Is the language about Hell symbolic or literal?
The Bible describes hell as a place of outer darkness, a lake of fire, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place of eternal separation from the blessings of God, a prison, a place of torment where the worm doesn’t turn or die. The symbolism used is extremely graphic. If these images are indeed symbols, then we must conclude that the reality is worse than the symbol suggests. The function of symbols is to point beyond themselves to a higher or more intense state of actuality than the symbol itself can contain. That Jesus used the most awful symbols imaginable to describe hell is no comfort to those who see them simply as symbols. Many scholars view the language as symbolic but pointing to a horrid reality (Calvin, Luther, Carson, Packer, etc.).
What do you think about the current theological evolution of the doctrine of Hell in some circles?
The current revamping of the doctrine of Hell is brought upon mainly by modern sentiments. It’s definitely not motivated by a willingness to be faithful to what the text is actually saying. This is clear from a statement from Clark Pinnock. He said:
I was led to question the traditional belief in everlasting conscious torment because of moral revulsion and broader theological considerations, not first of all on scriptural grounds. It just does not make any sense to say that a God of love will torture people forever for sins done in the context of a finite life … It’s time for evangelicals to come out and say that the biblical and morally appropriate doctrine of hell is annihilation, not everlasting torment.
The issue isn’t whether or not someone doesn’t like a conversation to be had. The issue is on what Christian leaders say about what Scripture teaches and being faithful to what God has ordained as his revealed will. It seems to me that theology these days has been thought of like a buffet where people get to choose whatever they want. All the varieties and choices of “food” add to the experience. If the author intended one thing in its original context, a buffet style of doctrinal options should not exist.
Isn’t the Old Testament rather silent on the doctrine of Hell?
Hell is talked about rather often (quantitatively more in the NT for sure). The idea that the OT isn’t very clear on the place of Hell does not hinder me from affirming what the NT says. The Old Testament really does not explicitly teach the crucifixion, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, the gifts of the Spirit, ect. in numerous passages yet I affirm them because of the NT’s witness. There are more verses on Hell than other points of doctrine people affirm today. Furthermore, the OT’s perceived lacking doesn’t negate the reality of it in the NT. The idea that the NT brings light to the OT is sufficient. Revelation did not instantaneously occur at one time in salvation history but was developed and revealed progressively. I admit, the OT at times seems murky or unsure on the afterlife, resurrection, or final judgment. The eschatology doesn’t seem to be very systematized at certain points. But, standing over the canon and deciphering or interpreting what the whole thing teaches on an issue illumines the doctrine. The NT enlightens the old on this subject (this is seen in it’s fuller range of words and descriptions of Hell…Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus, fire, eternal, unquenchable, everlasting, ect.).
How many explicit references to Hell does Jesus actually make?
He makes twelve statements where the word Gehenna is used (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30, 10:28, 16:18, 18:18-19, 23:15, 23:33’ Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). I’m definitely going to object to the word “explicit.” The term Gehenna does not have to be in the passage for the idea to be present. When passages mention the unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17), it seems likely it’s referring to Hell. This is confirmed in Mark 9:43-48 ( It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’). The parallel in Matt. 18:8 shows that Jesus is referring to Hell when he describes it as the “eternal fire” (And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire (‘Hell’ in Mark‘s statements). The fire then is unquenchable and also eternal. Matthew 25:41, 46 describes it again as “eternal fire” and also as “eternal punishment.” Jesus is the one who uses terms like unquenchable fire, eternal fire, everlasting destruction, eternal punishment, ect. The OT may describe judgment in shallow terms, but the NT definitely comes along and gives a fuller reality and more-nuanced picture of what is coming for sinners without the grace of God. It seems that this reality was important to Jesus. J.C. Ryle’s advice is correct. He said:
If you would ever be a healthy Scriptural Christian, I entreat you to give hell a place in your theology. Establish it in your mind as a fixed principle, that God is a God of judgment, as well as of mercy; and that the same counsels which laid the foundation of the bliss of heaven, have also laid the foundation of the misery of hell.
Do Paul and other Apostles discuss Hell?
Romans 2:6-8 uses wrath and fury as an alternative for “eternal life” (seems similar to Jesus in the Gospels). 2 Thess. 1:9-10 uses the language of “eternal destruction” (seems similar to Jesus in the Gospels). Other passages use language of destruction (Phil 3:9; 1 Thess. 5:3; 2 Pet. 3:7). “Eternal judgment” is used in Hebrews 6:1-2 (seems similar to Jesus in the Gospels). The idea of eternality is used in Jude 12-13 (seems similar to Jesus). If one starts with Jesus in the Gospels and then works their way into the rest of the NT, they will find similar words and imagery used. The pictures are not hopeful for people outside of the grace of his presence.
Rev. 14:11; 19:3; 20:10, 15; 21:8 does seem to describe a horrible experience for people who fall under ultimate wrath. Such eternal separation is described in unlovely terms. I’d also like to point out that Rev. 20:15 makes it explicit who goes to the Lake of fire (anyone who’s name is not written in the book of life…I guess if everyone’s name is written in the book then this verse becomes redundant). Appealing to how symbolic Revelation is in efforts to deny the reality it seems to be describing is unfortunate. The imagery and terms used are similar to Jesus and others elsewhere in the canon as-well-as outside the canon.
What is the purpose of Hell?
If we make the words and imagery generic, we can conclude some interesting things. But if we take each instance where something is used specifically, we can see an overarching theme of disparity, punishment, and eternal waste laid upon people. Annihilationists ultimately cannot sustain their interpretation from the words of the text and how they’re used. Even describing Hell as merely separation from God does not do the text justice. “Preacher: You’ll never be near or with God. You’ll be away from him for all eternity. Person: And is that not what I want?” For a Universalist who views divine judgment as merely a present reality, I’m not sure how they would get around the eschatological statements of judgment in Scripture. What is the purpose for the doctrine of Hell? We do not base our doctrines or theology off of how many benefits we can receive from them. Hell testifies to justice and other characteristics of God. It is an abode where ultimate justice is executed for human actions. As John Piper has stated:
Sin is not small, because it is not against a small sovereign. The seriousness of an insult rises with the dignity of the one insulted. The Creator of the universe is infinitely worthy of respect and admiration and loyalty. Therefore, failure, to love him is not trivial- it is treason. It defames God and destroys human happiness.
It may seem unfair at first but I think Piper (following Edwards) is right. The punishment would fit the crime once we recognize the infinite worth and value of God. Since God is infinite, the ramifications of committing sin against that God is infinite.Sin is serious and has serious consequences for those who fail to seek shelter under the watershed of Christ. It isn’t about a mere stealing of a paper clip or running in the halls at school as a young chap. You failed to be who you were made to be. You broke the greatest commandment. You failed to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, body, and strength. More I’m sure could be said on the purposes of Hell from a biblical standpoint. I would say it’s not the only way people can talk of God’s judgment. Regardless, we should discuss the doctrine with tears. I resonate with missionary J. Hudson Taylor who said “Would that God would make hell so real to us that we cannot rest; heaven so real that we must have men there, Christ so real that our supreme motive and aim shall be to make the Man of Sorrows the Man of Joy by the conversion to him of many.”