Friday, December 16, 2011

The Nature of Hell

We have another guest piece today, this one by longtime Tekton reader Jesse Goulet, who I'd reckon a rising star. Enjoy!

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A typical proclamation of the gospel teaches that we are separated from God because of sin, and because of our sin we are judged as guilty according to the standard that God has set for us. We are unable to save ourselves, so God sent His son to die the death that we deserve, opening the way for people to get into heaven and avoid the final judgement. In the final judgement, God's wrath is poured out on those who rejected salvation through Jesus.

Underlying this presentation of the gospel is the concept of justice. Words such as “law, punishment, guilty, innocent, judge, etc.” come to mind. With the focus on justice, the focus on our life is freedom from guilt.

To the modern world, when we break the law we are “guilty” and are supposed to feel guilty. We deserve a punishment of some sort. Hell is presented a place of pain and torture, especially by fire where one burns forever and ever, as a fair reward for our sins. When it is taught that Jesus substituted himself for us and received the punishment that we deserved, the emphasis is often placed on the physical beatings that Jesus underwent, followed by the nails and thorns that pierced his body.

But as J. P. Holding points out, physical pain was not the only element of his crucifixion. The shame and emotional torture was also a critical element, given that the ancient world was an honour-shame culture. This adds another dimension to the concept of justice that underlies the gospel and our understanding of the nature of hell. Not only does the justice of God's wrath pour out as physical punishment, but emotional punishment as well. The state of guilt brings upon us the feeling of shame, especially when confronted and contrasted with the holiness and majesty of God, whom all unrepentant sinners must face. One can imagine the humiliating experience as a kid of being caught and confronted by a parent or authority figure.

To make a contrast, if hell is a state of shame, then those who get into heaven will receive honour. But what does this honour look like? The simple answer is that it looks like the character of Jesus. But what is it about his character that was so honourable? Modern Christians who have a more emotional paradigm that they see through will say that it was His love towards others that we should model ourselves after, and this is completely correct.

But what does this love look like? Jesus teaches that the Law and the Prophets hinge on the commandments to love God and love others. In other words, the Law and the Prophets unpack what this love is supposed to look like. And if one has read through them, then one should notice that the principles that are laid out are done in a manner that is modelled after the character of God Himself. This makes perfect sense if the Son of God came to earth as the full image of his Father, and if God originally created humankind in His image.

While many theologians have portrayed this Image in terms of psychology (intelligence, will, ability to think abstractly, etc.), a more exegetical look at the creation narratives reveals an Image that is described in terms of functionality.

It begins with the cosmos described as a formless void, which in the original Hebrew connotes complete chaos and disorder. It is “empty of purpose, meaning, and function—a place that had no order or intelligibility” (John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006, p.184). In many other passages in the Bible, this same state is used to describe barren places that are impossible to live and prosper in, resulting in death (Dt. 32:10; Job 6:18; Is. 34:11; Jr. 4:23).

Throughout the rest of the first creation story it is easy to see how God takes this disorder and forms it to produce a fine functioning world. The dark void is overcome by light which symbolizes salvation, life, divine wisdom, and the presence of God. And then the waters are separated, resulting in the sky so that it can produce rain for crops. After this, the rest of the waters are formed to produce land and sea, followed by the production of vegetation and flora. The sky, seas, land, and vegetation all suggest agriculture, which aid human survival and prosperity, especially to Genesis' original audience, the ancient Hebrews, who depended on the fertile land of their Promised Land for their well-being. And then the celestial bodies are given for the purpose of keeping track of time and giving order to the day.

Once the animals are created, humanity is created and given the task of managing the animals and the earth. So not only was the earth formed for humankind, but humankind was formed for the earth. The central concept here is one of functionality and management (Gn. 1:28-30).

But it's not just the earth that we are to manage, it is also each other that we must handle properly. This is obviously implied in the command to be fruitful and multiply, and then to go out and subdue the earth, which can't be done except by flawless teamwork. The second creation story zooms in on Adam, where he is working the ground in order to give it even more functionality and order, as co-creator of the earth's design and ordering, with God as his partner. And then Eve walks onto the stage as a human partner.

The vision that the two creation stories produces is one of harmonious relationships with God, other humans, and the earth, all of which are given purpose and order by God. If things go well, Adam and Eve will produce an extensive family tree who function together as a family should, who together go out and conquer the ground by giving it order and intelligiblity just as God did earlier.

This is the basis of the Image of God. But since the Bible is a book of progressive revelation, throughout the rest of Scripture we see more and more of God's character being uncovered, and thus more of what humanity is supposed to look like. But at the same time, we see the unfolding contrast between God's character and the character of humanity as well.

Beginning with the first sin, we see Adam and Eve, and nature become corrupt. Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden, away from the presence of God, that same presence that brought about order out of the cosmic chaos. Thorns and thistles now grow in the ground, making it extremely difficult for humanity to prosper; work is more of a pain than a blessing and humanity is now more subject to the ground than the conqueror of it. The relationships between husband and wife, and from one person to another are now dysfunctional. God has judged humanity for their sins on multiple occasions (Gn. 3:17-19; Pr. 24:30-32; Is. 5; Ez. 31), and the imagery of these judgments suggests that humanity and creation has taken a few steps back towards the original primeval chaos.

So what more can be said about the nature of hell? It certainly is a state of shame, because in the end, those who reject salvation will be met with an extremely disappointed face of God, and informed of their true nature. But what will their true nature turn out to be? According to biblical imagery, it will not only be a state of shame but also a state of chaos and disorder. The mind of the unrepentant sinner will end up formless, void, unintelligible, barren, full of thorns and thistles, unfruitful, dark, purposeless, and completely dysfunctional, because God's presence will not abide within that person because he or she has rejected Him.

We already see glimpses of this hellish nature in everyone around us, including ourselves. It is common to hear the actions of a twisted, psychopathic serial killer being described as “inhuman.” And that is essentially what hell is, a state of inhumanity. It is the opposite of the Image of God.

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