Bible Study on Hell


#1

Hello All,

This is my first time posting on this forum. To give some background, I am a Christian who has had a lot of qualms about the traditional doctrine of hell. I believe this to be the greatest intellectual challenge to my faith which prevents me from honestly evangelizing. In this Bible study, I will go through all the New Testament books, with a critical look at what the biblical doctrine of hell actually states. I’ve been reading around a lot on this topic and so know all the ‘live options’ in this debate. After I go through the NT, I will evaluate the ideas of all the Christian thinkers I respect (e.g. C.S. Lewis) in light of the Scripture. I hope that a good discussion can be had here since I want to undertake this study in an unbiased manner. If anyone has any methodological suggestions, I’d love to hear and discuss them here. Since I don’t know Greek, I’ll be obviously relying on English translations. Below are some exegetical hints from Jason Pratt which I’ll try to remember:

1.) dikaiosune_ (usually translated “righteousness” in English) ==
‘fair-togetherness’. Try reading fair-togetherness instead of
‘righteousness’ in English as the underlying meaning of ‘righteousness’.
One of many interesting results: RevJohn 19. (Where, in case your Bible
doesn’t note it, the verb “will be ruling” actually reads “will be
shepherding” in Greek. Compare with a close translational check of the end
of the 23rd Psalm, especially in regard to the verb in Hebrew usually
translated in English as “follow after”.

2.) chara == joy, but often tends to be translated “grace” in English. Try
reading ‘grace’ (and cognates) with the meaning of ‘joy’ included
substantially. In a few cases this will practically never be even
detectable in English, such as the Lukan anecdote about the woman who was a
sinner being forgiven. (In the parable Jesus tells to Simon the Pharisee to
illustrate what’s happening, Luke translates Jesus into Greek as saying
“freely gave them joy” when talking about the king forgiving the two
debtors.) But most incidents can be tested this way.

3.) Word of God: in pre-Christian Jewish targum commentaries, as well as
obviously in at least some NT uses (John 1 to give the most obvious
example), the Logos/Memra of God was a way of euphemistically describing
God Himself. (Indeed the single most popular way by far in the
pre-Christian targums, most famously at Gen 1:1, echoed in John 1:1.) Try
testing whether the phrase ‘word of God’ or ‘the word’ is a reference to
Christ (such as in the Lukan prologue, where the eyewitnesses and deputies
or underowers of “the word” can hardly be a reference to scripture per se!)
Interesting result: Rom 10. (Where it also helps to know that, toward the
end, St. Paul’s reference to the feet on the mountain bringing good news
was rabbinically associated with being first and foremost the feet of the
Messiah
.)

4.) eonian: a special adjective that in Greek philosophy outside the NT
stood as a reference to divine quality, and in a Jewish Greek text would
also be one way of euphamistically describing God (as “the Everlasting”).
Try reading “God’s own” or “from God” (though “from God” isn’t really
strong enough) for “eternal” or “everlasting” in English. (Note that in
many cases, the English terms are translating a rather different set of
phrases, ‘into the eon’ or ‘for the eon’ or ‘the eon of the eon’ or ‘the
eons of the eons’. Unfortunately, it’s almost never clear in English which
Greek term is being used at what time.)


Question about Mark 9:43-50
#2

Glad to see you here! Looking forward to your posts.

(If I understand correctly from some pm contact, “Imago” is not yet a universalist, but is open to the exegetical possibility; so he should have an advantage in initiating a discussion on the texts as he goes along without prejudice necessarily pro or con.)

If I may make a suggestion based on what I’ve been planning to do myself on the topic (on a somewhat wider scope than only the obvious ‘hell’ texts, but what you’re doing will still be a very good start of great systematic help to the forum): I was thinking of looking at each passage from each of the three basic soteriological perspectives, Calvinistic, Arminianistic, and Kathistic (or universalistic), and trying to get an idea of how proponents from each of these schools of thought (and their non-Protestant or non-Reformed analogues, of course) would borrow strengths and face difficulties from passage to passage.

On the other hand, if you’ve already got a format you prefer to use, please feel free to do so. I’ll be approaching matters from that direction myself one of these months :mrgreen: and I wouldn’t mind at all seeing it done much earlier by someone else. But work as you think makes best sense to your for your organizational thinking.


#3

Jason,

I am aware of Calvinism, Arminianism and to a lesser extent, universalism. The problem I see is that all three systems, as systems, may be false. Systematic thinking is good and should be encouraged but since I am going back to the source, i.e. Scripture, I am trying to shrug free of all previous bias so to speak.

