There Is No Hell (part 5), The Use of Language
THE LANGUAGE OF THE BIBLE
The lens through which I would naturally view the bible, and the lens through which the original audience viewed the bible, are very different.
We have statements like “Melchizedek, having no beginning of days or end of life”, which baffle us modern readers. To the original audience, it meant there was no listed genealogy. There are many other examples like this, that defy my instinctual ways of reading.
Once we realize this tremendous difference, we have to fall back on the bible itself to guide us in understanding it. We have to compare how terms are used, what thought patterns they had, etc, etc.
This alone is reliable guide to understanding what was going on 2000 years ago. Our instincts can fail us. The translators can fail us. The commentators and word-definers can fail us.
But the closer we get to the original documents, and how those documents used language and concepts, the closer we get to the meaning Jesus and his early followers conveyed.
One thing we know about their use of language is that it tended towards the poetic, the metaphorical, and the extreme. Jesus spoke almost nothing other than parables. Jesus said disturbing things about eating his body. He talked about the stars falling from the sky, and the earth being shaken. All of this is confusing if we don’t look at the biblical language Jesus was drawing upon.
All of these things have clear explanations, if we look deeply into how these concepts were used elsewhere.
Jesus certainly didn’t back down when he described the annihilation of his country-men who had been unfaithful to God. He used language just as extreme, and just as correct. Everything he spoke can be understood in a very direct sense, once we understand how the bible uses terms like “eternal”.
Not once did he say, “but the unfaithful will enter into a torment that will last forever”. Instead, he talks about “destroying soul and body in The Valley of Hinnom”, an idea they surely would have understood from the prophets, and from looking out the window. Things go to a burning garbage pit to be totally destroyed. Corpses go there. Garbage goes there. Nothing comes out. Nothing lives there. Nothing is conscious there.
He talked about an “eternal punishment” that would result from an “eternal judgment”. We are told elsewhere that this “eternal punishment” is equal to “eternal death”, and that this makes sense because “the wages of sin is death”.
According to the epistles, the opposite of “eternal life” is “death”, not “eternal torture”.
THE TOUGH ONES
There are a few more verses that I need to deal with, and in these we find the closest thing to a “proof-text” for hell anyone could offer. All of the preceding words, phrases, and verses tell us a unified story: the eventual fate of the wicked is total destruction.
But when we get to Revelation, we have two verses that seem to buck this trend, and I want to explore those. Remember, this is in Revelation, a book no one has ever claimed was easy to understand. A normal interpretive rule of bible study is that we interpret the more metaphorical and abstract verses in terms of the more concrete and direct verses. So we shouldn’t hang our doctrinal beliefs on one or two verses in Revelation - that we may not understand.
Revelation 14:9-12 9 Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
Revelation 20:10 10 And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
I saved these for last because I believe that without these verses to pin their “proofs” on, mixed-up theologians in the early church never would have been successful at inventing the concept of “hell”.
First question: who is mentioned in these verses?
The first one mentions those who accept the mark of the beast, the second one includes the beast, the false prophet, and the devil himself.
In these unique statements about “torment forever”, we do not find any of the generic evil people mentioned throughout the bible. Instead, we find the devil himself, with his chief henchmen and closest followers. So perhaps there is a hell, but only these individuals ever experience eternal conscious torment?
Maybe. But let’s look at another possibility really quick. In Isaiah 34, God declares that he will destroy the land of Edom completely. These prophecies and metaphors from the Old Testament are the framework from which Revelation was created. Notice how he describes this complete destruction of Edom:
Isaiah 34:9-10 9 Its streams will be turned into pitch, And its loose earth into brimstone, And its land will become burning pitch. 10 It will not be quenched night or day; Its smoke will go up forever. From generation to generation it will be desolate; None will pass through it forever and ever.
Sounds like this is going to keep smoking, huh? But why then does he say in the next verse:
Isaiah 34:11 But pelican and hedgehog will possess it, And owl and raven will dwell in it;
Do pelicans and hedgehogs like to live in fire? And why in the next verse (12) is he asking about who will be king?! Then, in verses 13-17, he’s talking about all the different kinds of animals who will dwell in and possess the land.
Could it be that these are all just different metaphors to express the idea that he’s going to destroy this place completely? Edom is not still smoking. But it was destroyed, and so in a figurative way, its smoke goes up forever. The testimony about it is always there.
If you look at the broad picture of what is going on in Revelation, this makes sense. Revelation’s biggest plot line is the destruction of the city of Babylon.
Revelation 18:2 And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird.
Alright, so here is Babylon’s destruction - being filled with birds.
Revelation 18:8 “For this reason in one day her plagues will come, pestilence and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for the Lord God who judges her is strong.
And here’s the destruction again, except this time it includes PESTILENCE and FAMINE and FIRE. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these things can’t all literally happen in one day. It is meaningless to talk about a one-day famine on the same day that your city is burned up with fire.
What’s happening is that strong metaphors are being used to talk about how completely God is going to wipe this place out. Just like in Isaiah.
Revelation 18:9-10 9 “And the kings of the earth, who committed acts of immorality and lived sensuously with her, will weep and lament over her when they see the smoke of her burning, 10 standing at a distance because of the fear of her torment, saying, `Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the strong city! For in one hour your judgment has come.’
They see the place burn in one hour (wait, what happened to one day?), and they stand back because they don’t want to be involved in this destruction, this torment. God is not intending to somehow make this city stay around forever, just to be tormented. No, the torment talked about here IS the destruction. It’s just another figurative way of speaking about the very real destruction of a very real city.
Revelation 18:21 21 Then a strong angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon, the great city, be thrown down with violence, and will not be found any longer.
What God intends to do to Babylon, “tormenting” and burning it, will mean it completely ceases to exist.
Revelation 19:1-3 1 After these things I heard something like a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven…3 And a second time they said, “Hallelujah! HER SMOKE RISES UP FOREVER AND EVER.”
The destruction of Babylon is complete. It has been burnt in “one hour”. It can no longer be found. But “the smoke” of this rises up forever and ever. He’s not saying Babylon is still around in any way. He’s saying the destruction, the burning, is permanent. The fact that it burned lasts forever.
This is what I believe all of these verses in Revelation are saying. Just like in Isaiah, just like with Babylon, the wicked are totally and completely destroyed. And their destruction is related to us in a variety of strong metaphors (torment, smoke rising forever, birds inhabiting) that cannot literally be true, but serve to help us understand the severity and completeness of this destruction.