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From the book "4 Views On Hell", edited by William Crocket (there is a second edition edited by Preston Sprinkle) I understand that until around the 16th century the traditional, orthodox view of the Christian Church regarding Hell has been one of literalism and that the metaphorical take on Fire, Darkness, and Suffering only began to gather momentum since then.

Among those denominations who hold that the "outer darkness" in Matthew 8:12, 22:13, and 25:30 are literal references to Hell, how is this reconciled with Hell's depiction as a place of unquenchable fire? Is it a fire that gives off no light?

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    Are there any denominations which teach absolute literalism for all these passages? – curiousdannii Oct 21 at 23:42
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    Invisible flame is a fairly common occurrence, actually. Oxidation does not have to emit light in the visible wavelengths. – Nigel J Oct 22 at 0:00
  • Is it a fire that gives off no light ? - This certainly describes the traditional view of Eastern Christianity, which also holds that the light created in the beginning gave off no heat; but these pious beliefs are most likely not the text's authorial intent, if that's what you have in mind. – Lucian Oct 22 at 4:41
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    I agree with @curiousdannii. Those are very literal interpretations and I know of no traditions or denominations that believe that. In my own faith, those descriptions describe the condition of Man who fails exaltation vs. the kingdom of God. A place of no glory, action, or revelation (darkness) and a place of regret, guilt, and shame (fire). It might make more sense to ask if there are any denominations or traditions that believe those phrases literally? Armed with that answer (if there is one), you could then directly ask how those traditions reconcile the interpretations. – JBH Oct 22 at 4:48
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Jesus describes a 'great gulf' when he revealed something of the deceased condition of the rich man, separated by great distance from Lazarus, the beggar who once was left, daily, at his gate, who received nothing from him during life.

In the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, in 14:10-11, John reports the vision concerning the lake of fire :

... he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: 11 And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night ... [KJV]

So there is a great gulf between the justified and the wicked, but the wicked are punished in the presence of the holy angels and the Lamb.

Thus a great gulf of darkness separates one from the other. The wicked, who worshipped the Beast and his image (Revelation 4:9) are, in comparison to the justified, in an outer and distant darkness . . . . . . where there is an unquenchable fire, and brimstone, and a smoke arising.

The holy angels, and the Lamb, who both have a spiritual existence that is not bound by dimension, are present at the place of torment : and also present (and there is the bodily presence of the Son of man) with the justified in the glory of New Jerusalem, the city of the Great King.

But the justified souls and the wicked souls, both raised in the general resurrection, are separated (the one from the other) by a vast distance of darkness.

So I would suggest that both descriptions ('outer darkness' and 'unquenchable fire') are true and are not incompatible.

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This is likely a non-answer answer, but we should start with the title of the book, "4 Views on Hell."

If one thing is clear it is that the scripture is not clear on exactly what Hell is like. Hence the reason why - after 2000 years of study and debate - that we can't agree.

You can find an article on Matthew's use of "outer darkness" here. Tanner has plenty of footnotes so you would have some trails to go down. He does a nice survey of this phrase throughout Greco-Roman and Jewish sources.

The closest, it seems, is 1 Enoch 10:4:

And further the Lord said to Raphael: “Bind Azazel by his hands and his feet and throw him into the darkness. And split open the desert, which is in Dudael, and throw him there.

Enoch was a very popular document in the first century and afterward with the early Church Fathers. Significant imagery of Hell comes from Enoch. Ultimately though, this quote from Enoch doesn't really get us any closer to the answer you (or others) are looking for.

It may be that "darkness" symbolizes "spiritual darkness" - like the chaos of the deep in Genesis 1:2. Or that "darkness" is simply the metaphor for a place of punishment.

Again - so many scholars have debated this topic over the years - it may be something that is ultimately unknowable.

Hope this helps you along your journey.

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  • The juxtaposition of literal physical fire and literal spiritual darkness is promising. – Mike Borden Oct 30 at 12:10
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At first glance it seems impossible for there to be fire and outer darkness at the same time. The best process for trying to understand what the Bible is trying to communicate is to do a word study. When we see 'darkness' according to the Bible, what all could it mean.

Below are a few examples. Notice that in Acts the darkness is equated with the dominion of Satan. Darkness biblically speaking depending on the context can mean more than just the absence of physical light.

I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness. Jn 12:46

Acts 26:18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.’

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  • Interesting point. I have heard that black holes have immense light and heat circulating around them, sucking everything into that hellish orbit, so that even light - when drawn over the event-horizon - disappears into the utter blackness, never to escape. I may be wrong, but I think I've heard of 'wandering stars' being identified nowadays as black holes. So, it's not a case of "either", "or", but both! – Anne Oct 25 at 16:16
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In the absence of specific instruction, I will give an answer consistent with the Church of England Commission (1995) position which is the official organ of the Anglican and Episcopal churches.