For example, one argument for universalism is Thomas Talbott’s assertion of a permise of Calvinism that God can accomplish whatever he wills, and an assertion of Arminianism that God wills all people to be saved. Logically, with these two premises combined you get universal salvation. Now, it may be just me, but I feel tricked by this argument. Philosophy of religion is great but philosophy applied to Scripture may run into trouble. What if an eternal hell exists anyway, despite these two premises being true for reasons we do not (or never will) know? Or perhaps Scripture gives us another answer? What if that Calvinist premise is simply not true? The point is that the argument rests on the biblical data. All Christian philosophizing on hell rests on the biblical data. This is why I want to get to the data first before coming to it with a system (or several systems) in mind.

Can this really be done? In short, no. I have certain philosophical biases already. I am not a blank slate, nor do I think being a blank slate is really an advantage. The best thing to do is to be honest about ones biases and question them.

This is not to say that I am not curious about your own method.


#4

Okay, I am now ready to begin the Bible study. This post will be dedicated to the Gospel of Mark, the next will be on the Gospel of Matthew.

In Chapter 1, Jesus begins his proclaimation that the Kingdom of God as come near and thus it is time to repent. There is no warning about everlasting hell at this point.

In Chapter 3:28-30, Jesus says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven but is eternal. Does this imply an everlasting hell? It depends on what the word “eternal” means. Scripture uses it in both the obvious everlasting sense and also for a finite period of time (see Rom. 16:25). This is prima facie evidence for eternal punishment though this is hardly an open and shut case.

In Chapter 3, there are two parables, the one of the mustard seed and the parable of the sower. The first establishes that God’s kingdom will grow exponenially, while the second warns us of the dangers of hearing the gospel but falling away from it through various means.

Chapter 7:6-7- “Isaiah prophesized rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” We must take this to heart with the hell doctrine. We must listen to Jesus and the witness of the apostles on this matter.

Mark 8:34-38- “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” The KJV reads ‘soul’ instead of ‘life’ as in the NRSV and Young’s Literal Translation. Is this significant? Losing your life is very bad, but losing your soul is even worse. If Jesus just said ‘life’ then the imagery is different. According to Strong’s Dictionary the stronger notion of the word, literally breath or spirit, is meant my Jesus which would imply that spiritually we can forfeit our very selves by being self-centered. Losing our souls can imply annihilation or eternal punishment. Although this may be an implication, this saying doesn’t entail that either eternal punishment or annihilation will happen, just that it can happen. The concept of free will is implicit here. Jesus maintains that there is real danger for us in following a self-centered path.

Mark 9:24 “I believe, help my unbelief!” This is a particularly touching story in that this man who has honest doubts admits this struggle plainly to Jesus, whom takes it as a sign of faith and heals his son. This reminds me of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus values sincerity greatly.

Now we get to the hell verses, Mark 9:43-49- It is agreed upon that Jesus is speaking hyperbolically here, but that does not mean he is not saying something important. To him, hell or Gehemna, is a real spiritual place where you’d rather not go. Gehemna was literally a place where Jews would burn their garbage. A context clue here is verse 49, “For everyone will be salted by fire.” This implies that the punishment is something that cleanses or reforms. John Wesley and all the other conservative commentaries state that this verse means that God will preserve the souls in hell so that they can be tormented everlastingly by fire. But this strikes me as reading into the text. They are right that salt is a preservative, but Jesus said that they will be salted with fire. Can this mean that the ‘unquenchable fire’ is curative? There is also the possibility that verse 49 does not have anything to do with the previous verses. It is a new paragraph, which indicates a new idea. However, I believe that the original Greek wasn’t written with these paragraph divisions that we see in English Bibles. Ultimately, we can only know by context and it appears that Jesus is referring to what he said previously as indicated by the word ‘For’ in the beginning of the sentence. Maybe I am mistaken, but I take this to be the first sign of positive evidence for universalism.

Mark 10:30- “…and in the age to come eternal life.” The word “aionios” is used again here. A common non-universalist criticism of universalism on the meaning of this word is that if it does not mean ‘eternal’ when applied to hell, then it cannot mean eternal when applied to ‘life.’ Perhaps the word can mean either ‘perpetual’ as Strong’s translates it to be or ‘age-long’ as it is translated in other parts of Scripture (Rom. 16:25). Again, it is difficult to discern meaning from the definition of the word alone. It may be the case that aionios means ‘eternal’ when applied to the term ‘life’ but mean a finite punishment when fixed to the word “condemnation” or “destruction.” To be on the safe side we should assume that
aionios means ‘eternal’ unless we have reason to believe otherwise (like Mark 9:49).

