The Four Last Things of Advent

Session 4 — Hell

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

INTRODUCTION

The fourth Sunday of Advent brings us to the last of the four last things: hell. This is a topic I have no desire to speak of. It is, in some sense, unspeakable and unthinkable, because the thought of someone — anyone — being separated eternally from the grace of God is unimaginable. It could easily plunge one into a state of hopelessness. I think it is important to start, then, not with a sense of despair, but with a word of hope from the prophet Jonah.

Jonah 1:1–2 (ESV): 1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

You know how the next part of the story goes, so we don’t need to rehearse it. We’ll pick up just after the great fish has vomited Jonah onto dry land and the Lord speaks again.

Jonah 3:1–10 (ESV): 3 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.

6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, 8 but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.

The story begins with God’s proclamation of judgment against Nineveh and the coming destruction of the city. But, as Jonah knew, and as the text makes clear, destruction was never God’s intent. Instead, the decree of judgment was issued as a warning: if you continue down this path, destruction will come. Jonah’s proclamation of judgment was given to compel the people to repentance. That is exactly what God intended and exactly what happened.

Jonah 4:1–2 (ESV): 4 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.

So, I begin here: any “threat” of Gehenna, Hades, or Tarturos — the New Testament terms often incorrectly lumped together under the single English word “hell” — any mention of that is meant as the word of judgment to Nineveh was meant: as warning, as call to repentance, as plea to be reconciled to God, and not as inescapable condemnation. Any discussion of Hell must be situated in that context which is expressed so beautifully and memorably in John 3:16-17:

John 3:16–17 (ESV): 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

With that context, we can now turn to the relatively scant New Testament teaching on hell. Note: I will use the term “hell” as an umbrella word, but I’ll disambiguate, I’ll distinguish among Gehenna, Hades, and Tarturos as we discuss individual texts.

GEHENNA

We are the children of the Enlightenment and the Reformation, and that has formed how we read Scripture, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. We bring our questions to the text and demand answers; that means we sometimes filter out the actual questions and issues that the text wants to and does address. Oftentimes we find ourselves as twenty-first century Christians asking sixteenth century questions of a first century text. And that can cause problems of interpretation.

The Reformation reading of Scripture tends toward the individualistic. Those who have inherited it — most modern evangelical Protestants, most modern Western Christians — want the answer to this question: What must I do to be saved? That is an important question, and one that we should ask. It needs to be clarified and worked through carefully and scripturally. What many people mean is, What do I have to do so that when I die my soul will go to eternal reward in heaven and not to eternal punishment in hell? As we saw in our discussion of heaven, that is not exactly the right way to frame the concern and the question, and I’d want to clarify that. It’s not a bad place to start; it is perhaps the beginning of true and life-giving repentance. But I’d like you to notice how inherently individualistic the question is. It is about one’s individual salvation: again, not unimportant, but slightly off kilter with the main thrust of the Gospel.

In light of that, this statement may sound controversial; I think it shouldn’t, but it may: the message of Jesus was not primarily individual but corporate. Let me say it another way: the Gospel is individual only by virtue of first being corporate. What was the essence of Jesus’ proclamation? What did he come preaching?

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17b, ESV).

That is a kingdom message, not primarily an individual message; it was spoken to the whole house of Israel — corporately to all Israel:

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24, ESV).

My point here is simple: Jesus came to Israel announcing the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, that is, the fulfillment of Covenants, the Law, and the Prophets. What YHWH had promised to Israel, Jesus was fulfilling in his person and ministry. That is a corporate message to Israel that had little primarily/firstly to do with how individuals might go to heaven and avoid hell. All of that, with appropriate nuance, will come later, and it is vitally important, but it is not the primary thrust of Jesus’ message in the Gospels. So, please hear me clearly when I say that Jesus’ message was primarily to Israel, but that it is also for us. It was primarily corporate, but by being corporate it calls us individually into a corporate body, and that call has vast individual implications.

It may be hard to wrap our heads around that because of the way we’ve been taught to read the story, but it is vital that we do so, or we’ll distort the story. The main idea is that Jesus is first and foremost speaking corporately to Israel, announcing how God is fulfilling his promises, and laying out for all the people what it looks like to live in the inbreaking Kingdom of God. That is, for example, the heart of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes: guidelines for what it looks like to be faithful Israel in the inbreaking Kingdom of God. Live this way, and as a nation you will be blessed; you’ll get in on the Kingdom. And what happens if you don’t get with the Gospel program; what happens if you reject Jesus and his way of being Israel? You will find yourself — your nation — consigned to Gehenna. This word, “Gehenna,” is the term most frequently used by Jesus to express the loss incurred for failing to live in relationship with him and in accordance with his kingdom agenda. It is confusingly translated as “hell” in many English Bibles. You probably know its true origin and meaning. The Valley of Hinnom, or Gehinnom, outside the walls of Jerusalem had a notorious history. In the Old Testament, it was a desecrated place where some of the kings of Judah had sacrificed their children in the fire (Jer 19:2-6). Later, and likely because of this, it became a place associated with divine judgment and punishment. During the Second Temple period and the time of Jesus, Gehenna was used as Jerusalem’s trash heap. The fires were constantly lit there and it smoldered continually. It was a visual image of waste and destruction.

Now, let’s put all this together. Jesus came primarily with a corporate message to Israel. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand in and through the person and teaching of Jesus. Jesus laid out before them two ways: life according to his way, his kingdom agenda, or death according to the way of resistance. If Israel chose to continue down the path they were on, the nation would find itself destroyed and relegated to the trash heap of history — whose visual image was Gehenna — by the Romans. And, of course, that is just what happened some forty years after Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion.

