Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

If Hell Is Real, Why Did God Wait So Darn Long To Warn Us About It?

 

For me growing up, hell was the center of gravity and perhaps my biggest motivation for the 872 times I asked Jesus into my heart.

I was petrified of going to hell, and who wouldn’t be? All those bonfire camp services that invited us to look into the flames and imagine being sent to a place of fire to be tormented forever? Every time I sat in one of those services I wondered if I had really asked Jesus into my heart or if I was just misremembering things. With a bundle of anxiety over my memory, I’d invite Jesus in all over again– until the next hellfire service when I’d go through the stressful process all over again.

I wanted to avoid me some hell.

 I’ve heard some hell preachers like Ray Comfort say that one of our problems is that we don’t preach hell enough. And, if hell is real, Ray and all those like him would be correct. Think about it: if people you loved were destined for eternal torture, wouldn’t we want to make it explicitly clear and not leave the slightest question?

I’d certainly think so.

As a parent, if I see my child engaging in dangerous or life threatening behavior, I make sure that I don’t leave any information out. I explain the reality of the situation over and over again until there’s no doubt they understand. Why? Because I’d be a horrible parent if I didn’t.

This realization that a loving parent would by crystal clear led me to begin asking new questions about hell and God. One of my biggest questions is this:

If hell– a place of eternal conscious torment– is real, why did God wait so darn long to warn us about it?

Because you see, hell is doesn’t exist in the Old Testament. And if hell were real, I’d expect it to play a much more prominent role in Scripture than it does.

When we see the creation narrative of Genesis, God does in fact warn Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But the consequence he warns them of? Death.

Not eternal torture in hell, but plain ole death. If hell were the natural consequence for sin, I am left to wonder why God wasn’t clear right from the beginning.

I mean, that would have been a good time to warn us about it, no? And it’s not like God clears up his apparent ambiguity a few pages later– there’s simply no hell in the Old Testament at all.

If the vast majority of humanity is headed for a place of fiery torment, why are we not able to develop a clear and concise theology of hell from the Old Testament? It seems as if a loving God would clarify the reality of hell very early in the story, instead of leaving it as a latter footnote after billions of people already went there.

Maybe there was an overcrowding problem, and he had to come back to clarify things in the New Testament? Who knows.

In the entire Old Testament, we have just one word that gets translated as hell: sheol. The word itself simply means “grave” or “place of the dead” and it’s where everyone went after they died– good and bad, all went to the same place. Hell, with all of our modern images of what it’s like, simply doesn’t exist in the Old Testament. We think it does because some English translators now translate sheol as “hell,” which causes us to import modern concepts of hell into the text. But let’s be clear: it’s not actually there unless we bring it ourselves.

And then there’s the New Testament which isn’t clear either. By this time, some Jewish thought began to express influences from outside thought, which lead us to a few different words that get translated as the English word hell. We have: Hades (a pagan concept that wasn’t Jewish, and could be a place of reward or a place of punishment), Gehenna (an actual valley outside Jerusalem), and Tartarus, which was considered the deepest place in Hades.

Even with these words that often get translated (or mistranslated) to the English concept of hell, there is still a ridiculous imbalance to their appearance in Scripture. For example, as one researcher pointed out:

“[W]e have Judgement mentioned 344 times, Sin mentioned 441 times, and Death mentioned 456 times, and yet we only see Hell mentioned 14 times in accurate translations.” 

If hell is the natural consequence of sin, one must wonder why sin and death have near-equal appearances, but sin and hell have such a striking imbalance.

All this brings me back to my original question: if hell is what awaits the majority of people after death, why is it mentioned so infrequently? Why did God wait until the New Testament to mention it? Wouldn’t he have wanted to have made that clear a lot earlier? And why, even in the New Testament, is the best argument for hell taken from pagan concepts instead of Jewish ones?

But let’s also say that, to the New Testament church, the teaching on hell was totally clear– even though God sprung it on them kinda late. This invites yet another question:

Why didn’t the New Testament church use hell as a motivating tool? When we read the story of the early church in Acts we find them spreading the good news of Jesus– but they never warn anyone about hell.

Judgement? Yes. But hell? No.

Why didn’t Paul say, “the wages of sin is hell, but the gift of God is eternal life”? He didn’t. He just said death.

If God had finally made the reality of hell clear, why did the New Testament church completely forget to mention it?

I mean, this would be really, really important information. If the New Testament is clear about hell, the early church totally missed the memo.

