I often get asked about the Hebraic understanding of Hell and what Scripture says (or doesn’t say) about it. In response to one of the more recent exchanges I was in I presented this and since I worked so hard putting it together I thought I’d share it instead of trying to do it again. These are my current thoughts and I can’t say they won’t change, mature, finesse, etc., over time, but I offer them for what dialogue they may provoke.
I believe that hell is a Greco-Roman construct that is based on the mythology of the god Hades. I believe it was imposed into theology when the catholic church (little c from the time that “catholic” meaning universal was the only church) separated itself from the Jewish Sect known as the Way that was the faithful expression of the early believers who were first called Christians (this is history found in the New Testament that I’m referring to — if you want to read about the separation that took place for primarily socio-political reasons and resulted in different theologies you can check out Stern’s “Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospels”)
I believe that Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus was consistent with the Jewish understanding of Abraham’s Bosom which contained Paradise (where the faithful went to await Messiah) and Torments (where souls unhindered from the body were given the opportunity to learn lessons that they did not learn while in the body that they needed to learn to recognize Messiah — the rich man sought to fulfill himself with food and drink which is why he was thirsty — he needed eternal waters that only Jesus could provide). It has nothing to do with a Greco-Roman idea of Hell.
The idea of Gehenna also has nothing to do with a Greco-Roman idea of hell because it is referring to where the body of one tried and found guilty of violating Torah would have been thrown if they were put to death for their sins. That is why Jesus refers to it in the ways that he does — it would be better to be . . . . than to have your body thrown to the place where someone tried for violating Torah and found guilty would have their body thrown, etc.
Some people try to say that the Lake of Fire is hell but, again, there is no Hebraic concept of a hell where people who don’t believe in God are sent to be tormented forever in burning fire. The Lake of Fire is understood to be God’s bosom because God is eternal holy fire — imagery that is used throughout Scripture to refer to God and the reality in stories is that those who enter God’s presence in an unworthy manner or with their sin still upon them burst into flames and burn up. Death, Hell, the Grave, the Accuser — all created for a purpose in this life to bring about God’s purposes — will burn forever in the Lake of Fire. Those who follow them will be cast in after them but it is reading too much into the text to add to it that they will also be tormented forever. It is more consistent with Scripture to take Jesus at his word that no one survives the 2nd death without faith in him — and that the Lake of Fire is the 2nd death. (Rev 2:11 “He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.”; Rev 20:6 “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.” and Rev 21:8 “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”)
Now, it might seem unrelated but I believe it’s vital so I want to address the idea that God cannot be in the presence of sin. It is foolishness — it is sin that cannot be in the presence of God without burning up. If we die and we are still carrying our sins then we cannot survive the 2nd death which is the Lake of Fire. We will burn up in the presence of God — like Aaron’s sons in the Temple. I believe that Jesus carried all of mankind’s sins into the presence of God and they were burned up and he remained because he was without sin. This is GOOD NEWS! We do not have to fear the 2nd death. We are freed from the power of sin and death so that we can live righteous lives!
The Good News is you have been freed from the power of sin and death by Jesus
I do not believe we have to understand this, or what it means, or how it happened, or anything because our finite brains will never truly understand the things of God. I do believe you can reject God’s gift — but I do not believe any of us can know when someone has truly done that and our words and actions are not the final say. God judges the heart and we cannot see one another’s hearts. We can disagree with doctrine. We can have different understanding of theology. We *cannot* judge someone’s salvation and to try and do so is to sit ourselves on the throne of God and that is blasphemy! Therefore I focus on sharing the Gospel by doing just that — sharing the Good News. You have been freed from the power of sin and death by Jesus and if you accept that is true you will be able to live an abundant life full of blessings! You will have experienced forgiveness and be able to forgive others and you will have been first loved by God and that will provoke you to love! And we will know you are a believer by your love because anyone who loves God will love their neighbor and loving your neighbor is loving God. You cannot love without God because God IS Love.
Therefore, if anyone says they are in the light but hates their brother they are a liar and are still in darkness (1 John 2:9) and 1 John 4:20 “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” Yet 1 John 4:12 says this “No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.” 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” is one of the main reasons that I don’t believe in sharing the Good News that Jesus saved us from the power of sin and death with the threat of punishment — eternal or otherwise. We love God because he first loved us — not because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t.
Rejecting Bad News is not rejecting God
Anyone who says they are saved because they are afraid of the alternative is someone still walking in darkness because they do not understand the Good News and are not walking and living in the abundant life that is expressed through love. I would rather spend my time with people who are loving others and revealing that God is at work in their lives (even if they don’t have my same doctrinal expression of faith) than with people who can string verses together to prove they are saved but do not have love and reveal themselves to be liars. And when the supposed “Good News” is delivered with a threat it has ceased to be the Good News and rejecting it is not the same as rejecting God or His Love and free gift of salvation from the power of sin and death.