In closing, I should state that I am surprised that universalism actually has something to say for it in this gospel. Somehow, I missed Mark 9:49 in all my other readings of the text. I guess it just goes to show the overriding power of idea of the traditional hell doctrine. Maybe Jesus was himself more universalistic leaning. Personally for me, an argument from the views of Jesus has much more weight than all the other NT writings or human philosophy. Since our faith is based upon Christ, we cannot ignore what he said about such a crucial issue. Our philosophy should be based upon what he said, not on distracting ourselves from what he said.


#5

I forgot to add these last two bits:

Mark 10:35- “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus said neither ‘all’ or ‘some,’ but ‘many.’ This leaves it open-ended and not up to us to determine.

Mark 14:21- “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” This implies that Judas will be damned. If Judas is eventually saved, then how can it be that it would have been better if he were never born? From a universalist perspective, this verse is puzzling and perhaps troubling.


#6

ImagoDei,

Your honest and careful approach is very refreshing! Thank you for setting a good example.

One thing we know about the salt in question is that it is good!

**Mar 9:50 Salt [is] good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another. (KJV) **

What does salt have to do with peace?


#7

Gabe,

Thanks for the compliment. This issue has bothered me for a while now and examining it carefully to find the right answer seems to reach the truth of the matter.

To answer your question, I honestly don’t know. Maybe Jason will come and enlighten us. :slight_smile:


#8

Another thing for us to consider is the fact that the text very much seems to present the idea of being salted with fire as the equivalent of being cast into Gehenna. So who is the referrent of pas (all/every) in “every man will be salted with fire”? Were one to argue that the referrent is all unbelievers, then one would have to explain the positive connotations of “salt” in verse 50. Any ideas?


#9

I think the referent is all sinners from what Jesus said earlier. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having your two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire…” Mark 9:43. Thus, the “every man will be salted with fire,” refers to every one who has sinned (which includes just about everyone). I should state that this interpretation is not infallible. Mark 9:49 is a notoriously tough text to interpret so I am leery of stamping a ‘purgatorial’ interpretation on it with too much certainty.

I’ve just listened to an Eastern Orthodox podcast on the topic of universal salvation and the point was made about Jesus saying that it would have been better if Judas was never born. This alone speaks against one of Thomas Talbott’s arguments for universalism, in which he argues that God can accomplish whatever he wants despite the free will of humans. Another saying of Jesus that is on my mind is, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?” As much as I don’t like it everlasting damnation appears to be at least possible (and in the case of Judas, unfortunately, actual). Implicit here in what Jesus says is human free will which can ultimately harden one’s heart eternally against the love of God.


#10

Well, this is debatable. First we have to determine what Jesus meant. In order to do that, we have to consider translational issues (see A.E. Knoch’s interpretation, for instance). Also, we have to consider the possibility that Jesus did not intend for these words to be taken literally. I’ll see if I can dig some stuff up for you to contemplate.

You’ll have to explain why you see such an implication.


#11

Gabe,

Thanks for the comments. A.E. Knoch? Perhaps you can enlighten me on who he is and what he said. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t being literal though it looks like he meant it in the straightforward sense. Since we are all reading the text and imagining the situation, it is tough to tell. I imagine Jesus saying that in a deadpan voice, not the voice of hyperbole. Unlike other statements, this was not a general teaching where hyperbole can (and is) used by Jesus. Since it is about an individual person, I think Jesus is being absolutely serious here.

The implication here isn’t as strong as the implication of the Judas passage, I admit. Jesus is at least raising the possibility that a man can ‘lose his soul.’ The actuality of this is still another question. When I mentioned free will I was thinking on the fact that the man’s choices, i.e. choosing the world over Christ, can lead to him losing his soul.


#12

Imago,

I agree that the word in Mark 8 should be more strongly translated “soul”, not simply “life” (which would be more like {bios} or something of that sort). I have no dissent at all, and strong agreement rather, that any sin, no matter how small, leads of itself, (literally) apart from God, to the pit of destruction, which I understand to be annihilation.

I would have to expound a while on the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Mark 3 (and pars); but for what it’s worth, I actually agree with many of the strongest non-universalists here that any sin that is insistently held to, no matter how small it may appear to be to us, is in effect a sin against the Holy Spirit. God can save us from it, but He cannot forgive us while we insist upon it, neither now nor in the age to come.