This is, I think, where we must start in understanding Jesus’ words about Gehenna: a corporate warning to Israel about the consequences of rejecting Jesus and their peculiar vocation to live as witnesses to the inbreaking Kingdom of God. That does not mean that we neglect the personal implications of Jesus’ message; we are each to live in faithfulness to him and in accordance with his teaching. Just as there was corporate loss to Israel for failing to do so, there will be individual loss for any of us in failing to do so. But, we must also be cautious in making an equivalence between Gehenna and popular, modern notions of hell.

Gehenna: Mt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9, 23:15, 33; Mk 9:43, 45, 47; Lk 12:5; James 3:6

HADES

Sheol is the general name for the place of the dead in the Old Testament; Hades is sometimes used in a similar way in the New Testament, as in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost:

Acts 2:22–32 (ESV): 22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him,

“ ‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

29 “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31 he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.

But, as we noted in our previous session on death, the understanding of Sheol varies from the shadowy, diminished state of all the dead to a state where a distinction was made between the unrighteous and the righteous dead. This distinction is maintained in the New Testament where the place of the dead consists of two regions: Abraham’s bosom (or Paradise), the place of rest and refreshment for the righteous, and Hades, the place of punishment for the wicked. This is perhaps seem most clearly in Jesus’ parable of Dives and Lazarus:

Luke 16:19–31 (ESV): 19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”

The common second temple cultural view of Sheol — Abraham’s bosom and Hades — forms the backdrop of this parable, but it is not the main point of the parable. In other words, Jesus does not tell this parable to teach about the geography of the afterlife. He tells it to warn about the dangers of riches and the moral obligation of the rich to care for the poor. He tells it to emphasize that temporal decisions have eternal consequences. He tells it to caution against greed and to promote generosity. For that reason, I would not want to push the parable too far as a description of the afterlife beyond these basic ideas: what you do now in this life matters eternally, and real loss is as possible as real reward is certain. The parable also contains a note of finality; decisions made in life are confirmed and ratified in death with no apparent chance of change. This is a strike against the resurgence of universalism, the notion that given a post-mortem eternity, all will ultimately be won over by the love of Christ and will enter the kingdom of God. You may have seen bumper stickers and signs — some church signs — that say “Love wins.” That was the title of a popular book by former mega church pastor Rob Bell: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It is a false universalist claim that all people will ultimately be won over by the love of God, either during life our afterward. While that notion may be emotionally satisfying, it is Scripturally unfounded and heterodox. It seriously distorts the Gospel; it creates a false Gospel.

Hades is also used symbolically to denote God’s judgment, not necessarily against individuals, but against cities and peoples:

Matthew 11:20–24 (ESV): 20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Hades is also personified in Scripture as an evil power that rebels against God and stands athwart his redemptive purposes in Christ. We encounter it in Revelation:

Revelation 6:7–8 (ESV): 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.

Revelation 20:12–15 (ESV): 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

There are two points that I wish to draw from these passages. First, though Death and Hades are the enemies of God, God uses them for his purposes of judgment. In this sense, they are like Assyria and Babylon in the Old Testament. Second, Death and Hades, which we consider to be the last word in punishment, will themselves be punished in the lake of fire. This seems to be the final destiny of those who resolutely set themselves against God, a terrifying possibility.

Revelation 20:14–15 (ESV): 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 (ESV): 8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

We see this lake of fire in Jesus’ parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25, also:

Matthew 25:41–46 (ESV): 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

If there is anything that corresponds to our general notion of hell, it is probably the lake of fire and the second death. As with Hades, these is no implication that this is anything but a final, irrevocable destiny.

TARTAROS

There is one additional word used in the New Testament for a place of confinement and punishment, though what it has to do with humans is not clear: Tartaros.

2 Peter 2:1–10 (ESV): 2 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.

God has consigned certain sinful angels to confinement in gloomy darkness until the final judgment and their ultimate consignment to the lake of fire. This likely refers to those angels in Genesis 6:1-4, about whom much more information is given in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. It may be — I suspect it is — these angels about whom St. Peter also writes:

1 Peter 3:18–20 (ESV): 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

Christ’s proclamation would have been of his victory and of the final judgment coming to these rebellious angels; it was almost certainly a shout of victory and not a call to Gospel repentance. For those in Tartaros, apparently no repentance is possible.

SUMMARY

So that is a relatively brief overview of what Scripture has to say about what we call hell. It leaves us with many unanswered questions about which some people speculate endlessly and other people answer with a sort of false confidence. It is not a theme that we Anglicans are noted for, because it is horrible to contemplate that even one person — the vilest imaginable person — might ultimately be separated eternally from God. But, since that seems to be the case, since that seems to be the clear teaching of Scripture, believed always, everywhere, and by all, we must take the reality of hell seriously — not fearfully, but seriously as this prayer captures:

Most loving Father, you will us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but the loss of you, and to cast all our care on the One who cares for us. Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have manifested unto us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 670).

The loss of God is a terrible potential reality, the loss above all others which we should dread. That possibility must turn us to prayer and not to despair. I think C. S. Lewis offers some perspective about how to approach this reality; he was speaking of demons in The Screwtape Letters, but the principle holds, I think, with respect to hell, and I will adapt his statement accordingly:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about hell. One is to disbelieve in its existence and to ignore it. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in it.

I would like to close this session on hell with one other quote by Lewis, this one from his imaginative journey to heaven and hell, The Great Divorce:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

THE FOUR LAST THINGS: CONCLUSION

As we Anglicans are wont to say, “Here endeth the lesson,” or rather the series of lessons on The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. The Church gives us these Advent themes as God gave the word to Nineveh through Jonah, that we might repent, return, and prepare for the Lord’s coming. Whether at our death or in the far distant future, the Advent Acclamation is nonetheless true:

Surely the Lord is coming soon,
Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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