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.)