All this invites questions, and when we answer these questions honestly I think we’ll easily see that if hell were real, it certainly should have been mentioned more often, a lot more clearly, and far earlier in Scripture than the first appearances of the concept.

And it definitely should have been central to the faith and practice of the New Testament church— but it wasn’t.

Yes, the Bible clearly teaches there are consequences for sin– and yes, the Bible clearly teaches there will be a coming judgement. But if the consequences of that judgement were eternal conscious torment in a place modernly conceptualized as hell, then we’re left to wonder why God waited so darn long to warn us about it.

(And before you condemn me as a heretic or accuse me of being a universalist, you might want to read the totality of what I’ve written about hell, which can be found, here.)

Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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  • Hell is not eternal torment.
    You perish, the end, it won’t be undone.
    Fiery torment is from a misinterpretation of scripture, promoted by people who want to manipulate and control people with fear.
    Scripture throughout the bible makes it clear that it is not a torment that is eternal, but the decision that is eternal.
    Everything to describe that is symbolic.
    Please study this and realize this truth.
    God said he wanted none to perish for a reason…
    He said not to fear man who can only destroy the body, but fear the one who can destroy both body and soul ins hell…
    He would not say that if he were going to keep the soul alive to burn for all eternity…
    No, you will just lose your soul, your very existence, never to live again.
    For a God of love and life, this truth is horrible enough to want to save people from.
    God is life, everything without God is death….
    God is a fire himself, and only those who are holy can stand in his presence.
    All others will burn in his presence.
    If you look to the story of Moses, the people could not even look upon him after he had communed with God…
    Unholy people who have not repented and accepted Jesus sacrifice and have their heart and mind changed… they will not be able to withstand God’s presence.

  • There is no way I could ever believe in a God who gives you, if you’re lucky, 80 or so years to get the right answer out of the thousands of years of human history. Pick wrong and get tortured for all eternity. That just doesn’t make any sense.

    • Hell is not eternal torment.
      You perish, the end, it won’t be undone.
      Fiery torment is from a misinterpretation of scripture, promoted by people who want to manipulate and control people with fear.
      Scripture throughout the bible makes it clear that it is not a torment that is eternal, but the decision that is eternal.
      Everything to describe that is symbolic.
      Please study this and realize this truth.
      God said he wanted none to perish for a reason…
      He said not to fear man who can only destroy the body, but fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell…
      He would not say that if he were going to keep the soul alive to burn for all eternity…
      No, you will just lose your soul, your very existence, never to live again.
      For a God of love and life, this truth is horrible enough to want to save people from.
      God is life, everything without God is death….
      God is a fire himself, and only those who are holy can stand in his presence.
      All others will burn in his presence.
      If you look to the story of Moses, the people could not even look upon him after he had communed with God…
      Unholy people who have not repented and accepted Jesus sacrifice and have their heart and mind changed… they will not be able to withstand God’s presence.

  • All the power to you if you want to believe that the Bible’s few references to hell means that it doesn’t exist at all, but there’s a much better explanation available. The reason that Sheol, Hades, and Hell are all in there is because the bible is just a mythological mash-up written by a variety of people.

    • Hell is not eternal torment.
      You perish, the end, it won’t be undone.
      Fiery torment is from a misinterpretation of scripture, promoted by people who want to manipulate and control people with fear.
      Scripture throughout the bible makes it clear that it is not a torment that is eternal, but the decision that is eternal.
      Everything to describe that is symbolic.
      Please study this and realize this truth.
      God said he wanted none to perish for a reason…
      He said not to fear man who can only destroy the body, but fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell…
      He would not say that if he were going to keep the soul alive to burn for all eternity…
      No, you will just lose your soul, your very existence, never to live again.
      For a God of love and life, this truth is horrible enough to want to save people from.
      God is life, everything without God is death….
      God is a fire himself, and only those who are holy can stand in his presence.
      All others will burn in his presence.
      If you look to the story of Moses, the people could not even look upon him after he had communed with God…
      Unholy people who have not repented and accepted Jesus sacrifice and have their heart and mind changed… they will not be able to withstand God’s presence

  • Who has killed more, “Satan” or “God”?
    And the LORD said unto Satan, “Whence comest thou?” Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, “From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.” Job 1:7
    In a previous post,Steve Wells counted the number of people that were killed by God in the Bible. Steve Wells came up with 2,476,633, which, of course, greatly underestimates God’s total death toll, since it only includes those killings for which specific numbers are given. No attempt was made to include the victims of Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, or the many plagues, famines, fiery serpents, etc., with which the good book is filled. Still, 2 million is a respectable number even for world class killers.
    But how does this compare with “Satan”? How many did he kill in the Bible?
    Well I can only find ten, and even these he shares with God, since God allowed him to do it as a part of a bet. Those who died were, of course – the seven sons and three daughters of Job.
    There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job … And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters.