I note the following:

  • Mortal man is just that, and the soul can die. Eze 18:4, 20, 24, Gen 6:3, 1 Tim 6:15, 16.
  • Man is unconscious in death. Eccl 9:5, 6, 10, Ps 6:5, Isa 38:18, Ps 88:10.
  • The soul can be destroyed in hell. Matt 10:28, Eze 18:4, 20, 24, Mal 4:1, 3.
  • The soul cannot think after death. Ps 115:17, Job 14:2, 21, Ps 146:3, 4 “their thoughts perish, KJV).
  • Man becomes immortal at the resurrection, not before. 1 Cor 15:51 – 54.
  • Man only has the life given by Christ; man does not have life of himself. 1 John 5:11, 12, 1 Cor 15:21, 22, John 5:24, 25, 6:51, Luke 13:3, 2 Peter 2:12. Rom 2:7, 1 Cor 15:12-49. Man cannot have eternal life in hell! Rom 6:23.
  • Man waits in the grave until the resurrection. Acts 2:29, 31, 32, John 11:11 – 14.
  • The wicked will be ultimately completely destroyed and will perish, Ps 37:20, 92:7, Eze 18:20, Mal 4:1-3, Matt 10:28, Phil 3:19, 2 Thess 1:9, Heb 10:39, James 4:12, 2 Peter 2:6, 3:7.

The idea of the soul being separate from the body is not found in the Bible but is a relic of Platonic philosophy and Greek mythology. In fact, a “nephesh” is given to humans (Gen 2:7, 9:5, etc) as well as air-breathing animals (Gen 1:30, 2:19, 9:4, 10, 12, etc) and all things (Num 16:22, 27:16, etc).

The New Testament Greek word for soul is psuche which occurs about 102 times and is translated “soul”, “life”, “mind”, “heart”; again, it never indicates anything which is separate from, or can exist independently of the person.

Therefore, the eternal life inherited by the righteous is conditional upon their acceptance of Christ as their Savior (1 John 5:11, 12). We mortals can never have eternal life in any other way!

The words for hell in the Bible are: Hebrew - she’ol, which, in the NIV is uniformly translated grave, or pit. It never suggests a place of torment nor eternal punishing but rather a place of darkness, just like an ordinary grave or crypt.

In the New Testament there are just three words sometimes translated hell (but not always) and together they occur a total of only 33 times. If the idea of eternal punishment is in the New Testament it must be found in one of these places. These three words are: Gehenna occurs 12 times - Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6. In none of these cases is eternal punishment mentioned or implied. On the contrary, Matt 10:28 speaks of the destruction of the soul in hell. In fact, gehenna was the city dump outside Jerusalem where people disposed of their rubbish. Fires were kept burning there to destroy the garbage - nothing ever returned from gehenna because it was destroyed by incineration. The unquenchable fire of Mark 9:43, 45, 47 will go out when there is nothing left to burn. (See appendix below)

A few other references do mention the idea of eternal fire: Matt 18:8 (which is identified as hell in v9), Matt 25:41, and Jude 7. Now, allowing the Bible to interpret itself, the last of these, Jude 7, clearly explains what is meant by eternal fire by providing a concrete example of Sodom and Gomorrah – the eternal fire is not still burning these wicked cities – it lasted as long as there was something to burn. That is, eternal fire is eternal in its consequences and is unquenchable while there is something to be consumed (see Matt 10:28). Therefore, the hell of gehenna is intended to destroy, not to keep souls alive in torment as per 2 Thess 1:9.

Hades occurs 10 times - Matt 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. Again, in none of these places is eternal punishment mentioned or implied. Hades is simply the Greek word for grave or crypt being the place of the dead.

Tartaroo occurs only in 2 Peter 2:4 where no punishment, let alone eternal torment is mentioned. (There is some debate about how the Greek of this verse should be translated, but we will not discuss this here.)

There remain just two texts, which could be construed as implying eternal torment: let us examine these in context to see what they say. Neither talks about hell.

Matt 25:46, “Then they [the wicked who did not minister to the needy] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Paul tells us what this eternal punishment means in 2 Thess 1:9, “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” That is, eternal punishment is everlasting destruction! Further, notice that this verse talks only about an eternal punishment, not an eternal punishing. That is, while the punishment has eternal effects, it does not last forever.

