:9)

Chan labels Bell’s theory as both misleading and inaccurate. Misleading, because “it confuses the source of an idea for the idea itself.” In other words, the image of the burning garbage dump may have been the inspiration for Jesus’ description of hell, but Jesus does not mean that the dump itself is Hell. Chan labels this as a misunderstanding of the way language functions, using the example of people referring to a gridlocked freeway as a parking lot. The parking lot inspires the comparison, he argues, yet no one would claim that people are driving to the freeway, stopping, locking their cars, and then going about their business.

Chan also argues the theory as being inaccurate because there is not sufficient evidence to indicate that the Valley of Hinnom was, in fact, a dump. No archeological evidence of the valley’s use as a garbage dump has been found, and the first mention of gehenna was made by a rabbi, David Kimhi, in 1200 AD — over a thousand years after Jesus!

“Gehenna is a repugnant place, into which filth and cadavers are thrown, and which fires perpetually burn in order to consume the filth and bones; on which account, by analogy, the judgment of the wicked is called “Gehenna.”

It’s not logical — as Francis Chan is quick to bring out — that Jesus is referring to this alleged dump, when “there’s no evidence in the piles and piles and piles of Jewish and Christian writings preceding the time of Kimhi that the word gehenna was derived from the burning garbage in the Hinnom Valley.” More importantly, Chan highlights that Kimhi himself, the first writer to connect gehenna with the town dump, saw it as an analogy for the place where the wicked would be judged.

Chan closes the chapter by identifying what it was about the Hinnom Valley that might have caused the word gehenna to be associated with fiery judgment:

“In the Old Testament, the Hinnom Valley was the place where some Israelites engaged in idolatrous worship of the Canaanite gods Molech and Baal. It was here, in fact, where they sacrificed their children to these gods (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6) making them “pass through the fire” (Ezek. 16:20-21 NASB). When Jeremiah began to preach, the Hinnom Valley started to take on a metaphorical reference for the place where the bodies of the wicked would be cast (Jer. 7:29-34; 19:6-9; 32:25): “Behold, the days are coming … when it will no more be called … the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter” (Jer. 7:32). Jews living between the Testaments picked up on this metaphor and ran with it. The word gehenna was widely used by Jews during the time of Jesus to refer to the fiery place of judgment for the wicked … “

Although he spends much of the chapter in extra-biblical sources, this is a very satisfying and Scriptural closure to Chan’s examination of Hell.

Advertisements