    And the LORD said unto Satan, Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? Then Satan answered the LORD … put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face. And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

    And there was a day when his sons and his daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house…And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. — Job 1:1-19
    So it seems that both Satan and God share the blame (or the credit) for these killings. If so, then the tally would be:
    killings
    God 2,476,633
    Satan 10
    No contest.
    Update
    Steve Wells tried to assign numbers to the un-numbered killings in the Bible. You can see the detailed list here.
    The results were even more lopsided: 25 million (plus or minus a few million) for God; 60 for Satan.
    Here is a more complete table.
    numbered killings estimated total killings
    God 2,476,633 25 million
    Satan 10 60
    Much more information about God’s killings, with a chapter on each of the 135 killing events, can be found in the book:
    “Drunk With Blood: God’s killings in the Bible”..

    With the endless blood soaked carnage of “Yahweh” to contemplate., it appears that the remaining rump of christian religionists are believing in, and worshipping, the wrong “god”?

    • Interesting how you’re so concerned to make Satan the good guy here…
      Why make such an effort if God doesn’t exist?
      And if he does exist… do you really think Satan would rise up and win, and that you will help him? I surely hope you don’t think that…

      You’re viewing death from a human perspective instead of God’s… so of course you’re going to take issue with it… But that is your choice to not view things from the right perspective and still make a judgement about it…

  • As a follower of Christ, I don’t ever think about whether or not hell exists…. these are things for non-followers of Christ to think about. The NT clearly speaks of burning for eternity…..

    • Hell is not eternal torment.
      You perish, the end, it won’t be undone.
      Fiery torment is from a misinterpretation of scripture, promoted by people who want to manipulate and control people with fear.
      Scripture throughout the bible makes it clear that it is not a torment that is eternal, but the decision that is eternal.
      Everything to describe that is symbolic.
      Please study this and realize this truth.
      God said he wanted none to perish for a reason…
      He said not to fear man who can only destroy the body, but fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell…
      He would not say that if he were going to keep the soul alive to burn for all eternity…
      No, you will just lose your soul, your very existence, never to live again.
      For a God of love and life, this truth is horrible enough to want to save people from.
      God is life, everything without God is death….
      God is a fire himself, and only those who are holy can stand in his presence.
      All others will burn in his presence.
      If you look to the story of Moses, the people could not even look upon him after he had communed with God…
      Unholy people who have not repented and accepted Jesus sacrifice and have their heart and mind changed… they will not be able to withstand God’s presence

  • Is it helpful to point out that the statements about Gehenna or Hades in the gospels (and perhaps we need to just jettison the word ‘hell’?) are solely intended to warn the wealthy and powerful? They are not generalized threats to all humans, and then we get to fill in the blank about which is the specific sin to which the threat of hell can be applied.

  • I appreciate what you’re arguing here, and it’s always good to get people out of the spiritual trap of Christian fundamentalism. However, as a Lutheran, this still feels like a lot of focus on hell, even if you are arguing against it. Is there not an avoidable danger in focusing so heavily on what we are against? Aren’t we then, in a reverse way, validating the obsession?

  • I think you did an excellent job on this article. You have taken a perspective I don’t think I have ever encountered before–that if eternal punishment in hell were true then God should have emphasized it more–especially in the OT.

    And you presented it very well.

  • Hey, Ben: Totally serious question, here: What did Jesus mean in Mt. 10:28 when he said this: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Perhaps it’s a hyperbolic teaching technique? We’ve got big monster God coming out of Jesus’ mouth, and this is one verse that makes me verrrrrry uneasy. Help, please.

  • There is the theory that Hell is a highly personalized experience. For instance, a fundamentalist dies and goes to Heaven. Upon arrival, he notices that God has also allowed into Heaven people whose moral and spiritual qualifications are very, very dubious – people who in his view are sinners. He is now faced with two very unpleasant truths. God loves sinners as much as he loves the fundamentalist. And the fundamentalist is going to have to spend eternity rubbing shoulders with people who do not deserve to be there. Surely, this is Hell.

