This is part of a series that begins with a roundup of Biblical passages about hell and some brief comments from Glenn Miller here:
It is a good idea to set out objectives at the beginning so what I am looking for in my exegesis are
- Any indications of injustice done to either those sentenced to hell, or those allowed into heaven i.e. whether the people are being treated as they deserve
- Any right actions taken in the sentencing process.
- Any hints about God’s character
A passage from Daniel
“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Daniel 12:2
This verse talks about the fate of humans at the final judgment. It describes the dead as ‘asleep’ and says that some of them will awake to shame and everlasting contempt. I do not know whether by ‘sleep’ the writer wishes to say that the dead are unconscious or he was merely emphasizing their location – buried in the ground.
“The word “contempt” (דראון derâ’ôn) means, properly, a repulse; and then aversion, abhorrence. The meaning here is aversion or abhorrence – the feeling with which we turn away from what is loathsome, disgusting, or hateful. Then it denotes the state of mind with which we contemplate the vile and the abandoned; and in this respect expresses the emotion with which the wicked will be viewed on the final trial.” – Barnes Notes on the Bible
Glenn Miller is right in saying that this says nothing about mind-numbing torture or even torture at all. It merely says that those ruled to be on the wrong side of the law will experience shame (as they should) and be looked on with contempt.
Question: The actions committed by those judged to be in the wrong are contemptible, but should that feeling extend to the people themselves at the final judgment?
The Weeping, Gnashing of Teeth and Darkness 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.” – Matthew 8; 11, 12
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)
These passages have in common that the evildoers will be (1) thrown out (2) into the darkness (3) where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This fits with what we already know that evildoers will be separated from the rest of the community (as they should be). I do not know what the darkness signifies and I am not inclined to guess, but it is a very mild word with which to describe torture.
The outer (τὸ ἐξώτερον)
The Greek order of words is very forcible. “They shall be east forth into the darkness, the outer (darkness). The picture is of an illuminated banqueting chamber, outside of which is the thick darkness of night. – Vincent’s word studies
Gill’s Exposition of Entire the Bible says “The allusion in the text is, to the customs of the ancients at their feasts and entertainments; which were commonly made in the evening, when the hall or dining room, in which they sat down, was very much illuminated with lamps and torches; but without in the streets, were entire darkness: and where were heard nothing but the cries of the poor, for something to be given them, and of the persons that were turned out as unworthy guests; and the gnashing of their teeth, either with cold in winter nights, or with indignation at their being kept out.”
If that is so, then the dominant theme is exclusion and the people weep and gnash their teeth (not as I can see yet) at some horrible torture, but at being excluded from something so wonderful and being forced to do without it. The passage from Luke especially emphasizes this.
One passage has the wrongdoer being cut into pieces before being thrown outside, which is weird because I can’t see what purpose it would serve. Destruction, perhaps, but you can only read so much into one parable. It might be construed as torture, but it is done before he is thrown out, not afterwards and it is not lasting, but something that is done once. And even so, it still wouldn’t tell us what goes on in hell. Like the passage that has the wrongdoer being tied hand and foot before being thrown out, it might just be about subduing him. It’s too strong a picture to mean nothing. I’m going to move on before I slaughter this parable.
The Weeping, Gnashing of Teeth and Fiery Furnace Passages
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)
Once again, there is the theme of separation and exclusion. The weeds and the bad fish are separated from the crops and the good fish. But in these parables, they are not thrown into darkness, but into a furnace. What happens in the furnace is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” not “screaming and pain” – the same picture used in the previous passages. Now, feel free to disagree but I think the consistent use of “weeping” instead of “screaming” rules out torture in these passages. Weeping is something people do when they’re very sad. Screaming is what they do when they’re being tortured. One can probably come up with a post-hoc rationalization for why weeping would be used to describe a place of torture so go ahead if you feel inclined to.
That still leaves us with what the fire in the picture is about. Like the darkness, I don’t know but there are speculations. For instance, Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible says:
‘And shall cast them into a furnace of fire,…. Not a material, but a metaphorical one; denoting the wrath of God, which shall fall upon wicked men, and abide upon them to all eternity: which is sometimes called hell fire, sometimes a lake which burns with fire and brimstone; and here a furnace of fire, expressing the vehemency and intenseness of divine wrath, which will be intolerable; in allusion either to Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, or as some think, to the custom of burning persons alive in some countries; or rather, to the burning of chaff and stubble, and the stalks of any unprofitable things that grew in the field (f), for the heating of furnaces, and is the very language of the Jews, who used to compare hell to a furnace;”
I’m not terribly impressed with the explanation, but I’ll go with it.
The “More Bearable” Passages
“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)
Pretty self-explanatory, no? It seems that Jesus is saying that some people will have a worse result of the judgment because they had more evidence and so rejected more evidence, which brings up the question of how the amount of evidence you reject affects your punishment.
The Consolation Passages
“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)”
Once again, the dominant themes are of shame and disgrace faced by Pharaoh and all the other evil kings who have gone to the grave. And note also that Pharaoh is to be ‘comforted’ at having his old enemies there with him (powerless to hurt him, Glenn Miller says). This passage seems to be talking not about the final judgment, but about the first death (which we all die, after which comes judgment).
““‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day it[Assyria] was brought down to the realm of the dead I covered the deep springs with mourning for it; I held back its streams, and its abundant waters were restrained. Because of it I clothed Lebanon with gloom, and all the trees of the field withered away. 16 I made the nations tremble at the sound of its fall when I brought it down to the realm of the dead to be with those who go down to the pit. Then all the trees of Eden, the choicest and best of Lebanon, the well-watered trees, were consoled in the earth below. 17 They too, like the great cedar, had gone down to the realm of the dead, to those killed by the sword, along with the armed men who lived in its shade among the nations. (Ezek 31.16ff)”
This is my favorite passage in this lot because it has God initiating mourning not for some righteous nation, but for Assyria, rebellious Assyria. No Bible reading would be complete without something about God’s beautiful and incomprehensible goodness. [Clears throat] Where were we? Oh, right. So the other trees (kingdoms) who had gone down to the grave (destroyed by Assyria I hear) were comforted by Assyria’s demise. This too seems to speak of the pre-judgment death.
So, What Have We Found?
I found no evidence of torture, but indication that there might be none. The only thing I found which might suggest something of the sort is the image of evildoers being thrown into a furnace, but that does not mean that hell will be hurt any more than the darkness image means it will be dark. Anyone using that to argue for torture in hell would have to defend a literal understanding of the word in the parable (it is a parable after all) and explain how hell can be a fire and dark at the same time.
I found that the dominant effect of being sent to hell expressed in these passages is that the people are separated from God and from others and excluded from the joys of God’s kingdom. They will also experience shame.
I found right things done in the passages – the separation of evildoers from others (for safety) and an expression of God’s love even for rebels in Ezekiel 31.
I did find one disturbing thing. The first is the indication that the wrongdoers will be looked upon with contempt at the last judgment. I am perfectly willing to accept their actions as contemptible, but I am not certain that the feeling should extend to the people themselves. They are beings made in God’s image so unless their actions have somehow turned them into beings worthy of contempt… I suppose it is possible. A child who does a right thing is worthy of praise, so does someone who does something contemptible become worthy of contempt, at least in the absence of repentance?