Rev 20:10 “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Before allowing the Scripture to explain itself here, we should note three things: (a) no person is mentioned as being eternally tormented – it is only the three beasts of Revelation, the devil, sea beast and land beast (false prophet); and (b) these beasts are clearly figurative beasts, that is we must be careful not to interpret this passage too literally or we will have mythical beasts in a literal hell – an inconsistent interpretation; and, (c) the fate of the wicked is completely clear and unambiguous – in v9 they are destroyed or devoured by God’s consuming fire. The idea of symbolic language used here is further reinforced by what is described in v14 where death and Hades are also thrown into the lake of fire. Clearly we are reading highly symbolic language if two abstract ideas like death and Hades can be thrown into the lake of fire! If the common idea that the lake of fire is Hell and Hades is also Hell, then how can Hell be thrown into itself?

However, the Scripture explains itself: in Jude 7, “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” This clearly states that the punishment of eternal fire does not mean fire that never goes out else Sodom and Gomorrah would still be burning! Rather, eternal fire is eternal in its consequences - Sodom and Gomorrah have never been rebuilt. This is emphasized in 2 Peter 2:6, “if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.” Eternal fire only burns while there is something to burn - when the fuel (the cities in this case) is reduced to ashes and completely (eternally) destroyed, the fire goes out. Thus, the lake of fire in Rev 20 will completely destroy anything thrown into it (see v9).

CONCLUSION

Thus, if someone is consigned to hell and completely destroyed, the they will be in "outer darkness" eternally.

APPENDIX "Burn with fire"

The expression, "Burn with fire" is a quintessentially Hebraic expression. While it is true that "burn with fire" is technically redundant, it was an expression used to convey a feeling of intensity and complete destruction, ie, not merely scorched. Here is a sample:

  • Ex 12:10 - And you shall not leave any of it over until morning, but whatever is left of it until morning, you shall burn with fire [= completely destroy it]
  • Ex 29:14 - But the flesh of the bull and its hide and its refuse, you shall burn with fire [= completely destroy it] outside the camp; it is a sin offering
  • Lev 8:32 - The remainder of the flesh and of the bread you shall burn in the fire [= completely destroy it].
  • Lev 13:57 - and if it appears again in the garment, whether in the warp or in the woof, or in any article of leather, it is an outbreak; the article with the mark shall be burned in the fire [= completely destroyed].
  • Lev 16:27 - But the bull of the sin offering and the goat of the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be taken outside the camp, and they shall burn their hides, their flesh, and their refuse in the fire. [= completely destroy it]
  • Deut 7:25 - The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire [= completely destroy it]; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, or you will be snared by it, for it is an abomination to the LORD your God.
  • Josh 11:6 - Then the LORD said to Joshua, "Do not be afraid because of them, for tomorrow at this time I will deliver all of them slain before Israel; you shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire [= completely destroy them].
  • Ps 46:9 - Then the LORD said to Joshua, "Do not be afraid because of them, for tomorrow at this time I will deliver all of them slain before Israel; you shall hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire [completely destroy them].
  • Jer 43:13 - He will also shatter the obelisks of Heliopolis, which is in the land of Egypt; and the temples of the gods of Egypt he will burn with fire [= completely destroy].
  • Eze 23:47 - The company will stone them with stones and cut them down with their swords; they will slay their sons and their daughters and burn their houses with fire [= completely destroy them].
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  • In Matt 25:46, isn't the salient term connecting punishment and life the adjective "everlasting" (aiōnios - which means never ceasing)? Is it being suggested that, of the 71 times this adjective is used in the NT, 7 times it means the opposite of it's definition? When it is used to describe life, God, glory, habitations, gospel, spirit it means "never ceasing" but when it describes fire, punishment, damnation, destruction it means "eventually ceasing"? – Mike Borden Oct 30 at 12:06
  • Separately, is the Devil a mythical beast? – Mike Borden Oct 30 at 12:07
  • @MikeBorden - See BDAG - aionios does NOT always mean without end. It sometimes means for the duration of the noun which it modifies such as Jude 7 - the fire that burned Sodom and Gomorrah is not still burning but it was unquenchable. Similarly, Rom 16:25, 2 Tim 1:9, Titus 1:2 is NOT an infinite time. 2 Thess 1:9 also says that the punishment of destruction destroys and the effect lasts forever. – Dottard Oct 30 at 19:44
  • @MikeBorden - aionios when applied to God and the kingdom of God means truly eternal. But when applied to human situation it means as long as the noun lasts without interruption such as Philemon 15. Not even the judgement will last forever (Heb 6:2) but its effects will last forever. – Dottard Oct 30 at 19:52
  • @MikeBorden - The subject of the Devil is complex. The Devil is a real person but the symbols used for various things in Revelation such as the Dragon, Sea Beast, Land Beast, Great Harlot, etc, are symbolic. – Dottard Oct 30 at 19:53

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