Hell - a Couple of Random Thoughts

A bit of a wander through a couple of my ideas on hell. The first is more philosophy than theology but hey, who’s really making distinctions or caring about a little thing like that?

Two scriptures came to mind when I was thinking about hell and the likelihood of its existence:

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.Genesis 1:31

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.John 1:3

Here and now I’m not going to get into discussing on what level the Genesis account of creation is true - that’s outside the scope of this debate. We will just assume that the κόσμος (cosmos - world, universe - everything that is) came into being because God willed it, and that everything which exists does so because of the divine will - however that works out in practice.

What does that mean, and how is it relevant to hell?

If God made everything which exists, as John 1 says, then it follows that if hell exists, He must have made it. And yet the Genesis quote says that God saw that everything He made was good...

Is hell good? Or, conversely, is God a liar?

I posit that God is not a liar, and that hell is not good - at least not in the form in which we have understood hell since at least medieval times. That is to say, it is not good unless we play semantic tricks and state that God defines good - so that, because He made it, it is good. That though, goes right against all our sensibilities (or it should unless we’re some sort of psychopath!).

The counter-argument to that is the usual cop-out, Isaiah 55:8 (which is ripped out of its context, and forced to mean something it absolutely doesn’t when it’s read in said context!) -

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts...”

This passage is all too frequently used to shut down any idea that we might be in any way wise, and that our ideas about goodness and love are not the same as God’s (and that’s absolutely not what it’s saying - if you don’t believe me, go and read all of Isaiah 55 for yourself).

My rebuttal to that is to quote Genesis 1:27 -

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

That does not mean that we should have an anthropomorphic image of God - He is not a bearded old bloke sat on a cloud. What it does mean is that in our essence we are like Him - yes, we are ‘smaller’ - weaker, less wise, etc., but we do have the same qualities... So we know what love is; we have a pretty shrewd idea of what good means, etc... That means that we do know that hell is not good, and we can be pretty sure that God wouldn’t think it was good either.

So this is leading me to say that, if God made everything, and God is good, He can’t have made hell, which is not good.

There is, of course, at least one other argument against the existence of a ‘literal hell’ - which is that, leaving aside a few loose allusions in allegorical rhetoric, it is rather remiss of God never to mention, let alone warn against, an actual destination of eternal fiery torment anywhere in the Old Testament at all.

In the New Testament, as we shall discuss in my next post, Jesus alludes to ‘Gehenna’ - and it’s quite unclear, at this distance from his time and culture, what that particular colloquialism meant... Except that it seems likely to refer to a literal valley outside Jerusalem, which at that period seems to have functioned as the city’s dumping ground for anything and everything unwanted (including dead bodies) - it was a place of apparently everlasting maggots and of fires which appeared never to go out. It pretty clearly isn’t a reference to a place of eternal torment for unrepentant souls.

Part of ‘Hell’ (Gehenna, the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom) is a nice grassy park with shady trees and sheep grazing nowadays…


Addendum

I woke up in the middle of the night, and found myself pondering some of the words of Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

And it struck me that, if God really is ‘omnipresent’ (everywhere at once, all the time), then if hell exists, he must be there too! Some Christians say that hell is the absence of God (rather than being a place of fiery torment - maybe that’s meant to make us feel better about it?). Anyway, I’m not sure that the doctrine of the omnipresence of God allows God to be absent from anywhere. To my simple mind, this speaks of the unlikeliness of hell existing… If God is there, it can’t be bad, because God is good - and if it’s not bad, it’s not hell!

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022