  • HI Benjamin Corey – I am a big fan – read all your stuff – never ventured in to the comment section – because you need a thick skin:) . All the studying I never thought of Hell’s absence in the Old Testament what a catch! The discussion of hell always stirs up negative passions. I enjoy your messages and faith. How do you deal with evangelicals who say hell is an ” inconvenience to those who want the biblical message to always be cheerful to non theologians” I don’t want to down play what the bible says about Hell – but how to explain the word of God in Matt.25:46 he will punish evildoers with “ever lasting punishment” by “ever lasting fire” (v.41). The Bible describes Hell repeatedly as a place ” where “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48, quoting Isa. 66:24) I am starting to ramble not to mention Revelation 14:10 – 11 ???? ! Remember I am a big fan!!!

  • “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
    You add the words “only sadly some will be killed all over again” to this to justify a particular theology.
    God is still a tyrant who kills those who fail to meet his standards.
    God loves all. You can’t love someone and decide they are better off dead.
    Annihilationism is just the same denial of the universal love of God the Church insists on peddling, just with a little bit of mercy to sugar the pill.

  • Great article Benjamin! Thanks for linking to my own article on the topic!

    It’s funny, because in all that time I spent writing our Brazen Church series, I never once considered the significance of Hell’s absence in the Old Testament. That’s a BIG DEAL! Adds a whole extra layer to the argument. Good stuff!

  • This is apostasy!! That’s what I think. Jesus spoke very clearly and warned of hell many times, including the parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. His disciples, all Jewish men who knew the Torah and Tanakh (the Old Testament) well, never questioned him or asked what he was talking about. They understood the concept of hell quite well. In the Tanakh sheol as hell is mentioned 31 times, as the grave 31 times (as opposed to queber – the grave) and as the pit 3 times. In Hebrew, sheol is hell (underworld) and was divided into two compartments, one for the righteous dead (this was where Jesus descended to after He died on the cross) and one for the wicked dead (who are still there awaiting the Great White Throne of Judgement). Jesus was in Sheol/Hades between His death and resurrection. After this, the righteous souls entered into paradise, which Paul describes as the third heaven (this is where God’s throne resides) in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. So the compartment where the righteous souls entered before the Resurrection went to is no longer the place where the righteous go after they die. They now go to paradise, or the third heaven, into the presence of God. In Matthew 24, Jesus also tells us that hell (the everlasting fire) was created for the devil and his angels.

    How can anyone deny the existence of hell when Jesus so clearly describes it, tells us why it was made, and warns us that those who do not accept Him as our Lord and Savior and repent and be prepared for His return will go there!? Not only did Jesus warn us, but so did Paul, who was a Pharisee before his conversion (don’t you think a Pharisee KNEW the Tanakh/Old Testament inside and out!!), and John (a man who knew Jesus personally and suffered unbelievable persecution for his belief in Jesus as the Messiah, including being boiled alive in oil) in their letters!!

    Don’t believe this garbage straight from the pit of hell.

  • The ‘eternal’ ‘fires’ of hell have been used as a tool to terrify people into obeying the beliefs of church. Actually ‘fire’ is a metaphor for total and absolute destruction. ‘Eternal’ because you can’t be reconstructed. Mat 10:28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Hell is the self imposed destruction of the soul through rejection of God the source of life. See on Youtube Father Barron on Hell.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8zhnooySk4

  • Great article on hell and judgement by an Orthodox bishop.

    We in the West have been duped.

    Some excerpts.

    The River of Fire

    You see, the devil managed to make men believe that God does not really love us, that He really only loves Himself, and that He accepts us only if we behave as He wants us to behave; that He hates us if we do not behave as He ordered us to behave, and is offended by our insubordination to such a degree that we must pay for it by eternal tortures, created by Him for that purpose..

    Who can love a torturer? Even those who try hard to save themselves from the wrath of God cannot really love Him. They love only themselves, trying to escape God’s vengeance and to achieve eternal bliss by managing to please this fearsome and extremely dangerous Creator.

    ——The “God” of the West is an offended and angry God, full of wrath for the disobedience of men, who desires in His destructive passion to torment all humanity unto eternity for their sins, unless He receives an infinite satisfaction for His offended pride.

    What is the Western dogma of salvation? Did not God kill God in order to satisfy His pride, which the Westerners euphemistically call justice? And is it not by this infinite satisfaction that He deigns to accept the salvation of some of us?

