One of the gaping holes in my theology is what i think of hell – nothing. Okay, not absolutely nothing, but I’m not certain of how long it lasts, what goes on there, and if it is the same experience for everybody. What I do know is that I wouldn’t like it there because it’s not heaven. Given the frequency with which in comes up in conversations with non-Christians though, an answer of “I haven’t studied it yet” gets old pretty quickly. Usually, the questions are about torture in hell or murderers getting the same punishment as liars or simply how anyone can deserve unending punishment.
All those are issues I can speak a little of after much thought, but I can’t speak definitively about because I don’t really know what the Bible says about them. My Bible reading isn’t progressing fast enough, so I’ve decided to see if someone else can summarize it for me.
1. The first ‘long-term judgment’ verse in the Bible:
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. (Dan 12.2)
This is the first verse in the bible that refers to post-death, post-resurrection, long-term effects of this life, for those who actively reject God’s goodness. Notice that the ‘quality of life’ is described as ‘disgrace’ and ‘contempt’–hardly mind-numbing torture terms! If the hell-experience had been understood as the intense suffering commonly attributed to it, then this verse has focused on very minor aspects of that–to the point of being misleading perhaps.
2. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” passages:
I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (matt 8.11ff)
As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (matt 13.40)
Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13.47)
Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (matt 22.13)
But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. 50 The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 51 He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (matt 24.48ff)
Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (matt 25.28ff)
There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13.28ff)
The discomfort described here is weeping/sorrow, NOT screaming/pain–contrary to most of the popular images of hell used for this question.
Notice that a few of these passages have the ‘darkness’ and ‘fire’ images, but the effects are cast in terms of sorrow (‘weeping’) and anguish/regret/anger (‘gnashing of teeth’, cf. Acts 7.54, Ps 37.12). Notice especially that in the Lucan passage the weeping occurs “when they see” their own exclusion–it is due to the separation issue, not some torture or pain.
This needs to be seen clearly. In you look back through the verses above carefully, the weeping and gnashing is explicitly related to ‘exclusion’ from future Kingdom blessings. The weeping is NOT related to some pain of fire, even in the passages that mention that. It is consistent throughout these passages—“but you yourselves thrown out”…
4. The ‘more bearable/tolerable’ passage in Luke 10.12ff (par. Matt 10,11):
“I say to you, it will be more bearable in that day for Sodom, than for that city. 13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 “But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment, than for you.
And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. 24 “Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matt 11.23)
5. A couple of the other biblical images actually describe some type of ‘comfort’ or ‘consolation’ there, and many affirm the ‘shame’ and ‘disgrace’ motif!:
And it came about in the twelfth year, on the fifteenth of the month, that the word of the Lord came to me saying, 18 “Son of man, wail for the multitude of Egypt, and bring it down, her and the daughters of the powerful nations, to the nether world, with those who go down to the pit; 19 ‘Whom do you surpass in beauty? Go down and make your bed with the uncircumcised.’ 20 “They shall fall in the midst of those who are slain by the sword. She is given over to the sword; they have drawn her and all her multitudes away. 21 “The strong among the mighty ones shall speak of him and his helpers from the midst of Sheol, ‘They have gone down, they lie still, the uncircumcised, slain by the sword.’ 22 “Assyria is there and all her company; her graves are round about her. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword, 23 whose graves are set in the remotest parts of the pit, and her company is round about her grave. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living. 24 “Elam is there and all her multitude around her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth, who instilled their terror in the land of the living, and bore their disgrace with those who went down to the pit. 25 “They have made a bed for her among the slain with all her multitude. Her graves are around it, they are all uncircumcised, slain by the sword (although their terror was instilled in the land of the living), and they bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit; they were put in the midst of the slain. 26 “Meshech, Tubal and all their multitude are there; their graves surround them. All of them were slain by the sword uncircumcised, though they instilled their terror in the land of the living. 27 “Nor do they lie beside the fallen heroes of the uncircumcised, who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war, and whose swords were laid under their heads; but the punishment for their iniquity rested on their bones, though the terror of these heroes was once in the land of the living. 28 “But in the midst of the uncircumcised you will be broken and lie with those slain by the sword. 29 “There also is Edom, its kings, and all its princes, who for all their might are laid with those slain by the sword; they will lie with the uncircumcised, and with those who go down to the pit. 30 “There also are the chiefs of the north, all of them, and all the Sidonians, who in spite of the terror resulting from their might, in shame went down with the slain. So they lay down uncircumcised with those slain by the sword, and bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit. 31 “These Pharaoh will see, and he will be comforted for all his multitude slain by the sword, even Pharaoh and all his army,” declares the Lord God. 32 “Though I instilled a terror of him in the land of the living, yet he will be made to lie down among the uncircumcised along with those slain by the sword, even Pharaoh and all his multitude,” declares the Lord God. (Ezek 32, note that Pharaoh is ‘comforted’ or ‘consoled’ [NIV] at seeing his age-old enemies powerless to hurt him. Notice also that the dominant negatives are shame and disgrace…)
Thus says the Lord God, “On the day when it [Assyria] went down to Sheol I caused lamentations; I closed the deep over it and held back its rivers. And its many waters were stopped up, and I made Lebanon mourn for it, and all the trees of the field wilted away on account of it. 16 “I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall when I made it go down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit; and all the well-watered trees of Eden, the choicest and best of Lebanon, were comforted in the earth beneath. (Ezek 31.16ff, note that the other nations killed by Assyria (‘trees of Eden’) were ‘comforted’ [NIV, ‘consoled’] when their slayer joined them in hell.)
The grave [Sheol] below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you— all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones— all those who were kings over the nations. 10 They will all respond, they will say to you, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.” 11 All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you. 12 How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! 13 You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. 14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” 15 But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit. 16 Those who see you stare at you, they ponder your fate: “Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble, 17 the man who made the world a desert, who overthrew its cities and would not let his captives go home?” (Is 14)
If you wish to draw any conclusions from these verses, I recommend that you read them in context first. That summary/commentary is from here. In a follow up post, I will give my own commentary on the passages. For now this might be of interest to someone like Rautakyy.