George MacDonald puts this beautifully, that God passes by thousands of sins, yea tens of thousands that are past; but He will not pass by the sin that we insist on not putting behind us, the sin we continue to do.

God loves the sinner, and God can forgive the penitent sinner, and God can lead the impenitent sinner to repentence, but God cannot forgive any sin per se: there is nothing for any sin but the wrath of God to final destruction.

In regard to Mark 9:49-50: Gabe rightly notes that stopping short of v.50 handicaps the understanding of the statement in v.49. But as to the grammatic elements of the verses:

1.) The post-positive {gar} of verse 49 absolutely connects this verse topically to verse 48, so there should be no question what fire is being referenced: it’s the everlasting fire of Gehenna.

1.1.) Incidentally, in Greek the purgatorial nature of the verse is even more striking, because the Greek word for fire there is {puri}. From which we directly derive the English word ‘pure’, ‘purify’, and other cognates. (Or rather, we derive this eventual meaning from how the Greek word is contextually used in Judeo-Christian scriptures.)

2.) The term {pas} (which is the first word of verse 49, before the post-positive {gar} which in English we would put first, “For”) means all, and its being fronted here is probably an emphasis to its meaning. Translations which go with “everyone” or even “everything” (which is typical even for nominally non-universalistic translations) are not out of bounds in doing so, especially when verse 50 is put into play for contextual purposes.

3.) {kalon} is fronted as the first word in verse 50 (or as the first word of the next sentence, keeping in mind that there was no versification scheme in the original text). This is a Greek word with connotations stronger than our English word ‘good’; ‘ideal’ or ‘best’ would be a better translation.

4.) There is no verb in the sentence {kalon to halas}, which tends to emphasize the absolute declaration of the statement.

5.) {to halas} connects back emphatically to the salting at the end of the previous sentence (where everyone or everything is being salted with fire), by use of the direct article: the salt, or this salt. (Though admittedly there could have been an even stronger way to say “this salt”.)

6.) A generic conjunction {de} topically connects the next sentence to the strong statement about this salt being ideal or the best. (Though admittedly stronger words could have been used there.)

7.) {ean}, which introduces the hypothetical English “if” structure, is fronted for emphasis even before the conjunctive {de}.

8.) If this salt ({to halas} again) becomes unsalty ({analon}), then with what will you season it? It is worthless, and fit only to be trampled underfoot. Poetically speaking, this doctrine about the fire being salt (or the salt being fire for that matter!) should not be deprived of its flavor (in any of several ways), or it becomes despicable (in any of several ways).

9.) “Have (this or the) salt in yourselves”: same salt.

10.) “And be at peace among each other”. Well, of course, if salt is ideal, the best, then this would be the result of having salt in ourselves. Which applies to {pas}, all. How? By the salting. What does the salting? The {puri}, the fire. Which fire is that? Grammatically, it can only be one fire: the same fire Jesus was talking about just a moment ago, the everlasting fire of Gehenna.

All of us have done that, I think. {g} But that’s partly because when we read or hear teachers on the topic, they have this peculiar habit of ignoring verse 49 (or verse 50 when they do bother to pay attention to verse 49).

I’ve talked about translating {aio_nios} elsewhere. Suffice to say that I do not translate it as having anything to do with time in itself, except as a comparative reference to the One Who is Everlasting. Consequently, this means I don’t have to shuffle between meanings when I get to things like life eonian. The life comes from God in His own essence; “Godly life” would be a slightly better translation in English than “eternal or everlasting” life, except that in modern times we’re likely to think of merely a good or pious life when we see or hear that phrase. There is a life, a secret, a fire, a brisk cleaning, a whole ruination, coming uniquely from God, from the heart of Who and What He essentially Is in Himself.

(Note that this is a translation which doesn’t seem to immediately threaten non-univeraslism, and which can be argued for and agreed upon and applied without prejudice to the salvation of the condemned one way or another.)

In regard to Mark 10:45: I have to admit, I wussed out and followed the lead of other translators on this verse, when I was doing the Gospel harmonization study. But in point of fact, the verse doesn’t say in Greek “a ransom for many”. It says “a ransom {anti} many”. A better translation would be “a ransom instead-of many”; the concept being that Jesus gives Himself as the only sacrifice rather than many others having to be sacrificed. (Mental note to myself, to fix the harmonization study at this point… {wry g})

In regard to Judas in Mark 14: the grammar doesn’t necessarily indicate that it would have been better for Judas, for Judas not to have been born. It could also be meant, that the overall situation would have been better somehow had Judas not been born.