    What is salvation for Western theology? Is it not salvation from the wrath of God? 2

    Do you see, then, that Western theology teaches that our real danger and our real enemy is our Creator and God? Salvation, for Westerners, is to be saved from the hands of God!

    How can one love such a God? How can we have faith in someone we detest? Faith in its deeper essence is a product of love, therefore, it would be our desire that one who threatens us not even exist, especially when this threat is eternal.

    Even if there exists a means of escaping the eternal wrath of this omnipotent but wicked Being (the death of His Son in our stead), it would be much better if this Being did not exist. This was the most logical conclusion of the mind and of the heart of the Western peoples, because even eternal Paradise would be abhorrent with such a cruel God. Thus was atheisrn born, and this is why the West was its birthplace. Atheism was unknown in Eastern Christianity until Western theology was introduced there, too. Atheism is the consequence of Western theology. 3 Atheism is the denial, the negation of an evil God. Men became atheists in order to be saved from God, hiding their head and closing their eyes like an ostrich. Atheism, my brothers, is the negation of the Roman Catholic and Protestant God. Atheism is not our real enemy. The real enemy is that falsified and distorted “Christianity”…………………..

    “God is Truth and Light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The “books” will be opened. What are these “books”? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.

    So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation — and there really is — it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it, hatred has despair, bitterness, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell (I Cor. 4:6).”

    In the new eternal life, God will be everything to His creatures, not only to the good but also to the wicked, not only to those who love Him, but likewise to those who hate Him. But how will those who hate Him endure to have everything from the hands of Him Whom they detest? Oh, what an eternal torment is this, what an eternal fire, what a gnashing of teeth!

    Depart from Me, ye cursed, into the everlasting inner fire of hatred,” 47 saith the Lord, because I was thirsty for your love and you did not give it to Me, I was hungry for your blessedness and you did not offer it to Me, I was imprisoned in My human nature and you did not come to visit Me in My church; you are free to go where your wicked desire wishes, away from Me, in the torturing hatred of your hearts which is foreign to My loving heart which knows no hatred for anyone. Depart freely from love to the everlasting torture of hate, unknown and foreign to Me and to those who are with Me, but prepared by freedom for the devil, from the days I created My free, rational creatures. But wherever you go in the darkness of your hating hearts, My love will follow you like a river of fire, because no matter what your heart has chosen, you are and you will eternally continue to be, My children.

    http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/the-river-of-fire-kalomiros/

  • This is great, Benjamin! I always wondered how I could be happy in heaven with the knowledge that a loved one would be suffering in hell. Sounds sociopathic to me.

  • Benjamin, can you comment to the rich man, who stepped over the beggar at his feet and ended up in a place of torment? Just curious. I often enjoy using that passage to remind my fellow bible believers that caring for the poor is important and not to do so has a poor eternal outcome.

  • Hmm. Disagree wholeheartedly. Jesus seemed to think it was a real place, and seemed to spend a lot of time warning people not to go there.

  • Not only does the Bible not talk about going to hell, it says nothing about souls going to heaven, the Trinity or a plethora of beliefs that people today say one needs to affirm in order to be a Christian. That’s the incredible irony. People who say they believe in the Bible, and only the Bible, who say they take the Bible literally, those people affirm a host of doctrines that would not be recognized by a single Biblical author.

  • I think the most amazing thing is that none of this: Heaven, Hell, the existence of God or Christ, the resurrection, could ever be & has never been proved or disproved. the only thing real to me is that it keeps getting talked about. all I, Charles, know for sure is when I’m loved or unloved and that has been vouchsafed to me throughout life IMHO by the spirit living within me and connecting me to whatever it is that created me! (*|:D

  • The story of Lazarus and the rich man does suggest an evolving concept of fiery punishment after death, but that came along after Jesus’ time. Most of our hell imagery actually comes from non-biblical sources like Dante and Milton, reflecting much later Western thinking.

  • Right.

    Anticipating critics, one could say that there’s no real theology of resurrection in the OT, either, which is also true, but resurrection is more like a nice surprise than something to be warned about.

    There is a Jewish theology of eternal punishment by fire. We see it in 4 Maccabees. It’s the punishment reserved for Antiochus Epiphanes – very similar to the concept of Tartarus – a place of specific punishments for particularly evil people.

  • Great post! I share many of those same questions. Another thing to point out is that many cultures around the world had a similar concept to Sheol, the shadowy underworld. What it means, I don’t know. But I agree, if hell is what we’ve made it out to be, then God should have been shouting about it from the beginning.

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