That being said, there is a rhetorical history of the phrase usage which also involves (and this is important) pity on the object of the sentence: when someone cries out that it would have been better for himself, or for this other person, not to have been born in the OT, it typically is part of a lament that rhetorically hopes for salvation for the object of the lament. If God is not going to save me/us/them/him, then why were we/they even born!?

Gabe’s reference to Knoch (who certainly didn’t seem to be a universalist [hindsight note: actually, he was]) is that the “him” of whom it would be better for “that one” not to be born, is Christ. Thus the translation would run, “yet woe to that person through whom the Son of Man is being given up! Ideal were it for Him, if that person were not born!”

(Incidentally, the “wailing to him” phrase couldn’t feasily have been delivered deadpan, any more than the other “wailing to” uses in the NT. I don’t count that as evidence against non-UR or for UR, but the expectation and even the call for wailing to come to someone, has to be taken very seriously.)

It is neither puzzling nor troubling to me as a universalist, from either of those three perspectives. The Johannine statement that Jesus has lost none but Judas, is more difficult.

Actually, the scriptural references to hardening of the heart tend to indicate, first, that God participates in a hardening already freely chosen by the person in order to accomplish something else (typically mercy for someone); but second that God acts eventually against the hardening of the heart in order to bring contrition to the person. (Pharoah and Israel are the two archetypal examples of this in the OT, though Israel is reffed more often both in the OT and in the NT.)


#13

Jason,

Thanks for the long comment. I always enjoy reading your long explanations of things. Do you know where in the OT the phrase is used about it being better not to have been born? Part of me recalls what you are talking about but I can’t remember where it is in the OT. I do find that this view coheres well with Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” that is as a lament for salvation.

In regards to the grammer of Mark 14 indicating that it may have not been about Judas personally but the whole situation, I have to admit that I am at a loss here. But I’ll defer to you here. The facts mentioned above show that an implication to eternal hell is not wholly warranted.


#14

ID,
Didn’t Job say something like “cursed be the day I was born”?
By the way, like yourself (I think), I have too many ?'s that are unanswered to buy into universalism.
roofus


#15

Imago,

Like Roofus, Job comes principally to mind; but I think there are more laments in the OT along this line. (Unfortunately, no particular examples come clearly to mind.)

To be fair, since the grammar is literally “better for him if that man had not been born”, this precludes direct reference to the overall situation being better if Judas had not been born. Whether “for him” refers to the Son of Man (as Knoch has it) or to “that man” (as most other translators put it), is something I’m not personally competent enough about Greek to settle decisively; but I do (for now) recognize the possibility either way. (Keeping in mind that the phrase is typically rhetorical lamentation hyperbole anyway.)

George MacDonald (the 19th century universalist theologian, not our pseudonymous “Gregory”) has no problem synching a “for him” reference to Judas with universalism, though.


#16

Maybe this is a stretch, but maybe if Judas repented, the Lord would not have continued to say such? In other words it was true at the time?


#17

I’m not sure I understand the question. At what point does Jesus even mention Judas again, after Judas repents, admits Jesus was innocent, tries to give back the money and then hangs himself? (Not the most noble expression of repentance, perhaps, but still…)

The other disciples admittedly appear to have a low opinion of Judas when choosing his successor by the (hopefully Spirit-blessed) drawing of lots in the early chapter of Acts. (A choice that seems oddly trumped by Christ Himself not long afterward in choosing St. Paul for apostolic status…!) But I don’t recall Jesus saying anything one way or another about Judas after that point, including continuing to say what He had been saying before. (I’ll try to check on that when I get back to the office tomorrow, though.)


#18

Thanks Jason for the MacDonald quotes. I think I am right to gather that Mac looks at that quote in the context of his whole systematic theology which was universalistic. I’ll have to contemplate his response more before I can render a judgment.


#19

For personal reasons my internet presence will be winding down at least for a while. I intend to continue this Bible study but right now life requires me to focus on other things. Thank you all for commenting. Of all the forums I’ve ever posted on this has been the most engaging and enlightening. :slight_smile:


#20

Okay, I’m back. This Bible study will continue with an examination of Matthew, the rest of the gospels and then the rest of the NT. I’m only going to be working on this on the weekends so it might be slow going.